Christopher Hitchens has been at the forefront of political debate for forty years. A wit, conversationalist and renown ‘contrarian’, Hitchens has both contributed to the cultural history of the Anglo-American intelligentsia, and shaken the images of prominent public figures, from Mother Theresa to Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton. Awaiting the release of his forthcoming autobiography, “Hitch-22: Some Confessions and Contradictions”, Casey Larsen, a First Year undergraduate studying English and History, stresses the pleasure of thinking: what would Hitchens do?
The English and, more specifically, readers of the Daily Mail, will be familiar with Peter Hitchens, very familiar. A former Trotskyist, Peter is now better known as today’s leading conservative critic. The small ‘c’ here is important to emphasise because, according to him, there is no such thing as a Conservative Party in Britain. He planned to spend last general election day having lunch in France, because while the rest of us happily succumbed to the parties’ illusion that there is anything to choose between them, Mr. Hitchens, quite vehemently, begs to differ. We are all being “offered bribes with our own money”, “given a choice between tweedle-dumb and tweedle-dumber”, should return to the days in which education was passed on with authority, the family was the most important unit within society, the Christian faith was the pre-eminent code of law, and above all, must acknowledge that it is “more likely that an eagle will drop a tortoise on my head as I walk down the street than the chance that I’ll be killed in a terror attack”, in spite of the attempts by “Mr. Miliband and his rabble” to protect us from a threat which they invented.
Dwell carefully on those last two claims, because on the other side of the Atlantic, a certain other Mr. Hitchens has spent the last nine years forcefully confronting anyone who makes them. He has left writers, politicians, commentators, and most poignantly, dear friends, somewhat in his wake; from Gore Vidal to Edward Said. One needn’t look back to the Clinton impeachment episode, during which he testified against his friend Sidney Blumenthal, to be reminded that he is a person who very much thinks for himself. It is simply who he is, and the faculty of personal deliberation is the one he values most.
The tale of Christopher Hitchens’ political and intellectual odyssey is far too rich and long to tell, so rather than attempt any summary, which would simply be too broad a brush-stroke to bear, here is a suspiciously terse introduction, to Christopher Hitchens.
Together with his intellect and wit, Hitchens has, over a career in journalism spanning forty years, brought to the table his good-manners and humility; every time he is due to speak at an event, the host is forced to recount his achievements in a long and swelling list of considerable accomplishments, after which he has the tendency to start by stating a thank-you, for that “suspiciously terse, and grudging introduction.”
Christopher Hitchens hasn’t been quite the same man since the September 11th atrocities, or has he? In an inciteful essay written for Prospect Magazine, on 24th May 2008, Alexander Linklater surmises the consequences of Hitchens’ sharp divergence from a great many Anglo-American leftists (He quit The Nation Magazine in 2002):
“Views of Hitchens among liberal media or academic figures tend to take one of four lines: that politically he’s a busted flush (though still a fine literary critic); that he was seduced by the chance to partake in real power in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion; that he did a “Paul Johnson” mid-life flip from left to right; or that he’s simply a vain contrarian who likes a fight and has got a bigger audience picking one with old comrades than by going with a consensus. There are also more sympathetic interpretations that see neoconservative foreign policy ideas converging with a late flowering of his leftist internationalism.”
So here we have it, rather well put. Which hypothesis is the most plausible, and what, if anything, can the ‘New Generation’ hope to learn from one of the outstanding political commentators of the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries? It seems to me that the last of the reactions considered by Mr. Linklater is closest to the mark, and that consequently the lesson someone might choose to absorb from Christopher Hitchens’ thought is the much underrated virtue of a little intellectual consistency, or even better, honesty.
Oliver Kamm, a leader writer for The Times, published in 2005 a book entitled “Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy”. Like Hitchens, Kamm has quarreled with the most strident figures from the British and American left, including Noam Chomsky, but not quite on the same scale. Arguably the most memorable of Hitchens’ bouts was his verbal annihilation of apologist for terror George Galloway at Baruch University in New York in September 2005. After 9/11, everything changed. Christopher Hitchens is known to have thought longer and harder than most public writers and intellectuals about the calamitous events of that very dark day. He often recalls with revulsion the times “Chaucerian Frauds” like Jerry Falwell were invited onto the Air to express the masochistic view that the atrocities were God’s punishment for America’s sins, and that her “chickens were coming home to roost”, all whilst the embers were still burning beneath the rouble.
He has always made it clear that he is “no kind of conservative”, and according to him, in reference to Iraq, the act of intervening in the affairs of a desperate and crumbling foreign state, as opposed to waiting for it to implode on itself, cannot be termed in any sense “conservative”. He rolls his eyes at recycled claims that America’s foreign policy is as ever grounded in the military-industrial power complex, glancing defensively towards Israel, with a greater empire in view. He had begun to worry about the revered Chomsky once he wrote about the humanitarian intervention in Bosnia in a tone somewhat too sour for his taste. The West has had and still does have its virtues, and this time is certainly different. Al-Qaeda are not espousing a fluffy libertarian theology, but a murderous and intolerant imperialism. He has no time for people who cannot tell the difference. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting the same fight, and the root cause of terror is not Western foreign policy but religious ideology, so that terror causes poverty and state failure, not the other way around.
Linklater captures this very well when observing that “this taking of positions and deriving a ‘line’ from a set of immutable principles belongs to a kind of Talmudic Trotskyism.” I like to think that this line stretches far into his current debate with God, as indeed he believes it does. If the ‘New Generation’ is really to learn anything from such a man, in spite of the ideological or political differences one might wish to exercise, it must be the continual employment of reason itself, in whichever direction, which Hitchens maintains “is a full-time job.”
Always with a pinch of modesty, he admits that over the course of his long book tour, (God is not Great. Verso, 2007) which he took right through the more obscure parts of the American south in an attempt to find more authentic crowds, he not once encountered an original argument for the existence of God. The most frustrating efforts, in my view at least, are made by those who retire into arguments of perfect circularity by stating that faith has little to do with argument, which is, as they never tire of reminding us, what the definition of faith is. Hitchens’ principal and best contribution to the topic has always been his repudiation of Stephen J. Gould’s assertion that religion and science are “non-overlapping magisteria”. Not so. It might well have suited Sir Isaac Newton to keep a furnace blasting in his room in strained efforts to turn base metals into gold, but for Christopher Hitchens these things are quite incompatible. Faith, he protests, is the willingness to take an enormous assumption on almost no evidence at all, and is often accompanied by the expectation of respect for this feat of ‘courage’.
If our generation, ascending through the murky political canvass sketched by Peter Hitchens, whose landscape has been smeared by the confusion and core failure of New Labour, now replaced by an equally evasive and euphemistic coalitional outfit, is to make any sort of headway at all, the least it can do is take a page out of the book of a Hitchens, either one, really, and find the true ‘courage’ to say what everybody else is afraid to. In that sense, at least, they may have more in common with one other than was first thought.