Christopher Hitchens – an obit and opinion

December 21, 2011 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Amid the avalanche of articles and obituaries written in tribute to Christopher Hitchens in the wake of his recent passing, we have been reacquainted with the essential condition of western liberalism – moral depravity.

Consider the evidence. Hitchens, or ‘The Hitch’, as his close friends liked to refer to him, eagerly hitched (no pun intended) his colours to the mast of US imperialism in the wake of 9/11 as a force for good and human progress in the world, with its Stealth bombers, Abrams tanks, battleships, aircraft carriers and legions of kevlar-helmeted Marines suddenly transformed from symbols of death and destruction in the name of US hegemony into the vanguard of the Enlightenment, spreading civilisation and democracy to the dark peoples of the world.

As intellectual outrider cheering on this parade of military hardware, Hitchens revelled in the association between his name and Orwell’s, credited with standing alone against both right and left in a world pitched in a Manichean struggle for the future of humanity. In truth he had more in common with Rudyard Kipling, another eloquent and literate apologist for empire and the blood of its untold thousands of victims, men, women and children.

It almost seems fitting therefore that his passing should coincide with the withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq after nine years of bloody occupation, chaos and mayhem, leaving behind a country devastated, its society fractured and polarised along sectarian lines, and its people traumatised by a decade of carnage and convulsion.

But let’s not let such trifling details interrupt a good old liberal love fest when one of their own is forced to leave the party. Here for example was fellow scribe and close friend Ian McEwan writing of him in his last days:

“Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Kerr’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.”

This affecting description of suffering and courage would be touching if not for the inescapable fact that when compared to the suffering and courage of the thousands of Iraqis whose individual obituaries were never written, whose only crime was to be born an Iraqi at a certain time, it reeks of sanctimony and cant.

Like all intellectual and political poachers turned gamekeepers, Hitchens sought justification for his betrayal of the victims of empire and imperialism in hagiography. In his particular case he suddenly discovered a passion for the US Constitution and its authors. Books followed, one on Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, offering us an insight into the intellectual and moral degeneration that Hitchens went through, not to mention cognitive dissonance.

Paine, as the man who railed against the untrammelled power and priviliges of autocracy and absolutist monarchy, is embraced by Hitchens as a model of moral rectitude, champion of freedom and voice of reason. His two great works, Rights of Man and Common Sense, became widely referenced in his work. But scratch the surface of Paine and his work and you are left in no doubt that for him the rights of man only extended to rich white men.

In his excellent Liberalism: A Counter History (Verso Books, 2011), Domenico Losurdo reminds us that Paine’s attitude to America’s black slave population and Indians was less than wholesome. In 1776, the year of the US Declaration of Independence, that famous historical proclamation on freedom and democracy in which the institution of human slavery was enshrined, Paine has this to say about England’s presence as the colonial power: ‘that barbarous and hellish power, which hath stirred up the Indians and the Negroes to cut the throats of the freemen of America’.

Those freemen were also intent on denying those Indians and Negroes everything apart from slavery and ethnic cleansing.

Thomas Jefferson, we are invited to forget in the course of Hitchens’ considerable tribute, was a man who held other human beings in bondage – in other words owned them, in other words could buy and sell them as he saw fit, in other words was a slave owner. This of course was rather conveniently buried as Hitchens set about worshipping at Jefferson’s historical feet:

When it comes to his well publicised Islamophobia, never was there any attempt by Hitchens to identify the concrete historical and geopolitical processes that had led to Islam’s politicisation or emergence as a source of intellectual, moral, theological and physical resistance to western domination. No, for him Islam was a scourge, its adherents either rabid barbarians or passive victims of ignorance and therefore in need of being saved even if it meant destroying them.

How else to describe the position of a man who could write this prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003:

‘The best case scenario is a rapid attack by precision-guided weapons, striking Saddam’s communications in the first hours and preventing his deranged orders from being obeyed. Then a massive landing will bring food, medicine and laptop computers to a surging crowd of thankful and relieved Iraqis and Kurds. This could, in theory, all happen’. (‘What Happens Next In Iraq’ Daily Mirror, 26 February 2003).

Then, after the invasion, with the resulting slaughter and carnage at its height, say this during a speech at Kenyon College, Ohio in 2004 on the destruction of Fallujah:

‘The death toll is not nearly high enough… too many have escaped’.
Finally, lest anyone think for a moment that any tincture of embarrassment ever attached itself to Hitchens over his foray into neoconservatism, they should think again, as the man himself was moved to say during a debate with Tariq Ali that ‘There is a division within the neo-conservative movement, which is, by the way, one of the tests of its authenticity as a tendency. I would say I was a supporter of Paul Wolfowitz.’

Christopher Hitchens was no heroic figure, no Camusian voice of reason amid the rigid dogmas of right and left, as depicted in the mainstream. He was quite simply a grubby apologist for empire and slaughter of the thousands of men, women and children who’ve perished under its juggernaut of death and destruction since 9/11.

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This post was written by John Wight

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