Christopher Hitchens: A Great Journalist's Greatest Magazine Stories

Longform.org's guide to the greatest long articles ever written.
Dec. 16 2011 12:39 AM

The Longform.org Guide to Christopher Hitchens

A great journalist’s greatest magazine stories.

Writer Christopher Hitchens participates speaking at the LA Times Festival of Books on April 25, 2004 at UCLA
Christopher Hitchens wrote about his fight against cancer as recently as the January 2012 issue of Vanity Fair

Photo by Amanda Edwards /Getty Images

Christopher Hitchens • Vanity Fair • January 2012

On whether or not whatever doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger:

“Before I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a year and a half ago, I rather jauntily told the readers of my memoirs that when faced with extinction I wanted to be fully conscious and awake, in order to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive sense. And I do, still, try to nurture that little flame of curiosity and defiance: willing to play out the string to the end and wishing to be spared nothing that properly belongs to a life span. However, one thing that grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to: In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’

In fact, I now sometimes wonder why I ever thought it profound. It is usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche: Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker. In German it reads and sounds more like poetry, which is why it seems probable to me that Nietzsche borrowed it from Goethe, who was writing a century earlier. But does the rhyme suggest a reason? Perhaps it does, or can, in matters of the emotions. I can remember thinking, of testing moments involving love and hate, that I had, so to speak, come out of them ahead, with some strength accrued from the experience that I couldn’t have acquired any other way. And then once or twice, walking away from a car wreck or a close encounter with mayhem while doing foreign reporting, I experienced a rather fatuous feeling of having been toughened by the encounter. But really, that’s to say no more than ‘There but for the grace of god go I,’ which in turn is to say no more than ‘The grace of god has happily embraced me and skipped that unfortunate other man.’”

Christopher Hitchens • New York Times Magazine • May 1991

On the royal family:

"Still, considerable sentiment is generated, especially in times of high unemployment and hardship, by the extravagance of the royal style. The House of Windsor costs the taxpayers $101.5 million each year, almost half of which goes in staffing and maintaining no fewer than five royal palaces. And this hefty sum is a state supplement and subsidy to an astonishing private fortune in land, real estate, stock and art treasures. Fortune magazine recently estimated the private wealth of the Windsors, in everything from picture collections and priceless stamps to shares and jewelry, at $10.73 billion. And on the income of this immense wealth, no income tax is paid: a sore point in a country that very recently saw flaming streets and shattered windows in riots over the hated poll tax.

There's another point, hard to ignore: There are so many of them. Prince Andrew gets $481,000 per annum in expenses for his ‘official duties.’ Prince Edward receives $186,000. Princess Margaret, the Queen's divorced socialite sister, pulls in $423,000. Princess Anne, the Queen's daughter, gets $441,000. And it goes on. And all of these, except for the persistently unmarried and rumor-haunted Prince Edward, have children (one ultraloyalist glossy magazine in London deals only with the subject of royal offspring). As a consequence, given the ravenous appetite of the press and the public for royal trivia, England often seems like some princeling-infested Ruritanian theme park."

Advertisement

Christopher Hitchens • Vanity Fair • August 2008

On being waterboarded:

"You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it ‘simulates’ the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The ‘board’ is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted."

The Medals of His Defeats

Christopher Hitchens • Atlantic • April 2002

On the cult of Winston Churchill and his legacy in the aftermath of 9/11:

“‘We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail,’ President Bush proclaimed as the bombing of Afghanistan began. ‘We shall not fail or falter; we shall not weaken or tire,’ Churchill said—somewhat more euphoniously—sixty years before. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has outdone even his Churchill-obsessed predecessor Caspar Weinberger, announcing to the staff of the Pentagon on September 12, ‘At the height of peril to his own nation, Winston Churchill spoke of their finest hour. Yesterday, America and the cause of human freedom came under attack.’ Only a week earlier, this time speaking in favor of a missile-defense system, Rumsfeld had informed a Senate committee, ‘Winston Churchill once said, 'I hope I shall never see the day when the forces of right are deprived of the right of force.'’ On September 25, asked whether the Defense Department would be authorized to deceive the press in prosecuting the war, he unhesitatingly responded, ‘This conjures up Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he said ... sometimes the truth is so precious it must be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies.’ Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, later to be described as an American Churchill, laid the groundwork for his own plaudits by announcing, just after the aggression of September 11 against his city, that he was reading a book about Churchill's wartime premiership "and nothing is more inspirational than the speeches and reflections of Winston Churchill about how to deal with that." Ronald Reagan hung a portrait of Churchill in the Situation Room of the White House soon after taking power; the first President Bush allowed Jack Kemp to compare him to Churchill during the Gulf War; the second President Bush asked the British embassy in Washington to help furnish him with a bronze bust of Churchill, which now holds pride of place in the Oval Office. The legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton can only whimper at the lack of Churchillian analogy to his own tenure, but the rest of us might wish that if the United States is going to stand for something, it (or its overpaid speechwriting class) would try to come up with some mobilizing rhetoric of its own."