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James Fallows
Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens - Feb 27

Part One - Feb 21:
James Fallows
Christopher Hitchens



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.

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Atlantic Unbound | February 21, 2001
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
.....
 
From: Christopher Hitchens
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Literature, Politics, and Henry Kissinger

Dear Jim,

First, thank you for your kind remarks about Unacknowledged Legislation. It's true that collections of already-published work bring a sigh to the soul of the reviewer and of the review-editor, too, so I'm touched that you exempt me. (My friend Charles Glass once produced a compendium of his collected despatches from the Middle East, entitling it "Money For Old Rope" and asking me if I would contribute an introduction. I said yes in principle, adding that it might soften the blow if he were just to call it "Old Rope," since (a) the full-out title was a bit obvious, (b) it threatened to give the game away, and (c) it gave the false impression that there was money to be made in this fashion.)

Actually, my publisher did want to do this, but I delayed until I could see a proper unifying theme; then, like Molière's Monsieur Jourdain I realised that I'd been writing about one subject all along. The United States is a "written" country, based on legible and intelligible documents that are themselves subject to update and revision; this gives the "public intellectual" a unique responsibility here, and many people are in effect public intellectuals without formally signing up for the task. (This is partly because the word "intellectual" still retains, in the USA, some of its old pejorative connotation.)

The art in this, if it is an art, is to see when writers are making interventions without explicitly becoming political or politicised. The old didactic and polemical fiction is on the wane these days—no tears from me at this obsequy—and one has therefore to look for the nuances and the details, while avoiding overly ideological judgments. Thus—to take an easy example—I criticise the overrated Tom Wolfe for having unbelievably obvious and predictable reactionary politics, while concealing his opinions in a froth of supposed "style." That piece of mine "works," I still think. With, say, Saul Bellow the task is quite different; he is a most serious and considerable novelist with a history of highly public if somewhat inconsistent public stands on political questions: I attempt to show that you can "read" his fictional evolution as a version of the neoconservative movement, but I try to insist that this not be done in a reductionist manner (there was once a Marxist review which published the cover story "T. S. Eliot—Enemy of the People"!), and I hope I point out that this same evolution is not an even or linear one, but full of intriguing idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies. We would both find it odd to have a friend who showed no interest in politics; we have perhaps learned to distrust the friends who are interested in nothing but. My project is to try and round out this picture, as it portrays the writerly scene.

I attempt this from what I suppose is a radical viewpoint: an irreducible old leftism of mine that is now overlaid somewhat by libertarian material that was somehow smuggled through my customs, and by an increasing disdain for authoritarian liberalism. Consistent throughout, though, is my contempt for all forms of religion and spirituality, and this is where you seem to gag—on my elementary point about Hawking.

I suppose you have guessed that I am no physicist. However, I promise you that I did not have to take Hawking down from the shelf in order to look up the "event horizon." This is the name given to the lip or cusp of a black hole; if you could travel to the edge and fall in, you could in theory see the past and the future (except that, of course, you wouldn't have "time"). A colleague of Hawking's has said that if he were diagnosed with an incurable disease, this is the way he would choose to commit suicide. I would not go that far. My point was that this is far more awe-inspiring than any "burning bush" or other fairy tale. The work of Hawking and Hubble and the somehow parallel work on the DNA chain are opening to us an unprecedented view of the nature and origin of both the cosmos and of our species. It's very confirming as well; creationism and racism both go straight down the rubbish chute. My plea is for a new vernacular that can help us translate this, in literary terms, for a humane and intelligent discussion. People tell me that the young novelist Richard Powers is attempting this, so I am going to try him. So far only a very few contemporary writers—I mention Amis and McEwan—seem even to be aware that we live in revolutionary times.

From revolution to counterrevolution: What about old Henry? By the time you read this, you may also have read that Spanish and Chilean lawyers will open an investigation into the role he played in the massacre of Chilean democrats (and Chilean democracy). This is only one of many ways that the arrest of Pinochet has transformed the way we have to think about "human rights." But again, there is a lag between the new reality and the perception or understanding of it, and it was this lag or gap that my two Harper's essays attempted to confront, and to narrow if not close.

You illustrate the problem, my dear Jim, if you will allow me to say so, by your question about "what's new?" In a way I don't mind the question, nor do I mind giving you the answer "not much." To a Chilean or Cambodian or Cypriot or Timorese reader, much of what I recount would be old hat. To a watcher of Nightline or a reader of The New York Times, however, I am not so sure. But let's take a definite instance. Only last fall, after an infinity of work by some people in Washington, was it confirmed that the CIA in 1970 had paid the murderers of General René Schneider AFTER they killed him. This material, released in response to the Hinchey Amendment, destroys all the claims (accepted by the Church Committee and by Kissinger biographers like Walter Isaacson) that there had been no real plan to murder the General. Are you so sure that Schneider, an honorable conservative and constitutional officer in a democratic country, is such a household word to educated Americans in any case? No, this is "new" all right. But we don't even need "new" laws for it. Murder can be prosecuted without any fancy new legal apparatus, once the defense of state immunity has been peeled away, as it has by the failure of Pinochet's legal strategies in his own country and overseas. And the evidence making Kissinger the author and procurer of that murder is, as lawyers say, a lay-down case with a lay-down timeline and all the necessary supporting documents.

I modestly decline to say what else is new in my two essays, because I want people to go and buy them, but this is also a partial answer to your next question, which asks me by contrast: "What's old?"

I have a maxim for you: Don't Make the Best the Enemy of the Good! Almost every day, some wise-ass (you will excuse the expression) demands to know of me whether or not this means that Churchill or Lloyd George or Truman ought also to be indicted retrospectively. I am one of those, as it happens, who follows closely the argument about whether the full version of Shakespeare's Henry V, which describes the massacre of the French prisoners at Agincourt, should be enacted by schoolchildren. (Yes, is my view.) But the Kissinger case doesn't face us with this sort of historical depth or ambiguity. He took a policy in Indochina that was rash and criminal enough to begin with, and made it much more so. He did this, as I argue, and with immense detail, by helping Nixon in the moral equivalent of a coup in the 1968 election. He then went on to enact similar policies in at least five countries, while illegally suppressing or trying to suppress dissent at home. He steals the papers from the State Department and then writes mendacious but profitable books that distort the historical record. He involves himself in common-law crimes. He is still an honored guest among us, and the investigation of some of these crimes is now being reopened. C'est tout. Don't try and change the subject.

This is not to say that the whole subject isn't very complex and fascinating. Why not revisit Dresden and Nagasaki and even Agincourt in this light? I have no objection. Why not also cite men like McNamara and Bundy and Haig? McNamara and the late Bundy, of course, did try to apologise and even to share their valuable documents and recollections—a big distinction between themselves and HK. I say in my introduction that certain cases (Angola, Kurdistan) don't fall under my rubric, because they were more in the nature of "collective responsibility" statecraft; that doesn't exempt HK from responsibility where it is or was individual. He is indictable in himself; whether or not his indictment would constitute a symbolic or general condemnation of a whole regime is a matter that his indictment would help us decide. Meanwhile, in the era of post-Pinochet and post-Milosevic (both of them also representative of larger means and larger ends), the U.S. can either preach a consistent human-rights standard to the rest of the world, all the while sheltering and honoring HK, or it can live with the inevitable observations that will be made about this breathtaking contrast. I have done what I can.

(Incidentally, the Chilean and Spanish lawyers are reported to be considering Pinochet as merely an "instrument" of torture and murder in the hands of others; this is your teasing logic applied more exactly. But Scotland Yard could not be asked to arrest the Chilean junta that famous day in London; they merely apprehended the main suspect in their jurisdiction and began a process that has changed international law in my view for the better. One must begin somewhere, as every mob prosecutor knows.)

Unacknowledged Legislation has on its flyleaf Emile Zola's "Allons travailler." A deceptively simplistic motto, I trust you agree. But—to work.

As ever, fraternally,

Christopher

P.S. I can't resist adding a phrase that has become sickening to people lately. "Orderly, peaceful transition of power." Who hasn't tired of the banal and self-congratulatory repetition? I challenge any reader of my Harper's essays to say that the 1968 U.S. election was an orderly and peaceful transition; of the four leading Republicans—Nixon, Agnew, Mitchell, Kissinger—only one has escaped indictment of one kind or another. But in Chile, the whole pride of the nation was involved in its tradition of orderly, peaceful transition—the tradition that General Schneider upheld—until HK and RMN got to work on it, and on him. For shame!

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