A great democrat

There will be many thoughtful and well-written obituaries written today about Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday. As an educator, what I find myself thinking about today is this:

He was a great democratic (small d) citizen. He cared deeply about human suffering. He held strong views about virtually everything, but above all his moral conviction was to honest, thoughtful engagement with the world in all of its brutality, and sometimes even in all of its beauty.

His passion for learning was rivaled only by his capacity for it. He was one of those annoyingly smart people who seemed to recall, almost verbatim, everything he ever read. And he seemed to have read, well, everything. He was a polemicist but not a blowhard. His positions on issues were copiously researched.

He was not the least bit afraid to change his mind, or to disagree with those he agreed with about other issues, or had agreed with in the past. He was the antithesis of the tribal politics of our time, where most people decide what to think about an issue based on what their party or their talk show host tells them to think.

He was a gifted writer. Seldom has anyone so prolific had such a talent for choosing the right word. Reading him was like looking at a painting you’ve known for years and suddenly seeing a figure in it you’d never noticed before. His language could be a revelation. He was the closest thing our era had to an Orwell.

I didn’t agree with many of his views. I wouldn’t want my kids to grow up to be like him. But whatever his flaws, he embodied some of the characteristics I care most about cultivating in our students: a thirst for knowledge, a relentless search for truth and purpose, and a willingness to engage in spirited argument and debate.