Friday, December 23, 2011

Christopher Hitchens and the end of triumphalism

As the American flag was lowered at Baghdad International Airport last week, the most vociferous literary proponent of the invasion and occupation of Iraq lay dying in a Houston hospital. In the mass media and on the blogosphere there has been a curiously muted response to both the end of America's long occupation of Iraq and the passing of Christopher Hitchens.

The invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was vehemently criticised and defended around the world, and controversy persisted for the next few years, as the easy overthrow of Saddam Hussein was followed by widespread resistance to American-led forces, civil war between confessional groups, and economic collapse. Chistopher Hitchens had been a journalist and political commentator since he graduated from Oxford University in the early 1970s, but it was the support he gave, in print and in endless rounds of television talk show appearances and college hall debates, for Bush's attack on Iraq which made him into a celebrity and a hate figure in both his British homeland and his adopted America.

Hitchens had been a Trotskyist of sorts at Oxford, and had later associated with both the left of the British Labour Party and the ginger group of liberal American intellectuals which publishes the journal The Nation. By calling Bush's assault on Iraq a war of liberation, and by comparing its opponents to the appeasers of Hitler, Hitchens upset many of his old comrades and readers and delighted the right. His endorsement of Bush in the 2004 presidential elections only confirmed his apostasy.

In the early years of the Iraq war Hitchens was regularly excoriated by left-wing commentators, but few of his old opponents have felt the need to renew their fury in the aftermath of his death. The blogger Louis Proyect was one of Hitchens' most ferocious and persistent critics, but his obituary for his old enemy is surprisingly measured. Alex Callinicos, whose Socialist Workers Party was often condemned as an ally of 'Islamofascism' by Hitchens, has also refrained from denunciations.

The many articles published about the end of the American occupation of Iraq have had a similarly restrained tone. Long-time critics of Bush's war have been in a reflective rather than a strident mood.

If the end of the American war on Iraq and the death of that war's most passionate advocate have received muted responses, it is perhaps because Bush's war seems to belong to a different, distant era.

A decade ago, when Afghanistan had been speedily occupied and plans were being laid for an assault on Iraq, America was widely perceived as a dynamic and unstoppable superpower. The collapse of the Soviet Union had brought Eastern Europe into the American sphere of influence, and now, confronted by Bush's post-9/11 'for or against us' rhetoric and a massive military buildup, formerly recalcitrant parts of the Middle East and Central Asia seemed set to follow. Ideologues close to Bush talked about creating an 'American century', by using military firepower and free market economics to spread the writ of Washington into even the most barbarous corners of the globe.

The transformation of Iraq into an outpost of American capitalism and a model for the benighted parts of the world seemed, in this heady atmosphere, an easy task. Bush's deputy Dick Cheney predicted that the war on Iraq would be a 'cakewalk'; Hitchens gave victory a sort of teleological inevitability when he looked forward to the 'overdue liberation' of the country.

It is now obvious that the heady early years of this century marked the zenith of American imperial power and self-confidence. The adventure in Iraq ended up demonstrating the limits of American military capabilities, and the economic crisis that began on Wall Street in 2008 has shown up the fragility of the country's economy. Today not only the bomb-scarred streets of Baghdad but the ruined industrial zones of Detroit and Cleveland and the foreclosed suburbs of Stockton and Tampa mock the imperial hubris of the Bush era. To reread Hitchens' writings of a decade ago is to enter again the febrile atmosphere of the early years of the 'War on Terror'. Hitchens admitted to feeling a sense of 'exhilaration' in the aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, and his pro-war articles have a troubling excitement and confidence. After spending decades as a left-wing gadfly, with no influence in the centres of political and economic power, Hitchens felt that Bush's response to 9/11 had given him a cause with which he could identify wholeheartedly. The reformed Marxist's aggressive endorsements of Bush policies soon won him visits to the White House and meetings with neoconservative strategists like Paul Wolfowitz. Hitchens even gave Bush and his inner circle a political pep talk on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Hitchens' excited response to the War on Terror sometimes expressed itself in a frank delight in violence. In a 2002 interview, for instance, he enthused over the effects of the cluster bombs American forces were dropping on the recalcitrant parts of Afghanistan:

If you're actually certain that you're hitting only a concentration of enemy troops...then it's pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they're bearing a Koran over their heart, it'll go straight through that, too. So they won't be able to say, "Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through." No way, 'cause it'll go straight through that as well. They'll be dead, in other words..

Hitchens' advertisements for Bush's war were written in haste, and without great regard for either facts or logic. Reviewing The Long Short War, a collection of twenty-two pro-war articles penned in late 2002 and early 2003, Norman Finkelstein noted how often Hitchens contradicted himself, even within the confines of a single article. Finkelstein found Hitchens claiming that the war had nothing to do with oil, then stating on his very next page that 'of course it's about oil'. He saw Hitchens arguing that Saddam's regime was on the brink of 'implosion', then asserting a page later than 'only the force of American arms' could bring regime change in Iraq.

While many early supporters of the war on Iraq either revised or abandoned their arguments as the war dragged on, Hitchens persisted with the same discredited talking points. Up until the end of his life he claimed, in the face of an avalanche of countervailing evidence, that Saddam had maintained a nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s, and had tried to buy uranium from Niger. In an interview with Radio New Zealand last year he repeated the lie that the Iraqi Communist Party and labour movement had supported the invasion of their country, neglecting to mention that the American 'liberators' had not only maintained but enforced a Saddam-era law banning trade unions and strikes.

What is important in Hitchens' pro-war writings is not evidence or logic but a rhetoric of destiny and triumphalism. In text after text, Hitchens gives the impression that the war in Iraq, and the War on Terror in general, are struggles of world-historical importance between forces of reaction and progress, and suggests that these struggles might be won or lost because of the bravery or cowardice of Western intellectuals. Hitchens treats critics of the War on Terror like unforgivable enemies, and presents himself as an auxillary of the American armed forces - a 'keyboard warrior', hunkered down in his Washington office-bunker.

Hitchens' delusions of self-importance are not novel, for anyone who has studied intellectual history. In the 1920s Ezra Pound decided that Mussolini was taking his advice; a decade later Martin Heidegger was stupid enough to believe that, by circulating his writings inside the Nazi Party, he was becoming Adolf Hitler's intellectual mentor, and guiding the progress of the 'new Germany'; in the 1960s Louis Althusser convinced himself that his office at the Ecole Normale was the secret centre of world revolution.

Hitchens responded to the failure of the American mission in Iraq by broadening rather than abandoning his vision of a world-historical battle between forces of good and evil, light and darkness. As Iraq fractured along confessional lines and support for Bush collapsed in America, Hitchens turned increasingly from the War on Terror to the notion of a wider war between religion and reason. In his 2007 book God is not Great he proclaimed religion an 'urgent danger' to the survival of the human race, and demanded a concerted struggle against it.

Hitchens' book won him support from some atheist organisations, but his penchant for violent rhetoric and his particular antipathy for Islam meant that the atheists sometimes came to regret inviting him to speak at their gatherings. The biologist and atheist PZ Myers described what happened after Hitchens took the stage at the 2007 Freedom from Religion convention in Wisconsin:

[I]t was Hitchens at his most bellicose. He told us what the most serious threat to the West was (and you know this line already): it was Islam. Then he accused the audience of being soft on Islam, of being the kind of vague atheists who refuse to see the threat for what it was, a clash of civilizations, and of being too weak to do what was necessary, which was to spill blood to defeat the enemy...

The way to win the war is to kill so many Moslems that they begin to question whether they can bear the mounting casualties...Basically, what Hitchens was proposing is genocide. Or, at least, wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world until they are sufficiently cowed and frightened and depleted that they are unable to resist us in any way, ever again...I could tell that he did not have the sympathy of most of the audience at this point. There were a scattered few who applauded wildly at every mention of bombing the Iranians, but the majority were stunned into silence. People were leaving — I heard one woman sing a few bars of "Onward, Christian soldiers" as she left to mock his strategy.

Hitchens wrote a series of books which attempted to celebrate men he regarded as his precursors in the struggle against religion and other forms of unreason. But texts like Orwell's Victory and Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography are so poorly researched and constructed that they can only be considered assaults on reason. Hitchens' study of Paine piggybacks shamelessly on John Keane's biography of the great man, at times lifting whole paragraphs from its source; his homage to Orwell dispenses with secondary literature altogether, preferring unsubstantiated assertion to quote and citation. Just as Jim Morrison is only considered a great poet by folks who don't read poetry, so Hitchens is only acclaimed as a scholar by the right-wing ignoramuses who know him as an advocate for war on Fox News.

Abandoned by the left, Hitchens increasingly found a home on the hard right of American politics. He began to associate with David Horowitz, the famous defector from the 1960s left who had become an advocate of the deportation of American Muslims and the exclusion of socialist teachers from high school and colleges. Hitchens reviewed one of Horowitz's books sympathetically, spoke at one of the anti-Muslim rallies Horowitz regularly holds at American universities, and began a joint speaking tour with Horowitz before falling ill.

In the eighteen months it took to kill him, cancer took some of the hubris and aggression out of Hitchens' prose. Invalided away from the television talk shows and Washington cocktail parties which were his usual frontline, the keyboard warrior found himself writing about painkillers and chemotherapy and hospital gowns. The world-historical struggle for freedom was suddenly internalised, in prose that exchanged bombast for quiet irony:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat...So now every day I go to a waiting room, and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV (often closed-captioned, just to torture myself) and wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.

Hitchens tried to immortalise his writing by making it the servant of powerful men and a world-historical struggle, but it is the very personal work he produced at the end of his life which is most likely to persist in print. Like Pound's Fascist Cantos and Heidegger's rectorial addresses, the feverish advertisements for Bush's wars will be of interest only as examples of the dangers that power, or the illusion of power, poses for intellectuals.

Footnote: an academic paper I wrote back in 2005 about Hitchens and the rest of the 'pro-war left' can be read here.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

And yet reactionaries like Pound and Heidegger are feted on this blog! Why the animosity to Hitchens???

11:53 am  
Blogger Chris Trotter said...

Masterful, Scott. Best Hitchens obituary I've read so far.

1:34 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

Worth a read

9:10 am  
Blogger Louis Proyect said...

Really excellent.

7:24 pm  
Blogger levi9909 said...

Thanks for this. I'd actually forgotten how good Finkelstein's piece was but then he's been annoying me lately.

I think it Ken Adelman who coined the term "cake walk" for the war on Iraq.

Here's a very good obituary for Hitchens.

8:17 pm  
Anonymous yanabh said...

isn't finkelstein's own scholarship in question?

haven't some accused him of insensitivity?

9:52 pm  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Very good obit for Hitchens. Yes, Hitch, I think, leaves a decidedly mixed legacy. It will be interesting to see which Hitchens survives: Hitch as left-wing gadfly, Hitch as crusading warmonger, or Hitch as atheist campaigner, or perhaps, as Scott suggests, it maybe his more personal writings that will endure.

12:12 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous Pound and Heidegger are not feted. They, on here, mostly debated.

Actually I knew nothing about Hitchens.

But I like John Pilger and I read part of book by Chris Hedges. He seems quite interesting and intense.

This obituary makes sense. Many on the Left (or Centre-Left) felt they had to side against Islamo fascism or terrorism or some potential attack on their countries (the trouble is that the US and Britain and their allies) became those who became the terrorists (and it has been argued that they were and still are the major world terrorists) in trying (supposedly) to attack terrorism.

My initial reaction to 9/11 was I wanted to wipe out all the Arabs! I saw it as an attack by barbarians against a great civilisation. But then (the poet Pierre Joris) emailed me (on a Poetics List I was then on) saying that a policy of Arab or Muslim extermination as I advocated (lol!) was playing into the hands or the Right!); I then got into various debates, renewing my interest in politics and started theorising that 9/11 had been done by the CIA and company (for me the Jury on the question of "who did the towers" is still out...

But I soon moved away from what seems to have been Hitchen's position.

But, from my own experience, I can see how these attitudes arise. He started because of his reaction to the threat against the life of Salman Rushdie. (Prima facie this all is).

But anonymous - I feel Maps is explaining and putting forward his view of (and for me it was informative also, not that I wont look elsewhere for views of Hitchens, but I didn't know very much about him) what Hitchens did. I wouldn't call it "animosity" quite. More a political-philosophical difference.

Regardless of his politics or whatever errors (or achievements) he may have made in life it is sad he died relatively young of a quite awful disease.

1:44 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Is the US moving toward a fascist or Nazi style Government? Are the Big Capitalists planning to abandon democracy and set up a military dictatorship?

This may happen if they go to war against the so-called North Korea - that is resume their invasion of Korea.

That could well mean last and desperate "throw of the dice" into a Third World War. A last frantic kick in the tail of a dying beast.
And the final fiery Apocalyspe, the ultimate Gotterdammerung.

I think Korea are wise, very wise to arm themselves with nukes and a strong military. The invading nations (the "bombing nations" ["Goddam, bomb the gooks and wogs into the goddam stone age"] such as Britain and the US have them, so naturally Iran and Korea who are under sanctions and threats from the capitalist and aggressive West should also arm themselves as best they can to hopefully prevent or inhibit invasion.

2:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hitchens' hatred of religion was what propelled him into a defense of the 'war on terror'. The idea of killing every muslim possible was somehow acceptable, whereas killing every, say, christian was not permissiable in any intellectual circles anywhere.

5:11 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why? Maybe the CIA had some videos of him messing around with boys.

3:32 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for all the comments folks. I'll post something of a more respectable length tomorrow, when I'm excused from Xmas child-minding duties, but in reply to anonymous I'd just point out that this blog doesn't celebrate Heidegger's rectorial addresses, or Pound's Fascist Cantos - we (that is, me, and most of the people who make comments on relevant threads) think that Pound and Heidegger produced indispensable intellectual work during periods of their lives when they weren't preoccupied with fascist ideology.

The question is: did Hitchens produce a work, or group of works, which are as important as Pound's early Cantos or Being and Time? If he did, where can I find it?

9:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Doesn’t postmodernism claim there is no ‘master narrative’, but at the same time, suggesting that it is itself ‘the’ master narrative?

Richard Taylor - you are therefore WRONG

11:28 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I am wrong? Me wrong!!! Impossible!

I think you might be addressing Tiso or possibly Scott (who is not a card carrying postmodernist but has been known to wax lyircally on the subject if only to attack over zealous postmodernists) who (Tiso) is the expert on postmodernism. Philosophy, by and large is rather beyond me. Too difficult. But interesting.

But my difficulty in understanding these issues of Postmodernism or Heidegger (more of an Existentialist Phenomonologist believe!!) etc is that my mind is like an enormous ice cream.

There is also phrase from a book by Ron Silliman "phenomological chocolate" which I am quite fond of. Has this anything to do with master or minor narratives?

Is John Key a postmodernist? Was Marx a Marxist? Does God believe in God? Deep issues...

1:25 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard I will come at things from a different angle using a quote from one of your favourite riters judgeing from yore blog.


Civilization was a mistake that has had disastrous consequences for human and non-human life, and it will continue to wreak havoc until people decide to stop it or until it collapses under it own weight. After one of these events occurs, the planet will finally be able to begin recovering from 10,000 years of human domestication.

Picture yourself planting radishes and seed potatoes on the fifteenth green of a forgotten golf course. You'll hunt elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center, and dig clams next to the skeleton of the Space Needle leaning at a forty-five degree angle. We'll paint the skyscrapers with huge totem faces and goblin tikis, and every evening what's left of mankind will retreat to empty zoos and lock itself in cages as protection against the bears and big cats and wolves that pace and watch us from outside the cage bars at night....
You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower.... The air will be so clean you'll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.

Go deeper Richard.

3:16 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Sorry, I have no idea of what or who you are talking about.

Which favourite writer?

Perhaps you are mixing me up with Maps, Tiso the "memory" postmodernist or Jack Ross.

I have read nothing by Hitchens.
An oblique ref. to Orwell? I read him as a teenager, and more recently - one of my favourite by him was 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'. Wells? Not a particular favourite. Delillo? Maps is the Delillo man. Beckett is one of my favourites and as is Robbe-Grillet.

I take quotes for all kinds of texts, and often I have no interest in the authors of those quotes or in fact in what is being said (quite often I still have no idea what the writer was writing about, I just like the way he or she puts words together so to speak), what I'm interested in to a large extent is the texture of each 'section' or fragment of writing and the way these sections or blocks of writing or fragments interact.

My post modernism, such as it is comes via literary crit books I have read or essays by such as Charles Bernstein - but the ideas behind a lot of what I do I developed myself..or perhaps I read them somewhere and forget where.

Not much of it is overtly political.

Well soon Maps will be on board gain after all this nonsense about Xmas and the new year is got out of the way.

6:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard. I am not mixing you up.

But you are obviously not getting it. So goodbye. For now.

7:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

By the way it is possible to read TOO MANY books.

One a year is enough for most people.

And after the transition no new books will be publishable.

7:35 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chuck, is that you? When are you going to depart from your template - I've read the same novel six times over! Pygmy was a disgrace. Choke and Lullaby were fab, but I have outgrown them.

12:10 am  
Anonymous tony said...

good article - my own take on Hitchens which overlaps somewhat.

12:10 am  

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