Sunday, July 15, 2012

'Hit'ch Piece

Disclosure: Post-mortem character assassination is not the aim of this writing. The goal is simply to demonstrate how varied the thinking of the late Christopher Hitchens could be.  I feel that enough time has passed following Hitchens' death that I can write a more nuanced piece about his beliefs, strengths and weaknesses as a intellectual.

"I will not be reconstructed!" - Shane MacGowan 

“The enemies of intolerance cannot be tolerant." - Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens once accused me of being soft on fascism.  This happened after I had expressed reasonable doubts about the Iraqi-Niger "yellowcake" link- a particular canard of the Bush administration that Hitchens treated repeatedly as a smoking gun rationale for liberal intervention in Iraq.  As part of his refusal to admit miscalculation in Iraq, Hitchens could never quite give up on the Niger yellowcake claim, even after evidence emerged revealing that members of the Bush administration acknowledged the speciousness of said link as early as 2002. The claim itself has been well-proven false while the documents purported to have supported it  were themselves exposed as forgeries.

The great irony of the argument came that the venue at which Hitchens' elected to attack my unwillingness to to agree to magical claims regarding Nigerien yellowcake and Iraq was at a conference whose purpose was the promotion of freedom from Religion.  So here was Hitchens, the great champion of atheism, engaging in deeply ideological, determinist, and in its own way, 'religious' thinking in lambasting me for not sharing his faith in a war of choice.  I bring the issue up only because it speaks to a certain contradiction within Hitchens' character.  I doubt that someone of Hitchens' intelligence could possibly have meant everything that he was saying, however, there certainly came a point with the man where it proved to be anathema to doubt his faith in the belief system he espoused. This point was echoed by Noam Chomsky regarding Hitchens' proselytizing for foreign military action to destroy "Islamism".  Hitchens' tendency to take certain ideological beliefs on faith also showed in his strange affinity for Trotsky and Lenin despite the pair's well documented roll in laying the ideological, intellectual and policy groundwork for later Soviet atrocities.

With Hitchens, there seemed a certain need to believe in ideological revolutionary thinking, regardless of the facts supporting the ideology.  In this way, Hitchens was never the intellectual heir to Orwell that he seemed to perceive himself as.  Certainly, Orwell was committed to causes, but never to ideology. In fact, the great narrative of Orwell's career is, in many ways, his extrication of  himself from ideological systems (well-illustrated by his eventual anti-communist stance).  Hitchens himself, in his excellent book: Why Orwell Matters, described Orwell as a naturally conservative and inherently biased with the predilections of the British Middle class of a particular period who, through education and exposure, managed to talk himself out of many of these petty biases.  Thus with Orwell, we see active moral assertions but tempered by a strong mechanism for self examination.  Orwell increasingly stepped further and further away from ideology and previous beliefs, denouncing first colonialism, then Marxism and antisemitism.

With Hitchens, we do not see this same flexibility, but rather a strongly held belief in the inherent rightness of his initial positions.  A New Yorker profile on Hitchens went so far as to title the somewhat unflattering piece, "He Knew He Was Right".  The narrative of Hitchens' political education is a sort of Orwell in reverse - early extreme pragmatism followed by the engorgement upon ideology, culminating with Hitchen's  unshakable belief in the moral rightness of the Iraq war. Beyond this, Hitchens sought, to his dying day, to expand the war against Islamism, demanding the opening of new fronts in Pakistan, Iran and elsewhere, while framing the debate as part of a greater war between fascism and civilization.

There was always the element of the flat-track bully about Hitchens.  We see evidence of this in the misogynistic attacks Hitchens takes on the political predilections of two women in the profile, "He Knew He Was Right". He refers to said women sarcastically as "honey" and "sweetie" and generally gives the impression of the barroom bully and tremendous bore. Further, the slightly dubious claims of wishing he had been able to serve in combat and the mental exercise of equating ongoing support for the Iraq war with a battle for civilization, remain troubling.  Hitchens slight megalomania even went so far as allegedly claiming of the Iraq War"It is glorious and it is my war because it needed Paul Wolfowitz and myself to go and convince the President to go to war."

The veracity of this claim is questionable, bordering on self-delusional. The Project for the New American Century (PNAC), within which many of the advocates for the war within the Bush administration had received their intellectual foundations, had long advocated for the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Beyond this, following 1998's Operations Desert Fox and Desert Storm, the official policy within the United States government was regime change in Iraq.

This is not to say that Hitchens was not actively critical of the Bush administration. He did refer to Bush's America as a "banana republic": stunted by incompetence and ideology. This was a nice blast of the old Hitchens - the one who actively criticized systems of power and authority rather than providing unflinching support for the policies of them - yet much of this also seemed opportunistic.  In 2004, Hitchens had endorsed Bush over Kerry, identifying himself  as a "single-issue voter".  His later criticisms of Bush, while in line with the thinking of the old pre-9/11 Hitchens, had the ring of the well-documented 2006 divorce of neoconservative intellectuals from the war in Iraq on the grounds that the Bush administration was ill-equipped to adequately carry out the lofty policy goals proposed.  Thus, like Hitchens after them, these neoconservatives did not so much as acknowledge past errors, as simply state that their policy was too perfect and beautiful for the harsh realities of the world.  

The position is, of course, an intellectually disingenuous one- allowing these thinkers to have their cake whilst simultaneously stuffing it down their gullets. On Iraq and the wider war on terror, Hitchens proved to be fundamentally neoconservative in his prescriptions - effectively joining the very group he had formerly lambasted as hucksters and peddlers of American imperialism. Indeed, the decision to attack in print two of the great intellectuals of the left and popular targets of neoconservative thinkers: Edward Said and Noam Chomsky, demonstrated that Hitchens had an innate understanding of neoconservative ideology and how he could announce his joining of the group.  While Hitchens was always careful to avoid labeling himself as a neoconservative individually, it became increasingly clear from the friends he kept where he now stood ideologically.

With Hitchens, it is also hard to say where his new found hatred of Islamism suddenly emerged from. Hitchens stated that much of it resulted in response to the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie.  He claimed that his compassion for Rushdie was  instrumental in his realizing that Islamists were targeting civilization itself.  Rushdie himself notes that Hitchens had not really been a close friend until after the fatwa and that Hitchens had made the effort to tie himself to Rushdie in partial response to said fatwa, so there may be something to this, however it seems altogether too facile a rationale on it's own.  

Beyond the Rushdie explanation, the historian Tony Judt had some profound thoughts on the strange death of liberal America and the seemingly mainstream acquiescence to liberal intervention. Judt's explanation goes some way in explaining what may have happened to Hitchens, but, as with the Rushdie explanation, it does not tell the full store. Curiously, Hitchens also wrote a hit piece about Judt, for Judt's protestation in the face of Israeli policy - a position that Hitchens' both historically and at the time of his attack on Judt, shared. This said, beyond simply Judt's outlined wishful thinking as a result of neoliberal ideological domination, or even fraternal compassion and outrage resulting from the fatwa placed on Rushdie, there must have been something further feature driving this shift in Hitchens' thinking. The most likely suspect: shameless self promotion.

Hitchens appears to have jumped on the Iraq bandwagon and an opportune moment - aligning himself with liberal interventionism just as it became fashionable following the public perception of successful military action in Bosnia and Kosovo.  While Hitchens' latter day militarism may derive from the experience of his father, a deeply conservative man who had served as a low-ranking officer in the British Navy, a shift later in life towards macho posturing has disturbed many of Hitchens' old allies on the Left who knew him as a staunch critic or the Vietnam and First Gulf Wars.  

In a way, Hitchens' pro-war position was careerist.  Hitchens was excellent at predicting social trends and perhaps saw a way to tie his atheism to a controversial but increasingly socially accepted rationale for conflict.  Hitchens himself called himself a "contrarian" and sought to be unpredictable, but despite this, his contrarianism was never that outside of the realm of the mainstream.  The case can be made that Hitchens sought to recast uncontroversial though slightly unconventional beliefs as edgy in order to feed into a cult of celebrity. He realized that the anti-Clinton bandwagon he had shackled himself to throughout the 90s (a position seen as controversial only because Hitchens self-identified as being explicitly of the left) had reached a natural expiry date as Clinton left office. Hitchens needed to reinvent himself do so in a way that would seem unpredictable in order to retain his outsider credibility.

This is a point noticed by Norman Finkelstein (of all people) and quoted below in a piece on Hitchens' triangulations:

Norman Finkelstein at the time explained that Hitchens was forever attempting to be unpredictable. Finkelstein contrasted this with Chomsky, who is quite predictable in terms of the positions he takes but is read because he marshals evidence and facts that one learns from.

Hitchens' advocacy for the War in Iraq was a way to take a controversial (for a self described Trotskyite) stance on an issue that would dominate the coming decade but would be palatable to great portions of mainstream society. Must as with Oscar Wilde's edict that the only thing worse than being talked about is not talked about, Hitchens found a way to controversially insert himself into the regular ebb and flow of cable news chat shows. The arch-liberal intellectual turncoat - armed with a glass of whiskey, the memorized complete works of Blake and soaring moral conviction.  This position seemed novel following the great moral relativism that so completely characterized the end of the Clinton years.  9/11 served as the great catalyst to recast good and evil for the American public and Hitchens star rose. Around this time, he gave up his position as a columnist with The Nation opting instead for the wider, and more mainstream readership of Vanity Fair.

While the war on terror and soon, in Iraq, was extremely popular among pundits when first prosecuted, Hitchens' decision to hold to the moral justifications for intervention  war after it had been abandoned as a failure by many of its original supporters further insured that we would be talked about - further drawing linkages from the Iraqi insurgency to Salafist militants as a means of also promulgating upon his equally controversial (in America, at least) uber-atheist credentials. It was this that catapulted Hitchens to celebrity "public intellectual".

That said, this is not to discount the importance of Hitchens on issues outside of the scope of the war on terror.  If Islamic terror was a topic on which Hitchens seemed to take leave of his gift for rationality, it did not seem to affect his other work as a brilliant social critic. As John Gray makes clear in a review of Hitchens' collected journalism:

To fasten on [Hitchens'] role as a celebrity journalist (as many of his critics have done) is to underestimate his achievements, because, when he leaves behind the certainties of ideology, he is an incomparable truth-teller.

Hitchens' best work has always included polytechnic prose, deep critical thinking, compassion and an unerring appreciation for comic irony.  Some pieces that immediately spring to mind include Hitchens' promulgations on the death penalty, "Scenes from an Execution" (which along with Camus' "Reflections on the Guillotine" should be considered the last word on capital punishment), his response to the modern banalities of a heavily commercialized Route 66, the examination of Karl Marx's career as a journalist, the brilliant books on OrwellHenry Kissinger and the Elgin Marbles.  As I mentioned in my immediate reaction to Hitchens' death,  the man was also extremely generous with his time and genuinely seemed to care about the thinking and well being of his readership.  As embodied in his best work, the man's prose could be absolutely stunning. Hitchens had a kinetic, full-voiced style of writing. He disparaged cliché and mined the English language and literature for always just the right turn of phrase.  It may have been, ironically, that horror of cliché that lead to Hitchens to take some of his more ludicrous and reactionary stances.  

The defection of Hitchens to neoconservatism seems to have brought out the very worst in him.  Many of his later pieces on Iraq war and on Islamic terror have a somewhat deflated feel about them. In some ways, Hitchens came to resemble the reactionary latter day Evelyn Waugh. Unlike Hitchens; however, Waugh at least had the good sense at self parody, writing what Hitchens himself called  his 'own literary obituary' in Basil Seal Rides Again:

His voice was not the same instrument as of old. He had first assumed it as a conscious imposture; it had become habitual to him; the antiquated, worldly-wise moralities which using that voice, he had felt himself obliged to utter, had become his settled opinions.

If there is a clear summary of Hitchens' views post 9/11, this is it.  Full of bluster, pressed with sound and fury and saying nothing - but also, at the same time, saying everything about Hitchens himself.  Hitchens' gifts as a writer and as a thinker were prodigious, but so too was his gradual intellectual dilapidation.  If there is any justice, he will be remembered more for all the good than for the bad.  However, justice would also dictate that the unknowingly self-parodying and self-imposed asterisks of ideological thinking will always remain as a blemish on his legacy.

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