Excepting only the Cuban Missile Crisis, I wonder if there was a time when Western Christendom felt itself more surely on the precipice of extinction than it did in the autumn/winter of 1241 when the Mongol horde stood "at the gates of Vienna" (as the saying goes)--scouting, skirmishing and otherwise scaring the bejabbers out of a populace that feared it might prove itself powerless against a force that had swept so much before it.
And then as if by a miracle, the Mongols vanished--as another saying goes, "folded their tents and slipped away" (although it appears they took some Hungarian tents with them). It was some time before the locals grasped what had saved them, but we know now: Ogodei, third son, favorite and successor to the great Genghis Khan, had died. From every corner of the Eurasian land mass, the troops raced home for the funeral.
I thought of the Mongol horde this morning as my Google Reader overflowed with tributes and remembrances to the great panjandrum of the feuilliton circuit, Christopher Hitchens, dead at 62. Grant that the comparison is not exact. The Mongols race home not just for the ceremony but to contend for the successorship (it took them 10 years, during which time their once-and-future victims enjoyed an uneasy surcease). In the case of Hitchens, I don't suppose there will be a succession battle precisely--the intertubes are clogged with voices will tell you that he broke the mold. But as an instance of tribal solidarity, I should say the analogy is compelling. Think of it: forget Lady Gaga, forget Vladimir Putin, forget Ron Paul. If ever you wanted to commit a great public crime or folly, today would be the day to do it. You are Vienna; the chatterati are the Mongol horde. Today every laptop is clicking in memory of the ghost of the departed Christopher. Indeed I can't think of anything that could demonstrate more clearly (as if the point needed demonstration) that we have a chatterati elite in the Anglosphere, as self-protecting and self-admiring as in any phenom since Baby Jessica fell down a well.
Which is not to say that everyone loved Hitchens--"love" is a bit of a stretch with reference to a man who, among his other virtues, was after all a mean old drunk.. Many professed to admire his style, his fecundity, his (I really think this is a closer issue--see infr) his courage/independence/integrity. Some of his admirers also betray more than a glint of fear, as if they'd forgotten he was dead and so unable to take vengeance on them. Whatever: it is hard to name a journo-celebrity of greater than B-minus status who hasn't in the last 24 hours gone to lengths to prove that s/he and Hitchens were smoking and drinking buds who'd spend every Hallowe'en out soaping windows together. This is the moment, guys; this is the time I get to prove that I am in the club, or as Judge Harry used to say, "my name was on the list."
I'd have to admit that the outpouring is not entirely without intrinsic justification. Hitchens' chops as a feuilletonist were pretty well honed, though hardly, I think, much better than (say) Christopher Buckley or P. J. O'Rourke or perhaps even Joe Queenan. Hitchens could be acerb, witty, sometimes surprising--all estimable qualities in his trade, even rare, albeit not unique.
Which brings me back to the issue of his integrity/independence/courage. I'll grant that he did die well, which takes courage of a high order. And I woudn't go so far as to say he was a trimmer of Mitt Romney proportions. But I think a lot of the aura of of gritty independence was illusory. Example, seeking to document his courage, his defenders will naturally leap to his slasher-attack on Mother Teresa. Sure, fine. But consider: one way to make your reputation in any field of inquiry is to take an idea that "everybody" knows it is true, and show that it is false. If you were trying to think of an icon that needed taking down in just that way, I suspect that Mother Teresa might well be your first choice--or at any rate, would have been before Hitchens did it.
His defense of the Iraq War stands on a slightly different footing. I suspect that his animus against Islamic illiberalism was probably sincere (and not without some merit, let us agree). But I suspect he may have come to regret his decision as the absurdity of it all became increasingly apparent. Yet even so, by the time of Iraq, Hitchens was well enough established as a brand that he could afford to experiment with it without serious risk of impairing it.
His other instances of supposed "courage" seem to me far more trifling. Lately he wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters. Oh, give me a break. In the first place, everybody already knows why Orwell matters--everybody in Hitchens' circle, certainly. Defending Orwell for this crowd would be a lot like a good Catholic defending--well, like defending mother Teresa. Quite the contrary: I think the Orwell brand offered much more to the Hitchens brand than vice versa (idle thought: a slasher-attack on George Orwell--now that would dtake courage). Moreover, if ever there was a writer who displayed courage--along with modesty, compassion, and a gritty indifference to what powerful people thought of him--Orwell was, of course, the ticket (I probably digress here; I suspect I am ticked off at the NYT for invoking an Orwell comparison in its Hitchens obit).
No: where Hitchens really added the oak leaf clusters to a merit badge was under the one for his skill at self-promotion, at networking, at making sure he had a good death. Whatever else he did with his life, he made sure that he was in everybody's Rolodex and they his. And tonight we see where that-all gets you. Read the obits if you like: some of them are touching and affectionate, many witty, or in the way of being witty, a very few even arresting. If you want just one, I'd strongly recommend the memorial from his brother, who shows the candor and integrity not to gloss over the difficulties of their own, shall we say, complicated, relationship. The brother is one guy who has something to say beyond the ordinary pieties and wit of Christopher's homies in the chattering class.
Update: I see that Mother Teresa's order is praying for him. Heh.