Amid a perfect publicity squall, Christopher Hitchens has blown through Sydney, using its Writers’ festival to launch his new book, a memoir, Hitch-22. He leaves behind a wreck of would-be interrogators, their efforts to pin down this artful dodger defeated by some minder calling "time".
I’m one of those interrogators.
In conversation Hitchens is downright garrulous. This is doubtless a strategy for keeping antagonistic interviewers off balance. It is, of course, no secret why many interviewers feel the desire to hold Hitchens to account. He knows that every interviewer has a strategy to circle then attack on one subject: his support for the neo-conservatives and Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I got to test my particular strategy in a tapas bar at Walsh Bay over bottles of pinot noir. I started by asking if he hoped his memoir would, by recounting his extensive contribution to quality journalism, answer those who would reduce his career to the socialist-turned-Neo-con caricature. With his back to the sun to protect his "sensitive eyes" he exhaled another lungful of smoke and replied, "That’s up to you."
But Hitchens is tied to this caricature like Bill Clinton to Monica Lewinsky, and it stalks our chat about his memoir.
His new book only gives his critics more reason to feel that he’s dodging the question. With his action-packed life and somewhat loquacious writing style, Hitchens does well to get through his life’s major events in little more than 400 pages. After a sketch of mum and dad that won’t sate the Freudians, Hitch-22 traces a fine portrait of a young socialist in the Oxford of good ol’ ’68. There’s a bravely candid account of his "homosexual acts", which, borrowing from Gore Vidal, he is quick to deny make him a homosexual person.
What follows is a tour de force of wars, conflicts and struggles across Eastern Europe, the Middle East, South America and Africa. Already acquainted with England’s best and brightest, Hitchens spends the 70s travelling to meet the who’s who of the world’s dictators, politicians, freedom fighters and terrorists. All the while he proudly displays his credentials as a card-carrying international socialist.
He writes, curiously, in the present tense: "For me, this [Labour] ‘movement’ is everything." He goes on, describing "its germinal hope of a better future where a thinking working class can acquire the faculties of a serious party of government … uniting with similar movements in other countries to repudiate the narrow nationalisms that lead to wars and partitions." It’s hard to imagine he will not recall this time as a socialist and journalist as his golden years.
His socialism survived the move to America. Hitchens stopped, consciously at least, identifying as a socialist during the writing of his Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001). He found, when responding to students asking for advice, he could not honestly say that there was "an authentic socialist movement for them to join". He came to experience this shift as "having taken off a needlessly heavy coat".
While this may disprove charges of a road-to-Damascus conversion, it hardly explains his support for the neo-con agenda. For this he points to an event on stage with Michael Moore at the premiere of Bowling for Columbine. Hitchens interrupted when Moore said "if Osama was responsible for the World Trade Centre … " to ask, "What makes you say ‘if’?" When Moore asserted that anybody is innocent until proven guilty, and when the audience keenly applauded, Hitchens says he thought "I’ve got to separate from this stupidity."
Within a year he was on board with people like Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. To explain this position, Hitchens provides a litany of good reasons to remove Saddam from power. His insistence on presenting these reasons as somehow outside questions about whether or not it was possible to effectively execute such regime change, or outside questions about what would happen after the invasion, remains maddening. To support going to war, one generally needs first to establish the likelihood of it succeeding.
We hear again, in Hitch-22, of the horrors revealed soon after Iraq was liberated. We hear moving stories about the soldiers who fought and died: one who was moved to enlist by a Hitchens article in support of the war and who died when an IED took out his Humvee. All of this is an essential part of the story. But there is no excuse for the appalling omission of all the figures that tell the other catastrophic side of the "liberation" of Iraq — a term Hitchens still insists is valid. No mention of the death toll since invasion, variously estimated from 100,000 (Iraq Bodycount) to 600,000 (The Lancet); plus 2.5 million people displaced and five million children orphaned, and a further list of horrors that goes on and on.
None of these facts seems to shake Hitchens’s resolve to defend the invasion. Fair-minded critics would grant him this, but ridicule his failure to properly acknowledge the unmistakable dark side to the Iraq endeavour. If he presented both sides he could vouchsafe civilised debate. The fact that he so rigidly refuses to do so tells us more about Hitchens than his opinions do.
As he tells us, "How I think is more interesting than what I think." To present the Bush administration’s failure to properly prepare for the conflict as errors that "have permanently disfigured the record of those of us who made that case" appears, to me at least, reprehensibly self-centred.
I wondered if his relish for taking a contrary position was involved in that early decision to support the neo-con agenda. "Might there have been," I asked, "a moment of seduction, according to your character, that drew you into it, that perhaps clouded your judgement?"
"I might suspect myself if I denied that. I do, kind of, somewhat enjoy disconcerting people." His wry grin faded. "I think it would be puerile to do that just for its own sake."
To those young people who still ask him for advice on how to contribute to a better world, he tells them, "Join the armed forces". He sees engagement with climate change as little more than a waste of time. "It’s going to happen whatever we do. By the time we worked out it was coming it was too late. The kerfuffle about footprints is pretty small beer. I’ll do my stuff, but I don’t think this is a life’s work."
Hitch-22 reads like an intellectual and moral ledger to be presented to Hitchens’s hero, George Orwell. Throughout the book, he refers to "keeping two sets of books" as a means of staying closest to the truth. This means he can stridently present his view on any given topic, then tell you that his only true position is uncertainty.
As Tony Abbott recently discovered, this strategy, while effective promotion, can jeopardise your reputation. For whatever Hitchens may say about uncertainty, he is not paid as a philosopher; the coin of his trade is logical consistency. His continues to leak, however lucratively, from an unstopped breach at the centre of his career.
The result is that Hitchens has become a public spectacle. Appearing last Saturday night before a sell-out crowd at Sydney’s Town Hall, Julian Morrow was too polite (or was it pathetic?) to press Hitchens on any serious matters. It was almost sad to hear a great intellect reduced to trundling out dirty limericks and the "shocking" revelation that Thatcher has "the most beautiful skin I’ve ever seen on a woman".
Somewhere between shaking off that "heavy coat" and 2003, his new stance took on a distorting defensiveness. In his memoir he confesses a flipside to his debating skills: "because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point." I for one hope that he will remember this as a fault, concede at least enough ground to find a reasonable centre and return to tearing strips off the many targets who mire public debate in spin and cant. His talent is too great to waste in pointless protraction.
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