Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Why Hitchens Matters

Christopher Hitchens, a contrarian for all seasons, has been the subject of what can only be characterized as an unrepentant smear campaign for being pro-war in Iraq.

What’s most amusing about it all is the fact that these smears take the shape of glib references to Hitchens’ reputed alcoholism, rather than his stance on the issues. Which leads one to the thought of—if rumors of his insatiable appetite for booze were true—how scary an opponent Hitchens could be, always three sheets to the wind and blubbering incoherently? Scary enough, evidently, that he has not yet been bested in any public debate on the questions at hand. Odd.

One of Hitchens’ most impressive books to date, “Why Orwell Matters,” published in 2002, is (probably not unintentionally) relevant to this discussion.

In it, he accurately portrays Orwell, a giant of twentieth century literature, as in several respects as a man on the outside looking in.

Orwell was among the only writers of the time, for instance, to instantly recognize the absurdity of the show trials of the Trotskyites in Moscow, and denounce them thusly, even as many of his respected contemporaries took them at face value.

When Orwell saw firsthand the Stalinist betrayals of the Spanish Civil War, which framed his superb memoir “Homage to Catalonia”, those betrayals left a decidedly bitter taste in Orwell’s mouth, not least of all because he almost died as a result of them, having been hunted as a “Trotskyite” during the Barcelona fighting of 1937 even as he had a fresh bullet wound through his throat to show the only thing he took up arms against on the Iberian peninsula was fascism.

As Hitchens points out, the “New Statesman” famously refused to publish Orwell’s dispatches from Spain on the grounds that they might let down the Republican side. Orwell fought on the side of the Republicans, but grew understandably disgusted when he saw the cause for which he took a bullet in the neck (and which also took the lives of so many of the men he befriended in Spain) let down by scaremongering ukases from Moscow. It took decades for Orwell’s Spanish writings to gain the respect they truly deserve, and “Homage” is to this day probably the greatest overall account of what actually happened at the time Orwell was in Spain.

Orwell dealt in absolutes, as we rightly remember from his two masterpieces. So does Hitchens. So when he sees power in the hands of the corrupt, be they the hands of Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, or Saddam Hussein, he’ll rightly point that corruption out, and actively support avenues of change.

Hitchens saw Kurdish friends of his unmercifully gassed at the hands of Saddam Hussein—Hitchens would point out that Saddam did not “gas his own people”, as is widely believed, because Saddam isn’t a Kurd—years before G.H.W. Bush drew a line in the sand, and campaigned against the terror of the Hussein regime long before Baghdad and Basra became household words in early 1991. Regardless, when Bush Sr. pressed a war against Iraq but pulled out of the country after reclaiming Kuwait, he left a nascent Iraqi insurrection to be brutally crushed, and left Hussein in Baghdad, still firmly ensconced in the folds of horrific totalitarianism.

So as Hussein lived blissfully as hundreds of thousands of “his” people died under U.N. sanctions, subjected dissidents to unthinkable cruelties at Abu Ghraib, and gave a safe haven to terrorists worldwide, Hitchens was there still, campaigning in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power, as would any reasonable person.

Hitchens, through all this time, is one of the only public figures who has unequivocally and unapologetically been standing up for what’s right. And how much blame can be heaped on his shoulders for that? A whole hell of a lot of blame, if people like Terry McAuliffe and Al Franken are to be believed.

The fact that the Iraq issue has made odd bedfellows of Hitchens and say, the president, is more a testament to the impotence of the Left than anything sinister on Hitchens’ part. Hitchens has again and again written persuasively and powerfully against a number of things George W. Bush “stands” for (capital punishment, for example).

The fact that the Left’s standard-bearer in 2004 pinned his electoral hopes on a “wrong war at the wrong time” argument that was the centerpiece of one of the most disastrous campaigns in the history of democracy is not the fault of Christopher Hitchens. But that, evidently, is a fact that’s still just too hard to bear for the Terry McAuliffes and Al Frankens of the world.


Blogger copy editor said...

This is brilliant.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Except Hitchens opposed the first Gulf War, which happened after the gassing of the Kurds and the Shiites. And he was an apologist for Communist totalitarianism in Europe. And he perjured himself during the Clinton investigation by telling a grand jury that his old friend Sidney Blumenthal was a wife-beater, a charge proved false.

My problem with Hitchens isn't that he's a fat drunk, it's that he is an amoral apologist for violence and brutality.

8:30 AM  
Blogger Rex Publius said...


Obviously, I can't speak for Hitchens, but here's my two cents.

Hitchens' criticisms of the first Gulf War were based in the (true) opinion that we never intended to remove Hussein from power, an objective clearly stated at the beginning of the current conflict for which, as I said, Hitchens has always been a supporter.

I've never read anything by him suggesting any apologism for Communist totalitarianism in Europe, but I'll keep an open mind if you can send me some references at rex.publius@gmail.com.

And with regard to Blumenthal, the burden of proof with respect to perjury is that a person knowingly knows something is untrue but says it under oath regardless. Not that I think Hitchens would hide behind a legal technicality, but he most likely genuinely believed and still genuinely believes whatever it is he said about Blumenthal. Again, I obviously can't speak for the man.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Rex Publius said...


From http://users.rcn.com/peterk.enteract/sob.html:

Hitchens, in 2003: "On the day that he first reported for work at the White House, Blumenthal was accused on the Drudge website not only of beating his wife but of covering up a police record on the matter. This was so ghastly and cruel a defamation that it drew me somewhat back to his side, and Jackie’s too. I am a huge opponent of the English libel laws, but I had a dinner with them, and with their lawyer, at their request, and actually advised them on how that law works, in case they chose to bring suit in London. (The book, which is sometimes reliable on dates and sporadically, opportunistically sound on memories but always good about conversations with his attorney, is silent on this episode.) Later, on the only appearance I ever made on the Drudge show, I was asked by the host why I was being so cold and rude, and told him exactly why."

8:18 PM  

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