I was introduced to Bernard-Henri Lévy this spring at a stop on his latest book tour. It was a few minutes before he was due to face the audience. After a polite hello, he turned to the organizer of the event and asked, “How many people in the hall?” The organizer named a respectable figure. Lévy responded with a menacing glare: “Why so few? Your explanation?” This jaw-dropping exchange reminded me of the first lines of Lévy’s book on French intellectuals: “The scene opens in Paris, at the beginning of the eighties, with the funeral cortège of a famous person–but whose?” By making us guess–Sartre? Foucault?–Lévy seemed to be saying that the occupant of the hearse could be anyone; what’s important is the size of the crowd. Imagine–all these people gathered to pay their respects to…a thinker! How cool to be gawked at. How cool to be an intellectual, even a dead one.
George Orwell had a quiet funeral, on a frigid January day in an unheated London church. Faithful to his subject’s modesty, D.J. Taylor does not tell us how large the congregation was. Orwell too had become famous, but only when he was dying and unable to enjoy it. Once he was gone, the sufferings to which he had exposed himself on his expeditions among the poor and while fighting fascism in Spain crystallized, under the pressure of the cold war, into a sort of secular, antitotalitarian sainthood. But his conspicuous saintliness has also invited more cynical interpretations. Scott Lucas’s is one of these. Lucas reminds us that this “defender of free thought and clear prose” and “foe of Big Brother” metamorphosed during World War II into an English patriot who, upon request, submitted an annotated list of leftist sympathizers to British intelligence. Lucas’s Orwell is too intent on acting the role of the heroically unaffiliated individual to keep faith with the common people or with socialism. Lucas can’t quite bring himself to say that Orwell’s withdrawal from leftist politics was a clever career move. But he comes close.
Much of this has already been argued by Orwell’s earlier critics. The novelty of The Betrayal of Dissent lies in Lucas’s enlargement of the accusation to take in Christopher Hitchens and other erstwhile left-wing supporters of the “war on terror.” Hitchens, former Nation columnist and author of Why Orwell Matters, has repeatedly claimed Orwell’s mantle. Lucas has no objection. Both Orwell and Hitchens, he says, repudiated their affiliations with the left amid the nationalist fervor of World War II and post-9/11 and threw in their lot with an arrogant empire. Each was finally less interested in changing the world than in playing solitary hero before a star-struck audience. Hitchens’s “master-stroke,” Lucas says, is an imitation of Orwell’s: seizing for himself “the role of the honourable loner.”
There is a certain logic here. And this logic may have something to do with the dynamics of media dependency, disguised as the vaunted “independence” of intellectuals like Hitchens and Lévy. Anyone who claims freedom from all parties except the party of the intelligent, while displaying his social access to the most exclusive parties, will seem to the envious outsider as if he has taken secret membership in the party of the party-givers. And his intellectual performance will seem like the paid work of keeping the guests entertained. But Lucas is too angry at Hitchens to leave it at that. In a series of hapless attempts at a devastating put-down, he arranges for his opponent to bleat, bellow and imitate other barnyard noises. It’s one thing to disagree about Iraq or to catch Hitchens in the blustery pretense that he is and always has been right, for example over the intervention in Kosovo (against, then for, and always have been for) or the weapons of mass destruction (“You can still meet people…who don’t think that Iraq has any genocidal weapons”). But it’s obtuse to accuse him of changing his position as events developed. Anyone who writes to a deadline is going to have to shift his ground somewhat (although Hitchens recently did so with record-breaking velocity by endorsing Bush in these pages one week, and appearing to endorse Kerry in Slate the following week). Lucas himself doesn’t budge an inch. He doesn’t inquire into possible reasons, except in the case of Orwell, that fewer and fewer intellectuals identify themselves as socialists. Nor does he update his cold war term “dissent” to suit an era when every SUV owner considers himself a maverick. You can’t accuse Hitchens of being “unable or unwilling to deal with complexities” unless you’re prepared to deal with a few yourself.