Confessions of a Political Romantic: Christopher Hitchens’ ‘Hitch-22’

I’ve been trying to figure out Christopher Hitchens for some ten years, now. My first encounter with ‘Hitch’ was in the fall of 2000 when he gave an impromptu talk on the writer’s life in the Mechanics Conference Room at the New School for Social Research in New York City. I had recently quit my longtime corporate-suit job in the Midwest and moved to Manhattan to go to grad school, and he was just coming onto the faculty as a visiting professor in my MA program in liberal studies.

Hitchens spoke extemporaneously on a dizzying array of topics, from the evils of religion to the necessity of reading George Orwell to the benefits of grain spirits, punctuating important points with blasts of exhaled cigarette smoke. I was often reminded of that experience, minus the noxious tobacco fumes, while reading his memoir, Hitch-22.

Indeed, Hitchens’s style in person and in print is tailor-made for the memoir form. Anyone familiar with his much-published writing, his frequent media appearances and lectures will recognize the facility, abundant throughout, with which Hitchens moves from personal experience to grandiloquent pronouncement, tying things together with erudite disquisitions on literature, history and the darker art of muckraking. A familiar tic is the construction ‘my dear friend [INSERT FAMOUS PERSON’S NAME]…’ In that regard, most of the dramatis personae are familiar so there isn’t a whole lot that’s revelatory in these particular pages, except for the details, which admittedly tend to be more than interesting enough.

Like most memoirs, Hitch-22 is essentially a coming-of-age story. Hitchens started out life as a Royal Navy brat. After his father, ‘the Commander’, was forced out of military service and into a generally discontented civilian existence as an accountant, he grew into adolescence as part of the ‘lower-upper-middle class’, which Orwell, reflecting on his own background, once described as the most miserable of the British classes. Hitchens’s mother, Yvonne, could be described as a kind of postwar petit-bourgeois striver; her ambitions were channeled into securing upward mobility for her two children, Christopher and his younger brother, Peter.

Yvonne and the Commander scrimped so that their progeny could attend prestigious prep schools and thereby gain entry into the likes of Oxford, thus opening the door to the world of the English gentleman. (Apparently unfulfilled in her personal life and hiding her own Jewish past, Hitchens’ mother committed suicide along with her lover in Athens in 1973, ostensibly on their way to Israel.) Like his beloved Orwell, Hitchens was what they call ‘a scholarship boy’, and as such was continually in need of distinguishing himself among the cohort of imperial issue who literally took the world as their birthright. A razor-sharp mind and an equally well-honed expressive capacity became primary tools in that effort.

A couple of times in the book, Hitchens remarks on his being a late bloomer, and so it is that some will see the core of Hitch-22 as the story of the author’s inner journey in adulthood from firebrand ’60s campus radical to geezery Tory of the Anglo-American variety. It’s a familiar Baby Boomer trope, of course (The Big Chill, anyone?), but one whose narrative trajectory has a longer history within modern liberal thought. (As 19th century historian and statesman Francois Guizot said: “Not to be a republican [in the 1789 French Revolutionary sense] at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.”)

For Hitchens, disaffection with state socialism came first, the initial stirring of which appeared during a trip to Cuba in 1968 that coincided with the Soviet crackdown in Czechoslovakia. A committed Trotskyite at the time, the young Hitchens embraced the idea of ‘the revolution within the revolution’ without much need for further examination of conscience. Increasingly, the perceived ossification of the New Left into various forms of political correctness came to constrain Hitchens’s intellectual free ranging. The final straw was September 11 and the subsequent mobilization toward the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Anyone who has even passing familiarity with Hitchens’ writing and reputation knows the role he played in vociferously supporting the war from what was then his position on the left. His chapter on Iraq is the book’s longest, and it traces his evolution on the subject. It begins with an explanation of his 1976 article published in the New Statesman opining on Saddam Hussein, then Iraqi vice president, as a potential progressive leader. To be sure, from the perspective of a Western post-colonialist writer, a theoretically modernizing secularist would have seemed on the face of it an improvement over either exploitation under British Imperial rule on the one hand and the repression of fundamentalist Arab monarchy on the other.

It took a bit for Hitchens to recognize that Hussein was an evil psycho, but in his telling he was already there on that point well before the saber rattling began on the part of George W. Bush & Co. For Hitchens, a self-professed intellectual in the Enlightenment tradition, Hussein’s irrational absolutism and, maybe even more troubling, his unholy alliance-of-convenience with Islamic religious fundamentalism, sealed his condemnation. Citing Orwell, Hitchens observed in the wake of September 11 (and I can’t remember if it was the next week during the New School graduate class meeting he mentions in the book or later at the Cedar Bar in the Village before he headed out on assignment to Afghanistan) that every issue has those who are on the side of progress and those who are against it.

Though Hitchens doesn’t specifically say so, throwing his lot in with the neocons and other war hawks appears to be a case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. While he does have harsh words for the malfeasance of the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the war, he maintains his satisfaction with the outcome. (As he glibly put it on Bill Maher’s program a while back, ‘right idea, wrong execution’.)

Many liberal readers likely won’t find Hitchens’ explication persuasive. For one thing, there’s his defense of Paul Wolfowitz and also of Ahmad Chalaby. (There’s the old saying, ‘If you lie down with dogs you will get up with fleas’.) More disconcerting, however, is the begrudging acceptance of the clusterfuck created in Iraq by the minions of what Naomi Klein calls ‘disaster capitalism’ (which anyone with the intellectual capacity of a Christopher Hitchens must recognize as Empire in its postmodern guise) as a regrettable but on balance tolerable consequence in liberating the people of Iraq from Hussein’s despotic rule.

A possible defense in this regard is the extremely long-term perspective articulated in Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay ’Idea for a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View’: that humankind’s ‘unsociable sociability’ (Kant’s term for the brute survival instinct with which nature has endowed the species) will dialectically lead to a rational civil order in the end. That seems like small consolation to the millions whose lives and/or livelihoods are sacrificed in the meantime.

A Self-Imposed Tutelage

A thread that runs throughout Hitch-22 is the author’s lifelong attempt to intellectually keep ‘two sets of books’ or as he alternatively puts it ‘have it both ways’. Early on this took the form of seeking out alternative positions even within oppositional points of view (i.e., the revolution within the revolution). This earned him the title ‘contrarian’, a label he rejects.

A less judgmental, though albeit more pedantic, assessment would again come from Kant, in this case his essay also from 1784, ’What is Enlightenment?’ In particular, it has to do with Kant’s idea of enlightenment as one’s emergence from ‘self-imposed immaturity’, (in German selbstverschuldeten sometimes translated ‘self-imposed tutelage’), or put more simply daring to think for oneself. What some will interpret as an opportunistic move from left to right, Hitchens simply sees as coming into his own.

Photo (partial) by © Christian Witkin

In the book’s conclusion, Hitchens notes his desire to always repudiate ‘the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics’. The embrace of continual doubt and self-criticism is what constitutes the eponymous Hitch-22. This struck a chord in that I’d been reading 20th century German political philosopher Carl Schmidt right before taking up Hitchens’ memoir.

Schmidt is famous (or should I say infamous) for his concept of the ‘total’ state from which the term totalitarianism derives. Schmidt is also known for his analysis in the 1922 book Political Theology of the state of exception, the unforeseen calamitous circumstance, provided for in Article 48 of the Weimer Constitution, allowing the executive branch to assume sovereign power in order to ensure political and social stability.

Adolf Hitler invoked Article 48 in suspending democratic authority to establish the Nationalist Socialist government. It’s a principle also explored by Bush Administration advisors (who, one must remember, prominently included Paul Wolfowitz) as evidenced by rumors floated regarding the use of the wartime emergency as a rationale for possibly canceling national elections in the US and the more palpable efforts at expanding presidential power and curtailing individual civil liberties under the theory of the ‘unitary executive’.

More relevant, however, is the argument made in another of Schmidt’s books from the ’20s, Political Romanticism, which did more to explain the vagaries of Christopher Hitchens than this memoir or anything else the man has put forth. According to Schmidt, the most important ideal of romanticism is preservation of the autonomous self. Hence the hallmarks of the romantic are irony and aesthetics as defense mechanisms against any and all external forces impinging upon the individual. It consists among other things in the ‘poeticizing of politics’, treating political events as occasions for ‘romantic productivity’, that is, expressions of individual creativity of which punditry is an example par excellence. It also manifests itself in a refusal to ultimately commit, keeping oneself safe from the damaging emotional effects of uncomfortable realities.

This also explains the one thing Hitchens has never suspended: his militant atheism, perhaps most notably documented in the bestseller god Is Not Great, which was nominated for the National Book Award. (Although I’m not sure why, it’s neither particularly well written nor well argued. For some fine Hitchens writing, pick up Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere.) As Schmidt notes, secularism underlies romanticism in that it removes God as the transcendent principal of the universe and replaces him/her/it/whatever with the individual transcendental ego. (There’s that damned Kant again!)

None of this is to say that Hitch-22 isn’t good reading. There are withering criticisms, amusing quips, and trenchant observations galore. Just think twice about taking it much to heart.