Confrontation and enlightenment

Confrontation and enlightenment

Giuffo, John

The Salgado prints lie casually but conveniently close to me on Christopher Hitchens’s large dining room table. When you pick one up, the first thing you notice is its heft. The paper is a thick, stiff rag that lets the Brazilian photographer’s famous silver-black imagery dig in deep. The three prints are variations on the same moment: Hitchens standing in the middle of a group of Indian children who are waiting to be vaccinated. They were taken in Calcutta last October, when he was there for Vanity Fair to observe the polio eradication campaign by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. “I wasn’t even aware that he had taken my picture at the time,” he says.

“Now I’ve been shot by Sebastian Salgado and Annie Leibovitz,” Hitchens adds. “I no longer have any need to have my photograph taken.” Every so often during our interview, a quiet braggadocio is discernible. It complements the fifty-threeyear-old British ex-pat’s cultivated reputation for pugnacity (his book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, published last year, seeks to pass on the lessons of a life spent in opposition). He may not have taken a bullet in the neck in the manner of his hero George Orwell, but he gladly suffers the shots fired by his critics on both ends of the political spectrum. “I think there should be more polarization in argument,” he says. “Only out of real confrontation does any enlightenment come.”

In the wake of September 11 and the ensuing argument over its meaning, Hitchens has found plenty of confrontation. In the pages of The Nation and British newspapers such as The Guardian, he has taken on those journalists and thinkers on the left who see the root causes of the attacks in America’s foreign policy mistakes and outrages. Others have engaged this debate in the pages of the leftist press, but none with quite so much fervor and flair.

On this day, though, he doesn’t seem particularly combative. Things are good: the Salgado prints came in the mail this morning, along with the first proof of his new book, Orwell’s Victory (also within reach on his dining room table). He had just returned from a two-hour guest appearance on C-Spans Washington Journal, where, along with his fellow British expatriate Andrew Sullivan, he engaged in gentle banter with the host, Brian Lamb. Their conversation marked a historical turning point, of sorts, for Hitchens.

For nearly twenty years, he has appeared as Lamb’s guest on the venerable C-Span gabfest and, during each appearance, Lamb has asked the same loaded question: “So, Christopher Hitchens, are you still a socialist?” The answer was always an unqualified yes. Lately, though, Hitchens admits that that answer has seemed more and more untruthful, and he realized he could no longer lie. So, early on this cloudy February morning, he surrendered a little rhetorical ground and gave Lamb a qualified no, filled with explanation and nuance. “I wasn’t going to give you the satisfaction of saying uncle on twenty years of class struggle,” he told his host. The glee burned on Lamb’s and Sulivan’s faces – Christopher Hitchens no longer describes himself as a socialist.

He insists, however, that he’s still a Marxist.

Hitchens grew up in middle-class conservative Portsmouth, England, and his parents struggled to give him the sort of education that helped him gain admission to Balliol College, Oxford, which awarded him a scholarship to study in the States in 1970. “I always felt I was born in the wrong country and wanted to come to America,” he says. He returned to Britain at the end of the scholarship and landed work for a number of London-based publications, including The Times of London, the Daily Express, and The New Statesman.

In 1982 Victor Navasky, then editor of The Nation, now its publisher, asked him to write for the magazine. “He said to me, `You know, the magazine hasn’t had a Washington columnist since LE Stone: I thought, why the hell not?”

Politics may seem to be his first love, and Marx’s critique of capitalism is still one of his primary frameworks, but it’s not all he thinks about. “I’d rather be judged by what I’ve written about Oscar Wilde,” he says, “than what I’ve written about September 11.” He’s been judged by both. His well-received book, Unacknowledged Legislation, published in 2000, is a spirited and relentlessly political collection of literary criticism that touches on authors from Salman Rushdie to Tom Clancy. Orwell’s Victory, a political biography, is due out in June in the U.K., just in time for the centennial of Orwell’s birth, and in the fall in the U.S. under a different title.

Still, Hitchens can’t ignore the pull of the role of public intellectual. And with the complexity and importance of the current conflict between radical Islamism and the West, he has found a new sense of purpose. To Hitchens, a committed “anti-theist,” the real battle, both looming and largely unrecognized, is between faith and reason. The problem is not just fundamentalism, but religious belief itself. “It’s an incredible claim for a journalist to make, but I feel like I know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” he says. “It’s clarifying.”

Hitchens’s recent exchanges with some of his traditional allies on the left have been full of the emotion and fury of a marital breakup. Roughly two camps have formed (if, indeed, any sizable sampling of left-leaning thinkers can be split into two distinct camps), and they are split over the issue of the use of American military force. If NATO’s response to Milosevic (an American-led effort) was the hairline fracture, September 11 was the break. To his critics, including Edward Herman, co-author with Noam Chomsky of the influential Manufacturing Consent Hitchens “is rushing toward the vital center, maybe further to the right, with termination point still to be determined.” Some on the left have even discussed excommunicating Hitchens. Tariq Ali, in the online version of the newsletter CounterPunch, wrote, “If Hitchens carries on in this vein, he’ll soon find himself addressing the same gatherings as his sparring partner, Henry Kissinger.” The message seems to be, “Don’t think like us? Can’t hang with us.”

Then there’s Chomsky. Hitchens’s schism with the famous MIT linguistics professor and U.S. foreign policy critic started as a disagreement over the use of force to stop Slobodan Milosevic from moving forward with a second campaign of ethnic cleansing. Hitchens argued that the 1999 bombing of Serbia was a necessary part of a “humanitarian intervention.” Chomsky saw it as war waged in the interests of an American foreign policy elite.

Things came to a head after September 11 in both the print and online pages of The Nation when Hitchens took to task the attempts by some on the left to connect the motives of the September terrorists with the results of U.S. policies. Chomsky argues that the brutality of the September 11 attacks pales in comparison to “state terrorism” practiced by the U.S., using as a chief example the August 1998 rocketing of the al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. That attack, ordered by President Clinton in a mistaken belief that the plant was connected to Osama bin Laden, caused many deaths later because it left a poor nation without a key source of medicines.

To Hitchens, the al Qaeda attacks were the result of a long-brewing war between the West and theocratic Islamic fundamentalism – “fascism with an Islamic face” – and Chomsky’s efforts to weigh the two events on the same scale is the worst form of sophistry. That Chomsky compared death tolls, and got the numbers wrong along the way, only compounds the offense. (Chomsky, in Salon, attributed an estimate of the number of deaths in the Sudan to Human Rights Watch, an estimate that the organization says it never made). “It’s a very vulgar, arithmetical, pragmatic way of arguing anyway,” Hitchens says, with visible satisfaction. “If you do that, then get the facts and figures wrong, well then you’re really fucked. You’re fucked twice!

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, points out that Hitchens isn’t alone among leftists in his support of the use of American military force for limited goals. “Richard Falk in our pages, in his own words, set out what Christopher was saying,” she says. “I think it’s Christopher’s radical style that brings so much attention to his stance.”

He views leftist self-criticism as a responsibility. “If you espouse something like secular, rationalist, radical, socialist, internationalist opinions, then I think you have to defend them against all challengers. And maybe, therefore, you’d have to defend them more firmly against those challenges that try to smuggle themselves through customs as if they were members of your family.”

Hitchens has allies on this front. Among them is Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and culture at New York University and former president of Students for a Democratic Society, who wrote in the January/February issue of Mother Jones a damning dismissal of what he called “a kind of left-wing fundamentalism, a negative faith in America the ugly.”

Hitchens, similarly, is trying to reconcile his decidedly leftist world view with a country and a world that seem, more and more every day, to have left the left behind. At a panel discussion on The Nation fund-raising cruise last December, somewhere at sea between Cabo San Lucas and Los Angeles, the columnist Eric Alterman asked him, “What is it about the fact of the left that has led you to renounce your association with it?” He replied that he hasn’t so much abandoned the left as recognized a need to look beyond it for new ideas.

Hitchens counts among his friends and dinner guests conservatives such as the Republican strategist Grover Norquist and former-radical-turned-neocon David Horowitz – people of whom the mere mention, among more traditional leftists, would cause a panicked clutching of the pearls. His airy and slightly spartan apartment serves, on occasion, as a kind of Washington salon. “We’re making the most of where we agree,” Hitchens says. “Why not have a generous discussion with people who have a principled view on the other side who say, `Well, where might we agree on this?”‘

John Giuffo is an assistant editor at CJR.

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism May/Jun 2002

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