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The Unswerving Eye (and Pen) of Christopher Hitchens

Thursday, March 5, 2009

hitchLove, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays

Christopher Hitchens

I received this book as a gift from Sarah and Graeme something like four or five years ago now (insert cliché about time going by quickly here).  I slotted it into my book shelf where it sat quietly unread for a few years, thus making it one of the premier candidates to accompany me here to Taipei.

I’m not sure why I never picked it up; maybe it was because I was still going through the collected essays of George Orwell at the time (another gift from S&G, which unfortunately was just too bulky to fit into the suitcase at my leave-taking); or maybe because, while I had heard Hitchens’s name before, I really didn’t know whom he was.  So when I finally decided to start reading this book, I did a little poking around on the Internet.

My first impression was that he was a bit of a dick.

But I imagine that’s a lot of people’s first impression of him; unsurprisingly, I’m sure he couldn’t care less.

For he is quite the character; a self-proclaimed secularist, humanist and reasonist (reasoner?), which of course implies atheist and anti-theist, which he also is, he uses his writing to go after anyone he sees, first and foremost, betraying those sorts of ideals — especially those who do it while being hypocritical — or else those who are simply entirely on the other side of the argument.

Thus, what he calls ‘fascism with an Islamic face’ has been one of his main targets since 9/11, and he has been quite severe against governments with theocratic tendencies; this is what caused his famous ‘excommunication from the left,’ when he took issue with some liberal thinkers and others for the moral equivalency they were proposing between Bin Laden’s and the Taliban’s actions and the problems of the U.S./capitalistic system.  This shows he is an equal-opportunity rebuker: he’s accused Bill Clinton of being a war criminal over the 1998 bombing of a — claimed at the time to be a chemical weapons factory — normal pharmaceutical plant . . .

. . . I wrote three . . . columns about it at the time, pointing out (with evidence that goes unrebutted to this day) that it was a war crime, and a war crime opposed by the majority of the military and intelligence establishment.  The crime was directly and sordidly linked to the effort by a crooked president to avoid impeachment . . .

. . . claimed that Noam Chomsky is losing his way (or perhaps going senile?) . . .

I have begun to think that Noam Chomsky has lost or is losing the qualities that made him a great moral and political tutor in the years of the Indochina war . . . I don’t say this out of any ‘more in sorrow than anger’ affectation: I have written several defences of him and he knows it.  But the last time we corresponded, some months ago, I was appalled by the robotic element both of his prose and of his opinions.

. . . scathingly attacked Michael Moore and Fahrenheit 9/11 . . .

To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.  To describe this film as a piece of crap would be to run the risk of a discourse that would never again rise above the excremental.  To describe it as an exercise in facile crowd-pleasing would be too obvious.  Fahrenheit 9/11 is a sinister exercise in moral frivolity, crudely disguised as an exercise in seriousness.  It is also a spectacle of abject political cowardice masking itself as a demonstration of ‘dissenting’ bravery.

. . . and written an entire book attacking one of the most sacred cows (pun intended) of our time,  Mother Teresa . . .

When asked if I knew anything about her work among the poor . . . I replied that I had walked around Calcutta in her company and formed the conclusion that she was not so much a friend of the poor as a friend of poverty.  She praised poverty and disease and suffering as gifts from on high, and told people to accept these gifts joyfully.  She was adamantly opposed to the only policy that has ever alleviated poverty in any country — that is, the empowerment of women, and the extension of their control over their own fertility.  Her famous Catholic clinic was in fact nothing more than a primitive hospice — a place for people to die, and a place where medical treatment was vestigial or nonexistent (when she became ill herself, she flew first-class to a private clinic in California).  The vast sums of money she raised were spent mainly on building convents in her own honor.  And she had befriended a whole series of rich crooks and exploiters, ranging from Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings & Loan to the hideous Duvalier dynasty in Haiti, having accepted from both large donations of money that had actually been stolen from the poor.

The preceding quotes are all taken from the book which is the main topic of this post; it is a collection of Hitchens’s essays from a period of roughly the last twenty years, ranging from the end of the first Gulf War to first few months of the current Iraq War.  A lot of them deal with political topics — he writes about everything from the emancipation from Serbia of Montenegro, Cuba, Israel, the Kurds, and, in one of my favourites, North Korea — but a big chunk of them are devoted to more untroubled topics, such as ruminations on Kipling, Joyce, Huxley and Graham Greene, and also some travelogues and mini-histories about places like Sunset Blvd. and the old Route 66.  All this, plus how he watched a man executed in a Missouri penitentiary.  One criticism you could never lob at Hitchens is that he hasn’t experienced what he writes about.  He certainly has, probably more so then most other commentators around today.

He’s been to over sixty countries.  When he writes about the hopes and aspirations of the Kurds for a homeland of their own, it’s because he’s been there, in Kirkuk, talking with people and forming his own opinion about it; he was on the Pakistani-Afghan border about a month after 9/11, covering the war on the Taliban in person; he’s been to Pyongyang, surveying the bleak, Orwellian landscape for himself (and I invoke Orwell here again quite intentionally, as that seminal essayist is one of Hitchens’s greatest influences — mine too, but that’s neither here nor there, I’m sure).

His writing has the weight of authenticity because of this insistence of experiencing everything first-hand; to wit, during the whole waterboarding debate in the U.S. a few years back, he initially came out on the side for it, claiming that it wasn’t torture; however, the editors of Vanity Fair then said, okay, well if it’s not torture, why don’t you see for yourself?  Like a good investigative reporter, he agreed to undergo the procedure; when, afterward, faced with fairly obvious evidence that it is in fact torture, he quickly changed his mind (warning — the video is slightly disturbing):

He has argued any good intellectual must be willing to consider his/her views and possibly change his/her mind when faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary; it is this acceptance and obeisance to the investigative method which I think ensures he will never betray himself or his ideals in his writing, one reason I would obviously recommend this book and any other writing by him.  Even if you find yourself disagreeing with him here and there, at least you can’t argue with the authenticity of his ideas, even if he is somewhat facetious some of the time (though any polemicist can fall prey to that small vice every once in  while).

Although, it is that occasional facetiousness which does still make him kind of a dick . . . though I realize now that when he’s doing seemingly ‘dickish’ things, it’s usually with a wink and a nudge and a kiss on the cheek, and not with any ill intent (which is exactly the definition of facetious, I suppose, so . . . no harm no foul).

I love how he’s wearing his ‘Vanity Fair costume’ in this one, compared to his usual rumpled appearance (complete with the glass of what I’m sure is a very nice scotch).

Finally, if you want to get an in-depth look into his beliefs and opinions about things, you can check out these two hour-long interviews, the first with a guy who looks like how Baxter Stockman would have turned out had he been a history professor (and, you know, a real person), the second from Google literary event where he discusses religion (which is an excellent watch).


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