“Left-wing,” “socialist,” “Marxist,” and “Trotskyite” are not words that ordinarily endear a memoirist to me, and Christopher Hitchens so described himself in his Hitch-22, published prehumously in 2010.
He was most notorious as the atheist author of God Is Not Great. But Hitchens’s writing career, and this book, mainly concerned politics and public affairs.
While he got into British leftist politics by way of youthful iconoclasm, from the start he was also an iconoclast within the left. Distinguishing him from that herd was his absolute intolerance for any abuse of human rights; and one who can apply the phrase “moral imbecility” to the left is my kind of leftist.
There was an epiphany in his twenties, realizing that too many on the left, for the sake of some avowedly greater goal, willingly sacrifice values like freedom of the press and expression, pluralistic tolerance, and other forms of personal liberty – whereas those are themselves the first-order goods, never to be sacrificed.
I recently quoted Turkey’s Erdogan likening democracy to a train – you get off when you reach your destination. Hitchens understood that democracy is the destination.
Thus, visiting Cuba, at 19, in 1968, when lefties were still entranced by romanticizing Castroism (indeed, some still are, to this day), Hitchens quickly abandoned such illusions, and got Castro’s number pretty clearly when the Cuban dictator fell in line endorsing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
I previously reviewed Hitchens’s fat book Arguably (a collection of essays), where this basic issue of human rights loomed large, and scarcely a word did I disagree with. I’m coming to see the true political divide as between devotees of liberty and devotees of equality, each willing to sacrifice the other thing for their preferred sine qua non. (But sacrificing liberty for equality gets you neither.)
I also lauded Hitchens’s pithy and droll writing style, and that’s on display as well in Hitch-22. He mentions working for a certain publication, until the time when its editor spoke some words to him that made his continuing service there impossible. A footnote reveals the words in question: “You’re fired.” Then he got caught in crossfire in Northern Ireland’s conflict; upon finally managing to convince the police he was harmless, Hitchens says he was advised to “fuck off” – “and off I duly and promptly fucked.”
However, one quibble: Hitchens was infected with the modern “myself” virus, mis-use of that word (in place of “me”) repeatedly scratching at this reader’s eyes.
But Hitchens’s own eyes were impervious to ideological smoke, as exemplified by his refusal to vote Labour in 1979, despite long membership in that party. Much as he sympathized with the idea of the movement, he could see Britain’s Labour government for what it was: corrupt, feeble, and entombed by a deadening status quo. And he was not all against Margaret Thatcher – even though she had once literally spanked him. Unlike most of his lefty pals, he cheered on her Falklands counter-attack.
This returns us to the main theme: intellectual though he was in spades, Hitchens’s hatred for all things tyrannical was not just intellectual, it was visceral. You can just see him quivering with rage as he relates, for example, the atrocities of the Argentine junta involved in the Falklands episode. I share that rage when it comes to the world’s Assads, Mugabes, or Chavezes. No ideological pretext, none, can ever justify such violations of human dignity.
This is the perspective Hitchens brought to Iraq, perhaps his most contentious political stance, infuriating his erstwhile leftist confreres. Now, peace is a worthy desideratum. But again, too often the left gets its priorities wrong and would sacrifice too much for “peace.” Not Hitchens, who saw what this was really all about: the depraved criminality of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He had actually opposed, more or less, the first Gulf War, but changed his view after visiting the area and learning first hand the reality. This was no garden-variety dictatorship; it was evil on a scale no smugly moralistic war-opponent seemed capable of imagining, and Hitchens is lacerating about such moral blindness. He understood how costly fighting that evil would be in human terms; but that “peace” would be even costlier. A tragic aspect of the human condition requires us to make this awful calculus. Flinching from it, under cover of pious platitudes, is not the answer.
I’ve written about “an ideology of reality” – basing beliefs on what one sees, rather than the other way around. Christopher Hitchens epitomized this, a sponge soaking up information. As a professional British far-left intellectual, he was supposed to despise the United States. Yet he took a hard look at America and fell in love; eventually immigrated; and finally became a citizen. And, after a third of a century deeply immersed in left-wing activism, writing and lecturing, the Iraq issue finally brought Christopher Hitchens to a fully conscious decision point: he left the left.
However, as he himself insisted, such changes of mind never come out of the blue, but only after a long gestation, and Hitchens’s own journey is really the book’s main narrative. He notes how long his left allegiance required moral and intellectual double bookkeeping. The most glaring problem was to sustain hatred for fascism (a label the left is inordinately fond of flinging) while indulging communism, which Hitchens finally realized is just a slight variant of fascism. For the left, this meant antipathy toward America while making excuses for any communist regime: again, that “moral imbecility.”
Thus, he was friends with Noam Chomsky, whom he eventually came to see as nothing but an irrational America-hater. He wrote extensively about his great friend Edward Said (author of Orientalism) whose political philosophy similarly boiled down to America, and the West more generally, being always in the wrong about everything. It took Hitchens a while, but ultimately he got Said’s number too.
Communism thankfully was proven to be not the longed-for utopia but a dead end. So that’s that. But the “progressive” side still hasn’t really recovered from the ethical pretzelization the episode afflicted it with. There is still a deep mistrust of all things American and “Western.”
As Hitchens says on his final page, “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 . . . . It’s quite a task to combat the absolutists and the relativists at the same time.”
Tell me about it.
*A nod to Yeats (see me flaunt my erudition); but did Hitchens really still think of them as the “best” people?!