Hitch-22: When the left moves right

hitch

Book Review

"Hitch-22"
By Christopher Hitchens
2010, Twelve press, 448 pages, $26.99 (hardcover)

The name Christopher Hitchens is, to many on the left and right, a dirty word. In lining up with the Bush administration on the war in Iraq, the former Nation columnist shocked much of the left, and his militant atheism has inspired animosity among the far-right. Still, in his new memoir Hitchens comes off as a man of principle.

Reading Hitch-22, it becomes apparent that the principles that motivated Hitchens' move to the right are, paradoxically, the same principles that for many years kept him on the left. He makes a case for all of the things for which the left should stand: dedication to the rights of the individual; hate for repression; love of freedom of speech, press and conscience; and, above all, human solidarity. He argues that the left has abandoned these things in all but lip service.

Perhaps most interesting for People's World readers will be Hitchens' description of how he moved from his early Trotskyism to support the Bush administration's Iraq war. While it's obvious that Bush warhawks had their own agenda in Iraq, Hitchens says he was motivated by a leftish revulsion at the Saddam dictatorship.

Hitchens admits that in the 1970s he was mistaken in defending the Ba'ath Party-run state as socialist. But he went to Iraq in 1991 as a war correspondent - for a war he opposed (the first Gulf war) - and began to see Iraq's horrifying conditions from within.

Unlike Hitchens, I opposed the 2003 Iraq war, and still do. But his arguments for it offer a sort of moral test. He observes that sometimes the "wrong people" get it right, and vice-versa. If you disagree with the war, it's incumbent on you to make sure that you don't fall in with wrong people who happen to say something "right." Are you opposed to this war because you genuinely don't believe that it will lead to less rather than more human misery? And remember that Pat Buchanan was a loud voice against this war - as well as the one against Hitler.

I took the test and rethought my position on the Iraq war. I came to the same conclusions I arrived at earlier. Invading Iraq was certainly not the path to the least amount of damage to the people of Iraq and the region.

It used to annoy me that Hitchens, when he debated the Iraq war, would often pick as his adversaries easy pickings like the multi-faced ex-MP George Galloway who, when in Los Angeles or New York talked about the virtues of peace, and when in Damascus told the people of Syria how lucky they were to have Bashir al-Assad as their dictator. So why did he do it?

Hitchens makes it clear that he still despises Henry Kissinger, supports the Vietnamese liberation fighters. He debates people like Galloway not for an easy win, but because they represent to him what is wrong with the modern left in the West: far too many are for "peace at all costs," whether or not that means more suffering for more people, or argue that the United States is always wrong. Remember Cindy Sheehan, once the darling of the antiwar movement, who went on to say, like Buchanan, that all wars are wrong including our Civil War, which ended slavery and which Marx so much admired, and World War II that defeated fascism?

Hitchens tries to reconcile certain basic values with the left, and then explains why he felt he had to leave it - though he'd argue that he still is overall a man of the left.

Why, he asks, did so few on the left jump to defend novelist Salman Rushdie after his life was threatened by a fatwa issued by Iran's clerical rulers? Do civil liberties not matter on the left? Or why after 9/11 did some on the left dismiss the human horror and talk coolly about chickens coming home to roost? Aren't these positions a caricature of anti-imperialism?

But while many have spit vitriol at Hitchens for "selling out," mightn't it be more useful to see if there are things we do that alienate people who are in many ways brethren, i.e. they support the same future outcomes we hope for?

For example, why is it that whenever I write something remotely critical of the North Korean government, I begin to receive hate mail telling me that I've somehow "objectively" strengthened the hands of the warlords in the Republican Party? Isn't it possible that if you don't criticize what is anti-human and pro-misery, you make yourself look foolish to many intelligent, progressive-thinking people?

Hitchens' life story is intertwined with politics, as he points out, and much of the book is written as an argument-always with the suave prose Hitchens is known for. Still there's more than that to the book; it is a memoir after all. Refreshingly though, even when writing about the most harrowing of subjects, Hitchens doesn't play vulgarly on the sentimental. His first chapter deals with his mother and her suicide, and it captures the emotions he felt, without descending into melodrama.

The cast of characters reads like a who's who of 20th century literature: Kingsley and Martin Amis, Robert Conquest, Edward Said, Salman Rushdie, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and others fill the volume's pages; the book is worth its price if only to read the bawdy limericks of Amis, Conquest and Rushdie.

Hopefully, Hitchens will recover soon from his recently disclosed illness (he's mentioned that he's "truly touched" that religious people have been praying for him) and continue his provocative writing.

Photo: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christopher_Hitchens.jpg

 

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  • Hitch was a beautiful example of a thinking human being. He is missed by many, especially those that adhere to reason and humanism.

    Posted by Adam Raven, 08/10/2014 6:06pm (11 days ago)

  • Hitchens reminds me of the democratic party hangeroners, flacks, opportunists, and smarter than all of us (in his mind) type hack. He works everybody. I liked his work in his earlier years. I thought he was one of us. Sadly like so many brianiacs they come and go. Switching allies and even yes, selling out.

    Posted by stuart hipkins, 09/27/2010 4:14pm (4 years ago)

  • To Mr Hewko:

    You should be ashamed for willingly closing your eyes to human suffering, and for no reason whatsoever.

    What does defending North Korea get you? Nothing. It makes you look like, at best, a lunatic, and at worst something much more sinister. It certainly doesn't in any way contribute to peace in the region, and it doesn't "hurt imperialism." By making the supporters of peaceful resolutions seem like scary people who support tyrannical dictatorships, you simply play into right-wing hands.

    And if you were standing up for something that was little-known but true, that might at least be somewhat valiant, but you're defending North Korea. This is a country that has supported terror by harboring Japanese Red Army fugitives, bombing an airliner from South Korea. It's provoked its neighbors: capturing fishing boats, sending a satellite/rocket over Japan. Need I go on?

    And yes, there certainly are human rights abuses. The United Nations special rapporteur has listed them extensively; North Korean defectors have terrible stories to tell; Chinese People's Liberation Army soldiers have gone on the record talking about terrible tortures they've seen; there are videos smuggled out of North Korea showing wretched situations (partially caused by poverty, of course, as in India, but don't tell me that NK doesn't have an opportunity to work in such a way as to better the situation, especially with China as a neighbor); the money revaluation threw away the life savings of millions of people; workers protesting in factories and elsewhere have been shot down.

    You'll likely argue that these are all reports from "imperialist" agencies, though I fail to see how defectors (who risk their lives getting out), the PLA, the UN (now, with Russia and China on the Security Council, not the UN of the Korean War where the US and its allies dominated) and the like are imperialist lackeys. We have no other information because the country is so opaque, and so secretive, that this is the only available information.

    And it seems quite a bit more reliable than the "Kim recently was honored by the star people of Andromeda" articles in their press.

    Posted by James, 08/26/2010 12:31pm (4 years ago)

  • Unnecessary atrocities: anything terrible done to a person that does not help a greater cause, a cause that could have been advanced without such horrors. Thus, the Civil War, World War II: anything aside form jumping into the fight was immoral.

    By the same token, no one of any conscience should support killing off the farmers in either the US or the USSR. It was a travesty in the US, and the collectivization process, fight against the Nazis, etc., could surely have gone on without it in the Soviet Union.

    And that means that, even if a state is "anti-imperialist," there's no reason to defend grotesque measures that it takes, as in the case of North Korea.

    Further: you should be ashamed of yourself for making such a foolish remark, "show me the evidence." Really? Do you really believe that the NK state doesn't violate human rights in an extremely disgusting fashion? And spare me the excuse about the US doing this and that--I know and I'm opposed.

    Posted by James, 08/25/2010 7:56pm (4 years ago)

  • I would say that anyone who does not stand for freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech and the press has no right to call themselves "left." Nor does anyone who can't condemn unnecessary atrocities committed against innocent individuals for no reason, whether they are perpetuated in Iran, North Korea, the United States or anywhere else.

    All of this talk of, "Well, that's a country battling imperialism, so surely you can't criticize the North Korean gulags," is just a bunch of nonsense, in my own humble opinion.

    Is there ever a time when stoning someone serves the class interests of the "good guys"?

    Posted by James, 08/24/2010 12:39pm (4 years ago)

  • Right. Everything's relative. Stoning people to death for adultery, for example, is not against any basic human values; the question is if they are murdered in a way that is proletarian or bourgeois.

    Posted by James, 08/23/2010 12:54pm (4 years ago)

  • James asks:

    > Exactly why is support for the Iraq War less
    > bad than not supporting the Civil War and
    > World War II?

    You may have noticed that it is 2010. Cindy Sheehan is not an historian, and she is wrong in her analysis of those wars, but not being an historian is not a crime. Supporting imperialist wars in the here-and-now is.

    I can do without your grade-school lesson about the importance of the US Civil War and World War II, thank you. I already knew those things. What you cannot seem to grasp is my elementary point, which is that Margolis took sectarian potshots at Galloway and Sheehan for their analyses of other issues, for the purposes of disparaging them in comparison to a Trotskyite with a good sight more than 30 pieces of silver in his pocket, who has belched forth alcohol-scented cheers as US imperialism has built numerous "Ground Zeroes" next to Afghan and Iraqi mosques.

    Get it? Of course you don't, because you're likely an apologist, too.

    Posted by FD, 08/20/2010 1:45pm (4 years ago)

  • Exactly why is support for the Iraq War less bad than not supporting the Civil War and World War II? Granted, both were events that happened far in the past, but without the heroic fights put up, likely by people far better than you or I, we would be living under fascism, possible, and perhaps the entire Jewish race would have been exterminated, along with millions of other Europeans and, very likely, the Soviet Union would have been wiped out. The Civil War, which ended slavery and established the U.S. as a modern democratic republic also was quite important.

    The point that Hitchens makes, and that was repeated in this article, seems to be valid: anti-imperialism should be rooted in the notions of the core human values, in the notion that we should always be working to make the world better, if we're actually to call ourselves progressives.

    Your blather about who's a "Trotskyite" and who's not seems to be just a bunch of religious hot air. The person who is actually not worth listening to is the person who is so enclosed in a dogmatic framework that any idea that might challenge any assumption handed down as dogma must be discarded or labeled "Trotskyite."

    Posted by James, 08/20/2010 11:34am (4 years ago)

  • Exactly why is support for the Iraq War less bad than not supporting the Civil War and World War II? Granted, both were events that happened far in the past, but without the heroic fights put up, likely by people far better than you or I, we would be living under fascism, possible, and perhaps the entire Jewish race would have been exterminated, along with millions of other Europeans and, very likely, the Soviet Union would have been wiped out. The Civil War, which ended slavery and established the U.S. as a modern democratic republic also was quite important.

    The point that Hitchens makes, and that was repeated in this article, seems to be valid: anti-imperialism should be rooted in the notions of the core human values, in the notion that we should always be working to make the world better, if we're actually to call ourselves progressives.

    Your blather about who's a "Trotskyite" and who's not seems to be just a bunch of religious hot air. The person who is actually not worth listening to is the person who is so enclosed in a dogmatic framework that any idea that might challenge any assumption handed down as dogma must be discarded or labeled "Trotskyite."

    Posted by James, 08/20/2010 11:31am (4 years ago)

  • James -- Galloway and Sheehan are on the right side of history because they are opposed to imperialism and war (you'll note that I didn't say I approved of everything they did, I said "whatever their ideological shortcomings"). The author compares them unfavorably to a Trotskyite who has been demonstratively and obstreperously in favor of the imperialist war on Iraq.

    That you would think a Trotskyite's support for the current and ongoing war in Iraq is somehow less important than Cindy Sheehan's (admittedly unsophisticated) historical understanding of the Civil War, is proof that you are either (1) a hairsplitting ideological sectarian or more likely (2) a right-wing (or pro-war "left") provocateur. In either case, you are a blowhard not worth listening to.

    Posted by FD, 08/19/2010 9:23pm (4 years ago)

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