Sunday, January 01, 2012

George, maybe the lesson is that if you're going to parties where you rub elbows with Paul Wolfowitz, you've effed up


Hitchens didn't "solve" the problem of maintaining an "outside" perspective as he became more and more of an "insider." On the contrary, he seems to have embraced his privileged status.

"Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn't make it personal."
-- George Packer, in a New Yorker blogpost, "Hitchens and Iraq"

by Ken

Christopher Hitchens continues to ignite controversy. I was far from alone in venting hostility recently when he died. Earlier this week I caught up with a December 20 New Yorker blogpost by the almost always interesting George Packer.

December 20, 2011
Posted by George Packer

Christopher Hitchens and the Iraq War ended on the same day, December 15, 2011 -- a historical coincidence that only he might have known what to do with. In the trajectory of his career as brilliant talker and polemicist, man of letters, self-dramatizing personality, and traveller to bad places, Iraq was the turning point. Until then, his work fit roughly within the conventions of the left. Given the deadliness of much left-wing writing in the age of Reagan, Hitchens achieved the rare feat of being dazzling while sticking fairly closely to political orthodoxy.

I read almost every one of his "Minority Report" columns in The Nation from the mid-eighties until he gave them up after the 9/11 attacks, because they were reliably less predictable and more exciting than anything else in the magazine. If, as Hitchens once said, hatred was what got him up in the morning, the first three decades of his career were motivated more than anything by a contempt for American foreign policy and the hypocrites and evil characters who carried it out. As late as 1998, Hitchens hated Bill Clinton much more than Osama bin Laden. When Clinton ordered Cruise missile strikes against Afghanistan and Sudan after Al Qaeda bombed the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Hitchens wrote a series of columns dissecting the American retaliation: he concluded that Clinton had chosen to kill innocent people (primarily Sudanese) in order to distract attention from Monica Lewinsky. Wag the dog, not Islamofascism, was the cardinal sin, the scandal that got Hitchens to the keyboard.
By 2000, he had embraced Naderism, finding nothing significant to distinguish Bush from Gore, and explicitly refusing to accept the lesser evil. It's a position from which much thunder can be visited upon the meek accommodations of ordinary political life, but it's also a dead end of sorts.

Two years later, after 9/11 and the overthrow of the Taliban, with the U.S. just months from going to war with Iraq, I went down to Washington to interview Hitchens for a piece on liberal intellectuals and the coming war. I hadn't known Hitchens until then, and what I remember from that long afternoon of drinking (now a cliché of Hitchens eulogies, and one that doesn't make me smile, since it helped kill him) was the sense of a man who was girding for battle. Hitchens took me on a long excursion through his political life, an account of the Education of Christopher Hitchens, with key stops at the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, which had pitted everything he loved against everything he hated, and the first Gulf War in 1991, which he had opposed. He described driving through the refugee camps in Kurdistan at the end of that war, with peshmerga fighters who had a picture of George H.W. Bush taped to their windshield. The thought of America on the side of a liberation movement occurred to Hitchens then, for the first time. It didn't change his position on the war, but it planted a seed.

His monologue continued up until 9/11 and the singular insight that the attacks had given him: the American revolution was "the last one standing" and beat pretty much any conceivable alternative in the oppressed corners of the world. He was saying that he had been wrong, something that Hitchens didn't do often enough -- wrong not about anything in particular (he defended every specific political choice he'd made), but about the core question of whether America was a force for good or evil in the world. From there, it was a fairly short and direct line to the late evening, a few years later, when I met Paul Wolfowitz at a party in Hitchens's D.C. apartment.

Some of his critics on the left, the former devotees of "Minority Report," accused Hitchens of currying favor with the powerful -- specifically, with those in the Bush Administration who were leading the war effort. The idea was that Hitchens had sold out for the sake of celebrity and dinner invitations. I don't buy it -- in spite of his well-established attraction to fame and fortune. So why did he throw himself with complete zeal into the idea of the war, breaking with so many old comrades, often with relish?

One reason was his hatred of religion. September 11, 2001, put Hitchens in touch with the molten anti-clericalism that was one of his elemental passions. It burned so hot that he turned it without a second thought at a secular, totalitarian Iraqi dictator. 9/11 gave Hitchens a sense of purpose like nothing since that early intimation, the Rushdie fatwa. It propelled him straight through the last, most productive, most visible decade of his life.

The second reason is a little murkier. He was, by his own lights and that of his admirers, a thoroughgoing contrarian. (One of his lesser known books was called "Letters to a Young Contrarian.") And nothing could be more contrarian, in the early years of the last decade, than for a hero of the left to embrace George W. Bush. It breathed new life into Hitchens, his persona, and his prose.

He and I argued a lot about the war. We had both supported it, but as Iraq disintegrated, my criticisms of the policy struck him as weak-kneed and opportunistic, an effort to curry favor with bien-pensant liberals. In turn, his brave talk of sticking by his "comrades" in Baghdad rang false to me. Who were they, after all? Exiled politicians whose sectarian agendas helped take Iraq into a terrible civil war. The only comrades worthy of the name that I knew were those who had risked their lives for the American effort -- the Iraqis who were betrayed by Bush, and have been betrayed again by Obama.

Iraq led Hitchens to some of his worst indulgences -- the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz's entourage, the pose of Byronic heroism. But perhaps the war and the enemies it made him helped give Hitchens the courage of his last years and months -- the atheist in the foxhole. Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn't make it personal.
I was going to break this post down and pick at it a little, but I think it's better left the way Packer wrote it, with the stipulation that he is sometimes too much the "truth lies in between the extremes" kind of observer for my tastes.

The larger problem, though, is the devilish old one: access. Without access to the people who actually do stuff, how is any observer supposed to really know what goes on behind the scenes, well enough to pontificate about it with some larger authority than those of us who basically just suck our thumbs. As I frequently point out, I'm a "nuts 'n' bolts" kind of person. I like to find out how stuff actually gets done. And when it comes to government and policy-making, how are we supposed to ever find out how stuff gets done if we don't have reporters with access to the people who know?

But of course the minute you have that kind of access, you face the imminent peril of being coopted, of becoming a part of, or at least an adjunct to, the process. I think it was certainly part of Christopher Hitchens's problem. He wrote best as an angry outsider, but with career success he became more and more of an "inside" outsider. And in George Packer's case, I can't help wondering whether we don't need to factor in the fact that he frequents the kinds of parties where Paul Wolfowitz might turn up.


I'm still playing with my Fledermaus selections -- and meanwhile have gotten bogged down in the surprisingly satisfying (for someone of my minimal technical skills) but also unsurprisingly laborious process of declicking, by means of which you're going to get to hear some performances that perhaps not that many people nowadays have heard. I probably shouldn't talk about the declicking, since it opens me, legitimately, to complaint over all the clicks my skill level isn't up to removing. Anyway, I'm shooting for 6pm PT, or maybe even 9pm PT. We're all still in holiday mode through tomorrow, aren't we?

Labels: ,


At 3:44 PM, Blogger Grung_e_Gene said...

"[M]any Christian readers felt that in Hitchens's case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible and "Brideshead Revisited" surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets..." - Ross Douthat

Everyone wants to co-opt Hitchens, it's just the Neo-Cons succeeded in getting him to support War. As with Rudyard Kipling, it's a long tradition of having English writers pen beautiful propaganda for War.

At 6:23 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

I don't know that everyone wants to coopt Hitchens, Gene. As he became more useless and dangerous I mostly just wanted him to STFU.

I think you make a swell point about the end result.


At 6:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dylan's lyric, "You just want to be on the side that's winning", describes Hitchens' conversion to warmonger. Hitchens dresses it up with anti-clericalism (as said, against a secular dictator?) and 'last democracy standing' rhetoric, and the costuming coincided with some of his (former) principles, but actually he just wanted to join in on kicking some brown people because he and we could. He often did show the decency of situational good manners, but he was a monster of a human being who ate himself from the inside out and disappeared.

- Larry


Post a Comment

<< Home