In 1990, Commentary magazine warned its readers that Christopher Hitchens, then a bomb-throwing columnist at The Nation, was “a highly visible piece of leftist bric-a-brac in East Coast literary salons.” The targets of Hitchens’ wrath, said the conservative monthly, were typically “anyone in the democratic West,” with the exception of the left-wing lion Gore Vidal, the writer who once anointed Hitchens as his dauphin.
Twenty years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Hitchens dismissed his former comrade Vidal as a “crackpot” whose recent political writings were inseparable from the bilge found on loony conspiracy websites. This lefty bric-a-brac, it appeared, had transmogrified into a dues-paying member of the neocon establishment.
While he had always smuggled heterodox views into the pages of The Nation on issues ranging from abortion to the Falklands War, Hitchens’ real apostasy (and it is always referred to in quasi-religious terms) was precipitated by the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the weeks and months following the mass murder in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, Hitchens unloaded on his Nation stablemates, including Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Alexander Cockburn, for not recognizing what he diagnosed as the West’s decades-long war with Islamic fascism.
The responses to Hitchens’ noisy break with the left were routinely ad hominem and, in the case of his ex-allies, often intensely personal. Cockburn, editor of the radical newsletter and website Counterpunch, seethed that his former friend was a “truly disgusting sack of shit.” Another Counterpunch writer, Jack McCarthy, sputtered that Hitchens was a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian.” Norman Finkelstein, who had previously praised Hitchens’ writings on the Israel-Palestine conflict, suggested that he might do the world a favor by committing suicide.
Sifting through the detritus of post-9/11 opinion journalism, you’ll see newly minted detractors accusing Hitchens of being, variously, an alcoholic, snitch, racist, cad, Holocaust denier, and predatory homosexual. Small wonder that The New Yorker would ask, in 2006, “What happened to Christopher Hitchens?”
It’s a fair question. As late as 1999, Hitchens was bragging of having “soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags” with his former friend Sidney Blumenthal. By 2002, the anti-ratbag warrior found himself in the Bush White House, briefing the neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on the problem of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship. To his friends on the left, this was the ultimate betrayal, the moral equivalent of abandoning the resistance for a position in Quisling’s occupation government.
But reading Hitch-22, his fascinating memoir of a career in combat journalism (both literal and figurative), one gets a sense that those looking for that tragic moment when a reliable man of the left became a fellow traveler of the right are asking the wrong question. On the big political issues that have long animated him—Middle Eastern politics, the dangers of religious messianism—his views have been surprisingly constant.
Hitchens, whom I count as a friend, is ubiquitous; his writing appears regularly in Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and countless other publications that can scrape together money to cover his fee. He is the author of books on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa, as well as the hysterical best-seller God Is Not Great, a stirring defense of non-belief. But for someone so famously prolific, he has been cagey about his post-9/11 political journey. In a scathing 2002 Nation review of David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right, Hitchens observed that the conservative hatchet man turned liberal hatchet man “does what many defectors do, and claims that it was his party, not he, that had changed.” Though Hitch-22 avoids this specific claim, a variant on the traditional defector’s tale—the argument that his side simply abandoned its principles—remains.
There is, of course, a quotidian political maturation that comes with age—looking at a photograph of his younger self from the 1960s, Hitchens comments blithely, with perhaps just a bit of horror, that it was taken at a time when he was “working and hoping for the overthrow of capitalism.” Though Hitch-22 elides any discussion of economics, the implication—that socialist revolution is no longer the goal of Hitchens the bestselling author—is clear. In an interview with reason in 2002, he acknowledged no longer considering himself a socialist in any utopian sense, though he declined to specify what he considered its successor ideology. To complicate matters further, he recently told the conservative City Journal that he still would identify himself as a soixante-huitard— a sympathizer with the street-fighting leftists who nearly toppled the French government in 1968—though with some significant reservations.
This instinct for leftist politics is apparent in Hitch-22, from his questionable observation that as a political theoretician the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht, who was murdered in 1919 after fomenting a communist coup in Berlin, makes “Asquith and Churchill and Lloyd George seem like pygmies,” to his refusal to see the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua as anything more than gangsters in the pay of Ronald Reagan (whom he still loathes with remarkable intensity—hardly a hallmark of neoconservatism). Still, Hitchens complains that “in Nation circles…there really were people who did think that Joseph McCarthy had been far, far worse than Josef Stalin,” and he recalls a catechizing 1968 “solidarity trip” to Cuba, where he discovered the moral and intellectual squalor of Castroism—a point many leftists still refuse to concede.
Unlike many in his orbit, Hitchens was never a Communist Party stooge. He was a member of the International Socialists, a fiercely independent group of Trotskyists. Suppress the urge to dismiss this as a distinction without a difference and recall that, for all of their wrongheadedness on issues from economics to the desirability of a socialist revolution, the Trots resisted the urge to defend those all-too-frequent spasms of Soviet imperialism, refused to shout huzzah as the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh, and didn’t see in the mass murdering paranoiac Mao Zedong an alternative model for Western society. Large swathes of the student left, alas, weren’t so prescient.
Hitchens denies having undergone a “dreary drift to the Right,” and musters, to my surprise, some kind words for many of those with whom he has battled over Iraq and the Balkans. Noam Chomsky, he says, was a clear-thinking and principled “libertarian” who went a bit batty sometime in the 1990s, when the linguist defended Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But surely Hitchens noticed that, when the Khmer Rouge was ridding itself of a third of its population, rounding up glasses-wearing counterrevolutionaries, Chomsky had scoffed at the “vast outcry against alleged genocide in Cambodia,” declaring that the murderous evacuation of Phnom Penh while “undoubtedly brutal…may have actually have saved many lives.” Elsewhere in Hitch-22, we are told of a young Hitchens disrupting a lecture on Vietnam by a member of Her Majesty’s Government, “voic[ing] the outrage that should properly be felt at the destruction of Cambodia.” In this case, the destruction was caused by the awesome power of the American Air Force. But did he express similar outrage when Chomsky was pooh-poohing refugee accounts of communist mass murder?
While many assume that Hitchens first asked of his comrades where do you stand in the aftermath of 9/11, his first mini-rupture with the left can be found in a slim, affecting chapter on the Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, issued shortly after the publication of Rushdie’s more-commented-upon-than-read novel The Satanic Verses. The feminist writer Germaine Greer, Hitchens reminds us, was “noisily defending the rights of bookburners” (a group, I might add, not known for their warm embrace of gender equality). At great personal risk, an Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature called the Ayatollah “a terrorist,” while leading liberal lights Arthur Miller and John Berger refused to sign petitions on Rushdie’s behalf.* Hitchens, to his credit, spoke out forcefully in defense of Rushdie and tells of his participation in a public reading from Satanic Verses at which the police found a pipe bomb. It was the beginning of a serious fissure amongst left-wing intellectuals, many of whom would later (rightly) decry the United States’ refusal to allow Yusuf Islam (né Cat Stevens) to enter the country, but would not acknowledge that the fundamentalist folksinger demanded the death penalty for Rushdie’s act of literary insult. (Despite the claims that he is a snitch and a betrayer, there is no greater testament to Hitchens’ loyalty to his friends than his continued defense of Rushdie’s terrible book on the Sandinista revolution, The Jaguar Smile.)
Hitchens’ précis of his shift on matters Mesopotamian (he was opposed to the first Gulf War at the time) will be familiar to those who closely followed the Iraq War debate and, therefore, will be viewed as either the book’s most or least interesting chapter. He adds little to what he has previously written on the subject for Slate, though it is worth being reminded that it wasn’t just the antiwar movement that spanned across the ideological spectrum. Those agitating for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he writes, were a varied group too, including social democrats, Trotskyists, communists, former leading lights in the anti- Soviet movement (such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel), the Scoop Jackson liberals of The New Republic—an assemblage that is often imprecisely herded under the label “neoconservative.”
But when, in his student days, Hitchens first involved himself in the hideously messy tangle of Middle Eastern politics, the battle lines were rather different, and much of the debate was framed in the language of anti-imperialism and socialism, with many Arab revolutionaries being dues-paying members of the Socialist International. So among the religious dogmatists and Khomeini enthusiasts, it was a “blessed relief to meet a consecrated Moscow-line atheist-dogmatist” in Edward Said, the late Palestinian activist and Orientalismauthor with whom Hitchens also publicly quarreled after 9/11. Those convinced of Hitchens’ neoconservative turn will be surprised to find that, while deploring the rise of the messianic religious parties such as Hamas and Hezbollah, his support for the Palestinian cause is undiminished.
As even his most obstreperous critics concede, Hitchens is a deeply talented writer; his prose sparkles, his wit is wicked, and the reader will search his memoir in vain for a dead sentence. A few phrases are worth highlighting. Buried in a footnote, Hitchens observes that the religious leader intoning gravely against sodomites will “sooner rather than later…be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.” Watching Edward Said’s full-body laugh looked as if “a whole Trojan horse had been smuggled into his interior and suddenly disgorged its contents.” The Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, with his “scrubby mustache,” looks like “a sub-human impersonating a toothbrush.”
And while this is very much a political memoir, with chapters devoted to Said and travels to occupied Prague and Cuba, it is the personal narrative that drives Hitch-22—the beautifully rendered chapter on his mother’s suicide is some of his best writing to date. The British memoirist is generally expected to include a series of terrifying reminiscences of the “official sadism” sanctioned by English primary schools, a theme with a tradition stretching from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the pop music of the Smiths, and Hitchens doesn’t disappoint. In a series of anecdotes that made headlines in the UK, Hitch-22 adds further confirmation to Robert Graves’ claim that “For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system,” by revealing that he bedded two men who would later serve in the Thatcher government.
Hitchens ends with a stirring and necessary call to arms, upbraiding those who believe that free speech needs to be constrained, that we in the West must learn to be “respectful” of the theological Other: “More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation.”
As I read these words, Viacom was censoring South Park for satirizing the supposed prohibition on depictions of Mohammed; the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had drawn the Muslim Prophet, was assaulted during a lecture on free speech and soon thereafter had his house set ablaze; and a Danish newspaper that had reprinted the famous 2005 cartoons issued another groveling apology to those “offended” by pen and ink drawings, promising that the images would never again befoul their pages.
For the unreflective and rigidly ideological, those who insist upon ignoring Hitchens for his pungent atheism, his promotion of war against Iraq, or his rejection of Zionism, be aware that you will miss a book that is touching, enraging, wonderfully crafted, and brimming with gossipy anecdotes. And it answers the question posed by The New Yorker during the darkest days of the Iraq War: What happened to Christopher Hitchens, the man who had a crush on Thatcher, supported wars in the Falklands, Balkans, and Iraq, and scoffed long ago at Alexander Cockburn’s sympathy for the Soviet Union?
Nothing much, actually.
Book Review from Reason, by Michael C. Moynihan
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