Reviews — From the December 2011 issue

Man of the World

Christopher Hitchens’s marks and misses

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When it comes to Islam, Hitchens’s judiciousness deserts him. The only thing that distinguishes some of his more intemperate comments on the subject from Glenn Beck’s is that the latter has no judiciousness to be deserted by. Hitchens regards “Islamophobia” as a “dumb” word. Either he means that there is no hatred of Muslims simply as Muslims, or that such hatred should exist. The En­glish Defence League, a bunch of boneheaded thugs whose vocation in life is to beat up British Asians, would be thrilled to inscribe that pronouncement on its leaflets. When Amis launched a vile assault on the Muslim population of Britain in the wake of 9/11, suggesting that the community should be hounded, harassed, and perhaps deported, Hitchens mounted a squalidly disingenuous defense of him.

Pakistan, Hitchens argues in an enraged essay, has shamefully exploited its relations with the United States and “played [us] for suckers.” In fact, “our blatant manipulation by Pakistan is the most diseased and rotten thing in which the United States has ever involved itself.” Really? More diseased than the chemical warfare waged by America in Vietnam, the subject of another properly disgusted essay here? More rotten than Hiroshima? Is being pushed around the worst that has ever happened to the United States? To think so would seem to reflect the touchiness of the émigré.

Hitchens has no illusions about the way in which the West has hurt and humiliated the rest of the world. He knows why some in Latin America feel so sore about the States, whatever he thinks nowadays about the validity of their grievances. He knows that Congolese insurgents were not fighting the Belgians because there were no sports facilities around to keep them more innocently occupied. He must also know, being the superbly intelligent analyst he is, that to explain is not to excuse. People who set fire to small children in the name of Allah are not justified in doing so because they feel exploited and belittled; but to observe that they would be a lot less likely to do so if they felt differently is not to lapse into the language of psychopathology. Why then is Hitchens, a man who has spent his life witnessing some of the terrifying consequences of political injustice, unwilling to concede that Western interference in the affairs of the Muslim world has contributed to the murderous fury of the Islamists?

When splendidly perceptive people become suddenly obtuse, one generally suspects that one is in the presence of ideology, a presence occasionally betrayed by a stumbling of style. When Hitchens writes of his old friend Edward Said that “for some reason—conceivably connected to his status as an exile—he cannot allow that direct Western engagement [in the Middle East] is legitimate,” the limp bemusement of the prose is an exact reflection of the dim-wittedness of the thought. Hitchens dedicates this volume to three dead men who played a key role in the so-called Arab Spring. It’s just as well, since there is scarcely anything in the book itself to suggest that the Islamic world contains anything but cruelty, tyranny, and corruption.

Few Western journalists have written with such passion and rancor as Hitchens of the rotten regimes that besmirch the Arab world. It is true that this scorching critique would be a lot more impressive were it not accompanied by such a strong whiff of Western supremacism. Even so, it is impossible to deny its force. It may be that Hitchens’s political allegiances have changed over time, as his sympathies have shifted from Trotsky to that reliable barometer of Iraqi public opinion Ahmed Chalabi (granted a few sweet words here), to the crooked, unstable Karzai, and to Tony Blair. Yet there is no shred of inconsistency in these remarkable turnabouts, which stem from Hitchens’s visceral hatred of political oppression in any form. He is a left-leaning liberal whose creed led him first into the arms of Marx, and later into a suspiciously energetic championing of imperial warmongering, but whose principles have never altered en route. Nor has he wholly abandoned his admiration for Marx, as an affirmative piece on him in this volume testifies.

All the same, it has not gone unnoticed among Hitchens’s former political friends that his conversion from socialism to capitalism has coincided with curious exactitude with history’s own drift in that general direction. For one like Hitchens who enjoys being au fait, this cannot be entirely discounted as a subsidiary motive. It is unlikely that a practicing Trotskyist (though Hitchens never practiced quite hard enough to get really good at it) would be as welcome in Washington’s corridors of power as the man who can tell us in this book, for all the world like some purple-faced colonel in a London club, that joining the army is an excellent way for black youths to integrate with mainstream American culture.

There are other minor blemishes. The African American who shows his penis to the titular hero of Saul Bellow’s novel Mr. Sammler’s Planet does not do so in the street. By “rural idiocy,” Marx did not mean rural stupidity. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was by no means the first realist novel, and Martin Chuzzlewit is by no means Dickens’s weakest piece of fiction.

Hitchens remarks laconically in his introduction that he may not have long to live; the voraciousness of these essays makes this seem an implausible claim. To pitch so full-bloodedly into the midst of things, as Hitchens has never ceased to do, demands a certain kind of courage and self-abandonment. He is right to suggest in this book that the traditional values of “grit and pluck and hardihood” are not to be dismissed as irredeemably old-fashioned, and fearlessness has always been among his supreme virtues—he’s always struck one as a man who would go down writing. “Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to,” is the book’s epigraph, the words of a character from Henry James’s The Ambassadors who has poignantly failed to heed that injunction. Whatever his other mistakes, this gravest of errors is one that Christopher Hitchens could never have made.

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's latest book is Why Marx Was Right (Yale University Press).

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