Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq, and the Left by Cottee & Cushman, Eds.

How could 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?

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

Publisher: NYU Press
ISBN: 0814716873
Contributors: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Seymour, Gary Malone, Juan Cole, George Scialabba
Author: Editors
Price: $22.95
Display Artist: Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, Editors
Length: 392
Formats: Paperback
US publication date: 2008-06

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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