December 17, 2011
Would He or Wouldn't He?
When a genuine intellectual becomes a celebrity, there is usually some misunderstanding somewhere. The arbiters of celebrity - magazine and network executives, top editors and columnists, producers and talk show hosts, major grant-makers and prize-givers - are, by and large, as incapable of sponsoring difficulty and depth as they are of resisting glibness and facility. They may themselves appreciate intellectual distinction, but audiences must be reliably sold to advertisers, or investors will go elsewhere. Difficulty is, by definition, a hard sell.
Christopher Hitchens must often have reflected sardonically on his celebrity. Its main channels - Vanity Fair, the
What sort of thing would have brought a wince to the faces of Hitchens's patrons? In search of trademark provocations from the early Hitch, I took down two vintage collections, Prepared for the Worst and For the Sake of Argument. Pay dirt, immediately. The latter book fell open to a 1991 discussion of the
Today, the tilt is toward
Generally, it must be said that Realpolitik has been better at dividing than at ruling. Take it as a whole since Kissinger called on the Shah in 1972, and see what the harvest has been. ... [T]he forces of secularism, democracy and reform have been dealt appalling blows. And all these crimes and blunders will necessitate future wars. That is what
Implicit in these remarks is a view of American foreign policy as deeply, characteristically arrogant, callous, and deceitful. (And this only since 1972 - before that, in Indochina, it was genocidal.) Hitchens never repudiated this view, though he appeared to have forgotten that he'd once espoused it. Mightn't he have remembered one day, leafing though his old volumes, and felt a mischievous impulse to twit his new friends at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations with a reminder that their adopted darling still despised them?
A second pass at the same collection. Again, immediate success. Savaging the Perot campaign, he asks:
And where did anyone get the brainless opinion that the super-rich are too wealthy to steal? Such naivete! This is an illusion even more silly than its more attractive opposite - that the abolition of poverty would diminish crime. Since nobody in this abundant plutocracy has ever really tried to abolish poverty, we have no empirical test of the idealist proposition. But from Ford to Hughes to Iacocca and Trump and the other tycoon redeemers, we have an exact demonstration that nobody is more covetous and greedy than those who have far too much.
Surely a contrarian who remembered once writing this, while now enjoying the lavish hospitality of Vanity Fair and the Hoover Institution, would feel irresistibly tempted to remind the latter that the society they are dedicated to protecting from radical criticism is a crass plutocracy, and the former that nobody is more covetous and greedy than the rich rabble whom they celebrate from month to month?
Much deeper than any principles was Hitchens's romantic temperament. He was an average reasoner, not very rigorous or original. But he felt intensely and vividly, and he had a keen, even if erratic, moral imagination. Most to the point, he was a stubborn fucker, who liked to contradict people. It's possible that, if he'd lived to a ripe old age, he would have gone to his grave without having disturbed the self-satisfaction of his admirers among the Very Serious People. I would have bet against it. But we'll never know.