On the sad disappearance of the What Next website, I thought I should repost here a few of my favourites among the half dozen or so articles I published there, and which are no longer online anywhere else.
By all reckoning, Christopher Hitchens enjoyed a good war. In addition to his columns for the Nation, Vanity Fair and the Evening Standard, Hitchens recorded his Englishman-in-New-York perspectives for both the Guardian and the Mirror. Those of us who worked for a living could only wonder, where did he find the hours to write so widely? Hitchens told one audience that Bin Laden advocated ‘Islamic fascism’, another that Americans have stood up bravely to all inconvenience. ‘Americans are finding it quite easy to go about their business, and to stay committed to whatever it takes.’ I don’t know about Wall Street, but I am sure Hampstead was reassured.
A third article informed us that the September 11 massacre was chosen to meet Islamic deadlines. ‘It was on September 11 1683 that the conquering armies of Islam were met, held, and thrown back at the gates of Vienna … The Ottoman empire never recovered from the defeat; from then on it was more likely that Christian or western powers would dominate the Muslim world than the other way around.’ Even in the depths of September, the argument seemed bizarre. What Muslim fundamentalist would base their entire strategy around dates chosen from a Western calendar? Nor indeed does the failure to capture Vienna rank in the pantheon of contemporary Muslim anguish. Just compare Hitch’s date to the humiliation caused by the occupation of Palestine, and ask yourself which process most Islamists think of today?
They say that war bring out the best in people. Prime Minister Tony Blair, silent through years of cuts and privatisation, only woke up once that thousands of human lives are on the line. He did the same for Diana. Geri Halliwell, once a UN goodwill ambassador, reappeared as the new forces sweatheart. Christopher Hitchens was the thinking man’s Ginger Spice, blonder than his model, and rather portly these days. But he too was an ageing rock star with an agent in town.
The new Hitchens-incarnation informed us that Tony Blair was the greatest leader that Great Britain had ever possessed. But the last Hitchens was more sceptical – of Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger among other icons. There was even an earlier Christopher Hitchens who fulminated against Bill Clinton’s bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan. But our hero had put all such youthful indulgence behind him now.
The last Hitchens I met in 1999 was still in his idealist phase. We spoke for no more than a minute. I was there to listen, not respond. ‘I hear you’re an anti-fascist. We need more of them.’ I nodded – how could I know then that his latest Hitchens would join in placing the Taliban, Bin Laden and Milosevic in the same magic box? His articles explain the spell – ‘In one form or another, the people who levelled the World Trade Center are the same people who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women in Kabul and Karachi, who maimed and eviscerated two of the translators of The Satanic Verses and who machine-gunned architectural tourists at Luxor. Even as we worry what they may intend for our society, we can see very plainly what they have in mind for their own: a bleak and sterile theocracy enforced by advanced techniques.’
Of course the Taliban advocated religious theocracy – who has ever claimed otherwise? – but the passage remained incomplete. Hitchens’ practice was ‘only’ one of intellectual omission, but our back-seat bomber was telling lies, and he knew it. Unlike the Reagan-revivalists that surround George Bush Junior, Christopher Hitchens understands the basic laws of political analysis. There are always two sides, and the actions of one can make no real sense without some description of the other. This principle was most certainly needed this autumn, when our governments found themselves at war with a force they armed and prepared.
Those who followed Hitchens’ choice – and argued for the state to bomb the Afghan people – were morally complicit in a generation of further state murders, accomplished by the Bush twins George and Tony this time, our proxies the next, and then ourselves again, when our rulers wage just war against whichever force they appoint to take the Northern Alliance’s place.
One deliberate falsehood galled. ‘Islamic fascism’. Who could miss the lazy logic in placing all our enemies in the same camp, whether in power or out, secular or religious? The first post-war Moslem to get tarred with this label was Colonel Nasser. Would Hitchens have joined Eden in labelling Nasser the ‘new Hitler on the Nile’?
I have already mentioned Hitchens’ suggestion that the September 11 bombers were primarily motivated to seek revenge for historic Muslim defeats. When pressed to defend this claim, what evidence did he cite to defend the point? Christopher Hitchens appealed to the authority of an earlier generation. Describing the Islamic defeat of 1683, he wrote, ‘In our culture, the episode is often forgotten or downplayed, except by Catholic propagandists like Hilaire Belloc and GK Chesterton.’ Hitchens’ last reference was puzzling. Why were these two alone praised? Was it Hilaire Belloc arguments against the (‘servile’) welfare state that appeal to Hitchens, or Belloc’s 1922 book calling (in the words of one, friendly reviewer) for ‘the elimination of the Jews’? There is something truly nauseating about an ‘anti-Nazi’ argument that could justify itself only with reference to the work of real, self-acknowledged fascists.
In this recent war, Hitchens shed even such left sensibilities as had persisted two years previously. He complained of tiresome anti-racists – we would do better, Christopher Hitchens told us, to acknowledge the generosity of those people who have applied with minimum vigour the lynch laws of the deep South. ‘The shameful attacks on random Sikhs and other ethnic-minority citizens were very few, and took place (as such things normally do) far from the scene of the crimes.’ You can read the passage many times, but it still make no sense. Why should a murder become forgivable, when it occurs ‘far’ from the acts used to excuse it?
In the Spectator, Peter Hitchens accused his brother of composing ‘a prose version of the Battle Hymn of the American Republic.’ When even that salon Tory was to the left of Christopher – you know something has gone badly wrong.
Hitchens was at his most servile in November, following the fall of Kabul. Most people I know responded to this event with a jumble of feelings, including in different measures, surprise, hope, anxiety and concern. After all, we knew that the new rulers of Afghanistan would be the men who had accomplished genocide in the mid-1990s. Hitchens was more direct, insisting once again that American was the best of states and therefore had deserved to win the war. It was a formula expressed in Christopher’s exemplary genre, the facile paradox. “Afghanistan, where the world’s most open society confronts the world’s most closed one”. (The most open society would be the one which has the greatest number of people in jail?) “Where the world’s most indiscriminate bombers are bombed by the world’s most accurate ones.” (These would be the same bombers who hit the UN’s warehouse, twice).
Christopher Hitchens was not only the most elegant advocate of bombing. More than this, he was the media’s pet leftist, a role he hawked with glee. ‘If the silly policy of a Ramadan pause had been adopted’, he wrote, ‘the citizens of Kabul would have still been under a regime of medieval cruelty … I don’t stop insulting the Christian coalition at Eastertime.’ (An impressive sounding-claim, until you recall that since Thatcher and Reagan came to power, Hitchens has never failed to back our Christian rulers in war). ‘As a charter supporter of CND I can remember a time when the peace movement was not an auxiliary to dictators’. (What is a charter member? The phrase ‘a founder member’ is more common. And if this was Hitchens’ claim, then fortunate indeed were the Aldermarston marchers to enjoy the leadership of an eight-year old boy.)
Even now, I have my memories of a different, more ambivalent writer – but a man still decidedly of the left. And if I am depressed by the contrast, what must his peers think? Those who knew him in 1972, during the miners’ strike and the dockers protests that killed Heath’s anti-union laws, who judged him then the liveliest of the best generation, the living embodiment of the potential smychka between a university and a trade union left?
The great chip on Peter Hitchens’ shoulder – or so they say – has been his failure to live up to the charm of his extraordinary older brother. The unkindest of former friends suggest that the great chip on Christopher’s shoulder was his inability to become a second Paul Foot, as if one could be produced as a clone of the living first. One strength which Foot possessed, and which Hitchens lacked, was the necessary humility of a talented man with more genius than the majority of his co-workers. For forty years, the older man has remained a part of the movement. In contrast, Hitchens lasted maybe four.
And so the dreary cycle continues from youthful activist to middle-aged advocate of what exists. A young man wanted to be a revolutionary leader, and then forgot his lines. In place of earnest optimism, the new tone Christopher adopted in the 1980s was more condescending … as if people could be argued into radicalism through being convinced of their own stupidity first. But hope remained, smudged by a certain condescension. And then even hope was lost. Elvis reappeared in his white jump suit to swat the A-rabs. Blonde Geri wiggled her hips – not for our side this time, but for the troops.
I miss the old Christopher Hitchens, lost to excess, alcohol, and the seductive embrace of the system. The man who used to warn us of trusting those prophets who could lead us into the promised land, because they would surely lead us promptly back out again … has proved the wisdom of his own rule.