I don’t care for the phrase “public intellectual,” particularly when paired with “political thinker.” It tends to reference the most polemic or controversial people, skeptics of common sense.
For instance, there are lots of great thinkers who have never ascended to notoriety the way Noam Chomsky has, probably because they are tasteful enough to avoid making excuses for terrorists.
But it isn’t just that I think some of them are wrong, it’s that the designation as “public intellectual” tends to reward dogmatic thinking or feeding into stereotypes. A good example of this is Francis Fukuyama, who has beaten the same drum since 1992 despite being disproven on several occasions.
My distaste for the dogma of most public intellectuals and political journalists is one of the reasons I will miss Christopher Hitchens. He engaged with his critics through his prose and had the uncanny ability to exude thoughtfulness on a variety of topics. I respect a lot of writers today, but rarely do I see one who is so willing to engage in public debate the way Hitch did. Even rarer is one who can switch their worldview and still retain respect from their peers, speaking with fluency on both sides of an issue. Who can get away with that? A damn good writer, if nothing else.
I had a long conversation with Hitch in April 2010, a few weeks before he was diagnosed with cancer. My friend Steven and I waited for him outside of the Kimmel Center at NYU after he participated on a panel. He came out armed with a double Johnnie Walker Black and a bottle of Evian. There were only four people waiting to talk to him and it was pretty late in the evening, but he stayed for about an hour to talk with us. He was just as polished in a casual conversation with college sophomores as he was on stage defending a wildly unpopular war or in his weekly column. Beyond that, though, he didn’t seem bothered by our conversation. In fact, he engaged with us; asking follow-up questions and clarifications. I rarely get that sense of genuine interest from anyone, including my professors.
Most people will probably attribute Hitch’s success to his intellect. That’s fair, but I think it’s also insufficient. There are plenty of people who are smarter than Hitchens but remain less devoted to their work. The element that drove Hitchens the top was his pursuit of the truth. Nothing else can explain his prodigious output, willingness to engage with his critics, political conversions, & his late-night conversations with college kids.
Even if you think his conclusions were wrong, you have to admire the vigor he put into crafting them. Hitchens saw that ideas matter and that their consequences were the source of a lot of good and bad in the world. To me, his work always made it seem like he was determined to have the right opinions. He didn’t have a tolerance for relativism or dogma. I think that’s why I’ll miss him so much.