I can’t count the times, down the years, that after some new outrage friends would call me and ask, “What happened to Christopher Hitchens?” — the inquiry premised on some supposed change in Hitchens, often presumed to have started in the period he tried to put his close friend Blumenthal behind bars for imputed perjury. My answer was that Christopher had been pretty much the same package since the beginning — always allowing for the ravages of entropy as the years passed.
As so often with friends and former friends, it’s a matter of what you’re prepared to put up with and for how long. I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a US citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. In basic philosophical take he always seemed to me to hold as his central premise a profound belief in the therapeutic properties of capitalism and empire. He was an instinctive flagwagger and remained so. He wrote some really awful stuff in the early 90s about how indigenous peoples — Indians in the Americas — were inevitably going to be rolled over by the wheels of Progress and should not be mourned.
On the plane of weekly columns in the late eighties and nineties it mostly seemed to be a matter of what was currently obsessing him: for years in the 1980s he wrote scores of columns for The Nation, charging that the Republicans had stolen the 1980s election by the “October surprise,” denying Carter the advantage of a hostage release. He got rather boring. Then in the 90s he got a bee in his bonnet about Clinton which developed into full-blown obsessive megalomania: the dream that he, Hitchens, would be the one to seize the time and finish off Bill. Why did Bill — a zealous and fairly efficient executive of Empire — bother Hitchens so much? I’m not sure. He used to hint that Clinton had behaved abominably to some woman he, Hitchens, knew. Actually I think he’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could make a difference. He obviously thought he could, and so he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via betrayal of his close friendship with Sid Blumenthal, whom he did his best to ruin financially (lawyers’ fees) and get sent to prison for perjury.
Since then it was all pretty predictable, down to his role as flagwagger for Bush. I guess the lowest of a number of low points was when he went to the White House to give a cheerleading speech on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I think he knew long, long before that this is where he would end up, as a right-wing codger. He used to go on, back in the Eighties, about sodden old wrecks like John Braine, who’d ended up more or less where Hitchens got to, trumpeting away about “Islamo-fascism” like a Cheltenham colonel in some ancient Punch cartoon. I used to warn my friends at New Left Review and Verso in the early 90s who were happy to make money off Hitchens’ books on Mother Teresa and the like that they should watch out, but they didn’t and then kept asking ten years later, What happened?
Anyway, between the two of them, my sympathies were always with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Bombay, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? You’d get one from Mother Teresa. Hitchens was always tight with beggars, just like the snotty Fabians who used to deprecate charity.
One awful piece of opportunism on Hitchens’ part was his decision to attack Edward Said just before his death, and then for good measure again in his obituary. With his attacks on Edward, especially the final post mortem, Hitchens couldn’t even claim the pretense of despising a corrupt presidency, a rapist and liar or any of the other things he called Clinton. That final attack on Said was purely for attention — which fueled his other attacks but this one most starkly because of the absence of any high principle to invoke. Here he decided both to bask in his former friend’s fame, recalling the little moments that made it clear he was intimate with the man, and to put himself at the center of the spotlight by taking his old friend down a few notches. In a career of awful moves, that was one of the worst.
He courted the label “contrarian,” but if the word is to have any muscle, it surely must imply the expression of dangerous opinions. Hitchens never wrote anything truly discommoding to respectable opinion and if he had he would never have enjoyed so long a billet at Vanity Fair. Attacking God? The big battles on that issue were fought one, two, even five hundred years ago when they burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiore. A contrarian these days would be someone who staunchly argued for the existence of a Supreme Being. He was for America’s wars. I thought he was relatively solid on Israel/Palestine, but there too he trimmed. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency put out a friendly obit, noting that “despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to halacha, he was Jewish” and noting his suggestion that Walt and Mearsheimer might be anti-Semitic, also his sliming of a boatload of pro-Palestinian activists aiming to breach Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. (His brother Peter and other researchers used to say that in terms of blood lineage, the Hitchens boys Jewishness was pretty slim and fell far outside the definitions of the Nuremberg laws. I always liked Noam Chomsky’s crack to me when Christopher announced in Grand Street that he was a Jew: “From anti-Semite to self-hating Jew, all in one day.”
As a writer his prose was limited in range. In extempore speeches and arguments he was quick on his feet. I remember affectionately many jovial sessions from years ago, in his early days at The Nation. I found the Hitchens cult of recent years entirely mystifying. He endured his final ordeal with pluck, sustained indomitably by his wife Carol.
The People vs “Europe”
On our Counterpunch.org website this weekend the great historian Gabriel Kolko makes a persuasive case that in the end the eurozone, inded the EU, will go into meltdown. This is just fine in my book. The sooner we get back to francs, lire, punts, drachmas and the rest of the old sovereign currencies, the better in the long run. It used to be as much a part of going to France as choking on Gauloise smoke to change money and be handed a bundle of notes featuring the devious Cardinal Richelieu, instead of the characterless but somehow always expensive euros.
The argument against the eurozone is that hard-faced Euro-bankers — their killer instincts honed at Goldman Sachs, Wall Street’s School of the Americas — have the power to act as the bully-boys of international capital and impose austerity regimes from Dublin to Athens, scalping the poor to bail out the rich.
Throughout the entire Eurocrisis there has been a basso profundo chorus from the Eurocrats that what’s needed is a lot more centralizing — in the words of Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times for November 28, “a fiscal union”: “This would involve a partial loss of national sovereignty, and the creation of a credible institutional framework to deal with fiscal policy, and hopefully wider economic policy issues as well.”
I’ve read many editorial paragraphs with this same bullying timbre — that what the whole European enterprise needs is an impregnable fortress of Eurocrats dispatching its disciplinary legions — first technocrats and then, if necessary, NATO’s shock troops to crush all resistance.
Two generations years ago, when Britain shook with acrid debates about the pros and cons of joining the EU, a big chunk of the left was in favor of joining, the notion basically being that in terms of potential for socialist advance, EU membership would at least offer a shot at liberating the sceptred isle from the suffocating, reactionary constrictions of post-imperial infarction. (Also, Gaullism — meaning in this case defiance of the United States — was translated into a hope that the EU would be a left counterbalance to the American Empire.) Here we are 40 years on, with social democrats across Europe toiling even more diligently than their nominally more right-wing rivals to bail out the rich and grind down the poor at the behest of the bankers and panic-stricken bondholders.
Crisis is often invoked as the midwife of revolutionary change, and here are Greece, Italy, Spain and even France at various levels of crisis, with political orthodoxy and the normal order of things increasingly discredited. Yet perhaps only in Greece and possibly Portugal — both with active Communist parties — is there any organizational vigor on the left, and some sense that one could see some emulation of the glorious path taken by Argentina in 2003 and 2004, with factory occupations and immense popular outrage, combined with decisive leadership by the late President Nestor Kirchner. The international debt collectors were successfully defied. Maybe in Italy there are some flickers of resistance, but France?
As Serge Halimi, the director of Le Monde diplomatique, put it recently, “There is no reason to believe that François Hollande in France, Sigmar Gabriel in Germany or Ed Miliband in the UK will succeed where Obama, Jose Luis Zapatero and Papandreou have failed… In the current political and social situation, a federal Europe would strengthen the already stifling neoliberal mechanisms and reduce the sovereign power of the people by handing it over to shadowy technocratic bodies.”
The EU “project,” a very irritating word that should be tossed in the dumpster along with “iconic,” “meme,” “parse” and “narrative,” is in potential outline a totalitarian nightmare. Down with federalism! Remember Simone Weil’s hatred of the Roman Empire and what it did to Europe’s cultural richness and diversity: “If we consider the long centuries and the vast area of the Roman Empire and compare these centuries with the ones that preceded it and the ones that followed the barbarian invasions, we perceive to what extent the Mediterranean basin was reduced to spiritual sterility by the totalitarian State.” As Weil’s biographer, Simone Pétrement, comments, “The Roman peace was soon the peace of the desert, a world from which had vanished, together with political liberty and diversity, the creative inspiration that produces great art, great literary works, science, and philosophy. Many centuries had to pass before the superior forms of human life were reborn.”
But as Halimi concludes, “But when the people cease to believe in a political game in which the dice are loaded, when they see that governments are stripped of their sovereignty, when they demand that banks be brought into line, when they mobilize without knowing where their anger will lead, then the left is still very much alive.”
“What did the Roman Empire ever do for us?” the left nationalist asks in Monty Python’s imperishable The Life of Brian. “Roads,” the federalist begins tentatively. My native country of Ireland has been covered with vast roads, courtesy of the EU. We’ve got enough of them. Europe’s got enough of them. Enough of the eurozone, enough of the “European project.”