So Hitch died last week. It was pretty late at night when I found out, and I was at a bar, and of course I immediately started with the Tweets. Christopher Hitchens was a hero of mine. I loved his relentless pursuit of the truth, however uncomfortable. I loved his unashamed pedantry, and his ability to go for the jugular in a debate no matter what. He reminded me of a Navy Seal in that way: don’t hesitate, just do, and do completely.
So I was sad when he died, and like many others, I took to the internet about it. Something like 10 tweets in the course of my mildly inebriated evening, and retweets, etc. In truth, I probably overdid it a smidge, but, and here I must confess: I am a public internet mourner.
Of course, I was not the only one. Two days later, Christopher Hitchens was still a trending topic on Twitter, and Google News reports 2,200-plus stories written about Hitch in the first 24 hours after his death.
As is also the case in these situations, it is NOT a big deal to many other people. Many more people, in fact. And, like most deaths that are chatted about on Twitter, there’s the inevitable comments about how it’s unseemly to mourn in public. Many people feel annoyed. As my friend Matt tweeted that night, “I can’t wait for social media to die off just to be rid of RIPing, which is never about the dead person and all about the person Twittering.” The sentiment is understandable. I had a close friend die at a very young age – he was 15 and I was maybe 20. I remember at the funeral the girl from our high school who was ostentatiously wailing the whole time, and thinking about how she barely knew the kid, and how wrong it was. We all have that experience or that belief. Many Americans believe strongly that grieving should be private or at least subdued. We should be respectful of those who were closer and are in more pain than us. Social media throws a monkey wrench into this, and it can look ugly.
I’ve wrestled with this, but in the end, I still think it’s the right thing to do to mourn publicly. I say this for a few reasons. Hitch here is a glimpse into the first one. In the last 18 months or so, a lot’s gone down with Hitch. His wonderful memoir, Hitch-22 came out last June. Not long after, in the middle of his book tour, he learned he had terminal cancer. Both items, of course, made the news. I blogged about both of them at the time, especially the memoir. I blogged numerous quotes, etc. Aside from one friend who also happened to be a fan (and also happens to be the editor of this paper), many of my friends didn’t notice or particularly care. It’s just another piece of the internet on that day. It’s hard for things to bubble to the surface. We all have busy lives.
But right now, with all of these people simultaneously tweeting and posting and commenting about someone who is important to them, I believe that a critical mass is reached where several people who didn’t care about Hitch before are now thinking “huh, I should check this guy out.” And that, to a fan, matters. We always want our heroes to be known better, and death has always been a transformative moment in the renown of an artist. I think perhaps this has been subconscious in my social media RIPing. I didn’t really work it out until the night after Hitch’s death when I was chatting with my girlfriend, who is in the anti-Twitter-RIPing camp. But now that I think on it, I think this is a big part of the equation: an artists’ fans are taking a moment to break through the chatter and hopefully get a few more people interested in their hero. And when I look at it that way, I don’ think it’s a bad thing. It’s something we can do for our hero after their gone.
Of course, Hitch would mercilessly point out that he’s not going to care one way or another about after he’s gone. But Hitch was a man who needed to be heard, and that doesn’t change. Hitch himself, too, has written some amazing words in the past in praise of departed friends, so I don’t think he would have minded at all.
The more I think about it, I don’t think this is wrong. An obituary is not considered unseemly public mourning, even when it is generally fawning. Let a thousand obituaries bloom. We’re all citizen journalists or something, right? All of our endless debates about social media and journalism? Let them spill over to the obituary page. There are artists that mean a lot to me and a small group of others, and when they die, I post something about it. No one complains then, because the artist wasn’t as loved? Because only a few people care? That math doesn’t really seem relevant to my emotions, nor does whether a bunch of other people are going to comment. It feels like it would be emotionally dishonest to take that into consideration.
My girlfriend pointed out that she felt anti-Twitter-RIP sentiment with Steve Jobs, and everyone already knew about him and so it wasn’t really needed. That’s certainly true, though I think it was a bit of a special case. His biography was rushed forward, and so there was a book coming out more or less at the same time. This made the Jobs case a sort of special exception, in that the chatter was intermingled chatter with a book that has now spent 7 weeks at the top of the bestsellers charts. Thus the book becomes an item there would be a substantial amount of chatter around on its own. Of course, in another way this reinforces what I am saying – there’s a book to pick up and read, and if you weren’t really in tech but had always sort of heard about Steve Jobs, all this social chatter may well push you to finally checking him out in detail.
The other reason is this: if I have to see my Twitter stream filled up with talk of Tim Tebow or whatever-music-awards-show-is-on-that-I-have-never-even-heard-of or GOP debates again and again, well, I think for one day it can be filled up with chatter about one of the most intelligent and honest people in American intellectual discourse.