Posted: August 10, 2005
wake up every day to a sensation of pervading disgust and annoyance," Christopher Hitchens explains at the outset of Love, Poverty, and War, his new collection of essays. In due course, he offers a corollary: "There can be no progress without head-on confrontation."
Contrarianism is not a bad way to approach the modern world, because you will seldom be wrong. Hitchens has refined contrarianism into a high art that transcends mere iconoclasm, though one may doubt whether his name will be made into an adjective after the fashion of his hero, George Orwell. Hitchens would be among the first to admit that the cadences are incommensurate: "Hitchensian" doesn't roll off the tongue as neatly as "Orwellian." He shares two important traits with Orwell, nonetheless: his loving skill with the English language, and his revulsion at the smelly little orthodoxies of the Left.
As successful as this combination is, he may not be entirely well-served by channeling his disgust and annoyance into a confrontation with the first person or idea he sees over his morning coffee. Yet he seems to advance from triumph to triumph. What's the secret of his success? He offers a clue in the middle of the book: "No serious person is without contradictions." Sure enough, Hitchens's affection for the United States redeems his chronic indignation and makes his overall project worthy of deep admiration.
Many of the pieces included in this collection are either literary essays from The Atlantic or miscellany from Vanity Fair. As such they might be considered his hackwork. The world could use more such hackwork. In fact, Hitchens's real calling may be literary rather than political. His Atlantic essays, mostly new encounters with old books and authors such as Joyce, Borges, Proust, Kinsgley Amis, and Waugh, read surprisingly fresh. But like Orwell—and Lionel Trilling, Joseph Epstein, and Norman Podhoretz—one suspects that Hitchens's literary sensibility is closely related to his political pilgrimage, which now finds him allying himself mostly with the Right after a generation's fealty to the Left.
But it is not easy to put sail to Hitchens's whirlwind. His strong dislikes include Henry Kissinger, Mel Gibson, Bill Clinton, Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Pope John Paul II, and, most notoriously, Mother Teresa. (The case of Winston Churchill will be considered in a moment.) He could probably find a dark side to Mary Poppins. The book is filled with acerbic gems. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets a well-deserved pasting: "And petty is not just Bloomberg's middle name. It is his name…. Who knows what goes on in the tiny, constipated chambers of his mind? All we know for certain is that one of the world's most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak."
Sandwiched between his literary and political pieces are sterling examples of that time-tested genre, the travel essay. While the writing is first-rate, Hitchens indulges some of the typical Euro-Northeastern prejudices about heartland America. His journey across Route 66 in a borrowed Corvette brings him to Texas:
You hear a lot about the standardization of America, the sameness and drabness of the brand names and the roadside clutter, but you have to be exposed to thousands of miles of it to see how obliterating the process really is. The food! The coffee! The newspapers! The radio! These would all disgrace a mediocre one-party state, or a much less prosperous country…. Happening upon a stray copy of USA Today seems like finding Proust in your nightstand drawer instead of a Gideons Bible.
One wonders whether Hitchens isn't consciously playing to the Vanity Fair bleachers, since most Vanity Fair readers can only understand—or want to understand—the nation's nether regions through red-blue glasses. I've grinned at the same oddities along Route 66, including the largest cross in North America near Groom, Texas, and the Cadillac Ranch outside Amarillo. (Somehow Hitchens missed my favorite Route 66 landmark, Amarillo's Big Texan Steak Ranch, which will serve you a 72-ounce steak for free—if you can eat the whole thing, including side dishes, in under an hour.)
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That Hitchens may be playing the rube card to fool the provincials back in Gotham and the Hamptons is suggested by his enduring admiration and affection for America, which have grown larger in the aftermath of September 11. Let him explain it:
Then there is the rather awkward question: Can one love a country? In the England of my youth, this would have come under the heading of the superfluous: some things just don't need to be affirmed publicly and there is something suspect about those who get too strenuous on the point. I'll go this far, though. The United States of America has been very kind and hospitable to this immigrant, and I would calmly affirm that, in case things should ever become desperate enough for anyone to have to care, my adopted country has found a defender in me. This necessarily broad allegiance came to a tungsten-sharp point in the fall of 2001, when my favorite city in all the world—and a favorite city of the world—was foully assaulted, as was my hometown of Washington D.C., by barbaric nihilists.
In one of the collected essays, written for Vanity Fair shortly after September 11, Hitchens was even more elemental, making clear that he would stand with America without equivocation: "one has to be able to say, My country after all…. Shall I take out the papers of citizenship? Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have."
Consequently, Hitchens has trained his lacerating invectives on several of his old allies—in some cases, co-authors—on the Left, such as Noam Chomsky and Edward Said. But no one fares worse than Michael Moore and his squalid film. "To describe [Fahrenheit 9/11] as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability. To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental…. Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in serious thought." And Moore himself has become "one of the sagging blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture."
Hitchens has no patience with the moral-equivalence, we-had-it-coming Leftists. He wrote on The Nation's website in October 2001: "I have no hesitation in describing this mentality, carefully and without heat, as soft on crime and soft on fascism. No political coalition is possible with such people and, I'm thankful to say, no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think." After carrying on in this way for several more weeks at The Nation, Hitchens was, in his own words, "excommunicated," ending a more than two-decade association with the Left's flagship journal. He hasn't looked back.
The final essay of the collection, from Vanity Fair's October 2003 issue, describes the fall of Saddam. At the time he wrote the article, the missing WMDs in Iraq were becoming an issue, and the insurgency was starting to escalate. Hitchens has some deserved criticisms of George W. Bush and Tony Blair for insufficiently defending the war to the public, but he does not wring his hands or come within shooting distance of the Q-cliché ("quagmire"). On the contrary, Hitchens argues that Iraq "is emerging from a period of nightmarish rule to which anything would be preferable. So dare to repeat, in spite of everything, the breathless question: What if it works?" Right now it looks like it might, but only because Bush didn't lose his nerve. Perhaps Hitchens's relative silence about Bush—put it this way: he hasn't tossed barbs at Bush the way he has at just about everyone else—is a sign of grudging respect from a critic who isn't accustomed to showing any to political figures.
This defect shows itself fully in the opening essay of the book, which attempts to cut Winston Churchill down to size. Hitchens spends most of the essay disputing what he calls the "consecrated narrative" about Churchill—the "cult" of Churchill. He tempers his massive debunking effort with what he admits is the man's one redeeming quality. He was right about the Nazis:
Some saving intuition prompted Churchill to recognize, and to name out loud, the pornographic and catastrophically destructive nature of the foe. Only this redeeming x-factor justifies all the rest—the paradoxes and inconsistencies, to be sure, and even the hypocrisy…. He excoriated [Nazism] as a wicked and nihilistic thing. That appears facile now, but it was exceedingly uncommon then.
This won't do. Even if one concedes, for the sake of argument, that all Hitchens's criticisms are correct, it is remarkably superficial to attribute Churchill's one redeeming virtue to an unintelligible "x-factor" or "intuition." Hitchens seems incapable of pondering whether the qualities that led Churchill to his clarity about the Nazis were on display in the other controversial chapters in Churchill's career. Hitchens confuses supreme ego and magnanimity with dangerous or contemptible megalomania. Indeed, he more than once interprets Churchill as a Hegelian figure, more lucky than good.
Rather than a serious examination of Churchill's character strengths and weaknesses, we get an appalling catalogue of errors and myths about Churchill, starting with the chestnut that actor Norman Shelley read several of Churchill's key 1940 speeches to the British people, "perhaps because Churchill was too incapacitated by drink to deliver the speeches himself." This myth has been thoroughly recycled and debunked over the years, but Hitchens falls for it, probably because its most recent incarnation came from his friend, fellow leftist columnist Alexander Cockburn, in 2001. (Hitchens's essay originally appeared as a cover story in The Atlantic, and when the letters poured in wondering what happened to basic fact-checking at the magazine, Hitchens beat a partial, chagrined retreat.)
But that is only the beginning of the errors and recycled slanders. Another familiar charge that Hitchens revives is that Churchill knew of the coming German bombing of Coventry, but did nothing to stop it for fear of compromising the British code-breaking efforts. "The allegation has been in print for fifteen years [closer to 25 actually], and I have never seen it addressed by the Great Man's defenders, let alone rebutted." This merely shows that Hitchens hasn't read everything, despite the impression he likes to give. At least four British historians—Norman Longmate, Ronald Levin, Harry Hensley, and David Stafford—have refuted this widely held myth, as far back as 1979. Likewise, Hitchens alleges, Churchill possibly knew about Pearl Harbor in advance but declined to tell FDR—also disputed by numerous historians. He endorses the view that Churchill was complicit in a conspiracy to bring about the sinking of the Lusitania in World War I, a charge that has been chewed over and generally rejected for decades.
Hitchens accepts credulously every criticism and denigration of Churchill, and reads very superficially overall. This problem, especially, comes to light in an aside about William Manchester's unfinished Churchill biography. "In an extraordinary gesture," Hitchens writes, "Manchester rendered Churchill's wartime speeches as blank verse, with carefully incised line breaks and verse settings." But this is no "gesture." Manchester's books, like Martin Gilbert's, faithfully reproduce the format Churchill employed to give speeches—a fact Hitchens would have picked up had he read either author with any care, thus sparing him embarrassment.
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In the Introduction to Love, Poverty, and War, Hitchens betrays his low opinion of politics: "Did politics always seem to be a sordid auction between banal populists?" One lesson he took from September 11 is that "there is no refuge from political engagement, and that if you try and hide from public life, it will assuredly come and invade your precious private sphere." Hitchens's vague anti-political temperament is a residue of his days on the Left, where the denigration of political greatness is an essential aspect of radical ideology. His artful critical faculty cannot ultimately disguise his cyncism. As Churchill once said of another grand weakness (appeasement): "It is too easy to be good."
An equally apt summation of the problem comes from British historian Geoffrey Elton, who wrote:
When I meet a historian who cannot think that there have been great men, great men moreover in politics, I feel myself in the presence of a bad historian. And there are times when I incline to judge all historians by their opinion of Winston Churchill—whether they can see that, no matter how much better the details, often damaging, of the man and his career become known, he still remains, quite simply, a great man.
Hitchens fails Elton's test. We might say then that Hitchens's progress since September 11 has brought him halfway to a sensible understanding of politics. He knows who the bad guys are, and while he seems to know who the good guys are and why, his old reflexes are against them. If he gets over this, he'll have at least a fighting chance to establish his place as an essayist alongside Orwell.