Christopher Hitchens

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P. J. Vatikiotis (review date 8 October 1984)

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SOURCE: Vatikiotis, P. J. “An Island Divided.” New Republic (8 October 1984): 32–34.

[In the following review, Vatikiotis offers a generally favorable assessment of Cyprus, though disputes some of Hitchens's political and historical interpretations.]

On the tenth anniversary of the Turkish invasion of northern Cyprus, Christopher Hitchens writes about the complexities and consequences of that episode with intense emotion [in Cyprus]. He also writes in anger about the undoing, or at least the partition, of the island republic. On the whole, he writes cogently and convincingly, albeit in parts with some exaggeration and over simplification.

Unlike Nancy Crawshaw's detailed study of “the Cyprus revolt,” published in 1978, Hitchens's book is a political essay, a somewhat personal and polemical tract. It sets out the author's reaction not only to the events on the island since 1955, but also to the policies of Greece, Turkey, Britain, and the United States, especially after 1964. His contention is straightforward: that the Colonels' regime in Athens (1967–74), in collusion with the United States, was determined to overthrow Archbishop Makarios as a prelude to the partition of Cyprus between Greece and Turkey.

A corollary contention of the author is that Britain, one of the three guarantor powers of Cyprus's independence, with a presence on Cyprus in its sovereign bases, deliberately failed to intervene in July-August 1974 (as it had the right and duty to do under the Zurich and London agreements of 1960) in order to forestall the Turkish invasion. Such failure, the author argues, was due to Britain's dependence on American policy; that in turn was formulated and conducted by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, whom Hitchens bitterly denounces as the source of evil, criticizing him for his disingenuous support of the Greek junta in Athens and for his parallel condoning of the Turkish invasion of the island.

Although Hitchens recognizes the endemic difficulty of ethnic and sectarian differences in Cyprus, he asserts that these did not constitute insurmountable problems for the young republic. They were simply exploited, blatantly and cruelly, by outside powers. He also accepts the weaknesses of the 1960 constitution, but does not quite come to grips with Makarios's lethargic attitude toward its amendment. Nor does he elaborate on Makarios's unwillingness to extend to the Turkish minority the kind of constitutional arrangement, that is, the guarantees, that would have afforded them a greater feeling of security.

Hitchens fails to give full weight to the fact that the constitution in practice consecrated ethnicity and sectarianism; both sides used it in order to promote the interests of their respective communities. In such circumstances the idea of a “Cypriot nation” was difficult to develop or to promote. The idea of an ethnarch—in Greek perceptions, the leader of the genos, i.e., the Greek Orthodox Greek community, but more generally the religious head of the ethnos, or nation, the identity of which is determined by religion, not by territory—as the head of a secular state and government was not an auspicious beginning, given the history of the island, and the historical relationship between Greeks and Turks, Greece and Turkey.

“The urgency of the battle against British rule,” Hitchens writes,

had put the Greek Cypriots in a position where the Orthodox Church, the Greek flag and the intoxicating slogans of Hellenism had shaped their liberation. … From the start, a strong element of vainglory was present; the boastful conviction that enosis [union with Greece] … was still attainable.

This is all true. Hitchens does not consider, however, the very complex and convoluted Greek notion of ethnos and genos to place these statements in proper...

(This entire section contains 1981 words.)

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perspective. Church leaders were always in favor of thegenos (Hellenism), but more often than not opposed to the idea of an independent Greek nation-state, or ethnos-kratos. The latter detracted from their prerogative of leadership, and undermined their other interests. As is always the case with the periphery, Greek Cypriots tended to be more nationalistic about enosis than either conditions warranted or reality decreed. Greek politicians on the mainland exploited this trend for their own purposes.

The fact remains that the independent republic of Cyprus that emerged in 1960 was not a secular polity. Its constitution in effect institutionalized the sectarian interests of the two communities, Greeks and Turks, or the two nations. Makarios did not try—and when he did he was unsuccessful—to transform Cyprus into a secular unitary state. He was certainly for an independent Cyprus in which the Greek majority would remain politically dominant over the Turkish minority, but he failed to establish a political system outside religion. He could not, of course, do that since he was himself, at least officially, a man of religion.

Intercommunal strife, therefore, remained endemic. Yet outsiders could not exploit or manipulate it as totally as Hitchens suggests. They did so in the circumstances essentially because the Makarios regime had failed to deal with it. The vision Makarios had of the state of Cyprus was the one he presided over for fourteen years. There had been no alternative vision. The lack of imagination in this connection, alas, led to the tragic invasion and subsequent virtual partition of the island by Turkish forces, whose continued presence on the island ten years later simply has no plausible basis—at least on the surface—other than the support and promotion of the puerile ambitions of Mr. Rauf Denktash, the Turkish Cypriot leader. All the same, what always lurked in the background to undermine further the unitary republican polity was, of course, enosis on the Greek side, and taksim, or partition, on the Turkish side. The recent lesson of Lebanon suggests the price that must be paid for the failure to construct a regime outside, or independently of, religion.

As for the crisis of 1963–64, Hitchens tells us practically nothing about how General Grivas, leader of EOKA, the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, returned to the island. He fails to consider, for example, whether or not there was any connivance on the part of the Centre Union government of the late George Papandreou in the general's return to Cyprus. Moreover, the claim by Andreas Papandreou in 1971 that “Cyprus lies at the heart of the tragic political developments that had led to the death of democracy in Greece” should be subjected to critical scrutiny, and not be accepted at face value. There were other deep causes for the “death of democracy in Greece” in 1967. Hitchens, in short, is too facile with his assertions, or at least with his ready acceptance of the assertions of Greek politicians. By July 1965 Andreas Papandreou himself was very much a bone of contention in the soured relations between his father, the Prime Minister, and the King. By resorting to pejorative epithets such as the “Ex-Nazi Queen Frederika”—what the Greeks refer to as “tambeles”—in place of argument or explanation, Hitchens has succumbed to the average Greek's notion of evidence (“But everybody knows it”); moreover, this detracts from his otherwise knowledgeable analysis of the intricacies of Greek party and personal politics.

On the basis of published statements by Turkish politicians over the last twenty to twenty-five years, as well as other publications emanating from Turkey, it is plausible to infer that Turkey views Cyprus, not to mention the sovereign Greek Aegean islands close to the Turkish littoral, as potentially integral territories of Turkey's strategic space. It is equally plausible to expect that any Turkish government will, at the opportune time, try to “integrate” them into Turkey. To do that, needless to say, would mean risking a war with a NATO ally, Greece, and trampling over every bilateral agreement Turkey has signed since the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. It is in this sense that Hitchens's tract has highlighted the Turkish exploitation of a strategic minority in a weak island republic, its sectarian composition, and its strategic importance to its American superpower patron.

What Hitchens fails to consider, however, is the complex and intense pressures on the United States in the summer of 1974, arising in particular from the crisis in the Middle East, that is, from the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath. It is not enough to accuse the Americans of overlooking the details, of being concerned with the “bigger picture,” when they connived in the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. A superpower with global strategic concerns is always, for good or ill, influenced by the “bigger picture.” And Cyprus is practically part of the Levant—and, by extension, of the turbulent and continuously erupting Middle East. This is an essential perspective which any student of Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean must always bear in mind. Even if the Americans were prepared to forestall the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the question remains whether they could have done so if the Turks were determined to carry it through. Once again the old conundrum of how far or well the patron can restrain or control the client in the political power game presents itself.

Hitchens is correct in arguing that Cyprus is the symbol of “unresolved Greek and Turkish conflict.” What is less certain is his contention that it is “emblematic of all the difficulties faced by an emerging modern Greece, which seeks to escape from being a Balkan country dependent on America, and to become a respected member of the European community.” The uncertainty is over the question of dependence and independence. Evidence from a similar search by other states in parallel situations in the recent past suggests that the entelechy of such an evolution cannot be guaranteed. Nor is it clear that Greeks, and in particular the present Greek regime, are anxious to become “a respected member of the European community.” The point is arguable.

What is certain, though, is that for the foreseeable future Cyprus will remain divided, its northern part occupied by Turkish forces. Hitchens rightly points to the more ominously permanent aspects of this occupation in his excellent discussion of the ongoing settlement of northern Cyprus by mainland Turks. Given its rapidly increasing population (over 45 million) and the requirements of its economic development, Turkey will also seek to expand its writ over such disputed, or contested, territories as Cyprus and the nearer Aegean islands. A recent trend in Turkish policy, which appears to be part of a wider strategy, may be noted—namely, the extensive economic and commercial activities of Turkey in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Jordan. Coupled to a deliberately closer association, if not identification, with the recent Islamic revival throughout the region, one can reasonably speak of Turkey's desire for a greater role in the Middle East. It is these new developments in Turkish policy which Greece must confront and counter. One should not be surprised if the present regime in Greece were to aim for closer relations with Israel as a counterweight to Turkey's expanded economic and Islamic policy in the Arab Middle East.

The difficulty is that, contrary to Hitchens's expectation, a future unified Cyprus—even with AKEL (the Cyprus Communist Party) in power—will not be secular in politics and law. Archbishop Makarios, the hero of this book, however hard and well he fought to guard the independence of the republic, was unable to make it a secular polity, partly because he could not countenance a political status for the Turkish minority equal to that of the Greek majority. The Turkish minority sought and found a protector in Ankara. The intransigent Makarios was hoist by his own petard, and in the end fell prey to the enemies of that independent republic.

An independent Cyprus, composed of the people of two nations, Greeks and Turks, so disparate in religion and national history, was never really on. That is why, in a way, there was never such an entity before 1960. Once it was formed, however, one must agree with Hitchens that its undoing was callous and disgraceful—not least because it sets a bad precedent for so many other similar parts of the world.

Noel Malcolm (review date 1 August 1987)

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SOURCE: Malcolm, Noel. “Sacrilege in the Temple of Clio.” Spectator (1 August 1987): 32–33.

[In the following review, Malcolm offers a negative assessment of The Elgin Marbles.]

In the stamping-grounds of historical controversy, it is always a pleasure to come across a book which investigates impartially a wide range of evidence and draws its conclusions without bias or prejudice. So I recommend William St Clair's Lord Elgin and the Marbles (Oxford, 1967). Christopher Hitchens has, I fancy, also read St Clair's book, but I can find no mention of the fact [in The Elgin Marbles] among his acknowledgements, where numerous Greek officials are thanked for their help. Here is St Clair's description of the state of the Acropolis under Turkish rule in 1800:

The Erechtheum was a gunpowder magazine, the Theseum was a church, the Tower of the Winds was the headquarters of the Whirling Dervishes, and the Monument of Lysicrates was a storeroom for a French Capuchin Convent … Inside the Parthenon was a small mosque, and the spaces between the pillars of the Propylaea were half bricked up to provide a kind of castellation for the guns … Slabs of crisp-cut marble were built into the rude modern walls …

And here is Hitchens's account:

The Parthenon contained a mosque …, the Erechtheion had become a powder magazine and the pillars of the Propylaea provided convenient bricked-up emplacements for cannon. The Theseion was a church, while the Tower of the Winds did duty as a centre for the whirling dervish sect. The Christians were almost as casual as the Muslims—the Monument of Lysicrates serving as the storeroom for a French Capuchin convent. Every traveller of the period reported that slabs of Pentelic marble were used higgledy-piggledy to shore up hasty new structures.

Let no one say that Mr Hitchens is not an expert on the subject of plundering.

At one point Hitchens generously states that his book is a ‘gloss’ on the work of a previous scholar, A. H. Smith. But glosses are normally additions to a text; Hitchens specialises in subtraction. Take the question of Lord Elgin's motives, for example. Any reader of Smith or St Clair will know of ample evidence that Elgin aimed, from the outset, at raising the standards of artists and architects in England by enabling them to copy the finest achievements of Greek art. Whether the things they copied remained in his ownership or passed to a public museum was a secondary matter. Hitchens applies a 20th-century assumption which simplifies the matter wonderfully: if Elgin intended to own what he collected, then his motives cannot have been ‘altruistic’ after all. A letter from Elgin is quoted, in which he asked his agent at Athens to look out for pieces of marble (such as columns or unworked slabs) which could be used to decorate his new house in Scotland. Hitchens comments cannily: ‘No mention, you will notice, is made of the cause of fine arts and civilisation.’ The reason for the lack of any such mention is that Hitchens has omitted the first part of the letter, which goes on at some length about the need to obtain details of Greek ornaments to further the cause of ‘the Arts’:

The very great variety in our manufactures, in objects either of elegance or luxury, offers a thousand applications for such details. A chair, a footstool, designs or shapes for porcelain, ornaments for cornices, nothing is indifferent, and whether it be in painting or a model, exact representations of such things would be much to be desired. Besides you have now the permission to dig, and there a great field is opened for medals, and for the remains both of sculpture and architecture.

This letter, written at the start of Elgin's operations on the Acropolis, illustrates the progress of his aims. His initial intention was to acquire drawings and models only: for this purpose he had hired two plaster-cast specialists from Italy and an artist, Tita Lusieri, who was reputed to be the most accurate architectural draughtsman in Europe. But the Acropolis was in effect a military zone, and special permission from the Sultan was needed. An application for this was drawn up by Elgin's chaplain, Dr Hunt, in which permission to excavate and to remove pieces of stone was also requested. The Sultan (filled with gratitude for the recent defeat of the French in Egypt) complied, and issued an edict or ferman enabling Elgin's agents in Athens to go ahead. The ferman was vaguely worded on the subject of removing stones, and Hunt persuaded the local officials in Athens to ‘extend rather than contract’ their interpretation of its scope.

‘Extend rather than contract’ were Hunt's own words at the Select Committee hearing at Westminster in 1816. The ambiguities of the ferman were discussed then, and have since been expounded by Smith and St Clair. Hitchens makes heavy weather of them; and he is always determined to have it both ways. His first argument is that ‘By Elgin's own account, and by all other certifiable histories, the Turks cared little or nothing for the temples … What, then, is the moral force of a Turkish document which gives to foreigners the right to make themselves free of the Parthenon?’ If I saw someone brutally mistreating his dog and persuaded him to give me the animal, Mr Hitchens would presumably tell me the transaction was invalid, because the original owner had no right to dispose of an animal which he mistreated. But, having dismissed the ferman in this way, he then tries to apply minutely legalistic arguments to show that Elgin exceeded its terms.

The problem is that we do not possess the original Turkish text, but only the Italian translation supplied by Elgin's interpreter. Here permission is given to remove ‘qualche pezzi di pietra’; Hitchens quotes Harold Nicolson claiming that this means ‘a few pieces of stone,’ but in fact the primary meaning of qualche is simply ‘some.’ My guess is that the Turkish was bazi which is as vague and unrestrictive as qualche. And we do not have any text at all of a second ferman obtained by Elgin, which apparently confirmed the first one and thanked the local officials at Athens for having implemented it.

Years later, in 1809, when Elgin's agent at Athens was trying to get permission to send off the last crates of sculptures, yet another ferman was applied for. This time, as Elgin later recorded, ‘The Porte denied that the persons who had sold those marbles to me had any right to dispose of them.’ Hitchens seizes on this as proof that Elgin's actions had been unauthorised all along. But it proves no such thing; it merely shows that the Sultan had been misinformed (the marbles were not ‘sold’ to Elgin), and suggests that, in the frosty atmosphere which followed England's declaration of war against Turkey in 1807, the Sultan was inclined to change his mind where acts of generosity to English envoys were concerned. Hitchens mentions neither the political circumstances, nor the fact that in 1810 an order was issued after all, permitting Lusieri to send the sculptures to England.

And so it goes on. To point out every omission and every squeezing of the evidence in Hitchens's account would take a book, not a book-review. Of course, Hitchens has not tried to write a comprehensive history; his narrative is a brief one, and it is supplemented by two scholarly essays, one by Professor Browning on ‘The Parthenon in History,’ and the other by Graham Binns on the recent restoration work at Athens. Hitchens also discusses the history of the debate about the marbles in England since 1890; some interesting evidence is given here, but once again the choice of material is tendentious, and the argument for retention is represented only by its most blimpish and arrogant spokesmen. Many of Hitchens's own arguments for returning the marbles do not in fact depend on convicting Elgin of fraud or foul play. But the discussion of Elgin's actions (which was splashed all over the Observer a few weeks ago) is the kernel of the book, and I think it is rotten. Anyone interested in the difference between journalism and history should compare this book with the one by William St Clair. The goddess Athena must be beaming with gratitude at Mr Hitchens. Clio, the muse of history, must be hanging her head in shame.

Jules Lubbock (review date 7 August 1987)

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SOURCE: Lubbock, Jules. “Come and Get 'em.” New Statesman (7 August 1987): 30.

[In the following review of The Elgin Marbles, Lubbock discusses the long-standing controversy and public debate surrounding the return of the Elgin Marbles, and other cultural artifacts, to their country of origin.]

Of all the lost causes for which the liberal left and this journal have ever provided a home, the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens must seem the ultimate as well the most forlorn. The launch of [The Elgin Marbles] at St James's Piccadilly was attended by two former editors and many present and former writers for the New Statesman including Christopher Hitchens himself, several eminent professors, some with and some without snowy white beards, and Eric Heffer MP—all of them burning with the injustice of the situation.

The book itself explains and argues their case with impeccable clarity and all the information one might desire. It is this: Lord Elgin, while British Ambassador to the Ottoman court after the Battle of the Nile, organised the removal, between 1801 and 1803, of many of the sculptured friezes and figures from the already severely damaged Parthenon, shipped them back to England and sold them to the British Museum in 1816 for £35,000 (about £1 million in today's money). The sculptures formed part of sequences and groups that possessed ‘a unity of action and representation’ and were intrinsic to the significance of this great national monument.

Today the sculptures are arbitrarily split, roughly half and half, between London and Athens, making it impossible for anyone to enjoy a unified impression of the whole, three-quarters of which survive. Commonsense alone calls for their reassembly either in London or in Athens; and Athens, where they could be housed in a museum next to the Parthenon, is the obviously appropriate place. They could not and should not be returned to the building itself because of the heavily polluted atmosphere of the city and the consequent condition of the building, already ruined by an explosion in 1687 and further damaged by Elgin's removal of the marbles themselves.

Putting aside the ethics of Elgin's actions, there seems a prima facie case on aesthetic and historical grounds for reuniting the sculptures in their original site. On the evidence of television polls and phone-in programmes the British public seems to accept this case. The present British government and the British Museum do not, and show no signs of being persuaded. Why?

Perhaps their strongest argument is that the return of the Elgin Marbles would open the floodgates for demands for the return of ‘cultural property’ of all kinds looted and pillaged from former colonial territories and elsewhere, which form an important part of the collections of the great western universal museums. On TV last year, the Director of the British Museum, Sir David Wilson, went so far as to compare the return of the Marbles to Hitler burning books; ‘cultural fascism’ as he called it. In fact this danger, if danger it is, is much exaggerated and crucial objects such as Benin bronze sculptures, the Hungarian royal crown and the Mandalay Regalia have already been returned by the BM and similar institutions without the predicted consequences.

So why does someone like Sir David, as cultivated, liberal and probably just as attached to lost causes as his opponents, prove so stubborn on this issue? As one of his severest critics I would like to suggest an answer based on my experience a year ago in successfully persuading the Association of Art Historians to pass a resolution supporting the principle of returning key items of cultural property to their homelands—it remains the only professional association in the field to have taken such action.

My original wording, based on a UNESCO resolution, had bluntly supported the principle of returning objects removed during conquest or colonial occupation on the demand of the country or people of origin. The Executive Committee, quite as liberal as Sir David if not more so, showed all the signs of the Dementia Elginosis from which he suffers. Nonetheless, imaginative redrafting on both sides achieved unanimous assent. Most important was the condition that both sides should mutually agree upon the central importance of the objects to a people's cultural heritage.

To some this may seem just a form of words, one moreover that weakens the case by giving the holding country the power of veto. But they possess that power already in the fact of possession. I believe that the wording strengthens the case as well as removing from the Sir Davids of this world, who are neither looters, nor closet imperialists, the implied blame for the vandalism of their predecessors. I begin to suspect that the British campaigners, in common with other liberals and leftists, do not actually wish to win, because to win would be to lose—to lose their ‘lost cause’ altogether. But, as in all diplomacy, of which cultural diplomacy is a part, the only test of real will is the readiness to enter into real negotiations.

Tom Bethell (review date 7 April 1989)

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SOURCE: Bethell, Tom. “The Foe in Plain View.” National Review (7 April 1989): 49–51.

[In the following review, Bethell offers a generally negative assessment of Prepared for the Worst.]

I met Christopher Hitchens a year ago at Stanford University, strolling across the campus with a glass of red wine in his hand, en route to a terrorism conference. Unusually even for Stanford, everyone present seemed to be pro-terrorism, and from Hitchens the subject received a particularly witty defense. (The word itself “carries a conservative freight,” has “no meaning and no definition,” and so on. How the assembled professoriate gurgled with delight! This was before the Ayatollah put his foot in it by terrorizing Hitchens's left-wing friend Salman Rushdie.) Later that afternoon Hitchens told me he had recently discovered that he was a Jew. In England, his 92-year-old maternal grandmother (née Blumenthal) had told him about his family background in nineteenth-century Breslau. His recently deceased father, a commander in the Royal Navy, apparently was never told.

“On hearing the news,” Hitchens writes in the final and most interesting piece in this collection of his journalism [Prepared for the Worst], “I was pleased to find that I was pleased … My initial reaction, apart from pleasure and interest, was the faint but definite feeling that I had somehow known all along.”

Hitchens told me that he would now inevitably be dismissed by his Neoconservative “enemies” as a “self-hating Jew.” And indeed he is a tireless promoter of the Palestinian cause, an admirer of Chomsky, Shahak, Timerman, & Co., and endlessly dismayed that Israel refuses to see its Arab neighbors as a civil-rights movement writ large. Hitchens himself puts Rabbi Meir Kahane into the self-hating category.

More useful than “self-hating,” however, is the category “non-believing.” Kahane is a believing Jew, Hitchens (as he tells us time and again) is non-believing. He is a believing socialist. He quotes G. K. Chesterton's famous line about the credulity of those who cease to believe in God, but might have added that in the past hundred years the agnostic has not believed in anything so much as in socialism. Hitchens writes of the “sickening disillusionments that have, in the last generation, led socialists to dilute or abandon their faith.” Hitchens has kept his faith.

He quotes an Argentinian, “an ideologue of the junta”:

Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.

“Here was the foe in plain view,” Hitchens writes.

Here were all my adopted godfathers in plain view as well: the three great anchors of the modern revolutionary intelligence. It was for this reason that, on the few occasions on which I had been asked if I was Jewish, I had been sad to say no, and even perhaps slightly jealous.

Not for Hitchens is the latter-day union of socialism and heretical Christianity: the liberated theologian, the “trendy encyclical,” the “bland ecumenical exhortation.” He wants that old nineteenth-century religion that tried to banish God altogether. And here he scores a bull's-eye: “The apologetic ‘modern Christian’ who argues faintly that of course the Bible isn't meant to be taken literally is saying that it isn't the word of God. He is thereby revising his faith out of existence. If the religious have so few real convictions left, why are socialists supposed to defer to their insights?”

Unusually for a socialist, Hitchens makes explicit the connection between his faith and the loss of religious faith. He quotes from the conclusion of Michael Harrington's book The Politics at God's Funeral: “Men and women of faith and anti-faith should, in the secular realm at least, stop fighting one another and begin to work together to introduce moral dimensions into economic and social debate.” Hitchens finds this “very insipid,” adding:

Neither believers nor unbelievers need to give up anything if they want to join the battle for socialism. But if the religious promise is good or true, then there is no absolute need for socialism … That the two schools should ‘stop fighting’ is, fortunately, impossible. If it were possible, it would not be desirable.

Many in the media adopt a leftish pose out of opportunism, seeing in it camouflage for wealth and a shield against envy. This may not be true in Hitchens's case. One senses that he would be only too happy not to be aligned with the Gorby-loving literati. Nonetheless, one problem with many of these pieces—reprinted from, among other publications, Grand Street,In These Times,Raritan,Mother Jones,The Nation,Harper's—is that Hitchens's attitudes for the most part are fashionable, whether he likes it or not, and therefore repetitious. (The Crisis interview in which he states his anomalous opposition to abortion is not included.)

He finds in Brideshead Revisited “deplorable attitudes to women,” in India (“behind the imposing British-built law courts”) “as fine a stew of misery and deprivation as you could wish to find”; he judges Nixon to be “sordid,” Nicaragua (home of poets) “extraordinarily beautiful,” El Salvador repressive (he means not yet socialist). And the following meet with his disapproval: the CIA, the Korean CIA, Ferdinand Marcos, fascism, Ronald Reagan (Teflon-coated, Hitchens tells us), Ollie North, Bill Casey, and (I almost forgot) Ed Meese. Such a redundant litany of rebuke, which I could have made twice as long, does not do justice to Hitchens's undoubted intelligence. It also raises the question whether an intelligent defense of socialism is possible at this late stage.

His longer pieces hold more promise, and I turned with real interest to “Holy Land Heretic,” apparently a profile of Israel Shahak, the left-wing chemistry professor who spends a good deal of time publicly denouncing the “Nazi-like” tendencies of his Israeli colleagues. But here one encounters another Hitchens fault: a great reluctance to do reporting. Evidently he spent a week with Shahak in Jerusalem but he never brings the man, or Israel itself, to life. The Hitchens style is relentlessly argumentative and analytical, rarely expository. His articles are filled with allusions to travels made and missions completed, but usually he has little more than Times-Lit-Supp-style analysis to show for it. His reporting seems to draw almost exclusively on materials available in North East Washington, D.C., the unromantic spot where he lives.

He longs for the day when collectivist arrangements are voluntarily entered into—that is, when human nature is transformed. He seems to believe that this will yet happen. He concludes:

I can supposedly redeem myself by moving into the Jerusalem home from which my friend Edward Said has been evicted. We must be able to do better than that. We still live in the prehistory of the human race, where no tribalism can be much better than another and where humanism and internationalism, so much derided and betrayed, need an unsentimental and decisive restatement.

He should be prepared for the worst, as the title of his book tells us that he is, for this “restatement” is likely to take the form of global capitalism, both humanistic and international.

John Grigg (review date 6 May 1989)

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SOURCE: Grigg, John. “Still Playing Happy Families.” Spectator (6 May 1989): 27–28.

[In the following review, Grigg offers a mixed assessment of Prepared for the Worst.]

There are few journalists whose work can bear reprinting, but Christopher Hitchens is one of them. The collection [Prepared for the Worst] now published includes pieces of varying length, which first appeared in British or American journals within the past decade or so (the earliest in 1977). Some will be familiar to readers of the Spectator: for instance, his account of a meeting with Jorge Luis Borges, and a number of pieces castigating the Reagan régime. Mr Hitchens is a formidable arguer and a very sharp observer, writing with wit and force from the point of view of an unrepentant man of the Left. Though he lives in the United States, he rejects the prevailing ethos of American life and continues to proclaim the gospel of socialism.

One can only admire his refusal to join the mass-movement of Left-wing intellectuals to the opposite quarter of the political firmament, which has been so marked a feature of our time. Yet it has to be said that his socialism now seems somewhat vague and attenuated, at any rate on the positive side. His philosophy is more clearly defined in what he hates in the existing order of things than in the form he believes a new order should take.

His emphasis is upon the community rather than the state, and he sees the community as a natural extension of the family, operating ‘without undue repression, on the principle of “from each according to his/her ability and to each according to his/her need.”’ This is a charming conceit, and obviously a great improvement on versions of socialism based on envy and class-hatred. But is the analogy between family and community entirely sound? In practice, the organ of a national community is the state, and the state cannot be regarded as an institution of nature, in the sense that parents are. It is essentially an artefact, and its actions involve guiding, instructing and controlling citizens of all ages, whereas the authority of parents is confined to children. The socialist principle which may (up to a point) operate naturally in (good and close) families cannot, therefore, have the same application in a community of millions. There it has to be imposed more or less artificially, and even in democratic states with long-established legitimacy the limits of acceptable socialism are likely to be far less wide than in a family.

There is nothing wishy-washy about Mr Hitchens's hates, among which that for Ronald Reagan stands out. He abominates the former president and all his works. Even aspects of Reagan's character which most people would find disarming leave Mr Hitchens cold. Reagan's joke to the doctors on arrival in hospital after being shot—‘I hope you're all Republicans’—is treated as on a par with his ‘microphone-testing gag about bombing Russia.’ But surely there is a world of difference between the two: the second deplorable, the first admirable.

On serious matters Mr Hitchens often scores heavily against Reagan, but his indictment as a whole would be more convincing if he could bring himself to give any credit at all for the undeniable achievements of the Reagan presidency. Unfortunately he seems unable to do this. Moreover, on one issue he falls below the critical standards that he most effectively demands of others (as, for instance, when he defends Noam Chomsky against his critics). Mr Hitchens's gravest charge against Reagan is that he did a deal with the Iranians to prevent the US hostages being released before election day in 1980, so perhaps ensuring the defeat of Carter. It is even suggested that Khomeini was tipped off by Reagan associates about Carter's attempt to rescue the hostages. These charges lack clinching evidence. There are, indeed, many suspicious circumstances, and it is right to demand that they be more fully investigated. But a theory which fits all the known facts is still only a theory; it does not amount to cast-iron proof, and such proof is surely needed before anyone can feel justified in accepting allegations so heinous.

Mr Hitchens is on stronger ground when he complains of the corruption of US politics. Beyond question, money plays far too large a part in the workings of American democracy, to the extent of vitiating the system. ‘So long as I live here, I shall never quite adjust to the loud, uncompromising way in which money talks … American politics is choking and drowning in boodle.’ One could wish that this issue were discussed in more detail. It is all the more urgent now that the Soviet Union may be starting to go democratic. For too long the United States has enjoyed easy moral superiority at the super-power level; from now onwards this may have to be worked for.

Mr Hitchens has long been an eloquent champion of the Palestinians, but there has never been the slightest taint of anti-semitism in his attitude. This is just as well, because he has recently discovered that he is Jewish himself on his mother's side. He describes his reactions to the discovery in the last piece in the book (‘On Not Knowing the Half of It,’ 1988), and shows an almost mystical excitement in finding himself part of one of the greatest of all human traditions. He now joins those noble contemporary Jews, such as the dissident Israel Shahak—about whom he has written a long and appreciative essay (‘Holy Land Heretic,’ 1987)—in opposing the excesses of Zionism from the inside. As an editor said to him when told the news of his part-Jewishness: ‘That should make your life easier. Jewish people are allowed to criticise Israel.’

The book is unattractively produced, and has no index. But the contents can be warmly recommended. Even when he is at his most unfair, Mr Hitchens is never dull.

Jasper Griffin (review date 20 July 1989)

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SOURCE: Griffin, Jasper. “Precious Stones.” New York Review of Books (20 July 1989): 14–15.

[In the following review, Griffin discusses the history of the Elgin Marbles and offers a positive assessment of Imperial Spoils.]

High on the educated tourist's list of sights to see in Europe stands the British Museum. Its colossal treasure includes everything from Egyptian mummies to Renaissance clocks, Roman silver and Magna Carta, and harps from Ur of the Chaldees and King George V's stamp collection. But pride of place, perhaps, and the most costly galleries, go to a large collection of more or less broken marble carvings from Athens: the celebrated and controversial Elgin Marbles. Their history raises a number of moral and political questions.

In the years immediately after 450 BC the people of Athens were persuaded by Pericles, the great aristocratic leader of the democracy, to embark on a spectacular program of public building. They spent for the purpose the accumulated income that had been paid, ever since the defeat of Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 BC, by a large number of independent Greek city-states all around the Aegean. This money was originally pledged as a common fund for the defense of Greek cities against the might of Persia. With the passage of time the enthusiasm of the first years faded away, the Persian menace seemed less immediate, and some cities tried to withdraw; but the Athenians took a firm line, used force to prevent any secessions, and moved the common treasury from the sacred island of Delos to Athens itself. They were still defending the other cities, argued Pericles; they provided the ships and the men; all that the others contributed was money, and Athens was free to spend the surplus on works that would provide full employment and win undying glory.

This policy of Pericles was violently disputed. His opponents said that it amounted to imperialism and exploitation (in Greek terms, “tyranny”) to spend the money paid by other states on their own city: Athens was behaving like a loose woman, decking herself out with jewels and finery acquired by shamelessness. But he carried his point. In the words of Plutarch, written more than five hundred years later,

So then the works arose, no less towering in their grandeur than inimitable in the grace of their outlines, since the workmen were passionately anxious to surpass themselves in the beauty of their handiwork. All was finished in an astonishingly short time, and every piece was at once classic in its perfection, but its freshness keeps it to this day crisp and new. Such a bloom of novelty makes them look untouched by time, as if they contained a spirit and a soul which never grows old.

It was one of those moments in history, like the building of the cathedral at Chártres or of Brunelleschi's dome of the Duomo in Florence, when the energies and passions of a society concentrate with intensity on the creation of a work of art which is recognized, both by contemporaries and by posterity, as the perfection of its kind. The crown of these buildings was the temple of the virgin goddess Athena: the Parthenon. Adopted by UNESCO as its symbol of culture, it can also be seen as standing for the arrogance of power.

The Parthenon is the summit of classical Greek architecture. Its simplicity of outline conceals countless optical subtleties and exactnesses, all working together to achieve the greatest visual effect. It was also exceptionally rich in carved decorations.1 At either end a triangular pediment displayed large statues, carved in the round, enacting scenes from the mythical history of Athena and her city. Along the external walls ran ninety-two panels carved in high relief, the metopes, which represented four mythical battles: the defeat of the Giants by the Gods, the destruction of the half-horse Centaurs by the fully human Lapiths, the defeat of Troy by the Greeks, and the defeat of the Amazons. Monsters, whether half-bestial creatures like Centaurs and Giants, or denatured warrior women, or the subjects of Asiatic monarchy: all symbolized the same theme, the defeat of the bizarre and the lawless by the ordered civilization and human scale of Hellas. That was the significance of the defeat of Xerxes, of which these images served as mythical counterparts. Inside, high up and not easy to see, ran a frieze, 160 meters long, carved in low relief: the procession of the whole of Athens, young and old, men and women, which every four years honored Athena at her greatest festival.

These carvings are among the supreme masterpieces of sculpture, an art in which few artists, over the centuries, have achieved the very highest rank (it is sobering to see how few names of sculptors come to mind, compared with those of painters). They arrived in London at the height of Romantic Philhellenism, and they created a sensation. Chipped and fragmentary as they are, their combination of energy, power, and grace remains the noblest embodiment of the ideal, now itself controversial, of the classical in art.

Over the centuries the great temple has undergone many changes. Forty years after its building, Athens lost the war against Sparta and its allies; some of the victors wanted Athens destroyed, and although that did not happen, there followed a reactionary coup and civil war, and dead bodies in the streets below the glories of the Acropolis. A hundred and fifty years later, and a Macedonian king took up residence in the Parthenon with his whores, announcing that he was living with the goddess. In the Roman period it was a tourist attraction, in Christian times a church, under the Turks a mosque. They also stored gunpowder in it, and in 1687 a shell fired by the Venetian general Morosini caused a damaging explosion in the building. By 1800 the Parthenon was a ruin, but with many statues and carvings still in position, and others, it seems, lying nearby on the ground. Some had been ground up for lime, some had been smashed by Morosini in an unsuccessful attempt to remove them. And the ivory and gold, the bronze and ebony and cedar-wood, had all long disappeared, leaving only stone. Athens was now a very small town, like all of Greece part of the dominions of Turkey.

Enter, at this point, the seventh earl of Elgin, British ambassador to Constantinople. It was the time of Napoleon's great looting of works of art, and the French, too, were interested in the Parthenon. By the use of judicious bribery, and by exploiting his position at a time when the Sultan was anxious for British help against Napoleon, he succeeded in getting the local authorities to grant him permission to “take away any pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures.” Stretching this grant to its limit, his agents also stripped from the building a number of sculptures that were still in place, inflicting damage as they did so. In the end they had more than half of the existing Parthenon carvings, as well as a few others from the Acropolis.

With enormous difficulties and crippling expense, Elgin managed to transport the Marbles to England. There he faced further difficulties in getting them off his hands. His proceedings were denounced by members of Parliament; Byron crucified him in ferocious verse; he was caught in France and interned by Napoleon; his nose was consumed by a disease picked up in the East, opening him to allegations of syphilis; his wife left him and after a spectacular divorce married another Scottish landowner; he was never able to recoup the cost of the Marbles. But finally they were accepted by the British Museum, and have been one of the glories there ever since.

Ever since, too, there has been a demand that they should be returned to Greece. Christopher Hitchens's book is a passionate plea for their return. Like most, but not all, of the Britons who have campaigned for the cause over the centuries, he argues from a position on the left. The title Imperial Spoils makes the claim that the presence of the Marbles in London is a consequence of imperialism. The claim is not exact—Elgin used British influence, but he was in no position to invoke imperial control, since Britain did not rule Athens. Hitchens says. “A visitor to the British Museum who knew nothing of the British would certainly be able to conclude that this was a people who had once enjoyed wide dominions.” The looseness of that chain of thought emerges if one thinks of the Vatican Museum in Rome, or of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. “Dominion” is by no means the only way to acquire great collections; and the British Museum has greater treasures from Assyria, which was not part of the Empire, than from India, which was.

By the standards of right that obtain in this often shady field of international law and custom, the claim of the British Museum to the Elgin Marbles is not bad—legally, at any rate. The museums of the West are full of things that were exported from other countries with no kind of legality at all. The museum at Izmir (Smyrna), when I was there eighteen months ago, featured a large photographic display of objects recently excavated in Turkey that were smuggled out of the country, and a number of the exhibits actually named the North American museums in which the objects in question now are. The visitor to at least one great museum in California is struck by the fact that many of the archaeological treasures on show there are given no provenance at all; a colleague who observed a member of the staff at work cataloging a vase, and asked where it was unearthed, received the answer, “I'm not allowed to tell you.”

In this way we are regressing from the idea, laboriously established in the nineteenth century, that objects found in the earth have a local setting that is vitally informative and that they are part of history, to the attitude of the grandees of the eighteenth century or earlier that they are simply “treasures,” aesthetic marvels to be appreciated in isolation from anything that they could tell us about their time or place. The paradoxical difference is that the modern equivalents to the dukes and earls of former centuries are not actually well-to-do aesthetes but think of themselves as professional scholars. The lust for acquisition is no less powerful when it is vicarious.

Elgin did at least have an arguable case that his collecting was formally permitted by the authorities in power at the time. That is weakened emotionally by the fact that those authorities were not Greek but Turkish, and that within a few years Greece had won its independence. Greeks do not regard that permission as valid in the light of the modern ideal of nationalism: the Elgin Marbles are seen as the inalienable property of Greece, a treasure of unique importance for the national identity.

This is a relatively recent claim. During the long centuries of Turkish rule it was the Orthodox Church in Greece, like the Catholic Church in Ireland, that played the most important role in keeping nationalism alive; and the Church had little tenderness for the monuments of pre-Christian paganism. In the early Christian period, indeed, it seems that a good deal of deliberate damage was inflicted on some of the carvings on the Parthenon that too frankly represented pagan gods, notably the metopes, and heads and torsos were torn down and thrown aside. But when, after 1800, Western Europe began to interest itself in the plight of Greece, and celebrated men like Byron joined and publicized the struggle for Greek independence, it was largely the memory of classical Greek learned at school and university that provided the emotional drive. The battle of Marathon, the isles of Greece where burning Sappho loved and sung: in the age of Shelley and Keats and Hölderlin, when ancient Greece was ousting Rome as the focus of thoughts and feelings, these were talismans of great power.

So it was that a nation emerging from long subjection came to find in them the foundations of national pride, an inheritance venerated by a Philhellene Europe that had little interest in Orthodox Christianity, its art or its ideas. The Greek language itself was altered, to make it more like what it had been two thousand years earlier: a disastrous step, which opened the Language Question that has haunted the country ever since. Only Athens, not Návplion or Ioánnina, could be the national capital, and the Parthenon, the heart of Athens, the creation of Pericles, became the symbol of the ancient lineage of the new-born nation-state. But by then the Elgin Marbles were gone.

In the early years of Greek independence it was argued that the Marbles could and should be replaced on the Parthenon itself. There, in the unique light and air of Athens, they could be seen to advantage as they could not in the grayer light of London and the antiseptic atmosphere of a museum. That, alas, is no longer a possibility. The air of Athens is now conspicuous for its foulness and acidity, even as modern cities go. The Greeks are planning a new museum below the Acropolis, into which the Marbles could be put. Will they, should they, be given back? Hitchens makes the case with panache. It would be a gesture of rare generosity: the kind of gesture that the nation-state, tenacious of its possessions and never admitting to being in the wrong, least likes to make—especially under the pressure of publicity. The British Government considered returning the marbles in 1941, when Britain and Greece stood virtually alone against Hitler's Germany; it was decided to keep them, and one can hardly imagine such a sacrifice, evaded by Churchill's administration at so heroic a time, being performed in a less noble age by that of Mrs. Thatcher.

Elgin's impetuous purchases impoverished his family. Hitchens, who is consistently hard on him, says “his great vice was parsimony”; but in fact, like other collectors, he combined meanness with extravagance. His descendants, as a result, could not live the life of quiet aristocrats but had to bustle about and serve their country. Both his son and his grandson were viceroys of India; the son died there, the grandson survived. The career of the son is a curious footnote to the story of the Marbles, with a horridly ironic climax. He was forced by the poverty they caused to serve first as governor general of Canada, where he was thought to favor the French speakers in Quebec against the Scottish magnates of Montreal. His carriage was stoned, the Parliament building in Montreal was burned down as the members debated within (they all got out), and, for having “disgraced the Scottish name,” he was expelled from the St. Andrews Society of Montreal, and from the Thistle Curling Club, too. All this is well recounted in The Elgins [by Sydney Checkland], a very superior example of the history of a noble family.

That was not the end of his tribulations. He was sent to China, where the Chinese had just captured a river ship, the Arrow, registered in Hong Kong, taking the crew and insulting the British flag. Elgin, a humane man, disliked the whole business: “No human power,” he wrote to his wife, “shall induce me to play the office of oppressor of the feeble,” but he soon found himself bombarding the helpless city of Canton (“I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life”). From India he wrote to her, “It is a terrible business, this living among inferior races. I have seldom from man or woman since I came to the East heard a sentence which was reconcilable with the hypothesis that Christianity had ever come into the world.” In China, “our trade is carried on on principles which are dishonest as regards the Chinese and demoralising to our own people.” He liked things better in Japan, where the people “are competent to manage their own steam engines and to navigate their own ships,” and had “an inexhaustible fund of good temper.” But there too were difficulties. He was Earl of Elgin and also Earl of Kincardine, and the Japanese imagined he was two people; and they thought it prudent to offer him women, whom he did not want.

But the worst lay ahead. Back to China he was sent, where the Chinese had disowned the treaty he had negotiated with them, and had fired on British ships. This time they were to be taught a lesson, and with great reluctance Elgin returned. Putting on such an alarming demeanor that he was called, in the Chinese press, the “Uncontrollably Fierce Barbarian,” he advanced on Peking with a joint force of British and French soldiers. A party protected by a flag of truce was, with incredible folly, captured and maltreated by the Chinese; three of the party were killed. Arrived at Peking, the French captured and looted the Summer Palace, five miles outside the city; the British hurried to join in. It was decided that a signal punishment must be inflicted on the emperor, and Elgin gave the order that the looted Summer Palace should be destroyed. The porcelain roofs, the gilded beams, the ornamental trees and lakes: all were burned. “No one,” he said in London, “regretted [it] more sincerely than I did. … I was forced to choose between the indulgence of a not unnatural sensibility and the performance of a painful duty.”

The way of the man of power is hard. The father, a keen collector, impoverished his family and became a byword for insensitivity; the son, a man of humane feelings, destroyed a palace of great beauty. The Chinese never forgave the burning of the Summer Palace, as the Greeks have never forgiven the taking of the Elgin Marbles. As for the loot of Peking, some of it reached England; among the rest was a Pekinese dog for Queen Victoria. She called it “Looty.”


  1. See, for excellent photographs and a masterly short account, The Parthenon and Its Sculptures by John Boardman, with photographs by David Finn (Thames and Hudson/University of Texas Press, 1985).

James Gardner (review date 27 October 1989)

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SOURCE: Gardner, James. “On Losing One's Marbles.” National Review (27 October 1989): 53–55.

[In the following review, Gardner offers a negative assessment of Imperial Spoils.]

Given that Christopher Hitchens does not seem especially interested in the subject of his most recent book, it is natural to wonder why he wrote it in the first place. Imperial Spoils is a slightly oversized pamphlet advocating the restitution to Greece of those sculptures that Lord Elgin removed from the Athenian Acropolis and sold to the British nation early in the nineteenth century. Even to those of us who have enjoyed Hitchens's splenetic outbursts in The Nation, in which he attacks everyone to the political right of himself (which is to say, nearly everyone), it is not self-evident why he should now feel moved to agitate for the return of several tons of ancient stone to a small country on the Mediterranean.

Although it may be that Hitchens merely feels he is “lending his prestige” to a worthy cause, he would have us believe that he has been spurred into print by the beauty of the Elgin Marbles and by his outrage at their ongoing captivity in the bowels of the British Museum. And yet, when it comes to explaining why anyone should actually want the marbles, Hitchens has little to say. Aside from several ennobling sentimentalities on the glories of nationalism, his aesthetic commentary is limited to such half-digested cribbings as the observation that the Parthenon “has eight columns at the end instead of the usual six,” or that “Pericles … called upon that sense of balance and symmetry which Thucydides immortalized in his funeral oration.”

Why, really, has Hitchens written this book at this time? For its publication certainly comes at an opportune time. No doubt Hitchens was influenced, at least in part, by a movement that over the past year or two has advocated the return of ancient artifacts to the descendants of their original owners. The Smithsonian and other museums have agreed to surrender century-old Indian bones and burial paraphernalia to angry tribe members. In a celebrated case this August, a federal judge ordered an art collector in Indianapolis to return a set of sixth-century Byzantine mosaics to the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus.

More to the point, perhaps, one cannot help but suspect that the middlebrow temptation to see the whole issue as politics through other means has simply proved too much for the author. For Hitchens, the Elgin Marbles epitomize the British Museum, and the British Museum, with its gleaming white columns and millions of priceless artifacts, epitomizes everything stuffy and reactionary and clubbable about the British character. Those British who might feel a custodial affection for the marbles are stigmatized at one point as “John Bull up on his hind legs,” and in their words Hitchens “hears the tones and assumptions of those who wondered if the workers would keep coal in their bath, or whether the Indians were ready for self-government.” As for the British Museum, “one is tempted to say that it might be more apt if [it] called itself the Imperial Museum.”

But if that goes some way to suggesting why Hitchens wants the British not to have the marbles, it does not in itself explain the author's interest in championing a specifically Greek cause. Surely this interest has much to do with the fact that, on the contemporary political map, Greece has been for years one of the most prominent socialist nations, and one of the most outspoken critics of the United States. Furthermore the Greek Cypriots have been engaged in conflict with the Turks for years now (about which Hitchens has even written a book), and the Turks, of course, are perhaps the staunchest members of the NATO Alliance.

Whatever one thinks of the proposed return of the marbles, it would be illiberal to deny that a better case could be made than will be found here. Hitchens is far better at attacking an enemy than at serving a friend. Written seemingly in careless haste, his book reads like a patchwork of ill-assorted and often irrelevant digressions.

He begins by recounting the oft-told story of Thomas Bruce, seventh Earl of Elgin and 11th Earl of Kincardine, who, when serving as British consul in Constantinople, arranged to have roughly half the friezes and metopes and one of the pediments of the Parthenon, together with a pillar and caryatid of the neighboring Erechtheum, removed from their ancient site and sent back to the British Isles. According to Hitchens, the history of their acquisition is “a repressed and guilty secret.” And yet, when put to it, he can find little support for this claim. Elgin can in no sense be said to have stolen the marbles, since to steal is to take that which one knows to belong to another; and, to all appearances, the Parthenon seemed to belong to an ancient people who no longer inhabited the earth, and to be in the possession of the Turks, from whom, at all events, Lord Elgin received permission to take the stones away.

In addition to those vaporous effusions on truth and beauty cited above, Hitchens tries to impress us with a list of famous people who condemned Elgin's act and advocated the sculptures' return to Athens. From a tactical point of view, however, Hitchens makes some rather large blunders, of which two are especially grave. The first is his quoting with thoughtless approval from Lord Byron's bigoted tirade against the Scottish people, of whom Elgin was one of the more prominent members. Though Hitchens would probably reject these sentiments if he considered them (or so we hope), it nevertheless suggests an almost acrobatic banality to quote them in support of his argument, simply because they were written by someone famous. Hitchens's second error is his enlisting the name of Harold Nicolson, when Nicolson advocated not that all the marbles be returned, but only the caryatid and pillar from the Erechtheum, and only on condition that they be replaced in situ ipso antiquo. Now, one would think that Hitchens would want to stay as far away from this point as possible, since the Greeks themselves, in acknowledgment of the corrosive quality of the Athenian air, have recently removed all the other caryatids from the same building, and intend never to put them back. Indeed, everything that Elgin left on the Parthenon has been or will soon be removed from the structure by Greek archaeologists.

But in a sense, this is all by the way. For the question is whether or not the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece, and no deficiencies of the author can permit us legitimately to rule out the cause he happens to be championing. The real issue must be the question of the degree to which the present inhabitants are descended from the ancients. Hitchens's “proof” of their direct descent is almost insulting to the reader, since the four authors he quotes in support of his contention a) do not support his contention, at least not in the citations, and b) are talking about something entirely different from what Hitchens believes they are talking about.

As concerns the ancestry question, however, if the modern Greeks were descended from the ancients, then they would have the right to the Elgin Marbles, even though none of their ancestors could be found to say anything against Elgin in all the time that his men were removing the sculptures. And yet, there is every good reason to believe that these “Greeks” are the descendants of the very invaders who, from the seventh century onward, drove out the country's original inhabitants. All the same, the present inhabitants surely love and should have full title to all antiquities that are in their possession; this for the same reason that the English lovingly preserve Stonehenge, and the Americans affectionately study Indian artifacts. But do the present-day Greeks have any right to reclaim something that was created by a different culture and that was removed from the land they now occupy at a time before they had even begun to dream of the fiction that they and the ancient Greeks were one and the same people? No.

But why should the British have the right to retain the marbles, aside from the legitimate, if unimpressive, point that they were legally acquired and purchased? To answer that question would require the kind of sympathetic insight that Hitchens can't be bothered with. It is now almost two centuries since Elgin's disputed act. In the passage of eight generations, the British have come to feel so great an affinity and affection for Lord Elgin's marbles, and those marbles, exerting their subliminal influence, have become so important to the Briton's sense of his national identity, that they could no longer be wrested from the British without disrupting and dislocating some part of that people's very selves. At this point, to wrest the sculptures from their present owners would constitute an act of insensitivity comparable to that with which Hitchens charges those who wish to retain them. One recalls those beautiful lines of Ezra Pound: “What thou lovest well is thy true heritage / What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee.”

David Reynolds (review date 17 June 1990)

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SOURCE: Reynolds, David. “How England Taught Us Imperialism.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 June 1990): 1, 7.

[In the following review, Reynolds praises Blood, Class, and Nostalgia as “an entertaining and provocative read,” but notes that Hitchens's analysis is undermined by its polemical rhetoric and inadequate reductions of complex historical developments.]

I discovered that Prince Charles was going to marry Lady Diana Spencer while I was sitting in a diner in the middle of Kansas. The local newspaper had featured wire reports of London gossip on its front page. Why, I wondered as I chewed on my spare ribs, was a high-society English wedding of such interest in the cornfields of mid-America?

Across the Atlantic, the British preoccupation with things American focuses on power rather than culture. Most British leaders since Winston Churchill have tried to cling to Uncle Sam's coattails by invoking a “special relationship” with Washington. Margaret Thatcher made Ronald Reagan the centerpiece of her foreign policy.

Christopher Hitchens explores these bonds of culture and power in a book [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] that, unlike many about Anglo-American relations, is aimed at the U.S. reader. A British journalist and writer, now resident in Washington, he starts off with cultural Anglophilia—the Red Lion pub off Wilshire Boulevard, the Queen Mary marooned at Long Beach. But he investigates it as the residue of a larger, though now waning, power-political axis that has shaped modern America. For he considers “the special relationship” to be “a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America, the better to be retransmitted to England.”

After World War II, Tory politician Harold Macmillan developed the conceit that Britain, though declining in power, could play Greece to America's Rome—civilized tutor for the brash, new global giant. Instead, says Hitchens, what really happened was “the Romanization of the United States via the British connection,” as good republican virtues were corrupted by the lure of empire. Here is a different classical analogy. Not Greek slaves running the court of the Emperor Claudius—Macmillan's image—but Caesar subverting the Rome that Brutus cherished.

Hitchens depicts John Bull helping to stage-manage Uncle Sam's gradual emergence on the world stage. He sketches several vignettes. In 1898, poet Rudyard Kipling supposedly played “John the Baptist to the age of American empire” through his poems and his correspondence with the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and John Hay.

“In the first half of the century, British intelligence was principally a machine for involving the United States in war on the British side … a simple enough task when coordinated with the ‘right’ social strata.” Hitchens instances the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, “which more than any other single incident prepared U.S. public opinion for a war” in Europe. British handling of Zimmermann Telegram in 1917, and their “astonishing interventions in American domestic politics” in 1941.

Britain was also, for Hitchens, godfather of the Cold War. In 1918, intervention by Allied and U.S. troops against the Bolsheviks was “preeminently a British policy” pushed by Churchill. This set the mold of ideological confrontation. And Churchill's “iron curtain” speech at Fulton in March, 1946, shaped American postwar thinking. The following year, the stimulus for the Truman Doctrine, declaring a global struggle against communism, was Britain's decision to pull out of Greece and Turkey.

British manipulation of U.S. policy was successful, Hitchens argues, because it exploited ties of race and class between the two elites. He has chapters on the bonds of marriage and “Anglo Saxon” racial feeling at the turn of the century, and on the common use of English and the struggles of anti-British patriots from Noah Webster onward for a truly American language. Nor does he neglect the supposed machinations of “Establishment internationalists”—young Rhodes Scholars being groomed for power in ancient Oxford, or think-tankers monitoring the special relationship amid the charms of nearby Ditchley Park.

Yet Britain played midwife to America's empire at the expense of losing its own. That, for Hitchens, is the crowning irony. His essay on World War II centers on Churchill's “‘Second Front,’ to protect the British empire, against his putative ally,” Franklin D. Roosevelt. After 1945, the once junior partner supplanted its British ally almost entirely. Yet—a final irony—the Pax Americana is itself now on the wane. Hitchens ends with a plea that both countries rediscover republican virtues “in a world without conquerors.”

Hitchens emphasizes that this is not a history of the Anglo-American relationship, but a series of “incisions, made at selected crucial points.” Such a format assumes prior knowledge of the story, and parts of the book may be hard going for the general reader. But the prose is lively, the range intriguing. Some of the essays are truly incisive—such as the survey of the unclear relationship. And the sharp polemical tone makes it an entertaining and provocative read.

That very tone, however, also makes it a frustrating book. Hitchens presents himself as the great iconoclast, smashing the myths of the Atlanticist Establishment and its scholarly acolytes. In fact, his book relies heavily on two decades of scholarly research, since the British and U.S. archives were opened. The themes of competition and rivalry, of British influences on key U.S. policies, of debunking and demythologizing are all staples of recent historical writing. Hitchens' debt to this work would have been more apparent had he elected to supplement his brief bibliographic essays with proper footnotes. Nor is his simplified version of these arguments entirely persuasive. Can we equate the British and American “empires”? What of the distinction between “formal” and “informal” imperialism—colonies as against commerce? Remember the observation of theologian and commentator Reinhold Niebuhr in 1930: “We are the first empire of the world to establish our sway without legions. Our legions are dollars.” To describe American hegemony as “imperial” obscures as much as it reveals.

Furthermore, isn't Hitchens exaggerating the success of British manipulation? Often the American roots of U.S. policies are insufficiently acknowledged. Economic opportunism and Wilson's assertion of full neutral rights kept America right in the U-boat's line of fire in 1915–17. By early 1947, the Pentagon and State Department were readying themselves to assume responsibility for the Eastern Mediterranean, before the pullout was announced.

And while it may be strictly true that “the first steps” of U.S. involvement in Vietnam were taken in 1945–46 when British troops engineered the French return to Indochina, the road to Khe San and Kent State was a long one, and America made that journey alone.

Hitchens' incisions leave him no time to cut away the surrounding flesh and expose the full anatomy. A skillful and perceptive writer, he has an eye for intriguing connections. Yet irony is no substitute for analysis. Congruence is not cause—read his chapter on the supposed sources of Churchill's “iron curtain” speech. And conspiracy theories, though fun, are by their nature one-sided.

That, of course, is not to dismiss their importance. Hitchens' argument has striking echoes of the greatest American conspiracy theory of all—one that he does not explore. This is a pity, because it also centered on a plot by a corrupt empire to subvert republican virtues. And without it the Declaration of Independence could not have been written.

William Keach (review date summer 1990)

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SOURCE: Keach, William. “How Bad Will It Get?” Raritan 10, no. 1 (summer 1990): 139–52.

[In the following review of Prepared for the Worst, Keach commends Hitchens's coverage of the Middle East and Central America, but notes flaws in his analysis of other writers and his own “radical” socialist stance.]

Minority report is what Christopher Hitchens calls his regular column in the Nation. These days the title seems especially, depressingly, apt. Along with his fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, Hitchens is one of the few socialist journalists based in this country with real national and international visibility: the pieces collected in Prepared for the Worst come from the New York Times and the Washington Post, from Harper's and the London Review of Books, as well as from the Nation and the New Statesman. Yet despite this range of circulation, Hitchens seems to be constituting more often than reporting on or for a minority. This has partly to do with his tone and journalistic persona, partly with the demise of American magazines on or near the left. We're in an era when Martin Peretz of the New Republic celebrates Ivan Boesky in a 1985 editorial titled “Productive Predators” (Peretz's family had $8.3 million in Boesky's crooked investment fund); when Partisan Review has to be persuaded by its friends to cancel a symposium on foreign policy featuring a contribution by Michael Ledeen, one of the disgustingly elusive originators of the Iran-Contra plot. As Hitchens observes, such alignments between once-progressive magazines and corrupt money and power “shrink the arena in which argument about ideas can take place.” The shrinkage has been so severe under Reagan and Bush that it's hard at times even to locate a political minority that Hitchens belongs to.

Hitchens does belong at the Nation—though on a recent occasion he found himself in a minority of one among the staff. His “Minority Report” for 24 April 1989, published just after a massive abortion-rights rally and march in Washington, was an uncharacteristically and unaccountably muddled piece against the pro-choice movement. His assumption seemed to be that the marchers were all glibly trivializing the issue by treating abortion itself as no big deal. He was sharply taken to task in a “Majority Report” (“Just Who Is This ‘We’?”) written on behalf of the Nation staff by Elsa Dixler, who very effectively exposed the evasions and distorting insinuations of Hitchens's performance. Dixler also accused Hitchens of being ignorant about the women's movement. Her charge is hard to counter on the basis of what I've read of him. The pieces reprinted in Prepared for the Worst pay almost no attention to this dimension of political struggle, and a few of them—most notably an otherwise strong essay on El Salvador from Grand Street titled “The Cathouse and the Cross”—are obtuse about the politics of sexuality and gender. And it's not just a question of women. When Hitchens says that “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” “was geldingly retitled ‘The Soul of Man’ when Wilde was in prison,” his testicular metaphor misrepresents the potency both of socialism and of Wilde's writing.

Hitchens's best political writing has been focused on the Middle East and on Central America. The 1988 collection of essays he edited with Edward Said, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question, is an incisive, illuminating intervention in a debate that continues to be contorted by the now-strained convergence of US governmental hypocrisy and Zionist lobbying and propaganda. Hitchens's own contribution to Blaming the Victims scrupulously documents and analyzes false Israeli claims that Arab Palestinians, rather than being forcibly driven out of their homes in 1948, were instead urged to leave in a series of “broadcasts” by the Arab Higher Committee. There were no such broadcasts, yet groups such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) have continued to refer to them as historical fact (Hitchens quotes from a full-page ad in a 1987 issue of the New Republic). Hitchens's writing on the Middle East is partisan in the best sense of that term: his deep commitment to the Palestinian cause is rooted in a history that must continue to be written and defended against those from without and within who would deny or manipulate it. In a striking sequence of short pieces from 1982, 1983, and 1986, he takes interviews with Abu Jihad (Khalil al-Wazir), Abu Nidal (Masen Sabry al-Banna), and Rabbi Meir Kahane as occasions for showing that self-destructive violence in the Middle East, for all its pervasiveness, is neither intrinsic to nor inevitable in the region.

Like Said, Hitchens makes a critique of the discourse of terrorism part of his position on the Palestinian question. Terrorism and terrorist came into English during the French Revolution, with a powerful rhetorical boost from Edmund Burke. The problem then, as now, was that the terms were used by the ruling class to condemn the violence of its political enemies and never to refer to the brutality, at once systemic and indiscriminate, of the dominant social order. In “Wanton Acts of Usage,” Hitchens shows how the vagueness of these terms has variously served the rhetorical interests of the Reagan and Bush administrations: “The word terrorist is not—like communist and fascist—being abused; it is itself an abuse. It disguises reality and impoverishes language and makes a banality out of the discussion of war and revolution and politics.” This has been true of what passes for public discussion in this country about Northern Ireland and Central America, and especially about the Middle East.

If you're at all persuaded by the analysis of terrorism in Prepared for the Worst—and maybe especially if you've got reservations—look up “Minority Report” in the Nation for 30 January and 7/14 August 1989, where Hitchens writes about the collaborationist past of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Under the name Yitzhak Yezernitzky, Shamir was a leader during the 1940s of the Stern Gang, later known as LEHI, an organization of Zionist extremists who called for a Jewish state extending from the Nile to the Euphrates and proposed an alliance with Hitler in support of his plan for a Europe free of all Jews. According to Hitchens, “Shamir has never renounced his political past, and he keeps up many of his old associations.” This is the head of state who, while seeming to hold the line against right-wing fanatics like Ariel Sharon, regularly condemns the PLO and participants in the intifadah as terrorists.

All Hitchens's writing on the Middle East, not least his conclusion that Meir Kahane is both “an Arab-hater” and “a self-hating Jew,” stands in provocative relation to his recent discovery that he is himself half-Jewish—which, as he explains, means Jewish, since the half in question comes from his mother. The discovery is finely, movingly recounted in “On Not Knowing the Half of It: Homage to Telegraphist Jacobs.” In a wartime novel called The Cruiser, which contains a portrait of Hitchens's very English, naval-officer father, “Jacobs was a sea lawyer who kept a copy of Karl Marx in his kitbag.” Hitchens's bemused identification with “Jacobs” is one of many good touches in this piece, which concludes Prepared for the Worst and generates the book's title. Ironically, it's not the Jews who impressed Hitchens with their preparedness.

I had once talked to a gathering of Armenians in a leafy suburb in California. They did not scoff or recoil, even when they might disagree, as I droned on about the iniquity and brutality, the greed and myopia that marked Reagan's low tide. … nor did they bitch, as the English do, about how everything was getting worse, going to the dogs, and so on. … These people already know. They aren't to be fooled by bubbles of prosperity and surges of good feeling. They know the worst can happen.

Coming to terms with one's own buried cultural identity by discovering it in others, in difference: this makes a crucial link between Hitchens the descendant of the Blumenthals from Breslau and Hitchens the advocate of Palestinian self-determination. When this essay first appeared in Grand Street, its main title read, “On Not Knowing the Half of It—My Jewish Self.” In Prepared for the Worst, “My Jewish Self” is dropped from the title, and added to the last sentence, in square brackets, are three quite different words: “To be continued.”

There's more on Central America in Prepared for the Worst than on the Middle East or any other international situation. Hitchens is at his best in exposing the devastating consequences of US support for right-wing militarism in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. A measure of the political force of his writing is that so often he doesn't just give you a sense of knowing more, of having a fresh angle or vantage point—he fills you with his own anger. And yet the pieces based on trips to Central America ask tough questions about what the Left is really up to. In the 1985 article “Nicaragua Libre,” Hitchens was already adopting the posture that this book later endorses: “I was looking for the worst and was determined not to come away saying things like: ‘You have to remember the specific conditions.’” The authorial trope in this piece—Hitchens as amateur political biochemist (“How were the bacilli doing? Which were becoming the dominant strain?”)—is misleadingly noncommittal, and more than a little condescending. But it doesn't go very deep, fortunately, in determining his perspective. What he finds in talking to Sergio Ramírez, one of Nicaragua's best novelists and a member of the Sandinista directorate, and Pablo Antonio Cuadra, an internationally known poet and opponent of the Sandinistas, is how difficult the United States has made it for Nicaragua to sustain political openness and dissent. Yet Ramírez refuses to categorize all Nicaraguans critical of the Sandinistas as vendepatrias, sellers of the country. As for Cuadra, at the time of Hitchens's interview he feared a direct US invasion as much as Ramírez did. Imagine how they both must have felt after Bush's recent macho move on Panama. What will Cuadra and Ramírez say to each other now that US economic warfare and counter-revolutionary subversion have brought about the election of a coalition incapable of running the country without Sandinista cooperation?

Hitchens never writes as if US policy in Central America were primarily a tragedy for us here in this country. With 70,000 dead in El Salvador, 35,000 in Nicaragua, and massive economic suffering throughout the region, it's indulgent to believe that US self-corruption is what matters most. Yet Hitchens exposes the depth and scope of this self-corruption with bitter effectiveness: sometimes by simple quotations from a report to Congress (“For the first time in the history of US foreign aid, the level of US aid [to El Salvador] now exceeds a country's own contribution to its budget”), or from those who execute US policy on the local level—like Salvadoran General José Alberto Medrano, founder of ORDEN, the rural paramilitary death squad, and ANSESAL, the national political police (“ORDEN and ANSESAL grew out of the State Department, the CIA and the Green Berets during the time of Kennedy”). Salvadoran fascists are as proud of the support they've received from liberal Democrats as from conservative Republicans. Though much of Hitchens's analysis is directed towards the Reagan and Bush administrations, he is fiercely unsentimental about the illusion of a noble liberal alternative that will someday reclaim its title in Camelot, the elitist pseudo-Left equivalent of Reagan's “shining city on a hill.” “Kennedy Lies” reminds us that to call the Bay of Pigs operation a “fiasco” is grotesquely euphemistic. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy did nothing less than “attempt to take over and run Cuba, to enlist the support of the Mafia in the assassination of Castro, to poison and devastate Cuban crops, and to land a mercenary army on Cuban shores.” If you don't believe Hitchens about this, read Gary Wills's The Kennedy Imprisonment. In the Caribbean and Central America as in Vietnam, the foreign policy wing of Kennedy's New Frontier laid the groundwork for Reagan and Bush, for those allegorically named American heroes North and Poindexter.

The Iran-Contra crimes were committed through a web spun from Washington and connecting the Middle East to Central America in ways which Hitchens is especially adept at exposing. In a series of columns for the Nation during the summer of 1987, while the Iran-Contra hearings were going on, he began to see that the whole gruesome business was born in the 1980 presidential election campaign. The main historical points in his case are these. In July 1980, papers were stolen from the Carter campaign offices by a “special team” working under Reagan campaign co-chairman William Casey. The stolen papers confirmed what Reagan's people knew already—that Carter was working hard to negotiate the release of American hostages held in Iran before the November elections. The Reagan forces, determined to prevent such a move, responded with an operation that would provide the basis for the Iran-Contra connection. Robert McFarlane arranged a meeting at the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel in Washington between a trio of Reaganites headed by the other campaign co-chairman, Richard V. Allen, and two ayatollahs representing the Iranian government, Mohammed Beheshti and Hashemi Rafsanjani (now president). Reagan's people made a deal with the Iranians: Barbara Honegger, a Reagan campaign researcher and subsequent member of the White House team, remembered hearing a staffer say late on the night of 24 or 25 October: “We don't have to worry about an ‘October surprise.’ Dick cut a deal.” The deal Dick Allen cut was to promise the Iranians a series of arms shipments in return for their releasing the hostages after the election. Sure enough, on 20 January 1981, the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated, Rafsanjani announced the hostages' release. And sometime in February 1981, arms shipments to Iran—through Israel, with full US support—began. When a plane carrying one such shipment crashed near the Soviet-Turkish border on 18 July 1981, exposing this flow of arms, Israeli officials acknowledged that the US knew all about it and approved.

The cast of characters in Reagan's 1980–81 campaign tricks would surface later as key figures in Iran-Contra: Casey, McFarlane, Ed Meese, Richard Secord (one of the retired military officers in Casey's “special operation”), Oliver North (in 1981 he was assigned to help Secord, who had been appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, lobby Congress in favor of supplying AWACs to Saudi Arabia). Some evidence about the 1980–81 deal came out in the 1984 House investigation of the theft of Carter campaign papers. But that investigation was even more feeble and protective—and much less public—than the Iran-Contra hearings. In a very recent “Minority Report” Hitchens writes witheringly about the sentences being handed out to those charged in the Iran-Contra “scandal” and broods on the broader implications: “At a time when those who raped and corrupted democracy and the rule of law in Bulgaria and the German Democratic Republic are being brought to account by outraged citizens, it is depressing in the extreme to see the furtive indulgence with which the Iran/contra conspirators are being handled.” He goes on to note the links between this travesty of the “democratic process” and Bush's phony “war on drugs”:

Noriega was perhaps the most decorated veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration until he became more useful as an opinion poll booster than as a crony. Oliver North works in drug counseling as part of the laughable “community service” to which he was sentenced. Meanwhile, the country's jails are filling up with the young members of the underclass, packed in tight to show that society has zero tolerance. No civil or constitutional liberty is safe from a demagogue on a narcotics sweep. But then, civil and constitutional liberties were no obstacle to the drug- and gun-runners who took over the Iran and Nicaraguan policies.

These are just the kinds of connections to which the national media have on the whole blinded themselves and us.

I've emphasized Hitchens's analyses of the US role in major areas of conflict during the 1980s because he has so much of immediate political relevance to offer. But the pieces in Prepared for the Worst range more broadly than I've been suggesting. Of those concerned primarily with other writers, only the opening essay on “Thomas Paine, The Actuarial Radical” moves back to focus on a distinctly earlier historical setting. Hitchens isn't at his best on Paine: the claim that “everything he wrote was plain, obvious, and within the mental compass of the average” is logically fallacious and belied by passages quoted by Hitchens himself:

Had Mr. Burke possessed talents similar to the author of “On the Wealth of Nations,” he would have comprehended all the parts which enter into and, by assemblage, form a constitution. He would have reasoned from minutiae to magnitude. It is not from his prejudices only, but from the disorderly cast of his genius, that he is unfitted for the subject he writes upon.

This is neither “plain” nor “obvious,” but it's certainly “within the mental compass of the average” reader, including a reader who might not remember Burke's famous pronouncement that “prejudice renders a man's virtue his habit, and not a series of unconnected acts.” Having blunted the force of Paine's recognitions of Burke's genius, Hitchens has sharper things to say about one of Burke's influential current proponents, Connor Cruise O'Brien. “Only his most parsimonious critic would deny that he submits his prejudices to the tests of experience and adventure” says Hitchens, writing as “a socialist and a former as well as current admirer,” and arguing that “the Cruiser” (one of O'Brien's many Dublin nicknames) “is far better—and much worse—than his enemies will credit.” Hitchens applies O'Brien's analysis of Burke's range of styles to O'Brien himself and claims that “the Burke who informs O'Brien today is most often that Burke who dwelt on banal realism and pompously instructed us that ‘the nature of things is a sturdy adversary.’ This … undoubtedly eases the task of telling the besiegers, and reassuring the besieged, that they have no choice: that things must be as they must be.” Hitchens wrote this for Grand Street in 1987; as a recent test of the justness of his remarks, take a look at O'Brien's review of Fatima Meer's Higher Than Hope: A Biography of Nelson Mandela, which appeared in the Times Literary Supplement for 23 February—1 March 1990, with its optimistic praise of Mandela's “chiefly lineage” and “essentially … Burkean” position as against the “radical blacks of South Africa” who “have inherited the European Jacobin tradition, through its Marxist heirs in Africa,” and for whom, “as for the Stalinists, politics is an absolute.”

If Hitchens's critique of O'Brien is tempered by a lingering respect (he concludes the piece by quoting O'Brien himself on “the contradictions in Burke's position”), his attack on Michael Foot is full of brittle hostility and contempt. “The Mouth of Foot” is one of the earliest pieces in this collection; it appeared in the New Statesman in November 1980, the month in which Foot defeated Denis Healey to become leader of the Labor Party and took on the job of trying to stem the Thatcherite tide. Hitchens's despair at the prospect of this “charming old ham's” being able to mount any kind of effective opposition underlies his assault on Foot's “treacly exaggerations” and “hero worship.” The instances Hitchens cites, rhetorical and political, are embarrassing enough—and the case against Foot's glozing impulses is strong (the glozing is pervasive in Foot's 1988 “Vindication” of Byron, The Politics of Paradise). But Hitchens's perspective here seems more than a little skewed by a deeper political disgruntlement. Would he really have preferred Healey as leader of the Labor Party?

Among the characteristics that Hitchens complains of in Michael Foot is “a pervasive and amusing variety of chauvinist Anglophobia—very highly developed and of an intensity usually found only among Americans.” It's disappointing that Hitchens never exemplifies or elaborates this point, since it bears importantly on his own Englishness and the cultural positioning this encourages him to adopt for his American publishers and readers. Consider his ambiguous analysis in Grand Street of Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. Hitchens is at once shrewd about and tender towards the decaying British imperialism depicted in Scott's four novels. He doesn't just use his Englishness here to avoid appearing righteous:

My grandfather was a ranker in the Indian army. … My father's naval and military club was hung with prints, more than half of them commemorating battles like Chillianwallah or Gandamack—bloody shows in which the outnumbered British (how few there always were, in truth as well as in legend) fought off the gaudy warriors of the Mahrattas or kept watch on the hopeless defiles of the Khyber Pass.

This capacity to savor the “antinomies … of pride and guilt in having ‘civilized’ India and exploited the Indians” may be truthful as self-confession, but it marks a slipperiness in Hitchens's historical perspective. The slipperiness is evident in his claim that the “striking thing about Karl Marx's view” of British domination in India “is not its hostility to that of Macaulay but its similarity.” Now it's true that Marx saw British imperialism, for all its oppressiveness, as a necessary stage in India's socioeconomic development and break with “Oriental despotism.” Marx's account of India under British rule in the 1853 articles for the New York Daily Tribune from which Hitchens quotes is consistent with the emphasis in the Communist Manifesto on capitalism as a revolutionary system that “draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.” But this aspect of Marx's position, especially his understanding of “oriental” backwardness, presents difficulties that Hitchens opportunistically slides over. Besides, to say that the “striking thing” is Marx's “similarity” to Macaulay is to obscure differences no less important for their being so obvious—differences that are too dimly acknowledged when Hitchens says that for Marx “the imperial edifice was built to change but not to last.” It's not so much Hitchens's feeling for the “elegiac” in the Raj Quartet as the way in which he constructs a protected space for such feeling that makes me uneasy.

Hitchens's writing is full of good turns. At its best the often acerb wittiness gives point to his engaging political anger and tenacity in attacking what's intolerably bad in the way things are going. “What he disliked in intellectuals—not about intellectuals—was their willingness or readiness to find excuses for power.” The pugnacious discrimination in this sentence from “Comrade Orwell” is a testimony to the writer in question. A paragraph attacking some conspicuously incoherent uses of the term liberal in Norman Podhoretz's Making It concludes, “Podhoretz, once again, is chewing more than he bites off”—an unexpectedly funny borrowing of Marian Hooper Adams's joke about Henry James. For the most part the acuity of Hitchens's prose earns him the right to call the second section of Prepared for the Worst “Blunt Instruments,” a title he originally used for a trenchant confrontation with the neoconservative dullness of Richard Krauthammer's Cutting Edge: Making Sense of the Eighties.

Sometimes, though, Hitchens's writing isn't as sharp as it needs to be to realize his own critical agenda. He seems oblivious to any difficulties with the terms vulgar and philistine—both of which he uses recurrently, and occasionally in tandem: “People like Jack Newfield, who don't think anybody should have gone to Vietnam, should beware of borrowing the philistine, vulgar speech with which antiwar spokesmen were slandered in those days.” People like Hitchens should beware of identifying what's crude, reductive, and uninformed with the paradigmatic Old Testament enemy in the case of philistine, or with what's practiced among the common people in the case of vulgar. The fact that both terms have been part of Marxist discourse from the beginning makes it all the more important that a writer with Hitchens's political perspective not just take them for granted. Here we have another case in which Marx's connection to his fellow Victorians such as Carlyle and Arnold needs real critical exposure. The recourse to philistine is particularly troubling in a writer as committed as Hitchens is to the Palestinian cause. When he says that the New Republic “fell into the philistine hands of Peretz,” the political and cultural context confusingly awakens the dormant racist metaphor. There is a related unintended irony in his saying, with reference to his speaking before Rabbi Robert Goldberg's congregation in New Haven, that “it is of course merely philistine to assume that people ‘vote their pocketbook’ all the time.”

How characteristic of Hitchens's identity as a writer is his readiness to rely on vulgar and philistine as terms of dismissal? Not very, I'd say—though there's a hint of cultural superiority in some of his gestures. In an excellent short assessment of Prepared for the Worst in Socialist Worker Review, Alex Callinicos remembers what Hitchens was like at Oxford in the late sixties: “One of the chief ornaments there of the left—and one of the International Socialists (the SWP's forerunner)—Chris Hitchens cut a romantic almost Byronic figure in red scarf and black donkey jacket. … Even in those days there was something a little ambiguous about Hitchens's politics. One always had the feeling that he would lead a demo and then dine at All Souls.” Such contradictoriness wasn't and isn't unusual; these days, when so few people in Hitchens's position are willing even to join a demonstration, it might actually seem admirable. Yet the feeling of something dandyish lingers. Callinicos's recollection reminds me of “Minority Report” for 2 April 1988, which begins:

There was a time in my life when I attended any event that featured Henry Kissinger as a speaker. The man—whose greatest single achievement is to have got everybody to call him Doctor—was a puzzle to me. Everything he touched turned to nightmare, yet people seemed to want to touch him. I lounged at the back of numerous black-tie dinners and corporate galas, listening to the elderly rubbish that he talked and looking for a sign. In the end I discovered the theme, or gimmick, of these gruesome soirees. There was always a point when Kissinger would hint, heavily and darkly, that he knew more than he could say. This hint usually took the form of a reference to some raw exercise of power and violence.

I realize that lounging at the back of a corporate gala isn't the same as dining at All Souls and that Hitchens is no longer an International Socialist. But his present style as a journalist may owe a good deal to his former style as Oxford radical. He writes well enough about Kissinger's “gruesome” performances, but did he really need to go to all those black-tie dinners to discover “the theme, or gimmick”? In the introduction to Prepared for the Worst he refers to “the often random and fragmented life of the radical freelance scribbler.” Is this what's become of the “almost Byronic figure in red scarf and black donkey jacket”?

Hitchens refers to himself several times as a “socialist” (with a small s), but he prefers the more amphibious term “radical.” Writing about C. L. R. James, he says: “The real test of a radical or a revolutionary is not the willingness to confront the orthodoxy and arrogance of the rulers but the readiness to contest illusions and falsehoods among close friends and allies.” Hitchens meets one aspect of this test well enough. Last October he argued in the Nation that Alexander Cockburn's “lone efforts to be different” about the recent upheavals in eastern Europe “have led him into ridiculous inconsistencies because there is no core of principle at stake in the shifting positions he has found himself adopting.” But Hitchens could be more forthright about his own “core of principle.” He admires James for taking stands that “condemned [him] to spend decades among the fragments of the independent, quasi-Trotskyist left,” for continuing to work “with small but significant internationalist groupings.” But Hitchens's present relation to these groupings, to this tradition in which he once claimed membership, is unclear. He knows how shallow the current hype about the death-of-socialism and the triumph-of-capitalism is. Having helped us prepare for the worst, he needs to do more now to help us imagine and believe in a radical, alternative struggle for something genuinely better.

Alan Ryan (review date 9–16 July 1990)

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SOURCE: Ryan, Alan. “Drool Britannia.” New Republic (9–16 July 1990): 46–49.

[In the following review of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, Ryan commends Hitchens's engaging observations and wit, but concludes that the collection as a whole lacks a cohesive theme and adequate historical perspective.]

Winston Churchill—one of the tragic heroes of Christopher Hitchens's tale—dismissed a dessert from the dinner table with the curt command, “Remove this pudding, it has no theme.” Hitchens is too lively and opinionated to produce a pudding, but he is an author in need of a theme. His brief history of the cooperative and competitive imperialisms of Britain and the United States over the past hundred years or so is a nice entertainment. It skips agreeably from the ghastly piety with which “Masterpiece Theatre” surrounds perfectly ordinary imports from British television to the curious and undernoticed fact that Kipling's poem “The White Man's Burden” is aimed not at the British, but at the American conquerors of the Philippines, and skips again to the peculiar ways in which Britain dragged the United States into two world wars and thereby contrived to defeat her military enemies while losing out to her savior and ally. As to how all this fits together, one may read Hitchens several times over and remain none the wiser.

If he doesn't have a theme, he has a target. The target of his book [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] is the so-called “special relationship,” and it provides a great deal of characteristically unkind fun. But it is scrappy fun. Hitchens's subtitle gives the game away: Anglo-American Ironies is a nice catch-all, but who ever supposed that this “special relationship,” that any special relationship, is not full of ironies, and who ever supposed that the presence of ironies sufficed to pick out Anglo-American diplomacy from, let us say, most marriages, life at IBM, or a cab ride across New York?

If there is a plot here, an argument rather than a collection of witty and knowing prejudices, it is the thought that Britain has been uniquely implicated in the imperial seduction of the United States. At crucial moments in the American embrace of the role of a great power, British pressure made the difference. Even this thought, though, is ambiguous. Are we to think of Britain as the old sinner pointing out the tempting pleasures of imperialism to a younger and more innocent nation? If so, when exactly were the Americans innocent enough to need seducing? What of the continuous American pressure to expand into what had formerly been Mexican territory, and what of the longing eyes cast on Cuba, the West Indies, and Brazil by the slaveholding South? Or should we think of the British as luring the naive Americans into a competition for access to China, Japan, Oceania, and wherever else? Once again, however, it is hard to think that the Americans needed terribly much luring.

Or are we to think of the British as trying to use American industrial and military muscle to save the British empire and its unofficial penumbra in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, only to find, when two world wars were done, that they could no longer sustain the White Man's Burden and had to pass it over to their American successors? There's something to be said for that; but it, too, implausibly suggests that the British infected the Americans with the desire to dominate. Given the presence of oil, Russia, and Israel, the American takeover of the British role was, as the jargon used to have it, overdetermined. Indeed, Hitchens himself points out that the British did their best to keep Iranian oil to themselves, and were told off for attempting to muscle in on Saudi oil as well.

The book gets off to a good start by reflecting on the minor idiocies of “Anglophilia, Anglophobia, Anglo-Americanism, and Anglo-Saxondom.” The provocation is the Churchill Foundation's presentation of its Churchill medallion to Ronald Reagan. The cast includes Prince Philip retelling the often told joke of his visit to the United States just after Churchill had been re-elected prime minister and finding himself congratulated on his father-in-law's success. The audience includes a curious mix of tycoons, entertainers, and politicians, among them Walter Annenberg, whose career as ambassador to the Court of St. James's never quite recovered from the moment he presented his credentials to the queen. In reply to a question about how he was settling in, he said that he was “subject, of course, to the discomfiture as a result of a need for, uh, elements of refurbishment and rehabilitation.”

This foot-in-mouth pomposity leads naturally to one of the book's sustained motifs: the British ambition to “play Greece to America's Rome,” to put a veneer of style on American crassness and vulgarity, and to siphon off a little luxury in payment. The idea was given canonical expression by Harold Macmillan while he was serving in North Africa during the Second World War. “We, my dear Crossman,” he observed, in conversation with Richard Crossman, “are Greeks in this American Empire. You will find the Americans much as the Greeks found the Romans—great big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle, with more unspoiled virtues but also more corrupt. We must run Allied Forces Headquarters as the Greek slaves ran the operations of the Emperor Claudius.”

But that, too, turns out not to be a simple idea; its snobbishness and its self-interestedness have not gone undetected, and its costs to the British themselves have not been negligible. Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities comments unkindly on the “rich and suave secret legion” that had insinuated itself into New York to prey upon the natives, and forty years earlier Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One made it painfully clear that the cultural superiority that sustained the British in exile was a small consolation for something close to indentured labor.

More seriously, Britain had never been Greece, and the United States had had Roman aspirations all along. The thought that Britain should make the American empire a civilized and humane affair ran into the difficulty that Britain itself had been perfectly happy to play Rome for as long as its military and financial strength held out. Civility had come a very poor second to power so long as the power lasted. In their imperial pride the British looked a long way back, to the Roman conquest of their obscure offshore island. They took pleasure in the thought that the obscure offshore island ruled an empire larger than Caesar had ever contemplated—in the spirit, for example, of Cowper's poem on Boadicea:

Regions Caesar never knew
Thy posterity shall sway,
Where his eagles never flew,
None invincible as they.

Seen in that light, the conceit of “British Greeks to American Romans” makes no sense. The only sensible story is the old story that Paul Kennedy has lately popularized. The idea of “imperial overstretch,” the thought that all imperial powers take on tasks that eventually outrun their capacities, is very like the old view that nations have life cycles like individuals; the tired old lion hands history over to the vigorous young cub. Britain-as-Rome could make a tidy job of what was usually a very messy process and hand over power to America-as-New-Rome. (Arnold Toynbee often sounded as though he believed that; so, surprisingly, did Bertrand Russell.) The problem is that as an account of what actually happened over the past half century, or as a guide to what British statesmen and military men were after, the story of Old Rome yielding to New Rome won't do, either.

The end of the British empire, after all, was not the consequence of Britain's understanding that it was time graciously to pass the baton. The end of the empire was forced on Britain. Most of those concerned with the empire did not want to pass it on to neo-Romans, or to new Romans, or to anybody else; witness Churchill's famous insistence that “I did not become His Majesty's Prime Minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.” Moreover, those to whom the empire was to be passed did not like to think of themselves as having an empire. Just as Americans have readily talked of “class” as meaning “style” but fiercely resisted the idea that America was cursed with a “class system,” a nation conceived as a decisive break with monarchical Britain could imitate, at least consciously, the imperialism of the mother country.

The large irony, then, is that Britain first hoped to employ American strength to maintain a British empire, but became “in practice, the political and military colony.” But who is the joke on, really? “Is it,” asks Hitchens, “at the expense of the United States, which has abandoned its affectation of anti-colonialism and been invaded repeatedly by English manners and English taste? Or is it at the expense of the British, who called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old and then found it was the New World doing the calling?” On the face of it, there's no question: the invasion of American suburbs by fake half-timber housing and unpersuasive pubs (a topic on which Hitchens holds the usual British views) is an infinitely less serious matter than finding your commercial, military, and industrial life substantially under the control of a foreign government. If there is a joke here, the joke is against the wretched British, who like the young lady of Riga thought they could ride the tiger without ending up as the tiger's lunch.

To offer any other answer, we have to return to the seduction theme, to the thought that America might have pursued a much less imperialist foreign policy but for the British entanglement, that America could have stayed out of both World Wars, and that this would have been inestimably to its advantage. Think what corruptions might have been avoided. Without British entanglement in the First World War, none of the racism and the nativism that accompanied the doubts about the loyalties of German-Americans would have sprung up. Without American troops in Europe, they could not have been diverted to fight against the new Soviet regime, and perhaps we might have been spared the worst excesses of American anti-communism, as well as the worst excesses of Soviet anti-Americanism. The argument spins out easily, and without end. Without the British entanglement, would the United States have gotten so embroiled in the Middle East? Without the British entanglement would the United States have thought itself the guardian of peace throughout Asia? And so on.

Hitchens never quite puts this somewhat submerged and pretty implausible thesis to the test. He invokes an assortment of emblematic figures who wanted Britain and America jointly to shoulder the White Man's Burden and to save the savage races from themselves, but since Kipling on the British side was neatly matched by Mahan on the American side, they do not quite fit into a tale of seduction. They do, it must be said, fit perfectly into Hitchens's catalog of life's little ironies. Kipling may have encouraged President McKinley to occupy the Philippines, but he was quite sure that America should never be allowed to challenge the supremacy of the Royal Navy; Mahan may have praised the Royal Navy to the skies, and reminded his readers that it was the Royal Navy's control of the Atlantic that allowed the United States a free hand in Latin America, but he was passionate for an American navy that could in a pinch take on the Royal Navy with some hope of victory.

It does not escape Hitchens that it wasn't only a matter of taking up the White Man's Burden that preoccupied Kipling, Mahan, Theodore Roosevelt, Cecil Spring-Rice, and his other turn-of-the-century anti-heroes. They were decidedly keen to avoid the burden of Chinese and Japanese immigration into the United States, and looked to naval supremacy in the Pacific to keep the closed door firmly shut. This mixture of unabashed Anglo-Saxon racial solidarity in the face of Huns, Goths, the Yellow Peril, and “incompetent races” combined with the predictable Great Power rivalries whenever British and American interests ran into each other in Central and South America. While Woodrow Wilson could not rally the American people in 1914 around racial solidarity with the British, he was embarrassingly susceptible to such considerations, and as big a sucker for the British conception of government by gentlemen as a former president of Princeton could be expected to be.

Even correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt during the Second World War is surprisingly rich in the old imagery; at times of stress Churchill still reached for Kipling, and Roosevelt played the same tune back to him. Meanwhile, of course, American and British diplomats, generals, and politicians gyrated around the same old issues: How far ought the United States go in assuaging the British resentment that for twenty-seven months the British had held off superior German forces on their own? How much ought the United States to remind the British that they had done it with American equipment they could not have made or bought otherwise? How central to a postwar settlement were the British going to be? Were they entitled to a large role in virtue of their previous power or the usefulness of their experience, or were they entitled to next to nothing because they had next to nothing left?

On all of this, Hitchens casts a journalist's eye, not a historian's. Personalities predominate, and more than once the reader may well feel that a gossip columnist has seized the pen. Hitchens suggests, for example, that the British were partly to blame for getting the United States into Vietnam. His only evidence for this is that Dennis Duncanson, the influential British strategist, supported the American war in Vietnam and defended the postwar behavior of General Douglas Gracey, who used Japanese POWs and his own troops to beat off the Vietminh nationalists and restore what had been French Indochina to the French. The British army behaved exactly the same way in Indonesia, save that it was a Dutch colony that the British and their Japanese prisoners took pains to give back to its former owners; but Duncanson's view that this was all part of an attempt to tidy up after the war, and thus to treat insurgency as a law and order problem, was surely right. It turned out to be absurd, of course; but much else did, too.

The one larger issue that does get raised is the issue of “receivership,” or James Burnham's notion that the British empire was no longer a going concern, that its assets and liabilities ought therefore to be handed over to the American empire. Burnham did not flinch from the notion of an American empire; a former Trotskyite turned geopolitical conservative, he was not given to flinching. Churchill flinched, but only from a recognition of the decrepitude of the British empire; in somber moments he, too, thought that a self-conscious handover was what was needed. Of course, the whole idea was nonsense. The kind of hegemony the United States could exercise after 1945 was very different from what colonial powers had formerly taken for granted. Economic pressure, overt and covert bribes and penalties, military and economic alliances, these rather than colonization were the order of the day.

An irony that will strike the attentive reader is how tempted Hitchens himself is by Burnham's scenario. “If James Burnham's concept of ‘receivership’ had ever been made explicit, with the British being asked to disburden themselves of empire in a planned and graduated fashion and the United States moving to assume the said burdens with coordination and consent, there might have been some impressive results.” Of course, Hitchens's point is that it did not happen, that “the history of receivership is a mixed history of improvisation, secret diplomacy, covert action, inter-Establishment jealousy, and military disaster.” To anyone of even moderately liberal views, the effect of the postwar military alliance on British politics has been pretty awful. Apart from the discomfort of serving as America's unsinkable aircraft carrier in the event of nuclear war, British foreign policy has been a muddle, Labour governments have been objects of suspicion, and even of subversion, as if Britain were a banana republic, and British relations with Europe were distorted for twenty-five years.

All that goes without saying, though Hitchens does a spirited job of saying it. The curious thing is that Hitchens's first reaction to Burnham's vision—my own, too, and, I'd guess, the reaction of any Briton over forty—is not to say “how wicked” and start talking about the just claims of small nations to their own place in the world. It is to pause for a moment and whisper “if only …” Of course, one's second thoughts are with General MacArthur's “little people,” who mostly want us Anglo-Saxons off their backs; but not the least interesting feature of this skeptical catalog of the duplicity, the cupidity, the self-deception, and the overblown sentiment that has marked Anglo-American politics in this century is its reluctant recognition of how attractive power can be. That is an irony, I'd guess, that the author did not intend.

Alexander Chancellor (review date 14 July 1990)

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SOURCE: Chancellor, Alexander. “A Very Ironic Relationship.” Spectator (14 July 1990): 26.

[In the following review, Chancellor offers a generally positive assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, though he objects to Hitchens's preoccupation with ironies.]

The trouble with looking for ironies (which is what Christopher Hitchens is busy doing throughout this entertaining book [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] on the history of the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’) is that the habit can become addictive. Worse still, it can be infectious. So, I find myself asking: Is it not ironic that The Spectator, a reputedly conservative journal, once hired Christopher Hitchens, a socialist, to report for it from the United States, and that I, the person who hired him, am now reviewing this book, and that I am doing so in The Spectator, which now belongs to Conrad Black, who, according to a recent article by Hitchens in the London Review of Books, absolutely hates his guts and is out to destroy his career, and that the reason why Black allegedly wants to ‘exterminate’ him (Hitchens apparently believes this is literally his aim) is above all because of a heartless article written by Hitchens for The Spectator about President Reagan's colon cancer in 1985, and is it not ironic that Hitchens happened to be in London last week to launch his book and was thus able to attend the annual Spectator cocktail party at which Black was the host, and so on and so forth?

Well, actually, no. There is nothing particularly ironic about any of these things, but I suspect Hitchens might think there was, just as in his book he often appears to regard as ironies things which others might call mere curiosities—such as the amusing fact that in 1890 a group of American Shakespeare enthusiasts, seeking to colonise New York with all the different species of bird mentioned by the Elizabethan bard, introduced the English starling to Central Park and thus unintentionally brought about the demise of the much more attractive, indigenous American bluebird.

Still, given the thesis of the book, which is that a mixture of snobbery, racism and imperial ambition is what the ‘special relationship’ is ultimately based on, it is possible to see Christopher Hitchens as a sort of walking, talking, breathing, living Anglo-American irony in his own right. He is not typical of the sort of Englishman Americans are supposed to like. Nearly all Americans hate socialism, but he is an unrepentant socialist—a former Trotskyist, even. Americans love the British royal family, especially Princess Diana, but Hitchens feels so strongly antipathetic towards the monarchy that he has published a pamphlet against it (The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish, Chatto ‘Counterblasts’ No. 10), in which he describes this revered institution as no more than ‘a smirk on the corpse’ of British democracy. He is not even a fan of Winston Churchill, to whose extraordinary cult in the United States a considerable (and particularly interesting) portion of this book is devoted.

Yet, he is one of Britain's most successful cultural exports to the United States—a journalist, a lecturer, and a television debater who is popular not only with the left-wing intelligentsia but with ideologues of the Right as well. The Washington Times, a right-wing daily newspaper owned by the Moonies, but nevertheless influential among conservative Republicans in the capital, recently did Hitchens the surprising honour of publishing a very long and generally sympathetic profile of him. This revealed how he is admired by some right-wingers, such as the syndicated columnist Robert Novak, who finds his writing ‘very interesting,’ and apparently envied by others, such as the editor of the American Spectator, R. Emmett Tyrrell, who, while disliking Hitchens's writing, admits that ‘his good education has allowed him to slip easily through chic circles in America’ and attributes his success as a lecturer on university campuses to the fact that his audiences there consist of ‘yahoos who've never heard anyone speak proper English.’ The Washington Times claims that these lectures earn him an annual six-figure income. That would be in US dollars, of course, but even so … well done, Hitchens!

So, if people like Tyrrell are right, Hitchens is popular in America, not so much because he is a left-wing thinker but because he is the sort of clever, well-spoken, Oxford-educated Englishman that American cultural snobs have always admired. Ironic, that—given his understandable contempt for that kind of American snobbery. But Hitchens, as I may have pointed out rather too often already, likes ironies very much—so much, indeed, that it seems almost too good to be true that, as a defender of Arab causes and thorn in the side of the US Zionist lobby, he should suddenly discover he is himself a Jew, and that, as a socialist with previously impeccable feminist credentials, he should suddenly discover—and write in his regular column in the little New York magazine the Nation—that he is an extreme ‘pro-lifer,’ or anti-abortionist.

Be that as it may, Hitchens is clever, funny and an excellent writer, all of which qualities are apparent in this book. I would strongly recommend it, among other things, for his entertaining descriptions of how insecure new arrivals at the pinnacles of American society—politicians like Ronald Reagan or millionaires like Walter Annenberg—exploit and are exploited by the British establishment, not excluding the royal family, in their yearning for a kind of prestige which England still seems uniquely equipped to provide.

The main defects of the book, in my opinion, are its relentless pursuit of irony at all costs, its excessive obliquity in dealing with episodes in American history which may not be familiar to many British readers, and a failure to notice those things which are positive or merely harmless and engaging about the long Anglo-American love affair. Even the despised WASP ascendancy, with its undoubtedly snobbish Anglophilia, nevertheless had its extremely attractive aspects.

For a splendid account of a lost way of life, over which this country has an extraordinary degree of influence, I recommend the New York Review of Books of 9 November, 1989, which contained a long extract from the forthcoming autobiography of a great American WASP journalist, Joseph Alsop, who died, alas, last year. I rather wish Hitchens had had the chance to read it when writing his book.

Hugh Brogan (review date 20 July 1990)

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SOURCE: Brogan, Hugh. “A Myth for a Myth.” New Statesman & Society (20 July 1990): 41–42.

[In the following review, Brogan offers a negative assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.]

This latest tract [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] by Christopher Hitchens is both interesting and infuriating; unfortunately the interesting passages (roughly, the second half of the book) are not fresh enough to make up for the rest.

Hitchens, with good reason, dislikes the mythology of the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, and picks over the history of its absurdities with malevolent glee. He thinks it has brought out the worst in both countries, is indeed largely identical with the worst in both countries, and exposes its history as that of a distasteful sham. He has worked hard, reading extensively (if not extensively enough) and is fairly convincing in the links he makes between the America of Reagan and Bush and the glamour which the likes of Kipling, Churchill and the royal family have cast over some very mundane realities. Students of international relations will find little to surprise them, but newcomers to the subject will be entertained. As a tract, the book may be of some help in speeding the process of disarmament in Britain or America or both.

These are not tiny merits, but they are bound to be eclipsed, at any rate in the eyes of professional historians, by the frightful faults. Of these Hitchens's tone is perhaps the least important and the most tiresome. His introduction is a masterpiece of self-importance and forced indignation, expressed all too often in journalistic clichés. Hitchens had better take care or he will end up as the new George Gale or Paul Johnson. It would only take a change in his politics, and such things have been known.

But once past the introduction Hitchens sobers up, and apart from a marked tendency to condescend to everything and everybody he ceases to get in the way of his own argument, such as it is. Perhaps it had better be called his drift, for literary organisation is not the author's strong point. Still, he hits his target, and by the end every reader will be satisfied that the rituals of the special relationship are indeed as vulgar, foolish and immoral as he says.

Only there is the endlessly troubling matter of his slapdash writing, his glib inaccuracy, which amounts to a negation of scholarship. He has not taken the trouble to master the craft of history. This is not only an academic concern. Surveying Hitchens's book as a whole I find it impossible to believe that he really cares for truth. He only wants to make a case, and does not care how unfairly or irresponsibly he makes it. Such an attitude is merely barbarous, and Hitchens, who criticises so freely, should not be forgiven for setting such a bad example, one all too easy to follow. The special relationship is not the only form of pernicious vulgarity to afflict our age.

The dangers of his characteristic approach can be illustrated by his handling of Anglo-American relations during the American civil war. This fascinating and intricate topic has been the subject of a small library of books, of which some of the most recent are among the best (for example, Britain and the War for the Union by Brian Jenkins). Hitchens has read only the Education of Henry Adams and some of the published Adams letters. From Henry Adams he takes the notion that the British government only feigned neutrality during the war and did everything it safely could to injure the North and help the South. It never occurs to Hitchens that Adams, though an intelligent eyewitness (he was the son of the American minister in London) knew much less than he supposed of what was going on, and did not understand all that he knew. Adams's half-truths are repeated in Hitchens's truculent style, and then we move on to another topic. It is a shallow, smug performance, but assured enough to be a potent source of error. At least it lays bare what Hitchens is up to: he is trying to replace one set of myths with another. It is hardly a necessary activity.

What the times need are: comprehensive research; the meticulous use of evidence to establish and criticise an argument; scrupulous accuracy; solid reflection; and an undeviating appeal to the reader's better nature. These are the marks of successful history. Hitchens, so far, displays none of them.

Peter Brimelow (review date 6 August 1990)

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SOURCE: Brimelow, Peter. “Sins and Omissions.” National Review (6 August 1990): 41–42.

[In the following review, Brimelow offers an unfavorable assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.]

Christopher Hitchens is perhaps the most notable contemporary specimen of what has been called the Bollinger Bolshevik. An English leftist now immigrated to Washington, D.C., he nevertheless has his work published in the most fashionable American glossies, and his new survey of the Anglo-American relationship sports a dust-jacket biography (invariably author-supplied) carefully pointing out that he was educated not merely at Oxford but at Balliol, perhaps the most patrician college there. As with Alexander Cockburn, this combination of socialism and snobbery—backed, it must be said, by talent and a Protestant work ethic both would affect to despise—has quickly established him at the top of American liberaldom.

Much of the peculiar structure of this book [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] appears to be the result of a determination to recycle freelance articles. One such recycling provides a poignant example of Hitchens's sociopolitical androgyny, his ambivalent relationship to establishments. He visits the USS Iowa, a World War II battleship recommissioned by the Reagan Administration and just returned from a tour of duty in the Middle East. He ingratiates himself with the Iowa's captain by revealing that he is himself the son of a Royal Navy officer and saw the last British battleship, HMS Vanguard, being towed to the breaker's yard. The captain knows the punchline: “She slipped her tugs and ran aground, didn't she? Like she was protesting.” The other officers are summoned and trustingly share their carefully studied and much-loved British naval lore. Then Hitchens stands on the bridge to watch a demonstration broadside—“saying a silent valediction to those faraway Druse villages.” And he writes a cheap sneering account whose substance amounts to little more than the assertions that the Iowa is a gunboat, that Joseph Conrad portrayed a gunboat firing into Africa in his celebrated story of colonialism gone wrong, Heart of Darkness, and that therefore the whole enterprise is by implication, in Conrad's phrase, “incomprehensible.”

As befits a Bollinger Bolshevik, Hitchens's progress through Anglo-American history resembles that of a drunk down a corridor, lurching erratically from wall to wall. This does have the advantage of bringing some neglected corners into unusually sharp focus. For example, Hitchens emphasizes the vital role of James Burnham, one of NR's original editors, in formulating the American post-World War II interventionist Weltpolitik, supplementing, expanding upon, and sometimes replacing Britain's global presence. Hitchens points out striking similarities between Burnham and the Winston Churchill of the 1946 Fulton “Iron Curtain” speech, which was not merely a warning against the Soviets but also a call for Anglo-American cooperation. In fact, both men at different times proposed schemes of common citizenship and even formal political union between the two countries.

But Hitchens's havering has a fatal disadvantage: he reels right past crucial historical episodes. Thus, this study of American and British foreign policy contains virtually no reference to the Soviet Union, China, the Korean War, or Israel. Britain's efforts to embroil the U.S. in both World Wars loom large—perhaps too large—but there is no discussion of why Britain itself became embroiled, or whether the American Government had its own reasons (such as Pearl Harbor) for going along. The British elite's abrupt decision to abandon the Empire after 1945, the subsequent geopolitical implosion of Britain, and the fact that during this period Britain arguably sometimes operated to the left of the U.S. in world politics is ignored. Despite American pleas, the British recognized Red China—and withdrew their forces from the Persian Gulf. Finally, there is no explanation of why Britain is now on the verge of political union not with the U.S. but with a concert of its traditional European enemies, or why the U.S. has blindly supported this implicitly anti-American endeavor.

For this and other reasons, Hitchens's book is essentially worthless as a guide to the Anglo-American relationship. It cannot even be said to have a thesis in any serious sense. Instead it has a sort of insinuation that Anglophilia, British influence, and even a desire to prop up British power were responsible for drawing the U.S. into a worldwide role.

Hitchens's omissions conveniently make this easier to argue. For instance, Korea was never a British interest and the British government was dubious about the conflict, but nevertheless sent troops at the U.S.'s behest. For that matter, it would be equally possible to argue that U.S. policy has paradoxically propped up Soviet power, materially during World War II and the détente era, and diplomatically through “containment,” which tacitly conceded a Soviet sphere of interest.

Even Hitchens cannot ignore the fact that Washington was often actively hostile to Britain's imperial interests during and after World War II. But this is no problem for a student of the dialectic. Hitchens simply posits an American “anti-imperial imperialism” which was hostile to the British even while emulating them.

The value of Hitchens's work is rather as a buoy marking the submerged shoals of the left-wing psyche. It is, for example, profoundly if surreptitiously emotional. Smearing the Iowa as a gunboat is typical of its style of argument. Hitchens's opinions are generally conveyed adjectivally (“sports-check Republican”). And, of course, he is ultimately motivated by self-hatred. By the final chapter, it is clear that the dread disease of “imperialism,” from which he hopes the U.S. and Britain are recovering in this new “world without conquerors,” actually consists of any tangible presence on the world stage at all.

All of this comes together in Hitchens's hysterical reaction to any supposed sign that the Anglo-American relationship has an ethnic underpinning, or that the U.S. itself has an ethnic identity that might be affected by immigration policy. Thus Hitchens insists on portraying the anti-bilingualism lobby “U.S. English” as a nativist anti-immigration conspiracy, although its directors are openly divided on the issue and the organization itself explicitly focuses on the single issue of language. The overwrought left-wing sensibility cannot be trusted to handle basic factual distinctions of this sort.

What is the truth about the Anglo-American relationship? Both countries are democracies, and their foreign policy is accordingly too chaotic to be expressed as one theme, least of all Hitchens's. The relationship between them is ultimately one between peoples rather than one between the elites that attract Hitchens—the Royal Navy buffs in the wardroom of the Iowa being a case in point. Because the peoples speak the same language, they are in some sense members each of the other, sharing common cultural values of liberty, economic liberalism, and respect for law rather than power. Which is why Hitchens's self-hatred effortlessly embraces both.

Paul Smith (review date 10 August 1990)

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SOURCE: Smith, Paul. “Sustaining the Atlantic Provinces.” Times Literary Supplement (10 August 1990): 845.

[In the following review, Smith offers a generally positive assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.]

Georgetown University, Christopher Hitchens tells us, supplies its Rhodes Scholars with free tuxedos to grease their assimilation into Oxford life (as if anything other than their dollars were needed). The point, you might think, is that made by Václav Havel's well-televised uncertainties: new-found power has to learn what to do with its hands. Britain, having lost an empire, has found a role in civilizing her supplanters. But the simple-minded “Greeks in the Roman empire” formula is precisely what Hitchens derides in [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, a] quizzical and entertaining probing of the Anglo-American relationship. It looks to him more like a case of the old Romans tagging at the heels of the new, peddling such wrinkles and passing on such style as they can still be said to possess, in return for the occasional handout and the semblance of privileged participation in an imperial lifestyle which they can no longer finance but cannot completely forget. The Gulf crisis emphasizes that their services continue to be useful. The USS Britannia may not be the smartest strike-carrier in the American fleet, but the captain knows it counts when a Gadaffi or a Saddam Hussein has to be hit. Mrs Thatcher seems to find dual control invigorating rather than embarrassing, and she has less to fear from muttering below decks since “the most courteous man in the Western world” spoke nicely to Mr Kinnock.

The cynical and effete old world has, in this perspective, for a century at least, sought to prolong its life by assiduous corruption of the new. When Britain's power to sustain empire waned, not merely her statesmen and diplomats but even her poets set out to harness American power and energy to the tasks of global hegemony by encouraging the United States to deck itself no longer in the civic virtues of the Roman republic but in the purple panoply of the Roman empire. Hitchens reminds us that Kipling's injunction to take up the white man's burden was originally addressed to Teddy Roosevelt as a spur to the American occupation of the Philippines, and quotes another Kipling cry:

Oh, well for the world when the White Men join
          To prove their faith again!

White men in this context meant that curious construct of contemporary racial ramblings, the Anglo-Saxons. Joseph Chamberlain, a great exponent of Anglo-Saxondom, was ready to cut the Teutons in on the deal, but, when accommodation, with Germany proved impossible, the United States supplied a counterweight to a European balance which left Britain no longer secure. Compromised in Cuba and the Philippines, America avoided official censure of British policy in South Africa. Drawn, despite the isolationists and the America-firsters, into, if not the entangling alliance, at least the clinging complicity of global role-playing, she administered the blood transfusion that decided the issue of two world wars, and became after the second the “receiver” of the European empires whose wickedness was the justification of her existence and an article of her communal faith. At every stage of this progressive ensnarement in the unthinkable and the unavowable, Hitchens detects the promptings of raddled and faded Britannia. “It is beyond doubt,” he writes of the major British role in the setting up of America's first secret intelligence services, “that wherever the United States needed to lose any kind of virginity in global affairs, the British were on hand with unguents and aphrodisiacs of all kinds” (the old whore/young stud image is irresistible). Thus seduced, Americans must find it hard to be told now by a British academic, Paul Kennedy, that “overstretch” will destroy their version of empire as it has all others, and that Scarsdale will go where Rome and Carthage (and presumably Belgravia) went.

Why such insidious guile on the one hand and such readiness to be beguiled on the other? Hitchens's answer is that the “special relationship” as ritually invoked and actually practised is to be understood not as a natural affinity between the British and the Americans but as a mutual support operation between their respective élites (largely English on the one hand and WASP on the other), tricked out with enough “kith-and-kin” cant and bulldog breed bluster to exercise some attraction at lower levels. It is

a transmission belt by which British conservative ideas have infected America, the better to be retransmitted to England. The process of transmission has been made easier, admittedly, by those Americans who are themselves receptive to the temptations of thinking with the blood, or the temptations of empire, or the temptations of class and caste superiority. But it was always in the British mind to press these ideas upon them.

By the turn of the century, there was a willing audience in a WASP élite which had acquired not only an imperial role through American involvement in Cuba and the Philippines but also a racial consciousness sharpened by reaction to large-scale Jewish and Catholic immigration. Both, it is contended, drew it closer to the attitudes and functions of Britain's ruling class, and the developments of the twentieth century only intensified the symbiosis.

Fragmentary though Hitchens's historical analysis tends to be [in Blood, Class, and Nostalgia], there is much to be said for his lively Painite lampooning of the transoceanic complicities of property and power. The British élite's interest in this bonding was perhaps even broader than he suggests. Superficially, it might be seen simply as a crude need for an infusion of fresh resources. The damage done to landed revenues by the import of American grain was mitigated by the import of milch cows in the form of young American heiresses and by letting Spencer House to Yankee tenants. The difficulty of sustaining imperial responsibilities and global importance was alleviated, for a space, by the coaxing of the American giant into the imperial and hegemonic game. But on a deeper level, the British looked not only for material aid but for some of that knack of political survival which is often supposed to have been their own distinctive contribution to the traffic.

Noting only in passing the alternative special relationship of radical and democratic aspiration and working-class solidarity which spanned the Atlantic, Hitchens barely glances at its interaction with the élite connection which forms his subject. The United States in the age of Bright was a beacon of democracy for the British left. But as Britain herself haltingly acquired the formal apparatus of democracy, it became paradoxically a sustaining example to the right of how that regrettable modern fashion might be tempered and tamed. Lord Salisbury, who in the 1860s had hankered for the victory of the Confederacy over the “democratic” North, was by the 1880s gazing enviously at the judicious safeguards which the American constitution embodied against the kind of drastic and hasty class legislation made so depressingly easy (he alleged) by the British parliamentary system. And, indeed, Salisbury was scarcely dead when Britain began to implement schemes of social welfare requiring a degree of redistributive taxation to which democratic America never aspired and profoundly complicating the funding of imperial power: it was not least because Britain had the welfare and America the wealth that the latter's buttressing of imperial rule became so essential. Moreover, the United States supplied excellent examples of the assimilating and dominating skills that were required both for domestic stability and for imperial sway. Oliver Wendell Holmes's assertion that the Americans were “the Romans of the modern world—the great assimilating people” looked even more pertinent by the end of the nineteenth century, when the United States within its own borders supplied a hardly less spectacular case than the British empire of how a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant minority might keep in hand vast and potentially explosive ethnic and social diversity. A Romance of the White Man's Burden was the subtitle of the racist novel on which Griffith's Birth of a Nation was based. In the art of giving the law to lesser breeds, at home or abroad, America need not always be the pupil, Britain the tutor. The use of the Mohawk Valley Formula, derived from American strike-breaking experience, to outmanoeuvre Arthur Scargill's miners was to emphasize that.

As befits a Washington-based correspondent with every opportunity of observing the ironies of his title and a relish for the mordant exposure of hypocrisy and fraud (see the riddled targets tumbling out of the pages of his collected pieces published under the title Prepared for the Worst), Hitchens is savagely good on the clubby, back-scratching, seminaring, old leather and not-so-old money atmosphere that marks the special relationship and its tools and institutions—the Rhodes scholarships, the Council on Foreign Relations, Ditchley Park. He calls in Neal Ascherson's jibe about “Atlantic provincialism” to characterize the blinkered mutual admiration of two narrow groups in the Home Counties and on the eastern seaboard, linked more intimately to each other than is either to the hinterland it still manages in some degree to dominate, the Americans supplying the capital, the British still just about supplying the class, or at least, as Hitchens calls it, the kitsch.

The show must be nearing its finale. If it has allowed the British to cling vicariously to one sort of greatness, it has involved them in the endless humiliations implicit in the huge imbalance of physical force. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Great Western Railway was still a stronger symbol of modernity and power than the Great Western Republic. In the 1840s, Emerson could describe a pounding, pulsating, steam-driven, fast-running, materialistic Britain, stamping itself on the consciousness and activity of the world (even to “multitudes of rude young English … who have made the English traveller a proverb for uncomfortable and offensive manners”), in terms which, as Harry Allen pointed out, make it hard to believe that the subject is not the United States a century later. But it was obvious even then—at least to the Economist in 1851—that “The superiority of the United States to England is ultimately as certain as the next eclipse.” However strong the rhetoric of blood relationship and the attraction of English style for a relatively new élite, superiority meant condescension in the end. What was forged by the First World War was an American nationalism rather than an Anglo-Saxon brotherhood, and if the reputation of British imperial know-how long compensated for the limitations of British power, it could not survive the kind of shock administered by the realization that the gentlemanly tradition could and did include Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. If Americans sometimes admired the British, and, indeed, like Dean Acheson, resembled them, they rarely had time for the British empire, except perhaps in its Hollywood incarnation as a sort of Asiatic or African Wild West. The unwillingness to underwrite it signalled by the Suez episode destroyed its credit as surely as Gorbachev's withdrawal of effective Russian force destroyed the credit of communism in Eastern Europe.

Mention of current events in Eastern Europe points to a major cost of the Anglo-American élite relationship. Its attraction for the British is partly that it relieves them of the need to learn a foreign language. Hitchens quotes André Visson: “Of course if the hour for Britain to pass on her great historic mission has struck, the British would definitely prefer to have as successors their younger American relatives rather than intellectual Latins, unbalanced Germans or temperamental Slavs.” The easy option and largely illusory privileges of the special relationship bent Britain's rulers away from Europe at a time when they could have taken the lead in the construction of a counterpoise to American hegemony based on a community of civilization arguably more real than that alleged to form the foundation of the special relationship. The tables are now turned, and Britain must face about. That old imperial villain, Cecil Rhodes, was crafty enough in his time to place an each-way bet. There were German as well as American Rhodes scholars up to 1914. Perhaps Heidelberg and Jena will furnish their quota again. They can afford to pay for the tuxedos.

R. W. Johnson (review date 16 August 1990)

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SOURCE: Johnson, R. W. “Further Left.” London Review of Books (16 August 1990): 3, 5–6.

[In the following review of Prepared for the Worst and Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, Johnson praises Hitchens's provocative writing, but criticizes his preference for acerbic personal attacks on “soft targets” and his resort to irony as a principal mode of critique.]

Many years ago it was the habit of the PPE tutors in Magdalen College, Oxford to hold a discussion group for their undergraduates. At one such meeting we were somewhat disconcerted to find we had been gatecrashed by an extremely loud and talkative outsider of Marxist bent who laid down the law about everything, referred to the dons as ‘comrade’—he did not know my name, so I was ‘the red-headed comrade’—and rather capsized the whole evening. Not long after, the discussion group was disbanded. The gatecrasher's name, we learnt, was Christopher Hitchens, and he apparently did this sort of thing rather often, being famous for a sort of pyrotechnic brashness. Looking back, one realises that these were entirely apposite qualities for the successful journalist, which is very much what Hitchens has become.

Both these books are essentially the product of his residence in Washington, a transplantation which has served him very well and not merely because brashness is a necessary virtue there. He writes well, is extremely witty, and while he may or may not still be a Marxist, he certainly enjoys an opinionatedly radical cutting-edge quite sufficient to place him apart from the general run of American journalism. Moreover, he goads Americans by a scathing de haut en bas contempt for their vulgarity and at the same time titillates them with an equal scorn for the conventional symbolism of Anglo-culture, dismissing Princess Di as a bimbo, mocking the Rhodes Scholarship with Balliol disdain and generally slaughtering sacred cows like a pocket Rambo let loose with a gun in the cow-shed. For readers of the Nation, and more particularly for the American televiewers before whom Hitchens frequently performs, this has proved a rich and entertaining diet.

There is no doubt that he possesses a considerable talent. But there is also a question of context. In some ways, American newspapermen are the world leaders in their field: they have pioneered news magazines, photo news, muckraking, investigative reporting and most of the other great innovations of 20th-century journalism. But while in their way the New York Times and the Washington Post are magnificent, if lonely achievements, they are also prone to self-importance and full of acres of leaden prose—the deliberately dull reportage of ethical journalism. In that context someone like Hitchens shines forth like a naughty deed on a grey day.

Hitchens appears to best advantage in Prepared for the Worst, a collection of his journalism first published last year and mainly drawn from the Nation, the Spectator and the New Statesman. The pieces stand up well. They are often witty, invariably acute and it is a pleasure to watch Hitchens slash merrily away at figures who are conventionally exempt from tough criticism. Barbara Tuchman, ‘a contented liberal,’ is assailed for her appalling prose and the crass obviousness of many of her judgments and then pityingly dismissed as ‘the doyenne of the middlebrow American talk circuit.’ He is even tougher on the Kennedy caravan of intellectuals, who hyped up their man to such a degree that it is hard for them now to explain that JFK was also a cheat, who faked authorship of his books and lied over Cuba and his war record, and a tireless philanderer. This discrepancy is due, he writes, to the ‘myths and fabrications which have been popularised by courtiers and toadies like Arthur Schlesinger,’ whom he refers to as ‘a sycophant.’ He is similarly tough with Stanley Hoffman for being too respectful of Henry Kissinger.

Hitchens is at his best when on the attack. He can't stand Cyril Connolly, whom he sees as a precious old reactionary: ‘another dose of the familiar compound … some rackety travelling, a tincture of furtive sex (with much sniggering about lesbians), and the business of voyaging long distances the better to fret about some spoiled darling left behind in the Home Counties.’ But his most furious barbs are reserved for Norman Podhoretz, the reactionary editor of Commentary. Hitchens seems almost obsessed by him, returning to the attack over and over again. It is a curious fact that Podhoretz, an immodest man who has much about which to be modest, so got under the skin of intellectuals in the Eighties. He was definitively despatched by Gore Vidal some long while ago. Conor Cruise O'Brien then took his furious turn at the coconut shy. And here is Hitchens, lobbing adjectives like grenades in the same cause. It's all too much. One can't easily imagine anyone wasting so much ink and anger over, say, Bernard Levin—Britain's answer to Podhoretz, roughly speaking.

What it boils down to is that Hitchens is only really at home when attacking from the left and that he tends to go for easy targets. The Reagan Administration, awash with corruption, ignoramuses and its own special brand of sleazy, high-tech buffoonery, was, in that sense, a single huge easy target and Hitchens has endless, well-deserved fun at its expense. But the limitations of his approach begin to appear even there. It is fair enough to abuse Henry Kissinger for lying, sycophancy and malpractice, but is Hitchens right to dismiss him as ‘a second-rate academic’? It may hurt to admit that people one loathes sometimes have high ability, but that doesn't mean it can't happen. Similarly, Hitchens is infuriated by the turn to the right effected by Conor Cruise O'Brien in latter years and explains it by claiming that O'Brien ‘had learned to look at the world from the perspective of the foundation seminar, the bullet-proof limousine and the counter-insurgency technician.’ This is good knockabout stuff, but is it really an adequate explanation of the tortured complexity of O'Brien's development? I would be amazed if anything about him was that simple. Hitchens ends by darkly urging O'Brien to ponder his own verdict on Burke: ‘for him the forces of revolution and the counter-revolution exist not only in the world at large but also within himself.’ To Hitchens it is obviously game, set and match if O'Brien can be accused of carrying the counter-revolution within him. He would do well himself ‘to ponder,’ as he likes to put it, the richness and complexity of a mind and sympathy which stretches to comprehend both the revolution and its opposite, just as Shakespeare's did in Coriolanus.

These limitations become more apparent when Hitchens writes about the Left. He tears into Michael Foot for his ‘treacly exaggerations,’ his awful sentimentality, his Beaverbrook-worship and his ‘glutinous style.’ Fine. But the fact that his general angle of attack on Foot is from the left, and his judgment that Foot ‘has never been otherwise than a poseur,’ suggest that Foot has never really been a man of the Left at all. But that is to miss the important point that Foot has indeed represented a particular sort of Left in Britain, one which needs to be understood amidst all its warts and imperfections.

Similarly, writing about Djilas, he slots in a throwaway dismissal of Eurocommunism: ‘presented as a bland and sophisticated business. There is the Gucci socialism of Enrico Berlinguer or the petit commerçant compromise of Georges Marchais, both redolent of the main chance.’ Now the use of the word ‘Gucci’ is a bad American journalistic habit, a brand name used as a too-easy sneer word and thus a rather cheap way of dismissing someone. Only too frequently, it is used by smart-set media folk hardly backward in their own sense of fashion and style. Even more remarkable is the attempt to blacken Marchais with the epithet petit commerçant, a grotesque and surely deliberate misunderstanding of the most Stalinist Communist left in the West. If even Marchais isn't sufficiently hard-line and ouvrieriste for Hitchens, he's left with very little choice outside Albania and China. It's impossible to believe that Hitchens means us to think that. But if Hitchens isn't really way to the left of Marchais, why effect a critique from that angle except as a matter of radical chic? Gucci journalism?

In two cases Hitchens's critical judgment seems virtually to desert him. His essay on the Korean Opposition leader, Kim Dae Jung, is a moving and passionate piece, full of interest and a notable historical document in its own right—for Hitchens had the fine idea of travelling with Kim on his return to South Korea. But we don't get any impression of the toughly egocentric Kim who refused all attempts to unite the Opposition and thus guaranteed the continuance of right-wing rule in the ROK.

There is also an extremely long exoneration of Noam Chomsky, unjustly pilloried, Hitchens feels, for having written a preface to a book by Robert Faurisson. Faurisson is one of the nest of ‘revisionist’ historians to be found at the University of Lyon (which Hitchens insists on misspelling as Lyons) who believe that the Holocaust was a hoax got up to blacken Hitler's good name. Not surprisingly, Faurisson and his friends are deeply unpopular, and Chomsky merely wrote in support of his right to publish his views like anyone else. Hitchens does a good job of defending Chomsky as a principled and unjustly maligned hero of the Left—he's particularly good on the way a book can simply be blacked out in the US by all review editors having simultaneous attacks of amnesia—but the key point of the Faurisson incident was that Chomsky was contributing a preface to a book he had never read. Hitchens agrees that this was somewhat rash of his hero, but he might truthfully have added that Chomsky has been far too willing to sign almost anything put in front of him.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the biggest lacuna among these pieces is any treatment of the greatest phenomenon of the American Left in recent years, the Jesse Jackson show. This is a pity: Jackson's shameless opportunism, the dark facts of his career in Chicago, his heroic womanising, his refusal to run for any office which might mean taking responsibility for anything, and the terrible damage he has done to his own side—all merit the sort of slashing treatment Hitchens would be very good at. But no: this difficult but worthwhile subject is steadily ignored. The nearest we get to it is an attack on Jackson's sometime adviser, the black anti-semite, Louis Farrakhan: but even here the crucial point is apparently that Farrakhan uses ‘the precise language employed by the Liberty Lobby, the Klan and the right-wing patriots who surfaced at the time of the oil embargo.’ Now, noxious racist as he undoubtedly is, Farrakhan belongs somewhere on what passes for the far left in the US. To dismiss him by finding a point where his rhetoric coincides with that of the far Right is clever, even cute, but there is a sort of evasion here.

Hitchens's biting critiques of his easy targets would carry more weight if he was willing to tackle the hard (for him) targets as well. Take Farrakhan's anti-semitism. It is no good just treating this as a simple badge of evil. The hard knot of feeling that Farrakhan builds on is the widespread black perception that Jews assumed many of the leadership positions in the civil rights movement of the Sixties, and that they then used these positions to steer the movement towards the achievement of individual civil rights (which suited Jews). Blacks who look at the parlous state of the black community today are wont to believe that this was a wrong direction, that only collective and communal solutions would have levered blacks out of their misery, and that all that irrecoverable momentum was, in a sense, wasted. The sense that, in this and other ways, Jews have somehow escaped from their victim status at the expense of blacks, however unfair such a notion may be, is diffusely felt. The extent to which this perception is justified, and the extent to which it draws strength from other ghetto roots, would make a difficult but important study. Meanwhile it does more to explain Farrakhan than any amount of damning comparison with the Klan.

Of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia Hitchens says it is ‘neither a narrative history, nor a cultural survey, nor a full-dress political analysis.’ Coming straight to this book from Prepared for the Worst is not the best way to approach it, for the prospect of another nearly four hundred pages of Hitchens's determined archness is a little daunting. One begins almost to wonder if he hasn't picked on the subjects of Anglophilia, Anglo-Americanism and the ‘special relationship’ as a final, huge sacred-cow soft target. The key to the book is its subtitle: Anglo-American Ironies. For that is, one realises, Hitchens's métier. As the French would put it, il ironise.

In fact, the book is shrewdly, even deftly done. Hitchens himself has been a beneficiary of the American assumption that an Englishman is, at least potentially and embryonically, a superior sort of American. The advent of Bush, with his emphasis on niceness, politeness and good tone, has done no harm to this notion. An Englishman is seen not just as a Wasp, but as quite probably someone with better education, taste and manners than a run-of-the-mill Bushman. The English have naturally been quick to encourage such a notion. As one of Evelyn Waugh's California-based Anglos put is, ‘we limeys have a peculiar position to keep up … You never find an Englishman among the underdogs—except in England of course.’ Hitchens is undoubtedly right when he says that nothing has so reinforced American Anglophilia as the fact that we are now so far from being the imperial rival we once were that Americans have no need for envy.

One is struck, however, by how different the tone and theme of the relationship was around the turn of the century when British and American power were more equal. Hitchens draws plentifully and fruitfully on the correspondence between Kipling and Theodore Roosevelt, and on such blushworthy events as the fêting of Admiral Mahan in London after the publication of his Influence of Sea Power upon History. He was dined by Queen Victoria and the Lord Mayor of London, received by the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister and given honorary degrees by Oxford and Cambridge within the space of a week. The reason? He had written a book which took England as his model, which saw America as ‘civilised’ to the extent that it had witnessed English victories over the French, and which foresaw an Anglo-American racial alliance against the ‘teeming multitudes’ of Asia. Music to the English ear: the accompaniment to an orgy of muscular imperial body language with much vainglorious toasting by dinner-jacketed men carried away by evocations of our common race memory.

Hitchens's Oxford background comes to his aid in all this: he has glimpsed the significance of the Rhodes Scholarship and appears to have read his way through decades of The American Oxonian, the American Rhodes Scholars' journal. For, of course, Oxford is an epicentre of this Anglo-American celebration, and it is still possible to attend occasional inaugural lectures and dinners which flash one back to the world of John Buchan. I make him a present of one such occasion: as a Rhodes Scholar I was wont to go to the annual Rhodes dinners, loud with the sort of rhetoric which would make Hitchens blench. Traditionally, there had been toasts to the Founder (Rhodes), the Chancellor of Germany, the American President and the Queen. Rhodes had to go because most Scholars came to disapprove violently of him as a racist and imperialist: we all took his money, felt guilty about it, and said it was OK because he was dead. The Chancellor had to be dropped in the Thirties, when it became clear that a toast to Hitler would create disorder: even some of the German Scholars refused to drink to him. In the mid-Sixties I watched as row after row of Scholars bitterly refused (as I did myself) to raise their glass to LBJ, whom we saw as a war criminal. The only toast which everyone could agree to was to the Queen.

Hitchens is good value on the American cult of Churchill, who stands for a sort of disembodied ‘greatness’ as a high-cast, good-taste Rambo with rhetorical abilities Stallone's man never had. Not surprisingly, this gave him a special place in Reagan's Washington. The Churchill Society was full of Capitol Hill Cold Warriors. Caspar Weinberger was a virtual Churchill freak, the possessor of a vast collection of Churchilliana, while one of Reagan's first acts was to order a portrait of WC to be hung at the centre of the White House ‘situations room,’ to give moral inspiration in the fight against the Evil Empire. From there the story leads on, inevitably, to the ‘imperial receivership,’ with the Brits desperately hoping to have a sort of vicarious imperial afterlife by attaching themselves to Uncle Sam's coat-tails, by flattering the American Romans in the vain hope of passing themselves off as Greeks, even by maintaining nuclear weapons largely in order to impress America with the thought that they were still a force to be reckoned with.

To all this Hitchens is a sure-footed guide. Il ironise: but what else to do? And as he himself admits, you can never hope to cover all the material. He doesn't, for example, stop to contemplate the interesting latterday Buchanism of James Bond, that perfect English gent who somehow ends up saving the Free World on behalf of America. The Bond films have been an enormous American success and feature such classic Americana as the Space Shuttle, but trial and error have shown that the films only succeed if the leading role is played as a somewhat mannered gent of the old school (Sean Connery, Roger Moore). A rich field here …

Blood, Class, and Nostalgia is deservedly a success but its subject provokes a certain discomfort: most of all because one always has the sinking feeling that the American conception of the Brits is a hopeless fraud, that the awful truth is that we are not superior and more cultivated but a society with a uniquely low regard for education, a society which has been busy deskilling itself, which doesn't even repair its museums and art galleries, a society perhaps more truthfully represented by the football hooligan than by the long-dead Churchill. Hitchens's episodic and purely cultural treatment also leaves one feeling a bit empty-handed at the end. The relationship between any two major nations is inevitably about war, trade, investment and communications, and the fact that consideration of such factors is missing from this account somehow robs it of sinew. But one is also left feeling a little bemused. Not many international relationships have been as intense, multi-faceted and significant as that between Britain and America. It is a relationship which has known enormous drama, sacrifice and achievement. Is it really all just a matter for irony? How would we regard a portrayal of the French-American relationship, for example, as also just irretrievably comic? Or the relationship between Russia and Germany? Is solemnity really such a risk, however grateful one is for the jokes?

Paul Allen Miller (review date fall 1990)

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SOURCE: Miller, Paul Allen. Review of Prepared for the Worst, by Christopher Hitchens. Southern Humanities Review 24, no. 4 (fall 1990): 371–73.

[In the following review of Prepared for the Worst, Miller commends Hitchens's journalistic skill, but faults his one-dimensional rationality and tendency to conjure conspiracy theories.]

Christopher Hitchens, in his new collection of essays, is, as always, a fine prose stylist. His sharp, analytical wit cuts through the absurdities and double-speak of so much contemporary journalism and takes a principled stand for “secularism, libertarianism, internationalism, and solidarity.” His anticlerical, irreverent, and rational approach recalls the intellectual criticism of the Enlightenment, and this recollection is consciously, if subtly, cultivated throughout the entire book. It is no accident, then, that Prepared for the Worst opens with an essay on “Thomas Paine: The Actuarial Radical,” nor that the book jacket quotes Oliver Stone saying “a breath of Tom Paine for our time.” For, like Paine, Hitchens prefers the critical vantage point of “common sense.” Indeed, he sums up both his own and Paine's literary virtues when he writes, “Everything [Paine] wrote was plain, obvious, and within the mental compass of the average. In that lay his genius.” For Hitchens, then, like the eighteenth century, reason is transparent.

One of the collection's most effective pieces is “Chorus and Cassandra,” a defense of Noam Chomsky. Here, Hitchens takes two of the most common accusations levelled against the famed linguist and political dissident and shows them to be based on half-truths and distortion. Thus to the widely disseminated charge that Chomsky's writings minimized the extent of Pol Pot's atrocities in Cambodia, Hitchens responds that Chomsky never denied that atrocities occurred, nor did he ever in any way endorse the Khmer Rouge. What he did do was object to the slipshod and ideological way in which events in Cambodia were reported and to the press's amnesia with regard to the thousands of deaths the United States caused in Indochina. It is, of course, no small irony that many of the same people who damn Chomsky also support American aid to the current coalition of forces to which the Khmer Rouge belong. To the charge that Chomsky had written a preface to a book which denied the factuality of the Holocaust, Hitchens responds that in reality what Chomsky wrote was a defense of even the vilest person's right to research and publish in his chosen field. This defense was intended for use in court proceedings against the author of the book and was only later used, without Chomsky's permission, as the book's preface.

Other high points of the collection are found in the section entitled “In the Era of Good Feelings.” Here there are a number of shorter pieces, culled from Hitchens' coverage of the Reagan administration. The section begins with a column which claims that the great communicator's verbal miscues were not just the product of a likable but dim old man, but were often conscious lies. The most damning evidence is Reagan's claim to have personally “assisted in the liberation of the Nazi death camps,” when, in fact, he never left California. An equally interesting essay from this same section is “Bitter Fruit,” an article on a little known, but highly influential group, the Social Democrats U.S.A. This elite circle, though claiming descent from Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs, is actually the base of Jean Kirkpatrick, Elliot Abrams and other luminaries of the neoconservative movement. As a group, they represent the core of what used to be known as the Humphrey-Jackson Democrats, cold-war hawks pretending to be social progressives.

In all of these articles, Hitchens' method is the same—clarification and factual discovery. His theoretical arsenal is, for the most part, limited to empiricism and faith in the powers of human reason. He leaves aside the thornier questions of ideology and epistemology. This is not a great fault in a journalist. Yet it leads to problems with regard to his claim of being a Marxist. Not that his socialist sentiments and his knowledge of a number of Marxist texts are in doubt, but rather his intellectual approach remains in many ways not only pre-Marxist, but pre-Hegelian. Thus, to return to the essay which opens the collection, Hitchens, without a theory of ideology or an understanding of dialectics, is helpless to explain how it is that Paine discovered what Hitchens labels “the obvious,” or why these “facts” had remained hidden prior to his uncovering them.

Hand in hand with Hitchens' emphasis on the powers of human reason goes a certain formalism. For if reason is ultimately sovereign, then an adherence to its forms, in spite of the threats and blandishments the state and the media may send our way, will ultimately lead to liberation and the establishment of a just society. If people would shake off their blinders and see the truth, the truth would make them free. Thus, in his defense of George Orwell, Hitchens writes, “The essence of Orwell's work is a sustained criticism of servility. It is not what you think, but how you think that matters.” This facile separation of form and content, with its rationalist resonances, betrays a pre-Marxist cast of mind. How is it that this servility arises? Is it a formal or substantive condition? Are the “facts” of the servile the same as those of their masters? If these facts are obvious, then why are they so hard to see?

The only answer to such questions for one who accepts the primacy of human reason is some form of conspiracy theory: if the facts are not here to be seen, somebody must be hiding them. This unfortunately is precisely the trap into which Hitchens falls when he argues for the “Secret Team” theory of United States involvement in Central America, a theory which forms the basis of a recent Christic Institute lawsuit. The problem with conspiracy theories is not that they are necessarily incorrect, but that they collapse complex social and political problems into the products of a few individuals' malevolent actions. Thus, the evil which is perpetrated on the world is seen as the responsibility of select individuals who choose to act well or ill. Within this paradigm, the preconscious social and historical determination of patterns of thought and action has no place.

It is indicative of these problems that the least successful part of Prepared for the Worst is that devoted to book reviews. Many of the reviews are dated, the authors relatively obscure, and the books, according to Hitchens, bad. This makes for tiresome reading. But the fundamental problem is Hitchens' basic approach. He shows little appreciation of the complexities of textuality or of its transpersonal dimensions. We are, instead, treated to the familiar picture of autonomous individuals sitting at their desks, expressing their conscious intentions, and revealing the world. What this portrait depicts, however, is not the act of writing itself, but the ideological stance contemporary journalists are expected to assume, and which in turn Hitchens has projected onto others.

Such, in sum, are the limits of “common sense” in a multidimensional world. Hitchens' book is most satisfying when he practices the politically engaged, scrupulously accurate reporting at which he excels. There are any number of useful, thought-provoking articles in Prepared for the Worst, filled with things we did not know, but should have. Nonetheless, to the reader searching for a more profound analysis of contemporary politics and literature, Hitchens' book may ultimately prove disappointing.

Esmond Wright (review date March 1991)

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SOURCE: Wright, Esmond. “The Special Relationship.” Contemporary Review 258, no. 1502 (March 1991): 161–62.

[In the following excerpt, Wright offers a positive assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.]

Christopher Hitchens's study [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] can be seen as a good example of that élite branch of the higher journalism to which some British-born and British-educated newspapermen are recruited: it is no doubt a feature of the relationship that many American editors are called from Oxbridge and what was once Fleet Street. His chapter titles suggest the shape and style: ‘Greece to their Rome’—though by this time it's not clear which of the modern states is identified with which classical republic or imperium—‘Bard of Empires,’ (for Kipling's Anglo-America), ‘Blood Relations’ (for the Edwardian era), ‘the Churchill cult,’ ‘Brit Kitsch,’ and the ‘Imperial Receivership.’ Hitchens writes with irony and sparkle, and he exercises a journalist's self-appointed right to make often savage fun of his characters (notably Ambassador Annenberg). Given that role, Hitchens is stronger on the story since Kipling, and draws heavily on printed sources, on clubland gossip and on the Georgetown world. His thesis, however, is disturbingly relevant: that at Suez in 1956, heralded by the Truman Doctrine of a decade before, the US took up the white man's burden, and made Wheelus Field, Libya, an American rather than a British base. When a decade later Ghaddafi revolted against Idris, he saw the US as the real enemy, as he still does. So with Israel, and with Pakistan; and Vietnam, the Lebanon, Grenada and Iraq, were still to come. The American receivership was, however, ‘imperialism without splendour’; and Americans always denied the validity of the term, since in national legendry they had fought against Empire in 1776. Although the pattern is chronological, Hitchens writes as a journalist, gleefully enjoying the crevices and the ironies more than the main narrative, more concerned, for example, with the ‘plotting’ of Foreign Offices in 1916 than with the main point that in 1917 Germany launched and declared an all-out war on the US; and using ‘Manifest Destiny’ loosely to connote American ambitions not in the West but in the Caribbean.

This is, however, a vivid addition to the corpus, especially readable on Kipling, on American ‘imperialism,’ and on the academic and Intelligence links forged by Rhodes Fellowships and by Ditchley conferences; it is written with freshness, even if it sacrifices some important themes for the sake of a chuckle.

Hitchens was unlucky: his few paragraphs on Spring Rice—seen here exclusively as ‘T. R.s’ Anglo-Saxon ‘buddy’—were written before the publication of David Burton's masterly and scholarly biography of ‘Springey’ [Cecil Spring Rice: A Diplomat's Life]. … The British Ambassador in Washington in World War I who deplored anti-German propaganda emerges as a nobler Anglo-American than the cynical figures of Christopher Hitchens's pages. ‘We shall stand or fall by what we do, and not by what other people think,’ Spring Rice wrote to his old tutor at Eton. ‘If there is justice or truth in the world, we shall win in the end; and if there is no justice or truth, it isn't worth living here—so we can leave it at that.’ It is refreshing to be reminded that diplomats once had qualities that, sadly, we now call old-fashioned.

Dennis Perrin (essay date May–June 1991)

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SOURCE: Perrin, Dennis. “Hitchens Rehabilitated?” Mother Jones 16, no. 3 (May–June 1991): 12.

[In the following essay, Perrin discusses Hitchens's controversial position on abortion and defense of misogynist rap lyrics.]

Is Christopher Hitchens a feminist's enemy? From his pulpit in The Nation, Hitchens has issued columns on abortion and sexist rap lyrics, which drew a storm of repudiation from women's-rights advocates. Hitchens, who writes for Harper's and women's magazines and recently hilariously humbled pro-war Charlton Heston in a CNN debate, has never directly responded to feminist critics. Until now.

In April 1989, he wrote: “I have always been convinced that the term ‘unborn child’ is a genuine description of material reality. Obviously, the fetus is alive. …” So Hitchens suggested a “historic compromise” with right-to-lifers, which would make free contraception available, promote adoption, and provide free abortions to rape or incest victims, or women whose health is threatened. He made no mention of making abortion available under other circumstances, winding up: “It is a pity that instead of taking this course, the majority of feminists and their allies have stuck to the dead ground of ‘Me Decade’ possessive individualism. …”

Now he tells Mother Jones:

On the question of the right to choose, either I have to convict myself of expressing myself very badly indeed or of being willfully misunderstood, or maybe a bit of both. I don't think that the concept ‘unborn child’ is a nonsensical term. I think it's now agreed that the fetus is not a mere extension of the anatomy of the woman, that it is, at least in potentia, human life. … There is, in my opinion, no choice but choice. There is no way of avoiding the choice position. What I said was that conditions could be created by politics, by actual state intervention, if you will, where people might wish to exercise that choice less, and that would be a good thing. That there should be, therefore, a presumption in favor of the unborn. But if that fails, obviously you can't push it to the point of saying, ‘We will force you to carry a child to term.’ Everything in one revolts against that.

The column, says Hitchens, “brought on the accusation that I was a patriarchal fascist and quite a lot of other things I'm not and that I think the women's movement has rescued other men from having to be.”

Last July, Hitchens defended 2 Live Crew's lyrics, including: Jack and Jill went up the hill to have a little fun / Jack got made, kicked Jill in the ass / 'Cause she couldn't make him cum. “I'm sorry,” he wrote, “but I think that's very funny. … It's obvious to this reviewer that the Crew should be let alone, and that their foulmouthed attitude toward the gentler sex is a good-sounding excuse for a youth-hating and surreptitiously bigoted prosecution.”

Says Hitchens today:

It didn't seem to me that [the lyrics] expressed loathing for women. Although they were very filthy, they were just trying it on to see how far you can go, extract humor from the situation; in other words, to use something menacing, the idea of the physical edge of danger that's involved in sexual intercourse. … I thought a good case could be made for Luther Campbell as a very crude, very definite satirist. The responses were, ‘How can you possibly say that's anything other than an incitement to rape?’ No doubt many of the letters were by people who would have, if it were in their power, prevented those songs from being sung or printed.

Repression is the problem in the first place. The answer to it is complicated. We have a lot of sublimated misery and rage to deal with where sex is concerned. Whatever works, we know what doesn't work: repression doesn't.

Hitchens puts this wider frame on both debates:

I was never thrilled by the sudden discovery that the personal was political. I thought it had potential for stupidity and for conservatism as well, that your politics were defined by who you were and not what you thought, let alone by how you thought. Therefore, by being a homosexual or female, or, for that matter, being white, you already established most of what you could contribute and most of what people expect of you—a kind of group-think, and also a kind of grievance-think, or, in the case of being white, guilt-think. There's nothing to learn except which faction is which. It skips the role of ideas, and thus I'm not surprised to find some of the same people are interested in limiting what may be said and thought. They haven't got too much to gain from the open conduct of an argument.

William Phillips (essay date summer 1991)

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SOURCE: Phillips, William. “Hitchens's Trotskyists.” Partisan Review 58, no. 3 (summer 1991): 426–27.

[In the following essay, Phillips objects to Hitchens's misrepresentation of Trotskyist New York intellectuals in Hitchens's book review of Critical Crossings by Neil Jumonville.]

Christopher Hitchens is not only a slick journalist but also a slick thinker. He should be a valuable contributor to the popular magazines, but, unfortunately, The New York Times,The Times Literary Supplement, and The London Review of Books utilize his talents. He is also a regular columnist for The Nation, where he lends a spark to the old-fashioned radicalism that persists after it has been pronounced dead.

Fortunately for Hitchens, he has a fund of doctrines that he can draw on from the politically correct arena. One of his recent efforts appears in The London Review of Books, where he ostensibly reviews yet another in the long line of books about the New York intellectuals—this one titled Critical Crossings by Neil Jumonville (University of California Press). This latest account is not as ideological as most of its predecessors. But it assigns different roles to the main actors, inflating some, diminishing others, thus creating a somewhat skewed picture of the period and its spokesmen.

But Hitchens uses the book to push his own peculiar line. He designates Trotsky as the central symbolic figure, and makes it appear as if most of the New York intellectuals were defined by their relation to the “old man,” the revolutionary leader and then the leading critic of Stalin and his regime. Thus the curve of Trotsky's life is made out to be the paradigm for the lives and careers of the New York intellectuals.

This picture, however, is not only misleading, but it follows the pattern of the Stalinist diatribes against the anti-Stalinists by labeling them Trotskyists. Of course, in the Stalinist arsenal, Trotskyist meant reactionary and imperialist. In Hitchens's arsenal, the invented Trotskyists turn out to be mostly Jews. Maybe this is not intentional, but it is strangely suggestive.

Among his other ideological innuendos, Hitchens pictures Lionel Trilling as a Trotskyist who later masqueraded as a “gentleman-liberal.” He also curiously defines the problem of the intellectual in politics as one of elites. “Should the masses or the intellectuals,” asks Hitchens, “be the proper target of enlightenment?” Apparently, the whole complex history of intellectual responsibility and engagement boils down to this.

In addition, Hitchens distorts the Ledeen episode, making it appear as though Partisan Review sold out the entire liberal heritage of the West by considering a piece by Michael Ledeen. Hitchens falsely describes the piece, in which Michael Ledeen discussed the process of arriving at foreign policies, as an attack on democracy. And he further tells a politically accusatory story about the magazine, fed him, he says, by Norman Birnbaum. According to this version, we postponed our fiftieth anniversary in order to conceal our past—a past, by the way, I've written about several times and went into fully in my memoir, A Partisan View (1983).

Finally, the piece is spiced with politically correct observations: such as the characterization of the “Judenrat” as being “at the service of the empire”; a bow in the direction of the Palestinians; a few cracks against those who supported the Gulf War, as well as a hint of Israeli interests in the war; and an often-repeated remark about the “scale of Iraqi civilian … casualties.”

The rest of the piece is harmless but pointless.

Stuart Anderson (review date September 1991)

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SOURCE: Anderson, Stuart. Review of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, by Christopher Hitchens. Journal of American History 78, no. 2 (September 1991): 699–700.

[In the following review, Anderson offers a negative assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia.]

The theme of this mystifyingly titled book [Blood, Class, and Nostalgia] is the so-called special relationship between Great Britain and the United States and how that relationship has developed from the end of the nineteenth century to the present day. Christopher Hitchens's major thesis is that, at various crucial moments in the history of United States foreign policy since the time of the Spanish-American War, the British ruling class has used pressure and cajolery to seduce Americans into following policies that may have been in the British interest but were probably not in the long-range interest of the United States itself. Thus Hitchens strongly implies, where he does not straightforwardly assert, that without the British connection and the machinations of British agents and officials, the United States might not have embraced an overseas empire at the end of the nineteenth century, or entered the two world wars, or developed nuclear weapons, or waged the Cold War, or assumed the role of meddlesome superpower in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Hitchens believes that Britain decisively influenced American policy making in all of these episodes and areas and that the British were interested in doing so because they thought the United States, once committed in various parts of the world, would help protect the British Empire and British interests. The supreme “irony” of the special relationship, according to Hitchens, is that it was the United States itself that ultimately pushed Britain aside, took over its worldwide role as arbiter of nations, and finally, with economic penetration and military basing arrangements, turned even the British home island into little more than “a facility for the United States.”

Unfortunately for Christopher Hitchens, the bulk of his arguments in Blood, Class, and Nostalgia are poorly supported, poorly developed, and difficult to swallow. Hitchens is a journalist, not a professional historian, and there is no indication that he has read widely in the field of Anglo-American relations. His text is unannotated, and the few bibliographic notes at the back of the book run to only about a paragraph for each chapter. The book is confusingly organized and contains a great load of questionable assertions masquerading as facts. Most disturbing of all, however, is the impression Hitchens tries to convey of American simplemindedness and British cunning. Hitchens would have us believe that some of the most important developments in United States foreign policy since the end of the nineteenth century have occurred primarily because the British were able to “seduce and corrupt” the American populace and not because Americans perceived some interest of their own in building an overseas empire, maintaining the balance of power in Europe, defeating Nazism, containing Soviet expansionism, and exercising influence over poorer and weaker peoples all around the globe. Needless to say, this is hard to accept.

Blood, Class, and Nostalgia is a book that will interest few serious historians, nor is it written with enough clarity and verve to capture the interest of a nonprofessional readership. To put it bluntly, the book is a failure on almost all counts.

Anthony Howard (review date 5 June 1993)

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SOURCE: Howard, Anthony. “The Slaying of a Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact.” Spectator (5 June 1993): 35.

[In the following review of For the Sake of Argument, Howard commends Hitchens's “gift for studied invective,” but finds fault in his disregard for inconvenient facts.]

Of all contemporary transatlantic commentators Christopher Hitchens tends to provoke the strongest reactions. To his admirers, he is someone who tells it how it is—beholden to nobody, frightened of no one and with a fine instinct for the jugular, especially when it is contained in a fleshily prosperous neck.

His critics, on the other hand, claim to detect a poseur—a man who is far more at home with café society than any left-winger ought to be, a writer who aspires, above all, to be the glass of fashion, a pundit who, while strong on all questions of opinion, has always been curiously weak on matters of fact.

The attraction of this combative book [For the Sake of Argument]—his second published collection of journalistic pieces (not bad for someone only just over 40)—is that it impartially provides ammunition for both sides. The various essays are never anything but spirited; what they lack in knowledge they compensate for by a carefully cultivated air of knowingness, and they display the author's own special gift for studied invective, not to say vulgar abuse, to remarkable effect. (They also, it has to be said, occasionally produce an example of execrable writing. Who else but an old Oxford Union hand, desperately casting around to avoid an overused cliché, could come up with a line like ‘There went the feline, screeching from the bag’?)

But the real case against Hitchens does not lie in his penchant for stylistic excesses. It rests, instead, on the cavalier way in which he never allows an awkward fact to get in the way of a pre-ordained thesis. There is a covert illustration of this in the case of the longest essay in this book. It takes some nerve to present in 1993 an Areopagitica-type defence of Salman Rushdie without once referring, even by way of a footnote, to the moment in 1990 when he seemed ready to buy off his potential assassins by proclaiming his renewed faith in Islam.

Hitchens can also trip himself up by his constant desire to be centre stage—the most painful sentence of all for him to compose must, one suspects, have been the one on his Oxford days in which he is forced to acknowledge: ‘I didn't personally know Clinton but I knew some in his circle.’ But at least this sort of admission saves him from egregious error.

He is less fortunate in giving his reminiscences of a British Prime Minister. In his section entitled ‘Rogues’ Gallery' he proudly tells us that

at the Labour Party Conference in 1976 I was at a private dinner given by the Engineers' Union, at which Harold Wilson made a little speech in praise of himself.

According to the account given here, the old boy made the mistake of alluding to the fact that he had been ‘leader of the party for 13 years’ (unfortunate echoes, as the author points out with relish, in the light of Wilson's own 1964 battle-cry of ‘13 years of Tory misrule.’ But, as proof that the dreadful bounder retained a certain fox-like cunning, Hitchens goes on to record that the very next day—addressing ‘the full conference and the cameras’—the Prime Minister carefully substituted the safer time-span of ‘12 1/2 years.’

There is only one thing wrong with this story. It cannot possibly be true. Wilson had ceased to be Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party in April 1976 and did not attend the 1976 Party Conference at all. Nor does it help much to plead that Hitchens has simply got his years mixed up. In September 1975 Wilson would hardly have claimed, even at a private gathering, that he had been ‘leader of the party for 13 years.’ In face of the hard light of evidence the entire anecdote simply collapses.

But then, to be fair, Hitchens has always seen himself as a broad-brush merchant. Not for him a Canaletto, making its impact by accumulation of accurate detail. He prefers to go for the single, shock effect and—like Andy Warhol (one of the few trendy figures pilloried in this book)—he can sometimes bring it off.

Matthew D'Ancona (review date 25 June 1993)

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SOURCE: D'Ancona, Matthew. “A Dandy Defender of Freedom.” Times Literary Supplement (25 June 1993): 26–27.

[In the following review, D'Ancona offers a generally favorable assessment of For the Sake of Argument.]

Although the fly-leaf of this new collection of essays [For the Sake of Argument] describes Christopher Hitchens variously as a “lazy Balliol dandy,” “the most compelling foreign correspondent we have,” and “the nearest thing to a journalistic one-man band since I. F. Stone,” my favourite image (not included in this book) is of the cub reporter, recently down from Oxford and longing for action, who instead found himself bored out of his mind working on the polytechnics desk of the Times Higher Education Supplement. According to colleagues of the time, the Higher and Hitchens gained in almost equal measure from their decision to part company.

I mention this not out of malice but fellow feeling, since, as another former education correspondent, I know what it is like to wrestle with a report on polytechnic funding on a slow Sunday. But the image of the Balliol dandy as jobbing apprentice is worth conjuring up for another reason. Though it is true that Hitchens goes out of his way to court conservative ire and may make more enemies than friends by republishing these essays and articles—many of which will be unfamiliar to British readers—it is important to remember that he has paid his journalistic dues. There are very few reporters who have dodged shells in Sarajevo who can also turn out an eloquent essay on C. L. R. James. More than anyone else on the left, he has earned his place in the firmament of columnists, fifth or otherwise, and this is a significant book for that reason alone.

True to form, there is enough here to strengthen the caricature of Hitchens as an irresponsible Wildean who jigs frantically on the sands of contemporary politics merely to prevent solid citizens from laying down their beach towels. It's not a caricature I agree with, but you can easily see why some are so upset. Hitchens, who is now based in Washington, does indeed have a rare talent for ad hominem attack which at its best is invigorating—the essay on Kissinger is a splendidly splenetic example—but which can also set the nerves on edge. He may be right to “repress the pang of pity” from time to time; but no one knew better than his hero Orwell that boxing clever means pulling the occasional punch or at least rationing the killer uppercuts. Is there really much mileage, for instance, in calling Mother Teresa a “leathery old saint” and a “prostitute” to neo-colonialism, Communism and capitalism? Or in savaging the feckless and defeated Neil Kinnock more than the most triumphalist Tory ever did in spring 1992? Or in styling Norman Podhoretz a “moral and intellectual hooligan who wishes he had the balls to be a real-life rat fink”? It is at moments such as this that the well-aimed Juvenalian indignatio withers into dinner-party rant and the guests start tapping their watches.

Yet few journalists could collect more than seventy pieces spanning more than a decade of writing without including a few clangers. Far more compelling is the consistently powerful prose, the sheer range of theme and the distinctiveness of opinion that Hitchens marshals. It strikes some as odd that he commands such respect among young journalists, most of whom have little in common with him ideologically. But that is to underestimate the appeal of the roving belletrist in an age of soundbites, suits and opinion polls (one of the best pieces in the book is a red-blooded attack on the pollster's craft which he calls “a search for and confirmation of consensus”). It is a little premature to style Hitchens a new Hazlitt, but at least he is doing his bit to revive that lapsed and unloved genre, the essay. Always seeking a motive for the crime or the conspiracy, he enjoys asking exactly what people really want. So it is interesting to piece together from these journalistic fragments a version of his own world-view and to see that the poles of his intellectual life are, in essence, the idea of America and the idea of the Left. He expects much of both; and, needless to say, with the Left and the United States as your philosophical mistress, life can be pretty frustrating.

When it comes to dark deeds on Capitol Hill, Hitchens is in the Oliver Stone/Noam Chomsky camp of conspiracy theorists, spotting a military-industrial complex lurking on every grassy knoll. I enjoyed his ribbing of “coincidence theorists” who refuse to acknowledge the possibility of cover-up and conspiracy; and his argument that the fiction of writers such as Richard Condon and Don DeLillo is a better place to experience “the permanent underworld of American public life” than Congressional hearings. I was much less impressed by the scorn for contemporary investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh and Bob Woodward. This is an undeserved slap in the face for two reporters whose labours have made the life of left-wing columnists such as Hitchens a great deal more interesting. No Woodward, no Watergate.

The fascinating thing is that Hitchens is hurt as well as outraged that the ideals of his adopted country should be traduced by spooks and second-raters. He believes without sentimentality that “it matters to defend the Constitution in small things as well as big ones.” And when James Jesus Angleton tells the Senate Committee on Intelligence that “It is inconceivable that a secret intelligence arm of the government has to comply with all the overt orders of the government,” Hitchens cannot bear it. I dare say his views are “un-American” in the strict McCarthyite sense. But they are very far from anti-American.

Nor should it be forgotten that Bill Clinton and Christopher Hitchens were contemporaries at Oxford. Though they didn't know one another, the future Commander-in-Chief and left-wing columnist were both leading figures in the student anti-war movement. Hitchens was friendly with Ira Magaziner, now a senior Clintonite, and remembers wryly the suspicion of the local police who turned up at his home to find a telephone message which read “RING IRA.” (“I had to waste hours convincing them that I wasn't trying to unify Ireland by force that week.”)

All of which naturally brings him back to the treachery of the liberal. For while Hitchens himself has remained firmly of the left, Clinton has moved towards that “apolitical, atonal postmodernism” which his fellow Oxonian so despises. What exactly Hitchens expects of his former comrades on both sides of the Atlantic is hard to say. He, of course, despises the Labour party's sycophantic policy review and points out acutely that its neurotic desire to be loved at all costs is one of the main reasons that the electorate hate it. But what should it do? Return to unreconstructed socialism, as he seems to suggest? Hitchens is right to be wary of that strange confection, public opinion; but he cannot afford to ignore the very real changes in public belief which have been brought about by the political events of the past two decades. On what remains of the liberal-left, more people now believe in human rights than in socialism; more believe in the primacy of the nation-state than in internationalism; and more believe in the protection of the underclass than in outright egalitarianism. Labour's revisionists may have got it wrong, but their critics have to come up with something better than a backward-looking Bennite rage.

Yet like so many who sprout from the peat of Trotskyism and find themselves surrounded by the forbidding weeds of Stalinism—left and right—Hitchens is at heart a libertarian, a defender of freedom. He attacks Castro for his censorship of Russian reformist literature; and his excellent defence of Salman Rushdie is surely one of the best tracts of its kind. This well illustrates the difference between what the left should aim for (God knows) and what it is there to do—which is to kick up a fuss about injustice until someone listens.

I disagree with Christopher Hitchens on a great deal. But this is still one of the most stimulating books I have read for a long time. Larded with references to Paul Scott, it is the work of a self-imposed exile and cerebral expat who has come a long way from the polytechnics desk. At one stage, Hitchens quotes Bellow's Augie March who, running into Trotsky in Mexico, observes in him “an exiled greatness, because the exile was a sign to me of persistence at the highest things.” What apter epitaph for the man himself?

Amit Chaudhuri (review date 4 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Chaudhuri, Amit. “Why Calcutta?” London Review of Books (4 January 1994): 3, 5.

[In the following review, Chaudhuri offers a generally positive assessment of The Missionary Position, noting that Hitchens's unflattering portrayal of Mother Teresa risks reducing her complex personality to “one-dimensionality.”]

Among the welter of images and mythologies that constitute the middle-class Bengali's consciousness—P3 and Ganesh underwear, the Communist hammer and sickle, Lenin's face, fish and vegetable chops outside the Academy, wedding and funeral invitation cards, the films of Satyajit Ray, the loud horns of speeding state transport buses, Murshidabadi and Tangail sarees, the daily Ananda Bazar Patrika, the songs of Tagore, the destitute outside Grand Hotel, Boroline Antiseptic cream, Madhyamik school examinations (to name just a few of the constituents)—Mother Teresa, too, is present. Not only is she undeniably a part of the contemporary history of Calcutta, but she is, to the ordinary middle-class Bengali, only a segment in a reality that is complex and constantly changing, and is composed impartially of the trivial and the profound. In contrast, to the average middle-class European or American Mother Teresa is Calcutta, or certainly its most life-affirming face. The rest of Calcutta is impossibly ‘other,’ romantically destitute and silent; the ‘black hole,’ unsayable. It is interesting that the poor whom Mother Teresa attends never speak. They have no social backgrounds or histories, although it is precisely history and social background, and the shifts within them, that create the poor. Instead of speaking, the poor in the photographs look up at her silently, touch her hand, are fed by a spoon. The ‘black hole’ of Calcutta, figuring as it does an open, silent mouth, no longer refers to the historical event that took place in the 18th century in which English men, women and children were trapped by Indian soldiers in a small, suffocating cell in the city. It refers to the unsayable that lay, and still often lies, at the heart of the colonial encounter, the breakdown in the Western observer's language when he or she attempts to describe a different culture, the mouth open but the words unable to take form. In Western literature, the unsayable is represented by ‘The horror! the horror!’ in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and ‘ou-boom,’ the meaningless echo in the Marabar Caves in Forster's A Passage to India, the complexity of both Africa and India reduced to hushed, disyllabic sounds. In history and the popular imagination, another two syllables, ‘black hole,’ have come to express the idea that, for the Westerner, Calcutta is still beyond perception and language.

Silence is a strange attribute to ascribe to the noisiest and most talkative Indian city. Calcutta, capital of India and second city of the Empire for 138 years, until 1911, was the crucible of Indian nationalist politics, and the home of its chief instrument, the Indian National Congress—and of modern Indian liberal consciousness itself. Nehru thought that if, in a sort of metaphorical laboratory, you were to mix, in a metaphorical beaker, an equal amount of Western rationalism and science on the one hand, and ancient Eastern values (a vague and largely unexamined ingredient in the experiment) on the other, you would produce a new compound that was the modern Indian personality—an idea that was actually prefigured by the beliefs and works of people such as Raja Rammohun Roy in Bengal in the early 19th century and Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the Anglo-Portuguese poet and lecturer at the Hindu College, Calcutta, and his fervent Bengali followers. The metaphorical laboratory turned out to be the Indian middle classes.

Bengal had the earliest printing presses in India; during the 19th and early 20th centuries more books were produced in Calcutta, the capital, than in almost any other city in the world. This was not surprising given that Bengal was the site of perhaps the most profound response to the colonial encounter; and in the middle of the 19th century began what is sometimes called the Bengal, and sometimes the Indian, Renaissance: an aspect of it being the flowering of one of the richest modern literatures—Bengali—in the world.

Bengal's history has also been one of political unrest and even tragedy. In particular, there were the famines, the last of which, in 1943, was not caused by a real food shortage at all. It was partly created by the unscrupulousness of local traders and by the diversion of staple foods, such as rice, to the British Army; the largest share of the blame must be apportioned to British rule. With the famines came an influx into Calcutta of the rural poor, who arrived in the city to die. Many of the poor to whom Mother Teresa would have ministered when she opened her first slum school in Calcutta on 21 December 1948 (she had been teaching geography in a missionary school in the city from 1929) would have been victims of the famine or their children. The number of poor people in Bengal is always being added to, and in 1948 Mother Teresa would also have encountered a huge insurgence of homeless refugees from East Pakistan, newly-created after the ‘stupid’ (to use Hitchens's adjective) partitioning of Bengal by the British at the time of Independence. Partition would permanently alter, even disfigure, Bengal (or West Bengal, as it had now become) and its capital. The backbone of Bengal's heavy industry would be broken and a huge homeless, rootless population of East Bengalis would be added to the population of East Bengalis would be added to the population of Calcutta. Leave alone the poor, even the middle-class or upper-middle-class Bengali, bereft of ancestral property, have had to struggle to make a home in the city. (One of my mother's closest friends from her childhood in Sylhet, Bangladesh, a retired schoolteacher, still lives with her older sister in North Calcutta in a small rented flat. My father's ancestral house languishes in Bangladesh and is at last, we hear, to be torn down; but he has been luckier than most other ‘refugees’—he rose to a high position in the company he worked for, and bought his own flat in Calcutta in his middle age.) After Partition, the constitution and nature of the Bengali middle or bhadralok (literally ‘civilised person’) class changed significantly: once associated with privilege, education and genteel values, it now became increasingly beleaguered, both culturally and economically.

In 1971, millions of refugees—a large number of Muslims among them—began to flee from East Pakistan to Calcutta. The reason for this was a political impasse between East and West Pakistan, resulting in the genocide of the largely Muslim East Bengali population by (West) Pakistan troops, a project backed by American and Chinese diplomacy and arms. India intervened and went to war with Pakistan; East Pakistan was liberated and a new country, Bangladesh, created; but, in Calcutta, the number of the poor and homeless increased substantially. Areas like the Esplanade and Gariahat in central and south Calcutta respectively were to change forever; colourful pavement stalls selling T-shirts, woollens, trousers, kabaab rolls, sprang up in these parts to provide a livelihood for the new jobless and homeless. Families began to live in abandoned bus-stops and under partially constructed bridges; the smell of rice being cooked in a pot would occasionally surprise the passer-by. Add to this the daily migration from villages in Bengal and the neighbouring states of Orissa and Bihar (for Calcutta continues to be the major metropolis in Eastern India), not to speak of the continued migrations from poverty-stricken Bangladesh, and one begins to get some idea of where the destitute that Mother Teresa lifts up from the pavements come from. Two facts should be mentioned in this context. First, there have been no more famines in West Bengal since Independence. Second, in contrast to other, richer cities like Bombay, and even certain Western cities, Calcutta, despite unique pressures, has been free of Fascist or right-wing politics. The only chauvinist party, Amra Bangali—‘We Are Bengalis’—has almost been laughed out of existence. A Marxist government has ruled the state for the last twenty years (which has brought about a special set of problems associated with long-running governments, as well as a constant neglect of the state by central government, where the Congress Party has almost always been in power).

My own mixed feelings about Mother Teresa were born some time in the early Eighties, when I was an undergraduate in London. There was a film about her on television (not Malcolm Muggeridge's Something Beautiful for God, which apparently first turned Mother Teresa into an internationally known figure, and about which Hitchens writes extensively in his book); the only things I recall about the film are the large number of affluent, admiring British people in it in close proximity to Mother Teresa, and the latter smiling and saying, more than once to the camera: ‘We must sell Love.’ Both these memories irritated me for some time; I couldn't see in what way, except the most superficial, these affluent and photogenic Europeans had anything to do with the poor in Calcutta. Nor could I see how ‘selling Love’ was going to help the poor.

One of the things that has struck me ever since about the publicity concerning Mother Teresa is that it has less to do with the poor than with Mother Teresa. The poor are shown in a timeless, even pastoral, light: Muggeridge even claims that the interior of the Home for the Dying appeared in his film in spite of insufficient light because of a ‘miraculous light’ that emanated from Mother Teresa. Hitchens and the cameraman Ken Macmillan believe that it was the new improved Kodak film that did it. Whatever really happened, the ‘miraculous’ light seems to be a metaphor for the ahistorical; it fixes the Bengali destitute in a timeless vacuum; it further uproots from community, background and identity those who have already been uprooted from community, background and identity. In blocking out history, the ‘miraculous light’ also blocks out one's proper empathy with, and understanding of, the poor. While it may be true that the poor are people like you and me because we were all created by God, it is only through an understanding of a country's history, and the history of the poor, that we can begin to appreciate that, indeed, the poor were people like you and me before something happened to them. Mother Teresa herself, too, is always represented out of context, as an angel of mercy who descended on Calcutta to pick the dying off the streets. If Muggeridge's film made Mother Teresa a ‘star,’ as Hitchens puts it, in 1971 (the year of the Bangladesh war, of which Muggeridge seemed blissfully unaware), it still leaves unaccounted for the immense stretch of time between 1948 and 1971, during which her Order must have established and entrenched itself in Calcutta. This was a time when there were no Reagans, Clintons, Thatchers, Queen Elizabeths or Duvaliers to give her their largesse or approval. Could she have worked, then, during this most crucial time, without the support of the local people or local government? After all, she was working, not in a desert, but in a major city which provides a context and parameters for everything working within it, including organisations that do social work, among which Mother Teresa's is only one. (For instance, the Ramakrishna Mission and the Bharat Sevasram Sangh are only two of the most active and well-known organisations doing social and charity work here for the poor.) If Mother Teresa worked for the poor in Calcutta, then it goes without saying that this work was made possible in fundamental ways by the support of Bengali people and the West Bengal Government. And in the flood of publicity and photo-opportunities that have followed Mother Teresa's celebrity, in which various world leaders have basked in the reflected light of her virtue (and her gratitude), it would seem that only the people of Calcutta and the West Bengal Government have missed out, even been blanked out, to be represented only by the solitary destitute at the Mother's hand. This is somewhat unfortunate because the Marxist West Bengal government, whatever its other limitations, has done more work in land reform and land redistribution than almost any other Indian state, immensely benefiting the poor and less privileged in rural areas. The positive aspects of this on the alleviation of poverty would certainly be more profound than the work done even by the most well-intentioned charity.

And yet, whatever reservations one might have about the media projections of Mother Teresa and her work (done with her tacit endorsement or not), however banal her occasional utterances might be (several examples are provided by Hitchens, including her exhortation, ‘Forgive, forgive, forgive’ after the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal), not even the stupidest banality can cancel the importance of real action and real work done for the poor. And so far, this much seems to have been undeniable: that Mother Teresa and her Sisters do pick up the poor from the pavements of Calcutta, give them shelter, food to eat and, if need be, the possibility of a dignified death.

Hitchens has much to say about this aspect of her work in his book (which is really an extended essay of about 25,000 words), giving information that would be new and even shocking to most readers. If there is a slight Eurocentric quality about The Missionary Position this is because Mother Teresa and her reputation in the West, the workings of the Western media, and Mother Teresa the Roman Catholic proponent of anti-abortion dogma are central to Hitchens: Calcutta and its history and people are mentioned sympathetically, intelligently, but briefly, and remain in the background.

Hitchens's Introduction examines, with the acuity of a literary critic, a portfolio of photographs, printed in the middle of the book, each showing Mother Teresa with a dubious character—either with people known to enrich themselves at the cost of others and to terrorise the powerless, like Michele Duvalier, wife of Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti, or big-time crooks like cult leader ‘John Roger,’ ‘a fraud of Chaucerian proportions.’ These people have donated money, at one time or another, to Mother Teresa's organisation. Indeed, there is something Chaucerian about the world explored in this short book, with its range of tricksters and frauds and their close proximity to the holy and to absolution. Two-thirds of the way through the book, we come across Charles Keating, who is ‘now serving a ten-year sentence for his part in the Savings and Loan scandal—undoubtedly one of the greatest frauds in American history.’

At the height of his success as a thief, Keating made donations (not out of his own pocket, of course) to Mother Teresa in the sum of one and a quarter million dollars. He also granted her the use of his private jet. In return, Mother Teresa allowed Keating to make use of her prestige on several important occasions and gave him a personalised crucifix which he took everywhere with him.

During the course of Keating's trial, Hitchens adds, ‘Mother Teresa wrote to the court seeking clemency for Mr Keating.’ Her letter elicited a response from a Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles, Paul Turley, who pointed out that, in all fairness, the stolen money Keating had donated to her Order should be returned to its original owners. Turley has still not heard from Mother Teresa.

For all that, there is no evidence in The Missionary Position to suggest that Mother Teresa has used any money from donations for her personal material benefit—in this much, at least, she stands apart from most modern godmen and television evangelists, as well as from Chaucer's Pardoner. Money might have helped her operations in Calcutta to expand into a ‘missionary multinational,’ but conditions in her ‘homes’ are hardly opulent—indeed, if anything, they are unnecessarily austere. This is precisely Hitchens's point—much of the money she receives remains unspent and unaccounted for. Hitchens's contention is that Mother Teresa's ambitions aren't material at all, in the ordinary sense of that term; her aim is to establish a cult of austerity and suffering. The most disturbing section of the book, the first part of the chapter entitled ‘Good Works and Heroic Virtues,’ does something to support this contention. Among the testimony of others (former nuns, social workers), we are given an account by Robin Fox, editor of the Lancet, written after a visit to Mother Teresa's ‘operation’—in Calcutta. Dr Fox, although favourably disposed towards Mother Teresa's work, found that medical facilities for the ill and the dying were not only woefully inadequate, but even prohibited or deliberately circumscribed beyond a certain point. Sterilised syringes, antibiotics and choloroquine for malaria were unavailable. Blood tests were seldom permitted. According to Fox, ‘such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home. Mother Teresa prefers providence to planning; rules are designed to prevent any drift towards materialism.’ Moreover, ‘how competent are the sisters at managing pain? On a short visit, I could not judge the power of the spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics.’ Hitchens comments:

Mother Teresa has been working in Calcutta for four and a half decades, and for nearly three of them she has been favoured with immense quantities of money and material. Her ‘Home for the Dying,’ which was part of her dominion visited by Dr Fox, is in no straitened condition. It is as he describes it because that is how Mother Teresa wishes it to be. The neglect of what is commonly understood as proper medicine is not a superficial contradiction. It is the essence of the endeavour, the same essence that is evident in a cheerful sign which has been filmed on the wall of Mother Teresa's morgue. It reads: ‘I am going to heaven today.’

The charge of deliberately curtailing medical care, of promulgating ‘a cult based on death and suffering and subjection,’ is a serious and substantiated one, and it cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, although Hitchens gets his information from authoritative sources—such as Dr Fox, among others—the facts about Mother Teresa's neglect of the poor are not widely known: certainly not in Calcutta. Most Bengalis have viewed Mother Teresa's work with admiration (there seems to be little doubt in most people's minds that she does do valuable work for the poor), although rumours that her main aim is the conversation of the poor to Christianity have circulated from time to time. Not long ago, she was embroiled in something of a controversy, when the BJP, the Indian right-wing nationalist party, accused her of demanding job reservations for Dalit (low-caste) Christians. It is not unusual for caste-structures to persist among Indian Christians, Sikhs, and even Muslims, bringing all kinds of problems to the already problem-ridden matter of ‘quotas’ and ‘reservations’—for jobs, and places in schools and colleges—kept aside by the government for the ‘backward classes.’ This time, unusually for her, Mother Teresa decided to answer her detractors. At a press conference at the headquarters on A.J.C. Bose Road, she denied not only the BJP's allegations but also it seems, Hitchens's accusations. According to The Statesman of 25 November, ‘she said she would like her detractors to come to the Missionaries’ home for the sick and dying in Kalighat and see how “the sisters serve the suffering humanity irrespective of their religion, nationality, caste or colour.’” Moreover, ‘she also admitted that in her mission for the “salvation of the poorest of poor” … she would not mind talking charity from “dictators and corrupt people. Everyone should be given the chance to show his compassion—even a beggar on the street,” she said.’ (It has to be said here that Hitchens's book, which is now being sold and reviewed in India, and from which an extract was published recently in a Calcutta newspaper, seems to have been generally received in this country without rancour and with equanimity).

In the climate of tremendous political and popular support for Mother Teresa, especially in the West, it is obvious that Hitchens's investigations have been a solitary and courageous endeavour. The book is extremely well-written, with a sanity and sympathy that tempers its irony. In spite of this, Mother Teresa remains an enigma even after we have finished reading it. According to Hitchens, she is ‘a religious fundamentalist, a political operative, a primitive sermoniser and an accomplice of worldly, secular powers. She might be all these, and yet one feels that there is more to the complex personality of the Albanian Agnes Bojaxhiu, who arrived in Calcutta from Yugoslavia one day in 1928. Hitchens's Mother Teresa, at times, is in danger of assuming the one-dimensionality of the Mother Teresa of her admirers. As drawn by him, she becomes something of a wizened but powerful machine of single-minded intentionality. Hitchens quotes Freud towards the beginning of the book, and as a reader of Freud he would know that the genesis of, and reasons for, actions are never clearly revealed to the protagonists themselves, let alone to others.

Michael O. Garvey (review date 14 January 1994)

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SOURCE: Garvey, Michael O. “Vanity Fair's Anarchist.” Commonweal (14 January 1994): 39–40.

[In the following review, Garvey offers a positive assessment of For the Sake of Argument, though he objects to Hitchens's writings on Mother Teresa.]

Christopher Hitchens writes prolifically for the Nation and Vanity Fair, two very different journals which bore and depress me respectively, so his work was fairly new to me when I began reading this series of essays [For the Sake of Argument]. In some corner of what's left of the Catholic ghetto—our kitchen, maybe—I'd heard about Hitchens's denunciation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, so I turned to that essay first. And there, sure enough, that little old Albanian nun familiar to most of us for her uncompromising devotion to the poor, sick, dying, and despised is described as “a dangerous and sinister person” who whores after power, stolen money, and the affections of the powerful; whose “ostensible work of charity” is really “propaganda for the Vatican's heinous policy of compelling the faithful to breed,” etc., etc., etc.

Now, admitting that for any writer who wants to addlepate the bourgeoisie, a saint who is also a global television celebrity presents a nearly irresistible target, this piece is as good an illustration as you're likely to find of the observation (which Peter Viereck made in these pages about forty years ago) that anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of liberals. Bigotry is weird and contagious stuff, and its hard for this Irish-American Catholic to read Hitchens's simplistic, meanspirited, and slightly nutty observations on the Catholic church without succumbing to a corresponding Anglophobia. The guy's been all over the third world like ugly on a pig and claims never to have met “modest and self-sacrificing missionaries.” (But then, Brit tourists always see only what they want to see, and they always seem to think the natives will understand them if they shout.) While writing about the plight of the oppressed people of Central America, Hitchens mentions Archbishop Oscar Romero only in passing and Father Ignacio Ellacuría and his murdered companions not at all, but while trashing some admittedly foolish things Graham Greene once said about Catholicism and Marxism, he notices only one thing about the church in Latin America: that “the death squads, the Contras, and the General (Pinochet) all claimed—and received—Catholic blessing.”

So the charitable thing to do is to assume that Hitchens was sick or drunk or something when he wrote these pieces. Besides, a writer in the pay of Vanity Fair who can accuse Mother Teresa, or really anyone else, of embracing “the worst of capitalism” is charmingly unencumbered by self-consciousness, and that's an advantage in a profession which includes folks like Roger Rosenblatt and Anna Quindlen. And how can any generous, tolerant person among us dislike a writer who refers to the “smirking, perjured features of Elliott Abrams,” and to a recently installed Supreme Court justice as “Clarence (‘Bitch set me up’) Thomas,” or who can say of Henry Kissinger's evolution from “a foe of Zionism when it looked like losing in 1948” to “an advocate of its most racialist and absolutist application when it was a power to be reckoned with” that “there are no ironies to ponder here, unless you consider Hannibal Lecter an ironist.” With the exception of Mother Teresa, he hates all the right people.

Introducing the collection, Hitchens announces his preference for “the generously interpreted interest of all against the renewal of what Orwell termed the ‘smelly little orthodoxies,’” and shakes out his rhetorical skirmish line: “For the sake of argument, then, one must never let a euphemism or a false consolation pass uncontested.” As a writer, he stands by this creed at least as impressively as Orwell stood by his and as Mother Teresa stands by ours.

G. K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, wrote about how the “strongest saints and the strongest skeptics” have in common a belief in Original Sin, “which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” A sort of humanist skepticism is Hitchens's religion. His writing blends a hatred of established fatuities—whether of the Right, the Left, the New or Old Right or Left, the church, the state, the media, or the Whole Shebang—with the furtive compassion of one who loathes sentimentality and loves justice equally.

And he always manages to have fun. In a meditation on political correctitude, for instance, he goes baying after leftish linguistic silliness as enthusiastically as Rush Limbaugh ever dreamt of doing, but then wheels on the pack:

Just as those who call for ‘English Only’ believe themselves to be speaking English when they are mouthing a mediocre patois, and just as those who yell for ‘Western civilization’ cannot tell Athens, Georgia, from Erasmus Darwin, so those who snicker at the latest ‘PC’ gag are generally willing slaves to the most half-baked jargon.

He adds that

when every newscaster in the country uses the knee-jerk term ‘peace process,’ or discourses about ‘credibility,’ or describes some bloodsoaked impostor as ‘a moderate,’ the deadening of language has gone so far that it's almost impossible to ironize.

One shrewd and luminous essay on anarchism begins with a memory of a Trafalgar Square demonstration during which Hitchens and others satirized apartheid by dressing up like South African policemen and demanding to see the “passes” of random, baffled Londoners. Disturbed by the fact that “everybody deferred to the strange uniform, and cursed the bureaucratic announcement they must somehow have missed,” he suspected the general acquiescence “hinted at something … ghastly and servile.” He concludes by commending

the indispensable anarchist who ought to dwell in all of us. The one who pushes away the proffered Kool-Aid even when it comes from the chalice of Jones the Redeemer, the one who asks the South African cop in Trafalgar Square for his name and number, the little boy in Lord of the Flies … who gazes defiantly at the latest fetish of the gang and manages nervously to get out the words: ‘Pig's Head on a Stick.’

The presence of that inner anarchist is a gift (whoops! pardon the smelly little orthodoxy) which agnostics and believers alike ought to celebrate, if not revere. After all, many souls inflamed with precisely that courage to speak truth to power become the very martyrs and missionaries Hitchens has managed to avoid in his travels.

The essays collected here concern topics from the Gulf War to the emerging (or surviving) literary communities of Eastern Europe to the facile and annoying cynicism of P. J. O'Rourke to the pleasures of smoking and drinking too much. When writing about politics, which is what he writes about most of the time, Hitchens almost invariably deploys his acidulous prose and intimidating erudition from the Left and at the service of the forgotten, vulnerable, and voiceless. This disposition naturally arrays him against the Kissingers, Abramses, Thatchers, Castros, Reagans, and Clintons of this world, and I can't help but suspect that it also accounts for his remarkable, if not very loudly expressed, independence on the subject of legal abortion, which he—a Nation columnist and a contributor to Vanity Fair, for crying out loud—admits makes him squeamish.

Nearly alone among mainstream journalists, Hitchens overlooked all that Gennifer Flowers foolishness in order to consider the far more significant calculations underwriting then-Governor Bill Clinton's election year decision to “preempt any Hortonizing of his future ambitions” by having Rickey Ray Rector, a lobotomized Arkansas convict, put to death. “So what,” he asks, “is all this garbage about ‘the new paradigm’ of Clinton's forthright Southern petty-bourgeois thrusting innovative fearless blah blah blah blah? In a test of principle where even the polls have shown that people do not demand the death penalty, he opted to maintain the foulest traditions and for the meanest purpose. As the pundits keep saying, he is a man to watch.”

Amen. So, for much happier reasons, is Hitchens, even if it means reading the Nation.

Ross McKibbin (review date 24 February 1994)

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SOURCE: McKibbin, Ross. “Against It.” London Review of Books (24 February 1994): 18.

[In the following review, McKibbin offers a generally positive assessment of For the Sake of Argument, however, he cites limitations in Hitchens's “oppositional” stance.]

Christopher Hitchens may not be ‘the nearest thing to a one-man band since I. F. Stone laid down his pen,’ but he comes close. For the Sake of Argument records a life of action, of being in the right place at the right time. Thomas Mann could never find the revolution: Hitchens cannot help tripping over it. This is, no doubt, the privilege of the foreign correspondent, but some are clearly more privileged than others. He turns up in Central America, in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, always at the crucial historical moment: he can extract from these moments a tragic episode or a comic anecdote which illuminates the whole. He really has heard—as most of us would like to hear—a neo-conservative speaker say (in English) ‘that it was no accident that the Russian language contained no word for détente.’ The life of action can also be used to subvert discreetly the academic couch-potato—the sort of person who might be expected to review this book. Of a visit to Prague in the last days of Communism, a visit which ended in his arrest, he writes that he has ‘seldom been arrested by such pitiable people.’ It's the ‘seldom’ that makes it so good.

Recording, as they do, the life of a working journo, the essays have more than a touch of the Street of Shame. There are many encounters in various ‘hell-holes,’ in restaurants and bars in Charlotte Street and elsewhere which might or might not have now vanished. There is much wining and dining: perhaps more wining than dining to judge by the essay ‘Booze and Fags’—a cheerful piece in praise of things which HM Government thinks very bad for your health. The price of what Susan Sontag has praised as Hitchens's ‘high velocity’ can be the occasional slip: Disraeli did not ‘become’ prime minister in 1876, nor did Queen Victoria become Empress of India ‘within a few years’ (it was actually 1876); nor did Eden resign over Munich. The essays are knowing, in the literal sense. Hitchens knows lots of well-known persons—many of them individuals who the reader would also like to know. He is often very funny. There are hilarious set-pieces at the expense of, for example, John Braine and Paul Johnson.

For the Sake of Argument is not an easy book to précis. There are eight parts and 72 essays, the allocation of which is somewhat random. Most of the pieces in ‘Rogues' Gallery,’ for instance, could go equally well into ‘Studies in Demoralisation.’ Nearly all the essays are, broadly speaking and in different ways, political. Some are political travelogues; others close studies of the inner workings of the American and British political systems; others still devoted to writers and artists—Goya, James Baldwin, Updike, Greene, George Eliot and, alas, P. G. Wodehouse. None of the essays is uninteresting and many of them have the virtues of the best kind of journalism—they tell you things you did not know and are unlikely to find out in more conventional quarters.

Henry Kissinger is Hitchens's pet loathing and the catalogue of his doings an essential element in Hitchens's analysis of the American state. The essays on Kissinger should be read with ‘Songs Fit for Heroes,’ a reflection on ‘the recreational songbook of the US 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron,’ a gruesome and deeply revealing collection of obscene and racist melodies which you will not find in more sober accounts of the United States Air Force. He is equally good on other totems in the Western world-view, like the ‘leathery old saint,’ Mother Teresa. She lent her presence, it seems, to Baby Doc's regime—‘I have never seen the poor people being so familiar with their heads of state as they were with her,’ she observed of Michèle Duvalier: ‘It was a beautiful lesson for me.’ In 1989 she made a visit to Albania as a guest of Hoxha's widow. She even managed somehow to get herself involved in the ‘heroic period’ of the Savings and Loans ‘bonanza.’

Of Kinnock's decision to live with the Bomb, Hitchens writes:

It is never enough to take this test once. You will always be asked, like Arafat, whether you really mean it. You will never be able to stop the auction. You can never repudiate enough.

That is very good. Although I think renunciation need not always be infinite and that Hitchens is consistently unfair to Kinnock, the trap of limitless renunciation is a danger that would-be respectable left-wing (but not right-wing) leaders often, and usually unknowingly, face. Of the unhistorical free-market mania that has seized the élites of Eastern Europe, he notes:

So when Hungarians talk about von Hayek as if he had just been discovered, and about unemployment as if it were a new style of exercise therapy, about Thatcher and Bush as if they were innovators, and about South Africa as if it were simply another market economy, one has the dreary sensation of watching a second-rate old movie, and of realising that one knows the ending.

Unfortunately, the élites—in both West and East—all too rarely stay for the ending.

Hitchens dedicates this book to the memory of the ‘old brother-and-sisterhood of the Left opposition.’ Everyone ‘has to descend or degenerate from some species of tradition, and this is mine.’ This is a fairly eclectic and not entirely coherent tradition—here it includes Trotsky and the Trotskyites, the anarchists and oppositional Marxists like E. P. Thompson. Trotsky, whose career engages Hitchens (‘he remains the century's most arresting instance of the aesthete and intellectual in politics’), and the anarchists make very incompatible bedfellows, while Edward Thompson was a born member of nature's awkward squad. What they and Hitchens have in common is opposition. His Trotsky is the exiled prophet, not the victor of Kronstadt. All of them—Trotsky via political defeat—came to hate bureaucracies, self-serving oligarchies, shameless proponents of raison d'état. All of them—the anarchists by conviction, Trotsky and Thompson by experience of Stalin and the Cold War respectively—concluded that state bureaucracies, regardless of their ideological colouring, practise power politics in their own interest and suborn those they rule by force, secrecy and ideological dissimulation. Hitchens's essays, true to his tradition, are, therefore, oppositional. Their function is propagandist: to uncover the interests which lie behind the ideological assertions of power politicians; to convince ordinary people that ordinary people should never—or hardly ever—believe those who, in the days of the Communist empire, were known in the East simply as them.

This oppositional tradition is both powerful and necessary. It is, however, important to remember that it is just that: oppositional. The intellectual danger of this stance is that individuals who practise politics, or who seek to, become ex hypothesi fools or knaves, and usually both. The terrain of politics thus loses any analytical interest. Even the old game ‘cock-up or conspiracy?’ which has provided many with a little harmless pleasure, can no longer be played since the distinction between the two is obliterated: they are both manifestations of the same depraved politics. Although Hitchens gives the Swedes a pat on the back it is hard to find here any ‘actually existing’ politicians or politics who earn his approbation or circumstances in which they might do so.

Dominating these essays is the late Cold War. This, for him, implicitly and explicitly, was the classic case of an ideological structure which sheltered self-interested élites who were either cynical or themselves deluded. The ‘struggle’ against Communism sanctioned the undermining of democratic institutions and created hosts of parasite bureaucracies which thrived to the extent that they could convince ordinary people they were performing legitimate functions.

The classic case of the classic case is of course the United States, and the bulk of these essays are directly or indirectly about America—particularly the America of Kissinger, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Oliver North, the CIA, the Shah, the Contras, Castro and the Cubans, Vietnam, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War, Shamir and the Likud. What this catalogue does to you rather depends on where you stand. To Hitchens it represents the external aspects of the secret government of an unstable imperium made the more dynamically erratic by the flaw at its heart: the fact that the United States possesses both an isolationist culture and an interventionist posture. Its heavy-handed and in the long run disastrous imperialism, and the murderous outcome of that both at home and abroad, are the result, I think he argues, of an aggressive and self-confident political culture unchecked by knowledge or intellectual reflection. How this was determined historically and whether it was inevitable is less clear.

The Cold War not only corrupted America's political system, it suborned many of its intellectuals, transforming them into agents of a politics they would otherwise have despised. Here one senses an Orwellian tremor. Indeed, in his introduction Hitchens writes that he ‘saw no reason to discard the Orwellian standard in considering modern literature,’ and he congratulates those who resisted what Orwell called ‘smelly little orthodoxies.’ The invocation of Orwell is not always reassuring. On re-reading the famous political section of The Road to Wigan Pier I was struck again by how wearisome Orwell's politics can be—the tedious idées fixes, the lack of proportion and of judgment. Hitchens does not altogether escape this. The oft-recurring, ‘salon-voiding’ Podhoretzes (Norman, Midge and even son John) tend to burden these essays as Catholic intellectuals do Orwell's. Not that what Hitchens writes about them is unentertaining—‘Norman Podhoretz, another moral and intellectual hooligan who wishes he had the balls to be a real rat fink.’ It is just a question of how often you have to demolish a rat fink.

The general argument, however, is not entirely wrong: the Cold War was responsible for ferrying intellectuals who were once somewhere else to a position which could be defended only by adherence to propositions that were, in practice, indefensible. Hitchens points out how baffled so many Free World intellectuals were by Gorbachev. The various strands of the concept ‘totalitarian,’ which tied them all, disabled them from admitting the possibility of real (as opposed to cosmetic) change in the Soviet Union. While it was, therefore, apparent to any reasonably well-informed layman that the USSR was disintegrating, the Free Worlders were detecting ever more cunning stratagems in the Soviet Union's unending campaign for conquest. But although these Free World intellectuals had the ear of important persons in the Eighties, it is doubtful whether they were any more representative of intellectual opinion than the Catholic intellectuals were in the Thirties and Forties. It seems to me that later generations will be impressed by the extent to which the fundamental premises of the Cold War were always contested in the US, despite the coercive power of the American state and its ideologies. And that because the ideologies themselves were open to different interpretations and implied different outcomes.

What will later generations make of these essays and the context in which they were written? For the Sake of Argument is witness to the decay of the major victors of the Second World War, and to the partial collapse of the settlement they imposed, or tried to impose, on the rest of the world. Even in 1945, though neither leaders nor led recognised it, Britain was the mere crater of a great power. The consequences of its deliquescence were contained by a residual authority and the support of the United States. The collapse of the Soviet Union was much less predictable and the dissolution of its empire hardly less portentous. That leaves only one great power. But the American empire is also fraying. Though unquestionably still a ‘world power,’ it is, relatively, very much weaker than in 1945, and ever since the Vietnamese catastrophe all American Administrations, even the most outwardly triumphalist, have been more conscious of weakness than of strength.

Virtually all the political essays in this book, from those on the wretched ‘panzer-kommunist’ regimes in Eastern Europe to the almost helpless, though still dangerous, governments of Britain and the United States, are united thematically by this collapse. Nostalgia for lost power explains so much of what Hitchens has observed: in Britain a senescent political system based on a populist royalism; a defeatist former ruling élite—see his excellent review of Annan's Our Age, ‘Clubland Intellectuals’; the unembarrassed acceptance of the rhetoric of restored greatness; and a timid social-democratic party which is now scarcely capable of thought or action. All these have combined to produce a political and social infantilism which shows few signs of disappearing. Hitchens does, however, note one hopeful sign, the slow spread of a vague republicanism among much of the population, particularly the young. ‘Can it be,’ he writes, ‘that, faced with the ghastly alliance between Fleet Street populism and enervated royalism, the British public has finally done what the Spencer girl cannot do, and started to grow up?’ Perhaps. But I would not hold my breath and I do not imagine Hitchens is holding his.

Decline and its discontents also informs much of what he says about the United States: military and intelligence organisations that are permitted to run riot; political and religious movements that successfully defy reality for so long; the corruptions of power at all levels. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, when one looks at the fate of the victorious in 1945, that the moral of these striking essays seems to be that power-politics destroys all those who touch it.

Peter Mandler (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Mandler, Peter. “A Greek in Rome.” Dissent 41, no. 2 (spring 1994): 294–96.

[In the following review, Mandler offers a positive assessment of Blood, Class, and Nostalgia and For the Sake of Argument, though finds shortcomings in Hitchens's relentless skepticism and disdain for American democracy.]

After Thatcher, after Reagan, after the cold war, what remains of the “special relationship” between Britain and America? There has always been less there than meets the eye. In the nineteenth century, a special feeling for the English was nurtured primarily by WASPs of good birth for whom it represented not only “blood” and “class” but the dirty secret of residual toryism, an Un-American Activity of the right wing never prosecuted by Congress. In contrast, most Americans had good reasons to hate the English, chiefly Irish reasons (at a time when the Irish were America's most vocal ethnic minority), republican reasons, and anti-imperial reasons.

In our own century, changes on both sides of the Atlantic have undermined the foundations of Anglophobia. Both WASPs and the Irish play a diminishing role in American public life. America is less militantly republican, Britain less imperial. But only in this last respect did sagging Anglophobia make way for a resurgent Anglophilia. Over the fifty years between the Spanish-American and Second World Wars, the grudging, halting but inexorable baton-pass of imperial responsibilities forged a new and special relationship between the British and American governing classes. In this phase it matters little that the American governors are called Roosevelt rather than Adams. The essential glue is no longer “blood” and “class” but NATO and the “national interest.” It does help, though, that upper-class WASPs still buzz around the foreign policy hive and that non-WASPs can don Harris tweed and Burberry as dignified fig-leaves for the naked interest that lies beneath. The function of Anglophilia in the twentieth century is to lend that veneer of civilization and higher purpose to the dirty business of empire.

Harold Macmillan overdignified this function by describing it in public, around the time of Suez, as playing Greece to America's Rome: “The power has passed from us to Rome's equivalent … and we can at most aspire to civilize and occasionally to influence them.” We are expected to imagine a silkily elegant philosopher standing at the elbow of the corpulent emperor, supplying him with the wisdom requisite for the smooth execution of his world-historical tasks. The main thrust of Christopher Hitchens's cultural history of the special relationship, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, is to remind us that Britain's position was hardly that of Greece to Rome. “It had always been Rome to America's—what?”—something even more gross, we have to suppose. So in this case the elegant philosopher is himself only a slimmed-down emperor, passing on the half-remembered bromides of his own Greeks.

What is most brilliant in Hitchens's pretty brilliant book is his ability to show how much and how foolishly the practitioners of power politics in our century have valued their British cultural attachés. Poets may not be our unacknowledged legislators, but they can still be awfully useful to our acknowledged ones. Kipling, for instance, played midwife to the American Empire by supplying Teddy Roosevelt with “The White Man's Burden”—subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands”—which conveniently found its way into the pages of the New York Sun the day before the Senate voted on annexation of the Philippines. Some further Kipling verses, even more hair-raising on the subject of imperial responsibility, appear to have been passed on to the next Roosevelt by Winston Churchill in October 1943, as part of his unsuccessful campaign to keep the British Empire together in the coming postwar settlement. And Churchill himself, having failed to salvage his empire, cemented a British role in the new one by supplying the rhetoric of the Iron Curtain and of the “English-speaking world” that stood against it. Churchill's lasting significance in American history has not been as a world leader but as a tutor in the language of leadership: “a mere thesaurus of quotations for ‘standing tall,’” Hitchens calls him.

A further Anglo-American irony, of which Hitchens is no doubt all too aware: this is a very Greek book, supple, polished, emotional, convincing, a flashing gem of engaged contemporary history. Consequently, it has not been adequately recognized in our Modern Rome, suiting neither the popular market for history (too short, too clever, too few characters) nor the academic (no footnotes, no theory, too committed).

Hitchens's Greekness makes him, perhaps, not always the ideal commentator on American society taken as a whole. The Anglophilia that interests him has, after all, a very elevated but still limited constituency: it's been of more use in gluing the ruling caste together than in building a popular following. How meaningful could Kipling be to a democracy always composed overwhelmingly of non-WASPs, a people of whom even today only 10 percent so much as hold a passport? Clinton's Rhodes Scholarship has hardly proved a political asset. Similarly, I've always thought it interesting that James Baker wrote his undergraduate thesis on British foreign policy under Ernest Bevin, but he would hardly have advertised this on the campaign trail—as much because Bevin was a Brit as because he was a socialist. For public consumption, Baker had to speak a tougher language of cash and bombs. “American empire,” Hitchens concedes with a note of disappointment, “tends to define itself in terms of strategic jargon rather than grand design and noble mission.” Nor am I sure that the persistence of “Brit Kitsch”—Ralph Lauren's country-house style and Houston tract suburbs called Nottingham Oaks or Sherwood Forest—testifies to much more than the restlessness of postmodern consumer culture. In Southern California, would-be-tony tracts are called Rancho Miranda or Villa Hermosa.

The same strengths and weaknesses are evident in Hitchens's latest collection of essays [For the Sake of Argument]—they are too good, too durable to be called journalism. On the insiders he is consistently sane and knowledgeable and, above all, highly readable. Victims of variable worthiness, ranging from George Will and P. J. O'Rourke to the neocons and Nixon, are all eviscerated with the same stylishness. Some of the epigrams deserve an entry in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Reaganism is derided as a three-credit-card trick. The New World Order is an order imposed by the New World. Nixon's turgid memoirs demonstrate that the unlived life is not worth examining. And the sarcasm is rarely gratuitous; beneath it always lies a perceptible moral foundation. The catalogue of Kissinger's misdeeds left me shaking, whether with anger or pity I cannot say. Taken together, the political essays amount to nothing less than an alternative history of the Washington establishment, not so much inside as below the Beltway. One of his characteristically penetrating insights is that “conspiracy theory” is just the toxic by-product of dubious “official versions.” Hitchens falls for neither.

Yet the question arises in these essays, as in Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, whether challenging the official version is quite enough. At one point, while gently chiding Noam Chomsky for his pessimism, Hitchens points to the link between the “superpower delusions” of the establishment and the “provincial fear” of the American people. “The United States has an isolationist and insular culture, combined with a global and interventionist posture.” This “highly dangerous and febrile mixture” creates all sorts of opportunities for scare-mongering and what Chomsky calls the “manufacture of consent,” but it also—I am sure Hitchens is right in saying—makes the mass media “an area of contestation” for people like him, and us.

However, successful contestation of this kind requires not only an unmasking of “superpower delusions” but a coming to grips with “provincial fears”—either by stoking them up, as the far right is wont to do, or by meeting, diagnosing, and assuaging them. Hitchens has little taste for these latter tasks. As befits the author of the “Cultural Elite” column in Vanity Fair, he finds his natural constituency in “the educated, the skeptical and the ironic: the only class (precisely because it isn't a class) in whose defense I myself feel willing to be snobbish.” Fair enough—you don't write for any of his favored outlets (including Dissent) expecting to reach the uneducated and the credulous. Still, neither can you chart an alternative political course without some grasp of, some measure of sympathy for American democracy. Hitchens hates all the modern devices aimed at plumbing public opinion—polls (which of course he uses when they suit him), talk-shows, new forms of politics like Perotism. On the few occasions when he lowers his own dipstick into Middle America, it comes up cloudy, not to say greasy. Though he says ritually that the voters aren't stupid, he also says that Perot owes his support to “the elitism of fools”—essentially his diagnosis of Nixon and Reagan—so there appear to be an awful lot of foolish yet not stupid people out there. Rumor has it that this thinly veiled contempt has lost a few more of its veils in his recent appearances on cable television.

It's not that Hitchens is incapable of fellow feeling with ordinary people. He displays it movingly in a report from Sarajevo, and on the road to Timisoara. He has the decency to defend the Swedes' civic and social virtues. I liked very much his celebration of political renewal in Hungary, even though this means in the short term the alliance of the left with neoliberals and neocons. He quotes Laszlo Rajk—“In the end, I'd rather be comrades with people I trust but don't agree with entirely—we can argue—than with people to whom I'm ideologically close but can't trust”—and concludes: “Not for the first or the last time in history, the right people have the wrong line. At least that can change.” What refreshing patience! But the cheerful respect accorded people in Bosnia, Romania, and Hungary rarely gets extended to Americans, who have had the misfortune to retain some control over their own destinies.

As I worked my way through these essays, I began to get a picture of Christopher Hitchens as a late-nineteenth-century radical-liberal, powered by the high-octane fuel of the Enlightenment—free-thought, science, atheism, universalism and internationalism, hatred of ignorance and tyranny—yet also aware of the social question, the new injustices of mass society. It came as no surprise to find, at the end of the volume, that George Eliot has a place in his pantheon. Like Eliot, Hitchens suspects that the subjects of mass society will be no better masters. And yet … the ancient regime is so rotten; it must fall.

Robert Kee (review date 10 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Kee, Robert. “Gentle Arrogance.” Times Literary Supplement (10 November 1995): 25.

[In the following review of Hitchens's The Missionary Position and Mother Teresa's A Simple Path, Kee offers a mixed assessment of Hitchens's “brief and one-sided indictment” of Mother Teresa.]

A health warning seems required. The order in which these two books are read can seriously affect the way each is judged. The sequence above is recommended. Anyone starting with Christopher Hitchens's scalpel-job on the eighty-five-year-old Albanian nun Agnes Gouxha Bojaxhiu might well simply dismiss it as over-characteristic; and, if not particularly solicitous for the balm of Mother Teresa's “saintliness,” take no trouble to read the other book. This would be unfair to the author of The Missionary Position. Nothing could indicate more clearly what he is up against than the simple path here laid down under the copyrights of Lucinda Vardey and Mother Teresa.

A sense of unself-questioning, though hardly unselfconscious, purity of being pervades the pages of A Simple Path from the start. “I'm only a little wire; God is the power,” says Mother Teresa. “Her faith and her clarity of purpose give us powerful lessons in the ways of loving,” writes Lucinda Vardey. A sense of waffle sets in early.

Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Christ (there are now 4,000 of them) “practise their life of poverty with the absolute faith that this will bring them nearer to God.” This provokes an awkward-squad response. How genuinely altruistic are they? Is it for themselves that they are really doing these things? And if caring for the poorest of the poor is the “best,” the holiest, way of spending your life, this suggests that the poorest of the poor are indispensable. Isn't this rather hard on them? Christ said that we always had the poor with us, but he didn't say that it was necessarily a good thing.

Poverty, we hear, is “a wonderful gift because … it means we have fewer obstacles to God.” Missionaries are happy to partake of poverty as a benefit to themselves; they also apparently acquire the fat spiritual bonus of helping “redeem” the poor just as Christ did, though, of course, without anything like his suffering.

Mother Teresa claims that she and her missionaries are doing with the poor what St John and the Virgin Mary were doing with Christ at the foot of the Cross: sharing in his suffering. But St John and the Virgin Mary were lamenting what was happening to him. There is little sign in A Simple Path that Mother Teresa “laments” what is happening to the poor. Indeed, an Australian, Brother Geoff, distinguishes the Missionaries' work from attempts to “help the poor man beyond his station,” which he acknowledges can be “a worthwhile effort … but can become a political issue.” Was the early British Labour Party then wrong to be inspired by the New Testament?

The continuing combination of superficial meekness with something like gentle arrogance will be unattractive to many. Some passages are not just simple, but positively elementary. “If there is something that is worrying you, then you can go to Confession if you are a Catholic and become perfectly clean because Jesus forgives everything through the priest.” Elsewhere there is media evangelism. “We let Him take what He wants from us, so take whatever He gives and give whatever He takes with a big smile.” “If only we could see His concern for us, His awareness of our needs, the phone call we've waited for. …” “I think God is telling us something with Aids, giving us an opportunity to show our love. …” Once again, the unfortunate seem to be there primarily for the Missionaries, though there is acknowledgement for the victims in passing: “The Aids patients I worked with in New York and Washington,” says one Sister Dolores, “are the modern saints, the new saints of the Church.”

Charity, wrote one of the old saints, “vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up … seeketh not her own.” Christopher Hitchens, in modern terms, says that this is very much what Mother Teresa is doing. His general point is that, for all her cult's strange ecumenical claim that one God is almost as good as another, what she is really engaged in is an unsavoury form of proselytizing Catholicism.

There is some danger of Hitchens blurring the issue by suggesting that to proselytize Catholicism is by definition unsavoury. It is easy—perhaps too easy—to suggest that Catholic belief on birth-control and abortion is a vested interest for a charity that needs an excess of miserable population through which to work out its own salvation. It undoubtedly is, but that doesn't mean that there are not a great many good Catholics who believe that all human beings, and not just potential ones, should be given respect and the chance of a good life by society.

Hitchens pulls a number of moral skeletons out of Mother Teresa's cupboards. Can it really be right, just for the sake of the money you're collecting, to fawn on, or be fawned on by, people of such repute as “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti, Mengistu of Ethiopia, the American convicted fraudster Charles Keating (whose sentence she tried to get reduced because he had given her so much of other people's money), or the government of the Guatemalan killing fields? (Leave out poor old Ronald Reagan, and even Hillary Clinton, though Hitchens characteristically doesn't.) Yes, possibly, just—if the enormous sums collected are spent on the best possible technical equipment and facilities for the charity's well-publicized clinics all over the world. But in some of the most telling evidence collected in this admittedly brief and one-sided indictment from people who have worked in the clinics, this is far from being the case.

Is Hitchens perhaps going over the top in concluding that it is high time Mother Teresa was “subjected to the rational critique she has evaded so arrogantly for so long”? Before coming to a decision, read A Simple Path again.

Nigel Spivey (review date 11 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Spivey, Nigel. “All Made of Faith and Service.” Spectator (11 November 1995): 52–53.

[In the following review of Hitchens's The Missionary Position and Mother Teresa's A Simple Path, Spivey commends Hitchens's audacity, but concludes that his demand for a “rational critique” of Mother Teresa is futile.]

Saints take opprobrium. It is a sort of dietary supplement which helps them to thrive. So there is no harm in repeating the current charges against Mother Teresa, imminently of the company. Which are that she is a pernicious bigot; that she has pledged the propagation of a faith whose tenets descend from the worst excesses of the Counter Reformation; that she has garnered large amounts of global cash from her base in Calcutta, most of which has gone to extend and sustain the worldwide diffusion of a fundamentalist cult; and that in furtherance of this aggressive mission, she has happily laundered the proceeds of thieves, and furnished despots with her blessing. Hers is one of the great religious frauds of the century, if not the millennium. Impeccably celibate, she has endeared herself to the world as simply ‘Mother.’

Her canonisation is assured.

‘Who would be so base as to pick on a wizened, shrivelled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her entire life to the needy and destitute?’ In his opening lines [of The Missionary Position,] Christopher Hitchens reasonably congratulates himself on a certain reckless bravado in his attack upon the saint-in-waiting. Most Western liberals are nauseated by Mother Teresa's grotesque views upon contraception, abortion, women priests and so on, but will indulge her these mediaeval follies on account of the balance of good works and practical idealism. Many Indians, though puzzled by the gap between the reported quantities of money attracted by Mother Teresa and the miserable quality of medical provision at her sanctuaries, nonetheless revere the lady. She and her staff, they say, provide at least direct, hands-on help for people afflicted with repellent diseases.

So there is a gutsy basis to the Hitchens performance. And much of his polemic strikes sweetly on target. He attributes the universal reverence for Mother Teresa's work to a 1969 documentary made by Malcolm Muggeridge, in which miracles of light appeared to be captured on camera, and Calcutta's streets shown plunged in deepest black despair. The halo around Mother Teresa turns out to be the effect of a new type of film. As for Calcutta, Hitchens is absolutely right to feel cheated by Muggeridge's presentation of the city as hell. Calcutta is not heaven, but it is a city of extraordinary hope, where even those reduced to the pavements seem to be busy as individuals, scraping a living together somehow or other. And though the problem of poverty is not resolved there, neither is it screened away.

But does Mother Teresa really care about poverty? The question, apparently fatuous, is tackled head-on by Hitchens. His answer is that so long as she rejects birth control, she cannot. And if one browses through the collection of prayers, sentiments and hagiographic testimonies collected in A Simple Path, there are certain passages which support his case. ‘Suffering,’ declares Mother Teresa, ‘is a great gift of God.’ So let it be abundantly distributed and shared in the world. And why? Because

all the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed, and we must share it, for only by being one with them can we redeem them, that is, by bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God.

Here is the revelation of purpose. In 1950, with the Vatican's sanction, Mother Teresa founded an order called the Missionaries of Charity. As the obsequious compilers of A Simple Path relate, in a period when vocations elsewhere in the Catholic church have been steadily declining, the sisters and brothers of the Missionaries of Charity have burgeoned in number, now totalling 4,000. Cynical connoisseurs of such statistics will note that although the poor we have with us always, fighting against birth control is one good way of ensuring that their numbers will increase in the future. So many more souls, then, to be redeemed.

‘Mother Teresa has never pretended that her work is anything but a fundamentalist religious campaign.’ If Hitchens is right in this claim, it detracts from his case. He cannot unmask an open face. In fact he could surely have made more of the covert proselytising done by the Missionaries of Charity. A Simple Path deceives its readership into believing that the order is ecumenical, and accordingly contains nothing but an anodyne selection of saintly precepts. And in the relatively free-thinking environment of Bengal, Mother Teresa must take care not to appear as a post-colonial bearer of salvation from Rome. But her dogmas are those of the current Pope; and at least one renegade member of the Missionaries of Charity has told of instructions, from Mother Teresa herself, secretly to baptise dying Hindus and Muslims into the faith.

Whether the mission will survive the eventual elevation of its founder is doubtful. Mother Teresa is an irreplaceable icon. And she has shown that she knows how to exploit the value of icon-status. It was Jean Baudrillard who characterised the capitalist Western charity machine as ‘the New Sentimental Order’—making spectacles of Third World poverty and catastrophe simply in order to knock up a spurious moral equilibrium. We have damned the people of Calcutta and elsewhere by the terms we set in the GATT world trade treaty. Thank God, then, for Mother Teresa, and the countless opportunities she has offered the Reagans and Thatchers and Maxwells and others to juxtapose their suits and coiffures next to a hunched and humble nun. Thus the West even monopolises the virtue of compassion. (Hardly anyone outside India is aware of the staunch work of the indigenous Ramakrishna mission).

Given the strength of the New Sentimental Order, it is unlikely that Hitchens will accomplish any serious iconoclasm. Mother Teresa is such good copy for top-ups of conscience and contrast (in this month's Italian edition of Elle, for example, she and her retinue of Calcuttan skeletons appear right amidst all the fur coat advertisements), and in any case Hitchens himself is too vulnerable to righteous indignation. Intelligent fundamentalists (if they exist at all) could certainly quiz him on the population problem: he deplores Vatican policy, yet he also castigates Indira Gandhi for her campaign of forced sterilisation—so what does he propose to do about it?

But Hitchens is up against forces he can hardly hope to overcome. And he never quite registers the extent to which his world of reasoning and Mother Teresa's empire of faith are divided, doomed never to converge. In a footnote, he records Mother Teresa's reported reaction to the documentary he made about her last year, impugning her in similar terms to the present book. ‘Her response was to say that she “forgave” us for making it. This was odd, since we had not sought forgiveness from her or from anyone else.’ But what did he expect? Mother Teresa does not operate to the rules of liberal debate. The epigraphs peppering Hitchens' text are those of classic anti-clericalism, from Hume and Paine and so on: but Mother Teresa and her devotees have made their Kierkegaardian ‘leap of faith,’ into the ecstasies of a self-fulfilment gained by helping others, and can afford to express their disregard as forgiveness. Of course, it essentially remains disregard: but Hitchens is naive to ask of Mother Teresa, ‘who is she to forgive?’ She is, to those who adore her, a conduit of God's grace. Whether Hitchens likes it or not, Mother Teresa probably now includes him in her prayers on a regular basis.

I approached the Hitchens attack with the woolly or mellow attitude that whilst Mother Teresa does not actually do very much good in the world, neither does she do much harm. In his conclusion, Hitchens nails me and my sort as guilty of intellectual snobbery. We do not ourselves believe in laying on of hands and rosaries and terra-cotta idols of the Blessed Virgin—but we consider them quaint marketing devices of hope, the easy comforts and gee-gaws of lesser mortals. Another palpable hit.

But what shall we do? In his final sentence, Hitchens demands that we subject Mother Teresa to ‘rational critique.’ But there is no getting away from the fact that Mother Teresa belongs, profoundly, to a tradition which has only one ultimate answer to rational critiques. Burn them.

Marci McDonald (essay date 25 December 1995–1 January 1996)

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SOURCE: McDonald, Marci. “The Messianic Atheist.” Maclean's (25 December 1995–1 January 1996): 76.

[In the following essay, McDonald discusses Hitchens's career, his attack on Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position, and his religious background.]

In the smoking section of a Toronto bistro, Christopher Hitchens settles over a double gin, a button in his blazer lapel boasting “All the right enemies.” For Hitchens, 46, it is no idle claim. Even before he launched his provocative one-man crusade against Mother Teresa as “an abject phony” and “the ghoul of Calcutta”—not to mention the epithets he hurls at her in his new book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice—he had already won notoriety as the bad boy of transatlantic journalism for tackling cant and conventional wisdom in high places, usually those of a right-wing persuasion.

A onetime regular in the London weekly The Spectator, he ran afoul of conservative press lord Conrad Black 10 years ago with an unkind critique of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan. So bitter did their mutual invective become that Hitchens was stunned last month when another of Black's publications, Saturday Night, attacked Mother Teresa's defender, Lucinda Vardey, almost as vigorously as it did his “caustic substance” and “cutely winking sarcasm.” Marvelled Hitchens: “It's the kindest treatment I ever hoped to have from Mr. Black.” That relish for a good fight and an electric wit inspired Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to make Hitchens his first hire when he took over the upscale glossy more than three years ago. “Every magazine needs a Peck's Bad Boy,” Carter says. “He's always very much biting the ankle of the overdog.”

Hitchens' opening shots against Mother Teresa date back to his column in The Nation during the last U.S. presidential primaries. In April, 1992, he warned his preferred Democratic candidate, former California governor Jerry Brown, against flaunting ties to the nun he branded “a dangerous, sinister person who properly belongs in the caboose of the Pat Buchanan baggage train.” He went on to make the same case he would later assemble for his 1994 documentary, Hell's Angel, on Britain's Channel 4. As evidence of Mother Teresa's unsavory political connections, he cited her 1981 visit to Haiti to accept a Légion d'honneur from Michèle Duvalier, wife of the tyrant better known as Baby Doc; a return trip to her native Albania, where she laid a bouquet on the grave of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha; and her acceptance of a $1.9-million cheque from convicted U.S. savings and loan kingpin Charles Keating, on whose behalf she penned a letter pleading for clemency to Judge Lance Ito, later of O. J. Simpson trial fame.

But in The Nation, Hitchens also hinted at his own shattered idealism. During a 1980 tour of her Calcutta mission, he confessed, he had been so moved by her orphanage that he was about to cough up a donation when Mother Teresa stunned him with a political thesis: “You see,” she said, “this is how we fight abortion and contraception.” No champion of abortion himself, Hitchens reported that she had “spoiled her own best moment for me by implying that her life's work was a mere exercise in propaganda for the Vatican's population policy.”

Now he harrumphs at friends' theories that he betrays the attitudes of “a deeply religious person.” But his own complex religious history might provide grist for a psychologist's study. The son of a Baptist naval officer, he was sent to a Methodist private school in Cambridge, England—and can still quote scripture back to his opponents. But at 38, he discovered the secret that his mother had taken to her grave—her Jewish roots. The revelation, he admits, “had a vertiginous effect on me.” And now, after choosing the rabbi who once married Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller to officiate at his second wedding, to screenwriter Carol Blue, he is contemplating sending his two-year-old daughter to Hebrew school. “I do think it's sad not to have a tradition,” he explains. As for himself, he scoffs at suggestions that, like Malcolm Muggeridge, another celebrated skeptic who wrote on Mother Teresa, he may turn to the church in his old age. “They usually say, ‘If you die, you'll scream for a priest,’ which I promise I will not do,” he insists. “Or if I do, I say, ‘Ignore me. I won't be myself.’”

Mary Loudon (review date 6 January 1996)

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SOURCE: Loudon, Mary. Review of The Missionary Position, by Christopher Hitchens. British Medical Journal (6 January 1996): 64–65.

[In the following review, Loudon offers a favorable assessment of The Missionary Position.]

“Who would be so base,” asks Christopher Hitchens, “as to pick on a wizened, shrivelled old lady, well stricken in years, who has consecrated her whole life to the needy and destitute?”

The answer is Hitchens himself, in this provocative study [The Missionary Position] of the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He presents a marvellous case, debunking the myth of Mother Teresa as simply as one might peel layers from an onion, producing some old and quite a lot of new evidence to suggest that Mother Teresa, the global icon of sainthood, needs fresh examination in a light unclouded by sentiment.

Mother Teresa's shining reputation, argues Hitchens, has been foist upon her by the millions who need to feel that someone somewhere, is doing the things that they are not to help the poor. She feeds on it, has come to accept and expect it. Now it walks immediately before her, is as recognisable as the blue and white striped sari and veil of her order: no one, least of all Mother Teresa herself, can see past it.

Hitchens has set out to reverse the process of critical assessment, “judging Mother Teresa's reputation by her actions and words rather than the actions and words by her reputation.”

His research is thorough and his findings compelling. Where does all her money go, for a start? For this Hitchens can find no satisfactory answer, although there is no doubt that Mother Teresa could, if she chose, set up the finest teaching hospital on the Indian subcontinent. She hasn't done so, and to those like myself or Robin Fox (who wrote in the Lancet about her Calcuttan home for the dying) who have visited her organisations and seen syringes run under cold water and reused, aspirin given to those with terminal cancer, and cold baths given to everyone, this is inexcusable.

As Hitchens says:

The decision not to [fund a proper hospital], and to run instead a haphazard and cranky institution which would expose itself to litigation and protest were it run by any branch of the medical profession, is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.

(And please note, adds Hitchens, that Mother Teresa herself has checked into some of the costliest clinics and hospitals in the West for her own treatment.)

Her apologists would have Mother Teresa down as some kind of innocent; as someone who doesn't know about business and politics, who is concerned only with God and God's will. Hmm. As Hitchens pointed out last year in the Channel 4 documentary Hell's Angel, Mother Teresa has kept some dodgy company over the years. She has received hospitality, awards, publicity, and money from numerous people with overt political motives or dubious business histories: Robert Maxwell; the Duvaliers; the Reagans; Margaret Thatcher; and Charles Keating, the great American swindler. When Keating was imprisoned for fraud and embezzlement, Mother Teresa wrote asking the trial judge to look kindly on him. She received a reply from one of the prosecutors, explaining that the $1,000,000 she had received from Keating was stolen from innocent (and not especially wealthy) investors. Would she be good enough to return it? Apparently not. She didn't even reply to the letter.

Such blatant and deliberate ignorance, such faux naivete indicates enormous arrogance on Mother Teresa's part. This is shameful even in a woman who may be simply rather stupid. Claiming to be above, or beneath, politics, she speaks out against abortion in Britain and Ireland while remaining silent on the subject of the unlawful deaths, murders, and oppression in Bhopal, Haiti, and Albania, where she kisses the hands of ruling dictators and receives their money and their honours.

At what point, asks Hitchens, does Mother Teresa's association with frauds and despots cease to be coincidental? I would argue that it is not so much coincidence as pragmatism. At worst, Mother Teresa is without much conscience: at best, she is an opportunist, travelling happily on the wave of others' desire for association with someone universally recognised as good, and possibly even touched by the divine. Of course she has become addicted to it, fallen prey to her own myth; and her humility has been consumed in the process, gobbled up by primitive theology and vanity, leaving behind only the bare bones of what was once a good and noble idea.

Murray Kempton (review date 11 July 1996)

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SOURCE: Kempton, Murray. “The Shadow Saint.” New York Review of Books (11 July 1996): 4–5.

[In the following review of The Missionary Position, Kempton agrees with Hitchens's negative criticism of Mother Teresa.]

Eric Partridge has informed us that “the missionary position” is an expression of South Sea islander coinage. If Christopher Hitchens did not share the widespread misapprehension of blasphemous intent in his grand remonstrance against Mother Teresa, he could scarcely have chosen to present it under a rubric so resounding with echoes of pagan disdain for piety's disabling effect upon investigative curiosity.

Hitchens would have little cause to boast or blush if he were indeed the blasphemer that he mistakes himself to be. It is by no means a certainty that blasphemy is a trespass that much disesteemed by the Maker of Heaven and Earth. His complaints to Isaiah against the stiflings of His nostrils by incense powerfully suggest zests for the combat mode that would much prefer contending with Athalia's heartful Baalist conviction to coughing with the smoke of Saul's unfelt oblations.

But Hitchens's stirrings are so far from blasphemous as almost to resonate with the severities of orthodoxy. He came to scoff, but the murmurings that recurrently rise from his place in the pew unmistakably imply the man who has remained to pray. Mockeries suffuse his tones; but their charms, seduce us though they may, cannot conceal the fierce purpose of their employment, not in God's despite but on His behalf. The compelling impulse in The Missionary Position's heartbeat is not to make fun of a holy woman in her wither but to chastise a heretic.

There aren't many heresies older and none perhaps worse than Mother Teresa's, because it abides in stubborn disdain for the sacred obligation to preserve life on earth. “Reverence for life, especially in its vulnerable condition in utero, is the sine qua non of Catholic teaching,” Hitchens reminds us with proper respect, “and one which possesses a great moral strength even in its extreme forms.” However unquestioningly the Church must accept “Thy Will Be Done” as the one be-all-and-end-all passage in scripture, it charges itself with the barely secondary duty to resist and defer the applications of the Divine Will so long as life still breathes in any soul under its care.

What then are we to make of the evidence that Hitchens piles up to persuade us that Mother Teresa's hospitals work so pitilessly not to prolong the sufferer's earthly existence but to teach him how to die?

When The Lancet's Robin Fox visited her in Kalighat in southern Calcutta, at her “Hospital for the Dying”—a grisly label long ago expunged from hospital nomenclature elsewhere—his manners could not disguise the shock of his discovery that recourse to medical advances in diagnosis, treatment, and the easing of pain are “seldom permissible” because “such systematic approaches are alien to the ethos of the home.”

For all the weight of its professional authority, Dr. Fox's testimony is less telling than Hitchens's reminder of the care for self that Mother Teresa has habitually displayed on the several occasions when she has “checked into some of the finest and costliest clinics and hospitals in the West during her bouts with heart trouble and old age.” We could ask for no harsher judge of the quality of the healing endeavors she dispenses to others than this woman who regards herself as too precious a vessel of God's purposes on earth to trust her life to the ministrations of her nuns and sisters. In the absence of a doctor or so who drops in now and then, they are left, by Dr. Fox's witness, to “make decisions as best they can.”

It is a trial for the patience more than trifling to contemplate the smugness of her serenity when she passes the highest compliment she can think to tender to her Kalighat hospital, which is: “They die content. 23,000 have died there.”

Her love for the poor is curiously detached from every expectation or even desire for the betterment of their mortal lot and is concentrated upon accelerating their progress toward “the greatest development of the human life, to die in peace and dignity, for that's for eternity.”1 Those still sentient who repair to her arms would apparently be wise to arrive well short of being half in love with easeful death. The mind still slightly ajar that Hitchens brought to his initiation into her presence was quickly closed when his eye was struck by the sign on the door of her office that read, “He that loveth correction loveth knowledge.”

The open gates of our own minds will, I'm afraid, be as swiftly and effectually shut at the juncture where Hitchens takes account of how many HIV-positive residents of Mother Teresa's branch in the Castro District of San Francisco, “The Gift of Love” hostel, have been ejected in short order for coming home in drag.

But narrowly chasten though she may the ward who cannot pay, Mother Teresa is expansively latitudinarian with those who can. The swindler Charles Keating gave her $1.25 million—most dubiously his own to give—and she rewarded him with the “personalized crucifix” he doubtless found of sovereign use as an ornamental camouflage for his pirate flag.

She has uplifted the Mayor of Washington with the revelation that “the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor,” almost as much, Marion Barry might well have reflected, as his District's poor have helped him with the infinite patience of their sufferance of his sins.

She once said to Malcolm Muggeridge that “the poorest of the poor are the means of expressing our love for God,” and in 1988 she told an assemblage gathered to celebrate the freshest flower in the cluster of her authorized biographies that

Leprosy is not a punishment, it can be a very beautiful gift of God if we make good use of it. Through it we can learn to love the unloved.2

Such is the spirit that breathes so incessantly as to make loud the undertones of an insistence that the poor have been placed among us for the primary purpose of affording the comfortable a chance to discover how virtuous they are. Thus the beauty of leprosy is a gift not to those who are leprous but to those who aren't, and are also possessed of the complacency requisite for conjuring up images of the self as feeler of the pain of others.

Hitchens does not hazard a guess whether, when this more inspiring than fostering mother yields up the ghost, it will travel to the canonization that is already hers to enjoy less formally but even more universally from the secular order. If her shade does wriggle through the snares and deceits of the devil's advocate, the faithful of a generation hence will be venerating a sanctified image unique in the calendar of saints, whose hand with miracles had been applied until now to the cure of fleshly and spiritual distress, while hers has unremittingly been devoted to miraculous dispatchings of souls to heaven in wholesale lots, and, in too many instances, rather far in advance of the schedule the will of Heaven had appointed for them.

If her luck holds and she is blessed by posterity with anything like the outlandish kindness her contemporaries have accorded her, she can look forward to becoming the first saint who struck the rock and let premature death gush forth.

Her hagiographers are particularly at one in certifying the ecumenism with which Mother Teresa distributes her beneficences with impartial indifference to distinctions of creed between Catholic and Moslem, Hindu and Bantu. And yet Susan Shields, one of a number of apostates surprisingly large for a true prophet, has recalled to Hitchens:

In the homes for the dying, Mother taught the sisters how to secretly baptize those who were dying. Sisters were to ask each person in danger of death if he wanted a “ticket to heaven.” An affirmative reply was to mean consent to baptism. The sister was then to pretend that she was just cooling the patient's head with a wet cloth, while in fact she was baptizing him, saying quietly the necessary words. Secrecy was important so that it would not come to be known that Mother Teresa's sisters were baptizing Hindus and Moslems.

Some of those thus surreptitiously snatched from the burning had to be so far in moribundity as to be incapable of informed consent; and this glimpse of her style with conversions licenses us to add to the catalog of this woman's heresies the extraordinary notion that the gate of Heaven, instead of being as strait as she was taught as a novice, gapes instead so wide as to accept tickets of admission contrived in stealth and sealed with a fraudulent stamp.

Hitchens does not engage the mystery of why the Church puts up with such effronteries. Now and then there bobs up in the effusions of her ecclesiastical superiors a hint or so that the insistences of Mother's self-will can be felt among the thorns that come with their calling. The tone that implies slight tinctures of discontent is, always, one of circumspect jocularity, because lapse though she often does from the daughterly virtues of humility she can be trusted to march in step down the rockiest stretches of the Church's earthly course and sound the loudest trumpet in the host. She is as ardent in exalting the right to life as her hospitals seem to be languid in preserving those who can still struggle to hold their claim to it.

She is singular among messengers of her Faith for condemning mothers who abort their children as incarnations of “the worst evil” and “greatest enemy of peace” around the world. Her strictures upon genocide are so severely confined to birth control that in 1985 on a visit to Guatemala, with the shades of fresh-killed Indians rustling in the air around her, she burbled, “Everything was peaceful in the parts of the country I visited. I do not get involved in that sort of politics.”

This narrowly excluding view of social evil hardly comports with that held by the Vatican, whose posture toward the coarser specimens of secular power has so often shown tastes distinctly better than our own State Department's. Still, the Church can occasionally be wrong and, when She is, Mother Teresa surges forth as Her staunchest champion in error.

When she departed Haiti with the Légion d'Honneur she must have shared with a good number of exemplary Tontons Macoutes, her bread-and-butter letter to First Lady Michèle Duvalier crested with the attestation. “Madame President, the country vibrates with your life's work.”

This encomium survived to flourish on Madame Duvalier's behalf until she and her husband gathered up the remaining shards of the national treasury and decamped for the South of France, acutely missed by a Haitian archdiocese that had stuck by them even after their abandonment by the National Federation of Voodoo Priests, whose quasi-official pope had been Madame President's father-in-law.

But then the Church was impelled to stomach the Duvaliers in preference to gagging over Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the forcibly separated Brother who, in trampling on the flowers of doctrine, had shown an altogether gentler foot than Mother Teresa often condescends to trip. Here service at Madame Duvalier's altar was thus an auxiliary service to this Mother's Church. Mother Teresa's taste in these matters is not, to be sure, unvarying in its conformity to the teachings of Fathers ancient and contemporary. She once took a check for $10,000 from the Insight cult, and as ever sang for her supper by standing for her photograph jointly with John-Roger, Insight's entrepreneur and unchallengeable holder of the world record for blasphemy which he established by crediting himself with “a spiritual consciousness” in advance of Jesus Christ's. No matter how rancid the catch, all's fish that comes to Mother Teresa's net.

All the same her vagaries must be endured in all their varieties of disorder. Perhaps such is the price for possessing the treasure of a presence so useful as stimulant to the idolatry of the class that Hitchens defines, with a nicety of precision, as “the vaguely religious.” Or perhaps her bishops must suffer her because she is the CEO of a huge multinational corporation, the 456 centers of The Missionaries of Charity in more than a hundred countries, and thus due the respectful bearing that Teresa of Avila prescribes for those who travel the Way of Perfection:

Is there anyone, however ill-mannered, who would not consider beforehand how to address a person of high rank of whom it was necessary to ask a favor? Would not one be careful to gratify him, to avoid offending him, etc.?

There must be better stuff than that in Teresa of Avila; but this is the worldly lesson that lit the soul of a novice from Skopje, Yugoslavia, to guide her into the Way of Career and to sustain her upward journeyings into a life grander in compass and nearer to infinity in terrestrial fame than her patron Saint could ever have conjured up in her meditations, walled and shoeless among the Carmelites.

But then who could conjure up an unlikelier apparition than the sight of Christopher Hitchens heaving his cutless as defender of the faith profaned? The imagination settles back upon him as a schoolboy conscripted to Sacred Studies and chained to Chapel through times immemorial. We can feel his puzzlement when Elisha turns the bears on the naughty children and sense his confusion with the moral ambivalence of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward until he arrives at last at the solaces of alienation. And yet all the while the sweet seductions of the Faith have been breathing in the air around him. Penetrating his subconscious and finally and permanently imbuing it with the sacred obligation the honest unbeliever owes to orthodoxy.

Outraged propriety like this is a kind of religious expression, and seemlier than many others more current. Hitchens might not stir a finger for the Glory of God; but he has stood at His Right Hand and held the bridge for His Dignity. A day will come, prayerfully well hence, when his fellow communicants will command his departed soul with strict attention to the Articles of Disbelief; and its travels thereafter might just possibly find a destination that offers two surprises. The first would be the discovery that there is indeed a gate of Heaven. The second will burst forth when the Recording Angel opens his book to cry out with holy glee, “Christopher Hitchens? Bully for you.”


  1. As quoted in “A Conversation with Mother Teresa,” conducted by Navin Chawla, and added as Appendix I to his Mother Teresa (1992 to be reprinted in September 1996 by Element Press).

  2. Chawla, Mother Teresa, p. 212.

Parnab Mukherjee (essay date 21 September 1996)

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SOURCE: Mukherjee, Parnab. “Two Names Worried a Stricken Saint.” Spectator (21 September 1996): 27–28.

[In the following excerpt, Mukherjee discusses Mother Teresa's deteriorating health and Hitchens's criticism of the ailing nun in The Missionary Position.]

Christopher Hitchens lives in the United States and writes for Vanity Fair. He calls her ‘an elderly virgin whose chief claim to reverence is that she ministers to the inevitable losers in the lottery.’ He also calls her ‘fanatical’ and ‘a fund-raising icon for clerical nationalists in the Balkans.’ He wrote a book about her under the title The Missionary Position.

Tariq Ali lives in London. Hitchens helped him make a television documentary about her called Hell's Angel, shown on Channel 4 in the autumn of 1994. The ‘elderly virgin’ whom Hitchens describes as someone ‘who rushed for PR-type cover’ and indulges in ‘metaphysical caresses’ is more popularly known here as ‘Mother.’ She is Mother Teresa, the living saint of Calcutta.

Yet, when she recently found that she needed cardiac treatment, Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali were on her mind. Because of them, and people who think like them, she at first refused to be admitted to this city's Woodlands nursing home. A senior cardiologist, Dr A. K. Bardhan—pioneer of the intensive cardiac care unit in Woodlands in 1976—revealed to me that Mother Teresa thought her hostile critics, ‘especially Tariq Ali and Christopher Hitchens,’ might misconstrue her admission to the nursing home as ‘a sign of affluence and taking an undue advantage of popularity.’ She added,

If so many sisters can be cured inside the Missionaries of Charity, then why not me? I would like to be treated like any other sister. There is no need for special facilities because most Indians do not have proper medical facilities.

She must have had Hitchens's comment, ‘Mother Teresa's global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal,’ at the back of her mind. Doctors tried to convince her that her condition was serious, but for a long time she was adamant. Only after hours of persuasion did she agree to be admitted.

But, as many would point out, Ali and Hitchens were not the only drawback to getting admitted to an upmarket nursing home. Other factors were involved too. The duo had started the game and Mother had to finish it. Their criticism of ‘the adored object of many credulous and uncritical observers’ had percolated down to the lowest rung of the Missionaries of Charity, setting off a race for the control of the institution. And by the time Mother was released from hospital, the race for the post of superior-general had already begun.

Seven sisters of the Missionaries of Charity were ready to succeed Mother as head of the order she founded 50 years ago and has run ever since. The election to the post of superior-general, held every six years, is likely to be held sometime towards the end of October, but a date has not yet been set due to Mother's poor health. The seven contenders are Sister Priscilla, Sister Frederick, Sister Agnes Das, Sister Shanti D'Souza, Sister Camellia Pereira, Sister Andreas Boenke and Sister Dorothy Francis.

Mother Teresa had earlier declared that she would not be a candidate. However, before the last election in 1990, Mother had expressed a similar desire to step down from her arduous duties as head of an organisation spanning five continents, and it finally took a direct personal appeal from Pope John Paul II to persuade her to continue in office.

Now, however, her condition is far worse than it was six years ago and health reasons may not permit her to continue as superior-general. Dr Bardhan said, ‘Mother is suffering from ischaemic heart disease symptoms, which means that the blood supply to the heart muscles is infrequent: the demand for blood increases but the supply cannot cope with demand.’ Explaining the exact nature of her complications, Dr Bardhan said,

Let me categorically state that Mother is not out of danger. The nature of both heart and lung disease is progressive, and it has worsened due to her age. She has had a range of tests before. In California, she had to undergo balloon angioplasty, her pace-maker, which is doing fine, was implanted in 1989, and this time around she is being given regular chest physiotherapy.

With Mother apparently out of the race because of her poor health, the clear front-runner in the race for her office is Shillong-born Sister Priscilla, an Anglo-Indian who has been the spokesperson of the Missionaries of Charity for several years and has thus acquired a lot of Mother's fabled public relations skills. She has also worked for over 20 years in the United States and is well acquainted with the international aspect of the missionaries work. Another point in her favor is that she is the youngest of the seven, and so will have a longer innings than others if elected head.

Sister Agnes, who at 66 is the oldest candidate, was considered the favourite in the 1990 elections. Besides Mother herself, she is the oldest member of the order, having joined it straight out of school in Calcutta in 1949. This time, however, her chances are not considered strong as she is suffering from a stomach ailment. …

This week, Mother Teresa was back at Woodlands nursing home after a freak head injury she sustained falling from her bed. Hitchens now has another chance to reiterate: ‘It is past time that she was subjected to the rational critique that she has evaded so arrogantly and for so long.’ And now an ailing Mother may not be able to muster the strength to say to him: ‘God bless you.’ But then, maybe she will.

Christopher Hitchens and Matt Cherry (interview date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher, and Matt Cherry. “An Interview with Christopher Hitchens on Mother Teresa.” Free Inquiry 16, no. 4 (fall 1996): 53–58.

[In the following interview, Hitchens discusses his controversial criticism of Mother Theresa in The Missionary Position, his documentary film Hell's Angel, and his contempt for Christianity and American religious sentiment.]

Below, Matt Cherry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, interviews Christopher Hitchens about his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice and his television program, which strongly criticized Mother Teresa. The interview recapitulates the most devastating critiques of Mother Teresa ever made. It also gives a very telling account by a leading journalist into the U.S. media's great reluctance to criticize religion and religious leaders.

As Free Inquiry was going to press, we heard that Mother Teresa was suffering from heart trouble and malaria and there was concern about her chances of survival. It was, therefore, suggested to the editors that it would be inappropriate to print an interview that contains criticism of Mother Teresa's work and influence. However, in view of the media's general failure to investigate the work of Mother Teresa or to publish critical comments about her, the editors felt it important to proceed with the publication of this revealing interview.

Christopher Hitchens is “Critic at Large” for Vanity Fair, writes the Minority Report column for The Nation, and is a frequent guest on current affairs and commentary television programs. He has written numerous books on international current affairs, including Blood, Class, and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies.

[Cherry:] According to polls, Mother Teresa is the most respected woman in the world. Her name is a byword for selfless dedication in the service of humanity. So why are you picking on this sainted old woman?

[Hitchens:] Partly because that impression is so widespread. But also because the sheer fact that this is considered unquestionable is a sign of what we are up against, namely the problem of credulity. One of the most salient examples of people's willingness to believe anything if it is garbed in the appearance of holiness is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of Mother Teresa as a saint by people who would normally be thinking—however lazily—in a secular or rational manner. In other words, in every sense it is an unexamined claim.

It's unexamined journalistically—no one really takes a look at what she does. And it is unexamined as to why it should be she who is spotlighted as opposed to many very selfless people who devote their lives to the relief of suffering in what we used to call the “Third World.” Why is it never mentioned that her stated motive for the work is that of proselytization for religious fundamentalism, for the most extreme interpretation of Catholic doctrine? If you ask most people if they agree with the pope's views on population, for example, they say they think they are rather extreme. Well here's someone whose life's work is the propagation of the most extreme version of that.

That's the first motive. The second was a sort of journalistic curiosity as to why it was that no one had asked any serious questions about Mother Teresa's theory or practice. Regarding her practice, I couldn't help but notice that she had rallied to the side of the Duvalier family in Haiti, for instance, that she had taken money—over a million dollars—from Charles Keating, the Lincoln Savings and Loans swindler, even though it had been shown to her that the money was stolen; that she has been an ally of the most reactionary forces in India and in many other countries; that she has campaigned recently to prevent Ireland from ceasing to be the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on divorce, that her interventions are always timed to assist the most conservative and obscurantist forces.

Do you think this is because she is a shrewd political operator or that she is just naive and used as a tool by others?

I've often been asked that. And I couldn't say from real acquaintance with her which view is correct, because I've only met her once. But from observing her I don't think that she's naive. I don't think she is particularly intelligent or that she has a complex mind, but I think she has a certain cunning.

Her instincts are very good: she seems to know when and where she might be needed and to turn up, still looking very simple. But it's a long way from Calcutta to Port au Prince airport in Haiti, and it's a long way from the airport to the presidential palace. And one can't just, in your humble way and dressed in a simple sari, turn up there. Quite a lot of things have to be arranged and thought about and allowed for in advance. You don't end up suddenly out of sheer simple naivete giving a speech saying that the Duvalier family love the poor. All of that involves quite a high level of planning and calculation. But I think the genius of it is to make it look simple.

One of Mother Teresa's biographers—almost all the books written about her are by completely uncritical devotees—says, with a sense of absolute wonderment, that when Mother Teresa first met the pope in the Vatican, she arrived by bus dressed only in a sari that cost one rupee. Now that would be my definition of behaving ostentatiously. A normal person would put on at least her best scarf and take a taxi. To do it in the way that she did is the reverse of the simple path. It's obviously theatrical and calculated. And yet it is immediately written down as a sign of her utter holiness and devotion. Well, one doesn't have to be too cynical to see through that.

You point out that, although she is very open about promoting Catholicism, Mother Teresa has this reputation of holiness amongst many non-Catholics and even secular people. And her reputation is based upon her charitable work for the sick and dying in Calcutta. What does she actually do there? What are her care facilities like?

The care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do. There have been a number of articles—I've collected some more since my book came out—about the failure and primitivism of her treatment of lepers and the dying, of her attitude towards medication and prophylaxis. Very rightly is it said that she tends to the dying, because if you were doing anything but dying she hasn't really got much to offer.

This is interesting because, first, she only proclaims to be providing people with a Catholic death, and, second, because of the enormous amounts of money mainly donated to rather than raised by her Order. We've been unable to audit this—no one has ever demanded an accounting of how much money has flowed in her direction. With that money she could have built at least one absolutely spanking new, modern teaching hospital in Calcutta without noticing the cost.

The facilities she runs are as primitive now as when she first became a celebrity. So that's obviously not where the money goes.

How much money do you reckon she receives?

Well, I have the testimony of a former very active member of her Order who worked for her for many years and ended up in the office Mother Teresa maintains in New York City. She was in charge of taking the money to the bank. She estimates that there must be $50 million in that bank account alone. She said that one of the things that began to raise doubts in her mind was that the Sisters always had to go around pretending that they were very poor and they couldn't use the money for anything in the neighborhood that required alleviation. Under the cloak of avowed poverty they were still soliciting donations, labor, food, and so on from local merchants. This she found as a matter of conscience to be offensive.

Now if that is the case for one place in New York, and since we know what huge sums she has been given by institutions like the Nobel Peace committee, other religious institutions, secular prize-giving organizations, and so on, we can speculate that if this money was being used for the relief of suffering we would be able to see the effect.

So the $50 million is a very small portion of her wealth?

I think it's a very small portion, and we should call for an audit of her organization. She carefully doesn't keep the money in India because the Indian government requires disclosure of foreign missionary organizations' funds.

I think the answer to questions about her wealth was given by her in an interview where she said she had opened convents and nunneries in 120 countries. The money has simply been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic, religious institutions.

So she is spending the money on her own order of nuns? And that order will be named after her?

Both of those suggestions are speculation, but they are good speculation. I think the order will be named after her when she becomes a saint, which is also a certainty: she is on the fast track to canonization and would be even if we didn't have a pope who was manufacturing saints by the bushel. He has canonized and beatified more people than eight of his predecessors combined.

Hence the title of your book: The Missionary Position.

That has got some people worked up. Of the very, very few people who have reviewed this book in the United States, one or two have objected to that title on the grounds that it's “sophomoric.” Well, I think that a triple entendre requires a bit of sophistication.

And your television program in the United Kingdom was called Hell's Angel.

Yes, very much over my objection, because I thought that that name had not even a single entendre to it. I wanted to call it “Sacred Cow.” The book is the television program expanded by about a third. The program was limited by what we could find of Mother Teresa's activities recorded on film. In fact, I was delighted by how much of her activity was available on film: for example, her praising the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. There is also film of her groveling to the Duvaliers: licking the feet of the rich instead of washing the feet of the poor. But “60 Minutes” demanded a price that was greater than the whole cost of the rest of the production. So we had to use stills.

How did Mother Teresa become such a great symbol of charity and saintliness?

Her break into stardom came when Malcolm Muggeridge—a very pious British political and social pundit—adopted her for his pet cause. In 1969, he made a very famous film about her life—and later a book—called Something Beautiful for God. Both the book and the film deserve the label hagiography.

Muggeridge was so credulous that he actually claimed that a miracle had occurred on camera while he was making the film. He claimed that a mysterious “kindly light” had appeared around Mother Teresa. This claim could easily be exploded by the testimony of the cameraman himself: he had some new film stock produced by Kodak for dark or difficult light conditions. The new stock was used for the interview with Mother Teresa. The light in the film looked rather odd, and the cameraman was just about to say so when Muggeridge broke in and said, “It's a miracle, it's divine light.”

Are we all victims of the Catholic public relations machine? Or has the West seized upon Mother Teresa as salve for its conscience?

Well, you are giving me my answer in your question. For a long time the church was not quite sure what to do about her. For example, when there was the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s, there was an equivalent meeting for the Catholics of the Indian subcontinent in Bombay. Mother Teresa turned up and said she was absolutely against any reconsideration of doctrine. She said we don't need any new thinking or reflection, what we need is more work and more faith. So she has been recognized as a difficult and dogmatic woman by the Catholics in India for a long time.

I think there were others in the church who suspected she was too ambitious, that she wouldn't accept discipline, that she wanted an order of her own. She was always petitioning to be able to go off and start her own show. Traditionally, the church has tended to suspect that kind of excessive zeal. I think it was an entirely secular breakthrough sponsored by Muggeridge, who wasn't then a Catholic.

So it wasn't the result of the propaganda of the Holy Office. But when the Catholic church realized it had a winner on its hands, it was quick to adopt her. She is a very great favorite of the faithful and a very good advertisement to attract non-believers or non-Catholics. And she's very useful for the current pope as a weapon against reformists and challengers within the church.

As to why those who would normally consider themselves rationalists or skeptics have fallen for the Mother Teresa myth, I think there is an element of post-colonial condescension involved, in that most people have a slightly bad conscience about “the wretched of the Earth” and they are glad to feel that there are those who will take action. Then also there is the general problem of credulity, of people being willing—once a reputation has been established—to judge people's actions by that reputation instead of the reputation by that action.

Why do you think no other major media before you had exposed Mother Teresa?

I'm really surprised by it. And also I'm surprised that no one in our community—that of humanists, rationalists, and atheists—had ever thought of doing it either.

There's a laziness in my profession, of tending to make the mistake I just identified of judging people by their reputation. In other words, if you call Saudi Arabia a “moderate Arab state” that's what it becomes for reportorial purposes. It doesn't matter what it does, it's a “moderate state.” Similarly for Mother Teresa: she became a symbol for virtue, so even in cartoons, jokes, movies, and television shows, if you want a synonym for selflessness and holiness she is always mentioned.

It's inconvenient if someone robs you of a handy metaphor. If you finally printed the truth it would mean admitting that you missed it the first, second, and third time around. I've noticed a strong tendency in my profession for journalists not to like to admit that they ever missed anything or got anything wrong.

I think this is partly the reason, although in England my book got quite well reviewed because of the film, in the United States there seems to be the view that this book isn't worth reviewing. And it can't be for the usual reasons that the subject is too arcane and only of minority interest, or that there's not enough name recognition.

I believe there's also a version of multi-culturalism involved in this. That is to say, to be a Catholic in America is to be a member of two kinds of community: the communion of believers and the Catholic community, which is understood in a different sense, in other words, large numbers of Irish, Italian, Croatian, and other ethnic groups, who claim to be offended if any of the tenets of their religion are publicly questioned. Thus you are in a row with a community if you choose to question the religion. Under one interpretation of the rules of multi-culturalism that is not kosher: you can't do that because you can't offend people in their dearest identity. There are some secular people who are vulnerable to that very mistake.

I'll give you an interesting example, Walter Goodman, the New York Times television critic, saw my film and then wrote that he could not understand why it was not being shown on American television. He laid down a challenge to television to show this film. There was then a long silence until I got a call from Connie Chung's people in New York. They flew me up and said they would like to do a long item about the program, using excerpts from it, interviewing me and talking about the row that had resulted. They obviously wanted to put responsibility for the criticism of Mother Teresa onto me rather than adopt it themselves—they were already planning the damage control.

But they didn't make any program. And the reason they gave me was that they thought that if they did they would be accused of being Jewish and attacked in the same way as the distributors of The Last Temptation of Christ had been. And that this would stir up Catholic-Jewish hostility in New York. It was very honest of them to put it that way. They had already imagined what might be said and the form it might take and they had persuaded themselves that it wasn't worth it.

So your film has never been shown in the United States?

No, and it certainly never will be. You can make that prediction with absolute certainty; and then you can brood on what that might suggest.

What was the response in Britain to your expose of Mother Teresa? Did you get a lot of criticism for it?

When the film was shown, it prompted the largest number of phone calls that the channel had ever logged. That was expected. It was also expected that there would be a certain amount of similarity in the calls. I've read the log, and many of the people rang to say exactly the same thing, often in the same words. I think there was an element of organization to it.

But what was more surprising was that it was also the largest number of calls in favor that the station had ever had. That's rare because it's usually the people who want to complain who lift the phone; people who liked the program don't ring up. That's a phenomenon well known in the trade, and it's a reason why people aren't actually all that impressed when the switchboard is jammed with protest calls. They know it won't be people calling in to praise and they know it's quite easy to organize.

A really remarkable number of people rung in to say it's high time there was a program like this. The logs scrupulously record the calls verbatim, and I noticed that the standard of English and of reasoning in the pro calls was just so much higher as to make one feel that perhaps all was not lost.

In addition to the initial viewer response, there was also a row in the press. But on the whole both sides of the case were put. Nonetheless, it was depressing to see how many people objected not to what was said but to its being said at all. Even among secular people there was an astonishment, as if I really had done something iconoclastic. People would say “Christopher Hitchens alleges that Mother Teresa keeps company with dictators” and so on, as though it hadn't been proven. But none of the critics have ever said, even the most hostile ones, that anything I say about her is untrue. No one has ever disproved any of that.

Probably the most intelligent review appeared in the Tablet, a English monthly Catholic paper. There was a long, serious and quite sympathetic review by someone who had obviously worked with the church in India and knew Mother Teresa. The reviewer said Mother Teresa's work and ideology do present some problems for the faith.

But in America the idea that Mother Teresa is a sacred cow who must not be criticized won out and your book and your critique of Mother Teresa never got an airing?

Yes, pretty much. Everything in American reviews depends on the New York Times Book Review. My book was only mentioned in the batch of short notices at the end. Considering that Mother Teresa had a book out at the same time, I thought this was very strange. Any book review editor with any red corpuscles at all would put both books together, look up a reviewer with an interest in religion and ask him or her to write an essay comparing and contrasting them. I have been a reviewer and worked in a newspaper office, and that is what I would have expected to happen. That it didn't is suggestive and rather depressing.

The Mother Teresa myth requires the Indians to play the role of the hapless victims. What do the Indians think of Mother Teresa and of the image she gives of India?

I've got an enormous pile of coverage from India, where my book was published. And the reviews seem to be overwhelmingly favorable. Of course it comes at a time when there is a big crisis in India about fundamentalism and secularism.

There are many Indians who object to the image of their society and its people that is projected. From Mother Teresa and from her fans you would receive the impression that in Calcutta there is nothing but torpor, squalor, and misery, and people barely have the energy to brush the flies from their eyes while extending a begging bowl. Really and truly that is a slander on a fantastically interesting, brave, highly evolved, and cultured city, which has universities, film schools, theaters, book shops, literary cafes, and very vibrant politics. There is indeed a terrible problem of poverty and overcrowding, but despite that there isn't all that much mendicancy. People do not tug at your sleeve and beg. They are proud of the fact that they don't.

The sources of Calcutta's woes and miseries are the very overpopulation that the church says is no problem, and the mass influx of refugees from neighboring regions that have been devastated by religious and sectarian warfare in the name of God. So those who are believers owe Calcutta big time, they should indeed be working to alleviate what they are responsible for. But the pretense that they are doing so is a big fraud.

You mention in your book that Mother Teresa is used by the Religious Right and fundamentalist Protestants who traditionally are very anti-Catholic as a symbol of religious holiness with which to beat secular humanists.

Yes, she's a poster girl for the right-to-life wing in America. She was used as the example of Christian idealism and family values, of all things, by Ralph Reed—the front man of the Pat Robertson forces. That's a symptom of a wider problem that I call “reverse ecumenicism,” an opportunist alliance between extreme Catholics and extreme Protestants who used to exclude and anathematize one another.

In private Pat Robertson has nothing but contempt for other Christian denominations, including many other extreme Protestant ones. But in public the Christian Coalition stresses that it is very, very keen to make an alliance with Catholics. There is a shallow, opportunist ecumenicism among religious extremists, and Mother Teresa is quite willingly and happily in its service. She knows exactly who she is working for and with. But I think she is happiest when doing things like going to Ireland and intervening in the Divorce Referendum, as she did recently.

By the way, there is an interesting angle to that which has not yet appeared in print. During the Divorce Referendum the Irish Catholic church threatened to deny the sacrament to women who wanted to be remarried. There were no exceptions to be allowed: it didn't matter if you had been married to an alcoholic who beat you and sexually assaulted your children, you were not going to get a second chance in this world or the next. And that is the position that Mother Teresa intervened in Ireland to support.

Now shift the scene: Mother Teresa is a sort of confessor to Princess Diana. They have met many times. You can see the mutual interest; I'm not sure which of them needs the other the most. But Mother Teresa was interviewed by Ladies Home Journal, a magazine read by millions of American women, and in the course of it she says that she heard that Princess Diana was getting divorced and she really hopes so because she will be so much happier that way.

So there is forgiveness after all, but guess for whom. You couldn't have it more plain than that. I was slightly stunned myself because, although I think there are many fraudulent things about Mother Teresa, I also think there are many authentic things about her. Anyway, she was forced to issue a statement saying that marriage is God's work and can't be undone and all the usual tripe. But when she was speaking from the heart, she was more forgiving of divorce.

A footnote in your book criticizes Mother Teresa for forgiving you for your film about her.

I said that I didn't ask for forgiveness and I wasn't aware that she could bestow it in any case. Of all the things in the book, that is the one that has attracted most hostile comment—even from friends and people who agree with me. They ask why I object to that, what's wrong with forgiveness? My explanation is that it would be O.K. if she was going to forgive everyone. When she went to Bhopal after the Union Carbide industrial accident killed thousands, she kept saying “Forgive, forgive, forgive.” It's O.K. to forgive Union Carbide for its negligence, but for a woman married to an alcoholic child abuser in Ireland who has ten children and no one to look after her, there is no forgiveness in this life or the next one. But there is forgiveness for Princess Diana.

There is a Roman Catholic doctrine about the redemption of the soul through suffering. This can be seen in Mother Teresa's work: she thinks suffering is good, and she doesn't use pain relievers in her clinics and so forth. Does she take the same attitude towards her own health? Does she live in accordance with what she preaches?

I hesitated to cover this in my book, but I decided I had to publish that she has said that the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful and the world is being very much helped by the nobility of this example of misery and suffering.

A horrible thing to say.

Yes, evil in fact. To say it was unchristian unfortunately would not be true, although many people don't realize that is what Christians believe. It is a positively immoral remark in my opinion, and it should be more widely known than it is.

She is old, she has had various episodes with her own health, and she checks into some of the costliest and finest clinics in the West herself. I hesitated to put that in the book because it seemed as though it would be ad hominem (or ad feminam) and I try never to do that. I think that the doctrine of hating the sin and loving the sinner is obviously a stupid one, because its a false antithesis, but a version of it is morally defensible. Certainly in arguments one is only supposed to attack the arguments and not the person presenting them. But the contrast seemed so huge in this case.

It wasn't so much that it showed that her facilities weren't any good, but it showed that they weren't medical facilities at all. There wasn't any place she runs that she could go; as far as I know, their point isn't treatment. And in fairness to her, she has never really claimed that treatment is the point. Although she does accept donations from people who have fooled themselves into thinking so, I haven't found any occasion where she has given a false impression of her work. The only way she could be said to be responsible for spreading it is that she knowingly accepts what comes due to that false impression.

But if people go to her clinics for the dying and they need medical care, does she send them on to the proper places?

Not according to the testimony of a number of witnesses. I printed the accounts of several witnesses whose testimony I could verify and I've had many other communications from former volunteers in Calcutta and in other missions. All of them were very shocked to find when they got there that they had missed some very crucial point and that very often people who come under the false impression that they would receive medical care are either neglected or given no advice. In other words, anyone going in the hope of alleviation of a serious medical condition has made a huge mistake.

I've got so much testimony from former workers who contacted me after I wrote the book, that I almost have enough material to do a sequel.

I have a question as one Englishman in America to another. You are a secular humanist Englishman who is a leading commentator on American culture and politics. Tell me, what is it about Americans and religion? Why is it that religion, often very primitive forms of religion, is so powerful in perhaps the richest, most advanced, most consumerist nation on Earth?

I'm an atheist. I'm not neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one. And I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself.

Why is the United States so prone to any kind of superstition, not just organized religion, but cultism, astrology, millennial beliefs, UFOs, any form of superstition? I've thought a lot about it. I read Harold Bloom's book The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992) about the evolution of what he thinks of as a specifically American form of religion. There was a book by Will Herberg in the 1950s called Protestant, Catholic, Jew where he speculated that what was really evolving was the American way of life as a religion. And that this was a way of life that wasn't at all spiritual or intellectual but in a sense believed that all religion was valid as long as it underpinned this way of life. Somehow religion was a necessary ingredient. In other words, religion was functional. I think that's true but it's not the whole story.

Maybe—and this is a conclusion that I am reluctant to come to—it is because there is no established church here. A claim that is made for established churches is that in a way they domesticate and canalize and give a form and order to superstitious impulses. That's why they usually succeed in annexing all local cults and making them their own, etc. Part of their job is to soak up all the savagery around the place. I think from an anthropological point of view, that's partly true.

In a country that very honorably and uniquely founded itself on repudiating that idea and saying the church and the government would always be separate, and also a country that many people came to in the hope of practicing their own religion, you have both free competition and a sense of manifest destiny. I think it's out of that sort of stew that you have all these bubbles.

Chesterton used to say that, if people didn't have a belief in God, they wouldn't believe in nothing, they would believe in anything. The objection to that of course is that belief in God is believing in anything. But there's still a ghost of a point in there: if people are licensed to believe anything and call it spirituality, then they will.

I think maybe it's not so much not having an established church as not having a dominant church. In France you have strict separation, but the Catholic church is dominant. Yet France has very high levels of nonbelief, like countries with an established church. But in America you have free competition of churches, and lots of competing cults, and much more energy as a result.

I'm not sure that people in the United States are as devout as the statistics suggest. The statistics are extraordinary if you believe them: something like 88 percent of Americans regularly attend church, and 90 percent of them believe in the devil. I would like to have a look at how the questions are formulated in these polls.

We have done our own polls—scientifically selected samples—in which we framed the questions ourselves, and we got very similar results to the other polls we had read. It may be that the question is not, Why do people believe this?—because perhaps they don't—but, Why do people say they believe this? There's obviously a social conditioning.

Yes, that's right. People obviously feel they owe the pollsters that kind of answer.

I wonder whether the onset of the millennium is going to be as awful as I sometimes fear. There will be uneasiness among the feeble-minded and the emotionally insecure.

Especially in America.

American fundamentalism has one huge problem which is that the United States is nowhere prefigured in the Bible. It worries them a lot, they keep trying to find it there, they try to interpret prophecies to refer to the United States, but they can't succeed—even to their own satisfaction—in getting it to come out right.

You have to go to the Book of Mormon?

Yes, and the Seventh-Day Adventists, who descended from the Millerites. I can see that Scientology now enjoys charitable status as a religion, which I think is a real triumph. I can't get over that. You can set some idea of what it would have been like to live in third-century Nicea when Christianity was being hammered together—an experience I am very glad I did not have. Religious diversity is confused with pluralism. Because of multi-culturalism and what is called “political correctness,” religion has a certain protection that it couldn't expect to have if it was a state-sponsored racket like the Church of England.

A lot of people who aren't religious think religion should still be beyond criticism.

Certainly, because it's people's deepest and dearest beliefs, and because they are communities as well as congregations. And I suppose that in the minds of some people the feeling is “Well, you never know, it may be true and then I will go to Hell.” A lot of people every now and then are visited by fear. It seems that as animals we are so constituted. At least we can know that about ourselves, but it is such a waste of the knowledge to interpret in any other way. On the other hand, I'm also impressed by the number of people who manage to get by—often without any help or support—not believing.

The great thing about humanism is that so many people reach the position independently, because it is not about teachers and doctrines. You just end up a humanist by following your own questions.

That's true. And it doesn't have any element of wishful-thinking in it, which is another advantage. Though it's the reason why I think it will always be hated but never eradicated.

Look at the situation in Western Europe: in Holland about 55 percent say they are humanist or non-religious; and in Britain it's up to about 30 percent and among teenagers it's 50 percent. So there's an enormous movement in Western Europe towards secularism and humanism. Yet in America it seems to be getting just more and more religious. Which, considering the convergence of culture in other areas, seems quite anomalous. Sociologists are just beginning to address this issue but haven't done so properly yet.

Christopher Hitchens and Sasha Abramsky (interview date February 1997)

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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher, and Sasha Abramsky. “Christopher Hitchens.” Progressive 61, no. 2 (February 1997): 32–36.

[In the following interview, Hitchens discusses his education, formative experiences, his socialist perspective, contemporary political issues, his position on abortion, and his encounters with various notable people.]

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for The Nation and Vanity Fair and a freelance contributor to numerous other publications in both Britain and the United States. He is the author of a dozen books, covering issues as diverse as Britain's plundering of the Parthenon, the conflicts in the Middle East, Anglo-American relations, and the unsaintly qualities of Mother Teresa.

An Englishman by birth and upbringing, Hitchens came to America in the early 1980s, living first in New York City and then in Washington, D.C. In 1994, I was Hitchens's intern at The Nation. I discovered that we both went to the same college at Oxford—Balliol—and studied the same course: Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Now, aged forty-seven, Hitchens lives with his wife, Carol Blue, and their three-year-old daughter, Antonia, in a spacious apartment in the Adams-Morgan district of Washington, D.C.

I talked with Hitchens in his apartment. He was chain-smoking cigarettes, and we both drank generous glasses of whiskey. As with so many British journalists, Hitchens is a heavy drinker and smoker, a bon vivant with a quick tongue and an often deadly pen. At one point in the interview, “You Say You Want a Revolution” by the Beatles came on. Hitchens said: “I hate this song, it's one of the few I really hate. This was the one praised by Mayor Daley as a healthy alternative to the Rolling Stones.” After four hours of talking, the bottle was empty, and, as I left, Hitchens was getting ready for a late night of work.

[Abramsky:] I remember reading that you grew up a navy brat.

[Hitchens:] Well, I was born in 1949, in Portsmouth. It's a navy town, where all my father's ancestors seemed to come from. My father was a lifetime naval officer. The first memory I have is of Malta, which was still a British colony, technically, where my brother was born. I was brought up in a very naval, military, and conservative background. My father and his friends had very typical opinions of the British middle class—lower-middle class actually—after the war. My father broke into the middle class by joining the navy. I was the first member of my family ever to go to private school or even to university. So, the armed forces had been upward mobility for him.

After the war, the general feeling was that Britain had been cheated out of its Empire. A sort of politics of resentment. It would be very common to hear people say, round about the cocktail hour, “Well, I thought we won the war,” with rather heavy sarcasm, as the news came in that yet again Britain had had to back down over Suez, or bases in Cyprus, or whatever it might be. It was a very resentful feeling that all that Churchillian rhetoric hadn't really amounted to very much in the long run. It had a powerful effect on me.

What were your formative political impressions?

I was precocious enough to watch the news and read the papers, and I can remember October 1956, the simultaneous crisis in Hungary and Suez, very well. And getting a sense that the world was dangerous, a sense that the game was up, that The Empire was over.

I didn't form any political opinions of my own until I was a little bit older. I remember the first time I ever made a public speech, I would have been eleven or twelve. My prep school had a debate on the question of whether or not the Commonwealth Immigration Bill, which the Tories had just proposed to restrict West-Indian immigration, was justified or not. I spoke against the bill. I think I did it because nobody else would. And then, I remember deciding quite early on, having read a book by Arthur Koestler on hanging, that I was on principle opposed to capital punishment.

In 1964, when Wilson ran for Labour in October, we had a mock election in the high school. I decided I wanted the Labour Party to win, and again it wasn't very difficult to become nominated for the candidacy—because there wasn't much rivalry. We came third.

Do you remember how many votes you got?

No! But I remember there was a very good communist candidate who took away a lot of my constituency.

Why didn't you run as a communist then?

Because I was never, ever tempted by it. Maybe it was just an accident of where I was born and when. But the communists never appealed to me. And I was to a certain extent inoculated against it. I read Darkness at Noon before I read The Communist Manifesto.

No, the leftward move for me was the very rapid experience of disillusionment with the Wilson government of 1964, with the collapse of that government into the most dismal kinds of conservative orthodoxy. There was the seaman's strike of 1966 and devaluation and the sell-out of Rhodesia—a lot of stuff.

But obviously the central, defining, overarching, whatever word you want for this sort of thing, was Vietnam. The first time I went on a CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament] march—Easter march as it used to be called—was in 1966, and what drew me to it principally was that CND was the main national movement making a stink about the war in Vietnam.

And this is before you went to Oxford?

Before I went to Oxford, which I did in late 1967.

How did the Oxford culture, the college system, the tutorials, the drinking, how did all of that help mold your character?

I don't think very much. I knew from some time before, having been at this rather well-placed school at Cambridge, and having done a bit of English history and economics, I knew that what I wanted to do was to read PPE [Politics, Philosophy, and Economics—a course many future journalists, diplomats, and politicians take at Oxford] at Balliol. I knew that when I was fifteen. Not only that, but I got to do it, too.

And my very first experience was one of extreme disappointment. The standard, the intellectual atmosphere, was not as rarefied as everyone had led me to believe it would be. I just didn't go to classes or lectures at all.

What were your politics like then?

Before I went up to Oxford, I had basically been kicked out of the Labour Party—roughly the time I did go up to Oxford actually—and I associated myself there with the International Socialists. When 1968 came, I was a member of a peripheral group that had members in the single figures, which in the course of the spring and summer of 1968 ballooned into several hundred—this is just talking about in Oxford.

And one had the experience, which I've only had once in my life, and I think some people never have, of seeing what had been a minority analysis of everything, apparently confirmed by everyday newspapers. Many people were being driven to take our positions. Everything seemed to be confirmed. What we said about the Vietnam War turned out to be completely right: what we said about the emptiness of social democracy turned out to be right. What we had said about Stalinism was particularly confirmed by what happened in Poland in February and March and what happened in Czechoslovakia in August. And it was really exciting.

It was also very, very clear that the government and the authorities in general—the editor of the Times, even the BBC—they didn't know what was going on. And that's another feeling you don't often get.

In the summer, I went to Cuba, and we got into a huge fight with the Castro regime over a number of things: the one-party state, the maltreatment of dissenters—social and civic ones—and gay people as well. But I was there when Czechoslovakia was invaded. I was on my way to Prague on the invitation of the Czechs, to go and see Dubcek. If I'd left two days earlier I'd have got there. It's one of the biggest regrets of my life.

And at that stage, if you had to identify yourself with an “ism,” what would it have been?

Luxemburg! Yeah, the International Socialists were often referred to as Trots, which wasn't completely right. We were Rosa Luxemburgist. Rosa Luxemburg was—still is for me—a great personal and intellectual heroine. Her analysis of Leninism and capitalism and social democracy are all worth reading right now. I wouldn't consider anyone truly politically literate if they hadn't given her work at least some study.

There is a mystique that surrounds Balliol. Its students are taught to cultivate what is popularly known as an aura of “effortless superiority.” You're obviously at least partially a product of this. Did it have an influence on why you chose journalism?

Journalism! I'd always wanted to write and I'd always written. And by elimination—I obviously wasn't going to become a lawyer. And yes, there was something in the Balliol atmosphere conducive to this, and if I meet someone from Balliol now, yes there is a certain code that is unspoken. I neither make too much use of it, nor a fetish of it, but I don't frown on it either. This includes people who are politically opposed to me—like George Stephanopoulos: We had the same tutor, Stephen Lukes.

Why did you choose to go into print journalism rather than television? I understand at one stage you were considered semi-seriously for the role of Voice of the Left on CNN's Crossfire.

Quasi-seriously! Because it's solitary. I've always wanted to write and—it might sound pompous—I've needed to write. While I was still at Oxford, I was asked by The New Statesman, which was then still a great magazine—the magazine of politics and culture in a way—to be a book reviewer, and I published my first book review in 1969. It wasn't very often that they asked me, but it was a start, and it gave me a huge advantage to be writing for them at that age.

And what happened when you left Oxford?

I got a scholarship [from Balliol] to travel around America. And the first thing I did when I got to New York was to go see Carey McWilliams, the great editor of The Nation. And he gave me people to see across America. I had to go back to England with some reluctance. I got a job on the Times, “Higher Education Supplement,” as a social-science editor. It didn't give me much scope for writing, but I wrote book reviews for the Times at that stage. Then I published my first book—on Karl Marx and the Paris Commune—it was the centenary of the Commune. And the Statesman offered me a job on the staff, when I was twenty-two. I had realized that probably I wasn't ever going to become a novelist—it hurt—or a playwright, or anything like that.


Because when I was at the Statesman, my colleagues my age were Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, and Timothy Noel. And I have to say, I realized these guys were better at that kind of writing than I was. It was rather intimidating that they were so good. It made me specialize more in the generalist-type political essay. But they were very good people to work with, for style. They persuaded me it wasn't enough just to make the point; that style was substance, and that there was something in language itself. I learned by osmosis. These people are still my circle, my best friends.

Why did you decide to come to America?

The first thing I can remember I ever wanted was to go to the United States. And for reasons that are as conventional as you can imagine: I wanted to know if it was really true that it was the land of opportunity, of democracy, and individual liberty. My conclusion was that, at least as compared to the ancien regime under which I had been brought up it was.

I'm a founding signatory of Charter 88 [a movement in Britain for the creation of a written, rights-based constitutional system]. And it was very obvious to me that the whole inspiration of that movement is constitutional democracy. But all of its models, all of its actually existing inspirations were American: things like the Freedom of Information Act, however imperfect it has become, like the First Amendment, separating Church and State, guaranteeing free speech, judicial review, separation of powers, and so on—as opposed to the British system where you have traditions instead of rights.

At the same time, I've always been very keen on European unification as a means of detaching certain elements of Britain from their extreme dependence on the oligarchic part of the United States. I don't think there's any contradiction there.

In your book Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, you write about what might be the British position within what you call “The American Imperium.” As a Briton living in America, commenting on both countries, yet not quite wholly of either country, what do you think Britain's position is vis-à-vis America?

What at the moment strikes me is the way American hegemony is back again in the crucial areas of politics and mass cult. I mean, to go to London now from New York or Washington—it used to be there was a lag of a few months between the conversation you'd just left in Washington and the one you were having in London. You could see that in a short while they'd be catching up with what was being talked about. Now, it's almost the same conversation; the Americanization of British politics, for example—very, very noticeable. And I don't think they're borrowing the good bits. Now they talk exactly as if they've all been schooled by Lee Atwater or Ed Rollins.

But the point about Charter 88 and my book was this: Anglophiles in the United States are defined as people who like things like the monarchy, the accent, the marmalade, the country houses, the whole Masterpiece Theatre conception of Britain as a theme park of feudalism and charm, whereas a pro-American in Britain tended to be someone who wanted to reassure the White House or the Pentagon that we would not desert them in their hour of need.

What I hope for, and tried to argue for in the book, is we would borrow different things and try to emulate different things. For example, the United States, instead of admiring the monarchy, would be better off emulating national health, or the broadcasting standards of the BBC as it used to be. And perhaps even the tutorial system at Oxford. And the British, instead of saying we want to be the best ally, we want our chaps in Curzon Street to be the best friends of those in Langley, could be saying we'd rather borrow their Freedom of Information Act.

I take it you won't be voting for Tony Blair in England this time round.

I didn't vote Labour in 1979, which is the last time I could have done. But I will vote Labour in May; I would like the Labour Party to win.

Lesser evilism, incidentally, which I've spent a lifetime opposing, is somewhat different when you're arguing about electing an opposition rather than confirming a government in place. For example, all the arguments we had against Clinton in 1992 were very cogent—and our predictions were all validated, in fact we were moderate about him—but they wouldn't have translated to a vote to keep Bush as President.

No, in many ways I think that Blair is an improvement on the hypocrisy of the Labour Party. Old Labour was no fucking bargain, I can tell you that. I'm young enough to have been Old Labour and old enough to have been New Left. So it's going to take a lot to surprise me. But the word “new” has no more charms for me.

One of the emerging debates is whether or not the identity politics that grew out of the New Left has a future, and whether it's capable of forming a genuine ideological and intellectual alternative to the New Right.

I remember very well the first time I heard the slogan “the personal is political.” I felt a deep, immediate sense of impending doom.


Because I was a 1968er. I really was a 1968er. And I recognized when it was over. That slogan summed it up nicely for me: “I'll have a revolution inside my own psyche.” It's escapist and narcissistic. In order to take part in discussions we used to have, you were expected to have read Luxemburg, Deutsche, some Gramsci, to know the difference between Bihar and Bangladesh, to know what was meant by the Goethe Program, to understand the difference between Keynes and Schumpeter, to have read a bit of Balzac and Zola. You were expected to have broken a bit of a sweat, to have stretched your brain a bit, in order just to have a discussion. And you were expected to keep up with that was going on as well. If you couldn't hold up your end on that, you wouldn't stay long in the discussion.

With “the personal is political,” nothing is required of you except to be able to talk about yourself, the specificity of your own oppression. That was a change of quality as well as quantity. And it fit far too easily into the consumer, me-decade, style-section, New-Age gunk.

Would that hold for movements like the feminist movement after the early 1970s, the gay-rights movement, maybe the environmental movement?

The environmental movement at least is about something larger than itself. I mean, certainly you can't just say it's about the personal. At least there was some politics involved.

What they forgot, I think, because they all took as their model Dr. King's civil-rights movement, was that the whole reason for the success of that movement was that it was not a movement for itself. The civil-rights movement understood very clearly, and stated very beautifully, that it was a question of humanism, not a sectarian movement at all.

What about Jesse Jackson's strategy in the early 1980s of trying to create a Rainbow Coalition? Do you think this concept is a way forward?

Unfortunately, the Rainbow Coalition was an attempt to get all of these groups, all of whom wanted their own agenda, to coalesce. It was an attempt to build the same bridge but from the middle of the river. It was a sort of squaring of the circle. Let's all be a member of the coalition without giving up our individuality.

I remember countless meetings where the idea was “one more plank.” And the problem is that this is what Freud called the narcissism of the small difference. People will always try to concentrate on themselves. Well, you can go to a meeting where someone says, “The meeting doesn't stop till we discuss the question not just of Cherokee lesbians, but Cherokee lesbians who have to take an outsized garment label.” It's barely an exaggeration. There will always be someone who wants it all to be about them. So what was for a moment something that was social, general, collective, educational, and a matter of solidarity, can be very quickly dissolved into petty factionalism. Therefore, coalition-building is reassembling something out of fragments that needn't have been fragmented in the first place.

In your writing, you reserve a special hatred for Clinton. What is it in particular about Clinton that you hate so much?

It goes back to what I said about Wilson in a way. Clinton comes on as someone who is definitely modern, no question about that, very much at home with modernity. Wilson's “white heat of technology” was a very clever means of talking revolution while in fact making sordid bargains.

It's nothing to me if there's a moderate, corrupt Republican about the place, really. That's part of the wallpaper of living in a consumer society, and the damage they do is mainly to their own side. But if there's someone who's appealing to the idealism of the young and the visions of the left and getting away with it by doing that, then he's trampling on territory that I care about. It's like in a labor dispute, people dislike the scab much more than they do the boss. And there's something completely cowardly and shabby—and ingratiating—about Clinton's personality as well that I find repulsive.

Do you see a viable alternative emerging?

I think we're in for a very long period of conservative rule. It depends how long-term you're prepared to think. But we're living in one of those periods where, on the world stage, only capitalism is revolutionary, not just in rich countries, but also in poor ones and also in countries that used to be state-capitalist. This is a situation that wouldn't have been at all unfamiliar to the founders of the socialist movement. It would have been exactly true in the nineteenth century.

On NAFTA, free trade is going to go on. I don't think we should waste our time. But it has many of the problems of the first industrial revolution. It's extremely undemocratic; it's very unstable and very promiscuous.

You're very much an internationalist.

I take capitalism very seriously, always have. It has, in fact, survived its crises—at huge fucking cost, let's not forget: war, empire. But still, it has survived. But it has not outlived its contradictions. If the world is one economy, why not make it one society? I look forward to the argument on this. What I won't do is spend ten seconds on the argument as to whether a plant should be in Michigan or Ontario, or for that matter in California or Tijuana.

A lot would disagree with you on this.

They believe they can build a politics of populism against this. I'm not going to help them. They just will find out they can't build a politics against this. What we really need is a new Internationale—and that's a heavy responsibility. Sounds very utopian at the moment.

What about your support for some recent international interventions, such as the one in Haiti?

It was very important to remind people that the U.S. military plays far too great a role in defining policy. This is something very few people would say. Why were the right and the generals and the CIA so hostile to doing anything about it? That was very important to me, the military subversion of the Clinton Administration—annexation really, because he was very ready to do nothing. It was part of the battle to prevent the banana-ization of things. They were protecting their friends, the Haitian junta.

It goes back to the arguments in the 1930s that Europe was none of their business and they were going to build a New Deal paradise at home, so who gave a shit about triumphing over fascism? Why don't we simply demand the government acts according to its proclaimed principles? People like Noam [Chomsky] and others, who were visibly uneasy about Bosnia, I think had the difficulty of using any argument that suggests the American government can be a moral agent.

What do you say about that?

You could say the same about any government. Why was the right against doing anything about Bosnia? The only ones who said any differently were the neo-cons, and for them the alarm-bell word was “genocide.” Left and liberal people were saying, “Well, we don't want another quagmire like Vietnam.”

But the argument against Vietnam was not that an innocent, naive America had been suckered into Vietnam, for heaven's sake! That's an affront to the anti-war movement, and I wasn't going to have anything to do with that! The collapse of Yugoslavia into the hands of ethnic fascists could have been avoided or impeded if there'd been an intervention earlier than there was.

Moving on to perhaps the subject that got you into hottest water with the left: abortion. Could you talk a little about your view on this?

Two points I wanted to make. One, that the term “unborn child” has been made a propaganda phrase by the people who called themselves “pro-life.” But it's something that has moral and scientific realities. It's become very evident indeed that this is not just a growth upon the mother.

If that's true, what are the problems? It need not qualify the woman's right to choose. It need not. But it would be a very bold person to say that what was being chosen didn't come up. What I argued in my column was this was a social phenomenon. This is the next generation we're talking about. Considering the unborn as candidate members—potential members—of the next generation: wouldn't that strengthen the argument for socialized medicine, child care, prenatal care?

There's reason why this is the only country where it's a mania. Because it's between the fundamentalists and the possessive individualists. It's ruined politics, absorbed a huge amount of energy that should have been spent elsewhere.

But you're not agreeing with the religious right on this?

No one who is not for the provision of sex education, contraception, and child care should be allowed to have any position on abortion at all—and those who do should be met with fusillades. Women will decide it, that's a matter of fact, as much as a principle.

So, what is your position regarding the continued legal status of abortion?

There's no choice but choice. I mean that to sound the way it does sound. But there are choices about the conditions in which that choice is made.

I'm very much opposed to euthanasia. I've never understood why more of these people can't commit suicide. Why do they need a Doctor Kevorkian? It's very theatrical. I believe in a right to decide.

But I'm against all blurrings. There's a very sharp dividing line in the case of an infant. I'm against fooling with that. Everything in me rebels against that. The conclusion I've come to as to why it's such a toxic question in America is it isn't about the rights of the unborn child. I think it's an argument about patriarchy. It is a metaphor for the status of women in what is still in some ways a frontier society.

Give me a few choice encounters with the famous people you've met.

Most of them are disappointments. Claude Cockburn once said that it's awful how things often turn out exactly the way they're supposed to be. Some things are what they're cracked up to be.

So when I met Nelson Mandela he was unbelievably charming and graceful and courteous and self-effacing: just like he was supposed to be. It was a bit of a let-down.

We met Vaclav Havel last month: rumpled, chain-smoking, and democratic. What was the point of doing that?

Thatcher was a sadomasochistic person with no self-doubt.

Hillary was full of self-pity and self-righteousness.

Let's see who else we've got here. Abu Nidal offered to use me as someone to transmit a death threat to another Palestinian. Which he later carried out. Which I also delivered! These are all politicians, of course.

Andreas Papandreou was extremely rhetorical and bombastic.

Gerry Adams was very sentimental.

Willie Brandt probably.


There was a meeting in Washington where everyone had come to accuse him of selling out the West for having doubts about Cruise missiles, and all that. “How dare Germany not be belligerent?” being the line of the day! And I said I had come to ask him what it was like being with George Orwell in Barcelona as volunteers fighting against fascism. He welcomed the change of subject.

[Hitchens's wife, Carol Blue, intervenes: “What about the crazy Kurd with the eagle?”]

No one's ever heard of him. Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK. Wore a Stalin mustache and had a large eagle—live eagle—tethered to his desk. I think to create some kind of impression—of destiny. He also brushed his hair like Stalin.

Clinton turned his back on me when I asked him about the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, even though he'd been hopping for a change of subject from the press conference about Gennifer Flowers.

John Major was an ingratiating, amiable mediocrity.

Barry Goldwater was a man of staunch but limited principle—who said that his dearest wish was to give Jerry Falwell a kick in the ass!

General Videla of Argentina wouldn't let me go till he'd confessed to a few murders, eagerly confessed to a few murders.

Nor would Roberto D'Aubuisson of El Salvador. In other words, with them you don't get anything but a pig with a grunt.

What about Auden? You mention him a lot.

Never met him. I heard him read. Met Isherwood and met Spender, but I never met Auden. I heard him read at Cambridge. I remember the poem he read: It was called “On the Circuit.” Which ends, “God bless the USA / So large / So friendly / And so rich.” Yes, he does keep coming up. It's amazing how he does. I'd love to have met him, but I can't start on people I wish I'd met. It would go on too long.

Mary Beard (review date 12 June 1998)

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SOURCE: Beard, Mary. “Plunder Blunder.” Times Literary Supplement (12 June 1998): 5–6.

[In the following excerpt, Beard offers a negative assessment of the reissue of The Elgin Marbles.]

In April 1811, Lord Byron was in Athens looking for a lift back to England. Ostentatious philhellene and vicious satirist of Lord Elgin (“Noseless himself he brings here noseless blocks / To show what time has done and what the pox” ran one famous jibe, probably invented by Byron, likening Elgin's syphilitic nose to the mangled marbles), he eventually found a cabin on a boat bound for Malta. His travelling companions were a very mixed bunch: C. R. Cockerell joined him for a few hours of farewell drinking as they crossed the Saronic Gulf (Cockerell was on his way to strip the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina of its sculptures); sharing the whole voyage was Byron's new fifteen-year-old boyfriend, chaperoned by his brother-in-law, G. B. Lusieri, Lord Elgin's draughtsman and agent. But the most precious passengers were in the hold: the final consignment of the Elgin Marbles on their way, eventually, to London, “the last poor plunder from a bleeding land,” as Byron was to call them in Childe Harold. It's a party which neatly symbolizes that distinctive mixture of sheer coincidence, telling irony and gross opportunism that underlies the whole story of the Elgin Marbles and the long campaign for their return to Greece. …

Christopher Hitchens's book, however, The Elgin Marbles: Should They Be Returned to Greece? (also a reissue) is concerned entirely with the strength of arguments for restitution, and the weakness of those against. It is a terrible warning of what can happen when even an excellent journalist like Hitchens blows up a usefully provocative magazine article (from the Spectator) into a book. The result here is a philhellenic tract of the least reflective and most nationalistic kind: Greek “nationhood” stretches back to at least 1400 BC (which apparently qualifies the Greeks, unlike the modern Assyrians, to have their treasures back); the Parthenon was not a monument to slave labour (who does Hitchens think quarried the stone, carried the blocks and—for the most part—built it?); Byron was a hardworking and “practical” patriot, who understood “Greek emotion.”

All this is backed up with a series of unhistorical and opportunistic “arguments,” which do the cause of restitution no service. Elgin's rival E. D. Clarke is quoted with approval, when he criticizes Elgin's actions on the Acropolis; but there is no mention of the fact that Clarke himself removed what he thought was the cult statue of Demeter from Eleusis, in the face of a riot of protest from the local population. More recent academics are cited inaccurately and outrageously selectively, when it looks as if they can be useful to whatever point is at hand; a paragraph which Hitchens claims is written by A. M. Snodgrass is enlisted in support of the continuity of “Greekness” (in fact, this paragraph comes from an editorial introduction to an article by Snodgrass in a collective volume and was written, presumably, by its editor, Robert Browning, himself a leading campaigner for the Marbles' return; Snodgrass's own position is much more nuanced); and a letter from the Slide Librarian of the Courtauld Institute is so excerpted that she appears to support restitution, when the full text (amazingly quoted by Vrettos) shows that she was arguing exactly the reverse. Such wilful selectivity marks almost every page.

It is no surprise to discover that for all his philhellenism, Hitchens has a decidedly shaky grasp of (ancient) Greek culture and the Greek language. When fantasizing, in his new foreword, about that blissful day when the Marbles eventually do go back home, he wistfully recalls the spirit of “phylloxenia” that you find “all over Greece and in Greek tavernas all over the world.” What he means is “hospitality” or “philoxenia”; his bizarre coinage is hard to translate, but “fetish for leaves” probably comes closest. Of course, knowledge has never been important in the disputes about the Elgin Marbles; but Hitchens's carelessness reminds you that, after nearly 200 years, no one has put the case against Elgin better than Byron.

John B. Judis (essay date 8 March 1999)

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SOURCE: Judis, John B. “Washington Diarist—Sid Unvicious.” New Republic (8 March 1999): 46.

[In the following essay, Judis defends White House aide Sidney Blumenthal against the accusations made by Hitchens during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.]

I initially resolved not to write anything about the quarrel between White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and author Christopher Hitchens. I've been friends with Sid for 20 years and used to be friendly with Hitchens until about a decade ago, when he abused my trust. But, after having had my opinions taken out of context in the press, I have decided to weigh in on this unpleasant controversy.

I first met Sid when he was writing about politics for the left-wing weekly In These Times and I was editing his copy. Covering the 1980 campaign together, we shared a foreboding that the Democrats would lose big. Since then, we've talked regularly. He has been a loyal friend and, to the best of my knowledge, a conscientious father and faithful husband. He hasn't fired anyone without cause or made merry with the Council of Conservative Citizens. These would be superfluous observations except that they're needed to counter the vilification to which he has been subjected in the press. This reached its reductio ad absurdum in The Washington Post's review of Rushmore: “Schwartzman, the self-confident son of Rocky's Talia Shire, wins sympathy and a great deal of affection for Max, never mind that he could grow into Sidney Blumenthal.”

Sid has written three excellent books on political consultants, the conservative counter-establishment, and the 1988 campaign, and he produced memorable pieces for this magazine on Gary Hart, Lyndon Johnson, Bob Kerrey, and (once upon a time) Bill Clinton. I did not like the way he covered the Clinton campaign or administration. It wasn't a question of partisanship, or of ideology, but of a kind of idolatry that made him see only the best in Clinton and the worst in his opponents. Sid is the opposite of the stereotypical journalist: His characteristic sin is not grating cynicism but worshipful credulity. I urged him to join the Clinton administration and was happy when he finally did so in 1997. (My quip, which got twisted in transmission, was that Sid would now be getting paid for what he had been doing all along.) Contrary to his detractors, he joined the administration to advance a political agenda that he identified with Clinton, Tony Blair, and the “third way,” not to engage in a political war with an Ahab-like special prosecutor and his Republican mates. As far as I can tell, he has performed his duties selflessly (not seeking like other aides to enhance his own celebrity) and effectively (the assault against Clinton has been a right-wing conspiracy of sorts, if not a perfectly orchestrated one). In return, Clinton has ruthlessly exploited Sid's trust and credulity by lying to him and putting him in the line of Republican fire.

I became casually friendly with Christopher Hitchens when we both worked for left-wing publications. I didn't like his journalism, but I admired an essay he wrote on George Orwell for Grand Street. I had, however, two experiences with Hitchens that soured me on him—experiences that don't show me in the best light either, by the way. Eleven years ago, as my biography of William F. Buckley was about to appear, I told Hitchens what I had learned about a prominent conservative professor and friend of Buckley's while doing research at the Hoover Institution. This professor was a patron and protector of a conservative group that was loudly attacking a liberal professor for his teaching. I had learned that the conservative professor had once threatened to sue a student for merely complaining about one of his classes to his department head. I didn't want to do the story myself because I needed Buckley's goodwill, but Hitchens was eager to write it, and I gave him the means to confirm it on the express condition that he not name me as a source. He wrote the story, and all hell broke loose. A month later I got a furious call from the professor who told me that Hitchens, after a few drinks, had told him that I had been the source of the story.

At almost the same time, Hitchens showed me a column in which he had criticized Norman Podhoretz for comparing Gorbachev to Hitler. I was writing an essay on conservatives and decided to include this item because it perfectly illustrated the unwillingness of some conservatives to come to terms with the end of the cold war. Just to make sure, I called Hitchens to confirm that he had accurately characterized Podhoretz's words. He convinced me that this account was accurate, but, after the essay was published, I received an angry letter from Podhoretz, who enclosed the original column that he had written, which, I discovered, Hitchens had indeed mischaracterized. I published a retraction and an apology. I yelled at Hitchens on the phone and—except for a few chance contacts and an exchange of notes—have had nothing to do with him since.

Let's assume that Hitchens is telling the truth about what Sid said during their fateful March 1998 luncheon. If so, Sid misled (at best) the Republican interrogators when he said that he told no one but his wife about his conversation with Clinton. But the thrust of Sid's statement—that he did not immediately feed Clinton's January statement about the “stalker” to the press—stands up. The luncheon was nearly eight weeks after Sid and the president met, and it was as much between friends as between a journalist and his source. Anti-Clintonites are praising Hitchens for his truthfulness, but being truthful is an act defined by its context and not simply by its informative content. Hitchens chose to reveal the lunch to a band of zealots who were desperately seeking the barest inconsistency on which to hang the president and, if not him, then one of his aides. He was not legally compelled to talk to them—indeed, he had been eagerly recounting the story to advocates of impeachment. Hitchens claimed that he wanted to discredit Clinton, but his only victim was a man with whom he claimed to be close friends and who had, on balance, done little wrong. Like many of Hitchens's columns and pronouncements, his words had the aura of moral witness but smacked of old-world wickedness.

Sid will survive this exposure, just as Monica Lewinsky survived Bill Clinton and Linda Tripp. But pundits like Mark Shields, who barely knows Blumenthal but who still feels free to pronounce him “a thoroughly unlikable person,” would do well to ponder exactly what Sid experienced at the hands of Clinton and Hitchens. Sid is certainly no angel, and he has engaged in his share of malicious gossip. What these incidents reveal, however, is not a grandmaster of devilry and intrigue but someone too credulous for his own good.

Raymond Seitz (review date 1 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Seitz, Raymond. “Bungled Assassinations with a Verbal Blunderbuss.” Spectator (1 May 1999): 35.

[In the following review, Seitz offers a negative assessment of No One Left to Lie To.]

If the journalistic equivalent of the Richter Scale were applied to political commentary, it would probably start with ‘analysis’ and ‘opinion’ at the bottom of the scale, then graduate through degrees of ‘criticism’ and ‘polemic,’ and finally peak in the red zone of ‘diatribe’ and ‘convulsive rant.’ Christopher Hitchens's venomous little tract on President Clinton fairly quivers at the top end of the scale. [No One Left to Lie To] resembles one of those manic 18th-century pamphlets that used to circulate in the muddy streets of London and New York, and it should have been entitled ‘No One Left to Lie To: Being an Alarming Dissertation on the Venalitie, Hypocrisie, Perfidie, Larcenie and Other Diseases of the President of the United States and How He hath Caused the Ruination of Women-folk and the Nation and Got Away with It.’

As an entertaining and engaging journalist, Hitchens cheerfully admits that his bite-size tome amounts to little more than ‘an attack on a crooked president and a corrupt and reactionary administration.’ For him, everything in the land of Clintonia is a vast no-wing conspiracy which can be understood only by appreciating that the essence of American politics ‘consists of the manipulation of populism by elitism.’ And with the Great Manipulator in the Oval Office, says Hitchens, this cynical approach to governance has been articulated in the precise strategy of ‘triangulation.’

Triangulation means a White House which offers tantalising, saccharine, politically correct promises to the Left but delivers placating, devious, deconstructionist deeds to the Right. So ‘health reform’ is launched with triumphant hallelujahs and then abandoned at the behest of the big insurance companies. The feel-your-pain compassion of ‘welfare reform’ consists merely of gutting the New Deal. And after suitable invocations of perpetual peace, the ABM Treaty is abandoned in favour of a revivified Star Wars. In other words, the left hand is clenched in a fist of militant progressivism while the right hand flashes the middle finger of reaction.

In the Clinton coterie, Hitchens goes on, the practice of triangulation has become so cynical that even Machiavelli would feel a trifle awkward in the Oval Office. When Governor Clinton was campaigning for the White House in 1992 as a sweetheart New Democrat, he ostentatiously broke off his political rounds in order to return to Arkansas to oversee the execution of the mentally retarded convict Ricky Ray Rector. And in the 1996 election the Clinton White House hoarded its mountains of campaign cash, because if the money were shared with Democratic congressional candidates, the Democrats might have won a majority in the House of Representatives, and that would have meant Dick Gephart as Speaker of the House, and that would have undermined Clinton's position as Democrat supremo.

Nor is foreign policy immune from triangulation. External relations are, in fact, subservient to it. Got a little problem with the grand jury? Fire off a missile or two at Afghanistan and Sudan. Got a little problem with an impeachment vote? Press that launch button again.

The villain of the piece, according to Hitchens, is the erstwhile Clinton consultant and sexual roustabout Dick Morris, a view more maturely corroborated in George Stephanopoulos's recent book (Stephanopoulos says that for a period of eight months leading up to the 1996 election Morris was virtually President of the United States). Morris is an Iago without an Othello, and as a former adviser to Senator Jesse Helms is himself a living example of triangulation. With typical delicacy, Hitchens calls him ‘Clinton's pimp,’ and attributes to Morris the guiding principle of the Clinton political philosophy: how do the polls look?

Mercifully, Hitchens expends little of his unbounded energy on the Monica Lewinsky affair. His last chapter is largely devoted to his J'accuse 15 minutes of fame earlier this year when he swore in an affidavit that his former friend and presidential adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, had indeed lied when he claimed to prosecutors that the White House had never tried to trash Miss Lewinsky. On the broader constitutional matter of impeachment, Hitchens says that the presidential dissembling and deceit were wholly predictable once you understand the context. In fact, he asserts that the most convincing of the three articles of impeachment voted by the House of Representatives was not ‘perjury’ or ‘obstruction of justice’ but the charge of ‘abuse of power.’

As a rehash of previous articles in Vanity Fair, this book is a structural jumble, and it almost drowns in its own bile. Regrettably, too, Hitchens undermines the cogency of his arguments by the undisciplined virulence of his attack. You get the feeling that if Clinton brushed his teeth backwards and forwards instead of up and down, Hitchens would see a sinister plot. Behind all this panting and twitching, there is a surely a strong case to be made, but by comparison the Starr Report was the very model of lofty restraint.

Hitchens's real gripe is with the traditional Left and how easily and moronically it has been duped by President Clinton's legerdemain. The Left, he declaims, is a ‘moral and intellectual shambles’ (an observation reflected in the prose), and his own loyalty to radical paranoia shines through in silly pronouncements such as describing the US military as ‘the unelected and unaccountable uniformed para-state’ or asserting that the enlargement of NATO is really designed to expand the market for American arms manufacturers.

Splenetic denunciations rarely add much of value to a debate, and reading Christopher Hitchens is a little like lunching with Hannibal Lecter.

Elizabeth Drew (review date 9 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Drew, Elizabeth. “Humpty-Dumpty.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 May 1999): 3–4.

[In the following excerpt, Drew offers a positive assessment of No One Left to Lie To.]


On a cold, wet day in mid-March of this year, President William Jefferson Clinton tried to rekindle the myth of “the man from Hope.” Only a couple of hundred people turned out for the dedication of Clinton's childhood home in the small town in southwest Arkansas. His family wasn't with him. (The home was called his birthplace but, actually, Clinton was born in a hospital.) The propaganda film shown at the 1992 Democratic Convention notwithstanding, it wasn't long into Clinton's presidency before we came to understand that Clinton was more Hot Springs than Hope (where he had lived only until he was four).

Hot Springs was racy, a gambling town, a place where people (including Clinton's mother) lived fast and took chances. Georgetown University, Oxford and Yale gave him polish but didn't change his essential nature. When I was reporting for a book on the first year of the Clinton administration, a longtime friend and supporter of Clinton said to me, after the story about Arkansas troopers supplying him with women broke in December 1993, “Bill has always been someone who has lived on the edge.” This person added, “I don't think he thinks he's vulnerable.”

Having pushed his luck one too many times, having had too much confidence in his ability to talk his way out of corners, Clinton had brought his presidency to the brink of ruin. That he had survived the congressional Republicans' ham-handed effort to remove him from office was no great achievement. He simply outwitted them—which wasn't hard. (He also had nearly all the congressional Democrats willing to go on the line for him.) One month later, even his hometown folk weren't in a celebratory mood. And neither was the country. Clinton had worn us out.

Since the impeachment battle, Clinton has shown that he can't break at least certain habits. (Others we don't know about, at least yet.) He simply couldn't not be cute in his press conference answers on alleged Chinese theft of our nuclear secrets.

Asked at a March 20 press conference whether his “legacy will be about lying.” Clinton offered a revealing reply. “There will be a box score, and there will be that one negative,” he said in reference to his year of lies about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. “And then there will be the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of times when the record will show that I did not abuse my authority as President, that I was truthful with the American people, and scores and scores of allegations were made against me and widely publicized without any regard to whether they were true or not.” There was a pathology in that answer that wasn't reassuring. Clinton seems to have a disturbingly tenuous grip on reality. A cabinet-level official once told me that he and a colleague agreed that while Clinton was so busy spinning other people, the main person he spun was himself.

The upshot is that even when Clinton does the things he's particularly good at—talking to students at a school in Alexandria, Va., after the horror of Littleton, Colo.; taking on “the gun culture” in urging tighter gun control laws—he doesn't reach us in the way he might have before. There's been too much lip-biting fakery.


Christopher Hitchens, the writer and deliberate controversialist, has long sensed that there's something rotten at Clinton's core, and in his new book, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton, a stinging polemic, he lets fly. “Triangulation” refers of course to the approach, urged on him by the cynical strategist Dick Morris, whom Clinton brought in after the Republicans swept Congress in 1994, of aligning himself with neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, of having an ideology-free (if not content-free) presidency.

Hitchens makes a strong case that Clinton actually had been following that strategy for a long time and, if anything, leaned toward the conservatives. He points to Clinton's breaking off from his struggle in, the 1992 New Hampshire primary (he was dropping in the polls because of the Gennifer Flowers matter) to fly back to Little Rock to oversee the execution of the mentally retarded Rickey Ray Rector. I can recall some supporters of Clinton at that time stating matter-of-factly that if Clinton weren't running for the presidency, Rector wouldn't have been killed—and then getting on with the pragmatic business of getting him elected. But Hitchens, rightly, can't let it go. “This moment deserves to be remembered.” Hitchens writes, “because it introduces a Clintonian mannerism of faux ‘concern’ that has since become tediously familiar” and “because it marks the first of many times that Clinton would deliberately opt for death as a means of distraction from sex.”

As a controversialist, Hitchens likes to shock. He'll say things few others would. He'll choose targets few others would: Mother Teresa, Princess Diana. But he usually has a point. His book on Mother Teresa, provocatively titled, The Missionary Position, raised real questions about how patients were treated at her hospices and where all the money that was bestowed upon her went.

Hitchens' point about Rector as a Clintonian way of distracting the public from sex scandals by opting for death feeds into his argument that the bombing, shortly after Clinton's ill-received confession to the public last August of an “inappropriate” relationship with Monica Lewinsky, of both the chemical plant in Sudan (which later became highly suspect) and of the supposed meeting place in Afghanistan of the terrorist Bin Laden, as well as the bombing of Iraq on the eve of the House of Representatives' voting on impeachment, were deliberate attempts to distract the public from his sex-driven political crisis. The case Hitchens makes is hard to brush away.

He takes a series of incidents involving Clinton—his walking away from the nomination of Lani Guinier, firing Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders (for talking about masturbation), curbing affirmative action and even allowing himself to get “caught” playing golf at an all-white club during the 1992 election—to not just question whether Clinton is sincere in his supposed empathy with blacks but also to charge him with having “a southern strategy.” He hammers Clinton for signing a harsh welfare bill (at Morris' urging) in 1995, which broke the 60-year contract between the federal government and the poor and questions, as more people should, what lies behind the glowing figures given out by ambitious governors of how many people are, as a result, “off the rolls.” And he pays attention to one of the darker and under-explored aspects of the Clinton presidency: the use of private investigators to get the goods on inconvenient women so that they could be trashed if they talked—and to do who knows what else?

Hitchens rejects the distinction, made by Clinton supporters during the impeachment proceedings, between Clinton's private and public behavior. (“Clinton's private vileness meshed exactly with his brutal and opportunistic public style.”)

As a polemicist, Hitchens draws the darkest interpretations and sometimes stretches. There is no evidence that the money offered to the Clintons' legal defense fund by Charlie Trie, the former Little Rock restaurateur who became a cash-flow to Clinton and hung around the White House, went through the Democratic National Committee, as Hitchens asserts. (Trie walked in the door of the presidential trust's office with it. The money came from a strange Taiwan-based religious sect. It was turned back, but the Clinton White House kept this information under wraps until after the 1996 election.) It was the case, and not just White House spin, as Hitchens suggests, that Republican senators didn't want to call Clinton's secretary, Betty Currie, as a witness in the Senate trial for fear they would look like a bunch of white men beating up on a black woman.

Hitchens obviously loathes Clinton, finds him a lying, ruthless, low-life. But in this compelling, disturbing, entertaining, necessary book, he raises questions that cannot be ignored. …


The post-impeachment Clinton presidency is a painful one to behold. It's in one sense an extenuation of the overall tragedy of his presidency. Clinton is one of the smartest people to have ever served as president: His mind is capacious and capable of making connections among things he has read or heard. He even came into his presidency with a vision: that in a changing, increasingly global economy people should be given an opportunity for lifelong learning and training in order to adjust to the continuing changes. It was an apt vision, big enough to speak to a large part of the country's needs and anxieties. A companion piece of the vision was expansion of trade, to nurture national growth.

But after the Republicans' 1994 victory, a repudiation of both Clinton and his wife (for her hectoring approach to critics of her ill-thought-out health-care plan), Clinton lost his vision and his nerve and brought in the amoral Morris. From then on, the Clinton presidency stood for bits and bites to buy off one constituency or another—and whatever else would get him reelected (such as signing, at Morris' importuning, the welfare bill).

All of this was pre-Lewinsky.

But Clinton also has paid a fearful price for the ordeal he put the nation through because he had indulged his Brobdingnagian libido. Before the sex scandal and the year of lies, Clinton already had frayed credibility—with the Congress and with some of the public. On Capitol Hill he was little trusted by either political party. He had sold his “fellow” Democrats down the river more than once. But the consequence of the sex scandal is that now no one believes him. As the impeachment struggle went on and Clinton was caught in one lie after another, I thought that that was the greatest danger. The question was whether he'd be able to govern after that. It's still a question. A president who is trusted by none of the politicians with whom he has to deal, whose word counts for nothing, is an endangered president. With the rather large exception of starting a war (for which he's having difficulty getting congressional support), Clinton is becoming irrelevant. It's hardly a good situation for the country either.

Albert Scardino (review date 10 May 1999)

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SOURCE: Scardino, Albert. “Hubristic Hitch.” New Statesman (10 May 1999): 46–47.

[In the following review, Scardino offers a negative assessment of No One Left to Lie To.]

As Washington has evolved into the Galapagos of global public life, separated from the development of all other life forms, so Christopher Hitchens has captured the niche of the Darwinian finch that shits everywhere, then rolls in his own excrement. He wears his flecks of turd as jewels and imagines his stench to be the perfume of power. For entertainment, he ushers guests to the scenes of his earlier droppings, fondly recalling the moment his sphincter opened.

Hitchens offers this Little Book of Poison [No One Left to Lie To] as an essay on the Clinton presidency, the lies, the corrupt indulgences, the gleeful destruction of whatever remained of prewar liberal democracy. He blames Clinton's success on Dick Morris, the political consultant and presidential confidante, who coined the amoral, destructive strategy known as “triangulation” that has kept Clinton's poll ratings high. This, like many other styles of political propaganda, employs sophisticated public opinion surveys and focus groups to develop the coded language to appeal to multiple constituencies—without ever implementing the policies the language promises. Morris didn't develop the idea. It came from Republican campaign consultants 15 years before Morris re-entered Clinton's life in 1994, but then Hitchens wouldn't know that, because history didn't begin until he arrived in Washington. He is right, however, that these techniques may have helped Clinton to hold the political centre by promising (or, at least, implying) bold social policies to the left but delivering repressive law to the right. Variations on the strategy had been practised by James Carville in 1992 to allow Clinton to win the White House in the first place, but by the time Hitchens arrived, Carville had faded back into the bayous, so he gets little attention here.

Morris, “the only one to whom Clinton told the truth,” according to Hitchens, is the one friend or associate that Clinton trusted. Like Clinton, he believed only in satisfying his own impulses and desires. He, too, lived to ejaculate. Hitchens admires his lack of hypocrisy, even as he reminds us of some of Morris's more despicable professional accomplishments on behalf of such right-wing Republicans as Jesse Helms. Hitchens even seems to hold a bit of affection for the old whore.

No one else receives much sympathy here. Hitchens flits from character to character screeching, “Liar, liar.” He lands only long enough to quote himself: “I called him a liar in 1992, and I was right.” So correct has he been for so long that he quotes himself from Vanity Fair, from the Nation, from the Washington Post and from his own affidavit in the Clinton impeachment trial. Come to think of it, there may be more references here to Hitchens than to Clinton. They are the only two characters who won't have to look themselves up in the index. They're everywhere.

Though his admiration for himself blocks his view most of the time, Hitchens is not entirely blind. He glimpses some of the more significant themes that ripple through the Clinton presidency, pausing for instance on Clinton's maudlin eulogy to Nixon, but he fails to recognise Clinton's admiration—and mimicry—of Reagan's mastery of symbolism and propaganda. He notices Clinton's easy abandonment of friends who get into trouble, he reminds us that Clinton has aggressively avoided cultivating the press or Capitol Hill. Yet he offers no insight into Clinton's genius at picking his opponents—George Bush, Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, Ken Starr, the House managers. If Clinton is such a moral pygmy, and if there is indeed no one left to lie to, is there also no one else left to lead?

Perhaps if Hitchens had a broader view of American political history, he would have tempered his tweeting. Instead, he dismisses such scholars as Arthur Schlesinger, who opposed impeachment, as a “polka-dotted popinjay.” Schlesinger must still be trying to recover. Must have been his tie. Hitchens doesn't wear ties.

Hitchens writes cleverly, even beautifully sometimes, but he doesn't often have a lot to say. And why not? He comes to the role of Washington observer as an outsider, unbound by the rules of ownership that cripple the credibility of so many members of the Washington press corps. But he carries even heavier baggage, an inappropriate and irrelevant notion that American public policy should fit into a mid-century European model, a left-centre-right continuum layered horizontally into an elite at war with populists. Class analysis doesn't work for a society as fluid as America. Worse, Hitchens exhibits no feel for the politics of race that dominates American life, nor for the continuing war between urban America and its agricultural past, a conflict reflected in the racial mirror.

Instead, he has settled comfortably into the exotic island life that Washington has offered to journalists during the Clinton years, an entertaining court of intrigue, speculation, self-absorption and self-indulgence producing little of lasting value. And in the process he has applied the worst of British journalistic standards, the need for entertainment above reliability, for posing rather than enlightening.

Hitchens holds Clinton in contempt because he knows him. He wanted so much more from this president, to be among the best, not so that America could enjoy more progressive public administration but so that Hitchens could take credit for shaping a great leader. Not many of Clinton's supporters ever shared the president's own view of himself as a potential Jefferson, Jackson or Kennedy. They didn't even expect much in the way of progressive policy, not after his inept handling in his first month in office of an attempt to drop the ban on gay people in the military. They expected little enough, and he has met their expectations, a rooster of a president, not an eagle, surrounded by finches like Hitchens and by parrots, penguins and vultures. But enough of the avian analogies. Hitchens prefers canine ones in this little essay, so he might remember as he dwells on Clinton's utter selfishness how much people come to resemble their dogs, and commentators their subjects.

Tim Hames (review date 4 June 1999)

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SOURCE: Hames, Tim. “The Sinner's Tail.” Times Literary Supplement (4 June 1999): 12.

[In the following excerpt, Hames commends No One Left to Lie To for its “uncompromising” approach, but notes shortcomings in Hitchens's “exaggerated” argument.]

Lord knows what future historians will make of the Year of Monica. Whatever conclusions they reach may inevitably be shaped by their wider perspectives on the Clinton presidency, and what might by then have become established trends in American social life. It may be that they will come to view the whole story as a bizarre form of witch-hunt, precisely the form of contemporary Salem that Arthur Miller, Arthur Schlesinger Jr and numerous other defenders of the President have postulated. If so, it will be argued that this extraordinary incident was simply a melodramatic reflection of a society torn between coming economic modernity and doomed moral certainty; a 1990s version of the 1925 trial in which John Scopes was condemned by his peers (but cheered by elites) for his willingness to teach the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school.

It is, however, equally likely that a very different conclusion will be reached. Once the economic miracle that has coincided with the Clinton years (but which has been inspired by his Secretary of the Treasury and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board) has been placed in context, commentators may determine that ethical and political corruption were at the root of the Bill Clinton phenomenon. The Lewinsky saga will thus be seen as a small but significant window on this President's essentially malignant soul.

Christopher Hitchens and Michael Isikoff are both players of note in the events surrounding the affair themselves, and also articulate commentators on them. Isikoff was the first main-stream journalist to uncover the relationship between the President and his former intern, even if his employers at the Washington Post and then Newsweek did their best to undermine his efforts. Hitchens played a cameo role right at the end of the Senate impeachment saga. He revealed that Sidney Blumenthal, the White House official who would remain loyal to Mr Clinton even if it could be proved that the former Arkansas Governor assassinated President Kennedy, had characterized Ms Lewinsky as a “stalker,” precisely the opposite of what he told Kenneth Starr's Grand Jury that he said. Hitchens's willingness to turn in his old friend has earned him the unstinting hatred of almost the entire Washington press corps.

The two authors therefore have an interest in historians indicting rather than acquitting this President. In No One Left to Lie To, Hitchens admits this cheerfully from the start, and then lays out, in characteristically robust fashion, a first draft of the charge sheet which he hopes those historians will take forward. …

It is difficult to describe Hitchens's book as anything other than uncompromising. Our man on the East Coast takes every opportunity to place the Lewinsky storm in a wider and more sinister context. The President is portrayed as a man who has acquired public office as part of a sordid pact with numerous dubious hustlers and fixers who have financed his electoral expeditions. The Clinton era has witnessed the shredding of traditional liberal principles at home and the pursuit of an amoral foreign policy abroad, symbolized by high-tech bombings of politically convenient targets at personally convenient times.

This combination of ideological betrayal with what Hitchens calls “war crimes” should properly be seen for what it is—abuse of power—and the political system, if it had a shred of decency, would have dismissed Clinton from the White House for it. As it is, the President will escape to enjoy a playboy retirement while the poor and the weak at home and overseas pay the political price for his misdemeanours. Clinton is portrayed as Richard Nixon without the redeeming sense of mission.

Strong stuff. And not an especially popular message either. Most reviews of this book have been less than sympathetic. This collection of essays and recollections is, after all, at 113 short pages, hardly a book at all, but more of a personal memoir-cum-slightly paranoid diatribe. There are phrases, such as “war crimes,” deployed in such a sweeping fashion that they do more damage to Hitchens than Clinton. And yet there is an underlying message, a paradox, that deserves serious consideration. Although all those who eventually voted to impeach Clinton at the end of his Senate trial were conservatives and Republicans, should it not be liberals and Democrats who come to rue the day that he was ever elected? …

One suspects that a lot more details of this kind will emerge once the President has departed from Washington. They might well serve to reinforce the argument, made in such an admittedly exaggerated form by Christopher Hitchens, that the sins of the Clinton Presidency should be properly regarded as a matter for liberal rather than conservative outrage. Whether the historians will eventually agree is another matter.

Christopher Hitchens and Michael Rust (interview date 28 June 1999)

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SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher, and Michael Rust. “Clinton's Lies Stopped at Hitchens' Door.” Insight on the News (28 June 1999): 21.

[In the following interview, Hitchens discusses the war in Bosnia, his socialist perspective, and his opinions on President Bill Clinton,]

This self-proclaimed limn of the left, who studied at Oxford while Bill Clinton was there, saw the handwriting on the wall concerning the future chief executive as early as 1992.

Earlier this year, journalist and author Christopher Hitchens got caught up in the final throes of the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton when he signed an affidavit attesting that Sidney Blumenthal, his longtime friend and Clinton acolyte, had spread the lie on behalf of the president that former intern Monica Lewinsky was a “stalker.”

When approached by House of Representatives investigators, Hitchens did not follow the lead of the occupant of the Oval Office. Instead of dissembling or overtly lying, Hitchens told the investigators that he and his wife, Carol Blue, had lunched with Blumenthal at an expensive restaurant a couple of blocks from the Executive Mansion where the White House aide told them the man whom Lewinsky jovially referred to as “the Big Creep” actually was the “victim of a predatory and unstable sexually demanding young woman.”

According to Hitchens, they weren't the only journalists so briefed by Blumenthal; indeed, other reporters confirmed that the White House in the early days of the scandal enthusiastically had traduced the character of Lewinsky. This, however, meant little to the president die-hard defenders, who furiously denounced Hitchens as a turncoat, informer and over-enthusiastic imbiber of alcohol. (More viciously, some whispered falsely that he was a Holocaust denier.) An unsigned editorial in The Nation, where he serves as a columnist, attacked him as giving aid and comfort to the right-wing enemy.

A meeting with the staff of The Nation seemed to quiet overt collegial attacks on him in that journal; breathless Washington Post coverage of the rupture between Hitchens and certain left-wing glitterati also seemed to peter out. And while the president remains in office, Hitchens does have the last word of sorts. His recently published political essay, No One Left to Lie To, is an impassioned and witty attack on Clinton and the political culture that produced him. Hitchens argues convincingly, using sources with wide experience in the intelligence community, that the three cruise-missile raids ordered by the president last year were real-life exercises of the Wag the Dog scenario in which an American president orders a military operation to deflect attention from unpleasantness in the White House.

But then Hitchens' career has been top-heavy with elegantly expressed iconoclasm in both Europe and the United States. A columnist for Vanity Fair as well as The Nation, and a contributor to numerous publications here and in Britain, Hitchens' literary and political journalism is marked by an unrepentant leftism tempered by a disdain for political correctness, along with immense erudition and caustic wit.

The new book's title is taken from a speech by David Schippers, the majority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee. And Hitchens explains his actions earlier this year by saying he “would not protect Clinton's lies or help pass them along. I wasn't going to be the last one left to lie to.”

[Rust:] You were skeptical of Bill Clinton as early as the New Hampshire primary in 1992.

[Hitchens:] I felt there was something politically monstrous about him. There were moments when he seemed like a reptile breakfasting in a mammal's nest.

Did you know Clinton at Oxford?

No, although I am told that I was in the same room with him. I knew the house he lived in well. It was the center of draft resistance among Americans at Oxford. Draft resistance, I should point out; Clinton was a draft dodger. There were two or three women I know who kept company with him at Oxford. They tell me he was gentlemanly, so I think it was as he acquired power that he developed his taste for underlings. As far as politics goes, he seems to have been pretty moderate by the standards of the left at the time.

Have the insights Americans have about the president's character been reinforced by the current trouble in the Balkans?

Of course. Clinton skipped over meetings to prepare for war over Kosovo because he was engaged in his own private squalor. As they say in Ireland, you don't get anything from a pig except a grunt, and it's wrong to expect it. I would have tried to take Milosevic out a long time before. I was one of those on the left who was in favor of stopping him in Bosnia. He should have been removed or indicted for war crimes.

What's going to happen in Kosovo?

I think it's going to be a very interesting tussle between [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair and Clinton, and I think Blair is going to have a rude awakening about his pal. Because Blair, who I know slightly and I'm not sold on, and Robin Cook, who I know slightly and I think is a very good man—these two look upon this fight as a matter of principle, which is the opposite of what Clinton does.

If I aspired to be a World War II president, I would not tell my antagonist in advance he would not have to face ground troops. These Milosevic death squads in Kosovo, faced with a squad of well-trained farm boys from Iowa, would run away and that would be that. These are people trained only to fight civilians.

I think such a confrontation would be a great day and very durable, as they say. I think it is in the national interest because it's part of the national idea that a multinational republic not be destroyed by fascism.

Kosovo has made even more apparent the fissures and splits on both left and right. Is there going to be a realignment, or are we just going to continue muddling through?

What I've always wanted is more of a fusion between the left and the libertarian viewpoint. I always thought there was potential in that. It was very imperfectly expressed by a very odd person in the Jerry Brown campaign, but I thought it had a point of interest to fuse what is thought of as the left position with an opposition to big government without becoming an isolationist or Darwinist. Politics to me at the moment is working on that synthesis.

Do you still regard yourself as a socialist, or is it too complicated to explain in America?

Yes and yes. Brian Lamb, whenever I go on his show, always begins by asking me, “Are you still a socialist?” One reason I say I am is because I know that he's certain one day I'll say no; something in me wants to deny him that satisfaction. I don't like to see myself described as a liberal because that seems to me too easy a position. It's a way of making clear I wouldn't be satisfied with that. It's really a matter of stubbornness. In the future the struggle against globalization might have socialist connotations, but at the moment, I must say, it's baggage.

Conservative attacks on Clinton's character seemed to have little effect.

There was Bill Bennett's book, and (very much worse) a man called Marvin Olasky wrote a book—it may be the stupidest book I ever read—on presidential character. I thought midway through that it must be a put-on: George Washington won because he forbade drinking and swearing in the ranks, whereas the British side was riddled with buggery and booze and impiety. I thought, “How does he think, since godly leadership brought victory, that this band of drunken faggots managed to hold on to Canada and India and Australia and most of Africa? Also, why does he think George Washington had Thomas Paine's pamphlets read aloud to the troops?”

He says if Clinton had stayed in the choir in Little Rock, where he used to sing on the Sundays it was televised, he would probably have had a chance. By the same token, the people who think if only they could find out what happened to Vince Foster they could get Clinton are, and always have been, wasting their time and mine. The whole point about Clinton is that we don't need to know any more about him than we already know. The case against him doesn't rest on the unveiling of any horrible secret from the swamps of Arkansas. The reasons why he's unfit for office are all on the public record. That's all we need to know.

Everything that was wrong with him was conveniently enough staring one in the face—and still is. Look at the China business, for example. There's no new stuff really to be discovered on that. There will be some more confirming and damning revelations, I suppose, but there it all is. Obviously, I wish for all their sakes they had found the bullet for poor old Vince. They must wish that, too. But whatever the outcome of the search, it doesn't make any difference to me. Those who believe he was killed by Clinton have, I think, a paranoid view, but not as stupid as the view of those who think he was killed by the Wall Street Journal.

And that last is not considered a paranoid view at all. It's almost orthodoxy among Washington liberals.

Martin Jay (review date 29 July 1999)

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SOURCE: Jay, Martin. “Mendacious Flowers.” London Review of Books (29 July 1999): 16–17.

[In the following excerpt, Jay offers a negative assessment of No One Left to Lie To.]

‘The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man who, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.’ It is safe to assume that the Oscar Wilde of ‘The Decay of Lying’ would feel far more at home in the America of William Jefferson Clinton than in that of its most esteemed founding father. For whatever else may be accused of falling into decay these days, public mendacity has surely enjoyed a robust revival. The most memorable quotations from our national leaders are no longer the inspirational homilies of a Roosevelt or a Kennedy—‘You have nothing to fear, but fear itself’ or ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’—but the exposed whoppers of Richard ‘I am not a crook’ Nixon, George ‘Read my lips: no new taxes’ Bush, and Bill ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ Clinton.

David Schippers, the majority counsel of the House Judiciary Committee, hammered home the point in the course of his peroration during last winter's impeachment proceedings: ‘The President, then, has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people, he lied to his Cabinet, he lied to his top aides; and now he's lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There's no one left to lie to.’ Christopher Hitchens borrows Schippers's scornful punch line for the title of his own screed against the President. Unperturbed by his proximity to right-wing Clinton-bashers like Schippers, Hitchens mounts a relentless and often compelling attack from the left on the link between the President's ideological duplicities and his personal ones, culminating in the scandal surrounding the ultimate erupted bimbo. His main ire is directed at the opportunistic ‘triangulation’ between pseudo-populist rhetoric, élitist, covertly conservative policies, and Clinton's own power-lust and ‘ruthless vanity,’ which undermined the chances of any genuinely progressive politics. …

Ironically, one of the most time-honoured techniques of political rhetoric is the appeal to truth and the accusation of base mendacity levelled against one's opponents. Hitchens's No One Left to Lie To is an exemplary instance of this rhetorical ploy; its tone is that of someone supremely confident in his possession of the unvarnished truth. That confidence is evident in his contemptuous dismissal of a politics of ‘the lesser evil,’ which stoops to compromise on issues of principle, instead of fighting for them no matter how vain the struggle or how collateral the damage. Not only does Hitchens discern a consistent pattern of duplicitous triangulation in everything Clinton has done, he is also confident of knowing all the motives underlying the President's actions. No action is overdetermined or indeterminant; they all serve the same triangulating function: maintaining political viability at the cost of betraying a liberal agenda.

No less ironically, the book is itself an extended op-ed piece, resting more on avid belief and strongly held opinions than hard, dispassionately presented knowledge, and liberally drawing on its author's formidable rhetorical skills to convince the reader. Hitchens's argument is based on a welter of assertions about Clinton's actions—many of which, I hasten to add, are all too plausible—that are never backed up in a convincing way by verifiable sources. Appearing hard on the heels of Hitchens's brief notoriety as a player in the impeachment scandal and, despite his protestations to the contrary, showing the effects of its rush to publication, the book does not, in fact, have a single footnote to allow one to test its truth claims. It relies instead on the repeated ad hominem excoriation of its main target as ‘the liar and the sonofabitch’ and an interpretation of every Presidential action in the worst way possible. Whereas Stephanopoulos's Clinton is depicted as forever struggling with constraints that limit his ability to get anything done, Hitchens's is able to complete the Reagan counter-revolution against the New Deal with breathtaking ease.

Not only does the effect of all this piling on become counter-productive, producing in the reader a certain sympathy for Clinton akin to the boost he got from being targeted by Kenneth Starr and his fanatic detractors on the right; it raises certain questions about Hitchens's own impatience with the messy ambiguities of politics. Take, for instance, his handling of Clinton's abiding popularity among African Americans, which was most clearly manifested during Monicagate. Hitchens ridicules the claim made by Toni Morrison and endorsed by Arthur Miller that because Clinton came from a broken home and had an alcoholic mother, he suffered from the same prejudices as those directed at blacks, and thus in some sense is ‘our first black President.’ He knows that when Clinton, as Governor of Arkansas, allowed a mentally deficient black murderer to be executed, or, as a Presidential candidate, slammed Sister Souljah in the presence of Jesse Jackson, or, as President, sacked Surgeon-General Joycelyn Elders and jettisoned the nomination of Lani Guinier as Assistant Attorney General for civil rights, he was showing his true colours as a false friend of the people whose pain he pretended to feel. Even more explicitly destructive was Clinton's welfare reform, whose likely intended consequence was ‘the creation of a large helot underclass disciplined by fear and scarcity, subject to endless surveillance, and used as a weapon against any American worker lucky enough to hold a steady or unionised job.’ Stephanopoulos may record that ‘Bill Clinton inspired me most when he spoke about race,’ but for Hitchens, it was all craven pandering that had lacked substance from the very beginning.

The trouble with this analysis—aside from the recent evidence that young black males seem to be doing better at entering the workforce than Hitchens's rehearsal of Marx's classic argument about the ‘reserved army of the unemployed’ suggests—is that it shows scarcely veiled disdain for the African Americans who remain stubbornly on Clinton's side. Hitchens fulminates against the ‘contempt with which Clinton and his circle view the gullible rubes who make up their voting base,’ but tacitly shares it. When, for example, he excoriates the Clintons for spouting ‘the tawdry pieties of Baptist and Methodist hypocrisy,’ he also reveals his inability to credit the people who share those pieties—many of them in black churches—with the ability to make reasoned judgments about the people they support. Many African Americans, moreover, seem to have the sophistication to understand that moralising jeremiads against character flaws in politicians can just as easily be used to discredit Martin Luther King as Bill Clinton. Black enthusiasm for Clinton may, in fact, reflect a sober ‘lesser evil’ policy that understands better than Hitchens, who pays no real price for his high-mindedness, the cost of giving power to the Newt Gingrichs and Trent Lotts of the world. …

Despite these qualifications, the conclusion remains that politics cannot be reduced to an arena in which truth-telling is automatically the highest good. In a film like Jim Carrey's Liar, Liar, redemption can be seen to follow the magical denial of even the possibility of duplicity, but the movies are not politics. Hitchens seems to think that politicians must be held to the most righteous standard, never allowing the lesser evil to undermine the quest for truth, come what may. While Stephanopoulos provides a more nuanced version of the conflict that inevitably pits principle against expediency, he, too, grows weary with the imperative to dissemble in order to win. Clinton somehow survives their opprobrium, however right they may be about specific policies or decisions. Slick Willy's greatest legacy to history, ironic as it may sound, may well be his blatant disclosure of the links between lying in politics, the processes of democratic opinion-formation and the difficulty of really defining what the meaning of ‘is’ is.

Charlotte Raven (essay date 25 October 1999)

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SOURCE: Raven, Charlotte. “How Central Heating Made Us Bad.” New Statesman (25 October 1999): 12.

[In the following essay, Raven discusses the confrontation of the political left and right in a public debate between Christopher Hitchens and his brother, Peter.]

Hurrah for Prospect. I take it all back. Far from being the stuffy old stick-in-the-muds portrayed in a previous article of mine, the magazine and its editors have proved, in the past two weeks, an unending source of delight. First there was David Goodhart's world-beating oxymoron, overheard at a London Review of Books party: “I believe in the end of history.” Pure gold, as my father would say.

Then, the following week, the long-awaited Hitchens v Hitchens debate, organised and sponsored by Prospect. However, Goodhart fans were disappointed to learn that the debate was to be chaired by John Humphrys. Our hero, it seems, was too modest to share the lime-light—even though this event was the once-in-a-lifetime chance he had been training for in all those dank refectories. Goodhart, boma yé (Goodhart, kill him), we would have shouted.

As Humphrys called the meeting to order and introduced us to the Hitchens brothers—Christopher (“Hitch”) is the prolific left-wing journalist, author and wit; Peter (“Bonkers,” to everyone except his wife) is the ultra-conservative Express columnist and author—I thought I heart the sound of distant drums. Christopher, boma yé.

For most of the assembled earnests, this was a rare chance to hear how their most cherished opinions would sound in proper sentences. The gap between “Hitch” and his closest rivals for the mantle of the darling of the liberal left is so ludicrously wide that he hardly has to open his mouth and he's applauded for not being Will Hutton. Which made it all the stranger that his admirers, on this occasion, should suddenly start demanding more than the usual gold-from-base-metal routine. Happy as they may have been, on any other evening, with the simple fact of his superiority, this time they scented blood.

Christopher, boma yé. Peter stood up first. “Comrades,” he began, which was a joke. Several other jokes followed in a self-deprecating vein. The one that got the biggest laugh referred to the widely held belief that he is “opposed to central heating.” Having read The Abolition of Britain, his book around which the evening's entertainments had been themed, I wondered whether this was a denial or a way of avoiding the question. His section on the benefits of hearthside chats does suggest that a cold, but cohesive, family, “forced into unwanted companionship,” is “less selfish” than the modern model. If central heating isn't directly responsible for the breakdown of values and morals that Peter believes is so crucial to our loss of identity, it certainly didn't help matters.

And while “the passage of time” might just get away with a ticking-off for covering our pavements with Tarmac, the communist conspiracy responsible for microwaves, computers, trainers, wider streets, straighter roads, supermarkets, air-conditioning and homosexuals should know that there's no hiding place.

Christopher, boma yé. The crowd was getting restless. Peter had been speaking for what seemed like an age and the reasons for despair just kept coming. In true sixth-form debating-champ style, Peter had crafted his speech to include light and shade, humour, some reportage, a historical overview, some colour, some side-swipes at “Princess” Tony Blair and as convincing an account of the contemporary cultural landscape as someone who thinks Elvis Presley is responsible for teenage pregnancies could muster.

As with any madman theory, there was, undeniably, a convincing ring to Peter's logic. In the same way that Christians, and other green-ink religionists, can point towards an intricate theology, which, while internally consistent, is flawed by the non-existence of the Being it fails to account for, reactionaries like Peter have this fascinating, multi-stranded web of explanations for everything from sliced bread to filial cussing which will appear coherent as long as you accept the founding premise. Even if you don't, and you can see through this self-contained system, you'll still find it damned hard to argue with. You can't say why God doesn't exist—He just doesn't. The danger is that being simply right—in the way that one is right to say that there is a place called the House of Commons—you might end up losing the argument.

If someone said the House of Commons was in fact a spaceship, and then gave an account of society based on this premise, you'd be hard pushed to say why it wasn't—and might end up, instead, arguing that aliens weren't really that bad, as long as you got to know them.

Aware that he had won some respect for what must have been weeks of hard work, Peter wound up his speech with a quotation from Auden. No one heard it. All eyes were on “Hitch” as everyone wondered how he would “rise” to the “challenge.”

Peter sat down; there was silence, and I looked at his brother for clues as to what he might be planning. Suddenly, it came to me. This was the old-rope-a-dope trick. Just as Ali had won against Foreman by turning his own energy against him, “Hitch” was going to win by leaving Peter's arguments intact. To challenge them wholeheartedly would have lent them credibility, but to let them stand on their own merits—well, that was a subtle cruelty.

All that preparation, and Christopher couldn't be bothered to stand up, much less refute his brother's case. He just sat there and, in a perfect piece of theatre, redirected Peter's momentum with the same low-key insouciance Ali had used to wind up Foreman.

“My dear chap,” he said. And that was it. Peter was transformed into a schoolboy who, in spite of swotting, had got the wrong end of the stick.

John O'Sullivan (essay date 19 February 2001)

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SOURCE: O'Sullivan, John. “One Man's War Criminal.” National Review (19 February 2001): 24–26.

[In the following essay, O'Sullivan refutes Hitchens's contention—put forth in a Harper's magazine article—that Henry Kissinger should be indicted as a war criminal.]

Last weekend in New York, it was all but impossible to buy the latest issue of Harper's. The magazine contained the first half of Christopher Hitchens's vast “indictment” of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal, for carrying out a foreign policy of which Hitchens disapproves; and it had sold out in the first 15 or so places I checked. A second installment is forthcoming in the March issue, but having read the first, I predict that the next issue will not sell out. Hitchens writes gracefully, as always, but his organization of the complicated material is rambling, tortuous, and confused.

Not without reason, however—for clarity would be fatal to his argument. Insofar as his thesis can be briefly summed up, it is that Kissinger can and should be prosecuted for carrying out policies that are now recognized under the “Pinochet precedent” as war crimes or crimes against humanity. His indictment has several weaknesses: In some cases, the actions denounced by Hitchens are not war crimes; in others, Kissinger did not commit them; in still others, both.

A wonderful example of this last was pointed out by columnist George Jonas in Canada's National Post. Jonas noted that Hitchens cited Kissinger's mere contemplation of bombing North Vietnamese dikes as evidence of a “regnant mentality” disposed seriously to consider committing war crimes. But destroying dikes to weaken North Vietnam's economy would have been not a war crime, but an attack on a legitimate military target. The British destroyed German dams in World War II, and the NATO bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war also targeted its economic infrastructure. If Hitchens believes such acts to be war crimes, why is he targeting Kissinger (who, after all, rejected them) rather than Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, who carried them out? The idea is absurd. Hitchens can nonetheless content himself with having invented a new international felony: a “war-thought-crime.”

When it comes to actions that Kissinger actually took—or, more precisely, for which he bore a partial responsibility as a member of the Nixon administration—the indictment becomes nothing more than restaging of leftist anti-Vietnam nostalgia. Kissinger is accused, for instance, of “treating two whole countries—Laos and Cambodia—as if they were disposable hamlets.” This accusation should, instead, be leveled at the North Vietnamese, who took over entire portions of Cambodia and used them as bases to supply their forces and attack U.S. and South Vietnamese troops. Objecting to this intrusion on their neutrality, the Cambodians invited the U.S. to evict the North Vietnamese. What subsequently happened to the Cambodian people was a tragedy—but it was one begun by the North Vietnamese and completed by their sometime allies, the Khmer Rouge, who were in fact guilty of monumental crimes against humanity.

Hitchens sees the entire American prosecution of the Vietnam War after October 1968 as, in itself, a gigantic war crime—and all who died between October 1968 and April 1975 as victims crying out to The Hague for vengeance. Or, as he writes: “Kissinger had to know that every casualty in Indochina after 1968 was avoidable.”

Even if that were so, it would not justify placing on Kissinger the entire blame for decisions taken by a democratically elected government. But it is not so. Hitchens's whole indictment on the Vietnam issue rests on the delusion that the North Vietnamese were willing to reach a genuine compromise at the Paris peace talks in October 1968. Given that assumption, he charges Kissinger with two crimes: being part of a Republican plot to encourage President Thieu of South Vietnam to resist the peace deal so that Nixon would win the 1968 election; and then continuing a needless war for partisan political purposes.

Neither charge survives examination. To begin with, the 1968 “bombing pause” that Hitchens supposes would have brought about peace was itself a partisan decision designed to win the election for Hubert Humphrey—as the memoirs of Anatoly Dobrynin, among other Soviet sources, reveal: “With the presidential election only days away and Humphrey trailing in the public opinion polls largely because of his identification with Johnson's conduct of the war, [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk telephoned on October 31 to inform me that the president would announce the complete cessation of bombing North Vietnam the following day.”

Further, the eventual 1972–3 peace agreement was itself made possible only by U.S. and South Vietnamese military successes. The agreement was a de facto recognition by Hanoi in 1972 that they were not certain to win—a recognition they had been unwilling to make in 1968. Those who died in the intervening years were the victims not of Kissinger, but of North Vietnamese aggression.

Hitchens's indictment, then, is a slow-motion replay of the radical Left's standard grievances of the 1970s. Why, then, does Hitchens deserve the thanks of all sensible people for slogging his way through it?

Hitchens's article appeared in a major magazine. It apparently sold out, at least in Manhattan. And it has been treated respectfully by some mainstream news organizations—notably an approving article in the January 30 Washington Post by Peter Carlson (whose irony, alas, contains more lead than a church roof). Here—placed before a large and influential audience—is proof that the idea of arresting and putting on trial a distinguished former secretary of state is no longer a sort of disgusting joke, but actually thinkable. Indeed, as Jeremy Rabkin, a Cornell specialist in international law, points out, the FBI issued a discreet warning a year ago to former American officials not to visit countries where they might be seized for trial—and there were some West European countries on the list. The proposed International Criminal Court even encourages such trials in its preamble, which states that “it is the duty of every State to exercise its jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes.” The rules under which former officials might be tried are disturbingly flexible and reliant on shifting definitions of “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity.” Pinochet, for instance, was tried under the U.N. Torture Convention because it provided the British court with the convenient justification of “universal jurisdiction”—even though the charge was based on the beating of a suspect in a Chilean police station, of which incident Pinochet was almost certainly unaware and which occurred when he was on the verge of leaving power and had every incentive not to murder bystanders.

This, in short, is why we must be grateful to Hitchens: He has given us an advance copy of the indictment some future secretary of state might face—a rehash of the indignant platitudes of the journalistic Left, dressed up in legal jargon by lawyers from Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

We have been very adequately warned. We owe Hitchens a hearty meal, before our own execution.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft (review date 3 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Wheatcroft, Geoffrey. “Comrades, Leave Me Here a Little.” Spectator (3 March 2001): 40–42.

[In the following review of Unacknowledged Legislation, Wheatcroft praises Hitchens as “an outstanding critic,” but finds shortcomings in his “overbearing” style and tendentious claims.]

When Humbert III sold his principality of the Dauphiné to Philip of Valois in 1349, he made a condition that the eldest son of the king of France should henceforth be known as the Dauphin. Not many people knew that—and nor did Humbert know where it would all end. On the back of the jacket of this book (around the corner from a snapshot of the author even older than the one I use) we read this from Gore Vidal: ‘I have been asked whether I wish to nominate a successor, an inheritor, a dauphin or delfino. I have decided to name Christopher Hitchens.’ That whole glorious utterance is unimprovable, but ‘or delfino’ is a masterstroke. Any eager youngster who wonders, How can I too become a dauphin, or delfino? must turn to the text. After the epigraph (from Zola: ‘Allons travailler’; oh dear) and dedication (‘For Salman. As ever’; oh well), the contents page lists a first section called, with no exaggeration, ‘In Praise of. …’ Two of these psalms of praise are devoted to none other than ‘our most eminent literary émigré … intelligent … original … Vidal … emerged with distinction … sparkling … learned. …’ This is the great tradition of the courtier; truly has Hitchens deserved his dauphinate.

What makes it funnier is that this fulsome mutual praise is unneeded (though thoroughly enjoyable). When they've finished ladling butter from alternate tubs, it can be seen that they do indeed have a great deal in common, two very clever and gifted writers who are among the best critics writing today. Now 75, Vidal will, I am certain, be remembered for his essays rather than his novels, plays or political pranks. At a mere 51, Hitchens has political interests of his own, not always more convincing than Vidal's. But this latest collection [Unacknowledged Legislation] of book reviews and magazine articles shows again what an outstanding critic he can be.

The anthology is not necessarily improved by being dressed up with sententious title and supposed theme. Shelley's saying that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind has always seemed dubious, more so than ever after the past century. (How far did Brecht, Pound, Neruda and Céline legislate beneficially for mankind? Discuss.) And Hitchens's pretence of a linking design is barely kept up. Some of the writers he deals with were certainly ‘in the public sphere,’ from Kipling to Conor Cruise O'Brien, but apart from shyly conceding that other writers he admires are conservatives of ‘insight and integrity,’ Hitchens admits that others again have no serious political interests at all. It may be significant that this includes several, from Anthony Powell and Philip Larkin to P. G. Wodehouse and Patrick O'Brian, about whom he writes particularly well.

Those pieces on Wodehouse and O'Brian, along with one on Conan Doyle, are telling in another way. Hitchens is never better than when writing on what Chesterton and Orwell called ‘good bad books,’ popular or philistine literature which transcends its form. There is a subject here waiting for him to explore. In the age of Dickens and Thackeray, there was no ‘literary fiction,’ just novels, some better written than others. Then at the end of the 19th century the path divided, between serious and popular fiction, Meredith and Hall Caine, the worthy and the worthless. What we have seen steadily emerging during the past century is not so much the good bad book as popular literature which is actually better than highbrow writing. Wodehouse has outlived James Branch Cabell and Wyndham Lewis. Isn't it at least possible that Patrick O'Brian may outlive Salman-as-ever?

That this would be a painfully difficult question for Hitchens to address illustrates one of his shortcomings. The first is stylistic. He is in the literal sense (‘between the lines’) an intelligent reader, and a very readable writer, but in his American exile he has grown sometimes overbearing, sometimes pompous. Even in a penetrating and moving essay on Kipling and the fate of his only son, lost on the Western Front in 1915, there is a moment of exquisite unconsciousness at a military cemetery in France where Hitchens meets ‘a working-class type from my hometown in Hampshire.’ My dear fellow, a working-class type! I trust you tipped him half a sovereign.

Another of the essays is on the English spoken by black Americans; since he mentions it, there are pages where the reader has to stifle Maria's words to Sportin' Life: ‘I hates yo' struttin' style.’ To share Hitchens's insights you must at times fight your way through his strutting, knowing, button-holing manner. Only the other day, he took a swipe at Peter Hitchens (‘He's my younger brother; well, there's one in every family’) and his ‘earnest’ prose. Since he mentions it again, Peter Hitchens's politics may be lurid, but his writing isn't, and I have occasionally thought that Hitchens ma could learn something from Hitchens mi about unaffected penny-plain English.

The other problem is his tendency to strike attitudes for his coterie of friends like Salman-as-ever, and to play to the left side of the gallery. Writing about Orwell, whom he greatly admired, Evelyn Waugh praised his ‘unusually high moral sense and respect for truth and justice.’ But he also regretted that he ‘betrays the unreasoned animosity of a class-war in which he has not yet achieved neutrality.’ Something of that kind is true of Hitchens, mutatis mutandis. Though his essay on Larkin is good, it is not quite as good as a brilliant one by Martin Amis. But then Amis wrote in the New Yorker and Hitchens in the New Left Review, where you sense him looking over his shoulder at some comrade—a word he several times uses without irony—or other. Although he admirably defends Larkin against Comrade Paulin, and is scornful of Comrade Eagleton, he protests too much. In the end the truth is that no one has to read Larkin, you can choose to like his poetry or not, and the only honest thing to say to those horror-struck by discovering his private world of embittered bigotry is, So what?

This desire to keep on terms with fashionable chatterdom sometimes leads Hitchens into real absurdity. He has elsewhere rebuked Powell for rebuking Auden as an embusqué who left England for America at the time of his country's peril, and he returns to the matter when writing about Isherwood (whose personal odiousness he is honest enough not to conceal). Recalling the lampoon on the defecting left-wing writers ‘Parsnip and Pimpernell’ in Put Out More Flags, Hitchens says, ‘Throughout the 1930s, Isherwood had been a dedicated and conscious anti-fascist (which is more, I cannot resist adding, than could be said for Mr Evelyn Waugh).’

But that's precisely the point. In the 1930s, Waugh and Powell were indeed idiosyncratic apolitical conservatives who hoped for peace. Then when the war came, Powell joined the Welch Regiment and Waugh the Royal Marines, which is more, I cannot resist adding, than can be said for Messrs W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood. Having been energetic troopers in the prewar stage army of the good, killing Hitler with their mouths, they spent the war itself on the other side of the Atlantic. You don't have to share Tony Powell's contempt to see this: writers of all people should remember Johnson's saying that example is always more efficacious than precept.

The excellent and penetrating piece on Conan Doyle judges his work very well, sets it in context, and has a penetrating aside about the vogue for spiritualism after the Great War. But then Hitchens mentions Conan Doyle's campaign to have Sir Roger Casement reprieved in 1916, and he has to add a flouncing, attitudinising phrase about ‘the use of sexual frame-ups by the British against the Irish—from Parnell to Wilde to Casement.’ I'm sorry, but there is no honest or valid sense in which any of those was ‘framed.’ All of them saw their public and private lives entangled, with tragic results—Parnell fell in love with someone else's wife and Wilde with someone else's son—but they were not falsely accused. Leave aside the way that Hitchens exaggerates Wilde's stature as a political philosopher and homme sérieux (could he possibly have Uncle Gore at the back of his mind?); Wilde himself admitted that he was in prison because he had tried to send Queensberry to prison.

In the third case, one may admire Conan Doyle's fortitude on Casement's behalf, regret that his campaign for reprieve was unsuccessful, and despise the way the government smeared Casement by circulating his diaries. But they were genuine (something I well remember one could not say in patriotic Dublin circles at the 50th anniversary of Casement's death 35 years ago), and he knew what he was doing, with its likely consequences. If a prominent citizen of the Reich had been captured after landing from a British submarine on the Baltic coast in 1916 to incite rebellion among the Kaiser's Polish subjects, would he have been more leniently treated?

What Hitchens says about Larkin is amplified in a piece on T. S. Eliot, where he smartly despatches Anthony Julius's short-pitched bowling to the boundary. Yes, of course Eliot was anti-Semitic, yes, this does sometimes infect his poetry and prose, no, it does not stop his being a great writer. Julius's fulmination is yet another warning against ‘employing political standards as a device for the analysis and appreciation of poetry.’ Although this is well said, it's depressing that Hitchens should still have to say so more than 60 years after, for example, the Partisan Review group rescued that magazine from the Stalinists to be a voice of independent radicalism but also ‘to defend the autonomy of art from politics.’

There are many references to Orwell, and hints that Hitchens identifies with him. He has consistently defended Orwell from the comrades, and here defends him from Raymond Williams. Since this piece was first given as the Raymond Williams Memorial Lecture, it might be churlish to complain that Hitchens is too generous to Williams. Admittedly, I have always found his reputation incomprehensible, my aversion being as much literary as political, not just to his post-Stalinist apologetics but to what Dwight Macdonald rightly called his impenetrable theorising and his appalling prose style. At any rate, Hitchens is more generous to Williams than to Isaiah Berlin, whom he lengthily denigrates. The piece is a review of Michael Ignatieff's biography, and Ignatieff has already made effective reply to Berlin's detractors. Like the other liberal anti-communists, Berlin was human, had human failings and made human mistakes. But no one actually minds what they were wrong about: they will never be forgiven for having been right.

If Hitchens would like to be the Orwell of our time, is he quite ready for the part? It's not so much that he has never been one of those radicals who feel called to a life of heroic poverty, and I dare say it wouldn't suit him. More to the point is that such high moral sense and respect for truth and justice as he may possess are muted by his wanting to have it both ways. This is illustrated in his long review-essay on Whittaker Chambers, the former Comintern agent who left the underground and the party and then delated Alger Hiss. Hitchens recognises that Sam Tanenhaus's biography is a very good book, but sneers at Chambers throughout, despite the fact that, whether or not one finds him lovable, he was a far more interesting man than Hiss. And he patronises the author by supposing that he is ‘a neo-conservative of some stripe,’ which is impertinent in any case, and as far as I know not even true.

Then comes the giveaway when Hitchens says that

Tanenhaus simply makes the assumption, increasingly common among American intellectuals, that Hiss was lying and Chambers was telling the truth. But his narration makes it perfectly easy to understand why so many people at the time took the opposing view.

The first sentence is risible, the second is simply wrong. Post-modernism takes on fresh meaning if something is true not according as to its objective truth but only when a majority of American intellectuals have been persuaded of its truth. And there were in fact plenty of people, honest radicals like Macdonald as well as conservatives, who recognised throughout that Hiss was lying.

To put it as Hitchens does wilfully ignores one of Tanenhaus's central points:

What sets the Hiss case apart, then and now, was not its mystery but the passionate belief of so many that Hiss must be innocent no matter what the evidence.

It would be equally impertinent on my part to attribute motive to Hitchens, if he didn't in effect do so himself: he tells a joshingly jocose anecdote about meeting Hiss at a dinner table which ‘was a convention of all that is noblest in the New York left-wing tradition. (I do not name names.)’ No, he doesn't name names—but he does allow these noble people a cop-out for decades of mendacity, or at least collective self-deception.

That would be a bleak note to end on with such a stimulating and often genial writer. Having touched on the matter of literary log-rolling. I should perhaps say that Christopher Hitchens wrote a flattering review of my own last book, and that in his coruscating phillipic on Clinton (a pasquinade which is looking better than ever at present) I was amused to find a reference, albeit in a rather disgusting context, to ‘my friend Geoffrey Wheatcroft.’ ‘Friend’ is always a good word, and can include politically ecumenical companionship; but I'm not so sure about ‘comrade,’ with its overtones of group loyalty to a party line. And who would really want to be a dauphin, or delfino?

Karl Miller (review date 16 March 2001)

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SOURCE: Miller, Karl. “Not Letting the Cup Pass.” Times Literary Supplement (16 March 2001): 30.

[In the following review, Miller offers a generally positive assessment of Unacknowledged Legislation.]

“First to the communion rail was Claus von Bulow,” wrote Christopher Hitchens once, of a fashionable charity occasion in St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, attended by a man who had been indicted for trying to murder his wife. Hitchens is a memorious writer, as one might say, or as Borges might have said; he has an eye for the record, and for the occasion, and a flair for descriptions which are occasions in themselves. He quotes and alludes continually. And he has given his readers plenty to remember.

He is a loose cannon, a sharp wit, an ironist, a polemicist of exceptional talent, an editor's dream. “Pamphleteer” is a word of honour, he understandably believes, long as the list is of dishonourable pamphlets, and these essays, gathered from the last decade of the last century, consist of pamphleteering reviews, in which the authors reviewed, as distinct from their subjects, are at times almost invisible. His best polemical writings are about politics, as witness the current instalments, soon to be a book, of his arraignment, or citizen's arrest, of Henry Kissinger. His ambition, he says, is Orwell's—to make an art of political writing—and even his enemies might agree that he has fulfilled that ambition. Here his concern, retrospectively identified in the preface to Unacknowledged Legislation, is with writers who have “encountered politics or political life,” and with the unacknowledged legislation which we like to ascribe to scribes.

As befits a memorious writer, a key essay is the one in defence of plagiarism. He conveys that plagiarism is common enough; it may even be inherent in what writers do. He has been accused of it himself, having called attention to a lifting from “dire” Norman Podhoretz by the Spectator's Taki, but the retaliatory charge proved an untrue bill. As the essays indicate, the boundary between plagiarism and allusion can be hard to trace. In saying that people remember Dorothy Parker for her “tense, brittle approach to the long littleness of life,” he is alluding, without attribution, to lines by Frances Cornford about Rupert Brooke (and perhaps, in an allusive sort of way, about the young Christopher Hitchens too):

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

He then plagiarizes himself—in the sense that the next chapter, on Isherwood, where the phrase is attributed, is entitled “The Long Littleness of Life.” Such repetitions, natural in the output of a copious journalist, might have been trimmed (the same points recur in the book, the same poem is twice discussed), and the misprints might have been weeded at the same time. I wouldn't stoop to mentioning these, except that there is a rebuke by Hitchens for the “yawning editors” who had let certain misprints stand.

Elsewhere, he writes about “power, of a kind,” with reference to a charge of racial and political prejudice levelled at Oxford's “Egregious Regius,” Hugh Trevor-Roper. In the essay “Goodbye to Berlin,” Isaiah Berlin is shown patiently persuading the indignant on this occasion not to press the charge. And they didn't. Such persuasion is power of a kind. But the indignant could always have resisted. It turns out in the next chapter that the American novelist Ralph Ellison employed the expression. Hitchens's use of it is not plagiarism, certainly not the plagiarism that people worry about. It is an example of the kind of textual point he excels at developing.

Another notable allusion is to “America, my new found land,” words which he might seem to credit to Andrew Marvell. America is the new found land to which Hitchens went from Britain, he recalls, in order to escape the government of Margaret Thatcher—only to find himself, one might add, savagely indignant and dissenting under the Bushes and Bill Clinton.

An excoriation of Tom Wolfe's fiction carries a quotation from Wolfe's novel The Bonfire of the Vanities which mentions a “perplexing perversion” indulged in by the rich, “that thing with the cup,” an allusion which Hitchens is unable to explain, and which he later repeats, while complaining that Wolfe does so too. This cup belongs to the same cupboard, to the same chamber of perplexities, as Gore Vidal's insistence, passed on by Hitchens to readers who might want to know if Vidal is “queer”: “I don't want penises near me. I have no plans for them.” “Sex and love,” Hitchens writes, “have been blissfully decoupled” for Vidal, who also appears to have succeeded in decoupling himself on this occasion, and who has named Hitchens as his literary “dauphin.” Wolfe's Dickensian aspirations are mocked, and this “dandified poseur,” this white-suited Southern beau, has been trying to be Zola as well. Since his first lucky strike—with his 1960s piece on radical chic—Wolfe, he says, has been running on an empty tank, whether as “stylist” or as “realist.” And he keeps repeating himself, as in the case of that thing with the cup.

What has been said so far is an attempt to respond to particular procedures in Unacknowledged Legislation. No attempt to speak of it more generally should omit to say how challenging, stressful, adversarial and funny it is. Hitchens's leftism is far from predictable. He dislikes Lady Thatcher, but you might half-expect this scion of a naval family to speak up for the Falklands War, as he does at moments for the British Empire. He warms to the Larkin poem which decried the vacating of imperial outposts east of Suez—a typical Harold Wilson move, Hitchens thinks.

“Personalities,” as a journalistic feature, became more intense in this country with the arrival in the nineteenth century of a more democratic politics; they can also seem rather more private than public, in displaying the anxiety of the rival or competitor. Christopher Hitchens has a way of often using adjectives to signal a political hostility, as if for mnemonic purposes; conversely, good words are applied to good things, as white hats used to be placed on cowboys' heads. He writes that John Saville “deposes” that Larkin, wearing his librarian's hat, “was uniformly helpful in his compilation of the magnificent Dictionary of Labour Biography,” while referring to the project as “subversive.” The deposition relates to Saville's complaint that Larkin's biographer had been “overwhelmed by his discoveries of Larkin's private life.”

The American polemicist, Norman Podhoretz, is called dire or dull at each of his frequent appearances here—among other things, for having been, in his own words, “of the war party” in relation to the defence of Israel. “Yes,” ran one memorable comment: “They'll get the war and he'll go to the party.” Christopher Hitchens goes to parties too, but he can't abide the black-hatted Podhoretz, over the years perhaps his bitterest enemy.

The essays commend the work of Larkin and Anthony Powell and the naval novels of Patrick O'Brian. To more than one of the writers he loves, Fascist sympathies are attributed. He pardons them for writing well. And he writes well about them himself. He remarks at the outset that “no decent or serious person can even be suspected” of anti-Semitism. Elsewhere he says that Vidal was so suspected, wrongly. He also says that T. S. Eliot was, of course, anti-Semitic, while going on to give the wrong impression that Anthony Julius's book on the subject lays stress on no more than “one couplet, one anonymous book review and one phrase.” “It's amusing to surmise what Eliot might have thought of such a man” as Julius—“the shyster lawyer for a gold-digging airhead,” the late Princess Diana. I am sure that Eliot would have been very severe.

Of Hitchens's hostility to Bill Clinton, it might be said that, in the past few weeks, its hour has come, or come again. Here, Clinton is laughed at for muddling the Beatitudes; it is the meek, not the peace-makers, who will inherit the earth. The outlandishness of the prediction is not at issue. “The thing just doesn't make sense,” exclaimed a Frenchman quoted in the Goncourt journals; during a discussion this Beatitude.

There are outcrops of an old-world diction in the essays: “nary,” “customer” for chap, “woe is me,” “dear reader.” “Pray, why so vague? (And yet, so exact? Dost know hawk from handsaw?).” This passage comes from an unfavourable review of Conor Cruise O'Brien's catastrophist late book on the future, in which the fall of the British royal family is sadly foreseen. O'Brien was once a hero of his. Not now.

It can sometimes seem unwise to grow old, or be recently dead, with Christopher around. He won't have the pace-makers inheriting the earth. The strictures directed at the work of the late Isaiah Berlin contain strong argument, but little sense of Michael Ignatieff's interesting biography or of its interesting man. The theorist of relativity, of incompatible goals and values, and, for that matter, the reader of Turgenev and Herzen, are overshadowed here by the Berlin who was reported to have said of himself at the time of the Vietnam War that he was “a terrific domino man.” At one point, ageism lights on Alistair Cooke. Hitchens praises his “great account” of something, but on another page remarks that an account of something else “even from Alistair Cooke” would have been worth reading. “The great Saul Bellow,” which makes him sound like a fairground attraction, is forebearingly treated when objections arise to the catastrophism and conservatism associated with Bellow's Mr Sammler, and with the original of the lively character Ravelstein produced half-way through his eighties.

This is a book which aspires to take part in a collective struggle, and in which friends of the author are called comrades. Towards the end, he speaks of “a special ad hominem venom on the Left,” and of the blame he took for making public a public matter, as it might possibly be thought—an alleged Clinton-camp spin gleaned by him in private conversation with a friend of his, a Clinton operative: “all evidence of my own strictly private shortcomings was placed on view by former comrades.” Unacknowledged Legislation is ever dull.

Frances Stonor Saunders (review date 14 May 2001)

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SOURCE: Sanders, Frances Stonor. “Show Us the Papers, Hitchens.” New Statesman (14 May 2001): 50–52.

[In the following review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Saunders agrees with Hitchens's damning charges against Kissinger, but criticizes Hitchens's failure to cite documentary evidence.]

My natural orbit doesn't usually swing me into close proximity to people like Henry Kissinger and Christopher Hitchens. I suppose I should be grateful, as meeting them both (though not, you will appreciate, at the same time) has not been an undiluted pleasure. Both men have mighty egos, so in order to avoid unnecessary offence, I call chronology to my aid. I met Kissinger first.

It was a Monday morning of normal Ibsen-grey in London. I hadn't slept, so tormented was I by the thought of appearing on Start the Week alongside Dr Kissinger. First, I was going to get nailed by Jeremy Paxman, then I would be dumped on by the carpet-bomber. Arriving at Broadcasting House, I was led to a little dump of a room next to the studio. And there, sitting on a tatty old chair, was a little man stuffed too tightly into an expensive woollen suit and looking, to my astonishment, more nervous than I was. As he conferred with his publicist, he appeared to be reconsidering his decision to appear on the programme (he had been threatening to withdraw for the past week). But the silken tongue (which conceals a fatal venom) of the other guest, Geoffrey Robertson QC, seemed to calm Kissinger. So much so that when we sat down together in the studio, elbow to elbow, the Doctor turned his Grecian 2000 head to announce that both Robertson and I could “take a pop” at him if we so desired (magnanimously revoking his earlier caveat that he would appear on the programme only if we both remained mute).

“For the benefit of younger listeners,” Paxman began, “we ought to explain that […] you were one of the most famous men in the world. You were a Nobel Peace Prize winner, you were Time magazine's Man of the Year, you were voted, in a poll of Playboy bunnies, the man they would most like to go out on a date with. You were never a shrinking violet, were you?” Only younger listeners (the sort of audience not courted by Start the Week) could have interpreted this build-up as flattery. Paxman's introduction was, in fact, magisterially rude. Kissinger had been promised a “friendly” interview. He had anticipated an underarm bowl, not a googly. And bouncers were to follow. As he fiddled with the papers in front of him, I noticed that his fingernails were bitten down to the quick.

Only weeks before this interview, General Pinochet, whose murderous regime Kissinger supported, had been arrested in his bed in a private London clinic. The request by a Spanish judge for the General's extradition to face charges of genocide, torture and terrorism provided a worrying new context for the international travel plans of those such as Kissinger. In the same period. Margaret Thatcher, under whose watch the Belgrano was sunk outside the Falklands exclusion zone, was reported to have consulted the Foreign Office as to the likelihood of her being picked up for war crimes when travelling abroad. The case for detaining Nixon's mental babysitter was—and remains—far more substantial.

Paxman duly proceeded down the charge sheet: complicity in the overthrow of the democratic leader of Chile, Salvador Allende (“We had nothing to do with it”); support for his usurper, Augusto Pinochet (“We did not support the Pinochet coup. I didn't even know who Pinochet was”); the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians during the secret bombing of neutral Cambodia (“That's absolutely not true. This is an absolute outrageous nonsense”); the extension of the Vietnam war, at further cost of life to all sides (“I'm not aware of hundreds of thousands of lives lost. We lost 12,000 Americans in the first year of the Nixon administration”). And, somewhere in there, the suggestion that Kissinger was a fraud for accepting the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his “diplomacy” in Indochina. “A what?” “A fraud.” This left Kissinger struggling for breath. (Does he breathe when he talks? His voice seems more the product of a subterranean vibration.) His supply of “heavy and pompous pseudo-indignation when unwelcome questions [are] asked” (Hitchens) exhausted, he now rolled his papers into a tight baton, with which he hit the table before leaving mid-programme in such a state of confusion that he tried to exit via the sound screen.

Having coaxed Kissinger into the studio, perhaps Paxman can be faulted for not having to hand some of the prima facie evidence to support his claims. Indeed, at one point of hyperactive denial, he looked pleadingly through the glass to his production team in the vain hope that they might be able to throw him a line with which to bind his wriggling catch. He could have produced extracts from the Congressional inquiries, the declassified memos, the transcripts of White House tapes, and all the other government documents either leaked or supplied under the Freedom of Information Act, which plainly and incontrovertibly establish Kissinger's mendacity on these and other issues.

The public domain is awash with such evidence, and it is now assembled by Christopher Hitchens in his latest J'accuse-style tract [The Trial of Henry Kissinger]. Truth, as all politicians know, is rhetorically mobile. But with Kissinger it has extraordinary kinetic energy. His lies tumble across every page of his self-serving memoirs (three volumes written over three decades, running to thousand of pages: The White House Years,Years of Upheaval and now Years of Denial, er, sorry, Years of Renewal).

One has to ask how an intelligent man arrives at a position of exorbitant mendacity. “There are … those who lie consciously, coldly falsifying reality itself,” wrote Primo Levi in The Drowned and the Saved. “But more numerous are those who weigh anchor, move off, momentarily or forever, from genuine memories, and fabricate for themselves a convenient reality … The silent transition from falsehood to sly deception is useful: anyone who lies in good faith is better off, he recites his part better, he is more easily believed.”

Enter Christopher Hitchens, who recites lies brilliantly—not his own, but other people's. When I met him earlier this year, it was in a lecture hall at New York's Columbia University. We were both panelists at a seminar on “Dissenting Journalism,” taking Greece (a United States protectorate from 1947) as a case study. An appearance by Hitchens on any American platform guarantees a big draw, so eager is the public to submit to his perorations on the deliquescent state of world affairs. It is all very theatrical. On this occasion, like any good showman, he kept them waiting … and waiting. Forty minutes after the scheduled start time, he finally appeared, waving and nodding to people in the audience as he picked his way through the crowded aisles, the stale odour of booze and cigarettes trailing invisibly in his wake. His eyes were bloodshot, and his crumpled clothes looked as if they had doubled up as bedding for the past week. And so this latter-day Swift entered the coffee house of student debate.

In person, as on the page, Hitchens is in masterly possession of what he calls saeva indignatio, that “combination of cheek and anger to point out how the world falls short of its pretensions.” He is a skilled orator, working, as far as I could see, without a text or notes. He chooses his weapons carefully, and is efficient either as a sniper or as a bombardier unloading the full arsenal of his invective. But he is also a barnum, of the type so congenial to that quintessentially American tradition of cracker-barrel salesmanship. When an elderly woman rises to challenge Hitchens, he quips: “Mother, I told you not to do this.” Thus her question is deflected, amid the general laughter of an audience who are now behaving as so many valets to this lofty wit.

If Hitchens were a barrister (and the tone of The Trial of Henry Kissinger suggests he might have missed his calling), he would definitely play to the court. It is not that he doesn't build an effective case, but that he can't resist showing off his own cleverness. And his methodology is a bit shoddy. To make the case for the prosecution of America's pre-eminent statesman in 149 pages is one thing, but to fail to cite the dates and sources of the documents he produces in evidence is another. This is not to question the legitimacy of his evidence: much of it is available in facsimile on the internet (and if you don't trust that, you can go straight to the National Archives in Maryland, Virginia). But there is a kind of arrogance in this neglect of notation, and one that plays straight into the hands of Kissinger's apologists (and, more generally, the custodians of America's “manifest destiny”), who will grab at any flotsam to shore up their defence. Show us the papers, Hitchens, show us the papers.

Hitchens's argument is that Kissinger practised a depraved and morally repulsive realpolitik from the moment his ascendancy from mediocre academic to “international potentate” was secured. It is not for this that he should be tried before a court of law. Instead, the basis for a legal prosecution stems from, as Hitchens puts it, “identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment.” These crimes are listed as:

  1. The deliberate mass killing of civilian populations in Indochina.
  2. Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination, in Bangladesh.
  3. The personal suborning, and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the United States was not at war.
  4. The personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.
  5. The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.
  6. The personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.

Some of these charges were rehearsed by Paxman in his interview two years ago. They have been circulating for decades, and are examined in such books as The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon by Anthony Summers (1999) and Seymour Hersh's The Price of Power (1983). These are indispensable sources, which Hitchens rightly acknowledges. But it falls to Hitchens, professional controversialist and provocateur, recently dubbed “the radical from Condé Nast,” to stitch them together. Hitchens, said the historian Todd Gitlin, is a “man who affects revolutionary virtue” in a post-revolutionary age. And indeed, his revolts against Mother Teresa (The Missionary Position) and Bill Clinton (No One Left to Lie To) were seen by many as just that—affectation, the vulgar indulgence of a man without an ideology. But in Kissinger, he seems finally to have found a worthwhile target, and is running as soon as he lands.

To take one example from the embarrassment of riches: in March 1969, Kissinger secretly initiated the B-52 bombing of Cambodia. When later challenged by the Senate foreign relations committee over the legitimacy of extending the Vietnam conflict by “hot pursuit” across the borders of a neutral country, he claimed that the areas of Cambodia selected for bombing were “unpopulated.” Yet a memo prepared by the joint chiefs of staff, and sent to the Defense Department and the White House (and therefore read by Kissinger) before the bombing began, stated plainly that “some Cambodian casualties would be sustained in the operation” and “the surprise effect of attack could tend to increase casualties.” Reviewing the “menu” of districts selected for attack, the memo stated that Base Area 35 (codename “Breakfast”) was inhabited by about 1,640 Cambodian civilians. Base Area 609 (“Lunch”) was inhabited by about 198 civilians, Base Area 351 (“Snack”) by 383, Base Area 352 (“Dinner”) by 770, and Base Area 350 (“Dessert”) by about 120 Cambodian peasants.

Kissinger was, says Hitchens, in “a position of virtual co-presidency where Indochina was concerned.” He was even fiddling with the mission patterns and bombing runs (and all the while lying to the American public and acting without the consent of Congress). As a result, he orchestrated a policy of aggrandisement that led to the deaths of 600,000 civilians (there are higher estimates) in Cambodia alone. The US Senate subcommittee on refugees estimated that, during the Nixon-Kissinger watch, more than three million civilians were killed, injured or rendered homeless in south-east Asia. In the same four-year period, the US dropped almost 4.5 million tons of high explosive on Indochina, nearly twice as much as the estimated total tonnage dropped in the entire Second World War. These were, claims Hitchens, “premeditated war crimes which still have the power to stun the imagination.”

And yet the legal community and human rights lobbies of the US have long averted their gaze from Kissinger's “lonely impunity” (many of his former associates are now in jail, or awaiting trial, or have been otherwise discredited). So, until such a time as “they can become seized by the exalted standards to which they continually hold everyone else,” Hitchens shall take their place. There's a fine irony here: while Kissinger thinks he is above the law, Hitchens, a freebooting British journalist who started at the New Statesman, becomes the law.

Alfred P. Rubin (review date 20 July 2001)

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SOURCE: Rubin, Alfred P. “Only Obeying Orders.” Times Literary Supplement (20 July 2001): 5.

[In the following review of The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Rubin commends Hitchens's criticism of Kissinger's egregious failures, but notes that Hitchens fails to acknowledge Kissinger's limited authority and shared complicity as a product of American democracy.]

There isn't much point to muckraking unless there is muck to be raked. In the actions of Henry Kissinger as American National Security Adviser and then Secretary of State, there is much muck to be raked, and Christopher Hitchens has set to work with a will. He has taken the two articles on Kissinger's tenure that he wrote for Harper's Magazine (he calls them “the core of this book”) and expanded them into a small book. The Trial of Henry Kissinger sets forth in some detail the inconsistencies and short-sighted policies of the Kissinger years as if they were the entire tale, and proposes legal action to discourage similar activities by others in the future.

There is much to the tale. Beginning with Kissinger's role in delaying a settlement in Vietnam in 1968, ostensibly to help Richard Nixon win election and himself to win high office in the Nixon White House, Hitchens relates and documents details of Kissinger's policies, resulting in violations of the treaty-based and customary laws of war in Indo-China; his friendship with an unspeakably violent regime in Pakistan that resulted in the independence of Bangladesh and the unnecessary loss of many lives on the sub-continent; his approval of American involvement in a coup in Chile that placed Augusto Pinochet in power and resulted in the assassination of Salvador Allende and many others; the victory of the Greek Colonels in their plan to get rid of Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus, which provoked the Turkish invasion of the northern part of that island (then and still now a member of the United Nations); the Indonesian atrocities in East Timor (an episode that cost many lives and was entirely omitted from Kissinger's three-volume analysis of his own statesmanship); and a vendetta waged against a Greek journalist, Elias P. Demetracopoulos, in Washington. The account is damning. On the other hand, there is nothing of Kissinger's successes, leaving the impression that there were none. The analysis seems to argue that there was criminality involved in Kissinger's failures and disregard of the lives lost in his mistaken efforts to advance what he conceived to be American policy interests—and his own career.

Reasonable people may, and certainly do, differ as to Kissinger's successes. They are not the subject of this book. As to his failures, there seem to be at least two major factors missing from Hitchens's account. First is the awkward fact that Kissinger himself was not in a position of command. His authority derived from action willingly undertaken by underlings, and delegations made by the President of the United States, Richard Nixon (and his short-term successor, Gerald Ford). Second is the equally awkward fact that the United States is a democracy and a majority of the people, including the richest and most influential constituents of the political faction in control of the levers of authority there, might be wrong in their political evaluations or the actions they approve and pay for. Even the selection procedure for the American presidency, involving votes by members of an “electoral college,” is not immune from manipulation. The problem is not unique to the United States.

As to the first, President Nixon was himself a devious politician with no great insight into international affairs and American constitutional relationships. In 1974, he chose to resign rather than be impeached after the revelation of election scandals. Kissinger never killed anyone himself, as far as is known. If his underlings found his orders immoral, they had the option of disobeying and speaking publicly, which some in fact did. Kissinger's success in achieving “deniability” indicates that he was a master of manipulation in a system that is subject to manipulation, not that he was a more monstrous villain than those who actually killed or tortured people.

As to the second, the evils of mob rule and mistaken majorities have been known at least since Aristotle wrote of them. Indeed, Plato, Aristotle's teacher, wrote of government by the best as an alternative to democracy, but found in Sicily during the fourth century BC that his own definition of the best was not the same as the definition acted on by those who had inherited authority. The American constitutional order still stands as a model of inhibition. Nothing that Kissinger could command would the consent of a killer or torturer, indeed no money could be spent even in American military adventures without the authorization of two Houses of a notably fractious American Congress. That the ambitions of conscienceless people might coincide with the power to fulfil those ambitions at the expense of somebody else was a fact foreseen by the framers of the American Constitution, but the safeguards they inserted in that document could not and cannot allay all evil.

The legal remedies proposed are a mixture of things likely to be effective and likely to be ineffective. Ineffective things are those that depend on the wisdom of unchecked majorities or complex (therefore manipulable) political bodies, like those that select judges for a proposed international criminal court, or the extension of national criminal jurisdiction to include the acts of foreigners abroad which the judges of the country exercising that jurisdiction find inconsistent with their own country's values or ambitions. Legal remedies likely to prove effective include civil suits for large damages in the courts of the countries in which villains have assets. Hitchens mentions these things, but, wisely in the light of his lack of legal credentials and the current popularity of the push for an international criminal court, does not take a definite position.

The reader is left only to wonder at the enormous fees that Kissinger receives for his contacts with various right-wing organizations, easing the investment and production difficulties of European and American corporations in Africa and Asia. Hitchens speaks of these fees as if those purchasing the products made in countries whose leadership is anathema had no choice in the matter. But personal or group boycotts are always available. And publicity by alert media is the only path to that. With the exception of a few brave souls like Christopher Hitchens, the media are failing in their job.

Unfortunately, there are a few errors in the book, and a rather defective index. There are repeated confusions of criminal law with civil law, and international law with municipal law, but those are confusions that reflect common misapprehensions. In sum, the book is not to be taken as a precise text in the technical areas it touches, but as a useful summary of the evils that can flow, and have flowed and continue to flow, from the otherwise admirable American democracy.


Principal Works


Further Reading