Thursday, April 24, 2008

Letter from and to a contrarian

I recognize in Christopher Hitchens a kindred spirit – a spirit that relishes combat, embraces contrarianism, and has no problem pissing off friends. My brief flirtation with supporting the Iraq War was inspired partly by the seductive idea of supporting a president whose mediocrity, obtuseness, and messianic zealotry dovetailed with my long-brewing sense that we had to atone for the Reagan-Bush era's chicanery in the Middle East. In 2002 George W. Bush's repulsiveness made him the ideal vessel through which ideologues could put long-deferred ideas about "regional transformation" into action; call it a redress of grievances. Leftists like Hitchens and (to a lesser extent) Paul Berman understood the paradox – had made peace with it – in ways that their colleagues, schooled in dialectics, could not. Sometimes your enemy has a good idea. Even a stopped clock is right, etc. A perverse experiment I could afford to make because I'd nothing at stake except a handful of glares from friends, and I'm sorry about it now.

This profile of Hitchens is the most thorough I've read, in large part due to Alexander Linklater's prodding his subject into defining himself. Linklater is not afraid, like so many of Hitchens' interlocutors, of challenging him; the analytical transitional paragraphs are occasionally more enlightening than the quotes. The results are not very attractive. Linklater exposes the authoritarianism inherent in contrarianism, the deep vein of orthodoxy that runs through its most fervent adherents. If Marxism at its purest subordinates individuals to history, contrarianism is its unacknowledged accomplice, showing an equal disregard for casualties and principles. Those who've known suffering understand the consequences. Linklater quotes Kanan Makiya: "`Bodies matter. I come from a tradition in the far left, back a long time ago in my life, where… bodies did not count...You know: the historical process, the victory for the working class. I would not make that argument any more. It is utterly repugnant to me.'” Hitchens' acknowledgment of this fact allows the reader a rare compassionate sigh (the other is a fairly horrifying account of the death of his mother and her lover, which I knew nothing about). Otherwise we get these bits:
What Hitchens says he experienced after the 2001 attacks was exhilaration, a sudden return of a kind of energy that he last recalled from 1968—a sensation described as “encouraging signs of polarization” by his friend Israel Shahak. “As soon as I saw the impact of those planes, I realized what was going to happen,” he says. “I knew it would be something apocalyptic from Islam. It was the flash that illuminates the whole scene, a way of thinking from the days of the old left. And I also knew what all the comrades would say, and what I would have to say about that.”
In the days after the death of Jerry Falwell, Hitchens assured himself a generous royalty stream for God is Not Great by rightly denouncing this repulsive man's cruelty and ignorance, the worst manifestation of which being his statement after the 9-11 attacks that the victims had it coming to them. Now imagine Falwell – "giggling and smirking" and pinching his "chubby flanks," as Hitchens said last May – saying what Hitchens told Linklater. It's not a stretch, is it? Of course a contrarian would welcome the apocalypse: bodies in mounds, chances to extract delight not so much from being right as in seeing the look in your opponent's face as his brown eyes realize that he's wrong.

For all that, there's a dialectics in contrarianism too, and Hitchens makes clear that he's got principles. One can deplore the quickness with which he betrayed former friend Sidney Blumenthal at the height of the Bill Clinton impeachment nonsense yet acknowledge that the former president's comportment this primary season comes close to proving Hitchens correct:
“My dislike for [Clinton] stemmed from his discrediting of something precious to me: the alliance between the anti-war and civil rights movements of which he’d been a vestigial member in the 1960s, and which was my formative politics. The way he cashed that in, lied about whether he was a draft-dodger; the way he smarmily pretended to be more in favour of civil rights than he had been at the time, the way he cheapened everything. He was nothing but a cynical, self-seeking, ambitious thug, and the reali[z]ation that this would be the closest that my class of ’68 would get to the top job gave me a terrible sickening feeling.”
To wish that Hitchens would devote himself entirely to literary criticism (in which he's shown discrimination and an embrace of contradictions from which his agitprop side would surely benefit) is missing the point. Take his friendship with the late Edward Said – the latter's insatiable appetite for literature could not be severed from his sense of how art demands the conflict of the world as much as it illumines the compromises and defeats of political beings, which we all are. Final word:
“I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it — why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”

1 comment:

DJ Shoe said...

>>>“As soon as I saw the impact of those planes, I realized what was going to happen,” he says. “I knew it would be something apocalyptic from Islam. It was the flash that illuminates the whole scene, a way of thinking from the days of the old left. And I also knew what all the comrades would say, and what I would have to say about that.”

Pretty much in a nutshell what I most hate about Hitchens (who, on very rare occasions, I admire sometimes also): he "knows" everything in advance, has all his positions worked out, and his enemies fingered. Almost every time he writes one of his rants in Slate, I get the feeling that he was frothing at the mouth to get to the subject, that it was indeed "his" subject, and his alone.