Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Light of Reason Spotlights Hitchens

I should preface what follows with the confession that I consider much of the intellectual history thumbnailed in the Light of Reason post that prompts my own to be far beyond my ken, or at least something with which I am insufficiently familiar to engage fairly. But I do think Silber's interpretation of this fairly recent interview with Hitchens is more merciless than warranted.

Where Silber loses me (in the sense that I am loath even to chime in for fear of revealing my ignorance) is in the heart of its post, where it indicts the following excerpt from Hitchens' interview:

Q – If there was a Democratic president on 9/11, would there have been a difference of opinion in the American left about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Not from people like Michael Moore (the American film director and strong critic of President Bush), who makes a perfectly good brownshirt [fascist]. Or Noam Chomsky. No, it would not. To them it would have been further proof that the ruling class just has two faces and one party. But I think, in the mainstream of the democratic and Republican parties, you would have seen an exact switch. Richard Holbrooke’s position (Holbrooke was Clinton’s UN Ambassador and is a leading Democratic foreign policy thinker) would be Dick Cheney’s position. The ones in the middle would have just done a switch, finding arguments to support or criticize the war. In fact, I remember that people in the Clinton administration spoke of an inevitable confrontation coming with Saddam. They dropped this idea only because it was a Republican president. That is simply disgraceful. It is likewise disgraceful how many Republicans ran as isolationists against [former Vice-President] Al Gore in the 2000 elections. The only people who come out of this whole affair well are an odd fusion of the old left – the small pro regime change left – and some of the people known as neoconservatives who have a commitment to liberal democracy. Many of the neocons have Marxist backgrounds and believe in ideas and principles and have worked with both parties in power.

Silber replies, in part:

What Hitchens admits here is partly accurate, but his characterization is most decidedly not. It is undeniably true that many of today’s neoconservatives are former liberals and leftists, and some of them are Trotskyites like Hitchens himself. {snip}

As I have said on a number of occasions, in their transition from left to right, their worship of the State and of authoritarianism generally is the one constant that has remained unchanged for these leftists-turned-neoconservatives. In addition, as I explained here, these newly-minted rightists were leftists of a particular kind: they were vicious nihilists—and nihilists they remain.

{big snip}

Given this background and the further analysis offered in my earlier pieces, we can see that Hitchens is telling a vicious lie when he maintains that these “old leftists” and contemporary neoconservatives “have a commitment to liberal democracy.” They didn’t then, and they don’t now. What they revere is the authoritarian state, which would dictate every aspect of our lives both here and abroad.

I don't know that I need a doctorate, or any other special credential in intellectual history, to challenge the conclusion that what Hitchens and his old-left brethren want is "the authoritarian state." To me, this looks an attempt to lump one's intellectual adversaries with "the bad guys," adversaries of principle if you like, a practice and meta-topic that has prompted quite a little cat-fight over at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Of course, Hitchens does himself no favors when he concludes the interview this way:

They [Islamist radicals or, as Hitchens calls them, Islamo-fascists] gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any. We can't live on the same planet as them and I'm glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders and rapists and torturers and child abusers. Its them or me. I'm very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it's also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.

I find this language as grim as Silber does, and, no doubt, that's exactly what Hitchens wants me to do. Silber comments:

This is the mentality of the Apocalyptic Crusader, the man who yearns for sacred violence and death as the means of purification of a corrupted world—the destruction which is indispensable in his view for the creation of a new totalitarian state. From that perspective, he and our actual enemies are genuine soulmates—which is, not coincidentally but by the inner logic of the premises they both share, why they are locked in this battle to the death. (More on this subject will be found in this post from earlier today.) [link in original]

Even if Silber is right that Hitchens here and in general advocates a purifying conflagration, I'm still not sure how he leaps from this to accuse Hitchens of totalitarian sympathies. I am even more incredulous that Silber would find in this broad typing justification for equating Hitchens' program -- evidently prescriptive and elitist, to be fair -- with something apocalyptic. That he would serve the ends of his leftism by force in egregious cases is something entirely different than suggesting we must burn it all down and start again, and is different than the absence of imagination Silber excoriates elsewhere in connection with the modern right.

Silber conveniently fails to address this preamble to Hitchens' admittedly strident closing remarks:

Q - Some have said that only columnists and public intellectuals can afford principles, whereas politicians sometimes must succumb to realism. In your book, Why Orwell Matters, you admired Orwell because you said that he understood that that politics are fleeting but principles endure. In our day, can a politician rule by principle?

A - It depends on what the principle is. If the principle is that all men are equal or created equal, I don’t think its possible to observe that principle in practice. But if the principle is, say, something cruder such as: can we coexist with aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies, then I think you not only can but you should act consistently against that. Never mind the principles for one minute, but the lesson of realism is: that if you don’t fight them now you fight them later.

The observation that as a matter of historical fact, we tend to end up fighting crusaders, to use Silber's words, on either their terms or ours seems, if nothing else, defensible, and certainly illuminates Hitchens comments in favor of fighting the "Islamo-Fascists" now. It would also be nice to hear more about Hitchens' observation of his fundamental solidarity with leftists in the Middle East that he believes, in the spirit of the old left, requires him to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as a matter of duty, even where that leads him to applaud regime change. "I have friends and comrades in the Iraqi and Kurdish left," he says, "going back at least till the early 1990s. For me, supporting the war was an elementary duty of solidarity. I said: I'm on your side and I’ll stay there until you’re in and they’re out. "

I've been a layperson fan of Hitchens, ever since, following my reading of Letters to a Young Contrarian (a wry but thoughtful gift from my Grandmother in response to a veritable generation of my implacability at the holiday dinner table, which also, incidentally, has some of the most amusing cover art I've seen in a while), I started paying a great deal more attention to his work.

I also feel compelled to note that Hitchens here, as in many other instances and as the title of the above-mentioned book suggests, is studiedly inflammatory. I'm pretty sure Silber took the bait, just as Hitchens would have it.


Anonymous binky said...

Hitchens has taken quite a turn to the conservative since 9-11 though. I used to enjoy him (Letters... but not so much anymore.

Silber, ah Silber. I often wish he would quote someone other than himself, but he is incisive.

4:38 PM  

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