On reading obituaries of Christopher Hitchens
Even in death he stands tall and apart from the parochial, bien-peasant, trilling, beard-stroking mediocrities – face-timers and time-servers of the writing life, men and women who have never written a good line of prose or provided a single insight into our universe or touched a human heart. Fuck them. – Max DunbarI’ve barely started going through the flood of obituaries and memories of Christopher Hitchens. I started writing my own, but it seems a little surplus to requirement. Kellie provides the definitive list of links (as well as Hitchens commenting on totalitarianism, in light of the departure of the North Korean dictator), and a good first point of call is Vanity Fair. Rosie sums up the rest: “The tributes are pouring in, the reminiscences, the summings ups, the paying off of old scores. The famous, the obscure, the mandarin and the meanest of spirits are all having their say. I've read a few of their pieces and liked David Frum's best of all for its warmth and this final paragraph from Jacob Weisberg.” Terry Glavin’s, of course, is especially lovely, as is George Szirtes’. And, although it feels strange to say it, given how little regard I’ve had for Peter Hitchens up to now, his lovely brotherly obituary in the Mail is probably the single thing most worth reading.
Francis Sedgemore comments on the throwaway nature of many of the obits, and in a highly recommended short post shows how journalism has changed for the worst since Hitchens entered the trade. Francis is right, and most of the ones I’ve read have irritated me more than anything else.
Some of the Hitchens posts are worth checking simply because they are illustrated with some wonderful photos of the man I’d not seen before, such as this one by Tigerloaf, which also has a great quotation. I especially like the photo that illustrate Max Dunbar’s fine post, with curl of cigarette smoke. More harrowing, of course, are some of the final pictures of him raging against the dying of the light, such as that by Michael Stravato which illustrates Hitchens’ last (and especially wonderful) Vanity Fair piece, which is about death. Some are illustrated with the wonderful Jamie James Medina portrait, with poppy and rumpled hat, that I particularly love. But only a few have anything interesting to say.
I think this post at Harry’s Place best captures what Hitchens meant in the last decade or so to people like me, who groped for “an anti-Islamist, anti-Saddam, pro-democracy left” in the new world order opened up by 9/11, as we watched our former comrades on the left go deeper and deeper into the abyss of isolationist, anti-American, anti-democratic “anti-imperialism” and its alliance with various forms of right-wing politics, an alliance we could not have imagined a few years before. As the author says, Hitchens was an inspiration for the early noughties trans-Atlantic political blogging explosion (of which this blog was one of the later, smaller tremors), due to the strange synchronicity between the availability of Web 2.0 as a platform and the locking out of morally decent people from the old platforms of the mainstream left.
This point is made too when Francis describes Hitchens as a “fellow drink-soaked popinjay”, taking up as a badge of pride the wonderful term of abuse coined by the eloquent George Galloway, which of course was the name of the collective blog Francis was part of a few years back, which defined the range of anti-totalitarian radicalism so well.
I’m not sure what the connection is between the drink-soaked thing and the anti-totalitarianism, but there is one: totalitarianism is based on the suppression or deferral of human desires and pleasures. Marx, a spendthrift, hard-drinking bon viveur beloved by small children, would have been unable to live under the regimes he gave his name to, while Chomsky’s priggish hatred of sport, music or anything fun illuminates why his brand of libertarianism is ultimately actually authoritarian. Hence the contempt from the puritans Ian Leslie calls “thin-lipped disapprovers”.
Here’s Nick Cohen, who famously turned up splendidly drunk to denounce the right-wingers honoured with a prize named after George Orwell (a truly libertarian socialist, as well as a man who liked to smoke and drink), on the BBC’s mean-spirited obituary:
[It was] delivered by its media correspondent, Nick Higham, a ferrety cultural bureaucrat who has never written a sentence anyone has remembered. He assured the nation that Hitchens was an "alcoholic". Hitchens could certainly knock it back. But [if] he were a true alcoholic he... would he have been loved, for addicts are too selfish to love. Something else the BBC broadcast inadvertently explained was why the world feels a more welcoming place for the tyrannical and the censorious without him.Francis Wheen makes a more important point: “Even when he reached for another late-night whisky, his perception remained unerringly sober.” And Michael Weiss: “Friendship was his only real ideology.”
Former Trotskyist Bushite
Leninists (not least those of bourgeois origin, i.e. most of them) would no doubt call the imperative to not speak ill of the dead a form of “bourgeois morality” to be dispensed with. Of course, they’re right, and Hitchens would agree with them: Kim Jong-il’s passing does not exempt him from derision and hatred, and nor would that of, say, Ahmadinejad or Kissinger (example: Hitchens the day after Jerry Falwell died). But I was irritated by the petty-ness of some of the vindictive lightweights coming out to kick Hitchens’ corpse and of some of the Leninist inquisitors coming out to confirm his ex-communication from the sect.
The reliably appalling Guardian paleo-conservative Simon Jenkins come out with one of the standard lines: writes: “The identikit Trot of our early friendship had became a rabid Bushite defending the Iraq war”. It’s worth noting that his Trotskyism was of a very particular sort: he was inducted into the International Socialists (the forerunner of the current, dreadful SWP) by Peter Sedgwick, in its most heterodox, intellectually vibrant period, a time when its publications were open to several non-party members, and when it was as much in thrall to the anti-Leninist Rosa Luxemburg as it was to Trotsky. (Hitchens, in turn, helped induct Alex Callinicos into the party of which he is now a leading member and Callinicos has written a nice and surprisingly generous obit for the Socialist Worker.) The IS did an important job, in a period when the left dominated by the authoritarian Third Worldist fantasies epitomised by Tariq Ali’s IMG, of retrieving a libertarian, democratic tradition within Marxism, the tradition of William Morris, Hal Draper, Victor Serge, CLR James, Sylvia Pankhurst, Max Shachtman and George Orwell. Arguably, it is this anti-Stalinist left that has been the model for the anti-totalitarianism of the so-called decent left, especially its more left-wing varieties.
HP retorts against Jenkins: “Although he was a Marxist to the end and certainly a Trotskyist for many years, I find it hard to imagine Hitchens as ‘identikit’ in any way. And, of course, he certainly never became a ‘rabid Bushite’. I’ll get to the Bushite bit later, but want to amplify the point about Marxism. Here’s Michael Weiss: “Well unto the toppling of Saddam, the only time I heard Hitch use the word “conservative” in a laudatory fashion was when it preceded the word “Marxist.””
Another related line of attack, to put it at its pithiest, as expressed by Negative Potential here, is that he was a “bloodthirsty maniac”. Less pithy, but no more subtle, Richard Seymour weighs in here, pontificating about why Hitchens was not “an intellectual” because he did not understand “theory”, and by Corey Robbins, who calls Hitchens a provincial narcissist. In a more thoughtful version of the critique, Simon at Latte Labour argues that there was a connection between Hitchens’ “cult of reason” and his support for war, and suggests that Hitchens’ talent as a propagandist and reputation as a liberal gave Bush moral cover. For these people, Hitchens’ position on the Iraq war is the start and finish of any assessment of him.
But was he bloodthirsty? Of course, Hitchens was always a courageous man and he came to value what would once have been described as manly or warrior virtues. (Michael Totten’s account of a slightly slapstick but potentially deadly escapade in Beirut, involving Hitchens defacing a poster of a Syrian fascist and nearly coming a cropper for it, has been widely circulated, but worth re-reading for a good sense of Hitchens in extremis.) But the large number of essays he wrote about war (such as his essay on Mark Daily, the young American soldier whose death in Iraq he could be said to have inspired, or one of his last Slate articles, on Armistice Day) show a more visceral understanding of its horrors than the moralism of the “anti-war” camp does.
Corey Robin claims that Hitchens’ war-mongering is forgiven because
we have come to a point in our culture where war is viewed as a neutral tool of state or an instrument of national salvation and human progress—and, in either case, as something that simply does not touch “us” in its concrete facts of blood and death. Us being the people who are not the victims of our wars and the men and women who are not required to fight those wars.But it seems to me that this anti-war position simply reverses the terms: for the stoppers, “war” acquires a different sort of abstraction and neutrality. The pious denunciation is all about an “us” that requires flagellation, while the “them” are never consulted. Thus in the Seymour/Robin worldview, there is no difference between Vietnam, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Libya, Iraq, World War I, World War II: they are all just “war” and thus evil. (Ian Baruma, for instance, talks about the “irony” of anti-Vietnam Hitchens being pro-Iraq war.)
Hitchens, though, was not in favour of war in general; he was not a bloodthirsty war-monger. Rather, he was in favour of specific wars, specific interventions, at particular times, with particular aims, and under particular conditions. He might have been wrong about Iraq (and I’m not sure whether he was or not), but surely the principle that some wars are worth fighting is correct, even if the ones doing the fighting do not appeal to us.
And likewise, the anti-war brigade pose as being against war in general, but they only seem to mention some wars – specifically those fought by Western powers in the Middle East. You don’t see the anti-war marchers mobilising to stop the devastating wars in central Africa, for example. Although perhaps the “we” of their partial universalism includes Sunni Muslim Arabs but not Africans.
The hatred of Hitchens from the Seymours is the hatred of the cult-member for the apostate. He betrayed the left, and it can't forgive him. Most of them frame Hitchens’ right-ward turn as literally selling out, as exchanging correct thought for the yankee dollar. As David Aaronovitch puts it:
Typical was this, written in May last year, from the high-table revolutionary Terry Eagleton in the New Statesman, claiming that "those who, like Christopher Hitchens, detest a cliché turn into one of the dreariest types of them all: the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love... Paul Wolfowitz". In other words, he was the lean young man corrupted by proximity to power and need for money, and turned into the fat shill of the people's enemy.*#Smarter critics understand Hitchens’ turn in the context of the religious structure of leftist thought. Andrew Coates’ review of the book explores the issue of Hitchens’ relationship with the faith of leftism, and faith is exactly the right term. Leftism is a religion, and Hitchens’ boring obsession with religions in general must be connected to his own relationship to the leftist faith. A more interesting analysis of his apostasy was written up by Guy Rundle in the Spiked Review of Books a year of two ago (h/t AC). Worth noting that Spiked’s origins are also in the IS of that era: its guru Frank Furedi left “in 1975 on issues that remain obscure to all concerned”. Like other escapees from the Tony Cliff cult, Furedi’s RCP also eventually became apostates for the left, right-wing libertarians who make Hitchens’ alleged Bushism look like orthodox Trotskyism. Rundle suggests that Hitchens
took from the IS/SWP’s oppositionality, not a mode of doing politics, but a form of political moralising that rapidly becomes a tiresome and inecessant [sic] judgement on the taking and wielding of power itself. Thus in the early Oxford Union years we continually encounter revolutionaries, activists, writers and so on held to be bursting with brilliance, only to be tagged with the premonitory phrase about the thugs, monsters or moral failures they became. Overwhelmingly this is because they took the power they were campaigning for, and having done so, had to make some grisly choices. But for Hitchens, the result is an endlessly repeated political Fall, in which oppositionality becomes a series of impossible standards.Perhaps this says less about Hitchens than it does about Spiked’s cringeful adoration of power in the form of the Conservative party (for Rundle, Hitchens reached his “low point” when he slagged off Matthew Parrish for being... a Conservative!) and their pose of oppositionality to the “liberal elite”. But it rings true on one level.
However, the notion that Hitchens abandoned the left is simplistic. First, it ignore the fact that in some ways he was always a dissident within the left. In Hitch-22, he describes the double life he led in his early IS days, when by night he dined, drank and fucked with the most decadent dredges of the ruling class in Oxford, and later his early (limited) enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher. His support for Solidarity and other Eastern Bloc rebels was shared with the rest of the anti-Stalinist left (including, I think, the SWP). His support for Western intervention in the 1990s also presaged his post-9/11 position. As Aaronovitch puts it:
Rwanda provided the embers, Bosnia the fire. Any internationalist, any progressive, any leftwinger would want to intervene to try to prevent such horrors - and not just because they were horrible either, but because they made the world worse for everyone.*And the idea of Hitchens as turncoat also ignores the continuity in his leftism after 9/11. Not just the obvious points that he continued his crusade against Kissinger and Mother Teresa, against the moral majority dominant strand of American conservatism, and so on, and pretty sharp criticisms of Bush, as well as his attacks on his friend Martin Amis’ ignorant anti-communism in Koba the Dread and his championing of Trotsky on Radio 4. But more fundamentally that his opposition to Ba’athism and to Islamism was rooted in left-wing values not conservative ones. In short, the caricature of Hitchens is, again quoting Aaronovitch, “a self-comforting lozenge that the lazy intellectual Left sucks on to make its pain and doubts go away.”
What the meme reveals is the extent to which the Iraq war, even more than Israel, has acted as a cultural code, a shibboleth, for the self-definition of a left that has lost its moral compass as it has abandoned its core constituency and core values. Aaronovitch again: “When the Iraq war finally began in the spring of 2003 after almost a year of argument, it became clear that many on the Left now regarded being against the war as the test of belief, as the essential membership card for comradeship.” Perhaps now, as the last American troops withdraw from Iraq, the left has the opportunity to let go of its obsession and move on. But probably not...
Another line of attack on Hitchens, from the opposite angle, is the absurd notion (for example, in a TNR comment thread) that he was an antisemite, despite discovering well into his adult years that his mother was Jewish. The notion is based on two things: his fierce anti-religiosity, which led him to say harsh things about Judaism as a religion and its rituals, and his sharp criticisms of Israel, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, the leap from militant secularist anti-Judaism or Israel-criticism to antisemitism is a leap others have taken, but that Hitchens did is an absurdity. It is true he made some mis-steps in this area: his refusal to condemn David Irving, for example, and his insistence that Irving’s historiography[hy should be admired (which, as John Podheretz puts it, “is a little like praising Josef Mengele for his medical skills”).
However, on the whole, the indictment is weak. The Forward delves a little into Hitchens’ Jewish question, and comes up with some good stuff, including this on Walt and Mearsheimer’s original Israel lobby article: “Wishfulness has led them to seriously mischaracterize the origins of the problem and to produce an article that is redeemed from complete dullness and mediocrity only by being slightly but unmistakably smelly.”
Even more bizarre than the notion that he was an antisemite is the notion that he was a Zionist. Dave Rich gives examples: “First up is Craig Murray, with the approval of Inayat Bunglawala, claiming that Hitchens was a “zionist propagandist”.” Murray, a strange hero for many on the anti-war left, says that “British journalism is full of people of the same generation who have lurched from the Trotskyist far left to a crazed neo-con agenda with no intervening period of sanity. I suspect the available riches for zionist propagandists are a major factor. Hitchens, Aaronovitch, Phillips, Cohen. You can probably think of others. A strange and extremely unpleasant manifestation of intellectual prostitution.” Note, all the names are Jewish, as if no gentile writers lurch from the left to the right or endorse the “neo-con” agenda. It’s not even worth pointing out how wrong Murray is on this one, given the consistent anti-Israel line Hitchens continued to take post-9/11.
Parochial and provincial
And then a whole lot of commentators, including several that rarely stray from ivy league campuses or the Beltway bubble, are obsessed with Hitchens’ “parochialism” and “provincialism”. Seymour, Robin and Glenn Greenwald go on about it. Greenwald cites his buddy Aaron Bady on Hitchens’ commitment to a
“we” that never seems to extend to the un-grievable Arab casualties of Hitch’s favorite wars. It’s also a “we” that has everything to do with being clever and literate and British (and nothing to do with a human universalism that stretches across the usual “us” and “them” categories).I don’t know which Hitchens these people actually read, but the Hitchens I read was one of the most internationalist of writers, and one who (like George Orwell, Robert Fisk or Patrick Cockburn) put himself in the line of fire in lands distant from that of his birth.
The Portuguese carnation revolution, the struggle against fascist dictatorship in Greece and against military dictatorships in South America were central to his 1970s politics, and continued to be reference points; and he did not simply offer solidarity from afar, he spent time in these countries. Ian Leslie writes: “It wasn't really until I read Hitchens that I understood what it meant not to be parochial. He was deeply English in manner and yet deeply global in his thinking. His points of view were enriched and strengthened by first-hand knowledge of the place and people he was writing about, as well as by his reading of history. He hardly ever wrote about a country he hadn't visited, even if it was North Korea or a war zone in Bosnia.” And, of course, his “bloodthirstyness” against Saddam Hussein was based on a long and deep relationship with Iraq and especially Kurdistan.
In 2005, he was in Iran, a place I would not be brave enough to visit, and Iranian Sohrab Ahmari here records how well Hitchens understood what he saw there. And here’s Roya Hakakian, another Iranian:
Only one belonging to a forsaken people or a forgotten cause can know the value of her flag pinned to his highly-visible lapel. He may have been born in England, but the blood that flowed in his veins was Third World blood. The depth of his kinship with the suffering of those with whom he has nothing in common can’t be otherwise explained. He lived in Washington, but his moral time zone was set to Evil Standard Time. Like those from that zone, he operated according to the urgency that dictatorships instill in their subjects. He understood that to be leisurely is to forsake possibilities, even lives.#In fact, he was the opposite of provincial and parochial; he was a true internationalist. As his friend Francis Wheen wrote the day after his death, Hitchens’ life and mind “contained multitudes. England itself may have been too small to accommodate them, as the puritanical small-mindedness of that BBC report yesterday confirmed”.
In good company
Finally, the proximity of Hitchens’ death and those of Kim Jong-il and Vaclav Havel seems indicative of something, but I’m not sure what – maybe just “the cosmic lattice of coincidence”, to quote the immortal lines of one of my favourite films. Anyway, here’s
Hitchens’ pre-posthumous obits for his fellow dead.
*Aaronovitch is behind the Times paywell. Extracts via Norm and Mick Hartley.
Previously: “Hitchens, with poppy and rumpled hat” (November 2010); “Old soldiers, broken promises, class prejudices” (Hitchens at 61); Carl P’s review of Christopher Hitchens’ ‘The Enemy’.