Saturday, 17 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: an alternative view

My article on Hitchens for Counterfire:

Christopher Hitchens is being mourned by many in the media today. Tony Blair was singing his praises on the BBC. But the Hitchens I admired passed away many years ago: about 11 September 2001, to be exact.

I have numerous memories of Christopher Hitchens, a prominent representative of that motley crew of ex-socialist or liberal 'intellectuals' and writers who deploy their progressive backgrounds to give rapacious imperialism a liberal veneer. I remember some of his great writing – the defence of the Palestinians he wrote with Edward Said in the 1980s for example, or his more recent dismantling of Kissinger's reputation. But what really sticks with me, what has kept popping into my head over the decade since, is Hitchens' reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001.

He ranted about 'the fascist sympathies of the soft left' in the Spectator. He used the 'fall' of Kabul as an opportunity to crow about how the left had been proved wrong. I especially recall him mocking the suggestion that Afghanistan might, in any way, become comparable to Vietnam: even referring to that long and futile war, as if it could have any relevance to the present, was inexcusable.

We know what has happened since. We have been proved right, Hitchens has been proved wrong. Far more importantly, thousands of soldiers and at least tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in a long, disastrous and barbaric US-led war in a poor country, leading to stalemate and widespread talk of the fragility of US imperial power. Sound familiar?

But what really struck me at that time was the bitterness of his pronouncements: an angry, unpleasant resentment at the left for continuing to be anti-imperialist while he had caved into liberal interventionist arguments. There was something rather sad and squalid about it. His new-found zeal for bombing other people's countries brought him wealth, fame and establishment approval, but only by sacrificing his integrity, any sense of perspective on the world – and, above all, any capacity for doing something even vaguely worthwhile with his talents as a writer and polemicist.

The incident summed up everything we have come to associate with Hitchens over the last decade: intellectual contortions, dishonesty, hysterical denunciations of the left, ardent support for wars and occupations, and butchery of the English language. Those who claim Hitchens was still, in recent years, a 'great writer' are attempting to divorce form and content. It is absurd to suggest the ill-informed war propaganda Hitchens churned out contributes anything of worth to the stock of good political writing.

Hitchens had a soft spot for a neocolonial war from early on; to many people's surprise he backed Thatcher's attack on the Falklands in 1981. But his path to full support for neocon foreign policy was cleared by the crude secularism that became his intellectual trade mark. Unlike most on the left who try to understand religion in its full complexity as an expression of popular suffering as well as an ideology, Hitchens came to see it as pretty much the source of all irrationality, not to say evil. He ended up promoting the spread of civilised, enlightenment values the George Bush way – through shock and awe.

Where once Hitchens wrote with clarity, controlled anger and respect for the facts, there was now confusion, intemperate spite and a cavalier disregard for the evidence. And not once did he acknowledge that he had been terribly wrong about Afghanistan or Iraq.

It is tempting to describe Hitchens as a contrarian. But the 'contrarian' tag implies he didn't really believe his muddled diatribes. The tragedy is that he did. Along with his fellow born-again neoconservatives – clutching their Euston Manifestos, coining phrases like 'Islamofascism' (a term you can only use if you don't understand either fascism or Islamism) – he offered the masters of war exactly what they wanted: pro-war arguments that could appeal to at least a layer of those who perceived themselves as liberal or left-wing.

While persuading some of the mainstream media to take him seriously (and pay him handsomely), we should remember that he and his fellow B-52 liberals almost entirely failed. The Iraq war was opposed by a large body of public opinion; the sane and sensible left united in opposition; millions of people demonstrated; and everyone now accepts it was disastrous.

Hitchens – like most who switch from left to right – thought of himself as upholding the real traditions of the left, while all around him betrayed their principles. In fact he upheld the long, ignoble tradition – stretching back to at least the days of Victorian empire-building – of 'progressives' seeking to justify the pursuit of greater power and wealth by already powerful and wealthy Western states.

The arguments were similar: only the free and liberal West can 'liberate' backward countries from tyranny and oppression. Whatever criticisms we may have of our own ruling classes, only they – by deploying tanks and bombs – can bring hope to those suffering elsewhere in the world. Bit by bit, the proponents of such ideas make their peace with those they once railed against – and turn their inarticulate fury towards their former allies and comrades.

Stephen Fry has tweeted that Hitchens was 'envied, feared, adored, reviled and loved'. But I am not sure he roused such strong passions. The establishment appreciated his support, while despising his left-wing past and perhaps mocking his gullibility. Many people, horrified by the bloodshed of war and repelled by the arguments deployed to legitimise it, had contempt for Hitchens' politics. Those of us on the left felt the same way, with a little regret at how he could have amounted to so much more. The most common reaction to a Hitchens outburst – from all political quarters – was 'oh, there he goes again.'

'What is your idea of earthly happiness? To be vindicated in my own lifetime.' So said Hitchens. Well, he wasn't. His bellicose blunders have already been exposed as foolish. The rest of us, meanwhile, face the task – as the drums of war beat again, this time in the direction of Iran – of collectively struggling to rid our world of the sanctioned violence and destruction Hitchens sought to defend.


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