Hitchens, Mentors and Muses

When Christopher Hitchens died last week, writers and thinkers and anyone who's ever picked up a copy of Vanity Fair or, less commonly, the Nation, lit the internet on fire with songs of praise and adulation. The first thing I read by him was his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger. A solidly argued book that made a deep impression on me morally, it did not stand out for its writing. I fell for his writing later on, in 2005, as an intern for the Nation. Tasked with photocopying the entirety of Katha Pollitt's oeuvre for a compilation of her essays, I found my gaze wandering over to his column, which lay just across the staples, facing hers. There, standing next to the photocopy machine, I realized what a truly tremendous wit he had, and how spectacularly effectively he could deploy it. In the fall of 2005, "Christopher Hitchens" was a dirty word around that office. He had left the magazine over his pro-Iraq War position, and a green stench like a cartoon fart trailed behind the mere mention of his name. So, I enjoyed his verbal prowess privately, in a dingy corridor, piles of back issues around my ankles.

Then, he lost me. It wasn't just the Iraq war stuff: his Islamophobia, his relentless sexism, and the way he handled a question at the Hay Festival, where he was touring with "God is Not Great," that really put me off. Nevermind that he totally dismissed my question ("Could you describe what a secular morality would look like and on what principles it would be founded?") with an incoherent ramble on blood donation. What upset me was how disrespectful he was to another audience member who, admittedly, perhaps shouldn't have opened with "I'm an Episcopalian." I don't remember the substance of her question, but I do remember that he attacked her intelligence on the basis of her being a person of faith, and thinking that his attitude was arrogant, inappropriate, and most of all, intellectually cowardly.

Was he drunk? Perhaps. That, to me, is another form of disrespect for his audience.

I've written before on his utterly unconvincing "Women aren't funny" stance, and in retrospect, should have noted that in that loathsome Vanity Fair article, his writing falters, as though he can't even bring himself to fully unsheathe the wit and rhetoric required to defend the indefensible. But nobody takes on sexism better than Katha Pollitt. In "Regarding Christopher," her column for the Nation this week, she bids him farewell in her own way, with an evaluation more honest and, in its own way, more respectful, than many of the other verbal shrines that have been built over the past few days. Here's my favorite part:

So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan. It all came off the top of his head, or the depths of his id. Women aren’t funny. Women shouldn’t need to/want to/get to have a job. The Dixie Chicks were “fucking fat slags” (not “sluts,” as he misremembered later). And then of course there was his1989 column in which he attacked legal abortion and his cartoon version of feminism as “possessive individualism.” I don’t suppose I ever really forgave Christopher for that.

This leads me to another thing that disappoints me about him. While journalism is by and large a meritocratic field, a great deal of success (as in many other fields) depends on connections, friendships, and mentorship. My understanding was that Hitchens mentored very few women journalists; instead, he focused his attention on young male journalists, including Jacob Weisberg, the chairman and editor of Slate.com, whose column describes how "nothing was headier" than grabbing a drink with Hitchens in DC. I've been lucky enough to have a few journalism mentors, one of whom, whether she knows it or not, is Katha. I also know that Katha looks out for other young women writers, since it was through her citations of their ideas and writings that I got to know the work of Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing, and Dana Goldstein, who now specializes (and how!) in education reporting.

But mentorship is not easy to come by, as Kathryn Minshew, founder of the Daily Muse, discovered as a consultant working at McKinsey. I wrote up the site, which is targeted at young, ambitious women who want to know how to kick heinie at work.

The Daily Muse is an online magazine that provides content geared towards career-focused women. Minshew’s own experience as a consultant at McKinsey, which she joined after graduating from Duke University in 2008, inspired her to launch the Daily Muse. She realized very quickly that, as a woman, “the workplace experience was different.” Take mentoring, for instance. Minshew cited research showing that senior male executives are uncomfortable mentoring younger women because of concerns about appearances, which may leave women at a disadvantage.

“It’s hard to find a mentor if you work with a boss of a different gender,” she said. The Daily Muse offers the kind of career advice and feedback that ambitious young women like her need, often written by ambitious young women like herself.

Read the rest here.