Christopher Hitchens sent me an email in response to the first story I ever published. And he was an asshole about it.
I don’t have the email and the story is no longer online. But, in short: I wrote a rambling, self-indulgent review of Infinite Jest, a book that I had not at the time of the review yet read, for my college magazine. It’s the sort of dumb stunt a lot of precocious writers in their early 20s pull and while it went largely unnoticed, Hitchens sent me an angry letter in response to it.
Judging from the annoyed tone of his email, it seems he was looking for a sincere review of David Foster Wallace’s book and stumbled on my thing by accident (this was before google was invented and before corporate content drowned out the amateur bullshit that composed 98 percent of web content at the time). He found my jokey non-review to be frivolous and belabored.
I wish I could remember what $3 word he used to describe my prose. It meant “masturbatory,” but was way more obscure and English.
My feelings weren’t hurt at the time, but looking back now, I’m puzzled. Why even bother? It wasn’t yet the rule that all print publications would also have websites, so there were less things on the web. But I’d have to imagine that Hitchens would have been able to assess that something called the “Other Voice” hosted by Trincoll.edu would be below his attention.
But I think it was indicative of one of his core faults as a writer and public figure: his lack of a sense of proportion. He was angry a lot and was equally angry about everything. He was an enthusiastic debater and a master rhetorician who reduced facts to point of debates or rhetoric. He seemed to equate being a contrarian with political courage. When he was wrong, he was insufferable. Criticism would only encourage him, as he’d take it as an example of either the strength of his opinion or the weakness of the character of his critic.
All of which is fine and good sport when he was taking on the ghosts of Princess Diana or Jerry Falwell, the myth of Mother Theresa or the general threat of organized religion. Or even bitching out some precocious college writer.
But then you get to the Iraq War, the biggest foreign policy disaster of his lifetime. The only good thing that came out of it was the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a leader Hitchens had once championed and later reviled. But the death of one bad man was certainly not worth the cost. Even conservative estimates put the death toll at over 100,000 and the financial cost at $800 billion (anyone interested in a sobering account of the cost of U.S. war in the 2000s should read this Brown University-run website, which puts the total cost of military excursions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan at almost $4 trillion). It made the American military look like chumps and squandered international post 9-11 goodwill while galvanizing radical Islam forces.
Still, at every opportunity, Hitchens doubled down on his support for it.
In the past couple of days I’ve been tracking down writers obits of Hitchens. It’s somewhat heartening to see so much attention lumped on a writer, but the memorials are hard to take. Christopher Buckley’s smarmy memorial in the New Yorker is probably the worst, with its ghoulish namedropping and praise for Hitchen’s warmongering framed as bravery. But a couple pieces are braver and better. Surprisingly, one of the best is from the conservative British weekly the Economist, which I’ve excerpted below.
Mr Hitchens’ support for the invasion of Iraq largely ruined his writing for me, for most of the last decade. He was viewing things in the Mideast through the lens of these rigid poltiical categories derived from European political conflicts of the 1920s-70s, and he couldn’t seem to see how ill-fitting the conclusions often were. He’d then pursue the line of attack in maximalist language, making it even more awkward. I thought his columns made for tedious reading. I also thought they positively obscured what was going on. Even after many of those who had supported the invasion had given up on it, Mr Hitchens refused to admit any error. In a March 2007 column that will most likely not be on anyone’s list of favourites, he constructs a tortuous labyrinth of questions which allow him to present the illusion that not only was the decision to invade correct on the basis of what we knew in 2003, but that even in retrospect, the world would not be any better off had the invasion never taken place. Nowhere in this weird syllogism do the words “casualties”, “torture”, or “dollars” appear.
Another surprise? The gossip-obsessed contrarian snarksters at Gawker put up a concise and tightly argued post about Hitchens’ Iraq War folly.
Hitchens’ style—ironically, given his hatred for tyranny and love of free expression—brooked no dissent. There was little room for good-faith disagreement or loyal opposition. His enemies were not just wrong, they were stupid or mean or small-minded or liars or cheats or children or cowards. It was thrilling and gratifying to see that articulate viciousness deployed against the Clinton cartel, or Mother Teresa, or Henry Kissinger—against power and pretense. To see it deployed in favor of war, on behalf of a dullard and scion, against the hysterical mother of a dead son was nauseating.
At Salon, Glenn Greenwald has a long post that’s worth reading in full. But I like his conclusion, because of how well he makes the points I’ve been struggling to make in this blog post.
There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do.
And all the mawkish tributes to Hitchens are out of character with the approach to the passing of public figures taken by the man himself. One of his great strengths was being a dick about recently dead people. As proof, I’ll embed the video of Sean Hannity resort to calling Hitchens “mean” on TV in the tones of a wounded 6-year-old before I drop the mic and head off stage.