One of FFRF’s volunteers/officers, Phyllis Rose, came to my desk for a visit yesterday. “First Hitchens, then Cockburn, now Vidal. It feels like the end of an era,” she remarked. The death of three sharp pens in eight months is a tragic loss.
Gore Vidal once opined, “the United States was founded by the brightest people in the country — and we haven’t seen them since.” When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in 1775 to declare our independence from Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met for the first time. Jefferson drafted the Declaration, and Adams (with Ben Franklin) edited it, and then defended it in the Congress. So began the Jefferson and Adams friendship, and a correspondence that illuminates our history. Their political philosophies diverged and they had a falling out in the 1802 election, in which they were opponents. They did not correspond for ten years. In 1812, three years after Jefferson left the presidency, the two men rekindled their correspondence. They wrote to each other for 14 years, until both men died on July 4, 1826 — truly marking the end of an era.
The correspondence of those 14 years is rich yet diverse, intellectual yet friendly. We are all poorer for the 10-year silence (1802-1812) that previously marred their friendship. Like Jefferson and Adams, Messrs. Hitchens, Vidal, and Cockburn were prolific writers (as well as regular contributors to The Nation). Collectively, they produced over 100 books and countless essays and articles. Unlike Jefferson and Adams, the thinkers we lost this year, although peers, did not get along well near the end.
Vidal famously proclaimed Hitchens his “heir,” a title Hitchens just as famously repudiated after Vidal’s “crackpot” writings on 9/11 conspiracy theories. Cockburn wrote an article condemning “9/11 Conspiracists” too. Hitchens and Cockburn started out friends but the friendship went sour and Cockburn wrote an obituary critical of Hitchens. Hitchens probably expected as much: “if you look at [Alexander’s] journalism, he would rightly be proud of saying that he’s often written counter-obituaries of people who’ve been over-praised and chosen precisely the moment when there’s a lot of sentimental garbage being published to say, ‘Come on, this guy wasn’t so great.’ ”
Despite their disagreements, the men were similar in many ways. Hitchens and Cockburn were both transatlantic transplants described as iconoclasts and raconteurs. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft explained in a recent op-ed, these men were two of the latest in a prestigious line of English writers living in America. Wheatcroft calls them “The British Gift to American Letters.” Hitchens and Cockburn have been grouped together in numerous articles proclaiming the end of an era. The Oxonians shared a passion for giving a voice to the unrepresented and challenging power and status quo with Vidal.
Hitchens always admired Vidal’s “rare gift of being amusing about serious things as well as serious about amusing ones” and likened him to an American Oscar Wilde. Vidal once referred to Hitchens as his “Dauphin.” Hitchens encouraged Cockburn to fight against those who called him an anti-Semite and Cockburn grudgingly acknowledged that Hitchens had his moments: “In extempore speeches and arguments he was quick on his feet. I remember affectionately many jovial sessions from years ago, in his early days at The Nation.”
Whether or not you agree with their views on climate change (Cockburn), the Iraq War (Hitchens), abortion rights (Cockburn and Hitchens), or United States deserving terror attacks (Vidal), we can admire their skill and audacity. Not an unthinking, unquestioning, unreasoned loyalty to a belief — that is called religion — but boldly taking the unpopular side of an intellectual disagreement for honest, well-thought-out reasons. By all means let us disagree, so long as reason and evidence guide us. And reason guided all these men into unbelief.
Vidal said, “I regard monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race. I see no good in Judaism, Christianity, or Islam — good people, yes, but any religion based on a single, well, frenzied and virulent god, is not as useful to the human race as, say, Confucianism, which is not a religion but an ethical and educational system.” He also thought, “Christianity is such a silly religion.” And died an unbeliever, “there is no cosmic point to the life that each of us perceives on this distant bit of dust at galaxy’s edge, all the more reason for us to maintain in proper balance what we have here. Because there is nothing else. No thing. This is it. And quite enough, all in all.”
I cannot find a direct quote where Cockburn claims to be an atheist, but he did despise the bible: “Though my basic view is that any childish mind not inoculated by compulsory religion is open to any infection, by all means let us sweep the Bible and the Koran off every bookshelf whither might stray the hand of impressionable youth. Such a cleansing act would return us to the very roots of the European enlightenment.”
And Hitchens, author of God is not Great, well, take your pick of quotes. This one seems apt: “Our belief is not a belief. Our principles are not a faith. We do not rely solely upon science and reason, because these are necessary rather than sufficient factors, but we distrust anything that contradicts science or outrages reason. We may differ on many things, but what we respect is free inquiry, open-mindedness, and the pursuit of ideas for their own sake.”
Freethinkers will never agree on everything, but we are cohesive on one incredibly powerful point: to paraphrase Hitchens, religion is poison. While we have lost three great wordsmiths, we can rejoice because it is inevitable that the light of reason will bring more luminaries to our cause.
A very special thanks to Phyllis for suggesting the topic of this blog and to Wendy Goldberg for suggesting the Jefferson-Adams connection.