May 24, 2013
Christopher Hitchens: A Jingo in Every Essential Way
Posted on Jan 24, 2013
It was one thing to emote about “the almost-eclipsed figure of the American proletarian, who was busting his sinews in the rubble and carnage of downtown while the more refined elements wrung their hands.” But Hitchens was even more lachrymose about the felled towers themselves. Not a “Rockefeller boondoggle … massively subsidised by public sector tenants” as his former colleague Mike Davis had suggested, the World Trade Centre “looked down quite benignly on a neighbourhood, a district, a quarter, where each language had a chance”. He recalled migrating from New York to DC and, taking the train to his new abode, “I … twisted around in my seat, like a child leaving a seaside holiday, until I could see the Twin Towers no more … and every time I came back on a train or plane or by car, it was the big friendly commercial twins that signalled my return. Now each of them has met its own evil twin.” On the basis of this and similar sentimental reflections on his fondness for New York, he declared his new creed: “Call it a rooted cosmopolitanism,” he said of his new-found nationalism, the parochial universalism of empire. “One has to be capable of knowing when something is worth fighting for. One has to be capable of knowing an enemy when one sees one.” There are many words for this, but the mot juste is narcissism. The evocation of childhood, and memories of happiness watched over by the benevolent idols of finance-capitalism, obliterated by an unmentionable evil, is just a barely sublimated reflection on the author’s own mortality.
Not that such sentimentality was always incompatible with the sniggering belligerence that also began to disfigure his prose. Taking advantage of an early apparent victory for the United States in Afghanistan, he taunted those who had been against Bush’s war:
The premature triumphalism about Afghanistan needs no further criticism here, and nor will I further accentuate the absurdity of Hitchens’s discovery that the Left was in league with the enemy, but the bellicosity of the final lines cannot conceal the insecurity propelling them. This was, after all, the author who had instructed his ward, the ‘young contrarian’: “Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about ‘we,’ or speaks in the name of ‘us.’ Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism.” Suddenly, Hitchens could not stop talking about ‘we’ and ‘us’, for there was a civilization at stake: a tiny cult of jihadis had proved it. And no wonder, then, that he spewed so much vitriol on the Left, whose dissent was tantamount to treasonous under such circumstances.
In fact, as the antiwar movement began to gain some traction, expanding in the most unlikely quarters of US society, Hitchens became ever more agitated and abusive. The sudden burst of dynamism did not conform to his earlier depiction of a clapped out husk of activists long since reconciled to power but clinging to outmoded rhetoric. So, summoning his immense reserves of contumely, he let the peaceniks have it. “The assortment of forces who assembled” on 15th February 2003, “demanded, in effect, that Saddam be allowed to keep the other five-sixths of Iraq as his own personal torture chamber. There are not enough words in any idiom to describe the shame and the disgrace of this.” They were divided between the “silly” and the “sinister”, the former a sentimental bunch of pacifists, the latter “deep in their hearts” nostalgic for “the days of the one-party State”.
Not only was the Left committed to a corrupt status quo internationally, but there was a faction of it that displayed “open sympathy for the enemies of civilization”. Cindy Sheehan was a “LaRouchie” parroting a “Bin Ladenist” line, Naomi Klein was writing love letters to Muqtada al-Sadr, and the New Left Review was entreating solidarity with Kim Il-Jong. Next to such powerful indictments, and such impressive dudgeon, it would seem redundant to point out that Hitchens was dissimulating.
Klein incurred his wrath for having written intelligently, and not without a certain imaginative sympathy, on the Mahdi Army wing of the Iraqi insurgency. This amounted to “swooning” for “theocratic fascists”. This was hardly justified. Klein by no means supported the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr. The article to which Hitchens objected had said “Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers are not just another group of generic terrorists out to kill Americans; their opposition to the occupation represents the overwhelmingly mainstream sentiment in Iraq. Yes, if elected Sadr would try to turn Iraq into a theocracy like Iran, but for now his demands are for direct elections and an end to foreign occupation”. And she went on in a future piece to redouble her point that Sadr was neither an “anti-imperialist liberator” nor “the one-dimensional villain painted by so many in the media”, the latter portrayal allowing liberals to tolerate the violent suppression of his supporters and the denial of self-government to Iraqis.
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