Road To Baghdad

Polemicist Christopher Hitchens follows George Orwell into a political minefield

Doing the math, Hitchens concluded that if passengers hadn't mounted their unfathomably brave resistance on United Airlines Flight 93, "I might, from where I am sitting, be a short walk from a gutted Capitol or a shattered White House." In the event that the mass murderers were also somehow aided or abetted by sullen clients of the United States--former mujahadeen, Saudi oligarchs, Pakistani secret police--this only multiplied American responsibility for bringing the war to them.

In the year since, it's safe to say that even when Hitchens isn't writing about the war, he's writing about it. Why Orwell Matters anticipates his support of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein. "Orwell appears to have thought it axiomatic that fascism would mean war (in both senses of the verb 'to mean') and that the battle should be joined (in both senses of that term) as early and decisively as possible," he writes.

More recently, Hitchens has made Orwell into a stick with which to beat the antiwar movement. He won headlines last month by quitting The Nation after 20 years (calling the left-wing periodical "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden"). When interviewed about the exit in Salon, Hitchens attacked what he terms the "moral equivalence" of his opponents. He likened them to pacifists in 1940, and paraphrased the neutralism of another time: "Well, this Nazi business in Poland is pretty rough, obviously, but look at how the British behave in India. Why should we pick a side?"

Christopher Hitchens: "The non-interventionists who draw back their skirts from anything that smacks of commitment have forgotten the obvious fact: Doing nothing is a policy."
Tim Lee
Christopher Hitchens: "The non-interventionists who draw back their skirts from anything that smacks of commitment have forgotten the obvious fact: Doing nothing is a policy."

Hitchens would have spoiled his air of sublime derision had he mentioned that Orwell made the same argument before the Hitler-Stalin Pact changed his mind. "How can we 'fight Fascism,'" Orwell asked in Adelphi magazine in 1939, "except by bolstering up a far vaster injustice?" That being, "the huge British and French empires--in essence nothing but mechanisms for exploiting colored labor."

Later, Orwell performed an about-face, adopting the "Trotskyist" slogan that "the war and the revolution are inseparable." His worst phrase from the period is also his most quoted: "Objectively the pacifist is pro-Nazi."

But all World War II comparisons rely on that degraded analogy used by every American president since 1945. As Hitchens acknowledges among sympathetic listeners, the United States and its proxies are an empire. Empires are imperialist. Hence the qualms on the left aren't over the enemy, but over the state and the vague suspicion that the state and the enemy exist in Orwellian symbiosis.

This isn't some irrelevant and internecine squabble among sectarians: It represents nothing less than the issue of the day. Yet it took the conservative Weekly Standard to make the obvious point: "No one thinks Islamists are heralding a glorious future," writes David Brooks, reviewing Why Orwell Matters. "Today it is how you feel about the United States that determines whether or not you think America should play an assertive and, if necessary, unilateral role around the world."

 

It's worth pausing for a moment to note that the radical American left regards the United States the way Meadow Soprano sees her father: Love him, hate what he does in the world--a painful position, but not a masochistic one. (Condemning someone you love is the flip side of defending someone you don't like.)

Orwell never made it to America, and Hitchens calls his underestimation of our own living revolution "the grand exception" to his prescience. But some Americans did take up Orwell and applied his ideas to U.S. power and the media. None has done so more influentially than the linguist and critic Noam Chomsky, whose bestseller 9-11 (Seven Stories Press) has had a print run of more than 200,000 copies, and who calls the U.S. a "leading terrorist state."

Hitchens mentions Chomsky in Why Orwell Matters to support his guess that Orwell would have opposed the American aggression in Indochina (anti-colonialism trumping anticommunism, so to speak). And the two Orwellians share a history of sympathies and interests. Chomsky's first published article was an editorial on the fall of Barcelona, which he composed when he was nine years old. (Animal Farm struck a teenage Chomsky as "amusing but pretty obvious." Then he came across Homage to Catalonia, which reinforced his view of Stalin's war on the left.) Reviewing Chomsky's The Culture of Terrorism in 1988, Hitchens wrote that the author "is nearly the only person now writing who assumes a single standard of international morality not for rhetorical effect, but as a matter of habitual, practically instinctual conviction."

So it was depressing to read the two writers most attentive to Orwellian transparency falling out decisively after September 11, yet avoiding engagement with the most salient question dividing them: Can the American Empire be put to good use on occasion? And is it too dangerous to try? All the slurred logic of Hitchens and curt evasions of Chomsky only skirted the issue that had been hanging in the air since the two broke over the issue of arming Bosnia. As Hitchens wrote in 1992: "The non-interventionists who draw back their skirts from anything that smacks of commitment or responsibility have forgotten the obvious fact: Doing nothing is a policy."

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