Joan Smith: Hitchens was witty and clever, but he was no secular saint


There is a kind of man – witty, dashing, raffishly handsome – who is attractive to both men and women. Lord Byron was one such, and so was the writer Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday at the cruelly early age of 62. Appreciations have focused on his ferocious intellect and contempt for cant (another trait he shared with Byron). I admired his disdain for religion, which he maintained to the end, and latterly I enjoyed his forensic demolition of the death-loving cult of jihad.

Hitchens belonged to a circle of writers – Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie – who were fiercely protective of "the Hitch". He grew up in the austere years that followed the Second World War, and his ideas were shaped by the intellectual upheavals of the Sixties. "I was a 1968er", Hitchens once said, and his politics reflected the unthinkingly male outlook of his generation.

Later, after the 9/11 attacks, his support for the war in Iraq led to bitter accusations that he had betrayed his principles. I was on a platform with him in London when he declared he was no longer a socialist, but my difficulty with his politics pre-dated that change of heart. The problem wasn't particular to him: Hitchens was typical of a group of intellectuals who relished challenging traditional power structures, but their radicalism stopped at the bedroom door. He argued with feminists over abortion, and even though he later supported a woman's right to choose, he never stopped describing the foetus as an "unborn child".

It's not unusual for revolutions to propose a redistribution of power among a limited group, and the shortcomings of Sixties radicals were striking in the matter of gender. In his memoir, published just before he was diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, Hitchens barely mentions the women in his life. At some points in the book, he seems to regard women as another species, artlessly quoting Amis and the poet Craig Raine who believed "that there is a design flaw in the female form and that the breasts and the buttocks really ought to be on the same side".

Hitchens recalled hearing the feminist slogan "the personal is political" for the first time, and said it filled him with a "deep, immediate sense of impending doom". He dismissed it as escapist and narcissistic, appearing to place one of the great ideologies of the 20th century in the same category as what he called "New Age gunk". I don't think he hated women, but he appeared to regard them as having limited usefulness.

Hitchens admired the ideas of the Enlightenment, but had little self-knowledge. One of his friends, the CNN commentator Barbara Olson, died in the plane that smashed into the Pentagon on 9/11 and that might account for his intemperate rage towards people who opposed the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His second wife, Carol, described him perceptively as one of "those men who had never really been in battle and wished they had been".

His premature death is a sad loss, but he is no more a secular saint than George Orwell, another radical who had strange ideas about women. Hitchens once said women aren't funny, which, while nonsense, is revealing about the way in which he formed his opinions. Like many clever men, he believed he inhabited the rarefied world of the intellect, but he couldn't always distinguish between a thought and a feeling.;

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before