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Antithesis Incarnate: Christopher Hitchens, A Retrospective Glance

As a “public intellectual,” Christopher Hitchens’ eminently readable writings helped cast people and events from a different perspective – mostly, it must be said, one based on reality rather than received “wisdom” and prejudice. While his work was certainly refreshing in this age of competing groupthink and duckspeak across the political spectrum, unlike his hero George Orwell, one has to doubt whether his currently impressive work will still be read in seventy years time.

It is useful to compare the two.  While Orwell sought to write a prose that is like a pane of glass and gave his famous list of does and don’ts, Hitchens played with words and often broke many of his mentor’s rules. The uncharitable might conclude that he was often trying to draw attention to the writer rather than the message, and they would often be right.

While Orwell tends to state his theses magisterially, if occasionally cantankerously, Hitchens’ preferred style always came as the polemic. He functioned best when he was arguing with an opponent, to the extent that by the time of the Iraq war he made his own windmill to tilt at – a collective left that did not actually exist.

Even so, re-reading Hitch 22 reveals a more self-deprecatory and reflective person than Hitchen’s often intemperate outbursts would suggest, and at times hints at a vulnerability for which he was overcompensating. Indeed the book lists as his own “most marked characteristic,” “insecurity,” which I suspect derives from his British upbringing. Like Orwell, from the Lower Upper Middle Classes, his public (that is private)-school and Oxford background had given him a sense of entitlement without the income, and so he had become an inveterate freelancer – who I suspect turned down a commission as rarely as a cocktail invite.

As well being a rung or two down the caste ladder from Orwell, Hitchens came of age when the charm of an upper class accent was wilting in the face of working class heroes like the Beatles. And unlike in Orwell’s day when even working class socialists might defer to a “toff” who was on their side, by the 1960s even the universities were filled with students of working class origin who were more likely to see a posh accent as the mark of Cain, while the residual deference of the proles themselves had long gone. To his credit Hitchens did not attempt the nasalized pastiche plebeian accent to which his Merseyside origins might have given him some claim.

In contrast, as he and others noted, educated British arrivals in the US, particularly English ones, escape the social insecurities of home and land as honorary WASPs with almost instant deference guaranteed. An accent that in Britain would have fathers locking up their daughters and wallets is considered high class in the US! It is no accident that Hollywood chooses that Oxbridge accent for Roman colonialists and Gestapo officers. But the combined effect of his accent and his over-reaction to insecurity enhanced the appearance of almost reflexive arrogance – certainly compared with Orwell, who let the ideas speak for themselves. Better sounding cantankerous than supercilious.

To be fair, the Socialist Workers Party, originally the International Socialist Group, to which he adhered, was more open minded and attractive intellectually than the other quantum particles splitting from the various Fourth Internationals, and its guru, Tony Cliff, although revered and influential, was not as rabbinically omnipotent as his rivals in other sects. Amusingly he anticipated Hitchens’ omniscience in his works by citing other great thinkers, such as A. N. Israel and Ygael Gluckstein, without mentioning that these were some of his pen names.

While Orwell excelled at weighing courses of action in the balance and factoring desirability against feasibility, sects such as the one to which Hitchens subscribed tended to take the full prerogatives of the harlot and assume power without responsibility. That tendency was accentuated even more when he arrived in the US and drifted away from his native home where there is a spectrum of the left from ultra through to centrist with channels of communication and sometimes shared political purpose and action. In Britain even the ultra-left can talk to socialists in Parliament. In the US, many of them regard Bernie Sanders as a reformist sell-out!

Hitchens’ decades in the US accustomed him to the self-denying ordinances of  some of the sectarian American left, who can condemn shrilly while never having to offer practical alternatives.  Particularly in relation to Iraq he should have remembered his own book on Orwell, in which he praises his hero for his realization that there was no facile analogy with appeasement when he opposed calls for a quick war against Stalin’s Russia. With Animal Farm already out, and 1984 in preparation, Orwell opposed what could have been a successful—if bloody—attempt to overthrow a tyrannical evil regime guilty of monstrous crimes against its own people and its neighbors. Orwell thought about the consequences: Hitchens sixty years later did not, until afterwards.

All people, and all writers change over time.  Some can admit to previous follies, but Hitchens found that difficult, hence the temporal consistency in his outlook since he never admitted he had been wrong before. Whatever new apercu he presented fitted over his previous  views like a badly erased palimpsest, which was not always conducive to clarity and impeded a consistent and coherent worldview from his contemporary essays.

The World according to Hitchens is all too often a pointillist picture where the dots are the holes from the darts he had flung and rarely retracted.  He shared with his disgruntled former comrades the same ad-hominem approach that they later used to bell book and candle him out of the “movement,” for the perceived instances where he broke “the line.”  Sounding almost wounded, he writes in Hitch 22, “I had become too accustomed to the pseudo-Left new style, whereby if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one.”

What he says is quite true and perspicacious. But it describes exactly his own style and that of the old left from Lenin and possibly before.  He shared with his detractors on the American Left the Manichaean tendency to  divide the world into black and white, cowboys and Indians, goodies and bad and a consequent proclivity to hate more well than wisely. Along with Saul Alinsky’s organizational schemata it has certainly been adopted enthusiastically by the new right, with far more devastating effect. More people see this type of bile on Fox News in one program than have read Socialist Worker from its inception!

However, one reason Hitchens wrote with a renewed animosity, even at a time when his politics were aligning to reality – he began to support the Labour Party in the UK – was the bile on the left that had begun after NATO’s belated intervention in Balkans – events which eventually led both Hitchens and myself to terminal breaks with the Nation, for example.  Even if there was a certain sense of taking ones own medicine, one needs a refined sense of irony when assaulted by groups whose cardinal principles simultaneously encompassed the absolute innocence of Mumia and the wrongness of the death penalty with the infallibility of Milosevic and an apologia for the mass murder of Bosnian and Kosovar civilians.

However, after he supported the war on Iraq, the steady drip of bile became a tsunami. Above all it was the Comintern view that once someone had been outlawed, their past and future were equally excoriated. Sadly, that was a pattern he followed himself. One manifestation perhaps of his atheism is that he rarely shows signs of believing in redemption and indeed shows few signs of human sympathy. This is most un-Orwellian. Orwell made O’Brien in 1984, almost likable, and we almost feel for the apparatchiks who do Big Brother’s work.

In his biography of Orwell he shows that his subject went out of his way to defend and maintain friendly relations with people he disagreed with, sometimes profoundly.  However, Hitchens range of enemies was wide, and his atheism took a Calvinist tilt, in which those not of the elect, his personal friends, had no chance of redemption for a perceived deviation.  He did antipathy and rarely empathy or sympathy. He retained the Leninist binary politics that eschewed any in-betweens and fuzzy logic. In fact, he never really got social democracy even when he joined the British Labour Party in the USA!

If he could write hagiographies of Thomas Jefferson, the slave-owner and raper, why did he preserve a life long animus against his overtly Trotskyite student-era foe Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister who kept Britain out the Vietnam War in the face of relentless political and economic pressure from LBJ? Or indeed Michael Foot, a cultured and principled radical who led the Labour Party – and incidentally eloquently supported the same principles as Hitchens in the Kosovo and Falklands War?

Above all, I shared his revulsion for Bill Clinton and remember fondly when Murray Kempton shouted across a crowded UN cafeteria that he had enrolled Hitchens and myself as charter members of “Revolutionary Socialists for Bob Dole.”  But Hitchens churlishly refrains from giving the rubber-spined President any credit at all, even though, belatedly he was dragged into supporting intervention on behalf of the Kosovars.

Indeed, later at the time of Iraq, he even achieved the rare feat of making Clinton seem hard done to. His newly adopted friends around the White House,  the “tougher thinkers in defense department “ and the “Pentagon Intellectuals,” as he called them, had harried Clinton into military ineffectiveness in Kosovo and Rwanda because he had opposed the war in Vietnam but was not called up. In contrast, many of the most sedulous detractors of Clinton actually agreed with the Vietnam war – but dodged the draft and then went on to wage war in Iraq. Hitchens’ response was to attack those who used the well-deserved epithet “Chicken Hawk”  against the Bush coterie since the “Pentagon intellectuals” were not of age or health to qualify in the new volunteer army. Heredity triumphs. Few if any of their offspring ran to the colors.

Once can only put down these jejune excuses to a relapse into the polemical mode of the sects, in which once the enemy has been identified, you throw everything you can at him while fiercely defending your own side. The problem is, of course, that someone of his genuine intellectual acuity should have been able to weigh the relatives masses of beams and motes in the eyes on either side.

Even so, re-reading Hitch 22 reveals a more self-deprecatory and reflective person than the author’s occasionally intemperate outbursts would suggest, and at times hints at a vulnerability and insecurity for which he was overcompensating. Indeed the book lists as his own “most marked characteristic,” “insecurity,” which as I said earlier reflects his British upbringing.

He compensated for this with strong relationships with friends – sometimes enough to evoke scabrous rumors from observers. His account of his disagreements with, for example Edward Said, has more than a hint of a feeling of personal betrayal.  In this, I too argued with Said about the Balkan Wars and his Chomskyite view of the US as the only permitted target, but certainly agreed with him about most of the targets he did pick!

Hitchens made the Iraq War his own equivalent of the Leftist loyalty oath, and preemptively put the mark of Cain on all  who disagreed. In the shrill and un-nuanced “A Long Short War,” about the war he tried to maintain all the old positions he held on the Left, while uncritically embracing his new friends “the Pentagon Intellectuals” or the “tougher thinkers in the Defense Department.”  For a time he had become a free floating antithesis with not much thesis, unless you accepted as such his claims of wisdom and morality for the Bush administration.

It is also true that many Leftists, whoring after strange gods as is their wont, were putting Saddam Hussein along with Slobodan Milosevic and later Gaddafi and Assad in the Pantheon of progressive heroes. However, contrary to the customized windmill he had built to tilt at, many others were not, but were disturbed by a militarist lynch mob that disregarded international law, manufactured evidence and carried out the intervention so clumsily that more Iraqis died than at the hands of the tyrant’s forces.

“First do no harm,” was the old Hippocratic advice to surgeons, and the coterie around Bush might indeed have removed a malignant tumor when they excised the Ba’athist regime, but they also eviscerated and lobotomized Iraqi society in the process. On a national scale, “it was destroying the village to save it,” which was an entirely predictable consequence of a war fought by the ignorant, malignant and ideologically driven, who before the first shot had cast aside the lamentably few people in the State Department who knew anything about the country and the region.

It was pleasant to see that before he died, even if he had no doubts about godlessness, he did have those second thoughts about the conduct of the war.  Uncharacteristically he had, if not withdrawn from his positions, at least, shall we say, ceased to state them so emphatically. He admits “I probably now know more about the impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration than do many of those who would have left Iraq in the hands of Saddam,” and adds in possibly the nearest thing to admission that “even though they don’t alter the case against Ba’athism, (they) have permanently disfigured the record of those of us who made that case.”

It is typical Hitchens to claim that he is better informed about the arguments against cheering the White House to war than many on the Left he reviled had pointed out at the time that he was cheering on a mad-axeman to carry out brain surgery. I drank with him shortly after his meetings with Paul Wolfowitz, which clearly flattered and intrigued him. Without succumbing to Hitchens’ unfettered admiration, it is indeed possible that if Wolfowitz had had more influence on the conduct of the war many of its more disastrous outcomes would have been avoided. It is true, for example, that Wolfowitz had the chutzpah and foresight to tell AIPAC that the Palestinians had genuine issues that needed resolution. But once it was clear that the tenuous rational element in the administration had been sidelines, why did he not at least scale down to merely two cheers for the war effort? Why act as a champion of Bush while casting Clinton into outer darkness? Was it because as Kissinger said of the latter “he does not have the strength of character to be a war criminal?” Or was he just as “loyal,” in his own way, to his enemies as he was to his friends?  On the loyalty front, while Britishers are rarely “loyal” to their native land in the American sense of tub thumping, one wonders what the quietly patriotic Orwell would have made of Hitchen’s un-British enthusiastic professions of loyalty to his new American home when he took his oath?

Hitchens left the left by means of redefining it, to exclude a humanitarian and democratic socialist view to which he was hewing by the end. However, he was right (and Left) far more than he was wrong, because he derived his positions from opposition to all forms of tyranny and barbaric governments without making expedient tribal or geopolitical exceptions.

Now that he is dead, proving if it needed it that there are indeed atheists in hospices,  it seems almost churlish to consider tone and attitude so important. After all, most of his targets deserved some, at least, of the winged arrows of outraged morality. However, one cannot help feeling that such unbalanced denunciation can lead philosophically to the totalitarianism that he otherwise fought against strenuously and sincerely.

In the end, that is why, much as I enjoyed talking and drinking with him, like a bar chat, his works are stimulating  and enjoyable, but on a longer scale ephemeral. Like the plaster casts from Pompeii, future readers would have to fill in the centre to determine what he was for by reference to those whom he was so clearly against. And they are hardly great turning reference points. Hitchens is cursed with an age where even bad guys are eminently forgettable.  In future years Mother Theresa will be one of those minor saints in the RC calendar and  Bill Clinton will be down there with Millard Filmore as an historical footnote, the blow-job forgotten as the DNA sample on Monica’s frock breaks down.  There are probably more people know Dr Strangelove from TV re-runs than know Henry Kissinger.

But aberrations of intemperance aside, the sins of totalitarianism, hypocrisy and complaisance in the face of evil against which he railed are still rampant. It is sad to see his voice silenced, now.

 

Ian Williams was born in Liverpool about the same time as Christopher Hitchens to an upper lower working class family, was expelled from Liverpool University, worked on the railroad and in the union before becoming a writer and journalist in the USA. He was always surprised at how often a teenage Maoist like him and a teenage Trotskyist like Hitchens agreed on things. He drinks but does not smoke. His collected works tend to appear in deadlinepundit.blogspot.com.