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Swingeing Pom

Christopher Hitchens and the road to curmudgeonhood

Cover: September 2005September 2005Medium length read
 

A couple of years ago at Britain’s premier literary festival, Hay-on-Wye, two star performers dominated the program: former US president Bill Clinton and journalist/author/commentator Christopher Hitchens. Clinton arrived in his Secret Service car, attended a few parties, hit a few golf balls, made a stirring speech and departed to a boo or two for keeping a crowd of well-wishers waiting. Hitchens arrived jet-lagged after a seven-hour plane trip from America and four-hour car journey from London, dishevelled and clearly under the spell of an indeterminate number of whiskies. To the barely concealed alarm of the festival organisers, he went to the performers’ hospitality room and ordered more. It was going to be a long night.

The next morning, I went to hear him talk about his hobby (obsession?): the works of P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. The venue was packed, a sell-out. “What are you lot doing here on a Sunday morning?” said Hitchens in mock reproach. “You should be in church.” He then went on, without a note or a pause, to hold us spellbound for an hour. He was witty, provocative, original, entertaining and informative. He got a standing ovation and was easily the festival’s most popular attraction. Yet I doubt if there was a single member of that liberal, book-buying, Guardian-reading audience who did not know that this was the same Christopher Hitchens who had stunned the international Left by abandoning his socialist ideals, turning on his old comrades and embracing George W. Bush, Washington’s neo-conservatives and the invasion of Iraq.

The shock waves this caused are best expressed by writer Tariq Ali, a friend of Hitchens for more than 30 years. “On 11th September 2001,” writes Ali, “a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the twin towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again. The vile replica currently on offer is a double.”

Another admirer, the London Independent’s commentator Johann Hari – even now unable to give up totally on Hitchens – has puzzled over what happened. “He was sailing along the slow certain route from being the Left’s belligerent bad boy to being one of its most revered old men. And then a hijacked plane flew into the Pentagon – a building which stands just ten minutes from Hitchens’s home ... Within a year, Hitchens was damning his former comrades as ‘soft on Islamic fascism’, giving speeches at the Bush White House, and describing himself publicly as ‘a recovering ex-Trotskyite’.”

Some questions need answering. Why the volte-face and is it irreversible? And why does Hitchens’s current stance appear not to have seriously dented his public image? His latest collection of columns and essays entitled Love, Poverty & War (Atlantic Books, 490pp; $45) is a good place to look for clues.

 

Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Britain. His was a military family, which explains a lot. “I come from a longish line of military and naval types on my father’s side and was brought up on and around bases and within earshot of tales of stoicism and even courage. I was very glad during the long peace that followed the ‘boom’ of my babyhood to be the first Hitchens for a few generations who did not even have to contemplate donning a uniform.”

At Oxford University he became a Trotskyist and wrote for the magazine International Socialism – “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”. He left Oxford with a third-class degree and went to work for the left-wing New Statesman magazine in the 1970s, where he became friends with writers such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. He built a reputation as an aggressive left-winger, homing in on targets like the Vietnam War, Henry Kissinger and the Catholic Church. He moved to the US in the 1980s to test himself in what he saw as the premier league. There he found American attitudes to social intercourse very liberating. Not only could he put English politeness, modesty, reticence, good form and understatement behind him, he could make a career from doing so. He expanded his targets to include Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and American policy in Latin America. He opposed the first Gulf War, arguing that Saddam Hussein was the victim of an American conspiracy and had been lured into it by President Bush.

The first hint of him changing views probably came with the fatwa on his friend Salman Rushdie over his anti-mullah novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens accused Islam of theocratic fascism and the international, multicultural Left of being soft on Muslim extremists. He hardened his stance after 9/11, supporting US military action in Afghanistan and becoming increasingly alienated from his left-wing colleagues on The Nation. He resigned from the magazine in 2002 after a highly charged exchange of letters with Noam Chomsky. Hitchens said he could no longer contribute to the magazine because he believed its editors, readers and writers such as Chomsky considered the US attorney-general John Ashcroft to be a bigger threat than Osama bin Laden.

It is now not easy to pin a political label on Hitchens. He has said he no longer feels part of the Left and does not object to being described as a “former” Trotskyist, with the emphasis on “former”. He admits he still admires Trotsky and that his political and historical view of the world has been influenced by Marxist thought. He supported Bush during the 2004 presidential election, but not enthusiastically, and he offered a supporting word for John Kerry, saying it was “indecent” for Republicans to equate Kerry with capitulation. “There’s no one to whom he can surrender, is there?” Last year he confessed to Johann Hari that it is not Bush he admires but “pure” neo-conservatives like Paul Wolfowitz – which to my mind puts Hitchens a long way to the Right, with little chance of changing.

It is clear from the various essays in his new book that Hitchens chooses his subjects carefully. They need to fit specific criteria. There would be no sense, for example, in writing a brilliant attack on a non-entity. Who would read it? Equally, there would be no sense in demolishing the reputation of someone who had already lost it: Lord Jeffrey Archer, for instance. Nor will gentle criticism suffice. The attack must be so wounding that it will outrage readers. Here’s one contemporary example: Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a US serviceman killed in Iraq. Mrs Sheehan camped outside President Bush’s Texas ranch in protest against the war, and said she would stay there until the president agreed to meet her. Her protest attracted the support of many other bereaved mothers. Hitchens’s response was to accuse Mrs Sheehan of “spouting piffle” and to lambaste her protest as “dreary sentimental nonsense”.

Amazingly, though, he can be surprised and sensitive should his target hit back. When the rebel British Labour MP George Galloway, who had openly supported Saddam Hussein, went to Washington and wiped the floor with a senate committee trying to link him with the “oil for food” scandal, Hitchens turned up outside the hearing to put some awkward questions to Galloway. Galloway used Hitchens-style tactics to deflect them, abusing Hitchens as a “drink-sodden former Trotskyist popinjay”. Hitchens later complained in a newspaper column that Galloway had been “unfair”.

 

But he is not easily intimidated. He lives on the top floor of one of Washington’s tallest buildings. He describes in Love, Poverty & War how, in the autumn of 1993, the state department’s office of counter-terrorism urgently advised him to change this address “because of credible threats received after my wife and daughter and I had sheltered Salman Rushdie as a guest and had arranged for him to be received at the cowering Clinton White House. I thought, then as now, that the government was doing no more than covering its own behind by giving half-alarmist and half-reassuring advice. In other words, I have a quarrel with theocratic fascism even when the administration does not, and I hope at least some of my friendly correspondents are prepared to say the same.”

On another occasion he went to introduce his documentary film on Mother Teresa, which his producer had, over Hitchens’s objections, called Hell’s Angel. “I was picketed furiously by a group called the New York Lambs of Christ, a distinctly sheep-like organisation.” The police told him he would require a full security escort because some dangerous criminal elements had been spotted in the crowd. “I didn’t believe that the Lambs would resort to bloodshed and declined the protection.” Then, as he pushed his way towards the hall, he was accosted by a gang of bearded, leather-jacketed roughnecks. “I approached them and asked them what they wanted. With some awkwardness, they handed me a notarised ‘cease and desist’ order.” It was from the local chapter of the Hell’s Angels, claiming that Hitchens had violated their trademark.

He is prepared to debate anyone. He debated Michael Moore at the Telluride Film Festival over Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11, then followed it up by giving him a good kicking, included in this new book, in the online magazine Slate. “Moore is a silly and shady man who does not recognise courage of any sort even when he sees it because he cannot summon it in himself. To him, easy applause in front of credulous audiences is everything.” And then he offered Moore another debate. “Any time, Michael my boy. Let’s redo Telluride. Any show. Any place. Any platform. Let’s see what you’re made of.”

The title of the book, presumably Hitchens’s idea, comes from an old saying: “Life is incomplete unless love, poverty and war have been experienced.” Hitchens runs through these three states in his introduction. I wonder if he realises how much of himself he reveals in doing so.

On war he writes: “My father’s lightly armed cruiser HMS Jamaica delivered the coup de grâce to quite a serious Nazi battleship named the Scharnhorst in December 1943, a much better and riskier day’s work than I have ever done, or will ever do.” Yet now, in his mid-fifties and with no compelling professional need to do so, he visits conflict zones from the Lebanon to Afghanistan to Iraq.

On love he is very brief, despite having children by more than one woman. “[W]hen I read Bertrand Russell on this matter as an adolescent and understood him to write with perfect gravity that a moment of such emotion was worth the whole of the rest of life, I devoutly hoped that this would be true in my own case. And so it has proved, and so to that extent I can regard the death I otherwise rather resent as laughable and impotent ... My three children are all beautiful, intelligent and humorous. (I shall say nothing about their mothers except this: to have been lucky with women is to have been lucky tout court.)”

In his section on poverty Hitchens agrees he makes a comfortable living from what he does. But I suspect that if his editors stopped paying him tomorrow he would continue to do it anyway. What can we make of all this – the writing, the lecturing, the debates, the intemperate attacks on anyone he disagrees with, the political transformation from darling of the Left to patriotic hero of the American Right?

The essays in this book vouch for Hitchens’s erudition, range of interests and writing skills. His prose is simple with no flashy fireworks, personalised and, like Hitchens himself, immensely charming – until you get to the hand grenade. This explains the many admirers he has for his body of work. But what is his body of work? Is it nothing more than old-fashioned, “in-your-face” journalism pushed up-market; “trash the celebrity” but with an intellectual slant?

Little old ladies ask him in bookshops: is there not anything or anyone he likes? He gives an answer of sorts in his introduction. After listing all the things in his life he has reason to be grateful for, he writes: “I wake up every day to a sensation of pervading disgust and annoyance. I probably ought to carry around some kind of thermometer or other instrument to keep checking that I am not falling prey to premature curmudgeonhood.” Christopher, it may already be too late.

About the author Phillip Knightley