Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Christopher Hitchens, Acknowledging the Legislators.

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Differences and Agreement.

Christopher Hitchens: Acknowledging the Legislators.

Arguably. Christopher Hitchens.  Atlantic Books. 2011. Hitchens Vs. Blair. Is Religion a Force for  Good in the World? The Munk Debate. Black Swan 2011.

Christopher Hitchens has the gift of  making you want to listen. Simon Hoggart, he recalls in conversation  after the Munk Debate, once suggested that he should write as  he spoke. This advice he has followed. The collection of republished  pieces in Arguably shows this trait in every page. Keeping a  few furlongs ahead of the reading public with his table-talk about  the giants of English and American Literature, World and National  Politics, History, Totalitarianism, Wine, Song and Women, he pauses,  at it were, to fire shots at a variety of seated ducks. Diagnosed  with cancer, and conscious of his mortality, he does not just grab  attention: he is good company.

Pit Hitchens in public against a  predictably fatuous Tony Blair and one can see the full force of  Hoggart’s remark. During the Munk Debate the former PM  raises the hard to answer claim that religion gives “billions of  people an impulse to be better people.” It would be in order to  reiterate the point, already amply expressed, that faith can be a  drive in other directions. The New Atheist prefers the just  observation that noble works need no divine sponsor. He finds enough  “force for good” in the ethical compassion of his “fellow human  creatures.” Hitchens is even prepared to eulogise the “real  heroism and dignity in the communist movement” though “we opposed  it.” After that, Blair’s concluding casuistry, that religious  belief gives one “some sense of humility about oneself” looks  shabby.

Only, when a degree of agreement  between Hitchens and Blair about the justice of the “liberation of  Iraq” comes up, is there an awareness of something lesser. The  “aspiration for the civilised life” justified the Coalition’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The long drawn out intellectual and  emotional conversion that led to supporting this use of Western  military power has left Hitchens subject to the torments of his new  allies, his old friends, and lends shrillness to his voice.

How far has the “informal  international for the overthrow of fascism in Iraq” stood the test  of time? (Hitch 22. 2010) In this Cause, the author of  Arguably is committed to the ‘ethic of principled  conviction’. There is a tendency to disclaim responsibility for any  but agreeable consequences of Saddam’s downfall. In Arguably as a counter note, it is to his moral credit that Hitchens is  prepared to denounce the official use of torture by Waterboarding.  The complaints of Foxhole atheists against about Christian Soldiers  marching to convert Afghans are given attention, though he justly  observes that “the activities of anonymous torturers on the Bagram  base” weigh heavier. But by way of constant contrast he is  intransigent on the rightness of the invasion and occupation of  Mesopotamia. If he is uncomfortable in the ideological Green Zone it  is safer than outside.

Hitchens considers then, that the  Iraq War was the great political watershed of the twenty-first  century. It separated out those prepared to sacrifice for freedom,  from those who stayed with the dictators. One course is set on hope,  for a democratic future, followed by a variety of courageous  individuals – a Tunisian street vendor, an Egyptian restaurateur  and a Libyan husband and father, to whose memory Arguably is  generously dedicated. The other, pursued by totalitarians – Islamists, unreconstructed Stalinists, and obdurate Leninist  anti-imperialists – is hurtling downwards to perdition. This  division crops up frequently in Arguably. It is, as we will  see, misleading and misdirecting as a guide to the contours of new developments in world politics.

Criticism as a Calling

Christopher Hitchens makes his most  enduring impression as a Critic who is some steps beyond his readers’  tread. The “authors and artists who have contributed to culture and  civilisation”, and others of a somewhat motley crew, are weighed  variably. Some, perhaps many, or at least their creations, are found  wanting. To get a flavour of Hitchens it’s worth citing some of  these steely excursions, though a fuller rendering would risk being  as long as Arguably.

Hitchens is never shy of tackling  hard targets. John Updike’s Terrorist, not it is admitted  one of these, was an effort at post 9/11 literature. This displeasing  novel attempted to get into the mind of a suicide bomber, American  born of a Muslim father and an Irish mother, Ahmad, as he roams New  York preparing to blow up the Lincoln Tunnel. The book is torn to shreds,  one could not say, given its material, with a light touch. Updike’s  lame attempts at hipness, or relevance, are correctly described as  producing  “one of the worst pieces of writing from any grown-ups  source since the events he has so unwisely tried to draw upon”.  After this one would wish to turn to a novel that does justice  to 9/11, Don Delillo’s finely wrought Falling Man (2007),  which has wiped Updike’s book from the memory.

There are many  similar house-cleaning reviews, of his friend Martin Amis’ would-be  portentous Kobra, a vigorous sweeping away of the puerile crackpottery of Gore Vidal, and a lengthy unravelling of the  Anti-American trope in Graham Greene. These are nicely balanced, if  that’s the word, by appreciations of the relatively unknown.  Rebecca West without the Bosnian supporting Hitchens mentioning her  most quoted observation on Balkan politics, that Western Europeans  come back from a visit there with “a pet Balkan people established  in their hearts as suffering and innocent, eternally the massacree  and never the massacre. Nor (vide Greene) that, “All men  should have a drop of treason in their veins, if the nations are not  to go soft like so many sleepy pears. Men” (The Meaning of  Treason. 1949).

Other heroes, and heroines, there  are, without or (more usually) with, clay feet, Hitchens has many. To  cite another case, there is the “stark chiaroscuro” of Dickens.  This was man with not just his Mistress and spurned, incarcerated,  wife recently advertised again, but somebody who had a woman arrested  for using filthy language in the street. More serious instances of  repressive, even racialist, tendencies emerge in Dickens’ reaction  to the Indian rebellion of 1857 and Governor Eye’s 1865 Jamaican  sadism. On such evidence Hitchens asserts,  rashly that That the “author did not possess the gift of imaginative  sympathy when it came to those outside his immediate ken, or should I  say kin.”

Yet in this case Hitchens does not always outpace  the reader. He claims that A Tale of Two Cities is marred by reliance on Carlyle’s “pessimistic” view of the French  Revolution, ignoring perhaps that the Scottish moralist offered one  of the most positive descriptions of the self-organised French crowd,  or ‘mob’, in literature. Dickens indeed seemed to fear the people  on the move more than Gradgrind, as indicated in the fretting at  Chartism that mars Little Nell’s despairing wanderings. Or indeed,  as Hitchens places before us, the more justified worries at the  Gordon Riots in Barnaby Rudge. We are left with the impression  that G.K. Chesterton’s judgement that Dickens was a pure liberal  untouched by Political Economy has been, for the moment, confounded.  Perhaps he really was not sympathetic at all to the people, that  darkness overshadows light. That thought evaporates quickly when the  glorious names of Jo the Crossing Sweeper, Jenny Wren, Boffin the  Golden Dustman, the Marchioness, and that of at least one class  enemy, Merdle, come to mind again. And in Barnaby Rudge who is  more sinister than Dennis the Hangman?

The Politics of the American Revolution.

There is so much expressed in these  literary pages that one is tempted to enter further into the contrarian spirit. But there are serious political points to be made.  Hitchens builds up, often only noticed sideways, other times stuck  right in the frontispiece of his articles, a defence of America.  He  favours, in a spirit not too alien to Hannah Arendt’s praise for  their endurance, its Constitution, and ‘Revolution’. Congress,  Senate, Supreme Court, and State legislatures, with their virtues and  faults, set out in articles on Jefferson, Jefferson and Lincoln,  amongst others, were the battle fields of noble struggles, above all  of abolitionism and the Northern cause. These were issues that  transcended their roots in self-interest.  In other words, they  became at some point exercises in deliberative freedom; the hallmark  to Arendt of real politics, above they avoided translating compassion  into the pity that would make people into objects.  The war of  independence and upheavals, balancing social forces, lacked any taint  of totalitarianism – unlike the French Revolution, which he has described elsewhere as “modern absolutist ideology in all its early  forms.” (Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man 2006)

Hitchens draws lessons from this.  Thomas Paine, who supported both the American and French cause, was  nevertheless trapped by the Terror, which was a “prefiguration of  what would happen to idealists and revolutionaries in the following century.” In Arguably Paine is criticised for founding the  rights of man in a timeless and placeless dimension, inviting  revolutionaries to make a tabula rasa of society and begin  anew – from year Zero. If Paine would hardly carry this to its  logical conclusion, conscious as he was, Hitchens observes of his  causes own debt to the past, the breach in the fabric of time had  been made. Totalitarianism could indeed try to abolish memory –  though not the future.

Against this we have Edmund Burke,  who looked to the weight of the past and the contract between the  dead and the living – that is, in plainer language, at best, the rights of  Englishmen that he could see embodied in the American  colonists’ ‘revolution’ against the British Crown. His  criticism of the ‘abstract’ doctrine of rights is unrelated to  any critique of French incipient totalitarianism. Burke’s apparent  foresight in predicting the rise of a military dictator from the  French Revolution is cited. That it certainly owed more to the Whig  Parliamentarian’s school-time familiarity with the rise of Julius  Caesar than to any remarkable grasp of the way ‘totalitarian’  politics would emerge is ignored. It is worth recalling at every  instant, as John Keane reminds us, that “His primary aim, Burke  said, was to awaken politically those who would not like ‘to have  their mansions pulled down, and pillaged, their persons abused,  insulted and destroyed; their title-deeds bought out and burnt before  their faces.” (Tom Paine A Political Life. 1995)

What was the lesson here? Paine’s  rights, or rather his use of the French declaration of the Rights of  Man, are universal – they are profoundly unsettling to any  established order. The US gives its rights to its own citizens  through its institutions, built on a Shining City on the Hill. To  this Hitchens repairs. He asserts that, “this “secular republic  with the separation of powers is still the approximate model whether  acknowledged or not, of several democratic revolutions that are in  progress or impending.” (Page xviii) But the US’s inviolable  ‘separation’ of political sovereignty its welding to the  economics of private property, and its ingrained hostility to  industrial, social democracy, also remains written in marble.

Has a social democracy, propelled by  the labour movement, managed to influence this? Some progress, it is  said, was made during the New deal and the Great Society. This is  long past. Could the republic become social? Could it? Arendt dreamt wistfully of workers’ councils, and the hidden  treasures of direct democracy, but, in the absence of any resolution  of the tensions between popular sovereignty, parties and direct  democracy, came to no firm conclusions. American’s road to the  fuller human rights of democratic socialism is not sketched by  Hitchens.

Legislators and Critics.

Hitchens is a Critic. And the Critic would be a  Legislator, or at least Acknowledged by Worldly Powers. This is not a  happy subject. We have already touched on Iraq. With the  verve of Arguably  on his  side one is tempted to forgive Hitchens his fits of the screaming  habdabs. But his railing against those who would “have kept a  cannibal, a Caligula and a professional sadist” – Saddam Hussein  – in power, has lasted a decade.  Hope for the future of the Arab  Spring, and justified ttacks on Iranian theocrats, the bigoted  Pakistani Military run Cabal, indicate a new division in the world. In the meantime though witnesses for the cause of the Peoples, for  democratic life, and pluralism, will find little to rejoice in the  story of the Occupation of Baghdad. Hitchens’ role in generating  support for this, barely breathing amongst the peoples, not even  full-throttled amongst his Muscular Liberal claque, cannot be  forgotten.

Hitchens’ self-appointed calling  as a trumpeter for the removal of the Baathist regime, by military  force, galls, then, a wider audience than those who dismiss him as a  “stooge”. Hitchens once compared the Allied Invasion of Iraq to  the 1974 Coup in Portugal that removed Caetano, a “social and  political revolution” set off with some necessary outside  assistance. (Love, Poverty and War 2004)  This was fly-weight  logic then, and it has lost more than a few kilos now.  In 2005 he attributed the “campaign of horror” by “insurgents opposed to  the Allied presence to a Baathist strategy begun even before Baghdad  fell. Massacres and sectarian strife in Iraq show no sign of  disappearing.

Deeper and longer-lasting changes  are now afoot. Hitchens’ overarching belief that 2001 marked a  turning point in a struggle that pitted democrats of all stripes,  above all those in power in the UK and the US, against totalitarian  appeasers of Islamism, has not worn well. The clash between the  “anti-imperialist and anti-totalitarian left” looks sidelined. As  Washington and Whitehall move to accommodate Islamist political  forces in Tunisia, Libya and, potentially, Egypt, this assertion  looks ready to lose any of its salience. ‘Anti-imperialists’ who have lowered themselves to a narrative of world history that divides the world according to states’ attitude to American  are  trying to grapple with the emergence of a new wave of Islamic  capitalist states, headed by Islamist parties, swiftly or gradually  introducing the parody of law that their doctrine supports, but on  good commercial terms with the West. George Galloway and Seumas  Milne may try to waggle their withered posteriors to attract Islamists to their camp, but the appeal of London and Washington is greater. Yet where will the  anti-totalitarians go when the mainstream indulges  Political Islam, and, amongst the democratic forces opposing the  capitalist-Islamists, the secularist Marxist left has its role to play  – on the side of the cause of the peoples and for human freedom?

Oh, and  one has to point out, (as a mere Hons. graduate in Reviewmanship to a Master) that it’s la  langue de bois, not la langue du bois.


Written by Andrew Coates

October 28, 2011 at 11:38 am

One Response

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  1. Isn’t that useless fucker dead yet?

    And I hear Hitchens has been ill too.

    ‘Anti-imperialists’ who have lowered themselves to a narrative of world history that divides the world according to states’ attitude to American
    As one-sided an assessment as the politics you claim they have.


    October 28, 2011 at 12:33 pm

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