I have joked that the esteem in which Conservatives hold Christopher Hitchens shows that they prioritise waging war over loving God and opposing communism. As elegant a phrase to illustrate the strangeness of the reverence “decent leftists” extend towards him escapes me but, still, find someone else who has called David Irving “a great historian”, defended Chomsky over Cambodia and praised Lenin’s evisceration of the Russian church and they will treat them to a verbal barrage that would make a victim of the stocks feel privileged.
To explain this one has to consider more than Hitchens’ opinions. There are some theorists and commentators who inspire an admiration that transcends the intellectual. Such people are important to some of their admirers not merely for their ideas but for their personalities. Their esteem for them is important for their self-images and, thus, to criticise their heroes is to criticise them. Other examples might be Ayn Rand and Noam Chomsky.
The relationship is somewhat akin to that of a general and his men, in which devotion is inspired more by his character than his achievements or his cause and the nature of a battle is of less importance than the thrill of conflict. There are certain features that distinguish commentators who are liable to attain the status of guiding lights. They have individual characteristics that make them attractive to people – Hitchens, for example, provokes a desire to share a liquid lunch with him while Rand was no one’s idea of a drinking buddy – but these are the essential requirements.
1. Such commentators must have devoted critics. People love to feel as if they are engaged in some form of conflict and rally behind embattled commentators like troops behind officers in the field.
2. Such commentators must be disdainful of orthodoxies. Everybody wants to feel as if they are the underdog and, thus, admire people whose enemies appear to be powerful, and everybody wants to support a righteous cause and, thus, esteem people whose foes appear to be base, backward and dull-minded. Commentators who attain the status of authorities are thus seen to oppose influential but malignant and contemptible forces. The disdain, of course, is the crucial part of this requirement and the orthodoxies need only be perceived.
3. Much as people like to have the underdog status they have to feel as if they will be triumphant nonetheless. They have to feel, in other words, as if they are right. Commentators that people admire, then, are characterised by their rhetorical force: the assurance of their words and the argumentative force that they are thought to carry. Hitchens achieved this with his linguistic dexterity; Rand with her inventive logic and Chomsky with his daunting concentration of facts. This makes them equivalent to the warrior common soldiers believe that their enemies quake to imagine.
4. Such commentators have strong personalities and romantic images. Most of us suffer from self-doubt and fear of the perceptions of others, so the commentators we admire, different as they are, are often noted by their self-assurance and failure to give a damn about how they’re perceived. They also tend to have a bearing that distinguishes from the common man. Hitchens’ was the straightforwardly macho image of the hard-drinking, argumentative alpha male while Chomsky’s is of the frail and mild-mannered professor who can nonetheless take on a military empire. These backstories make them fitting heroes for internal narratives.
You will have noted that it is not essential for them to have intellectual substance or integrity. They might do, of course, but should they lack them it will not preclude the admiration of readers and listeners. Our thinking is as much on behalf of our ego as our intellect, and should you find that someone you admire is noted for these features it is worth reflecting on the cause you march for and your tactics as the banner you stride beneath.