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The Unbearable Lightness of Hitch

[ 124 ] December 21, 2011 |

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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  • Joel Dan Walls

    Perfect.

    Hitchens was always about personal insults, going back to his days at The Nation. Why anyone would think this is a style to hold up to students as admirable–regardless of the argument he’s supposedly making–is a mystery.

  • Murc

    even when he was a man of the left the rare occasions when he dealt with women generally involved witless sexism.

    I think it goes a bit deeper than that; Hitchens wasn’t just sexist, he was flat-out misogynist. He combined a pair of ugly woman-hating trends (that sometimes found in old-school british Oxbridge types and that sometimes found in certain strains of radical gay culture) in one insouciant package.

    • Rarely Posts

      I didn’t read much Hitch, but this seems right. I would note that misogyny is present in gay culture, but in my experience, I’ve only seen the woman-hating strains that you’re talking about in gay “intellectuals” and Ivy league grads. I really never seem to encounter it among the rest of the gay population. So, I’d tend to think of this as some kind of extension of the Oxford-misogyny.

      • rea

        I sure don’t know a lot of women-hating gays, and I don’t think that Hitchens was gay. Not sure why you even bring up gays in this context.

        • Rarely Posts

          I was just responding to Murc’s parenthetical.

        • John

          I sure don’t know a lot of women-hating gays

          In the public sphere, Andrew Sullivan comes to mind.

    • Bluejay

      I’m puzzled by all the accusations that Hitchens was sexist — even misogynist. His attitude towards women was complicated, but he has also stated in many places that he supports the education and empowerment of women around the world. See, for instance, the first part of this video, in which he also discusses his friendship with Ayaan Hirsi Ali:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=4EO1Rgc1ar8#!

      Hardy something a misogynist would say, no?

      • Scott Lemieux

        Um, in fact plenty of neocons opportunistically discovered womens’ liberation when this could be used to defend the Iraq War. And, like Hitchens, this interest in womens’ equality vanished in any other context (except when defending the Clinton impeachment.)

        • Bluejay

          Well, Hitchens was talking about women’s liberation back when he was attacking Mother Teresa for “opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.” Certainly a non-Iraq War, non-Clinton context.

      • Saurs

        Acquaint yourself with his myopic views on abortion, and why women can’t be trusted to get one. Also, what about the baybeeeeeeeez?

        • Bluejay

          Hitchens’ views on abortion seem, to me, to be not easily classifiable. As far as I can tell, he was against knee-jerk positions on BOTH the left and the right: he did think that an unborn child is a potential human being with rights to consider, but he also railed against the anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church. At least that’s my reading of his article “Fetal Distraction” in Vanity Fair, in which he also rejected the notion of abortion-as-murder: “if my mother [who had two abortions] had the heart and soul of a double-murderess, you couldn’t prove it by me.” Also, in “God is Not Great,” he criticized Pope John Paul II’s “dogma about abortion” (p. 193) and also said this:

          “The best way of achieving a measure of control is by prophylaxis […] The second-best fallback solution, which may sometimes be desirable for other reasons, is termination of pregnancy; an expedient which is regretted by many even when it has been undertaken in dire need. All thinking people recognize a painful conflict of rights and interests in this question, and strive to achieve a balance. The only proposition that is completely useless, either morally or practically, is the wild statement that sperms and eggs are all potential lives which must not be prevented from fusing and that, when united however briefly, have souls and must be protected by law. […] Every single step toward the clarification of this argument has been opposed root and branch by the clergy. The attempt even to educate people in the possibility of “family planning” was anathemized from the first […]” (p. 222)

          Note that he called the conventional pro-life position “wild” and “completely useless,” both morally and practically, and he seemed to support family planning. How is this myopic? Are there other links you could recommend? (I ask sincerely, and I hope you don’t feel snark is necessary.)

          • Scott Lemieux

            As far as I can tell, he was against knee-jerk positions on BOTH the left and the right

            Yikes.

            I think what you’re describing exemplifies my position. He didn’t have anything substantive to contribute to discussions of abortion; on the rare occasions when he thought about it at all, it was a cudgel he could use to attack groups he instinctively didn’t like (feminists on one hand, the Catholic church on the other), leading to positions that were an incoherent mess. And, of course, we could just wrap the whole debate up if only the ladies were made aware of the existence of sonograms.

          • Saurs

            Ah yes, “Fetal Distraction.” In which our hero waxes philosophical about the oh-so-funny kinda-makes-you-think way in which American women want to assert autonomy over their own body, dontcha know. And isn’t this distracting from the more important issues? You can tell he finds the whole notion a little silly and childish by his dismissive tone (“distraction”) and the implication (not unlike most anti-abortion fuckwads) that because he once was a “fetus” he “claim[s] as an absolute right” to voice his “instinctual” interest in what other folk do with their body.

            On the one hand, the arguments between left and right-wing Americans are “surreal,” they are equally “ignorant,” on the other, he’s fairly glum that Roe v Wade “resolved the whole agony into a matter of personal choice.” Because he doesn’t think it should be a personal choice. That’s abundantly clear by the opening paras, wherein we have to hear about fetuses that might have given him another brother or made him into a father, yet again. Later, he “cringes” (when has Hitchens ever cringed at anything before? He, the stalwart, stoic, curmudgeonly old wotsit? He makes people cringe, not the other way round!) at the thought that women who’ve had abortions treat fetuses as though they were polyps.

            We get to hear heaps and heaps about what he imagines are the private thoughts of women, who have been injured and traumatized by having abortions. ‘Cos that’s just common knowledge, isn’t it.

            I mean, these are all bogstandard anti-abortion rhetorical tactics. The claim of authority (“I was a fetus once!”) The emotional language. Referring to fetuses and embryos as “unborn.” The uncited claims that abortion is psychologically damaging to “mothers,” he calls them. The risible swipe at “militant” feminists by way of Our Bodies, Ourselves. A little godwinning, by suggesting that the abortion movement’s bread and butter is earned by ridding the world of genetically inferior fetuses. The scurry nightmare scenario that women might not have to report their abortions, as if they were committing a crime they had to register with the proper authorities (this dude was anti-totalitarian?)

            The only moral losers in this argument are those who say that there is no conflict, and nothing to argue about.

            It must be reiterated until it gets through the thick fucking skulls of anti-abortion fuckers like Hitchens, this is not a moral issue. Deciding to flush out an embryo or a fetus, deciding when or when not to ovulate — these are equivocal to deciding to pop a laxative ‘cos you want to take a shit. End of story.

            Snark is necessary when your interlocutor apparently failed to closely read his own reference.

            • Bluejay

              Well, I came away from the Vanity Fair article with the sense that he was more ambivalent about the issue than you’re making him out to be.

              Hitchens wasn’t anti-abortion, but he did believe that the issue had moral dimensions; he felt that the debate could do without either the religious right or what he perceived as the moral callousness of the left (and I do disagree with that characterization). Look, here’s a bit from an interview (boldface mine). Say what you want about his position — confused, conflicted, mistaken in his perception of pro-choice advocates’ views — but I don’t think we can rightly say, by any means, that he’s against a woman’s right to choose:

              Q: Moving on to perhaps the subject that got you into hottest water with the left: abortion. Could you talk a little about your view on this?

              Hitchens: Two points I wanted to make. One, that the term “unborn child” has been made a propaganda phrase by the people who called themselves “pro-life.” But it’s something that has moral and scientific realities. It’s become very evident indeed that this is not just a growth upon the mother.

              If that’s true, what are the problems? It need not qualify the woman’s right to choose. It need not. But it would be a very bold person to say that what was being chosen didn’t come up. What I argued in my column was this was a social phenomenon. This is the next generation we’re talking about. Considering the unborn as candidate members– potential members–of the next generation; wouldn’t that strengthen the argument for socialized medicine, child care, prenatal care?

              There’s a reason why this is the only country where it’s a mania. Because it’s between the fundamentalists and the possessive individualists. It’s ruined politics, absorbed a huge amount of energy that should have been spent elsewhere.

              Q: But you’re not agreeing with the religious right on this?

              Hitchens: No one who is not for the provision of sex education, contraception, and child care should be allowed to have any position on abortion at all–and those who do should be met with fusillades. Women will decide it, that’s a matter of fact, as much as a principle.

              Q: So, what is your position regarding the continued legal status of abortion?

              Hitchens: There’s no choice but choice. I mean that to sound the way it does sound. But there are choices about the conditions in which that choice is made. […]

              But I’m against all blurrings. There’s a very sharp dividing line in the case of an infant. I’m against fooling with that. Everything in me rebels against that. The conclusion I’ve come to as to why it’ s such a toxic question in America is it isn’t about the rights of the unborn child. I think it’s an argument about patriarchy. It is a metaphor for the status of women in what is still in some ways a frontier society.

      • JupiterPluvius

        “Some of my best friends are women” is a shit argument against misogyny.

        • R Johnston

          When your defense to a charge of misogyny is to discuss who a person’s friends are rather than what a person’s ideas are that’s not a shit argument against the charge of misogyny; it’s a concession of the truth of the charge.

          • Bluejay

            Sorry, not the way I meant to come across. I just hoped to point attention to the video, in which he talks — within the context of speaking about Ali — about his belief that empowering women is the cure for poverty. I certainly hope the discussion would be about his ideas.

  • LosGatosCA

    As with Andrew Sullivan, I find the whole Hitchens obsession to be mystifying. Maybe it’s a UK thing, but I never found anything slightly informative, logically based, or insightful in the least. And as for Michael Kelly, what a wretched human being. I guess when the substance is entirely wrong there’s not much point in taking the time to even acknowledge the style.

    • jeer9

      Agreed.

    • JupiterPluvius

      Look, at least we got the marginally better Hitchens brother. You’re stuck with Pete.

  • SEK

    FTR: I’ve spent the past few days reading through his pre-9/11 columns for The Nation, and have already half-written a retraction. I think me thinking he was a committed leftist when I was stupid and in high school may’ve influenced how I read him going forward.

    • Scott Lemieux

      Definitely possible. The other way, I’m always inclined to think that public intellectuals who fell for the “Gush v. Bore” narrative of the 2000 election are guilty until proven innocent…

  • Bravo! You nailed it … and him. Thanks.

  • In one of the early Doonesbury collections, Garry Trudeau said that a lot of people told him that if he ever met Jerry Brown, he wouldn’t be so hard on him. Trudeau said that this was an excellent reason for trying desperately to avoid meeting Jerry Brown.

    Misogyny and warmongering: guilty. Oh wait Jonah Goldberg has fond reminiscences. (He does!)

    Hitchens afflicted the gimp-mask comfortable.

  • 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.”

    I can translate this for well over half of the commentariat of the left:

    It isn’t just the positions themselves, it’s their lordly condescending assumption that they could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in ten words that probably took them less than two minutes to write.

    • Here’s two words for you in under ten seconds: fuck off.

      • whoops, backtracking, may have misread, sorry

      • See what I mean, everybody? Gawd forbid a woman have any criticism of the left from her experience with the left, because the menz got it covered and the bitchez should just shut the fuck up.

        Amirite?

        • Murc

          I… cannot tell if this is tongue-in-cheek or not.

          Well played, wiley. Will. Played.

          • RhZ

            Wait what did I miss?

            Did you say an edit button? Where would I find one of those??

            :-)

        • cpinva

          in a word, no.

          Amirite?

          hitchens wasn’t ever “left”, in either an intellectual or political sense. deeply, deeply shallow, yes.

          this has to be one of the great oxymorons of all time:

          he was a highbrow Maureen Dowd or Mark Halperin

          the lady mo and sir mark wouldn’t know a brow if one smacked them in the face.

          • chris y

            hitchens wasn’t ever “left”, in either an intellectual or political sense.

            He was for several years a paid up member of a semi-Trotskyist party and wrote for their publications. So yes, in an intellectual and political sense he was at one time “left” or the term “left” has no meaning.

            Emotionally, culturally and empathetically though, no he was never of the left, and as has been pointed out he had a lot more in common with a strain of romantic reactionaries (Chesterton, Waugh) better represented in British than American public life.

    • Bill Murray

      Hey, I can sort anybody out in 10 words. See!

      • Malaclypse

        I can sort that person in three words.

  • RhZ

    This is 5 kinds of awesome:

    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.

    But the big ad for Hitch right beside the post was even better. I have been clicking that paid link all over the web recently heh.

    • Vice of Reason

      Hitchens was a professional ASSHOLE, and little more.

  • His militant atheism bought him a lot of goodwill in left-ish circles where, even though Voltaire’s been dead and buried these two centuries and a bit more, atheism is still edgy, and transgressive, and a cheap way to obtain good will.

    The enemy of your enemy isn’t automatically your friend, nor is your enemy necessarily your enemy.

    • Anonymous

      Even as an atheist, I don’t really have any interest in reading any of the militant atheists. So, I hadn’t read anything on the topic by Hitchens until recently. This was not particularly compelling. Is this the best he can do?

      • Furious Jorge

        I don’t really have any interest in reading any of the militant atheists.

        If it’s militant of me to say “fuck you for buying into the nonexistent dichotomy of nice atheists vs. militant atheists,” then call me a militant atheist.

      • wengler

        As a non-theist, I find the rhetoric of atheism little more appealing than that of evangelicals.

        The outspoken atheist groups are largely composed of those who went from being very angry at God before deciding he didn’t exist.

    • DrDick

      As a militant agnostic (I don’t know and don’t give a damn), I find militant atheists just as annoying as any other religious fanatic.

      • Scott Lemieux

        As a militant agnostic (I don’t know and don’t give a damn), I find militant atheists just as annoying as any other religious fanatic.

        This.

        • whatever world “this” lives in, where there’s just two sides, the believer and the non-believer, said beliefs being of no consequence in the actual world we live in, i’m going to move there! and join you scott, and anyone else who is smart enough to know that religion is a bunch of nonsense but unwilling to actually follow through on that by seeing what the application of religion in the world of today actually means. like, some really really really really bad stuff. and more bad stuff to come. which i’m guessing you know, but yeah, be agnostic cuz it’s cool not to care!

          • wengler

            Not this. That.

      • SeanH
        • Scott Lemieux

          The problem is in the lack of a distinction between “atheists” and “evangelical atheists.”

          • Anonymous

            Well, Hitchens could not seem to distinguish between fundamentalist Christian and Christian, so it all works out.
            But yeah, Dawkins and Hitchens and that other guy are fanatics.
            Being an atheist (not an agnostic because I cannot see how any god worth worshiping would allow this world– And don’t give me the free will line) is not something I’m particularly happy about. It would be nice to be a believer.
            I would like to believe that if there is an afterlife William James is shredding him in a debate right now.

      • Ed

        Save perhaps for the fact that militant atheists in the West are still a minority — and in many places atheists are still a largely silent minority, for whom the noisier atheists speak (and offer the reassurance that they aren’t isolated). No doubt they can be as obnoxious as the aggressively pious but the two are hardly on an equal basis, certainly not in the good old USA.

        • Scott Lemieux

          In the USA in general, yes. In terms of the audience that would plausibly read Hitchens or pay his bills, no.

          • Ed

            In the USA in general, yes. In terms of the audience that would plausibly read Hitchens or pay his bills, no.

            I was referring to those comments comparing militant atheists with religious fanatics.

            However, in this matter Hitchens didn’t merely preach to the converted, as it were; he wrote a book, obviously available to more people than the customary audience for Hitchens’ journalism, and he made personal appearances in many different places. He wrote that on occasion people would come up to him and say that he had helped them be braver about their unbelief, which may be self-congratulatory on his part but is also perfectly believable. Whatever one wonders about the sources of Hitchens’ antipathy to religion, it seems to me that his writings and those of other prominent atheists have been for the most part useful and beneficial for the cultural discussion at large, not something that can be said for the religious nuts currently among us.

        • Exactly. When atheism is no longer a stigma in the US, then I will see no need for a handful of writers/scientists to pen a handful of books criticizing religion. But as it stands, the simple fact that most Americans say they would not vote for an openly atheist candidate and assume that atheism=immoral means that there is still work to be done, and the more vocal atheists play an important part in that work. It’s important to point out that statements like “tax cuts raise revenue” reflect a belief with no empirical basis. Pointing out that religious claims are often just as flimsy in their lack of supporting data really shouldn’t prompt much outrage.

          • Furious Jorge

            the more vocal atheists play an important part in that work.

            Yes.

            But scowling and telling the more vocal atheists to shut up because they’re making people uncomfortable is a recurring pattern in this country.

            • Name

              Yes, if there’s one candidate voters will flock to, it’s a militant atheist who tells them all they’re fucking stupid for believing in God. Why won’t Americans vote for someone who goes out of his or her way to tell them all how fucking stupid they are? It must be because Americans are fucking stupid.

              “Vote for me. I’m smarter than you.”

              • Murc

                I long for the day a candidate explicitly declares that we should vote for him because he’s smarter than we are. We should DEMAND that our leaders be smarter than we are.

                • Name

                  Well, unlike you, most people don’t enjoy electing smug assholes who call them idiots into office. But the worst part about it is that, unlike tax cuts, there’s no evidence for or against the existence of God or an afterlife. In the absence of metaphysical evidence, categorical denials of the existence of God are every bit as faith-based as categorical affirmations of the existence of God. Someone arguing that the majority of voters are stupid for believing in God would be as unjustifiably smug as someone demanding votes from people by saying that anyone listening to non-classical music is an idiot. (“Like rap music, or rock and roll, or techno? You’re an idiot! Only idiots listen to anything other than classical music! Vote for me, idiots!”)

                  If you’re the kind of voter who likes it when someone calls you stupid, you’re a rare bird indeed. I strongly suspect that, until most voters stop being human and we let cyborgs vote, we’re not going to get a candidate elected who enjoys publicly telling his constituents how none of them are as smart as him- also, that their tastes in music and religion and other abstract categories are indicative of their idiocy.

            • Paul Beaulieu

              My objection to atheists of Hitchens’ ilk is not that they make people “uncomfortable”, it is that their main premise, namely, that the world would be so much better if only religion were done away with, is simplistic and not borne out by history. Certainly the history of the 20th century shows that secular ideologies can be just as pernicious as religions at their very worst. The attempts by Hitchens and others to explain this away are simply laughable.

      • jacob

        Excellent…militant agnostic!! I love the term. I’ve yet to see a better-and more concise-explanation of my religious beliefs (or lack thereof). Well done, sir!!!

    • Ronnie Pudding

      I remember one time Pharyngula linked to a Hitchens piece on Fundamentalists, and the post and comments were all drooling over what a force Hitchens was. Yet if you read the piece carefully (or just read it at all), Hitchens stated that he thought Fallwell and his ilk were harmless because no one believed what they said, because Fallwell didn’t even believe what he said, and no one took them seriously.

  • c u n d gulag

    Because he could be a great writer once in a great while, you wanted Hitch on your side – until you didn’t, because he could turn on a dime faster than most, and prove to be one of the world’s totally reversible assholes.
    As someone mentioned above, how do you write a book about Kissinger being a war criminal while supporting an even bigger group of war criminals, and be on of the chief propagandist’s?
    And Hitch was a “big get” for Little Boots’ cabal, ostensibly, because he was a “Liberal,” though he had mostly left that tribe earlier.

    I largely subscribed to “The Nation” in the early 80′s because of him – and ended it back in the Clinton era – because of him.

    He was a brilliant polemicist who didn’t know when to hold his fire. Though he was supposedly a good friend, he turned on anyone if he saw a good column or book, and changed his position(s) accordingly.

    I think, earlier, he took on the clothing of a Liberal, but at his core, he was a misogynistic Neocon who preferred battle and war with all others, even more than peace with himself and whatever passed for his conscience.

    His writing will not last long, since he, too often, became the ‘flavor of the month,’ just to agitate.
    And as smart as he thought he was, he wasn’t smart enough not to be taken for a fool by the Neocons and their Bush puppets.
    In the end, he was less Edgar Bergen, and more Charlie McCarthy or, as much as he’d hate me saying this – Mortimer Snerd. Only without the basic decency of either one of those puppets.

    But give the Devil his due – whatever subject he chose to write about, he brought passion and made it interesting.
    Too often, though, he was on the wrong side of history.
    And that is a sad epitaph for a very smart man who could have been so much more…

    • John

      Whatever Hitchens may have been, I don’t think he was ever really a liberal.

      • Xenos

        Hitchens described himself as a ‘conservative Marxist’. Fair enough, I think. This would make him the only honest neocon in history.

      • Oh no, there was a time, deep in the passages of the dank dark corridors of the 1980s, that he was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist.

        The Katha Pollitt piece linked to in the original post talks about this, and his fall.

        I remember when he wrote for The Nation, and yes, he was left of most of today’s leftists.

        • John

          He was certainly a leftist. He was never a liberal. You do realize those aren’t synonyms, right?

          • Which part of “oh, no” was unclear to you?

            The “oh” or the “no”?

  • TT

    Michael Kelly was Eric Breindel without the smack habit–fanatical neocon, sleazy professional character assassin, insufferable scold, self-appointed arbiter of Truth and Morality. Instant Village canonization was thus assured.

  • dave

    In the end, the most significant fact here is perhaps that a man such as CH, with his abiding flaws, was a ‘leading political commentator’ in the post-Cold War world. That world, it turns out, has very low standards.

  • norbizness

    Homer: There’s been a lot of interesting stuff written in the wake of Christopher Hitchens’s passing.

    Bart: Really?

    Homer: Nah.

    • Where did you put those happy furry puppies, you monster? And when’s story time?

  • DrDick

    Thank you for saying what needed to be said.

  • Randy

    My impression of Hitchens was that he never got over being the cleverest boy in the sixth form. Contrariety for its own sake is not an attractive trait in adults.

    • John

      Matt Yglesias should take heed.

      • “He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
        This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
        Till in the end he could not change the tragic habits
        This formula for drawing comic rabbits made.”
        ― Robert Graves

  • Glenn

    All that you say about Hitchens is true, but I’m more interested in the gauzy, boozy rememberances that were the subject of the Neal Pollack bit. It’s been highly reminiscent of the press’s love affair with John McCain, i.e., completely ignoring what McCain actually said and stood for because they had a beer with him or rode on his tire swing. Sad to say even the great (and I do not use that term loosely) Charles Pierce succumbed to this with Hitchens.

    Hey, I’m one of the poor slobs who doesn’t get to have beers with politicians or writers, so I just have to judge them by their words and deeds.

  • Halloween Jack

    I have to confess that, at another site, I eulogized Hitchens as a “magnificent bastard”, although in my defense I’d just found out about his death by listening to the Beeb, which also played an interview with him in which he refuted Pascal’s Wager when discussing his own imminent death. I’d revise that to his being a bastard, with occasional flashes of magnificence that, in the long run, only highlight what a waste much of his life and work has turned out to be.

    • Halloween Jack

      his having been a bastard, of course.

  • Davis

    “he was a highbrow Maureen Dowd or Mark Halperin”

    Ouch.

    • aleand

      What a beautiful, brutal, spot-on takedown of both. And so concise to boot.

      Pretty.

      • aleand

        And by both I mean Hitch and Dowd (or Hitch and Halperin, your choice).

  • James Ledbetter of the Voice has a really good analysis of Hitch’s, well, hitches.

    Short answer: the man was dogmatic, no matter which dogma he chose that day to follow.

  • Richard

    Comparing Hitchens to Michael Kelly would be slander. Of Hitchens. If he were still alive to slander. But it does underscore your own lack of seriousness on this topic.

    • Scott Lemieux

      I suppose Hitch was smarter. But both were shallow, moralistic, made political judgments based on trivial personality issues, and enthusiastically backed the Iraq War and smeared its opponents with arguments that were uniformly asinine. Other than that, they had nothing in common.

      But, anyway, if you have a “serious” defense of Hitchens, please make it. Which of his writings will have enduring value?

      • Malaclypse

        Which of his writings will have enduring value?

        This.

          • Malaclypse

            I thought Puchasky’s comment was unfair. I read the Hitchen’s question as purely rhetorical, and by no means a denial of the painfully obvious.

            • I haven’t really come to a conclusion.

              • Bill Murray

                so you’re a militant agnostic

        • It’s an important topic and he’s on the right side of it, but good god what a horribly written piece.

          To be writing these words is, for me, to undergo the severest test of my core belief—that sentences can be more powerful than pictures. A writer can hope to do what a photographer cannot: convey how things smelled and sounded as well as how things looked. I seriously doubt my ability to perform this task on this occasion. Unless you see the landscape of ecocide, or meet the eyes of its victims, you will quite simply have no idea. I am content, just for once—and especially since it is the work of the brave and tough and undeterrable James Nachtwey—to be occupying the space between pictures.

          Putting aside (!) the extremely obnoxious narcissism and egocentrism of this intro, I find it bizarrely limited of Hitchens to think that a photograph cannot convey (or even hope to convey) how things sounded or smelled or to cede visual power to photographs.

          But I can’t put aside the relentless egocentrism:

          The world had barely assimilated the new term “genocide,” which was coined only in the 1940s, before the United States government added the fresh hell of “ecocide,” or mass destruction of the web of nature that connects human and animal and herbal life. I think we may owe the word’s distinction to my friend Orville Schell, who wrote a near-faultless essay of coolheaded and warmhearted prose in the old Look magazine in March 1971. At that time, even in a picture magazine, there weren’t enough photographs of the crime, so his terse, mordant words had to suffice, which makes me faintly proud to be in the same profession.

          The words are more important than the acts (indeed, the acts do not exist before the words). Look! It’s a Hitchens friend! Which makes him proud!

          The pointless quotation and allusion, there not to illuminate or illustrate the subject matter, but only to burnish Hitchens rep for erudition, or, more charitably, it’s there because Hitch couldn’t help himself.

          AFICT, there’s no substantively new reporting. In terms of painting a vivid picture, eh.

          Not exactly an essay for the ages.

    • Captain Howdy

      Indeed. And mentioning Glenn Reynolds and J-Load in the same breath as Hitchens is an atrocity on a different level.

      Hitchens was many things, but if he was in any way “shallow,” I don’t want to know what Scott thinks qualifies as depth.

      • Scott Lemieux

        Well, again, which of Hitchens’s defenses of the Iraq War (the limited context in which he was being compared to Reynolds) were more compelling or nuanced?

        • Scott Lemieux

          Or, to put it another way, there’s no dispute that Hitchens was more intelligent than Reynolds or Goldberg, with better taste in literature. I would rather read Hitchens’s book reviews. His stupid arguments about the second Iraq War were made in better-turned prose. But they were just as stupid, and in content didn’t differ from anything you could also read from a hundred random winger hacks.

      • JupiterPluvius

        “Women aren’t funny.” Yep, the nuance is breathtaking.

        • Anonymous

          And Hitchens (and Amis!) aren’t funny either.
          Now start being as funny as Evelyn Waugh and I’ll give you some leeway.

      • John

        Really? On what subject has Hitchens ever made an important substantive (as opposed to rhetorical) contribution?

        • Assuming his writings about Mother Teresa are true, that would be one, that she diverted funds directed to healthcare for the poor to establish nunneries.

          • L2P

            That sounds like something that is more like a footnote to a footnote. It’s certainly no “Pope Benedict knew about boy rape.”

            • Wait until the beatification comes.

      • Isn’t the key to Hitchens the fact that he was deeply, fundamentally shallow? That he could use fancy words and had an endless supply of quotes doesn’t make him deep (cf George Will). This is why “popinjay” leaves a mark.

        Look at the Agent Orange piece. As Rich, it doesn’t even try to get the science right:

        I am not an epidemiologist. And there are professionals who will still tell you that there is no absolutely proven connection between the spraying of this poison and the incidence of terrifying illnesses in one generation, or the persistence of appalling birth defects in the next one or the next one. Let us submit this to the arbitration of evidence and reason: what else can possibly explain the systematic convergence

        This airy raising of a “he said” (without a he!) and jaunty dismissal with an “I said” as if that were, in itself, the arbitration of evidence and reason is deeply, utterly shallow. (Read Rich’s followup. It’s devastating.)

        (Note that it’s not that Hitchens is wrong here. It’s that he raises the specter of a contrary view without any evidence that the contrary view is anything more than kookdom, then slays the mighty specter with an offhand appeal to nothing but his own, even mightier, gift of reasoning.)

        Now, he was clearly not brutally stupid like Goldberg nor tremendously lazy like both Goldberg and Reynolds. To share some of their vices is not to share all of them. But I think Hitchens is simply not the conservative opponent SEK is looking for: When you strip off the gilt very little remains. Now, if the gilt were super awesomely done, that would be something. But I don’t see it. Perhaps it’s merely taste, but the things people point me too as exemplars of Hitchens’ craft seem rather awfully written.

        I would like there to be some awesome Hitchens stuff out there. I have a soft spot for him still. I like the idea of magnificent bastards and I really like good opponents. But Hitchens doesn’t seem to have the goods.

  • mary lou bethune

    I have long thought that Hitchins, Amis, McEwan, et.alia., were the last gasp of Male dominated bloviating.

    • clintonius

      I hate the word bloviating. Please refrain.

      • rkd

        ‘Bloviating’ is a perfectly cromulent word.

        • Bill Murray

          It’s the Belgium of pundit description

        • Hogan

          It embiggens us all.

          • Malaclypse

            I find it to be impactful.

            • calling all toasters

              But tinny.

              • Dreadfully tinny.

                Hitchens gorn…

                • Gorn, however, is quite woody.

      • SeanH

        I don’t like handles without capital letters. Make an effort.

    • Njorl

      Which Amis, Martin or Kingsly? And go ahead and use bloviating. I like it (the use of the word, not actual bloviation).

      • Kingsley and Martin are very different writers and very different assholes. Myself I prefer Kingsley, the big jerk.

  • Lee

    Kevin Drum reached the same conclusion regarding Hitchens. My personal opinion is that at his best, Hitchens was capable of wittily destroying people who needed it. At his worse, he wrote some profoundly idiotic things like his defenses of the Second Iraq War and that piece he wrote for Vanity Fair on why women can’t be funny.

  • Ed

    he was a highbrow Maureen Dowd or Mark Halperin,

    Neither Dowd nor Halperin has ever had an idea in their heads. Hitchens likely had too many. As for Michael Kelly, I truly thought he had a screw loose somewhere and I wouldn’t say that of Hitchens, either.

  • Anderson

    I’m not getting back into the role of Hitchens defender, but here’s one thing I thought was cool about him: he made a living as a writer, writing what he wanted to write. Wish I could do that.

    As for *what* he wrote, 90% of it was surely crap; I’m looking forward to a posthumous anthology that distills the other 10%. And there should be a separate volume for his book reviews & essays on literature.

  • partisan

    Some thought about Hitchens:

    (1) Hitchens’ problem with women, that I would suggest is another unforunate legacy of the influence of Kingsley Amis. It also influenced his style for the worst from the early nineties on, and encouraged his militant pro-alchohol views.

    (2) Saying that he wasn’t up to Orwell is too easy. Orwell after all could lack a sense of proportion, deal in sweeping generalities, and indulge his moralism while ignoring tactics and strategy. When Hitchens praised Orwell for being thoroughly anti-fascist, anti-Communist, and anti-imperialist, one could say the same was true, only more so, about Clement Attlee. And if you say that, then it really is hard to claim that Orwell had a monopoly on courage? And Orwell provided a stance perfect for any demagogue: nearly all British are fundamentally decent if a little blockheaded. The only exception are a small coterie of pro-Russian New Statesman writers, whom, however, it takes infinite courage to oppose.

    (3) Far from being a glorifed Maureen Dowd, or a fundamentally conventional “contrarian” like Mark Halperin, (I suspect he will outlast Malcolm Muggeridge) Hitchens is more a warning sign of the dangers of moralism. His sympathies were always more Luxembourgian than Trotskyist, let alone Leninist. And just like many of Red Rosa’s sympathizers, he didn’t really have a better alternative to the vanguard party. During the eighties he could be satisfied by looking at Callaghan, Carter, Foot, Mondale, Dukakis and Kinnock and look how they all compromised their principles and still lost anyway. Then Clinton came along, compromised more than anyone, and won. In the absence of any coherent political strategy, using American power as a deux ex machina became very attractive to him, especially after Bosnia.

    (4) There is a risk in denouncing Hitchens’ moralism: what is the non-moralistic response to the NATO attack on Cyprus, the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie or the execution of Ricky Ray Rector? But the stance was fundamentally flawed: He exemplified the difference between moral courage and moral narcissism. Again and again, he overdosed on his own moral viagara. He was the exemplar of cocktail party courage, and other people’s money and other people’s blood was no object in his self-righteousness. Saying Nelson Mandela had never exemplified “moral courage” showed the perils of this narcissism. His Vanity Fair article on abortion exemplified this, as it seemed to demand our applause for not denoucing his own mother.

    (5) Many ironies arose from this, most at Hitchens’ expense. The man whose default view of American politicians was contempt (Bill Bradley as an “eleventh-rate” Senator) became the supporter of unchecked American power. The man who tweaked the Washington Monthly crowd in 1983 for “Risk free iconoclasm” and skewered Charles Krauthammer so mercilessly in Prepared for the Worst became the glib media saavy contrarian. And there was the pundit was argued that Clinton should be presumed to be guilty as Kenneth Starr’s presented less and less of a case, while giving the Bush administration a free pass on WMD and much else about Iraq. Increasingly hatred of his pet peeves like Clinton, Kissinger and Christianity overrode the reasons why he hated them in the first place.

    (6) But going back to the Starr investigation, it’s important to point out how Starr and other conservatives benefited from the lesson supposedly learned from the Hiss case. That is if a boy keeps caling wolf time and time again and in one case is actually right, he should be treated with the greatest possible respect. Instead of the Caddell/Schoens Hitchens should be viewed more like the Conor Cruise O’Briens, Christopher Laschs and Euguene Genoveses. O’Brien’s edge was blunted from the seventies on as more and more people praised him as a new Burke. Lasch’s desire for a genuine community and democratic politics led him to eliding key questions about integration in The True and Only Heaven. African-Americans in the north supposedly lacked a certain community, and this lack of community spirit could be blamed on their own failings, capitalism, corporate capitalism, or insufficient Calvinism. By contrast the responsiblity of the supposedly “authentic” working-class/lower middle class and their refusal to allow African-Americans to be part of their community under almost any circumstances could be evaded or dismissed as liberal elitism. And finally Genovese’s moral scruples and fierce realism that with Roll Jordan Roll made him arguably America’s finest historian, ended in a strange cul de sac. By adapting the evasions of neo-Confderate scribblers and the Petainist dribblings of a Dollfussite hack like Eric Voegelin, he could condemn anyone to the left of Richard Nixon as mortally tainted by Stalinism, and Nazism as well, while granting absolution to a Southern ruling class that denied its crimes and refused any reparation for them.

    • Anderson

      Orwell after all could lack a sense of proportion, deal in sweeping generalities, and indulge his moralism while ignoring tactics and strategy.

      True enough. I read through the Everyman’s collection of his essays and found a lot of great stuff I hadn’t seen before … along with some pretty silly things. And that was by no means the complete essays.

    • Ed

      There is a risk in denouncing Hitchens’ moralism: what is the non-moralistic response to the NATO attack on Cyprus, the Iranian fatwa on Salman Rushdie or the execution of Ricky Ray Rector?

      Not so risky. Often as not his positions weren’t so much the result of a consistent moral perspective as they were reflective of whatever bee was buzzing most insistently in his bonnet at any given time. Clinton allowed the Rector execution to go forward and he can be justly criticized for that, but there is no question that the decision cost him something. Consider the cheerfully oblivious attitude of Bush II, who sent over a hundred people to their deaths and jeered at their fear and suffering so that even Tucker Carlson, not the most sensitive of observers, was taken aback. But Hitchens went easy on Bush, who was prosecuting a war Hitchens liked, and the culture of death in Bush’s home state. Priorities, priorities…..

    • Halloween Jack

      “militant pro-alchohol views”? Do you mean that he drank a lot?

  • IM

    I only read some pieces, but I always had the impression that his literary criticism was quite good.

  • Manju

    Obviously, most folks in lefty-land dislike Hitch because he was a warmonger for a failed war. But as far as disliking him for his other roles: sexists, character assassin, hack, glib high school debater…well spare me the crocodile tears.

    He was a lefty in good standing for most of his adult life. Either I missed the memo or hardly anyone in a Che T-shirt was particularly concerned about his sexism and hackish tendencies then…as long as he walked the party line.

    And man, did he walk the line. He was a Trotskyist and Lenin apologist. You could’ve put him on the couch then, no? Face it…you’re not too concerned about his other roles. You gave him the Robert Byrd treatment but he went ahead and pulled a Strom Thurmond anyway. That’s what got you pissed.

    • Malaclypse

      Yes, you missed the memo.

      Good job working Robert Byrd in. I was fearing you had lost your touch.

    • Halloween Jack

      Even in areas with committed communists and hardcore hipsters, there’s hardly anyone in a Che T-shirt, period. But don’t let go of that stereotype, Grandpa!

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