17 December 2011

Would He or Wouldn’t He?

On Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

When a genuine intellectual becomes a celebrity, there is usually some misunderstanding somewhere. The arbiters of celebrity—magazine and network executives, top editors and columnists, producers and talk show hosts, major grant-makers and prize-givers—are, by and large, as incapable of sponsoring difficulty and depth as they are of resisting glibness and facility. They may themselves appreciate intellectual distinction, but audiences must be reliably sold to advertisers, or investors will go elsewhere. Difficulty is, by definition, a hard sell.

Christopher Hitchens must have often reflected sardonically on his celebrity. Its main channels—Vanity Fair, the Atlantic, Slate, the New York Times—were so comfortably middlebrow, so immured in the conventional Beltway/Manhattan wisdom, that he must occasionally have felt the impulse to spit, rhetorically, in their faces. Not in the trivial way he sometimes did, with throwaway columns about blowjobs or whether women can be funny, but in ways that would bring a pained smile to the lips of Sam Tanenhaus or David Bradley. Not because those two or their counterparts are exceptionally smug or stupid, but just because they’re on top, and the responsibility of intellectuals is to keep those on top off balance.

What sort of thing would have brought a wince to the faces of Hitchens’s patrons? In search of trademark provocations from the early Hitch, I took down two vintage collections, Prepared for the Worst and For the Sake of Argument. Pay dirt, immediately. The latter book fell open to a 1991 discussion of the Middle East on the eve of the first Gulf War:

Today, the tilt is toward Saudi Arabia. A huge net of bases and garrisons has been thrown over the Kingdom of Saud, with a bonanza in military sales and a windfall (for some) to accompany  it. This tilt, too, has its destabilizing potential. But the tilt also has its compensations, not the least being that the Realpoliticians might still get to call the global shots from Washington. Having taken the diplomatic lead, engineered the UN Security Council resolutions, pressured the Saudis to let in foreign troops, committed the bulk of these troops, and established itself as the only credible source of Intelligence and interpretation of Iraqi plans and mood, the Bush administration publicly hailed a new multilateralism. Privately, Washington’s Realpols gloated: We were the superpower—Deutschmarks and yen be damned.

Generally, it must be said that Realpolitik has been better at dividing than at ruling. Take it as a whole since Kissinger called on the Shah in 1972, and see what the harvest has been. . . . [T]he forces of secularism, democracy and reform have been dealt appalling blows. And all these crimes and blunders will necessitate future wars. That is what US policy has done, or helped to do, to the region. What has the same policy done to America? A review of the Pike Commission, the Iran-Contra hearings, even the Tower Report and September’s perfunctory House inquiry into the Baker-Kelly-Glaspie fiasco, will disclose the damage done by official lying, by hostage-trading, by covert arms sales, by the culture of secrecy, and by the habit of including foreign despots in meetings and decisions that are kept secret from American citizens. By Election Day the Gulf build-up had brought about the renewal of a moribund consensus on national security, the disappearance of the bruited “peace dividend” (“If you’re looking for it,” one Pentagon official told a reporter this past fall, “it just left for Saudi Arabia”), and the re-establishment of the red alert as the preferred device for communicating between Washington and the people.

Implicit in these remarks is a view of American foreign policy as deeply, characteristically arrogant, callous, and deceitful. (And this only since 1972—before that, in Indochina, it was genocidal.) Hitchens never repudiated this view, though he appeared to have forgotten that he’d once espoused it. Mightn’t he have remembered one day, leafing though his old volumes, and felt a mischievous impulse to twit his new friends at the State Department and the Council on Foreign Relations with a reminder that their adopted darling still despised them?

A second pass at the same collection. Again, immediate success. Savaging the Perot campaign, he asks:

And where did anyone get the brainless opinion that the super-rich are too wealthy to steal? Such naivete! This is an illusion even more silly than its more attractive opposite—that the abolition of poverty would diminish crime. Since nobody in this abundant plutocracy has ever really tried to abolish poverty, we have no empirical test of the idealist proposition. But from Ford to Hughes to Iacocca and Trump and the other tycoon redeemers, we have an exact demonstration that nobody is more covetous and greedy than those who have far too much.

Surely a contrarian who remembered writing this, while now enjoying the lavish hospitality of Vanity Fair and the Hoover Institution, would feel irresistibly tempted to remind the latter that the society they are dedicated to protecting from radical criticism is a crass plutocracy, and the former that nobody is more covetous and greedy than the rich rabble whom they celebrate from month to month?

Much deeper than any principles was Hitchens’s romantic temperament. He was an average reasoner, not very rigorous or original. But he felt intensely and vividly, and he had a keen, even if erratic, moral imagination. Most to the point, he was a stubborn fucker, who liked to contradict people. It’s possible that, if he’d lived to a ripe old age, he would have gone to his grave without having disturbed the self-satisfaction of his admirers among the Very Serious People. I would have bet against it. But we’ll never know.

Image: "Some folks in the nosebleed seats at the Christopher Hitchens event at Herbst Theater. I don't know anyone else who could have come to a public event in San Francisco and gotten people to actually applaud the war in Iraq." From Blue$treak at Flickr.com.

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  • George Scialabba
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