27 April, 2008

The pugilist

Alexander Linklater in the Prospect has a fascinating, long piece on our favorite professional contrarian, Christopher Hitchens. I suggest it. Its a bit of a window into a man whose ideas I have found both invigorating and repugnant, by turns. Some excerpts:

His starting point is always confrontation, his procedure to wrestle out contradiction, his endpoint a position of certainty. It's that preternatural capacity for certainty, carried through the velocity and elegance of his writing, which has made him the most scintillating and disturbing British journalist of the '68 generation. He is not exaggerating much when he says: "The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can't get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them."


Hitchens came of age at a moment when politics would consume all other interests. To say that he was a child of 1968 is perhaps something more than a cliché, in the sense that the twin spirits of that year—destruction and emancipation—provided him with a sphere to operate in that was a complete alternative to family. "I don't know how to describe it," he says. "As 1967 ended, Guevara's body had just been exposed to the cameras by the CIA, Isaac Deutscher had died, the Vietnamese revolution was getting into swing, you felt the world was undergoing a convulsion. All through '68 you woke up every morning to something new. The Tet offensive. Martin Luther King is shot. Then de Gaulle is nearly overthrown, then Robert Kennedy is shot, the tanks roll into Prague. Then there's the Mexico Olympics—students shot down in the streets, Black Panthers on the podium—and Northern Ireland blows up. And through the political contacts I had been making I'm in touch somewhat with all these events… You felt, if you were a member of a rather eccentric Trotskyist-Luxemburgist organisation, that you not only had a hand in diagnosing it, but that you were somehow shaping it, that you were part of something."


Hitchens does not pretend that things have gone to plan. But he asks what a post-Saddam Iraq would have looked like without the occupation. “Iraq was the property of a fascist and sadist who was butchering his people, squandering the resources of the country, preparing to hand over to his unbelievably nasty sons, who would probably have had an inter-dauphin fratricide of their own. And instead we have a humorous Kurdish socialist as the president of Iraq, and I’m supposed to apologise. Well, fuck that.” Hitchens alludes to the assessment of the enemy by the reporter Bartle Bull published in Prospect last year: “The other side in this war are among the worst people in global politics: Baathists, the Nazis of the middle east; Sunni fundamentalists, the chief opponents of progress in Islam’s struggle with modernity; and the government of Iran.”


Many of Hitchens's critics conclude that this is his way of saying he's a neoconservative. His reply is that he doesn't consider himself to be "any kind of conservative." He would rather just be called a human rights hawk. "There should be a word for people who believe US power can and should be used to oppose totalitarianism," he says. With no faith left in the French and Russian revolutions, or the proletariat, all that now remains is his idea of America as "the last revolution in town"—its spirit of liberty revived by the struggle to transform the middle east.

Particularly moving and disturbing is the description of the death of Hitchens' mother, and the way in which the horror and emotion of that moment intertwined with his historical and political sense of identity:

It was in 1973, aged 24 and now working for the Statesman, that Hitchens got a call from his father asking him if he knew where his mother was. She had disappeared and her passport was gone. Hitchens was fully aware that she had been having an affair. His mother had introduced him to the man, a defrocked former vicar, who was a "bit of a charmer," though also clearly a "flake and a third-rater." But she was keeping up appearances, fulfilling her social role as his father's wife, so her disappearance was a mystery. Then, a couple of days later, the Times and the BBC reported that she had been found dead in an Athens hotel room along with her lover.

His father couldn't find it in himself to go to Athens, so Hitchens went alone to bury his mother. A note that she had left revealed that it had been a suicide pact. He also discovered that she had been trying to contact him in the days before her death.

In May 1973, Georgios Papadopoulos's military junta, which had seized power six years earlier, was busy suppressing an attempted counter-coup. "One thing that defined the late 1960s for a lot of us, and that is forgotten now, was the unbelievable fact that in 1967 the army had taken over Greece in a fascist coup." What had been, for the teenage Hitchens, a politically catalysing event—evidence of US complicity in the overthrow of a Nato member state which also happened to be the birthplace of democracy—was now the backdrop to a personal catastrophe.

The bodies hadn't been discovered for two days, and even with the room cleaned, the stench was appalling—she had taken pills; he, shockingly, had gutted himself with a knife. "So I go to the window because I think I'm going to be sick… and suddenly I get my first view of the Parthenon, across from the hotel, in brilliant sunlight. And down below there are tanks, and armed men, and bloodstains in the streets." When Hitchens talks about this moment, he associates it with his first memory of sailing into Valletta harbour with his mother. "I've had that feeling several times," he says. "I've felt it in Cyprus and Lebanon, in Crete, and recently in Tunis. It's how I felt about the Mediterranean. The flash of light, the coincidence of the white, the green and the double blue. It makes me feel that I'm still at home."

In the end, Linklater seems to conclude, rather poetically, that Hitchens' current absolutism regarding the moral rightness of our invasion of Iraq is an ironic reflection of his deep obsession with opposing absolutism in all forms. Though that may be true, its a bit too psychoanalytic for me. I see Hitchens' case primarily as a warning against a particular type of arrogant intelligence that fails to comprehend -- or doesn't want to comprehend -- the murky limits of its own certainty. What other explanation is there for someone who still argues that Iraq has been a success on the grounds of human rights? Or for someone who comes away from Iraq more confident in the ability of unilateral, aggressive US military power to shape the world in predictable and desirable ways?

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