June 26, 2010
Christoper Hitchens Evolves
Christopher Hitchens' Marxist, reflective, but never revisionist memoir Hitch-22 has everything there is to love about the so-called contrarian and rhetorical pugilist (a label that would probably cause Hitchens himself to shudder). Moral worth and keen insight are valued traits to have, be they in international pundits or the guy running the local bookstore. Hitchens delights himself and his readers with his own duality, shaped from birth by an existence with his world-ish, tragic mother and his stern, military father.
This dichotomy isn't so much a battle within Hitchens' prose and thoughts, or a cliché of dueling allegiances, but a device that gives him the ability to make arguments that may seem at odds with each other, especially in comparison to authors who always fall rigidly on the ideological spectrum.
Sure, plenty of rhetorical pundits share the ability to turn a phrase and possess all the wit in the world, but before any given issue hits the news cycle, we know where they'll land their feet. As they say, the worst trait one could possibly have is to be boring. What could be duller than falling into political lockstep with every uttered word? That's a fate a reader never has to suffer through Hitchens, whose thoughts usually offer a bit of the unexpected.
Hitchens is a Marxist and a revolutionary, and his book is filled with romantic pines to his radical past. This would be rather dreary, given the track record of places like Cuba and the Eastern Bloc, but Hitchens never loses his loathing for dictators of any stripe, be they red or otherwise, and his own journey through red places like Castro's Cuba is as much an awakening as a realization.
Despite whatever nostalgia he may hold for his days as a soixante-huitard, what he is not any longer is a socialist. This is an assumption made not through any sort of political duality, or as Ross Douthat suggested, political romanticism, but due to two easily understandable ideas. The first is Hitchens' admiration of George Orwell, who could be seen as his own intellectual forefather. The other would be his love and admiration for the United States, its place in the world, and its ability to be a force for good despite its faults. (It also helps that he's not a pacifist, as one could surmise from his own positions on the Falklands or Iraq -- or from the time he ditched Bush I's press conference on the Kuwait invasion to drink and fire automatic weapons with Hunter Thompson.)
Understanding this is to understand Hitchens. Orwell is loathed by many of Hitchens' contemporaries on the left, and we know the feelings that Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and Edward Said have for the United States. To the new left, a believer in the spirit and creation of the U.S. and an admirer of the world's most noted anti-communist is a radical amongst radicals.
An important attribute Hitchens shares with Orwell is an impressive record of travel. Hitchens is the only writer to visit Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the last ten years. He's also a man of the street, not the meeting room -- he didn't embed with the military during Iraq, but isntead traveled through Turkey with the Kurds. This has profoundly shaped his attitude in foreign policy, and it has led him to flip positions on the Gulf War as it was occurring. It also led him to become a robust supporter of the Iraq War and, if Hitchens is to be believed, a very proud conspirator in its instigation -- a somewhat brave revelation, given the date his memoir was created and the situation on the ground at the time.
As he brings these reflections to an end, Hitchens tries to reconcile his radical past with his new, more libertarian middle-aged self. And he does so quite eloquently.
I have actually seen more prisons broken open, more people and territory "liberated," and more taboos broken and censors flouted, since I let go of the idea, or at any rate the plan, of a radiant future. Those "simple" ordinary propositions, of the open society, especially when contrasted with the lethal simplifications of that society's sworn enemies, were all I required.
But to get at this transformation, one has to read between the lines, and one gets the feeling Hitchens is not quite ready to completely expose the reasons for his newfound political machinations. He remains a "man of the left," as he often says, and a revolutionary at heart. One can be these things, just as one can even be a Marxist without being a socialist, but one is still struck when Hitchens says he feels that socialism is no longer the true revolutionary force in the world. Instead, Hitchens claims, capitalism is -- a confession he slips into one end-of-paragraph sentence, never to be revisited. (There's plenty of this teasing throughout the book, as if Hitchens is waiting until later to reveal his deeper thought on some things, while going on at length to describe his change of mind on others.)
Whatever the reasons for Hitchens' change of heart, it's a statement reflective of reality. Growing the pie, instead of slicing it, has led to an America with an underclass housed in air-conditioned quarters, armed with camera phones, and living comfortably compared to the middle class of a generation ago -- a living no communist could promise, even in the best of times. As Victor Davis Hanson has noted in his previous work, how much difference really is there between a $500-a-month apartment in a lower-middle class neighborhood in a medium-sized city and a high-rate condo in the hills? Maybe the square footage and the price of the kitchen counter, but the difference in lifestyle isn't as much as you would expect. The vast majority of the poor in America have much more in common with the rich in America than the poor of the world have with their respective countries' rich. This isn't an observation Hitchens makes in his book, but it's one worth noting when reading between the lines. It also would explain his change of heart.
One wonders what socialists like Orwell, or a communist like Marx, would think of the America of today, especially upon reflection, and given the course of socialism. Maybe they would sum our standard of living as a product of imperialism, like Lenin did. But maybe they would instead separate from today's reactionaries and be tempted to take the same intellectual journey as Hitchens.