Hitch: We miss you. Christopher Hitchens and the tradition of English dissent – the third anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens

The following essay was written by Robert Darby in September 2012. Christopher Hitchens died on 15 December 2011. I am grateful to Robert for allowing me to publish it. I agree with the spirit and sentiments of the essay but not with all its points. One of my favourite Hitchens’ quotes is: “The progress that’s made… in any argument  or in any discussion is by confrontation”. Comments welcome.

 

* * * *

More than a decade later I can still recall the spine-tingling thrill generated by the opening paragraph of Christopher Hitchens’ essay on Henry Kissinger:

In a rather more judgemental time, history was sometimes written like this: “The evils produced by his wickedness were felt in lands where the name of Prussia was unknown; and in order to rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel, and red men scalped each other by the Great Lakes of North America.”

Who would have expected a leftist journalist to appreciate the Gibbonian cadences of Thomas Macaulay, or – with such easy assurance – to quote such an establishment figure as the opening salvo of an attack on a contemporary bogeyman of the Left?  I had been led to the essay by an earlier book on the British-United States relationship (Blood, Class and Nostalgia), and was so impressed by its wit, irreverence and learning that I knew I must read more, and so found the collection For the Sake of Argument. I picked up a copy from Gleebooks on a trip to Sydney, but instead of going out on the town as planned I spent much of that night in its combative pages, cheering Hitch on as he skewered one enemy of the people after another. No left-winger had written with such panache and erudition since Karl Marx himself.

As became apparent on further acquaintance, there was far more to Hitchens than muck-raking leftism. Anyone can call Kissinger a war criminal, but few can back up the accusation with relevant facts and convincing argument. When such a counsel for the prosecution opens his indictment with Macaulay’s verdict on the opportunism of Frederick II we know that we are dealing with no ordinary radical pamphleteer, but an advocate of unusual power and skill. In his autobiography Hitchens remarks that he was too busy playing politics and socialising with the glitterati to do any work at Oxford, but the knowledge of world history and literature revealed in his essays and reviews is so extensive that he cannot have neglected his studies as assiduously as he claims. No matter what the subject, he seems always able to summon the apt quotation or instance, with a facility that drives other writers to despair and leaves them breathless with envy.

Hitchens named moral and physical courage as one of the qualities he most admired, and he did not fail to practise what he preached. He never pulled his punches, but his attacks were always on the powerful or revered; he was not afraid to criticise those on his own side; and he did not shy from situations of personal danger. He defended – and physically sheltered –  Salman Rushdie when much of the cultural “left” was running for cover or mumbling about “not hurting deeply felt religious sensibilities”, and when Muslims had been promised a heavenly reward for murdering him. He did not hesitate to call Clinton a liar. In accordance with George Orwell’s principle that saints should be regarded as guilty until proven innocent, he questioned the credentials of such sainted celebrities as Mother Teresa. He faced personal danger reporting in Northern Ireland and in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, and remained a firm advocate of the Kurds’ right to self-determination. He was not afraid to break with old allies and his own tradition of social democracy when it came to supporting the Bush government’s decision to liberate Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein.

In supporting the Iraq war Hitchens was widely accused of deserting the Left and becoming an apologist for the Right, but he was the one who remained loyal to the values of the radical Enlightenment, while much of the Left (so-called) abandoned them to go whoring after ethnic particularists and theocratic fascists merely because they were anti-Western, not appreciating that to be anti-Western was to reject those principles of secularism and critical dissent that had given birth to the Left in the first place. Despite the talk about his move to the Right, it was not Hitch’s values that changed, but his perception of what threatened them. When the danger seemed to be capitalism/US imperialism it was logical to be a Marxist of some sort (preferably Trotskyite or Maoist), but when the threat came principally from Islamic fundamentalism and other forms of religious obscurantism it was time to adopt new strategies and find new allies. Hitch’s political trajectory confounds such inadequate categories as Left and Right, as he has always followed the same star: personal liberty, freedom of thought and expression, independence of mind, and opposition to any kind of tyranny, whether secular or sacred.

The origins of his apparent shift lie in the Iranian revolution in the 1980s and the rise of the Ayatollahs, for as he recalled in his autobiography: “At the moment when Iran stood at the threshold of modernity [having just toppled the Shah], a black-winged ghoul came flapping back from exile in a French jet and imposed a version of his own dark and heavy uniform on a people too long used to being bullied.” But he identifies the crucial turning point as the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie, the emblematic incident that crystallised everything he loved and hated:

In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression. … To restate the premise of the argument again: the theocratic head of a foreign despotism offers money in his own name in order to suborn the murder of a civilian citizen of another country, for the offence of writing a work of fiction. No more root-and-branch challenge to the values of the Enlightenment … or to the First Amendment of the Constitution could be imagined.

Despite the accusations of apostasy, Hitchens has been on the correct (i.e. progressive) side of all the key moral and political issues of our time. Invited to admire its achievements he nonetheless saw through Cuban socialism; he never fell for any of the Communist dictators, not even Mao; he denounced the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia; he supported the struggle of the Poles; he admired C.L.R. James (the black Marxist historian); he supported British Labour when everybody else was Tory, and then went Tory when Labour abandoned its principles; he supported the Kurds against Hussein’s genocide, and the Palestinians against the Israeli land-robbers; he was pro-Jewish but anti-Zionist.

Although Hitchens was delighted to learn that his mother was of Polish-Jewish descent, meaning that he was himself Jewish, and never allowed expressions of anti-Semitism to go unchallenged, he did not exempt Judaism from his rejection of religion, nor Jewish people from the obligation to behave in accordance with the principles of justice and decency. He provoked predictable howls when he agreed with a Right-wing Christian fundamentalist that god did not hear the prayers of the Jews (nor those of Christians, for that matter); he was never backward in criticising Israeli policy towards the Palestinians; and he attacked barbarous and backward elements in Jewish culture, such as circumcision, especially the practice of metsitsah, whereby the mohel sucks the baby’s penis after cutting off his foreskin.

Hitchens always displayed a frightening capacity for colourful invective – Mother Teresa as a shriveled Albanian dwarf, Ayatollah Khomeini  as a black-winged ghoul, Paul Johnson as an explosion in a pubic hair factory – but his arguments were never purely ad hominem. He attacks wrongs rather than individuals, but also individuals on the principle that people must take responsibility for their decisions: evil acts cannot be excused by the sorts of rationalisations that Sartre called bad faith, nor overlooked because they are carried out by one’s friends or allies. He has been called insensitive and tasteless because he does not automatically extend respect – much less deference – to those who expect or demand it merely because they have not been able to shake off the illusions into which they were indoctrinated as impressionable children. Respect is something a person has to earn by his own efforts.

It is this rather Protestant ethic that explains Hitchens’ attachment to the values of the Boys Own Annual and the Boy Scout Handbook, as identified by his fellow ironist Paul Fussell: learn to think; gather knowledge; have initiative; respect the rights of others. This also explains Hitchens’ fondness for so many of those old fashioned stories of heroic endeavour by John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, Conan Doyle and Patrick O’Brian. The same eccentricity leads him to admire and enjoy other writers whom you would not expect him to approve of, such as the snobbish Evelyn Waugh, the suave Tory H.H. Munro (Saki), and the slightly ridiculous P.G. Wodehouse – whom he defends against the facile charge of making pro-Nazi radio broadcasts while interned in Germany during the war, and in some of whose Jeeves/Bertie Wooster stories he detects marked anti-fascist sentiments, such as ridicule of Moseley’s blackshirts.

In a disarming aside in his polemical God Is Not Great, Hitchens identified his intellectual formation as that of “a Protestant atheist”. This characterisation is spot on, for although he became a U.S. citizen there is something quintessentially English about the style and content of his radicalism, which lies in a long tradition of dissent represented by such diverse figures as William Tyndale (first English translator of the Bible), John Milton, Bunyan, Shelley, William Hone (father of press freedom), Charles Bradlaugh (fearless Victorian secularist) and George Orwell, to whom Hitchens is a worthy successor.

It is the world’s loss that the gods took both Hitchens and Orwell to their heavenly reward long before their time. “Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee”, wrote William Wordsworth at the depth of the Pittite reaction against demands for reform unleashed by the French Revolution. How Orwell would have ridiculed the clichéd sanctimony of the knee-jerk “anti-racism” that makes it impossible for the police to arrest a non-white person without being accused of discrimination, and which automatically transforms illegal immigrants into asylum seekers and refugees merely because their place of origin is a Third World country. There is something in the current mood all too eerily reminiscent of Orwell’s comment on the 1930s (from “Inside the whale”):

The thing that …was truly frightening about the war in Spain was not such violence as I witnessed … but the immediate reappearance in left-wing circles of the mental atmosphere of the Great War. The very people who for twenty years had sniggered over their own superiority to war hysteria were the ones who rushed straight back into the mental slum of 1915. All the familiar wartime idiocies, spy-hunting, orthodoxy-sniffing (Sniff, sniff. Are you a good anti-Fascist?), the retailing of atrocity stories, came back into vogue.

Where is Hitchens when we need him to eviscerate the spineless Western response  to the latest outburst of “Muslim rage”, already involving hundreds of deaths and injuries, as well as children holding placards demanding that people who exercise their right to make unfavourable comments on religious figures be murdered, in traditional style, by decapitation? And all provoked by no more than a silly amateur film on Youtube. If the author is, as has been reported, a Coptic Christian, his own rage is rather more forgivable than that of his targets, considering that the Copts have suffered centuries of persecution by the more powerful and numerous Muslims, nearly to the point of annihilation. One can imagine Hitchens’ reaction on learning the response of the United States’ authorities: not to seek to calm and discipline the rioters, but to apprehend the filmmaker. No doubt their next step will be to arrest rape victims for causing the crime by walking around in public and dressing provocatively.

The death of Hitchens (to perfectly natural disease processes) is a loss that the free world can ill-afford. We must hope that we do not have too long to wait for his successor. Hitchens! Thou should’st be living at this hour:/ The world hath need of thee …

Robert Darby

Canberra

September 2012

One thought on “Hitch: We miss you. Christopher Hitchens and the tradition of English dissent – the third anniversary of the death of Christopher Hitchens

  1. Thanks Rob for a punchy tribute to Hitch, accompanied, as it necessarily must be, by a blunt rebuke of what this blog would call pseudo leftists (your use of ‘left’ conveys a similar meaning). The areas most relevant to my concerns is your attack on what became the pseudo left’s opportunistic slide into cultural relativism as a means of justifying one sided attacks on capitalism and imperialism and a parallel slide into anti democratic thinking and the sacrificing of individual rights.
    And by one sided I not only mean undialectical, but also of being on the wrong side of history, i.e. the 18C Enlightenment. The theocratic fascists want to take this back well beyond the 17th or 18th centuries but let’s not be fussed about precision, both are backward looking and reactionary.
    The Enlightenment was the rising bourgeoisie’s ideological high point, enabled in no small part to it being a radical opposition to a moribund feudalism, and there can be no denying or retreating from its achievements.
    But, as they say in this therapeutic age, it came with a few ‘issues’. Its self promotion as the end point in social qualitative development and its linking, fusing is, perhaps, more accurate, of individual liberty (political rights) with economic liberty for the bourgeoisie (traditionally from feudal/monarchical control, once in power of any meaningful government control) rate highly. So too the hypocrisies and abuses that have accompanied this and which has been the subject of numerous analysis, including Marx’s of course since the 19thC. And in terms of the arguments central points, not a lot has changed. In saying this I think it is important to remember that Marx was a communist and radical/revolutionary democrat, not a Marxist. That title belongs to those who followed and we have generally been a drab bunch.
    What has been most disturbing, I think, is the almost casual manner in which what was once called the Left (reformist or revolutionary) has been prepared to jettison democracy, and embrace openly or covertly the worlds black winged ghouls. On my shelves back home I have a book on Michel Foucault’s embracing of the Iranian black ghoul revolution and it summed up my feelings of underwhelmingness about the man’s work, popular as he was among ‘progressive’ and social policy types (I confess to being a social worker by marriage). Given Foucault’s close association with the French Communist Party the ‘left’s’ acute ambivalence around democracy indicates an ideological crisis now very long in the tooth.
    This is, perhaps enough for now although I should mention, and hope to come back to in a following post, that where the question of democracy is at its most important is at the level of the individual (notwithstanding the complexities this raises for the ‘I/We’ balance in our society now or for the future.

    Like

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