Interviews January 2005

The Contrarian in Combat

Christopher Hitchens, the controversial author of Love, Poverty, and War, talks about Iraq, Mother Teresa, and his efforts to inconvenience Henry Kissinger
book cover

Love, Poverty, and War : Journeys and Essays
[Click the title
to buy this book]

by Christopher Hitchens
Thunder's Mouth, Nation Books
432 pages, $16.95

The hostility toward Christopher Hitchens from certain members of the political left is presently immeasurable. The writer and activist Tariq Ali has called him a "vile replica" of his former self. Alexander Cockburn, a columnist for The Nation—a position Hitchens himself held until he quit in 2002—has accused him of "frothing crudity." The writer Dennis Perrin has published an "obituary" of his former mentor in radical politics. And the leftist critic George Scialabba has written that Hitchens has been making an "egregious ass of himself."

What has made Hitchens—the journalist, critic, lecturer, and self-proclaimed "contrarian"—into the object of such vociferous scorn is his muscular support for the war in Iraq. Soon after September 11, with the Pentagon (not far from his Washington home) in ruins, Hitchens became arguably the most prominent American journalistic opponent of Saddam's regime. And since that time he has focused the bulk of his famously voluminous energy on making the legal, moral, and political case for war. Coming from a mainstay of the radical press, this turn has been perceived by some as apostasy and by others as symbolic of the ideological differences that currently divide the American left—and gallons of ink have therefore been spilled in an attempt to analyze the political "defection" of Christopher Hitchens.

In one sense, the Hitchens-watchers see a great deal more discontinuity than actually exists. In 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced Hitchens's close friend Salman Rushdie to death, Hitchens became finely attuned to, and repulsed by, Islamic fundamentalism. He was a supporter of the American bombing of Serbia, in 1999, when many on the left opposed it, and of the idea that the United States military could be a force for positive change. Most fundamentally, Hitchens has had a long-stated and intense hatred for organized religion—and for unorganized religion as well—an aspect of his personality that many commentators miss, but one that plays a central part in his political worldview. September 11 gave focus to these already present convictions.

In another sense, however, there has been an obvious shift in the nature of Hitchens's discourse. Though his work remains as biting, as committed to Enlightenment ideals, and as elegant as ever, it has also become decidedly and self-consciously single-minded. During the run-up to the 2004 election, Hitchens proudly declared himself a "one-issue" voter. That issue was Iraq, and his obvious scorn for those who opposed military intervention. Very little has seeped through this new scrim—not critiques of economic globalization, nor of American imperialism, nor of the Bush Administration's evasiveness and mendacity. And these conspicuous absences have lent critics of Hitchens's work a great deal of fuel, and their criticisms a noticeable, often condescending, anger.

If the Hitchens backlash and Hitchens's own combativeness are in part emblematic of the riven state of leftist politics, they have also served to drown out a great deal of Hitchens's other work. Though he is first and foremost a political writer—well-known for his polemics on Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, and Mother Teresa—Hitchens is also an accomplished literary critic (he is a reviewer for this magazine, among other publications). It is a role the eclipse of which he sometimes laments. But not too loudly. With Hitchens there are always more pressing things to shout about, and very little into which politics does not enter.

I spoke with Hitchens by phone on December 20 on the occasion of the publication of his latest book, a collection of essays and reviews titled Love, Poverty, and War.

Daniel Smith

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens   

I have several subjects I want to ask you about—for example, Mayor Bloomberg, politics, God. But first I want to ask you about Mayor Bloomberg playing God. In a Vanity Fair essay that's reprinted in this volume, you call New York a "nanny state." More pointedly you call Bloomberg a "picknose control freak." Are your complaints regarding New York politics rooted in the city's recent smoking ban, or are they based on a broader complaint about mayoral policies?

In the essay you're talking about I accuse Bloomberg of "penis envy" for Rudy Giuliani and the former New York police chief William Bratton, both of whom made a point about zero tolerance in the matter of crime and delinquency. Bloomberg hoping, I think, to gain some reputation, applied that attitude to behaviors that are not really antisocial—old people feeding pigeons, for example, or people sitting on milk crates on the sidewalk, or standing outside their own place of employment. Those policies demonstrate a mentality of insecurity and ambition and pseudo-zeal. But undoubtedly you're right. The thing that more than symbolizes Bloomberg for me is the ban on smoking. It's moved a sensible aim—namely, the protection of nonsmokers from smoke—into behavior modification.

At one point, for instance, Bloomberg actually sent police around to the Vanity Fair offices, on what must have been a tip-off from someone in the building, to stop [Editor-in-chief] Graydon Carter and I from having a cigarette. At a later time they came when Graydon was on vacation because on his unoccupied desk, in his empty office, was a receptacle that might have been usable for an ashtray. Now, this is the sort of thing one laughs about. But if they'd had cops to spare for this sort of thing, and if they're going to rely on anonymous informers and do this to people who aren't even present, then it doesn't take much alteration to that anecdote to make it sound rather nasty. You tip things just a little further and you're living in a very unpleasant country.

A lesser objection I have is simply that it makes bar owners and bartenders and waiters into de facto enforcers of the law. The law inverts the relationship between host and guest. It's a small thing, but it has kind of spoiled New York for me. I went out to a restaurant recently in Union Square—it was a very cold day, but my friends and I decided we would sit outside anyway so that we could have a smoke and not bother anybody. They said, "You can't do that." Why not? "Because you're underneath an awning. We have a table that's completely unprotected from the weather, just outside the awning. You can sit there if you like." And this all occurred before they told us what the specials were! Now, if you can't put up a shingle that says, "This is McShane's Old Irish Lodge, and if you don't like cigarette smoke you can stay the fuck out of my bar," then something essential about the whole idea of New York is gone.

But wasn't it Mayor Giuliani who introduced that authoritarian atmosphere into the city?

Yes, but he had the justification of law and order. Or at least what he did had an aura of defensibility. Bloomberg's is simply state-enforced behavior modification. I'm appalled by that. The whole point of moving to New York used to be that there wasn't anyone saying, "Don't wear this," or "Don't smoke that." It was nobody's business.

In general I've found that over the past few years what you might call libertarian issues mean more to me. Something has gone wrong with the liberal mentality. What used to be diversity, or could claim to be, has mutated into conformism in a rather sinister way.

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