I read with interest Scott Lucas’s marvellous de-construction of the prominent intellectual Christopher Hitchens in “The Betrayal of Dissent”(Pluto, 2004), a book which everyone ought to read. The book considers the way in which dissent has been shut down in mainstream media, in particular focusing on the way in which power uses left-wing writers, with first Orwell and then Hitchens, his self-appointed successor, as the central (but by no means exclusive) subjects of a thorough and considered analysis.
Lucas skilfully picks apart Hitchens’s pronouncements on the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, exposing him as little more than a fraud, whose arguments on the subject comprise a powerful blend of the sort of intellectual laziness and simple name-calling that has characterised the output of most pro-war mainstream commentators. On the fall of Kabul, Hitchens noted: “I get the impression that some of today’s left go to bed saying – What have I done for Saddam Hussein or good old Slobodan or the Taleban today? Well hahaha, and yah boo.” In a radio debate, when a caller asked him why the U.S. shouldn’t bomb North Korea in accordance with Hitchens’ own logic, since we know North Korea has WMDs, Hitchens responded by branding the questioner “idiotic”, and explaining that they were “trying a foolish double-standard comparison where one doesn’t apply”.
Where Orwell had once railed legitimately, intelligently and coherently against so much that was wrong with “the Left”, it seems as though Hitchens, who likes to be photographed cigarette-in-mouth, seems to attack “the Left” for the sake of it. Of course this is not a new phenomenon – the old leftist happily allowing themselves to be co-opted by the estabishment – but the notion, so happily accepted among his editors, that Hitchens’ status as some sort of former left-winger should add credibility to his argument is frankly insulting. As with Asians who are anti-immigration, a persons origins do not of themselves add any weight to the merits of the argument they are proposing. The detestable Labour MP Peter Hain – complicit in mass murder on account of some deliberate and gross deceptions with regard to the sanctions regime in Iraq – proudly boasts that he used to campaign quite vigorously against Apartheid in South Africa.
George Orwell once famously – and correctly – identified pacifism in the face of Nazi aggression as “objectively pro-Fascist”. Some sixty years later, Christopher Hitchens has seen fit to label today’s peace protesters as “objectively pro-terrorist.” In Orwell’s context, the word “objectively” needed to be used because the discussion centred around intervention in an escalating crisis. Had Britain herself been the aggrieved party, say, when Germany invaded Poland, there would have been no use to use such phraseology. Nevertheless Hitchens, in referring to the party directly aggrieved by international terrorism, sees fit to stick to his hero’s original wording even though it is grammatically out of context. Such deference would almost seem endearing if it wasn’t so crass and, indeed, so dangerous. Hitchens has swallowed the “You’re either with us or against us” argument hook, line and sinker. The progressive left-wing writers, whose work was more thorough and coherent and at this point more essential than anything Hitchens had to offer, with dismissed instantly as “peaceniks”.
In today’s Independent (“America‘s Lone Voice on the Web”, p18), Jacob Weisberg, the editor of American online magazine “Slate”, explains that his publication need not be considered liberal, citing contributions from Hitchens as the most obvious reason why. And it occurs to me at this point that being a “contrarian” is nothing to aspire to. Indeed, the word is not even in the dictionary. Wesiberg offers an interesting definition: “…wanting to think that what our readers think is likely to be wrong.” While an unfaltering cynicism, grounded in intelligence and a sense of moral justice, provide a sound basis for a stubborn and argumentative approach, I would submit that to merely decide to be “contrary” for its own sake constitutes at best a sort of intellectual laziness, at worst an awful moral cowardice. Lucas’s book excellently juxtaposes the moronic reactionary bile of much of the mainstream press with the well-thought-out lucidity of the better, braver writers, so that the author barely needs to draw conclusions. Against this backdrop, the notion of a writer who is paid to contradict or betray himself is something that doesn’t sit comfortably. The result is too close to clowning or buffoonery, to far detached from reasoned argument. From an intellectual point of view, such a person’s arguments – invariably twisted and backward-reasoned in their structure – would mean as little to me as those of a person who always agreed unswervingly with government policy. In this instance both things are one and the same. If this is indeed Hitchens’s art then let us be sure there is no need to invent new words to describe it, for the dictionary abounds in them. Hitchens, the pompous, self-regarding career journalist – Hitchens the opportunist, the self publicist, the coward.