Smile Politely

Here’s to you, Christopher Hitchens

I’ll always remember his response—the then-interim head of the school of journalism at Southern Illinois University, and all around good guy, Bill Freivogel—when I said I had debated the invasion of Iraq with Christopher Hitchens while in Washington D.C. over the summer.

He gave me a smile that was equal parts trusting and skeptical and said, “Hitchens? But he’s a pretty smart guy isn’t he?”

It was not unlike trying to tell a buddy at work that you had flirted the night before with Mila Kunis, when you really had.

However, Christopher was even more powerfully smart then Mila is hot. He was one of our hippest, sharpest, wittiest writers and provocateurs—who challenged ignorance and conventional thinking through prolifically produced columns, essays and books—and it is damn sad to write that he died on Thursday after living for nearly two years with cancer.

I ran into the good man it was in 2007, well before he was diagnosed with a fatally corrupt esophagus. And, I write, “ran into,” as if I was talking Trotsky at a Vanity Fair party in Dupont Circle, when actually I knew Hitchens was appearing on an outdoor broadcast of Hardball on MSNBC. I very deliberately put myself outside of the plaza, between Union Station and the Capitol, in hopes of chewing the fat with the heavy drinking, and heavier thinking, man of modern legend.

Trust me, I would have rather our meeting had taken place at the Vanity Fair party.  Within the first five minutes of the show, I had already weirded out Chris Matthews with my Jew fro/Latin Roger Daltrey hair (there were only three people in all of D.C. at the time who had long hair, and the other two screamed at their shadows outside the World Bank and Quizno’s, respectively.) I then got into an argument with the tanning bed-rugged leader of the nation’s capitol’s premier atheist meet-up group, who was of course there to cheerlead for the author of God Is Not Great.

So, do you believe in God, he asks me.

I don’t pretend to know if there is or isn’t a god. So, I suppose I’m agnostic.

Are you agnostic about unicorns?

I’m not agnostic about assholes.

I was also getting antsy, because Hitchens’ opponent in this debate of sorts, Rev. Al Sharpton, was already set up and ready to go, looking dapper and self-important. Hopefully, Hitch hadn’t remembered that he had something cooler to do.

 Nope, there he was—red faced and sticky wet with sweat in the 90-degree afternoon. He had a cooler than thou, detached air about him that would make most hipsters look like needy, vulnerable puppies. And within 90 seconds of taking his seat, he began to deftly unpack his matter-of-fact explanation to Rev. Sharpton and everyone else why he believed it was imperative that we invaded Iraq, and why it is foolish to believe in God.

I started trying to say snarky comments to everyone during commercial breaks since, apparently, I’m needy for attention. 

Thanks guys. Your exchange of original ideas has really made it worthwhile standing out here in the sun for an hour.

It paid off when Hitchens turned around, pretended to address the whole audience while looking only in the eyes of Johnny Longhair, and asked, in his leathered, debonair British accent, “Does anybody got a smoke?”

I smiled, inside and out, and mouthed, “I’m out.” He mumbled an amusing line of obscenity, and turned back around—a moment made even funnier when he later pulled out a pack of English cigs and showed he still had one left that he didn’t want to waste in a 60 second commercial brake.

I thought you needed a smoke earlier?

Yeah. Well . . .

When I went up to shake his hand after the show, like Chris Matthews an hour earlier, he sized me up and down. As opposed to Matthews, though, Hitch didn’t gawk at me like a fucker and walk away. He squeezed my hand, thanked me for coming out and casually started to talk about one of the last points he had made on the show. Before he was crowded by the other admirers who’d came out to see him, I convinced Hitchens to pop into the patio bar next door for a whiskey. I was just walking away and saying that I’d get us a couple drinks ordered when I heard:

Hey, Hitch, we’re with the Washington Atheist (something or rather). Want to go next door and have a drink with us?

Way to not reinforce stereotypes, fucking rude-ass atheist thugs. Jesus.

By the time I turned around from the bar, with a Johnny Walker black label, neat, club soda on the side, and a double Maker’s, Hitch was at a large table surrounded by big smiles that were churning out non-stop compliments, along with praise for godlessness. I pulled up my own chair, handed him his drink, and asked him how he could reconcile defense of the invasion of Iraq in the name of fighting terrorism, when presence of a foreign occupier fuels insurgency.

Thus began a 20-minute exchange about what the war on terror means. The unified look of annoyance on the faces of the atheist meet-up folks provided only superficial pleasure in comparison to experiencing one of my favorite rebels take time from his busy day to articulate why I was wrong. The conversation is more than what space will allow for here—though what sticks with me most is simply that he seemingly lost all interest in his “groupies” the second I offered a sincere and decent challenge to his ideas.  I told him I hadn’t been to the Middle East, let alone Kurdistan, and that I needed him to explain to me what I wasn’t getting about the pro-invasion doctrine.

And I believe it’s because he celebrated ideas, and the belief that you fire-test ideas to find out what’s true, that he found interest in engaging with some one much younger and less experienced than he.

It’s for those same reasons that I celebrate him.

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