Hitchens and the War

Glenn Greenwald:


When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts -- like Ronald Reagan -- discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems -- enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts -- is not a matter of politeness; it's deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble...

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker's John Cook, who -- in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary - detailed Hitchens' vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being "sluts" and "fucking fat slags" for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief). As Cook put it: "it must not be forgotten in mourning him that he got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong"; indeed: "People make mistakes. What's horrible about Hitchens' ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made..."

Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration is to insist that these actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant. Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.

I don't know if I qualify as mainstream media--frankly, I hope so, and consider myself as such. To that extent, as surely as I agree with appropriateness of Hitchens impious attack on the dead Jerry Falwell, I agree with the appropriateness of impious attack on Hitchens's cheerleading for one of the great foreign policy missteps of our time. This piece, "A War to Be Proud Of," is particularly painful to read and, for my selfish Civil Warrior ends, is chastening--"righteous" violence, seduction, staring into the abyss, that sort of thing.
One of the points made by Glenn is that Hitchens literary talent doesn't balance out his wrongheaded ideas, and the glee he took in prosecuting them:

There's one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that's quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins.

I'd argue that, over the last decade, Hitchens sins actually injured his prose. See for instance this unfortunate piece where Hitchens implies that Michelle Obama somehow lured the president into the evidently woeful clutches of Jeremiah Wright:

If there is a reason why the potential nominee has been keeping what he himself now admits to be very bad company--and if the rest of his character seems to make this improbable--then either he is hiding something and/or it is legitimate to ask him about his partner.

It was totally illegitimate. Barack Obama was baptized at Trinity in 1988. He didn't meet, much less marry, Michelle Robinson, the product of the painfully traditional black working class, until a year later. Nevertheless, what follows that passage in which Hitchens, a professional writer, devolves into snarky critique of 22-year old's college thesis. This is was in the hey-day of the "Whitey Tape," but there's an unfortunate trend in the dismissal of facts in this piece and "A War To Be Proud Of." For my money, it's the mark of writer who had begun to substitute quantity of thought, for quality of thought. (Again, chastening.)

Nevertheless, I think Glenn's frame is wrong. Virtues don't excuse sins; they cohabit with them. Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder. Perhaps worse he was a slaveholder who comprehended, more than any other, the moral failing of slavery, and it's potential to bring the country to war, and yet at the end of his life he argued for slavery's expansion, and on his death many of his slaves were sent to the auction block. 

At his end, Jefferson sided with those who would eventually bring about the deaths of 600,000 Americans. He argued that the antebellum South would have either "justice" versus "self-preservation." To paraphrase Churchill, it chose the latter and consequently got neither. But Jefferson was a beautiful writer, and a great intellect, whose thinking and prose I consistently find stunning. This admiration does not negate his moral cowardice. Both are true at the same time. (The same point could be made in regards to our conversation over Elizabeth Cady Stanton.) 

Given Hitchens own ties to this magazine, of which I'm very fond, I'd like to say that--at least in this space--there's no demand for exclusion, or any sense that Hitchens worthy of unalloyed admiration. No one should ever receive, or wisely desire, such a thing. I can't really speak for other people, but I don't believe in an essential, irreducible moral nature. I don't see Hitchens, or anyone else, as a case of either/or. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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