Sunday, June 25, 2006

Another Good Hitchens Take Down

Literary magazine n+1 has an excellent takedown of Christopher Hitchens. While I differ from the article’s author in never having been a huge fan of Hitchens*, I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s central thrust. In particular, I agree that Hitchens appears to have degenerated into a single issue nutter; not only that, but someone who has chosen to focus on a single issue which – while important – is far from being the greatest threat “civilisation” is up against. Moreover, it is far from clear that he actually understands his single issue all that well either. These points, combined with is Hitchens’ proclivity for debating straw-men rather than real people – which is well documented in the n+1 piece – is for me, what makes him so annoying.

Nestled amongst the article is a good nuanced explanation of opposition to the invasion of Iraq:

Hitchens has rebuked the American left for its supposedly intransigent refusal to consider supporting the American government in any military undertaking “unless it had done everything right, and done it for everybody.” He is mistaken. I was not, I am sure, the only leftist who at least tried to distinguish between intentions and consequences. It was as plain as day to me (and no matter what Hitchens may say, I can’t help suspecting it was equally plain to him) that the Bush Administration’s chief purposes in invading Iraq were: to establish a commanding military presence in the region where the most important natural resource in the world is located; to turn a large and potentially rich country into a virtually unregulated investors’ paradise; to impress the rest of the world once again with America’s insuperable lead in military technology; to exploit the near-universal hatred of Saddam to legitimize (by establishing a precedent for) the doctrine of unilateral American military intervention expounded in the National Security Strategy document of September 2002; and to unify the electorate behind an administration that was making a hash of the economy and the environment in order to reward its campaign contributors. Still, this is not why I opposed the war. If I had not also believed that the invasion would strike a sledgehammer blow to most of the world’s fragile hopes for international order and the rule of law, I might have calculated that, whatever the government’s motives, the potentially huge expenditure of lives and money it contemplated would be better employed in removing Saddam than in, say, providing clean water, cheap vaccines, mosquito nets, et cetera to the wretched invisibles, and so saving tens of millions of lives. Not likely, but it would have been a decision based on calculation rather than principle.

Would that Hitchens could capture some of this nuance at some stage in his life. It’s unlikely, it seems: once a polemicist, always a polemicist. The writer of the n+1 article attributes Hitchens’ sharp shift from radical left to affinity with the radical right to impatience with gradual change, with progressive reform. I can empathise with Hitchens’ impatience, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it is his revolutionary zeal – whether once well placed or now sadly misplaced – that hinders him from making any serious contribution to the discussions that matter**.

* I’ll do admire his writing ability (except when it spills over into grandiloquence).
** Hitchens seems also to fixate on personalities. Sometimes this, combined with his force and urge for change, leads to his best work – I think. On the other hand it also seems to leave him staggering from vendetta to vendetta and, all too often, prone to pettiness.

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