The title leaped out at me recently while I was watching a video of a tribute to the late Christopher Hitchens who was one of those frighteningly intelligent people I have been fortunate enough never to become embroiled in an argument with. The phrase above emerged from a respected author's lips as he was telling the assembled masses a story about one of his encounters with Hitchens at a star-bedecked party. It struck me as one of those unique phrases which will roll out through space on radio waves for ever to be puzzled about by Streisand-obsessed inhabitants of distant planets. Or not. But I thought it sounded funny anyway.
The real object of this post is the deceased gentleman, however. I didn't know him beyond some of his journalistic work and having read snippets of his books and essays, as well as having viewed his debating style and skill in various circumstances. he strikes me as a man who felt very strongly about what was important to him, and someone who for whatever reason, wasn't remotely worried about offending the sensibilities of his audience. I have a hunch that he secretly hoped to very much annoy the stupid while entertaining and engaging the intelligent. he certainly seemed to be someone who had little time for those he believed were intellectually challenged.
I wonder, however, if he may have miscalculated his audience? I can't claim to share his intellectual abilities but from the outside looking in, it seems to me that his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to discourse may at times have prevented his message from reaching those very people he wished to convince.
I get what he was trying to do (or at least I hope I get it) with his style - shaking people out of the comfortable and cozy world of intellectual debate where participants so often seem to dance around meaningful discussion or argument and rarely speak their minds. He spoke his mind (while keeping it clean enough for broadcast) and shocked a lot of people by doing so.
Diplomacy can, without doubt, be a wonderful thing, but conversation without honesty can also be rather a waste of effort. I liked it that he would refer to people's beliefs and values as 'disgusting' at times, that he had the courage to stand up and call people liars, cheats and bigots when he believed them so to be. I liked it because so much of what goes on in the mythical corridors of power seems to be controlled by pathological liars, cheats, manipulators - people we call 'politicians'.
In a democratic system (where, in theory at least), we have the opportunity to make a choice about who represents us in government or opposition to government, it strikes me that the electorate is consistently guilty of putting into power - whether as part of the government or otherwise, demonstrated liars and manipulators of facts. The recent USA Presidential election demonstrated how far the political parties are prepared to go to mislead voters, to engineer results, and to blatantly lie to the voters. In criminal law which derives from British common law (which is the case in much of the English-speaking world), a person commits a criminal offence if - and I'm simplifying here - they tell an untrue story in order to gain a financial reward (including a salaried job). This is a law which, in my experience, is enforced without equivocation.
Unless, of course, a politician is involved. Our democratic system seems to be willing to allow these people to lie, to wriggle, to do anything they can to obtain positions of power, and to stay there. Why? There is no ethical or moral basis for allowing this to happen in front of an entire nation's noses. We are, unfortunately, ruled not by the great and good, but by the richest (and therefore best placed to buy propaganda time on TV and radio), the most dishonest (and therefore most adept at making falsehoods sound like facts), the manipulative (and therefore those most skilled at twisting facts and figures as well as cynically playing upon the public's collective emotions) and the most hungry for power (a trait which, I believe should immediately disqualify them for holding public office).
Hitchens seemed to me to be none of these things. He was of course flawed, as we all are flawed, but his flaws were not hidden away or massaged into obscurity. He was a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker among other things - two habits which are in today's western society viewed with some disapproval by the majority - but he wore his faults, next to his heart, upon his sleeve. For me, it made him a real person. I didn't always agree with his politics (not that he would have required me to) or some of his choices (becoming a USA citizen for example), but what impressed me most about the man was his obvious intellect, depth of learning, and his no-nonsense - or should I say, no bullshit - approach to the sacred cows ( pun intended) of the religious world, and the way in which those of us who choose secularism seem so often to tiptoe around the wishes of the faithful.
I hope that he will one day come to be recognized for his contribution to the religion debate, which in my opinion was a mighty one indeed. I believe him, above all, to have been a man who was honest about his opinions, something we can very rarely take for granted about our public figures. Perhaps 'he was honest' is as great an accolade I can bestow upon him in my memory. It will do for now.