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His range is extraordinary, both in breadth and in altitude. He is as self-confident on the politics of Lebanon as on the ontology of the Harry Potter books. He can pivot from the court of Henry VIII to the Baader-Meinhof gang, then stoop to the question of whether fellatio is the quintessentially American sex act. He reviews the Ten Commandments, offering some thoughtful revisions. He wages war against euphemism — most vividly by having himself subjected to waterboarding, so that he can report with authority that it is not an “enhanced interrogation” technique but unquestionably “torture.”
It would be antithetical to the Hitchens spirit to cut him slack just because I like him (he’s been a friend of my wife’s for many years, and his alcohol-propelled conversation is a captivating form of performance art) or because he is dying of cancer. So let’s acknowledge that some of the essays in this collection are exceedingly smug. He has no qualms about adding insult to injury: Karen Hughes is a “braying Bush-crony ignoramus”; President Kennedy was not only “a moral defective and a political disaster,” but “a poxed and suppurating Philoctetes.” He repeats himself. Some of his work feels dashed off. A few pieces fall flat from an excess of trying. In a Vanity Fair bit called “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” he posits that men are funnier for Darwinian reasons: hapless males need the gift of humor to persuade women to mate with them. In the introduction to the book, he describes this as “the most instantly misinterpreted of all my articles,” but I think it is possible to interpret it correctly and still find it patronizing and, worse, criminally unfunny.
So, having paid my dues to critical candor, I still find Hitchens one of the most stimulating thinkers and entertaining writers we have, even when — perhaps especially when — he provokes. And while he clearly wants to win you over, you always sense that he is playing in part to the jury of history, which is why so much of what he might, in a rare self-deprecating moment, refer to as hackwork stands up so well to anthologizing.
Although he is possessed of a free-range mind, I think it is grossly unfair to charge, as some of his former friends on the socialist left have done, that he is an intellectual opportunist or a dilettante or a mere provocateur. He is a man of beliefs, and while they are often arguable (note the title of the book), they seem to me genuine and coherent.
One of his beliefs, of course, is unbelief. He regards God as a superstition employed by religions for the purpose of control and repression. His hostility to religion has been fortified by the rise of Islamic extremism, which he tends to take personally, in part because of the fatwa against his good friend Salman Rushdie. His aversion to religion has offended many, and even those who are not devout may complain that he tends to overlook benign aspects of religious faith and practice, but his critique is generally more thoughtful than scornful. As Michael Kinsley has written in these pages, “God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult.”
More important, Hitchens’s wariness of religion is not just an iconoclastic taunt (his denunciation of Mother Teresa falls more into that category), but a component part of an ideology with a fine pedigree. He treasures secular governance, reasoned argument, pluralism, tolerance (except of the humorless or the boring) and freedom, and loathes the wicked isms of oppression — communism, imperialism, racism and above all totalitarianism.
His obvious role model is George Orwell, who recurs often in this volume as subject, moral touchstone, literary kibitzer, footnote and foil. One senses that in his enthusiasm for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — which arise in this volume more incidentally than frontally, in a piece on the emancipation of Afghan women or a report on a holiday in Iraqi Kurdistan — Hitchens is emulating Orwell’s embrace of the Republican cause against Franco’s fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Another ism he rejects is pacifism.
Hitchens is often grouped with a generation of dazzlingly clever British writers who happen to be his friends — Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, James Fenton — but what sets him apart in important ways, and what struck me forcefully reading this collection, is that he is an American. Not American born or educated (probably just as well), but American by choice. He took citizenship in 2007 after a quarter-century as a resident. Much of this book, including the opening chapter of essays under the heading “All American,” reflects his idiosyncratic take on what his adopted country means to him.
His can seem a narrowly coastal America. The flyover states don’t much exist. A journalist who is such an empathetic observer in Kabul or Ho Chi Minh City seems to have little reportorial curiosity about the space between Washington, where he lives, and California, where he has spent his summers. On the rare occasions when he ventures out of his American comfort zone, as in a visit to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, he is bemused to learn that real people — “good-humored, outspoken and tough-minded” — reside there. It is interesting that he mocks John Updike for displaying “an intellectual and aesthetic disgust . . . with the grossness and banality of much of American life.” Updike’s view of ordinary Americans may be reductionist or genteel, but at least he has one. Hitchens finds much to love about America, but on the evidence of this collection, he seems to find it mostly in books.
But what he finds is no less genuine and essential for being rather cerebral. Hitchens holds to an America founded on secularism and the separation of powers, a nation with an admirable affection for revolutionaries and misfits, a defining embrace of variety.
At a time when America is experiencing a resurgent campaign to proclaim us a “Judeo-Christian nation,” Hitchens delights in the plentiful evidence that the founders were not all that religious and certainly not interested in creating a sectarian country. “The ancestor of the American Revolution was the English Revolution of the 1640s, whose leaders and spokesmen were certainly Protestant fundamentalists, but that did not bind the framers and cannot be said to bind us, either,” he writes, in a Weekly Standard review of Brooke Allen’s book “Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers,” which is, not coincidentally, the first essay in this book. “Indeed, the established Protestant church in Britain was one of the models which we can be quite sure the signatories of 1776 were determined to avoid emulating.”
Hitchens erects his own pantheon of American heroes, and the country offers no end of inventive, radical, idealistic and activist figures for him to admire. Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine and Lincoln all get loving and refreshing treatment here. Not surprisingly, he takes the side of those who regard the antislavery insurrectionist John Brown as a visionary hero against those who deem him a terrorist. (Morally, Hitchens is more about ends than means; his book is dedicated to three Arab suicides who martyred themselves in the Arab Spring, one by car-bombing a Libyan Army post.) He embraces the literature of Mark Twain, Upton Sinclair, Saul Bellow and others, finding in American writing since the founding “a certain allegiance to the revolutionary and emancipating idea.”
In Jefferson’s decision to send the young American Navy against the extortionist Barbary pirates, Hitchens discovers a precedent for the current American engagements with Islamic fanatics, and an argument for a selective but bold use of American power in the world. Elsewhere, he takes on Graham Greene’s moral cynicism about America’s part in the cold war.
At times the book feels like an ongoing argument with the leftist intellectuals on the other side of the Atlantic, who tend to view America as lacking in history, culture or moral standing.
In an essay on the journalism of Karl Marx, written for the left-leaning Guardian, he puts an elbow in the ribs of his old socialist friends: “If you are looking for an irony of history, you will find it . . . in the fact that he and Engels considered Russia the great bastion of reaction and America the great potential nurse of liberty and equality. This is not the sort of thing they teach you in school (in either country).”
“There is currently much easy talk about the ‘decline’ of my adopted country, both in confidence and in resources,” he writes in his introduction. “I don’t choose to join this denigration.”
Christopher Hitchens: American patriot. We’ve done a lot worse.
If there is a God, and he lacks a sense of irony, he will send Hitchens to the hottest precinct of hell. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library. Either way, heaven will be a less interesting place.Continue reading the main story
By Christopher Hitchens
788 pp. Twelve. $30.