review

Remembrance of Politics Past

Hitch 22: A Memoir
By: Christopher Hitchens
Boston, MA: Hachette Book Group, 2010, 435 pp., $26.99

If the purpose of a memoir is to tell the story of a life or the evolution of an individual’s thinking, this one by Christopher Hitchens, the jowly, balding erstwhile enfant terrible doesn’t ring true. There’s no metamorphosis in thinking here — it’s more a whipsawing of opinion if not a trading up. And despite a heavy lathering of opinions, there’s precious little of his adult life as lived. There’s really very little in Hitch 22 that can’t be gleaned from any collection of his essays or even books, where he alternates between playing the clown prince and issuing Jeremiads against the godly and — less frequently now — the elected if not the elect. Considering that Hitchens’ (and it’s Hitchens, Hitch, or Christopher, never Chris, he says) likes and dislikes are as little a mystery to the reading public as are Joe Biden’s hair plugs or the absence of yellow cake in pre-invasion Iraq, Hitch’s tell-all-again might seem awfully familiar or even redundant. And it is.

      Not boring, though. Never boring. And certainly not ghosted. And — despite what follows here — a fine read. Plus, his asides to fiction and to poetry well worth reading and knowing are bonuses in their own right if not always relevant to his points. He’s at least a replacement for the late mid-brow Clifton Fadiman or the overpriced and necessarily pretentious Britannica Great Books series. Still, at the end of Hitch 22 we know no more about the man and why he thinks the way he does than before. Beyond a certain self reverential quality and a quirkiness that makes his acidic pronouncements seem overdone if not camp, it just may be there’s — just as Gertrude Stein said about Oakland, Cal. — "no there there."

      Take these remarks, offered over time.

      In reviewing Walter Isaacson’s biography of Henry Kissinger after its 1992 publication, Hitchens wrote:

It became very clear to me, as I finished the book, that if I were to employ the argot of popular psychology, I could say I had been reading the profile of a serial murderer…. From being a foe of Zionism when it looked like losing in 1948, to becoming an advocate of its most racialist and absolutist application when it was a power to be reckoned with, is not second nature to Kissinger. It is his nature. There is no irony to ponder here, unless you consider Hannibal Lecter an ironist.

      Jump ahead to the present, too-clever-by-half volume and Hitchens is actually solicitous to the awful Paul Wolfowitz, the brains behind Donald Rumsfeld’s march to war and one of the reigning architects of the Iraq invasion. The Iraqi and American blood on Wolfowitz’s hands alone outdoes even Kissinger’s culpability for the crimes of the Chilean junta, yet Hitchens gives him a pass for being among "those in the administration who were making the case for ‘regime change’ [and who] were sincere in what they believed."

      What Wolfowitz was sincere in believing, Hitchens says by way of example, is that the United States made no claim to recolonize the Middle East either for itself or with surrogates. He believes Wolfowitz bent no truths when he told Hitchens that "American sympathy for Israel did not extend to expansion or colonization." He doesn’t doubt Wolfowitz’s veracity after saying, in effect, (because these can only be Hitchens’ paraphrasing) that "when the Turkish government was being more than usually obnoxious, and refusing the use of U.S. bases on Turkish soil for the deployment of a ‘Northern Front,’ unless Turkish troops were allowed into Iraqi Kurdistan, " Wolfowitz "was without ambivalence: Turkish boots on Iraqi soil would not be allowed. If the Turks insisted on exacting that price, the liberation of Iraq would go ahead without them (which it did)."

      Now Kissinger is no serial murderer, as emotionally appropriate as is that thought. When I first read the review — and on Hitchens’ recommendation read Isaacson, too — I was enchanted with the description. So much for enchantment. And we know that Wolfowitz is not now nor has he ever been a regime-changing democrat. Praise for Wolfowitz is of course misplaced, as a moment’s reflection would show. But Hitchens’ style won’t allow for reflection; in fact, nothing he’s ever written sticks in the mind, except the pleasure of his skewering common enemies.

      What Hitchens is is a serial character assassin when it comes to enemies and an oleaginous flatterer of friends.

      There’s ample evidence for both in this memoir.

      But what about style? Here Hitchens takes American journalists to task for writing as if their hands were webbed, and he would be right. What is memorable about Hitchens is exactly his felicity with language and his capacity for using humor in a humorless context as a delicate if sometimes imprecise weapon.

      In a moving account of his mother, Yvonne, her hard years as the child of an abusive father, her anxiety about class compounded by her abandoning any shred of Jewish identity to marry a British officer, assimilate into the British lower-upper-middle class, efface herself with penury to assure that her sons had Oxbridge educations, and eventually flee Britain with a lover and soon after take her own life — the story itself takes up much of the book’s early parts — it’s hard to match his description of Sylvia Plath’s poem "Daddy." He relates it back to his mum, as being "the strictest verdict passed by a daughter on a male parent since the last reunion of the House of Atreus."

      Or on a wintery visit with Jacek Kuron, the then-Polish Marxist and internationalist, and with other discouraged "veterans of the extremely nasty Polish Prison system" — this years before the rise of Solidarnosc, when the Stalinist regime was still unchallenged and in command — he describes these resisters as having

a faint nimbus of optimism, visible on the very edge of a dark and cold star. It was, to put it another way, quite astonishing to see how much, and to what extent, the party-state depended on lies. Small lies and big lies. Petty lies hardly worth telling, that would shame a nose-picking, whining, guilty child, and huge lies that would cause a hardened blackmailer and perjurer to blush a bit.

      This is all quite vividly done. We can feel the boot of Stalinism on the human face and heart, even as his glorious description does nothing to help us understand the command system better. For poets and court jesters and novelists, feeling can be enough. It’s an accomplishment to get that far. Hitchens, though, claims to be doing more. He fails.

      His take on individuals and ideas is just as subjective, and just as poorly explained. He writes of how "Saddam had given warning of the approach of his Ceausescu moment: a crazy meltdown of authority." He calls Islam in essence "a fanatical religion which makes absolutist claims for itself and promises to supply — even to be — a total solution to all problems, furthermore regards itself as so pure as to be above criticism." He pictures the Ayatollah Khomeini as "a black winged ghoul [who] came flapping back from exile on a French jet and imposed a version of his own dark and heavy uniform on a people too long used to being bullied and ordered around."

      He knocks Bill Clinton for being slow to war with Serbia, when as he says "Muslim Bosnia was a site of daily slaughter by Christians," even as Hitchens and others were "trying to get Clinton to take some intelligibly vertebrate position on that," as though Clinton’s (like Obama’s) policy failings had anything to do with a lack of spine and not everything to do with national and even global economic interests.

      He calls Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "tethered gas balloons of greed and cynicism," — great stuff as catharsis or standup comedy but useless analytically.

      Thumbing through any of his work, you find equally great language. Too often, though, it’s the language that’s in command. In his book on Tom Paine, he refers to arch Whig Edmund Burke’s broadside at the French rebellion, Reflections on the Revolution in France, as "one of the most sulfurous counter-revolutionary screeds of all time." Counter-revolutionary it was, more lucky that prescient and a bit thick, too, given that the Girondins and not the Jacobins were still its leaders, but "one of the most sulfurous?"

      Even where he tries to make an analytical point, or cast a serious observation, as when he writes of Tom Wolfe, the southern fop who is said to have used Hitchens as his model for the weasely British writer and dandy in The Bonfire of the Vanities, that "much of Wolfe’s celebrated ‘style’ was part of a revival of a right-wing politics based on the defensive class-consciousness of the well-off." It’s a wonderful line, but is it true?

Meanwhile someone he likes is described in Olympian terms as "glamourous and loquacious," a woman "whose career as a civil rights champion … is barely to be equaled by any living person." The Polish Marxist-turned-nationalist Leszek Kolakowski is named a "national hero" and someone for whom Hitchens was "honored" with being invited to speak at a memorial meeting soon after his death. In another work, he names Conor Cruise O’Brien’s The Long Affair, a decidedly Burkean demolition of Jefferson as a dangerous Rousseauan philosophe, as "the most eloquent of the anti-Jeffersonian nonfictions," which is like appreciating the style of Joseph de Maistre or Leo Strauss. I could add George Will, but he has no style, only affect.

      His pals Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and James Fenton are treated throughout as though they and he composed a quartet of oversexed lads in a beer commercial. There’s even a homoerotic kiss-but-never-quite-tell rendering of Amis, while not one woman lover or dear female friend is named, even as he brags that he never had sex with any but beautiful women. His marriage is barely mentioned, though he acknowledges children.

      And while he prides himself on his taste and capacity for "strong waters," he is contemptuous of any recreational drug use, including marijuana. Hitchens has more opinions than any three people have the right to maintain.

      No one who has ever seen Hitchens in action should be surprised. Those around the Campaign for Peace and Democracy will remember an episode played out at a 1989 forum at New York's New School for Social Research marking the collapse of the old order and celebrating those heady days of upheaval in Eastern Europe. The evening gathering became so packed that safety considerations required restricting access and hiving off the overflow crowd. Hitchens, in his best Colonel Blimp impression, hectored the crowd that the opponents of Stalinism in Europe wouldn’t scurry from a political meeting merely because it was crowded. It was left to Congressman Barney Frank, the liberal Massachusetts Democrat and Hitchens’ fellow speaker, to suggest that fire marshals shouldn’t be confused with the repressive power of the state apparatus.

      For some, the question on the table in L’affair Hitchens is why did this seemingly quintessential man of the left abandon positions he was synonymous with to join the State Department’s charmed circle. For this reviewer, Hitchens was never a man of the left if the term means someone who employs a class analysis of history and politics. Yes, that is harsh, because even Marxism at its best is not a science, political positions are relative and anyone is free to follow R.H. Tawney’s injunction that "we are all Marxists, you in your way and I in his." Still, there is a pale pink thread running through all of Hitchens’ work, both in those older pieces that pass left muster and those that so dismally disappoint. It has to do with democracy and tolerance. Not a bad starting point, and certainly necessary but not sufficient. Absent an understanding of imperialism as a violent social order and not the product of bad manners by scrofulous people, it’s no stretch to understand why quondam lefties would switch sides, especially if one side appears bloodthirsty and the other merely self-interested.

      Plus, if we are honest, Hitchens was always more harlequin than hero.

About Author

MICHAEL HIRSCH, a New York-based labor journalist and political writer, is a member of the New Politics editorial board and an editor of Democratic Left.

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4 comments on “Remembrance of Politics Past
  1. Anonymous says:

    Hitch 22: A Memoir

    What is missing in Michael Hirsch’s review of “Hitch 22: A Memoir” is a sence of balance and proportion, half the book is missing from the reviewer’s sight.

    Mr. Hirsch ignores Mr. Hitchen’s discussion of his membership in the International Socialists and the British Labour Party. Hitchen’s discusses his admiration for Peter Sedwick, the well know “third camper” who recruited and mentored Hitchens in the intricacies of socialist anti-Stalinism.

    There is a chapter on the anti-Vietnam war movement in the UK; Americans on Oxford campus experiencing great moral problems concerning the war; an American student’s suicide.
    Hitchen’s role in the Oxford Debating Union and its anti-war, and anti-Labour Government position.

    There is a long chapter on Hitchen’s visit to Castro’s Cuba and his utter disillusionment with Fidel and “third world socialism.” Hitchen’s friendship with the Iraqui Kurds is of great interest, but not even memtioned in Hirsch’s review.

    Hirsch’s personal attacks on Hitchen are purile: he is bald because he is undergoing cancer treatment-radioactive cancer treatment.

    The book is richer and more insightful than Hirsch allows for in his review. Hitchen’s has his many heros: WH Auden, Peter Sedwick, George Orwell. None of this is memtioned. Of course, Hitchen’s work is not a replay of the 1937/38 debate among the comrades concerning the class nature of the USSR. If you are looking for that, you will not find it. If your looking for a good autobiography of a cantankerous contrarian, you could do worse that read Hitch 22.

    • Anonymous says:

      Reply to anonymous by Michael Hirsch

      The thrust of my review–because it’s a review, not a recapitulation–was to explore why much of the left liked Hitchens at one point and despised him at another. My reading is that Hitchens was always more of a performer than a truth teller. Sure, he was on my side through much of his life and is now carrying water for the American Empire. What changed? Only his opinions, not his conceits as the perennial smartest boy in the room. His analyses as a radical were just as reckless, self-serving and ill-founded then as now, and I was making as much of a self-criticism of my own selectivity in choosing friends as I was critiquing Hitchens. I liked him then because he skewered my enemies, and any stick to beat an opponent was fair play. That’s not a good enough reason to valorize someone, I now think, or call them comrade.

      As to anon’s writing “Hirsch’s personal attacks on Hitchen are purile: [Hitchens] is bald because he is undergoing cancer treatment-radioactive cancer treatment,” I wasn’t attacking him for his looks or making light of what could be a death sentence. I was describing him. (Plus, his balding long preceded the cancer diagnosis.) He used to play the pretty boy on the cutting edge of Brit radical chic–what else are the multiple fashion shots in the book meant to convey–history? Now, like the rest of us, he’s old. And like some of us of the 1960s generation, sick. Bottom line: his writing was and is too often toxic; why not admit it? Most of his work–certainly his Jihad against the religious–is the triumph of style over substance. Read his book on Clinton. It’s mindless invective, and I say that as someone who despised the great triangulator. So why complain when he’s treated with a mere dollop of what he’s used to mold a career? And don’t exaggerate: he never was in Peter Sedgwick’s league.

      • Anonymous says:

        Not the same League?

        Hitchens was recruited to the International Socialists by Peter Sedgwick. He was a political mentor to Hitchens. Hitchens gives Sedgwick substantial credit and honor in the autobiography. My letter does not maintain that Hitchens was in Peter Sedgwick’s league, nor does Hitchens. I’m sure M. Hirsch regrets that Sedgwick wasn’t his mentor.

        How curious it is that M. Hirsch attacks Hitchens for his “Jihad against religion.” Recently, I heard Hitchens debate Tariq Ramadan at the 92nd St YMHA. Each debated quite well and they were quite civil to one another. Hitchens carried the debate. I’ve also heard Hitchens and David Berlinski on C-SPAN II debate “Does Atheism Poison Everything?” The debate was also civil, lively, and instructive. Hardly examples of a “Jihad.”

        From a modern democratic radical’s perspective, I think it is mistake to make war against religions. Anti-religiosity and anti-clericalism, however, are not new or alien positions in the Socialist movement. There is a “New Atheism” today, and Hitchens is one leader of this movement, together with Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger. They and other supporters of the New Atheism movement are hard-line critics of religion. I have not heard Sam Harris, Daniel C. Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Victor J. Stenger described as making “Jihad” on religion. Since when has Atheism received such a cool reception among Socialists? It is the other way around. Organized religions have often made “Jihad” on the Socialists. Of course, we have had great Christian socialists,i.e.,Norman Thomas, and we love them dearly.

        What changed? People change. Recently in NEW POLITICS, Lois Weiner criticized Gloria Steinem’s positions on feminism, the working class and educational policy. She noted that Diana Ravitch, in contrast, has come full circle, abandoning her neo-conservatism for a much deeper understanding of the failures of neo-liberal educational policy. People change.

        M. Hirsch writes, “His analyses as a radical were just as reckless, self-serving and ill-founded then as now…” Considering Hitchens was a committed member of the International Socialists in the UK; his early political mentor was Peter Sedgwick, and his autobiography faithfully articulates the serious “third camp” socialism of this period, in context, is not M. Hirsch’s charge of “reckless” “self-serving” and “ill founded” an exaggeration?

        • Michael Hirsch says:

          Reply again to anonymous

          Two comments:

          I wrote that Hitchens was waging “a jihad against the religious.” Anon challenges my atheist creds by misrepresenting that comment as Hitchens warring against “religion.” The difference is significant, like confusing a bear with a bugbear. James Connolly, in his famous late 19th C. debate with the Socialist Labor Party high command over socialism and religious feeling, insisted that the faith of working people was a private matter, and that “socialist economics” (his words) had everything to say about reactionary religious institutions, but nothing to say about the beliefs of the religious. Not because he was a religious man–he wasn’t–or had a soft spot for the miraculous, but because a battle over faith with working men and women was divisive and, quite frankly, stupid. On this at least, Hitchens is an inveterate DeLeonist. It’s the religious that scare him, full stop. And he’s quite clear on that point, not only in “God is Not Great,” but in the memoir, where he says in effect that any group of believers walking toward him on a dark and stormy night would make him soil his trousers. Don’t agree that faith is the worm in the proletarian apple or that the godly are by nature the enemies of reason? Have that fight with Hitchens.

          BTW, Peter Sedgwick was very much a mentor of mine. Both personally and politically. Want to know more, Anon? Write me off line c/o New Politics.

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