The frustrating and brilliant Christopher Hitchens
December 18, 2011 1 Comment
Christopher Hitchens is dead. How terribly un-British. British people don’t die, but rather they cease to exist.
“His best writing though, which I want to talk about, gets ignored in this analysis of his life: the writing which showed him as someone of conscience.”
The story of Christopher Hitchens here is partly my own story. I was first introduced to Hitchens’ work at 14. I had previously been limited to recounting various facts about British history and politics. If it was a party trick, then it was a pretty dull one. But his ability to be brilliant and frustratingly appalling opened up a whole new world and life to me. I hope there are others like me who had this world democratised for them by Mr. Hitchens. Even with his often elitist, name dropping writing, that at its most polemical could often completely detach itself from its audience, it somehow managed to remain accessible. Hitchens was by his own admission, somewhat of a hack. Much of the focus in his death has been in his writing abilities and his polemical stances. Those praising him see his polemical stances as part of the attraction of his writing. His detractors, particularly bearing in mind his grave mistake in supporting, and defending, what appeared to be a very different Iraq war in his mind, think his polemicism to be cynical. However, this defence or criticism of Hitchens’ “churn-churn” essay writing as Dave Weigel called it, appears to be too crude of a demarcation. He was often, undeniably, good at expressing an opinion for the sake of expressing an opinion. This was often entertaining, such as when expressing the virtues of saying the more British “fuck off” rather than “fuck you”. It was often chauvinistic and infuriating though, such as his flawed reasoning (questioning whether he actually believed it) for saying women aren’t funny. His best writing though, which I want to talk about, gets ignored in this analysis of his life: the writing which showed him as someone of conscience.
Christopher Buckley has commented this week in a touching essay about his friend that Hitchens’ writing contained soul. He correctly suggested that this was despite how much Hitchens would resent the implication. Hitchens thought of the sphere of debate as the battleground for pursuing and moving towards a more objective ‘truth’. Despite his flitting in and out of the establishment throughout his life, he maintained, at least ostensibly, a healthy sceptical attitude. He thought the media has lost its faculties for criticism and holding truth to power, stating “I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.” His flirtations with establishment figures and ideas often impacted on his own critical faculties. The critiques of systems were often lacking in comparison to the more comfortable terrain of total disdain for individual figures. But this didn’t mean an absence of conscience or soul in his pieces. It has often been stated about his writing that when he was good, there were few like him, but when his opinions were bad, few people could be more infuriating. His good writing was immediately tied up with a conscience that would affect the reader. His arguments weren’t unconventional enough to deeply affect the reader by itself. His ability to go to the core of an issue was his strength, imparting a certain morality that was able to convince to convince his audience of why the issue was important. An essay about the benefits of returning the Elgin marbles to Greece was not enough-he was able to argue why a seemingly more abstract debate was just so important, in fulfilling a certain destiny for Greece and in helping to resolve Britain’s ideas about itself in terms of empire. His arguments about Mother Teresa were perhaps the best example of this. It wasn’t enough to simply challenge her more troubling views-men and women of conscience could still have unsettling opinions. What he did was to strip away the notion of her as someone of conscience at all. The totality of his opinions that was often so damaging was the only option in this case. Mild criticisms couldn’t work: he had to expose her as a cruel, fundamentalist, fraudster, which he did in an absolutely extraordinary way. His own identity was conceived in terms of soul. He saw himself as born on the wrong side of the Atlantic. His writings on America were so very American, summing up the contradictions of the idealistic nation seeking to be “more perfect” with its crimes that have prevented it from being so (some of the crimes he brilliantly criticised, and others he was unfortunately a cheerleader for). His writings on Britain were also, oh so terribly, British, whether expressing love or disdain for this island. They went right to the core of Britain’s crisis of identity, namely in terms of class and empire. Whether on monarchy or Northern Ireland, there was a sense of criticism of the understated nation that thinks far too highly of itself to have any legitimate criticisms of America. He perhaps conceived of himself as a Paine-like figure, whose radicalism was destined for other countries.
“He knew he was no Orwell, but he was living partly in the shadow of what he saw as his inspiration in being a foe of totalitarianism”
It was this strength however, that was also his weakness. John Gray in a review of Hitchens’ last collection of essays saw his strength as being the ability to go to the core of a debate to expose its own truths. But his undoing was taking pre-determined truths in his arguments that could turn him to plain denialism. This is of course in his often infuriating and absurd arguments after 9/11. Many have commented in recent days that Hitchens was looking for a Spanish civil war, of a clear cut ‘good’ and ‘right side, and of an ‘evil’. His friend Ian Buruma said as much in 2006 to the New York Times. He was a British republican in search of Spanish Republicans, who ended up schilling for Texas Republicans. He knew he was no Orwell, but he was living partly in the shadow of what he saw as his inspiration in being a foe of totalitarianism. But Orwell himself recognised that the main “shouters” for the Spanish civil war were the journalists themselves. Hitchens’ principles of always siding against what he saw as totalitarianism could describe him as one of the “men and women of conscience” as Martha Gellhorn would have had it. These varied from prominent radicals to those dissenters whose names are long forgotten as ‘ordinary’ men and women. Gellhorn herself was such a woman of conscience in always, as she saw it, siding with the people. But this too took her to dangerous places. Like Hitchens, she could be a ‘hater’, though more against systems than individuals. She lived in the shadow of admiration for the Spanish republicans and the idealism of the left in the 1930’s in her total support for Israel. Her anti-Arab views don’t seem to correspond with her philosophy unless we consider that she was looking for a group of people to call brownshirts. The often primitive attitudes Hitchens had towards Muslims after 9/11, as an other that had to be destroyed, was his own attempt to find brownshirts that had to be eliminated. He absurdly saw ‘Bin Ladenism’ as Naziism. If ‘Bin Ladenism’ didn’t have a state machine like the Nazi regime, then that’s what made it so dangerous for Hitchens-it was something requiring slaughter on a massive international scale. He seemed to abandon his own Marxism here. Marx thought of religion as a painkiller. Religion was not going to be removed by increasing the pain to the extent that the painkiller was rendered useless. The idea that the Bush administration was in anyway interested in democracy required these denialist attitudes. The text to his friend Stephen Fry “More Bosnia, less Iraq”, when Fry held a talk about Hitchens recently, is a reflection of this. It may be that the excuse making for the slaughter in Iraq was something he couldn’t reconcile, but felt like he had to.
And yet, and yet…as often as Hitchens would frustrate anyone, he would have to make you think about just why you were so angry about his writing. His commentary on the Iraq war contained the worst neo-conservative innuendo. It didn’t even fit neatly with his previous hawkish tendencies, such as on intervening in Bosnia or the Falklands. But the internationalist Hitchens provided some important questions for the anti-war left about just why they were anti-war. His solidarity was ultimately with Kurdistan. In Kurdistan, he saw the potential for a social-democratic Iraq. But where was the anti-war left’s solidarity? In many ways, as vile and genocidal as his excuse-making became for the Iraq war became, he still managed to hold up a mirror to a left that was no longer a left: a left that had replaced the often naïve, but valuable utopian street politics with a utopian faith in the inaccessible lecture halls discussing postmodernism. Anti-war attitudes were explained with crude and patronising ‘cultural’ explanations. We didn’t need to express solidarity with Iraqis because they wanted a strongman and not democracy-who were we to tell them that ‘our way’ is better? The left that was no longer a left was fulfilling Hitchens’ notion of being a Marxist without a socialist movement to speak of.
The frustrating Hitchens, and the brilliant Hitchens, can not meet either the total praise or total detraction of recent days. Both sides of this writing possessed an incredible power to make one think, whether filled with rage at Hitchens or with an imperative to act. He was irreconcilable with any one set of values, particularly in his more contrarian tendencies. But he was someone of great value in making people think and act. Though the often genuinely appalling views are something that can not be ignored if the record about Hitchens is to be kept straight, every generation needs a Hitchens.
Josh Kitto is studying history and political science at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, United Kingdom. He has been featured on independant media outlets such as Citizen Radio talking and discussing the student protests on the tuition hikes in 2012. An avid Howard Zinn reader and an admirer of Amy Goodman, his motto is, “Go where the silence is”. You can read his blog at Confessions of an autistic boy.