I sparred a bit with Christopher Hitchens, though he had worthier opponents. And I wrote this column last year, on the theory that tributes are better appreciated by the living.
His death was hardly a surprise – no cancer in history has had a more skilled biographer. But it still came as a shock. After such energy and eloquence, the silence seems scandalous. The tickertape parade has passed. The quietness is unnatural.
Hitchens picked big fights, including a running rumble with God. He recognized that there is one argument worth having about religion: Is it true or false? The rest is sociology. Hitchens thought religion to be false and dangerous, but not trivial. This may help to explain the affinity of many believers for the world’s most articulate unbeliever. Hitchens took the largest questions seriously.
He also took human dignity seriously. Hitchens’s defining public trait was the offense he took at injustice. And he was usually offended on behalf of persecuted and forgotten people. I found this a moral example.
When we occasionally met, Hitchens invariably inquired about my health. He knew I had suffered a heart attack in 2004. He also knew, well before his cancer, that his own health was fragile. His body had not been gently worn. I appreciated both his thoughtfulness and his vulnerability.
Then I made the mistake of saying so. In a 2007 column, I accused Hitchens of being “intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind.” He responded that this was “proof he hardly knows me.” Following that exchange, I got to know him a little better. I stand by my judgment.