Christopher Hitchens was a unique and, in many ways, irresistible individual, and eventually a friend. I say “eventually” because we started off as ideological antagonists, he, a lifelong admirer of Leon Trotsky and member of the destructive left, and I, a “second thoughter,” who had become a dedicated antagonist of the movement he never left. The fact that we were friends is a tribute to Christopher, who had a graciousness and humanity that made our friendship possible. I have never encountered another leftist who didn’t allow their political prejudices to strip them of their humanity and decency when dealing with human beings whose opinions differed from theirs.
As Christopher was dying unbeknownst to me, I was writing an essay which was both a portrait of him and an attempt to confront the inconsistency of his ideas. I called it “The Two Christophers, Or the Importance of Second Thoughts,” and consider it one of the best things I have written.
The article appeared 12 years ago in Frontpagemag.com, but when I went to locate it on the Internet I discovered it had been “removed” for violating the political standards of the fascists who control the WayBackMachine, who have erased the existence of Frontpagemag.com by removing its archives from the web. What has been done by the tech fascists to bury their political opponents on Wikipedia, Google – and all search engines – is a national tragedy, and ominous portent for the future. Had he lived, Christopher would have been nauseated and horrified by what his political friends have done in the fraudulent name of “social justice.” This is what Christopher thought he was fighting against as a radical all his life. Unfortunately, he could not have been more wrong.
The Two Christophers
(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 Magazine, which was then the largest publication of the left. Christopher was ten years my junior and fresh out of Oxford, embarking on his first adventure in the New World. When he stopped in at my Berkeley office looking for guidance, one of the questions he asked me in all seriousness was, “Where is the working class?” Only the devout left — the “holy rollers” as I by that time thought of them – could still think this mythical entity was an actual social force in a nation where social classes were relics of the past, and populists had declared every man a king. But rather than make an issue, I directed my visitor to the local Trotskyists, who were true believers, failing to realize that Christopher was one of them.
Our next encounter took place a dozen years later and was not nearly as pleasant. By then I had rejected most tenets of the leftist faith, although I had not publicly abandoned its ranks. We met at a small lunch with Nation editors Victor Navasky and Kai Bird, and one or two others. Before long the conversation turned to the Middle East and I found myself confronting what we referred to in those days as a political “gut check.” What was my attitude, Christopher wanted to know, towards Israel’s invasion of Lebanon? The Israeli offensive was designed to clear out PLO terrorists who had entrenched themselves behind an international border in southern Lebanon and were shelling towns in Israel (while destroying Lebanese society in the process). Good leftists already were regarding Israel as an “imperialist” pawn of the United States and oppressor of Palestinians and therefore were opposed to Israel’s effort to protect itself. I rose imprudently to Christopher’s provocation: “This is the first Israeli war I have supported,” I said, thereby ending any fraternal possibilities for the remaining conversation.
Two years later, my co-author Peter Collier and I voted for Ronald Reagan, and three years after that we organized a “Second Thoughts” conference bringing together other former radicals who had become advocates of the anti-Communist cause. Christopher came to the conference with his Nation cohort Alexander Cockburn to attack us. In the column he filed after our event, he described our suggestion that second thoughts might be superior to first ones as “smug,” and singled out my remark that supporting America’s enemies should be considered treason, as “sinister.” He subsequently elaborated his feelings about second thoughts in the course of a brutal article on the writer 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.” (And why not?)
But times change, and subsequently Christopher himself became associated – not entirely correctly — with a generation of post-9/11 second-thoughters. Revising some of his attitudes towards the left and its loyalties, he had vaunted a patriotism towards America he would once have thought of as, well, sinister. A climatic moment in this odyssey – or so it should have been – was the publication of an engrossing memoir of his life, which has been heretical at both ends, and which he called Hitch-22. Among its other virtues, the book provides a fertile occasion for those of us who preceded him to take a second look at our own second thoughts, and measure the distances that we, and our one-time antagonist, had come.
The man his friends call “Hitch” is a figure of such unruly contradictions it may be said of him, as Dr. Johnson said of the metaphysical poets, that he has “the ability to yoke heterogeneous ideas by violence together.” Opponent of America’s war in Vietnam and supporter of America’s war in Iraq; libertarian defender of free market capitalism and impenitent admirer of Trotsky and Marx; pro-lifer and feminist doctrinaire; friend both to neo-conservative hawk Paul Wolfowitz and to Victor Navasky, apologist for Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and Hamas.
Christopher eagerly embraces not only incompatible ideas and unlikely comrades but divergent modes of being. Both a political renegade and keeper of the flame, fierce partisan and practiced ironist, post-modern skeptic and romantic nostalgist, one-dimensional polemicist and literary polymath, passionate moralist and calculating operator, hard-headed critic and dewy-eyed sentimentalist, serious thinker and determined attention grabber, irreverent contrarian and serenader of the choir, self-styled Man of the People and accomplished social climber, and — most inexplicable of all – Oxonian gentleman and master of vitriol.
Among the things to be discovered reading Christopher’s memoir, is that there are not many things you will figure out about him that he has not already thought of himself. His chronicle opens with a wonderfully realized account of origins, containing portraits of his conservative Anglican father and his rebellious, romantic (and secretly Jewish) mother, “two much opposed and sharply discrepant ancestral stems: two stray branches that only war and chance could ever have caused to become entwined.” On the one side the mother, Yvonne, who refused to know her place; on the other, the father, a naval officer referred to as “the Commander” who knew his place and defended his country. “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom,” his radical son says in a typically inscrutable Christopher tribute, “is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.”
Those familiar with Hitchen’s writing have long appreciated his stylistic elegance. But it was not until this book that he has shown he was also a wily one, for whom Homer’s epithet for Ulysses – “deep devising” — is particularly apt, using his roguish charm and sparkling literacy to eat his cake and have it too, stutter stepping past potentially inconvenient truths.
At the outset, we are alerted to Christopher’s conscious pursuit of “the Janus-faced mode of life,” as he himself describes it. Janus is the Roman god of temple doorways, who looks both ways and is invariably depicted in his statuary with two faces. Grabbing the horns of his own enigma, Christopher observes that the doors of the temple were open in time of war, and that war “is a time when the ideas of contradiction and conflict are most naturally regnant.” The most intense wars, he writes, are civil and the most rending conflicts internal. “What I hope to do now,” he says of the text before us, “is give some idea of what it is like to fight on two fronts at once, to try and keep opposing ideas alive in the same mind, even occasionally to show two faces at the same time.”
It is the initial salvo in a campaign to defend a life that aspires to moral authenticity but often seems to skirt the edge of having it both ways — a tendency that provides his most determined enemies with an irresistible target. In the New Statesman, the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton castigates him thus: “It is as though he sees his own double-dealing as a rather agreeable versatility – as testimony to his myriad-mindedness rather than as a privileged, spoilt-brat desire (among other things) to hog it all.” Characteristically, Christopher does not duck his contradictions but embraces them, making no effort to hide the desire to eat his cake and have it or, as he puts it, to keep “double-entry books.” Describing an occasion on which his radical comrades caught him fraternizing with a notorious symbol of the reactionary ruling caste at Oxford, Christopher writes: “I could have taken refuge in some ‘know your enemy’ formulation but something in me said that this would be ignoble. I didn’t want a one-dimensional politicized life.”
Whatever may be said of these choices, they are an undeniable source of Christopher’s appeal as an enfant terrible, the reason he is far more interesting than Eagleton or any of his current batch of leftwing critics with whom he still shares fundamental beliefs. It is why reading his memoir — agree with the politics or find them merely confusing, or not – is an enterprise that is rewarding and often a delight. But Christopher’s express desire not to be confined to a single standard does not explain the life that unfolds along multiple paths, or put to rest the ethical questions that dog them.
In attempting to understand Christopher’s politics and to understand him, the reader is continually frustrated by a troubling lacuna at the heart of his text — a Hitch-22 as it were. Inexplicably for a writer so keenly observant of the world around him, Christopher’s attempt at a self-portrait lacks the introspective curiosity integral to such a task or the interior probing that would unwrap his mysteries both for himself and others.
As a way into this labyrinth, permit me the indulgence of a self-referential comment. A dozen years before Christopher’s book appeared, when I was at a similar age, I also wrote a memoir. My purpose was to give an account of the second thoughts I had had about my Marxist views and the socialist crusade on which I and my progressive comrades had embarked. Here is the way I described the point in my life when I finally had to reject the beliefs that had guided me until then: “In that very moment a previously unthinkable possibility… entered my head: The Marxist idea, to which I had devoted my entire intellectual life and work was false. … For the first time in my conscious life I was looking at myself in my human nakedness, without the support of revolutionary hopes, without the faith in a revolutionary future – without the sense of self-importance conferred by the role I would play in remaking the world. For the first time in my life I confronted myself as I really was in the endless march of human coming and going. I was nothing.”
The crisis that followed this realization formed a crucible of despair in which I had to replace the political myths that had previously sustained me and find other reasons to go on. But in Christopher’s account of his life there is no such moment of crisis and no such self-revelation. This, despite the fact that the journey he describes would seem to have warranted both. The conclusion to be drawn from this absence is that through all his surface changes Christopher has never felt a real subtraction from himself. At every stage of his career he is in his own eyes exactly what he’s always been except more so. Each twist in the road presents an opportunity for the accretion of complexity making an ever more intriguing spectacle for his observers. As my second-thoughts companion Peter Collier has expressed it, “Christopher is an oyster always working on his own pearl.”
Even if there was no such dark night of the soul when Christopher decided to abandon his hostility to a nation he had long been at war with and defend a symbol of the capitalist system he despised, such a night certainly took place earlier, when as a young man fresh out of college he was climbing onto the wave of the revolutionary future. The life-changing event was the suicide of his mother, Yvonne, who was then still a young woman, in a hotel room in Athens. She had killed herself in a pact with the clergyman she had run off with and taken as a lover. It was, Christopher concedes, a “lacerating, howling moment in my life.” He was all of twenty-four.
But there is no elaboration in Christopher’s memoir of how this trauma may have affected him, no indication of how so searing a loss and maternal betrayal may have impacted the double lives he pursued, the personal and political triangles he indulged and the fracturing of commitments to comrades and friends that ensued. It is left for us to speculate about these matters from a text that denies us the very elements that are essential to the task.
Although Christopher has been married twice and has had other romantic attachments including a briefly mentioned affair with the sister of novelist Martin Amis, none really appear in the 400-page book he has written about himself. Of Christopher’s first wife, a Greek Cypriot lawyer and the mother of his two oldest children, we are told nothing, not even her name. Carol, his second wife, is mentioned several times in passing but we are never introduced to her and there are no descriptions to put flesh on the woman he has shared so much of his life with, no attempt to convey how he actually feels towards her or for that matter towards marriage itself. Of his children he writes mainly to concede his guilt over his absence as a father.
But when it comes to Yvonne, whose chapter-length portrait opens the book, the texture is quite different and his feelings rise rapidly to the surface: “Yvonne then was the exotic and the sunlit when I could easily have had a boyhood of stern and dutiful English gray. She was the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.” In a single sentence that closes his account of her life and death he provides a glimpse of their influence on his own: “Her defeat and despair were also mine for a long time, but I have reason to know that she wanted me to withstand the woe, and when I once heard myself telling someone that she had allowed me a ‘second identity,’ I quickly checked myself and thought no, perhaps with luck she had represented my first and truest one.”
His truest identity. At this point on the page, however, just at the point we would expect the author’s gaze to continue inward, exploring the vein he has opened, the text abruptly interrupts itself and we are presented with a set piece with this cold heading: “A Coda on the Question of Self-Slaughter.” What follows is in tone and abstraction an academic paper in which Christopher discusses psychological and sociological observations about suicide in the writings of Emile Durkheim, A.A. Alvarez and Sylvia Plath. He tells us that these thoughts represent a quest he has pursued over “four decades,” thus revealing without actually conceding it, the pain that did not go away. But why then insert this pedantic distraction from the turmoil in his heart and follow it with silence? Partly because he is the enemy of moist sentiments, but also because this gratuitous erudition is a squid’s ink to cover his decision not to use the hair pin his mother offers him, in her life and in her death, to pick his own lock. As a memoirist, Christopher is as sui generis as he is in other avenues of his life – not really wishing to be known by others or by himself.
In his portrait of Yvonne, the son describes her as the power behind his future throne. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country,” she vows, “Christopher is going to be in it.” Despite the constraints of their circumstances, Yvonne sent Christopher to infiltrate England’s Protestant establishment, first at a posh private school the family could barely afford, and then to Balliol College Oxford to join the upper crust. Yvonne was in her own person a secret agent, a displaced Polish Jew who in marrying the Commander had infiltrated an alien, anti-Semitic culture, hiding her true identity from her those closest to her in order to provide herself and her children opportunities that they would otherwise have been denied.
How did this matrilineal romance and its tragic ending affect Christopher’s attitude towards the sunny tomorrows his comrades pursued? How did it color his optimism about the quest for social justice? Where, he might have asked, was the justice for him? For Yvonne? Writing of the anarchistic upheavals in France in 1968, Christopher remarks: “If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are hooked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.” What is the need of the individual soul for this intoxication, of Christopher’s soul? And what is the effect of the intoxication on one’s judgment of the world we inhabit? What happens when the engine and the feelings it engenders stop? Christopher makes no attempt to provide answers, nor does it seem likely that he has even asked himself these questions.
All the while he was making his way through private schools and burrowing into the inner sanctums of the establishment, Christopher was simultaneously becoming a social rebel, taking the very skills those venerable institutions placed in his hands and putting them into the service of the war that a radical generation was waging against them. Yet, even his commitment to rebellion was only half-made, or not so much made as hedged: “I was slowly being inducted into a revolution within the revolution, or to a Left that was in and yet not of the ‘Left’ as it was generally understood. This perfectly suited my already-acquired and protective habit of keeping two sets of books.”
The sect Christopher joined was actually more convoluted and insulated from normal accountabilities. It was a revolution within “the revolution within the revolution.” Trotskyism could be said to be a revolution within the revolution. But the International Socialists, who Christopher joined, were a Trotskyist sect consisting of 100 or so members who were opposed not only to Stalinism but to the Trotskyist mainstream. They separated themselves from other Trotskyists (and from Trotsky himself) who attacked Stalinism but still defended the Soviet Union. Trotskyists who followed Trotsky regarded themselves as “Bolsheviks” and Russia as a “deformed” socialist state. By contrast, Christopher’s sect regarded the Soviet Union as having reverted to capitalism and therefore as having joined the capitalist enemy. This allowed the group to continue their attacks on the democracies of the West without having to defend socialism in Russia or make excuses for the totalitarian state that their fellow Marxists had created.
How does Christopher view this scholastically precious politics of his youth, or interpret its significance today? Typically, he doesn’t say. But there is another witness, a Hitchens foil so to speak, who has provided a telling insight into this puzzle. Peter Hitchens is Christopher’s younger brother by two years but like Christopher’s wives is virtually invisible in Christopher’s text. This despite the fact that they followed parallel political paths. Peter joined the same International Socialist sect in the same era and later came to have second thoughts. But there the parallel ends. For unlike Christopher, Peter eventually became a religious conservative with no ambivalent attitudes towards his previous leftist commitments.
Peter’s commentary on Christopher’s sect – the International Socialists — is this: “The [mainstream Trotskyists] were more honest than we were. Ours was the extreme version of pretending that the USSR was not the fault of socialists, or even of Bolsheviks (which we wished to be). Of course it was their fault, the fault of people exactly like us, but we closed our minds to this with a web of excuses. We pretended not to be who we were, and that the USSR was not what it was.”
Christopher does not acknowledge that he pretended not to be who he was, and expresses no such second thoughts. On the contrary, his text is rich in recent attitudes that are strikingly consistent with the views he held then. “Where it was easy to do so,” brother Peter writes of the International Socialists, “we supported causes – the National Liberation Front in Vietnam in particular – whose objects were to extend Soviet power.” This fact – that the Vietnamese Communists whom the New Left supported were minions of the totalitarian empire that Stalin built was one of the realizations that had turned Peter Collier and myself to second thoughts. When America quit the field of battle under pressure from the anti-war left, and the Communists proceeded to slaughter millions of innocents without protests from the left, we recoiled in horror at what our campaigns had made possible, and said goodbye to all that.
Not so Christopher, who to this day is loyal to the “anti-war” positions he held at the time, regarding the Communists as liberators and the Americans who opposed them as the villains. “The United States was conducting an imperialist war in Indo-China,” he writes in his memoir, “and a holding action against the insistent demands of its own long-oppressed black minority at home.” These are troublingly deceitful remarks. What holding action would Christopher be referring to? The American civil rights movement was supported by the entire nation outside the Deep South, including the White Houses of both Kennedy and the southerner Lyndon Johnson. Who was resisting the insistent demands of the black minority at home? And what imperialist war could he be thinking of? The one bruited in a famous malapropism of Jane Fonda, who claimed that America was in Vietnam for the “tung and the tinsten?” Or is Christopher ventriloquizing Ho Chi Minh Speak and claiming that Americans wanted to replace the French as colonial masters of Indo-China?
Writing of his own participation in a “vast demonstration” against the war in front of the American Embassy in London, Christopher recalls “the way in which my throat and heart seemed to swell as the police were temporarily driven back and the advancing allies of the Vietnamese began to sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” He then pats himself on the back: “I added to my police record for arrests, of all of which I am still reasonably proud.” But why would he be proud at this late date of his arrests in general and in a demonstration supporting the Communist conquerors of Cambodia and South Vietnam? For Christopher’s anti-war comrades, the International Socialists among them, were not “allies of the Vietnamese.” They were allies of the Vietnamese Communists, and, as brother Peter points out, of the Soviet empire behind them. What these leftists and their Communist heroes actually achieved in Indo-China was, in fact, one of the largest genocides on record and a totalitarian night for the Cambodians and Vietnamese.
To remain an unreconstructed New Leftist into the 21st Century is a particularly problematic failing for a man whose model is George Orwell and whose political persona is framed by a perceived moral authority. In a statement that amounts to a one-sentence credo, Christopher writes: “The synthesis for which one aimed was the Orwellian one of evolving a consistent and integral anti-totalitarianism.” But apparently not for the Cambodians and Vietnamese.
Loyalty to bad commitments leads to moral incoherence, a syndrome that manifests itself in Christopher’s choices of friends and enemies. The epic struggle against totalitarianism for much of the 20th Century was America’s cold war against the Soviet empire. But during the last decades of this conflict, Christopher’s platform was the Nation magazine – America’s leading journal of the “anti-anti Communist left” — the fellow-traveling left of apologists for the Communists’ crimes, whom Trotsky referred to as “frontier guards” for the Soviet empire. Although Christopher expressed intermittent internal dissents from this orthodoxy, he remained in his own words a “comrade” of these enablers of the totalitarian cause.
Christopher’s political friends are still generously drawn from the Nation editorial board and the English Marxists grouped around the New Left Review whom he gushingly refers to in an endnote to his memoir as “heroes and heroines of the ‘first draft’ and of the work in progress.” Among these heroes are the aforementioned Victor Navasky, defender of Alger Hiss; Robin Blackburn, a Castro acolyte; and Perry Anderson an anti-American Marxist who regards both the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq as by-products of the “Israel Lobby’s” stranglehold on American policy. Although Christopher has socialized and shared political sentiments with a number of conservatives, including myself, there was not a single conservative I was able to identify on his list.
As a self-conceived revolutionist within the revolution, Christopher maintained his contrarian ways and kept his double books and avoided a record as regrettable as these loyalties might suggest. But the record was bad enough. My own experience of Christopher’s malodorous service during the Cold War was his presence on a media firing squad that came to our Second Thoughts Conference with the intention of stigmatizing and discrediting the small band we had gathered to announce our revulsion at the slaughter in Indo-China and our rejection of the destructive commitments of our socialist colleagues.
Two years later, Christopher attacked me venomously over the account Peter Collier and I had recently published about our second thoughts. The book was called Destructive Generation and an opportunity was given to Christopher to descend on me when the leftwing host of a PBS show called “Book Notes” invited him to critique what we had written. Christopher singled out a passage in which I had described a small memorial service we held for my father in my mother’s house. I had written of my distress at the totalitarian overtones of the service which I felt erased my father’s memory. His progressive friends and comrades who gathered for the occasion and who had known him all his life eulogized him as a servant of their political cause but couldn’t remember a single aspect of the flesh and blood individual he had been. Christopher’s comment on this was: “Who cares about his pathetic family?”
Christopher came to the show with his friend David Rieff, the writer Susan Sontag’s son, who lay in ambush for me in the green room. I greeted him warmly, not suspecting that he was about to spit at me in a revenge moment the two had arranged. In our book, Collier and I had noted the way Sontag had trimmed her sails after her famously telling remark that Communism was “fascism with a human face” and allowed a book she had written fulsomely praising the North Vietnamese police state to be republished without revision. I have long since forgiven Christopher and Rieff for the incident but it remains a sharp reminder of how fiercely partisan Christopher could be in behalf of an indefensible cause.
A striking elision in Christopher’s backward look – particularly for a Trotskyist who regarded the Soviet Union as a capitalist enemy — is his failure to note, except in passing, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the defeat of Soviet totalitarianism. Equally striking is the fact that to the extent that Christopher mentions the anti-Communist struggle of the Cold War at all, his heroes are East European socialists like Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron, admirable figures who had second thoughts about their Communist colleagues and spear-headed the democratic struggle against the Soviet state. Of the conservatives who waged the anti-totalitarian struggle for nearly four decades, and of Ronald Reagan, the free world leader who actually wielded the power that made the “velvet revolutions” of the Michniks and Kurons possible — or even thinkable — Christopher has this to say: “Even now, when I squint back at him through the more roseate lens of his compromise with Gorbachev, I can easily remember … exactly why I found him so rebarbative at the time.” Rebarbative: adj., repellent, unattractive, forbidding, grim.
And what, exactly, might Christopher have in mind when he refers to Reagan’s “compromise” with Gorbachev? Could he be suggesting that Gorbachev agreed not to send the Red Army to rebuild the Berlin Wall and crush the Eastern European revolt in exchange for Reagan’s agreement not to invade the Soviet Union? Can he believe this?
Christopher is not finished with Reagan: “There was, first, his appallingly facile manner as a liar;” “he was married to a woman who employed a White House astrologer;” “[he] was frequently photographed in the company of ‘end-times’ Protestant fundamentalists…” and so ad nauseam on. The litany has actually been cleaned up from its first appearance in the malicious obituary Christopher wrote when Reagan died in 2004, and from which much of the attack in his memoir is cribbed: “I only saw him once up close, which happened to be when he got a question he didn’t like … The famously genial grin turned into a rictus of senile fury: I was looking at a cruel and stupid lizard.” This is how Christopher sums up a man who liberated hundreds of millions of victims of totalitarianism and who is revered throughout the former Soviet empire as, yes a hero, for this service. An Orwellian synthesis of “consistent and integral anti-totalitarianism” indeed.
Contrast this contemptuous performance with Christopher’s enduring sympathies for his long-admired (but now former) friend Noam Chomsky, a man who spent the cold war years denying the Cambodian holocaust, promoting a denier of the Jewish Holocaust, and comparing America — unfavorably — to the Third Reich. When Chomsky’s extreme views came under attack from other leftists, Christopher actually defended him in a regrettable article that attempted to explain away Chomsky’s apologetics for the Cambodian genocide. Christopher called his piece, “The Chorus and Cassandra,” as though Chomsky – one of the most cited intellectuals in the academic world — was a prophet of truth to whom no one would listen.
Eventually the two comrades fell out over Chomsky’s justification of the 9/11 Islamic attack on the World Trade Center and his opposition to America’s military rescue of Muslims in Bosnia. In his memoir, written nearly ten years later, however, Christopher nonetheless manages to find Chomsky “a polemical talent well-worth mourning, and [a man with] a feeling for justice that ought not to have gone rancid and resentful.” As a leftist who had a similar falling out with Chomsky twenty years earlier over his insistence that America was no better than Russia and that Pravda was a “mirror image” of the New York Times, I can testify that Chomsky’s feelings were rancid and resentful long before 9/11.
A similar myopia draws a cloud over Christopher’s otherwise admirable defenses of First Amendment freedoms. His long and courageous battle in behalf of Salman Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for his murder is one of several memorable set pieces in Christopher’s memoir and a pivotal episode in the evolution of his current beliefs. The Rushdie case was, he writes, “a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
But in the next breath Christopher can fawn over a Communist hack like the late Jessica Mitford, who spent her life supporting dictatorships, stupidity, demagogy, bullying, intimidation – and censorship, and can call her one of his “heroines.” As it happens, this brief hypocrisy in Christopher’s text has a large resonance for me personally. When Peter Collier and I were still leftists we wrote an article about murders that had been committed by George Jackson and other Black Panthers, still regarded as progressive heroes. Leftists who were aware of these crimes suppressed the knowledge and withheld the facts in the name of a higher political truth. Peter and I published our article in the journal of a progressive writers guild and did so at some personal risk, since members of the political gangs responsible for the murders were still active.
While our article was undergoing the usual editorial scrutiny, Jessica Mitford and Nation journalist Eve Pell led a campaign to stigmatize us as snitches and racists (since the perpetrators of the crimes were black), and to pressure the journal’s editors into censoring what we had written. In a letter describing our article not as untrue but as “appalling” and “atrocious” because it was true, Mitford said: “I deeply wish it had never been written.” At a public meeting of the progressive guild, to which we also belonged, she told the writers assembled that it was their responsibility as progressives to suppress facts that hurt the cause and to print only those facts that helped it – a practice the Nation editors know well. How, in the light of this reality, is Jessica Mitford one of Christopher’s heroines today?
Or how, for that matter, is Leon Trotsky? The unsentimental Peter Hitchens observes that the Trotskyist left to which his brother and he belonged were in the habit of attacking Communists in power as tyrants but supporting Communists when they were out of power as liberators. As examples, he cites the lionization of Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, who, as it happens, are two of his brother’s “favorite characters in history” (the other three are Socrates, Spinoza and Thomas Paine).
Rosa Luxemburg was a revolutionary who was murdered while she was still young and therefore, as Peter comments, who “never lived to touch power.” Trotsky, on the other hand, became a revolutionary in power and was deeply implicated in the creation of the totalitarian state. He was the commander of the Red Army forces sent to crush the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors, who were Bolsheviks protesting the sinister turn the revolution had already taken in its first years. He was a promoter of the forced labor policies that led to the gulag and author of the most articulate defense of the Red Terror, as well as one of its enforcers, and he was a champion of the principle that the ends justify the means. How, then, does Trotsky become one of Christopher’s favorite historical characters?
One way is to wear political blinders and focus on the figure of Trotsky out of power — as the author of The Revolution Betrayed and the leader of the sect of former Communists seeking to overthrow the totalitarian regime Trotsky and they had done so much to create. This, in fact, is how Christopher does see and admire him, although he frames the picture a little more magnificently, regarding Trotsky as the hero of an “epic struggle to mount an international resistance” to Stalin and the totalitarian state. It is as an avatar of the anti-Stalinist left, a movement Christopher continues to romanticize, that Trotsky inspires his adulation. Trotskyism evidently means to Christopher that he can regard himself as a Marxist and a revolutionary without having to say he’s sorry.
There is another way that Trotsky can appear a worthy paladin, which is if one believes that the engine of “history” is still running, and that the epic oppressions of Stalinism were merely an unpleasant prelude to an authentic Communist future. This is, in fact, the way Trotsky’s biographer and a Christopher hero (and, as it happens, my own one-time mentor) Isaac Deutscher actually did portray and justify Trotsky in his three-volume hagiography – The Prophet Armed, The Prophet Unarmed and The Prophet Outcast. This trilogy was recently the object of Christopher’s intemperate praise in a review published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2009. The reason for Christopher’s enthusiasm is that Deutscher was a Marxist and the framework of his trilogy is the assumption that the engine of history is still running.
According to Deutscher, writing while the Berlin Wall was still intact and the Cold War still on, the socialist foundations of Soviet society would assert themselves at some point in the future and give birth to an authentic socialist state. This would be the ultimate vindication of Trotsky’s actions. Without such an outcome, there can be no justification for what Trotsky and the Bolsheviks did; what they did was horrible, and ranks with history’s great crimes. Hence Deutscher’s wager on the future. But, as events soon showed, Deutscher was wrong: the socialist foundations of the Soviet Union were in fact the engines of its bankruptcy, which caused the Soviet collapse. Marx’s theories are also refuted by the colossal economic failures of the socialist states. Deutscher died in 1967 and did not live to see this result or evaluate his own theories in light of the facts. But there is no such excuse for Christopher, whose memoir displays no recognition of Marx’s failure or Trotsky’s crimes.
Instead there is Christopher’s suggestion that “a faint, saintly penumbra still emanates from the Old Man” since the spirit of his “revolution within the revolution” can still be detected in the magical moment of 1968 or in the presence of a handful of Trotskyists in the Polish Solidarity movement, which brought down the Communist regime. But this is sentimental trash. The “magic” of 1968 was in Christopher’s imagination, lasted for only a moment and left no trace, while an immeasurably greater historical force against Communism than the handful of Christopher’s favored Trotskyists was an institution that the author loathes so much he doesn’t deign to mention it, namely, the Catholic Church.
A better understanding of Christopher’s attitudes comes with the realization that he is really more about sensibility than politics, or perhaps that politics is a matter of sensibility for him. Deutscher, a writer of considerable literary talent, made Trotsky into an existential hero, a Prometheus daring the gods. This is why Christopher is enamored of him — because Trotsky is the arch romantic, the incarnation of the lost Yvonne.
The same sensibility underlies his otherwise inexplicable attachment to the tattered figure of Karl Marx. In a recent conversation with Martin Amis, he said, “for most of my life I thought the only principle worth upholding, worth defending, worth advocating, worth witnessing for, was socialist internationalism,” then added, “I am no longer a socialist, but I am still a Marxist.”
But how? The stab Christopher makes in his memoir at resurrecting the Old Mole to explain the recent world financial collapse is embarrassing: “My old Marxism came back to me as I contemplated the ‘dead labor’ that had been hoarded…saw it being squandered in a victory for finance capital over industrial capital, noticed the ancient dichotomy between use value and exchange value, and saw again the victory of those monopolists who ‘make’ money over those who only have the power to earn it.” But this explication can only be tolerated as a literary trope. As economic analysis it is archaic and absurd. It is a form of political romance of Tertullian dimensions — continuing to believe in an age where God has been declared dead. Credo quia impossibile est. I believe because it is impossible.
Christopher’s comments to Amis seem to imply that he no longer regards socialism as a future that can actually work. In an interview with Reason Magazine conducted just prior to 9/11 he virtually concedes as much. “There is no longer a general socialist critique of capitalism – certainly not the sort of critique that proposes an alternative or a replacement.” But why then persist in describing oneself as a Marxist, since Marx’s entire critique of capitalism was based on the assumption that socialism was a practical alternative? More importantly, why would Christopher fail to understand that in seeking to achieve an impossible future revolutionaries become nihilists? If a socialist future is impossible, the effort to achieve one by destroying existing institutions is malignant and evil.
Despite his doubts about a socialist future Christopher’s book is laced with unrepentant utopianism. A notable example is his paean to the labor movement, of which he says, “For me, this ‘movement’ is everything.” He then makes this remarkable statement: “Official Britain may have its Valhalla of heroes and statesmen and conquerors and empire builders, but we know that the highest point ever reached in the history of civilization was in the city of Basel in 1912 when the leaders of the socialist parties of all countries met to coordinate an opposition to the coming World War.”
For those who remember the Basel declaration this is a ludicrous triumph of sentiment over history. The opposition to war that the socialist parties coordinated in Basel in 1912 was quickly and notoriously repudiated – by socialists. They had resolved to vote against the war credits in their respective national parliaments and thus prevent the impending conflict. For Marx had written — and “socialist internationalists” believed — that the working classes had no country, and “nothing to lose but their chains.” But this was a Marxist fantasy, unanchored in reality, and two years after “the highest point ever reached in human civilization” the same socialist leaders turned their backs on this pledge and voted to go to war. Marx was wrong: the workers did have a country, and socialism was an empty and dangerous illusion. The highest point ever reached in the history of civilization was little more than a memorable hypocrisy.
Although he has danced away from his “internationalist” faith and even abandoned his anti-war stance in regard to America’s conflict in Iraq, the romantic side of Christopher still clings to the old fantasy and continues the impossible dream. In this dream the engine of history is still running: “The names of real heroes like [the socialists] Jean Jaures and Karl Liebknecht make the figures of Asquith and Churchill seem like pygmies.” And why would this be so? Because, in Christopher’s mind, had an international socialist revolution taken place in 1919, it would have precluded all the nightmares of the 20th Century, including the ones that faux socialists like Stalin created: “The violence and disruption of a socialist transformation in those years would have been infinitely less than the insane sacrifice of culture to barbarism, and the Nazism and Stalinism that ensued from it.”
In other words, the alternatives mankind faced in 1919 were bloody socialism or bloodier barbarism. Christopher is here quoting the German Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, who put exactly that slogan — “Socialism or barbarism” — to her fellow revolutionaries in 1919. There is little doubt that Christopher would still like to count himself among them today. But Luxemburg’s challenge was little more than a secularized version of the religious choice between heaven and hell, rather than a posing of actual historical alternatives. It is one of the oddities of Christopher’s compartmentalized life that the author of God Is Not Great and of its brazen subtitle – religion poisons everything – should be so passionately attached to the political version of an earthly redemption.
Since he is not unaware of this contradiction in his commitments, on the other hand, he has prepared an exit clause to escape the cul-de-sac he has worked himself into. The “‘movement which for me is everything,” he has conceded, is for all intents and purposes dead — “all gone now, gone to pieces.” Consequently, there are no real world consequences for believing and promoting the revolutionary myth. And there is always the possibility held out that one day it may spring back to life.
In the 1970s, Christopher adopted a “second identity,” making more and more frequent trips to America, eventually migrating across the Atlantic and setting up shop at the Nation magazine. It was another two-track engagement. On the one hand there was the America that functioned as the left’s symbol of capitalist hell — a racist, imperialist bastion of oppression. Exposing the evils of his new home was the way Christopher earned his keep at the Nation, a flagship publication of the American left. On the other hand he was aware of the existence of another America, a land of expansive contradictions and bracing freedoms – an awareness that distinguished him from his new comrades. This other America was entirely seductive to the obverse side of Christopher’s personality: “Here was a country that could engage in a frightening and debilitating and unjust war, and undergo a simultaneous convulsion of its cities on the question of justice for its oldest and largest minority, and start a conversation on the rights of women…and have a show trial of confessed saboteurs in Chicago where the incredibly guilty defendants actually got off…”
Would that Christopher had allowed the generous, free-spirited dimension of America, which resonated with the better angels of his own nature, to temper the scorn he poured on his adopted country during these Nation years. But the guilty pleasures he experienced in enemy territory had to be paid for by the pact he had made which precluded a just accounting. “My personal way of becoming Americanized,” as he explains, “was to remain a blood brother of the American left.” Unfortunately, the left that had emerged from the campaign against the Vietnam War was characterized by a corrosive anti-Americanism and nihilism, which were incompatible with a balanced appreciation of America’s virtues.
Nonetheless, as Christopher became more familiar with his new environment, the increasing irrationality of the anti-American fervor in the Nation offices began to take its toll on a sensibility so oppositely tuned. It began with the warm attitudes of his Nation comrades towards the totalitarian enemy, which did not sit well with a Trotskyist familiar with the depraved nature of the Soviet regime. “I was often made aware in Nation circles that there really were people who did think that Joseph McCarthy had been far, far worse than Joseph Stalin.” At one point, progressive icon, Noam Chomsky, unnerved him by saying that America’s democracy was morally worse than the Soviet police state. His “much-admired” friend Gore Vidal also shocked him by describing the F.B.I. as “our KGB,” and then by writing an anti-Semitic diatribe, which Christopher protested to his Nation editors. But Victor Navasky, Nation editor-in-chief and best man at Christopher’s wedding, decided to publish it anyway, saying “Well, Gore is Gore.”
These conflicts intensified when Christopher tore into Bill Clinton, a veteran of the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the first Sixties alumni to reach the White House. Christopher had met Clinton when they were both students at Oxford, and took a strong disliking to the candidate when he ordered the execution of a mentally retarded black prisoner, Ricky Ray Rector, to demonstrate he was tough enough on crime to be elected president. The dislike increased with Clinton’s continuing duplicity in office and led to a sharp tract about the Clintons called No One Left To Lie To: The Worst Family. The bad blood resulting from his attacks on Clinton soon reached a point where he felt he might have to give up his Nation column. The determination of the editors to defend Clinton’s indefensible actions, he writes in his memoir, “completely squandered the claim of a magazine like the Nation to be a journal of opposition.” But of course the Nation wasn’t just a “journal of opposition;” it was a journal of opposition to American capitalism and American imperialism, and its leftist audience inevitably gave such hypocrisies a political pass.
Tensions between Christopher and the left came to a head in the spring of 1999, when he appeared before a congressional committee to testify against Clinton adviser and fellow progressive Sidney Blumenthal. Christopher’s testimony ended a fifteen-year friendship with Blumenthal and inspired attacks from his erstwhile comrades. Yet in another telling lacuna in Christopher’s memoir there is no mention of Blumenthal or this matter. Hence we are provided no insight into Christopher’s complex personal and political relationships, or the compass that provided a guide through these uncharted waters.
The White House had given Blumenthal the task of neutralizing potential female witnesses to Clinton’s abusive sexual advances by spreading defamatory stories about them to Washington reporters. It was Blumenthal’s mistake to turn to his friend Christopher as a reporter he could trust to pass on the slanders. Christopher chose to expose Blumenthal instead. In the eyes of his leftist comrades, this betrayal bad enough, but it was compounded by the fact that Christopher gave his testimony to a congressional committee chaired by Republican Henry Hyde, a pro-life conservative whom they fervently hated.
This hatred now descended on Christopher’s head. Radicals like his longtime friend and Nation colleague Alexander Cockburn began reviling him as “Snitchens” and worse. (Cockburn is another key character in Christopher’s life that is missing from his memoir.) In a purification ritual reminiscent of religious witch-hunts, prominent leftists stepped forward to declare that Christopher would not be allowed to cross their thresholds again. While he fails to mention his broken friendship with Blumenthal or the internal wrenching it undoubtedly caused him, or the reactions of the left or the impact it may have had on his own allegiances, Christopher does reproduce a telling (and evidently related) message he received on his answering machine. The message was left by Dorothy Healy, a well-known Communist and longtime friend: “You stinking little rat. I always knew you were no good. You are a stool pigeon and a fink. I hope you rot in scab and blackleg hell….” So much for the warm fraternity of the party of the working class.
While failing to mention the episode in his book, Christopher did refer to it in the Reason interview, where he recalled how his progressive friends were now attacking him as a “McCarthyite” in the pages of the Nation. This reaction, he comments, “showed the amazing persistence of antediluvian categories and thoughts on the Left…[which were] applied to me in a very mendacious and I thought thuggish way.” He concluded: “there is no such thing as a radical Left anymore. The world of Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson, let’s say, has all been, though it does not realize it, hopelessly compromised by selling out to Clintonism. [And how about selling out to Communism?]. It became, under no pressure at all, and with no excuse and in no danger, a voluntary apologist for abuse of power.” [And when, considering its long service to the thugs of Stalinism and Maoism and Castroism, was it any different?]
Witnessing the way his comrades turned on him, I could not help but think of my own experience as an apostate from the left, and decided to publish an article defending him. “This tainting and ostracism of sinners,” I wrote, “is, in fact, the secret power of the leftist faith…. The spectacle of what happens to a heretic like Hitchens when he challenges the party code is a warning to others not to try it.” The attempt to purge Christopher I explained this way: “The community of the left is a community of meaning and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious. For the non-religious, politics is the art of managing the possible. For the left it is the path to social redemption….[Therefore,] it is about us being on the side of the angels, and them as the party of the damned.”
Like a good secret agent, however, Christopher still possessed his packet of false passports, and was able to reach a modus vivendi with the Nation editors who agreed not to print any more defamatory attacks on him. This rendered the purge incomplete, and enabled him to retain a foothold in the left. When a year passed and he hadn’t contacted me about my defense of him, I thought he was probably resentful that a political enemy had spoken in his behalf and worsened his case. But then we chanced on each other at a Los Angeles Times book festival, and quite unexpectedly he thanked me, warmly and graciously, for the article, and we agreed to make a date for a longer talk. It was the beginning of our friendship, and in that moment I also knew Christopher was in a state of motion in regard to his allegiances on the left, and therefore, in regard to his loyalties to the country that he was clear-eyed enough to see was responsible for defending the very freedoms he cherished.
The turn in Christopher’s political life would culminate on 9/11 when the United States came under attack by a new totalitarian foe. For Christopher, the threat posed by Islamic jihadists had been first brought home to him with the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini against his friend, the author Salman Rushdie. “The realization that we were in a cultural and political war with Islamic theocracy came to me with force and certainty not on September 11, 2001 but on February 14, 1989,” he said in an interview, “when the Ayatollah Khomeni offered money in his own name to suborn the murder of my friend Salman Rushdie.”
Soon afterwards there was another revelation for Christopher. This time it was about the very leviathan the left regarded as the headquarters of global oppression. The United States military had intervened to stop the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the heart of Europe when no European or Muslim nation would. “The realization that American power could and should be used for the defense of pluralism and as a punishment for fascism came to me in Sarajevo a year or two later,” Christopher writes. “It was the first time I found myself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and Jeanne Kirkpatrick: a shock I had to learn to get over.”
There were more shocks to come. Christopher was lecturing in the Northwest about one of his personal bête noirs, Henry Kissinger, when his wife called from their Washington home to tell him Islamic jihadists had attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was the same enemy that had attempted to kill Rushdie, and thus an episode in the same war of “everything I hated versus everything I loved.” As Christopher reflected on the events, he was immediately torn by two thoughts, the first a fear of being swept up in an unthinking “totalitarian” patriotism and the second, revulsion at a comment made by one of the leftwing students who had attended his lecture: “You know what my friends are saying? They are saying it is the chickens coming home to roost.”
The remark infuriated Christopher, provoking a response which “came welling up in me with an almost tidal force: What bloody chickens? Come to think of it, whose bloody ‘home.’” This last was a telling comment about the loyalties of his Nation comrades. When the most prominent among them, Noam Chomsky, regurgitated the same anti-American sentiments, a seismic crack opened in the ground between them: “[Chomsky regarded] almost everything since Columbus as having been one big succession of genocides and land-thefts, [and] did not really believe that America was a good idea to begin with. Whereas I had come to appreciate that it most certainly was.”
Christopher began speaking and writing publicly to the same effect, and the more he did the more vicious became the attacks directed at him from the left. In the process, further troubling thoughts began to percolate in Christopher’s head: “I could not bear the idea that anything I had written or said myself had contributed to this mood of cynicism and defeatism, not to mention moral imbecility on the left.”
Christopher had found a cause that was not radical, no longer a fantasy about an imagined future, but a cause that involved the defense of a flesh and blood reality: “Shall I take out papers of citizenship,” he asked at the end of a poignant post-9/11 article he wrote for Vanity Fair. “Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have.”
Once he had allowed himself to acknowledge that capitalist America, with its passion for liberty and openness to change could be a force for good, other realizations followed. Christopher became in his own words “part of [the] public opinion” that supported America’s campaigns to remove the perpetrators from Afghanistan and to unseat the despot and mass murderer, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. “The idea of ‘Reds for Bush’ might be incongruous,” he observed wryly of his support for the president, “but it was a great deal more wholesome than ‘pacifists for Saddam,’” which is what the anti-Iraq war movement that was supported by most of Christopher’s friends had become.
Six months after the beginning of war in Iraq, Christopher reviewed a book of my political writings called Left Illusions. “With the Cold War so to speak behind us,” he wrote, “I suspected that Horowitz would find life without the old enemy a little dull. How much of an audience would there be for his twice-told tale about growing up in a doggedly loyal Communist family and his agonizing over the series of wrenches and shocks that had detached him from Marxism all together? But then, I didn’t anticipate that in the fall of 2001, I would be reading solemn polemics by leading intellectualoids proposing a strict moral equivalence – moral equivalence at best in some cases – between America and the Taliban. Nor did I expect to see street theater anti-war demonstrations, organized by open admirers of Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong-Il, united in the sinister line of, in effect, ‘hands off Saddam Hussein. So I admit that I now find the sardonic, experienced pessimism in Horowitz’s book a bit more serviceable than I once did.”
This was less the full-throated endorsement of second thoughts one might have hoped for following such events. It was more a Hitch-22. If the totalitarian enemy of the Cold War was real, why imply that it was something conservatives invented to prevent life from becoming dull? The suggestion that threats to America were a figment of conservative imaginations was, in fact, a standard meme of the left designed to deflect attention from its sympathy for the adversaries who were responsible for them. So to see Christopher’s ambivalent re-assessment of my second thoughts was less than reassuring.
Only in his final chapter does Christopher even begin to address the task of assessing his own political revisions. He frames these reflections as question: “Decline, Mutation or Metamorphosis?” But by this point in his narrative, there is no mystery that the middle term is going to be the preferred one, and the ends will be excluded. One of the unkinder cuts delivered in this envoi is aimed at those of us who did not regard our second thoughts as shedding a once serviceable skin, but as an occasion to reassess what we had done and undertake an accounting of the damage we had inflicted, and so made a painful but necessary break from our past. To distance himself from us and thus avoid the perdition of his comrades, Christopher wrote: “I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty, like some attention-grabbing defector, as feel it falling away from me.”
Christopher should blush when ascribing attention-getting to others, particularly those who of us have been cut off for our efforts from the same cultural platforms that have made (and continue to make) Christopher such an intellectual celebrity. And what other reason than fear of losing audiences might prevent Christopher from repudiating the loyalties that helped to seal the fates of so many innocents, as he himself acknowledges without making the connection? Oscar Wilde once said a map of the world that did not have utopia on it, would not be worth consulting. Christopher comments: “I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.” But how, then, can he speak of a loyalty “falling away” as though it were a matter of discarding some old-school ties rather than discovering the service he once performed was to a cause that destroyed the lives of millions?
Christopher’s attempt to answer such questions opens with the unexpected appearance of his brother, Peter, who had just written his own memoir, tellingly titled The Broken Compass. Christopher finds a particular chapter of his brother’s book “unsettling.” The chapter is called “A Comfortable Hotel on the Road to Damascus” and is about the dissent of some leftists, Christopher among them, in regard to the Iraq War and more broadly to the “war on terror.” As a paleo-conservative, Peter opposes both wars as crusades to change the world, and therefore as endeavors appropriate to the utopian left. “For the habitual leftist,” Peter writes of his brother Christopher, the war on terror “has the virtue of making him look as if he can change his mind, even when he has not really done so.”
It is a shrewd perception. In Christopher’s perspective the war against terror is first of all the crusade of reason against religion and its fanatical believers, which is why he can embrace it without repudiating his progressive roots. The conflict between reason and religion was a theme of his efforts in defense of Salman Rushdie against the Ayatollah’s fatwa, and it became the central mission of his work and a personal obsession following the attacks of 9/11 and the publication of his international best-seller God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. It is, accordingly, the climactic vision of his memoir. “The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time,” Christopher explains in a last peroration on the final page of his book.
But is it? The jihad against the west is certainly the product of totalitarian Islam, but it is also opposed by Christians, Jews, Hindus and other religious faiths. Moreover, is it really the case that science and reason are in great jeopardy in the West? Christopher’s imperative is difficult for a non-atheist believer to comprehend. Science and reason are hardly the targets of scorched earth attacks such as those mounted against all religions by Christopher and his new utopian allies. There are no best-selling broadsides called “Reason Is Not Great” or “The Science Delusion” with which Christopher and his band of atheists are forced to contend, nor are scientific institutions being blown up and desecrated the way synagogues and churches and mosques routinely are at the hands of the jihadists of the Muslim faith.
An insight into the religious nature of some leftists’ convictions, offered in the course of Christopher’s text, turn out to be self-reflective: “Rather like our then friend Chomsky, Edward (Said) in the final instance believed that if the United States was doing something, then that thing could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Said and Chomsky took this view because in the Manichaean world that radicals inhabited, the United States was the command center of global oppression, personifying the rule of evil which no good deed could cancel. But is not Christopher’s view of religion, as an institution that “poisons everything” identical, viewing religion as an institution that by definition could do no right?
Christopher’s war against religion thrusts him up against his own origins. Christopher did not learn that his mother, Yvonne, was a Jew until he was forty-five years old. The discovery launches him on a pursuit of the past, and forces him into reflections on Judaism. “As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil,” he writes in a disturbing passage of his memoir. “Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions, we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism of Judaism and Christianity into the various forms of Islam.” This uncharacteristically leaden – one might say totalitarian — prose is alarmingly present in Christopher’s writings about religion, and the very opposite of the supple textures and multivalent cadences that normally seduce and reward his readers. “Leaden prose,” he warns us in another context, “always tends to be a symptom of other problems.”
The problem here is that Christopher still views religion generally, and Judaism in particular, through Marxist lenses. Religion is reductively seen as the “opium of the people, a sigh of the oppressed,” and a future liberation is imagined in eliminating the oppressor. Pursuing the cliche, Christopher casts the biblical rabbis as a ruling class imposing their yoke on a passive flock. But this is the kind of misreading of history that ideological formulas inevitably produce. The 613 commandments are not simply prohibitions and are not merely dour. Among many to which one could point two in particular enjoin the flock not to oppress the weak and also to honor one’s father and mother. These are commandments that a less ideologically narrow-minded Christopher might embrace. But even if this were not the case, the rabbis could hardly impose prohibitions lasting thousands of years on congregations that did not ultimately seek or need or regard them as useful for their earthly sojourns.
Has Christopher considered how it is that a tiny, dispersed people like the Jews could have survived for several millennia – outlasting all their conquerors — without the beliefs and prohibitions that inspired and held them together? Unaccountably for someone whose mind is at other times so alert, Christopher is impervious to the way religion speaks to needs that are timeless and provides comforts that are beneficial, and has contributed to the most spectacular achievements of human culture, including those that are scientific. The very concepts of individual rights and democracy so dear to Christopher are contributions of religious thought.
After the discovery of Yvonne’s secret, Christopher embarked on a quest for origins, but his search is fated to end in ambivalence because he regards Israel, the home of the Jews and the center of Judaism, as an imperial oppressor, and the hostile Arabs of the Jordan as merely passive and oppressed. Christopher’s dilemma is poignant. In a conversation he had with Yvonne just before she took her life, she expressed her desire “to move to Israel” without revealing to her son the reason why. It was a desire, Christopher now believes, had she actually gone through with it would have meant not a personal liberation for her as a Jew, but that she was “taking part in the perpetuation of an injustice.”
For Christopher the injustice is Israel itself. He regards the Jewish inhabitants of Israel as “land-thieves” inspired by a religious myth to establish a “divine claim” and therefore a people who “wanted the land without the people.” According to Christopher, in stealing Arab land the Jews became oppressors who “made” the Arabs victims, “with infinite cause of complaint and indefinite justification for violent retaliation.” Is Christopher referring here to the creation of a death cult that promises sainthood and paradise to suicide bombers who blow up women and children because they are Jews?
But the premise itself is fallacious, and the passion misplaced. Israel was created out of the ruins of the Turkish Empire, not from Arab – let alone a Palestinian – land. If a Palestinian state is what the region lacks, there would long ago have been one on the West Bank and Gaza (as there already is in Jordan) if the Arab Muslim goal were not to obliterate the Jewish state and create a Muslim umma from the river to the sea.
Even disregarding the fact of origins, consider the war in the Middle East as it is prosecuted today: On the one side, Israel, a thriving, modern, democracy containing a million Arab citizens who enjoy more individual rights in the Jewish state than Arabs do in any Arab country. On the other side, a religious theocracy in Gaza and a fascist regime on the West Bank, both lacking individual rights, both prosecuting a holy war against the Jews as Jews. “Islamo-fascism” is a term that Christopher is rightly proud to have coined. Is there a single Palestinian faction on the West Bank or in Gaza that does not align itself with the Islamo-fascists and their war against the West? Is not Israel’s war in the Middle East a war of everything that Christopher professes to love against everything he hates? What is it that binds him to the Arab cause, then, but his unexamined and un-repudiated loyalties to a Marxist past and a utopian future?
Christopher’s blind hate towards the home of the Jews is the most troubling of the confusions to which his uncompleted second thoughts have led and are a source of no pleasure to me. On the contrary, the fact that my friend should be so morally deficient and intellectually incoherent in matters so important – and so important to him — is a personal tragedy and public misfortune.
How to understand Christopher finally? He has described one side of his family root as “stern and flinty and martial and continent and pessimistic; the other exotic and beseeching and hopeful and tentative,…” This heritage, he concludes, left him“with a strong sense of fight or flight” on family occasions.” More accurately, it left him with a sense of flight and fight on all occasions, which is as good a summation of Hitch as we are likely to get. The utopian romance which he has never given up is the perfect prescription for continual fight in the present and a never-ending flight into the future.
I had just completed my review of Christopher’s memoir and was preparing it for publication when he collapsed on a flight during his book tour. Rushed to the hospital, he was diagnosed with the carcinoma that had killed his father before him. The esophageal cancer that had struck him down is a particularly virulent disease, bearing a short sentence with little room for sanguine outcomes.
It was barely a month after being stricken, that he resumed his writing and speaking, and it became immediately apparent that the sense of irony that had served as such a notable element of his verbal armory, would accompany him in his final skirmishes. Christopher had been a life-long, aggressive abuser of alcohol and tobacco, and these – genetics aside – were the principal risk factors tempting the adversary that now confronted him. In the first article he wrote for Vanity Fair after his collapse he acknowledged that he had recklessly baited the Reaper, and consequently would look foolish if he were to be seen “smiting my brow with shock or…whining about how it is all so unfair.” But, as was also characteristic he proclaimed a romantic defiance of this turn of fate using a phrase he lifted from the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay to describe himself as one “knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light.”
At the time of his collapse Christopher was the most famous atheist alive, raucously engaged in a crusade to persuade audiences to dispense with irrational creeds and live by reason alone. He had recently taken on the believers in a book spiked with wit and verbal malice, which he called God Is Not Great, and accused religionists of having “poisoned everything.” When his misfortune became known, the targets of these bilious attacks, however, failed generally to rise to his occasion and attempt a revenge. On the contrary, many announced their intention to pray for his soul and the restoration of his health. In a televised interview, Christopher paid these sentiments a genteel respect, but at the same time assured his well-wishers their interventions were useless. He then turned their sympathy into an extension of the conflict he had started, warning them not to expect a deathbed conversion.
When I beheld the image of my stricken friend on a video interview conducted a little over a month after his collapse, it felt like a personal wound. The chemotherapy he had undergone had taken a distressing toll, rendering him wan and hairless except for unkempt wisps that trailed distractedly from his skull. An unfamiliar slouch tilted his frame, beginning at the right clavicle, which seemed hollowed where the cancer had entered his lymph nodes. His facial skin was sallow and his upper lip pursed as he summoned the effort to push out his words, gulping at intervals for air. I winced to see the damage, but Christopher had already turned it into a literary prop, complaining in heroic mode that he had succumbed to something “so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
Who could believe such bravado? Could anyone view his own extinction as boring? Similar rhetorical effects infused the texts of article series he had begun about his illness for Vanity Fair. In the first, smartly called “Topic of Cancer,” he observed himself clinically, and resumed his crusade against the believers. It struck me that these gestures, which now absorbed his time were those of a man staging his exit as the terminal chapter in a public narrative he had begun long ago.
The only introspective look he seemed to allow himself in the interviews he gave about his impending disappearance, was when he got around to mentioning his children. The thought of their lives without him, he admitted, made him “moist.” When his closest friend, the novelist Martin Amis, was asked how Christopher managed the brave display, he replied, “Not all of you will die is what you think if you’re a writer. Because of what you leave. Hitch believes that.”
But how could he believe that? Was not Simone de Beauvoir’s observation about her mother’s death more credible: “whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you cling to living, immortality is no consolation for death.”
And Christopher did seem to cling in regard to what he thought of as his unfinished work. Of his diminishing future he wrote, “I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it.” And so he had. But to what end in terms of his own existence bound for extinction?
Judging by the public speeches and interviews he continued to give in his ravaged state and the commentaries he continued to publish, a good part of the work Christopher feared he would not live to finish was his continuing assault on the faith of others, his desire to strip them of their illusions and apparently the comforts they might derive from them. Christopher and I had discussed these matters in the past, and it struck me as odd that he would not now consider rethinking the hard edge he had brought to the subject. “Pascal is a fraud!” he bellowed at me over a lunch we shared. This was his reaction to one of the most poignant souls to walk this earth, because he had hoped for a God to rescue him from the cold night of our oblivion. Now Christopher was once again mocking believers for seeking solace in a future beyond the grave. I considered confronting him over this, but quickly relented. I could hardly persuade him of the folly of his illusion that he knew and that his knowledge mattered. And even if I could, how would it serve my friend to return his favor?
In the interviews Christopher gave after the diagnosis his mother’s suicide surfaced as a recurrent theme. Although the events had taken place when Christopher was in his twenties, they still gnawed at him nearly forty years later. At the very last, he recalled, Yvonne had placed several calls from her Athens hotel to England but he was not at home to receive them, and they therefore went unanswered. “I could never lose the feeling,” he told the TV host Anderson Cooper, “that she was probably calling in the hope of finding a hand hold of some sort to cling to, and that if she’d heard my voice — because I could always make her laugh no matter how blue she was — that I could have saved her. So, as a result I’ve never had what people like to call ‘closure.’”
Cooper’s brother had also taken his own life, and he took exception to the word “closure,” which he thought meaningless; there was no end to such a grief. Christopher quickly agreed, observing that if there were such an end, “it would only be saying that some quite important part of you had gone numb.” As one who has lost a daughter, I can affirm that there is a recession of heartbreak until hot grief no longer gathers like a thundercloud. But does this reflect a diminution of feeling, as Christopher suggests, or is it simply a resignation to the fact of who we are? Our distress is a frantic desire to reverse the event. But the march of ordinary days soon forces us to acknowledge the inevitable and submit to it, to realize that it is not just the one we loved who is lost, but we all are. And there is no escape and no turning back.
“We approach truth,” Aristotle remarked, “only inasmuch as we depart from life.” He may have had other meanings in mind, but my reading is this: The closer we get to understanding our end, the more we are able to see through the stories that shield us from who and what we are, and see in a manner of speaking face to face. It was disconcerting to note how little this seemed to be true of Christopher in his final journey.
After the terminal call, Christopher’s prodigious workdays became shorter, and more arduous. From his own account he was not out of bed before eleven, and he awoke nauseated from the chemicals his doctors poured into his veins in an effort to kill the cells that had run amok. He was thirty pounds lighter and anemic, his skin ashen and riddled with sores, and he faced endless battles against exhaustion in order to pursue his tasks.
These images of a life brutally mugged recalled memories of times when I had witnessed Christopher’s abusive indulgences and thought: my friend is killing himself, knowing all the while that it was futile to try to stop him. Even after his collapse he insisted to the interviewers who appeared for his deathwatch that he was without regrets and, even more implausibly, that his addictions were choices whose rewards were so positive that he would make them again: “I can’t imagine what it would have been like otherwise … because so much of life to me has been about prolonging the moment, keeping the argument going for another stage, keeping the dinner party alive for another hour.”
Braving his way along the last mile, he was still forced to concede that there were moments in which he thought of his children and their futures without him, and it was more than he could bear. Of his youngest Antonia, who was seventeen, he said, “I cracked up almost exactly the day when I was going to take her on her first college trip. I felt ashamed, depressed and miserable.” But when asked whether this did not lead to second thoughts about the reckless course he had pursued, he would not hear of it: “I’d have to say, not to be a hypocrite, that my life is my writing before it is anything. Because that’s who I am and my children come later and that’s what they’ve had to put up with.”
Harsh words from a dying father. Although not overly so since they were not intended as an unnecessary wound to hearts most vulnerable, but were offered in the way of excusing the life he had lived, and was ready to continue. Determined to remain undaunted by death Christopher was busy taking up the thread of the story he had started long ago. Instead of reflecting on final things, what the end of the tale might reveal to him about all that had gone before, he had resumed his mission to change the world. It was what provided him the promise of immortality.
Why else would Christopher think that writing was any different from the occupations other mortals pursued that did not save them? In the house of mortality what do such scraps add up to? And why should their production come before those we love, especially our children, whom we have summoned unbidden to a thankless fate and who look to us for comfort along the way?
Christopher’s crusade would have been arduous in any circumstances, but it had become particularly grueling in his new existence. Shuffling between chemotherapy sessions and oncology visits, pressing his crippled voice and failing organs into service he soldiered on. On more occasions than one might imagine possible he dragged himself onto trains and planes, crossing the country to slay the dragons of ignorance and superstition. Lungs rasping he debated one day the existence of God in Atlanta, and denied it the next in Montana, then on to Toronto for a theological skirmish with Tony Blair, the former prime minister of Great Britain. On one day Christopher could be observed warning the public about the sinister revival of the Christian religion in Russia; the next on a radio show sharing his last wishes with strangers, and regretting that he wouldn’t live to write the obituaries of evil doers whom he proceeded to name — an African dictator, a former American Secretary of State and the current Catholic Pope: “It does gash me to think that people like that would outlive me, I have to say. It really does.”
Nor did Christopher hesitate to rub his truth in the noses of the well-wishers who wrote to say they would pray for him, telling them to never mind. “I wrote back to some of the people — some of them in holy orders who are running registered organizations: “When you say, ‘Oh pray for me,’ do you mind if I ask, ‘What for?’” (Clever, Christopher, but cold, and why even do it, since they are headed to the same end?) Instead of connecting with other condemned souls, at least publicly, Christopher was running through the pages of the last drama he had scripted for himself, whose centerpiece was a thumb in the eye of death, martyrdom for the life of reason. I will be defiant I promise you to until the last curtain fall.
“One of my occasionally silly thoughts is: I wish I was suffering in a good Cause — a cause larger than myself. Or, larger than just the mere survival. If you’re in pain and being tortured, and you felt it was helping the liberation of humanity, then you can bear it better, I think.” The liberation of humanity, no less. It is the banner of Yvonne’s romanticism borne aloft by the loyal son. “Until you have done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die.” How are we to take this other than as a literary hyperbole?
In the fall of 2011, Christopher published a thick collection of book reviews and other journalistic ephemera under the title Arguably, referring to it as “probably my last.” In a brief introduction he explained that he had dedicated his final production to three martyrs of the “Arab spring.” This was a series of eruptions in the Arab world the previous February that had begun with high hopes for a democratic turn but had already turned into an Islamist winter, rendering his enthusiasm even more quixotic. After identifying hid heroes, Christopher linked them to a fourth who had immolated himself as a symbol of the Prague spring during the final stages of the Cold War. He concluded by recalling a visit he made to Beirut two years before to give a speech to a left-wing audience titled “Who are the Real Revolutionaries in the Middle East?” It was Christopher’s attempt to fan the fires of an Arab revolution within the revolution, a telling tribute to the path he had pursued with such steadfast loyalty since joining the International Socialists forty years before.
In the speech he praised an anti-Syrian dissident in Lebanon, a political prisoner in Egypt and a Palestinian critic of “the baroque corruption of the Palestinian Authority” — all dissenters within the revolution, like himself. But the gathering of fellow leftists remained singularly unmoved: “It was clear that a good number of the audience (including, I regret to say, most of the Americans) regarded me as some kind of stooge. For them, revolutionary authority belonged to groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, resolute opponents of the global colossus and tireless fighters against Zionism. For me this was yet another round in a long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist left, and the anti-totalitarian Left. In one shape or another, I have been involved – on both sides of it – all my life.”
All his life Christopher has misconstrued this polemic and dispute. The side of Hezbollah and Hamas is not that of an anti-imperialist left but of a fascist left. Hezbollah and Hamas were parties of Islamic imperialism and Jew-hatred – as Christopher certainly understood. Why would he even seek an audience among their western supporters if not for the fact that he was unable to relinquish the utopian dream that connected them, perversely, to him? It was the glare of this imaginary future that blurred (and had always blurred) Christopher’s political vision.
* * *
A week or so after learning of Christopher’s condition, I decided to publish the profile I had written, calling it, “The Two Christophers” after the unruly life he had chosen. Despite the harshness of its judgments, I decided to go ahead with the publication of the article for two reasons. First, because my contentions with Christopher over his incomplete “second thoughts” went to the heart of my own political identity and work, and, then, because I had not given up hope that he might yet complete his own second thoughts or at least extend them. I sent him the article with the following explanation:
July 7, 2010
I hope that by now your doctors have managed to make you feel more comfortable and have alleviated some of the pain you are experiencing. I am told that chemotherapy is an unpleasant matter and I hope that every effort has been made to make this passage easier on you. As you may or may not know, I have written a fairly long piece engaging some of the issues raised by your memoir…. Some of it is critical, as you would expect. When all is said and done, however, my heart is with you. I am grieved that this misfortune has befallen you, and I look to you to pull yourself through it and get on with your journey.
July 7, 2010
Sorry that I can’t read everything on myself these days (I haven’t really even tried Buruma’s piece in the NY Review) and sorry to tell you that I stopped here with “the Rosenbergs, Hamas and Alger Hiss.” I can’t quite think what made you do that.
Thanks for your kind words on other matters.
The sentence he had stopped at was on p. 2 of the article. When I located it, I realized he had misconstrued the text, thinking that I had referred to him as an apologist for “the Rosenbergs, Hamas and Alger Hiss” — which he most assuredly was not. What I had actually written about was his irreconcilable contradictions – that he was “a friend both to neo-conservative hawk Paul Wolfowitz and to Victor Navasky, apologist for the Rosenbergs, Hamas, and Hiss.” Victor Navasky, of course, was not only his editor at the Nation but the best man at his wedding, and one he had given the manuscript of his memoir for advice. I wrote him an email to clarify the point and he promptly he conceded his mistake:
Ah, ok – it was Navasky you meant. See, I am not reading well enough to distinguish commas from semi-colons…. No idea what V’s views on Hamas might be and don’t see the Nation anymore. Still and all, I think a careless reader might have thought you meant me.
I never heard any more from him on the essay and I don’t know whether he ever actually read it or what his thoughts were if he did. Important as they may have seemed to me, the issues raised were evidently not as important to him. Despite my disappointment over this rejection, it was no more than I should have expected. In the memoir he had written of his political life, he had revealed how deeply committed he was to the illusions he had given me the impression he had abandoned. Much as it distressed me to accept this, the path he had resumed after receiving his death sentence confirmed it. Three weeks after receiving his email, I sent him this note:
Jul 29, 2010
I hope you’re progressing with your therapy and that its downsides are not too burdensome. I will be in DC Monday evening through Wednesday and would like to drop by and pay you a call if that is something you would like to do…. I have been thinking about you a lot lately and regretting that the timing of my article was so inopportune. I am not proposing this as an occasion to discuss those issues, just a visit from a friend.
July 29, 2010
I’d like that very much. Can you try me nearer the time? I have a rather fluctuating condition.
Hope to coincide.
We never did coincide. When I arrived in Washington he was too ill to see me, and then the cancer took his voice from him, which would have made any discourse problematic, and even though it was partially restored he was too sick by then for me to even consider it. I also had to accept that he had chosen to be silent with regard to the very issues that had connected us in the first place.
A little over a year after his collapse, Christopher drew his final breath in a state-of- the-art cancer ward in Houston. During that interval I thought about Christopher often, and I thought about him fondly, even though, as I must accept now, our disagreements will never be reconciled. Christopher never abandoned the dream of a future redeemed, and of his place in “history” as one who gave a life to achieve it.
 Christopher Hitchens, “The Life of Johnson,” Critical Quarterly, 1989, FSA p.260
 CH, p. 46
 CH, p. 36
 CH, p. 7
 Terry Eagleton in the New Statesman, file:///DAVID/flyerstrip/Hitch/New%20Statesman%20-%20Hitch-22:%20a%20Memoir.html
 CH, p. 105
 David Horowitz, Radical Son, 1997, p. 280
 CH, p. 22
 CH, pp. 25-26
 I owe these perceptions to my friend Peter Collier.
 CH, p. 13
 CH, p. 98
 CH, p. 87
 Peter Hitchens, The Broken Compass, 2009, p. 75
 CH, p. 106
 CH, p. 108
 CH, p. 181
 CH, p. 424
 Perry Anderson editorial, New Left Review, November-December 2007 http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2695
 Radical Son, op. cit., p. 382
 CH, p. 139
 CH, p. 232
 CH, pp 232-3
 Christopher Hitchens, “The Chorus and the Cassandra” in Grand Street, Autumn 1985 http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/1985—-.htm. For a critique of Hitchens’ article, see http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/hitchens.htm
 CH, p. 416n
 David Horowitz, “A Radical’s Disenchantment,” The Nation, December 8, 1979 Reprinted in Left Illusions as the chapter “Left Illusions.”
 CH, p. 268
 Radical Son, op. cit., pp. 320-321
 CH, p. 333. This was an answer Christopher gave to the “Proust questionnaire.”
 CH, p. 87
 I have written about Deutscher’s mis-reading of the Russian Revolution in an essay titled “The Road to Nowhere” which can be found in The Politics of Bad Faith, 1998. My commentary on Christopher’s review of the Deutscher can be found here: http://hnn.us/articles/893.html
 I am indebted to Peter Collier for this observation.
 CH, p. 5
 Again, I am indebted to Peter Collier for this observation.
 “An Interview with Christopher Hitchens in Simon Cottee and Thomas Cushman, eds. Christopher Hitchens and His Critics, 2008, p. 169
 CH, p. 139
 CH, p. 138
 CH, p. 215
 CH, p. 236
 CH, p. 237
 CH, p. 238
 Cottee and Cushman, eds. Christopher Hitchens and His Critics, op. cit., p. 173
 CH, p. 410
 Cottee and Cushman, op. cit. p. 173
 David Horowitz, Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes, 1999, p. 245. The article first appeared in the leftwing magazine Salon, for which I was then a conservative columnist. My column was terminated when Salon became a paid subscription magazine because, its editors explained, their readership wouldn’t pay to read the views of a conservative.
 Hating Whitey, op. cit. pp. 246-247
 Cottee and Cushman, op. cit.
 Interview in Frontpagemag.com, December 10, 2003. Reprinted in Cottee and Cushman, op. cit. p. 173
 Cottee and Cushman, op., cit. p. 174
 CH, p. 243
 CH, p. 244
 CH, p. 245
 CH, p. 247
 CH, p. 295
 Christopher’s review appeared in the November 16, 2003 Los Angeles Times and is reprinted in Cottee and Cushman, op. cit. The citation appears on p. 191
 CH, p. 411
 CH, pp. 405-6; Peter Hitchens, The Broken Compass, pp. 173, et seq
 CH, p. 422
 CH, p. 394 Emphasis in original.
 CH, p. 376
 CH, p. 282
 CH, p. 380
 CH, p. 382
 CH, p. 381
 CH, p. 46
 Topic of Cancer?
 Anderson Cooper