Loyalty in Treason: The Christopher Hitchens Case
In the age of social media it has become axiomatic that, no matter who you are, there is a set of discursive practices ready made for you to slip comfortably into. We have, through the graces of big data, largely figured people out, and laid out exquisite commercial-intellectual highways to connect each person with the community, phraseology, and goods that best (and most profitably) service their viewpoint and background. It has never been easier to fit in, or at least to believe that you do.
And yet, for all the form-fitted identities available in our era, there is one group that was never able to find its space: the student protesters of the late 1960s known as the Sixty-Eighters. Even though we came from them and their idealism, they never knew quite what to make of the world they formed, and that world, for its part, was at an absolute loss for how to engage with them. We thrilled when they applied their no-prisoners analysis to the relics of imperialism and ongoing flare-ups of fascism, but got vastly uncomfortable when, as was inevitable, they turned their probing glances back on us, and somewhere in the panic of not living up to their expectations and not wanting to part with some of the more pre-fabricated aspects of our identity, we, the kids of the information age, tended to kick back aggressively, I no less than others.
One of the casualties of that confrontation between the spirit of 1968 and the new standard line was Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011). Once the lion of Trotskyite journalism, he was ultimately doomed to spend his last decade and a half locked in mutual and willful miscomprehension with former allies.
As a socialist of another era intoned, “Who is to blame?”
It’s a case, I sense, humanists aren’t over-eager to re-open. Even six years after his death, interpreting his legacy gives such renewed life to the pro- and anti-Hitch wings of new atheism, opens so many wounds just barely healed, that many would kinda-sorta-rather we just didn’t mention him. While we recognize that there are flights of prose in god is not Great that will probably stand the test of time as definitive statements of twenty-first-century atheism, those deliciously barbed sentences come chained to pieces like “Why Women Aren’t Funny” (2007) or justifications of Operation Iraqi Freedom that, taken as a whole, many humanists feel are best left behind.
I don’t agree. For a solid decade, I spent more of my time being angry at Hitchens than not, and let myself, in full righteous dudgeon, tune out what he said, why he said it, and the experiences behind his position, out of disgust with the sort of people who were benefiting from his support. I was much like the youths in Hans Weingartner’s 2004 film The Edukators who kidnap a prominent businessman who was himself once a Sixty-Eighter and ask him why he betrayed his ideals. They can’t conceive how a man like him could come to pass, could fall so low, and they seem to viscerally sense that it is death to try.
But let’s look at that man more carefully, the Sixty-Eighter adrift. Recall Hitchens in his fighting trim, son of a British naval officer and an aspiring Jewish fashion designer who took her own life. He had experienced the rump end of the fabled and decried British boarding school system and came out of it a scrappy book-mad lad burning with socialist ideals. At age nineteen, he traveled to Castro’s Cuba to volunteer planting coffee beans and observing the workings of a budding Communist state. He left disillusioned, seeing, as he would so often in life, people begin by cherishing ideals and end by worshipping mere men.
Throughout the 1970s, he was the gadfly of fascism, poking and stinging wherever it rose anew, from the sadism of Videla’s Argentina to the crushing of dissent in the Eastern Bloc, fearlessly dancing between the capitalists whose imperialist instincts he broadcast and the Stalinists whose craven thugishness he was no less reticent in detailing. He lived in that ultra thin sliver of socialism that dubbed itself Trotskyite, an outsider to every system then dominant, and therefore one of the few reliable voices in reporting on them all.
Watch him on television in the 1980s and this is precisely what you’ll see, a journalist that nobody has the faintest idea how to deal with precisely because all their assumptions about what a standard liberal is are run completely aground on his uncompromising sense of social justice and political honesty. He attacked John F. Kennedy’s glam-infused brinksmanship and Lyndon Johnson’s crude political opportunism just as readily as Ronald Reagan’s gross dishonesty or Richard Nixon’s vast corruption. It’s what we valued most about him, really: here was a man who could not be nailed down precisely because he would not sign off on a half-truth regardless of whether it benefited his supposed “party” or not.
When Hitchens squared up to William F. Buckley and powerfully defended socialism, feminism, anti-imperialism, and civil rights from the very belly of Reaganism, and in terms so quick and elegant that Buckley’s usual tricks of intellectual belittlement and intimidation could find no purchase, it was thrilling. And that he was an atheist, and one so matter of fact about it, well, there was cause for hope that here at last was the fierce successor to Voltaire we’d been awaiting.
Then, right around 1990, something went eep and died. In the wake of Operation Desert Storm, Hitchens visited Iraq and spoke with the Kurdish population there, witnessing first hand the systemic cruelty that had been inflicted on those people and that would not only continue with Hussein left in power, but deepen as a result of sanctions. A war had been fought to maintain a map with astounding indifference towards the suffering of actual people, and it would just get worse. The Clinton administration’s tardiness with regard to Bosnian ethnic cleansing in 1992 paired against the willingness to send cruise missiles into Khartoum in 1998 struck him as signs of something deeply wrong not just in the character of Bill Clinton, but in the shifting face of public opinion that ignored the former and was somewhat jazzed about the latter (see “The Clinton-Douglas Debates” in Love, Poverty and War) .
It was his Sixty-Eighter instinct rising powerfully to the surface—when there is suffering, you don’t stop at token gestures, you do something. If you don’t, the suffering is on you as much as it is on those who inflict it. He sized up a new political culture, one which was instinctually allergic to convictions that might require effort, and revolted. He swung hard for regime change in Iraq, memories of his Kurdish friends and their families pushing him into association with strange new partners. It was a human decision, an understandable one for somebody who had seen freedom repeatedly clawed from tyranny against long odds, and we never forgave him for it.
It was a quirk of Hitchens’s character, willingly admitted in his memoir Hitch 22, that, facing opposition, he had a natural tendency to dig in and double down, and the twenty-first century saw that quirk manifest in ways both magnificent and unfortunate. God is not Great (2007) continued his lifetime of work in revealing evil when evil is wrought, feelings be damned. It serves as a perfect counter-weight to a certain trend in modern atheism to say nothing untoward or embarrassing in the hope that everybody will comment on how surprisingly nice and polite we are, an instinct towards which I tend naturally to slouch. He called attention to, and lingered over, the systemic abuses of the priestly castes against those in their nominal charge, and by that relentless enumeration forced the religious to deal openly with their worst abuses and the non-religious to deal privately with the meaning of our genteel reluctance to “make things awkward” by speaking uncomfortable truths.
But then there were times when that same tendency to retrench went clearly off the rails, as in basically any statement about women made after 2000. In the 1980s he’d declared that the feminist movement was one of the three things that inspired him most about the United States in the 1960s, and staunchly defended it from the sort of “but think of the children!” hysteria of the neocons. Good Hitch.
But then, perhaps as a result of his increasing dislike of identity politics, his statements veered creepy. He made oddly Victorian generalizations about what women ought and oughtn’t do, couldn’t seem to describe a female colleague in print without describing how she looked (the “liquid eyes” of Susan Sontag, for example), and famously opined that women weren’t funny (unless they were lesbians or Jewish, naturally). His memoirs linger lovingly on the quirks and personalities of everybody he intellectually respects, but the only space given to either of his wives therein is an account of one of them losing a handbag, which is primarily a story about Edward Said. Bad Hitch.
I was originally going to title this piece, “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Chris Hitchens?” (He hated the nickname Chris, but it’s the only way to make it scan properly in the original song.) Of course, he’s gone now, and there’s nothing to be solved strictly speaking. After angering and exciting us in equal measure, he left behind a death approached with a stoicism that would have been the envy of an Aurelius. Watch those last interviews, given while in various degrees of physical agony, and you’ll see the sort of person we hope we can all be when faced with the absolute finality of death: true to self, reluctant to leave, but resigned gruffly to non-existence all the same.
Whether he left liberalism or whether liberalism left him I’m not sure. I will always love that pamphleteering Trotskyite of the ‘70s, staring down dictators and calling civilized society on its worst demons, but I think there’s room at last to understand what he ultimately became, the Sixty-Eighter looking upon his successors in baffled dismay, wondering if we would ever find the gumption to care again as much and as effectively as we once did. And if in that understanding there comes a sparkle of motivating self-criticism that gets asses off couches and into uncomfortable situations, then perhaps Christopher Hitchens is not so dearly departed after all.
Choosing from the approximately fifty-five thousand books that Hitchens wrote in his lifetime and his equally prolific record of television appearances is difficult. I think all roads lead backward from Hitch-22, which also has the advantage of painting a beautiful picture of his love affair with literature, which ranged from a gleeful and irresistible love of stupid word games to a deep and affecting love of the power of poetry and the novel. Hitchens as book nerd is perhaps his most appealing facet, and I hope to make up for not talking about it here by pointing you to his memoirs and to his essay collections which contain gems about P. G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Harry Potter, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie, and scores more. His books on Thomases Paine and Jefferson are passionate love songs to what is best about the American experiment, and what is troublesome as well. On YouTube, his Godzilla v. Mechagodzilla confrontations with Buckley on Firing Line him at his best.
And finally, I suspect I don’t need to tell you to read god is not Great, but I’ll do it anyway. Read god is not Great.