The Enemy of Promise, by Christian Lorentzen

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August 2022 Issue [Reviews]

The Enemy of Promise

What time did to Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, 2010 © Stephen Voss/Redux

[Reviews]

The Enemy of Promise

What time did to Christopher Hitchens
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Discussed in this essay:

A Hitch in Time: Writings from the London Review of Books, by Christopher Hitchens. Atlantic Books. 340 pages. £12.99.

His head was hairless, except for a wispy pair of eyebrows, and there was a tumbler half full of what seemed to be scotch by his feet. “Well, you can still drink whisky after chemotherapy,” I thought. “Good to know.” The only time I saw Christopher Hitchens in the flesh was in the Great Hall at Cooper Union on September 16, 2010. He was debating Rabbi Shmuley Boteach about the afterlife. Boteach—author of Kosher Sex, comrade of Oprah Winfrey, and one of several devout sparring partners Hitchens had been touring with since reinventing himself as a best-selling atheist—opened with a rant:

We all believe in an afterlife. We just don’t believe in some religious people’s distortion of the afterlife. One such distortion took place a few blocks away at Ground Zero, where nineteen men thought that by practicing violence they would get sex. It’s quite an interesting idea. It’s about as perverse as they come. Mohamed Atta—a note was left by him at Logan Airport where he said, “I will soon be with the women of Paradise.” For him, the afterlife is one giant orgy, where in recompense for his profound act of violence he will get celestial orgasmic bliss.

Boteach then veered to Christianity, quoting pastor Rick Warren’s introduction to Dinesh D’Souza’s book on the afterlife, Life After Death: The Evidence, “We were made to last forever, and this life is like a warm-up act, a dress rehearsal, for the real show in eternity.” The rabbi rejected the concept of heaven. “You don’t serve God in order to get some big prize in the hereafter,” he said. “That makes religion into nothing but a petty commercial enterprise.” The idea of punishment in hell was also insufficient. How many times could the shade of Hitler be drawn and quartered in retribution for the Holocaust? Instead, Boteach averred, “Judaism is emphatic that the afterlife is right here on earth.” He quoted the Talmud on the patriarch Jacob, who, though he was buried, never died: “Because his children lived in the example that he displayed, he has an afterlife through them. I see that for Christopher.”

Somewhat deflated by Boteach’s non-supernatural framing of the afterlife, Hitchens insisted that neither Warren nor the 9/11 bombers were distorting their respective creeds. Scripture and therefore God Himself dictates these delusions, which is why, as his handy catchphrase and subtitle goes, always italicized, “religion poisons everything.” Soon he set off on a litany of name-calling: the “religious nutbag” Louis Farrakhan, whom he had witnessed at Madison Square Garden in 1985 (“I was one of the two or three white people in the audience”) saying, “and remember, Jews, when God puts you in the ovens, it’s forever”; the “mad Jewish settlers on the West Bank thinking if we could only steal other people’s land and bring on the Messiah and Armageddon everything would be all right”; Pope Benedict XVI, who had recently equated atheists with Nazis, “an overdressed little ponce who was himself a member of the Hitler Youth”; and, of course, the mosques “incubating madmen and suicide bombers.”

It would be wrong to deny that he was witty at times, especially when taking aim at the ancients. Responding to Tertullian’s Christian eschatology, he asked, “Why is heaven such fun? It seems to be rather dutiful. Endless praise, endless worship, endless subjection, endless tedium. You’d think that the Lord Himself after the first five billion years would have had enough of the songs of praise. No, it’s gotta go on forever.” Laughter followed, as it did Hitchens’s sneering at generic contemporaries. “When someone gets up and says [redneck accent], ‘I’m a person of faith,’ [standard tenor] they don’t get respect for it. They think that’s a respect-producing statement. [redneck accent] ‘I am a person . . . ’ [standard tenor] No, I am a person who will believe practically anything on no evidence at all. Well, you said it, Mister. Respect comes later.” Then there were the obviously canned bits: a Muslim who heeds the call to prayer says four true words five times a day: “There is no God . . . ”

But God, I got bored. How strange that someone who knew he might not have much time left was spending any of that time reiterating arguments he’d made in a book that was three years old. My date that night had had some editorial dealings with Boteach and had figured rightly that I would be up to catch Hitchens before he left us. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and after the first couple of rounds of Hitchens and Boteach amiably trading straw men to beat, I wanted to repair to a placid zone of convivial irreligiosity—a bar around the corner called the Scratcher, where I could fetch my own tumbler of whisky. Hitchens died fourteen months later of pneumonia on top of esophageal cancer.

In the wake of his death, there were encomiums from Hitchens’s friends and allies, denunciations from a betrayed left (Corey Robin: “not an internationalist but a narcissist”), and even a satire by an ex-friend, Alexander Cockburn, then not long for this earth himself, that placed Hitchens at the gates of heaven chatting amiably with a gaggle of angels and his old adversaries Henry Kissinger (still somehow alive as I write this) and Malcolm Muggeridge. Michael Wolff, writing in GQ, asserted that the “beatification” of Hitchens might have been premature, as his stances on the war on terror, the humorous capacities of women, and his atheism were quickly going stale.

Some ten years on, we inhabit an altered political and literary landscape. A generation of writers and readers have grown up with no sense of Hitchens before his turn to the right and his barnstorming against the deity. Talking to young people in the course of preparing this essay, I found that his name was sometimes greeted with an indifferent shrug: “One of those atheists, right?” A young woman, seemingly unaware of his political transformation in midlife, called him “a horrible conservative, but now we have people like Ben Shapiro. Christopher Hitchens at least had wit and education.” A young man told me that reading Hitchens’s 2010 memoir Hitch-22 as a high school student “blew my mind,” a reaction perhaps analogous to my own reading of Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 in the early Nineties. Hitchens’s public image as dipsomaniac and inveterate lover of tobacco is even more anachronistic in the era of wellness and self-care, and I say that as someone who shares many of his vices, day drinking excepted. On YouTube, where Hitchens seemed to be aware his legacy might reside, hours of his television appearances, public debates, and even bookstore Q&As are compiled alongside snippets called “Hitchslaps,” in which he owns his interlocutors, more or less brutally. If nothing else, his immortality as a troll is secure. The prize bestowed in his name, this year awarded to Margaret Atwood, is for free speech, a concept whose political valence has shifted since his death.

Lately, a zero-sum mentality adheres when it comes to writers’ posthumous reputations. The notion of the canon, long suspect, now often comes up as an object of potential cleansing rather than expansion. A popular mode of criticism wonders whether this or that author or volume should be canceled: Flannery O’Connor for racism; John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage for its reverence toward slaveholders and its diminishment of Adelbert Ames, a hero of Reconstruction; Norman Mailer for any number of violent and non-violent transgressions. David Foster Wallace is sainted as a martyr to genius and depression, then torn down on the basis of a few episodes of abusive behavior, a regrettable remark or two in his personal correspondence, and the alleged (or projected) unsavoriness of his fans.

The case of Hitchens is complicated not least because he was an early practitioner of some of these tactics, which of course aren’t as novel as I’d like to think. He had a tendency to idealize his heroes (George Orwell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson) and demonize his opponents (Mother Teresa, the Clintons, Kissinger). My examples include only figures he treated at book length, but either list could extend to take in lionized friends (James Fenton, Martin Amis, Paul Wolfowitz, Elizabeth Edwards) or villains treated only in a piece or two (Princess Diana, Marion Barry, Norman Podhoretz), not to mention repudiated former comrades such as Noam Chomsky, Sidney Blumenthal, and Naomi Klein. But Hitchens was not so arrogant that he ever believed he could bring down Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Kissinger, or indeed God Himself. Language for him was a zone of free and fair play abounding with irony and contradiction, necessary conditions of a practice that he never quite forgot was essentially dialectical.

Does Hitchens require, as he wrote of Orwell, “extricating from a pile of saccharine tablets and moist hankies,” or rescuing from the dock of warmongers, imperialists, and dullard atheists? Various books have appeared since his death that chart his betrayal of the left (Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, by Richard Seymour) or claim he was a closeted believer (The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by Larry Alex Taunton) or reclaim parts of his corpus and legacy (Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters, by Ben Burgis). Add to these Martin Amis’s novel Inside Story, with scenes of youthful chumminess in the offices of the New Statesman in the Seventies and wistful last cigarettes at the Texas cancer ward where Hitchens’s oncology appointments brought him toward the end. The tallies in the columns of politics, theology, and personal charm are more or less complete. It’s true that any picture of Anglo-American letters and politics that elided Hitchens would be incomplete, not only because his books and articles chronicled history and culture as they were unfolding, but for the simple reason that, as a stylist, he had few rivals. And his work is also an object lesson in the effects that history—in this case the end of the Cold War, globalization, and the war on terror—has on writers as they grow older and turn from dissenters into enforcers of the status quo. But entwined in this process is the question of style and its staying power. Cyril Connolly called his 1938 work Enemies of Promise—part memoir, part literary criticism—“an inquiry into the problem of how to write a book that lasts ten years.” The lifespan of writing is perhaps the central question of literary journalism. One of the ironies of the craft is that in the relentless culling of time, it may be the form that’s the first to go.

“So many young men get their likes and dislikes from Mencken,” Hemingway’s Jake Barnes says in The Sun Also Rises. He’s talking about Robert Cohn’s disdain for Paris. I don’t know whether Hitchens could have turned me or anyone against the city of light, nor would it have been his style, but during the Eighties and Nineties he was one of the most prominent writers instilling disillusionment with the Washington Consensus, particularly in his efforts as the Washington editor of this magazine. An opponent of the right, dissatisfied with the left’s “lesser of two evils” mentality that has led to what is now known as “vote blue no matter who,” and an outsider-insider as a resident alien in D.C., he wrote, in a 2000 column for The Nation that amounted to a lukewarm endorsement of the Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, “If you care to know my politics, I am an old socialist who is living fascinatedly through a period when only capitalism seems to be revolutionary.” The Democratic Party was “not so much dead as actually, visibly, palpably rotting on the slab,” and the Republicans were split between “an old moneyed establishment” and a “Jurassic wing” synonymous with “Christian fascism.”

Not quite alone in this pox-on-both-houses position, nor the only distinguished prose stylist to give it voice—think of Renata Adler, Cockburn, Thomas Frank, Lewis H. Lapham, Adolph Reed Jr.—he was also not unique in operating as both a literary and a political journalist, smuggling an aesthetic sensibility into his Washington columns and a measure of politics into his fiction reviews. The two projects were united by a prose of knowing restlessness, and it was the prose—fluid, vivid, effortlessly figurative, with a slapstick just this side of bitchy, and in sentences veering between the formal and the vernacular with a high degree of sinuosity—that kept us coming back and kept editors calling. There were a few splendid pieces of reporting, but he was always more reliable from the armchair. Many of his excursions yielded oft-repeated anecdotes: being spanked with a copy of a parliamentary order paper by Margaret Thatcher or questioning Bill Clinton about the execution of the lobotomized Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas. In his last years he was given to stunts, some comic (his “sack, back, and crack” makeover for Vanity Fair in 2008), others honorably intentioned (his submission to forms of torture practiced by the CIA: “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture”), if self-centered.

Less remembered is a masterful 1990 report for this magazine from a conference of the neoconservative Committee for the Free World. Hitchens concludes by quoting Bruce Weinrod of the Heritage Foundation worrying about Thatcher’s recent statement that “the Cold War is over.” A “sense of some urgency” would be lost in the United States, creating a scenario where funding shifted to social programs. “How,” Hitchens asks with no little irony, “to maintain our military expenditures in a world without a Soviet enemy?” A string of answers would arrive over the next eleven years, from Kuwait to Bosnia to 9/11, and Hitchens would become hard to distinguish from his erstwhile objects of scrutiny.

In Mortality, the moving and often funny book of Hitchens’s columns about cancer published after his death, he writes:

I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of the Guardian (son of the author of The Uses of Literacy), who about thirty-five years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write “more like the way you talk.” At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence.

The fluency of Hitchens’s prose does have something in common with his speech. In another respect, his best essays are seamless—you never get the sense that a structure was imposed. When he wasn’t writing polemic, he was writing a yarn. Yet he never embarked on a grand literary work. Many mistook him as the model for Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities, whose “genius had only begun to flower. This was only journalism, after all, a cup of tea on the way to his eventual triumph as a novelist” (shades of Tom Wolfe himself). Even Hitch-22 is structured by topic, anecdote, and digression, and thus lacks unity beyond style and persona. To quote Amis writing on Joan Didion, his talent was “primarily discursive in tendency.” That is to say, it was not for narrative.

In Hitchens’s writing there were always five characters at work: the cynic, the romantic, the ironist, the idealist, and the materialist. It was the balance and vectors of these elements that changed over time. The cynic in him expected the worst from power and politics and their practitioners. The romantic was at the fore in his literary criticism but also played a role in his political writing, particularly in his nostalgic view of his youthful activism in a Trotskyist groupuscule at Oxford. The ironist maintained a light touch on the gravest of subjects—the ones that involved the most graves. Idealism was the source of his outrage. The materialist sprang from his Marxist education and kept his political analysis grounded in policy.

In his drift from the left to the right—which wasn’t as sudden as his altered allegiances after September 11 might suggest—these elements rearranged themselves. The crosshairs of his cynicism veered away from the imperial power centers of Washington, London, Moscow, and Berlin toward bloody, provincial despots like Slobodan Miloševic and Saddam Hussein and a constellation of religious fanatics. As his literary criticism coalesced around lifelong friends and boyhood enthusiasms, his romanticism became a way of valorizing his own efforts as a liberal interventionist and militant atheist, and thus hard to distinguish from egotism. As his idealism became more prominent and aligned with liberal interventionism, his materialism dimmed or was at least redirected: he wrote less about Palestine and the impoverished African-American majority in Washington, D.C., and more about the Kurds and the power of the U.S. military as a means of integration and upward mobility. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Hitchens of 2007 was a different writer from the Hitchens of 1987, but he never disavowed his earlier positions, maintaining that he was responding to “a new situation.”

It’s only fair to judge Hitchens by his own political metric, the one he applied to Orwell:

The three great subjects of the twentieth century were imperialism, fascism and Stalinism. It would be trite to say that these “issues” are only of historical interest to ourselves; they have bequeathed the whole shape and tone of our era. Most of the intellectual class were fatally compromised by accommodation with one or other of these man-made structures of inhumanity, and some by more than one.

In conjuring the phantom of Islamofascism after 9/11, Hitchens made his accommodation with neoliberal imperialism. His response to this charge was that failure to remove Saddam Hussein from power would have led to his acquisition of nuclear weapons. The pithiest response to this counterfactual came from Al Sharpton in a 2007 debate at the New York Public Library: “When we found him he was in a rat trap with a .22 pistol. He knew he didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction, because no one, as one that comes out of the hood, no one that has atom bombs would just retreat with a .22 and wait on the cavalry.” This is to say nothing of the disasters that followed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The collateral damage was already evident before Hitchens’s death. He did not live to see the worst of the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, or the emboldening of Vladimir Putin, who committed his own interventions while citing American hypocrisy.

In the departments of theology and charm, Hitchens’s legacy is hard to disentangle, since his atheist barnstorming ultimately became a work of high-concept performance art, to be very generous, or a disposable stand-up act, to be less so. It is also simply not the most distinguished part of his corpus, either on video or on the page. As with his polemics on the war on terror, irony is deployed the wrong way. It had always been a hammer for Hitchens, but now he used it for pounding rather than extracting nails. Hitchens’s corpus itself has something in common with a hammer: it’s rather top-heavy. His reputation is now weighted toward the work of his last decade—the turn right, the God bashing, and the public succumbing to cancer. It was during this era that he became a celebrity.

In a commercial sense—and only that sense—he could be called a late bloomer, but his best work is from the Eighties and Nineties. The twenty essays in his new collection A Hitch in Time: Writings from the London Review of Books include reviews, diaries, and reports on politics. The book splits its focus between the contemporary and the generations that came just before him; its political valence finds Hitchens constantly in between, digging up outrages and venalities on the right and disappointments and betrayals on the left. Writing from Washington to London, Hitchens revels in the dual pleasures of serving as both a foreign correspondent and a prodigal son making homecomings, addressing an audience with a set of shared references that were not necessarily the currency of the callers he encountered on C-Span or the set of Firing Line. His Marxist education was not lost on the LRB’s audience, and he never had to explain that his point of view wasn’t that of an American liberal committed to pulling the lever for whichever Democrat came down the pike. The pieces run from a review of a Tom Wolfe collection from 1983 to one of Andy Beckett’s study of British dealings with the Pinochet regime from 2002. A reprinted email from September 20, 2001, foreshadows his break with the publication (as he broke from Harper’s Magazine and The Nation) after 9/11:

I hope very much that the LRB isn’t going to adopt any fatuous Chomskyan line on this—and I take very seriously (as you may see) your injunction to regard history as predating 11/9.

Something the collection makes clear is that ideological commitments were a subject of constant fascination for Hitchens—the circumstances of their genesis and enaction, their metamorphoses over time, their occasional concealments, and their sometimes peculiar absences. The “glibness” and “facility” of Wolfe’s style veiled a “strongly marked conservatism” and his often unremarked-on “subliminal advertising for the New Right.” In the Sixties, there was an edge to Wolfe’s waspish accounts of well-heeled liberals dabbling with radicals, but with the rise of Reagan, Wolfe started receiving invitations to dine at the White House and began “running out of targets” of the sort that had furnished his material of the Sixties and the “Me Decade.” (Hitchens might have suggested God.) Though different in method and focus, Hitchens had something sharp-toothed and venomous but not altogether—or not always—lethal in common with Wolfe, so the intergenerational teasing of his review (echoed sixteen years later in a pan of A Man in Full, unfortunately omitted here) is delicious. In P. G. Wodehouse he senses only commitment to sexlessness and an absolute obsession with “money and the necessity of preserving it from the clutches of the Revenue.” The “ ‘unpatriotic’ wartime broadcasts from Berlin” are lightly passed over, though a fuller acquittal would come in a 2004 piece for The Atlantic, where Hitchens’s literary column often amounted to a reheating of leftovers and boostings or chidings of his chums Amis, Rushdie, and McEwan. A Hitch in Time includes a lovely and mostly admiring appraisal of his friend and sometime mentor Gore Vidal’s memoir Palimpsest, a recollection of the sexual, sentimental, and personal-political that one can imagine served as a model for Hitch-22.

Vidal was a rare blue-blooded dissident, his life a tour of the halls of power from Hollywood to Manhattan to Washington to Hyannis. A native of those precincts, he never had to reject them entirely before settling down to life in his villa in Ravello, where he could quietly ignore the charges of anti-Americanism that his writings occasionally attracted. Hitchens—whose mother badgered his father into sending him to fees-paying schools, saying, “If there is going to be a ruling class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it”—came by his proximity to power on the strength of his charisma and prose. He thus became a connoisseur of decisive moments. Here he is writing in 1998 on 1968 and its survivors:

Some people, of course, take a kind of pleasure in repudiating their own past. Some, whether they wish to or not, live long enough to become negations or caricatures. Or indeed partial confirmations: I am thinking of Lionel Jospin, now chief minister of France and in those days a member of an unusually dogmatic trotskiant group; a groupuscule, indeed, and perhaps an excellent school for the inflexible later canons of neoliberalism. Robert Lowell once said that he was glad not to have been a revolutionary when young, because it prevented him from becoming a reactionary bore in his old age. I see the point: the fact remains that in midlife and in 1968 he acted eloquently and well, as a citizen of the republic of Emerson and Whitman should when the state is intoxicated with injustice and war. Retrospectives which emphasise flowers, beads, dope and simplistic anarchism tend to leave him out, as they also omit the Ron Ridenhours.

Political transmigration was one of Hitchens’s great themes, but he was equally wary of ideologues who failed to respond to changing circumstances. Reviewing a handful of books on Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five spy ring in 1995, he wrote:

For some people, the defining, moulding episode of this moribund century is the Final Solution; for others it is the Gulag, the 1989 revolutions, the Spanish Civil War, the Somme, Hiroshima, the storming of the Winter Palace or the Easter Rising. All of these can still lay great claims on the minds and emotions even of people who do not remember them. . . . For me, anyway, the most absorbing moment is the Hitler-Stalin Pact. It was not merely a test of global institutions and of ideologies and principles and individuals, but a sort of key to how power really thinks and how potentates truly behave.

The way power and potentates think and behave seems to be of less concern to Hitchens—then in his righteous-ironic-cynical-idealist-gadfly phase, he knew well enough—than their effect on individuals and their principles. He recounts a meeting with an American, Michael Straight, a former publisher of The New Republic who spied for the KGB during the Thirties in the name of “subordination of all ends and means to anti-Nazism.” Didn’t he worry that continuing to do so after the Hitler-Stalin Pact amounted to “giving ammunition to the enemy?” He receives an unsatisfactory no: “He told me that he had never, until that very moment, considered the possibility.” Here we have an insight into Hitchens’s later vitriol against those on the left who opposed the war on terror, what Hitchens called “a war of everything I loved against everything I hated.”

The younger, more equivocal Hitchens would not have put it that way. Writing from Washington in 1991, he describes an antiwar protest in advance of Operation Desert Storm, which he opposed, and finds something dispiriting in the consumerist mentality of marchers protesting a war that they don’t want using their tax dollars:

Except for a fistful of Trotskyists, all those attending the rally in Lafayette Park last weekend were complaining of the financial cost of the war and implying that the problems of the Middle East were none of their concern. I found myself reacting badly to the moral complacency of this. Given the history and extent of U.S. engagement with the region, some regard for it seems obligatory for American citizens. However ill it may sound when proceeding from the lips of George Bush, internationalism has a clear advantage in rhetoric and principle over the language of America First. The irony has been that, in order to make their respective cases, both factions have had to exaggerate the military strength and capacity of Iraq: Bush in order to scare people with his fatuous Hitler analogy, and the peace camp in order to scare people with the prospect of heavy losses. Therefore, as I write, American liberals are coming to the guilty realisation that unless Saddam Hussein shows some corking battlefield form pretty soon, they are going to look both silly and alarmist. Surely this cannot have been what they intended?

“Silly and alarmist,” “fatuous Hitler analogy”—those words might have been useful to keep in mind ten years later.

The most magnificent piece of literary journalism in A Hitch in Time is a review of Michael Ignatieff’s 1998 biography of Isaiah Berlin. Tricked out with Hitchens’s memory of encountering Berlin at Oxford and in the letters pages of the New Statesman, as well as fact-checking accounts from Berlin intimates and rivals, the essay is a tall thirteen-thousand-word cocktail of gossip, flirtation, and jousting with the ghost of a not entirely unsympathetic ideological foe. Hitchens reckons with liberalism and the bargains it makes with violence in the name of liberty. Berlin was its foremost exponent and apologist, “a polyglot chap who could mention a lot of continental theorists and still come out with sound and no-nonsense views.” The essay begins with an indictment of Berlin as the “fourth man” alongside the conservative journalist Joseph Alsop, and William and McGeorge Bundy, “the two dynastic technocrats who organised and justified the hideous war in Vietnam.”

Almost as if to show that academics and intellectuals may be tough guys, too—the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim—Berlin’s correspondence with this little cabal breathes with that abject eagerness that was so much a part of the one-time Anglo-American “special relationship.” To Alsop he wrote, on 20 April 1966, an account of a dinner with McGeorge Bundy: “I have never admired anyone so much, so intensely, for so long as I did him during those four hours . . . his character emerged in such exquisite form that I am now his devoted and dedicated slave. I like him very much indeed, and I think he likes me, now, which was not always the case.”

Hitchens was never quite so effusive about the Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz—“a bit of a bleeding heart for my taste”—but the parallel is difficult to deny. When Hitchens writes that “Ignatieff proposes that the foxy Berlin always harboured the wish to metamorphose into a hedgehog,” it’s hard not to think of the free-ranging Hitchens of this collection transforming in just a few years from a critic who wrote on anything and everything to a pronouncer on one big thing, tyranny, through the intertwined frame of atheism and anti-Islamofascism. When he recounts Berlin’s formative childhood memory of seeing “a terrified tsarist cop being dragged away by a mob” as the rosebud moment in his opposition to totalitarianism, and mentions that Berlin only once remembered “to say that these cops were fond of firing on civilians,” what comes to mind are Hitchens’s remarks to Ian Parker in a 2006 New Yorker profile:

For the first time in my life, I felt myself in the position of the policeman. . . . Nobody knew what was going on. This giant government, and huge empire. Bush was missing. Panic, impotence, shame. I’ve never known any feeling like it. What does one do when the forces of law and order have let you down, and the whole of society is stunned and terrified? Simply, I must find out what it’s like to think like a cop. It shifts the angle, in a way that can’t really be wrenched back again.

That he became a cop on behalf of liberalism, at least in his mind, is one of the ironies of his life. He quotes Berlin saying, “I think liberalism is essentially the belief of people who have lived on the same soil for a long time in comparative peace with each other. An English invention.” Then he asks, “If liberalism is geographically and even ethnically limited, where is its universality?” You sense the interventionist stirring in him. As such, he would combine Berlin’s notion of negative liberty—freedom from oppression by fanatics and tyrants—with his idea of positive liberty: democracy delivered by American cluster bombs. The Berlin essay is Hitchens at his most thrilling, and as with the pieces on Philby, Vidal, Wolfe, and Wodehouse, not to mention the books on Orwell and Kissinger, he was at his best evaluating the generations that came just before him. It was when he started to conceive of himself as a member of the ruling class, a cop rather than a gadfly, that something was lost. “Irony originates in the glance and the shrug of the loser, the outsider, the despised minority,” he writes in the Berlin essay. “It is a nuance that comes most effortlessly to the oppressed.”

I hadn’t thought much of the title of A Hitch in Time when it arrived in the post. Better perhaps than the generic titles of some of his other collections, Arguably or And Yet ..., but in an ironic way it preserves the best of his work while demonstrating that, as a writer, he was a prisoner of nothing other than the history he was living through. One of its lighter entries relates an evening he spent at the Oscars, where he was to be seated next to Madonna, a no-show. He wrote of the big winner that year: “Here is stupidity, not being mocked or even exploited, but positively and wholesomely and simply and touchingly celebrated.” It was a film about another prisoner of history, another Zelig of the baby boom: Forrest Gump.