Un­hitch your wagon

An ill-con­sid­ered take down of the late athe­ist Christo­pher Hitchens.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - UN­HITCHED The Trial of Christo­pher Hitchens By Richard Sey­mour Verso. 134 pp. Pa­per­back, $16.95 book­world@wash­post.com Colin Woodard, a long­time for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for the Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor and the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle, is the au­thor of fo

Christo­pher Hitchens, who died just over a year ago af­ter a stoic and very pub­lic strug­gle with esophageal can­cer, wasn’t one to pull punches on fools, saints or the re­cently de­parted. When Jerry Fal­well died, Hitchens went on na­tional tele­vi­sion to ex­press his sat­is­fac­tion that a man he re­garded as a traitor and char­la­tan was no longer with us. He memo­ri­al­ized the 2003 death of Bob Hope with an es­say end­ing with the line: “Hope was a fool, and nearly a clown, but he was never even re­motely a co­me­dian.” For those he found dan­ger­ous, de­spi­ca­ble or merely want­ing, death of­fered no quar­ter.

That one of his many de­trac­tors would now seek to put him on trial seems en­tirely fair. And what a fas­ci­nat­ing pro­ceed­ing it could be. The ac­cused was a Bri­tish-born Trot­sky­ist who spent the last decade of his life as a pro­pa­gan­dist for the in­va­sion and oc­cu­pa­tion of Iraq and the neo­con­ser­va­tive world­view from which it sprang. He had been un­flinch­ing in his pros­e­cu­tion of those he saw as stand­ing on the side of tyranny and to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism, but he tar­geted not just ob­vi­ous choices such as Henry Kissinger, Ni­co­lae Ceaus­escu and Osama bin Laden, but un­ex­pected one such as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. He was enor­mously gifted as a speaker, writer and provo­ca­teur, but was some­times im­paired by in­tel­lec­tual cer­tainty and an ul­ti­mately fa­tal overindul­gence in wine, whiskey and smokes. Rak­ish and in­fu­ri­at­ing, a charis­matic pur­veyor of im­po­lite ar­gu­ments, Hitchens is a most in­trigu­ing de­fen­dant; in the hands of a forth­right, tal­ented and fair-minded pros­e­cu­tor, his in­tel­lec­tual trial could be the stuff of great­ness.

Un­for­tu­nately, Richard Sey­mour’s “Un­hitched” is not such a book. The au­thor — a Marx­ist writer and ac­tivist born in North­ern Ire­land and liv­ing in Lon­don — has done his re­search, ap­par­ently hav­ing read al­most ev­ery­thing his sub­ject ever wrote, but in the ser­vice of the nar­row goals of the overzeal­ous pros­e­cu­tor. The re­sult is a polemic that is breath­lessly stri­dent, fre­quently over­reach­ing and so awk­wardly freighted with four-dol­lar words that read­ers may find them­selves look­ing for­ward to the next ex­tended quote from Hitchens’s work.

Much ink has al­ready been spilled on Hitchens’s star­tling con­ver­sion from Na­tion colum­nist to Iraq war hawk in the af­ter­math of the ter­ror­ist at­tacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from de­cry­ing “neo­con­ser­va­tive rat­bags” to be­friend­ing Paul Wol­fowitz and tak­ing his U.S. cit­i­zen­ship oath, at his re­quest, be­fore Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary Michael Chertoff. Hitchens’s ad­mir­ers on the left were ap­palled by his com­ments re­gard­ing the Pen­tagon’s use of clus­ter bombs in Afghanistan (“pretty good” be­cause they’d go through mul­ti­ple en­emy com­bat­ants and “if they’re bear­ing a Ko­ran over their heart, it’ ll go straight through that too”); the death toll in the 2004 siege of Fal­lu­jah (“not nearly high enough ... too many [ ji­hadists] es­caped”); or, with sev­eral years of hind­sight, the wis­dom of the Iraq in­va­sion (“his­to­ri­ans will not con­clude ... that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ought to have post­poned any fur­ther”).

Sey­mour notes that such a con­ver­sion is by no means un­prece­dented. John Spargo, Max East­man, James Burn­ham and Irv­ing Kris­tol also be­longed to this “rec­og­niz­able type: a left-wing de­fec­tor with a soft spot for em­pire.” For left­ists, the con­ver­sion comes “the moment they per­ceive the mil­i­ta­rized na­tion state as the ap­pro­pri­ate de­fender of progress or democ­racy,” par­tic­u­larly against a to­tal­i­tar­ian chal­lenge, be it fas­cism, Stal­in­ism or rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror­ism. For Hitchens, Sey­mour writes, the re­al­iza­tion came that “re­li­gion, and specif­i­cally Is­lam, was an un­der­es­ti­mated force for evil in world af­fairs” and that “the US em­pire could be a coun­ter­vail­ing force for good,” im­pos­ing, in Hitchens’s words, “a rev­o­lu­tion from above” on places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But Sey­mour seeks to show that this new, post-9/11 Hitchens had not been “cut en­tirely from new cloth.” He re­veals Hitchens as hav­ing had a life­long ad­mi­ra­tion both for the United States and for em­pires as civ­i­liz­ing forces. There was his sup­port for the Bri­tish op­er­a­tion to re­cap­ture the Falk­land Is­lands from Ar­gentina (“I couldn’t pos­si­bly see the UK de­feated by those in­san­i­tary riffraff,” he later said). There was his 1992 Na­tion es­say in which he de­clared 1492 to have been “a very good year” and chas­tised 500th-an­niver­sary pro­test­ers for think­ing “of the West­ern ex­pan­sion of the United States only in terms of plague blan­kets, boot­leg booze and dead buf­falo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the rail­way.” He went on to say that the Ro­man con­quest of Bri­tain had been “a huge ad­vance” be­cause it linked “the sav­age English tribes” with the more ad­vanced civ­i­liza­tions of the Mediter­ranean basin.

But, as fre­quently oc­curs in this book, Sey­mour in­sists on ad­vanc­ing his ar­gu­ment from solid ground onto very thin ice. Hitchens’s re­ver­sal on Bos­nia — from ar­gu­ing that the out­side world should do noth­ing about eth­nic cleans­ing and the bar­baric siege of Sara­jevo to force­fully ar­gu­ing for in­ter­ven­tion against “Ser­bian and Croat fas­cists act­ing in col­lu­sion” — is cast as an im­moral ca­pit­u­la­tion to Amer­i­can im­pe­ri­al­ism. So, too, is his call for hu­man­i­tar­ian in­ter­ven­tion to pre­vent the mas­sacre of Kur­dish refugees at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, an­other stance one would think that a left­ist an­i­mated against right-wing tyranny would ap­plaud. In­stances of Hitchens op­pos­ing some of Amer­ica’s more morally com­pli­cated in­ter­ven­tions — Viet­nam, Nicaragua — get scant at­ten­tion.

There are plenty of other ex­am­ples of over­reach, in­clud­ing long in­dict­ments of Hitchens’s love of the works of Rud­yard Ki­pling (of “white man’s bur­den” fame) and Ge­orge Or­well, whom Sey­mour faults for hav­ing suc­cumbed to pa­tri­o­tism and war fever as the Luft­waffe bombed his city and the armies of the Third Re­ich marched across Europe. Hitchens’s de­fense in 2007 of the rel­a­tively per­mis­sive and de­cid­edly sec­u­lar dic­ta­tor­ship of Tu­nisia is cast as the will­ful cod­dling of a neo-lib­eral cap­i­tal­ist regime, rather than a fail­ure to ap­pre­ci­ate the frus­tra­tions of that coun­try’s peo­ple, 224 of whom died in the rev­o­lu­tion that trig­gered the Arab Spring.

Hitchens was bril­liant and in­con­sis­tent, and too fond of turn­ing on his former al­lies. One might ar­gue that he doesn’t de­serve more fair-minded treat­ment than he dished out, but we read­ers do.


The provo­ca­teur Christo­pher Hitchens, pic­tured in 2010, gets a drub­bing from Richard Sey­mour in “Un­hitched.”

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