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Arguing Hitchens

Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 788 pages

Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens, Twelve Books, 788 pages

It has always been with me a test of the sense and candor of anyone belonging to the opposite party whether he allowed Christopher Hitchens to be an ornament of Anglo-American literary journalism. Hundreds of novelists, historians, memoirists, and politicians have undergone Hitchens’s critical attentions, to the frequent edification and unfailing entertainment of his readers. Few present-day journalists have a detectable, much less unmistakable, prose style; the suavity and piquancy of Hitchens’s prose are unmatched among his critical peers.

Equally admirable is his breadth of reading; he has made an art of casual allusion. “Erudition” is not quite right; it suggests labor, and what is most impressive about the way Hitchens liberally sprinkles apposite quotes from Auden and Larkin, Waugh and Wodehouse, Jefferson and Churchill throughout his essays is his apparent effortlessness. He always seems to have been reading just the right book at just the right moment—though at a certain point it dawns on you that it can’t be an accident; he really must be intimate with an extraordinary expanse of modern European history and literature.

The essays collected in Prepared for the Worst (1988), For the Sake of Argument (1991), Unacknowledged Legislation (2000), Love, Poverty, and War (2004), and now Arguably range almost inconceivably widely. A short gallery of personal favorites would begin with his portrait of Thomas Paine, whom he praises in terms that strikingly parallel Lionel Trilling on Orwell:

Everything he wrote was plain, obvious, and within the mental compass of the average. In that lay his genius. And, harnessed to his courage (which was exceptional) and his pen (which was at any rate out of the common), this faculty of the ordinary made him outstanding.

It would include his portrait of Conor Cruise O’Brien, to whose variegated political and intellectual career Hitchens renders difficult and delicate justice. His first embattled defense of Orwell (several others would follow) remarks penetratingly that “the essence of Orwell’s work is a sustained criticism of servility. It is not what you think but how you think that matters.” There are blistering takedowns of English politicians Reginald Maudling and Michael Foot and American neoconservatives Norman Podhoretz and Charles Krauthammer, which, brief though they are, deserve to outlive their subjects. There is a harrowing report from El Salvador under the death squads, with a muted and diffident, but all the more affecting, tribute to the Catholic resistance.

A tossed-off column from 25 years ago is virtually Hitchens’s sole effort to formulate a political philosophy. It is so good that one is furious with him for never returning to the subject:

I bought an armful of socialist magazines in London recently, and was impressed by their dogged iteration of the new rage for free-market, individualist formulae. … Once the intoxication of this ‘new thinking’ has worn off, it will again become boringly clear that all macro questions are questions that confront society rather than the individual. … This is true of the imperiled web of nature and climate, which when messed around with can lead to dustbowls in one province and floods in the neighboring one. It is true of the water that can bring lead into the blood and bone of children. There is no ‘minimal government’ solution to any of these pressing matters.

One doesn’t want or need to argue this with any relish. The idea of the individual should not be glibly counterposed to the idea of society. After all, what is society made up of, if not individuals? But there are two ways of facing collective responsibilities. One is to ignore them until it is too late, at which point things like rationing, conscription, and regimentation become the options, irrespective of whether the system is capitalist or socialist. The other is to recognize them in time and take the necessary measures freely and by consent. But there is no evading these responsibilities altogether, or of dismissing them as ‘One World sentimentality.’

Alas, these examples have only gotten us through Hitchens’s first collection, Prepared for the Worst. There is no space left to mention his authoritative pieces on the New York intellectuals and Noel Annan’s portrait of the British Establishment, or “Booze and Fags,” a jolly paean to alcohol and tobacco, or an illuminating essay on Daniel Deronda (all in For the Sake of Argument); the pair of exquisite tributes to Oscar Wilde, the discerning essays on Conan Doyle, Kipling, and Anthony Powell, or the full-on considerations of Isaiah Berlin and Whittaker Chambers, Gore Vidal and Andy Warhol (in Unacknowledged Legislation); the magisterial assessments of Trotsky and Churchill, the wonderfully perceptive, V.S. Pritchett-like essays on Byron, Huxley, Waugh, Joyce, Proust, Borges, and Bellow, or the simultaneously rollicking and haunting record of a trip the length of Route 66 in a rented red Corvette (in Love, Poverty, and War).

And even this leaves out his books: No One Left to Lie To, a definitive account (or as near as possible) of Bill Clinton’s mendacity; The Trial of Henry Kissinger, which has convinced hundreds of thousands of readers (some of them sitting magistrates in foreign countries) that President Obama’s fellow Nobel laureate should be behind bars; and God Is Not Great, the first New York Times number one bestseller to advance that claim. It’s clear, I’m afraid, that within the confines of a mere book review, any short gallery of personal favorites will be frustratingly incomplete. There’s simply too much very good Hitchens.

Of course, not all of Hitchens was very good, even before 9/11 drove him mad. He was always too ready with abuse—“stupid” and “tenth-rate” were particular weaknesses. He is a compulsive name-dropper: in his very short Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, the words “my friend,” followed by a distinguished name, appear dozens of times, giving the reader’s eyebrows a considerable workout. Some of the aforementioned allusions flow a little too readily: there is a subtle difference between relishing a fine phrase and relishing hearing oneself quote a fine phrase. And in recent years, he has occasionally fallen into what might be called the knightly style, where mellifluousness modulates into orotundity. “The disagreeable and surreptitious element of this story cannot indefinitely remain unexamined.” “The masochistic British attitude to inevitable decline seems to have reversed itself, at least to some extent.” All too many occurrences of “I think I may venture to say,” “if I may make so bold as to observe,” “I hope I may be forgiven for pointing out,” and the like. Fortunately, Hitchens the staunch republican has so frequently and zestfully insulted the British monarchy that he is in no danger of becoming Sir Christopher.

More damagingly, his politics have always been a little too first-person. Some memorable portraits and descriptions have resulted from his many extensively reported trips to the world’s trouble spots, but not much insight. The tendency of one’s first-hand experience—the testimony one has heard, the suffering one has witnessed, the bonds one has formed—to crowd other people’s arguments to the margins of judgment is hard to resist. To hope for drama and analysis, passion and wisdom, from the same writer, at any rate on the same occasion, is usually vain. Hitchens’s genuine, generous, longstanding hatred of oppression—a rare quantity among proponents of America’s wars on Serbia, Afghanistan, and Iraq—has nevertheless had disastrous results over the last dozen years.

I began this review by paraphrasing Hazlitt on Burke. When he passed from praising Burke to chastising him, Hazlitt observed that “the poison of high example has by far the widest range of destruction.” Hitchens’s single-minded advocacy of American military intervention has been as destructive as any mere scribbler’s efforts could be. “The very subtlety of his reasoning,” Hazlitt wrote of Burke, “became a dangerous engine in the hands of power, which is always eager to make use of the most plausible pretexts to cover the most fatal designs.” Hitchens’s reasoning has been anything but subtle, but he has more than made up for the poverty of his arguments with rich stores of invective, anecdote, and—as a last refuge—rhetorical patriotism.

What changed Hitchens’s mind about American foreign policy? Three things, it seems. The first was a growing identification, the longer he resided here, with American society and culture, a romance affectingly described in his autobiography, Hitch-22. The second was his increasingly militant anticlericalism, fed especially by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Hitchens’s friend Salman Rushdie. The third was a long-gathering disaffection with the Anglo-American left, which he saw as frozen in postures of multiculturalism and anti-Americanism. He refers in the introduction to Arguably to an “ongoing polemic … between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left”; announcing his accession to the latter in Hitch-22, he described the former as those who “in the final instance believe that if the United States is doing something, then that thing cannot by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Perhaps because of chronic deadline pressure, Hitchens has never plumbed this important question any deeper than that facile opposition and glib taunt.

Rumbling around inside Hitchens, these ingredients produced dyspepsia in the 1990s, when he eventually accepted NATO’s rationale for its “humanitarian” bombing of Serbia and berated his comrades for insufficient hostility to the repellent Clinton (though not because Clinton had destroyed American manufacturing with his “free trade” agreements and accelerated the financialization of the economy, matters about which Hitchens had nothing to say). 9/11 churned his feelings to the point of nausea, and he vomited (or as he would say, spewed). This reaction did his insides much good—he proclaimed the relief “unbelievable.” But as with most such eructations, the results were indiscriminate.

His reports from Kurdistan, southern Iraq, and Afghanistan were vivid and moving. His account in Hitch-22 of his ideological evolution was admirably honest, even if long on anecdote and short on analysis. But his arguments—collected in A Long Short War (2003)—were as feeble as they were smug. A convenient, though very partial, catalogue of Hitchens’s sophistries was assembled by Norman Finkelstein:

To prove that, after supporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East for 70 years, the US has abruptly reversed itself and now wants to bring democracy there, he cites ‘conversations I have had on this subject in Washington.’ To demonstrate the ‘glaringly apparent’ fact that Saddam ‘infiltrated, or suborned, or both’ the UN inspection teams in Iraq, he adduces the ‘incontrovertible case’ of an inspector offered a bribe by an Iraqi official: ‘the man in question refused the money, but perhaps not everybody did.’

…Hitchens maintains that that ‘there is a close … fit between the democratically minded and the pro-American’ in the Middle East—like ‘President for Life’ Hosni Mubarak … that the US’s rejoining of UNESCO during the Iraq debate proved its commitment to the UN; that ‘empirical proofs have been unearthed’ showing that Iraq didn’t comply with UN resolutions to disarm; that since the UN solicits US support for multilateral missions, it’s ‘idle chatter’ to accuse the US of acting unilaterally in Iraq; that the likely killing of innocent civilians in ‘hospitals, schools, mosques and private homes’ shouldn’t deter the US from attacking Iraq because it is proof of Saddam’s iniquity that he put civilians in harm’s way; that those questioning billions of dollars in postwar contracts going to Bush administration cronies must prefer them going to ‘some windmill-power concern run by Naomi Klein.’

Hitchens’s response to these and all other criticisms—including the fundamental one, that preventive war is a step toward international anarchy—has been sheer bluster, an insistence that he has been right all along, in every particular, with 20/20 foresight. Everything that has happened since the invasion—half a million deaths and several million refugees, not to mention the half-million deaths from sanctions that preceded it, and the wholesale and unnecessary aerial devastation of Iraqi infrastructure both in 1991 and 2003; in addition to deep inroads on civil liberties and constitutional government at home—is not our fault. But everything good that has happened is our doing—notably the Arab Spring, whose participants in fact repeatedly tell pollsters of their fear and mistrust of the United States, stemming largely from past and present American military interventions in the region. Although this is not a grown-up position, Hitchens has maintained it unflappably, and his reputation has not suffered. But then, no one has ever suffered much for flattering the prejudices of the American foreign-policy elite. Willingness to affirm the unique moral status and prerogatives of the United States has always been the chief prerequisite of political or journalistic Very Serious Personhood.

Arguably is much the longest of Hitchens’s collections. (And perhaps his last—he has advanced esophageal cancer.) It is very rewarding, with book-length (or very nearly) sections on American writers, English writers, writers under totalitarian regimes, and “Offshore Accounts”—reports/profiles/capsule histories of two dozen countries or international episodes. The choicest delicacies on this groaning board are a dozen or so exquisite appreciations: of Rebecca West, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Anthony Powell, John Buchan, Saki, Philip Larkin, Victor Serge, Victor Klemperer, W.G. Sebald, the novels of Fleet Street, the Flashman novels, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. Two charming throwaways, one on “like,” the other on the (soon-to-be-obsolete?) problem of not enough bookshelves, make one wish Hitchens had not given up to mankind what was meant for a few discriminating readers. But there is fine, mellow writing in each of the book’s 107 pieces.

Arguably is low on provocations: most of Hitchens’s worst writing appears in his Slate column, “Fighting Words,” which is mercifully underrepresented here. But slender threads of belligerence and chauvinism run through the book. Some are comparatively inconsequential. An essay on “Jefferson and the Muslim Pirates” offers these reflections:

[T]he Barbary Wars gave Americans an inkling of the fact that they were, and always would be, bound up with global affairs. Providence might have seemed to grant them a haven guarded by two oceans, but if they wanted to be anything more than the Chile of North America—a long littoral ribbon caught between the mountains and the sea—they would have to prepare for a maritime struggle as well as a campaign to redeem the unexplored landmass to their west. The US Navy’s Mediterranean squadron has, in one form of another, been on patrol ever since.

Besides managing to suggest that an American global military presence, particularly in the Middle East, is simply an expression of our national destiny, this passage also nicely elides a century of hideous cruelty and greed. In the phrase, “redeem the unexplored landmass to their west,” it is hard to decide which word is more offensive: “redeem” or “unexplored.” “Conquer the rest of the continent,” though perhaps less sonorous, would have been infinitely less objectionable. It is difficult to imagine the pre-9/11 Hitchens forgetting himself to such an extent; and, to be fair, even Hitchens post-9/11 rarely sounds so Blimpish.

But other, more characteristic remarks are less forgivable. In “The Anglosphere Future,” Hitchens again employs ideologically polarized lenses. This time he looks ahead, toward a worldwide commonwealth of English-speaking nations, based on America’s indestructible prosperity (the essay was published a few months before the Great Recession began), on the solidarity of America’s English-speaking allies against Islamic radicalism (“a barbarism that is no less menacing than its predecessors … the Nazi-Fascist Axis … and international Communism”), and on the English language itself (“uniquely hostile to euphemisms for tyranny”).

The shape of the world since September 11 has, in fact, shown the outline of such an alliance in practice. Everybody knows of Tony Blair’s solidarity with the United States, but when the chips were down, Australian forces also went to Iraq. Attacked domestically for being ‘all the way with the USA,’ Australian prime minister John Howard made the imperishable observation that in times of crisis, there wasn’t much point in being 75 percent a friend.

Leaving aside whether an Anglosphere is feasible or desirable, Hitchens here falls into the propagandist’s habit of saying “the United States” when he means “the government of the United States.” In this case, actually, even “the government of the United States” would have been misleading. The rush to war with Iraq was led, in the words of the appalled chief of staff to the Secretary of State, by “a cabal between the Vice President of the United States and the Secretary of Defense on critical issues, which made decisions that the bureaucracy did not even know were being made.” This cabal was the object of Tony Blair’s solidarity, not “the United States.”

Blair might, moreover, have shown a little more solidarity with the British public, which opposed the intervention even in the teeth of drumbeating by the Murdoch press, and indeed with his own government, whose attorney general warned him that the invasion was illegal and whose intelligence service warned him that the American cabal’s arguments were dishonest. As for Australia’s doughty prime minister, who also disdained solidarity with his own public, he might have been a better friend to the United States by admonishing its government—or governing cabal—to obey international law and cease lying to the American people and the rest of the world. The United States badly needed such admonitions from its foreign friends, since the American media and most intellectuals, with Hitchens in the vanguard, shirked that responsibility.

In his great essay, Hazlitt summed up:

Burke was an acute and accomplished man of letters—an ingenious political essayist. … He had the power of throwing true or false weights into the scales of political casuistry, but not firmness of mind enough (or shall we say, honesty enough) to hold the balance. When he took a side, his vanity or his spleen more frequently gave the casting vote than his judgment; and the fieriness of his zeal was in exact proportion to the levity of his understanding, and the want of conscious sincerity.

Whether or not one finds this true of Burke, it is Hitchens to the life.

George Scialabba is the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and The Modern Predicament.