Michael Lind: Hitchens, Gossip Columnist of Genius

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Lind is the author of "The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution" and "The American Way of Strategy." 

“In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath,” Samuel Johnson remarked. Even so, claims that the world has lost a major thinker and great writer in the late Christopher Hitchens go beyond the mild flattery that is appropriate in obituaries and call for correction. The rule de mortuis nil nisi bonum does not apply to those who take part in public life or public debate; their deaths provide the most appropriate occasions to evaluate their significance and their legacies.

My assessment of Christopher Hitchens is not colored by any personal conflict with him. On the contrary, my few interactions with Hitchens were friendly. In 1995 he wrote a favorable review of my first book, “The Next American Nation,” in the New York Times Book Review, and thereafter invited me to drinks at a Washington bar several times. Some claim that he was a fascinating conversationalist, but as I recall he showed no interest in ideas and preferred to peddle gossip about politicians and journalists and authors, until I found opportunities to excuse myself. Gossip, like alcohol, is safely consumed only in small quantities.

He invited me to a dinner at his Washington apartment, where he introduced me to his friend Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist who had become an aide in the Clinton White House. Blumenthal and I discovered that Hitchens was remarkably ignorant of American history for someone who earned money writing about American politics. We spent much of the evening explaining the differences between Whigs and Jacksonians to the British expatriate, and I was not surprised that reviewers found his later book on Tom Paine to be riddled with mistakes. That particular evening ended with Hitchens cornering me at the door on the way out with a boozy harangue about how he was going to come to the defense of David Irving, a right-wing British author who had been denounced as a Holocaust denier. I was grateful to escape....

But though he played one on TV, Hitchens was not an intellectual, if the word has any meaning anymore. Those known by the somewhat awkward term “public intellectuals” can be based in the professoriate, the nonprofit sector, or journalism. They can even be politicians, like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But genuine intellectuals, as distinct from mere commentators or TV talking heads, need to meet two tests.

First, intellectuals need to produce some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting, distinct from the public affairs commentary for which they may be best known to a broad public. If you do nothing but review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts, it is easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are.

Second, genuine intellectuals base their interventions in public debate on the basis of some coherent view of the world. A dedication to rigorous and systematic reasoning, wherever it may lead, is what distinguishes intellectuals from lobbyists or partisan spin doctors who change their views according to the demands of a special interest or a party. It also distinguishes them from mere “contrarians” — the term Hitchens used to describe himself — who attract publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims....

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