In Praise of Hitchens

Perhaps because I teach in one of the reddest counties in the country — Orange — but every quarter, I make it clear to my students that I’m not interested in indoctrinating them. I’m left of liberal in my politics, but when I’m in the classroom, I’m interested in one thing and one thing alone: teaching these students how to construct a stronger argument. When I argue with conservatives online, I’m arguing with people who don’t know how to argue (or whose idea of arguing involves suing people who disagree with them). I tell my students I’m looking to create a better class of opponents. That I’d rather disagree with people who can state their beliefs forcefully, so that I didn’t always feel like I’m beating candy from a baby.

Since 2001, in the back of my mind, I always imagined I wanted to train my conservative students into being a wee Hitchens.

I know I’ll take flack for this, but honestly, the reason the left reviled Hitchens as strongly as it did was because it realized that it had a formidable opponent. For the most part, the left argues with the likes of Grover Norquist, whose influence is undeniable but whose skills are very much comparable.

To everybody.

Who argues.

About anything.

Hitchens was different. We can turn a phrase, but he could cant and pirouette it. As I wrote after learning he died:

He’s basically our generation’s G.K. Chesterton: wrong about it all, but beautifully so.

I stand by it. He attacked Mother Teresa, and justifiably so, when he felt it necessary. And he embraced an unjust war, unjustifiably so, when he felt it necessary. But he also waterboarded himself, to justify himself, because he felt it was necessary, and he backed down. He was the opposition we should hate, because he makes his case so strongly; but he was also the opposition we should love, because he challenged us to make our argument in its strongest form and changed his mind to fit the facts.

Would that we always had opponents so eloquent and wrong.

UPDATE: Because it was brought up in the comments, I thought I’d at least shed a little light on how I deal with other “leading thinkers” in the conservative movement. I just don’t want anybody confused about the issue here, which is argumentative integrity, not correctness.

UPDATE II: Because someone brought up that I’d said it better before, here’s “Liberal Fascism: Two Words Next To Each Other.

114 comments on this post.
  1. Erik Loomis:

    Off topic, but if you think Orange County is one of the reddest counties in the nation, you and I need to take a long drive around west Texas. Which I would gladly do.

    Obviously, its historical redness and importance in the development of the modern Republican Party is giganticly important. But it only went McCain 50-47. Whereas Modoc County, CA went 68-30. And King County, Texas, which had all of 162 voters, chose McCain by a margin of 151-8.

  2. SEK:

    Erik, I’d love to drive around West Texas with you — and will, as a detour, next time I go to Houston to visit my parents — but really, the Nixon legacy lives on here. The local news splits half between the up-and-coming Hispanic population and the very, very regnant Republican majority. And I live in Riverside County now, so don’t even get me started on the other half of the Southland. It’s not all about voting, it’s about the culture.

    And teaching less than a mile from Mark Mcgwire’s house? That’s exactly what to expect from Orange County. (It was even ahead of the curve on the bailouts, after all.)

  3. Erik Loomis:

    I don’t doubt you are right. But there are some scary places in this country.

  4. SEK:

    Since IB started it in the other thread, I should at least put all my cards on the table:

    I had dinner and too many drinks with Hitchens once, at a conference concerning long-form journalism, and he and I had a very long conversation about New Journalism. He was well-read, witty, incisive, wrong about basically everything and ecstatic about the fact that I was willing to argue with him about it. I’d been well-prepared, having argued with Bérubé about the exact same things about Didion years earlier … which means, yes, I’m saying that Bérubé and Hitchens attacked Didion for the exact same things. He was wrong, very much so, but thoughtfully and eloquently so.

  5. SEK:

    I grew up in Louisiana. I “vacationed” on four-wheelers in a place called Bunkie. You don’t need to tell twice me about the secrets of scary people.

  6. Bill Murray:

    Why does Hitchens’ misogyny seem to get short shrift in his litany of idiocy?

  7. SEK:

    (Ambiguous pronoun distribution intented.)

  8. Amanda in the South Bay:

    Eh, I can’t claim to be anyone of any importance (hence no anecdotes about drinking with him) but seriously, any decent person should know that waterboarding is torture without having to undergo it.

  9. BKP:

    What other conservatives would you say this of?

  10. SEK:

    Off the top of my head, sadly, I can only name Mark Helprin. (Not to be confused with Mark Halperin.) Which is why I think this loss is meaningful: there aren’t that many thoughtful conservatives out there, which is why the primaries involve Newt and Mitt. I want a better class of criminals conservatives.

  11. SEK:

    I’m an adjunct at a UC that isn’t an LA or a Berkeley, so I don’t think I’m making any claims of importance.

  12. John:

    Is it really right to describe Hitchens as a conservative? He certainly was not one for the vast majority of his career, and even in his last decade, he retained many of his original leftist views. Even his hatred of “Islamofascism” derived in large part from his hatred of all religion. Hitchens himself certainly rejected the notion that he was a Neoconservative.

    Hitchens’s political beliefs were highly idiosyncratic, and for a while he was mostly using his talents to advocate for terrible neoconservative policies, but I think it’s reasonable to argue that he ultimately remained rooted in the left throughout his career.

  13. SEK:

    Don’t give away the game, John. No, it’s not really right to label anyone who actually thinks about things a conservative, but given the positions he advocated during his most prominent years, I don’t think it’s a stretch.

  14. Bruce Baugh:

    I don’t know. But no, for me at least, it’s not at all the case that “I know I’ll take flack for this, but honestly, the reason the left reviled Hitchens as strongly as it did was because it realized that it had a formidable opponent.” I reviled his writing because so much it was vile.

  15. SEK:

    How much have you read? I mean that honestly. Have you read much of his pre-9/11 material, or are you basing this solely on his post-9/11 turn against his notion of Islamofascism?

    Because his early thought, and prose, was as influential to me and my generation as Chomsky, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about me being a crypto-conservative.

  16. Richard:

    I disagree. What he did was exactly the right thing to do – test the hypothesis – and his article about experiencing waterboarding was great journalism. Hitchens’ way was not to assume “decency” and go with the flow. I appreciate that. His style may not be what you like and, as I stated before, feel free to criticize. But, IMHO, he was an important writer and thinker and I mourn his death.

  17. dave:

    It is a stretch, a real one, unless you’re in a place where the only definition of ‘conservative’ that matters is ‘in favour of the invasion of Iraq’.

    Of course, Hitch came from a country where being an intelligent conservative was not, in itself, an oxymoron, but that still doesn’t make him one.

  18. dave:

    p.s., he has a brother, Peter, who is a conservative, and a shithead. They did not get on…

  19. Njorl:

    I disagree, at least a bit. As he aged, Hitchens could certainly still write well, but he didn’t argue well. In fact I’d say he argued much like conservatives do, except he could use satire intentionally.

  20. Warren Terra:

    Hitchens hasn’t done much of merit over the last decade, but his getting waterboarded, and writing about it, was a genuinely great act.

    You are right that anyone should know waterboarding is torture – but you aren’t necessarily right to presume Hitchens didn’t know this going in, and you are completely wrong to discount the rhetorical power he gained by undergoing the procedure and offering a first-person narrative. A lot of people have spoken out against torture and against waterboarding; some of them were and perhaps even remained as fervently warmongering as Hitchens. It’s Hitchens we remember, because he created not merely an argument but a story against waterboarding.

  21. Malaclypse:

    Exactly. Liberal hawk, even liberal imperialist =/= conservative.

    After moving to the United States in 1981, Hitchens wrote for The Nation where he penned vociferous critiques of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and American foreign policy in South and Central America.


    Did he really write anything of consequence on domestic policy after 2001?

  22. Bill Murray:

    well except that he wasn’t actually testing the hypothesis

  23. Bruce Baugh:

    Quite a lot of it, both book-length and essays. I deal badly with confrontation, partly post-traumatic stress and partly neurochemical complications stemming from porphyria. Hitchens’ work struck me early on as seeking out opportunities for hostile engagement and relishing the most abrasive terms of engagement. So it did me much less good than work less in love with its own capacity for invective, and it seems to me that it did its part to favor an atmosphere in which poisonous abrasion is treated as a good thing – both a good tool for pressing true and valid causes, and a thing to be admired in itself.

    That sucks.

  24. Warren Terra:

    I’d go along with this. In his last decade, most of what Hitchens did was to find the widest possible brush, and try to tar every last one of his conceptual opponents with the deeds of a small number of people he could in some way connect to them. Thus, he took the repressive but rather unoriginal dictatorship of Iran and used it to denounce a billion Muslims. Did the same with a few dozen members of Al Qaeda, etcetera. Even when he was arguing positions with which I’m sympathetic (I’m no fan of religion) his Manichean outlook and his unholy glee over the failings of some institutions and individuals led him to make sweeping statements that I’m sure he found emotionally satisfying but I found rather unpersuasive.

  25. Antonio Conselheiro:

    I don’t get it either. Orange County may be the ancestral homeland of certain kinds of Republicanism, the way Kosovo is the homeland of the Serbs, but that’s history. The Albanians are on the way to taking over.

  26. Robert Farley:

    I guess this is part of my issue with this, and with much else; a very high percentage of the hagiographies of Hitchens that have emerged over the last day or so have involved personal meeting with the charming Hitchens, involving witty banter and repartee and heavy drinking. See for example Christopher Buckley, but far from the only case.

    I never met Hitchens, and never wanted to. I never saw the “when he felt it necessary” as anything more interesting or compelling that “when he felt it necessary to adjust the Christopher Hitchens brand.” You’ve suggested a principled rhetorician here, committed to some deeply wrong causes but an eloquent defender nonetheless; I see a clever court jester who eloquently espoused whatever argument made the biggest splash at any given time.

    I have a lot of conservatives in my classes. i really, really don’t want them to be Christopher Hitchens.

  27. SEK:

    Emerson, I know that’s you, and I know you’re wrong. Believe you me, I’ve lived there — in Irvine, no less — and I’m not exaggerating when I say the veldt is still overbrimming with conservative hordes.

  28. BKP:

    After reading the thread started by John:

    How would I recognize a conservative when I see one?

  29. Dave:

    Shorter Hitchens obituaries: Alas, there went the noisiest guy at the party.

  30. SEK:

    Um, let me help you with that:

    Alas, there went the noisiest most eloquently and articulately wrong guy at the party.

    You’re welcome. (Unless you can name someone else you’d rather disagree with. Seriously. Take that as a challenge, and look at my updates.)

  31. SEK:

    less in love with its own capacity for invective

    If the House and Senate had the capacity for invective that the British Parliament did, do you think the US would’ve been able to bully to UK into Iraq? I don’t think so. The order of operations is significant here.

  32. Richard:

    Except that he was. He was testing the hypothesis advanced by neoconservatives that waterboarding was no big deal and was not torture. And his experience, and his very sharp writing, disproved that hypothesis.

  33. SEK:

    Hitchens became a conservative, American-style. The English definitions just don’t cross the pond. But he never became a Norquist conservative — doctrinaire and pandering — which is why I still valued him as an ideological opponent.

    Plus, the man could write, and my doctorate’s still in English, so I can’t help but appreciate that.

  34. Bruce Baugh:

    Yes, I do. Invective is not the same as any of the virtues like the courage of one’s convictions, a capacity to organize a useful coalition, or an actual regard for the well-being of people in need to complement a hatred of bad guys. Better rhetoric didn’t keep the UK from the Falklands debacle, nor did it keep the UK out of Iraq and it’s not noticeably helping to promote the well-being of the British people right now.

    I should note that in the last decade I’ve soured on several of my own favorite writers, including Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs, for the same general sort of reason. I don’t think I’m indulging in particular spite against Hitchens here, nor doing so primarily because he started arguing causes I reject more.

  35. Amanda in the South Bay:

    Yay Hitchens drank a lot (and probably died prematurely for that). BFD.

  36. SEK:

    We’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one, because I believe a more robust, more invective-laden legislative branch might’ve stymied the march to war, and if the US hadn’t have pushed, the UK wouldn’t have been pushed over, but again, we’re just dealing with counter-factuals here.

    However, I’m curious about why you rejected Thompson. I’ve found going back to him increasingly inviting, to be honest, because he remained critical even when he was taking limos and talking NFL with Nixon.

  37. Dave:

    Art and eloquence in the service of error are still noise.

  38. Antonio Conselheiro:

    Well, if Orange Country were a Texas Congressional district, with a 47% Obama vote it would be the 12th most Democratic out of 33.

    Perhaps the Republicans still dominate local government and the public spaces, with the 47% mostly still subjugated. But T can’t see it as redder than the 4 70%+ McCain Texas congressional disticts.

  39. SEK:

    Yes, because drinking causes pneumonia caused by esophageal cancer? I understand why he’s hated — he was very, very wrong for more than a decade, and about most everything — but that doesn’t mean we need to blinker ourselves to what he was as a writer.

  40. SEK:

    No, they’re not. They’re more like a contrapasso.

  41. Veritas:

    And his brother, weirdly, was loudly against the Iraq War.

  42. SEK:

    You really prefer them to be incapable of argument, inelegant in prose, and unable to rethink positions they once held when the facts change? Again, I’m not saying I agree with anything the man said in the past ten years — I only hold that he said it better than all, and actually knew an argument from a hole in the ground. In a time when the majority of conservative argument consists of sound-bites and losing ten-thousand-dollar bets, more people like Hitchens would’ve been the much lesser of all evils.

  43. SEK:

    (Also, I was charmed by his prose and invective (against Mother Teresa, no less) long before I met him, and when I did, he’d turned against both reason and Didion, and those are offenses against which I cannot stand.

  44. wengler:

    From reading these comments I can safely assume that Hitchens was only remarkable in his ability to 1)actually write and 2)care about facts sometimes.

    I think this has very little to do with Hitchens, who for much of his career was a self-described socialist(until it became fashionable to be an ex-socialist), and much more about the diminishing returns of the rightwing conservative movement in the US. Shed of all intellectual veneer, they stumble about from one slogan to the next, from one talking point to the next, from one strawman to the next, heedlessly firing a cavalcade of cash to blind the American people to their mendacious ends.

    Hence Hitchens ended his life as a hack. A cheerleader for a war based on greed, corruption, ignorance and lies. And that is how he will be remembered. If he will be remembered.

  45. mark f:

    because he remained critical even when he was taking limos and talking NFL with Nixon.

    Indeed. The cliche DC journalist would’ve gone on that ride and said it meant Nixon was a regular guy you’d like to have a beer with after all. Thompson’s reaction was that while perhaps even Richard Nixon has got soul just wtf is that creep’s angle anyway?

  46. SEK:

    Hence Hitchens ended his life as a hack.

    Minus the water-boarding article, this is absolutely true. Sad, yes, but true.

  47. Dave:

    Ooh, touche. Bonus points for “contrapasso.”

  48. Richard:

    He will be remembered as a very fine writer who was wrong on some things, right on some things. He had not been a “cheerleader” for war for many years (although he was clearly wrong, in my view, for supporting the Iraq war). His writings, especially on atheism, Henry Kissinger, Mother Theresa, and his own impending death, will stand the test of time.

  49. SEK:

    Believe it or not, I’m a bit of a Dante scholar, so thinking that our punishment would be having to deal with Hitchens for eternity was sort of at the tip of my brain.

  50. Richard:

    I think you are ignoring the writing he has done over the last year on his own mortality. I think that writing is not hackish in the least bit and is memorable.

  51. Robert Farley:

    Of the three things you mention at the top, I see Hitchens excused only in the second; his prose surely was elegant. For the first and the third, I do not share your views; his Slate columns offer ample examples of incapacity to make a plausible argument, and surely also indicate a strong resistance to rethinking positions when the facts change.

    Doesn’t matter whether you agree with what he said or not; he wasn’t the most effective advocate of the war, even if his prose was the most elegant.

    I prefer my conservative students to have command of the facts (Hitch did not), to be familiar with and willing to engage seriously the counterarguments (Hitch sometimes did this, but often caricatured and intentionally misunderstood his interlocutors), and to pursue consistent, coherent argument at the expense of entertainment (when offered the choice Hitch never, to my knowledge, preferred the former).

  52. Malaclypse:

    I only hold that he said it better than all, and actually knew an argument from a hole in the ground.

    And if Leni Riefenstahl made films better than any other German of that era, while I admit that makes her a great filmmaker, it still leaves her an awful human being. I can’t imagine that any film professors want their students to “direct like Leni Riefenstahl.”

  53. Substance McGravitas:

    his Slate columns offer ample examples of incapacity to make a plausible argument

    Yes. The words were cover for gaps in logic.

  54. pete:

    I don’t agree. Even when I shared his opinion, there was something meretricious in his mode of argument. He could turn a phrase, but I think deep down he wanted to be Orwell, and he didn’t have the heart.

  55. Ed:

    Alas, there went the noisiest most eloquently and articulately wrong guy at the party.

    I admire some of his early writing, especially on literature. He was also a big talker and drinker who could write well and entertain on chat shows, but I’m not sure why that is such a big deal. And as someone said upthread he had a bit of a woman problem.

    At least he didn’t find God before expiring, and some of his last pieces have good writing on his dealings with well-meaning folk determined to convert him before the end. RIP.

  56. SEK:

    You’re talking exclusively about the post-9/11 Hitchens, which, I agree, was underwhelming. But! Even he had more whelm than, say, Mitt or Newt or Cain or Perry or need I say more? Again, as regards his position on Iraq, he wasn’t coming from the neoconservative angle: he was there before and after the first Gulf War (if memory serves), and his desire to see Saddam ousted came from his experience after Bush prematurely withdraw troops after said war. His position on WMDs was, and will forever remain, wrong. In my opinion, he wanted it to be true more than he believed it to be, which puts him in the same camp as Powell. So, not a nice camp to be in, but much more understandable than Cheney’s. I can’t recommend his book on Kissinger highly enough, even though it pits pre- verses post-9/11 Hitchens against himself. He was quite something, when he was right; and he became quite another something, when he was Right.

  57. SEK:

    I’m glad all y’all know I’m not a conservative because, well, Michael Moore. Just because we agree with him doesn’t mean he’s not manipulative. (And I know I’m shooting myself in the foot here with regards to Hitchens.)

  58. Robert Farley:

    No, I’m not; I find his work on Kissinger lazy, obvious, and not terribly insightful. To the extent he was right it was almost entirely by accident, not as a result of any kind of serious moral thought about policy, violence, or force. I dislike his work on atheism much more than I dislike Richard Dawkins’, and that’s really saying something. Being slightly less wrong than Dick Cheney (and to be sure, I am not convinced that this is the case), is hardly a recommendation, and is not particularly indicative of someone who can put a coherent argument together.

    The man was an eloquent clown.

  59. Malaclypse:

    Okay, I will grant that both Moore and Riefenstahl are propagandists. I will grant that Riefenstahl was the more skilled director. But were I a film teacher, I can picture telling someone to be more like Moore, but not to be more like Riefenstahl. Moore’s propaganda is (usually) on the side of the angels. Riefenstahl’s, and Hitchens, often was not.

    I do think it matters what side you are on. I’d prefer that propagandists on the side of evil be less skilled, not more skilled. And even though Hitchens managed to get the torture issue right (and Christ, how sad for us all that this somehow is remarkable), that still does not change the fact that he was an effective propagandist who argued for an aggressive war of choice.

  60. SEK:

    It didn’t read lazy to me when I read it, and I’ll admit to not having read it since. Basically, I number Hitchens next to Zinn in terms of my intellectual development, and can admit that maybe I was overly swayed by his facility with words … but his arguments, even when weak, worked. Not the way we wanted them to, but at least like wall-paper, as opposed to the puffs of air the current crop of Republican candidates spit in our general direction. Again, I’m not saying he left on a high note — though his writing about cancer was, well, anyway — but compare him to, say, the guy-who-sued-me-so-I-can’t-legally-say-his-name. Is there any comparison, really?

  61. SEK:

    I do think it matters what side you are on.

    I do too.

    I’d prefer that propagandists on the side of evil be less skilled, not more skilled.

    But I disagree. We play to the level of our competition. I watched that Barcelona/Al-Sadd game the other day and it was just sad. Barcelona moped, and though they won, they didn’t do so convincingly. If they’d played a more skilled opponent, they’ve have sharpened their game-play, honed their talent, [insert your cliché]. I think the left benefits from having a better quality of opponents from the right, which is all I’m arguing here.

  62. Robert Farley:

    Not sure that’s terribly useful as a metric for teaching success.

  63. Ben:

    Pre-9-11 Hitchens includes his book on Clinton, which was hilarious even in the context of those insane times and has only gotten more ridiculous with time. He had one substantive argument to make, that the bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant was a bad thing to do, and surrounded it with 200 pages of “My the Clintons are nasty people.”

    Eloquent piffle, maybe, but piffle nonetheless. The equivalent now would be arguing that Obama should be impeached because bombing Pakistan with drones is a war crime, and also because he wasn’t born in the country. Eloquently, of course.

  64. SEK:

    Not sure that’s terribly useful as a metric for teaching success.

    But that’s what the Right’s left us with. I’m not saying, by any means, the man was perfect, just better. As I was asked earlier, I’ll ask you: What other conservatives out there do you think are respectable thinkers and/or solid debaters? I’m hard-pressed to name any.

  65. Antonio Conselheiro:

    Mother Teresa, Lady Di, and President Mobutu Sese Seko all died within 8 days of one another in 1997. Good or bad luck comes in threes.

    Everyone knows that the now-late Christopher Hitchens wrote about the first two, but what he wrote about Mobutu is less well known.

  66. Richard:

    Well we simply disagree about the caliber of his writing and the caliber of his ability to argue a point. I think you are right that he wanted to be Orwell but that he he didn’t have Orwell’s moral outrage (saying he didn’t have the heart is another way of phrasing that) but the fact that he wasn’t Orwell doesn’t, in my view, condemn him. He was, in my view, a very fine writer, a legendary wit, and his writing about coming to grip with his own impending death and dealing with the people who wished him well while wanting him to embrace God before he died is great stuff.

  67. POP QUIZ! : Lawyers, Guns & Money:

    [...] post to the Goldberg articles and the general sentiment against Hitchens, I want to ask you what was asked of me: If not Hitchens, what conservative (however so broadly defined) would you rather engage in a [...]

  68. Murc:

    But he never became a Norquist conservative — doctrinaire and pandering

    You’ve… read his Slate columns, right?

    He could dress it up in pretty words all he liked, but when it came to bombing the shit out of countries and then invading them, Hitch was as doctrinaire and pandering as Michael Ledeen. He just hid it better.

  69. SEK:

    He didn’t hide it. He believed it before 9/11, and yes, used 9/11 as a justification to intervene as he’d always believed the US should. Short form: I didn’t want to write this piece because I knew it’d garner this response; but given that I did, I need to defend it, so … long form: Hitchens took a principled stand on bombing Saddam before 9/11 because of human rights violations, and while that’s like saying, yes, “Let’s kill Hitler,” it’s at least consistent. And morally justifiable. That he propped his previously held beliefs up on an unjust war is deplorable, but ultimately understandable. The next ten years of his life, though, consisted of back-tracking and increasingly vociferous declarations of having always been correct. I’m not trying to defend his positions, just saying I’d rather argue with him than, say, this guy.

  70. Bill Murray:

    but since what was being done to him was only in the barest outline similar to waterboarding as practiced his test model did nothing to validate/verify the underlying process. therefore, whatever he was testing it was not is waterboarding torture.

  71. DocAmazing:

    He managed to become the the Orwell that wrote The Road to Wigan Pier and a slew of cranky, small-minded essays.

  72. Robert Farley:

    John Cook is devastating on this point. Hitchens was consistent to the point of idiocy; he was not, notably, open to evidentiary challenge or serious argument on principle.

  73. Bijan Parsia:

    Totally agree about his argumentative capabilities, though I disagree about his eloquence. I found his prose rather pompous and tinny. His imagery, what I recall of it, wasn’t particularly inspired and his insults weren’t really great either.

    But his unreliability really grates on me. Like his contemporary, Alex Cockburn, if you read a select chunk of their work, they seem bright, usefully argumentative, and somewhat amusing. (Some individual pieces are quite good; Cockburn’s piece about the NPR news shows is really neat.) You get the whole corpus, esp. anything from the last 20 years, and it’s “oh my god, how sad”. (Sadly kooky about sums it up.)

    Similarly, I don’t understand why anyone things Andrew Sullivan is a good writer, much less an insightful arguer.

  74. Malaclypse:

    Via the always-awsome PHN:

    Hitchens had a reputation for being an internationalist. Yet someone who gets excited by mass murder—and then invokes that excitement, to a waiting audience, as an explanation of his support for mass murder—is not an internationalist. He is a narcissist, the most provincial spirit of all.

  75. Murc:

    He didn’t hide it.

    My apologies. I meant that he hid the fact he was doctrinaire and pandering better, not that he hid his actual views.

    I didn’t want to write this piece because I knew it’d garner this response

    That maybe ought to tell you something, although you are defending your position with far more integrity than Hitchens defended most of his.

    I’d rather argue with him than, say, this guy.

    From the point of view of having an personally enjoyable argument, I also would prefer Hitchens over a ton of other people. If nothing else arguing with someone who had an actual vocabulary is always a step up.

    But that’s from a PERSONAL perspective. Policy ain’t debate club where you score points for having the most elegant command of the language and constructing a seemingly logical and moral defense of reprehensible things, and then you all shake hands and go have a pint. From the point of view that public policy arguments are meant to influence policymaking, I want the side of people who are catastrophically wrong and whose policy prescriptions will cause harm and suffering to be argued by the dumbest cretins possible.

  76. Buttercup:

    Maybe because it’s not seen as something as significant as his other idiocies? He didn’t recognize women as fully human. Not a single mention of that, which for me was enough to disqualify his supposed intellect out of hand.

  77. Bijan Parsia:

    So much of the writing/argument of Hitchens (and of Cockburn, and of Sullivan, and of others of this ilk…oops, are any of them not British ex-pats?!) is primarily condescension, and often pure condescension, i.e., without anything to back it up. It can seem thrilling (wow, so smart! and so knowing about that smartness! and so willing to tell the fools that they are fools!) until the there is revealed to be elsewhere (or rather nowhere). Then it grates. For me at least.

  78. Greg:

    SEK – as a proud alum of Irvine (and as someone who grew up in Irvine. I literally went down the street from University High to UCI), I think for the most part that you’re right; Orange County is awash with some of the most repugnant Republicans but here in Irvine, we are hardly the bastion of Conservative thought. We have a Democrat as Mayor and the City Council is generally moderate (in the traditional sense).

  79. Richard:

    You don’t like Road to Wigan Pier? And Orwell’s masterpieces (Homage, 1984 and Animal Farm) came after Road to Wigan Pier so I don’t understand your comment at all. Is your point that Hitchen became the Orwell of 1937 before Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War that caused him to distrust the platitudes of the left?

  80. Bijan Parsia:

    I don’t think I’d want to argue with a Hitchens. The chances of learning something are small. The chances of teaching them something are smaller. The probability that at some point a cheering squad will claim that you were rhetorically pwned, regardless of the truth of your pwnage, are high. The chance that it will become ever more transparent that facts, evidence, and coherence of argument don’t matter to him are likewise high.

  81. Richard:

    And his article made it clear that what he experienced wasn’t as horrific as what the prisoners were subjected to. But since he concluded that even what he experienced was clearly torture and horrid, then what the prisoners experienced was obviously torture as well I don’t see how you claim that this was not a test of the hypothesis that waterboarding is not torture. Since the greater includes the lesser, his article clearly demonstrated that waterboarding is torture.

  82. actor212:

    With Cockburn, I at least got the sense he read a book written by someone who disagreed with him, rather than ferret out “opposing facts” from his own head.

    I don’t mind being condescended to by someone who’s earned the right to condescend. I can’t say the same thing about Hitchens.

  83. pete:

    I find the comment somewhat baffling too, but I take it to mean that Hitchens never really grew up. My suspicion is that his heroic drinking and smoking ultimately derived from deep pain at the way the world is, which I do respect, but that Hitchens never had the emotional resources to investigate that.

  84. pete:

    It’s Oxford. I was Hitchens’ exact contemporary there, along with both of Alex’s younger brothers, a fair bit ahead of Sullivan. That’s what they do there, it’s what they value, it’s the way they teach you how to be. You nailed it. I fled, and it’s galling that some of them came with me, though I retain a soft spot for Alex, actually. Anyone who celebrates both barbecue and P.G. Wodehouse has merit points for me.

  85. Bijan Parsia:

    Early Cockburn, maybe. I very much enjoyed Corruptions of Empire. But Counterpunch, for example, hasn’t been worth reading…er…for forever. Cockburn’s articles on cliamate change and peak oil, just for example, are utterly ridiculous.

    I pretty much lump them together.

  86. Bijan Parsia:

    He undoubtably should get credit for the waterboarding bit. He made it clear that what he experienced was a shadow of experiencing it forcibly and what he experienced was unbelievably awful.

    Of course, I’ve not read a single first person account of being waterboarded to see how bad it is say anything else. There are several more pieces in the genre, most pre-Hitchens’ IIRC. Regardless of what the writer thought going in, they are unanimous about its torture status afterwards…at least in my reading. I’d be interested in contrary pieces.

  87. DocAmazing:

    You do like Road to Wigan Pier? A bunch of snotty proto-hippie-punching that served no purpose but to show off Blair’s ability to turn a phrase and alert any leftists who didn’t know their neckties correctly that they were unwelcome to participate?

    Orwell/Blair wrote reams of shit about his love of narrow English proprieties. He then went & got shot in the neck. He cam back and wrote reams of shit about his love of narrow English proprieties, followed by his masterworks. “Uneven” would be a tremendous compliment.

  88. Bijan Parsia:

    Thanks, Pete. It explains so much.

  89. Richard:

    Well we couldn’t disagree more. Orwell is one of my favorite writers of all time. I do like Road to Wigans Pier, not as much as Homage and Down and Out but I certainly like it.

    And you refer to his Spanish Civil War experience as getting shot in the neck(after which he came back and wrote reams of shit)? I think you’re missing what Homage to Catalonia was about and how that experience (not just getting shot) affected him.

    But I still don’t get what youre saying – that Road to Wigan Pier is terrible and that Hitchens became like the Orwell that wrote that (and a bunch of essays you don’t like that showed a parochial attitude) and didn’t become the Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm? If so, I just don’t think thats a very cogent comparison.

  90. Bijan Parsia:

    If you’re actually certain that you’re hitting only a concentration of enemy troops…then it’s pretty good because those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. And if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that, too. So they won’t be able to say, “Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.” No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words.

    Good god, that’s both loathsome AND clunky. Ah, it’s verbal. But still. And the other quote:

    I should perhaps confess that on September 11 last, once I had experienced all the usual mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea, I also discovered that another sensation was contending for mastery. On examination, and to my own surprise and pleasure, it turned out be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy–theocratic barbarism–in plain view….I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.

    Still loathsome….still clunky. “Mammalian gamut of emotions, from rage to nausea”….yeek. And, mass death and destruction was great if it meant he wouldn’t be bored. I vaugely recall reading that crap, so I went to the article and was greeted by:

    I so distrust the use of the word zeitgeist, with all its vague implications of Teutonic meta-theory. But on Veterans Day I had to work full time on myself in order to combat the feeling of an epochal shift, in which my own poor molecules were being realigned in some bizarre Hegelian synthesis.

    and it bids farewell with:

    But it’s been a good season for vertiginous sensations, and the rearview mirror has never looked better to me, as it offers the unfolding prospect of garbage cans, full of wasted history, moldering on the side of the road.

    Sorry, this screams of unvarnished crap to me, not of the silvered tongue or gilded pen. It sounds like someone faking a British accent to make his drivel sound posh.

  91. Uncle Ebeneezer:

    I would be interested to know what you don’t like about Dawkins? Though Hitchens was admittedly unbearable on atheism (and I am a full-fledged non-believer) I enjoy Dawkins and find him leagues above Sam Harris, though not as good as Dennett and some of the bigger bloggers (Coyne, PZ.)

  92. Lee Hartmann:

    A drama queen who wrote well. Sorry, I prefer people to be right than well-written, if they are writing about real-world events with real-world consequences.

  93. John:

    I don’t think I can agree with either side of this. Firstly, there have been, throughout history, plenty of people who think about things and are conservative. They are somewhat hard to spot at the moment, but I imagine one could even find some examples writing at the moment in the United States. American Conservatism in its current form is unbearably stupid (and, what’s worse, even more unbearably hackish), but that’s not a necessary feature of Conservatism.

    Secondly, so far as I know, Hitchens’s alliance with Neocons was pretty tighly focused on the subject matter of being in favor of bombing Muslims. Given that there were plenty of self-described “Liberals” who also loved bombing Muslims, I don’t see how we can end up with this being the basis for declaring somebody a conservative.

  94. Bijan Parsia:

    Surly the comparative doesn’t help you does it? “Best of a bad lot” doesn’t equal “good” or even “worthwhile”.

    (I’m open to Hitchens being a worthy opponent, though I don’t believe it, but you need to make a better case than this. I.e., a substantive one.)

  95. Substance McGravitas:

    Surly is pretty good in a Hitchens thread.

  96. OC:

    5 of 6 Congressional members that represent parts of OC are Republicans

    3 of 4 State Senators are Republicans

    7 of 9 State Assembly Members are Republicans. (1 of the Dems’ districts is majority LA County)

    All 5 County Supervisors are Republicans

    Republicans are 43% of registered voters while Democrats are 32%

  97. Arthur:

    This has been fun to read. It may be the greatest expression of condescension devoted to criticizing a dead man for being condescending ever assembled.

  98. Bruce Baugh:

    Thompson has a bullying streak, and a knee-jerk reaction to various sorts of GLBT people that starts with “nasty” and goes downhill from there. I simply don’t have a lot of time anymore for cruelty as a source of entertainment. I do sympathize with the bitter rage that Thompson felt so much, and there are passages (some multi-chapter ones, at that) that I keep in my library of things to return to, in memory or actual re-reading. But he did his part to make the culture of fucking intellectual machismo which makes it so much easier to glorify atrocities.

    (Joe Haldeman takes up the issue with regard to Hemingway in “The Hemingway Hoax”. The original novella form is a very tight and bitter piece.)

  99. Antonio Conselheiro:

    Nonetheless, there was that 47% Obama vote. And the question isn’t whether OC is pretty goldarn Republican, but whether it is one of the reddest counties in the country.

  100. The Modesto Kid:

    Did you read Naipaul’s piece on Mobutu?

  101. Murc:

    People have been condescending? How, pray?

    And after someone dies is the best time to criticize them. One, you need to start shaping how history is going to view them, and two, if they’re dead they can’t rebut, which I’m told lends a very very strong advantage to critics.

  102. Bijan Parsia:

    Ooo, you really need to break out the thesaurus if you want to be Hitchensesque. With this, you come off as a mere prat, rather than an eloquent, erudite prat.

  103. dave:

    My recollection of the people that Orwell is most angry with in Road are exactly the kind of English Marxists who not only knew how to tie their ties, but how not to button up the bottom button of their waistcoats, and still felt entitled to tell the ‘workers’ how to live ‘under socialism’. But perhaps you read a different edition, in which hippies had been invented 40 years earlier?
    p.s. complaining, as he does, about single-issue ‘cranks’ putting the ‘man on the bus’ off socialism is not ‘hippy-punching’ by any useful definition.

  104. chris:

    Unless you can name someone else you’d rather disagree with. Seriously.

    John Dean. I’d disagree with him about rather a lot of things, but ISTM that he represents the Eisenhower school of actually caring about something other than winning, and is not a moron, and that gives him two legs up on most modern conservatives.

  105. Joel Dan Walls:

    I found Hitchens’ writing unpleasant and unappealing from the first time I saw it, in The Nation, close to 30 years ago. How can anyone say this guy was a masterful writer, a great craftsman of the compelling argument, when he routinely laced his essays with personal insults? So the guy had a way with words…so he could write a paragraph of invective instead of just calling someone an asshole and being done with it…so what?

    As for SEK’s remark that “Hitchens took a principled stand on bombing Saddam before 9/11 because of human rights violations”, I have two words: collateral damage.

    Principled stand on bombing Saddam: give us a break. Surely Hitchens’ knew General Sherman’s remark that “war is hell”, but he didn’t give a damn. Put that on one side of a balance and his allegedly brilliant prose on the other.

  106. News Nag:

    Re the misogyny…because it seems this thread is mostly dominated by males, and once again women get the short shrift of the drift, by neglect in this case.

  107. Walt:

    This goes way too far, Scott. If he was really a youthful hero of yours, it’s understandable that you would have trouble letting go, but you need to let go. If you were reading him for the first time today, you would never think he was the most eloquent wrong person in the room.

  108. IM:

    And if Leni Riefenstahl made films better than any other German of that era

    There was Fritz lang.

    That said, Riefenstahl is still taught in movie classes, Like Eisenstein, regardless of political content. Also: Song of the south.

  109. IM:

    Didn’t Hitchens put up the theory that women can never be funny?

    Perhaps he never did read Austen.

  110. piny:

    Maybe because his misogyny excludes disproportionately excludes women from the “Christopher Hitchens was a fun drunk” eulogy tab? I don’t think I would have liked to tangle with a shitfaced Hitch, and I don’t think he would have given me bon mots to carry away. Unless you count “ugly fat slag.”

  111. The Unbearable Lightness of Hitch : Lawyers, Guns & Money:

    [...] was a highbrow Maureen Dowd or Mark Halperin, albeit with more cosmopolitan interests. I agree with SEK and the more divided Scott McLemee that he was some sort of master of political rhetoric. But this [...]

  112. Remember me as I’d want to be remembered. - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money:

    [...] I never got around to formally retracting my argument in this post. Life intervened. But I did mean to and now I [...]

  113. bryan simmons:

    Even if OC were here in Texas, our asshole Legislature would still ‘artfully’ redistrict the county so as to dilute and suppress minority voting strength. Texas’ net population gain since 2000 was almost entirely Hispanic (like 4-6 million). Do you think that resulted in more Hispanic congressional or legislative seats? HA! Think again! And if they’re not happy with a redistricting, they’ll just do it again 2 years later like in 2003 a la Tom Delay(despite no new census count to base it on). I really feel like I live in a banana republic dictatorship sometimes.

  114. bryan simmons:

    One of my all-time favorite writers. He was the master of the written word. I wish I could have had a drink and conversation with him just one time.

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