March 1, 2005
If a Hall of Fame were established for contemporary book reviewers – well, why not? There’s one for ad executives, real estate salesmen, and probably porn stars – Christopher Hitchens would very likely be its second inductee. (James Wood, of course, would be the first.) About an amazing range of literary and political figures – Proust, Joyce, Borges, Byron, Bellow, Orhan Pamuk, Tom Paine, Trotsky, Churchill, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Israel Shahak, and a hundred others – he has supplied the basic information, limned the relevant controversies, hazarded an original perception or two, and bestowed half a dozen fine phrases, causing between fifteen and forty-five minutes of reading time to pass entirely unnoticed. His very, very frequent political columns have occasionally seemed tossed off, it’s true; but his books about Cyprus, the Palestinians, the British monarchy, and the Elgin marbles are seriously argued. He lives in Washington and is said to be very fond of fancy parties, but he has famously insulted and called for the incarceration of a sitting President and an ubiquitously befriended diplomat and Nobel laureate. And he gets to appear on all those fatuously self-important TV talk shows without wearing a tie. How can you not admire someone like that?
Actually, it’s not so difficult, I’ve discovered. All the someone in question has to do is begin thinking differently from me about a few important matters, and in no time I find that his qualities have subtly metamorphosed. His abundance of colorful anecdotes now looks like incessant and ingenious self-promotion. His marvelous copiousness and fluency sound like mere mellifluous facility and mechanical prolixity. A prose style I thought deliciously suave and sinuous I now find preening and over-elaborate. His fearless cheekiness has become truculent bravado; his name-dropping has gone from endearing foible to excruciating tic; his extraordinary dialectical agility seems like resourceful and unscrupulous sophistry; his entertaining literary asides like garrulousness and vulgar display; his bracing contrariness, tiresome perversity. Strange, this alteration of perspective; and even stranger, it sometimes occurs to me that if he changed his opinions again and agreed with me, all his qualities would once more reverse polarity and appear in their original splendor. A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking.
Then again, it’s not just his changing his mind that’s got my goat. His and my hero Dwight Macdonald did that often enough. But one may do it gracefully or gracelessly. Even when all the provocations Hitchens has endured are acknowledged (especially the not-infrequent hint that booze has befogged his brain), they don’t excuse his zeal not merely to correct his former comrades but to bait, ridicule, and occasionally slander them, caricaturing their arguments and questioning their good faith. Not having recognized a truth formerly ought to make you more patient, not less, with people who do not recognize it now; and less certain, not more, that whoever you currently disagree with is contemptibly benighted. Besides, if you must discharge such large quantities of remonstrance and sarcasm, shouldn’t you consider saving a bit more of them for your disagreements – he must still have some, though they’re less and less frequently voiced, these days) with those who control the three branches of government and own the media and other means of production?
Hitchens might want to insist, contrarily, that although he has changed his allies, he has not changed his opinions. Unlike, say, David Horowitz, he still believes that the Cold War was an inter-imperial rivalry, the Vietnam War was immoral, the overthrow of Allende was infamous, and American support for Mobutu, Suharto, the Greek colonels, the Guatemalan and Salvadoran generals, the Shah of Iran, and the Israeli dispossession of Palestinians was and is indefensible. He still believes in progressive taxation, the New Deal, vigilant environmental, occupational-safety, and consumer-protection regulation, unions (or some form of worker self-organization), and in general, firm and constant opposition to the very frequent efforts of the rich and their agents to grind the faces of the poor. It’s just that he now cordially despises most of the people who actively proclaim or advocate these things. Why?
It began with the Balkan wars. Hitchens supported NATO intervention, in particular the bombing of Serbia in March 1999. Some of his opponents on the left argued that NATO gave up too easily on (or indeed sabotaged) diplomacy, was wrong not to seek UN authorization to use force, and may have precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe (the flight and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians after the bombing began) that might not otherwise have occurred. Hitchens replied furiously – though not, by and large, to these arguments; rather, to other ones, either non-existent or easier to refute: e.g., opposition “in principle in any case to any intervention,” or insistence that in view of its imperialist past the United States could never in any circumstances be a force for good. His most reflective comments did seem to take his opponents’ point: “Skeptical though one ought to be about things like the reliance of NATO on air power and the domination of the UN by the nuclear states, the ‘double standard’ may still be made to operate against itself.” But such moments were few.
Since 9/11, reflectiveness and skepticism have gone on holiday from his political writing. Logic and good manners have also frequently called in sick. “Embattled” is too mild a description of his state of mind; it’s been inflamed. Those who returned different answers than he did to the questions “Why did 9/11 happen?” and “What should we do about it?” were not to be taken seriously. They were Osama’s useful idiots, “soft on crime and soft on fascism,” their thinking “utterly rotten to its very core.”
What provoked that last epithet was a suggestion that “Bin Laden could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem … and the US stopped the sanctions and bombing of Iraq.” Hitchens went ballistic. The hapless fool who wrote this, he thundered, either “knows what was in the minds of the murderers,” in which case “it is his solemn responsibility to inform us of the source of his information, and also to share it with the authorities,” or else he doesn’t know, in which case it is “rash” and “indecent” to speculate.
Hitchens proceeds to speculate. Al-Qaida, like their allies the Taliban, aim first “to bring their own societies under the reign of the most pitiless and inflexible declension of shari’a law,” and then, since they regard all unbelievers as “fit only for slaughter and contempt,” they will seek to “spread the contagion and visit hell upon the unrighteous.” Talk of “Muslim grievances” is rubbish; al-Qaida’s only grievance is that they have not yet enslaved the whole world. Jihad means, simply, the obligatory conquest or destruction of everything outside Islam.
Hitchens has asserted this insistently: for him, to talk about “grievances expressed by the people of the Middle East” in connection with 9/11 is obscene. Bin-Laden and al-Qaida are “medieval fanatics”; they “wish us ill”; no more need be said. To presume to “lend an ear to the suppressed and distorted cry for help that comes, not from the victims, but from the perpetrators” just amounts to “rationalizing” terror. Denouncing one’s opponents as soft on terror has been the first or last resort of many scoundrels in the political debates of the last few decades in America. (Actually, it’s such a dubious tactic that even the scoundrels don’t usually get further than broad hints.) One is surprised to see Hitchens doing it. But even more important: Is he right about al-Qaida? Does he know “what was in the minds of the murderers”?
In Imperial Hubris and its predecessor Through Our Enemies’ Eyes, veteran CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, former head of the Agency’s al-Qaida task force, writes:
Bin Laden and most militant Islamists [are] motivated by … their hatred for a few, specific US policies and actions they believe are damaging – and threatening to destroy – the things they love. Theirs is a war against a specific target and for specific, limited purposes. While they will use whatever weapon comes to hand – including weapons of mass destruction – their goal is not to wipe out our secular democracy, but to deter us by military means from attacking the things they love. Bin Laden et al are not eternal warriors; there is no evidence that they are fighting for fighting’s sake, or that they would be lost for things to do without a war to wage.
… To understand the perspective of the [tens or hundreds of millions of] supporters of Bin Laden, we must accept that there are many Muslims in the world who believe that US foreign policy is irretrievably biased in favor of Israel, trigger happy in attacking the poor and ill-defended Muslim countries, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and so forth; rapacious in controlling and consuming the Islamic world’s energy resources; blasphemous in allowing Israel to occupy Jerusalem and US troops to be based in Saudi Arabia; and hypocritical and cruel in its denial of Palestinian rights, use of economic sanctions against the Muslim people of Iraq, and support for the Muslim world’s absolutist kings and dictators.
For holding essentially these views about Al-Qaida’s motives, Hitchens’s leftist opponents were labeled apologists, rationalizers, and eager excusers of terror. A few moments’ reflection and/or a few grains of knowledge would have saved him from indulging in these slurs, so damaging to his reputation for fairness and urbanity (insofar, that is, as anyone cares about slanders against leftists). But although his prose has retained its poise since 9/11, his thinking has not.
On and on Hitchens’s polemics against the left have raged, a tempest of inaccuracy, illogic, and malice. Naomi Klein opines that since most Iraqis agree with the insurgents at least in wanting an end to the occupation, the US should end it. Without disputing her premise, Hitchens condemns her “nasty, stupid” conclusion as an “endorsement of jihad,” “applause for the holy warriors,” “swooning support for theocratic fascism.” He jeers repeatedly at the antiwar left for having predicted that Saddam would use WMD against a US invasion, conveniently forgetting that what the left actually said was: If, as the Administration insists without evidence, Saddam has WMD, then the most likely scenario for their use is against a US invasion.” And that was true. He fiercely ridicules the antiwar argument that there was no contact and no sympathy between Saddam and al-Qaida – only that wasn’t the argument. The argument was that it was so unlikely Saddam would entrust weapons of mass destruction to al-Qaida or any other uncontrollable agent that the United States was not justified in invading Iraq in order to prevent it. And that was true too. He continually deplores leftwing “isolationism,” even though his opponents are, on the contrary, trying to remind Americans that the UN Charter is the most solemn international agreement ever made (“the first universal social contract,” Hitchens’s friend Erskine Childers once observed to him), embodying the deep, desperate hope of the weaker nations that the stronger ones will someday submit themselves consistently to the rule of law; while the Bush administration is – not reluctantly but purposefully – undermining it. “The antiwar left,” Hitchens scoffs, “used to demand the lifting of sanctions without conditions, which would only have gratified Saddam Hussein and his sons and allowed them to rearm.” Not quite true – all leftists agreed that import restrictions on military materials were justified. But more important, a gratified Saddam would not have been the “only” result of ending sanctions. Besides killing hundreds of thousands, the sanctions left Iraqi society helpless, disorganized, and dependent on the state, thus blocking the most likely and legitimate path to regime change – the path followed in Romania, Haiti, Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines, and other dictatorships, all of them more broadly based, and all (except South Korea) ruling poorer and less-educated societies, than pre-sanctions Iraq. Really, one could almost get the idea that Hitchens thinks the antiwar left doesn’t care every goddamned bit as much as he and the neocons about the sufferings of Iraqis.
About any sufferings that cannot serve as a pretext for American military intervention, moreover, Hitchens appears to have stopped caring. (Given how much he writes, and in how many places, if he hasn’t mentioned something for several years, it doesn’t seem unfair to assume he’s stopped caring about it.) He is “a single-issue person at present,” he wrote in endorsing President Bush for reelection. This issue, compared with which everything else is “not even in second or third place,” is “the tenacious and unapologetic defense of civilized societies against the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism.” The invasion of Iraq is a justified act of self-defense against clerical barbarism, and the Bush administration is to be praised and supported for undertaking it.
A lot of suffering people would disagree, I think – and not just the perennial ones, betrayed by every US administration: the tens of millions who die annually for lack of clean water, cheap vaccines, mosquito nets, or another thousand daily calories while the US devotes 0.2 percent of its GDP (one-thirtieth of its military budget and less than one-tenth the cost so far of invading Iraq) to international aid. These unfortunates are mostly not part of a “civilized society under attack from clerical barbarism,” so they’re out of luck. No, I mean a new class of suffering people, specifically attributable to the new tenacious and unapologetic compassionate conservatism. From its first days in office the Bush administration has made clear its determination to reverse as much as possible of the modest progress made in the 20th century toward public provision for the unfortunate, public encouragement of worker, consumer, and neighborhood self-organization, public influence on the daily operation of government and access to the record of its activities, public protection of the commons, and public restraint of concentrated financial and corporate power – not only at home but also, to the (considerable, given American power) extent feasible, abroad. And from the first weeks after 9/11, as Paul Krugman and many others have documented, the Administration has found ways to take advantage of that atrocity to achieve its fundamental goals. The results, now and in the future, of this return to unfettered, predatory capitalism have been and will be a really vast amount of suffering. Enough, one would think, to be worth mentioning in the second or third place, after the dangers of clerical barbarism. Not a word from Hitchens, however, at least in print. Perhaps he is whispering a few words about these matters in the ear of the “bleeding heart” (Hitchens’s description) Paul Wolfowitz and his other newly adopted neoconservative allies.
From Hitchens, this silence is very peculiar. Another one is equally so. The South African critic and historian R. W. Johnson once alluded to George Orwell’s “simple detestation of untruth.” Hitchens – who has written very well about Orwell – was once thought (and not only by me) to feel the same way. No One Left to Lie To, his finely indignant critique of Bill Clinton’s “contemptible evasions” about his sexual predations and even more contemptible efforts to intimidate potential accusers, convinced many of us that Clinton should have resigned and faced criminal prosecution or at least been served with a sealed indictment at the end of his second term. (Hitchens rightly didn’t try to make a case that impeachment, properly limited to official misfeasance, was warranted.) It’s a short book, though, pocket-size and with only 103 pages of text. You would need more than that just for a preface to an adequate critique of the lies of the Bush administration. As the journalist Paul Waldman has remarked: “Bush tells more lies about policy in a week than Bill Clinton did in eight years.” He has lied about taxes, budgets, and deficits; about employment statistics; about veterans’ benefits; about the Social Security trust fund and the costs of privatization; about climate change; about environmental policy; about oil drilling in the Arctic; about the California electricity crisis; about stem-cell research; about Enron and Harken; about the Florida recount process in November 2000; about his National Guard service and his record as governor of Texas; and about most of his political opponents. And then there are his lies about Iraq. The Bush administration is the most ambitiously and skillfully dishonest pack of liars in American history, probably by a large margin. And since 9/11, Hitchens has never said a mumbling world about it.
Why? What accounts for Hitchens’s astonishing loss of moral and intellectual balance? I think he had a plausible and even creditable reason. Anyone intelligent enough to understand that there are institutional and structural, not merely contingent, constraints on the behavior of states will also understand how difficult it is to budge those constraints and produce a fundamental change in policy. To make the United States an effective democracy – to shift control over the state from the centers of financial and industrial power, now global in reach, to broadly based, self-financed and self-governing groups of active citizens with only average resources – will take several generations, at least. This is a daunting prospect for just about anyone.
For someone of Hitchens’s generous and romantic temperament, it is potentially demoralizing. The temptation to believe that this long, slow process could be speeded up if only he could find and ally himself with a faction of sympathetic souls close to the seat of executive power who really understood – i.e., the neoconservatives, the only ones, Hitchens has written, willing to take “the radical risk of regime change” – must have been overpowering.
And why not? It is hardly dishonorable to try to influence even arbitrary, undemocratic power in a more humane direction. Hitchens has rebuked the American left for its supposedly intransigent refusal to consider supporting the American government in any military undertaking “unless it had done everything right, and done it for everybody.” He is mistaken. Here is Noam Chomsky, at the end of a lengthy essay on humanitarian intervention:
The conclusions that a rational observer will draw about [the probable motives of] US-led “humanitarian intervention” do not answer the question whether such intervention should nevertheless be undertaken. That is a separate matter, to be faced without illusions about our unique nobility. We can, in short, ask whether the pursuit of self-interest might happen to benefit others in particular cases, or whether unremitting public pressure might overcome the demands of the principal architects of policy and the interests they serve.
I think this is exactly right. It was as plain as day to me (and no matter what Hitchens may say, I can’t help suspecting it was equally plain to him) that the Bush administration’s chief purposes in invading Iraq were: to establish a commanding military presence in the region where the most important natural resource in the world is located; to turn a large and potentially rich country into a virtually unregulated investors’ paradise; to impress the rest of the world once again with America’s insuperable lead in military technology; to exploit the near-universal hatred of Saddam to legitimize (by establishing a precedent for) the doctrine of unilateral American military intervention expounded in the National Security Strategy Document of September 2002; and to unify the electorate behind an administration that was making a hash of the economy and the environment in order to reward its campaign contributors. Still, this is not why I opposed the war. If I had not also believed that the invasion would strike a sledgehammer blow at most of the world’s fragile hopes for international order and the rule of law, I might have calculated that, whatever the government’s motives, the potentially huge expenditure of lives and money it contemplated would be better employed in removing Saddam than in, say, providing clean water, cheap vaccines, mosquito nets, etc. to the wretched invisibles, and so saving tens of millions of lives. Not likely, but it would have been a decision based on calculation rather than principle.
Even at their easiest, such calculations are excruciating. Weighing immediate costs and benefits is hard enough; figuring in the effects of setting a good or bad precedent, though often just as important, is devilish hard. The conscientious have always struggled with these difficulties, and sometimes lost patience with them. Randolph Bourne, criticizing the New Republic liberals of his era for supporting America’s entry into World War I, wondered
whether realism is always a stern and intelligent grappling with realities. May it not sometimes be a mere surrender to the actual, an abdication of the ideal through a sheer fatigue from intellectual suspense? …
… With how many of the acceptors of war has it been mostly a dread of intellectual suspense? It is a mistake to suppose that intellectuality makes for suspended judgments. The intellect craves certitude. It takes effort to keep it supple and pliable. In a time of danger and disaster we jump desperately for some dogma to cling to. The time comes, if we try to hold out, when our nerves are sick with fatigue, and we seize in a great healing wave of release some doctrine that can be immediately translated into action.
(“War and the Intellectuals”)
Compare Hitchens’s widely quoted response to 9/11: “I felt a kind of exhilaration … at last, a war of everything I loved against everything I hated.” More recently, explaining to Nation readers last November “Why I’m (Slightly) for Bush,” he testified again to the therapeutic value of his new commitment: “Myself, I have made my own escape from your self-imposed quandary. Believe me when I say … the relief is unbelievable.” I believe him.
Will Hitchens ever regain his balance? Near the end of his Bush endorsement, Hitchens defiantly assures his former Nation readers that “once you have done it” – abandoned cowardly and equivocating left-wing “isolationism” and made common cause with Republicans in their “willingness to risk a dangerous confrontation with an untenable and indefensible status quo” – there is “no going back.” Well, it wouldn’t be easy. After heavy-handedly insulting so many political opponents, misrepresenting their positions and motives, and generally making an egregious ass of himself, it would require immense, almost inconceivable courage for Hitchens to acknowledge that he went too far; that his appreciation of the sources and dangers of Islamic terrorism was neither wholly accurate nor, to the extent it was accurate, exceptional; that he was mistaken about the purposes and likely effects of the strategy he associated himself with and preached so sulfurously; and that there is no honorable alternative to – no “relief” to be had from – the frustrations of always keeping the conventional wisdom at arm’s length and speaking up instead for principles that have as yet no powerful constituents. But it would be right.