Web Only / Culture » February 9, 2016
Christopher Hitchens’ Latest, Posthumous Essay Collection Stings Without a Point
Somewhere along the way, Hitchens lost a purpose for his contrarianism.
Hitchens went from being a funny political writer to a non-serious one.
And Yet…, the latest posthumous collection of essays by the famously acerbic critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens, was clearly published as an attempt to validate the author’s post-9/11 political conversion from the Left to the Right. Instead of continuity, however, we find the author snickering at dead ideas and dead revolutionaries, squandering Orwell’s moral surplus for his own ragged defense of imperialism and inviting others to join in on his new-found sentimentalities about American institutions (especially the military).
For political conversions, one of two commonplaces always holds true. Either the convert presents his previously held beliefs in such a rude and ridiculous fashion that an outsider would find it miraculous any sane person ever bought into such nonsense in the first place. Or the convert claims that he wasn’t the one who abandoned the group’s founding principles; the group itself did.
As a peculiar synthesis of these two strategies, Hitchens said that those on the Left who claim the values of solidarity, collectivism and internationalism had abandoned them in all but grace a long time ago. He also said that radicalism has its empty platitudes, too, and that many of his comrades and friends held the right political positions, but the way their arguments were crafted weren’t very convincing to others.
It’s unfortunate, then, to find so much pettiness and insipid criticism in Hitchens’ book. The combination of ironic self-criticism and hatred of injustice the epigraph—which reads, in part, “One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism”—calls for (and Hitchens once embodied) is almost completely absent.
Nor is there the polemical power of a writer who once demolished terrorism as a “junk word” for “shady consultants,” “practitioners of instant journalism” and “governments with something to hide”; or who said a shorthand for determining if President Reagan were lying is if his lips were moving; or who rightly pointed out that the populist rhetorics of Louis Farrakhan and the fascist and anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby were awkwardly aligned.
In And Yet, new targets include Che Guevara, the Abraham Lincoln Battalion and NASCAR. Privately Guevara was evidently critical of the Soviet Union for being soft on American expansion in Central and South America. (Who wouldn’t have been, from Guevara’s view?) Not to mention he was a Leninist who, unsurprisingly then, had some unseemly things to say about Rosa Luxemburg—a heroine of Hitchens and the subject of one of the stronger essays in the book.
Similar hit-and-runs are doltishly committed throughout. For instance, in a piece on stock car racing and its fan-base, who needs to be reminded that the South once politically belonged to the Democrats? Or in a piece on George Orwell's infamous lists of intellectuals who he thought would side with the Stalinists if the Soviet Union invaded Great Britain, that the Henry Wallace campaign was only on the most favorable interpretation “infiltrated” with Communists and fellow-travelers? And doesn’t it seems like a fairly inexpensive jeer to poke fun at NASCAR for hiring Magic Johnson as part of an outreach program to recruit more African Americans to the pastime’s fandom? (Okay, that one’s actually pretty good.)
On the other hand, describing the thousands of Americans who went and fought in the Spanish Civil War for the republicans as ”under the effective command of the Comintern” is to feign contempt for a genuine democratic struggle—a struggle, incidentally, Hitchens used to view far more sympathetically: “The Spanish Revolution was not safeguarded or aided by Moscow, but actually, deliberately strangled by it.” The article, titled “George Orwell and Raymond Williams”—is from another essay collection published in 1999. Notice the change of emphasis without alterating the facts. Hitchens’ scorn and ridicule subtly alchemizes from Stalinism to its victims.
Above all, though, Hitchens was a master borrower. Unafraid to reuse the ideas and vernacular of those before him, he could sometimes borrow an epigram from P.G. Wodehouse for places where it didn’t quite work (in “The Limits of Self-Improvement,” he describes his upper chest as having ‘slid deplorably down to the mezzanine floor) or claim a sociological observation of Orwell’s (that the leaders of nationalist movements are very often themselves emigrants or exiles of the country they seek to mobilize) as his own.
Granted, too much polemical and journalistic energy is squandered attempting to catch others in the act of borrowing—a point brilliantly made in one of Hitchens’ all-time great pieces “In Defense of Plagiarism.” Responding to the pseudo-controversialists who were at the time attempting to tarnish Martin Luther King's legacy with charges of plagiarism, Hitchens wrote, “He may have done a lot of borrowing in his life, but he synthesized the borrowings into something higher.” He was no King, but something similar could be said for Hitchens’ own literary output.
Unfortunately, as his political standards shifted in the wake of 9/11, Hitchens’ prose became more poignant but with less of a point. And Yet offers many regrettable examples. There’s the invoking of class to protest the lack of diplomatic safeguarding for Ayaan Hirsi Ali on one of her visits to the United States (“If she was the CEO of Heineken or the president of Royal Dutch Shell, and was subject to death threats while on U.S. soil, I have the distinct feeling that the forces of law and order would require no prompting to consider her safety a high priority”). Or a maudlin affection for the military as a melting pot for blacks, Hispanics and poor whites, a longstanding right-wing talking point.
Cultural uniformity during Christmas season of course reminds him of life in a one-party authoritarian state. Pat Buchanan is ‘chronically un-American’ for reasons left unexplained—although Hitchens was surely aware how lackluster and teeth-grindingly irritating it is when liberals try turning the patriotic jingoism of the Right against them.
What political end is Hitchens moving toward with these observations? A more open and democratic society? Egalitarian state initiatives? Freer markets? “Stand in the middle of the road,’ Hitchens once quipped, ‘and you get run down.” Shamefully, he later wrote like someone less concerned with where he was in the road as long as he was walking against traffic. None of his grievances have much coherency—in fact, they often contradict each other if one gives them more than a moment’s thought.
It would be a mistake to denigrate Hitchens as another god-that-failed convert of the Left. Nor would it be correct to say that it took the nightmare of 9/11 to awaken him from the slumber of the tech-boom economy and identity-driven politics of the 1990s. But at some point, Hitchens went from being a funny political writer to a non-serious one. A ruthless criticism of everything was replaced by opportunistic cheap-shots and point-scoring. Uprooted from British Trotskyism, and now lacking either prejudice or prescription, Hitchens often opted for embellishing his own private debaucheries. He was convinced that he shared the Orwellian power of facing unpleasant facts when others refused or could not, but he never bothered asking the simple question: unpleasant for whom? Hitchens either forgot or never realized that political boredom is no excuse for rancor and melodrama.
Mark Dunbar is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Mark1Dunbar.