LETTERS TO HITCHENS
by graham jenkins December 15, 2010
fortnightjournal.com
 
Iconoclasm

Dear Mr. Hitchens,
 
You must be reading far too much correspondence these days from people from whom you have never heard or of whom you have never thought. I imagine a terminal diagnosis is somewhat like being a lottery winner in that respect–a reverse lottery. Pardon the dark humor. I hope I’m not breaching the new etiquette of cancer you’re composing on a daily basis; it is lines like: “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist” that give me confidence in your undiminished wit.

To that end, I won’t even bother asking how you are (your answer, I assume, would continue to be “I seem to have cancer today”).

Forgive my fawning; I have spared nuance to save time. Allow me this moment to express my admiration for the evolution of your writing and political thought. This is not just because your path tracks with my own, but because your work represents a devoted iconoclasm I fear my generation will not reproduce.

You have never been shy about your beliefs; a welcome change from the cowering classes who cloak their true beliefs in confusing or evasive language. Your way of writing is as blunt as Mark Twain when we wrote, “I never write 'metropolis' for seven cents because I can get the same price for 'city.' I never write 'policeman' because I can get the same money for 'cop.'” Like Orwell, you reduce your thoughts to their essence. I can understand what you’re trying to say. And perhaps that’s because what you say generally tends to make a great deal of sense. As Orwell said, “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’.”

Your rebelliousness, however – your feistiness – is what most impresses me. You are unorthodoxy itself. The journey from Dissent and The Nation to Slate and Vanity Fair is impressive enough. Nominally left-leaning publications, perhaps, but you had never let reputation get in the way. You’ve gone from sitting on one bank, to standing in the middle of the stream–or, perhaps more accurately, lying down in the whole thing and letting the water wash over you. From Cockburn, Rushdie, and Amis to Wolfowitz, Frum, and Norquist, the company you keep has reflected your journey in pursuit of the truth, not an agenda. The Hitchens school of political contrarianism has been a model to the world that one need not self-label. (I used to try and describe myself as variously a “socialist,” “radical leftist,” “extreme moderate,” “British fascist/American communist” and “pro-military liberal,” until settling on “LBJ Democrat” for a time.) A single word could never do your nuances and complex opinions justice. For some in our generation, you have proven the viability of the iconoclast and in doing so allowed for a new kind of public intellectual.

You’re much too modest to ever admit it, but you really have had an outsized influence on the intellectual debate of the last ten years. From Clinton to Iraq to religion, you have never been without a voice or an opinion on really any matter of great importance. The best part, though, is that no one can predict what you’ll say. That, in turn, makes your opinions much more valuable. You must be congratulated on your appearance in Foreign Policy’s 2010 “Top 100 Global Thinkers,” especially for your characterization as “a perpetual debunker of conventional wisdoms.” In the era of hysteria, that’s high praise indeed.

Any hack can toe the party line, but it takes something more to come up with your own. If one were to write the “Hitchens Party” platform, it would need to be drastically overhauled every four years. Would the Christopher Hitchens circa 1992 recognize the 2010 edition?

Though obviously you’d never condone “moderation”–at least in its wishy-washy "everybody wins" iteration–you’ve managed to walk some impressive tightropes in your career. Hard as it may seem in the current political climate, one can in fact simultaneously support the existence of Israel whilst criticizing it for heavy-handed policies. And it’s possible to despise both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, even if for wholly different reasons. People do great things; people do terrible things; but nevertheless they do actual things, and it is on those accomplishments and failures that you judge them. By their actions and by the content of their character, and not by the party to which they belong, or with whom they have associated.

No icon, however esteemed or revered, is exempt from your sights. That font of encyclopedic integrity, Wikipedia, even devotes an entire article to “Christopher Hitchens’ critiques of public figures.” The contrasts between those with whom you disagree are striking. Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. Jerry Falwell and Michael Moore. Ronald Reagan and George Galloway. Mel Gibson and Cindy Sheehan. Party affiliation and loyalties are clearly meaningless; you truly despise some of these people because of what they did. And your willingness to voice your disagreements loudly and publicly is refreshing in the age of diplo-speak and political correctness.

I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that you prove the possibility of informed opinion. One can gather up evidence and come to a rational conclusion based on facts, however “extreme” or dissonant that conclusion might be. I have seen that when you find such a conclusion, you do not back down from it. The more you’re attacked, the more you stick to your guns, refining and honing your original point (you’re willing to change your mind, too, but that’s a subject for later). It’s a fine example to set for my generation, which has grown up with the chattering classes convinced of their own superior knowledge and with the conventional wisdom seldom challenged, if at all.

You ask the right questions and you find your own answers, and these days that’s more than most can say. I hope you will continue to do so until the very end.

All the best,
Graham Jenkins

***

 
Action/Convictions

Dear Mr. Hitchens,
 
While reading your Letters to a Young Contrarian, I was also reading a translation of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (the Hicks brothers’ Emperor’s Handbook). I was enjoying the latter at first, when it began to bog down in a quagmire of self-righteousness and inaction (or, as Jacques Barzun described another translation, “flaccid piety and self-concern”). There was one passage, in particular, that seemed so weak and ineffective in comparison with your muscular approach to truth and action, your refusal to back down: “I entreat you; have no fear of being thought a monomaniac … It is one of those indicative insults that betrays the prickings of a poor conscience on the other side, or among those who have been easy on themselves. It should be a spur to further droning on your part” (pp. 125).

In Book VIII, Aurelius declares that “doing evil doesn’t harm the universe, nor does one person’s wrongdoing hurt another. It only hurts the person who is doing the wrong, and he can stop doing it whenever he wishes” (pp. 101). I can only imagine what kind of righteous fury such sentiments might provoke. Perhaps it would be akin to that time you defaced a swastika in Beirut with Michael Totten, only to be assaulted by local fascist thugs. Or your tale of Ricky Ray Rector’s execution and your ceaseless crusade in the name of tedium and justice. Or like your unrelenting anti-religious stance, no matter how much hatred or how many death threats it might provoke.

It’s rare to see someone so steadfastly adhere to his principles and to see him so willing to debate the issues. You’re a man who doesn’t put much tolerance in moderation. Either you believe it or you don’t. And yet despite your heartfelt loathing of religion, your stance towards say, Islam, looks downright moderate next to the hate speech of Pamela Geller or other idiots (their entire virulent ideology is a matter for another letter). I’ve often attempted to parse your convictions–how does one manage to keep them in the face of such opposition? Your opinions, taken as a whole, place you decidedly out of the mainstream of American public intellectualism. And yet, the “Hitchens brand” is more popular than ever.

Well, as usual, you’ve explained your moral code in the most eloquent of phrases: “On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for a synthesis between verity and falsehood; the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next.” (pp. 21). It often seems as though you don’t despise the concept of common ground and moderation so much as you do the idea of false moderation–that every reasonable sane idea requires an equally insane, lunatic, crackpot response, all in the interest of "balance." And as you so decisively put it, that is not the case. Some things are verifiably, undeniably wrong, just as others are above question. And yet, so often the decision is made that everything can be challenged, and so we end up with "birthers," "truthers" and creationists.

A public failure to act as gatekeeper does not imply a personal one. I believe that many of the talking heads and various babbling commentators on cable news channels do not actually agree with half of the news they’re forced to peddle. Still, one must pay the bills. But the first amendment so often invoked in these circumstances does not apply to the false moderation of the American media; freedom of speech does not require speech. You cannot prevent the American Nazi Party from marching in Skokie, Illinois; but you don’t have to invite them on television.

Your adherence to your own thoughts and beliefs does not automatically align you with any single group (much like the Andrew Sullivan motto, “of no party or clique”). But whereas Sullivan is almost always going to be considered a “Democrat,” it would be impossible to attempt such a characterization of you. Wonderfully, you don’t care. Support for the Iraq War and disgust with Bill Clinton superseded other positions, estranging you from the left. But you will share a stage with Tony Blair to debate the merits of religion as bitter opponents, with your erstwhile agreement on the need to invade Iraq paling in comparison to your utter belief that religion is a force for evil in the world. I don’t mean to accuse you of treachery towards your allies or any such nonsense; rather, you’re a pragmatist who has a hierarchy of belief. Sometimes, one of your principles trumps another.

In your convictions can often be found contradiction, but that just makes them more delightfully sincere. You were for the invasion of Iraq, but you also have criticism for Israel. I previously mentioned your common contempt for many public figures, which is all the more convincing because of their total lack of commonality. You warn against the dangers of “Islamofascism” while also condemning Christianity in toto. By virtue of being “a consistent anti-totalitarian,” you’ve exposed yourself “to steadily mounting contradictions.” Yours is a unique blend of opinions, but the overall dissonance rings true.   

And yet you’re also willing to change your mind. That, in fact, might be the most impressive facet of your intellect. You hold your convictions deeply and strongly, until you can be absolutely convinced otherwise. But this too implies the definition of an “open mind”–constantly at work, and yet willing to listen. Your personal experience with waterboarding is one the anecdotes by which I introduce your work to my own friends. How many other public figures have so openly admitted that their previous beliefs were mistaken, and recanted? It is shameful that admitting a wrong is heralded as courageous, but that’s absolutely what your confession was. It is a hard journey indeed from “rough interrogation” to “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.”

It’s funny, too, how much that spirit of free inquiry can confuse other people. After your waterboarding article appeared, the despicable Michelle Malkin linked to it from her blog, somehow concluding that if you were willing to be tortured for Vanity Fair, then it couldn’t possibly be torture (leaving aside, of course, that that was the entire point of the article; that you originally thought it was not torture). The commentariat was telling: numerous allegations of complicity with a “them” and various insults and epithets but also, periodic reminders like “You guys do realize that Hitchens has been on our side.” Because that’s what the modern political climate is all about–sides; the horse race; the process story. But you remain both relevant and meaningful.

Sometimes, though, I wonder if the years have softened your absolute moral convictions. You lament that “we’re probably doomed to some kind of relativism, or perhaps better to say approximation 'of morality'.” I assume that you mean this for society as a whole, and what is generally accepted as moral or otherwise–it’s hard to imagine a relativist Christopher Hitchens. The saying goes, “only a Sith deals in absolutes,” but seeing as that in itself is an absolute, it’s hard to believe that nothing is certain.

I of course want to avoid an epistemological debate–you are, you think, and that’s that. You’ve got convictions and you’ll hold them as long as it takes. Unless, of course, overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence can be assembled in opposition. Your adherence to fact and reason is a rare quality, and it’s one my generation needs to learn quickly.
 
All the best,
Graham Jenkins

***

 
The Problem

Dear Mr. Hitchens,
 
In one of your recent Vanity Fair articles, you quote Horace Mann’s audacious words: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”

Mann founded Antioch College in Ohio, and those words also served as its motto. Both my parents attended Antioch, which has currently suspended its operations. It’s almost fitting that their generation, and the words that inspired them, should meet with such an inglorious fate. It’s not that my cohort cares any less than yours, or is less sympathetic to the sixties radical agenda of equality and diversity. But I do think this episode represents a deeper, more systemic malaise that began in my parent's time.

Your own heterodoxy reflects this shift. 2010 Christopher Hitchens, naturalized American citizen, is no more a Democrat than a Republican–you’ve discovered that no party adequately represents your beliefs. That is something my generation is just now coming around to understand. Obviously, we are more in sync with the Democratic Party, but we also recognize that there’s something rotten in the District of Columbia. This suspicion in turn affects both our voter turnout and the extent to which we’re willing to go in pursuit of liberty, justice, and the American way.

The idea of the "renaissance man" is sadly consigned to the past. Concepts like “a man of letters” and “a gentleman and a scholar” are antiquated relics of an era when men wore hats, and football had not yet introduced the forward pass. But regardless, your interdisciplinary approach to life is worth emulating. You marshal not only facts and figures, but the titans of literature and history–Orwell,  F.M. Cornford, and Deutscher; Dickens, Marx, and John Stuart Mill–it seems to me that your own views are influenced by the sum of humanity. You take from the past and apply liberally to the present, and your startlingly magisterial view of politics and humanity is, to put it mildly, well-informed.

As the long, hot summer of 2010 dragged on, and you continued to write marvelous dispatches from the land of Tumortown, I still could not help myself from wondering what your take on the “Tea Party” and associated political "debate" might be. The frivolities and "nontroversies" of then were just so asinine in comparison with the larger, more pressing issues. Despite your obvious priorities, I felt as though you would have something important to add to the debate.

You really were one of the few adults in the room when it came to the “Ground Zero Terror Mosque” project, reaching that laudable epitome of moderation without sacrificing any of your own principles. Despite severe misgivings about the Cordoba Initiative and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, you still accepted its right to build on its land. Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League and Newt Gingrich alike met with your criticism for a “part-pathetic and part-sinister appeal to demagogy,” an approach that since then has only managed to gather steam.

But despite that fine attempt, there was little from you in the way of overt political writing. I read your fine critique of the political process itself and its “inane indignities,” and your spirited dismantling of all the bullshit spewed during the campaign season (as usual, no one was off-limits: Barack Obama and William Kristol alike came under fire). As you have no particular party loyalty, I had found myself wondering what you might think about President Obama’s criticism from the left and his oddly quiet stoicism in the face of repeated personal attacks. There it was: “Obama at times looked almost masochistic in his unreadiness to seize the initiative and give the lie to his detractors.” That, I think, very well summarizes the oddly passive resistance on the part of the White House.

Over the past year, though, the most troubling development in American politics has been the rise of the Tea Party and resurgence of the radical right. I had hoped to read your take on it. When I finally read “Tea’d Off,” it was everything I’d imagined and more. You pointed out that one of the more chilling–and underreported–aspects of the "movement" is that it is not a new phenomenon, but rather an extension of that peculiarly American strain of paranoia. As Richard Hofstadter once summarized it:

In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims.

I think this ideology is indeed a poison in the American political bloodstream because it drowns out legitimate criticism. If civil-libertarian-minded Democrats try to find common cause with like-minded Republicans on an issue like airport security, they will be rebuffed. “Don’t you know the real threat is from Obama’s angry anti-colonialist Kenyan ideology?” “Show me his birth certificate, and then we’ll talk policy.”

But whereas I see problems with the American system on a more fundamental, structural level–“the center cannot hold” – you, Mr. Hitchens, seem to believe in the overall superiority of our way of life, and your objections to it are more in passing. Much as I like the idea of America and what it stands for, the encroachment of corporatism and demented financial greed that drive so much of politics seems irreversible. I would be curious indeed to hear how finance and economics in the United States fit into both your opinion of the nation and of its politics. Like Theodore Roosevelt, I believe there is an “unholy alliance between corrupt business and corrupt politics." Only I don’t think there’s a statesman alive who can destroy it.

But perhaps the final unraveling is some years off, and thus beyond your purview. I’ve always found your fixation on the present fascinating, because you manage to focus on today without jeopardizing tomorrow. After all, isn’t that what all politics is? A balancing act between now and the future? Unlike many of your generation, I don’t blame you for contributing to the mess we’re about to take over. You’ve been one of the few to genuinely explore both the question and the answer, and for your conclusions we owe you our gratitude.

Would that my generation inherit your same spirit of free inquiry and debate, and your pursuit for the truth. I have some faith in us to determine our own path, but I also fear that we might tread a path of consumption that leaves us little room for our own thought. There will always be those of us who revere the name Hitchens, and seek to emulate your iconoclasm and your conviction. And probably, the drinking and smoking as well. But I hope you remain with us for many years to come; your example is one we would do well to follow.
 

All the best,
Graham Jenkins