By Albert Samaha
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Most people think of Christopher Hitchens as a lefty, but he has always been more freethinker than ideologue. That may explain why the same band of furies who pursued him for testifying against Sid Blumenthal in 1999 started buzzing again this spring, when the news broke that Hitch plans to speak at the right-wing summer camp known as Restoration Weekend. The event is organized by David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which is funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh industrialist who bankrolled the infamous "right-wing conspiracy."
After Hitchens accepted the invite, some anonymous snipers dug up his previous appearances at Horowitz events and began demanding to know how much he's getting paid by Scaife. Though he doesn't generally respond to that kind of baiting, Hitchens was unapologetic when I interviewed him last week. "Both appearances for Horowitz were unpaid," he said, "but if Scaife wants to offer me money, I'll take it."
Does that make him a media whore? Depends on whether he's reading from someone else's script, which is yet to be seen. But whoever's paying his meal ticket, Hitchens is fast becoming the Zelig of the publishing world, a testament to his range and readiness. In addition to columns in The Nation and Vanity Fair, his byline has popped up recently in Harper's, Mother Jones, and The New York Review of Books, and on May 19, the ubiquitous scribe is set to appear at The New Yorker's literary festivalan event made possible by that wizard of the liberal media, Si Newhouse.
When asked why he gets so much heat, Hitchens sighed and said, "I wish I was more of a lightning rod." He is currently on tour with his new book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a reprint of two Harper's essays in which he makes the case for prosecuting the former secretary of state as a war criminal. To Hitchens's disappointment, the media has given the book short shrift, notably The Washington Post, which pleaded insipidly that we should "leave poor Henry alone." (Quite the opposite. Congress should subpoena his files, now conveniently under seal.)
Kissinger himself has not commented on the allegations, a strategy the author calls "quite clever" since it creates the impression that "there's no controversy." When I volunteered to call Kissinger's office, Hitchens said not to bother, because "all you'll get is the square root of fuck off."
Hitch watchers, chew on this: It was New Yorker editor David Remnick's idea to have Hitchens host a panel called "Hot Spots," featuring New Yorker foreign correspondents Jon Lee Anderson, Philip Gourevitch, Isabel Hilton, and Michael Ignatieff. "Hot Spots" was one of the first panels to sell out, and some of the few hundred attendees of the panel are expected to hail from the United Nations and Columbia's School of International & Public Affairs.
Hitchens says he suggested the following premise for the panel: "Is there a problem with the very idea of hot spots? Is it wrong to think of certain parts of the world as exotic or foreign or beyond redemption?" He notes that even while "we live in a culture where globalization is a mantra, many media companies are cutting down on foreign coverage." By doing so, he suggests, we risk lapsing into a mind-set prevalent in the Middle Ages, when maps of the world dubbed unknown parts to be in partibus infidelium, or in the land of the infidel.
The "Hot Spots" panel ties in nicely with a prescient story Hitchens wrote for the May/June issue of Mother Jones, "Rogue Nation U.S.A.," in which he accuses the U.S. of the supreme hypocrisy of pretending to be a world leader while pursuing its own interests. That is, America has for years exempted itself from a host of international treaties and resolutions (including those that would deter global warming, ban land mines, establish an International Criminal Court, and impose a moratorium on the death penalty), while punishing countries that shirk their own UN obligations.
While Democrats buried the hypocrisy (at one point, Hitchens reports, Clintonites resolved to stop using the term "rogue state," for fear someone might apply it to the U.S.), Republicans love to throw their arrogance in your face, as when Bush recently proposed to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Hitchens's warnings came home to roost two weeks ago, when the UN voted the U.S. off the Human Rights Commission and the International Narcotics Control Board. Hitchens calls this an obvious act of "revenge" against U.S. unilateralismbut he sees no excuse for giving a human rights vote to the "slave-owning scumbags in Sudan."
Given the backlash, the U.S. media arguably has an increased duty to provide thoughtful world coveragejust the kind of stories on which The New Yorker prides itself. Staff writer Gourevitch says that daily papers tend to focus either on exploding crises (the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality) or on events that "involve America politically, militarily, and strategically."
Staff writer Anderson concurs, noting that because so many newspaper editors insist on a U.S. angle, the international coverage tends to be "administration-led, focusing on U.S. policy and U.S. interests."
By contrast, says Gourevitch, the typical New Yorker dispatch is a "long, detailed, exhaustively descriptive piece" told from the point of view of the natives, which in its very complexity makes events seem clearer. Reporters often parachute in after the crisis, as when Gourevitch visited Rwanda in 1995, the year after some 800,000 Tutsi and Tutsi sympathizers were murdered. Writers typically interview a socioeconomic range of sources and occasionally shine a light on American involvement, as when a U.S. "military-intelligence officer" mocked the UN Genocide Convention and the murder of a million Rwandans, telling Gourevitch, "Who gives a shit?"
Anderson says his approach involves "trying to understand how these political cultures work and presenting them as faithfully as I can to an American public." For example, last year, Anderson proposed a story on Angola. "Here was this major humanitarian disaster in one of Africa's most naturally rich countries," he says, "and yet it was escaping the radar of most of our media. I thought it merited a new look, and David [Remnick] agreed."
What the writer found was a capital city that smelled like shit and millions of people starving to death as a result of civil war. But instead of pushing for peace, the U.S. embassy was quietly backing a president who recently granted U.S. oil companies the predominant share in the Angolan oil market.
Says Anderson, "It's important for us Americans to understand how the rest of the world sees us. We have a tremendous impact, and yet we are a big cultural island, and we tend to replicate our cultural surroundings wherever we go. We think the rest of the world wants to be just like us, but we don't know where our shadow falls. I don't think we're so much guilty of ill will as of innocence, and to some extent our reporting reflects that."