Despite the very public nature of Christopher Hitchens' battle with esophageal cancer -- amplified by his atheism and the media's ghoulish obsession with whether his mortal illness would elicit any crowd-pleasing, pre-deathbed conversions -- the amount of attention paid to the death of a "man of ideas" was extraordinary. Public intellectuals, in our Kardashian Kulture, are rarely celebrated publicly.
I have a theory for this. Hitchens' presence was an ongoing reminder of the media's own gutlessness; its slavish tracking to the well-worn grooves of positional politics; its sensation-whoring; its cowardly tolerance of lax language; its banal predictability; its collective fear of getting canned when the next crystalline MBA takes over the newsroom. In sum, journalists today are a Freudian breeder-reactor of self-loathing, which the death in a Houston cancer center unleashed into the atmosphere.
Hitchens reminded them of what they secretly burned to be -- back when they were fresh out of the J-school manufacturing system -- if only they could write as beautifully, read as deeply, drink as successfully, remember as accurately, fight as gleefully, and reject the daily bromides with such unerring and passionate repellency. So it was with shame and guilt that broadcast and print journalism devoted so much vastness of coverage to his demise at 62.
It was because they seemed small and insignificant compared to Hitchens, that they took the opportunity to flagellate themselves through his very apotheosis. They mourned with perhaps unrecognized simultaneity his final passing and their gradual ones.
Over the last decade there has been an ongoing and increasingly boring debate about the social value of "mainstream media," versus the role of Internet-spawned blogging. Those who labor in the former will bleat about the role of "accountability journalism" and the loss to the civic sphere that its steady decline represents. Those who write outside it will laud the arrival of a new era of citizen journalism, where a flat hierarchy will unpeel the death grip of establishment fingers from the throat of info-consumers.
The point/counterpoint has become pointless, though; it's a debate that makes the world smaller, not bigger. Focusing on the source of a story or any "content" is the 21st century slur equivalency of putting someone down who comes from the "wrong family." Put a new media megaphone in someone's hand, and they cannot seem to resist an ideological self-righteousness, one that is orthogonal to even the lowest standards (and we are in an evidentiary embarrassment of riches in that regard) of journalistic objectivity.
That's the kind of mindless purity that flipped Hitchens out. He rarely wrote about the media trades and their solipsistic instincts and urges, the internecine debates that are momentarily satisfying but distract us from the complex, blood issues of our day whose looming materiality send us rushing into the arms of the glare. Comfort food for the keyboard.
Hitchens wrote about war crimes and hypocrisy and evil and compliant complacency and the endless stimulation of literature in a cosmos that was perhaps more meaningful for him because of its godlessness than it was for others because of its teleological order.
But the editors who zoomed his death to the top of the cycle did not have that luxury or chose not to do battle for it. They are both lost and trapped -- two unpleasant and vaguely contradictory states that they have the misfortunate of cohabitating. By virtue of a talent for writing and thinking, and for friendship, as Ian McEwan pointed out in his lovely elegy, Hitchens managed to achieve fame, and -- at least for one who traded in non-derivative ideas as opposed to derivative non-ideas -- a measure of financial success.
Few journalists can hope for that. They live in a haze of job insecurity -- where success is based on the number of clicks you "generate," and the length of your comment thread -- a world of microwave meaning, of pandering that masquerades -- for survival purposes -- as cultural vigilance.
They saw what they once wanted to be in what he no longer is, and couldn't let the moment pass.