Did Christopher Hitchens have a Big Idea?

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Lunching with an agreeable friend last Friday -and what better way to mark Hitchens’ death? – I was momentarily stumped by my companion’s confession. He didn’t believe Hitchens had left any particular idea that helped illuminate the world in a clearer way and he challenged me to prove otherwise.

David Frum’s summary of Hitchens indirectly endorses my friend’s view.

“Christopher did not offer a model of what to think. He offered a model of how to think – and how to live. Fully. Fearlessly. Joyously.

But come on. Hitchens offered more than a great read and enthralling, merciless oratory. Amid the collapsing scenery of a once great movement built on calls for international solidarity in defense of universal values, his consistency of principle (if not politics) offered a moral compass of sorts.

Reacting to his death, Norm Geras rightly celebrated the telling thread of Hitchens’ work and life:

“I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously.”

After 9/11 Hitchens towered as one of the few writers a disillusioned lefty
like me could grasp for moorings. The values that originally attracted me to the left – particularly the non-negotiable demand for the universality of human rights –were being buried beneath a relativist fog and a decadent, ignorant contempt for liberal democracy. Christopher Hitchens saw through that fog and consistently pilloried those who spread it- and stylistically, his attacks were worth the admission fee.

At a Georgetown University Iraq War debate with Tariq Ali, Hitchens reputedly opened by referring to Ali as “my former friend”, before reading aloud an Ali quote only to abruptly stop, pause, look up and scoff, “You’ll
have to excuse the grammar, it is not my own”.

Or on progressives:

“The majority of those “progressives” who take comfort from Stone and Chomsky are not committed, militant anti-imperialists or anti-capitalists. Nothing so muscular. They are of the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.”

Some, like Cameron and Obama, later implied that the liberal interventionism Hitchens championed was a Big Idea, a relatively new one – and a disastrous one.

Overthrowing a tyrant is a fine ideal and Hitchens was peerless when making historical and counterfactual justifications for toppling Saddam Hussein but he owed us more focus on how the invasion was likely to unfold. An objective is only ever as justifiable as its strategy is credible.

Debating liberal interventionism will continue – especially considering the contrasts, for now, between Libya and Afghanistan – but that doctrine only offered Hitchens a means for advancing free speech; this, I believe, was his public life’s purpose.

As John Rodwan has shown, Hitchens’ work dating from decades before the invasion of Iraq to the present is thematically unified in defence and celebration of free speech – something he called “civilization’s essential principal”.  While free speech is obviously not a new idea, in Hitchens we all benefited and will continute to benefit from as robust, reliable and eloquent a defender as any ever to write in the English language.

Despite sharing Hitchens’ street here in Kalorama, I will forever regret
not having exercised that right with a thinker and a drinker of such legendary bravado.  But on a brisk 2006 February afternoon a small band of us defied the unhelpful weatherman to congress outside Washington’s Danish embassy.

Inevitably, Hitchens had sounded the call to demonstrate, in international solidarity, in defense of the First Amendment, and in opposition to theocratic fascism and those whose sense of being “offended” is regularly wielded in attempt to censor.

Picture the scenes of angry and raging men gathered outside an embassy, burning flags and issuing threats. Led by a jovial Hitchens, our scene was as opposite as could be – but our conviction was and remains at least as determined.

So to my friend’s challenge, here’s my answer.

Hitchens’ incessant and frequently ferocious free speech advocacy offered an addictive anecdote to the bland, safe, technocratic ‘expertize’ that generally characterize Washington’s operators and debates.

In a town where the obnoxious joke about offering only moderate opinion about any country you haven’t at least flown over doubles as career advice, Hitchens’ raised the bar.

His polemics were infused with the flavor, gravitas and insight of a man whose tireless global reporting was dwarfed only by his insatiable and erudite reading.

His public legacy?

We enjoy discussing ideas old and new, or literature, or sex, or religion, or any other topic free from fear thanks to people like Christopher Hitchens.

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  • Mick Fealty

    Here’s another Ruarai.

    “locate power, distrust it and take it down a peg, even if you can’t knock it off its perch” and “a Tory anarchist of sorts” – Prospero blog http://t.co/XtvbO0MR

  • http://www.e-consultation.org/ davenewman

    He lived in his own version of the Discworld, twisting facts to fit a nice story: which worked well in political polemics, but left him hopelessly adrift when dealing with science and the physical world.

  • keano10

    Ruarai,

    I think by the end of your final paragraph you had unwittingly answered your friend’s initial question, by confirming his opinion.

    A very generalised eulogy that Hitchens was a talisman for free speech and that we have all benefited from his fearless pursuit of same, merely indicates that he did not leave any tangible message despite his years of outspoken and sometimes very contradictory rhetoric.

    I read his work frequently but always got the impression that he was something of a reactionary. He was arguably guided by some sort of political ethos in his early journalistic years, but the past decade or two of his life was epitomised by many pieces of work which were wildly unpredictable and seemed to be somewhat self-indulgent.

    His enthusiasm is undisputed but the very quick elevation of Hitchens is some quarters to modern day guru and visionary status does seem a little premature.

  • Los Leandros

    It’s interesting that his editor at Vanity Fair stated that those who had known Christopher Hitchens were very priviliged souls – I thought atheists did’nt believe in souls. He was both brave & cowardly. Very brave to confront Islam in the way he did, but ” taking on ” Mother Therese ; give us a break ; more like the school yard bully. One should’nt speak ill of the dead, but he was’nt great in debate. The Catholic philosopher D’inesh D’souza demolished him in one debte I saw. May he rest in peace, he was a relatively young age to die.

  • Kel

    I always enjoyed reading a Christopher Hitchens article. I found him to be brave and unafraid to take on ‘untouchable’ topics. His articles on Mother Theresa, the Royal family, and most recently, Jackie Kennedy Onassis were eye-opening and brilliant.

    Hitchens was the primary reason I subscribed to Vanity Fair. He will be sorely missed.

    Great piece Ruarai. Well-done.

  • Manfarang

    I don’t think Hichens will leave a lasting legacy.
    Other atheists (Ayer,Russell…) and other advocates of free speech far outshine him.

  • RepublicanStones

    Interesting post Ruarai. Apologies for my tardiness here, let me first state that I have quite a large soft spot for Hitchens. large enough indeed to leave me open to accusations of hypocrisy from some quarters. His earlier work on Kissinger and with Edward Said i highly recommend.

    However, when you write

    Amid the collapsing scenery of a once great movement built on calls for international solidarity in defense of universal values, his consistency of principle (if not politics) offered a moral compass of sorts.

    And

    The values that originally attracted me to the left – particularly the non-negotiable demand for the universality of human rights –were being buried beneath a relativist fog and a decadent, ignorant contempt for liberal democracy.

    Im sorry, but to portray Hitchens as a stalwart of internationalism and human rights is to paint a rather diluted picture of the man. He moved steadily away from those values. What kind of internationalist stalwart of human rights would describe his emotion on 9/11 thus..

    I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

    Bearing in mind Hitchens idea of ‘prosecuting’ a war was confined to rallying other younger men and woman to go off and fight it. I mentioned Hitch-22 on the earlier thread and in reading it, one instantly becomes familiar with how in awe of Orwell Hitch was. it was his idolism of Orwell which in part helps to explain his War on Terror persona. Hitch no doubt yearned to be the Orwell of his era, yet one thing was missing. In Orwell’s time society and western civilization did face an existential threat, this was the missing the component in Hitch’s life. Which is why he found the 9/11 attacks so bloody invigorating and why he used his pen as a bellows with which to fan the ‘threat of Islam’ and Saddam bogeyman bullshit to such a degree he did. Hitch wanted the great challenge his idol faced, even if it meant siding with deeply unsavoury folks and helping to invent the threat. As Ian Buruma put it..

    …but he’s always looking for the defining moment — as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy.

    Gawker has a good piece on Hitchens supposed values of internationalism and human rights

    http://gawker.com/5868761/christopher-hitchens-unforgivable-mistake

    How can someone who devoted so much of his life to as noble a cause as destroying the reputation of Henry Kissinger blithely stand shoulder to shoulder with Rumsfeld?

    The ideas that it was somehow the left who abandoned Hitch is patently absurd. A Hitch of 30 years ago would never have penned an article entitled
    In Defense of Endless War, nor write so admiringly of cluster bombs, as he did.
    I fear it is more a case of Hitch moving ever closer to where his heart always lay, with the establishment. He wrote about his youth of attending rallies by day and upper class dinner parties by night. As he got older, he became more owl than early bird. No question that enjoyed being in the inner circle with the power brokers clinking scotch glasses late into the night. How else can you explain the cosy relationship he had with one of the most right wing, religiously tainted and economically obscene American administrations in recent memory? How could Hitch have swallowed so easily the lie (and kept peddling it so long after it was proven to be smoke and mirrors) of WMD’s, how could he ignore the US rape of the Iraqi economy and the forcing of ‘Washington Consensus’ voodoonomics upon the people of Mesopotamia (so infamously detailed in Paul Bremer’s 100 orders) if he were really a man of the left? The Iraq war suited Hitch, it fulfilled a need in him, it was not what he claimed, it was what he felt. And that is an obscene tragedy.
    As I said, at the beginning, my soft spot for Hitch remains, I can’t help it, anymore than i can help my predilection for John Carpenter or Steven Seagal movies ( i won’t even try and defend the latter). But lets not pretend he was without failure, he had rather too many than i care to remember.
    I recommend people read him and hopefully my collection will be added to this yuletide season – as I’ve dropped enough hints to herself that i want Arguably (a lot of which i know i won’t agree with). And i know for sure, I will be getting pickled this Christmas and arguing with friends and family the legacy of Hitch. He just has that effect on you.

  • Jimmy Sands

    The Gawker piece contained the following nonsense”

    “If you dispute the Bush Administration line that “terror” must be fought in Iraq lest it be fought on our soil, Hitchens alleged,”

    Anyone who followed Hitchens’ writings on the subject will know that his is in argument which not only did he never make but which he dismissed with contempt

  • RepublicanStones

    Anyone who followed Hitchens’ writings on the subject will know that his is in argument which not only did he never make but which he dismissed with contempt

    Pulling Hitch’s collected essays entitled Regime Change of my shelf i come across the following passages –

    This from an piece dated January 22nd 2003

    ‘There are three well established reasons to favor what is euphemistically termed “regime change” in Iraq….The third is the continous involvment by the Iraqi secret police in the international underworld of terror and destablization. I could write a seperate essay on the evidence for this; at the moment ill just say that its extremely rash for anybody to discount the evidence that we already possess.’

    These from a piece dated Feb 5th 2003

    ‘Before examining the argument – if it is an argument – one might observe that these are often the same people who scoff at any connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida…’

    It is certainly curious, also, to notice that whether or not Saddam has given succor to al-Qaida, the bin Ladenist forces have round the world have identified his cause with their own.

    These from a piece dated March 17th, 2003

    ‘But it seems odd to blame Wolfowitz for in effect having been right all along. Nor, by his repeated hospitality and generosity to gangsters from Abu Nidal to islamic jihad and al-Qaida (in the latter instance most obviously after Sept 11, 2001), has Saddam Hussein done much to prove him wrong. So, the removal of this multifarious menace to his own population, to his neighbours and to targets further afield would certainly be an “intended consequence” of a policy long mediated on some people’s part.’

    ‘There are some smart people who have come to believe that the first bombing of the World trade Center, in 1993, was infact a terrorist revenge for kuwait on Saddam Huseein’s part. Ramzi Yusef, generally if boringly described as the “master-mind” of that and related plots – and nephew of al-Qaida’s apprehended khalid Shaikh Mohammed – may have been an Iraqi agent operating with a Kuwaiti identity forged for him during Saddam’s occupation fo their country. One cannot be sure. But suppose that this was a terrorist counterstroke of the sort that is now so widely predicted to be in our future rather than our past. Would it have been better to let Saddam Hussein keep Kuwait and continue work on what was (then) his nuclear capacity?’

    This dated April 16th 2003

    ‘Just to take one sneer of the nihilistic antiwar faction, about there being no connection between Saddam Hussein and international gansterism. Hundreds of the toughest killers for the regime turned out to be Islamist killers from other nations, hiding behind the human shiled of the locla population….Well who now imagines that this contact between Saddam and the jihad forces began yesterday?….Saddam Hussein was indeed part of an axis of evil. he habored and trained and financed the scum of the earth, and he preached fantasies of conquest and booty and unholy war, directed at muslims and non-muslims alike. the wonder is not that he was eventually taken out, but that he was allowed to go on pumping his gangrene for so long.’

    Hitchens may indeed have scoffed at the idea Jimmy but much of his writing suggests otherwise.

  • Jimmy Sands

    That is of course an entirely different argument although one on which I agree he was wrong, or which at the very least based on unsustainable exaggerations.

  • RepublicanStones

    Jimmy, Hitch tried to paint Saddam as a sponsor of international terrorism which (as can be seen above) quite clearly alluded to that phenomenon also threatening that which by any reasonable deduction could be termed ‘our soil’. He became the most eloquent word-smith for the most rapacious administration. There’s no getting away from it.

  • Jimmy Sands

    I took the phrase to refer to the neocon meme “if we don’t fight them there we’ll have to fight them at home” an argument which he found embarrassing.

  • RepublicanStones

    He may have found it embarrassing, but he helped to reinforce it.