By Christopher Hitchens
2010, Twelve press, 448 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)
The name Christopher Hitchens is, to many on the left and right, a dirty word. In lining up with the Bush administration on the war in Iraq, the former Nation columnist shocked much of the left, and his militant atheism has inspired animosity among many conservatives. Still, in his new memoir Hitchens comes off as a man of principle.
Reading Hitch-22, it becomes apparent that the principles that motivated Hitchens’ perceived move to the right are, paradoxically, the same principles that for many years kept him on the left. He makes a case for all of the things for which the left should stand: dedication to the rights of the individual; hate for repression; love of freedom of speech, press and conscience; and, above all, human solidarity. He argues that the left has abandoned these things in all but lip service.
Perhaps most interesting for my readers will be Hitchens’ description of how he moved from his early Trotskyism to support the Bush administration’s Iraq war. While it’s obvious that members of the Bush had differing agendas in Iraq, Hitchens was motivated by a left-ish revulsion at the Saddam dictatorship.
Hitchens admits that in the 1970s he was mistaken in defending the Ba’ath Party-run state as socialist. But he went to Iraq in 1991 as a war correspondent – for a war he opposed (the first Gulf war) – and began to see Iraq’s horrifying conditions from within.
Unlike Hitchens, I opposed the 2003 Iraq war, and still do. But his arguments for it offer a sort of moral test. He observes that sometimes the “wrong people” get it right, and vice-versa. If you disagree with the war, it’s incumbent upon you to make sure that you don’t fall in with wrong people who happen to say something “right.” Are you opposed to this war because you genuinely don’t believe that it will lead to less rather than more human misery? And remember that Pat Buchanan was a loud voice against this war – as well as the one against Hitler.
I took the test and rethought my position on the Iraq war. I came to the same conclusions I arrived at earlier. Invading Iraq was certainly not the path to the least amount of damage to the people of Iraq and the region.
It used to annoy me that Hitchens, when he debated the Iraq war, would often pick as his adversaries easy pickings like the multi-faced ex-MP George Galloway who, when in Los Angeles or New York talked about the virtues of peace, and when in Damascus told the people of Syria how lucky they were to have Bashir al-Assad as their dictator. So why did he do it?
Hitchens makes it clear that he still despises Henry Kissinger and supports the Vietnamese liberation fighters. He debates people like Galloway not for an easy win, but because they represent to him what is wrong with the modern left in the West: far too many are for “peace at all costs,” whether or not that means more suffering for more people, or argue that the United States is always wrong. Remember Cindy Sheehan, once the darling of the antiwar movement, who went on to say, like Buchanan, that all wars are wrong, including our Civil War, which ended slavery and which Marx so much admired, and World War II, which defeated fascism?
Hitchens tries to reconcile certain basic values with the left, and then explains why he felt he had to leave it – though he’d argue that he still is overall a man of the left.
Why, he asks, did so few on the left jump to defend novelist Salman Rushdie after his life was threatened by a fatwa issued by Iran’s clerical rulers? Do civil liberties not matter on the left? Or why after 9/11 did some on the left dismiss the human horror and talk coolly about chickens coming home to roost? Aren’t these positions a caricature of anti-imperialism?
But while many have spit vitriol at Hitchens for “selling out,” mightn’t it be more useful to see if there are things we do that alienate people who are in many ways brethren, i.e. they support the same future outcomes we hope for?
For example, why is it that whenever I write something remotely critical of “socialist” governments, I begin to receive hate mail telling me that I’ve somehow “objectively” strengthened the hands of the warlords in the Republican Party? Isn’t it possible that if you don’t criticize what is anti-human and pro-misery, you make yourself look foolish to many intelligent, progressive-thinking people?
Hitchens’ life story is intertwined with politics, as he points out, and much of the book is written as an argument-always with the suave prose Hitchens is known for. Still there’s more than that to the book; it is a memoir after all. Refreshingly though, even when writing about the most harrowing of subjects, Hitchens doesn’t play vulgarly on the sentimental. His first chapter deals with his mother and her suicide, and it captures the emotions he felt, without descending into melodrama.
The cast of characters reads like a who’s who of 20th century literature: Kingsley and Martin Amis, Robert Conquest, Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and others fill the volume’s pages; the book is worth its price if only to read bawdy limericks written by Amis, Conquest, and Rushdie.
Hopefully, Hitchens will recover soon from his recently disclosed illness (he’s mentioned that he’s “truly touched” that religious people have been praying for him) and continue his provocative writing.