On Christopher Hitchens
I suppose it’s fitting that Christopher Hitchens has passed away just as the American involvement in the recent Iraq War is coming to a close. To his critics, waiting less than 24 hours from his death to heap their scorn, the eloquent English-American essayists’ career should be defined largely, perhaps entirely by his last, and greatest monumental error, his support for the George W. Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
This conclusion is unfortunate. After all, Hitchens was not alone among liberal hawks who misguidedly supported Operation Iraqi Freedom: David Remnick, Salman Rushdie, Peter Beinart, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, the list goes on. If we were to include people outside the public eye, well then I’d have count myself among the guilty. And I sure as hell hope that my error there won’t define whatever career I may have.
True, Hitchens was less repentant than some of the above liberals, never really admitting his mistake. But to call Hitchens a warmonger, as Corey Robin effectively does here, is to badly misinterpret the man’s words and legacy, and distort the complicated record of one of our generation’s greatest prose stylists.
Glenn Greenwald, like Robin, has joined in the Hitchens excoriation. Greenwald is certainly right that public figures should not get the benefit of societal etiquette that asks us not to speak ill of the dead. Their lives had a substantial impact on the world around them, and they should be be judged honestly and objectively, whether living or dead.
To condemn Hitchens as an articulate chicken-hawk, however, is to ignore not only the power of his prose, but also the essence of his intellectual commitments, which led him to error but also to enlightenment. In the waning years of his life, Hitchens turned his attention towards religion, an old foe that has stubbornly outlasted him, as it did Friedrich Nietzsche and so many other atheists before, and as it undoubtedly will again.
Some might say that Hitchens’ war on faith was an attempt to regain the good graces of his former comrades after his blunder on Iraq. I’d argue, however, that his support for the Iraq War was entirely in line with his atheist credo, and that the former flowed from the latter. After all, it was not Saddam Hussein’s tyranny that led him to his endorsement of the War on Terror, but the attacks of September 11, 2001. Hitchens’ enemy was fundamentalist Islam, or what he soon began to call Islamofascism. He mistakenly associated Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime with that same ideology, as many of us did. But the enemy, religious fundamentalism, remained the same. A former Trotskyist, Hitchens voted for George W. Bush in 2004, a religious fundamentalist himself, in order to fight what he deemed to be the greater threat to the rational, western civilization he adored.
In 2008, appalled by the anti-intellectual Christian fanaticism of the American right, he turned left, and voted for reason in the person of Barack Obama. This commitment to reason, to the enlightenment, occasionally led him astray. But it never made him boring. Unlike his former allies turned enemies, like Noam Chomsky, or Norman Finkelstein, Hitchens’ views cannot be charted in a straight line. Chomsky, on the morally right side of history so often, is tired and predictable, his response to every major political event the same, boiled down into four words: “It’s all America’s fault” (or occasionally Israel’s fault, but the Zionist State is nothing but an American stooge to him).
Hitchens was more complicated, and more often wrong, but in the end more intellectually flexible, which made him more interesting. He tended to hyperbole, but he was not a battle-hungry sadist. He had an ambiguous relationship to militarism, as many of us armchair warriors do. But he was not the bad man his critics make him out to be. He was not a perpetrator of bloody conflict. He was a writer, an intellectual, a man willing to gamble and change his mind and abandon political friends and stake out unpopular positions with vigor and gusto.
But there was a method to this madness, for he was also more than just a contrarian. To the day he died, Hitchens was an anti-Zionist, refusing to toe the line of the American Establishment. A left-wing Zionist myself, his attacks on the foundations of the Jewish State always irked me. Yet looking back on them now, I realize they were of the same vein as his support for the Iraq War, and his criticism of religion. He hated fanaticism, hated irrationality, hated stupidity, and lumped Zionism, rightly or wrongly, among those categories.
In American politics today, there is a stupid notion that you should vote for the candidate who you would most like to have a beer with. Some say this sentiment helped Dubya get elected twice. Personally, I’d rather sit down and chat with Obama than Bush, but I recognize my tastes lie outside the mainstream. Regardless, presidents should be judged on their platforms and policies, not their personalities.
But the same should not be true of writers. Sure, we should evaluate and engage with the content of their work. But writers invoke a style, adopt frames of reference, that render them either dull or attractive. The great Oscar Wilde, who Hitchens much admired, once said that “it is absurd to divide people into good or bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Chomsky, however righteous, is hardly charming. Hitchens, meanwhile, was not bad, and never tedious. And if we evaluate writers by the same silly standard that Americans use to measure politicians, well there are few writers I would have rather had a beer (or 12) with than Christopher Hitchens.