Untimely Observations

Confessions of a Godless Man


I've found that no matter how revolting I find someone's views, it's impossible to dislike him if he's willing and able to provide an interesting analysis of his own psychology, motivations, and fears. (That is if he's got some other talent besides talking about himself, unlike many of the professional complainers of the New Left). As anybody looking through his new memoir Hitch 22 can tell you, Christopher Hitchens is almost impossible to read without appreciating his literary style or wishing the man himself well.

To take one example from the book, here's him explaining why he finds it difficult to accept the traditional justifications for Zionism.

There's a certain amount of ambiguity in my background ... but under various reading of three codes which I don't respect much (Mosaic Law, the Nuremberg Laws, and the Israeli Law of Return) I do qualify as a member of the tribe, and any denial of that in my family has ceased with me. But I would not remove myself to Israel if it meant the continuing expropriation of another people, and if anti-Jewish fascism comes again to the Christian world -- or more probably comes to us via the Muslim world -- I already consider it an obligation to resist it wherever I live. ... The Jews will not be "saved" or "redeemed." (Cheer up: neither will anyone else.)  They/we will always be in exile whether they are in the greater Jerusalem area or not, and this is in some ways as it should be.

On the very next page, he explains his old friend Edward Said's sense of humor.

When he laughed, it was as if he was surrendering unconditionally to some guilty pleasure.  At first the very picture of professorial rectitude, with faultless tweeds, cravats, and other accoutrements (the pipe also being to the fore), he would react to a risqué remark, or a disclosure of something vaguely scandalous, as if a whole Trojan horse of mirth had been smuggled into his interior and suddenly disgorged its contents.

Hitchens is also the master of the telling anecdote or macabre detail, as when he informs the reader that Saddam Hussein had a Koran written in his blood and made a public monument out of the helmets of dead Persian soldiers, noting that if it were acceptable to world opinion, it's hard to doubt that the dictator would have created a mountain of skulls for everyone to see. Surprisingly, Hitchens at an early age found that he didn't have the "stuff" for writing fiction and instead dedicated his life to political thought.

Unfortunately, it's the very features that make him a talented polemicist and (I presume) entertaining dinner guest that lead the author to so many fallacious conclusions.

Take how he came to change his mind on the first Gulf War. Hitchens tells us that after the conflict he was riding in a car with two Kurdish soldiers when he noticed that they kept a picture of George H.W. Bush in a jogging suit on their windshield. When he inquired as to why they told him that they were only alive thanks to "your Mr. Bush." He then had a sort of moral revelation and realized how wrong the antiwar types were. Nice story and much more entertaining to read then most interventionist arguments, though personal impressions don't an argument for war make.

In the run up to the second conflict with Iraq, Hitchens met Ahmad Chalaby and found that he had read any Middle Eastern intellectual the author mentioned, knew all the Iraqi communists from the old days, and was even familiar with the phrase "permanent revolution."  Hitchens had found his new king of Mesopotamia! "Perhaps I seem too impressionable," the author writes in the understatement of the book. Someone whose heart gets this carried away can make a wonderful friend or artist but dreadful policy analyst.

Hitchens blames the war's failures on the Bush administration's incompetence, as if creating a modern democracy for one of the most rambunctious people in the world is simply a matter of efficient planning. And he only stopped believing in Chalaby when the politician joined a religious block in the Iraqi parliament.

His disillusionment with the Palestinian cause is remarkably similar. It's implied that it was a good fight until it became too influenced by the divine. Hitchens also spends a disproportionate amount of time recounting a few isolated pieces of evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime moved away from secularism in its later years, seeming not to recognize that such details could only help make the case for intervention for somebody with his pathological hatred of all religious faiths. In other works the author has tried to partly justify bombing Serbia by claiming that the Christians were blessed by priests before they went off to kill, while their Bosnian enemies were noticeably secular.  Though differences in extent of piety between rivals is never the sole reason for Hitchens to declare one side of a conflict to be in the right, the careful reader who takes the time to know the author can't help but feel that he needs to convince himself, if nobody else, that he's always advocating for the relatively godless.

Though he has a reputation for having often changed his mind, the ex-Trotskyite Hitchens has in many ways remained true to himself. He rejected from the beginning the more insane modern incarnations of the Left such as the postmodernist movement, Herbert Marcuse, and what he calls "Third World fetishism." He never stopped seeing racism and faith as the two unforgivable evils and in the last few decades has realized that these natural instincts are more prevalent among those in the developing world, hence Hitchens' new found "Americanism."

Hitchens is only the most interesting personality among the Western intellectuals who have taken in and acknowledged the successes of activists and writers like themselves, looked around at what used to be Christendom, and declared "Mission Accomplished!"  But make no mistake about it: if Hitchens and his neocon friends saw any hints of a return to traditionalism among Europeans or Americans they would show Occidental populations the same wrath they currently reserve for Muslims. (I will give Hitchens credit for at least applying his own standards consistently in the case of Israel, unlike the blatant ethnic activists who write for magazines like The Weekly Standard.)  For all his seeming idiosyncrasies and reputation as a gadfly, the story of Christopher Hitchens' political development is one we've seen before.