When I signed up to receive free e-mail updates from The New York Times a few years ago, it was admittedly done to provide a false sense of commitment one might also find in posting what seems to be an “important” article on Facebook, skimmed for the additional pithy or ironic remark. At that time, I didn't actually read so-called “mainstream” news—liberal ideology, after a few years surrounded by “activists” while living in New York City, began to strike me as terribly bourgeois—I just wanted to feel like the kind of person who was informed or “in the know,” and who was “radical” enough to find fault in even the New York Times. I was political for the sake of being political, and this required maintaining the fantasy of the romanticized, bitter intellectual. As a result, I now receive what one might call an “excessive amount” of news updates, some of which are repeated, most of which hardly seem newsworthy, and almost all of which I delete without reading. I could, as anyone else might do, remove my name from the list, but I've unfortunately grown accustomed to equally pleasurable (and equally false) sense of importance provided by these unread messages.
All of this is to say that, upon waking much earlier than usual on Friday morning, I discovered I had at that point received only two measly news updates. Their presence in otherwise empty inbox made the subject lines quite noticeable: “U.S. Marks End to 9-Year War, Leaving Iraq Uncertain” and “News Alert: Christopher Hitchens, Prolific Columnist, is Dead at 62.”
For many Leftists I know, this coupling of headlines—given the latter's unabashed support of the former—is pointedly symbolic. Indeed, by the general response I've witnessed it seems most can hardly contain their glee: the two “died together,” as it were, and good riddance to the both of them! As if it weren't enough for Hitchens to die, nor to die of complications from cancer—and to lose his hair and voice and strength in the process—one must also remind those who might consider mourning his loss that, by the way, he used to be a “good socialist” but had since become an imperialist, racist, boorish asshole. In short, while he may have only just died, he's actually been “dead for many years.” Namely, that is, since he stopped agreeing with everything the Left has to say.
I'll admit: I've never really cared much for Christopher Hitchens, either—I may, indeed, have on more than one occasion drunkenly referred to him as a “British twat” and lamented that an entire generation of ressentiment-filled atheists had found validation in his intellectually shallow “critique” of religion. I'll admit, likewise, that few things can make me cringe in quite the same way as the mindless slopping of praise upon public figures many wouldn't have thought about praising otherwise, the insistence that he or she was just the best and that the world will no doubt struggle to continue on its due course (see: the Steve Jobs syndrome). As a writer, however, I could at the very least admire the obvious talent Hitchens had, regardless of whether such writing included favorable references to Marx, Hegel, or the commodity-form. Likewise, that Hitchens was willing stand by some of his more controversial remarks is, unfortunately, more than I can say for most public figures—particularly those of the “intellectual” variety, whose willingness to side-step around political incorrectness and “not offend anyone” makes intellectualism itself look like a rather pedantic affair. (This is later point, of course, has given many the justification they need to say what they will about Hitchens: “He said it about Jerry Falwell first, so I should be able to say it, too!”)
My reason for writing this, however, is not to offer another insipid request to “respect the dead” (I, for one, am not interested in such moralizing). To be honest, I could care less what sorts of emotions the death of Christopher Hitchens might bring to his political opposition. But the added effort it takes to remind everyone of Hitchens' terrible support for such terrible things—making him an altogether terrible person—seems, in short, terribly futile in its pettiness, not to mention fetishistic in its belief that the world is “better off” without people whose views one deems “unacceptable.” That is, while it may seem intuitive to celebrate the fact that one less person is supporting some nefarious cause, this elimination of the political “other” is an ideological fantasy, and the death of Christopher Hitchens has done a remarkable job at revealing its fetishistic core: “I know he is dead, but nevertheless I am going to talk about him as if he weren't.” The “truth” of these remarks is not to “educate” or “remind” others that Hitchens was a neoconservative, or that he supported the Iraq war and hated Islam, but simply to maintain one's fantasy. The words themselves do not “mean what they say.” It is phatic speech, a kind of jubilant performance that amounts, roughly, to the exclamation, “We won!” The mere fact that Hitchens himself railed against Falwell and Mother Theresa after their deaths is less of a justification to say what one wants and more of a proof that Hitchens himself had need to desperately maintain his own fantasy.
I am not asking anyone to like Christopher Hitchens, or excuse those views or actions of his that one may find deplorable. Death does not exonerate anyone. Neither does it offer retribution. That we must almost instinctually continue our negation of a man even after the absolute negation of death, however, I think reveals something fundamental—namely, that we define ourselves, politically and otherwise, through this very negation. To say that Christopher Hitchens died before he died, namely when his socialist views dissolved into the neoconservatism that made him such a prominent and controversial figure, is in fact the same as saying, to borrow from Hegel, “I am I!” The self-satisfaction one receives is no different than, say, a pithy remark about The New York Times that reaffirms “commitment to radicalism.” Hitchens (and others like to him) is the paradoxical embodiment of social relations, the specter, as it were, that continually haunts us all: that which, in our fantasy, we seek to destroy, but which we nevertheless need if we are to maintain the enjoyment of this fantasy.