Christopher Hitchens, the late essayist and sot, was a man who purposefully cultivated a lot of friends of a certain type—rich, self-important, generally dim-witted and hence easy for a well-spoken Oxbridge debater to impress—and he electrified Washington D.C. society mainly by not being a completely charmless bore. Now those friends are the primary caretakers of his legacy, and, if the newly announced "Hitchens Prize" is any indication, they are going to memorialize him in the least Hitch-like ways possible.
The Hitchens Prize, along with $50,000, will go to journalists and writers who best embody the qualities that Hitchens' friends think Hitchens was known for: "a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence." (As has already been pointed out, nothing says "damn the consequences" like the possibility of a $50,000 prize for contrarianism.)
The prize is the creation of a brand-new nonprofit arts foundation, founded by and named for a little-known but clearly well-off couple: Dennis Ross (not the diplomat of the same name), a corporate tax attorney and former minor Treasury official in the Reagan administration, and Victoria Ross, a museum researcher. (The foundation's small board of directors is made up of the male Ross, a tax attorney-slash-composer named William Weigel, and a Douglas Ross who, if I had to guess, I'd guess is Dennis and Victoria's son.) The winner will be selected by a committee that will include official Friends-of-Hitch Graydon Carter and Christopher Buckley, among others to be named later.
The Prize, in any event, is not intended, if it were even possible, to identify writers who align closely with Christopher Hitchens, nor to celebrate his views in every particular. Rather, the Prize seeks to advance what he was dedicated to throughout his life: 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.
How dedicated, exactly, was Christopher Hitchens to "reasoned dialogue"? In my recollection, he believed in invective and insult. He was a polemicist in print and an arguer in debates. And he not infrequently simply made arguments based not on reason or evidence but on his own gut feelings. Much of his better polemical writing (and all of the worst of it) was clearly motivated by personal, visceral disgust. (Hitchens on Hillary Clinton: "she is not just a liar but a lie; a phoney construct of shreds and patches and hysterical, self-pitying, demagogic improvisations." On Bill: "It's one thing to say, with reasonable confidence, that the White House is currently occupied by a war criminal, a rapist, and a pathological liar. It's another to ponder the full implications.")
The committee goes on to smear Hitchens yet again:
In line with the Foundation's educational mission, the Prize and award ceremony are intended to draw public attention to the values that marked Christopher Hitchens' career, including freedom of speech and inquiry, and the importance to society of civil, if passionate, discourse and debate. In that spirit, it is anticipated that the Prize winner's acceptance speech will reflect on those values, drawing on their own published work or related topical matters.
While the foundation could mean "civil" strictly in the sense of "referring to civil society," the "if passionate" suggests that this is actually a ridiculous attribution of "civility" to a writer whose career was defined by his gleeful refusal to make his arguments politely or refrain from personal attacks. This was a man whose idea of "civil, if passionate, discourse and debate" was calling the Dixie Chicks "fat fucking slags." At his worst, which was often, he was a jumped-up Don Rickles, with only an affectation of the wit.
But the "Hitchens Prize" and its misinterpretation of the "Hitch" persona are not worth getting worked up about. This may sound ungenerous, but I suspect Christopher Hitchens the writer will be remembered, if at all, for his Kissinger book, a few bon mots, and little else. The fact that his ephemeral political writing will be forgotten, as most ephemeral political writing is, is the best thing that could happen to his reputation. So let his friends name a prize after him, because a prize with some money attached to it—just ask Messrs. Rhodes, MacArthur, and even
Pulitzer—is a fine way to ensure that a name is kept in the public eye for generations as the person recedes from memory. Somewhere in Journalism Heaven, the prize committee's bastardized version of Christopher Hitchens, reasoned debater and champion of civil discourse, is throwing back scotch with Jesus and Mother Teresa, smiling.
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