Christopher Hitchens is the Marmite of intellectual journalism—anyone with even a passing acquaintance with his output is likely to have a strong reaction to the man and his work. For some, his journey from ’68 agitator to cheerleader for Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is merely a latter-day version of the “Paul Johnson flip” in mid-life from left to right. But Alexander Linklater’s portrait of Hitchens, this month’s Prospect cover story, suggests that there’s a bit more to the man than that.
Linklater wrote his Prospect piece after spending three days living, arguing and drinking with Hitchens in Washington earlier this year. What emerges is a portrait of a curiously old-fashioned figure—a literary-political polemicist whose intellectual interests and debating style seem closer to the giants of the 18th and 19th centuries than to many of his contemporaries. He has next to no interest in social or economic policy; has apparently nothing to say on science and technology; and retains a strong belief in the value and importance of language, as Alex makes clear below, and in the out-takes of his interviews with Hitchens.
Hitchens has famously turned his back on many of his former leftist comrades (although perhaps he would put it the other way around). And he has retained not the content but the form of his Marxist upbringing—a passion for argument and an insistence on the need to take sides, hitched to an intellectual absolutism and a disdain for the genteel liberal world of trade-offs and compromise. As Alex says, one phrase you will never hear him utter is, “OK, let’s agree to disagree.”
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