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Date: Sun, 02 Jun 2002 14:17:29 -0700
From: radtimes <email@example.com>
Subject: No Longer an Authentic Voice of Dissent
No Longer an Authentic Voice of Dissent
Christopher Hitchens: the Dishonorable Policeman of the Left
by Scott Lucas
The New Statesman
It was a sudden, devastating attack. The perpetrator struck mercilessly,
leaving no time for a considered response. When he had finished, the 'left'
was in ruins.
'I have no hesitation in describing this mentality, carefully and without
heat,' the author wrote heatedly, 'as soft on crime and soft on fascism. No
political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm thankful to say,
no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what
And, with that strike, we could rest assured that no dissent--no quibbling
about military action against Afghanistan; no worries about the bypassing of
the United Nations or the International Court of Justice; no concerns that
the Israel-Palestine issue, the tensions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,
Indonesia or the Philippines would remain even after Osama Bin Laden and
Mullah Omar had been hunted down; no mention of the long-term expansion of
American power for motives perhaps less noble than the 'war on
terrorism'--would rise from the smouldering target of this invective. For
the attacker was not Donald Rumsfeld but the self-proclaimed 'contrarian',
the 'singularly insightful . . . critic of American policy and culture'
(Reason magazine), the 'honorable man of the left' (Atlantic magazine), that
'authentic voice of dissent' (Observer), Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens's
assault was masterful. He gave it non-partisan respectability by launching
it across the Anglo-American political spectrum: the London Evening Standard
on 19 September 2001; the Nation, almost the only semblance of a mainstream
'left' journal in the US, on 24 September; the Guardian and Spectator in the
following three days. His past record--as vilifier of Pinochet's Chile and
scourge of Bill Clinton's 'Monicagate', of air strikes against Iraq and the
Sudan, and, above all, for tracking the 'war criminal' Henry
Kissinger--established his claim to being the honourable policeman of the
left, attacking it in order to save it.
Since then, Hitchens has worked his beat masterfully. In addition to his
periodic walkabouts in the Guardian, the Mirror and the Evening Standard,
there has been the unveiling of his tome Letters to a Young Contrarian, an
appearance on Start the Week, the references to his latest book-length
mission, Orwell's Victory (in which he binds history to the present by
exalting the 'decent Englishman' George and smiting evildoers such as
Raymond Williams). There has even been time to inspire, with wit and wine,
Lynn Barber's tribute in the Observer. Hitch has toned down the polemic and
moved to other concerns--he's travelled through India and revisited his
persistent target Kissinger--but still he lurks behind the forelock, ready
to pounce if the bad lefties reassemble to suck up to Islam: 'I'm not
surprised at criticism from the 'Ramadanistas' . . . I don't care what they
think . . . It's one long bleat from these guys and gals.'
But it ain't the final reel for our hero yet. Sheriff Hitchens rode into
London on 15 May, saddling up for a debate on 'the war on terrorism', and
found that all his carpet-bombing, daisy-cutting rhetoric hadn't wiped out
On the podium, there was top schoolmarm Onora O'Neill, with her pragmatic
approach to nation states and human rights, politely asking about the
evidence to prove Hitchens's 'Islamic fascist' conspiracy (in which he
characterises Islam as one homogenised entity, committed to imposing sharia
law across the globe). There was Jacqueline Rose, the Freudian with the
heart of gold, linking Hitchens's rhetoric to that of Tony Blair, Ariel
Sharon and Osama Bin Laden: 'At best, two boys in a playground fighting, at
worst two dead men talking . . . very exciting, very ineffectual, and very
dangerous.' There was Anatole Lieven, too thoughtful by half. He reminded
the Sheriff that he, Lieven, had supported a retaliatory strike against
al-Qaeda, but then he became a pest with his depression because the US had
not developed 'a new commitment to humanitarian principles and a new sense
of international law and international institutions', and warned that a 'war
on Islam' would never succeed.
And there, at the other end of the table, was Tariq Ali. He tried to hide
his menace behind his smile, he checked his black hat at the door, but we
still knew that he was a quick-draw barb-slinger. He quipped about the
'thinker president' and labelled Hamid Karzai an 'old US agent'. And he
warned that 'the effects of this business are by no means over',
inconveniently noting the tenuous situation in Pakistan and the collective
blind eye to Saudi support for al-Qaeda.
The Sheriff was soon agitated, scribbling notes and scanning the audience,
cheek in hand. He tested his learned one-liners against the villainous
Ali--'I'll try to avoid casuistry as well as prolixity'; he tried his
chastising one-liners--'I hope we've heard the last of the sneering at
President Bush . We've certainly heard the first of it'; he fell back on his
best 9/11 phrases--'civilian airliners turned into cruise missiles'.
But, while it may have worked in Peoria, it wasn't going down well in
London. Hitchens's opening shots met largely with a 'been there, heard that'
response. Defensive, then desperate, he moved from target to target: how
about fatwas from Iran? Sharia law in Nigeria? Synagogues burned in Tunisia?
Synagogues burned and trashed in London? Immigrants bringing the rise of
Jean-Marie Le Pen in France? Everywhere the 'destruction of society where
only one book is allowed'? No joy. Only when the Sheriff mentioned the
rightness of action in Kosovo were some of the citizenry moved.
By contrast, Jacqueline Rose's comments on the dangers of warrior language
were warmly received, and she was loudly commended when she took on
Hitchens's free association that 'theocratic fascism' was even responsible
for the Dreyfus affair: 'It was the French, not Islamic theocracy, that put
Dreyfus on trial.' Hitchens snapped at the audience: 'You'll clap anything?'
For the Sheriff, the evening had already turned into High Noon: he was
taking on all of us. He lashed out: 'I won't bore you with that moral mushy
stuff about airliners/ cruise missiles/terrified passengers , even if many
of you have already forgotten it'--and encountered booing and heckling. (To
its credit, the audience, as well as the moderator, immediately silenced the
hecklers.) When he was booed for turning aside a question derisively, he
redoubled the challenge to the audience: 'If you knew how you sound when you
hissed, you wouldn't do it. You sound like such berks.' And, always, there
was his sneer and mocking handclap when those listening responded to a point
that was not his: 'Anyone can get more applause than me.'
It had come to this. An elderly gentleman challenged the Sheriff over the
dangers of US foreign policy. The Sheriff shot back wildly, 'I assume you
are from the subcontinent,' and tried to finish off his assailant: 'I
wouldn't expect you to think otherwise with your ideology.' The gentleman
replied in agitation: 'I am not from the subcontinent.' Hitchens blustered,
'We can all make mistakes.' Off mike, he said: 'Well, he certainly looks
like he's from the subcontinent.'
It didn't have to be this way. In the first few days after 11 September,
Hitchens was not attacking (except for George W Bush, 'a shadow framed by
powerful advisers and handlers, a glove puppet with little volition of his
own and a celebrated indifference to foreign affairs'): he was cautioning
that 'the question Americans are asking is how--not why'.
But then something happened. Maybe it was the horror and agony of losing a
friend, the CNN commentator Barbara Olson, in the attacks. Maybe it was the
surge of anger and mourning for the loss of a 'big, free, happy, carefree
society'. Maybe it was just the pressure of writing quickly for newspapers
clamouring for answers. Probably it was all of these.
Hitchens had a little think for Americans, for all of us, and came up with
an easy 'why' in the Evening Standard:
The people who destroyed the World Trade Center, and used civilians as
accessories, are not fighting to free Gaza.
They are fighting for the right to throw acid in the faces of unveiled women
in Kabul and Karachi.
The petty-minded might have quibbled at the easy slippage from 'the people
who destroyed the World Trade Center' to the unnamed 'they' who may have had
nothing to do with the attack, who may even have condemned it, but who were
undoubtedly scarring women and blowing up the Buddha. (He was not the only
person to make this manoeuvre: Bush also pulled it off the following day in
his speech to Congress, the one that put the Taliban, rather than Osama Bin
Laden, in the US cross-hairs.)
But Hitchens was already beyond such objections, beyond the need for any
understanding of the complexities of the region, of Islam, of 'America'. The
enemy was not just over there, he was here. Suitably buoyed by this
discovery, he crushed his foes with a bombardment of invective: 'Liberal
masochism is of no use to us at a time like this, and Muslim self-pity even
less so. Self-preservation and self-respect make it necessary to recognise
and name a lethal enemy when one sees one.'
No link was too tenuous, no tone too shrill for our intrepid protector.
Hitchens assured us that if 'brave American civilians' had not been allowed
'to mount a desperate resistance' on United Airlines Flight 93, which
crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, 'I would be looking out at a gutted
Capitol or charred White House, and reading Pinter or Pilger on how my
neighbourhood had been asking for it'. The assertion of Sam Husseini, the
director of the US-based Institute for Public Accuracy, that al-Qaeda 'could
not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem
like it was supposed to--and the US stopped the sanctions and the bombing on
Iraq', was not the 'why' that Hitchens wanted. So it became 'a simple
refusal to admit that a painful event has occurred . . . a cheery
rationalisation of something ghastly . . . a crude shifting of blame'.
This was 'with us or against us' intellectual warfare, a 'ha ha ha to the
pacifists', a warning to the moaning 'peaceniks' and any other Bin Ladens:
'There are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as
surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too.'
This victory won, Hitchens's macho swagger has taken a knock recently. He
was unsettled by his new bedfellows' 'axis of evil', 'the symbolic phrase
for everything that has become risky and dubious and opportunistic about the
new Bush foreign policy', even as he fell into confused hand-wringing about
Iraq, where he could not wish away the problems of realpolitik with his
moral wand--'in many ways, the United States quite likes the Saddam regime'.
(C'mon, Christopher, no liberal whining!) And the silence on the
Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio of the 'authentic voice of dissent', a
prominent supporter of a Palestinian state and critic of Ariel Sharon, was
finally broken on 15 April with a column for the new-look Mirror.
But, after seeing Hitchens at the debate, organised by the London Review of
Books, I fear these thoughtful moments will be rare. 'The Hitch' is no
longer an activist, no longer a participant in the real debates about power
and who wields it, no more a source for thought. No, he is an industry,
posing in trench coat with a cigarette dangling from his top lip, hailed as
'one of the few remaining practitioners of the five-hour, two-bottle lunch'.
And, naturally, the most profitable industry is a monopoly. So he packages
himself, surreally, not just as a policeman but the only policeman of 'a
radical left that no longer exists'.
Just as Orwell eventually saw himself as Charles Dickens, 'a type hated with
equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending
for our souls', Hitchens now sees himself as Orwell (who, as the cover of
Orwell's Victory reminds us, also dangled a cigarette from his top lip), the
lone voice of decency among the ranks of a naive and/or nasty left.
It's an effective tactic. Like Orwell, Hitchens has made himself the poster
boy of 'principled opposition', even as he sides with the dominant powers in
the US, by wielding a scatter-gun, 'common-sense' rhetoric that does not
have to deal with troubling political or economic considerations. He need
not worry about such details. Only he, in his words, has 'elementary
morals'. All others, with their 'oppositional stance' (like Orwell's
pacifists who were the accomplices of fascism, like his 'pansy' leftist
writers), can cower with their al-Qaeda allies or whimper in the op-ed
columns of the Guardian.
I don't care when the hapless Andrew Sullivan of the Sunday Times, through
columns repetitively void, or his preening website, thrashes against the
'left'. I read Mark Steyn's 'loud bloke in a pub' opinions in Conrad Black's
newspaper from the same safe distance that I would keep from any loud bloke
in a pub. But Hitchens, because of his past affiliations, the quality and
persistence of much of his writing, and especially his cause celebre against
Kissinger, has street cred.
This is more than a semantic scrap, more than a sideshow to keep the
intelligentsia gossiping. It is more than another contest between
Christopher and Tariq for the soul of '68. We are well beyond 9/11, with the
bodies piling up and human rights suspended in the West Bank; with detainees
languishing uncharged not only in Camp X-Ray, but in American and British
jails; with the United States desperate to unleash its bombers over Baghdad,
to stare down Tehran, to crush insurgencies everywhere from Colombia to the
Philippines, to topple governments that do not meet the 'with us or against
us' criterion. In a 'war on terrorism' that is highly elastic, Hitchens's
rhetoric of 'Islamic fascism' stretches conveniently.
So, Sheriff, before you ride into the sunset, into Washington's sanctuary,
I'm calling you out. Before you have another pop at the dissent of the
'left', do it fairly, where someone can respond with the political,
economic, military and, yes, moral considerations that you might be shoving
aside. If you are going to reduce your opposition to stick men and women,
'voluntary apologists for abuse of power' standing in the way of 'the model
revolution of the American experiment', hang around for an answer before
your five-hour lunch.
Name the time, the place and the medium. This time, bring some evidence
along with your one-liners. I'll be there.
Scott Lucas is professor of American Studies at Birmingham University. He is
working on a book about 11 September and the betrayal of dissent.
This article originally appeared in The New Statesman.
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