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Christopher Hitchens, RIP
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December 17, 2011, 05:04 AM
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Slate today has 26 articles on the late Christopher Hitchens. For an "iconoclast," he seems awfully popular with everybody who is anybody.

Perhaps I may be forgiven for offering a more critical assessment of the critic and pundit.

Hitchens getting the Iraq War catastrophically wrong evidently had minimal impact on his celebrity. Of course, it`s fair to ask: has anybody`s career suffered from getting Iraq wrong? Has anybody`s career prospered from getting Iraq right, other than maybe Obama for giving a single speech against it?

On the other hand, as a long-time Trotskyite critic of American imperialism, Hitchens` accomplishment in getting Iraq wrong was a singularly epic own-goal. It`s almost as ridiculous as it would have been if Noam Chomsky had suddenly decided in the early 2000s that the single American foreign policy effort he would support in his lifetime would be stupidest one of all. Of course, Chomsky didn`t get Iraq wrong, and he is deeply resented in the Washington Post-owned media for finally being clearly right. Hitchens did get Iraq wrong, and is a saint to the mainstream media. 

More generally, English journalists tend to be better than American journalists at using the English language, whether on paper or in person, whether sober or drunk. Thus, I must confess that I could never quite grasp why Christopher Hitchens, out of all the talented English journalists in the world, was so celebrated. He was quite good, but they`re all pretty good (his uncelebrated brother Peter Hitchens is the obvious contrast). After awhile, I guess, C. Hitchens was famous for being famous. By random luck, somebody has to be.

It certainly helped that he kept shifting around — moving to America, deciding he was ethnically Jewish, becoming a neocon, etc etc — so he could keep picking up new audiences who hadn`t been so exposed to his Traditional English Journalist shtick and who weren`t bored with his writing yet. (Like some other neocons, however, he retained part of his Trotskyite faith well into his neocon years. Here is Hitchens` 2004 tribute to Trotsky in The Atlantic.)

Perhaps the secret of Hitchens` fame was that he was at least satisfactory in both his roles as a journalist for hire and as a heavy-drinking celebrity. His many, many articles were, typically, more or less worth reading, even if I can`t remember at the moment much of anything he`s written. What is exceptional about Hitchens is that he managed to churn them out at great pace and with a level of quality okay for the Internet age while also going to endless parties, lunches, dinners, debates, symposiums, and television appearances. In other words, Hitchens was good enough at the conflicting duties he undertook.

Other English journalists have crashed and burned while trying to do both. For example, Anthony Haden-Guest (the illegitimate brother of mockumentary maker / aristocrat Christopher Guest, who is the Fifth Baron of Saling) made a huge splash on the New York literary party circuit when he arrived a generation ago. Tom Wolfe was so amused by him that he sponsored his entry into New York cafe society, but both Haden-Guest`s writing and charm fell off under the strain of non-stop partying. Wolfe wound up turning him into the character of the poisonous English journalist Peter Fallow in The Bonfire of the Vanities. (You`ll sometimes see it stated that Hitchens was Wolfe`s model for Fallow, but Haden-Guest was much more the original. But, Wolfe`s larger point is that there are a whole bunch of English journalists of this ilk. Journalism is like acting in this regard: English culture is better at developing acting talent than is American culture.)

In contrast, Hitchens managed to walk the tightrope of being good enough at both celebrityhood and journalism, which speaks well of his energy and resilience.

Hitchens` long track record of sniffing out the current most lucrative ideological position in the Anglo-American journalism industry wasn`t, so far as I can tell, driven by mercenary motives. He seemed sincere, but his underlying motivations for his ideological changes tended to be absurdly personal.

For example, Christopher`s conversion from scourge to advocate of American imperialism was related to his sibling rivalry over his parent`s affections that he waged with his level-headed brother Peter, who took after their level-headed father. In contrast, Christopher identified with his troubled mother, who killed herself in Cyprus. Christopher later discovered that their mother was about 1/8th Jewish, but solely through the female line, thus giving him a rabbinically orthodox claim to Jewishness. From the Jewish Telegraph Agency`s obituary: "Despite his rejection of religious precepts, Hitchens would make a point of telling interviewers that according to Halacha, he was Jewish."

His brother Peter found this deduction about their mutual ethnicity to be eye-rolling. But this genealogical discovery helped grease the skids for Christopher`s conversion to neocon invade-the-worldism.

Here is the remarkable 2005 transcript of the first meeting of the Hitchens Brothers after years of estrangement. As I remarked at the time:

I`ve pointed out that what might look like ideological clashes on the surface are often actually just rationalizations for ethnic clashes between extended families, but the Hitchens Brothers represent an interesting case of an ethnic clash between brothers within a nuclear family. Peter was the favorite of their English father, Christopher of their [slightly] Jewish mother. Christopher is still an atheist, but as Paul Johnson pointed out in his "History of the Jews," it`s been common down through the centuries for young atheist intellectuals to become more focused on Jewish ethnic interests as they age, without necessarily becoming theists. The conversion to the ideology of neoconism of Christopher, who, despite his hatred of religion, has taken to dropping in to synagogues as he travels to express his ethnic solidarity, is a good example of this venerable tendency toward gerontocratic ethnocentrism.

As a journalist, Hitchens always struck me as fairly comparable to his former colleague at The Nation, Alexander Cockburn. (In fact, I got them confused a lot up through about 1999, partly because their views were similar and because there are three Cockburn Brother journalists and two Hitchens Brothers journalists.) Hitchens would have killed to be the first cousin once-removed of Evelyn Waugh like the Cockburn Brothers are. (And Alexander`s niece is movie starlet Olivia Wilde.) Being the son of communist Claude Cockburn and the relative of the reactionary Waugh is the epitome of Hitchens` combination of bloodthirsty politics and conservative literary culture. 

But, Cockburn was right about Iraq, so don`t expect him to get one-tenth of the same sendoff from the mainstream media when he kicks the bucket.

P.S., from Cockburn`s "Farewell to C.H.:"

I met him in New York in the early 1980s and all the long-term political and indeed personal  traits were visible enough. I never thought of him as at all radical. He craved to be an insider, a trait which achieved ripest expression when he elected to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen by Bush’s director of Homeland Security, Michael Chertoff. 


That seems reasonable. Hitchens was a talented, energetic, clubbable fellow who wanted to be an insider and got what he wanted. So, he`s worth studying to understand what is Inside these days.