A lot of people are angry at Christopher Hitchens. Since his much publicized split with his former comrades on the left, he’s found himself in roughly the same spot as Dylan when he went electric. Past allies are now spitting mad, and like dilettante Mortal Kombat contenders, most Hitchens haters come at him with a predictable series of moves. There’s the “he’s a ranting drunkard” low kick, the “he’s a neo-neocon former-socialist sellout” punch, and the “he’s just being combative to make money on television” swing. He’s been accused by Noam Chomsky of “expressing racist contempt for the African victims of a terrorist crime,” namely the 1998 bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan (which Hitchens condemned forcefully), and Tariq Ali wrote, “If Hitchens carries on in this vein, he’ll soon find himself addressing the same gatherings as his sparring partner, Henry Kissinger.” Knowing Hitchens’s militant antagonism toward Kissinger, Ali’s swipe aims deeper than mere drunk jokes.
But Hitchens loves polemical combat with longtime foes and onetime friends alike, and it’s clear that he has a lot of fun picking fights. Which leads to his inner conflict—an urge that had been growing stronger in recent years, then was stifled in the wake of September 11: that he’d rather put all the fighting aside and just write about books. “I was getting exhausted with politicians and politics and it was getting rather boring, and my plan was to focus on the essays,” Hitchens tells the Voice.
His newest collection, Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays (Nation Books), encapsulates his conflicts, his literary admirations, his considerations of his adopted Homeland, and his years of political flux. As such, it’s a three-act autobiography, a snapshot of who he is now and how he has changed these past 12 years. For readers and former admirers who wonder what led to his long-coming disassociation from certain aspects of the left (mostly due to his opinions on the Iraq war, Bush, Paul Wolfowitz, and Michael Moore, but really going back to Bosnia and beyond), these pieces, in this order, help explain things.
The first part, on books and writers, is mostly recent Atlantic pieces and the introductions to reprints by authors like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. As a whole, it forms a remarkably coherent discourse—one essay’s ending makes a point about the following essay’s subject, like a semester’s worth of a favorite literature professor’s lecture notes. Hitchens tends to choose contradiction-riddled authors (sound familiar?), such as Rudyard Kipling, “A Man of Permanent Contradictions”; Marcel Proust (“so perceptive and yet so innocent”); and Aldous Huxley, whom he calls “a reactionary modernist” (a description he applies to Waugh in an earlier essay). “No one can not have contradictions,” he says. “It’s just a matter of how you deal with them.”
It’s hard not to find in his explanation of Huxley’s irreconcilables a way to come to grips with Hitchens’s own: “One need not object to his having things both ways, as long as one notices the trick being performed.”
That’s not to say he seems deceptive, but that he places the emphasis—the importance—elsewhere. “The question is: Will this war secure these freedoms for millions of people in Iraq?” he says. And this is the key to understanding Hitchens’s apostasy, and his contradictions. His is a Trotskyite’s approach to international freedom (he writes of Trotsky that “his most enduring and tenacious battle was against the monstrous regime that had resulted from his earlier exertions”). Having reached the conclusion that freedom even under occasionally brutal American rule is better for the Iraqis than always brutal Baathist rule, he has embraced the only viable way to achieve that freedom, former comrades be damned. “What I want people to notice from this argument, and my willingness to examine myself on it, is that a very interesting thing has happened in the past decade, the rise of the status quo left—people who are basically afraid of change,” he says. But he later admits, “I sometimes get more praise from right-wingers or Republicans than I want.”
Hitchens examines his adopted country in the “Americana” section of Love, Poverty, and War, and this is where his journalistic and rhetorical shortcomings are most visible. At one point in his showy road piece “The Ballad of Route 66,” he ruminates on the broadcast radio wasteland (“it was a dismal day when the Federal Communications Commission parceled out the airwaves to a rat pack of indistinguishable cheapskates”) but misses an opportunity to comment on the political implications—and villains—of radio deregulation. Similarly, in the petulant “I Fought the Law in Bloomberg’s New York,” he takes on hizzoner for the myriad “petty tyrannies” of quality-of-life regulations that have changed New York’s character, without ever attributing the lion’s share of those rules to Bloomberg’s petty-crime-obsessed predecessor. When asked about this imbalance in attention to issues of foreign and domestic policy, he admits, “I know more about the former. I think it’s more important. If you ask me what I think about Social Security reform—I’m not as interested in it as I should be.”
In the last third of the collection, Hitchens’s self-portrait snaps into focus with a defense of his political evolution. “I deliberately put in my earliest response to 9-11 because some people have accused me of being inconsistent on this point,” he says. “I printed my raw reaction.” He’s attempting to explain the historical basis of his current political convictions, drawing the line between how he sees Iraq and how he sees the fight against “fascism with an Islamic face.” One piece in particular is invaluable in understanding his sympathies: “The Struggle of the Kurds,” a report from northern Iraq written for National Geographic in 1992. He traveled among these long-oppressed people for months, and was won over by their history and struggle. How could he not get their backs?
“An antique saying has it that a man’s life is incomplete unless or until he has tasted love, poverty, and war,” he writes in the book’s introduction. He’s not boasting a complete life, so much as presenting the most complete self portrait possible from his essays and journalistic dispatches.
“The most dismal test you can apply to a writer is to know what his political allegiances are,” he says, referring, ostensibly, to Kipling—another British expat who saw the benefits and cruelties of empire. It’s not that Hitchens shies away from his political allies, but just that he has a story he’d like to share about the time he sat down with Jorge Luis Borges at his home in Buenos Aires in 1977, where he shared “long, long sips” of Poe with the writer (who had been blind for years) and discussed what “a true gentleman” Augusto Pinochet was. Political allegiances, argues Hitchens, don’t come close to telling the complete story.
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