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Is Christopher Hitchens Still Worth Reading? ❧ Current Affairs

Is Christopher Hitchens Still Worth Reading? ❧ Current Affairs from @curaffairs
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Ben Burgis is the author of a number of books, including Give Them an Argument, Canceling Comedians While the World Burns, and the author of the upcoming book, Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters, now available for pre-order. He is a columnist for Jacobin and the host of the Give Them An Argument podcast and YouTube show. He recently spoke with Current Affairs editor in chief Nathan J. Robinson about the legacy of Hitchens and what the left can learn from Hitchens’ successes and failures as a public intellectual. The conversation has been condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson  

The book you’ve written now has an unusual choice of subject. It’s on a public intellectual who has been dead for a decade, whose central contributions to the discourse were made many years ago, and whose legacy is, I think, quite unclear.

Burgis

For sure.

Robinson

It’s on Christopher Hitchens. And at first when I saw you were writing a book about Christopher Hitchens, I thought, “Why now?” Why pick Christopher Hitchens, of all people? And then, as I thought “it’s actually quite interesting that Ben’s picked Hitchens,” because I think you and I probably have a similar relationship to this guy.

Burgis

Mm, hmm.

Robinson

And we have to work through our thoughts on him because I remember he was a huge influence on me, intellectually, as little as I might like to admit it. There was a time when the was the model to me of what an intelligent, well-read person who could discourse on many subjects was like. When we first founded Current Affairs it said on the website “as if Christopher Hitchens and Willy Wonka edited a magazine together.” That eventually came off the website, and we got some hate mail saying “Christopher Hitchens was a warmonger.” But clearly, there’s some part of me that did see him as a model of what an interesting informed commentator would be like. So, with your book, part of the subtitle is why Hitchens still matters. So why do you think that Christopher Hitchens matters and is still worth talking about?

Burgis

Yeah, so I think that one reason that he still matters is that he spent decades writing about and debating topics that are still tremendously interesting and relevant to people now, and he actually did have quite a bit that I think is worthwhile to say about many of these things. The first book that ever had his name on the cover was published in 1971. And he died in 2011. So certainly, for the first 30 years of that, I think most of it is good stuff. Not all of it—there are important exceptions. But most of this material, I think, a young socialist in 2021, who reads Current Affairs or who reads Jacobin, you know, would agree with vastly more than they disagreed with, and would really appreciate the style, the panache. And not just the style and the panache. I think even though Christopher Hitchens was sometimes out of his depth when he talked about philosophy, which is something you know, that you and I have talked about before—

Robinson   

Yes, you go through a number of examples of that. 

Burgis

Yeah, I certainly get into that in the book. I still think as a polemicist talking and thinking about history and politics and literature and all that stuff, it’s still the case that on those other subjects he was a very bright guy. He’d often put things together at odd angles, and you can learn a lot from reading his writing. And I think what you said just a minute ago, is actually, in my experience, not atypical at all. Your counterpart at Jacobin, Bhaskar Sunkara, and I had several conversations with him about this. He retains a huge soft spot for Hitchens and has read most of what he wrote.

Robinson  

Has he admitted this publicly before? Is this an exclusive disclosure that Bhaskar’s a—

Burgis

I’d like to have outed him. But I don’t think that that’s unusual.

Robinson    

Oh, no, I agree. We’re all quiet about it but it’s because Hitchens became kind of embarrassing.

Burgis

And that’s another part of what makes it interesting to me. There are so many of us who do feel this way. We’ve read his books, we’ve watched all this stuff and we do, even now, have affection for large parts of it. But also there is the elephant with that inadequate body armor in the room, the horrifying positions that he took in the last 10 years of his life when he supported disastrous imperialist wars in the Middle East, when his commitment to strident atheism, which was a lifelong commitment, certainly assumed a different flavor under those circumstances, and I think got mixed up with those bad views. And so even though there are parts of what he said in that last decade—if you can get out the laser and try to separate them from the bad parts—that are interesting and worthwhile, it is also the case that he did say all these things. He did advocate all of these things that you should be horrified by. And I think a lot of us never quite sorted out how we felt about that. If you look at a lot of reactions to Hitchens from people on the left in the early 2000s, it comes from a visceral sense of betrayal, which is understandable. But because I do find him so interesting, one of the things I wanted to do with the book was to try to think through: okay, now that the man’s been dead for a decade, the book should come out, we could have a little bit of distance about this to where feelings have cooled. And we can start to think a little bit more analytically about why and how he went wrong in that last decade, and what, if anything, we can learn from him.

Robinson  

I realize that there are now people who are younger than me, which there didn’t used to be— I met someone recently who was 20, and I assumed they’d know who Ned Flanders was, and they didn’t, and I thought “Oh, gee, time is passing”—so there may be people who don’t know anything about Christopher Hitchens, and I think one of the important places to start before getting into all the terrible shit—when he started writing contrarian takes like “Why Women Aren’t Funny” and all the anti-Islam and pro-Iraq War stuff—is why he’s compelling. For me, it’s that he has this quality of being interesting on many different subjects. I have this giant collection of his essays here called Arguably that’s like 800 pages. And you go through and he’s writing about literature. He could write about George Orwell. He could write about food. He could write about foreign policy. He could do travel writing. He has this kind of thing that I think many of us aspire to, which is the ability to have read about many subjects and be curious about the world. And he was witty. He was able to write not always with perfect logic, but always a lot of flair, with a beautiful ability to craft a sentence. There’s a whole book that I have called The A to Z of Christopher Hitchens Quotes. He’s very quotable. The one that always stayed with me was when Jerry Falwell died, he said, “if you’d given Jerry Falwell an enema, you could have buried him in a matchbox.” Quite an image. So there’s that quality of being a literate man and a vivid writer. And then, of course, there is also the fact that, as you point out in this book, for at least the first decades of his life, he was a committed socialist who was taking that skill and writing some of the best explicitly leftist political writing.

Burgis

Absolutely. Certainly Hitchens was an extraordinarily good writer, which is definitely not nothing for me. And it’s not the case that he’s somebody who can write very well but it’s all just kind of empty, or that he doesn’t really have anything to say. Part of why he could write so well is that even though he knows exactly where to put in that flair, he is also very direct about what he’s saying and you can follow the line of his thoughts. And just to give a very small example that I mention early on in the book—I’ve actually been thinking about this over the last week because FX has a series called Impeachment and I’ve started watching it. And I keep thinking about Hitchens’ book from 1999, No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. He has this great line in there, where he is talking about the horrors of welfare reform in the 90s. And he talks about all these grisly details about Tyson Foods. And in that discussion, he gets into the extreme invasions of privacy in women working for Tyson. And he brings it back to the sorts of things that liberals were always saying during the impeachment, you know, “even presidents have a right to privacy” and he says, well, it would seem that only presidents have a right to privacy.

The part of Hitchens that I find most interesting, which is a very big part, is his role as—it never rolls off the tongue very easily—but I guess, polemicist. I was at an adjunct professors’ union meeting recently, and people were talking about people there who were also journalists, and I had this moment thinking, well, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a journalist. That’s not what I do, right? That makes it sound like I’m doing reporting. So what is the correct term here? And it seems like that’s it, right? I mean, the kind of writing that I do, the kind of writing that you do, is the kind of writing that Christopher Hitchens was incredibly good at.

Robinson 

Well, yes, it’s true. I think that’s right. I, too, am not really a journalist or an academic, and I do things that are opinionated, but rigorous. I realized that, like it or not, I am in the Hitchens genre, because I became known for these long, scathing takedown type pieces. And the very model for doing those—where they’re very well-written, but also really bring the evidence, and they come from a left perspective—is the Hitchens book on Henry Kissinger, the Hitchens book on Clinton, the Hedges book on Mother Teresa. These are the form at its best.

Burgis

Yeah. The Kissinger one in particular, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, is written like one of those 10,000 word Current Affairs pieces, but like eight or 10 times longer, and it’s nothing but what the case for the prosecution would be at a hypothetical trial of Henry Kissinger, just systematically going through the war crimes that take in the involvement and trying to overthrow democratically elected left-wing governments, and the effect of it is absolutely devastating.

Robinson    

I want to get to the big question about Hitchens. Many, even those who knew him, like Alexander Cockburn, have suggested that Hitchens was never really a sincere and committed leftist, that he was always a social climber who liked doing polemic, but didn’t have many sincere convictions. He himself has a few reflections that you quote on his leftism. They’re a little weird. He has one where he says, “I haven’t abandoned all the tenets of the left. I still find the materialist conception of history has not been surpassed as a means of analyzing matters and that monopoly capitalism can and should be considered distinguished from the free market.” What kind of socialist would ever say, “my leftist conviction is that monopoly capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market?”

Burgis

That passage comes from Letters to a Young Contrarian, and I think what it really speaks to is the era in which he wrote that passage because as weak sauce as that reads to us now, I think that the fact that this was his dismal attempt to say, well, it’s not entirely wrong, all the stuff that I believed for decades as a socialist, really shows how much socialism had gone into retreat in this era. 

Robinson

This is true.

Burgis

That was a popular book, and I don’t think there were a lot of people writing articles for The Nation and The Progressive saying, “wait, wait a second, what is this, Christopher? This seems like such a big retreat.” That was the sort of thing that passed for a vaguely left progressive view about capitalism in 2001. This is the era of Francis Fukuyama calling it “the end of history,” that the big battles over economic systems that defined the 20th century were just done now, because liberal capitalism had won. This is the era where Margaret Thatcher said famously, “There is no alternative.” Actually an even better Thatcher line was, supposedly, if you asked what her greatest accomplishment was, she said, “New Labour,” because the opposition party accepted her central premises. Victory doesn’t get much more complete than that. That was the book where he finally said, well, I give up.

Robinson  

For a guy who prides himself on his independence of mind and uncompromising ability to buck the general trend, that does suggest a great deal of conformity with prevailing orthodoxy. The other quote that you have is almost even worse, because he says, “For many years, I made sure that I was a socialist, if only to distinguish myself from the weak American term liberal, and the host of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb, bears some of the responsibility for this because he got me to announce my socialism on the air, and then he never again had me as a guest without asking to reaffirm [my commitment].” So socialism was a daring label to embrace, and that almost seems like an admission of—if you’re a deep and committed socialist, then Brian Lamb asking you to say you’re a socialist is not ever gonna be even noteworthy. But for him, I don’t know, if that’s where your socialism comes from…

Burgis

So basically what I take him to be saying—that’s a passage from Hitch-22, which was the memoir that he put out in 2010, which is a really interesting book in a lot of ways. The chapters about his experiences as a college radical, a Trotskyist—you can tell that he feels all this nostalgia for that, and he’s not writing it in a way that you would expect from, like, “Oh, I was so wrong back then.” He still seems to be able to identify with his perspective. But it seems to me that what he’s admitting in that passage is that by some time in the 90s, presumably, his belief that socialism was a viable project in the real world was getting extremely tenuous. He wanted to keep the faith, but it was getting thinner and thinner. He was having a really hard time maintaining that. In fact, what he says elsewhere in that section in Hitch-22, when he’s going through the change, is that he’s trying to imagine there being a revived, real socialist movement for his students to join. He finally admitted at this point that he couldn’t imagine it, which I think speaks to the fact that by the mid-90s, this prevailing orthodoxy that history was over and capitalism was won was just part of the water everybody was swimming in. And he was certainly extremely influenced by that. It also makes you wonder what he would have thought if he had lived for not very many more years.

Robinson

Right. What would he have made of Bernie Sanders? You know, it’s kind of pathetic. I mean, it’s sad, it’s a real cautionary tale. Because, you have someone who, in many ways, as we’ve said, was a great writer, an intelligent person, oftentimes a fearsome debater, very, very skilled. And someone who clearly understood at least at one point in his life, that the left was on the right side of things. And you know, whose model was George Orwell. And who always did understand that George Orwell was a democratic socialist, but then, to lose your way that badly and to be wrong to that degree, right? I mean, he lost faith in socialism right before the revival of American socialism. And there are others, of course, who kept the faith, right?

Burgis

Sure.

Robinson

Alexander Cockburn, of course, is the anti-Hitchens who also wrote for The Nation, the UK expatriate who is very erudite and very fun, and whose writing I always recommend, but who always remained a very, very hardcore socialist to the end. And so you didn’t have to go in that direction. And I think the stuff around the War on Terror really shows the extreme danger of being insufficiently critical of orthodoxy. 

Burgis

Yeah, I think so. And I think it’s also a result of giving up on socialism, because if you don’t just read it as opportunism—you know, anybody who leaves the track must just be cynical and know that they’re wrong and whatever. And I don’t think he did. I think that this was horrifically misguided but entirely sincere. Although I also think that his stubbornness, which is just clearly a huge trait of his personality, stopped him from admitting when he certainly should have that these wars had been absolute disasters. But I think that to understand how he got there, I think that you need the component people rarely talk about which is the abandonment of any hope about socialism. Because why is it that he was supporting these wars? And I think that a big part of the answer is that he’d spent so much of his career as a globe-trotting, well, at times journalist, or writer, being sent around and visiting places like Iraq where he would get to know people, such as radicals that were really being crushed by that regime. And he didn’t just want to accept this horrible status quo that people in these countries were living under. When people at D.C. cocktail parties would say, “look, I know that Saddam is a bad guy,” that kind of imperialist realpolitik really grated on him. And if not socialism, at least some sort of democratic revolution was still something that he hoped for. But the real tragic mistake, the thing that he was most consequently wrong about, other than giving up on socialism, is thinking that the U.S. military could ever be an engine of that democratic revolution. And I think especially now at this moment, we should really be in a unique position to see just how misguided that is, to think that progressing to democracy or anything like that was ever gonna be ushered in by the 82nd Airborne was just absurd.

Robinson  

When you read this, I agree with you that it seems completely sincere. And he has explanations that are quite persuasive as to why he felt it was ideologically consistent for him to go from being a supposed Marxist to hanging out with Bush administration officials. Basically, he sees himself as part of an antifascist struggle. He’s almost thinking of the War on Terror like the Spanish Civil War. And the theocrats, and the “Islamofascists” who want to destroy liberty, are like Franco. So this is our moment. And so because, as you mentioned, it’s all linked to this decline of socialism—because there’s no International Brigades for you to go join in 2003—he has this very, very warped idea that post-9/11 is this exhilarating moment. He’s like “now I have my freedom struggle, I want to be part of this freedom fight.” And, of course, who is a better villain for the freedom fighter than Osama bin Laden? But obviously the world is extremely complicated, and you can believe that both Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush are negative forces.

Burgis

That last part is the one that’s most important. People sometimes say, “oh, well, what Hitchens was at his most radical phase in the 70s was a Trotskyist.” He was part of the International Socialists in the UK. And they see that as the beginning of the problem, because Trotskyists don’t defend the various regimes that used to be called “actually existing socialism” back when they actually existed, as if that was a gateway drug to just abandoning socialism entirely and coming around to the sort of position that Hitchens ultimately did come around to. And I really want to push back against that, because I think that the best thing about Trotskyism—and there are lots of bad things about Trotskyism—the great virtue of that tradition is that it did hold on to that insight that you just mentioned that, just to put it crassly, more than one thing can be bad, right? You don’t actually have to choose between—

Robinson  

Do you like Stalinism or do you like capitalism?

Burgis  

Yeah, exactly. You don’t have to pick between being a Reagan apologist and being a Brezhnev apologist. And it seems to me that that’s the exact insight that Hitchens catastrophically parted from in that last decade. He was doing exactly the same thing that was being done by fellow travelers who couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge that Stalin had done anything wrong, because Stalin was fighting against forces that they hated. And similarly the United States was fighting all these forces that Hitchens hated, the so-called Islamofascists—by the way, for a great prose stylist, not his best turn of phrase—but the United States was fighting these brutal, disgusting regimes like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and, therefore, you should just cheer for that. But it’s like, okay, but this is not just Saddam Hussein versus a blank slate. It’s Saddam Hussein versus the United States cluster bombing, invading, and occupying the country.

Robinson  

This unfortunate tendency to fail to think in a very nuanced manner, in areas that require it, can also be extended to his public atheism, I think, where he and Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris as the “New Atheists” really perfected the aggressively obnoxious style of atheism that I think many people our age have repudiated so much that it has almost managed to make the term atheism embarrassing—even though so many of us lack any actual religious faith. What do you think? What do you make of Hitchens’ legacy as a public atheist? Because obviously that was the major cause of the last part of his life.

Burgis 

One of the reasons I find it fascinating is that he did a lot of the things that you and I want to do, right? Write polemics, do public debates, intervene in what was going on in culture that way. But I think that when it comes to his atheism, I think that there are distinctions that you need to make. Even though I am defensive about parts of what Hitchens said and wrote about this, I think that he is one of the primary culprits in people not making these distinctions, because he would certainly run these things together. So one issue is being an atheist—in other words, thinking that there aren’t any gods—is a very different thing from being an anti-theist—in other words, somebody who thinks that it’s morally or politically important to try to get everybody else to be an atheist too—which is, to a great extent, what new atheism was about. I don’t think everything that he would say in these debates is wrong. But I think that the idea that this should be seen as some sort of political imperative—which was not just something he started thinking in the War on Terror, it was something that he thought and said in the 80s—I think that anti-theism ultimately, even though I am a small “a” atheist, I think anti-theism is ultimately pretty unconvincing to me. And I actually do think that even though some people on the left overcorrect for their youthful New Atheist follies, by rejecting out of hand the idea that this is an interesting or important subject—

Robinson

And being more open to astrology than I would have wished our generation would be.

Burgis

Yes, that part for sure. But despite that, I do think that a lot of the reasons why the left rejected New Atheism are good reasons. Anti-theism is ultimately not convincing. The late Michael Brooks, in his book Against the Web, is to my mind very convincing on this topic. And I think in a way that helps to show what’s wrong with late Hitchens in particular, because in that passage you read earlier from Letters to a Young Contrarian, one of the tenets of the left that he claims that he still believes—and this is a claim that he continued to make throughout his life—was that he believed in the materialist theory of history. But if the materialist theory of history is about anything, it’s about explaining the things that happen in history materially, that they’re the result of economic forces.

Robinson 

Yes. And yet he feels as if everything is the product of these bad religious ideas that you have to just argue to death and when you argue them to death, they will go away.

Burgis

Exactly. This is the analysis in his big 2007 book god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. You know, it is an entirely idealist theory of history that he is implicitly holding there. The way he talks sometimes in that book and elsewhere about various bad things happening because of religion, it almost starts to feel like he really does believe that religious texts and religious beliefs were dropped into the world from some sort of supernatural—like this really was revealed by God, it’s just that God is bad. 

Robinson    

Religion causes things but things don’t cause religion.

Burgis  

Exactly. Michael’s point in the last chapter of Against the Web, which I find very compelling, is that religions and cultural traditions in general, of which religions are a subset, are these vast, complicated things within which you can express all sorts of conflicting values. Within every cultural tradition, there are going to be people who find their way to the kind of values that we like, and who express those values in the particular language of that cultural tradition. If people are operating for those values, I don’t think it’s condescending to say that we could agree to disagree about metaphysics while we go about the business of ridding the world of war and economic inequality. As long as somebody doesn’t want to impose their religion on me, we’re five by five, as far as that goes. We could cooperate about everything else.

Robinson 

Well, he forgets that Karl Marx, of course, described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature.” While anti-theistic himself, Marx also understood the causes of religious belief. Fundamentally, the subtitle of his god is Not Great book was “how religion poisons everything” and you just can’t make the case for. You could make the case that the tenets of religion are incorrect or incoherent, and I would certainly argue that a lot of religious belief is incoherent or incorrect. But then to argue that it poisons everything, you have to pick Osama bin Laden but ignore vast billions of Muslims around the world who just live in peace and live ordinary lives. You have to point to Jerry Falwell and ignore Martin Luther King, Jr. You just have to be very, very selective in your analysis. I think ultimately it turned out to be quite shallow.

Burgis

One way of showing the point is to think, “okay, we could go through a series of historical atrocities that were perpetrated using religious justifications.” But sometimes later Hitchens will talk as if the options were that or that everybody would be like a 19th or 20th century secular humanist, and that doesn’t really make sense to me.

Robinson

Once again, false binaries.

Burgis

Yeah. In a world where Constantine never converted to Christianity, you can do all the hypotheticals you want, but there was still feudalism. Whatever that society came up with to justify feudalism would have been pretty bad and would not have resembled the nice, enlightened democratic secular humanism that Christopher Hitchens likes.

Robinson 

If you’re critical of religion, I’ve got a faith for you to go after. There’s a set of beliefs—this is wacky—where they think there’s an invisible hand that ensures that if you just adopt the correct economic system, justice will flow automatically. Everyone can be selfish and yet, somehow, magically, the invisible hand makes sure that all of the selfishness is transubstantiated into the public good. Isn’t that nuts?

Burgis  

Exactly. Economic systems are a much bigger source of the poison that is to be found in everything, compared to people’s beliefs about the creation of the world or the afterlife.

Robinson   

And we could say that blind faith poisons everything. But faith is not confined to religion. Hitchens himself was undone by his failure to be sufficiently self-critical, his excessive faith in his own flawed judgment. Before we go, one last question. Do you have a favorite Hitchens moment from any of his public appearances or debate? 

Burgis 

That is a very good question. I’m going to cheat and do two. We’ve been talking about problems with the politicized anti-theism, but I think that there is something that’s in between, which was pretty compelling. He did these two back-to-back debates with his brother, Peter Hitchens, in 2008. The opening statement that Hitchens gives in the religion half of the debate was probably the best, most eloquent, rhetorically devastating version of that humanistic moral critique of a certain kind of Christian morality.

The other one would be the first of the Hitchens debates that I talked about in the book, which was in 1986. He and Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis and Leon Wieseltier. The topic was “the media, the scholars, and the Middle East.” Hitchens’ response to these guys is one of the best public versions of him doing his thing as a left-wing debater, because Wieseltier worked for the New Republic. And he was saying, “oh, well look, sometimes the media makes some ignorant generalizations about the Middle East and Muslims. But that’s just because reporters don’t know very much about any distant culture. And so it’s all kind of bad. If you’re a specialist in any of these things, you could find people making generalizations about any of these.” In his response, Hitchens reads out some of what’s been published in the New Republic. It’s one of the best verbal versions of what we’re talking about with the Kissinger book—Hitchens as a prosecutor.

Robinson 

Thank you so much, Ben Burgis, always such a delight to talk to you. I look forward to this next book coming out. In the meantime, people can check out Give Them An Argument and Canceling Comedians While the World Burns, and they can watch your Give Them an Argument show on YouTube if they want to see debates deconstructed. I’m sure when the book comes out you’ll have some Hitchens stuff on there, too.

Burgis

Absolutely.

Robinson

Thanks, Ben.

Burgis

Thanks, Nathan.


Listen to audio of this conversation on the Current Affairs podcast.



Originally posted by Current Affairs on 2021-10-13 10:11:03

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