The Left shouldn’t have ditched the Hitch
Christopher Hitchens is dying. That the 61-year-old’s body has finally given out after four decades of heavy smoking and drinking enough “to kill or stun the average mule” on a daily basis comes as little surprise to anyone, least of all the man himself. In an archly elegant and coolly analytical column for Vanity Fair, Hitchens has described how advanced his oesophageal cancer is and how he “can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair; I have been taunting the Reaper for into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
No doubt, the now near-mandatory beatification of deceased public figures that saw Princess Di transformed from (in Hitchens’ own clear-eyed description) “a disco-loving airhead” to the People’s Princess, Steve Irwin from a cringe-inducing national embarrassment to a beloved folk hero and Kerry Packer from a ruthless business titan to kind-hearted philanthropist in mystical communion with the common man will all too soon befall Hitchens.
It will be interesting to see what kind of obituaries will be written by those on the progressive side of politics and, in particular, how they deal with Hitchens’ refusal to toe the party line in recent years. For decades, the brilliant, acid-tongued Brit was one of the Left’s fiercest and most effective ideological warriors and that rarest of all beasts — a radical intellectual capable of engaging and entertaining a mainstream audience.
But, in one of the most commented-upon political apostasies of all time, the long-time scourge of American imperialism became the most strident and, arguably, most persuasive barrackers for the invasion of Iraq. (The most poignant section of his recently released memoir Hitch 22 details how his writings helped convince a left-leaning, previously anti-war college grad to join up to fight – and as it turned out be killed — in Iraq.)
It may well be that history proves the anti-war Left right on Iraq and Hitchens and his newfound neo-con friends wrong. But that doesn’t mean the Left has much to be proud of in the way it dealt with a man who’d done so much to further its agenda. Knowing that it would ultimately cost him many friendships and his job on the American left-leaning weekly The Nation, post 9/11 Hitchens made the call that it was worth the expenditure of blood and treasure to combat what he christened Islamofascism and to try and transform Iraq from a brutal dictatorship to a functioning democracy. It was perfectly legitimate for those the Left to question his judgment. It was poor form to constantly impugn the motives, and even mental competence, of a man who’d spent a lifetime exposing and excoriating tyranny and one who’d taken an interest in Iraq, and the suffering of its people, long before it was sexy.
When I interviewed Hitchens, just weeks before his diagnosis, it was a point of pride for him that he’d “gone out of my way to either seek out or accept challenges from anyone you have ever heard of who disagreed with me about Iraq…. I think it is absolutely important, in fact it is an intellectual and moral responsibility, to have exposed yourself to every counter argument and given your reply to it… I don’t just say, ‘Here’s my view and f*** you if you don’t agree with me.’”
What was Hitchens’ erstwhile comrades’ response? By and large: “Here’s the orthodox progressive view and if you don’t agree with it, f*** you, you pisshead, mendacious sell-out.” (And if you think I’m caricaturing the Left’s response to Hitchens, see this.)
It is, of course, the same kind of ad hominem vituperation ’60s free-speech martyr Richard Neville experienced when he announced maybe some sort of censorship wasn’t such a bad idea after all, or Bettina Arndt cops whenever she now laments the socially disruptive effects of the kind of sexual liberation she spent the ’70s banging a drum for. In fact, it’s the same kind of personal abuse that has become the Left’s default position whenever one of its own dares to question whether multiculturalism, feminism, cultural relativism, sexual liberation or the welfare state have been anything other than all upside.
It’s difficult to see what’s achieved by such attacks, other than a temporary distraction from engaging with the uncomfortable questions the Doubting Thomas in question has raised. The abuse typically propels the target even further rightwards, while the Left fails to deal with the issue they’ve raised, handing it to the Right on a platter to exploit for political advantage (something conservatives have spent the last three decades doing, with a great deal of resulting electoral success, in relation the negative effects of the social changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s). If the Left wants to deal with internal dissent in such a juvenile fashion, it shouldn’t be surprised that so many of its best and brightest end up lurching rightwards.
As for Hitchens, he told me he was pleased that he’d never been the one to end a friendship due to diverging ideological views. “When they’ve been political disputes among friends, I’ve said (a) I’m your friend and (b) I have a really serious political disagreement with you. I wouldn’t be the one to say, ‘Therefore I’m not your friend.’ I don’t think that’s a logical deduction. If they want to say ‘Well, I can’t be your friend if you take that view’, then I can’t stop them. But I would not be the one to say that. Because I think that’s uncivilised.”
Nigel Bowen’s interview with Christopher Hitchens appears in the August-September edition of GQ, on sale now.
Don’t miss: Get The Punch in your inbox every day
Get The Punch on Facebook
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…