Christopher Hitchens, my colleague for twenty years, was clever, hilarious, generous to his friends, combative, prodigiously energetic and fantastically productive. He could write with equal ease about Philip Larkin, capital punishment, Henry Kissinger and having his balls waxed. I used to wonder, enviously, how he could write so much, especially given his drinking, his travels, his public appearances and his demanding social life. He told me once that a writer should be able to write with no difficulty, anytime, anywhere--but actually, not many writers can do that. I think part of the reason why he was so prolific--and the reason he had such an outsize career and such an outsize effect on his readers--is that he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth.For a man who started out as an International Socialist and ended up banging the drum for the war in Iraq and accusing Michelle Obama of fealty to African dictators on the basis of a stray remark in her undergraduate thesis, he seems to have spent little time wondering how he got from one place to another, much less if he'd lost anything on the way...His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league--elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).Drinking didn't make him a better writer either--that's another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don't track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I'm betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: "When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay." It makes me sad to see young writers cherishing their drinking bouts with him, and even his alcohol-fuelled displays of contempt for them..
I wanted to pull that out because there was some debate about Hitchens drinking and his output. Pollitt is dealing with this from a different perspective, but it made me think back on that Michelle Obama column and him dismissing Wanda Sykes as "The black dyke." (The first was in print, the second was not.)
And then from this from Jim:
My relationship with Christopher Hitchens was closer to what Katha Pollitt describes than to that of his friends like Ben Schwarz or Jeff Goldberg. I admired him but we were not friends, mainly because of disagreements arising from the 2000 election (in which his contempt for Bill Clinton extended to waving away any differences between Al Gore and George Bush) and then of course the Iraq War. He was more certain than most people of the black-and-white moral goodness of the case for war -- and therefore of the moral weakness and spinelessness of those who doubted the case -- and more reluctant than most to revise or reflect upon that view in light of changing facts. I wouldn't have expected Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld to ask themselves hard questions, in public, about their cocksureness in making what proved to be erroneous and very consequential claims. I would expect leading intellectuals to do so.
That last line is really the dagger, and I think, in it, you why so many of his previous fans were so angry about his turn. You don't expect power-mongers to be particularly reflective. But you do expect it of intellectuals. Increasingly I think that perhaps we should not.
The Iraq War still burns for a lot of the Left because, in the run-up to the War, those who questioned it were loudly denounced by conservatives and many of the country's most powerful Democrats. They were dismissed as soft-headed crazies unmoored from reality and serious foreign policy thinking. Except the crazies were right and the serious people were wrong. There wasno WMD. There was not an imminent mushroom cloud. The country did go to war on bad intelligence. It did show an ugly disinterest in managing the effects of that war.
Some of these serious people have attempted to come terms with these disagreeable facts. Others have sought out every reason not to. Hitchens died among the latter.
One final note from Dan Fox which, I think, captures some of the frustration with Hitchens among those of us on the Left:
I can tell you that a lot of my anger (and to be clear, I have reverence for his writing and am not driven crazy by him) is that when it comes to the Iraq War, his thoughts were almost directly contradictory to his thoughts on Kissinger. I found it a good thing to have someone who was anti-Vietnam War that isn't defined by Buffalo Springfield, and had done good reporting to arrive at a conclusion. So many of his defenses of Iraq almost seemed the opposite of thinking on Kissinger.In general, I think why he drew a lot of anger is that everyone expected him to know better. He should know better than to write a half-assed column about why women aren't funny. I think somewhere deep down he probably did know when he was wrong about many issues, but was so committed to winning a debate that it didn't matter. I was always surprised he couldn't go the Sullivan route on Iraq, or at times even accept that there were a lot of poorly handled things in that war.And this is serious business, you know? You can't just go around smearing an entire gender or defending a haphazard war based on a philosophy that isn't even popular in the GOP anymore because you're drunk and you want to challenge yourself intellectually. People will rightly get offended.
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