A Nasty Piece of Work
Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens
Verso Books, 160 pages
One of the journalistic impulses for which the late Christopher Hitchens will be remembered was a propensity for writing nasty obituaries of people he loathed immediately after their deaths. It was only a matter of days, sometimes hours, following the expiration of figures such as Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, or Alexander Haig (to name just a few of the targets of his wrath) that Hitchens would take to the print columns or the airwaves and denounce the recently departed as a “thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf,” “hyperactive debutante,” “cruel and stupid lizard,” “Chaucerian fraud,” and “neurotic narcissist with an unquenchable craving for power,” respectively. “For a lot of people, their first love is what they’ll always remember,” Hitchens once told C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb. “For me it’s always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going.”
In light of this, the one thing that can be said in praise of Richard Seymour’s UnHitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, is that its subject would appreciate the effort. Indeed, I bet that Hitchens would be highly pleased that someone had expended so much time and energy to denounce him posthumously in the style that he had himself mastered, even if it took the author more than a year since Hitchens’s death to produce it. Concocted in the style of a 17th-century polemical pamphlet (a literary template favored by Hitchens), UnHitched purports to be an “extended political essay” that exposes its subject as, among other things, a “terrible liar,” “ouvrierist” (one of several words deployed by the overly earnest Seymour that will drive even more learned readers to the dictionary), a plagiarist, and, most unforgivable among Hitchens’s erstwhile friends and colleagues on the Anglo-American socialist left, “the George W. Bush administration’s amanuensis.” (Full disclosure: Hitchens was a friend, mentor, and neighbor of mine.)
Undergirding all of these accusations is the assertion that Hitchens was an opportunist, and that his supposed transformation from a radical into a “left-wing defector with a soft spot for empire” was a conscious rebranding assumed for reasons of self-promotion. Seymour claims that the narrative of a left-to-right shift, however, was wildly overstated, particularly by Hitchens himself, and that “not only was Hitchens a man of the right in his last years, but his predilections for a certain kind of right-wing radicalism … pre-dated his apostasy.”
An early example of Hitchens’s reactionary sympathies that Seymour cites is his support for Great Britain in the 1982 Falklands War, a jingoistic position Seymour attributes to “melancholic feelings associated with the passing of fantasies of imperial omnipotence.” Seymour imputes imperialist motives solely to the British attempt to regain control over the islands, and not the grossly illegal and unprovoked invasion by Argentina. In so doing, he puts himself on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta, not to mention some of the more hardline members of the Reagan administration, including United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who advocated that Washington side with Buenos Aires. And Seymour has the gall to claim that Hitchens betrayed leftist principles?
Elsewhere, Seymour describes Hitchens as a “nationalist” or supporter of “nationalism,” the “nation” to which he ultimately offered his slavish devotion being not the country of his birth but rather his adopted homeland of the United States. “In Hitchens’ case, amor patriae took the place of socialist confraternity,” Seymour judges. It is this claim, perhaps more than any other, that would anger Hitchens most were he alive today. For Hitchens developed his political consciousness during the Vietnam War, which he viewed as imperialist aggression, and throughout the Cold War he frequently trumpeted the causes of various left-wing revolutionary groups and lambasted the foreign policy of the United States. What earns Hitchens the label “liberal imperialist” was his latter-day realization that, at least in the post-Cold War, the might of the United States could be used to benefit the forces of liberal democracy. For Seymour this was an unpardonable sin, and the firmest evidence that Hitchens had defected from what Seymour considers the “left.”
And if Seymour represents the predominant strain of left-wing thinking today, then it is hard to fault Hitchens for waving goodbye. In 2002, a year after the 9/11 attacks, Hitchens quit The Nation, where he had published a weekly column for two decades. He decided to do so, he wrote, because the magazine had become “the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” As if to confirm this very characterization, Seymour routinely defends, excuses, and minimizes the depredations of the two classes of people whom Hitchens loathed most: dictators and Islamists. Seymour seems to do so out of the belief that a noble anti-imperialism inevitably arises out of anti-Americanism. Muammar Gaddafi’s ruthless crushing of any dissent was nothing more than an “inability to allow any form of organized opposition,” as if his jailing dissidents was tantamount to dyslexia. Seymour also repeats the paranoid claim of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez—whom Hitchens interviewed, and later skewered, in a series of articles—that an attempted 2002 coup d’état was “US-supported,” in spite of the fact that there exists no evidence to support such a claim. Indeed, a 2009 book about the coup attempt, published by The Nation’s imprint, no less, concluded it is “extremely unlikely” that there was any American involvement. (It is grimly appropriate that UnHitched was published by Verso, the self-described “largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world,” which itself published Hitchens’s own books on topics ranging from the Elgin Marbles to Henry Kissinger).
Likewise, in arguing that Hitchens exaggerated the threat of radical Islam, Seymour minimizes it out of existence. Hitchens’s “rapprochement” with the right was possible because “what remained of his leftism could not withstand the challenge by the aerial assault of a handful of motivated jihadists.” Seymour elsewhere mocks Hitchens, along with anyone else who viewed with alarm the murder of 3,000 Americans, the Taliban’s support of the murderous deed via its sheltering of al Qaeda, and the global network of violent extremists who continue to wage such deadly attacks (usually on their fellow Muslims), as “conjur[ing] a civilizational challenge out of a handful of combatants with box cutters.” Seymour terms Hitchens’s linking the Kurdistan-based “pro-al Qaeda gang Ansar al-Islam” to Jordanian al Qaeda terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as a “non-sensical conspiracy theory.” And he does so based upon the testimony of none other than Mullah Krekar, the head of Ansar al-Islam living in exile in Norway, as if the words of someone who lauded Osama bin Laden as a “good man” and mourned Zarqawi’s death as “bad news” should be trusted at face value.
Hitchens’s beef with radical Islam was sparked by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa upon the head of the novelist Salman Rushdie for his novel The Satanic Verses. Hitchens, a friend of Rushdie’s, became one of his most outspoken supporters, and he viciously attacked any and all who thought that the Ayatollah had even a sliver of a point. While falling short of justifying the fatwa, Seymour faults Hitchens for simplifying what was in fact a complicated issue. According to Seymour, while the publishing of a book did not “mandate acts of tomecide in Grosvenor Square,” Muslims had the right to be “legitimately offended” in light of Britain’s colonial history and the racism still present in British society. Seymour places the worldwide Muslim rage against the book, whipped up by a theocratic dictatorship that swiftly disposed of the country’s communists, trade unionists, socialists, and other leftists shortly after the 1979 revolution that brought it to power, within a grand tradition of left-wing “anti-imperialism,” asserting that “sometime between the 1967 war [between Israel and the Arab states] and the Iranian Revolution, the ascendant form of resistant politics had become one or other variant of Islamism.” The key phrase here is “resistant politics,” the target of said “resistance” being the West. And so whoever is doing the “resisting,” no matter how reactionary, must be doing something right.
What many saw as a rather straightforward argument between the right to publish and religious totalitarianism was in fact a far more nuanced “saga” that “was saturated with these meanings and could not be limited to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.” Seymour is either ignorant or lying when he writes that “the editorials and clerical bluster in Iran had yielded little.” Ignore, for a moment, their effect on Rushdie, forced into hiding for a decade merely because he wrote a book that angered an Iranian dictator, or the lasting, silencing effect that such a death sentence puts on all writers. Think instead of Hitoshi Igarashi, the novel’s Japanese translator who was stabbed to death; Ettore Capriolo, its Italian translator who was seriously wounded in a stabbing; William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher who was shot three times; or the 37 people killed in a 1993 bombing that targeted a Turkish writer who had translated and published portions of the book.
Of course it is Hitchens’s support for the Iraq War that forms the crux of Seymour’s brief. Conceding no ground whatsoever to the left-wing arguments made by Hitchens and others for overthrowing a fascist dictator, Seymour presents a caricature of their case. Hitchens believed that “Halliburton has as much right as anyone else to take over Iraq’s oil (since Iraqis plainly could not be trusted with it themselves),” Seymour alleges. Such wording suggests that, under the reign of Saddam Hussein, regular Iraqis had any say over their country’s munificent oil resources, or that there was any plausible scenario under Saddam in which they would. It is frankly ridiculous to claim that, under Saddam, any “Iraqis” other than those senior leaders of the Baath Party had any control over the country’s oil, just as it is ridiculous to claim that an indigenous uprising along the lines of what transpired in Tunisia or Egypt could have occurred were it not for the fact that “Iraq was denied its Tahrir moment” by the West. Iraq indeed had its “Tahrir moment,” two in fact, in the Shiite south and the Kurdish north at the tail end of the Persian Gulf War. They were met with mass slaughter via helicopter gunships and genocide through chemical weapons, respectively.
Seymour’s presentation of Hitchens as a handmaiden to the American Imperium runs into trouble in the case of Libya. Hitchens was “hesitant and even slightly grudging in his support for the revolutions,” in Egypt and Tunisia, skeptical of the chances that these uprisings would result in liberal democracy. Seymour attributes this skepticism (which, two years onward, looks quite prescient in light of recent events in both countries) to Hitchens’s “hatred for the Islamists and, at bottom, his bigoted attitude towards Muslims.” So besotted, Seymour contends, was he with American military force that Hitchens could not accept an organic revolution against dictatorship that did not rely on the firepower of the U.S. Marines. “Hitchens, whatever he thought of democracy, seems to have distrusted the peoples of the Middle East with such a precious gift,” he writes. And the basis for this revolutionary skepticism, a trait Hitchens did not exactly evince during the Cold War, rested on the geopolitical fact that the masses were revolting against dictators who, unlike Saddam Hussein, had been on friendly terms with Washington.
Yet in the case of Libya, Seymour acknowledges, the regime of Muammar Gaddafi “had joined the list of dictatorships then under the protective canopy of the US and that had started to undergo revolution,” a revolution that Hitchens, early and repeatedly, said should be supported by Western military intervention. If Libya “began making eyes at the US,” indeed if “its leadership was directly allied with that of the United States,” as Seymour overstates the relationship, then it does not stand to reason that Hitchens’s post-9/11 worldview was a mere mimicry of State Department or Pentagon talking points. If that were the case, he would have joined the skeptics within the administration and elsewhere who argued that, however awful Gaddafi might be to his own people, he had renounced terrorism, taken on his own domestic Islamists, and shifted away from an anti-Western orientation. At the very least, then, he ought not be rewarded for such moves with NATO airstrikes. No matter. Ignorant of his own contradictions, Seymour has a back-up explanation for Hitchens’s support of Operation Unified Protector, which is that the “jingo” most cared about the “opportunity to once again moralize the means of violence at America’s disposal.”
Perhaps the most serious charge Seymour makes against Hitchens is that of plagiarism, serious not only for what it says about the integrity of the accused, but, at least in Hitchens’s case, significant because of his reputation, attested to even by those who despised what he wrote, as a highly original stylist, wit, and orator. Plagiarism is a grave accusation to level at any journalist, particularly one who is not even here to defend himself, and all the more irresponsible because Seymour provides no evidence to substantiate his scandalous claims. For instance, Seymour writes that “a great deal of his work on Bill Clinton’s betrayal on health care was lifted” from another journalist, yet in the footnotes concedes, “In fairness, Hitchens credited [said journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition of No One Left to Lie To,” Hitchens’s salvo against the 42nd president.
The next instance of plagiarism Seymour alleges is a 2003 retrospective review Hitchens wrote of the seminal book Orientalism by his former friend and co-author, the Columbia professor and pro-Palestinian activist Edward Said. “Much of the article is actually plagiarized from the book it is allegedly reviewing,” Seymour writes. His source for this claim, an article from Alexander Cockburn’s conspiracy theorist website Counterpunch, cites a single sentence Hitchens supposedly plagiarized from Said, which, upon inspection, reveals no plagiarism whatsoever. Seymour also alleges that “one reviewer has already detected plagiarism in the case of large tranches of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man,” yet the review in question, while certainly negative, actually states that “there is of course no question of plagiarism” by Hitchens. As for other examples of what he claims to be Hitchens’s “many plagiarisms,” Seymour offers nothing.
Not content to rest his case on mere charges of ideological deviationism, plagiarism, and opportunism, Seymour resorts to the odd personal attack. Since Seymour did not know Hitchens, he must offshore the effort to the wide array of enemies his subject accumulated, who are of course more than happy to tell Seymour nasty (and often times unverifiable) things about the deceased. For instance, Hitchens “enjoyed abusing social inferiors,” Seymour writes. It certainly comes as news to this author, who, like countless other young writers, was befriended by Hitchens early in his career. Indeed, for a man who could have spent all of his time socializing with the likes of Sean Penn and Martin Amis, Hitchens’s genuine interest in conversing with “regular” people always struck me as unusual, and special. Seymour blithely writes of Hitchens’s “habit of being rude to waiters,” a social faux pas he attributes to a single obituary in which the author recounts an anecdote, told to him by a friend, in which Hitchens, visiting a fish-and-chips shop late one evening, “loudly denounced the working classes in an exaggerated upper-class accent in order … to sharpen class contradictions and advance the revolution.” And so a playful bit of carousing half-jokingly undertaken on behalf of the working masses, some three decades old, is registered by Seymour as “habit[ual]” rudeness.
If there’s one valid critique Seymour offers, it is that Hitchens’s views on religion—best encapsulated in his blockbuster 2007 book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything—were simplistic and reductive. “The overall thrust of Hitchens’s work on religion, then, was to pin on it social evils that are the product of a much more complex set of determinations,” Seymour writes. Hitchens’s peerless skewering of the contradictions, inanities, and ills of religious fundamentalism all too often conflated the extremists with the average believer, leading him to the simplistic conclusion that formed the subtitle of his bestselling book. Likewise, Hitchens never had a satisfactory answer as to how religion could be designated as the worst phenomenon to befall humanity when the two most murderous ideologies of the 20th century—Nazism and Soviet communism—were resolutely anti-religious.
But Seymour is hardly the first, never mind the best, critic of Hitchens’s unsophisticated take on religion. And he strays too far, at times irresponsibly, in trying to paint Hitchens as an anti-religious zealot no less fanatical than the pious extremists he so relished mocking. For instance, Seymour relies solely upon the testimony of Tariq Ali, an embittered colleague of Hitchens who had a nasty falling out with him after 9/11, in claiming that Hitchens once declared he “wouldn’t shed a tear if [Iran] was wiped off the face of this earth.”
Hitchens would surely be proud that someone saw him as influential enough to merit such a fervid, if often inaccurate and borderline libelous, attack on his career. And given Hitchens’s own propensity to assail public figures as their bodies lay warm, it would be unfair to call UnHitched “cowardly” or “disrespectful” or any of the other epithets that were deployed against Hitchens in his time. What’s good for the goose, and all that. But Seymour should consider himself lucky that the subject of his book isn’t here to respond to such drivel.