December 25, 2011

Where was I when Hitchens died?

Nope, I don't remember where I was or what I was doing when I heard that Christopher Hitchens died but I did remember him on the telly once, back in the 1990s, saying something like, "I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day [Kennedy] nearly killed me." I was worried that, as with so much pre-internet stuff, I wouldn't be able to find the quote, but he obviously liked the point so much he dusted it off for his 2010 memoir, Hitch-22. The New York Post liked it too. And so did I.

I remember seeing him at a London Review of Books discussion with Tariq Ali et al after the former had nailed his flag to the mast of the neo-con "war of terror" and managed to show himself to be quite a nasty racist in response to one member of the audience.

Q[uestioner]. Tariq Ali was the only one I think who mentioned that the United States is the sole global power that we have now and what we are seeing is the dawn of a new imperialism. So why is it that we are so – we, meaning the global community – why are we so content at letting America have its say regardless of what the rest of the world thinks of it. It has committed a whole host of crimes on a vast scale in international law. It is suspending civil rights as far as the al-Qaida prisoners are concerned. It is actually riding roughshod over all norms of international law and why – where is Russia, where is Japan, where are all these countries?
C[hristopher] H[itchens]. ....I will not reject the challenge from the comrade, who I would say was from the Subcontinent. I would ask him this. He wanted to know why a country that – I think I have you right, sir – was indifferent to the norms of international law, was not more opposed by Russia and China, was that how you had it? Where was Russia, you said, where is China, why do they lie down under this lawlessness? I think your question answers itself: I think you had a real nerve asking it actually, or shall I say Chechnya or Cambodia or North Korea or Tibet or Kurdistan? It wouldn’t make any difference to you – would it? – any more than if I asked you how many people are currently flooding to the borders and ports of your country to immigrate to it – or to Russia or to China. Ask yourself that. One of the greatest problems that the United States has at the present moment is that everyone wants to come and live there: they’re wondering now how generous they can be. We should all have such problems; you will never have a problem like that, and nor will your ideology

Another time, I remember him saying that the war on Afghanistan should continue unabated through Ramadan and that "I always crank up my anti-zionism at Yom Kippur", though I don't remember hearing or reading his anti-zionism, cranked up or otherwise. I can't find that one on the net. Nor can find any evidence of his anti-zionism on the net now.

What else do I remember? Yes, I remember thinking he was quite a good egg when he was on the telly with Shere Hite but also I remember wincing when he referred to her as Mademoiselle Hite, as if the Mademoiselle bit might detract from her credibility. This too was pre-net, and he can't have been as proud of that one as he was of the Kennedy remark because I can't find the Hite stuff anywhere.

So, there's a lot on the net now about "Hitch", most of which is flipping ludicrous. I suppose that's quite fitting. He was obviously quite proud of his flipping but he didn't seem to be aware of his ludicrousness. The fact that there were at least three obituaries for Hitchens in the Daily Mail show both the extent to which he had flipped and how ludicrous he had become by the time he died, though, to be fair, one of the tributes was from his brother, Peter.  Many of the obits mention George Galloway's put down of Hitchens as a "a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay". Hitchens had turned up to support some House UnAmerican Activities Committee or other against Galloway.  The Mail didn't mention that Galloway dispatched Hitchens with even greater ease than he did the committee itself and I haven't seen any of the obits mentioning the "grapple in the Apple" debate between Hitchens and Galloway courtesy of Democracy Now. Woops, that's not true. There was one which I can't place right now. It said something about the debate generating more heat than light but I am fairly sure Galloway said that himself at the end of the debate.

But there have been some very entertaining posts on the passing of Hitchens my personal fave is from Flying Rodent of the Between the Hammer and the Anvil blog. See this:
Evasion, retrenchment, misdirection, ad hominem assaults.  These were his weapons in his Great Intellectual Struggle, a cause in which he clearly regarded himself as an intellectual Field Marshall, sending his fellow word-warriors into combat.  
Pick your Iraq-related controversy, and Hitchens had a highly-conditional, deeply duplicitous argument ready for deployment.  When a survey revealed a massive death toll resulting from the war, Hitchens invoked a nebulous "some percentage" of the bodycount who were maybe, probably murderous baddies.  
What percentage?  Hitchens neither knew nor cared.  All that mattered was reducing the damage to the war effort, to allow it to continue unimpeded in all it's righteous violence.
On the torture, rape and murder of prisoners at Abu Ghraib: Bad, but not Guernica and anyway, not as bad as Saddam.  
Cindy Sheehan, a woman with some wacky opinions who also happened to be the mother of a dead US soldier?  Not so much an exploited, grieving woman as a moral blackmailer, said his angry hatchet job.  
When he was embarrassingly suckered by the obvious fraudster Ahmad Chalabi - Other candidates would be worse.  
On Iraq's horrifying civil war, a situation resulting entirely from the decision to invade in the first place - your problem, you fucking deal with it if you want to end the war so much...  Or, in one of his favourite gambits - Al Qaeda ate my homework
Louis Proyect's immediate obituary was more about Alex Cockburn's obituary and more about Cockburn himself than about Hitchens but his subsequent pointer to Reading the maps was welcome, though I don't agree that it was "the best Hitchens obit". It does provide some useful links including Proyect's own obit and Finkestein's Hitchens obituary which appeared about 9 years before Hitchens actually died:
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............
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. 
As it happens, all these years down the line, it is worth revisiting Finkelstein's piece:
an apostate is usually astute enough to understand that, in order to catch the public eye and reap the attendant benefits, merely registering this or that doubt about one's prior convictions, or nuanced disagreements with former comrades (which, after all, is how a reasoned change of heart would normally evolve), won't suffice.  For, incremental change, or fundamental change by accretion, doesn't get the buzz going: there must be a dramatic rupture with one's past.  Conversion and zealotry, just like revelation and apostasy, are flip sides of the same coin, the currency of a political culture having more in common with religion than rational discourse.  A rite of passage for apostates peculiar to U.S. political culture is bashing Noam Chomsky.  It's the political equivalent of a bar mitzvah, a ritual signaling that one has "grown up" - i.e., grown out of one's "childish" past.  It's hard to pick up an article or book by ex-radicals - Gitlin's Letters to a Young Activist, Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism… - that doesn't include a hysterical attack on him.  Behind this venom there's also a transparent psychological factor at play.  Chomsky mirrors their idealistic past as well as sordid present, an obstinate reminder that they once had principles but no longer do, that they sold out but he didn't.  Hating to be reminded, they keep trying to shatter the glass.  He's the demon from the past that, after recantation, no amount of incantation can exorcise.  
And as recently as May this year Hitchens was still attacking his former comrade, Chomsky, conveniently forgetting that his journey to the neo-con right didn't begin quite as immediately after 9/11 as he would have liked people to believe.

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