Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Who Can Take Christopher Hitchens Seriously Anymore?

This Magazine Staff

This is a long one, so bear with me.

I’ve spent more than a bit of time the past while rereading some of what Vanity Fair and Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens has been writing about anything and everything. As a result, the quality of my Hitchens appreciation has changed somewhat. I’ve certainly stopped reading him as a source of anything authoritative on matters concerning the war in Iraq, President Bush, America in general, other journalists and/or political commentators. Occasionally I still read him for his appreciation of good writing – George Orwell, Czeslaw Milosz, Edward Said, and so on. And I read him to laugh, because he remains wickedly funny. These days, a little more “sad clown” funny than “sharp wit” funny. Still, he makes me laugh.

And occasionally he sends me into one of those special rages that has me pulling out my twenty-year-old copy of Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Second Edition) to make sure it’s not just my imagination that this supposedly super-moral arguing man is breaking just about every rule of honest debate ever invented (in my opinion, he is – if not all, then most).

Understand please, I do not begrudge Hitchens his opinion on Iraq, Bush, Kerry, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein or anything or anyone else. In fact, if I project a bit, I can follow the rather twisty path a thoroughly intelligent modern lefty might take to get to his pro-war, pro-moron position.

What bothers me is the slippery rhetoric he’s engaging in to advance and defend these positions. As far as I can tell, with every new paragraph the man writes, his worth as a political authority collapses further and further into the inky black hole that is his apparently monumental ego. Every discussion is an argument of dire import and he simply wants to win all the time, on everything, and in such a way that shows any opposing position to be the product of a rodent-like brain. Furthermore, the right/left axis has no bearing on where he will point his cannon or how well he uses it, just as long as he gets to make a big booming sound.

So, here are excerpts from his head-high tackle on Ronald Reagan, very soon after the extremely popular two-termer’s death from Alzheimer’s:

“He was as dumb as a stump… His children didn’t like him all that much… I could not believe that such a man had even been a poor governor of California in a bad year, let alone that such a smart country would put up with such an obvious phony and loon.”

Funny stuff. But remember, Hitchens is a man who, judging by his attacks on John Kerry and his steadfast defence of the rightness of this current war, seems to favour George W. Bush as President of the US. Look at that quote again. “Dumb as a stump… poor governor… obvious phony.”

A quick side note to how Hitchens reacted to Michael Moore’s work-up of Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine:

“(But then, this is the guy who thought it so clever and amusing to catch Charlton Heston, in Bowling for Columbine, at the onset of his senile dementia.) Such courage.”

So, a dead, long-defunct Ronald Reagan is a fair target, but a living and still ten-commanding Charlton Heston is a poor sufferer only a coward would attack. I think they both deserve the best shots either Moore or Hitchens can squeeze off, but there seems to be only room enough for one sheriff in Hitchens’ town.

“Mixed signals are wrong signals,” said George W. Bush a couple of days ago, in one of his classic either you’re with us or agin’ us moments. He was referring to the fact that his rival in the election, Senator John Kerry, had the audacity to disagree with him on how well things are going in Iraq. Checking Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student (Second Edition), I see that Bush is indulging in the “either/or fallacy” of rhetorical persuasion. The stubborn imposition of a binary restriction on a many-sided discussion. This is neither a new nor surprising tactic from Bush. Either/or is a very effective tactic for shutting down criticism, which all Presidents tend to like to do. Kerry’s been doing the same stuff with his play on “W is for Wrong.” But either/or is the cheapest possible move for a supposedly independent thinker. Boxing in your opponent so their position can only be slotted into the pre-defined wrong position does not encourage debate, rational consideration and complicated solutions to complicated problems; rather, it shuts all these things down. And this is precisely the kind of fallacious crap I keep finding in Hitchens’ work.

Earlier this month, he took a swipe at Naomi Klein over her somewhat notorious Nation column entitled “Bring Najaf to New York.” There are a lot of good reasons not to like Klein’s column – weakly argued, too cute for something this serious, way insensitive about New York’s already prominent role in the justification for war – but Hitchens leaves all validity aside in his leap for the big boom:

“I honestly did not expect to find [The Nation] publishing actual endorsements of jihad… And now, Ms. Klein, among many others, wanting to bring the war home because any kind of anti-Americanism is better than none at all.”

So here we have the either/or fallacy in full bloom – either you refrain from any discussion of the root causes of terror, or you endorse jihad. It is syllogistically false, a faulty generalization with maybe a little bit of an undistributed middle term thrown in there. Here is Hitchens’ logic as I read it: All those who endorse jihad criticize America for insensitivity to Islam. Naomi Klein criticizes America for insensitivity to Islam. Naomi Klein endorses jihad.

Such logic juggling is commonplace in debates, but no serious debater counts for victory only on their ability to employ these fallacies. At some point, one must deal with something resembling fact. Naomi Klein was not calling for the violence of Najaf to be transported to New York. She was calling for the insertion of uncomfortable ideas about how this war is being carried out into a national debate (focused for the moment in New York) that was rather inexplicably ignoring these ideas. This does not translate into an endorsement of jihad. At worst, Naomi’s article is bad writing, but Hitchens implies evil.

He pulled the same fast one on John Kerry during the swift boat brouhaha. And I quote:

“[The Democrats] have done something eye-rubbingly unprincipled, doing what Reagan and Kissinger could not do: rehabilitating the notion of the Vietnam horror as “a noble cause.”

Here’s the gist of that construction as far as I can tell: Noble acts occur in the service of noble causes. John Kerry claims to have performed noble acts in Vietnam. John Kerry claims Vietnam was a noble cause.

It’s simply faulty logic – never mind Kerry’s well-recorded leadership of anti-Vietnam protests.

Like I said, I don’t belong to those on the left who want to see Hitchens give back his membership card just because he supports this war and doesn’t like John Kerry. I’m not John Kerry’s greatest fan myself, but Hitchens’ attacks on the Democratic nominee range from the brilliantly subtle to the blatantly unfair (see above) – and he seems to notice no difference between the two. On the other hand, his criticisms of Bush are, to say the least, hard to find – and this blatantly unbalanced position brings me to the limit of admiration for an entertaining argument.

I can’t quite believe a man as smart as Hitchens does not notice the many contradictions, unnatural convolutions and telling dishonesties of the Bush doctrine and its followers. In fact, I’m convinced he has noticed them all, and made a conscious decision to steer clear of that mess in order to remain faithful to his sincere hope for a freer, safer Iraq. Is it possible even, Hitchens has such a high opinion of his own critical capacity that he believes his pet, George W., could not withstand some well-deserved scolding.

By steadfastly refusing to comment on the gaping moral chasm opened by Bush administration personalities, policies and practices – no matter the net effect in Iraq, still unknown and unpredictable – Hitchens has made himself, at the very least, a completely unreliable source for considered opinion about a subject he seems to hold at paramount – delivering everyday Iraqis from danger and desperation. At worst, I think it has transformed him into a sad, morally blind propagandist for a power structure destined, I’m convinced, to be very harshly judged by history.

The odour coming off the Bush administration is thick and overwhelmingly foul these days. Is it possible Christopher Hitchens is the only person nearby who can’t smell it?

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