Has Hitchens devastated religious faith, as he plainly thinks he has? I’m glad he’s entertaining – but is he persuasive? Does his book confirm you in your nonbelief, or leave questions unaddressed? Hitchens takes these questions seriously – shouldn’t the reviewer, whether an atheist, a believer, or somewhere in between, have the decency to do the same?
Ah, but it’s Kinsley on Hitchens. Brilliant! ~Ross Douthat
Ross covers quite well the bizarre quality of Kinsley’s review, which is that it doesn’t actually review the book very much at all, but instead uses the book as an excuse to chat about what a very “interesting!!!” person Christopher Hitchens is. As far as the book is concerned, the main thing that interests Kinsley about it is that it does not fit the pattern of deliberately provocative self-contradiction that makes so many journalists and pundits swoon, which may just be the most deliberately provocative act Hitchens could have done. Here he is, a political columnist and writer, and he has written a book in which he does not reinvent his entire worldview, so that he remains more “unpredictable” than if he had. Earnestly consistent conviction is the new authenticity. Interesting!
But Kinsley’s review flops in more ways than this. He describes Hitchens’ recent career as if many of his moves have been surprising or counterintuitive:
Hitchens had seemed to be solving this problem by turning his conversion into an ideological “Dance of the Seven Veils.” Long ago he came out against abortion. Interesting! Then he discovered and made quite a kosher meal of the fact that his mother, deceased, was Jewish, which under Jewish law meant he himself was Jewish. Interesting!! (He was notorious at the time for his anti-Zionist sympathies.) In the 1990s, Hitchens was virulently, and somewhat inexplicably, hostile to President Bill Clinton. Interesting!!! You would have thought that Clinton’s decadence would have positively appealed to Hitchens. Finally and recently, he became the most (possibly the only) intellectually serious non-neocon supporter of George W. Bush’s Iraq war. Interesting!!!!
There is something strangely, indescribably fitting in the allusion that compares Hitchens to a morally insane woman who murders the man she loves (at least as Salome tells the story), but after that Kinsley doesn’t do very well. Except for the abortion bit, there is nothing particularly interesting about any of these things. They only seem strange if you believe that to acknowledge Jewish ancestry entails a duty to become Zionist or if you think being on the left entails supporting Democratic politicians and opposing aggressive war, which hard-core leftists of Hitchens’ sort have never believed.
Is it strange or “interesting!!!” that a man who venerates the memory of Leon Trotsky should be disgusted by the legendary centrist triangulator and ultimate politician of convenience? Hitchens has quite open admiration for the Bolshevik murderer, so he could hardly be impressed by the milquetoast liberalism of Clinton. I remember how much he hated Clinton’s attack on the Sudan, not so much because he opposed military adventurism (he quite likes it) or random violence against civilians (if it’s in a “good” cause, he’s not bothered) but because I think he saw it simply as Westerners beating up on a Third World country. His loathing of the West at that time seems to have outweighed his loathing of Islam, but recent years have managed to make them about the same. As tempting as it might be to make his Trotsky admiration into an explanation for why he embraced the Iraq war, that certainly doesn’t do it justice. Hitchens has long been obsessed about the Kurds, just as any good leftist should be (sympathy for the Kurds unites such diverse lefties as Peretz and George Galloway), and this has coloured his entire view of Iraq policy; he wrote, no doubt quite seriously, of the “anti-fascist” character of the Iraq war. In fact, the only thing remarkable about Hitchens’ support for the Iraq war is that he should be one of the very few leftists who still support it in one way or another. Hitchens has remained faithful to the export of revolution and death to a degree that makes him seem strange and unpredictable to liberals who have suddenly discovered their inner realist only after a Republican has embarked on a classic liberal interventionist project. Hitchens’ grim, remorseless consistency on killing people for their own good reveals the opportunism and rather crass partisan reflexes of so many center-left war critics. If it has aligned him more with the neocons, this is simply because they also routinely agree with interventionist wars regardless of the party affiliation of the President launching them.