“Yes, but”: More on Hitchens and Hagiography

Reading more of the commentary on Christopher Hitchens’s death—and the reaction to those of us disinclined to join the hagiography—I’m struck by a consistent line I hear from some of his admirers and followers: “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…”  And then any one of a number of claims follow: he was a brilliant raconteur, a steadfast opponent of authoritarianism, a lovely stylist, a sensitive critic, a hilarious polemicist, a bon vivant, a loving and lovable mentor to younger journalists, a loving and lovable friend, and so on.

I want to focus on that “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but.”

First, Hitchens wasn’t just wrong on Iraq; he was wrong on the war on terror. As soon as 9/11 happened, Hitchens saw in the limited counter-terrorism effort against Al Qaeda a civilizational war against “Islamofascism.” The mere fact that I use the word “effort” is the kind of thing that would have sent him—and for a time, a great many others—into a rage. But in the end, that’s all the war on terror is—increasingly, was—and it is to his (though not only his) lasting shame that he ever saw, and longed to see, more in it than that.

Second, the problem isn’t just that Hitchens was wrong on Iraq and the war on terror; it’s how he was wrong.  As I showed in my previous post, Hitchens’s words betrayed—actually, since he made no secret of it, displayed seems the more appropriate word—a cruelty and bloodlust, a thrill for violence and apocalyptic confrontation, an almost sociopathic indifference to the victims of that violence and confrontation, that are disturbing and frightening. What’s more, he included these feelings among his reasons for wanting to fight the war on terror.

Some might consider such confessions honest and brave. They are not. What’s honest and brave is to acknowledge these feelings in oneself and to seek to curb their influence on one’s reasoning.  Not celebrating them, in the vein of politicians and propagandists in 1914 who sent men to die in vain. Hitchens’s is not the voice of the Enlightenment; it’s the voice of the men who brought that dream to an end, when they welcomed the bloodbath of the First World War as a relief from the tedium and boredom they had evidently been suffering from throughout the long nineteenth century.

Last, that people can so quickly pivot from Hitchens’s position on the war to his other virtues—and nothing in this or my previous post should be construed as a denial of at least some of those virtues—tells us something about the culture he helped create and has left behind. It’s a culture that has developed far too easy a conscience about, and sleeps too soundly amid, the facts of war.

Had Hitchens been wrong about the Soviet Union, say, in the way he was wrong about Iraq, there’d be no forgiveness, no loving memories of late-night drinks and dinners. That’s not merely because the Soviet Union was the enemy of the United States or a murderous tyranny or because Iraq was an American war. It’s because we have come to a point in our culture where war is viewed as a neutral tool of state or an instrument of national salvation and human progress—and, in either case, as something that simply does not touch “us” in its concrete facts of blood and death. Us being the people who are not the victims of our wars and the men and women who are not required to fight those wars.

I said in my previous post that Hitchens was not an internationalist but a narcissist. Reading the commentary since his death, it’s become clear to me that he had plenty of company.


  1. Brahmsky December 18, 2011 at 2:38 pm | #

    He was right about Iraq. Ask the Kurds.

    • Bruce Wilson January 6, 2012 at 8:32 am | #

      Ask the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead.

      • Bullshiter BigLebowski January 6, 2012 at 10:01 am | #

        1.) By this logic, you cant start any war.

        In Second WW there are something like 60-70 millions of dead. But in concentration camps killed just about 10% of this? Even if you count the people who was killed because of Hitler expanding politics (which i suppose you dont do in Saddams case and with wars with Iran or Kuwajt), the number of casualties will be always bigger…

        Even if we starts war with Mao or Stalin, there will always be with our current technology higher numbers of war cassualties…

        2.) And it was not only the Kurds. What about Shiites? What about women and their rights (thats a half of population)? What about all the people who can participate in election of their government? In 2010 elections there were 62.4% of Iraqis who votes. How it would be possible without the war?

        • barbara a fitzpatrick January 6, 2012 at 1:07 pm | #

          Seems like a lot of people dead for a sham democracy. I think your name says it all

      • Eduard Grebe January 6, 2012 at 10:49 am | #

        This is now where having comments enabled on your blog becomes a liability.

      • Eduard Grebe January 6, 2012 at 10:50 am | #

        Let me clarify, I mean the way the “debate” becomes stale.

      • Bullshiter BigLebowski January 6, 2012 at 11:38 am | #

        I just dont like the articles, in which someone says that “his opponent” was wrong without pointing the facts why… And I feel that this is somehow similar…

        I appologize, because I dont know much about your work, but if you wrote some articles on this topic or refuting Hitchens arguments about Iraq war (not about some bad things which US in Iraq definitelly did, but on the whole war and if it help iraqis or definitely not), I would be happy to read it…

  2. chris y December 18, 2011 at 2:54 pm | #

    I know old people who have been working in solidarity with the Kurdish liberation struggle most of their adult lives. They have never confused it with American political intervention in Arabic Iraq.

    • Nico January 5, 2012 at 1:06 pm | #

      To Bramsky!!
      So in order to save 100 Kurds a year you need to bomb 100’000 more Iraqi civilians? What about one drone for one man?
      Ref Hitchens:::
      I also think that the image of the prosaic obnoxious british writer who enjoys excessive bourbon, writes for Vanity fair and bashes God and little nuns is perceived as cool among young progressives. I went to a talk given by him and was sitting next to a 50 years old academic/ peace activist. She was giggling every 2 minutes. Her eyes were shining listening to him. It was like seeing Richard Gere listening to the Dalai Lama. At the end of the talk we had a chat about the follies of the Iraq intervention that she did obviously not support. I asked her what she had retained from the debate. She could not come with anything really. It was his style more than his substance that people love. It’s like listening to the BBC. The substance of what they say is not superior to CNN really. It’s the way they deliver it which gives you this sense of authority. I personally could never understand anything he said. He was eating his words all the time. Very unpleasant to listen to. I think Hitchens before 9/11 is a different man that the Hitchens after 9/11 who started sleeping with Fouad Ajami and the other members of the neoncon cabale. Maybe he was just a contrarian for the sake of it or he realized he needed more money to pay his bills. So he sold out by being pro-war which simply pays better nowadays.
      RIP Hitchens

  3. John Emerson December 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm | #

    All wisdom comes from the Kurds.

    Hitchens reminds me of Norman Mailer a lot, being a Personage and a Writer.He gets a lot of credit for being able to produce interesting, well-crafted prose whenever required, and also for being colorful and vivid. It’s a fairly common type in literary history, someone who is admired because of their style, fluency, and productivity, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s any interesting substance.

    I really only became aware of Hitchens after 9/11, so I’m not conflicted at all. If I’d known and liked his earlier stuff, I might be,

  4. Grandma December 18, 2011 at 3:20 pm | #

    My all time favorite: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2007/01/hitchens200701

    God must be a woman after all.

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2011 at 3:48 pm | #

      Lizzie, I always think of you when I read that piece. Not that Hitchens would ever be influenced by actual evidence, but I always say to myself: “If only he knew my friend Lizzie Donahue…”

  5. ezeflyer December 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm | #

    Hitchens was a left wing conservative. Yes, there is such an animal– Stalin, Pol Pot, Caescescu are extreme examples of left wing conservatives or left authoritarians, interchangeable definitions.

    Conservatives are reactionaries. As a proud New York conservative, Hitchens reacted predictably to 9/11. Conservatives embrace violence. As such, he was in favor of it. Confusion arises when liberals and the left are understood to always be the same thing. In fact, unlike conservatives of left and right, liberals hold many differing opinions. That’s why they say herding liberals is like herding cats, as opposed to organizing uniform, predictable right and left wing conservatives.

  6. CK MacLeod December 18, 2011 at 3:57 pm | #

    He was right about the war on terror, just wrong about who the real enemy was – not a clash of civilizations, but a defining moment of the clash or crisis within civilization – whether the final crisis of the American Neo-Empire or a premonition of it, still an epochal shift to be confronted with one’s whole being whether one wishes that to be the case or not. The enthusiasm for the war follows in the wake of a joyous casting off of the merely reasonable: The personal and national mid-life crises become indistinguishable from each other. He becomes American in almost the same way that a man in his 50s drops his old wife for a young one, or takes up parachuting, or both, and the head-shaking judgment of peers and colleagues is just another opportunity for him to demonstrate how wonderfully invigorating he finds rejecting their influence and opinions. Greater or anyway historically more significant minds than Hitch’s have succumbed to that temptation, and the assertion that any of us would never is always premature. Could be we all do, sooner or later – the turn to religion, or for some to an unskeptically absolute skepticism that amounts to the same thing, often comes next.

  7. Erstwhile Anthropologist December 18, 2011 at 4:14 pm | #

    Once again, Corey, I think you are completely correct. I also think many of those attacking you really don’t understand what you mean by narcissism, and they don’t want to, because it is part of a larger historical-political project to whitewash (often literally) American history, in ways that make it possible for people, especially on the Right (though not only on the Right), to justify profound social inequality and stratification–and the suffering it produces. One of the commenters on your previous Hitchens post remarked that Christopher Hitchens perfectly understood his adoptive country and its ethos. I would say that this is a more accurate than she may realize, and the perspicacity of her observation links to what you have written about Christopher Hitchens’s implication to, with, and in contemporary US cultures of narcissism: the “sociopathic indifference” for which you rightly criticize Christopher Hitchens is *foundational* to the US after all. The foundational documents of this country encouraged such sociopathic indifference, because it takes sociopathic indifference to enslave other human beings and to rationalize and legitimize so doing. We are a nation rooted in the ‘us’/not ‘us’ oppositions of racial slavery, genocide, and radicalized dispossession, and all of the lack of empathy and sociopathic indifference such a history conditions. We are a settler society and a post-slave society and a post-colony. ‘American exceptionalism’ is narcissism that encourages us to forget all this, especially at times of war, so as to justify our own imperialist military actions–and so as to encourage a sociopathic indifference to the suffering of the foreign victims of our wars: they are not ‘us’.

    I think it is noteworthy that you were the only person who responded to my comments on your previous post. It makes me wonder how much many Americans are willing to be truly, deeply critical and honest about the ‘us’/not ‘us’ distinctions they have, the distinctions we, as a nation (i.e. ‘culture’) have and share; and what this means for those who, as a nation, we care about or don’t, see as valuable and worthless human life.

    As I wrote in my my previous comment, bodies are social locations, so we need to be honest about the ways in which Christopher Hitchens writing was about his white male social location. This social fact is borne out by the Matt Carr post link you provided, where Carr writes the following about Hitchens: “All this was combined with a spiteful, sneering and vindictive  contempt for anyone who thought differently, whether it was the Dixie Chicks (‘fucking fat slags’) or Cindy Sheehan, whose anti-war campaign was dismissed by Hitchens as ‘the sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates’.” This casual misogyny was absolutely about Hitchens’s social location as a white male. About the naturalized gender binaries that we, as a nation, accept.

    I think many people are narcissist because they really do not want to do the hard work of self-reflexivity, don the Rawlsian veil of ignorance, and understand their embodied social location and the ‘us’/not ‘us’ distinctions it makes possible. Narcissism of this kind militates against empathy, and is the condition of possibility for sociopathic indifference of the kind you have pointed out. It also makes it easy to be blind to the unpleasant social facts (in the Durkheimian sense) of how one’s own privilege–by virtue of embodied social location and the social stratification through which it is produces–comes at the expense of those constructed and perceived as ‘not us’.

    • CK MacLeod December 18, 2011 at 4:39 pm | #

      I think it is noteworthy that you were the only person who responded to my comments on your previous post.

      We’re all most interested in ourselves. How many other comments did YOU specifically respond to? Were your comments the only ones worthy of discussion?

      the “sociopathic indifference” for which you rightly criticize Christopher Hitchens is *foundational* to the US after all.

      The definition of any “society” as such – as the definition of any subject at all, individual or collective – depends logically upon division from and negation of some other. In that sense, “sociopathology” and “society” require each other, and, from the ideal universalist perspective, the same thing.

      “Society” always falls short of the ideal universalism that among other things already defines the society of ideal-universalists. You’re inevitably as in-/differentiating as anyone else: Subjectivity divides.

      So I like your statement, even though/because it reduces to a truism with just a bit of re-writing: “Effective indifference… is ‘foundational’ to any ‘us’ at all.” The US is no different from any other “us” in that regard: Here friend, there enemy, in between the ground we fight to the death over, since the designations themselves will be issue, and are always all-important. (What’s different is that we are living within, perhaps emerging from, perhaps not, we’re finding out, an era defined by the US us.)

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 18, 2011 at 5:28 pm | #

        But I did respond to other people’s comments, that is precisely why my comment was about the body: I was responding to all the comments about ‘the body not yet being cold’. Thought this was obvious. But interesting that you were quick to claim otherwise so as to call me a narcissist. And I didn’t exculpate myself of implication in the narcissism I criticized: after all, I did write ‘we’ Americans, and I am thus included.

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 19, 2011 at 11:58 am | #

        Though I’m sure it was not your intention, given its abhorrent moral and ethical implications, it is troubling that your ‘all society’s have us/them divisions’ response is also a de facto apology for slavery and genocide. While all societies are socially stratified, not all forms of social stratification are equally–or equally inequitable, sociopathic, and/or dehumanizing. As the anthropologist John Ogbu explained, racial stratification is a substantively different form of social stratification. In your response, you did something that I have observe happen often in discussions where the contemporary manifestations and historical legacy of our nation’s white-supremacist origins–including present day white privilege, unacknowledged as it normally is, if not disavowed and overlooked entirely, as the recent studies from Tufts and the Greenlining Institute have demonstrated–is raised: you just completely ignored this troubling historical fact, waved it away as it were, by saying that it is simply another simple us/them distinction and that “sociopathology” goes hand in hand with society.

        Given what I have already written about bodies as social locations, I can’t help but wonder how your body and it’s social location factor into such an easy dismissal. If you are white–and male–it would be much easier not to need to think about the messy facts/historical realities of race and gender to which I was calling attention.

        Again, it is interesting how you misread my previous comments–saying I did not respond directly to others’ comments, though I clearly did–so as to call me a narcissist. This misreading allowed you to evade the real crux of my comment, while engaging in the very whitewashing as historical-political project (in defense of extant race/gender hierarchies and inequality), that I was foregrounding in the first place.

        • CK MacLeod December 19, 2011 at 4:22 pm | #

          I could spend all day, and probably further days, replying to your comments, Erstwhile. I hope that you will not (continue to) take my inability to respond in detail to everything you bring up as a lack of interest or appreciation.

          For now, I’d like to note that I never called you a “narcissist.” I called you a human being like others, condemned to begin with yourself, from your own vantage point, never more than a half-step ahead of your own shadow. I made parallel points about the United States and indeed about Christopher Hitchens. Whether, for instance, one chooses to highlight the codification of great failings and evils in the American founding documents, or instead see the codification of great progress and promise, or both, can be taken as an arbitrary if not entirely self-interested decision, at least in the absence of some larger framework or context. The same applies, I think, to what aspects of the whole of the life of a man like Hitchens we choose to focus on.

          Otherwise, there is much about which you and I agree, and I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to emphasize, re-emphasize, and extend upon the subjects that you consider to be most important. To say much more to any purpose would require us, I think, to develop a mutually understood and agreed-upon framework of the sort I was just mentioning. When, for instance, you invoke “abhorrent moral and ethical implications” and refer to a “de facto apology for slavery and genocide,” I would need to know what moral and ethical precepts you are applying, or believe applicable, to this discussion (and to this discussion of a discussion).

          I’ll just say at this point that I think I detect the outlines of a familiar set of arguments that once upon a time would have fallen under the heading of theodicy, and that in notionally post-theistic and post-modern contexts still lead us, in my view, to the same places. From a certain perspective “slavery and genocide” are indeed the defining and inescapable characteristics of human life on Earth as we know it – slavery or death as the choice offered to the subjects of history, history itself to be understood as the overcoming of slavery and genocide, and otherwise not history at all, but merely an arbitrary recitation of incidents.

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 19, 2011 at 8:33 pm | #

        I am not taking recourse to theodicy, we are just having two very different conversations at this point. I am talking about the suffering of real people/bodies, from an anthropological perspective. As I read you, you are having an ideal-type philosophical conversation: slavery and genocide as ideals, disembodied and non-specific. As a thought experiment the latter approach may be fine, but as a way to prevent suffering to real people/bodies, I prefer grounding analysis in the anthropological record and historical fact. Disembodied theorizing is just too dangerous given how real bodies are differentially positioned, especially in relation to slavery and genocide.

        • CK MacLeod December 19, 2011 at 10:01 pm | #

          Disembodied theorizing is just too dangerous…

          Ol Hitch couldna said it better.

  8. barbara a fitzpatrick December 18, 2011 at 5:07 pm | #

    I used to enjoy reading Mr. Hitchens in the Nation, and was always impressed with his intellect, breadth of knowledge, and ability to write. However I was appalled by the war mongering, and many of his later views.

    I didn’t know Mr. Htichens: I read him and saw him on television. In my opinion he often came across as an intellectual bully boy, needlessly pugnacious, haughty, and absolutely incapable of admitting that he was wrong due to his narcissism even if it required tortuous reasoning as in his attack on the Chomsky article in Guernica.

    As to speaking ill of the dead: The hagiography needs a corrective, and I applaud C. R. for having the courage to put it out there.

    Thank you.

  9. A.S. December 18, 2011 at 5:42 pm | #

    As someone who now looks back on his college-age enthusiasm for America’s imperial disasters with shame and embarrassment, and as a Hitchens fan, I do wish there had been more of a sense of contrition in the final years about his role in the Iraq fiasco. But except from a position of absolute pacifism, where no one should endorse war ever lest s/he lose “Enlightenment” credentials, this is all a little extreme. I think I am a fairly conscientious reader, and I read almost everything he wrote from the 80s to the 2000s and all told I don’t see it: there is a difference between reveling in violence for violence’s sake, or because you’re bored, and in being enthusiastic about the willingness to kill bad people. I’m not saying the latter doesn’t contain all sorts of moral hazard, but it’s not quite Nietzsche and D’Annunzio either. Though, again, I’ve come to reject nearly everything about our foreign policy in the 2000s, I still have little doubt that not only Al Qaeda but also most of the Iraqi insurgency was every bit as vile as Hitchens made them out to be: the dregs of the old regime mixed with Iranian-backed fanatics. And I also do not think Hitchens was totally wrong to make the point that the Hussein regime was the kind of fascistic thugocracy whose overthrow at least some portions of the left over some of its history might have been expected to consider progressive. The Enlightenment was not ALL flowers and international conferences, though I share the hope that someday they will be the only game in town.

    • Bill Jones December 18, 2011 at 8:41 pm | #

      Any idea how Hussein’s “fascist thugocracy” bodycount measures up to that of the U,S’s?

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2011 at 10:45 pm | #

      A.S. I didn’t say Hitchens reveled in violence for violence’s sake; I said he displayed “a thrill for violence.” There’s a difference. That thrill for violence is evidenced by quotes like the ones I cited in my previous post as well as this — “It’s them or me. I’m very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it’s also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all” — and this: “Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect.” (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2005/seymour261105.html) That doesn’t preclude that the violence is for the sake of a cause (more on that in a moment). But it also doesn’t preclude an extra thrill at the violence itself. And a thrill at the shock value of saying such things, which — you’re wrong — is straight out of D’Annunzio’s bag of tricks. As was Hitchens’s constant invocation throughout the war on terror of the question of boredom versus excitement. Again not just in the quotes I previously cited but in this one as well: “I am prepared for this war to go on for a very long time. I will never become tired of waging it, because it is a fight over essentials. And because it is so very *interesting*.” (“It’s a Good Time For War,” Boston Globe, 9/8/02, emphasis in original)

      But it’s hardly news that Hitchens was always hungry for a cause. David Runciman, no lefty radical, offered the definitive take on his political romanticism, which Runciman explicitly compared to Schmitt’s take on that question. (http://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n12/david-runciman/its-been-a-lot-of-fun) And like the WWI generation, Hitchens believed that the worth of the cause — and one’s commitment to it — was best demonstrated by how far you were willing to go in pursuit of it. Though, in fairness to the WWI generation, that meant not just killing but dying for it. Hitchens, of course, was not willing, personally, to do either.

      As for the “vileness” of Al Qaeda, it hardly took Hitchens to convince one of that. Their alliance with the Taliban, the latter which feminists had been talking about throughout the late 90s, was well known, and if anyone had any doubts, I think 9/11 pretty much sealed the deal. If after 9/11 you were looking to Hitchens for guidance on *that* particular question, well, you needed to read the papers more.

      Lastly, progressives would have been more than happy to see the overthrow of the Hussein regime — as they cheered the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia. Where they balked was over whether it should be the United States military that would do the job of that overthrow. You’re right that there is a lineage on the left that welcomes the intervention of imperial powers in despotic Third World regimes — some on the British left cheered Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia — but it’s not a lineage many of us would like to see continued.

      • A.S. December 18, 2011 at 11:53 pm | #

        I see what you are saying, and at this point, as I said, I cede most of the moral authority to those who opposed the invasion from the jump. But looking back on those years I still think a lot of the left (or, to be precise, the campus and blogosphere left that I was familiar with) simply refused to answer a pertinent question that Hitchens kept asking. It’s a “the perfect is the enemy of the good” sort of thing. The invasion and occupation played out quickly; a civil war fueled largely by Ba’athist die-hard and Iranian-backed fundamentalist resistance to a power-sharing arrangement framed the bulk of the American involvement; what, in such circumstances, was the moral position? There are many reasons to say, “pull out immediately,” and it did not take me long (though in retrospect, any amount of time was too long) to endorse that. But the pursuit of many goals familiar to the left, I think, gave at least some good reasons to support our defeat of the Iraqi insurgency. This is why I do not buy the description of Hitchens as simply Fight Club with some Orwell quotations conveniently attached.

      • Rosa Luxembourgeoise December 18, 2011 at 11:58 pm | #

        Runciman’s remarkably lucid review of Hitch-22 strikes me as having the strongest explanatory power with respect to Hitchens and a few others (I’ll admit to having thought of precisely this phenomenon–some iteration of political romanticism– in reading Corey’s Fear with respect to Gourevitch and Power on Rwanda/Yugoslavia: they’d finally found their Spanish Civil War, at perhaps lower cost.) Does it necessarily follow that progressives–whatever that could mean–should emote positively about the overthrow of, for instance, Ben Ali, with very little epistemic grasp of what is going on (including the pedigree and financing of the political opposition)?

        Back to Hitchens, though. Robin’s reflections are more than welcome. I am hard pressed to find anything decent in the Hitch, though I take no joy in his death. There was never anything funny or clever about his ruling class wit–revolutionary socialism notwithstanding–but it sure looks like mileage can, and does indeed vary. He seemed, above all, very afraid: of uncertainty, of ambiguity, of women: what we used to call a coward, before we called cowards brilliant stylists.

    • voltayre December 19, 2011 at 1:17 am | #

      Vilification of the Hussein regime “fascistic thugocracy” constitutes a digression from the central condition–this regime was swamped in violence. The same, however, must be said of the architects of the invasion/occupation of Iraq. Choosing to embrace one and condemn the other, or to support either violence, requires an explanation. Instead, Hitchens offered a Judeo-Christian identification of Islamic evil. Was the shock-and-awe bombing of Baghdad less evil than the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds? Hitchens did not understand that all practices of violence are morally equivalent. His embracing of the shock-and-awe brigade rendered him part of a crew of fascistic thugs.

  10. A.S. December 18, 2011 at 5:54 pm | #

    Sorry, forgot the other point:

    “Had Hitchens been wrong about the Soviet Union, say, in the way he was wrong about Iraq, there’d be no forgiveness, no loving memories of late-night drinks and dinners”

    This seems myopic – though I don’t have their real-time obits at my fingertips, I can think of plenty of fellow-travelling intellectuals and writers whose enthusiasm for the crimes of communist regimes is ignored, or at least generally assumed not to figure in to their posthumous reputation. GB Shaw, Neruda, Sartre, etc etc. Hell, in our little political theory fiefdom you’ll even meet people who tell you it’s the height of intellectual provincialism to worry about Heidegger or Schmitt’s never-atoned-for Nazi episodes.

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm | #

      If I’m reading your age correctly from the previous comment — it sounded as if you were in college in the early 2000s — you’re too young to remember how Sartre was treated throughout the 80s and especially the 90s. When Jim Aronson wrote his book on Sartre and Camus in the early aughts, it was one of the first attempts to break through a name that had become non grata. And remember: Sartre, like Neruda (though far more so), was far far more critical of the Soviet Union and of Stalinism than Hitchens ever was of the Iraq War. He denounced the invasion of Hungary, and totally reconsidered many of his positions by the late 60s and 70s. But there is also a critical difference in the cases you cite from Hitchens’s case: these were figures who were primarily valued for their contributions outside the political realm: for Sartre, literature and philosophy; for Neruda, poetry; for Shaw, drama; for Brecht (whom you don’t mention but who is the closest figure to what you’re talking about), his poetry and drama. Hitchens is a completely different animal. He is the political man par excellence. He has no body of work outside of that realm; though many value his literary criticism, I doubt it will go down in the class of Edmund Wilson or other earlier public intellectuals. And here is where things get even more interesting. Hitchens rightly said that on the major issues of the 20th century, what made Orwell great was that he got three things right: imperialism, fascism, the Soviet Union. And earlier than most. And at great cost to himself. But when you look back on Hitchens’s career, as Kevin Drum did, you find that during the 80s he was kind of a lackluster Trot; in the 90s, he was going after Clinton for the Lewinsky affair. And in the aughts, well, we know where he stood there. It seems to me that when it came to politics, his positions were either not all that remarkable — he opposed the Gulf War, he opposed Reagan, etc. — and in the one case where they ostensibly were (taking the line he took after 9/11, which was not at all out of step with most of America), he was disastrously wrong. So…where we might say that Sartre’s career, like Neruda’s or Shaw’s or Brecht’s or Hobsbawms’, involves a lasting body of work that transcends the positions they took on the issues of the day, I don’t see that really in Hitchens’s case. In 20 years, what are you going to look back to in the way we look back at Orwell’s essays, both political and non-political? His stance on Mother Teresa? Claiming Henry Kissinger was a war criminal? Please.

      • BillC December 18, 2011 at 11:58 pm | #

        When Jim Aronson wrote his book on Sartre and Camus in the early aughts, it was one of the first attempts to break through a name that had become non grata.

        I learned from Aronson’s book that the lionized Gallic “Moral Giant” who spoke out against Soviet totalitarianism, Camus–as opposed to the fellow traveler Sartre, who as you pointed out decisively chucked his pro-Soviet bias after the ’56 Hungarian Uprising–maintained a polite silence on not just Algeria–which as a colon he could well be forgiven for not being objective enough–but on Indochina and Madagascar as well, the last being an almost unknown colonial campaign in which almost 90,000 were slaughtered in the aftermath of the Great War for Democracy to maintain French colonial rule. On Algeria, this “beautiful soul” whose Cold War stance is lauded for its “moral clarity” came up with ever novel notions that were labeled ‘multicultural’:

        Camus “opposed extremism and violence on both sides” and “favored a multicultural Algeria…But it must be said that this “multicultural” vision presupposed French rule over Algeria. “I believe in justice,” Camus said, “but I shall defend my mother above justice.” This meant seeking solutions well short of majority rule and self-determination for Algerian Muslims, including bizarre schemes evocative of later Afrikaner designs to retain power in South Africa.

      • A.S. December 19, 2011 at 12:07 am | #

        Many, like Sartre, who finally turned against Leninism/Stalinism after X outrage (and it seems to me, on the criteria of this discussion, that if you didn’t denounce it by around 1921 a la Bertrand Russell, you got it wrong) – doctors plot, Hungary, etc. – were just as enthusiastic for Mao and Ho Chih Minh a decade later. I don’t hold that against Sartre’s reputation, though he wrote a good amount of philosophy and literary essays that are preposterous and virtually unreadable, alongside the good amount that are important. And 20 years from now I will still be recommending many of Hitchens’ writings to whoever cares what I think.

      • William McJunkin December 19, 2011 at 5:23 pm | #

        In 20 years, what are you going to look back to in the way we look back at Orwell’s essays, both political and non-political? His stance on Mother Teresa? Claiming Henry Kissinger was a war criminal? Please.

        Well said. And though I suppose one could argue his atheistic polemics will stand up as a epoch-transcending position, I very much doubt it.

  11. Seth Edenbaum December 18, 2011 at 6:45 pm | #

    You’ve responded to the hagiographers, but not to any arguments from substance. As with Hitchens in the last decade of his life and as with the conservatives you mock, you’ve divided the world into Us and Them. Similarly, you could have engaged in a debate with Sheri Berman but you chose not to.

    • redscott December 18, 2011 at 8:36 pm | #

      Or the lack of any arguments from substance. The point of this post was to criticize a guy who neither before, during, nor after seemed to have any regret about the unjustified invasion of another country, leading to the deaths of a couple hundred thousand people and the displacement and immiseration of millions. Robin thought this was a bad thing. What’s the counter to that? I’ve seen your posts and still haven’t seen any specific rejoinder to it.

    • Corey Robin December 19, 2011 at 1:25 am | #

      Dude, I wrote a lengthy response to Berman’s review of my book. Then, after Andrew Sullivan took up her response to my response, I wrote an even lengthier response to that response. Aside from inviting her over to dinner, what else would you have me do?

      • Seth Edenbaum December 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm | #

        I thought it stopped after her response in Dissent, and you saying that she’d said nothing new. I guess I missed something.

        I’ll add this here rather than above:
        So compared to Sartre, Neruda, Shaw, and Brecht, Hitchens is minor. Who would argue with that? There are many more names we could put on that list. Here’s another story from his sad decline, or maybe it was less a decline than him at his worst:

        I did a search for the term “Zionism” on this page, and found my own comments; a search for “Nakba” found nothing. You indulge simple moralism concerning some things and about others you’re more circumspect. It’s the moralism that’s the problem not the partiality. Partiality is human.

  12. William McJunkin December 18, 2011 at 7:15 pm | #

    I’m generally sympathetic to your critique, but I’m struck by this line:

    It’s because we have come to a point in our culture where war is viewed as a neutral tool of state or an instrument of national salvation and human progress—and, in either case, as something that simply does not touch “us” in its concrete facts of blood and death.

    Here I’m tempted to conclude that you’re in danger of an overhasty dismissal of a certain strain of conservative thought that we don’t hear much from these days — perhaps because this current of right wing thought is either virtually extinct, or is condemned/dismissed as being confined to the obviously pathological confines of a neo-fascist right — and that is what I would call a Nietzschean kind of nihilism that revels in blood lust and was as part of a life-defining Yeah-saying of power and force. This line of nihilistic, war-loving nihilism was perhaps best embodied in the early 20th C by the German writer, Ernst Jünger.

    This perhaps occurs to me in this context because of your mention of World War I. In any case, I haven’t yet read your Reactionary Mind, so I don’t know if you take up this type of conservative thought in some form, and if you do, whether you attempt to explain its seeming absence from our current scene. But it occurs to me that there could be something of this tendency at work in Hitchens enthusiastic embrace of the “War on terror”.

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2011 at 10:03 pm | #

      This is a major theme in my book, occupying virtually the entirety of the second half. Where you think this stream of thought is gone, however, I argue that is alive and well.

  13. edward December 18, 2011 at 7:26 pm | #

    Hitchens was a cosmopolitan, and consistent opponent of tyranny and advocate of revolutionary change. The Far-Left in this country has adopted a policy of pacifism and isolationism that tends to promote the international status quo. You seem grieved by Iraq, but not Syria, I assume because you believe it’s an indigenous matter. Hitchens, the cosmopolitan, would disagree. So would Orwell, Paine, Trotsky all of his heros To deny his internationalism or your own isolationism is dishonest.

    “Had Hitchens been wrong about the Soviet Union…” Well first many leftist heros did get the Soviet Union wrong, and went to their graves wrong. Hitchen’s didn’t get Saddam’s Iraq wrong exactly, he was a hated dictator, and nobody really fought for him. What he got wrong was the depth of sectarian hatred in Iraq, which is what led to most of the bloodshed.Hard to blame an Atheist for that.

    • voltayre December 19, 2011 at 1:54 am | #

      No “cosmopolitan” would refer to someone as a “black dyke.” His analysis of ‘race’ revealed an innocent acceptance of racial classification. Cosmopolitanism, at least in the writings of Anthony Appiah and Amartya Sen, locates blackness and whiteness in logically and ethically deficient intellectual traditions. No “consistent opponent of tyranny” would support an invasion/occupation of a country that leaves hundreds of thousands dead and millions of devastated lives. Hitchens’s response to criticisms of his selective opposition to violence was moral denunciation of critics and the victims–“Islamofascists”– of the violence he advocated.

  14. JustinP December 18, 2011 at 7:46 pm | #


    I appreciate that you, Greenwald, and others have taken it upon yourselves to highlight the “underside” of Hitchens’ work. He gave no quarter (even in death, as the Falwell family knows) so he deserves none. To his credit, I think that he’d agree and I believe that he wouldn’t expect it or ask for it.

    After reading the critique above, however, I am left with a couple of thoughts.

    First, I think that you need to do a better job deciding if you are criticizing Hitchens or a media that revels in selective glorfication. Hitchens obviously had no role in deciding how he would be remembered by those in the press so if your frustration is with the “hagiography” then I’d encourage you to whom you are responding and to confront them directly. This goes for your point about the consequences (or lack thereof) for being wrong about Iraq. Hitchens was (in my opinion) wrong about Iraq but again, he did not create the culture that made being wrong about this war okay. He might have benefited from it and you are right to point that out but this seems to be misdirected anger.

    One thing that I think we can say about Hitchens is that he was never afraid to name names – another quality that I appreciated – and I’d encourage you to follow suit. In fact, I think it’s a cop out not to.

    Next, to your point about the War on Terror and the part that Hitchens played in it. I agree that his cheerleading was grotesque and that the quotes you pull in your previous post are disgusting. I also agree that American culture generally is far to comfortable with war because those in the public generally are at very little risk of losing their lives in our dirty little wars.

    That said, I find some of your critique to be both over-simplified and exaggerated almost to the point of being not useful. For example, I think that anybody who watches his November 2001 interview with Charlie Rose or his November 2010 interview with Jeremy Paxman on the BBC, or reads this Vanity Fair article on waterboarding (or a variety of others) or some of his other work in The Atlantic would walk away with a more nuanced and more honest picture of his views on the war on terror. To claim, for example, that he is “anti-enlightenment” and to use as justification for that claim quotes from two articles in the Nation is both wrong, unfairly simplistic, and a willful misrepresentation of his huge body of work.

    Hitchens was often infuriating and like you I often found myself disgusted by positions he took or things he wrote. At the same time, I often found myself relieved by, encouraged by, and emboldened by positions he took or things he wrote. So while we all owe it to ourselves and others to voice our disgust with positions like the ones you highlight above, I think it is wrong to dismiss him in the way that you want to. In the end, he made people angry and he made people think and that’s to be commended.

  15. Corey Robin December 19, 2011 at 12:20 am | #

    A.S.: “This is why I do not buy the description of Hitchens as simply Fight Club with some Orwell quotations conveniently attached.” You’ve managed to nip and tuck Hitchens’s post-9/11 position to ever smaller and smaller pieces of the decade. If Hitchens is, *for you*, simply the man who raised some ethical questions post-invasion of Iraq of what the United States should do about a disastrous civil war, then, yes, I can see why you would choose to see him as you do. But if Hitchens is the man he actually was — that is, the man who did and said everything he did and said after 9/11 — well then the judgment about his romanticism of war has a little bit more to recommend it.

    • Philip Wohlstetter December 19, 2011 at 5:25 am | #

      One act that never seems to lose its appeal to the American media is ‘The God that Failed’ syndrome–the title of a notorious 50’s book where ex-Commies confessed the errors of their ways. Saint Orwell and Saint Camus are the approved spiritual guides for this gesture. Hitch was a contemporary pilgrim on this well-trodden (and well-remunerated) road. How many of his neocon admirers celebrated his fearless honesty when he skewered the Churchill Cult in ‘Blood, Class, and Nostalgia’? Don’t waste time looking for any. The bellicose Churchill is, for most conservatives, the very model of the modern statesman (as opposed to, say, the more farsighted and infinitely more mature Lincoln, viewed on the Right as a statist and Stalinist avant la lettre–see Thomas Di Lorenzo). Someone should do a “Last Honest Intellectual of the Month” piece that would list all the various candidates that have been offered up over the last fifty years to steer us away from the bewitchments of the Sartres and Zizeks. My own pet peeve is Bernhard Henri-Levy. Whenever the New Yorker prints one its surveys of ‘the intellectual scene in France’, somehow this booby always finds his way into it, usually in the company of Andre Glucksmann and (until his death) Jean-Francois Revel. B-H-L is usually presented over here as a representative of ‘the Left’, which he then proceeds to scold. Needless to say, or maybe it should be said, there were always plenty of smart, admirable, principled members of the actual French Left who could have been introduced to Americans (Pierre-Vidal Naquet, for example, critic of torture in Algeria, of Holocaust deniers, of Israel policy, not to mention a superb classicist) but that would dissolve the stereotype of the blinkered and morally obtuse French theorist that we need as a reminder of our own virtue and that B-H-L needs to do his Last Honest Intellectual Act. By the way, Ron (not Jim) Aronson is the author of ‘Camus and Sartre’, a lucid and fair book.

  16. Nacona Nix December 19, 2011 at 2:19 am | #

    For someone as gifted at producing the kind of overly-simplistic, largely substance-less, ad-hominem-laden and unapologetic “snark”that typifies so much of your latest collection of essays, I am surprised that you did not admire Christopher Hitchens and regard him as an intellectual kindred spirit of sorts, if not a role model.

    To offer but one example, neither one of you took the pseudo-philosophical ravings of Ayn Rand or her fawning acolytes seriously enough to pen an intellectually thorough critique, yet both of you thought it worthwhile to write thoroughly derisive and dismissive accounts of her doctrines and lament their influence on contemporary politics and culture. (The first 3 sentences of “Garbage and Gravitas” is golden, by the way.) You say that Christopher Hitchens is not the voice of the Enlightenment, but I think both of you adopt its characteristic tone: full of ridicule and invective, satisfied with shaming one’s opponents into submission rather than making the full-throated reasoned argument against them. Hitchens’s stance on the Iraq war and terrorism may have had more pernicious and far-reaching consequences than your book decrying conservatives as the opposition to all things good and progressive, but his penchant for the propagandistic is the same as yours. Hitchens could not let Mother Theresa’s reputation stand unchallenged in life; you can’t allow his reputation to go unchallenged in death.

  17. tina December 19, 2011 at 4:40 am | #

    I think he, like his brother, was a bullying asshat.

    • Mark December 19, 2011 at 8:26 am | #
      • Sceptic December 23, 2011 at 4:19 am | #

        Not really, since that story is very obviously false. Read the two comments on the article.

      • Mark January 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm | #


        The comments say nothing. The article describes the thuggish use of others Hitchens was famous for during his lifetime. I look forward to verification of the story by a biographer.

  18. Samir Chopra December 19, 2011 at 9:44 am | #

    Has anyone implicated the English school system in their analysis of Hitchens yet? A fellow blogger and friend (and Englishman) described Hitchens as “an alcoholic who viewed the world through the lens of a debating society”? That description struck me as particularly apt. If you ever went to a English-style boarding school, and witnessed debating society encounters, you would be familiar with Hitchens as a particular type of schoolboy: good at his books, capable of endless witticisms, but also the kind that hoped the blustery form of his rhetorical positioning would artfully disguise the vacuity of the actual argument. And, yes, spiteful. (For the record, I’ve forgotten where Hitchens went to school).

    • Corey Robin December 19, 2011 at 11:17 pm | #

      Samir, Alan Ryan, who’s an English political theorist (one of Hitchens’s teachers at Oxford, in fact), and I talked about this exact question on FB. One more reason you really do need to sign up…

      • Bill December 22, 2011 at 3:57 am | #

        What is FB?

      • Eduard December 25, 2011 at 7:32 pm | #

        Would it not be much better to have these conversations on the open web rather than inside Facebook’s walled garden?

  19. lauren December 19, 2011 at 3:46 pm | #

    What I find hilarious is this notion that he was a genuine “fighter” of tyranny – all he did was pontificate and insult from a very privileged myopic existence – feted by the Beltway thinktanks, invited to salons & soirees and lectures, etc. He was nothing more than a laptop bombardier, a bully, a frustrated little soldier who actually believed himself to be in an actual war against tyranny by pontificating his thoughts to credulous Americans who love an English accent.

    • Alan Koenig December 19, 2011 at 8:35 pm | #

      “As I say, it’s enough to be at war. It’s a privilege to be at war. It really is a privilege to be at war. We’re lucky to be in the fight. Those who have no stomach for it don’t have to take part.” — Christopher Hitchens


  20. PH December 19, 2011 at 7:21 pm | #

    It’s quite possible to like your enemy. That’s how I feel about Hitchens.

  21. Gavin December 20, 2011 at 1:45 pm | #

    Brilliant sane and quite beautiful posting, thanks!

  22. Everythings Jake December 20, 2011 at 5:43 pm | #

    Maybe a coarser analysis than otherwise opined here, but I found Hitchens to be simply a mean and bellicose bile-spewing drunk, albeit he was high-functioning (increasingly less so as time passed I thought – he seemed not always present in some of the later appearances). I offer this less from judgment than experience – he reminded me far too much of myself and others I gather with regularly in the hopes of recovering from the affliction. Unfortunately the damage our kind does to others is often greater than the damage done to ourselves, and it may be that in the case of Hitchens, the damage to others was of tragic proportions.

  23. Kronki December 30, 2011 at 7:11 pm | #

    Consider these points:

    There is no generally being “right” or “wrong” about the use of force. All ethics are relative. They only become more defined the more you consider the systems standing in opposition at the time of conflict. It is an easy feat of rationality then, to basically side with the idea of a war against any given totalitarian regime at hand. There is no freedom or dignity in totalitarianism.

    Wars are always terrible and always have their good sides, too. WW2 comes to mind. I do admit that considering the hardship war undoubtedly causes, I do still sometimes find myself sitting on the fence.

    With Iraqis, I have found both views, for and against the second Gulf War. I do have to say, I think focusing on the presence of WMD was wrong. The will to have them and use them counts, and Saddam demonstrated that will with his gas attacks against the Kurds. I don’t personally need to have more evidence to want to do away with his regime.

    At least the Iraqis are now free to choose a democratically elected temporary dictator, which promises more freedom, peace and stability in the long term than a totalitarian state.

    The hour is far to early to give a complete account of America’s involvement in that region.

    Above all else, IMHO Hitchens was right.
    And for good measure:

    Grovelling at the shrine of non-violence is a completely untenable position. This position contains its own negation, in that any self-declared completely non violent person, wishing to sustain his or her existence in a world, that is a priori violent, would need the security and safety of a state police or other form of arms-bearing protective body, thereby immediately contradicting itself. The mere possibility of violence makes its de facto existence in the world an a priori necessity.

  24. Mark December 31, 2011 at 6:40 pm | #
  25. foppe January 19, 2013 at 4:34 pm | #

    Quote from an excerpt from “Unhitched” in the guardian:

    “If Hitchens refused the label of conservative, it was largely because of his peculiar understanding of historical progress. It was important for him to be on the “right side” of history, on the side of those forces which had the greatest dynamism and potential power. During his time as a leftist, there were moments when this sympathy for the powerful in history showed. He always felt, for example, that the British Empire had a progressive role in India. He wrote of Columbus Day that the extermination of the Native Americans should be celebrated as a fact of historical progress. By the end of his life, Hitchens was convinced that American capitalism was “the only revolution in town”, and that it would be “a step up” for the countries exposed to it by armed occupation.”

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