New Part Three - Mar 1
James Fallows - Feb 26
Christopher Hitchens - Feb 27
Part One - Feb 21:
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. His books include Hostage to History, The Elgin Marbles, Prepared for the Worst, Blood, Class, and Nostalgia, For the Sake of Argument, The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie To, Unacknowledged Legislation, and (forthcoming) The Trial of Henry Kissinger. He is Professor of Liberal Studies in the Graduate School at the New School, New York. He won the Lannan Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 1992.
James Fallows is The Atlantic's national correspondent and the author, most recently, of Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy (1996).
Previously in Fallows@large:
Darwin Had It Backwards (January 17, 2001)
An e-mail exchange with Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.
More by James Fallows
More on books
More on politics
Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.
Atlantic Unbound | February 26, 2001
Dialogues with James Fallows
From: James Fallows
To: Christopher Hitchens
Subject: Literature, Politics, and Henry Kissinger - Part Two
You recall the hoary joke about the frog and the scorpion. The scorpion asks the frog for a ride across the river. The frog says, "No way! You'll sting me and I'll die." The scorpion points out that this would be against both their interests, since then he'd drown too. So he gets the ride, of course he stings the frog, and on the way down he answers the frog's puzzled look with, "It's my nature."
There was a time when you could count on hearing this chestnut whenever a retired diplomat tried to explain why he hadn't been able to bring peace to the Middle East. I don't think I've heard it in that context so often since it took on a risqué connotation when used in Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. I introduce it here, retired-diplomat fashion, to explain the perversity of the approach I'm about to take. I admire and agree with so much of what's in Unacknowledged Legislation, but it's in my nature to concentrate on the places where I disagree. I'd feel worse about this if I suspected that your nature were any different.
Actually, let me spend a minute more on the high road, elaborating on something I particularly liked about the essays collected in your book. I am thinking of the sincerity and enthusiasm of the praise you offer, when you offer it. People who are known for their demolition jobs often seem just to be camping it up when, out of character, they decide to be nice to someone. I am thinking, for example, of George Will, who during the Reagan days was the dominant Washington columnist. He would inveigh, in the tones we now associate with William Bennett or Antonin Scalia, against this or that liberal threat to the values of the nation. But the things he praised were: (1) baseball, especially the Cubs, which seemed part of his "regular guy" shtick; (2) his baby daughter; (3) Reagan, Thatcher, Churchill, and other Leaders with Backbone, which in its own way was shtick as well. The point I'm getting at is: some critics seem incapable of issuing praise, or if they do have a good word, they mainly seem to be subtly congratulating themselves on their good taste.
Therefore I was impressed that when you make the case on a writer's behalf in this book, you make it with gusto. I was particularly taken with some of the less obvious recipients of this praise—that is, not George Orwell, Gore Vidal, Murray Kempton, Oscar Wilde, or others I would have expected you to admire, but Michael Frayn (for his book Headlong) and Patrick O'Brian, for his Aubrey-Maturin series. Usually people defend O'Brian with a "isn't it cute that I like him" tone, but you do an effective job of demonstrating why the books are a real achievement, especially in contrast to C. S. Forester's Hornblower series.
Of course, the attacks are more fun. For the record, I dissent from one. You give Charles McCarry a hard time for his book Shelley's Heart. Okay, McCarry is a friend of mine. But I think that his series of political novels, including the astounding The Tears of Autumn and also The Secret Lovers and The Last Supper, deserve to be as famous and successful as, say, John Le Carré's. Have you read others of his books beside Shelley's? I suspect you'd like them.
As for your other attacks, I say: Go get 'em. The most memorable to me were on Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, because you had the goods (especially about repetition from previous books) that made an attack on Wolfe seem something more than sheer contrarianism; Norman Podhoretz's book Ex-Friends, which, against great odds, you made sound quite funny; and Conor Cruise O'Brien's running-on-empty book, On the Eve of the Millennium. Actually, let me be clearer about the Podhoretz book—it's not that you make it seem like a yuk-fest, but you use it as the occasion for some appropriately mean humor. For instance:
"But seriously, folks, Norman doesn't want you to think that he is a mere Catskills jester, nor yet a pure and ascetic intellectual. Let us proceed, drying our eyes, to page two, where it is confided with perfect gravity that:
It will seem even stranger to my more recent acquaintances that in my younger years I was also full of fun, as Norman Mailer confirmed when he said I was 'merrier' in the 'old days.' The same word was once used by Max Lerner, the historian and columnist (now among the almost forgotten), who after spending a few days in my company described me (to general agreement) as 'the merry madcap' of the group.
"Must have been quite a party. The Pod setting the table on a roar and bearing Lerner on his back to the land of infinite jest. In the corner, perhaps, Irving Kristol screaming, 'Stop! You're killing me!'"
Your treatment of Conor Cruise O'Brien is impressive, because it is one of the rare believable entries in a category usually characterized by crocodile tears: the "more in sorrow" critical assault. Your genuine respect for O'Brien's earlier work is convincing, and sets up the demolition of the book under review.
"More in sorrow" brings me to the first of my disagreements, or questions. This one is not directly addressed in your book but has been a theme in your political writing over the past year.
If I were writing an essay with the same tone as your O'Brien piece, about someone I had greatly admired in earlier years who had fallen into an embarrassing state, it would be about Ralph Nader. I spent both my nineteenth and my twentieth birthdays on Nader's payroll, if $500 per two-month summer enlistment qualified as a payroll. In those summers, after my second and third years in college, I worked on his early "Raider" projects. My wife worked for him, too, though we weren't married then. When we did get married, he remained a friend of our family—one of the few Washington big shots who seemed actually to want an answer when asking "How are the kids?" etc.
And now Nader is ... well, I agreed with Tony Lewis's suggestion, in a column last week, that stumps in the newly harvestable Tongass National Forest be named the Ralph Nader Memorial Grove.
You were far more sympathetic to Nader and his "intensify the contradictions" thinking than I was during the campaign. Any second thoughts now?
Question two, sort of related to Nader. His central argument was that Bush and Gore were tweedledee and tweedledum. He was on his strongest ground when talking about their very similar views about imprisonment, the drug war, and capital punishment. Both were for the death penalty; the difference, of course, is that Bush seems to have his heart in it.
In the introduction to your book, you say that abolishing the death penalty is the single most important way in which America can cleanse its soul. "Other priorities might seem at first to make larger claims, but there is probably no single change that would cumulatively amount to more than this one. Abolition would repudiate the heritage of racial bigotry and mob justice while simultaneously limiting the over-mighty state," etc.
Let's assume that I'm with you on this goal. Nader was too, though of course the Nader-induced victory for Bush makes it less likely that the death penalty will be abolished. No, don't answer that point, because my real question is different. The question is: Why should we assume that abolition would have these effects? The death penalty was in effect abolished before, and that accomplished none of the advertised results.
You can look it up! The Department of Justice's Web site shows that for nearly twenty years, from the early 1960s to the start of the 1980s, few or no people were executed per year in the United States. Literally no one was executed between 1968 and 1976. A total of nine were executed in the whole span from 1966 to 1983—on average, one every other year.
Yes, yes, I know that a de facto moratorium is not the same as outright abolition. But I can tell you that at the time, the prevailing assumption was that the executions were not coming back. The Supreme Court had made them seem unconstitutional, and it took the then-unforeseeable advent of the Reagan Court to send things in another direction. Moreover, the impact of this quasi-abolition was all the more dramatic in the 1960s and 1970s, because in the 1930s and 1940s American states had been executing prisoners much faster than they are doing even now. Even in the 1950s, just before the moratorium, there were executions almost at today's rates.
So if de facto abolition, which most Americans assumed to be permanent abolition at the time, did so little in the 1960s and 1970s, why would it do more now?
Last question, which takes us back to our friend "Doctor" Kissinger. (Two digressions: First, when they name me to the Supreme Court, I'll propose abolishing the death penalty, except for treason and for Ph.D.s who call themselves "Doctor." People don't do this back in your homeland, right? Other digression: a nice addition to Kissinger literature was made by our mutual friend Jason Vest, a writer in his twenties who has the bearing of Jack Germond. In the current American Prospect he chronicles the Ford-era battles between Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld. It is another chapter in the scheming you describe in Harper's, but in this case Kissinger is outmaneuvered.)
Let me try again on my main question about Kissinger. Let's stipulate that the case you make against him, combining new revelations with an effective roundup of what is on the record, is extremely damaging. No matter how thick-skinned and haughty, no one can be happy, in the sunset years, to read this summary of one's life and works.
But the question remains: Isn't "war criminal" gilding this particular lily? People who have been hauled into the dock as war criminals share the misfortune of having lost wars or their hold on power. I grant you that we should be able to look beyond that and judge the actual morality of some leader's works. But in addition to being losers, war criminals have one of two traits. Either they were the dominant figure in a regime classified as being criminal in its essence—the Nazi elite, the Khmer Rouge, the Pinochet regime, and so on—or they were found to have broken prevailing rules in a criminal way. Lieutenant Calley is the most famous example of the latter case.
And Kissinger? There's no evidence I've seen to suggest that he was, Calley-like, breaking established rules of engagement, hiding his activities from Presidents Nixon and Ford, setting up his own illegal government. While he was obviously influential, he wasn't the strongman of a junta, like Pinochet, or the tyrant himself, like Pol Pot. There were, after all, two Presidents for him to deal with. So if the policies he helped create were criminal, don't you logically have to include at least both Nixon and Ford in the indictment? And if you don't want to include them, why not refine the case you are trying to prove? Wouldn't "Henry Kissinger: Monster?" be a more precise, and also more provable, version of what you're arguing in these pieces?
Here's a different way of asking the question, which may provide the answer I'm looking for. In our previous round, and in your Harper's pieces, you argue that the Nixon regime in particular was perverse in some fairly deep ways. Were he still around to stand trial, would you urge that old RMN himself be hauled into the dock alongside Dr. K? If so, I have to drop my logical objection. What I'm really trying to do is be sure you're not falling into "If only the Czar knew..." thinking about Kissinger's escapades.
It's in my nature to ask. And talking about uncontrollable natures: next time, in our concluding round, a question about our 42nd President.
Sayonara from Berkeley,
What do you think? Join the conversation in