SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the Providence Journal on January 18, 2012.
In the outpouring of accolades that followed the death of Christopher Hitchens, I confess I joined in, trying my best to claim some of his journalistic legacy. Because the obituaries failed to mention his service as the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine, of which I am the publisher, or that his landmark book The Trial of Henry Kissinger originated as two long pieces in the magazine, I boasted of his relationship with Harper’s on our website.
Then I read Glenn Greenwald’s online critique of Hitchens’s hasty canonization. As Greenwald noted, much of what Hitchens wrote after his post-9/11 lurch from anti-establishment left to imperialist right—cloaked though it was in the costume of liberal, humanitarian interventionism—was “repellent.” Greenwald asserted that a misapplication of “death etiquette” had given Hitchens an unmerited free pass. “Ironically,” wrote Greenwald, “Hitchens was the last person who would honor the etiquette rules being invoked on his behalf.”
My feelings about Hitchens—after he embraced the stupidity of invading Iraq—were confusion and disappointment. So disorienting was Hitchens’s conversion to war hawk that I hardly knew what to say, either in private to him or, for that matter, in public.
It was on Phil Donahue’s short-lived MSNBC TV show that I witnessed the beginning of Hitchens’s depressing decline. As a long-time critic of U.S. and Bush family policy in the Mideast, I had exposed much of both Bushes’ self-justifying and often false anti-Saddam Hussein propaganda. So I was recruited for Donahue’s September 12, 2002, segment on W.’s escalating campaign to invade Iraq. Against me were slotted, first, a Bush I P.R. man, Sig Rogich, and second, a Bush II promoter, Rich Lowry, editor of National Review. Going one on one against Rogich, with Donahue clearly on my side, was relatively easy. But I thought the second round of the show would be even easier, since Lowry and I were joined by my traditional ally Hitchens.
This was the same Hitchens who had written of the imminent first Gulf War, in Harper’s in January 1991, that George H.W. Bush’s supposedly principled enthusiasm for the “cause” of “liberating” Kuwait was merely a rebottled realpolitik—a continuation of the disastrous divide-and-rule policy initiated in 1972 by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. Since then, Hitchens argued, “The Kurds have been further dispossessed, further reduced in population, and made the targets of chemical experiments. Perhaps half a million Iraqi and Iranian lives have been expended [during the Iran–Iraq war] to no purpose on and around the Fao peninsula. The Iraqis have ingested… Kuwait. The Syrians, aided by anti-Iraqi subvention from Washington, have now ingested Lebanon. The Israeli millennialists are bent on ingesting the West Bank and Gaza. In every country mentioned… the forces of secularism, democracy and reform have been dealt appalling blows. And all of these blunders will necessitate future wars.”
The latest casualty, Hitchens claimed, was American democracy: “The Gulf buildup had… brought the renewal of a moribund consensus on national security, the disappearance of the… [post Cold War] ‘peace dividend,’ and re-establishment of the red alert as the preferred device for communicating between Washington and the people.” The elder Bush’s “cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold.” This was Hitchens at his best, and also his most prescient, since these observations applied almost perfectly to the next Iraq buildup, eleven years later.
But by 2002, on the Donahue show, Hitchens was pushing an altogether different analysis: Suddenly the Bushes were credible and he was credulous, not to mention disingenuous, as when he called me an “isolationist” who believed “quite honorably, that what happens in the rest of the world is not our concern and we only make things worse by intervening.” The first half of his criticism of me was false, but the second half was largely true: I, like the old Hitchens, thought that America’s military interventions since World War II had been largely toxic.
I fended off Lowry’s media-trained distortions, but what could I do when my old acquaintance started spouting the same nonsense—albeit more elegantly—as the right-wing belligerent? When I challenged the view that Saddam was building atomic weapons by saying, “The Bushes just can’t help themselves; they’ve just got to keep making it up,” Hitchens responded, “I’ve met the guy who claims to have been Saddam Hussein’s nuclear technician…. I’ve interviewed him carefully. I think that most of what he says is true, and I think he’s a believable witness.”
Hitchens was referring to Khidir Hamza, whom the CIA had branded a fraud, but to the new Hitchens, this branding somehow enhanced Hamza’s reputation. Before I could say “realpolitik,” Lowry was Hitchens’s new best friend: “Liberals and progressives, with the exception of Chris Hitchens,” he said, “seem to have a soft spot for right-wing dictators when they [are] Arab right-wing dictators.”
After the Donahue show, I only saw Hitchens one more time—at the Harper’s Christmas party that year. In spite of everything, he still made me laugh with his arch, classically educated English sense of humor. At our next televised confrontation, he predicted, “we would be armed with tridents.” I wondered, briefly, if his attitude was all a pose.
I’ve heard it suggested that Hitchens switched sides for the “money”—that there’s simply more to be gained on the right than on the left and that even a deeply dedicated leftist can get lonely and tired, always out in the cold, always at a remove from power. My theory is that he went mad as he consumed huge amounts of alcohol. Booze is mind-altering and it may well have damaged his impressive powers of reasoning. But I can’t pretend to understand.
Better that Hitchens’s close friend Martin Amis have the last word on the man’s political evolution. Influenced perhaps by Hitchens, Amis himself turned nasty and narrow-minded toward Muslim political culture and “Islamofascism,” especially after the London tube bombings. But in his latest novel, The Pregnant Widow, Amis distanced himself from Hitchens’s violent, regime-changing passions through his protagonist, Keith Nearing. At one point, with the Iraq invasion looming, Keith muses about the relative horrors of old age versus war: “Actually, war was more terrifying—and just as unavoidable, it seemed, for human beings…. He sat with The Times trembling in his hands. This was avoidable (or at least postponable). Why was no one identifying the true casus belli?… American presidents, in wartime, are always reelected. There would be regime change in Baghdad, in 2003, so that there would be no regime change in Washington, in 2004.”
Meanwhile, Keith’s brother, Nicholas, “who supported [invading Iraq], tried to instill in him some courage about the Mesopotamian experiment, but Keith, just now, couldn’t begin to bear the thought of flying iron and mortal flesh, and what happened when the hard machine met the soft.”
More than 100,000 corpses later, I think Amis had it right.
More from John R. MacArthur:
Publisher's Note — March 13, 2014, 12:37 pm
A straightforward strategy for reversing the rightward trend of both parties
Publisher's Note — February 13, 2014, 11:49 am
“Pharaonic exclusion is their motto; contempt for human scale and ordinary people their raison d’être.”
Publisher's Note — January 16, 2014, 2:20 pm
Rethinking the best way to introduce Shakespeare to the young
Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.
Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”
Ratio of husbands who say they fell in love with their spouse at first sight to wives who say this:
Mathematicians announced the discovery of the perfect method of cutting a cake.
Indian prime-ministerial contender Narendra Modi, who advertises his bachelorhood as a mark of his incorruptibility, confessed to having a wife.
Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!
Science’s crisis of faith