A Christopher Hitchens Tribute: At the Munk Debates 2010

Tony Blair on stage with Christopher Hitchens. Photo credit: Paul Alexander

Debating a dying man about whether religion is a force of good in the world was never going to be easy. And when that man, who had esophageal cancer, was also a staunch atheist who penned a book titled God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, it was going to get much tougher. But that was the situation when former British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the stage to publically debate journalist and polemicist Christopher Hitchens, the dying man in question, who passed away yesterday at the age of 62.

I had the great fortune to be one of the few selected to sit on stage at the Munk Debates in Toronto in November 2010 when the two men engaged in their intellectual joust in front of a few thousand spectators and several thousand more online viewers. Everyone wondered what state of health Hitchens would be in as he had already been through several rounds of chemo. Yet the man who walked on stage still had a swagger despite the bald head. His powerful rhetoric lost none of its strength as he point by point beat Blair into submission with only a few breaks for water and a seat to belie his ailing health. It was an electrifying debate and it was clear by the end – and the deafening applause – that Hitchens had bested Blair. One knew that we were watching one of the greatest thinkers of our time speak passionately about a subject few wish to tackle and we were grateful.

I had been a regular reader of Hitchens’ writing in Vanity Fair, where he was a columnist for two decades. His acerbic and caustic style made him as many enemies as fans but I was decidedly in the later category. A polemicist with stage presence he began his long career in Britain, where he started as a left-wing political opinion-maker writing for the New Statesman. His career in the United States saw him writing for The Nation and The Atlantic (as the literary critic) before changing his views towards the right following September 11, 2001. Controversially he became a defender of the invasion of Iraq. However, in 2008 he supported Barack Obama’s campaign after calling John McCain senile and Sarah Palin a pathological liar and a national disgrace.

An alcoholic and chain smoker, two vices that ultimately led to the cancer that killed him, Hitchens’ lived in Washington DC with his wife and children. —Kim Izzo

—Kim Izzo

Updated: see 60 Minutes’ March report on Christopher Hitchens below: