Hitch, we hardly knew ye

by Henry on April 12, 2005

He still believes in progressive taxation; the New Deal; … and, in general, firm and constant opposition to the very frequent efforts of the rich and their agents to grind the faces of the poor. It’s just that he now cordially despises most of the people who proclaim or advocate these things.

Since 9/11, reflectiveness and skepticism have gone on holiday from his political writing. Logic and good manners have also frequently called in sick. “Embattled” is too mild a description of his state of mind; it’s been inflamed. Those who returned different answers than he did to the questions “Why did 9/11 happen?” and “What should we do about it?” were not to be taken seriously. They were Osama’s useful idiots, “soft on crime and soft on fascism,” their thinking “utterly rotten to its very core.”

On and on Hitchens’s polemics against the left have raged, a tempest of inaccuracy, illogic, and malice.

George Scialabba writes Christopher Hitchens’ political obituary for N+1 magazine.

{ 36 comments }

1

KingstonC 04.12.05 at 10:11 am

It always seemed to me that Hitchens felt, like many after 9/11, dismayed at the far lefts inability to identify at all with those attacked. Plenty of other liberals and leftists felt the same way. Hitchens problem is that he kept feeling that way long after 9/11 was over, after most other left of center types had desided that the far left’s self hatred had once again become the lesser of evils, and let it cloud his judgment. I suspect a lot of this had to do with being thrown out of his circle of friends at the NATION and the bitterness of fights with close friends, and having to find other people to hang out with.

2

abb1 04.12.05 at 11:07 am

No worse zealot than a convert, the saying goes.

3

Matt McGrattan 04.12.05 at 11:34 am

“It always seemed to me that Hitchens felt, like many after 9/11, dismayed at the far lefts inability to identify at all with those attacked.”

I just don’t buy this. Who were these mythical ‘far left’-ists that failed to show any sympathy or empathy for the victims of 9/11? Is there any these people existed in any susbtantial numbers? Or that they were of the ‘far left’?

Or is this just another trite piece of rhetoric?

4

Matt McGrattan 04.12.05 at 11:35 am

Sorry, I mean to write:

“is there any _evidence_ these people existed in…”

5

Jeremy Osner 04.12.05 at 12:10 pm

Matt — obviously you’re forgetting about that prominent leftist Ward Churchill.

6

Matt 04.12.05 at 12:16 pm

I think it’s a mistake to think that Sept. 11th drove Hitchens nuts, though. It might have been the final push, but he’d been awfully chummy with Ted Olsen and his wife for some time before that (perhaps her dying in the 9/11 crashes helped drive him nuts? Who knows)do to their shared obsession with Clinton. It’s not clear to me why he was so crazy about Clinton. God knows there were a lot of things to dislike about the man, but I’m not sure that they should have been the things to lead you to link up with the likes of the Olsens. But, if you look at his work from before Sept. 11th, I think it’s pretty clear that he was already making his trip to the right well before that (The article mentions this, in the discussion of Kosovo, but I think it’s often not really noticed. And his hatred of Clinton surely didn’t have anything to do w/ Kosovo, unless he thought Clinton should have been _more_ agressive.)

7

nick 04.12.05 at 12:52 pm

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Hitch now reminds me of Orwell’s passage in Homage to Catalonia about the recruits on the Republican side arriving in Spain, only to realise the amount of faction-fighting between the socialists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, anarchists etc.

At Monte Pocero, when they pointed to the position on our left and said: ‘Those are the Socialists’ (meaning the P.S.U.C.), I was puzzled and said: ‘Aren’t we all Socialists?’ I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, ‘Why can’t we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?’ This of course was the correct’ anti-Fascist’ attitude which had been carefully disseminated by the English newspapers, largely in order to prevent people from grasping the real nature of the struggle. But in Spain, especially in Catalonia, it was an attitude that no one could or did keep up indefinitely. Everyone, however unwillingly, took sides sooner or later. For even if one cared nothing for the political parties and their conflicting ‘lines’, it was too obvious that one’s own destiny was involved.

Hitch signed up with the GOP to fight against Muslim fundamentalism, because nothing gets his pecker up more than the opportunity to kick religious militants. And now, only now, he appears to realise that he’s fighting alongside Christian fundamentalists, whether he likes it or not.

Of all people, you’d think that he’d have remembered Orwell’s words.

8

P ONeill 04.12.05 at 1:14 pm

It’s a nice article but, perhaps an impossible task, it doesn’t really tell us what makes Hitch thick (Irish pronunciation). Matt rightly points to a loathing of Clinton that predates Kosovo, and his bit-part in the Lewinsky affair seemed to involve a loathing of Sidney Blumenthal as well. And then there’s his war on Mother Teresa which had the hallmarks of a very studied exercise in iconoclasm. Yet she was just another compassionate conservative. The root causes of the current Hitch have been there for a long time.

9

lemuel pitkin 04.12.05 at 1:32 pm

Hitch was already quite nuts during the Lewinsky affair. Prancing around announcing his admiration for “Judge Starr,” trying to squeeze an Alger Hiss moment out of some lunch comments by Sidney Blumenthal, etc.

And in fact even when he was on the left he was a dishonest, overwrought writer with a weakness for moral posturing. Good riddance, I say.

10

rd 04.12.05 at 3:04 pm

The linked article is as tendentious as Hitchens at his most foaming. For example, it presents his argument that Naomi Klein had aligned herself with “jihadists” as a slur on her reasonable opposition to the occupation of Iraq. But what he was criticizing was a column she wrote calling for “bringing Najaf to New York,” explicitly taking the theocratic and thuggish Sadrists as models and inspiration for Western protests.

11

Robin 04.12.05 at 4:04 pm

Jeremy,

If you have to reference an obscure figure like Ward Churchill, it should tell you something.

rd,

While Klein’s piece was stupid and repugnant, it wasn’t calling for a theocracy. But there was plenty in it to be offended by.

On Hitch, long ago (1992) he suggested that the displacement and eradication of the natives in the Western hemisphere should be celebrated with great “vim and gusto”.

12

neil 04.12.05 at 4:23 pm

There are many people on the Left who consider Hitch’s views on aspects of the post 9/11 Left to be very accurate. I live in New Zealand and I’m afraid to say that after 9/11 it was the views of Pilger, Fisk, Chomsky, Klein, Monbiot, Tariq Ali etc that held sway within the liberal left circles. US = The Evil Empire. And that view was just as common when clinton was defending Muslims in Kosovo. That was the Face of Left.

13

abb1 04.12.05 at 4:26 pm

Hey, quit dumping on Naomi Klein, she is one of the best freakin columnists out there. Here’s the piece, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it: Bring Najaf to New York

14

fyreflye 04.12.05 at 4:27 pm

Hitchens has always been basically a hater, and was no ornament to the Left even when he was a part of it. Shrink a hater’s brain through years of chemical indulgence and he’ll still be a hater but less discriminating about whom to hate.

15

neil 04.12.05 at 4:41 pm

Have just read the N=1 artilce and this quote sums it up – “Some of his opponents on the left argued that NATO gave up too easily on (or indeed sabotaged) diplomacy, was wrong not to seek UN authorization to use force, and may have precipitated a humanitarian catastrophe (the flight and deportation of hundreds of thousands of Kosovar Albanians after the bombing began) that might not otherwise have occurred.”

Exactly the attiude that many on Left took which is abhorent now as it was then. “gave up too easily on diplomacy”????? After 3 years of Milosevic’s murderous rampage??? And then the argument that it was really NATO’s inetervntion that caused all the problems, not Milosevic. Some familar. It was exactly these attitudes that tehe N=1 article expresses that drove many on the Left to reconsider their loyalties, since it was clear that for so many the real enemy was not facist dictators but Amerika.

16

John Quiggin 04.12.05 at 6:12 pm

I agree with those who’ve said it started with Clinton. I reviewed a couple of his books here in 2002. Relevant quote.

A more serious version of the same fault is found in the tendency to pursue intellectual vendettas. One does not need to be an admirer of Bill Clinton to feel that Hitchens’ attacks on him (and Hillary) went way over the top. Clinton may have been venal and sleazy, but he was far from being America’s worst president and he ended up on the right side of most of the issues Hitchens cares about, notably including Bosnia and Kosovo.

17

John Emerson 04.12.05 at 6:58 pm

I think that Hitchens has always been a publicity hound who liked to shock people. Who else attacked Mo Theresa and Di? But after 9/11 the provo action shifted.

Also, after he’d built up his antiestablishment cred with the other books, 9/11 was a good time to cash in and join the big boys.

18

ophelia benson 04.12.05 at 7:08 pm

“Who else attacked Mo Theresa?”

Well exactly. And she needed attacking and he was right to attack, or rather criticise, her.

19

rilkefan 04.12.05 at 7:11 pm

Is there good evidence that Hitchens’s case against Mother Theresa was factually flawed? I can’t recall seeing any counterargument beyond “His rhetoric is highly overheated” (well, of course) and “Pshaw.” I’ve probably internalized his argument based on second-hand sources and would like to update my opinion of MT if there’s reason to.

20

neil 04.12.05 at 7:24 pm

I find it odd that this has become a complete condemnation of Hitch. Surely it is still possible to agree with someone on some issues and disagree on others. This belief that he has some deep character flaw that leads him astray on every issue seems unnecessary.

And on the original point in the article quoted above, agree or disagree, Hitch’s view on aspects of the Left resonated with many (on the Left). Some may believe that it is an inaccurate and unfair characterization, but the N+1 article is evidence that there is indeed an element within the Left that believe the greatest evil is the US and not tyrants like Milosevic.

21

ophelia benson 04.12.05 at 7:32 pm

“Is there good evidence that Hitchens’s case against Mother Theresa was factually flawed?”

Not that I know of, and indeed, Polly Toynbee quoted a pretty staggering comment Ma T made to her in 1971 (or ’72) in response to question about poor women having babies they didn’t want and couldn’t afford – something about all babies being here to praise god even if they only live for a few hours. So nice for their mothers!

22

Donald Johnson 04.12.05 at 7:40 pm

The problem with Hitchens and other moderate liberals who sympathized with him for awhile after 9/11 is that they pretended to think any criticism of American foreign policy in the aftermath of that event was the same as saying that 3000 people deserved to die. I’ll make it personal. I live near NYC and like most people around here spent much of 9/11 wondering if any of my friends had been killed. (None were). I’ve indulged in one or two Walter Mitty fantasies with respect to killing bin Laden. But I was equally disgusted both with someone I heard in Union Square who called bin Laden a freedom fighter (three weeks after the event) and with a friend of mine who said “We’ve never done anything like this to other people”. Well, no, we’ve never killed 3000 people with commercial aircraft.

One horrific massacre committed against innocent Americans was somehow supposed to make us all dewy-eyed about the virtues of Americaand to forget how many people we’ve helped to kill overseas. Some of us didn’t want to play along.

As for Hitch, he has always had his virtues and vices. I think he’s probably fantasized about being the modern day Orwell, the lonely truth-teller, and 9/11 gave him his chance to really posture. It also seemed to boost his career–the American mainstream likes nothing better than a lefty savagely turning on his former friends.

23

Donald Johnson 04.12.05 at 8:18 pm

BTW, people criticizing Scialabba’s stance on Yugoslavia miss what I think is his larger point–if we’re really interested in saving lives, there’s a pretty good argument (made by Jeffrey Sachs) that we could be saving millions at relatively little monetary cost (and no cost in military and civilian casualties) by tackling global health problems. Somehow the phrase “never again” only seems to be applied when bad people who don’t happen to be allied with us murder large numbers of innocent people and not when vastly larger numbers die in more boring, but preventable ways.

As for the argument that it might be harder than Sachs thinks, well, saving people with military intervention is also expensive and doesn’t always go according to plan, but people keep arguing for it.

I think Scialabba makes a particularly good point with respect to Hitchens on this–like all idealogues, his moral concerns seem to be determined by who his favorite villain of the moment happens to be. I think Scialabba is right that Hitch’s moral concerns used to be broader in his pre-9/11 days.

24

LamontCranston 04.13.05 at 2:00 am

“I’m going to assume 2 conditions for this talk:
* The first one is just what I assume to be recognition of fact. That is that the events
of September 11 were a horrendous atrocity probably the most devastating instant human toll of any crime in history, outside of war […] If you don’t accept those two assumptions, then what I say will not be addressed to you.” — Noam Chomsky, October 18th 2001.
Well I think thats pretty strong condemnation, but Hitch just likes to get bent out of shape and whine about whatever it takes to get attention, personality disorder or too many years of alcohol abuse, I don’t know and I don’t care.

25

abb1 04.13.05 at 3:42 am

But I was equally disgusted both with someone I heard in Union Square who called bin Laden a freedom fighter…

Crazy bastards, where do they get these ideas?

They managed to put down a brave resistance. Simple people, fighting with hand-me-down weapons, have borne tremendous costs and kept a modern well-armed state from imposing an alien political will. The fight for freedom in Afghanistan is an awesome spectacle and deserves generous tribute.
— Washington Post editorial, 12/27/84
Forgotten Coverage of Afghan “Freedom Fighters”

26

Jimmy Doyle 04.13.05 at 9:32 am

Matt McGrattan:

“Who were these mythical ‘far left’-ists that failed to show any sympathy or empathy for the victims of 9/11? Is there any these people existed in any susbtantial numbers? Or that they were of the ‘far left’?

Or is this just another trite piece of rhetoric?”

Jeremy Osner:

“Matt—obviously you’re forgetting about that prominent leftist Ward Churchill.” (I take it this was ironic: the only people conforming to the “mythical” description of failing to show sympathy for the victims of 9/11 are obscure weirdos like WC).

How quickly we forget. Peter Wilby’s editorial for the New Statesman, 17 September 2001:

“American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no. Yes, because such large-scale carnage is beyond justification, since it can never distinguish between the innocent and the guilty. No, because Americans, unlike Iraqis and many others in poor countries, at least have the privilege of democracy and freedom that allow them to vote and speak in favour of a different order. If the US often seems a greedy and overweening power, that is partly because its people have willed it. They preferred George Bush to Al Gore and both to Ralph Nader.”

(Notice the implication that 9/11 would have been justified if the violence had been more discriminating; ie had targeted exclusively the bond-traders, who brought justified incineration upon themselves by refusing to vote for Nader.)

Saskia Sassen in the Guardian, 12 September 2001:

“The attacks are a language of last resort: the oppressed and persecuted have used many languages to reach us so far, but we seem unable to translate the meaning. So a few have taken the personal responsibility to speak in a language that needs no translation.”

Then there was the LRB round-table discussion on 4 October, 2001. Mary Beard:

“[W]hen the shock had faded, more hard-headed reaction set in. This wasn’t just the feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think. World bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.

“But there is also the feeling that all the ‘civilised world’ (a phrase which Western leaders seem able to use without a trace of irony) is paying the price for its glib definitions of ‘terrorism’ and its refusal to listen to what the ‘terrorists’ have to say.”

Frederic Jameson:

“Obviously there are immediate comments one can make, in particular on the nauseating media reception, whose cheap pathos seemed unconsciously dictated by a White House intent on smothering the situation in sentiment in order to demonstrate the undemonstrable: namely, that ‘Americans are united as never before since Pearl Harbor.’ I suppose this means that they are united by the fear of saying anything that contradicts this completely spurious media consensus.

“Historical events, however, are not punctual, but extend in a before and after of time which only gradually reveal themselves. It has, to be sure, been pointed out that the Americans created bin Laden during the Cold War (and in particular during the Soviet war in Afghanistan), and that this is therefore a textbook example of dialectical reversal…”(continues)

Not much by way of “sympathy or empathy for the victims of 9/11” in any of that; and, believe me, I could go on. I deliberately kept hold of this stuff, all from the premier outlets of UK ‘leftist’ ‘thought,’ because I knew that it wouldn’t be long before people would be denying that this sort of thing was ever said by any but a bunch of marginal eccentrics.

27

abb1 04.13.05 at 9:55 am

Not much by way of “sympathy or empathy for the victims of 9/11” in any of that; and, believe me, I could go on.

Certainly not every word people uttered on 9/12/01 was a word of sympathy or empathy for the victims of 9/11; some also wanted to discuss root causes of the event as well. What’s wrong with that?

28

Jimmy Doyle 04.13.05 at 10:07 am

abb1:

This all seems to me a bit obvious, but I’ll say it anyway. For Wilby to write (in an *editorial*) “American bond traders, you may say, are as innocent and as undeserving of terror as Vietnamese or Iraqi peasants. Well, yes and no,” is *not* merely to express a desire to ” discuss root causes of the event.” It is to express about as conspicuously as possible that many of the victims of 9/11 were not deserving of much sympathy or empathy. For Saskia Sassen to say “So a few [of the oppressed and perecuted] have taken the personal responsibility to speak in a language that needs no translation” is to imply, strongly, that what the “oppressed and persecuted” hijackers did was just, and so their victims were not killed unjustly. Again, this is not merely to “discuss root causes of the event.” Once “discussing root causes” turns into condoning what was done, this is radically incompatible with expressing due “sympathy or empathy” for the victims. I mean, what *would* count as a failure of sympathy in your view? Please stop being dense.

29

abb1 04.13.05 at 11:30 am

I don’t see them condoning, I see them saying “you should’ve seen this coming”, although I understand how you might interpret it the way you do. But it’s still a discussion about the root causes, though, even if expressed thru dubious rhetoric.

BTW, this is not necessarily leftist. I used to work with a Chinese guy who lived in the US for about 15 years and then during the internet boom went to Beijing to open a company there. He is not leftist by any account. He sent me an email from Beijing on 9/12 checking if I was OK, email with condolences, but he also said something like: ‘but really, everyone here knew that you had something like this coming’. That’s not leftist, that’s just common sense. I don’t think common sense is necessarily a leftist quality.

30

Jimmy Doyle 04.13.05 at 11:41 am

If denying the innocence of the victims isn’t condoning; if saying that the “oppressed and persecuted” perpetrators “have taken the personal responsibility to speak in a language that needs no translation” isn’t condoning; if saying that the US had it coming isn’t condoning — or at least betraying a serious want of sympathy with the victims — then, I repeat, what would count? A notarised statement to the effect “I, [insert name here], being of sound mind, do hereby to some significant extent condone the Sept 11 attacks; and I also assert that the victims are not deserving of very much sympathy”?

I give up.

31

abb1 04.13.05 at 11:54 am

Well, Jimmy, the US did have it coming. All it means is that the US government have done some bad things over the years that caused a ‘blowback’. This is not ‘condoning’, this is called ‘analyzing’.

If you drink a bottle of whiskey every day for a number of years and then get cirrhosis of the liver – I’ll say you had it coming. But I won’t condone it and I’ll feel bad about it.

32

Jim Flannery 04.13.05 at 1:55 pm

Is Jimmy Doyle living in some strange Counter-Earth in which New Statesman, the Guardian, and the London Review of Books are published in the United States? If not, exactly what might his point have been?

33

Tom Davies 04.13.05 at 8:53 pm

Jim, he was answering this question. Why should discussion be limited to the US?

34

Harry 04.14.05 at 2:50 pm

If it wasn’t for Christopher Hitchens a large number of people on the left who are opposed to what has been called ‘anti-imperialist reductionism’ and who supported the anti-fascist war of liberation in Iraq would have remained without a voice in the media discussions.

Hitchens is one of the few leftist commentators (and don’t try to excommunicate him so as to relief yourself of the task of dealing with his arguments) who has remained a consistent opponent of fascism.

Many of the weak comments above seek to avoid the points that Hitchens has made in his critique of the reductionist left by raising alternative motives for his writing other than the expressing of his analysis.

eg: As for Hitch, he has always had his virtues and vices. I think he’s probably fantasized about being the modern day Orwell, the lonely truth-teller, and 9/11 gave him his chance to really posture. It also seemed to boost his career—the American mainstream likes nothing better than a lefty savagely turning on his former friends.

You simply cannot face up to the very hard truths that Hitchens has expressed firmly in the face of the left and so it has to be ‘about his career’ or an ‘Orwell fantasy’. This is sadly an all too typical evasion – and a very revealing one too.

35

Nixon Mcvicar 04.15.05 at 7:57 am

“the US did have it coming. All it means is that the US government have done some bad things over the years that caused a ‘blowback’. This is not ‘condoning’, this is called ‘analyzing’.”

Not unless you analyse the motives of the perps thoroughly. Islamo-fascists using soggy Northern Hemisphere liberal guilt about Palestine to impose their medieval theocracy on the world. Let’s call a spade a spade eh ? Just because they (Al Quaida) hate America doesn’t mean they wouldn’t happilly rip democracy out of the enlightened European state systems, imprison women/gays/ or any religious / ethnic / cultural subgroup that doesn’t fit their mould. Very naive stuff being written here… Hitch gets it right, Ali etc are too blinkered by their – understadnable – loathing of the US.

36

nick 04.16.05 at 6:59 pm

You simply cannot face up to the very hard truths that Hitchens has expressed firmly in the face of the left

Ooh, stick you. And you appear to find it difficult to accept that Hitchens has become a tacit enabler of a different variety of the forces he rails against. Now put down the bottle.

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