Christopher Hitchens is No Longer an Authentic Voice of Dissent

It was a sudden, devastating attack. The perpetrator struck mercilessly, leaving no time for a considered response. When he had finished, the ‘left’ was in ruins.

‘I have no hesitation in describing this mentality, carefully and without heat,’ the author wrote heatedly, ‘as soft on crime and soft on fascism. No political coalition is possible with such people and, I’m thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.’

And, with that strike, we could rest assured that no dissent–no quibbling about military action against Afghanistan; no worries about the bypassing of the United Nations or the International Court of Justice; no concerns that the Israel-Palestine issue, the tensions in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia or the Philippines would remain even after Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar had been hunted down; no mention of the long-term expansion of American power for motives perhaps less noble than the ‘war on terrorism’–would rise from the smouldering target of this invective. For the attacker was not Donald Rumsfeld but the self-proclaimed ‘contrarian’, the ‘singularly insightful . . . critic of American policy and culture’ (Reason magazine), the ‘honorable man of the left’ (Atlantic magazine), that ‘authentic voice of dissent’ (Observer), Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens’s assault was masterful. He gave it non-partisan respectability by launching it across the Anglo-American political spectrum: the London Evening Standard on 19 September 2001; the Nation, almost the only semblance of a mainstream ‘left’ journal in the US, on 24 September; the Guardian and Spectator in the following three days. His past record–as vilifier of Pinochet’s Chile and scourge of Bill Clinton’s ‘Monicagate’, of air strikes against Iraq and the Sudan, and, above all, for tracking the ‘war criminal’ Henry Kissinger–established his claim to being the honourable policeman of the left, attacking it in order to save it.

Since then, Hitchens has worked his beat masterfully. In addition to his periodic walkabouts in the Guardian, the Mirror and the Evening Standard, there has been the unveiling of his tome Letters to a Young Contrarian, an appearance on Start the Week, the references to his latest book-length mission, Orwell’s Victory (in which he binds history to the present by exalting the ‘decent Englishman’ George and smiting evildoers such as Raymond Williams). There has even been time to inspire, with wit and wine, Lynn Barber’s tribute in the Observer. Hitch has toned down the polemic and moved to other concerns–he’s travelled through India and revisited his persistent target Kissinger–but still he lurks behind the forelock, ready to pounce if the bad lefties reassemble to suck up to Islam: ‘I’m not surprised at criticism from the ‘Ramadanistas’ . . . I don’t care what they think . . . It’s one long bleat from these guys and gals.’

But it ain’t the final reel for our hero yet. Sheriff Hitchens rode into London on 15 May, saddling up for a debate on ‘the war on terrorism’, and found that all his carpet-bombing, daisy-cutting rhetoric hadn’t wiped out the ‘left’.

On the podium, there was top schoolmarm Onora O’Neill, with her pragmatic approach to nation states and human rights, politely asking about the evidence to prove Hitchens’s ‘Islamic fascist’ conspiracy (in which he characterises Islam as one homogenised entity, committed to imposing sharia law across the globe). There was Jacqueline Rose, the Freudian with the heart of gold, linking Hitchens’s rhetoric to that of Tony Blair, Ariel Sharon and Osama Bin Laden: ‘At best, two boys in a playground fighting, at worst two dead men talking . . . very exciting, very ineffectual, and very dangerous.’ There was Anatole Lieven, too thoughtful by half. He reminded the Sheriff that he, Lieven, had supported a retaliatory strike against al-Qaeda, but then he became a pest with his depression because the US had not developed ‘a new commitment to humanitarian principles and a new sense of international law and international institutions’, and warned that a ‘war on Islam’ would never succeed.

And there, at the other end of the table, was Tariq Ali. He tried to hide his menace behind his smile, he checked his black hat at the door, but we still knew that he was a quick-draw barb-slinger. He quipped about the ‘thinker president’ and labelled Hamid Karzai an ‘old US agent’. And he warned that ‘the effects of this business are by no means over’, inconveniently noting the tenuous situation in Pakistan and the collective blind eye to Saudi support for al-Qaeda.

The Sheriff was soon agitated, scribbling notes and scanning the audience, cheek in hand. He tested his learned one-liners against the villainous Ali–‘I’ll try to avoid casuistry as well as prolixity’; he tried his chastising one-liners–‘I hope we’ve heard the last of the sneering at President Bush . We’ve certainly heard the first of it’; he fell back on his best 9/11 phrases–‘civilian airliners turned into cruise missiles’.

But, while it may have worked in Peoria, it wasn’t going down well in London. Hitchens’s opening shots met largely with a ‘been there, heard that’ response. Defensive, then desperate, he moved from target to target: how about fatwas from Iran? Sharia law in Nigeria? Synagogues burned in Tunisia? Synagogues burned and trashed in London? Immigrants bringing the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France? Everywhere the ‘destruction of society where only one book is allowed’? No joy. Only when the Sheriff mentioned the rightness of action in Kosovo were some of the citizenry moved.

By contrast, Jacqueline Rose’s comments on the dangers of warrior language were warmly received, and she was loudly commended when she took on Hitchens’s free association that ‘theocratic fascism’ was even responsible for the Dreyfus affair: ‘It was the French, not Islamic theocracy, that put Dreyfus on trial.’ Hitchens snapped at the audience: ‘You’ll clap anything?’

For the Sheriff, the evening had already turned into High Noon: he was taking on all of us. He lashed out: ‘I won’t bore you with that moral mushy stuff about airliners/ cruise missiles/terrified passengers , even if many of you have already forgotten it’–and encountered booing and heckling. (To its credit, the audience, as well as the moderator, immediately silenced the hecklers.) When he was booed for turning aside a question derisively, he redoubled the challenge to the audience: ‘If you knew how you sound when you hissed, you wouldn’t do it. You sound like such berks.’ And, always, there was his sneer and mocking handclap when those listening responded to a point that was not his: ‘Anyone can get more applause than me.’

It had come to this. An elderly gentleman challenged the Sheriff over the dangers of US foreign policy. The Sheriff shot back wildly, ‘I assume you are from the subcontinent,’ and tried to finish off his assailant: ‘I wouldn’t expect you to think otherwise with your ideology.’ The gentleman replied in agitation: ‘I am not from the subcontinent.’ Hitchens blustered, ‘We can all make mistakes.’ Off mike, he said: ‘Well, he certainly looks like he’s from the subcontinent.’

It didn’t have to be this way. In the first few days after 11 September, Hitchens was not attacking (except for George W Bush, ‘a shadow framed by powerful advisers and handlers, a glove puppet with little volition of his own and a celebrated indifference to foreign affairs’): he was cautioning that ‘the question Americans are asking is how–not why’.

But then something happened. Maybe it was the horror and agony of losing a friend, the CNN commentator Barbara Olson, in the attacks. Maybe it was the surge of anger and mourning for the loss of a ‘big, free, happy, carefree society’. Maybe it was just the pressure of writing quickly for newspapers clamouring for answers. Probably it was all of these.

Hitchens had a little think for Americans, for all of us, and came up with an easy ‘why’ in the Evening Standard:

The people who destroyed the World Trade Center, and used civilians as accessories, are not fighting to free Gaza.

They are fighting for the right to throw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi.

The petty-minded might have quibbled at the easy slippage from ‘the people who destroyed the World Trade Center’ to the unnamed ‘they’ who may have had nothing to do with the attack, who may even have condemned it, but who were undoubtedly scarring women and blowing up the Buddha. (He was not the only person to make this manoeuvre: Bush also pulled it off the following day in his speech to Congress, the one that put the Taliban, rather than Osama Bin Laden, in the US cross-hairs.)

But Hitchens was already beyond such objections, beyond the need for any understanding of the complexities of the region, of Islam, of ‘America’. The enemy was not just over there, he was here. Suitably buoyed by this discovery, he crushed his foes with a bombardment of invective: ‘Liberal masochism is of no use to us at a time like this, and Muslim self-pity even less so. Self-preservation and self-respect make it necessary to recognise and name a lethal enemy when one sees one.’

No link was too tenuous, no tone too shrill for our intrepid protector. Hitchens assured us that if ‘brave American civilians’ had not been allowed ‘to mount a desperate resistance’ on United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside, ‘I would be looking out at a gutted Capitol or charred White House, and reading Pinter or Pilger on how my neighbourhood had been asking for it’. The assertion of Sam Husseini, the director of the US-based Institute for Public Accuracy, that al-Qaeda ‘could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem like it was supposed to–and the US stopped the sanctions and the bombing on Iraq’, was not the ‘why’ that Hitchens wanted. So it became ‘a simple refusal to admit that a painful event has occurred . . . a cheery rationalisation of something ghastly . . . a crude shifting of blame’.

This was ‘with us or against us’ intellectual warfare, a ‘ha ha ha to the pacifists’, a warning to the moaning ‘peaceniks’ and any other Bin Ladens: ‘There are more of us and we are both smarter and nicer, as well as surprisingly insistent that our culture demands respect, too.’

This victory won, Hitchens’s macho swagger has taken a knock recently. He was unsettled by his new bedfellows’ ‘axis of evil’, ‘the symbolic phrase for everything that has become risky and dubious and opportunistic about the new Bush foreign policy’, even as he fell into confused hand-wringing about Iraq, where he could not wish away the problems of realpolitik with his moral wand–‘in many ways, the United States quite likes the Saddam regime’. (C’mon, Christopher, no liberal whining!) And the silence on the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio of the ‘authentic voice of dissent’, a prominent supporter of a Palestinian state and critic of Ariel Sharon, was finally broken on 15 April with a column for the new-look Mirror.

But, after seeing Hitchens at the debate, organised by the London Review of Books, I fear these thoughtful moments will be rare. ‘The Hitch’ is no longer an activist, no longer a participant in the real debates about power and who wields it, no more a source for thought. No, he is an industry, posing in trench coat with a cigarette dangling from his top lip, hailed as ‘one of the few remaining practitioners of the five-hour, two-bottle lunch’. And, naturally, the most profitable industry is a monopoly. So he packages himself, surreally, not just as a policeman but the only policeman of ‘a radical left that no longer exists’.

Just as Orwell eventually saw himself as Charles Dickens, ‘a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls’, Hitchens now sees himself as Orwell (who, as the cover of Orwell’s Victory reminds us, also dangled a cigarette from his top lip), the lone voice of decency among the ranks of a naive and/or nasty left.

It’s an effective tactic. Like Orwell, Hitchens has made himself the poster boy of ‘principled opposition’, even as he sides with the dominant powers in the US, by wielding a scatter-gun, ‘common-sense’ rhetoric that does not have to deal with troubling political or economic considerations. He need not worry about such details. Only he, in his words, has ‘elementary morals’. All others, with their ‘oppositional stance’ (like Orwell’s pacifists who were the accomplices of fascism, like his ‘pansy’ leftist writers), can cower with their al-Qaeda allies or whimper in the op-ed columns of the Guardian.

I don’t care when the hapless Andrew Sullivan of the Sunday Times, through columns repetitively void, or his preening website, thrashes against the ‘left’. I read Mark Steyn’s ‘loud bloke in a pub’ opinions in Conrad Black’s newspaper from the same safe distance that I would keep from any loud bloke in a pub. But Hitchens, because of his past affiliations, the quality and persistence of much of his writing, and especially his cause celebre against Kissinger, has street cred.

This is more than a semantic scrap, more than a sideshow to keep the intelligentsia gossiping. It is more than another contest between Christopher and Tariq for the soul of ’68. We are well beyond 9/11, with the bodies piling up and human rights suspended in the West Bank; with detainees languishing uncharged not only in Camp X-Ray, but in American and British jails; with the United States desperate to unleash its bombers over Baghdad, to stare down Tehran, to crush insurgencies everywhere from Colombia to the Philippines, to topple governments that do not meet the ‘with us or against us’ criterion. In a ‘war on terrorism’ that is highly elastic, Hitchens’s rhetoric of ‘Islamic fascism’ stretches conveniently.

So, Sheriff, before you ride into the sunset, into Washington’s sanctuary, I’m calling you out. Before you have another pop at the dissent of the ‘left’, do it fairly, where someone can respond with the political, economic, military and, yes, moral considerations that you might be shoving aside. If you are going to reduce your opposition to stick men and women, ‘voluntary apologists for abuse of power’ standing in the way of ‘the model revolution of the American experiment’, hang around for an answer before your five-hour lunch.

Name the time, the place and the medium. This time, bring some evidence along with your one-liners. I’ll be there.

Scott Lucas is professor of American Studies at Birmingham University. He is working on a book about 11 September and the betrayal of dissent.

This article originally appeared in The New Statesman.