Radical Cheek

Who's rad?


One of the splendid media sagas in the last two years has been the movement of journalist Christopher Hitchens from political left to right on Afghanistan and Iraq. What prompted this were the September 11 attacks against New York and Washington, and Hitchens' subsequent assessment that the greatest threat to democratic humanism came from what he termed "Islamic fascism."

Swinging from left to right is a venerable tradition, with countless former radicals having put down in the bosom of conservative conformity. This was the case, for example, of Peter Collier and David Horowitz, who graduated from being editors of the radical Ramparts magazine in the 1960s to manufacturing biographies of prosperous American grandees. Another pilgrim on the rightward trail was Norman Podhoretz, who, armed only with bituminous prose, stands father and father-in-law to two of America's most prominent neo-conservatives.

Hitchens is in a second category, stimulated less by the pull of right-wing conformism than by resentment against the left's willful ignorance. Last year he ended a two-decade-old relationship with the left-wing The Nation magazine because, as he saw it, the magazine was "becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that (US Attorney General) John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." Hitchens' point was that the parochial hatreds of the American left had thrown its sense of priorities dangerously out of whack.

This echoed what Hitchens' hero, George Orwell, wrote in two of his books, Homage to Catalonia and The Road to Wigan Pier. For both writers ideology is an obstacle to a commonsensical assessment of right and wrong: Orwell couldn't stomach that the left, through its fealty to the Soviet Union, overlooked the worst torments wrought by Stalinism. Hitchens couldn't accept that the Bush administration's critics were too busy attacking the president on Afghanistan and Iraq to realize they had become objective allies of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

Hitchens' sentence has been excommunication from the dismal radical paradise. Some of his detractors hint it was money that made him prostitute himself to the political right. Others say that his poison was power, and that with Washington leaning heavily to the right, Hitchens had to convert. Still others saw his metamorphoses as the outcome of a political mugging by the left after the Sidney Blumenthal affair, when Hitchens revealed that the former Clinton aide, a friend, had lied to protect the president.

Only rarely has it been said that Hitchens' denunciations are sincere. And almost never has it been suggested by those on the left that he, more than they, embodies what it means to be a radical—one who sees criticism as something necessarily following the observation of abhorrent actions, not the computation of political costs and benefits as they pertain to one's allies or enemies.

Such calculations, however, have permeated the thinking of the anti-Iraq war coalition in the West, more specifically its left-wing constituent that has posited equivalence between the American conflict with Saddam Hussein and its own battle with the Bush administration. There has been a steady stream of articles and commentaries along these lines in recent months, scarcely interrupted by the discovery of mass graves in Iraq.

To examine at close range the tortured arguments of a bankrupt radicalism, turn to an article by Ammiel Alcalay in last week's issue of the always enlightening Al-Ahram Weekly, titled "Politics and Imagination: After the Fall of Baghdad." Alcalay, who teaches in New York, begins his comment by lamenting the decline of radical internationalism, dating its last gasp to the late 1960s. If the militant urge has been moribund for that long, it could be time for Alcalay to ask why.

However, it is when mentioning Iraq that Alcalay shows the real difficulties in the left's critique of the war against Saddam. He writes: "Iraq has been subjected to severe humiliation, vanquished by the former ally of their most bitter oppressor, asked to feel liberated by those who starved and suffocated them through a decade of the most draconian sanctions ever devised."

All the ingredients of the left's antiwar discourse are found in that clumsy phrase: the invalid heaping together of George W. Bush's administration with previous administrations that did indeed cultivate ties with Saddam; the flimsy allegation that it was the US that starved and suffocated the Iraq people, when it was the Baath regime that did so by abusing an oil-for-food system administered by the UN; the fake identification with Iraqi humiliation, as if three decades of maltreatment by the Tikritis was anything but humiliating; and the hypocritical insult against Saddam, inserted to disguise the fact that the passage is really directed at the US.

It is to Hitchens' credit that he broke with the left before engaging in the verbal gymnastics of his former comrades. His story, however, is a microcosm of a greater problem faced by Western radical intellectuals: An inability to define what radicalism truly means today and to confuse it all too often with anti-Americanism.