The Hitchens-Pollitt Papers

The Hitchens-Pollitt Papers

Washington, DC

My dear Katha,


Washington, DC

My dear Katha,

First, I should thank you for writing to me as if you thought it mattered what I said [“Subject to Debate,” November 25], and for telephoning me a few weeks ago in the same spirit, and also for eschewing the accusations–scumbag, sellout, toady, moral degenerate, etc.–which, true as some of them may well be of me, have scant bearing on the future of Iraq, or on the war against theocratic nihilists. I have always esteemed your work as well, and I like to think that our differences of principle have long been deep as well as narrow. (I had always meant to challenge your stubborn indignation at the discriminatory availability of Viagra on prescription, which carried the sad implication that erections give delight only to the male…)

Onward, then, and upward. You are too true to language to allow yourself any absolute misrepresentation of what I say. So I am going to attribute your small but consistent mistakes to your politics. I did not say, in my Washington Post article, that the “antiwar” movement was composed of Ramsey Clark’s zombies. I said that while many, if not most, leftists knew how to clear their throats with a denunciation of Saddam Hussein, not all of them really meant it. You now state, very honorably, that the Ramsey Clark sect (code-named ANSWER) did all the major spadework for a demonstration in Washington. You add that “99 percent of the people who go to those demonstrations don’t even know ANSWER exists.” And, rubbing in your own astonishingly clear point, you add that “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with who do not recognize…the DC event they attended.” I could have tried to put it better, but I doubt I should have succeeded.

Now, Katha, you and I both attended many rallies in favor of the victory of the Vietcong. Were we duped? Were we led astray by sheep-faced “pacifist” clerics or shifty-eyed Stalinists? No. (Or perhaps I should speak for myself here.) We knew what we were doing, and we wished mainly that Vietnam, which constituted no threat to anybody, had been reunified and independent by 1945. The objection to Washington’s imperialist war was not that it would go badly, or turn into a “quagmire.” For shame! The point was to take the side of the revolution.

Examine your own prose and see how querulous and conservative it has become since. Acting as the interpreter for those who, according to you, have attended demonstrations the message of which they don’t really understand, you ventriloquize their fears as follows: There might be many casualties on both sides; there might be an Israeli blow and a Baathist counterblow; there might be fuel to the Islamist flame; the whole region might become a “bloodbath.” You spare us nothing, though I am glad to see that you don’t bang on about “our” past support for Hussein, as if this would make a renewed neutralism or complicity suddenly OK. In other words, you voice the same misgivings if not dreads that are present in the minds of those who hope for “regime change.” The difficulties don’t need to be argued. They plainly argue for themselves. Where I live, in Washington, they are also the same objections, in so many words, that are proposed by three factions of the hard right: the Scowcroft-Eagleburger reactionaries, the majority of the CIA and the Pat Buchananite isolationists. These are the voices to which the President might actually lend an ear. Do you wish that he would? Then the Saudi oligarchy and the Turkish elite and their American proxies would have canceled “regime change.” Fine revolutionary you turn out to be.

(It seems like a distraction to bring up the Israel-Palestine dispute, or to bring it up in the way that you do, since this is (a) an old story that has left every US administration morally bankrupt, (b) it is a matter of principle by itself and on its own terms and (c) it is in bad enough condition without being made a hostage to Saddam’s whims, as is unintendedly implied by those who propose “linkage” between the two. We’ll still be dealing with Palestine after Saddam, believe me.)

Perhaps, then, I could put in a word for historical materialism? The Saddam Hussein regime is so exorbitant and tyrannical, in point of its own enslaved subjects and its neighbors, that its doom is as near-inevitable as anything can be. In other words, we will have to face a post-Saddam convulsion in any case, including all or most of the dire consequences you outline, and probably some extra ones that cannot be foreseen. I have been doing some work with the Iraqi and Kurdish resistance in the past few years, and these people have already experienced things that no scaremonger could have invented. All I’ll say is that I feel truer to my left self, in helping them, than I could if I was carrying a dumb placard, confusing “Iraq” with “Saddam,” in a parade organized by those who explicitly admire the latter, as well as Kim Jong Il and Slobodan Milosevic (and later sheepishly claiming that I’d joined the wrong picket line).

Since it’s you I am talking to, I won’t pretend to confuse your headlines with your opinions. You know quite well that I attacked my own publishers in the same book that was headed with the silly word “contrarian,” and you know also that my respect for pacifists–or for their absurd consistency–needn’t prevent me from attacking them at the same time. You also know that, in teasing me for donning an Orwell costume, you can hope to hurt my reputation without at all touching his. (My reputation being what it is, you can really hope to gratify only those who aim for the opposite effect.) My immediate question is this. Are you so sure that a covert sympathy for despotism and theocracy, or perhaps a glib and cultivated indifference to the menace, is a fringe rather than a mainstream problem in what used to be our family?

Just watching the sluggish stream sliding by in the past few months, I have seen the editor of CounterPunch, one of our fellow columnists, reprint a vicious and paranoid and subliterate screed, explicitly associating Jew power with the destruction of the World Trade Center. I have read Gore Vidal’s dark suggestion that September 11 was prearranged, and Norman Mailer’s view that the dead of that day are no more significant than traffic accidents and Noam Chomsky’s repeated assertion that Al Qaeda at its worst is no better than American foreign policy on a good day. I think I have just named some of the political and cultural centerpieces of the Nation worldview. If you can spare a whole column for me, perhaps you will find some room for a critique of these offenders as well? Or at least to try to explain to one or two of them, and to yourself, how they sign Ramsey Clark’s petitions without quite knowing what they are doing? This is a serious time.

I’ll end where you began. Why would this disagreement necessitate my departure from The Nation? It’s a matter of the viscera in some ways, as I told you on the telephone the other day. At public forums in the past several months, debating with Oliver Stone in one case and with Michael Moore in another, and with several others in between, I have heard witless applause for fatuous debating points and for fatal casuistry, and have realized that I am hearing the magazine’s propaganda and attitude being played back to me. It may now seem trite to say that September 11 and other confrontations “changed everything.” For me, it didn’t so much change everything as reinforce something. I am against aggressive totalitarian states and I am resolutely opposed to religious fanaticism. I am also sickened by any attempt to call these hideous things by other names. Most especially in its horrible elicitation of readers’ letters on the anniversary of September 11, The Nation joined the amoral side. It’s the customers I want to demoralize, not just the poor editors. I say that they stand for neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable, and I say the hell with it. I feel much better as a result–though I admit the occasional twinge–and so will you when you take the small but simple step that leaves cynicism and euphemism behind.




New York City

Dear Christopher,

Well, your Viagra jibe isn’t quite as insinuating as the letter from Nation reader Duff Johnson, who urged me to stick to writing “about the travails of prostitution,” but since you raise the topic, let me assure you that I am familiar with female sexuality and think you should have all the Viagra you want. What I actually said was that the rush by insurance companies and government agencies to subsidize the cost of Viagra, for men, the minute it went on the market contrasted with their decades of resistance to covering contraception, which is life-saving (and pleasure-enhancing) for women. I think even you should be able to see the double standard.

As you well know, the sectarian left has had a hand in a great many noble causes, including the ones you still espouse. You told me a few years ago that you “signed everything that came across your desk” to keep Mumia Abu-Jamal from the death chamber. As you surely knew or should have known, Mumia was and is the cause célèbre of the Revolutionary Communist Party and its popular front organization, Refuse and Resist. Most if not all of those petitions and sign-on advertisements came from them. Did that make you their dupe, and the unwitting defender of the killers of Tiananmen Square? When you spoke at anti-Clinton rallies organized by, did you care that this motley collection of racists, gun nuts, militiamen and conspiracy theorists opposed Clinton from the far, far loony right? I’m not saying that one should never think twice about who calls a demonstration or organizes an open letter, but, as you must have considered when you threw in your lot with the antichoice movement, which is completely dominated by your archenemies, the Christian right and the Catholic Church, sometimes you just have to get on with the work that needs to be done. How happy would you be today had you boycotted the l963 March on Washington because–oh no!–communists were prominent in the civil rights movement?

The reason most antiwar protesters don’t know about Ramsey Clark is not that they are stupid, as you imply. (You yourself have occasionally confused the WWP and RCP, and conflated each with its front organization, which is hardly fair to the members of the latter.) It’s that Ramsey Clark is not all that important, except as a convenient stick to beat the antiwar movement with. You set the equation up so that there is no way to oppose invading Iraq except to be a coward or a covert admirer of dictatorship and theocracy. Well, I don’t think it’s cowardly to be extremely wary of war, especially “pre-emptive” war. And I don’t think you have to love Saddam Hussein to be skeptical about the rosy scenarios being put forward on behalf of “regime change.” Even Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi dissident who strongly favors invasion, admitted in a recent interview in the Boston Globe that there is only a “5 percent chance” that the aftermath will be what you’d like to see: a democratic, peaceful Iraq that respects human rights, as opposed to a US military dictatorship, an Iraqi military junta, civil war or other very bad outcome. Makiya acknowledges, too, that in order for his scenario to have a chance of success, America would have to keep troops in Iraq for years and spend untold billions. How likely is it that our government will, or even can, make that kind of commitment?

As Nation readers know only too well, I am always complaining about the magazine. It isn’t perfect. Still, why single out as representative of our politics Alexander Cockburn, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer (who, a search of our archives reveals, has never appeared in our pages) and not, oh, I don’t know, Tony Kushner, Patricia Williams, Marc Cooper or Ellen Willis? Given your recent stint on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, not to mention appearances over the years in a flock of right-wing publications, I’d think you’d want to be careful about promoting the idea of guilt by association. In any case, the real issue isn’t about writers or magazines–it’s about guns and power. You’ve placed yourself quite forthrightly on the side of Bush, Cheney, Perle and Wolfowitz, whose plans to remake the entire Arab world long predate 9/11, and who seem completely unembarrassed by their own shifting rationales for invading Iraq. (Not even they, however, claim it has anything to do with opposing religious fanaticism. That is your own delusion.) These are your new friends, an Administration that supports with mad vigor everything you excoriated in Clinton–capital punishment, the drug war, punitive welfare reform, privatizing the public realm, letting corporations run wild–while pandering to the Christian right, blasting the environment, withdrawing from international agreements from Kyoto to Cairo and remodeling the federal judiciary to resemble a meeting of the John Birch Society. I think I’ll stay right here.



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