Saturday, December 17, 2011

Hitchens, more right (and Left) than wrong

 Tribune: 23 December 2011
Ian Williams

Christopher Hitchens was prickly and combative: a neo-Trotskyist tendency of one, who had discovered democratic socialism and the importance of human rights - and even become a Labour Party supporter.  Many on the hard left  were quick to swarm with the torches and pitchforks against Christopher Hitchens, sadly and bravely dead with cancer this week with his atheist integrity intact.

His big mistake was, of course, to support Blair and Bush’s war against Iraq. The hard Left has tendencies, but one of its most enduring tendencies is the abuse of leftist litmus paper: to pick upon a single expedient issue to find someone lacking in socialist virtue.

 In the case of Iraq,   I can find more explanations than excuses for Hitch. He knew that Saddam Hussein ran a vicious, murderous totalitarian regime.  In his intolerance for that genocidal thug he overlooked the Hippocratic approach to humanitarian intervention: first do no harm. I never had such a cold frisson in the presence of pure evil as when the late Iraqi ambassador to the UN excused Saddam’s reintroduction of amputation by saying they used doctors and anaesthetics. But far more limbs were lost after the invasion than even the Baathist butchers had dismembered.

But Hitch was right about Saddam, the Middle East, about Kosovo and the Balkans, about Libya, about, Chile, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton’s spineless camouflaged conservatism and his opposition to the death penalty regardless of who tied the noose.

How many of those who rally for Mumia on death row grovel before mass killers and practicers of mediaeval amputations? Many of the vilifiers of Hitchens have sung the praises of Saddam, Ghaddafy, Milosevic, or even Mugabe but are still huddled in the warm embrace of the so-called Left.

 I can’t help thinking that Hitch was actually quite insecure. Like Orwell, from the lower Upper Middle Classes, his public-school and Oxford background had given him a sense of entitlement without the income, and so he had become an inveterate freelancer - who I suspect turned down a commission as rarely as a cocktail invite.  But that insecurity and his  rebarbative polemicism gave him some of the characteristics of his detractors: he was quicker to discern enemies than friends. When he had exposed the mendacity of the Clinton team for a Congressional Inquiry and turned up at the Nation’s boardroom to explain himself, he never noticed he had far more allies than enemies in the room. 

When the Nation afterwards rapidly joined the Slobodan Milosevic fan club over Kosovo, we were told the magazine had “a line,” which he,  as a columnist, could and did defy. His disgust at  that and his perceived excommunication by the self-appointed commissars of the left drove him to seek approval from others. He was unaccustomedly impressed with being summonsed to lunch with Paul  Wolfowitz in whom he saw a like intellect.

Once again, that is more explicable than excusable. Many people forget that the NeoCons originally began as a Trotskyist sect whose Drang nach rechts began on the issue of Soviet tyranny and was confirmed when the rest of the of Left abandoned Israel.  His NeoCon sponsors dropped him like a red hot ice pick when they discovered that he was not prepared to drop his former positions on the Middle East in return for speaking fees and fellowships.

They were, course, also confused because of his vociferous opposition to “Islamo-Fascism.” But this had nothing to do with their simple-minded tribal anti-Islamism. He opposed religious thugs of all kinds and abhorred those on the so-called Left who tried to make excuses for  fatwahs against Rushdie or to overlook  Mother Theresa’s  bigotry that the wimple hid from the simple.

Admittedly, his refusal to admit he had ever been wrong protected from abandoning his principles,  but in the end, Christopher, (no pseudo-prole Chris for him!) was right (and Left) far more than he was wrong, because he derived his positions from opposition to all forms of tyranny and barbaric governments without making expedient tribal or geopolitical exceptions. The last time we spoke, he threatened to visit the cellar where the research material for my book on Rum is stored. I will always regret he didn’t make it. Better a well-oiled Hitch than a cranky commissar any day.


Tonight 1900 EST I talk to Rory O'Connor, Orwell Prize winner about the new Fukushima commemorative edition of his book "Nukespeak". On WJFF and streaming

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Friday, December 16, 2011

Why Hitchens Matters

Terry Laban
Christopher Hitchens explains Why Orwell Matters, and does so with feeling. One can see that he identifies strongly with his countryman, the socialist daring to stand up against doublethink and prepared to think and speak thoughtcrime against the orthodox. The identification is not totally misplaced. The would-be Big Brothers on the left have indeed vilified Hitchens for several years now for daring to question the lines they laid down on. The interesting question, made even more topical by his recent defection from The Nation, is whether Hitchens himself has broken under this intellectual torture and deserted the cause of a humane and democratic socialism. An earlier generation on the left used Israel as their excuse to defect and become neoconservative: There are some disturbing indications that Hitchens’ disillusion with some of the left has him veering toward Israel, from his recent comments that one of the reasons for supporting the Bush drang nach Baghdad is that it would cut off support for some of the more thuggish elements around Arafat. This may be true, but the most thuggish elements around Arafat at the moment are Sharon and his ilk.
In 1984, Goldstein’s heretical text read: “In the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years—imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and deportation of whole populations—not only became common again, but tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.”
Orwell wrote this in the aftermath of Spain, Manchuria and World War II, and while Stalin continued to use the techniques he had perfected at home to seize Eastern Europe. The horrifying thing about the turn of the millennium is that there are still apologists for all these practices and more.
They span the whole traditional political spectrum. On the establishment side, there has been toleration for death squads in Central and Latin America; on the left, apologetics for ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and users of poison gas in Iraq. The Khmer Rouge found support from both the left and the right as a stick to beat the Soviets and Vietnamese; while recently both right isolationists and alleged left anti-imperialists found common cause in defending Slobodan Milosevic.
Orwell would have berated them all— just as Hitchens has honorably done, too, although with an increasing intemperance that hints at a shared polemical heritage with his detractors.
On reading Hitchens’ defense, my first reaction was almost “why bother,” since the direction and motivation of Orwell’s detractors is so clear. In any event, Hitchens correctly shows that Orwell matters because he was so accurate in his depiction of so many of the people who are now his detractors and, one regrets to say, even some who would see themselves as his supporters.
After the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party confirmed what Orwell and others had said about Stalin, leading British Communist theoretician R. Palme Dutt was asked why he had not mentioned these details in his constant praise of the alleged socialism of the USSR. “I never said there were no spots on the sun,” he replied.
You can see why such people hate Orwell for depicting just how in reality the sun was eclipsed with mass terror. He was never forgiven for being so accurate about the nature of totalitarianism even when it donned a red fig leaf. Hitchens robustly defends the “List,” a catalogue of people who Orwell thought were not suitable writers to be employed by a British Social Democratic government agency, which brought some of the Big Fraternity to apoplexy.
If anything, Hitchens understates the defense here. Orwell escaped from Spain with the KGB on his tail; other independent socialists were not so lucky. Stalin was an ally of Hitler for two years of war, during which German Communists and socialists met their end. Victory in Eastern Europe led to a purge of socialists across the region—and people are angry that Orwell compiled a list of fellow travelers, most of whom would, on the evidence of their previous work, have found excuses for his liquidation if he had been late leaving Spain!
Indeed, there are portions of the book where one feels the need to spring to the defense of Orwell against Hitchens, such as the persistent insinuation that Orwell was a Trotskyist, whether he knew it or not, and that his ire was reserved for “Stalinism.” In fact, Orwell called it “Communism” and, as Hitchens himself admits, saw the line of succession from Lenin and Trotsky to Stalin. In Animal Farm, Lenin and Trotsky are rolled into one exiled pig for just that reason. Hitchens quotes Orwell as feeling that “something like” the purges was “implicit in Bolshevist rule.”
There is a conflict here between Hitchens’ intellectual honesty and his nostalgia for Trotsky, whose record while in power in the Soviet Union showed no signs of overly deep attachment to democracy or human rights. Hitchens’ introduction claims that the three great subjects of the 20th century were fascism, imperialism and “Stalinism.” In fact, looking at Orwell’s work, the one subject is totalitarianism, which encompasses clogged rivers in Rwanda, death squads in Central America—and Leninism in all its forms.
But why go on about Trotskyism in 57 varieties? Well, there are two reasons. One is that I suspect Hitchens’ residual adherence to it has distorted some of his analysis of where Orwell stands in the socialist tradition. While he establishes firmly that Orwell is in that tradition, and remained so until he died, Hitchens underestimates the homegrown influences on Orwell. Throughout the ’30s, the large cooperative movement, and even some of the unions in Britain, considered the dangers of state control and centralization before Hayek ever put pen to paper on the subject.
Hitchens mentions the Independent Labour Party, which was a Marxist-leaning but non-Leninist body with its own traditions of activism and militancy. It was Orwell’s political home until it and he rejoined the Labour Party, which he supported even in government. It is fashionable among many on the American left to mock the achievements of British Labour. But when the American left builds large unions committed to socialism, has legislated universal health care, pretty much free education at all levels, and the type of social benefits that remain in Britain even after Thatcher, maybe their mockery will have more substance.
The other reason for dwelling on Hitchens’ roots has nothing to do with Orwell. In the Troskyist/Leninist milieu where Hitchens has spent so many years, the polemical approach takes no prisoners. Luckily, Trotsky’s followers have not had the power of life and death for some time. The reason for that is the same reason we should rejoice that it is so. The concept of “thoughtcrime” in active use has meant that expulsions or splits afflict any section of the Fourth International whose membership looms much above the high three figures. Every week is “Hate Week” in the sects.
In his enjoyable and generally accurate literary eviscerations of the likes of Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa, Hitchens shows few signs of human sympathy. This is most un-Orwellian. We almost like O’Brien in 1984, and we feel for the apparatchiks who do Big Brother’s work. Hitchens himself shows that Orwell went out of his way to defend and maintain friendly relations with people he disagreed with, sometimes profoundly.
My worry is that Hitchens’ time in the Fourth International dimension has affected his sense of relativity so that the constant ad-hominem attacks on him, which are indeed often of the specious sort leveled at Orwell, may have driven him into a political form of “synecdochism”—taking the part for the whole. The would-be Big Brotherhood who have reviled him may manufacture more vitriol than the real left, but they do not represent it. I suspect that a majority of Nation readers might actually agree with him most of the time.
Hitchens is right about the nature of the Iraqi regime, but I’d like to see a little more ambivalence from him about signing up for the obsessive crusade against it. Quite what motivates the Bush hawks’ quasi-theological obsession with Iraq is a mystery to most observers—but looking at the personnel, from Sharon to Rumsfeld, surely no one believes that concern for the Iraqi people or the spread of democracy is one of their motives.
I invite Hitchens to read his own book, where he praises Orwell for his realization that there was no facile analogy with appeasement when he resisted suggestions for a quick war against Stalin’s Russia. With Animal Farm already out, and 1984 in preparation, he points out that Orwell opposed what could have been a successful—if bloody—attempt to overthrow a tyrannical evil regime guilty of monstrous crimes against its own people and its neighbors.
The left needs contrarians: It doesn’t need neo-neocons while the original breed have so much power in the White House. So I hope Hitchens sticks around. Orwell did.

RIP Hitch

Ian Williams
A Short Long Diatribe Christopher Hitchens, A Long Short War: the Postponed Liberation of Iraq
reviewed by Ian Williams 

 It is sad to read Christopher Hitchens’ shrill and un-nuanced polemics in A Long Short War. It is also confusing, since he is trying to maintain all the former positions he held while on the left, while uncritically embracing his new friends, whom he calls, “the Pentagon Intellectuals” or the “tougher thinkers in the Defense Department.” The resulting portmanteau politics are an ill-matched and disturbing mix.
It is a shame because Hitchens has often performed an indispensable role in debunking the unthinking dogmas pushed by the thought police of the left. But now he has finally succumbed to the disease of the Leninist left: he has become a free-floating antithesis with not much thesis, unless you accept as such his claims of wisdom and morality for the Bush administration. Everyone who disagrees with him on the cardinal issue of uncritical support for the war on Iraq is attacked in quasi-Vyshinkyist fashion.
It has always been lonely on the American left, one reason being its tendency to shrink itself by throwing people overboard at the first hint of thoughtcrime. One wonders over the years how many other decent people may have been harried rightwards by dogmatic intolerance and application of political litmus tests. Were you for or against Vietnam, McCarthy, Kosovo, Afghanistan?
Few of those doing the persecution had much time for nuance. Please comrade, may I be anti-McCarthy and anti-Soviet at the same time? May I oppose the Vietnam War, without condoning the behavior of Vietnamese communists? All too often the answer has been “certainly not,” and one can almost (almost, I stress) sympathize with the neocons and others, and wonder if the intolerance of the left did not drive them to the right.
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
Ian Williams
Luckily, orthodoxy in all its left forms took a serious hit with the fall of the Soviet Union, but even so one could easily get a feeling of thankfulness that the tumbrels were no longer running when one saw the reaction to suggestions that Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein were not nice people. Hitchens was in the honorable vanguard of those on the left who thought that human rights were a cardinal moral and political principle in themselves, not just a cudgel with which to beat imperialism. One may instance those who campaign for Mumia while cheering on Cuban executions.
But old habits die hard. Hitchens, like so many of the neocons he now seems to have joined, is steeped in the robustness of Trotskyist and Leninist polemics. When he was under attack for supporting NATO action against Milosevic, he was robust, and mostly correct in his counter-attacks. And then came September 11th. Ironically, some on the left who had opposed a war in the Balkans over ten thousand dead Kosovars, supported one in Central Asia over three thousand dead Americans.
Very few on the left, or indeed anywhere else, actually tried to justify the attack on the World Trade Center itself, but some did oppose the ensuing war in Afghanistan. However, with broad sweep, Hitchens now accuses “many cultural leftists,” of “somewhat furtively” uniting with the European hard right in “believing that September 11 was a punishment for American hubris.”
It is at this stage that Hitchens has become his own enemy. He has become the mirror image of the shrill dogmatists who had opposed him all along. In emulation of George W. Bush’s instructions to his speechwriters, he no longer does nuance. It was, in fact, perfectly possible to be horrified by the atrocity at the World Trade Center, and even to admit that military action against the Taliban and bin Laden was desirable, while still pointing out that it was the previous amoral work of the hard right now in the Bush administration and their involvement in Afghanistan that had made the Taliban and Al-Qaeda possible. After all, Neville Chamberlain’s name is still mud for his part in paving the way for the Blitz on London. One can deplore the cause without condoning the effect.
September 11 was, of course, what made the invasion of Iraq possible. There were and are some serious arguments to be made for a multilateral humanitarian intervention in Iraq and other places to remove genocidal
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
Ian Williams
regimes. Hitchens did in fact have an honorable record of opposing the Ba’athist barbarism against Kurds, and indeed all opposition in Iraq.
But Hitchens’s uncritical support for the motives and methods of the Bush administration dropped him to a whole new level. To begin with, while much of what George W. Bush said about Saddam Hussein was, of course, true, as Hitchens knows, it was equally true when many figures in this administration were covering for Baghdad in the honeymoon years before their protégé ran amok and invaded Kuwait.
In real politics, one accepts good consequences even from evil actors. But while welcoming, for example, Stalin’s belated support in the war against Hitler, Hitchens’s hero, George Orwell, did not flip to uncritical support for the regime in Moscow the way that Hitchens has for the Bush administration. The White House’s motives for intervention were neither publicly nor privately about democracy in Iraq and it betokens a desperate act of faith on Hitchens part to presume they were.
It is true that Hitchens has a long and honorable record of support for democracy in Iraq, and for the rights of the Kurds. But that does not really justify his adulatory defense of Bush and calumniation of his critics. For example, he himself managed to support intervention in Kosovo without becoming a noticeable cheerleader for Bill Clinton’s all around moral probity.
Hitchens’s well established contempt for Clinton should not obscure the issue that many in this administration, with the help of Clinton’s own deep irresolution, harried him into military ineffectiveness because he had not served in Vietnam, a war he had in fact opposed. In contrast, many of the most sedulous detractors of Clinton actually agreed with the war—but dodged the draft. Hitchens’s response is to attack those who used the well- deserved epithet “chicken hawk” against them. It is true, as he says, that there is now a volunteer army, and even if it were not, those he calls the “Pentagon intellectuals” are not of age or health to qualify. But that does not detract from their fundamental hypocrisy.
While we touch upon Vietnam, along with McCarthy for long the Shibboleth of the Left, it seems equally odd that Hitchens vilifies Harold Wilson, the British prime minister for his “disgusting” support for the war in Vietnam. In fact, Wilson successfully resisted LBJ’s extreme political and economic pressure and refused any British military involvement in the conflict
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
Ian Williams
whatsoever, which was no mean achievement under the circumstances. I’m afraid that vilifying Wilson while praising Bush and Blair does not make a seamless political and historical whole. In his realignment of his political perspectives, Hitchens has not made the necessary adjustments to the intellectual baggage he inherited from his Trotskyist youth
Hitchens quite rightly excoriates primitive anti-Americanism, but then does Bush’s work with equally primitive anti-anti-Americanism, tarring everyone who disagrees with current American policies with the same brush. He is quite right that the simple-minded refrain of “blood for oil,” made little economic or political sense. He is even right about the motives of the some of the organizers of the mass protests who did not allow criticism of Saddam Hussein on their platforms (not, incidentally in New York, where anti- Saddam dissidents spoke from the platform). But the delusions of the marginal are surely a lesser subject for polemics than the Orwellian use of images and hints from the administration that led 70% of Americans to entertain the likelihood that Baghdad was involved in September 11th?
Hitchens neatly avoids this question with a humorous hypothetical aside on the likely fate of the Iraqi intelligence chief who denied knowledge of the perpetrators the day after, which sadly avoids the main issue: there is no evidence whatsoever of Iraqi involvement.
For evidence of a nuance missing from neo-Hitchens, one could look at Kofi Annan’s speech to the UN General Assembly on September 23, in which he called for multilateral support for genuine humanitarian intervention, while warning of the grave dangers to the world order of the unilateral attack that the U.S. had undertaken.
In these polemics, Hitchens allows no room for those who agreed with him about Saddam Hussein, but saw profound dangers in the Bush administration’s contempt for International Law and the United Nations. Six months after the Iraqi invasion, with chaos spreading across Iraq, Bush reinforcing support for Sharon’s rampages, no sign of weapons of mass destruction, and no evidence of any links between the still at large Saddam Hussein and terror, it is sadly evident that Hitchens has bravely but foolishly jumped on a sinking ship, morally and practically.
Unlike the neocons who have only their residual admiration for Leon Trotsky and their utter self-certainty remaining of their old politics,
Logos 2.4 – Fall 2003
Ian Williams
Christopher Hitchens’s portmanteau politics retains enough hybrid vigor from his old principles for us to hope that he will recover from being a neo- neocon. We can rejoice together in the downfall of Saddam Hussein while deriding the parochial, self-centered and faith-based worldview of those currently making every predictable and indeed predicted mistake in the occupation of Iraq. But sadly this book represents a fine mind boiled in vitriol.