It recently came to my attention that something called the ‘Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation’ is about to start awarding a prize in the honor of the late Christopher Hitchens, read about it here. This prize is to be awarded annually to one author or journalist who has shown a “…commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth …”. Reading about all this I got to thinking a bit, about the Hitch and those who will now be receiving prizes in his memory.
I found upon the above linked website that the foundation awarding the prize does so for the purpose of advancing “vigorous, honest, and open public debate and discussion, with no tolerance of orthodoxy, no reverence for authority, and a belief in reasoned dialogue as the best path to the truth”. That is all very well and good but there was another side to the Htichslap that I would like to see not just in whoever wins this prise but in more people in general.
Listening to Hitchens and reading his work I’m always struck by how he seemed to be have an interest in…well, everything, to put it simply. He commented on, wrote about and got himself involved with an absolutely unbelievably large amount of completely different political, social and historical issues. This isn’t well remembered nowdays, people think of him as someone who’s only relevant gig’s was speaking out against organized religion. That was indeed an important part of his work, to be sure, but the Hitch did so much more.
Were I to nominate anyone to a prize in Hitchens’ memory I would look for someone who possesses that same interest in, and curiosity of, the entirety of the human experience. This is more generally something I look for in people in other contexts as well, and rarely find. Sometimes when I come across old conversations on Youtube or somewhere else of Hitchens talking with other people I respect, such as Maher or Dawkins, I realize that Maher for example may be a better comedian and Dawkins is more well versed in biology, but Hitchens knew more about more or less everything else.
I have come across photographs of Hitchens in conversation with as varied a group of world leaders as Nelson Mandela, George H W Bush, Jorge Videla, Hugo Chavez and others. Some of those types may have been less likable than others, but when you travel a lot and get involved with things you meet all kinds of people, I guess. Hitchens was present in Sarajevo during the war in the nineteens, reporting on what was being done to that city and it’s people. He was involved in an attempt to smuggle a pirate edition of Animal Farm into Iran. He was arrested in Checkoslovakia when visiting the underground resistance to the communist regime there during the cold war. Hitchens was a bit like the Doctor, in the television show Doctor Who, showing up in all kinds of places in modern history, making a contribution and then going on.
There are old eighties and nineties clips from C-Span still available, where Hitchens is brought back again and again to talk about all kinds of things. He wrote dozens of books on topics as varied as the history of Cyprus and the works of George Orwell. Look for example here, at Hitchens talking in length about his book about the life of Thomas Jefferson.
The point I’m trying to get across by enumerating all these works and deeds is to, for those who have not yet understood it, really highlight the extent to which Hitchens was a polymath, a man with an extreamly broad scope of interests. I hope, not presume to demand but just hope, that anyone awarded this new prize named after Christopher Hitchens will likewise be a person who takes this kind of interest in the workings of human society as a whole.