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While many assume that Hitchens first asked of his comrades where do you stand in the aftermath of 9/11, his first mini-rupture with the left can be found in a slim, affecting chapter on the Ayatollah Khomeni’s fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, issued shortly after the publication of Rushdie’s more-commented-upon-than-read novel The Satanic Verses. The feminist writer Germaine Greer, Hitchens reminds us, was “noisily defending the rights of bookburners” (a group, I might add, not known for their warm embrace of gender equality). At great personal risk, an Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature called the Ayatollah “a terrorist,” while leading liberal lights Arthur Miller and John Berger refused to sign petitions on Rushdie's behalf.* Hitchens, to his credit, spoke out forcefully in defense of Rushdie and tells of his participation in a public reading from Satanic Verses at which the police found a pipe bomb. It was the beginning of a serious fissure amongst left-wing intellectuals, many of whom would later (rightly) decry the United States’ refusal to allow Yusuf Islam (né Cat Stevens) to enter the country, but would not acknowledge that the fundamentalist folksinger demanded the death penalty for Rushdie’s act of literary insult. (Despite the claims that he is a snitch and a betrayer, there is no greater testament to Hitchens’ loyalty to his friends than his continued defense of Rushdie’s terrible book on the Sandinista revolution, The Jaguar Smile.)
Hitchens’ précis of his shift on matters Mesopotamian (he was opposed to the first Gulf War at the time) will be familiar to those who closely followed the Iraq War debate and, therefore, will be viewed as either the book’s most or least interesting chapter. He adds little to what he has previously written on the subject for Slate, though it is worth being reminded that it wasn’t just the antiwar movement that spanned across the ideological spectrum. Those agitating for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, he writes, were a varied group too, including social democrats, Trotskyists, communists, former leading lights in the anti- Soviet movement (such as Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel), the Scoop Jackson liberals of The New Republic—an assemblage that is often imprecisely herded under the label “neoconservative.”
But when, in his student days, Hitchens first involved himself in the hideously messy tangle of Middle Eastern politics, the battle lines were rather different, and much of the debate was framed in the language of anti-imperialism and socialism, with many Arab revolutionaries being dues-paying members of the Socialist International. So among the religious dogmatists and Khomeini enthusiasts, it was a “blessed relief to meet a consecrated Moscow-line atheist-dogmatist” in Edward Said, the late Palestinian activist and Orientalism author with whom Hitchens also publicly quarreled after 9/11. Those convinced of Hitchens’ neoconservative turn will be surprised to find that, while deploring the rise of the messianic religious parties such as Hamas and Hezbollah, his support for the Palestinian cause is undiminished.
As even his most obstreperous critics concede, Hitchens is a deeply talented writer; his prose sparkles, his wit is wicked, and the reader will search his memoir in vain for a dead sentence. A few phrases are worth highlighting. Buried in a footnote, Hitchens observes that the religious leader intoning gravely against sodomites will “sooner rather than later…be discovered down on his weary and well-worn old knees in some dreary motel or latrine, with an expired Visa card, having tried to pay well over the odds to be peed upon by some Apache transvestite.” Watching Edward Said’s full-body laugh looked as if “a whole Trojan horse had been smuggled into his interior and suddenly disgorged its contents.” The Argentinean dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, with his “scrubby mustache,” looks like “a sub-human impersonating a toothbrush.”
And while this is very much a political memoir, with chapters devoted to Said and travels to occupied Prague and Cuba, it is the personal narrative that drives Hitch-22—the beautifully rendered chapter on his mother’s suicide is some of his best writing to date. The British memoirist is generally expected to include a series of terrifying reminiscences of the “official sadism” sanctioned by English primary schools, a theme with a tradition stretching from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to the pop music of the Smiths, and Hitchens doesn’t disappoint. In a series of anecdotes that made headlines in the UK, Hitch-22 adds further confirmation to Robert Graves’ claim that “For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system,” by revealing that he bedded two men who would later serve in the Thatcher government.
Hitchens ends with a stirring and necessary call to arms, upbraiding those who believe that free speech needs to be constrained, that we in the West must learn to be “respectful” of the theological Other: “More depressing still, to see that in the face of this vicious assault so many of the best lack all conviction, hesitating to defend the society that makes their existence possible, while the worst are full to the brim and boiling over with murderous exaltation.”
As I read these words, Viacom was censoring South Park for satirizing the supposed prohibition on depictions of Mohammed; the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had drawn the Muslim Prophet, was assaulted during a lecture on free speech and soon thereafter had his house set ablaze; and a Danish newspaper that had reprinted the famous 2005 cartoons issued another groveling apology to those “offended” by pen and ink drawings, promising that the images would never again befoul their pages.
For the unreflective and rigidly ideological, those who insist upon ignoring Hitchens for his pungent atheism, his promotion of war against Iraq, or his rejection of Zionism, be aware that you will miss a book that is touching, enraging, wonderfully crafted, and brimming with gossipy anecdotes. And it answers the question posed by The New Yorker during the darkest days of the Iraq War: What happened to Christopher Hitchens, the man who had a crush on Thatcher, supported wars in the Falklands, Balkans, and Iraq, and scoffed long ago at Alexander Cockburn’s sympathy for the Soviet Union?
Nothing much, actually.
Michael C. Moynihan is a senior editor at Reason magazine.
* The print version of this article stated that an Egyptian Nobel laureate in literature called Salman Rushdie “a terrorist.” The Nobelist, Naguib Mahfouz, was referring to the Ayatollah Khomeini, not Rushdie. We regret the error.