The whirlwind first week of spring semester is behind us. New classrooms, professors and campus changes are all part of the experience. The best part, though, is catching up with people and hearing all those stories about how they spent winter break. I’ve heard everything from a one month couch-a-thon spent watching every episode of X-files (for the third time) to bare-handed flashlight ice fishing at 3 a.m. on a forgotten lake out of cellphone range. Glad you made it back, John!
Like most students, as I drove away from USM for the last time during finals week, I made big, responsible plans. But something happened on the very first day of my winter break, Dec. 15, that threw off all those grand ideas: Christopher Hitchens died. Two months earlier, a friend challenged me to get into Hitchens, a British-born journalist, political commentator, outspoken atheist and one-time Trotskyite whose career spanned some 22 books and numerous debates (including the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair).
A YouTube search turned up innumerable videos of his debates, CNN appearances and interviews, so I just played the first few videos not knowing exactly what to expect. It is impossible to miss his command of language, quick mind and historically grounded political sensibilities; it’s also pretty difficult not to notice the constant presence of cigarettes and booze. Many an interview was done with a Johnnie Walker Black on the rocks sitting close by. The obituaries said he was a real elbow-rubber, a man who could make words dance and a drink-sodden polemicist. But I kept watching and listening to the arguments he offered.
In defiance of my expectations, here was a person championing democracy, but as a pro-war liberal. Not paradoxical enough for you? How about a Democrat who endorsed Bush in 2004? Or an atheist who teaches his three children the Bible? I came to learn that Hitchens had made many enemies for such stances, but he stuck with his positions and never tired of laying out his reasons. After living in Washington D.C. for over a decade, 9/11 prompted him to become a naturalized U.S. Citizen, and he called the United States the greatest country on earth.
In his speech “Axis of Evil,” he recalls how as a journalist for Vanity Fair he traveled to North Korea, Iraq and Iran and felt firsthand the effects of tyranny. In the case of North Korea, his conclusion was that the totalitarian regime has reduced human life to total pointlessness. You only exist to worship the Dear Leader. Hitchens claimed one of his great regrets was that he was not able to capture in words the true essence of that pointlessness for English audiences. His reflection reveals his deep concern to shock and wake people up to the reality of the surplus evil in such regimes — what he called the “little extra touches,” of which not even Stalin had dreamed.
A first exposure to Hitchens is a wake up call to the realities of the world: religious, political and historical. His points mirror in some ways Washington Times journalist Diana West’s book “The Death of the Grown-Up,” which argues that without informed, mature sensibilities, democracy cannot be sustained. The type of reality check Hitchens offers is difficult to describe. It’s a wake-up call you’ve been avoiding, a truth you may not want to hear or an ego-popping moment that calls you out to be more politically, morally and ethically responsible. His fans have a word for it: getting “Hitchslapped.”
Perhaps my biggest winter break Hitchslap was Hitchens on Iran. Although I’ve followed the news stories and the Republican debates that discussed Iran’s nuclear capabilities, it wasn’t until I began listening to Hitchens’ speeches on the Iranian youth pro-democracy movement (what he calls the Iranian baby-boomerang) and the current Iranian regime that I began to get a complete picture of the political climate and what is at stake. That type of informed insight is, now more than ever, what we need.
There are a lot of things I could have done with my winter break and getting Hitchslapped over and over again wasn’t at the very top of my list. Looking back on it, though, I wonder why I didn’t do it sooner.
Kit Kelchner is a philosophy and health sciences major in his senior year.