Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

This Wednesday I thought to myself, "I haven't read anything from Hitchens recently ... I wonder how he's doing." Last night delivered the unfortunate answer.

My interactions with him were few but memorable. While producing Laura Ingraham's radio show, I regularly tried booking him, though not regularly succeeding. During my rookie year, I began one such solicitation: "Hey, Chris ..." He politely declined due to a scheduling conflict and ended his note, "And please feel free to call me Christopher." Which naturally made me feel like a jackass. Another time he demurred, "Sorry, caught between Cuba and Venezuela," which of course wasn't a joke.

Once when he was in the studio, I asked if he'd like a glass of water for the interview. He said no, pointing out that he already had one. That appearance was actually a debate over the premise of his book, "God Is Not Great." This is the subject where Hitchens, in my opinion, was at his weakest, but even then he took on all comers -- his Christian minister sparring partner, Laura, the callers -- with wit, eloquence, and charm. Afterward, I settled back into my seat and accidentally mistook his water for mine, immediately realizing he was actually drinking straight vodka. Mind you this was 10 AM. And if memory serves, after his cancer diagnosis.

I agree with William F. Buckley, who, as his son Christopher recounts, thought Hitchens intolerable after reading his latest attacks on the church; yet no matter how badly he offended, ultimately he always proved irresistible. He lacerated Mayor Bloomberg in the most satisfying way, and for that alone he'll always have a special place in my heart.

And that's how I'll remember him. As someone evinced the best qualities of rebellious American individualism and the graceful, fluid wit to be expected only from the pen of a Brit.

Speaking of Bloomberg, below are highlights from his pièce de résistance:

The lawbreaking itch is not always an anarchic one. In the first place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural resistance to coercion. We don’t like to be pushed and shoved, even if it’s in a direction we might choose to go. In the second place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural sense of the preposterous. Thus, just behind my apartment building in Washington there is an official sign saying, drug-free zone. I think this comic inscription may be because it’s close to a schoolyard. And a few years back, one of our suburbs announced by a municipal ordinance that it was a “nuclear-free zone.” I don’t wish to break the first law, though if I did wish to do so it would take me, or any other local resident, no more than one phone call and a 10-minute wait. I did, at least for a while, pine to break the “nuclear-free” regulation, on grounds of absurdity alone, but eventually decided that it would be too much trouble.

So there are laws that are defensible but unenforceable, and there are laws impossible to infringe. But in the New York of Mayor Bloomberg, there are laws that are not possible to obey, and that nobody can respect, and that are enforced by arbitrary power. The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law. Tyranny can be petty. And “petty” is not just Bloomberg’s middle name. It is his name.

In the space of a few hours late in November, I managed to break a whole slew of New York laws. That is to say, I sat on an upended milk crate, put my bag next to me on a subway seat, paused to adjust my shoe on a subway step, fed some birds in Central Park, had a cigarette in a town car, attempted to put a plastic frame around a vehicle license plate, and rode a bicycle without keeping my feet on the pedals at all times. I also had a smoke in a bar and at a table in a restaurant. Only in the latter two cases would I hitherto have been knowingly violating a city ordinance. ...

The previous night I had been to the movies and had been annoyed, as one often is, by people chatting and commenting in the back row. This is the height of antisocial behavior, because it ruins the pleasure of others while bringing no benefit to the offender. I normally deal with it as I do when people in cinemas fail to turn off their cell phones. I turn round and tell them that I know where they live, and I know where their children go to school. Others are usually on hand with similar suggestions, especially in New York. It’s all part of the fun. Ask yourself: what if uniformed cops were standing at the back of the theater enforcing the no-talking rule? It wouldn’t be quite the same, would it? But in Bloombergville, where the citizen is treated like a backward child, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was the next bright idea.

Decency forbids me from mentioning where I ate lunch, because the proprietor is an old friend and a beautiful and conscientious restaurateur and I can’t risk having him treated like a fractious juvenile. On September 11, 2001, he turned his place into a casualty-treatment station and general refuge, and he does everything he can think of to make his guests welcome and well fed. It was a fairly slow lunchtime, and I was able to ask all diners present if they minded my lighting a cigarette for the purposes of a Vanity Fair photo shoot. All of them said go right ahead and good luck to you. So that’s all I need say about that, except that New Yorkers are no longer trusted with such discretion or good manners. It is government alone that knows what’s “appropriate.” There cannot be a single exception. One size must fit all. This casual destruction of Bohemia, in one of its oldest and most famous redoubts, is an unquantifiable loss. It misses the point of New York—in fact, it negates it. The backward child in this case—also the spiteful and bullying and smug and spoiled child—is His Honor the Mayor. May he one day be cornered in the schoolyard at recess, and without his team of hired toadies and informers, and taught the lesson of a lifetime. ...

I have only ever heard one defense of this reign of error, which is that it mimics the “broken window” street-level campaign that began to tackle crime under Bill Bratton and Rudy Giuliani about a decade ago. But, excuse me, that was directed at people making a nuisance of themselves by wielding squeegees at intersections, or panhandling with an attitude, or offering their bodies for sale at unwanted moments and locations, or jumping over turnstiles. This current Niagara of pettiness and random victimization may well be Bloomberg’s attempt at a wannabe reputation as heroic crime-fighter and disciplinarian. Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak.

1 comment:

Jimmie Whipple said...

If I had advanced cancer, I'd drink vodka all day too.