This week marks a year since the death of author, literary critic and sharp-tongued polemicist, Christopher Hitchens. "The Hitch" as many fans of his work still refer to him, was famous for his eloquence and vicious indictments of various sacred-cows from Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton, to Mother Teresa and even God.
But it was his lightning-rod publication on religion, god is not Great, and subsequent public appearances that broadened his audience, especially to younger generations and cemented him as the most outspoken voice in the so-called "new atheists" movement. This reputation was further crystallized when he joined evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, neuro-scientist Sam Harris, and philosopher Dan Dennet for a meeting of the minds that was subsequently dubbed, The Four Horsemen (though not of the apocalypse per se).
My introduction to the Hitch came in '07 while working on a "project" in my university film studies program. A number of us decided to practice shooting with genuine old-school film and headed up to a cottage for a weekend of drunken debauchery and cinematic experiments. I'll skip the details suffice to say it involved an axe, clown wigs, mojitos and naked excursions on the frozen lake.
In the dead of winter, this cottage still had electricity and a single, very old television in the living room that only got one channel, TVO, the Ontario public broadcasting station, or Canadian PBS. Huddled around a fire, getting smashed, the station was broadcasting a rerun debate on free speech. At the University of Toronto podium this man in a deep English timbre began "Fire! Fire!...I realize now not to have shouted that in a crowded theater, but rather the Hogwart's Dinning Room..." What followed was a clear and thorough essay peppered with perfectly excised references and quotes for every point, punctuated in equal measure with humour and skewering barbs at the opponent's arguments.
The Hitch raps about God using logic and evidence, instead of just conviction and personal experience.
None of us had ever seen or head anything like this from the academic world. It was like the ghosts of Thomas Huxley and Lenny Bruce had coalesced into a post-9/11 culture critic. And he did it with both flowery diction and references to Family Guy, Star Wars, and Harry Potter! So thoroughly could he thump his opponents that the phrase "Hitch-Slap" had already entered the lexicon.
We were hooked. Upon returning to life in the city, we familiarized ourselves with this character and later found it appropriate, given his legendary reputation for alcohol, smoking, and debate, that we'd discovered Christopher Hitchens during our own weekend of excess.
From there Hitchens became a gateway drug to the work of his fellow free-thinkers but what was important to my own personal education was not just their written works, but that each of them had built a reputation by debating their ideas publicly against the pillars of their counter-arguments. And no larger tool assisted me in this than Youtube, for as the website grew, the videos became longer, of better quality, and proliferation.
Especially in the last five years, through little widgets like suggested videos or Amazon's prompting of what other people interested in what you're looking for have bought, it has become increasingly easier to access the work of contemporary authors, scientists, and cultural figures.
Watch some videos of Hitchens and The Four Horseman, and you'll be led to their cohorts. Watch Dawkins on evolution and you'll come to Sam Harris on morality, which will point you to Stephen Pinker on psychology, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on feminism and fundamentalism. From there you'll find videos from TED talks and conventions with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson being interviewed by Stephen Colbert.
Next, you'll see physicist Laurence Krauss discussing how you can get A Universe from Nothing, and all of them at some point involved in The Amazing Meeting founded by the also Amazing James Randi, magician and voice for critical thinking -- (and he introduced magicians Penn & Teller to each other who went on to create a Showtime Series called Bullshit which featured interviews by people including Christopher Hitchens).
Such is the circle of Youtube.
Although Christopher Hitchens, like many mentioned above, started in their areas of expertise many years ago, it has been the explosion of youtube that has brought academia as easy as pornography, into any dorm room, garage, or kitchen -- the access to their work is one example of the great democratizing force of the internet. Just as anyone can become a publisher or a video-producer, there's of course going to be an underbelly of hateful, uniformed ideas or very poor quality videos produced -- it's the power of good ideas and education spreading equally wide and fast that can combat ignorance.
It's also why the internet needs to remain free of regulation or political control, free of censorship of ideas and why China works so hard to censor so much of it from it's citizens and why in Syria, the only way to keep people away from communicating ideas has been to cut the entire country off from internet access.
During his time at Vanity Fair, he even got himself water-
boarded to see what all the fuss was about - it's torture.
On a personal level, I'm thankful that years ago in the little cottage up north, that we were only able to to tune in a single channel and that quality trumped quantity on a weekend during which my pals and I had planned to destroy brain cells, not stimulate them. Although of course I would have come across Hitchens and co. sooner or later, I like to think I got a head start on my actual education half-way through my university career.
Champions of humanism, the Hitch and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
So this week, on the anniversary that the Hitch departed from us, I raise a glass in his memory and reflect on how he has impacted my short life. How he not only made assertions and good arguments for his point of view, but that he sought challengers to his positions, that for example when his god is not Great was published, his book tour went straight through the American Bible Belt to debate preachers, Christian Apologists, and Rabbis.
He was called strident and polarizing but maintained associations with people from all points on the political and even religious spectrum. Most important to me, he demonstrated that we have to be able to engage beliefs and ideas opposite to our own without simply insulating our social circle and choices of news sources to people and positions with whom we already agree.