All of this was triggered for me by the death this week of Christopher Hitchens and the remarkably undiluted, intense praise lavished on him by media discussions. Part of this is explained by the fact that Hitchens — like other long-time media figures, such as Tim Russert — had personal interactions with huge numbers of media figures who are shaping how he is remembered in death. That’s understandable: it’s difficult for any human being to ignore personal feelings, and it’s even more difficult in the face of the tragic death of a vibrant person at a much younger age than is normal.
But for the public at large, at least those who knew of him, Hitchens was an extremely controversial, polarizing figure. And particularly over the last decade, he expressed views — not ancillary to his writings but central to them — that were nothing short of repellent.
Corey Robin wrote that “on the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most: speak for himself,” and then assembled two representative passages from Hitchens’ post-9/11 writings. In the first, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words”), and in the second, Hitchens explained that his reaction to the 9/11 attack was “exhilaration” because it would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he came addictively to call “Islamofascism”: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”
Hitchens, of course, never “prosecuted” the “exhilarating” war by actually fighting in it, but confined his “prosecution” to cheering for it and persuading others to support it. As one of Hitchens’ heroes, George Orwell, put it perfectly in Homage to Catalonia about the anti-fascist, tough-guy war writers of his time:
As late as October 1937 the
New Statesman was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with), and Mr Arthur Bryant was declaring that ‘the sawing-off of a Conservative tradesman’s legs’ was ‘a commonplace’ in Loyalist Spain.
The people who write that kind of stuff never fight; possibly they believe that to write it is a substitute for fighting. It is the same in all wars; the soldiers do the fighting, the journalists do the shouting, and no true patriot ever gets near a front-line trench, except on the briefest of propaganda-tours. Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him.
I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him. When it came to the defining issues of the post-9/11 era, he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them. As Robin put it:
Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder — and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder — is not an internationalist. He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.
Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker’s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary — detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected… As Cook put it: “it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong”; indeed: “People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made.”
Subordinating his brave and intellectually rigorous defense of atheism, Hitchens’ glee over violence, bloodshed, and perpetual war dominated the last decade of his life. Dennis Perrin, a friend and former protégée of Hitchens, described all the way back in 2003 how Hitchens’ virtues as a writer and thinker were fully swamped by his pulsating excitement over war and the Bush/Cheney imperial agenda:
I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid
The Mirror and in
Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead. His TV appearances show a smug, nasty scold with little tolerance for those who disagree with him. He looks more and more like a Ralph Steadman sketch. And in addition to all this, he’s now revising what he said during the buildup to the Iraq war.
In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with “Just you wait!” and other taunts, fully confident that once the US took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets — with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he’d always said so. It’s amazing that he’d dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won’t care.
Currently, Hitch is pushing the line, in language that echoes the reactionary Paul Johnson, that the US can be a “superpower for democracy,” and that Toms Jefferson and Paine would approve. He’s also slammed the “slut” Dixie Chicks as “fucking fat slags” for their rather mild critique of our Dear Leader. He favors Bush over Kerry, and doesn’t like it that Kerry “exploits” his Vietnam combat experience (as opposed to, say, re-election campaign stunts on aircraft carriers).
Sweet Jesus. What next? I’m afraid my old mentor is not the truth-telling Orwell he fancies himself to be. He’s becoming a coarser version of Norman Podhoretz.
One of the last political essays he wrote in his life, for Slate, celebrated the virtues of Endless War.
Christopher Hitchens and the Protocol for Public Figure Deaths