16 December 2011

Hitchens and His Era

One day after the United States formally closed its occupation of Iraq, word arrives that Christopher Hitchens has lost his characteristically well-publicized battle with cancer. It's a fateful coincidence, since Hitchens was perhaps the most formidable cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, to the extent that he could not be dismissed as a mere right-winger. Hitchens had been a fierce leftist and anti-imperialist as well as being one of this generation's "new" or "militant" atheists. He was known for his insistence that Henry Kissinger be prosecuted for war crimes and his scandalous skepticism toward the sainthood claims of and for Mother Theresa. But something began to change with the 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and with the September 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. the change was complete. Having never believed in the Communist menace, having instead cheered on Marxists in many places, Hitchens was now convinced that "Islamofascism" was the great enemy of mankind, a menace that could be ignored or denied only out of cowardice or intellectual dishonesty. He cut ties with most of the left, rejecting all "anti-imperialist" arguments against taking the war to the tyrants of the Middle East. It no longer mattered to him whether Americans or corporations benefited from the wars, so long as he could take it for granted that the people of the region would benefit when dictators were toppled and mujaheddin killed. For him, Islamofascism, and for all intents and purposes Islam itself, was such an evil that it should have mattered to no one who liberated Arabs, Afghans, etc. from its influence. If anyone questioned this, that only indicated that they put ideology before the global good.

It was never clear to me how completely Hitchens repudiated the left. To my knowledge, he never apologized for his leftist past, but he did develop a personal libertarian streak not inconsistent with his hostility toward religions of commandments. This never expressed itself in tirades against "big government." Instead, he sniped occasionally at "nanny-state" type regulations like the laws against smoking in restaurants. His was perhaps a typical decline for a self-conscious rebel. He remained eager to replace old orders with new, but behind it all, ever more obviously, was the petty protest of a permanent adolescent against being told what to do. It might be argued that he was never truly part of the left, if you accept as essentially leftist the imperative that we the people, and not just our governing institutions, must evolve -- that we must learn "what to do," even if we have to figure it out ourselves without an all-powerful instructor. What was left by the end was a still-admirable resistance to religion everywhere -- he was probably the closest thing our age had to H. L. Mencken, down to the political incorrectness -- and a hatred for tyranny that's hard to argue with in the abstract. Hitchens's folly was his faith that anything, apparently, was justified for the sake of toppling tyrants, his assumption that no greater problem faced the world than the existence of political or religious tyranny in various nations. To criticize Hitchens is not to defend tyranny. Everyone should hate a tyrant, but Hitchens seemed to forget over time that tyranny wasn't all we should protest against, and that avowed enmity to tyranny doesn't make anyone automatically a force for good. Now that I think of it, that last observation could stand as his epitaph.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But what about benevolent tyrants?