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The Unbearable Lightness of Hitch

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There’s been a lot of interesting stuff written in the wake of Christopher Hitchens’s passing, with a lot more uninteresting stuff summarized by this Neal Pollock satire. Since I agree with Greenwald that one shouldn’t pull punches in assessing the legacy of a public figure, I have to say I can’t go along with those seeking to justify his reputation.

One point that hasn’t been made enough was made effectively by Katha Pollitt — even when he was a man of the left the rare occasions when he dealt with women generally involved witless sexism. As Pollitt says, “[i]t wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.”

Which brings us to the more fundamental problem — the breadth noted by his admirers always came at the expense of depth. His political writings were, as Michael Lind’s excellent account notes, fundamentally personality-driven. He wasn’t Orwell; he 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 was a shallow gift — to borrow Pauline Kael’s line, clever in a way that implies merely clever. A political essayist needs something interesting to say. Hitchens’s rhetorical virtuosity was like a really well-edited car commercial or Mariah Carey applying her multi-octave range to cheesily arranged Diane Warren-style power ballads or Kip Winger adding above-average bass parts to third-rate hair metal. Contrarianism, as Lind correctly notes, is an inherently anti-intellectual pose. No matter how lively the prose, avidly supporting “Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz while continuing to insist that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal” is not the mark of any kind of serious thinker.

Combining both points, I always think about Michael Totten’s damning-with-intense-hagiography account of his meeting  with Hitchens and some Iraqi activists after the war. It was a minor but definitive example of his unearned condescension, of the glib high-school debate rhetoric serving arguments that collapse on the slightest inspection.  As Healy says, the account “full of small moments of whatever the opposite of an epiphany is. Like Hitchens’ schoolboy-debater habit of calling people “Sir” as he talks down at them (as in ‘So you’re saying, sir, that you can be bought.’)”  The great Ted Barlow — who should take this as a sign to return to blogging — picks up on this and has Hitchens pegged perfectly:

“If you wanted more Iraqi support,” Atiyyah bellowed at Hitchens,” you should have given us more money and food once you got there!” “So you’re saying, sir, that you can be bought,” Hitchens shot back. If I didn’t deeply dislike Hitchens already, that would do it. He’s talking to one of the leaders of one of the liberal Iraqi institutions upon which the future of Iraq depends. There’s no way that the guy has the resources he needs. And Hitchens has the gall to talk about humanitarian aid and support for his projects as if it was some sort of bribe that Atiyyah should have the self-respect to refuse. You want more money for the military? Are you saying, sir, that the United States Armed Forces can be bought? I shall have to say good day to you, sir!

This kind of thing is pretty intolerable when he’s saying things you agree with. When deployed in defense of a horribly destructive war he repeatedly defended with better rhetoric but no more intellectual sophistication than Glenn Reynolds or Jonah Goldberg, it’s well beyond intolerable.  He took physical risks in the service of his journalism, but then so did the late Michael Kelly (whose justly forgotten political writing had an uncomfortable number of things in common with Hitchens’s.)  It’s not writing I can see going back to much, even leaving aside his decade+ as an actively pernicious force in American political discourse.

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