Another typical word in Hitchens’s lexicon is “intoxication.” This can literally mean drunk. But that is not what Hitchens means. Writing about his early political awakening, when he shared with his fellow International Socialists a “consciousness of rectitude,” he claims:
If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are yoked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.
This must be true. When Hitchens became a journalist for the New Statesman, after graduating from Oxford, he adopted a pleasing kind of double life, part reporter, part revolutionary activist, imagining how he might help an IRA terrorist hide from the law. He found this double life “more than just figuratively intoxicating.” One can only assume that intoxication again played a part when he took the view that yoking himself to George W. Bush’s war was to hitch a ride on the great steam engine of history. . . .
Perhaps a tendency toward adulation and loathing comes naturally with the weakness for great causes. Politicians and people Hitchens disapproves of are never simply mentioned by name; it is always the “habitual and professional liar Clinton,” “the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter,” Nixon’s “indescribably loathsome deputy Henry Kissinger,” the “subhuman character” Jorge Videla, and so on. What this suggests is that to Hitchens politics is essentially a matter of character. Politicians do bad things, because they are bad men. The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into this particular moral universe.By the same token, people Hitchens admires are “moral titans,” such as the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James. Not only was James a moral titan, but he was blessed with a “wonderfully sonorous voice.” He also had “legendary success with women (all of it gallant and consensual, unlike that of some other masters of the platform).” This is a dig at President Clinton, whom Hitchens habitually calls a “rapist.” Why he should know how James, or indeed Clinton, behaved in the sack isn’t explained. But bad sexual habits are clearly a sign of bad politics.
Reading this I discover that Hitchens is my tempermental opposite. For him the world is black and white; for me, everything is gray. For him, political wisdom and noble character go together, whereas I struggle to see any difference between the characters of the power-mad narcissists who rise to power in our world. For him, his friends are perfect, his enemies vile; I see around me only imperfect humans mixing vice and virtue in bewildering combinations. Hero worship is completely foreign to my nature, as is strong hatred.
I wonder what it would be like to be intoxicated by belief in something, but I never really have. I suppose the closest I have come was my discovery of scientific skepticism in my adolescence. But whereas Hitchens is an atheist who thinks that religion is bad in every way for everybody, my skepticism led to agnosticism and a sense that religion, like humanity, like the world, is good and bad intertwined.
I also wonder, and have since I was a teenager, if my lack of enthusiasm condemns me to irrelevance. I sometimes think that all history is made by believers, while the skeptics sit coolly on the sidelines. I don't just mean political history, but also literary history, scientific history, and even the history of town planning and property development. I see myself as judicious and far-sighted, focused on the consequences of acts and aware of all that can be said on either side of a hard question. I worry that the judicious even-handedness of people like me leaves the field open for those of messianic certitude, the Napoleons, the George W. Bushes, the Nietzsches, the artists who condemn everyone else's art as bourgeois reaction. But then I think that in the long run, messianic enthusiasm burns out, and life goes on. Perhaps we who feel neither intoxication nor hangover keep the world on a halfway steady course, steering between the wreckage left by various enthusiasms. Perhaps we also serve who keep the faith of moderation and good sense.