I once asked Christopher Hitchens to write his own obituary. This was after his cancer diagnosis, and in thinking ahead -- it’s what editors are supposed to do! -- I decided that there was no one I would rather read on Hitchens’s death than Hitchens. I also decided, somewhat self-justifyingly, that there was no one less likely to be offended by such a morbid request.
He declined. But he was characteristically gracious about it, saying that another editor had already made the inquiry (I had put her up to it) and explaining that, when he wrote obituaries, what he liked to do was first read what everyone else was saying, then give his take. Which wouldn’t be possible in this instance. As usual with Hitchens, he had made a difficult argument to counter.
That was the thing about Hitchens: He was all about the argument. He had (what I think of, anyway) as a healthy British parliamentarian’s attitude toward facts, which roughly speaking translates as, "Well, if I have one wrong, let’s find a right one to support the point." He did not let bad facts deter him from making a good argument, just as he would not allow good facts to distract him from seeing a bad argument.
This approach sometimes bewildered his American editors, and Hitchens was not afraid to be a bully when called for. When I was his editor at Slate I once had to referee a dispute between him and the proudly factually accurate American newspaper syndicate that sold his Slate column over some fact he had gotten wrong -- I have appropriately forgotten the details -- about the Armenian genocide. After several rounds of back-and-forth, Hitchens called me in frustration. “Are they arguing the Armenian genocide didn’t happen?” he asked. They weren’t, but to Hitchens it didn’t matter. He had been challenged, and he was fighting back. His column was well-named: Fighting Words.
I was one of Hitchens’ American editors, of course, though I like to think I was one of the less bewildered ones. I also like to think that I grew to appreciate, as no doubt was his aim, his argument about facts.
(Michael Newman is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)