Farewell to C.H.
I can’t count the times, down the years, that after some new outrage friends would call me and ask, “What happened to Christopher Hitchens?” – the inquiry premised on some supposed change in Hitchens, often presumed to have started in the period he tried to put his close friend Blumenthal behind bars for imputed perjury. My answer was that Christopher had been pretty much the same package since the beginning — always allowing for the ravages of entropy as the years passed.
As so often with friends and former friends, it’s a matter of what you’re prepared to put up with and for how long. I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff.
In basic philosophical take he always seemed to me to hold as his central premise a profound belief in the therapeutic properties of capitalism and empire. He was an instinctive flagwagger and remained so. He wrote some really awful stuff in the early 90s about how indigenous peoples — Indians in the Americas — were inevitably going to be rolled over by the wheels of Progress and should not be mourned.
On the plane of weekly columns in the late eighties and nineties it mostly seemed to be a matter of what was currently obsessing him: for years in the 1980s he wrote scores of columns for The Nation, charging that the Republicans had stolen the 1980s election by the “October surprise”, denying Carter the advantage of a hostage release. He got rather boring. Then in the 90s he got a bee in his bonnet about Clinton which developed into full-blown obsessive megalomania: the dream that he, Hitchens, would be the one to seize the time and finish off Bill. Why did Bill — a zealous and fairly efficient executive of Empire – bother Hitchens so much? I’m not sure. He used to hint that Clinton had behaved abominably to some woman he, Hitchens, knew. Actually I think he’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could make a difference. He obviously thought he could, and so he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via betrayal of his close friendship with Sid Blumenthal, whom he did his best to ruin financially (lawyers’ fees) and get sent to prison for perjury.
Since then it was all pretty predictable, down to his role as flagwagger for Bush. I guess the lowest of a number of low points was when he went to the White House to give a cheerleading speech on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I think he knew long, long before that this is where he would end up, as a right-wing codger. He used to go on, back in the Eighties, about sodden old wrecks like John Braine, who’d ended up more or less where Hitchens got to, trumpeting away about “Islamo-fascism” like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon. I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?
Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.
One awful piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part was his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death, and then for good measure again in his obituary. With his attacks on Edward, especially the final post mortem, Hitchens couldn’t even claim the pretense of despising a corrupt presidency, a rapist and liar or any of the other things he called Clinton. That final attack on Said was purely for attention–which fuelled his other attacks but this one most starkly because of the absence of any high principle to invoke. Here he decided both to bask in his former friend’s fame, recalling the little moments that made it clear he was intimate with the man, and to put himself at the center of the spotlight by taking his old friend down a few notches. In a career of awful moves, that was one of the worst. He also rounded on Gore Vidal who had done so much to promote his career as dauphin of contrarianism.
He courted the label “contrarian”, but if the word is to have any muscle, it surely must imply the expression of dangerous opinions. Hitchens never wrote anything truly discommoding to respectable opinion and if he had he would never have enjoyed so long a billet at Vanity Fair. Attacking God? The big battles on that issue were fought one, two, even five hundred years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiore. A contrarian these days would be someone who staunchly argued for the existence of a Supreme Being. He was for America’s wars. I thought he was relatively solid on Israel/Palestine, but there too he trimmed. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency put out a friendly obit, noting that “despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to halacha, he was Jewish” and noting his suggestion that Walt and Mearsheimer might be anti-Semitic, also his sliming of a boatload of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. (His brother Peter and other researchers used to say that in terms of blood lineage, the Hitchens boys’ Jewishness was pretty slim and fell far outside the definitions of the Nuremberg laws. I always liked Noam Chomsky’s crack to me when Christopher announced in Grand Street that he was a Jew: “From anti-Semite to self-hating Jew, all in one day.”)
As a writer his prose was limited in range. In extempore speeches and arguments he was quick on his feet. I remember affectionately many jovial sessions from years ago, in his early days at The Nation. I found the Hitchens cult of recent years entirely mystifying. He endured his final ordeal with pluck, sustained indomitably by his wife Carol.