Fascinating Hitchens

by Harry on June 8, 2005

I’ve been puzzling about Hitchens recently, partly as a result of listening to his session at the Hay On Wye festival with the Greatest Living Englishman on blasphemy (courtesy of Norman Geras). He veers in that debate between inspiring brilliance and unfunny rudeness — I cannot imagine what the GLE made of it. I disagree with him about the war in in Iraq, and find myself wondering how he squares his support for Bush with many of his other apparent beliefs. He often sounds shrill in his attacks on the left, even when he can beat his immediate opponent on reason and evidence alone. I thought, for example, that he got the better of Chomsky by a mile in the polemics over Afghanistan, but was taken aback by the energy he put into alienating himself from the left in general. Maurice Isserman quotes one of the Socialist Party leaders who negotiated the merger with Max Shachtman’s group in the late ’50’s as saying something like the following “as soon as it was over I realised that this guy was going to move as far to the right as fast as he could” and that was certainly how Hitchens seemed at the time. He hasn’t exactly fulfilled that promise (nor, IMHO, did Shachtman), though he certainly tries to give that impression from time to time. But I still find his prose, almost always, compelling; I’d certainly sooner read almost anything by him than anything by any other journalist working today. Norm quotes Ophelia Benson (with permission) as follows:

It is fascinating the way people are obviously – what – overwhelmed by him despite disagreement. But how can they help it? He really is extraordinary. I mean seriously, really, literally extraordinary. I’ve thought so for years – there is no one else like him. No one. No one that clever, articulate, widely read and remembering all of it; witty, funny, rude, histrionic, energetic, profane, etc etc. Philip Dodd said someone had written that he’s the best essayist since Orwell. Please. Orwell was good, but he was nowhere near that good. I would say he’s more like the best essayist since Hazlitt.

If anyone comes close it’s Gore Vidal. Despite how loony he’s gotten lately, they do have many qualities in common, and it’s no accident that Vidal named Hitch his dauphin. The bluntness, the quick sharp wit, the effortless dominance of a room however large, the erudition. But Hitch adds to that the foreign correspondent stuff, the political stuff, a broader and deeper kind of knowledge – plus he never made the mistake of writing the startlingly pedestrian novels that Vidal perpetrated. So he comes out well ahead, in my view.

Being so much less erudite than Ophelia I can’t comment on Gore Vidal’s novels (I haven’t read them, and couldn’t make confident judgements if I had), but I’ve not yet found Ophelia wrong on anything else, so take it on trust. The rest of the quote seems just right to me.



Kevin Donoghue 06.08.05 at 8:18 am

De gus non dis. Can somebody please direct me to something by Hitchens which is well-written? The samples I picked must have been his worst. There were some good lines, but they weren’t his. At any rate I gave up in disgust.


Barry 06.08.05 at 8:20 am

Hitch has betrayed everybody; his current ‘allies’ hate his guts, and tolerate him while he’s useful. And he probably despises them – Bush, Cheney, the corporatists, the alleged intellectuals who provide their propaganda and the so-called ‘christians’ are exactly the people he despised before.

So he’s in an uncomfortable position, and expressing it. If he doesn’t win, then he’s a washed up dreg, in the lowest ranks of the servants of evil.


ogged 06.08.05 at 8:40 am

I second Kevin’s question. Can somebody point me to something (preferably online) by Hitchens that they consider well-written?


James Hamilton 06.08.05 at 8:42 am

“…and find myself wondering how he squares his support for Bush with many of his other apparent beliefs”
He’s articulated this on several occasions: to cut a long story short, he shares Bush’s position on Islamic terrorism. And as he sees this as the overriding problem of the age, support for Bush makes sense for Hitchens so long as Bush maintains that stance. Plenty of relevant links here: http://www.hitchensweb.com/
I find it interesting how few people find someone a good writer AND disagree with what they’re writing about. I wonder how many people who dislike Hitchens’ style and also his political position realise that they are falling into step with the Martin Amis bad-politics-withers-prose stance from “Koba the Dread” and how pleased, or not, they’d be about that?


des von bladet 06.08.05 at 8:52 am

james: As a data point I, for one, don’t give a rat’s cock what Squiffy Amis, Jr, thinks about anything.

Hitchens is and always was a grandstanding bully, and Ophelia Benson is as shameless a fan of grandstanding bullies as one could profitably seek to neglect — see, if you can stand to, her reflex slobbering over Steven “Ping-Pong” Pink and Richard “All-Dawk” Dawkins.


lakelobos 06.08.05 at 8:54 am

It’s ridiculous, Hitchens is a crip who once in a blue moon stumbles into brilliance; a monkey typing Shakespeare.

What a waste of time!


Bill Gardner 06.08.05 at 9:02 am

I enjoy reading Hitchens’ essays, but I actually thought Mailer, in his prime, was better.

Harry, on Vidal, try Lincoln.


Kevin Donoghue 06.08.05 at 9:14 am

James Hamilton,

I have considered the possibility you mention. Certainly I disagree with Hitchens on some things. It’s not easy to be in harmony with someone who applauds both the Viet Cong and George W. Bush. That may affect my enjoyment of the writing. The best way I can test this is by looking at an essay which echoes my views pretty closely. In Why I’m Rooting Against the Religious Right he writes of “shallow, demagogic and above all sectarian religiosity”, tells us that “the clericalist bigots have been probing and finding only mush” and warns against the “creeping and creepy movement to impose orthodoxy on a free and pluralist and secular Republic.”

After that, it wouldn’t surprise me to encounter the infamous fascist octopus. The sentiments are fine, but the writing? It is usually adequate, sometimes pretty bad, rarely inspired. I wouldn’t argue with someone who says he writes better than Paul Krugman – though in fact I don’t think he writes as well – but George Orwell? Sorry, wrong league.


Simstim 06.08.05 at 9:16 am

The world has gone Hitchens-mad, Bookslut had this anecdote about an encounter with both Hitchens and Amis Junior.


chris y 06.08.05 at 9:18 am

A fair sample of Vidal’s essays is United States, essays 1925-1992. It also comes in handy for weight training.

Like Hitchens, the quality is wildly variable, but the ration of gold to dross is in Vidal’s favour by a huge amount.


Andrew Edwards 06.08.05 at 9:24 am

Wholehaeartedly agree with Ophelia.

One of my favourite Hitch lines was when a letter-writer asked him whether he was gay. His response was something along the lines of how he was confined to heterosexuality by virtue of his not being sufficiently attractive to seduce men.

His book Letters to a Young Contrarian is worth buying any 15-year-old you know.


Louis Proyect 06.08.05 at 9:29 am

The sight of Hitchens view-hallooing across the fields in pursuit of some particularly dislikable quarry has been among the most exhilarating experiences of literary journalism during the last two decades. He’s courageous, fast, tireless and certainly not squeamish about being in at the kill. But after reading this and some of his other recent writings, I begin to imagine that, encountering him, still glowing and red-faced from the pleasures of the chase, in the tap-room of the local inn afterwards, one might begin to see a resemblance not to Trotsky and other members of the European revolutionary intelligentsia whom he once admired, nor to the sophisticated columnists and political commentators of the East Coast among whom he now practises his trade, but to other red-coated, red-faced riders increasingly comfortable in their prejudices and their Englishness – to Kingsley Amis, pop-eyed, spluttering and splenetic; to Philip Larkin, farcing away at the expense of all bien pensants; to Robert Conquest and a hundred other ‘I told you so’s. They would be good company, up to a point, but their brand of saloon-bar finality is only a quick sharpener away from philistinism, and I would be sorry to think of one of the essayists I have most enjoyed reading in recent decades turning into a no-two-ways-about-it-let’s-face-it bore. I just hope he doesn’t go on one hunt too many and find himself, as twilight gathers and the fields fall silent, lying face down in his own bullshit.

full: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v25/n02/coll01_.html


roger 06.08.05 at 9:32 am

Hitchens sometimes writes brilliant essays — I’d say the piece on Isaiah Berlin was in that category — and he sometimes even writes about politics brilliantly, but he is certainly not as good as Orwell. I don’t even think he is as good as Conor Cruise O’Brien when O’Brien was in his prime (and sane). You can’t read the stuff he writes for Slate, for instance, and think my, this is brilliant stuff. If you believe in the rightness of the invasion and occupation, you might root for the punches thrown, but it is pretty much what you’d get reading Hoagland or Krauthammer. If you believe that the invasion was unjustifiable and the occupation is a running sore, your mind won’t be changed or even challenged by Hitchens. Having marketed himself into every venue he could get has had a pretty bad effect on Hitchens prose, which tends towards the mannerism of easy denigration and selectively missing his opponents points. That will do for a while — but when you do this kind of thing weekly, it begins to seem childish and blind.

I hoped, actually, that Hitchens was going to supply the right with its new William Buckley, who in his prime was a pretty good essayist himself, but Hitchens has proven to be a much worse debator, and I think has basically coarsened his prose since he became rightwing. Maybe he needs to get religion — Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge became better writers, when they moved from left to right, by finding Jesus.


Jonty 06.08.05 at 9:33 am

On Vidal, personally recently read Creation, and if that’s pedestrian I’ll never get in a car again. Easily the best historical novel I’ve ever read – features Buddha, Socrates and Confucius as main characters, while the narrator is Zoroaster’s grandson Hitch has admitted he doesn’t write novels because he thinks he can’t (sorry, can’t find the link), but even though I have to say his shorter articles can often be rather enjoyable, even though I rarely agree with him. But let’s not pander to his already sizeable ego by even comparing him to his own hero, Orwell.


nick 06.08.05 at 9:38 am

It’s easy to be lulled by Hitch’s erudition, even when (especially when?) he’s being repulsive. I tend to repeat myself, but that link to the Amis messageboard made me very happy that someone else feels the same about him:

“Okay. You ever noticed how Orwell was caught in a confrontation between two monolithic forces of evil, fascism and Stalinism, and instead of choosing the lesser of two evils he renounced both? Yet you, who implies you’re the new Orwell, embrace the lesser evil of Bushism over Wahhabism and cash in defending corrupt oligarchs. Isn’t that a bit of a paradox?” He starts laughing, as if he’s proud of a prized pupil, and then very seriously reels off an incredibly full-of-shit answer that was too convoluted to scribble in my memory.

So, what Barry said, and then some: Hitch has betrayed everyone, most of all himself. (How the drunken bugger finds the time to write so much, though, I really cannot comprehend.)


david 06.08.05 at 9:59 am

That’s some pretty damning evidence against Benson provided by des von Bladet.

Hitchen’s has been an excellent essayist, though read in bulk you end up finding a pretty high twitches/thought ratio. But the stuff in Slate really has been awful — poorly argued, degenerate prose. Something has gone wrong over the past few years beyond his idiot love of Bush and Chalabi. And yes I appreciated his prose when I didn’t agree with him in the past.


Robby G 06.08.05 at 10:17 am

This might be unpopular–and way, way off-topic; indeed, the bare fact that I think of it probably shows there’s something wrong with me–, but I actually think that C.S. Lewis is a fine essayist. Anyway, I think he certainly compares well to (say) Krugman.


abb1 06.08.05 at 10:27 am

…he shares Bush’s position on Islamic terrorism…

Is the IRA an example of a ‘Roman Catholic terrorism’?

Why would one have a special view on ‘Islamic terrorism’?


Kosh 06.08.05 at 10:38 am

Hitch is a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay.



dsquared 06.08.05 at 10:50 am

One would have a special view on “Islamic terrorism” if one viewed Islam as a backward, degenerate culture and if one thought that secular Western liberals therefore had a right to destroy it, which Hitchens in fact does.


lemuel pitkin 06.08.05 at 11:05 am

I for one found Hitchens a dishonest, manipulative writer even when I approved his politics.


Mark 06.08.05 at 11:05 am

Should we wait for you to provide evidence demonstrating that Hitchens wants secular western liberals to destroy Islam, or should we just accept your assertion as fact, dsquared?


Jimmy Doyle 06.08.05 at 11:15 am

Yeah, I’ll see Mark’s question, and raise you one: are you suggesting that’s the only rationale for using the expression ‘Islamic terrorism’? (‘Islamist terrorism’ would obviously be more precise, but Islamism does have something to do with Islam.) That is, do you agree with abb1’s hilarious claim that the connection between (eg) 9/11 and Islam is no less tenuous than that between (eg) Omagh and Roman Catholicism?

You’d better hope Hitchen’s legal team is a bit less alert than the Gorgeous One’s.


Marc Mulholland 06.08.05 at 11:15 am

Is the IRA an example of a ‘Roman Catholic terrorism’?

No, because the IRA did / does not want to establish a theocracy. Islamic Supremicist terrorism does.


dsquared 06.08.05 at 11:19 am

I didn’t think this was controversial; Hitchens doesn’t want sharia law to be practised anywhere and he is in favour of the use of force to achieve this end. Am I wrong?


Henry 06.08.05 at 11:27 am

I think the Conor Cruise O’Brien analogy is the best one. Hitchens had a very good review of a book by O’Brien in the LRB a few years ago, chronicling his intellectual degeneration – a degeneration that he’s recapitulated. But I always was of two minds about him – when he wants to write, he has a very fine prose style indeed, but there’s always been something a little shallow about him, a persistent tendency to reduce politics to the striking of a series of poses. And, as Des says, many of the hallmarks of the bully. And now he seems quite deliberately to have made himself into a sort of caricature. If Orwell was tragedy, Hitchens is the farce.


dsquared 06.08.05 at 11:30 am

I mean seriously, to expand, this is a point on which Hitchens is correct as I understand him; it is not possible to have an Islamic state which is also secular and democratic. If you believe that Islam is compatible with human rights then fine enough, but as far as I can tell Hitchens doesn’t. If you believe (my own view) that Islam isn’t consistent with Western human rights but there is nothing that we can realistically do about it, then also fine but Hitchens doesn’t believe that either.


Kevin Donoghue 06.08.05 at 11:42 am

Maybe a better way to pose my appeal, for a link to a particularly good piece of writing by Hitchens, is to link to an Orwell essay that I like and ask, when has Hitchens ever done anything as good? Take a look at Shooting an Elephant. Certainly part of the reason why I like it, as James Hamilton would predict, is that I sympathise with the political message. How Hitchens can read it without wondering whether he was wrong about Iraq is a mystery to me. That’s partly why I pick it. But if you can, ignore Orwell’s political point and just watch the way he makes it, building up to the key paragraph, where he realizes he has no real choice here: the elephant, although it is now harmless, must be shot. The man in the pith helmet cannot afford to appear weak in the presence of the natives.

I don’t think this is an exceptional piece by Orwell. It is the standard he maintained year-in, year-out. So surely anyone who believes Hitchens to be a better writer can produce something that bears comparison with it.

In another essay, Catastrophic Gradualism (not available online), Orwell disposes of people like Hitchens with masterly economy. I’ve quoted it before but it bears repeating, although I am quoting from memory. He writes about the response you get when you ask a revolutionary how he can justify the carnage he causes: “First he says you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; when you ask where’s the omelette he tells you Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

A scrapper like Hitchens would skewer his adversaries like that if only he could. Has he ever done so?


Kevin Donoghue 06.08.05 at 11:50 am

I don’t think this is an exceptional piece by Orwell. I meant to say, of course, by Orwell’s standards. Perhaps it is too high a bar to set, in the sense that Orwell is using his gift as a story-teller to great effect. But let the Hitchens fanciers make their own excuses.


Donald Johnson 06.08.05 at 12:09 pm

I’ve always had mixed feelings about Hitchens, even when I agreed with him most of the time. His writing is very uneven–sometimes it really is brilliant and other times he’s obviously straining to be witty and not succeeding.

Hitchens “won” the debate with Chomsky in the sense that at that point in time anyone who didn’t join in with the prevailing jingoistic mania was thought to be soft on terror. Chomsky’s warnings about famine in Afghanistan were overblown but were based on what some NGO’s said about the situation –if you bomb a country on the brink of famine then there’s a good chance you may cause large numbers of people to die. Probably thousands did die for that reason, but fortunately the Taliban lines crumbled before winter set in and the worst predictions didn’t come to pass. So the war in Afghanistan wasn’t the human rights catastrophe Chomsky warned about, but it also hasn’t been this showcase of nation-building we were all told about either. Golly, what a surprise. As for the rest of the debate, Chomsky’s opinions hold up pretty well. The Bush Administration did use 9/11 as an excuse for American imperial adventures and Chomsky also pointed out that American policies contribute to a world in which some people end up sympathizing with terrorists. Right after 9/11 even liberals turned into jingoistic buffoons who went into hysterics if you made that point. I remember how shocked I felt, because I expected conservative and middle-of-the-road people to react that way, but had naively expected something a little better from the so-called progressives. Did they actually think the US government (under George Bush?) was going to live up to its idealistic posturing? Within a year or so most of Chomsky’s observations became truisms (which is what they always were). You could say that America’s support for dictatorships had contributed to the terrorist threat (even rightwingers started saying it to justify the Iraq invasion) and you could also say that American governments use the threat of terror as an excuse to do all sorts of bad things. But not in late 2001. If you said it then it had to be because you were soft on terror.

Hitch really got a career boost out of his Chomsky-bashing though. A few months later the Atlantic Monthly was calling him an honest honorable man of the left, which is a technical term for someone who knifes his former leftist allies in the back and joins the mainstream in mischaracterizing their views.


Ginger Yellow 06.08.05 at 12:13 pm

“Despite how loony he’s gotten lately, they do have many qualities in common” Despite?

The best encapsulation I’ve seen recently of Hitchens’s fascinating multifariousness is to be found here – http://tinyurl.com/8cl2d .

It’s an interview at Hay with Hitchens and his brother – apparently the first time they’ve spoken since they fell out over a joke years ago. Despite, or perhaps because of, the stupid questions of the interviewer, it captures perfectly C. Hitchens’ vanity, petulance, pettiness, and arrogance, but also his ability to turn a phrase. His brother doesn’t come off much better. It’s unintentionaly hilarious.


Marc Mulholland 06.08.05 at 12:16 pm

“it is not possible to have an Islamic state which is also secular and democratic”

This is a tautology, isn’t it? I’ve never read Hitchens’ opining that a country with an Islamic majority can’t be also essentially secular and democratic. He argues that democratic revolution is more or less universally possible, given its positional advantage geo-politically. With some caveats regarding nation state formation, I’d go with that. Whether the war was the best way to progress things is quite another matter, and on this Hitchens has had nothing constructive to say since the fall of Baghdad.


Marc Mulholland 06.08.05 at 12:21 pm

PS – I only listened to a third of the blasphemy debate, as it seemed to be a ropey series of jibes about religion. I’m all for that, over a pint anyway, but it’s hardly as ‘contrary’ as Hitchens seems to think. If by blasphemy the organisers really meant ‘incitement to religious hatred’ or some such, there are arguments to be made in favour of legislation that do not depend upon theism. I suspect they just wanted boring ‘do I shock?’ radicalism to tickle the fancy of a predictable audience.


roger 06.08.05 at 12:50 pm

There was a perfect example of the distance between Orwell and Hitchens in a recent Slate piece about “insurgents.” Hitchens begins the piece by confessing that insurgency has seemed to him a romantic thing. Orwell, given that opening, would then widen it to incorporate the distance and comfort that makes possible the romantic connotation and the moralistic fervor of creating the insurgent fantasy, as opposed to the inevitable pain and suffering of really killing people – so that even if you are persuaded of the ultimate justice of the killing for a larger goal, the spite and narrow mindedness of the spectators presents a morally dismal spectacle in itself. Orwell loves to display the disparity between the concept (and its easy translation into rhetoric) and the reality (and its contingency, nastiness, boredom and humor).

What does Hitchens do? He turns this into a rant about the NYT – instead of calling the insurgents terrorists, they are calling them insurgents, etc., etc. Sounding exactly like the Colonel Blimps Orwell made fun of during WWII.


Ophelia Benson 06.08.05 at 1:08 pm

‘Orwell, given that opening, would then widen it’

Would he? In all circumstances, in all kinds of writing, for all kinds of outlets, in all situations? Are you sure? Are you sure Orwell never ‘ranted’ at NYT-equivalents? Have you read much of his journalism as opposed to the longer essays? He did plenty of that kind of thing. Plenty.

And for the daily, humdrum, newspapery stuff, his language was a lot tireder and flatter than Hitchens’.


Kevin Donoghue 06.08.05 at 1:19 pm

Have you read much of his journalism as opposed to the longer essays? He did plenty of that kind of thing. Plenty.

I can’t speak for Roger but I trust it isn’t out of order to answer for myself. I’m pretty sure I have read every essay Orwell ever wrote and all of the journalism in the 4-volume collection which Penguin published decades ago. If Hitchens has written anything at all that stands comparison with Orwell’s workaday writing, never mind the serious stuff, I would like to see it. Any suggestions?


roger 06.08.05 at 1:26 pm

Ophelia, yeah, I’ve read quite a bit of Orwell. I’ve read his letters from England for Partisan Review, I’ve read the correspondence with Herbert Read, whose pacifism he attacked during WWII, and in general have read the second through fourth volumes of what used to be his collected works — now the collected works have incorporated a lot more of his hackwork. Still, the best and fairest comparison is with the letters to the Partisan Review — one of which begins with that famous sentence that goes (paraphrasing from memory) As I write, there is a man flying an airplane overhead trying to kill me.

There is nothing in Hitchens as thrilling, as interesting, or as deep. He doesn’t have the resources. The best he can do is the tiresome story about bouncing around in a jeep in Northern Iraq in 1991 and getting his magic revelation pondering the pic of George Bush fastened to the window. How many times has he pulled that story out of his sleeve? Unlike Orwell, there is no self-reflection –no holding himself up as a possible sample of the very vices he is railing against. Instead, his personality only intrudes in the most self flattering of fashions. As for Orwell’s writing “In all circumstances, in all kinds of writing, for all kinds of outlets, in all situations?” — well, no, George wasn’t Jesus Christ. He was inclined to homophobic baiting, for one thing. But again — the journalism that Orwell did in his prime — and Hitchens is well into his prime — is better than Hitchens. And I am not even going to get into the advantages of Down and Out over the posturing of Letter to a young contrarian. Hitchens isn’t without taste, and I doubt he’d claim his best books — the book on Cyprus, perhaps — are on par with Orwell’s best.


Ophelia Benson 06.08.05 at 1:31 pm

So have I. I used to be somewhat addicted to that 4 volume collection. I still think it’s intensely interesting, politically, morally, historically, in many ways; but I also think as a writer, as a stylist, Orwell was often quite pedestrian. That’s okay; it may have been all he was aiming for; but people often talk about him as if he were a minor deity.

Suggestions: try the essays in Unacknowledged Legislation.


BigMacAttack 06.08.05 at 1:32 pm

Mayeb a little OT but



and here


The second bit has two edges. That is why it is funny when combined with the first bit.


Ophelia Benson 06.08.05 at 1:38 pm

Roger – Yeah, I’ll give you Down and Out. And parts of Wigan Pier, too. Ah yes, but what about those other parts? Hmm? A tad Hitchensish, one might say. Not all that self-reflective, perhaps?

“Unlike Orwell, there is no self-reflection—no holding himself up as a possible sample of the very vices he is railing against.”

Yes there is. Not in every piece, but then the same could be said of Orwell.

There are whole great stretches of Orwell that are as philistine and commonplace as any Blimpish writing you’d care to meet.


fifi 06.08.05 at 2:38 pm

“it is not possible to have an Islamic state which is also secular and democratic”

All societies are “democratic” to the extent they are stable. In some M.E. countries you can have an audience with the sheik or whomever, for the asking. Compare that to casting a vote for Bush or Kerry. I think it’s silly to believe people have a stronger say in their rule because they can vote, much less the ability to change the system by distributing votes among alpha males ordained acceptable by the system they might want to change. Sure, change happens — to all societies; and in a democracy elections are the mechanism by which change is confirmed and lent legitimacy. If someone wants to argue elections brought the change about, I don’t believe accounting practices have that kind of causal power.


Jimmy Doyle 06.08.05 at 2:42 pm


“One would have a special view on “Islamic terrorism” if one viewed Islam as a backward, degenerate culture and if one thought that secular Western liberals therefore had a right to destroy it, which Hitchens in fact does.”

Where does Hitchens say this? You may not be wrong in saying that “Hitchens doesn’t want sharia law to be practised anywhere and he is in favour of the use of force to achieve this end.” But there are legitimate forms of Islam which do not require the imposition of sharia law anywhere.


abb1 06.08.05 at 5:25 pm


In the case of “Islamic fascism” this refers to political movements that either call for, or are believed by their opponents to call for, some totalitarian imposition of Islamic law. This explains how critics associate the term with groups of Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban which governed Afghanistan, al Qaeda, Hamas, and Hezbollah. There are no self-identified Islamic fascists.

The concept was popularized by journalist Christopher Hitchens and was intended to refer to a small number of Islamist zealots, including terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. The term has gained wide currency in the United States, particularly among neo-conservatives.

The term “Islamofascism” is a controversial political epithet. Those who use the term argue that it refers only to certain sects of Islam that are alleged to have fascist or totalitarian tendencies. Its critics argue that it is merely used to smear Islam with the negative connotations of the term fascist.


* “But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about “the West,” to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.”[8] (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20011008&s=hitchens) Christopher Hitchens, author of the book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger”.

* “What we have to understand is … this is not really a war against terrorism, this is not really a war against al Qaeda, this is a war against movements and ideologies that are jihadist, that are Islamofascists, that aim to destroy the Western world.” [9] (http://www.defenddemocracy.org/in_the_media/in_the_media_show.htm?doc_id=242803) Clifford May, president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.



* “Islamofascism is nothing but an empty propaganda term. And wartime propaganda is usually, if not always, crafted to produce hysteria, the destruction of any sense of proportion. Such words, undefined and unmeasured, are used by people more interested in making us lose our heads than in keeping their own.” [10] (http://www.sobran.com/columns/2004/041111.shtml). Joseph Sobran, conservative Catholic commentator.

* “It is hard to see the difference between the bigotry of anti-Semitism as an evil and the bigotry that [Michael] Medved displays toward Islam. It is more offensive than I can say for him to use the word “Islamo-fascist.” Islam is a sacred term to 1.3 billion people in the world. It enshrines their highest ideals. To combine it with the word “fascist” in one phrase is a desecration and a form of hate speech. Are there Muslims who are fascists? Sure. But there is no Islamic fascism, since “Islam” has to do with the highest ideals of the religion. In the same way, there have been lots of Christian fascists, but to speak of Christo-Fascism is just offensive.” [11] (http://www.juancole.com/2004/02/passion-of-christ-in-world-religions.html) Juan Cole, professor of modern Middle East and South Asian history at the University of Michigan.

* “The idea that there is some kind of autonomous “Islamofascism” that can be crushed, or that the west may defend itself against the terrorists who threaten it by cultivating that eagerness to kill militant Muslims which Hitchens urges upon us, is a dangerous delusion. The symptoms that have led some to apply the label of “Islamofascism” are not reasons to forget root causes. They are reasons for us to examine even more carefully what those root causes actually are.” He adds “‘Saddam, Arafat and the Saudis hate the Jews and want to see them destroyed’ . . . or so says the right-wing writer Andrew Sullivan. And he has a point. Does the western left really grasp the extent of anti-Semitism in the Middle East? But does the right grasp the role of Europeans in creating such hatred?” [12] (http://www.canadiandimension.mb.ca/extra/d1220rw.htm) Richard Webster, author of A Brief History of Blasphemy: liberalism, censorship and ‘The Satanic Verses’writing in the New Statesman.


am 06.08.05 at 6:26 pm

“and find myself wondering how he squares his support for Bush with many of his other apparent beliefs”

Here, in a nutshell, we see the intellectual corruption which partisanship causes.


Ian 06.08.05 at 6:41 pm

Hitchens says some useful and memorable things, and sneers at some straw men of his own making – he’s a polemicist, q.e.d. But could we have a complete and permanent moratorium on holier-than-thou references to his drinking habits? It doesn’t matter if he’s a junkie pedophile (or poses as one in order to irritate self-righteous prigs) – deal with his words, for God’s sake!


Harry 06.08.05 at 6:42 pm


could you elaborate?

Not being testy — genuinely not clear to me whether you think my wondering is an instance of intellectual corruption (I will defend it if so) or Hitchens’s support of Bush.


nick 06.08.05 at 7:04 pm

harry: being a perennial maroon, ‘am’ is referring to the ‘wondering’, not Hitchens’ role as a useful idiot for the party of Rev. James Dobson et al. even as he decries their beliefs.


wayne 06.08.05 at 9:56 pm

Reading this post and the comments section is the best example of the bankruptcy of current “progressive” thought I’ve ever read. Why is Hitch so scorned by the avant guarde? Because he dares to betray the party line when the party line does not comport with the facts. I defy anyone to prove that he has converted to a dastardly right winger on any issue other than saving the people of Iraq from the Pol Pot of our generation.


graeme 06.08.05 at 10:16 pm

“… recently, it seems Hitchens may believe he’s the one true leftie left in the world. Better than all you ersatz, effete ones. Better still, as he sees it he’s a leftie so tough he talks turkey with chickenhawks! Feeling so superior to other lefties that he would see himself as in an ideological category all of his own, he doesn’t care or comprehend that on this issue at least his category is owned by the mad, bad right …”

Real apologies for quoting myself, but more of the like here, a counter-dummyspit to Hitchens’ fatuous attack on Michael Moore of last year.


tvd 06.09.05 at 12:33 am

I liked Hitchens back when he was an unrepentant leftist. Now that he’s repented, I positively adore him.


dave heasman 06.09.05 at 4:22 am

“his session at the Hay On Wye festival with the Greatest Living Englishman ”

Enough about Hitchens – what about the Greatest Living Englishman? I didn’t know that Humphrey Lyttelton was at Hay this year.


Brendan 06.09.05 at 5:05 am

Christopher Hitchens is the new Bernard Levin. Discuss.


nick 06.09.05 at 5:36 am

I shan’t discuss, but I will point out that one of Hitchens’ talents, if you call it a talent, is to be so prolific that his writing manages to avoid the kind of broad-brush scrutiny that it so often delivers. His piece on T. S. Eliot in the most recent Atlantic, for instance, is utter bullshit for anyone with a degree of knowledge of the subject, tapping into Collini’s point that his range is ocean-wide but puddle-deep, and into another domain:

This freedom from the constraints to which the liar must submit does not necessarily mean, of course, that his task is easier than the task of the liar. But the mode of creativity upon which it relies is less analytical and less deliberative than that which is mobilized in lying. It is more expansive and independent, with mare spacious opportunities for improvisation, color, and imaginative play. This is less a matter of craft than of art.

— Harry Frankfurt, ‘On Bullshit’


Tom Doyle 06.09.05 at 1:21 pm

I think this is a well written polemic which has withstood the test of time.


George W. Bush has presided over an execution in Texas almost every two weeks since his election. Why isn’t that a campaign issue?
SALON August 7, 1999
By Christopher Hitchens

In rather the same way as new movies are now “reviewed” in terms of their first weekend gross, new candidates have become subject to evaluation by the dimensions of their “war chest.” This silly archaic expression defines other equally vapid terms like “credibility” and “electability” and “name recognition,” which become subliminally attached to it.

The hidden costs, alas, include a complete erosion of the critical faculties. I am as enthralled as the next person by the sheaves of money assembled for George Walker Bush. …But I’m even more fascinated by the fact that, as I write, he is about to sign his 93rd death warrant. There was an execution on the day of his inauguration as governor of Texas, which I don’t count, and there has been one every two and a half weeks or so ever since.

Part of a governor’s job is to review capital cases. The staggering pace of executions in Texas means that Bush has either a) been doing little else but reviewing death sentences or b) been signing death warrants as fast as they can be put in front of him.

This may also be helping him gain some of that much needed “foreign policy experience” about which the pundits have made the occasional frown. State officials from the Philippines and Guatemala have been touring lethal chambers in the United States as part of their research into improved methods, and according to Amnesty International a Filipino official was allowed to watch a killing in Texas in 1997.

The thorny question of race — always such a minefield for the aspiring Republican candidate — also gets a workout by this means. Many people remember the case of Karla Faye Tucker, the born-again pickax-murderess who showed — at least by the standard of Christian fundamentalism — signs of having been rehabilitated. Gov. Bush snuffed her in February of last year, over the protests of Pat Robertson and others.

But had he commuted her sentence, he would have been faced with executing a black woman, Erica Sheppard, who was next in line on the female death row and had foregone her appeal. Spare a photogenic white girl and then kill a defiant black one? Better to do away with both and avoid the row altogether. (Sheppard has since recovered her determination to appeal, and recently took part in a protest against the strip-searching of female inmates in front of male guards, another distinguishing feature of the Texas criminal justice system.)

Then there’s the aspect that touches “communities of faith,” or whatever you choose to call them. Gov. Bush has proposed that the social safety net be maintained by religious charities….It’s the battiest soup-kitchen scheme since Theodore Roosevelt discussed handing over American social welfare to the Salvation Army.

But it runs up against a potentially interesting conflict: at least 28 major religious groups in this country have declared against capital punishment. Might not now be the time to ask them if they will agree to ladle charity on behalf of a man who conducts photo-op and opinion-poll executions?

Some Lone Star State cases for your perusal: An openly homosexual named Calvin Burdine was sentenced to death after being given a court-appointed lawyer who referred to gay men as “queers” and “fairies,” and who fell asleep during the trial. In 1998, two Texas defendants were executed for crimes committed when they were 17. (That same year, of the 70 juveniles on death row in the United States, Texas was holding 26.)

Then there’s the case of Joseph Cannon and Robert Carter, who suffered head injuries in infancy, had been subject to lurid physical abuse later, and tested at an abysmal level for mental retardation. Texas killed them anyway, violating the accepted international standard that prohibits the death penalty for the underage, as well as the presumption that it is wrong to slay the mentally ill or incompetent.


Perhaps you wonder if capital punishment is unevenly applied, as respects race and class, in the state of Texas. Wonder no longer: Just read the Amnesty International report “Killing With Prejudice” ….Finally, the man who is awaiting execution as I write — Larry Robison — is a paranoid schizophrenic who, along with his family, asked repeatedly for treatment of his unstable condition before cracking up. The state which failed him in the first instance is now stepping in, at vast expense, to warehouse him on death row and to snuff him on the taxpayers’ dime.

Yet most people can still mention only two things about George Walker Bush — his extreme opulence and his commitment to “compassionate conservatism.” This is the story, and the media are sticking to it. Every time I get on the radio or TV, I mention his assembly-line execution policy, and every time I do so I get treated as if I had developed Tourette’s syndrome in church. Let that go, and on to the next question.

Yet Bush’s addiction to the death cult actually touches every important aspect of what could be described as his “politics.” Unfortunately, the commitment of President Clinton, Al Gore and Bill Bradley to the same pro-death penalty politics prevents it from surfacing as the issue it deserves to be.

Accessed at



Donald Johnson 06.09.05 at 2:16 pm

One thing that’s odd about Hitch is that he still holds onto a sentimental attachment to his old Trotskyism. He had an article about the Bolsheviks (responding to Amis, I think) in the Atlantic and my understanding was that he saw the Bolshevik Revolution as a tragedy more than a crime. To be fair, he was talking about Lenin and Trotsky, not the later Stalinist era, but that still leaves the hundreds of thousands of murders committed by the Cheka, along with millions of dead from the famine caused by war communism. To Hitch, what’s forgiveable about all this is that it was done in the name of militant atheism against the religious bigotry of the Czarists. Imagine the use he’d make of this human rights record if it had been done by Islamists.

Another thing about old Hitch–I heard him debate Tariq Ali on the radio a year or two ago and as old lefties, they both defended the records of the FLN in Algeria and the NLF in Vietnam in their anticolonial struggles. Their difference was over whether the Iraqi insurgents were in the same tradition. Not to Hitch–the insurgents were islamofascists, which makes all the difference. What was interesting, though, was that Hitch talked as though the Algerian and Vietnamese “freedom fighters” had conducted their struggle in some sort of pure atrocity-free way. Which is totally absurd, but Hitch isn’t really bothered by atrocities as such–he’s bothered by atrocities committed in the name of fascism or religion. It might be hard to make a serious distinction in the human rights records of actual insurgents in various wars, but to Hitch all you have to do is decide that one group is fascist and the other isn’t and you don’t have to do any more thinking about it. Orwell spent his life writing about idiots like Hitchens–it’s weird that the post 9/11 Hitch idolizes the man who would have regarded him with contempt.


Tom Doyle 06.09.05 at 5:02 pm

Below is a link to a page on Znet which provides links to arguments back and forth between Hitchens on the one hand and Chomsky, Albert, Edward Herman, Tariq Ali, and Jeffrey Sommers on the other. They all were written soon after 9/11, and I believe the Hitchens articles are among his initial polemics written from the POV he has taken subsequently. The exchange is very interesting, certainly in retrospect.



Ralph Johansen 06.10.05 at 12:35 am

What a bunch of precocious diddleheads write here. I don’t give a ratsass how he writes – it’s what he writes that is so egregiously bad. Hitchypoo, as Alex Cockburn calls him, has never, in the years I glanced over his screeds in the Nation, had a kind word for anybody struggling to keep afloat in this pernicious system,only at best shallow flights of misplaced erudition. And as a former “Trotskyist” I can’t recall seeing a single phrase that indicated any competent or sympathetic understanding of the writings of Marx. Which is probably part of the reason he can go so far off the mark.

An overstuffed cockatoo.



Alan Bostick 06.10.05 at 12:53 pm

Andrew Edwards: “One of my favourite Hitch lines was when a letter-writer asked him whether he was gay. His response was something along the lines of how he was confined to heterosexuality by virtue of his not being sufficiently attractive to seduce men.”

Not sufficiently attractive? Apparently it wasn’t always the case. Roz Kaveny posted in her LiveJournal two years back (http://www.livejournal.com/users/rozk/23897.html) her recollections of Hitchens when they were both students at Oxford, circa 1970.

“In 1968, when I arrived at Oxford as a gangling skinny Northerner with serious sexual identity problems, I went to a lot of political meetings. You could hardly not notice Hitchens – he was charismatic, and beautiful, and passionate in his denunciations of the Americans in Vietnam. …

“[Bill Clinton’s asssociates] They just were not as likable, or as attractive, as Christopher Hitchens. On at least one occasion, I cried on Hitchens’ shoulder over an unhappy love affair of mine; on several others, his then girlfriend, and his then boyfriend, with whom I had been at school, severally cried on mine over him.”

The point is not “Hitchens is gay [or bi], nyah nyah nyah!” but that his non-denial denial is disingenuous.

For my own part, I was taken by Hitchens’ writing in the Nation, twenty-odd years ago, and made the “best essayist since Orwell” comparison in my own head. But as time wore on, Hitchens’ vicious streak grew plainer and plainer. He’s a brilliant writer, but there are better uses of brilliance than cruelty.

The comparison of Hitchens to Orwell is not without irony. Orwell in his later years paid a lot of attention to James Burnham (author of The Managerial Revolution, among others), a Trotskyist who, like Hitchens, followed the main chance and moved dramatically to the right. As such, Burnham was the spiritual grandfather of the likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. Orwell’s response to Burnham informed his writing of 1984 significantly.

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