Hitch-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens, New York: Twelve, 448 pages, $26.99
In 1990, Commentary magazine warned its readers that Christopher Hitchens, then a bomb-throwing columnist at The Nation, was “a highly visible piece of leftist bric-a-brac in East Coast literary salons.” The targets of Hitchens’ wrath, said the conservative monthly, were typically “anyone in the democratic West,” with the exception of the left-wing lion Gore Vidal, the writer who once anointed Hitchens as his dauphin.
Twenty years later, writing in Vanity Fair, Hitchens dismissed his former comrade Vidal as a “crackpot” whose recent political writings were inseparable from the bilge found on loony conspiracy websites. This lefty bric-a-brac, it appeared, had transmogrified into a dues-paying member of the neocon establishment.
While he had always smuggled heterodox views into the pages of The Nation on issues ranging from abortion to the Falklands War, Hitchens’ real apostasy (and it is always referred to in quasi-religious terms) was precipitated by the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the weeks and months following the mass murder in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, Hitchens unloaded on his Nation stablemates, including Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Alexander Cockburn, for not recognizing what he diagnosed as the West’s decades-long war with Islamic fascism.
The responses to Hitchens’ noisy break with the left were routinely ad hominem and, in the case of his ex-allies, often intensely personal. Cockburn, editor of the radical newsletter and website Counterpunch, seethed that his former friend was a “truly disgusting sack of shit.” Another Counterpunch writer, Jack McCarthy, sputtered that Hitchens was a “lying, self-serving, fat-assed, chain smoking, drunken, opportunistic, cynical contrarian.” Norman Finkelstein, who had previously praised Hitchens’ writings on the Israel-Palestine conflict, suggested that he might do the world a favor by committing suicide.
Sifting through the detritus of post-9/11 opinion journalism, you’ll see newly minted detractors accusing Hitchens of being, variously, an alcoholic, snitch, racist, cad, Holocaust denier, and predatory homosexual. Small wonder that The New Yorker would ask, in 2006, “What happened to Christopher Hitchens?”
It’s a fair question. As late as 1999, Hitchens was bragging of having “soldiered against the neoconservative ratbags” with his former friend Sidney Blumenthal. By 2002, the anti-ratbag warrior found himself in the Bush White House, briefing the neoconservative Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz on the problem of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship. To his friends on the left, this was the ultimate betrayal, the moral equivalent of abandoning the resistance for a position in Quisling’s occupation government.
But reading Hitch-22, his fascinating memoir of a career in combat journalism (both literal and figurative), one gets a sense that those looking for that tragic moment when a reliable man of the left became a fellow traveler of the right are asking the wrong question. On the big political issues that have long animated him—Middle Eastern politics, the dangers of religious messianism—his views have been surprisingly constant.
Hitchens, whom I count as a friend, is ubiquitous; his writing appears regularly in Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, and countless other publications that can scrape together money to cover his fee. He is the author of books on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa, as well as the hysterical best-seller God Is Not Great, a stirring defense of non-belief. But for someone so famously prolific, he has been cagey about his post-9/11 political journey. In a scathing 2002 Nation review of David Brock’s book Blinded by the Right, Hitchens observed that the conservative hatchet man turned liberal hatchet man “does what many defectors do, and claims that it was his party, not he, that had changed.” Though Hitch-22 avoids this specific
claim, a variant on the traditional defector’s
tale—the argument that his side simply abandoned its principles—remains.
There is, of course, a quotidian political maturation that comes with age—looking at a photograph of his younger self from the 1960s, Hitchens comments blithely, with perhaps just a bit of horror, that it was taken at a time when he was “working and hoping for the overthrow of capitalism.” Though Hitch-22 elides any discussion of economics, the implication—that socialist revolution is no longer the goal of Hitchens the bestselling author—is clear. In an interview with reason in 2002, he acknowledged no longer considering himself a socialist in any utopian sense, though he declined to specify what he considered its successor ideology. To complicate matters further, he recently told the conservative City Journal that he still would identify himself as a soixante-huitard— a sympathizer with the street-fighting leftists who nearly toppled the French government in 1968—though with some significant reservations.
This instinct for leftist politics is apparent in Hitch-22, from his questionable observation that as a political theoretician the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht, who was murdered in 1919 after fomenting a communist coup in Berlin, makes “Asquith and Churchill and Lloyd George seem like pygmies,” to his refusal to see the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua as anything more than gangsters in the pay of Ronald Reagan (whom he still loathes with remarkable intensity—hardly a hallmark of neoconservatism). Still, Hitchens complains that “in Nation circles…there really were people who did think that Joseph McCarthy had been far, far worse than Josef Stalin,” and he recalls a catechizing 1968 “solidarity trip” to Cuba, where he discovered the moral and intellectual squalor of Castroism—a point many leftists still refuse to concede.
Unlike many in his orbit, Hitchens was never a Communist Party stooge. He was a member of the International Socialists, a fiercely independent group of Trotskyists. Suppress the urge to dismiss this as a distinction without a difference and recall that, for all of their wrongheadedness on issues from economics to the desirability of a socialist revolution, the Trots resisted the urge to defend those all-too-frequent spasms of Soviet imperialism, refused to shout huzzah as the Khmer Rouge rolled into Phnom Penh, and didn’t see in the mass murdering paranoiac Mao Zedong an alternative model for Western society. Large swathes of the student left, alas, weren’t so prescient.
Hitchens denies having undergone a “dreary drift to the Right,” and musters, to my surprise, some kind words for many of those with whom he has battled over Iraq and the Balkans. Noam Chomsky, he says, was a clear-thinking and principled “libertarian” who went a bit batty sometime in the 1990s, when the linguist defended Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But surely Hitchens noticed that, when the Khmer Rouge was ridding itself of a third of its population, rounding up glasses-wearing counterrevolutionaries, Chomsky had scoffed at the “vast outcry against alleged genocide in Cambodia,” declaring that the murderous evacuation of Phnom Penh while “undoubtedly brutal…may have actually have saved many lives.” Elsewhere in Hitch-22, we are told of a young Hitchens disrupting a lecture on Vietnam by a member of Her Majesty’s Government, “voic[ing] the outrage that should properly be felt at the destruction of Cambodia.” In this case, the destruction was caused by the awesome power of the American Air Force. But did he express similar outrage when Chomsky was pooh-poohing refugee accounts of communist mass murder?