On Christopher Hitchens

June 12, 2006

In The Israel-Palestine Conflict

Editor’s note: Norman G. Finkelstein is currently writing a political memoir, which will serve as the introduction to a new edition of his book, The Rise and Fall of Palestine, to be published by New Press next year.  Below is an excerpt from the memoir on the subject of political apostasy.  The title refers to how ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens used to sign off his correspondence.

"Fraternally yours, Chris"

I’m occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist.  Even if my "faith" had lapsed, I wouldn’t advertise it, not from shame at having been wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but rather from fear of arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism.  To borrow from the lingo of a former academic fad, if, in public life, the "signifier" is "I’m no longer a Marxist," then the "signified" usually is, "I’m selling out."  No doubt one can, in light of further study and life experience, come to repudiate past convictions.  One might also decide that youthful ideals, especially when the responsibilities of family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the certainty of one’s finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear; although it might be hoped that this accommodation, however understandable (if disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an appropriate degree of humility rather than, what’s usually the case, scorn for those who keep plugging away.  It is when the phenomenon of political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and fireworks that it becomes truly repellent.

Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo. "The last thing you can be accused of is having turned your coat," Thomas Mann wrote a convert to National Socialism right after Hitler’s seizure of power.  "You always wore it the `right’ way around."  If apostasy weren’t conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions.  But that’s never been the case.  The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power’s magnetic field, rarely away.    However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light," the impetus behind political apostasy is – pardon my cynicism – a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures.  Indeed, an apostate can even capitalize on the past to increase his or her current exchange value.  Professional ex-radical Todd Gitlin never fails to mention, when denouncing those to his left, that he was a former head of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Never mind that this was four decades ago; although president of my sixth-grade class 40 years ago, I don’t keep bringing it up.  Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on the exploitation of one’s political past?  In any event, it’s hard to figure why an acknowledgment of former errors should enhance one’s current credibility.  If, by a person’s own admission, he or she had got it all wrong, why should anyone pay heed to his or her new opinions?  Doesn’t it make more sense attending to those who got there sooner rather than later?  A member of the Flat-Earth Society who suddenly discovers the world is round doesn’t get to keynote an astronomers’ convention.  Indeed, the prudent inference would seem to be, once an idiot, always an idiot.  It’s child’s play to assemble a lengthy list – Roger Garaudy, Boris Yeltsin, David Horowitz, Bernard Henri-Levy… – bearing out this commonsensical wisdom.  

Yet, 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.  

Two altogether opposed political stances can each draw an audience’s attention.  One is to be politically consistent, but nonetheless original in one’s insights; the other, an inchoate form of apostasy, is to bank on the shock value of an occasional, wildly inconsistent outburst.  The former approach, which Chomsky exemplifies, requires hard work, whereas the latter is a lazy substitute for it.  Thus Nat Hentoff, the hip (he loves jazz) left-liberal writer, would jazz up his interminably dull Village Voice columns by suddenly coming out against abortion or endorsing Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination.  The master at this pose of maverick unpredictability used to be Christopher Hitchens.  Amidst a fairly typical leftist politics, he would suddenly ambush unsuspecting readers with his opposition to abortion, admiration of the misogynist and juvenile lyrics of Two Live Crew ("I think that’s very funny"), or support for Columbus’s extermination of Native Americans ("deserving to be celebrated with great vim and gusto").  Immediately the talk of the town became, "Did you read Hitchens this week?"  

Although a tacit assumption equates unpredictability with independence of mind, it might just as well signal lack of principle.  As if to bear out this point, Hitchens has now repackaged himself a full-fledged apostate.  For maximum pyrotechnical effect, he knew that the "awakening" had to be as abrupt as it was extreme: if yesterday he counted himself a Trotskyist and Chomsky a comrade, better now to announce that he supports Bush and counts Paul Wolfowitz a comrade.  Their fates crossed when Wolfowitz and Hitchens both immediately glimpsed in September 11 the long-awaited opportunity: for Wolfowitz, to get into Iraq, for Hitchens, to get out of the left.  While public display of angst doesn’t itself prove authenticity of feeling (sometimes it might prove the reverse), a sharp political break must, for one living a political life, be a wrenching emotional experience.  The rejection of one’s core political beliefs can’t but entail a rejection of the person holding them: if the beliefs were wrong, then one’s whole being was wrong.  Repudiating one’s comrades must also be a sorrowful burden.  It is not by chance that "fraternity" is a prized value of the left: in the course of political struggle, one forges, if not always literally, then, at any rate, spiritually, blood bonds.  Yet, the élan with which Hitchens has shed his past and, spewing venom, the brio with which he savages former comrades is a genuine wonder to behold.  No doubt he imagines it is testament to the mettle of his conviction that past loyalties don’t in the slightest constrain him; in fact, it’s testament to the absence of any conviction at all.

Hitchens collects his essays during the months preceding the U.S. attack on Iraq in The Long Short War.   He sneers that former comrades organizing the global anti-war demonstrations "do not think that Saddam Hussein is a bad guy at all" (emphasis in original),  and the many millions marching in them consist of the "blithering ex-flower child or ranting neo-Stalinist."  Similarly, he ridicules activists pooling their meager resources for refreshments at a fundraiser – they are not among the chosen at a Vanity Fair soiree – as "potluck peaceniks" and "potluckistas." Yet, he is at pains to inform readers that all his newly acquired friends are "friends for life."  As with the solicitude he keeps expressing for the rights of Arab women, it seems that Hitchens protests too much.  The famous aphorism quoted by him that nations have no permanent allies, only permanent interests, might be said to apply, mutatis mutandis, to himself as well.  Indeed, his description of a psychopath – "incapable of conceiving an interest other than his own and perhaps genuinely indifferent to the well-being of others" – comes perilously close to a self-portrait.  To discover our true human nature, Freud once wrote, just reverse society’s moral exhortations: if the Commandment says not to commit adultery, it’s because we all want to.  This simple game can be played with Hitchens as well: when he avows, "I attempt to write as if I did not care what reviewers said, what peers thought, or what prevailing opinion might be," one should read, "My every word is calculated for its public effect."

Hitchens has riotous fun heaping contempt on several of the volunteer "human shields" who left Iraq before the bombing began. They "obviously didn’t have the guts," he jeers, hunkered down in his Washington foxhole.  Bearing witness to his own bravery, Hitchens reports in March 2003 that, although even the wife of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman is having doubts about going to war, "I am fighting to keep my nerve" – truly a profile in courage, as he exiles himself in the political wilderness, alongside the Bush administration, Congress, a majority of U.S. public opinion, and his employers in the major media.  Outraged at the taunt that he who preaches war should perhaps consider fighting it, Hitchens impatiently recalls that, since September 11, "civilians at home are no safer than soldiers abroad," and that, in fact, he’s not just a but the main target: "The whole point of the present phase of conflict is that we are faced with tactics that are directed primarily at civilians….It is amazing that this essential element of the crisis should have taken so long to sink into certain skulls" (emphasis in original).   No doubt modesty and tact forbid Hitchens from drawing the obvious comparison: while cowardly American soldiers frantically covered themselves in protective gear and held their weapons at the ready, he patrolled his combat zone in Washington, D.C. unencumbered.    Lest we forget, Hitchens recalls that ours is "an all-volunteer army" where soldiers willingly exchange "fairly good pay" for "obedience" to authority: "Who would have this any other way?"  For sure, not those who will never have to "volunteer."  

It’s a standing question as to whether the power of words ultimately derives from their truth value or if a sufficiently nimble mind can endow words with comparable force regardless of whether they are bearers of truth or falsity.  For those who want to believe that the truth content of words does matter, reading the new Hitchens comes as a signal relief. Although redoubtable as a left-wing polemicist, as a right-wing one he only produces doubt, not least about his own mental poise.  Deriding Chomsky’s "very vulgar" harnessing of facts, Hitchens wants to go beyond this "empiricism of the crudest kind."  His own preferred epistemology is on full display, for all to judge, in Long Short War.  To prove that, after supporting dictatorial regimes in the Middle East for 70 years, the U.S. has abruptly reversed itself and now wants to bring democracy there, he cites "conversations I have had on this subject in Washington."  To demonstrate the "glaringly apparent" fact that Saddam "infiltrated, or suborned, or both" the U.N. inspection teams in Iraq, he adduces the "incontrovertible case" of an inspector offered a bribe by an Iraqi official: "The man in question refused the money, but perhaps not everybody did."  Citing "the brilliant film called Nada," Hitchens proposes this radical redefinition of terrorism: "the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint." Al-Qaida is accordingly terrorist because it posits an impossible world of "clerical absolutism" but, judging by this definition, the Nazi party wasn’t terrorist because it posited a possible world without Jews.  Claiming that every country will resort to preemptive war, and that preemptive is indistinguishable from preventive war, Hitchens infers that all countries "will invariably decide that violence and first use are justified" and none can be faulted on this account – which makes you wonder why he’s so hot under the collar about Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait.  

Hitchens maintains that that "there is a close…fit between the democratically minded and the pro-American" in the Middle East – like "President for Life" Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah of Jordan…; that Washington finally grasped that "there were `root causes’ behind the murder-attacks" (emphasis in original) – but didn’t Hitchens ridicule any allusion to "root causes" as totalitarian apologetics?;  that "racism" is "anti-American as nearly as possible by definition"; that "evil" can be defined as "the surplus value of the psychopath" – is there a Bartletts for worst quotations?; that the U.S.’s rejoining of U.N.E.S.C.O. during the Iraq debate proved its commitment to the U.N.; that "empirical proofs have been unearthed" showing that Iraq didn’t comply with U.N. resolutions to disarm; that since the U.N. solicits U.S. support for multilateral missions, it’s "idle chatter" to accuse the U.S. of acting unilaterally in Iraq; that the likely killing of innocent civilians in "hospitals, schools, mosques and private homes" shouldn’t deter the U.S. from attacking Iraq because it is proof of Saddam’s iniquity that he put civilians in harm’s way; that those questioning billions of dollars in postwar contracts going to Bush administration cronies must prefer them going to "some windmill-power concern run by Naomi Klein" – is this dry or desiccated wit?

On one page Hitchens states that the world fundamentally changed after September 11 because "civilians are in the front line as never before," but on another page he states that during the 1970s, "I was more than once within blast or shot range of the IRA and came to understand that the word `indiscriminate’ meant that I was as likely to be killed as any other bystander."  On one page he states that, even if the U.S. doesn’t attack or threaten to attack, "Saddam Hussein is not going to survive. His regime is on the verge of implosion" (emphasis in original), but on another page he states that "only the force of American arms, or the extremely credible threat of that force, can bring a fresh face to power."  On one page he states that the U.S. seems committed to completely overhauling Iraq’s political system, but on another page he states that replacing Saddam with "another friendly general…might be ideal from Washington’s point of view."  On one page he states that "Of course it’s about oil, stupid" (emphasis in original), but on another page he states that "it was not for the sake of oil" that the U.S. went to war.  In one paragraph he states that the U.S. must attack Iraq even if it swells the ranks of al-Qaida, but in the next paragraph he states that "the task of statecraft" is not to swell its ranks.  In one sentence he claims to be persuaded by the "materialist conception of history," but in the next sentence he states that "a theory that seems to explain everything is just as good at explaining nothing."  In the first half of one sentence he argues that, since "one cannot know the future," policy can’t be based on likely consequences, but in the second half he concludes that policy should be based on "a reasoned judgment about the evident danger."  

Writing before the invasion, Hitchens argued that the U.S. must attack even if Saddam offers self-exile in order to capture and punish this heinous criminal.  Shouldn’t he urge an attack on the U.S. to capture and punish Kissinger?  And, it must attack because Saddam started colluding with al-Qaida after the horrific crimes of September 11.  Should the U.S. have been attacked for colluding with Saddam’s horrific crimes, not after but while they unfolded, before September 11?  France is the one "truly `unilateralist’ government on the Security Council," according to Hitchens, a proof being that 20 years ago it sank a Greenpeace vessel – next to which the U.S. wars in Central America apparently pale by comparison.  He assails French President Jacques Chirac, in a masterful turn of phrase, as a "balding Joan of Arc in drag," and blasts France with the full arsenal of Berlitz‘s "most commonly used French expressions."  For bowing to popular anti-war sentiment in Germany, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder stands accused of "cheaply" playing "this card," while in the near-unanimous opposition of the Turkish people to war Hitchens detects evidence of "ugly egotism and selfishness."  He says that Wolfowitz wants "democracy and emancipation" – which must be why Wolfowitz rebuked the Turkish military for not stepping in after the Turkish people vetoed participation in the war.  A "principled policy cannot be measured," Hitchens sniffs, "by the number of people who endorse it."  But for a principled democrat the number of people endorsing a policy does decide whether to implement it.  Hitchens’s notion of democracy is his "comrade," ex-Trotskyist but ever-opportunist Kanan Makiya, conjuring up a "complex and ambitious plan" to totally remake Iraq in Boston and presenting it for ratification at an émigré conference in London.  The invective he hurls at French, German and Turkish leaders for heeding the popular will shows that Hitchens hasn’t, at any rate, completely broken faith with his past: contemptuous of "transient polls of opinion," he’s still a Trotskyist at heart, guiding the benighted masses to the Promised Land, if through endless wars and safely from the rear.

Most of Long Short War is given over to parsing words.  According to Hitchens, all the key terms of the debate on Iraq were meaningless.  In his hands this is probably true.  For many years Hitchens awed readers with his formidable control over the English language.  Now his ego delights in testing whether, through sheer manipulation of words, he can pass off flatulent emissions as bouquets.   It perhaps would be funny watching fatuous readers fawn over gibberish – were not human life at stake. Hitchens can’t believe a word he’s saying.  In contrast to bursting windbags like Vaclav Havel, Hitchens is too smart to take his vaporizings seriously.  It’s almost an inside joke as he signals each ridiculous point with the assertion that it’s "obvious."  Hitchens resembles no one so much as the Polish émigré hoaxer, Jerzy Kosinski, who, shrewdly sizing up intellectual culture in America, used to give, before genuflecting Yale undergraduates, lectures on such topics as "The Art of the Self: the theory of `Le Moi Poetique’ (Binswanger)."  Translation: for this wanger it’s all about moi.  Kosinski no doubt had a good time of it until, outed as a fraud, he had enough good grace, which Hitchens plainly lacks, to commit suicide.  And for Hitchens it’s also lucrative nonsense that he’s peddling.  It’s not exactly a martyr’s fate defecting from The Nation, a frills-free liberal magazine, to Atlantic Monthly, the well-heeled house organ of Zionist crazies.  Although Kissinger affected to be a "solitary, gaunt hero," Hitchens says, in reality he was just a "corpulent opportunist."  It sounds familiar.