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James Fallows
Christopher Hitchens

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James Fallows - Feb 26
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 27, 2001
 
fallows@large | Dialogues with James Fallows
 
.....
 
From: Christopher Hitchens
To: James Fallows
Subject: Re: Literature, Politics, and Henry Kissinger - Part Two

My Dear Jim,

Well, it's good to see that we think alike on some things. When I was a journo hack in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean, I used to love that "frog and scorpion" tale, which I think originates in Syrian folklore. And then the condescending Orientalist "peacemakers" went and spoiled it for me, by talking as if it showed how tough and wise they were with such intractable people. Don't you hate it when that happens? (Spoiling happens a lot; in the same epoch of my life I used to wear white suits until Tom Wolfe poisoned that well of innocent pleasure.)

I don't want our conversation to become too warm and glutinous, but I must say how grateful I am to you for noticing that I do care to praise some people, and some work. It may be something about me, but every time I read a review of my stuff I have to wade through at least a paragraph, presumably generated from the identical clips, reminding the reader that I have savaged Mother Teresa, the British royals, William Jefferson Clinton, and other gargoyles. What am I—some kind of attack dog?

The truth of the matter is that our mainstream culture is based on an absurd elevation of mediocre or outright shady celebrities, and this elevation depends in turn on judging people's actions by their reputations instead of the other way about. The bearing on Kissinger is obvious here. But perhaps I could just say that no factual challenge of any importance has ever been mounted to my book on "Mother" Teresa. And, if only half of what I assert about her is true, then her reputation is an imposture in itself. Yet for decades not a single paper or program asked a single question! She existed as an unexamined certificate for virtue. In a similar way, once a crook like Clinton could get himself baptised as a "New Democrat," half his work was done for him. (I gather we're coming back to this banquet; I shall permit myself no more morsels ... well, maybe a couple.)

Our mutual friend Mike Kinsley was once invited to a fatuous Washington lunch by Charles Z. Wick, one of Reagan's propaganda chiefs. Mike wondered why he'd been asked, since he'd never mentioned Wick except to call him a jackass in print, and at the end of the lunch he said, "Well, Mr. Wick, nice of you to invite me in view of that." Wick, with perfect gravity, replied, "We don't mind criticism from the press as long as it's constructive"! So I'm glad you noticed my "constructive" side; in a time of the meretricious and phony and (sometimes) evil, I happily revert to the gold standard and urge people to spend time with George Eliot or indeed Patrick O'Brian. In the public sphere I have been lucky enough to meet Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel and George Papandreou Jr. and other outstanding politicians, but I still think that they must be approached critically, and I have actually published hostile material about all three of them.

Sorry I can't recommend McCarry; he just can't write to save his life, and he wears his reactionary and spook associations much too heavily. It wasn't merely that he compared Shelley to Stalin, though I confess that did bias me a bit. His other books, too, are harder to read than they must have been to write.

Jason Vest is a good egg, as you say, and his guide to infighting does indeed show that the bastards don't invariably win. He and I went to the D.C. Nader rally together, as I'm sure he wouldn't mind me telling you. I would recommend the same line all over again, and am tremendously unimpressed with Anthony Lewis, whose view can be summarised as All Democrat, Always, All The Time. If I wanted a one-party system I sure wouldn't pick the Democrats to run it, but as it happens I don't want a one-party system. Does Lewis still wish that Michael Dukakis had become President and been in the Oval Office when Saddam took Kuwait? I imagine that he does. Did he take dictation from the crummier bits of the White House when Clinton was trashing the place? He most certainly did. Would he mention the Tongass vegetation in any other connection (say, if Bobby Kennedy had napalmed it)? I can't be sure, but I can be doubtful. However, does he regret his ceaseless boosterism for the British Social Democrats in the 1980s? He ought not to, because they split the Labour vote and helped elect Thatcher, with many positive even if unintended results.

My main reason for endorsing Nader was to protest the rigging of the whole election cycle by money, from the vestigial "primaries" through the fixed conventions to the final disgrace of the staged "debates" from which Ralph was excluded by goons while Jim Lehrer smirkingly "chaired." Many of our criticisms of the unfairness of the electoral "process" were vindicated in Florida; the force of the Nader vote put people—especially lib-Dem poseurs—on notice that they are never to try an election or a campaign like that again, because we won't vote for them then, either. I very much hope that this bloc holds up. Gore did not win enough states, even with the bagmanship, to become President. Nor did he deserve to. That, and only that, is why he lost. Get over it, and count yourself lucky you don't have one of Bill's broken men as President—with Lieberman to sweeten the pill!

I must also break it to you that I am not now, and never have been, a Democrat. There were many occasions when I thought it was better for the Republicans to win, and there are several issues now on which I think them preferable to the Democrats, or at least no worse. Apart from the fact that I'm overdue for a tax-cut, I have noticed that it's been mainly GOP voices talking sense about the "war" on drugs and even the death penalty; in general being anti-statist and anti-paternalist. The two-party duopoly hasn't been broken, true, but there are positive tendencies within it that await release, and Nader could be remembered as one of those who heralded same. (He was also the only man running for President who favored impeachment of Clinton, which Bush hadn't the nerve to do, and as a result of this correct position took many conservative votes from Bush, which I notice you don't remember.)

This brings me to capital punishment. Perhaps I have overstated the importance of abolition. It would, I think, depend on how this was done. If the penalty could be abolished by a stroke of a presidential pen, or by judicial fiat, I would feel vaguely disappointed even though—for the sake of those wrongly or arbitrarily on death row today—I would feel compelled to endorse such a move. The problem with the former quasi-abolition was that it took the form of a strenuous and questionable finding, by the old Court, that the death penalty fell within a stretched definition of "cruel and unusual punishment." I must say that I think the Framers could have mentioned it if they intended to, and that therefore it is neither constitutional nor unconstitutional. Much better a national debate on the right of the state to exercise life and death power, on the congruence or incongruence of the practice with human-rights standards to which the U.S. is a signatory, and on the capricious and—worst of all in some ways—electorally populist ways in which it is applied. (Not even the people who like to know that they are in a majority are in favor of election-eve or photo-op executions.) Then Congress could abolish it. I don't think I exaggerate the moral significance of this by much; it is in any case an invitation to a proper and solemn and overdue national argument.

Henry. Ah, Henry. But then again—oh, Jim. Why do you persist in this casuistry of yours? We have the man in our sights, we have the evidence and the record, and you want to ask whether—oh, I don't know—all Australians should be burned at the stake for what once happened to the aborigines. This might be a good question for another time. But you give yourself away in two respects, first by asking if a war-crimes hearing depends on victors' justice and second by asking about Nixon.

Under the terms of the ICC (International Criminal Court) statute, justice does not depend on the mandate of victory. Milosevic's warrant was issued while he was still enjoying near-supreme power. In the case of Pinochet, the immunity conferred by his victory was gradually stripped away by foreign and local laws, because it was an affront. Whereas in the United States, which claims to be law-bound itself and to be fine enough to impose law on others, an outstanding violator enjoys not just impunity but celebrity and honor. If we are only to impose justice on the vanquished, for heaven's sake let's just say so and stop posturing.

However, the actual law in both local and international fora is evolving toward a single standard and making Kissinger nervous (as I demonstrated in my essays), so why be less scrupulous than he is?

You remind me of those liberal wise-asses who warned, when Pinochet was first apprehended in London, that this would make the democratic transition (dependent as it supposedly was on the good mood of despots) more difficult. Now that Pinochet faces trial in his own country, what remains of that silly argument? And you know quite well that if two well-established criminal cases are properly pursued under the ordinary color of regular law—the murder of General Schneider in Chile and the murder of Orlando Letelier in Washington—then indictments will have to be issued without any fancy new laws, and both Pinochet and Kissinger will feel nervous all over again. Am I having it both ways? Yes, I am; I think Henry is vulnerable under ordinary and customary laws as well as under the more-complex system evolved to deal with crimes of state.

You end by asking me an easy one. Should Nixon have been indicted, too? Most certainly he should, and if he hadn't copped a pardon he could and might have been. (The original articles of impeachment included Cambodia, and that was only for what little we knew then.) As for Ford, I don't know how much he knew about Kissinger's self-confessed breaking of American law in the matter of East Timor, but he certainly had ultimate responsibility for the most internationally momentous thing that occurred on his brief watch. Incidentally, in a recent interview James Schlesinger says that as Secretary of Defense he was ordered by "the White House" to sink the ship that turned out to have been carrying the crew of the Mayaguez to safety. He ignored the repeated order for the relevant five hours and didn't kill them. He won't say who he means by "the White House," but I don't think he means Ford, do you? This is a partial answer to your attempted Kissinger-Calley comparison, which I must say amazed me, coming from you. I call my answer partial because if you don't want hideously long replies you mustn't ask such short yet infuriating questions.

Can't wait to get to The Pardoner's Tale and see if you are still as lenient about The Pardoner as you were in The Atlantic a few weeks ago.

Cordially,

Christopher

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