Christopher Hitchens, who died just over a year ago after a stoic and very public struggle with esophageal cancer, wasn’t one to pull punches on fools, saints or the recently departed. When Jerry Falwell died, Hitchens went on national television to express his satisfaction that a man he regarded as a traitor and charlatan was no longer with us. He memorialized the 2003 death of Bob Hope with an essay ending with the line: “Hope was a fool, and nearly a clown, but he was never even remotely a comedian.” For those he found dangerous, despicable or merely wanting, death offered no quarter.
That one of his many detractors would now seek to put him on trial seems entirely fair. And what a fascinating proceeding it could be. The accused was a British-born Trotskyist who spent the last decade of his life as a propagandist for the invasion and occupation of Iraq and the neoconservative worldview from which it sprang. He had been unflinching in his prosecution of those he saw as standing on the side of tyranny and totalitarianism, but he targeted not just obvious choices such as Henry Kissinger, Nicolae Ceausescu and Osama bin Laden, but unexpected onesuch as Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. He was enormously gifted as a speaker, writer and provocateur, but was sometimes impaired by intellectual certainty and an ultimately fatal overindulgence in wine, whiskey and smokes. Rakish and infuriating, a charismatic purveyor of impolite arguments, Hitchens is a most intriguing defendant; in the hands of a forthright, talented and fair-minded prosecutor, his intellectual trial could be the stuff of greatness.
Unfortunately, Richard Seymour’s “Unhitched” is not such a book. The author — a Marxist writer and activist born in Northern Ireland and living in London — has done his research, apparently having read almost everything his subject ever wrote, but in the service of the narrow goals of the over-zealous prosecutor. The result is a polemic that is breathlessly strident, frequently overreaching and so awkwardly freighted with four-dollar words that readers may find themselves looking forward to the next extended quote from Hitchens’s work.
Much ink has already been spilled on Hitchens’s startling conversion from Nation columnist to Iraq war hawk in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from decrying “neconservative ratbags” to befriending Paul Wolfowitz and taking his U.S. citizenship oath, at his request, before Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. Hitchens’s admirers on the left were appalled by his comments regarding the Pentagon’s use of cluster bombs in Afghanistan (“pretty good” because they’d go through multiple enemy combatants and “if they’re bearing a Koran over their heart, it’ll go straight through that too”); the death toll in the 2004 siege of Fallujah (“not nearly high enough . . . too many [jihadists] escaped”); or, with several years of hindsight, the wisdom of the Iraq invasion (“historians will not conclude . . . that the international community ought to have postponed any further”).
Seymour notes that such a conversion is by no means unprecedented. John Spargo, Max Eastman, James Burnham and Irving Kristol also belonged to this “recognizable type: a left-wing defector with a soft spot for empire.” For leftists, the conversion comes “the moment they perceive the militarized nation state as the appropriate defender of progress or democracy,” particularly against a totalitarian challenge, be it fascism, Stalinism or radical Islamic terrorism. For Hitchens, Seymour writes, the realization came that “religion, and specifically Islam, was an underestimated force for evil in world affairs” and that “the US empire could be a countervailing force for good,” imposing, in Hitchens’s words, “a revolution from above” on places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
But Seymour seeks to show that this new, post-9/11 Hitchens had not been “cut entirely from new cloth.” He reveals Hitchens as having had a lifelong admiration both for the United States and for empires as civilizing forces. There was his support for the British operation to recapture the Falkland Islands from Argentina (“I couldn’t possibly see the UK defeated by those insanitary riffraff,” he later said). There was his 1992 Nation essay in which he declared 1492 to have been “a very good year” and chastised 500th-anniversary protesters for thinking “of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway.” He went on to say that the Roman conquest of Britain had been “a huge advance” because it linked “the savage English tribes” with the more advanced civilizations of the Mediterranean basin.
But, as frequently occurs in this book, Seymour insists on advancing his argument from solid ground onto very thin ice. Hitchens’s reversal on Bosnia — from arguing that the outside world should do nothing about ethnic cleansing and the barbaric siege of Sarajevo to forcefully arguing for intervention against “Serbian and Croat fascists acting in collusion” — is cast as an immoral capitulation to American imperialism. So, too, is his call for humanitarian intervention to prevent the massacre of Kurdish refugees at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, another stance one would think that a leftist animated against right-wing tyranny would applaud. Instances of Hitchens opposing some of America’s more morally complicated interventions — Vietnam, Nicaragua — get scant attention.
There are plenty of other examples of overreach, including long indictments of Hitchens’s love of the works of Rudyard Kipling (of “white man’s burden” fame) and George Orwell, whom Seymour faults for having succumbed to patriotism and war fever as the Luftwaffe bombed his city and the armies of the Third Reich marched across Europe. Hitchens’s defense in 2007 of the relatively permissive and decidedly secular dictatorship of Tunisia is cast as the willful coddling of a neo-liberal capitalist regime, rather than a failure to appreciate the frustrations of that country’s people, 224 of whom died in the revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.
Hitchens was brilliant and inconsistent, and too fond of turning on his former allies. One might argue that he doesn’t deserve more fair-minded treatment than he dished out, but we readers do.
The Trial of Christopher Hitchens
By Richard Seymour
Verso. 134 pp. Paperback, $16.95