The Two Christophers

Hitchen's memoir and the importance of second thoughts.

(I had just finished the draft of this essay when I heard the terrible news that my friend Christopher had a cancer whose prognosis was dire. My heart and thoughts go out to him, as they would to a brother. I have known Christopher as a man of great courage and decency and have an affection for him that is not adequately disclosed in the intellectual argument that follows. As an argument Christopher I am sure will welcome it as a test of his mettle and a testament to the way in which he has – and will continue – to challenge us all. —DH)

I first met Christopher Hitchens in 1970 when I was editing Ramparts, then the largest magazine of the left. Christopher, who was fresh out of Oxford and ten years my junior, was embarking on his first adventure in the New World. When he arrived at my Berkeley office looking for guidance, and after we had gotten acquainted, he asked me in all seriousness, “Where is the working class?” Only the devout left — the “holy rollers” as I thought of them — still believed in this mythical entity in the nation where every man was king. But rather than make an issue of it, I directed my visitor to the local Trotskyists, failing to realize that he was one of them.

Our next encounter took place a dozen years later and was not nearly as pleasant. By then I had abandoned most tenets of the leftist faith, although not yet departed its community. I was invited to a small lunch at which Christopher was present with Nation editors Victor Navasky and Kai Bird, and one or two others. Before long the conversation at the table turned to the Middle East and I found myself confronting what in those days we referred to as a political “gut check.” What was my attitude, Christopher wanted to know, towards Israel’s invasion of Lebanon?  The left abhorred the invasion whose purpose was to clear out the PLO terrorists who had entrenched themselves behind an international border and were shelling towns in northern Israel killing civilians. “This is the first Israeli war I have supported,” I said, thereby ending any fraternal possibilities for the remainingconversation.

Two years later, my writing partner Peter Collier and I voted for Ronald Reagan, and three years after that organized a “Second Thoughts” conference, which brought together former radicals like ourselves who had become advocates of the anti-Communist cause, specifically in Nicaragua and Vietnam. Christopher came to the conference with his Nation co-hort and long-time friend, Alexander Cockburn, and attacked us. In the Nation column he filed after our event, Christopher described its implication that second thoughts might be superior to first ones as “smug,” and my suggestion that supporting America’s enemies should be considered treason, as “sinister.”[1] He made his feelings about second thoughts explicit later in a brutal attack on Paul Johnson sneering at his “well advertised stagger from left to right,” which Christopher regarded as the venal maneuver of someone “who, having lost his faith, believes that he had found his reason.”[2]

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