Today the public health department at Johns Hopkins has released a new study of deaths in Iraq, based on a new larger sample of the population. Around 600,000 have died in Iraq since the U.S. attacked in the spring of 2003. This terrible number won’t come as a surprise to readers of this website. Back on January 9, 2006, we published a piece by Andrew Cockburn reviewing the first Johns Hopkins study, done last year. With the help of statistics expert Pierre Sprey, Andrew recomputed the raw numbers assembled by the Johns Hopkins team and their researchers and samplers in Iraq. He began thus:
President Bush’s off-hand summation last month of the number of Iraqis who have so far died as a result of our invasion and occupation as “30,000, more or less” was quite certainly an under-estimate. The true number is probably hitting around 180,000 by now, with a possibility, as we shall see, that it has reached as high as half a million.
I turned from today’s headlines about the disintegration of Iraq amid ghastly carnage to a profile of Christopher Hitchens in the current New Yorker by Ian Parker. It was fairly obvious from the start that this was going to be a fawning piece of work. David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, is certainly not going to sponsor any determined unkindness about one of the prime journalistic war-boosters. Back in 2002 the New Yorker published a very influential piece of claptrap about Saddam’s ties to Osama bin Laden by Jeffrey Goldberg, later exposed as a fraud. The New Yorker has never apologized for that.
Here is the entire email traffic our sole form of communication — between Parker and me, starting in September 20 and ending ten days later . I’ve put the quotes Parker and his editor ended up using in the New Yorker in bold type.
Dear ALEXANDER COCKBURN
I’m sorry to bother you. I’m writing a profile of Christopher Hitchens for the New Yorker, and I was wondering if you might spare me a few minutes, by phone or email.
I do hope to hear from you.
With thanks and best wishes,
AC to Parker
Hello there Ian,
I’d be happy to answer your questions. I’m on the road at the moment, about to drive back from South Carolina to the Pacific North West. It might be easier to have some email exchanges. I’ll be reading email every day (I hope). So fire away. Best Alexander C
Parker to AC
Many thanks. It’s good to hear from you. Here goes: What happened to Christopher Hitchens?
AC to Parker
Hello Ian, Sorry for pause; there have been a couple of mechanical crises. I write this from south eastern Utah. But what an odd question. Nothing happened to Christopher Hitchens. Best Alex C
Parker to AC
Hi. I suppose I meant: You were friends and allies, and now you’re not; how would you describe what happened in between?
AC to Parker
Okay, I thought you were asking about some supposed change in Hitchens, often presumed to have started in the period he tried to put his friend Blumenthal behind bars for imputed perjury. If that had been the question, as it so often is, my answer is always that CH has been pretty much the same package since the beginning — always allowing for the ravages of entropy as the years pass.
As so often with friends and former friends, it’s a matter of what you’re prepared to put up with and for how long. I suppose I met him in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. In basic philosophical take he has always seemed to me to hold as his central premise a profound belief in the therapeutic properties of capitalism and empire. He was an instinctive flagwagger and has remained so. He wrote some disgusting stuff in the early 90s about how indigenous peoples — Indians in the Americas — were inevitably going to be rolled over by the wheels of Progress and should not be mourned. That’s when I stopped having much intellectual or moral respect for him, as I told many people and probably him at the time, tho our personal relations remained fairly amiable for a few years longer.
On the smaller plane of weekly columns in the late eighties and nineties it mostly seemed to be a matter of what was currently obsessing him: for years in the 80s he wrote scores, maybe hundreds of columns, charging that the Republicans had stolen the 1980s election by the “October surprise”, denying Carter the advantage of a hostage release. He got terribly boring. Then in the 90s he got this mad bee in his bonnet about Clinton which developed into full-blown obsessive megalomania: the dream that he Hitchens would be the one to seize history’s mallet and finish off Bill. Why did Bill — a zealous and fairly efficient executive of Empire — bother Hitchens so much? I’m not sure. He used to hint that Clinton had behaved abominably to some woman he, Hitchens, knew — maybe his wife Carol. I don’t know or care. You can’t believe anything Hitchens says anyway. He’s always been a terrible fibber. Actually I think he’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could Make a Difference. He obviously thought he could, and so he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via betrayal of his close friendship with Sid Blumental, whom he did his best to ruin financially (lawyers’ fees) and get sent to the joint for perjury. That’s when I drew the line and said to myself To hell with him, and wrote harshly about him in a column for New York Press.
Since then it’s all been pretty predictable, down to his present role as semi-coherent flagwagger for Bush, making a fool of himself on the talk shows. I think he knew long, long ago that this is where he would end up, as a right-wing codger. He used to go on, back in the Eighties, about sodden old wrecks like John Braine, who’d ended up more or less where Hitchens is now, trumpeting away like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon . I used to warn my left-wing friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened? I’ve told you my views on that. Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Mumbai, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity. That’s the basic problem. His moral and intellectual life has been expressed in postures which, on anything more than deeply indulgent inspection, turn out to be either unalluring or deeply disgusting.
Those are some thoughts, on a nice sunny morning, looking at Thousand Lakes mountain from a 1970 Airstream in south east Utah. If you have further questions, fire away.
Best, Alexander C.
Parker to AC
Dear Alexander, Many thanks for this, it’s kind of you to take the trouble, and I’m sorry to be slow to get back to you; I’m uncomfortably close to my deadline – and envying you your Utah landscape. Is it ok to quote from this? Maybe your comment about Mother Theresa and soup, and the “Make a Difference” observation, and perhaps more besides? (If I quote you on Mother T, can I move it from Mumbai to Calcutta, just to head off the letter-writers?)
All best wishes, Ian
AC to Parker
Ian, Yes you can quote it, but though he recently confirmed publicly that I am right about his long term consistency, I hope you don’t swerve past that basic point about his profound belief in capitalism and empire. Send me what you use. I don’t want to end up with one crack about Mother Teresa, in Calcutta or Bombay.
Parker to AC
Yes, I’ll check back with you. Sorry to make this seem a bit of a quote-hunt – I’m doing this piece a little too quickly. Best, Ian
And finally, AC to Parker, Sep 30.
I should allude to one more particularly despicable piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part, namely his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death, and then for good measure again in his obituary. That is in some ways even lower than the treachery towards Blumenthal. With his attacks on Edward, especially the final post mortem, Hitchens couldn’t even claim the pretense of despising a corrupt presidency, a rapist and liar or any of the other things CH called Clinton. That final attack on Said was purely for attention–which fuels his other attacks but this one most starkly because of the absence of any high principle to invoke. Here he decided both to bask in his former friend’s fame, recalling the little moments that made it clear he was intimate with the Great Man, and to put himself at the center of the spotlight by taking his old friend down a few notches. In a career of awful moves, that was one of the worst.
No answer from Parker. Nothing about CH’s behavior to Said in the profile.
The profile is servile. Hitchens’ modest arsenal of quotations from the Oxford Book of English Poetry becomes “his vast stock of remembered English poetry”. Hitchens’s brutish misogyny does peek through, in the form of a stream of foul-mouthed abuse during a dinner in San Francisco. The most ludicrous moment is the reverent evocation by Wolfowitz’s aide Kevin Kellems of a meeting between Hitchens and Paul Wolfowitz as one in which there were “two giant minds unleashed in the room. They were finishing each other’s sentences.”
The second most ludicrous moment is Parker’s excited quote from Hitchens, portraying himself as a Hemingway of the kitchen garden as he confronts “Jihadism”: “You know, recognizing an enemy it’s not just your mental cortex. Everything in you physically conditions you to realize that this means no good, like when you see a copperhead coming towards you. It’s basic: it lives or I do.”
Parker sees no irony in citing Hitchens as regarding Tom Paine as a prime hero, immediately following this by quoting Hitchens as saying how he wished he had been in Baghdad to join in the exultation over the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay. Paine was a humane man, and nearly lost his head to the guillotine because he had publicly counseled against the execution of Louis XVI.
Being I assume English Parker has the class obsessions of his race, and does enter a diligent corrective to the notion, promoted with increasing confidence by Hitchens down the years, that he is from the upper classes. I’d been awaiting a retrospective entry into Burke’s Peerage, but Parker notes carefully that Hitchens’ father was from “a working-class family” and his mother “from a lower-middle-class Liverpudlian family”.
He doesn’t deserve them, but think what Hazlitt or even, from one of the writers in the pre World War 2 New Yorker, could have done with this seedy character, the last man on the deck of America’s Titanic, the war in Iraq.