Christopher Hitchens: A Jingo in Every Essential Way
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.
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. 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:
Looking at some of the mind-rotting tripe that comes my way from much of today’s left, I get the impression that they go to bed saying: what have I done for Saddam Hussein or good old Slobodan or the Taliban today?
Well, ha ha ha, and yah, boo. It was obvious from the very start that the United States had no alternative but to do what it has done. It was also obvious that defeat was impossible … But if, as the peaceniks like to moan, more Bin Ladens will spring up to take his place, I can offer this assurance: should that be the case, there are many many more who will also spring up to kill him all over again. And there are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too.
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.But it was Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, whose protest reanimated a seemingly moribund antiwar movement after the calamitous 2004 presidential election, that really aroused Hitchens’s spleen. Here was a “shifty fantasist”, “spouting sinister piffle”, blaming the Iraq war on a Jewish conspiracy. The ground for this accusation was a statement attributed to Sheehan which said that her son “was killed for lies and for a PNAC Neo-Con agenda to benefit Israel. My son joined the army to protect America, not Israel.”
Sheehan denied saying these words, but even allowing that she may have done, there is not a word about a ‘Jewish cabal’ in Sheehan’s statement, far less anything “LaRouche-like” in her argument. But Hitchens persisted, accusing Sheehan of “echoing the Bin-Ladenist line that the president is the real ‘terrorist’ and that he is the tool of a Jewish cabal”. Not just a LaRouchie, then, but also an Al Qaeda co-ideologue. Challenged about this by his former ally, Alexander Cockburn, he retreated on the “LaRouchie” defamation, and insisted that he had not characterised Sheehan as anti-Jewish. Yet, several years on, when asked about the same incident by Brian Lamb, he again asserted that Sheehan had described the Iraq war as one fought for “the Jewish people”. Hitchens was certainly not ignorant of the way in which such innuendo and outright slander has been used to stifle debate, and not just on the question of Israel. As he wrote to Alexander Cockburn, this “slander” was “often used” against those who defended the Palestinians including himself.
It may be that, by this point, Hitchens was simply incapable of rationality. The more likely diagnosis is that he had no interest in rational political conduct. In every essential way, he had become a jingo.
Having decided that he could have a patriotism that was both universalist and cosmopolitan, Hitchens also fancied that he could have imperialism without divide-and-rule, without client-states, and without the vicious massacres of the colonial era. With this in mind, he set about the search for an intellectual and moral lineage, and alighted on Jefferson and Paine. Had not Paine wanted America to be a superpower for democracy? Had not Jefferson fought the Barbary pirates to stop Muslim slavery?
Thus was Hitchens’s new dispensation confected, as he vaunted a “new imperialism” whose aim would be to “enable local populations to govern themselves”. No more client-states, no more divide-and-rule, just the spread of liberal institutions as the last best hope for mankind. “If the United States will dare to declare out loud for empire, it had better be in its capacity as a Thomas Paine arsenal, or at the very least a Jeffersonian one.” The sotto voce subtext here was that, as capitalism was a revolutionary system, the only revolution left standing in fact, the freeing up of markets coupled with the spread of liberal, pluralist institutions was itself the most progressive step available. Jeffersonian imperialism was thus neoliberal imperialism with a faint left patina.
Hitchens had not initially favoured an outright invasion of Iraq, but increasingly he argued there would be no war but simply a bounteous liberation, almost blood-free. Soldiers would be high-fiving liberated Iraqis, distributing laptop computers and humanitarian aid to the needful subjects of Saddam. The attack would be “dazzling”, he fancied, and would be greeted as an “emancipation” – “bring it on”. Not only was Jeffersonian imperialism exceptionally light on its feet, however: it was restless, expansionist, constantly looking for new destinations. So, Hitchens told his friend James Fenton privately that he expected Iraq to become both a protectorate of the United States and simultaneously a base from which democracy would be exported to Saudi Arabia and other regional dictatorships.
But, as the occupation unravelled, seemingly disclosing new depths of depravity every day, the paeans to liberation gave way to a savage rhetoric of conquest. There had always been a great deal of scaremongering in Hitchens’s pro-war arguments. Saddam was Hitler and Stalin combined, he said. What have we been waiting for, he wondered? Saddam has both weapons and underground chambers – just you wait. When “just you wait” became “never mind”, Hitchens purported to have been dispirited by the Bush administration choosing to “frighten people” rather than “enlightening them”. But he had been unmistakeably implicated in the administration’s propaganda, not just as a member of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a friend of Paul Wolfowitz and an ally of Ahmed Chalabi, but as a journalist.
The most telling aspect of this was Hitchens’s discovery of the menace of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Hitchens’s first mention of Zarqawi was in February 2003, after Colin Powell had brought him up. The “presence of al-Qaeda under the Iraqi umbrella is suggested chiefly by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, a senior bin-Laden aide and an enthusiast for chemical and biological tactics,” he claimed. Meanwhile, “most US intelligence officials now agree that it is unlikely to be a coincidence that the pro-al-Qaeda gang, Ansar al-Islam, is fighting to destroy the independent Kurdish leadership in the northern part of Iraq that has been freed from Saddam Hussein’s control.” There has been ample refutation of this nonsensical conspiracy theory, of which we might mention the fact that Zarqawi’s supposed presence in Baghdad was speculation, an “inferential leap” in the first place; that both British and German intelligence cast doubt on the story at the time; that even George Tenet, when testifying to a Senate Committee that Zarqawi had been in Baghdad, nevertheless said that he was neither under the control of Al Qaeda nor Saddam Hussein; that Zarqawi was an opponent of Al Qaeda at this time; that Ansar al-Islam leader Mullah Krekar denied having ever met Zarqawi and that his group was opposed to Hussein and did not associate with Al Qaeda; and that, according to the International Crisis Group, the potency of Ansar al-Islam was drastically inflated by the PUK for its own reasons. Intelligence told a quite different story to that recounted by Hitchens, but he had by this point dropped all pretence at serious journalism. In the end, Nick Davies exposed the whole Zarqawi myth and how it was spread by intelligence through the media, in his whistle-blowing account of the press.
Almost everything Hitchens predicted about the war, vaunting his ‘Twenty-Twenty Foresight’, turned out to be conclusively, catastrophically wrong. For example: “Will an Iraq war make our Al Qaeda problem worse? Not likely.” ? a point of view not even shared by the governments making war. In the end, the mounting threat to his credibility was so severe that the man who said “ha ha ha, and yah boo” to the antiwar movement, and serially slandered the likes of Cindy Sheehan and Naomi Klein, could not take “the taunting” any more.
But his more arresting response to the crisis of the occupation was to turn extraordinarily sanguinary. Following the November 2004 siege of Fallujah, Hitchens remarked that ‘the death toll is not nearly high enough … too many [jihadists] have escaped’. That the insurgency arose primarily as an Al Qaeda-Ba’athist conspiracy, and not as an utterly predictable response to the occupation of Iraq, the destruction of its infrastructure, the murder of protesters and the empowerment of sectarian political forces, could thus serve to justify a quite shrill display of blood-lust. And when pressed, Hitchens did not hesitate to suggest that the Islamists should be wiped out:
We can’t live on the same planet as them and I’m glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders [sic] and rapists and torturers and child abusers. It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.
He later told those present at the christening of the David Horowitz Freedom Center that “it’s sort of a pleasure as well as a duty to kill these people”. Years later, when Hitchens was speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, he was asked a question about Iran. His answer shocked even the conservatives in the audience: “As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.” That these barbaric vocables were uttered by someone ostensibly interested in the advancement of humanity, in solidarity and civilization, is by no means novel. It was a common response to the affront of anti-colonial rebels, particularly those deemed under the influence of “Mohammedan fanaticism”. As Dickens had put it, on hearing of the Indian rebellion of 1857, and reading the atrocity stories circulated in the British newspapers:
I would address that oriental character which must be powerfully spoken to, in something like the following placard . . . ‘I, the Inimitable, holding this office of mine . . . have the honour to inform you Hindoo gentry that it is my intention, with all possible avoidance of unnecessary cruelty and with all merciful swiftness of execution, to exterminate the Race from the face of the earth, which disfigured the earth with abominable atrocities’.
In this respect, also, Hitchens was a highly typical, if not stereotypical, figure.