Let's be clear: Christopher Hitchens was an asshole. He was smug, arrogant, ruthless and mean. He supported the war in Iraq, claimed women weren't funny* and once wrote an entire piece in Vanity Fair accusing his boss of having an enormous cock and fucking another woman so loudly that he couldn't get his work done in the hotel room below as a way of exposing said boss's infidelity.** He wasn't a subtle man or a warm man or a kind man.

But Jesus fuck was he good at debate. So much so that "Hitchslap" is a term that's been coined just to refer to the numerous times he completely decimated an opponent in televised discussions.

I've provided a very long example above of when he and fellow atheist and friend, Stephen Fry, seriously stomped on their interlocutors in a debate over whether or not the Catholic Church was a force for good in the world. You can also find countless other snippets or moments or clips โ€” usually literally marked "Hitchslap!"

But whether or not you agreed with him โ€” and it was certainly hard to agree with him when he advocated for the need for the Iraq war, for instance โ€” you can't help but be fascinated by watching the show. Christopher Hitchens' debates are theater, between the Wodehousian dry sarcasm, the effortless and cool way he'd evade certain questions while making it seem like he'd answered them, and the way he'd let out the rope just enough to allow an opponent hang himself.


With that said, there seems to be something slightly sinister about a debate partner that's just so much fun. Hitchens was so good at rhetoric that you felt bad for anyone who tried to go up against him. They looked foolish not necessarily because what they were saying was foolish, but because he just had that ability to completely diminish and ridicule his adversary with a wry chuckle or a quick-witted mutter.

So is it that the Hitchslap is fun because there is something very interesting, and a little unsettling, about watching him expertly twist and belittle someone else into a corner? I feel conflicted about liking Hitchens so much for being a "naughty boy" in that sense, especially when what he was debating mattered so enormously and so desperately to other people. The existence of God is not a small topic, nor is the need for war, nor is the value of the Catholic Church. And they did matter enormously to Hitchens, according to Hitchens, and yet he always seemed like the kid who got pleasure out of pulling the wings off of religious flies.


I'm sure that there are plenty of other reasons to dislike Christopher Hitchens, but I do come back to my central question: why does he make it so much fun, why is it so fascinating, and why is there really nobody else like him with this level of underhanded ability?

*It should be said that he was otherwise fully in support of women's rights.

**Actually that one was pretty good.