And Yet. Essays. Christopher Hitchens. Review: Internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.
And Yet. Essays. Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books.
The Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) thug Adonis Nasr, was killed fighting alongside Assad and Hezbollah’s forces in Latakia this week. This would have passed unnoticed in the world at large, accustomed as we are reports of nameless deaths in Syria, if he had not been one of a group that savagely beat Christopher Hitchens in Beirut in 2009. With the Syrian barbarous civil war in mind we might do worse than begin And Yet with Hitchens’ concluding words, “Patriotic and tribal feelings belong to the squalling childhood of the human race, and become no more charming in the senescence…. internationalism is the highest form of patriotism.”
The charm of Hitchens, a foppish coxcomb in the judgement of the “power-drunk micro-megalomaniac called George Galloway” was to offer criticisms of all that exists, and to pour icy water on Revelations from non-existence. The book offer rich examples of his sceptical internationalism and patriotism.
And Yet, uncollected essays, including a three-part report on his efforts to improve his bodily heath On the Limits of self-Improvement, is brim full of popinjay insolence. Hitchens ranges from broader clinical judgements, the (present) Turkish President’s “morbid disorders of the personality”, Hilary Clinton’s weakness for porkies, starting with claims to be named after Sir Edmund Hilary, to the chiaroscuro of V.S. Naipaul’s Salisbury Plain Manor, an “emotional master-slave concentration camp built for two”. Ian Fleming’s interest in bottoms – at first sight an endearing quality – rapidly evaporates when his sadistic snobbery is indicated. One supposes that the public school educated Hitchens had yet to encounter the stronger meat circulated in our North London state school youth: the wank-books that began with Richard Allen’s Skinhead.
Hitchens was capable of essays of great moral seriousness. Rosa Luxemburg’s internationalism was “so strong she despised anything to do with lesser or sectarian ‘identities’” was matched by a personality “constantly distracted from politics by her humanism and her love for nature and literature. The comparison between George Orwell’s ‘list” of crypto-communists with co-operation with the Thought Police is rightly dismissed, “nobody suffered or could have suffered from Orwell’s private opinion”.
Sometimes, even so, Hitchens is led astray. Turkey’s greatest modern writer Orban Pamuk’s Snow (2004) is criticised for its – taken without comparison to a whole shelf of his other publications – indulgence towards Islamists. It also receives bad notes for its “stilted dialogue” – a brave commentary on a translation from a language separated by a gulf from English. Pamuk’s lack of “courage” to address the Armenian issue (are all Turkish novelists obliged to reference this, constantly?) nevertheless finds its remedy. A later piece gives due recognition for his court appearance in 2005 – charged with evoking the genocide.
A little internationalism, Jean Jaurès remarked, takes one away from the country, a lot brings us back to it. The American Revolution, Hitchens remarks, is the “only one that still resonates”. Hitchens is a fine guide to the personalities, battle-fields, and tortuous procedures of the US politics that lay claim to the inspiration of the Founding Fathers. But we are not always treated to high politics. We learn that many of the inhabitants of the states of the former Confederacy, commit “offences against chastity with either domestic animals (or the fact must be faced) with members of the immediate families”. Red-Staters are also often chunky, we are informed. It is even less than unlikely that the scandal of Ohio push-button direct-recording electronic voting machines resound very far. And when one is reminded of Hitchens’ new nationality in sentences studded, or perhaps embossed with the past particle ‘gotten’, putting in CAPITALS a change of state, or becoming, one pines for the unobtrusive Englishness of the sequence, “get, got, got.”
A “supporter of the armed struggle against the forces of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein” Hitchens has been accused of making reason the slave of the passions. This emotions were effectively marshalled against the forerunners of today’s Islamist genociders, authoritarian bullies of all stripes, and those ‘anti-imperialists’ who were complaisant about them, or complicit in their actions. But feelings, however morally intelligent, are shaky guides to internationalist policies. Few of his enemies would miss the chance to waggle their fingers at Hitchens’ urging of the invasion of Iraq which began the present Syrian conflicts in which X was entangled. The dire sequence that has followed these struggles – that is the US-led interventions and the present power plays – was there this week, in Latakia, Syria, for all to see.
The “failure to mesh human rights imperatives with geo-strategic and security ones” cannot be detached from Hitchens original parti pris. It was not the fight of the armed peoples against tyrants but the direct use of external force, of occupation, of regime-change from without, that remains at issue. No less a pacific figure than Robespierre once stated that nobody liked armed missionaries (Personne n’aime les missionnaires armés): you couldn’t export Liberty at bayonet point. Perhaps that lesson, from a Revolution that has inspired more universalism and internationalism than the American one, is worth remembering.