Wednesday, September 7, 2011

There's just one Hitch

Christopher Hitchens's Arguably

Last year, just before he was diagnosed with advanced oesophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens published the unexpectedly moving memoir Hitch-22. “I soon enough realized when young,” he revealed in that book, “that I did not have the true ‘stuff’ for [writing] fiction and poetry. And I was very fortunate indeed to have, as contemporaries, several practitioners of those arts who made it obvious to me, without unduly rubbing in the point, that I would be wasting my time if I tried.”

As a journalist, Christopher Hitchens has done everything with his time except waste it. He has made himself the key writer of the post 9/11 age. No novelist or poet has registered the texture of the last decade as pungently as Hitchens has in the essay form. His sheer blazing willingness to speak his mind, always and forcefully, has made him a lode-star of candour in a time of double-talk and euphemism. No matter how depressing political developments have got, one has always been able to look forward to what Hitchens will have to say about them. Just a few weeks ago, the Tea Party movement’s lobotomization of American politics was almost made worthwhile when it prompted Hitchens to coin the phrase “all politics is yokel.” We have recently been forced to imagine what the intellectual world would be like without Hitchens. It is a dire prospect.

But right now he is still with us, and in the finest form of his career. This panoramic and deeply nourishing collection of essays is the thickest, and the best, that he has ever put together. Mainly it consists of articles written since his previous collection, which came out in 2004, although a few pieces have been corralled in from earlier dates. The shorter essays offer fiery confirmation, as if any were needed, that Hitchens is still the liveliest polemical writer around. But the weightier pieces (long and considered book reviews, extended dispatches from the world’s hell-holes and hot-spots) remind us that his politics, as spectacular and controversial as they sometimes are, have deep and elaborate roots. It’s conventional to say that Hitchens has moved, in the decade since 9/11, from the left to the right. Even a cursory reading of this book will prove that view to be simplistic.

Indeed if we step back, and take an overview of his whole career, it seems doubtful that 9/11 occasioned any substantial turn in his thinking at all. Certainly his forthright analysis of the attacks precipitated his formal break from the Anglo-American left. But the ideas Hitchens brandished after 9/11 were just sharper versions of ideas he already had. Well before 2001, he was writing with an uncompromising moral frankness that made him a poor fit for any orthodoxy. Yes, he had been a self-declared Trotskyist in his youth; but in his mature writings he has never toed any particular party line.

Consider the trio of book-length polemics he wrote during the five or six years preceding 2001. The targets of these merciless books were Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. At first glance this looks like a mixed bag of victims. But there was nothing mixed about Hitchens’s approach to them: all he did was measure them by the one ethical standard. The Hitchens of those books was no different from the man who so bitterly annoys his enemies today: he was a moralist, and an admirably consistent one. Hitchens is the kind of writer who quite deliberately uses words like evil, and wicked, and shameful, and sinister. He reclaims these words from the religious; he deploys them in a robustly humanist way that maximises their meaning and weight. When Hitchens is standing up for a violated or threatened principle, he can attain a rhetorical white heat that no one else writing today can match.

What places him beyond left and right is his readiness to apply his moral anger across the board. Orthodox leftists, and indeed orthodox conservatives, exercise their senses of outrage more selectively. But Hitchens has no time for “sniggering relativism.” In 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens unequivocally took the side of the condemned novelist. He treated the death-dealing Holy Man with no more respect than he would later extend to Henry Kissinger. If more flexible progressives, such as John le Carré, preferred to discuss the nuances and grey areas of Rushdie’s death sentence, we should be slow to conclude that this made them more enlightened than Hitchens. Perhaps this was Hitchens’s first brush with an emerging pseudo-left, identifiable by its tendency to retreat into sophistry when confronted by the topic of Islamic extremism.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 Hitchens published a series of unforgettable essays, the best of which were reprinted in his 2004 collection Love, Poverty, and War. These short pieces, I am convinced, will go down as classics of American journalism. Like Mencken at the Scopes monkey trial, or Mailer at the conventions of 1968, Hitchens caught the turbulence of the moment in vividly atmospheric prose. More importantly, he condemned the perpetrators in language that was consonant with the nature of the offence. While Noam Chomsky and others construed the attacks as a more or less straightforward response to American foreign policy, Hitchens, seasoned by the Rushdie affair, called the hijackers “nihilists … at war with culture as a whole.” One of his earliest ripostes to the Chomsky position has stuck in my mind ever since. Noting that September 11 happened to mark the anniversary of the 1973 military coup in Chile – a CIA-backed enormity that gave democratic Chileans every right to resent the American government – Hitchens wrote: “I don’t know any Chilean participant in this great historical struggle who would not rather have died – you’ll have to excuse the expression – than commit an outrage against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.”

What a supremely telling way to define the uniqueness of the 9/11 act. All of Hitchens’s virtues as a writer were on display in that sentence. For starters, it let you know exactly where he stood. (It helped, greatly, that he knew exactly where he stood.) To speak of the attacks as an “outrage against humanity” was to use elementary moral language that few writers were ready to use at the time, and that some writers are embarrassed to use still. Then you have the phrase “who would not rather have died” – a chillingly compact way of evoking the universal, or apparently universal, norms of humanity that the jihadists had so monstrously violated. Behind the language lies Hitchens’s experience as a campaigner and on-the-ground journalist: he knows Chilean dissidents personally, and the date of Allende’s death is fixed in his head. Above everything else, you have his uncanny skills as an off-the-cuff rhetorician: he can seize the clinching example when it’s needed, and throw it down like an unanswerable card.   

It was “as if Charles Manson had been made God for a day,” Hitchens wrote, just a day after the attacks. Of course one already knew, in one’s gut, that the hijackers were no more elevated than that. The evidence of it was ample, perhaps too ample: the leaping office workers, the slashed throats of the hostesses. But Hitchens’s voice cut through the smog; he found words that conformed to the awful evidence in front of your eyes. “By their deeds,” he wrote, “shall we know them.” When he called the hijackers “theocratic fascists,” the phrase caught on. So did his characterisation of bin Ladenism as a “cult of death.” He was in the vanguard of the commentariat, saying things no other writer had yet had the guts to say.

It has been suggested that Hitchens overstates the magnitude of the jihadist threat to the West. Hitchens, this argument has it, fancies himself as a modern Orwell; but while Orwell had Hitler and Stalin to write about, Hitchens has been forced to inflate the importance of a bunch of fringe villains who pose no existential threat to Western civilization. One pauses to wonder if the kind of people who say this would have been quite so ready to endorse Orwell’s anti-totalitarianism if they’d been around in the 1930s. One could also note that terrorism poses an existential enough threat to the people it kills, and might well be worth combating for that reason alone. But let’s leave those objections aside, and acknowledge that this line of argument isn’t wholly rancid. Reading one or two of Hitchens’s more gung-ho essays in isolation, you could just about bring yourself to believe that such critics are on to something.  

But this new collection, in which Hitchens’s more aggressive stuff is amply footnoted by his more analytical work, leaves their thesis looking pretty exposed. Hitchens devotes many more pages here to the extremists’ actual offences against eastern cultures than he does to their potential threat to the West. He travels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran – whose regime he abhors not because it is an official enemy of the United States, but because it is an enemy of its own people. He traces the “wretched … counter-evolution” of Pakistan: a place where “women can be sentenced to be raped … if even a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk” and where “moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.”

Nor is Hitchens worried solely about extremists of the Islamic stripe. He travels to Uganda, where the Christian death squads of Joseph Kony employ child soldiers as young as nine. He goes to Venezuela, where the increasingly erratic Hugo Chávez is getting “very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg.” In North Korea he sees people drinking from the sewer, and notes that the average North Korean is now, because of malnutrition, six inches shorter than the average South Korean.

In his book reviews, which occupy a good half of this volume, Hitchens frequently has call to revisit the totalitarianisms of the past. Reviewing the war-time Diaries of the German Jew Victor Klemperer, he plucks out an “appallingly eloquent” illustration of Nazi cruelty: Klemperer, having been progressively stripped of all his other rights and dignities, is eventually denied the right to own a pet, and must send off his beloved cat to be put down. Elsewhere, Hitchens analyses Hitler’s increasingly psychopathic conduct near the war’s end, by which time he had become a “howling nihilist … [who] didn’t care if nobody outlived him.” Again the word “nihilist”: the essays in this book merge into a compelling argument that all the various forms of zealotry, beyond a certain point of madness, begin to resemble one another, no matter what ideology they nominally embody. North Korea, Hitchens agrees, is these days less a communist state than “a phenomenon of the extreme and pathological right.” Pathological is no doubt the key word there. Indeed, Hitchens proceeds to call Kim Jong-il’s regime a “death cult.” Making the same point in the other direction, he detects an early whiff of totalitarianism in the Ten Commandments: the injunction against coveting one’s neighbour’s property, he says, “is the first but not the last introduction in the Bible of the totalitarian concept of ‘thought crime.’”

All this adds up to an analysis of totalitarianism that has geographical width and historical depth. And for Hitchens, the West’s current distance from these horrors is less secure than we might hope: “everyone has a self-interest in the strivings and sufferings of others because the borders between societies are necessarily porous and contingent and are, when one factors in considerations such as the velocity of modern travel, easy access to weaponry, and the spread of disease, becoming ever more so … A failed state may not trouble Americans’ sleep, but a rogue one can, and the transition from failed to rogue can be alarmingly abrupt.”

That first sentence, it should be said, is written with an uncharacteristic lack of fizz: it tries to pack too much of the Hitchens world-view into too small a space. His prose is at its vigorous best when Hitchens has been riled by some particular case or incident. His essay on the affair of the Danish cartoons is a standout. Its language is impassioned – he calls the international campaign of violence against Danish embassies a “Kristallnacht against Denmark” – but his passion is marshalled in defence of an imperilled liberty: namely, the freedom to speak openly about religion. “If we have to accept this sickly babble about ‘respect’,” he says, “we must at least demand that it is fully reciprocal.” 

That demand provides an important reminder about the nature of Hitchens’s atheism. Militant as it sometimes sounds, his campaign against faith-based excess is essentially a defensive project, mounted during a decade when the powerful religions were making various unapologetic attempts to wind back the achievements of secularism – a decade during which George Bush, for example, endorsed the teaching of intelligent design “theory” in America’s science classrooms. In 2007 Hitchens published God is Not Great, in which he observed that he would happily leave religion alone if only religion would leave him alone. But, he said, it keeps declining to do that. Praising Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state, Hitchens stresses that even the faithful have an interest in keeping religion out of the political sphere, since “a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantee of religious pluralism.”

When Hitchens puts the boot into the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t just do it for fun – although he undoubtedly has fun doing it. His object is serious, and affirmative: he wants to demonstrate that a rational humanist, far from having no values at all, can in fact propose a far more moral set of universal commandments than the ten dealt out to Moses. Before sketching out his new commandments, though, Hitchens does a cripplingly thorough job of dismantling the old ones. “They show every symptom,” he says, “of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals.”

He is just as sceptical when reading texts he nominally likes. In a section called “Eclectic Affinities” he runs the literary gamut, from Flaubert to J. K. Rowling. Eclectic they certainly are, but his literary affinities are rarely unqualified. Even on the subject of Harry Potter, his eye for the telling argument remains sharp: he praises Rowling for getting kids to read, but complains that she “keeps forgetting that things are either magical or they are not: Hermione’s family surely can’t be any safer from the Dark Lord by moving to Australia, and Hagrid’s corporeal bulk cannot make any difference to his ability, or otherwise, to mount a broomstick.” He is also constantly on the lookout for the general moral lesson. Discussing Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, first published in 1941, he calls West “one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understand that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.”  

You can see, right there, why the cheeseburger-hating wing of today’s left resents Hitchens so extravagantly. Such people are comfortable enough telling you what they are against: Bush, Blair, the “so-called” war on terror. But they’re considerably less audible about what aspects of civilized society, if any, they might theoretically be prepared to fight for, let alone kill for. Hitchens, on the other hand, is grown-up enough to acknowledge that history contains unpalatable lessons, and he has the moral honesty to try to get to grips with them. He’s ready to say that there is such a thing as civilization, which must be prepared to use violence to defend its way of life against the kind of people for whom violence is a way of life.   

Hitchens writes so prolifically, and with such brio, that it would be miraculous if this book didn’t exhibit the odd rough edge. There’s a certain amount of overlap and repetition. There is the occasional sentence that gets away from him. Some of his purely literary essays lack the crackle of his more committed work: when his prose isn’t arranged around some burning moral purpose, it has a tendency not to take fire. A pun-riddled inquiry into the cultural significance of the blowjob proves that whimsy is not his best mode. 

If he has a serious vice, it’s the flip side of one of his main virtues. He doesn’t like to lose an argument. His streetfighting instincts are part of what makes him such an entertaining writer, but occasionally they get the better of him. Even when he’s landing good clean scoring punches, he’ll sometimes bite off a chunk of his opponent’s ear for good measure. In his mature work he has largely curbed this tendency, but there is one essay here in which he conspicuously loses his cool. Reviewing Koba the Dread, by his close friend Martin Amis, Hitchens gets personal in a big way.

Not that you can totally blame him. Amis got personal first, by writing a book in which Hitchens himself plays a prominent and not entirely heroic role. Koba the Dread is a semi-autobiographical inquiry into the left’s slowness to acknowledge the full horror of Stalinism. Amis uses Hitchens as a kind of representative figure, and makes much of his failure to renounce Trotsky and Lenin.

Hitchens, in his review, accuses Amis of “hubris”, “self-righteousness” and “superficiality.” These are big calls, and Hitchens backs them up with some solid arguments. He demonstrates his superior knowledge of the terrain; he lists key books Amis hasn’t read. If he’d rested his case there, it would have been sound enough. But he goes on to “set down a judgment I would once have thought unutterable”: he accuses Amis of a “want of wit” that “compromises his seriousness.”

Since Hitchens considers this charge so grave, it is worth examining the grounds on which he makes it. One of his beefs concerns an episode in Amis’s book in which Hitchens, appearing at a debate in a London hall, jokes about earlier evenings he has spent there with “many ‘an old comrade’”. The audience laughs, and Amis wonders why. How can people laugh about a creed responsible for the deaths of twenty million people? After all, nobody would have laughed if Hitchens had said “many ‘an old blackshirt.’” But Hitchens, in his review, lambasts Amis for having missed something crucial about the laughter’s nature: “the laughter in that hall was … the resigned laughter that ‘sees’ a poor jest, and recognises the fellow sufferer.” 

The second proof of Amis’s “want of wit,” says Hitchens, comes in some anecdotes “that are too obviously designed to place himself in a good light.” These anecdotes recount a series of Stalin-related grillings that Amis, during the 1970s, gave Hitchens and the poet James Fenton, who was also a Trotskyist at the time. Again Hitchens suggests that Amis has missed something about the true tone or nature of these conversations: Amis’s questions, he says, “are … plainly wife-beating questions, and the answers … clearly intended to pacify the aggressor by offering a mocking agreement.”

Flip open a copy of Koba the Dread, though, and check how damaging these charges really are. To take the second point first, Amis explicitly says that his arguments with Fenton and Hitchens were only “semi-serious”: “These exchanges took place in a spirit of humorous appraisal, mutual appraisal.” Furthermore, the comebacks he quotes from Hitchens are decidedly funny. You don’t need Hitchens’s review to tell you they were mocking or ironic. Amis, in his book, doesn’t pretend they were anything else. Nor do these exchanges show Amis in an especially “good light.” Few people reading them would disagree with the verdict, offered pre-emptively by Amis himself, that “my contributions were often callous as well as callow.”

Nor does Hitchens’s point about the laughter in the hall seem all that telling. The subtitle of Amis’s book is “Laughter and the Twenty Million,” and one of his central lines of inquiry is the question of why, despite that horrendous death toll, “you could always joke about the USSR” in a way you couldn’t joke about Nazi Germany. In the context of that argument, Hitchens’s quibble about the nature of the laughter in the hall seems a touch irrelevant. It was still laughter, and it still revolved around the word “comrade.” Amis, by the way, admits that he laughed too. He doesn’t exempt himself from the investigation. 

All I’m saying is that Hitchens, when his blood is up, is capable of advancing poor arguments along with good ones. But we wouldn’t want to be without his readiness to get personally involved. For Hitchens, the life and the work are thoroughly intertwined. His famous essay on waterboarding is here: the one in which he researched that procedure by volunteering to undergo it himself. “Believe Me,” runs the title of his essay, “It’s Torture.” In Vietnam he visits a hospital for victims of Agent Orange, and emerges with almost unbearably vivid descriptions of the malformed children inside. “One should not run out of vocabulary to the point where one calls a child a monster,” he writes, “but the temptation is there.” It’s a rare writer who can strike a note like that and also, at the other end of the register, make you laugh out loud. Ripping into waiters who top up your wine while you’re trying to talk, Hitchens is brilliant. His famously close-to-the-wind piece on “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is here too. “Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about,” he says in that essay: a phrase that would have made an apt title for the whole book, if an unfeasibly long one.

Writing in praise of Karl Marx’s journalism, Hitchens compiles a list of the great writer-reporters – Zola, Dickens, Twain, Orwell – and wishes that the word “journalist” might be made to “lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent.” Hitchens has helped that to happen, and we can now safely enrol him among those great names. “Ours is a useful trade,” wrote Twain in 1888:

With all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence … Whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties. 

Railing against the death cults, Hitchens has stood unapologetically for life. If he hasn’t laughed superstition out of existence yet, that isn’t for lack of trying. It would be a sad day for literature if his campaign were to end prematurely. But even if it does, we already know that his laughter and his derision will endure.

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, September 2011)