Why Christopher Hitchens Doesn’t Matter

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Hitchens’ new memoir Hitch-22 is a sprawling self-portrait of a name-dropper and a hanger-on.

Former communists make the best hawks and neoconservatives. Having put in time on the other side of the trenches gives their politics a weight that natural-born country-clubbers could only affect. The much-quoted Churchill maxim “If you’re not liberal when you’re young you have no heart, but if you’re not conservative when you’re old you have no brain” is true insomuch as that life is an embittering experience that deadens the heart—to fill the void we occupy ourselves with the abstract. One man who’s done a substantial amount of this has been Christopher Hitchens, the 61-year-old intellectual bulldog, who has told interviewers that he wrote his new memoir Hitch-22 to give “context in the battle of ideas.” The doorstopper-length memoir reads more like long years of waste byproduct that had been gunking up Hitchens’ pundit machinery—feelings, emotions, reverie, friendships. It does provide us with primary source material to ask interesting questions like: Why do people so often become more conservative as they get older? But only in between the agonizing, ego-bloated chapters where Hitchens talks at length about his famous friends like Ian McEwan and Edward Said. The book provides short glimpses of how Hitchens went from being one of the bright young pallbearers of the West (writing for socialist magazines and helping build up Cuba after the Revolution) to becoming one of the most mordant defenders of war and the status quo.

Hitchens’ disillusionment with the Left seems like it had been building up for a while: On assignment for a variety of magazines in Iraq before the First Gulf War, it seems as though he saw too much and couldn’t reconcile. His hate for the genocidal Saddam Hussein came to outweigh his hatred of American imperialism. Coming home to a provincial, feel-good Left absorbed with identity politics and tacitly defending Saddam’s innocence was enough to make Hitchens renege. As a child of the Second World War, Hitchens wanted his generation to have their own larger-than-life war against fascism. He found a watered-down version of this in the Gulf War, and subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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A communitarian in rural France once explained to me her belief that “politics should be a blood pact…an agreement that you cannot go back on.” While a society of morally hardened, ethically consistent individuals is a nice thought, it has proven to be an unlikely if not impossible reality. People change their minds. We have no problem acting against our own self-interest and perverting the things we claim to love and value most.

For all that Hitchens lionizes George Orwell and views himself (through some funhouse mirror) as his successor, the fact is that Orwell would never have wasted his time writing a book like Why Orwell Matters. A romp into the Hitchens oeuvre reveals not a major creative talent, but a scrappy linguistic boxer, primarily interested in the vainglory of winning arguments and debates. He does not give and give. Though he has persisted in a self-conscious attempt to cultivate a kind of rakish Orwell-ness about himself, he has failed to produce a lasting sociopolitical novel, or any novel at all. It’s as if the spirit that produces great journalist-novelists is some half-lifed isotope that grows weaker every year. Regardless, with sheer persistence, Hitchens has managed to carve out a niche for himself as the dilettantish pundit-hero of both the smarmy atheists and the war-hungry policy establishment. A fantastic verbal-sparrer with opinions on everything; a magazine-writer contrarian; and an excellent choice as a talking head on an evening cable news show.

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Hitchens’ career, though ‘successful’, is a lived warning about the trappings of journalistic and literary hackdom. Getting assignments and editing for papers and magazines can feel prestigious and leads to Pulitzer Prizes, special envoys, speaking engagements, and elite press dinners, but despite these rewards, there are few things sadder than a professional opinion-monger. The pundit builds nothing, and contributes nothing but opinions. The best case scenario for the journalist is to end up like Michael Pollan, Upton Sinclair or Jeremy Scahill—a heat-seeker for injustice whose work does what its supposed to and results in palpable gains and reform. In the worst-case scenario, you become a Christopher Hitchens: a shiftless critic who has made a life out of tearing people down. He isn’t able to create, so he has created a life of destruction.

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Hatchet jobs and takedown review pieces are perversely satisfying for the frustrated writer. They allow him to see his name in print, accumulate social rewards, and sometimes even get paid; all while allowing time to further postpone the difficult work of building something. In February, Vanity Fair ran a web exclusive by Christopher Hitchens called “Vidal Loco” in which he attempted to call into question the judgment and patriotism of the great octogenarian American novelist Gore Vidal by calling him a “crackpot.” In this cheap bid for website hits, Hitchens argues that Vidal was once a noble “blue-blooded patrician” who is now “slumming it” with “Oliver Stone and Michael Moore” in the “intellectual gutter.” (Meanwhile, Hitchens continues to write pieces for Vanity Fair with titles like “Why Women Aren’t Funny.”) Adding insult to injury was the fact that many years previous Gore Vidal had named Hitchens his “delfino” or living successor. Hitchens argument is half-hearted, and there is the sense he wrote it for money: he uses that sad rhetorical device, long employed by the castrated Left, of trying to make himself look “reasonable” while bashing others with more radical ideas. Secondly, there is a credibility gap. Hitchens is a hack-for-hire who has been traitorous to his own politics. It is frankly amazing that he feels entitled to call a man who “holidayed with the Kennedys, cruised for men with Tennessee Williams, was urged to run for congress by Eleanor Roosevelt, co-wrote some of the most iconic Hollywood films, damned US foreign policy from within, sued Truman Capote, got fellated by Jack Kerouac, watched his cousin Al Gore get elected president and still lose the White House, and finally…championed Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh” a “crackpot.” What has Christopher Hitchens done? The fact is that Gore Vidal is free to do whatever he wants because he has done so much already. He is at liberty to call Timothy McVeigh “a noble boy” and spout his Delphic conclusions about how the American experiment is a “failure” and that it “will soon be ranked somewhere between Brazil and Argentina, where it belongs” because Vidal is America. Hitchens, by contrast, has produced little more than destructive bile to sit back on his haunches and be proud of.

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Hitch-22 is a sprawling self-portrait of a name-dropper and a hanger-on. Whether he’s tracking down blind old Borges in Buenos Aires or getting drunk with little Martin Amis, throughout the book Hitch makes sure that you know who he’s friends with. In the book, as within social life, name-dropping has the reverse of its intended effect of building credibility for the namedropper—rather, it’s annoying, and you begin to resent his stupid babblings about the minutia experienced in the company of his generation’s titans in chapters with titles like “The Fenton Factor” (James Fenton), “Salman” (Salman Rushdie) and “Martin” (Martin Amis) and “Edward Said in Light and Shade.”

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In our current literary epoch where everyone feels entitled to sell their boring life story or blog out for gushy self-memorialization, what kind of memoirs are actually worth reading? Obviously political memoirs have a certain value and help us to clarify the public record. Freedom fighters like Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Emma Goldman and Leon Trotsky were far ahead of their time, and their memoirs show us what a full and meaningful life in the service of society (and not the ego) looks like. But do we really care to read a memoir by a moderate critic-essayist like Christopher Hitchens, who has walked a relatively well-worn track in life (Oxford—youthful radicalism—disillusionment—professional lecture circuit)? There is a creeping feeling in reading Hitch-22 that it wasn’t actually written for us, the generous book-purchasing public, but so he and his friends could experience the low-grade endorphin thrill of historical posterity—so that future historians would have something to work with as they wheedled Hitchens in the canon beside Amis, McEwan, and Said.

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Fear and paranoia often settle on us like a curtain as we get older. Every car ride or turbulent flight necessitates swallowing a Xanax to quell the fear. Fathers lie awake in bed all night obsessing over the machinations of the Dow and the safety of their young daughters. Perhaps this fear comes from realizing that we’ve been so lucky to continue being alive when existence is such a tenous and shaky thing—everyone has a bullet with their name on it, and its only a matter of time. “Middle age” is like standing water, a breeding pit for mosquito-like fears, because the baggage that comes with acquiring so much (jobs, children, citizenship) is the fear of losing it. It is so lovingly embodied in that Tao Te Ching talisman, “That which fails, must first be strong.” September 11th was a jarring shock to the West—like an unexpected car crash or heart attack, it woke us up to the fragility of our experiment, and forever changed the political dynamic. Politics is not a teenage blood pact. Even former Weather Underground demolition-experts like Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dorn finally settle down and became become philanthropists and distinguished members of the community. It’s OK to change and we are tempered by our experiences. Nonetheless, there is something cloying about Christopher Hitchens and his sorry, P.J. O’Rourke-style political devolution from British clandestine writer to American flagpin-wearing moderate pundit. In 2006, Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue told the New Yorker that he was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been.” It’s sad that he never enlisted, but rather sublimated a lifetime of war-desire into petty literary and intellectual disputes. This reviewer can’t help but wonder and challenge the old man: Hitchens does so well in rhetorical debate, but how would he do in a fistfight?

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Aaron Lake Smith writes a zine called Big Hands that was featured in The New Museum's Generational Show. He has written for Time, Vice, Truthout, and the New York Times, among other publications. He is editing his first novel, THE SHAMBLER, and maintains a website at http://www.oldwaysways.com. More from this author →