How does the phrase go? ‘De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,’ I believe it is. As if I knew Latin. The trope, ‘speak no ill of the dead’ is insufficient, however. I say this not because the opposite is true, but because, rather, it is not enough. In private matters—a funeral of a grandmother, for example, who lived a quiet life in the pristine farmland of the upper-midwest tending to her family, performing rituals of the ordinary all her days until her death—it is most proper that a eulogy remember her well, erring sentimentally and uncritically if needed. Matters public, however, require a different sort of engagement and responsibility. The task of writing a eulogy becomes more complex for public figures because the eulogist must aim not only at a good last word, but also a word which is more discriminate towards the public life of the deceased and one which is aware of the cultural memory to which it contributes.
Roger Cohen, in his latest column at the New York Times, expands an already obtuse body of writings on the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. This girth should come as no surprise, journalists and commentators like to remember their own. In his brief word, Cohen reflects on Hitchens the “American hero” as a writer and speaker, a “Burtonesque voice” he describes, a scotch connoisseur and, of course, courageous advocate against American religiosity.
As the article unfolds we see that Cohen dubs Hitches an American hero because he sees him as a champion of sorts for freedom of speech. For Cohen, this is evident in his criticism of Henry Kissinger, undergoing of waterboarding which proved it was torture, hating “murderous dictatorship”, going against the grain with anti-religious occupations, and his fundamental belief in liberty.
His addition as a Hitchens-eulogist makes no assault towards other remembrances which he finds inadequate nor gestures towards others he may see as appropriate; he simply brings to bear what he finds to be fitting parting words. If one resonates with the concise, however bereft, description of the task of the public eulogist given above, Cohen’s eulogy can be accurately described as banal and possibly dishonest.
The banality is apparent throughout the article—Cohen’s passing comparisons of Hitchens to Einstein and Voltaire, his unimaginative story of a boozy lunch they shared thirty years ago, spending a paragraph on his own arm-chair atheism, his closing the eulogy in trite liberal cliché and, to point out the obvious, his naming Hitchens an American hero. Now whether or not propagating freedom of speech is essential and definitional of the constitution of an American hero might be open for debate—it is undoubtedly hackneyed, nonetheless. The real problem with all of this, and what accentuates its triviality, is that while Cohen is probably right that Hitchens is good at determining whether a whisky hails from the western isles, highlands, or the outer Hebrides, the picture we have of him might as well be of any journalist (Cohen: “journos”) and is surely not an accurate portrait for remembering Hitchens the public figure.
I said that Cohen’s treatment is possibly dishonest due to his brushing aside of Hitchens advocacy for war in Iraq. Sure, a multitude of others were guilty alongside of him in justifying the war, believing, or at believing in pretense, that there were WMD’s in Iraq. But Hitchens sin was one that went without repentance; that is, he never lamented his pro-war stance, even after its justifications were shown to be erroneous and hundreds of thousand Iraqis suffered and died. Cohen’s claim, that Hitchens “hate[d] a murderous dictatorship enough to misjudge the suffering its overthrow might entail,” brushes aside an atrocity whose weight by and large is still not felt by Americans. Further, the statement suggests that like other decent human beings should have, Hitchens repented upon seeing the error of the war. The reality, as far as I am aware, is that he has not. Cohen describes Hitchens as a free spirit and contrarian, but little work is required in looking through his corpus of writings and speeches to call to mind alternative descriptions such as islamophobic, fundamentalist, and neo-conservative.
Let it be clear that I am here without authority and am not attempting to assail the bema seat to arbitrate Hitchens deeds. But in a eulogy, a good word about the deceased, especially in a eulogy about a public figure, and most decidedly about a public figure such as Hitchens, part and parcel with the labor is honesty and discrimination. Cohen’s Hitchens, as the deified champion of free speech is a banality at best and a mendacity at worst, moreover, he is a Hitchens who has received a shoddy eulogy that risks mis-remembrance.