Don't take this the wrong way, but the glowing tributes to Christopher Hitchens are both tasteless and incorrect. Have some decency. The boring wisdom has it that Hitchens broke the mould intellectually. He did not. For all the unique saleability of the Hitchensian idiolect (or intertext), he was a very conventional thinker, in addition to being a provincial
. He also had a reputation for being a fierce defender of universalism, but in fact his was the provincial universalism of empire. One might, in the same speech, catch him defending the right of others to disagree with him, then find him denying that right to Iraqis, insisting that they be coerced at gunpoint into vouchsafing his opinion. He had a reputation for possessing a powerful intellect. He was certainly an intellectual, and a powerful speaker and writer, a polemicist who out-classed many of his opponents. Yet, by insisting on the difference between being an intellectual and having an intellect, I don't merely mean to be scurrilous. His difficulty in handling complex ideas was as notorious among his peers as his facility with emotionally potent oversimplifications.
Hitchens was a sensitive literary critic, but in a way this underlines his tendency to think viscerally. He grasped instinctively the 'John Bullshit' that, for example, made Larkin tick. Indeed, he grasped it with precision because it was a part of his own political personality, manifest in his admiration for Margaret Thatcher, his support for the Falklands War, and the blimpish outbursts redolent of the character of the 'Commander' in his memoir, Hitch-22. Yet when he had to deal with literary theory or applications of it (see Orwell's Victory), I think he tended to flounder. It is for a similar reason that he wasn't especially good as an atheist. Convinced as he was that there was no intelligent way to be religious, and no need to grasp theology in any theoretical depth, he tended to rely on demotic arguments demonstrating the implausibility of religion along the lines of: "so God made the universe billions of years ago; created the life forms that would over millions of years give rise to the only species capable of worshipping him; allowed them to suffer for millenia; and only then decided to make himself known by means of human sacrifice (and at that in an illiterate society) banking on the certainty that Emperor Constantine would turn to Christianity as an official state ideology of the Roman Empire...". This is to say nothing of the vulgar anti-Muslim rants and ugly blood-lust that he ventilated without care, and which sentiments formed a transparent motive for his turn to hypertrophic theophobia after the occupation of Iraq began to fail badly. And what of the crude sociobiological reductionism that he pinned his mast to? At this point, it is arguably more pernicious in its effects than even the encyclicals of the Catholic Church, or the opinions of Muslim scholars.
What he lacked in theory, he could make up for in empirical work. Hitchens could write decent biographical and historical essays. Blood, Class and Nostaglia
as well as Hostage to History
form extended historical essays in their different ways on Anglophone imperial succession. Richly contemptuous of the abuses of empire's subjects, these books arguably expressed a liberal humanist critique of imperial malpractice rather than a marxist critique. Perhaps there is also evidence of a decline in his standards. His book
on Thomas Paine's Rights of Man
seems to have been plagiarised, riddled with factual errors and cliched to boot: what Hitchens might call a "triple crown howler". Yet it was in his favoured role as a polemicist, that his limits were most clearly visible. For all the efficiency with which he despatched opponents, tore up or mended reputations, exposed official crimes (or colluded in them), he was clearly obsessed with personnel. The structures of imperialism and capital accumulation were never objects of his inquiry, even at his best.
A final cliche which should at least be qualified is that Hitchens was a wit, and all round dissolute bad boy. Well, he could be witty, but he could also be extraordinarily priggish, crass, or just boorish. The effect of his little joke about child rape ('no child's behind left') was ruined by his later taking an extremely high-handed tone with a rabbi who joked about circumcision. The humour in his 'heartless' bon mot about Louis Althusser applying for the Electric Chair in Philosophy was really purchased at the expense of Helene Althusser. It was not funny when he called the Dixie Chicks 'fat sluts', no matter what the editor of his collected quotables believes. Consider these remarks in the context of Hitchens' mildly hedonistic lifestyle, and they become no more sparkling. Rather, they tend to communicate a meanness of spirit, a sniggering cruelty, that was increasingly evident in later years, and contrasted markedly with the personal warmth that many of his former colleagues describe.
Labels: british empire, christopher hitchens, islamophobia, liberal imperialism, thatcherism, the liberal defence of murder, US imperialism