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Arts and Culture

Christopher Hitchens: A Jingo in Every Essential Way

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Posted on Jan 24, 2013
Verso Books

This following is an excerpt from “Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens,” written by Richard Seymour and published this month by Verso Books. Read a review of the book by Gregory Shupak at In These Times.

“Watching the towers fall in New York,” Hitchens told David Horowitz’s Frontpage magazine in 2003, “with civilians incinerated on the planes and in the buildings, I felt something that I couldn’t analyze at first and didn’t fully grasp.… I am only slightly embarrassed to tell you that this was a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose. A pity that we let them pick the time and place of the challenge, but we can and we will make up for that.” As he later affirmed, “a whole new terrain of struggle had just opened up in front of me.” Recalling “the title of that Orwell essay from 1940 … ‘My Country Right or Left,’” he thought about the USA: “My country after all.” So, “shall I take out the papers of citizenship?” Hitchens asked, heart taking wing like a passenger jet. “Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have.”

In retrospect, Hitchens represented his view as a fairly consistent one: from the day of the concremation, he recognised a world-historic conflict between secular progress and religious reaction, and he took his side. He would go on to lambast the Left for the poverty of its instinctive reaction, which he characterised as a desire to “sit out” or take a “neutral” stand in the combat between the United States and Al Qaeda, a preference that the problem had not “come up” so that they could continue with their “domestic agenda”. In fact, his knee did not jerk immediately in the way that this macho taunt might suggest. His initial stance was far more cautious. His friend Dennis Perrin recalls: “just after the attack, I believe [he] was on the West Coast, and he counselled calm and reflection. That didn’t last very long. By the time of his ‘Against Rationalization’ in the Nation, it was clear he was taking this all the way.” And this is borne out in his early, post-conflagration articles, which mocked John McCain’s suggestion that the attacks be deemed “an act of war”, mocked Bush for the same rhetoric, and conveyed alarm that it seemed so difficult to ask “if the United States has ever done anything to attract such awful hatred” – “the analytical moment, if there is to be one, has been indefinitely postponed”. And so, in Hitchens’s case, it was. Within a week, he was charging that such analytical thoughts constituted a form of rationalization.

book cover

 

Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens

By Richard Seymour

 

Verso, 160 pages

 

Buy the book

The viciousness with which he attacked former comrades in print was excelled only by his private vindictiveness. His former colleague at The Nation, Sam Husseini, had made the mistake of disputing his ‘Against Rationalization’ piece with analysis of the type that would once have been a mainstay of Hitchens’s columns, by suggesting that ‘Al Qaeda’ would be starved for recruits were it not for manifest injustices perpetrated by the US government. In print, Hitchens retorted: “If Husseini knows what was in the minds of the murderers, it is his solemn responsibility to inform us of the source of his information, and also to share it with the authorities.” Yet by this rationale, anyone who attempted an explanation for the atrocities that went beyond the obvious facts of ‘how’ – that is, anyone who attempted an analysis – was claiming inside knowledge. In correspondence, Hitchens told Husseini: “I am dead serious about my first point and will call you on it again. If you claim you knew what these people had in mind, I want you to show me that you contacted the authorities with your information before you sent your blithering little letter to me. Either that or you shut the fuck up - not that it matters any more what you say. And you claim to know how enemies are made….You have no idea.” If it seemed that there was something, as Hitchens liked to say, minatory about the article, this missive was openly threatening.

There was an abrupt change not just in Hitchens’s tone, but in his authorial voice. Hitchens emerged a convinced American nationalist, deploying its full tonal diapason – from hysteria to triumphalism, with the scale calibrated by braggadocio. His lexicon was updated accordingly, as he discovered the utility of terms such as ‘terrorism’, ‘evil’, and ‘anti-American’. To each of these terms, which he had previously rejected, he devoted at least one article by way of rehabilitation. Later, the old Cold War lexicon of ‘totalitarianism’ availed itself to him as he turned his attention to religion. A lugubrious, sentimental timbre crept into some of his writing, abated only by the energy with which he prosecuted the war on the Left.


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