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Reading Christopher | The Nation

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Reading Christopher

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From the start Christopher Hitchens had it—the voice, the distinctive voice that is the hallmark of a real writer and a bottom line for a columnist, which he was for The Nation, under the title “Minority Report,” from 1985 to October 14, 2002. His style, of course, was the man. It was a dry like good champagne, sharp, ironic, sometimes disheveled (as he might be on a hungover morning), occasionally opaque, cliché-avoiding, easily colloquial yet lightly erudite. He would occasionally, almost absent-mindedly, drop in a mild Britishism—a “whilst” here, a “racialism” there—which I altered to conform to Nation style. But that was about all I, anyway, ever did to his prose.

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Long-time Nation contributor, columnist and friend Christopher Hitchens passed away last night at 62.

About the Author

Richard Lingeman
Richard Lingeman is a senior editor of The Nation. His books include Small Town America: A Narrative History, 1620-...

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A must-see exhibit at New York's School of Visual Arts looks back on the inimitable satirist's sixty years of work.

The clever, impassioned homemade signs dotting Zuccotti Park recall the work of Bertolt Brecht.

His columns seemed to arrive fully formed, like Athena from the brow of Zeus. Actually, like most good writing, I suspect they did not come easily. I do know that when he first started working out of The Nation’s New York office, circa 1978, before moving to Washington, someone witnessed him in the throes of columnizing and was awed at the way he would start typing, rip out the page, ball it up, throw it on the floor and insert a new sheet, rip that out—and so on. By the time he had finished, the floor of his office was littered with balls of wadded paper.

Yet let it be said: Christopher was the complete professional, never missing a deadline and nearly always spot-on for length, though he sporadically grumbled that this particular overlong column must not be cut because It Was Highly Important.

His was truly a transatlantic voice, serviceable for skewering an international rogue’s gallery of politicians. His shots were fiercely partisan, precisely angled like a billiard shot, but the anger was controlled, even detached. When his anger overflowed on people or ideas he loathed (he was a good hater), he distilled it until it came out as gelid disdain. He took pride in always having the facts to back up his opinions, which never gave the impression of being shallow or glibly arrived at. His rare quarrels with editors were usually over fact-checking issues: not because he was sloppy but because he was so sure his facts were right. Yes, some were substantive (i.e., political) clashes, as when in one of his contrarian or perverse modes he decided to come out against abortion (“Minority Report,” April 23, 1989), or his demands that Clinton be impeached. He could be flat out stubborn. And he could be wrong—that was his right as a columnist—to dare to be wrong, and he did so, sometimes I think with private chuckles at the rest of us.

I take it as res ipsa loqitur (look at him—channeling Hitchensesque erudition) that he was soundly educated. But he wore his erudition lightly and used it practically, a storehouse to draw upon. He seemed to have read everything and remembered most of it.

Sarcasm and invective were prominent weapons in his armamentarium, of course, kept well oiled, ready to fire off against fools on both left and right. He was not particularly humorous, though some found him funny; irony was his most congenial mode. In one of the three columns he wrote attacking President William Jefferson Clinton for unleashing Tomahawk missiles on the shambolic Somalis (hitting, as it turned out, a pharmaceutical plant that made life-saving drugs), he addressed those who might dare think it “ironic and cynical” to compare Clinton’s act to the movie Wag the Dog: “But irony and cynicism, as people have an interest in forgetting, are not mere mannerisms, or ‘coping skills’ for dealing with the postmodern. They originate in hard-won and dearly bought experience.” (“The Clinton–Douglas Debates,” November 16, 1998).

Let it be said frankly that after the 9/11 destruction, Christopher got very serious in attacking what he chose to call “Islamofascism” before the term came into vogue on the right as a frantically grabbed ex post facto rationalization of the Iraq War. He soon transformed himself into a skeptical hawk. In the course of an onslaught on the left, he let fly some un-ironic missiles against The Nation. These critiques he ventilated in our pages, which was his right in a column certified to readers as free and clear of censorship. After this controlled explosion he honorably departed, taking his valuable opinions, talent and energies to other platforms. There was regret on our side and I presume on his, for we parted without rancor. After more than twenty years, the relationship was like a marriage that had lost its passion. We wished him well then and do so now with an even deeper sadness at his final parting. Ave atque, comrade!

* * *

We are proud to have been present at the creation of “our” Christopher Hitchens, one of the longest-running columnists in the magazine’s history. As a demonstration of his achievements in our pages, here is a degustation of his articles and columns from 1978 through 2006.

Cyprus, the Battered Pawn,” July 8-15, 1978. This is apparently Christopher’s first Nation piece. He had a personal interest in the Cyprus conflict and wrote a book on it. This precocious work reminds us of what a good journalist he was, bringing to bear an informed sense of history as well as facts gleaned by from on-the-ground reporting.

This Thatchered Land, This England,” July 19-26, 1980. The first year of Maggie Thatcher’s reign autopsied—with an accurate prognosis of worse to come.

Words and History,” February 20, 1982. Christopher in a rare excursion into political semantics, which George Orwell would have appreciated.

Minority Report,” January 19, 1985. One of his early columns; note the last jab at Jeane Kirkpatrick, UN Ambassador, who purported to distinguish between “authoritarianism” (OK) and “totalitarianism” (naughty-naughty) for strategic purposes.

Minority Report,” December 5, 1987. He was rather good at summing up overblown US clients like President Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador: “What is striking about him is the extent to which he believes in his own image: an image reflected on the covers of Time rather than in the hearts and minds of Salvadorans.”

Minority Report,” October 17, 1988. Showing just how trenchant Christopher could be: exposing the lies of President George Herbert Walker Bush.

Minority Report,” June 19, 1989. Interesting take on a Goya exhibition at the Met: “nothing could be more ‘modern’ than The Disasters of War.”

Minority Report,” July 2, 1989. An elegant portrait of the left historian C.L.R. James, with an account of a meeting with the great man: “he was already old by then, with a nimbus of silver surrounding his anthracite features.”

Minority Report,” April 2, 1990. This column should refresh your memory on the Reagan/Bush administrations’ intervention in Nicaragua. Quoting some vapid Bush I staffer, “Hey! I guess the carrot did work better than the stick with those Sandinistas”—Christopher asks: “by what right does the United States presume to hold sticks and carrots over Nicaragua?”

Lessons Maggie Taught Me,” December 17, 1990. The famous “spanking” article, with Christopher on the receiving end of a Thatcherite bottoms-up.

Minority Report,” February 11, 1991. A devastating deconstruction of George H.W. Bush’s “linkage” policies.

Minority Report,” April 8, 1991. An example of the brilliant leads Christopher could compose: “Watching the latest in L.A. video—whereby you may recline in your own home and view a selection of white policemen as they put the leather (and the billy club and the stungun) to Mr. Rodney King—I thought, by God, the L.A.P.D. has really kicked the Selma syndrome once and for all. Yes, sir.”

Appointment in Sarajevo,” September 14, 1992. In what might be called Goyaesque prose, Christopher sums up Serbian fascism: “More than a million Serbs attend a frenzied rally, on the battle site of Kosovo, where there forebears were humiliated in 1389, and hear former Communists rave in the accents of wounded tribalism. Ancient insignias, totems, feudal coats of arms, talismans, oaths, rituals, icons and regalia jostle to take the field. A Society long sun in political stagnation, but one nevertheless well across the threshhold of modernity, is convulsed: puking up great rancid chunks of undigested barbarism.”

Minority Report,” November 30, 1992. On the cusp of a new administration, Christopher usefully reminds us that under Reagan and Bush I, most of what was accomplished was done with the Democratic majority’s complicity.

Minority Report,” December 12, 1994. Christopher still sorting through the question of Republicans past and Democrats present and did it make a difference. The attentive reader can spot the start of his evolution to a new personal politics.

 

Minority Report,” August 12, 1996. Another of Christopher’s literary specials. Obviously, T.S. Eliot was anti-Semitic, he writes, as recent reports claim to reveal, but, in an erudite refutation of allegations that his prejudice inflected his poems, Christopher shows how “employing political standards as a device for the analysis and appreciation of poetry” is a dubious practice.

The “Islamic Fascism” Suite: “Against Rationalization,” October 8, 2001; “Of Sin, the Left & Islamic Fascism,” (Christopher replies to critics of “Against Rationalization”); “Blaming bin Laden First,” October 22, 2001.

Minority Report: Taking Sides,” October 14, 2002. The last column.

Why I’m (Slightly) for Bush,” November 8, 2004. Christopher endorses George W. Bush in our pages.

Unsentimental Education,” September 25, 2006. Christopher’s last article for The Nation, a review of Robert Hughes’s memoir Things I Didn’t Know.

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