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Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left

Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, Editors

(NYU Press)

Even as it continues to arouse interest, Christopher Hitchens’ acrimonious parting from the Left appears to have been a missed opportunity. When the famously contrarian polemicist came out in vigorous support of the “War on Terror” and the US invasion of Iraq, he incensed many of his comrades and admirers. His record of heterodoxy on Bill Clinton, Mother Teresa, and interventionism in the Balkans had befuddled and antagonized some of them, but this was of a graver nature.


How could Hitchens, a critic of empire, a loyal friend to the Palestinians, and the bane of Henry Kissinger ally himself with the Bush administration and its push for imperial adventures in the Middle East? What had poisoned this celebrated mind, once noble, now seemingly overthrown? As the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq moved forward, Hitchens, flanked by a sparse and fading minority on the Left, as well as his detractors only stiffened in their positions.


From this friction might have came a learned and invigorating discourse within the Left on the appropriate uses of American military power, the nature of Islamism, and the interplay between the past and the present. It was a moment for light, not heat. But in the ensuing rhetorical battles, the forces of ego and spite proved too potent and often overshadowed substantive discussions of recent history and foreign policy.


Not everyone succumbed to these impulses, yet the general tenor of the debate was that the opposing side was not simply wrong but mendaciously, sinisterly wrong. Ad hominem attacks abounded. By endorsing Bush’s Iraq policy, Hitchens had transmogrified into a right-wing stooge. And maybe he was a full-blown alcoholic, as well. On the other hand, the Left’s hostility to the war betokened a leniency toward fascism, almost as if they were deliberate abettors of Saddam. Heat had, it seems predictably, prevailed over light.


Co-edited by Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left documents this exchange of views and vitriol. It is a collection of Hitchens’ most salient post-9/11 articles, essays, and interviews juxtaposed with responses and recriminations that his contrarian thinking prompted. In the introduction, Cottee and Cushman explain that their “broader aim is to use the example of Hitchens to reinstate a model of vigorous debate, argument, and conflict among those—Left intellectuals—who all too often seek the comfort of ideological conformity”. It’s a worthy purpose but one that’s regularly upended by the rancorous tone that Hitchens and his opponents adopt.


In general, neither side evinces any meaningful willingness to concede a point or shift slightly in their stances. A kind of intellectual entrenchment is constantly at work. Even Hitchens’ lonely support of the war, which the authors uphold as an instructive instance of non-conformity if not the soundest of opinions, begins to acquire a hardened quality as he refuses to accept realities that undermine his cause. How are examples of obstinacy supposed to foster enriching arguments? How profitable can such a debate be? Cottee and Cushman are apparently optimistic even as their book augurs resoundingly poorly for the future of big-idea clashes on the Left.


The true value of Christopher Hitchens and His Critics lies in the clarity that comes from its convenience. Rather than just writing about him, Cottee and Cushman chose to bring together many of his pieces and let the inimitable firebrand speak for himself. Thus one is able to read from his widely published works, all neatly divided by subject, and gather a firm sense of how this reformed ex-Marxist came to be, among various heretical designations, perhaps the most steadfast proponent of regime change in Iraq. Hitchens might be dreadfully misguided, but he rarely equivocates in rationalizing his position on the war. He’s only too proud to explain it. The book also samples the bitter and disdainful interchanges that accompanied Hitchens’ “Road to Damascus” as well as other commentaries that aimed to be thoughtful and temperate.


Hitchens’ critics offer a mix of explanations for his alleged conversion but few among them care to use his words as a guide. A good faith reading of his output on Iraq reveals a pattern of excessive determinism which is quite telling even if it’s still deeply inadequate (from the standpoint of his opponents) in legitimizing his views. Hitchens consistently frames his war advocacy as a decision almost made for him by abstract forces like morality and history. It’s as though he couldn’t help but favor an intervention to depose Saddam. To do otherwise would contravene his instincts as a deep, unwavering moralist and put him in a place where he’s willfully supporting the delay of historical inevitabilities. As he writes in an article for The Weekly Standard, “I meanwhile am a prisoner of what I actually do know about the permanent hell, and the permanent threat, of the Saddam regime”.


In Hitchens’ eyes, he was helpless before war justifications so irresistibly compelling. He couldn’t ignore the moral case that Saddam had erected against himself by menacing his own people, violating the Geneva Convention, and invading neighboring countries. Matters of national interest and security weren’t absent from his thinking. But for Hitchens, the reality of Saddam’s exceptionally barbaric and destructive existence was alone grounds for action. And it was the United States that carried a distinct moral obligation to carry out this task. Hitchens explains: “The United States had already made itself co-responsible for Iraqi life, first by imposing the sanctions, second by imposing the no-fly zones, and third by co-existing with the regime. This half-slave/half-free compromise could not long have endured”. He also mentions past US collusion with Saddam to further bulwark the rationale. With this brand of staunch moralism as his compass, perhaps the only judgment he could reach (in his view) was that the US had to correct its wrongs and Saddam needed to pay for his.


Beyond moral reasoning, Hitchens also contests that a conflict with Iraq was unavoidable: “A broken and maimed and traumatized Iraq was in our future no matter what” (from a Wall Street Journal op-ed). And later in a piece for Slate: “There was no way around our adoption of Iraq, as there still is not. It’s only a pity that the decision to intervene was left until so many years had been consumed by the locusts”. His standard follow-up point is that, knowing of this inevitability, shouldn’t the US act first so that it can dictate the terms of the war rather than concede that advantage to Saddam. To not invade Iraq then would be morally deficient and historically ignorant. The US would be postponing not just a necessary war but also an inescapable one and severely harming the prospects for a stable, more free Iraq. Believing he was hostage to the insuperable tide of history, Hitchens couldn’t conceive of an alternative but to invade.


When Hitchens presents himself as a bound man, he’s also admitting that the war is something he wanted to happen. And he would heartily consent to this. Yet his desire for an Iraq rid of Saddam and Baathism wasn’t simply a preference or a wish. It was an enflamed, consuming passion, a matter decidedly more of the heart than of the head. But a passion can prove hazardous and unwieldy. Hitchens’ own produced rhetorical excesses and, at times, crippled his vaunted capacity for skepticism. This is the essence of Georgetown Professor Michael Kazin’s fair-minded and penetrating critique of Hitchens in his review of the latter’s Love, Poverty, and War. It’s the only commentary in this collection that seeks to genuinely understand his inner-workings and build a context for how an established leftist might come to support, with righteous fervor, a Republican-led war.


Kazin writes that this ex-Trotskyite is also a “romantic—and a particularly ardent one at that”. He is worth quoting at length:


His romanticism harks back to the beginnings of the Anglo-American Left and of modern literature—to Paine’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s passionate engagement with the French Revolution but revulsion at the orgy of the guillotine, to the early socialists who imagined they could build a cooperative order that would do away with class distinctions, and to the writers and artists inspired by Wordsworth’s maxim ‘that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…


For Hitchens, too, it is unforgivable to compromise one’s principles, to flirt with lies, to heed the sirens of realpolitik over the call of the heart”.


From Hitchens’ perspective, the toppling of Saddam constituted a victory for many of the notions and values that animate his existence: pluralism, democracy, secularism, international solidarity, and so forth. If he had sat out or, even worse, hindered a fight for their spread, he would have been unpardonably denying his past and what he still stands for. It would have, for instance, mandated a disavowal of brotherhood with the stateless Kurds whom, he argues, the Left cruelly disregarded by opposing the war. Like the fatwa against British novelist Salman Rushdie, the cause of Kurdish autonomy quickly brings Hitchens’ plucky humanism to the fore. It’s a matter of principle. Concessions are unthinkable.


But the “call of the heart” shouldn’t drown out the demands of a skeptical intellect, especially when considering the weighty issue of war and peace. It’s rarely a time for zeal. A more prudent mind would’ve prevented Hitchens from often insinuating that various resisters to the war were active enablers of the Hussein regime. He couldn’t seem to accept that many counsels of peace were both sincere and foresighted. His logic was too forbidding.


Less passion also might have led him to deliberate more over the likelihood of messy, prolonged misery visiting the Iraqi people in the event of a failed war effort (which Hitchens understood was all-too possible). He likely undertook this in private but, in general, his writings contain a triumphalist narrative that calls into question how much and how seriously he did. From his viewpoint, regime change was imperative seemingly regardless of what disaster it might precipitate. Most glaringly, an engaged and skeptical Hitchens would’ve railed more fiercely against the Bush administration for its bungled handling of the occupation. This is not to say he was a passive observer. But where’s the sustained outrage for those at fault in so dangerously jeopardizing a cherished cause of his?


With the exception of Juan Cole, whose thorough rebuttal of Hitchens’ war rationale maintains a mature tone, Kazin is the only critic here who stays above the disgust and triviality that pollute much of this debate. Both sides insist on detecting the most insincere of intentions from the other and then responding in kind. Scott Lucas of the New Statesman and Norman Finkelstein of Counter Punch each attribute Hitchens’ apostasy to commercial aspirations. Finkelstein sneers, “It’s not exactly a martyr’s fate defecting from the Nation, a frills-free liberal magazine, to Atlantic Monthly, the well-heeled house organ of Zionist crazies”. Only several lines before, he laments that Hitchens lacks the “good grace” to commit suicide (no exaggeration at work here). In making such a remark, Finkelstein seems to out himself as someone with a negligible grasp of what “grace” is.


Other speculation focuses on Hitchens’ need to be contrarian and how pressing for the war would dramatically solidify his credentials on that front. Writing in City Pages, Dennis Parin concludes, quite banally, that “D.C. has finally gotten to him. That must be the explanation”. The Left doesn’t permit its brethren to break away cleanly or leave with their reputations intact. Witness Richard Seymour’s article for Monthly Review, entitled “The Genocidal Imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, subtitled “The Lighter Side of Mass Murder”.


Perhaps the most grasping insult leveled at Hitchens is that, in using 9/11 and the subsequent developments in Iraq to exit the Left, he crudely morphed into a right-winger. It’s an expression of contempt, not reality. As Kazin spells out, even as Hitchens was doggedly touting the war effort in Iraq, he was still writing pieces that reflected his common cause with much of mainstream leftism. They covered his opposition to the death penalty and the “war on drugs”, hatred of conservatives like Ronald Reagan (even denigrating him as “dumb as a stump” following the former president’s death), Pat Robertson, and Pope John Paul II, stalwart support of Palestinian statehood, unqualified revulsion over the Vietnam War, and fondness for social advancements achieved by radical leftists of yesteryear.


Hitchens is still temperamentally and intellectually of the Left even if he no longer resides comfortably on the Left. Of late, Hitchens has referred to himself as “post-partisan” which, in today’s charged political environment (though when are they not?) bespeaks an ideological impurity that is intolerable to true believers. Thus, when he ran afoul of the Left’s orthodoxy, it was an act of betrayal.


Both sides saw moral failings in each other. The bulk of the Left couldn’t accept that one of their fittest combatants had sided with a reckless administration and the violent idealism of its neo-imperialist program. They certainly weren’t going to allow for the possibility that Hitchens’ overactive principles had compelled him in that direction. So the explanation had to lie elsewhere: in greed, opportunism, arrogance, and even alcoholism.


Similarly, Hitchens couldn’t stand for the Left’s insistently qualified denunciations of the 9/11 attacks. He considered them symptomatic of a sclerotic and twisted worldview, embodied in the revered opinions of Noam Chomsky, which was more eager to glimpse theocracy, fascism, and imperialist designs in the West than where they more clearly resided. And the Left’s embrace of charlatans like Michael Moore and preening thugs like the ex-Labor MP George Galloway highlighted to Hitchens that his defection would be desirably permanent.


The conflict would then continue, even while being well past the point of diminishing returns. From the start, the scenery was in place for an illuminating, if embittered, debate on past, present, and future Western involvement with countries of moral and strategic interest. But too often a rhetorical fusion of the personal and the political carried the day. What resulted was a lot of bombastic, though spirited, intellectual theater in which heat trumped light and visceral passion was the dominant force.

Rating:

Barry writes about all things Beatles at The Daily Beatle (thedailybeatle.blogspot.com). Twitter: @Beatlesblogger. He can be reached at bplenser[at]gmail[dot]com.


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