Audacious bullshit often leaves me torn — impressed and horrified in equal measure — but not so with Eric Alterman’s hatchet-job on Christopher Hitchens in Dissent Magazine. Let me begin, however, with the sole unobjectionable sentence in the entire Alterman article:
Christopher would have nothing but contempt for a writer who allowed sentimental memories to cloud—or even to obscure—his considered political and literary judgments.
On second thoughts, applying the phrase “considered political and literary judgments” to one’s own work is a tad objectionable, but the general point is right: Hitchens would neither want nor expect his enemies or critics to hold fire just because he is in the process of not-so-slowly dying.
The problem with Alterman’s review of Hitch-22 is not that it is unkind to a terminally ill man, although that is why it will be so widely read. The issue is that it is not really a review at all, at least not of the book, or author, it pretends to critique. The lack of seriousness Alterman brings to the task of literary criticism is made clear in this opening gambit:
He is Oscar Wilde without the plays; Gore Vidal without the novels; Edmund Wilson without the ideas; George Orwell without the integrity; and Richard Burton without the movies (and Elizabeth Taylor).
What nonsense! Hitchens never lays claim to any of this: he is not a playwright, novelist or movie-star and, while he has written widely and often about Orwell, Hitchens is uncharacteristically self-effacing when it comes to comparisons with him. Hitchens is a provocateur and polemicist , and Alterman concedes that he is a brilliant one (but not until after he has finished excoriating him for the plays and novels he did not write, and movies he did not make):
Despite his myriad (and on occasion, damn-near miraculous) talents as literary critic, columnist, and long-form journalist, Hitchens’s genius undoubtedly lies in the art of the argument. “The world I live in is one where I have five quarrels a day, each with someone who really takes me on over something; and if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one, to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them,” he has explained, adding, “I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument, I am often willing to protract one for its own sake rather than concede even a small point.”
And woe unto those who find themselves on the wrong side of the fight. An unrepentant Trotskyist, stylistically if nothing else, he credits his early certainties—now discarded—as responsible for his marvelous ability to drive home a point long after his opponent has been crushed, gasping for air.
So, in Alterman’s strange assessment, the problem with Hitchens is that he is a failure at tasks that he has never undertaken — like acting and playwriting — but exhibits “marvelous ability” at what he actually does for a living. This is about as helpful or interesting as deriding Roger Federer for his golf-swing.
The rest of the article is a ham-fisted and transparent attempt to denigrate Hitchens while simultaneously, and with no subtlety at all, trading on his fame and impending death. It is suffused with high-school-quality bitchiness like this:
AS WITH all memoirs, accuracy is a question mark. I have a specific memory of one of the incidents described in detail in this book that differs in considerable detail from that of Hitchens, whose version places him at the center of events.
Alterman never explains how his memory of this “considerable detail” differs from Hitchens’ — if he had, it may have been worth reading — but instead implies that he is too gracious to spell it out. Alterman employs this same passive-aggressive technique elsewhere in the article
(Indeed, I can still recall with considerable shock some of the never-to be-repeated things Hitchens said to me during that first afternoon drinking binge.)
Why are we not told what Hitchens said that so shocked Alterman? Out of respect for the dying and for past confidences? Hardly. The entire piece appears to exist only to paint Hitchens as a bad friend, political traitor, unreliable intellect and indecent human being. Alterman, for example, needlessly and gleefully recounts the details of Hitchens’ first divorce and infamous drinking habits.
The ostensible origins of Alterman’s disdain are clearly enunciated. On a personal level, the two fell out over an alleged “betrayal” of their common friend and Clinton confidante, Sidney Blumenthal, after Hitchens testified against him during the Monica Lewinsky investigation. More generally, Alterman is exasperated by what he sees as Hitchens’ political progression to the “radical” right, beginning with the Clinton administration, but not ending there. These are clearly matters of opinion, to which Alterman is entitled (and with which I don’t always disagree: I have often found Hitchens’ obsession with the Clintons infuriating.) But Alterman’s characterological takedown of Hitchens is a masterclass in accidental irony:
Hitchens’s explanation for his Clinton hatred—and his willingness to betray his friend and make common cause with some of the most distasteful elements of American politics—is, like pretty much everything about the man, sui generis. But it is also intellectually unsatisfying. I mean, sure Clinton had unattractive qualities in abundance. But since when do intellectuals admit to making political choices purely on the basis of personalities? By ceaselessly attacking Clinton’s character, Hitchens was empowering a group of theocrats, corporate profiteers, and nativist know-nothings who were poised not only to frustrate what remained of the Democrats’ progressive agenda.
Hitchens’ central weakness, in other words, is that he fixates on questions of character at the expense of the “big picture”. How can it escape Alterman’s notice that his own article — from wobbly start to unconvincing finish — is an exercise in precisely the character fixation — and assassination — he explicitly abhors?
How, too, can he expect anyone to take his criticism seriously when he says of the book:
Don’t read it if you’re looking for a genuinely searching self-investigation of just how a radical leftist becomes a radical right-winger.
Why would a reader expect Hitchens to justify a political and intellectual progression that Eric Alterman ascribes to him but Hitchens himself would never accept? It is like chastising Harry Potter movies for their lack of documentary realism.
Hitchens would argue, just as Orwell did, that cant, hypocrisy and venality are equal opportunity political vices. He would insist that these things can, and have and will again, corrupt the best political intentions. This is at the heart of both his objection to Clinton and Clintonian politics, and of his broader critique of power.
There is plenty of scope for disagreement with Hitchens on these matters — the whole means versus ends thing for a start — so it is odd that Alterman would resort to such disingenuous tactics. Perhaps, in order to demolish Hitchens, he felt the need to diminish and distort him first. Perhaps it is simply opportunistic traffic-gouging for a barely-known magazine’s website.
Or, maybe, Alterman — responsible (and surely indictable) for phrases like “the takeover of the levers of political and economic power by the Republicans’ right-wing overclass constituencies” — is gripped by stupefying professional and personal jealousies, both vile and justified.
I was staring out a plane window en route to Sydney a few hours ago when my thoughts drifted to Christopher Hitchens, and how he has only just earned enough air-miles with United to secure a lifetime of unlimited flight upgrades. Since Hitchens is almost certainly dying — and quite soon — he describes this coveted milestone as “bittersweet”. My own feelings about the seemingly imminent death of the most gifted polemicist in the English language – he would lap whomever comes second in a canter — are less ambivalent. I am utterly devastated.
Over the past few years, I have read everything I can find that Hitchens has written — from his frontal assaults on Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger to his relatively sedate literary criticism and longer-form reporting, not to mention his seemingly endless and still-growing back catalogue of opinion pieces. He is probably most widely known for God is Not Great, which saw him join fellow anti-religionists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris on the world’s bestseller lists for a sustained and exhilarating period where rational common sense appeared on the verge of an historic tipping point (alas, not to be). In contrast to scientists Dawkins and Harris, who dissect religious belief with clinical precision, Hitchens tears it apart limb by limb, and makes no apologies for the state of the corpse. For secular humanists, God is Not Great was a visceral call to arms — a reason, if you like, not to believe. It is stirring stuff, gritty and glorious, to which his god-bothering critics were left scrambling, responding meekly (and to type) that the ferocity of his critique proved…ahem… that Hitchens must somehow, secretly, harbour doubts.
In Africa recently, I ran a training session on advocacy writing for a handful of government officials. I chose a Hitchens column, a full-throated hatchet job on Prince Charles called Prince of Piffle, as the primary teaching tool:
At a point in the not-too-remote future, the stout heart of Queen Elizabeth II will cease to beat. At that precise moment, her firstborn son will become head of state, head of the armed forces, and head of the Church of England. In strict constitutional terms, this ought not to matter much. The English monarchy, as has been said, reigns but does not rule. From the aesthetic point of view it will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one.
Within thirty minutes, Hitchen’s singular voice –his disruptive, oven-fresh metaphors, peerless eye for the explosive detail and trademark wit – filled the room. Moving forensically from one sentence to the next, we were entranced. We sighed and sniggered at Charles’ inanity, and shook our heads and murmured in awe at the audacity of Hitchens’ prose and his blistering turn of phrase. Never had writing seemed as much fun, or as effortless — or anywhere near as devastating. Two or three days later, a Google News alert pointed me to funny and incisive opinion piece under the byline of one of the bureaucrats who had taken part in the session. Take a bow, Mr Hitchens, I thought to myself. That was back when I thought he would live forever.
Why does the prospect of Hitch’s death fill me with such dread?
Hitchens himself is the first to concede that the causes of his deadly esophageal cancer are far from mysterious, falling, as they do, into the euphemistic “lifestyle” category. But this does nothing to ameliorate the sense of impending grief that accompanies news of his worsening condition.
There will be no shortage of new and brilliant writers to occupy the hole left by Hitch’s exit, but his persona is indelible, unmistakable, and impervious to duplication. I will be wowed and enlightened by others, no doubt; but will they ever resonate quite the same way as Hitchens, or as deeply, or touch me with the same uncanny precision? Unlikely. Correction: no chance.
Anyway, the void Hitchens seems set to leave behind will be shaped inalterably in his image, so it’s unfair to expect anyone else to fill it, whatever their gifts. His voice (literally in the case of the magnificent audiobook version of his recent memoir, Hitch-22) looms so large in the world I have cobbled together that I worry about a future without him. How can we possibly face the dense and intractable stupidity of the world, post-Hitch?
The man himself would dismiss this as morbid hysteria — and he would be right. I am, after all, merely a weak-willed mammal (his word) in a world crammed to overflowing with them. Which is a good reason for him to stay a little longer! To keep reminding us how cant and bullshit will envelop us if we don’t maintain vigilance; to call out hypocrisy and superstition, and force us to a higher standard. Without Hitch at the vanguard, the battle seems impossibly hard. We are not ready, even if he is. The flag is too much to bear in our puny, inadequate hands.