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.


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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


September 2012

Pamela Bone (1940-2008): Women’s right to equality

Author and journalist, Pamela Bone, like Christopher Hitchens, is a much-missed voice for human rights and solidarity with the oppressed. Both were atheists but it was their humanism, passion for justice and support for struggle against fascist outlooks and regimes that made them great left-wing public intellectuals. Yes, I claim them for the left; not the pseudo-left that believes in ‘hands off’ tyrants or turning a blind eye to oppression with insipid slogans like ‘Not in my name’. Both were passionate ‘swimmers against the tide’ who proved that the pen is powerful when guided by reason and revolutionary democratic values.

In the following article Pamela Bone eschews the cultural relativism that lets the oppression of women in Islamic societies off the hook. The following words still ring very true: “It is time it is recognised that there also needs to be a war to promote women’s rights because poverty, the oppression of women and the rise of religious extremism go together”.

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November 30, 2006 A MEETING of Muslim feminists from across the world in New York last week made a brief paragraph in The Australian, and in no other newspaper that I saw. It should have made front pages, being at least as important as the Group of 20 or Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meetings, which had as wide a coverage as sound editorial judgment demanded.

The reason I make such a claim is this: if Islam is to be reformed, and the world consequently made safer and happier for all, it is women who will do it. Yes, there are male Muslim reformers, but in general most Muslim men do not see a feminist interpretation of Islam as in their interest. Why should they? Western men didn’t see last century’s women’s liberation movement as in theirs. It had to be driven by women because the status quo advantaged men.

The meeting, of more than 100 female Muslim religious leaders, human rights activists and scholars, vowed to form an international shura council of Muslim women. “This is a historical and critical event in the history of Islam,” says Daisy Khan, director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement.

A shura council is an advisory body that interprets Islamic law for the political and religious leaders in its region of authority. The women’s council aims to overcome two stereotypes: that Muslims are terrorists and that Islam oppresses women. Leave aside the question of why anyone would put the words Muslim and terrorist together. Most Muslims are not terrorists; the point has been made a thousand times. As to whether Islam oppresses women, there is no Islamic society in which women are free. The question is whether it has to be this way.

The Koran seems fairly clear about women’s subordinate status, but then so is the Christian Bible. If Christian women have been able to argue, more or less successfully, that the misogynistic passages in the Bible are merely a reflection of the era in which they were written and have no relevance to today, there should be no reason Muslim women can’t do the same.

And why is it important that Muslim women be liberated? Well, if women’s freedom from honour killings, forced marriages and stoning for adultery were not reason enough, consider that any country in which women are badly oppressed is an economically and socially backward country, and that such conditions provide fertile ground in which resentments against the West can grow. As the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report noted, a large part of the reason so many Arab countries are economic basket cases is the oppression of women.

One need only read the ravings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian philosopher who provided the principal inspiration for al-Qa’ida, or the directions of the September 11 attacker Mohammed Atta that no woman was to touch his body, to see that political Islam has a deeply ingrained hatred of women. To a significant degree, the control of women is what the war on terrorism is about.

Some women from Muslim backgrounds believe that Islam and women’s rights are antithetical. Maryam Namazie, a British-based human rights activist, said recently: “Debating the issue of women’s rights in an Islamic context is a prescription for inaction and passivity, in the face of the oppression of millions of women struggling and resisting in Britain, the Middle East and elsewhere. Anywhere they (Islamists) have power, to be a woman is a crime.”

Namazie is of the Left. She is the director of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran’s International Relations Committee and has been named British secularist of the year. But in general, she notes, the Left, the traditional defender of human rights, is silent about the oppression of Muslim women. The reasons are that political Islam is seen as anti-imperialist, racism is these days much worse than sexism and minorities are automatically to be supported. (Some minority; Islamism is the strongest and fastest-growing ideology in the world.) Change must come from within, say the good liberals. Strangely, no one said that about South Africa’s apartheid system.

Today it is the Right that has latched on to women’s rights. John Howard was an unlikely feminist until various sheiks began expounding their theories about women’s role in society. It was only when Osama bin Laden became a threat that George W. Bush started talking about the freedom of Afghan women. No one cared about the Taliban when all they were doing was oppressing the female half of the population.

Given that a half-billion Muslim women are not going to abandon their faith, the only way they can be liberated is for Islam and women’s rights to be reconciled. That is why all power and support – and maximum publicity – should be given to Muslim women reformers.

We have today a war on terror and a (fairly half-hearted) war on poverty. It took the threat of global instability to convince some world leaders the present rich-poor divide is unsustainable. It is time it is recognised that there also needs to be a war to promote women’s rights because poverty, the oppression of women and the rise of religious extremism go together.

Western leaders should be pouring billions of dollars into the education and empowerment of women around the world. If John Howard really cares about the rights of women, he should increase Australia’s meagre overseas aid budget and direct it into health and education programs for girls who will then grow up to have healthier, better educated and fewer children.

If Western governments can’t manage to support women out of compassion, they should do so out of self-interest.

Pamela Bone