Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Not On Their Own Merits, But According To Who Does Them

As is the way when controversial figures die, the obituary season for Chris Hitchens has now firmly moved from  ludicrously overblown hagiography to withering disparagement of his supposedly immense intellect and allegedly high principles.  

He's been mourned by many of the great political and literary writers of the modern era, and also by Martin Amis*.  He's been equally damned by others. I've read enough of both to discern the traces of truth in both analyses.

As writer and debater, he was capable both of soaring, rousing rhetoric and of the most idiotic jiggery-pokery, sometimes simultaneously.  Hitchens contained multitudes, more so than most, for he was large in every sense of the word.

I'm one of those whom his eulogists regretfully refer to as "People who only read him in his later years".  I recall his extended TV smackdown of the Princess Diana debacle well and agreed with much of it.  I thoroughly enjoyed The Trial of Henry Kissinger, although I suspect much of that is due to Dr Hank's shared position with Nixon in my all-time list of Men I Would Dearly Love To Kick Up The Arse Very Hard Indeed.  I avoided his Orwell book, since excerpts made it sound much like Why Orwell Agreed With Me About Everything.  I read and remember nothing of his Tom Paine tribute.  Letters To a Young Contrarian was far too irritating to finish, thanks to its intense and florid focus upon Hitchens' favourite subject - himself.  

As someone who came late to his work, I'm in a good position to assess where Hitchens' many manias led him.  I can't comment much on his lit crit or his non-political writing - his pieces on why women aren't funny and the joy of blowjobs, respectively, quickly put me off following him into the darker recesses of his mind. 

If I can contribute one thing to the debate, I'd like to correct the major flaw in the reporting of his life and death - the idea that he was despised by many on the left because they felt "betrayed by his support for the invasion of Iraq".  

Well, yes and no, folks.  This is a bit like saying that lots of people dislike Alex Ferguson because he's been so successful - the basic point is true, but it omits certain very relevant details of Sir Alex's character and behaviour.  Hitchens, like Fergie in defeat, was constantly obstinate, mendacious and entirely ungracious when it came to his Great Personal Battle Against Fascism.  Like Ferguson, he attracted fierce criticism, much of it entirely justified.

Lots of people, many of them far smarter than me, supported the invasion of Iraq and yet didn't suffer the same vilification.  To pick just one example - Johann Hari was at least as vicious and one-eyed in his Iraq hawkery as Hitchens, and yet many who should have known better leaped to his defence when he was later caught telling porkies.  The same people would've damned Hitchens.

From the very start, Hitchens' writings on Iraq exceeded some of the wildest predictions of the second-rate history professors of the Bush administration.  His invasion would be a mighty demonstration of arms, followed by a rapturous welcome and a heavenly shower of laptops and consumer goods.  Would it increase the threat of terrorism?  Not likely.  

He had open contempt for those who warned that the invasion was a deadly disaster in waiting and worse for those who suspected the motives of the Bush administration.  He was quick to attribute pro-Hussein, terror-loving fascistical sympatheticalness to both and dished out such condemnations promiscuously, to those who deserved it and those who didn't. 

The most glaring example came in the immediate post-invasion period, when he offered us a stark, either-or choice between the now-legendary thieves and looters of mercenary services company Halliburton and Saddam Hussein himself.  

When it later became clear that Halliburton and other such contractors had ripped off bajillions of dollars in Iraqi and American cash in exchange for goods and services that were faulty or non-existent, Hitchens neither apologised nor justified.  Rather than re-examine a critical failure of the war, one that he had defended aggressively, he demanded to know which corporation a President (John) Kerry "should after all have got the contract to reconstruct Iraq's oil industry". 

"Not invading Iraq in the first place", of course, was always off the table. 

And this was the Hitchens method of political writing in the 2000s all over.  He'd make a series of highly risky claims; inflate a tendentious reading of the situation into an issue of world-historical significance; declare that precise agreement with him was a black-or-white test of character and then, when events proved him wrong, move the goalposts as far as it took to reach a position of being sort of half-right.  Maybe.  

If you looked at it with your eyes screwed up a bit.

His writings throughout the decade were chock-full of such banalities.  How important were Hussein's supposed weapons of genocide as a war aim?  It depended on how Hitchens was feeling on any given day.  "Just you wait", he famously told doubters.  When no weapons were found, he announced that this proved the righteousness of the operation.  Later, the sound of scurrying would announce that Hitch had moved the goalposts again - now, the invasion and quest for mythical WMDs was Hussein's fault, since he pretended to have weapons. 

When a US patrol responded to an insurgent attack by going berserk in Haditha, Iraq, killing a large number of civilians, the pro-war case for the defence should've been obvious - simply, say that war exerts terrible pressures on soldiers, some of whom may be bad apples themselves, but that one incident didn't invalidate the entire war. 

Hitchens' response was an exercise in jaw-dropping hackery.  Rather than confront the issue head on, he rooted out some joker comparing Haditha to the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; pronounced the comparison an intolerable slur on the nobility of the Viet Cong (!), and proceeded to lecture us all for the millionth time upon the awfulness of the Iraqi insurgents.  In the same column, he assigned blame to those who called for less violence by the US armed forces for the disasters of our wars. 

When US soldiers slaughtered innocents in hot blood, Hitchens' responded by booming in high dudgeon that the Iraqi insurgency were more evil than the lovely VC.  Well, no shit, Chris, you told us that a thousand times and we said we agreed.  And?  Are there perhaps some issues going unadressed in your critique here? 

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

He was a shameless propagandist for the US government's most crass lies.  On the fraudulent connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda, he shoehorned the most credulous horseshit into print:  "It was, I was told... '70 percent likely' that Atta came to Prague to meet [the Iraqi secret policeman Ahmed] Al-Ani."  That lie about the 9/11 attacker Mohammed Atta stayed in play for years afterwards. 

Long after the neo-conservatives themselves fell silent on Hussein's supposed weapons programmes, Hitch was still flogging the corpse of the Niger uranium claim.  When the Bush administration fell prey to its own idiocy in the Plamegate affair, Hitchens was there to defend its honour once more.  

Quibbles, distractions, irrelevant diversions.  When the President of the United States recently claimed for himself the right to murder any person that he may regard as a threat, including US citizens, Hitchens was on hand to pimp the most idiotic argument of all...

"Those who share my alarm at the prospect of (state-sanctioned murder beyond judicial oversight) and of the ways in which it could be abused, are under a heavy obligation to say what they would do instead".

That's Christopher Hitchens, the courageous opponent of tyranny, demanding that you provide an alternative to state murder.  Whatever, Hitch - I thought you said pathos, not bathos.

Policemen would recognise all of these tactics from interrogations.  Caught out in a lie, criminals don't confess - they back up and tell half the truth.  They admit to minor wrongdoing here and to errors of judgement there, then retreat to a fresh, fortified position of essential innocence. 

A court psychologist would recognise a criminal's refusal to face the human toll of his misdeeds, and would diagnose denial.  If the subject declared his intent to continue in the same behaviour - in Hitchens' case, by demanding the invasion of Iran - the shrink would most certainly diagnose psychopathy.  "A lack of empathy and remorse, shallow emotions, egocentrity and deceptiveness".  

That was Hitchens in the last decade; a man who bayed for the blood of jihadists yet shrank from reality when his favoured policy inflicted a far higher toll on the innocent.   A man who spent countless hours attempting to turn advocacy for official US government policy into an act of astounding courage; a man who regarded denouncing former friends in his purplest prose as an enterprise of awesome significance and consequence. 

He travelled to the far-flung places of the Earth, only to discover upon arrival that he was even more right about everything than even he had previously suspected.  He spent the decade building himself a platform with rebellious, outsider indignation, from which to better side with the most powerful people on the planet.  The type of man who non-ironically denounces "Iranian interference in our affairs" when he means American-occupied Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.  

There are many words that would describe this type of behaviour, and none of "courageous", "principled" or "humanitarian" fit the bill.  Courageous people don't invent ridiculous schemas to make their minor controversial acts seem more brave, nor do men of high principles revise and retrench their positions in adversity.  Humanitarians do not make war gladly and recklessly, with a song of joy in their hearts. 

No, the appropriate words are "Hack", "Bullshitter" and "Fraudster". I don't use these richly-deserved insults to imply that he wasn't talented.  He was a highly-gifted hack, an awe-inspiring bullshitter and a first-rate fraudster.  These are disciplines which require inventiveness, initiative and application, and Hitchens had them in spades. 

Still.  His much-vaunted principles were so crooked that they wound up resembling corkscrews.  If he'd been Russian, he'd have spent his declining years denouncing Putin's foes as traitors and demanding ever-heavier firepower be brought to bear on Grozny.  

"Georgia On My Mind - Putin Rescues Russian Civilians From Genocidal Terrorist Aggression".  You know it and I know it. 

Hitchens loved him some Orwell and quoted him as extensively as possible.  Appropriately, Saint George once had relevant words to say about the Chris Hitchenses of this world...

“Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.”

You can be sure that Hitch was aware of those words, as are all of his current boosters and sycophants.  It's to his friends' and supporters' great discredit that his most ludicrous contortions were most directly insulting to them.  We just read this stuff and laughed, but they were expected to defend it.

And yet I recall few, if any, ever saying Yo Hitch, I think you might be gilding the lily a little there.

Anyway.  When Hitchens famously debated George Galloway in New York, I can remember firing up the Youtube video in great anticipation, to see which of these two hulking beasts of the bullshit business would emerge triumphant.

What I saw was two overweight, middle-aged men trying to outdo the other's outrage over some violent acts of some violent men against certain innocent people.  Both used every rhetorical weapon in their armoury to crush the other; both made liberal use of insult and hyperbole and as far as I could see, neither one gave a flying fuck whether their words were truth or bluster.  They barked and snapped at each other like angry terriers for what seemed like hours, imparting not a sentence worth of reliable information between them.

I looked from Chris to George and from George to Chris, and from Chris to George again.  What a pair of puffed-up, lying cockweasels, I thought.

And then, I closed the browser and read something else, written by somebody who would do me the basic favour of not cheerfully lying to my face.

I can't speak for Chris Hitchens in his youth or early middle age, so I can't evaluate his work in that era.  What I will say is this - the older Hitchens was so full of shit that you could use him to fertilise all of Texas for decades.

I'm sorry that he died and I'm horrified that he went in such a godawful manner.  His friends describe him as warm-hearted and charitable, even if many acquaintances don't, and even I struggle to think of him as actively bad - more clownish, buffoonish, ridiculous.

Nonetheless, if truth means anything at all, let's drag it all into the memorial and let history be the judge. 

*This joke copyright Splintered Sunrise, 2011


Charlie said...

Hiya, don't usually comment on blog pieces but I just thought I'd say that I'm literally astounded that this is the first comment to this piece!I doubt you'll read this as it's an old post but I just thought I'd let you know at least one person has and was impressed by it! The quality of writing is definelty publishable and I'd seriously consider submitting some of your upcoming stuff to one of the magazines!Truly one of the best (and funniest) pieces I've read in a long time on the 'blogosphere' even if I don't entirely agree with you on Hitchens!

Anonymous said...

Charlie, you forgot to put in a link to your store site ...

"He had open contempt for those who warned that the invasion was a deadly disaster in waiting"

How many more times ? The warnings were of a second Vietnam, Baghdad a second Stalingrad, Muslim streets erupting from Dacca to Dewsbury. In that his scoffing was correct.

No one on the UK left predicted that the Sunnis would start slaughtering the Shia and vice-versa (or that both would do a sideline in attacking the Assyrian Christians).


Jay from Philly said...

Those who defend Hitchens don't really care about the War in Iraq. At least Stateside his defenders tend to be ironic 20-something upper middle class hipsters who live off the bank of Mom and Dad. They adulate Hitchens due to his saying mean things about little old church ladies. Like you, I came to know Hitchens from his delusional stance on the Iraq War. At least the other defenders shut up and slunk away.