Changing Places | The Nation


Changing Places

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But where this touching tale turns false is with Hitchens's claim that it was this happy band, rather than any "neoconservative cabal," who turned the trick. One day Hitchens receives a call from the Pentagon inviting him to meet with Paul Wolfowitz, who confides his dream of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East. That very night, Hitchens and Makiya attend a private dinner in Cleveland Park to launch the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, and Wolfowitz—small world!—is the after-dinner speaker. "He made a very forceful and lucid presentation, without notes.... We had heard the news that Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa would adorn the letterhead of the Committee."

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...

Also by the Author

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It might have spoiled the effect if Hitchens had mentioned that the committee, and quite likely the dinner, had actually been organized by Randy Scheunemann, a former aide to Trent Lott who later signed on as a foreign policy adviser to John McCain. Or that the committee's chair was Bruce Jackson, former VP of strategy for Lockheed Martin, who'd drafted the foreign policy plank for the Republican platform in 2000, while other luminaries included Newt Gingrich, Richard Perle and Gary Schmitt, chair of the neo-imperialist Project for the New American Century. Jeane Kirkpatrick also "adorned the letterhead," but this time the "intellectual patina" was supplied by Bernard Lewis (who'd once been demolished by Hitchens and Edward Said in a debate on the causes of terrorism) and Leon Wieseltier (who'd served as Lewis's second in that debate). Yet none of these people are mentioned in Hitchens's forty-nine-page account of his misadventures in Mesopotamia.

Hitchens's description of his rupture with Said is equally self-serving and, to adopt Hitchens's locution, "exceptionally mendacious." Hitchens accuses Said of writing that "the looting and destruction of the exhibits in the Iraq National Museum had...been a deliberate piece of United States vandalism, perpetrated in order to shear the Iraqi people of their cultural patrimony and demonstrate to them their new servitude." Here's what Said wrote, in April 2003: "To the dreadful scenes of looting and burning which in the end are the occupying power's responsibility, Rumsfeld managed to put himself in a class beyond even Hulagu [the thirteenth-century conqueror of Baghdad]. 'Freedom is untidy,' he said on one occasion, and 'stuff happens' on another. Remorse or sorrow were nowhere in evidence." In September of that year, with his old friend on his deathbed, Hitchens described Said's introduction to a new edition of Orientalism as "rescued from sheer vulgarity only by its incoherence." As Ben Sonnenberg, who knew both of them well, told me, "Edward kept forgiving Christopher everything, right to the end."

Which brings us back, I think, to bookkeeping. Hitchens may have started two sets of books as a way of squaring his social ambition with his revolutionary ideals, but the risk of doubleness is that it can become an end in itself, a stratagem divorced from any pressing expedient. Maintaining the pretense over a lifetime must be exhausting as well as exhilarating. As he wrote about his idol George Orwell, "There's something self-destructive as well as self-fulfilling in helping to create an atmosphere which you deplore."

It's the strain of keeping his double entries in balance (rather than, as Sonnenberg thought, "an uncritical admiration for George Orwell") that I suspect accounts for the apparent suddenness and evident ferocity of Hitchens's transformation. How else are we to understand his eagerness to treat old collaborators with contempt at the same time as he depicts new comrades, some of them with operational responsibility for thousands of civilian deaths, as splendid fellows, connoisseurs of art and irony? Hitchens's evident disdain toward his former attachments brings to mind Isaac Deutscher's description—once quoted by Hitchens—of an ex-Communist who, having disembarked from the locomotive of history, is "haunted by a vague sense that he has betrayed either his former ideals or the ideals of bourgeois society," and who "tries to suppress his sense of guilt and uncertainty, or to camouflage it by a show of extraordinary certitude and frank aggressiveness."

Unlike, for example, Edward Said, who couldn't decide to stop being Palestinian, Hitchens chose his commitments—which is true for many of us. Such freedom, however, imposes an obligation toward those who lack the luxury of choice. Hitchens, naturally, puts it very well, writing about Nadine Gordimer's novel A Guest of Honor, whose central character "sees his beloved revolution besmirched and yet does not feel tempted—entitled might be a better word—to ditch his principles....There is no sparing of 'progressive' illusions," yet "you end by feeling that the attachment to principle was right the first time and cannot be, as it were, retrospectively abolished by the calamitous cynicism that only idealists have the power to unleash." No matter what he wrote when he resigned from The Nation in October 2002, Hitchens must know that exasperation with your readers isn't a badge of oppression. But then, I don't believe he left the left, or The Nation, for political reasons. I think he just outgrew them.

Not over Iraq, 9/11, Sarajevo or Salman Rushdie. Because even when the movement was "everything," that was never more than half the story. There was always—always—another column of figures, charting the rise of Christopher Hitchens. At Oxford he was once asked to "arrange a gentle punting trip for Sir Max Mallowan and Lady Mallowan" (known to posterity as Agatha Christie). Invited to their home afterward, he suddenly felt himself "congeal with unease" owing to "the anti-Jewish flavor of the talk." He tells us "one must never just sit there," and opposition to anti-Semitism was central to his politics decades before he discovered any personal stake in the fate of the Jews, yet Hitchens doesn't claim to have interrupted the Mallowans. He does, however, boast elsewhere in the book, "I was one of the very few socialists to support Mrs. Thatcher" during the Falklands War—though that, too, must have been very discreet, since he didn't express his support in either The Nation or New Statesman. He tells us "my old Oxford comrade Andrew Cockburn" witnessed his taking the oath of American citizenship in a ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial arranged by Michael Chertoff, architect of the Patriot Act, in April 2007; but he doesn't mention Cockburn's report, published that same month, saying that Hitchens's friend Rolf Ekeus had been just as convinced as Hans Blix that Saddam had destroyed all of his WMDs. The best thing about keeping two set of books—personal and political—is that when the columns are added together the balance is always in your favor. Which makes changing sides as easy as changing trains.

But there is also a price to pay, and Hitchens has paid it. In The Balkan Wars Trotsky writes, "I was not prepared to play the role of 'singer in the camp' of the...warriors." Hitchens's disgust with Saddam was honorable, but posterity is unlikely to deal kindly with his willingness to be a singer in the camp of George W. Bush. Most of all, Hitchens has to live with the knowledge that young men went into battle with his words on their lips—and not all of them came back.

If Hitchens has lately seemed to waste his great gifts on projects like getting his "back, sack and crack" waxed for the entertainment of Vanity Fair, that has been our loss as well as his. In 1995 he wrote, "I had the privilege of meeting Justice Richard Goldstone, the man who has done more than perhaps any other to save the remnants of South Africa's legal system from degradation." Operation Cast Lead, Israel's three-week assault on Gaza in 2008–09, provoked from Hitchens only a single, feeble "plague on both your houses" column in Slate. In 2010, when Goldstone was vilified for his damning report on Israel's conduct in Gaza, Hitchens had nothing to say.

To measure his loss, and ours, look at Prepared for the Worst, a collection of his early work published in 1988, or his superb, and sadly still pertinent, book on Cyprus from 1984. Or read his Nation column from May 2001 on Bob Kerrey's lasting culpability for a massacre in Vietnam. Hitchens was teaching at the New School at the time, making Kerrey, he wrote, "my president"; yet the piece, incandescent with moral outrage, is never callous or crude. "If you look back on the essays that made his name," Hitchens writes about Noam Chomsky, "you will find a polemical talent well worth mourning, and a feeling for justice that ought not to have gone rancid and resentful." I wish Hitchens a speedy recovery, a long life and as much celebrity as he wants. But it's the Christopher with a feeling for justice I mourn. I miss him very much.

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