As I sit here thinking of my friend Christopher Hitchens, I wish I could say that I am doing so with a glass of Johnnie Walker Black (splash of soda) in hand. The truth is that I have resorted to a glass of red wine. Christopher would not necessarily object to red wine during dinner, but he would emphatically reject it as a companion to writing. (FWIW it's Saturday night not Sunday morning as I type--although that would be a matter of indifference to Hitchens, who was always in his own time zone when it came to drinking.)
Nearby me is a framed photograph of Hitchens in his prime. In front of the photo, a yahrzeit candle burns in his memory. I don't think he'd be offended by this religious ritual. Hitchens found out only in mid-life that he was Jewish. The discovery did not change his mind about the existence of God, or even about the merits of the State of Israel, but it did increase his curiosity about all things Jewish. He and his wife, Carol, and their daughter Antonia, came to our house for a Passover dinner; he attended our synagogue over the High Holy Days. As others have written, despite his vocal aetheism, Christopher was respectful in private towards others' religious rituals. He dutifully donned a yalmuke when he spoke to conservative synagogues. I think he liked the cultural identification with Jews: the intellectual, underdog people, fighting for their survival--this appealed to him.
Much is made of Hitchens' "bad boy" reputation: that he would say anything to anyone. I'm sure this is truer of his younger years than his latter. The Hitchens I knew was deferential, in manner and speech, unless you unwisely chose to provoke him. He would speak to a 10-year-old with the same seriousness he would accord a 50-year-old. He would entertain the questions of an earnest 20-year-old with the same respect he would give to the president of a university. This side of him sometimes got him into nearly as much trouble as the more combative.
My husband and I once watched him speak to a synagogue in Toronto. Afterwards there was a book signing. In sum, Hitchens earned his fee for that evening (as he always did). From start to finish he spoke for 45 minutes or so, then entertained questions for another 45 minutes. Afterwards he repaired to the basement where he spent another hour engaging with his fans while he sold books. By the time he left--we'd agreed we'd take him away in a taxi to his hotel--it must have been 10 p.m. He was visibly exhausted, but keen to have a Scotch and regenerate himself at the hotel bar. Just as the needed beverage arrived, a middle-aged woman approached our table. Within seconds it became clear that she'd stalked him all the way from the synagogue: somehow she'd overheard our plans, and trailed us. She told him she had some "things" that she needed to discuss with him. Creepy.
Hitchens' reaction was to succumb. He looked hunted, but okay, what else was he to do but answer this woman's questions? My husband took swift action. Politely but firmly, he told her that Hitchens' Question Period was over, and of course she must understand that a man needs a drink etc. etc. etc. The woman reluctantly retreated. Hitchens' relief was palpable. He took a sip of his Scotch and said to my husband: "Thank you. I can never manage to do that."
Now that he is gone, his memory must necessarily live through his friends and admirers. His example of intellectual courage, his willingness to debate any idea, his intolerance towards charlatans and fools--this is what I regard as Hitchens' greatest legacy, at least for me. WWHD. I always loved being witness to some arrogant soul meeting Hitchens for the first time, who would lay his un-thought-through opinions flat on the table in a challenging way. Hitchens approached these situations like one of those guys in the old Westerns: He'd place his intellectual six guns on the table in return, right away, as if to say: This is what I have. Is that all you have? His unwitting opponent would bluster forth, unaware that Hitchens' guns were slowly being raised and about to blow his brains out...
There have been so many tributes to Hitchens in the days since he died, some of the best of them on the Huffington Post. Read David Frum's splendid memoir here, written in the early hours after hearing of his friend's death (I can attest that Frum did have Scotch in hand as he wrote it); also Josh Bowman's "Ten Things I've Learned from Christopher Hitchens," and novelist Doug Cooper on overcoming his dislike for the man.
I can also attest that Christopher would have applauded Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's brave stance against new Canadians wearing the niqab (face veil) during the citizenship ceremony. Hitchens became an U.S. citizen shortly after 9/11. As with everything he did, he took its meaning seriously, and in attendance when he swore the oath was the courageous anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali--there at his personal invitation. Freedom to him meant, among other things, standing up against demagoguery, especially that which masked itself (quite literally) in the guise of religious "tradition." Many of our Muslim contributors this week agreed: whatever the niqab and burka represents, it isn't tolerant Islam--and thus is inappropriate at a ceremony at which the new citizen is swearing allegiance to Western democratic values. Contributors Tarek Fatah, Farzana Hassan and Tahir Gora each wrote superb blogs on this point (you can read Fatah's here, Hassan's here, and Gora's here). My own take is here.
In that same spirit--defense of sanity--contributor Hina P. Ansari took the retail chain Lowe's to task for its ridiculous and bigoted decision to withdraw advertising from the hit reality series, "All-American Muslim." And in a completely different arena--the House of Commons--many of our readers agreed with contributor Matt Price that Justin Trudeau's expletive-laden outburst at Environment Minister Peter Kent also struck a blow for the defense of sanity.
Meanwhile, in the interest of a free and fair debate on the niqab issue, I reached out to Whida Valiante, national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, who opposed Kenney's ban. Would she like to make her case in the Huffington Post? Alas, Valiante told me that she was too pressed for time at the moment to mount a reply. But the invitation remains, and I hope our readers will hear from her.
As above, WWHD.