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Reflections on Hitchens

2010 June 19

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is credited with coining a great truism of modern public intellect: “If you are invited to debate Christopher Hitchens, decline.” And indeed, Hitchens’ turns of phrase and eloquent arguments have wilted many a thenceforth-brilliant flower since his entry into the world of the print polemic some forty years ago. Why then his often charming, sometimes trite, new memoir should bear the insipid and discouraging title “Hitch 22” is anyone’s guess (for ones memoirs, at least, an author owns responsibility for the title; I will not in this case abide the customary editor-blaming charade). But of why he has chosen to write it, everyone can be relatively certain.

After a long and esteemed career as a writer for various leftist publications (and an activist for the causes advocated therein), Hitchens severed a great many ties, estranged a substantial number of friends and gained a considerable amount of fame, wealth and exposure by endorsing early and often the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Most prominently in a series of polemics published by Slate (and later compiled in a book entitled “A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq”) and in public debates, Hitchens doubled and tripled down on the position that it was not only defensible and appropriate, but necessary and crucial that the United States relieve Saddam Hussein of his rule by any means, notwithstanding the demonstrable falseness of the claims that overthrow’s executors made in order to sell the public on the idea.

It was not just firm conviction, though doubtless that, but almost certainly too vanity and a need to be seen as having explained himself that set Hitchens out on his next polemical slash-and-burn campaign, against faith and its possessors, with the release of “god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.” If the case could be made strongly enough that the great cause of today was defeating a dangerous Islamism, at the moment the greatest threat to civilization posed by all the barbaric religions of the world, then Hitchens’ support for the war would, by syllogism (or slight of hand) be vindicated. Failing that, a memoir would do rather nicely, its scope set out primarily to detail his former participation in and gradual disillusionment with the leftist movement. The book culminates in a chapter on changing ones mind, which leaves no doubt that this book, as the previous (and the one before that) was meant to impress, “The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time.”

Now, that doesn’t sound so right-wing does it? You’d sooner expect to read that from Brecht, who said many similar things, than a man allied with born-again Christian George W. Bush and loathsome evangelical fraud Jerry Falwell (whose death inspired Hitchens’ greatest televised missive) on the matter of what to do about Iraq. As it happens, a confederacy of strange bedfellows composes what is almost meaninglessly called the “neoconservative” movement. The least common denominator one can discern about the shared policy views of these people is a conviction that American military intervention into other countries is a right and proper response to an opportunity to advance American interests, whether an imminent threat exists or not.

The left’s critique of this view is unimpeachable when “American interests” means the enrichment of American corporations at the expense of the lives and limbs of soldiers, American and otherwise and, worst of all, civilians (the definition I would confidently posit is Dick Cheney’s at heart, so to speak). But the question gets slightly murkier, and the left’s critique could use some refinement, when “American interests” means the promotion of democracy and secularism in areas beset by tyranny and religious fundamentalism. This is obviously the definition animating Hitchens’ position and also that of his friend, the enormously courageous Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Absent the bad intent, a different picture begins to emerge.

By way of understanding the view, it is useful to consider it in the terms articulated by my fine colleague at The Busy Signal, Matt Hunte. Consider the left’s insistence that the sovereignty of nations should trump American attempts to combat human rights atrocities the international equivalent of a “states rights” argument. It is obvious to any serious leftist that the American South’s racist policies were morally and philosophically intolerable and federal intervention into state policy was virtuous and reasonable. The repulsiveness of Dixie’s racism forfeited its states’ sovereignty. Apply the same argument, then, to the geopolitical scene, and you have the “neoconservative” principle. To be sure, this view is seductive, or would be, at any rate, were it not for several glaring facts.

Firstly, the burden of intervention in the South was on a federal government, not on a single mega-power (say, New York) which appointed itself not only the arbiter of what was worth intervention but also the intervener itself. That the United Nations was unwilling or unable to provide for an international army to oust Saddam Hussein does not devolve authority upon the United States, or upon any other country.

Secondly, it is not at all clear that American invasion and occupation is, after all, capable of transforming a dictatorship into a meaningful democracy. What, for instance, says Hitchens now of Afghanistan, whose expansive mountainous land is largely under the grip of medieval clans characterized by a prehistorically unsophisticated tribal chauvinism and whose capital city, the only one controlled by American forces, calls Hamid Karzai its leader, the vulgar, sniggering CIA plant whose patience for democracy is second only to his opposition to corruption for its impoverishment. In the likeliest scenario, the more palatable elements of the Taliban (can we say there is such a thing?) will regain control of a substantial amount of the country, the country thrust right back into the types of dire poverty and municipal vacuum that create pristinely the conditions for fanatical religion. How has this battleground fared in the war of civilization against its enemies?

Furthermore, if democracy in Iraq is so tenuous that it requires indefinite military occupation – with no end in sight, seven years after the initial conquest – to prevent its dissolution, perhaps there were better means by which to bring it about. As the normally odious Norman Mailer warned in the days before the Iraq invasion, “Fascism is more of a natural state than democracy. To assume blithely that we can export democracy into any country we choose can serve paradoxically to encourage more fascism at home and abroad. Democracy is a state of grace that is attained only by those countries who have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it.” The facts seem to confirm his convictions, no matter how fervently Hitchens feels “a bit naïve… and somewhat betrayed” about his previous conviction that “democracy could not be imposed, but it could be released and let grow.” What if a democratic revolution of the type Hitchens has admired in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere could be fermented and brought to a boil by acts of international (intellectual, pedagogical, dissident) subterfuge? It is for greater thinkers than I can claim to be to devise the plan, but I have seen no evidence that such planning would be counterproductive or for naught. To the contrary, all evidence impresses that a non-military solution to international conflicts and human rights abuses is our very best and perhaps only hope.

Next, Iraq was at best a second-rate target, if the goal is “the defense of science and reason,” “the great imperative of our time.” However grotesque and authoritarian the violence was that Saddam Hussein wrought on Iraq, there is no persuasive case to be made that his regime was at the head of the international Wahabbist and Salafist movements. Deposing Hussein did not, therefore, constitute a decapitation thereof. Rather, the prosecutors of the invasion and occupation of Iraq are the best friends of the Saudi royals who oversee the least free country in the world, a contest it wins by miles, despite the steep competition. America’s partner to Iraq’s west is also the hotbed of that most unattractive marriage (oil wealth, geo-political clout and religious radicalism) that so endangers freedom in the world.

To such critiques as these (the Hussein-is-only-one-bad-guy-of-many arguments), Hitchens retorts, “How many bad guys could they name who had violated the genocide convention on their own territory, invaded two neighboring states, openly financed suicide bombing, sought and nearly acquired nuclear capacity and were within easy reach of 9 percent of the world’s energy reserves?” Off the top of my head, one country especially comes to mind, and it is the country over which I am traveling as I write this, on a flight that began in New York and is to conclude in San Francisco. Lest this seem flip or crass, I shall be happy to produce sometime a neoconservative argument for the overthrow and foreign occupation of these United States. Clearly, it won’t do to make compare between such repression as exists in America and Hussein’s brutality, but rules are still rules, and if Hitchens means to invoke standards and benchmarks, I feel enjoined to finish the thought. (Would China, citing American crimes here and worldwide, have, by Hitchens’ standard, the rights to invade and occupy us on an indefinite basis and to implement its political elites’ preferred form of “regime change?”)

There are, after all, laws that set out explicitly the grounds upon which a nation surrenders its sovereignty and makes itself vulnerable to international military intervention. Hitchens has been the best at making a case that Iraq meets all the provisions, but his argument hinges upon the question, and draws its life from the exaggeration, of Saddam’s weaponry. It feels condescending to have to commend the manifold studies, reports and investigations to Hitchens’ prodigious attention; they all support the conclusion that Iraq did not have, nor was significantly far along the road to acquiring, the type of armaments the neoconservatives warned of. (There is also a very simple test of this: if Saddam were indeed possessed of a terrifying arsenal, surely the advance of the most awesome military in world history occasioned a prudent instance to deploy it. That American deaths in Iraq have resulted from roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices belies the neoconservatives’ claims). Hitchens might, as a constitutionalist, have come down on the side that questioned America’s authority to deem which violations merited war and which didn’t. Instead, he joined the likes of his great nemesis Henry Kissinger in affirming America’s right to do whatever the hell it damn well pleased.

Lastly, there is the not at all incidental contention that, however noble Hitchens and Ali’s reasons for coveting Hussein’s toppling, they were not executing the war. That honor belonged to people who had time and again shown themselves to be enemies of democracy. Long a coverer of capitalistic exploitation of the third world, Hitchens had spent a life on the vanguard of reporters exposing anti-democratic American actions in Latin America, Southeast Asia, North Africa and elsewhere. He knew Cheney, Rumsfeld and their philosophical brethren to be perfectly happy to dispense with the freedom of the wretched in favor of the profits of the powerful. And he nonetheless convinced himself that a regard for liberty and equality animated their insistence that a war was necessary (“What great self-persuaders we all are,” Hitchens says of some other thing in the memoir).

This is whom Hichens chose to throw his considerable intellectual heft behind, and it’s a real pity too, because we could use so eloquent a defender of freedom on the side of opposition to this gross imperialism. As a result, partly, of his collusion with the profit-driven wing of the neoconservative cadre, Hitchens was able to sell to his adopted country a war that has made the United States now profoundly unable to raise dukes against actual Islamic supremacy, not just militarily – if you please to deal with it that way – but especially in light of America’s diminished standing with its potential democratic and secular allies in the region.

The burden remains upon neoconservatives, even those as admirable of purpose and character as Hitchens and Ali, to answer: “Why America?” What about it makes it so righteous that it is conferred with the revolting triple title of judge, jury and executioner? I’m afraid no amount of hagiography about the slave-rapist Thomas Jefferson and exultation of the absence of an official church will be sufficient to outweigh America’s rather brutal history of discrimination, invasion, support for dictatorships and so forth. Part of Hitchens’ doctrine, which his friend and sometime debate partner Stephen Fry calls “secular humanism,” is “secular” – i.e. a defense of the principles of The Enlightenment and opposition to their two great enemies, tyranny and faith – but the other part is “humanism” – and that requires a defense of people from the wealthy, powerful interests that exploit and abuse them. It takes some effort in the full view of history to cast the U.S. military as the hero in the first case and almost none at all to cast it as the villain in the second.

It is clear that intention affects results in matters of this sort. Were the motivation behind the war truly democracy, human rights and justice rather than wealth, hegemony and dominance, then Guantanamo Bay, Fallujah, Nisour Square, Bagram Airbase, Abu Ghraib, &c. would not indicate abuses; the mission doctrinally and emotionally would preempt the types of evils that have given us such distaste for those words. No such atrocities arose, for instance, from the South African popular expulsion of Apartheid. When a moral stance motivates the mission, it tends to be a morally enacted mission; when profit margin motivates the mission, all moral bets are off. (The case of Japanese internment in America during the Second World War, I would submit, betrays an incomplete commitment to democracy on the part of the Roosevelt Administration, which, by and large, seems indeed to have been acting out of an insistence that democracy not be conquered by fascism. Purity of heart on this matter would not have admitted of such a possibility.)

I should like to make the point that the things which undermine Hitchens’ case are not ideological or even really political, so much as logical and realistic. After all, one can imagine a United States that really is a reliable force for morality, justice, equality, truth, peace, freedom, democracy, reason and civilization. And one can imagine such a country getting rid of an atrocious dictator. One, to round out the experiment, can imagine a working and a democratic society, with all the educational, civic and social institutions that mark a civilized country, emerging from the fray. And those who supported the policy would not rightly, no pun intended, be accused of conservatism. One thing that strikes the reader of Hitch 22 is that, however much Hitchens has disassociated himself with his previous affiliations (and, of course, Trotskyist ideology), his views on specific issues and crises hasn’t much changed. Neoconservatism, of the sort practiced by Hitchens and Ali, might be leftist after all, in its way.

Hitchens has often remarked that Iraq should have been the left’s war. (Another Christopher affiliated with The Nation – Hayes, this – has, relatedly, called absurd the conservatives who claim simultaneously that the U.S. government cannot feasibly provide universal health care, as conservatives indeed claim, but can build civil societies and political institutions in states where none exist to speak of.) And his memoir offers every indication that Hitchens retains much of his former belief.

Take this passage, for instance, about him and his comrades at university: “But we knew that the highest point ever reached by European civilization was in the city of Basel in 1912, when the leaders of the socialist parties of all countries met to coordinate an opposition to the coming World War… The violence and disruption of a socialist transformation in those years would have been infinitely less than the insane sacrifice of culture to barbarism, and the Nazism and Stalinism that ensued from it. This feeling seemed absolutely authentic to me at the time. (As a matter of fact it still does.)”

Or this one: “It became evident that the only historical revolution with any verve left in it, or any example to offer others, was the American one. (Marx and Engels, who wrote so warmly about the United States and who were Lincoln’s strongest supporters in Europe, and who so much disliked the bloodiness and backwardness of Russia, might not have been either surprised or disconcerted to notice this outcome.)”

Hitchens has not rid himself of all versions of the socialist dream, nor of his regard for the brilliance of Marx’s writings and thoughts. His opposition to “Islamofascism,” the phrase he is (rather abashedly, it seems) credited with creating, is borne of a radical regard for freedom, from a desire to see peace in the world, from an opposition to the totalitarianism of theocratic governance, I daresay even from a strident feminism. In all of these, he and I are similar, and in none of these are we conservative. His foreign policy is quite radical, actually, not conservative – conservatism once holding, as libertarianism still does, that state sovereignty, protectionism and non-interventionism are paramount.

The reason to oppose Hitchens on Iraq is not, therefore, that neoconservatism is, in principle, wicked or even wrong, nor that he is right wing in a way that is unsavory. The reason to oppose him is because he got it really, devastatingly wrong. Having spent a long poker game accumulating a substantial chip-collection, he bet it all on a very shitty hand. Let’s hope that a shame-filled walk (Shame? From he who wrote, “I shall never have the least serious doubt that it was the right side to have been on?” Lots of luck.) and a glass of good scotch will put him back on track.

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