Changing Places | The Nation


Changing Places

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Until I read this memoir I had always registered Hitchens's doubleness as evidence of the fine balance of his mind, the scrupulousness of his politics, which in those days and for years afterward could best be summed up as anti-imperialist. In a 1976 essay ostensibly about Guernica, he begins with a paradox: "There is the atrocity of war, and the atrocity in war." Then he dismantles it: "For the purpose of analyzing a fascist attack on democracy, the distinction is a phony one. The tactics derived from the strategy; the strategy was neither just a military operation nor simply a war crime. Like My Lai, it was both; and like My Lai, inevitably so." I can still remember the first time I noticed the Hitchens byline—on a dispatch from Northern Ireland in the New Statesman as remarkable for the absence of cant about either the IRA or the British government as for its style. Here was a reporter who refused to pander to his readers' prejudices at the same time his indiscreet and densely (historically and literarily) allusive prose seemed to put a pleasingly high estimate on one's intelligence. Here, crucially, was an avowedly left-wing writer who regarded it as no part of his job to accept or purvey bullshit from "our side," heeding instead Trotsky's view that the "professional ethics of a correspondent" are best summed up in two words: "Don't lie!"

A Memoir.
By Christopher Hitchens.
Buy this book

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

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This is harder than it looks, particularly when the people and causes to which you are committed are not only outgunned but routinely slandered and distorted by "responsible" journalism. Hitchens, however, made it look easy. Scathing about the Soviet Union—a habit that persisted long after he'd left the IS—and skeptical about Cuba, he was sympathetic to Czech and Polish dissidents (Jacek Kurón and Adam Michnik were favored sources years before Solidarnosc), outspoken about Israel and rude about the Contra frontman Arturo Cruz and a whole herd of sacred cows, from Mother Teresa to Elie Wiesel.

The rudeness mattered, too. When you're surrounded by men and women whose career goal is to become stenographers to power, there is something not just subversive but downright liberating about refusing to bend the knee or play the toad. Like I.F. Stone, Hitchens in his prime was a master of the awkward question—though unlike Stone he seemed to relish the confrontation as much as, or more than, any information elicited thereby. Some portion of Hitchens's celebrity probably stems from this evident willingness to "mix it up"—to give better than he got, even to be a bit thuggish at times. Why, as he often posed the question, should the devil get all the best tunes?

In recent years, however, his confrontational manner, once best described as an abrupt withdrawal of charm, has at times seemed positively crude. In May 2002 I attended a debate in London on the "war on terror." Though the audience was largely hostile, Hitchens, who appeared somewhat the worse for wear, more than held his own—until the Q&A period, when he repeatedly baited a dark-skinned questioner, referring to him as "the subcontinental gentleman" even after the man made it clear he'd been born in Britain.

Hitchens loved to tell the story of how Claud Cockburn challenged his colleagues at the British satirical weekly Private Eye to name "the most admired figure in the world." After some debate, the group settled on Albert Schweitzer. "Then that's who we go after!" Cockburn replied. Yet when contrarianism becomes not just a habit but a method, the line between having no illusions and having no ideals can be tricky to discern. Hitchens's brief, unhappy flirtation with David Irving—which waxed with the assurance in June 1996 that Irving was "not just a Fascist historian. He is also a great historian of Fascism" and waned five years later with the revelation that Irving had fabricated evidence, fiddled figures and favored Hitchens's younger daughter with a recital of racist doggerel—is as good an object lesson as any in the perils of parlor iconoclasm. I don't think Hitchens doubted the reality of Auschwitz even for a second. Rather, his eagerness to épater the literal-minded, spurred by an awareness of the ways the Holocaust has been exploited as a shield for Israeli intransigence, led him to neglect the signs that should have warned him off Irving.

Early in Hitch-22 the author describes his attachment to the "Labour movement"—not the British Labour Party, which he rightly saw as "boring and compromised" (and which hasn't improved with age), but a mass movement that "contains within itself the germinal hopes of a better future...all the while uniting with similar movements in other countries to repudiate the narrow nationalisms and chauvinisms that lead to wars and partitions. To be enrolled in its ranks is to be a part of an alternative history as well as an alternative present and future." He goes on to say, in a voice notably devoid of irony, "for me, this 'movement' is everything."

And then it wasn't. Hitchens cites the destruction of Sarajevo as the occasion of his first real break with the left, this movement that had meant "everything" to him. However self-flattering, the claim has merit. Certainly many here at The Nation were dubious about the prospects of an American intervention in Bosnia. But others took a different view—not least Hitchens, though he recognized that "troops are always sent with a 'humanitarian' and peace-keeping purpose. That was how the US Marines had gotten to the Philippines and Cuba, and it was also the pretext for western intervention in the Congo. As an excuse, it ranks only slightly higher than the degrading idea that intervention is necessary 'to protect our nationals.'" Hitch-22 also offers support for those who point to the 1989 Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie as the moment when Hitchens began to re-examine his commitments. The fatwa threw one of his closest friends upon the tender mercies of the British security services and into the rhetorical embrace of Susan Sontag, while some old comrades signally failed to rally round.

The Rushdie Affair may have been Hitchens's finest hour; certainly he responded with alacrity and courage, though he mars the effect slightly in Hitch-22 by falsely including former New York Times executive editor A.M. Rosenthal among those who "turned their ire on Salman and not on Khomeini." I was at the fraught February 1989 PEN meeting in New York at which Hitchens's defense of his friend drew tumultuous applause, and was slightly surprised to be standing next to Rosenthal, a favorite left-wing punching bag. Rosenthal did attack Hitchens, though not Rushdie, in his infamous "On My Mind" column the next day; at the time I was more struck by the handsome way Rosenthal, no friend of the Palestinian cause, paid tribute to "the particular bravery of Prof. Edward W. Said...a learned and eloquent spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization" for his remarks at the Rushdie meeting. Rereading the column today, I wondered what Hitchens would make of Rosenthal's suggestion that "the West, for the sake of its moral health, should declare an economic blockade of Iran, enforced by air and sea. The West hesitates because it might cost industries like arms and oil some money." Or of a certain Washington editor of Harper's who in 1986 wrote (and this is what so provoked Rosenthal), "The word "terrorist" is not—like "communist" or "fascist"—being abused. It is itself an abuse. It disguises reality and impoverishes language and makes a banality out of the discussion of war and revolution and politics. It's the perfect instrument for the cheapening of public opinion and for the intimidation of dissent."

But quoting Hitchens against himself is too easy to offer much sport. From his 1976 New Statesman valentine to Saddam Hussein ("the first visionary Arab statesman since Nasser"); to his denunciation of Labour leader Michael Foot ("Some say that his present attachment to the most flagrant conservatism is the result of a 'mellowing' process. Others talk darkly of a 'sell-out'"); to his view that "intellectually contemptible" though neoconservatives may be, "fluent twisters like [Jeane] Kirkpatrick" have their uses ("a certain vital patina has thus been provided to this government of Christian bigots and thwarted militarists by an ostensibly secular, internationalist political tendency"), Hitchens is almost invariably the most eloquent witness against his present self.

Except when he isn't. Hitchens cites his early enthusiasm for the Iraqi Baathists in a long chapter purporting to explain how he'd "almost completely reversed" his opinion. Since "the attempt to change political Washington's mind about Saddam Hussein has been the subject of so much lurid invention...I really think it is time that I named myself, along with the other conspirators involved." And so we are introduced to Kanan Makiya, author of Republic of Fear, a superb résumé of Saddam's manifold cruelties; the diplomat Peter Galbraith, who exposed Saddam's gassing of the Kurds in Halabja; the left-wing Labour MP Ann Clwyd, who fought to get Saddam indicted for war crimes; and Rolf Ekeus, a UN arms inspector who'd been "politically dedicated to every conceivable good cause from multilateral disarmament to the abolition of apartheid." In other words, an entirely and impeccably "progressive" bunch. If he can't quite make the same claim for Ahmad Chalabi, he nonetheless assures us, "If I mentioned or inquired about any Arab or Kurdish or Iranian intellectual, [Chalabi] seemed to have read their most recent book the day before. When it came to Marxism, he knew all the Iraqi Communists I had ever met, and even when it came to Trotskyism, he actually knew the meaning of the phrase 'permanent revolution'—this is an acid test, by the way." Nice to know, just as it's nice to know that on their second meeting Hitchens and Chalabi "spent a good deal of time discussing the Bloomsbury Group and the shadings of difference between Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes," thus providing conclusive proof that you can, indeed, bullshit a bullshitter.

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