Heat and Light: Christopher Hitchens and His Critics

The case against Christopher Hitchens can be summarised, broadly, in a kind of comic list as done by the British satirical magazine Private Eye:

He supported the Iraq war
He likes a drink
He smokes, as well
He supported the war
He tends to be aggressive in debate
He likes a drink
He supported the war
…That’s it.

In a sense he needs no introduction. (His entry in the contributors’ biographies of this book simply reads: ‘Christopher Hitchens is Christopher Hitchens.’) He is one of the West’s most prolific journalists, speakers and essayists, with a love of literature and hatred for oppression and superstition everywhere. A one-time Marxist, Hitchens’s politics could be defined not so much as ideological but a broad opposition to establishment power and discourse, and solidarity with victims of cruelty. Crucially coupled with this is an independence of mind. As he says in Letters to a Young Contrarian: ‘Dammit, I have only one life to live and I won’t spend a moment of it on some dismal compromise.’[1]

It was inevitable that, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this combative intellectual would confront a Left that had become narrow-minded, reactionary, stagnant with ideological conformity and pious self-satisfaction. The occasion was the 2001 attack on New York orchestrated by a wealthy group of religious fanatics. Hitchens was outraged by the conventional left opinion that the attack was a reasonable consequence of past American crimes and that bin Laden’s suicide bombers represented the cry of oppressed Muslims:

Now is as good a time as ever to revisit the history of the Crusades, or the sorry history of partition in Kashmir, or the woes of the Chechens and Kosovars. But the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face, and there’s no point in any euphemism about it. What they abominate about ‘the West,’ to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state.[2]

Hitchens went on to argue for the war in Afghanistan, and then for the war in Iraq. He based his support for the latter mainly on solidarity with Iraqi and Kurdish dissidents, who had no illusions about Bush’s motives but saw the invasion as their last and best chance to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

This did not make Hitchens popular. The predominant opinion, from the pages of liberal broadsheets to far-left meeting rooms, was that the Bush administration was capitalising on the September 11 attacks to launch an imperialist project to destroy Islamic culture and control Middle Eastern oil supplies. The assumption was that no progressive case for war could be made.

We shouldn’t be too hard on the left in general here because the main opposition to this lazy consensus came not from conservatives but other lefties: novelists, journalists, activists and bloggers willing to defend secularism and support comrades in the Arab world rather than the dictators and priesthoods they were forced to live under. These men and women were duly excommunicated and denounced as racists and neocons. But Hitchens made the first hairline crack of this historic schism.

Christopher Hitchens and his Critics is a collection of Hitchens’s political writing over these vital years. There is also a range of critical responses to his arguments – not as wide a range as it could be because Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and many others refused to let their criticism of Hitchens be reprinted in the anthology. ‘It is a disheartening irony,’ the editors write, ‘that all the authors who refused permission are, or have been, robust defenders of free expression and the dialectical exchange of ideas.’[3]

The language of apostasy dominates. Hitchens is perceived to have ‘changed sides’ after September 11; critics tend to focus on the act of changing sides rather than Hitchens’s reasons and arguments for doing so.

In truth, there was no Damascean conversion in the Manhattan ruins. The editors rightly state that, on a range of issues from the Rushdie fatwa to the Clinton presidency, Hitchens’s relationship with the mainstream left was always ‘fraught and complicated’[4]. And it was natural that such a fierce secularist should respond to religious terrorism in the way Hitchens has.

His problem with many on the left is that their reflexive opposition to the West has caused them to support any far-right theocratic movement as long as it occasionally targets Western soldiers. He calls them ‘fellow-travellers with fascism’[5] and the crew of frauds and demagogues in the back end of this volume seem to have been assembled to prove his point.

First up is Norman Finkelstein, an academic who declared at the time of the Lebanon war that ‘for those who believe in freedom and dignity, we are all Hezbollah now.’[6] This year he met with the terrorist organisation and told reporters that ‘I think that the Hezbollah represents the hope. They are fighting to defend their homeland.’[7] As Hitchens says: ‘I am not sure I am ready to hear that it is I who have capitulated to the forces of reaction.’[8]

Finklestein’s article is quoted enthusiastically by Richard Seymour, a British far-left activist who runs an unreadable blog called ‘Lenin’s Tomb.’ In a long, scatological closing essay, he reveals that Hitchens changes his mind a lot, and had doubts about the Iraq invasion as late as 2002. Fine. Naturally, if Hitchens had always argued for war, that would prove his bloodthirsty dogmatism.

Seymour claims that the jihadis and ex-Baathists in Iraq are a ‘grassroots guerilla movement, one that has arisen because of the brutality of the occupation’[9] and although he concedes that ‘there is certainly an element that behaves in an abominable fashion, the bulk of resistance attacks are overwhelmingly directed against US troops, not civilians.’[10] His sources for this statement are the CIA (!) and a bunch of antiwar websites similar to his own. So, as well as believing that the murder of young working-class Americans is somehow understandable, we are supposed to perceive the killing of trade unionists[11] and aid workers[12] and the bombing of mosques[13] and UN buildings[14] as mere collateral damage. If you judge a man by his enemies, Hitchens comes off well.

At least Finkelstein and Seymour engage with what Hitchens says. As Cottee and Cushman put it:

Trawling through the endless critical commentary directed at Hitchens, one is struck not just by the outstanding ferocity of it all but also by the fact that the focal point of critical interest is virtually the same: the all-too-human Christopher Hitchens, and not his actual arguments.

In particular, almost every critical article includes a snide allusion to his love of drinking. In a piece on Counterpunch, Jack McCarthy focuses entirely on Hitchens and alcohol, giggling that ‘you can’t help but conclude that the man gives new meaning to the phrase ‘a drunk in denial.’[15] Come on. Either Hitchens is an alcoholic or he isn’t. If he is, alcoholism is a disease and Hitchens needs help and support, not ridicule. If not, what you have written about him is libel. Which is it? It’s a sign of the left’s increasing puritanism that it makes such a fuss of dissenters’ drinking habits.

I think Cottee and Cushman are wrong, though, to claim that Hitchens has not been ‘trenchant enough, at least in print, about the many failings of the Bush administration.’[16 ] In just part one of this volume I counted dozens of attacks, from the US alliance with the Saudi and Pakistan dictatorships (p50) to Bush’s subsidy of $43m to the Taliban, a few months before 9/11, to fight the war on drugs (p43).

And yet there are valid criticisms of Hitchens’s approach. Reading through his pieces on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, you can’t help but note his laughable optimism about casualty figures, his glib and premature triumphalism. The incompetence of the Bush administration was massively underestimated, and not just by Hitchens. Interventionists were made complacent by relatively easy campaigns in Kosovo and Sierra Leone and thought Saddam would be overthrown with a minimum of casualties.

At what point do you admit that the whole thing might have been a mistake? When 100,000 are dead? Half a million? At what point in the bodycount does your support turn from principle to nightmare utopianism? It’s a shame that the editors only include Hitchens’s early pieces, when the war looked just about successful, and omit his later work, where he is increasingly disillusioned. (In particular, Hitchens’s piece about Mark Daily, a soldier killed in Iraq who was inspired to fight by Hitchens’s articles, is profound and moving.)[17]

In the end, it’s hard not to agree with Johann Hari: ‘To rally the left to solidarity with the victims of Ba’athism and Islamism is an honourable cause; to do it with the weapon of neoconservatism was a catastrophic misjudgement.’[18] Hitchens is right in principle but as a strategist he has real problems.

Another factor is his aggression. In a culture that prizes equivocation, compromise and ambiguity, Hitchens’s direct approach has been taken as intimidation, even bullying. Stefan Collini is quoted as saying:

One gets the strongest possible sense of how much it matters to prove that one is and always has been right… There is a palpably macho tone to all this, as of alpha males competing for dominance and display.[19]

It’s this tendency that has led to Hitchens being slapped with the tired label of ‘atheist fundamentalist’. He’s also seen as lacking the sense of the sanctity of life: there are quotes in this volume of Hitchens rejoicing at the deaths of jihadists, and his indifference to the demise of Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell shocked Fox News. (He has said that ‘I like it when bad people die.’[20])

Yet this hate for his enemies, although it can be shocking, is not entirely dishonourable. The editors of this volume say that ‘From the perspective of Greek antiquity, there was nothing remotely odd or morally dubious about praising the merits of hatred.’ They then quote Aristotle: ‘Hatred of tyrants is inevitable, and contempt is also a frequent cause of their destruction.’[21]

It’s a misconception that the absence of conflict is possible or desirable. One of Hitchens’s favourite aphorisms regards heat and light: people say that in discussion we need to generate light rather than heat, but basic physics tell us that it’s heat that generates light. That insight and truth spatter like sparks from the fires of aggression.

It is the achievement of Christopher Hitchens to have kept these fires burning so brightly and for so long. Friend or enemy, you have to recognise that, and this anthology makes a fascinating introduction to this eloquent and tireless debater.

Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left, ed. Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, New York University Press, 2008.


1. Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens, Basic Books 2001, p 45
2. Christopher Hitchens and His Critics: Terror, Iraq and the Left, ed. Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, New York University Press 2008, p46
3. Ibid, p29
4. Ibid, p35
5. Ibid, p81
6. From Finkelstein’s website, July 2006.

7. Haaretz, January 8 2008.

8. Hitchens, p252
9. Ibid, p324
10. Ibid, p323
11. Hadi Saleh of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions was murdered in his Baghdad home on January 4 2005. This obituary states that: ‘His IFTU comrades described the killing as bearing all the hallmarks of the former security services. His union files and membership records were ransacked.’ Guardian, January 20 2005.

12. Marla Ruzicka, a campaigner for compensation for civilians injured by the US military, was killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad. Washington Post, April 18 2005.

13. A typical attack on a Shia mosque killed fourteen people. BBC, January 21 2005.

14. The explosives that destroyed the UN building in August 2003 ‘appeared to have come from Saddam Hussein’s pre-war arsenal.’ BBC, August 21 2003

15. ‘Another Ad Hominem Attack on Christopher Hitchens,’ Jack McCarthy, Counterpunch, February 21 2003.

16. Hitchens, p24-5.
17. ‘A Death in the Family,’ Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair, November 2007.

18. ‘The pro-war left’s disastrous misjudgment,’ Johann Hari, Independent, July 23 2007
19. Hitchens, p3
20. Interview with Jage Toba, Plum TV, added to YouTube, January 31 2008.
21. Hitchens, p6. I’m reminded of the Clinton Tyree character in Carl Hiaasen’s fabulous crime novels: ‘Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it’s the only sane and logical and moral reaction.’ Sick Puppy, Pan 1999.

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