Obit For A Former Contrarian

A friend and protégé tries to make sense of what's happened to Christopher Hitchens

Bright spring afternoon. Hitch and I spend it in his fave D.C. pub just down the street from his spacious apartment. At the long polished bar, he sips a martini, I swig Tanqueray on ice offset by pints of ale. The pub's TV is flashing golf highlights while the jukebox blasts classic rock. We're chatting about nothing in particular when the juke begins playing "Moonshadow" by Cat Stevens. Hitch stops talking. His face tightens. Eyes

narrow. I know this look--I saw it on Crossfire when he nearly slugged a Muslim supporter of the Ayatollah's fatwa against Salman Rushdie. I saw it during a Gulf War panel discussion at Georgetown when he responded to some pro-war hack with a precision barrage of invective, followed by the slamming down of the mike, causing a brief reverb in the speakers.

And here it was again.

"No," he said, shaking his head, exhaling Rothman smoke. "No--get rid of that!"

Bartender asks, "Excuse me?"

"Get rid"--gesturing to the music in the air--"of that."

"Can't. Someone played that song."

"Well, fuck it then."

Don't know if Hitch is serious. Yes, his anger about the fatwa is real and understandable. And the fact that the former Cat Stevens, Yusef Islam, endorsed the mullahs' death sentence clearly enraged him. But getting shitty over "Moonshadow"?

"You know," I say, "Yusef Islam renounced everything about his past. He hates Cat Stevens more than you do. He gave away or destroyed all his gold records. If you really want to show your disgust for him, embrace Cat Stevens. Play his stuff loud and often. Whistle 'Peace Train' or 'Oh Very Young' when you pass the local mosque."

Hitch listens, head down, fresh Rothman lit.

"No. Never. Fuck them both."

"Moonshadow" ends. Pat Benatar--or was it Whitesnake?--takes over, and we resume drinking.

That was about 12 years ago. Another lifetime. Back then Christopher Hitchens was It to me--my mentor, more or less. Just a few years before, I'd left the misery-filled comedy improv scene to work as a media activist and critic. Learned to write political essays on the job for a ratty New York East Village weekly. Raw execution. Tortured metaphors. Sentences so rank they needed quicklime. Yet I muddled on, read Alexander Cockburn's "Beat the Devil" and Hitch's "Minority Report" in The Nation for inspiration. Got the nerve to send a few columns to each. Cockburn was pleasant and encouraging in his reply, but Hitch went further. He typed up a letter praising some of my takes, criticizing others, showing me where he thought I misstepped, and so on, then closed by inviting me out for a drink whenever he was in New York or I in D.C.

That's when it started.

These days Christopher is vilified by many who once agreed with him, or at least respected his talent. We all know the story of The 9/11 Transformation: the former socialist and Beltway snitch who finally showed his true colors as a shill for W's gang. Some of his former friends, like Cockburn, have gone beyond political disagreement into personal insults, mostly aimed at Hitch's weight and drinking habits. (Dr. Alex also attempted some psychotherapy.) Some, like Sidney Blumenthal, affect an arch, dismissive posture, as if Hitch were little more than a distraction in the Grand Scheme. I've done my share of slagging too, mostly on a discussion list I belong to, but also to him, and I try to keep my criticisms politically and aesthetically based. Yet it's hard for me to erase the fond memories I have of Hitch.

 

See, Hitch engaged me. Whenever I was in D.C. for a talk or conference or simply visiting friends, I spent at least one night at Christopher's, and there, in the early hours at his large dining room table, Hitch held court. He talked about his early activist days in England, analyzed the current scene, riffed on political figures while steadily pounding red wine and chain-smoking his Rothmans. I tried to keep up on all fronts, but he was in another league. So I sat back, took in the spectacle. Far from blurring or dulling his mind, booze seemed to sharpen him. I was awed by his eloquence. I learned.

(When his book Letters to a Young Contrarian was released, a friend asked if I'd read it. "Why?" I replied. "I lived it.")

Above all, Christopher was kind and generous. He listened. He could be self-deprecating and intensely funny. He also had (and still seems to have) a weakness for gossip. This was often entertaining, though once when Andrew Sullivan joined us for drinks, the gossip took a swift dive into the bowels of The New Republic, a loathsome mag personified by Sullivan, who remains one of the most arrogant, pretentious jerks I've ever met. I wondered then how Hitch could stomach his type, but overlooked it in favor of the access I enjoyed.

My most intense period with him came during the first Gulf War. It was Christopher's prime. His pieces in The Nation and Harper's then were tonic. Read pages 75-98 from his collection For The Sake of Argument and see for yourself, especially now. Here's the close of his January 1991 Harper's cover story, "Realpolitik in the Gulf: A Game Gone Tilt":

"The call [to war] was an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold. An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad, and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others."

This is the high point--the place where Hitch got it and fluently expressed it. Though hardly soft on Saddam, he still understood the imperial pecking order, the context in which vast power is wielded, the cynicism of it, the horror. He eviscerated the Bush gang with substance and style, and ripped through its apologists. Hitch was hitting all cylinders when he came across Bill Clinton in New Hampshire. Christopher had met his match: an Arkansas political pro with blood money behind him, a hustler and charmer impervious to journalistic assault, a con man so skilled at lying that even those wise to his game were impressed with his performance. Hitch, of course, went straight for Clinton's throat. But he never could get his hands on Clinton, and this fed a frustration that became an obsession.

By this time, Hitch and I saw each other intermittently, spoke by phone occasionally. I'd learned all I could from him and moved on. But I continued to read him and catch his TV appearances when possible. I was sympathetic to his anti-Clintonism, but there was something different about him. Hitch seemed harsher, meaner, sloppier in his attacks. His hatred of Bill and Hillary led him to link arms with the likes of Ann Coulter and the insane David Horowitz, a man who shouts "TREASON!" every 90 seconds. What the fuck? I thought. Why was Christopher going this twisted route? Whenever I asked him about it, he'd be polite but vague. He maintained that he wasn't bound by ideology, so appearing with Coulter at a Free Republic gathering meant little compared to the larger fight against Clinton. "I'll take what I can get," he said.

There was one thing Clinton did that Hitch approved of: bombing Serbia. Opposing it at first, Hitch soon banged the NATO drum in every available outlet. Milosevic wasn't a mere regional thug with blood on his hands--he was a genocidal monster who, if left alone, would wipe out every Muslim and Kosovar he could catch. Stopping him now would spare Europe another Hitleresque nightmare.

Well, maybe. As Hitch once told me, anybody is capable of anything: "Never be surprised by grim disclosure. Welcome it." But it appeared that Hitch's nuanced takes on global events and imperial designs were becoming grimmest black and white. Question his support for the bombing and you risked being called a pro-Slobo dupe. He was energized by the violence. Plugged into the Machine.

By the time of Clinton's impeachment, Christopher became better known for outrage than as a talented essayist. For every literary piece he'd pen for the ed'cated set in the London Review of Books, there were outbursts on Hardball and in his once-fine Nation column. Even though Clinton had stopped Milosevic from gobbling all of Europe, Hitch still couldn't stand him. And his distaste for Clinton led him to testify in the impeachment process, which soon led to charges that he betrayed his friend, the Clinton loyalist Sidney Blumenthal.

I felt bad for Hitch--he was getting raked good in the press, and old allies like Alexander Cockburn penned truly nasty attacks on his character. I wrote a long defense of Christopher in answer to Cockburn's "Hitch the Snitch" tirade, but I wasn't fully behind him. Like many on the left, I too wanted to see Clinton impeached, but for heavier crimes than lying about blowjobs. And I didn't want to help advance Tom DeLay's agenda. But Hitch could care less about this. Getting Clinton was all that mattered, and this mania drove him to shift his attacks to Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, supposedly on behalf of Ralph Nader, but also in the cynical service of George W. Bush.

 

And thus the table was set for the final course, which came on 9/11/01. Osama bin Laden provided Christopher the carnage-strewn opening he was waiting for, and soon after the Towers fell and the Pentagon's fires were put out, Hitch went off like he's never gone off before. Everybody to his left was a terrorist stooge. America was no longer an imperialist power. George W. Bush was a Noble Warrior for Enlightenment Values. From the wreckage of 9/11 came a new American Dawn, and Hitch soaked in its rays.

At first I was flabbergasted by the venom Hitch directed at people like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn (though, curiously enough, not at his old friend Edward Said, who didn't join Christopher's Liberation Squad). Then, after reading his arguments for smashing the Taliban and their al Qaeda "guests" in Afghanistan, along with Ahmed Rashid's fine book Taliban, I eventually came out in favor of the U.S. hitting those who backed the 9/11 attacks, if only to scatter them and knock them off balance.

When I explained my hesitant conversion to Hitch over the phone, he seemed delighted, and told a mutual friend that I was moving to "the right side."

Hmmm.

It's true I was pissed about the attacks on New York, my adopted hometown. And it's true that I took (and take) al Qaeda seriously and support undermining if not destroying them through international cooperation and effort. But I'm not a supporter of Bush's regime by any stretch, and was adamantly against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, knowing full well that plans for that attack predated 9/11 and had nothing to do with "liberation" or democracy, much less self-defense. Whatever goodwill the U.S. garnered after al Qaeda's hit was squandered by the administration's lust for expansionist war on its narrow terms. Can't support that.

The other difference is that, unlike Christopher, I do not revel in blasting apart strangers. There was a mean streak in me during the Afghan campaign where I did make light of Taliban and al Qaeda dead. But inside I knew that plenty more noncombatants were getting butchered, which bothered me. Plus I wasn't as gung-ho or dismissive about torturing prisoners at Guantanamo as were many of the war's supporters. Hitch has written about weapons that "shame us" and shown some concern for those chopped up by the U.S. Yet, more often than not, he's celebrated Bush's military attacks, and is critical when he thinks Bush isn't ruthless enough.

D.C. has finally gotten to him. That must be the main explanation. Yes, there are other factors to consider, but the D.C. Beast frames and distorts the thinking. Few on the Beltway's A List fret about crushing other countries. They enjoy it. They like the view from atop the growing pile of bodies. Always have. You can't live among these types for 20-plus years without some of their madness infecting your brain. And I'm afraid this madness, and the verbiage that covers it, is becoming more evident in Christopher.

I can barely read him anymore. His pieces in the Brit tabloid The Mirror and in Slate are a mishmash of imperial justifications and plain bombast; the old elegant style is dead. His TV appearances show a smug, nasty scold with little tolerance for those who disagree with him. He looks more and more like a Ralph Steadman sketch. And in addition to all this, he's now revising what he said during the buildup to the Iraq war.

In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with "Just you wait!" and other taunts, fully confident that once the U.S. took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets--with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he'd always said so. It's amazing that he'd dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won't care.

Currently, Hitch is pushing the line, in language that echoes the reactionary Paul Johnson, that the U.S. can be a "superpower for democracy," and that Toms Jefferson and Paine would approve. He's also slammed the "slut" Dixie Chicks as "fucking fat slags" for their rather mild critique of our Dear Leader. He favors Bush over Kerry, and doesn't like it that Kerry "exploits" his Vietnam combat experience (as opposed to, say, re-election campaign stunts on aircraft carriers).

Sweet Jesus. What next? I'm afraid my old mentor is not the truth-telling Orwell he fancies himself to be. He's becoming a coarser version of Norman Podhoretz.

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