Ben Burgis wrote the ultimate anti-anti-communist book. I hardly ever review books, but Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters is worth writing about, whether or not you loved Hitch.
In the text, Burgis explored Hitchens’ political and philosophical ideas with the backdrop of some of the most significant geopolitical events of the past century. Rather than dismissing Hitch as an opportunistic flip-flopper, an insult hurled at him by some of his critics, Ben used his philosophical training to trace the intellectual lineage of a profoundly complex orator while relating it to the broader intricacies of widespread political division. What’s the difference between a Marxist and a Stalinist? Most of my Russian friends and family would tell you it doesn’t exist. And, in supporting democratic socialism, they’d automatically label you as an apologist for tyranny and state-sponsored theft. Hitchens, like his younger socialist counterparts, endured similar strawman attacks by critics who chose to forgo standing on the giant’s shoulders, instead wishing to topple him.
Burgis is the rare intellectual, and I sincerely mean this (which is sad), who overcomes the urge to take a Manichean perspective, choosing instead to deconstruct Hitch in order to grasp how such an apparently ardent socialist can transform into an advocate for the American Empire. In the book, Hitchens’ views are tracked through a series of individual and team debates. In them, Burgis finds much to disagree with, like Hitchens’ inability to effectively respond to the First Cause Argument as presented by his interlocutor the theist William Lame Craig, yet continues to present Hitchens as a flawed but earnest thinker, which I greatly appreciate.
Based on Ben’s nuanced presentation and placing Hitch’s perspectives in context, I can understand, and at the same time disagree with, Christopher’s conclusions about expanding American democracy to impoverished states. On the one hand, time eroded his hope for a utopian, socialist future (he certainly could have been too pessimistic in this respect); on the other, he refused to completely abandon marginalized and tyrannized groups. His heart undoubtedly was in the right place. And, unlike Hitch’s many critics, Burgis didn’t attempt to proclaim a controversial take on a man who’s no longer able to defend his positions. If controversy is the key to earning a buck, Ben’s aim seems to be less monetarily driven and more pure in its nature.
If anything, Burgis’ painstaking attention to detail steers us away from ill-informed disputes (which I argue that most, in reality, are). In the book, we learn that many atheists are actually utilitarians rather than nihilists, a claim that engenders the perception among the religious right that atheists are morally bankrupt; we discover that most socialists don’t champion the USSR, instead advocating for an international union between workers of all ethnicities (Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism.); and, most importantly, we’re taught about the significance of interpreting our opponents (not necessarily their beliefs) in more charitable ways.
Some part of me expected Ben to take a hardline stance on the older Hitchens, but he did just the opposite, presenting the writer with an impeccable grace. The book, on the surface, appears to be about Hitchens, but it’s about so much more. Burgis additionally tackles virtue ethics, utilitarianism, deontology, objectivism, and the process of philosophical inquiry; you almost forget that you were reading about Hitch. Can you image the skillset needed to bring together a man’s personal history, the wider political context of his beliefs, and outlines of the most significant moral philosophical schools in one hundred and thirty seven pages?
Burgis’ book is one of most interesting and informative books I’ve read in the last several years. His research ability, good faith, and concern for his readers provide us with what’s possibly the best tribute to a man who shared those same qualities.