Il y avait la vérité, il y avait le mensonge, et si l’on s’accrochait à la vérité, même contre le monde entier, on n’était pas fou. Orwell ("1984")
La liberté, c’est la liberté de dire que deux et deux font quatre. Lorsque cela est accordé, le reste suit. George Orwell ("1984")
Il est clair que la rhétorique de Bush sonne un peu plus vraie à nos oreilles qu’aux vôtres… Vaclav Havel
En Russie, le régime est plus moderne, plus démocratique et plus sophistiqué que le stalinisme. Mais il faut être vigilant. L’action de Poutine doit au moins nous inviter à la prudence. Avec lui, la Russie veut restaurer sa zone d’influence, son « étranger proche », comme ils disent là-bas. Nous n’avons pas le droit de fermer les yeux et de le laisser faire. Vaclav Havel
Here is a man [Jacques Chirac] who had to run for re-election last year in order to preserve his immunity from prosecution, on charges of corruption that were grave. Here is a man who helped Saddam Hussein build a nuclear reactor and who knew very well what he wanted it for. Here is a man at the head of France who is, in effect, openly for sale. He puts me in mind of the banker in Flaubert’s « L’Education Sentimentale »: a man so habituated to corruption that he would happily pay for the pleasure of selling himself. Here, also, is a positive monster of conceit. He and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, have unctuously said that « force is always the last resort. » Vraiment? This was not the view of the French establishment when troops were sent to Rwanda to try and rescue the client-regime that had just unleashed ethnocide against the Tutsi. It is not, one presumes, the view of the French generals who currently treat the people and nation of Cote d’Ivoire as their fief. It was not the view of those who ordered the destruction of an unarmed ship, the Rainbow Warrior, as it lay at anchor in a New Zealand harbor after protesting the French official practice of conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific. (…) We are all aware of the fact that French companies and the French state are owed immense sums of money by Saddam Hussein. We all very much hope that no private gifts to any French political figures have been made by the Iraqi Baath Party, even though such scruple on either side would be anomalous to say the very least. Is it possible that there is any more to it than that? The future government in Baghdad may very well not consider itself responsible for paying Saddam’s debts. Does this alone condition the Chirac response to a fin de regime in Iraq? (…) Charles de Gaulle had a colossal ego, but he felt himself compelled at a crucial moment to represent une certaine idee de la France, at a time when that nation had been betrayed into serfdom and shame by its political and military establishment. (…) He had a sense of history. To the permanent interests of France, he insisted on attaching une certain idee de la liberte as well. He would have nodded approvingly at Vaclav Havel’s statement — his last as Czech president — speaking boldly about the rights of the people of Iraq. And one likes to think that he would have had a fine contempt for his pygmy successor, the vain and posturing and venal man who, attempting to act the part of a balding Joan of Arc in drag, is making France into the abject procurer for Saddam. This is a case of the rat that tried to roar. Hitchens (2003)
It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war. Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited)
That’s why you join a party, to take up the struggles within it. And that’s what pushed me to the left—the humiliation of the Labour Government. Hitchens
Si nous avions quitté l’Irak selon l’agenda du mouvement pacifiste, la situation serait précisément l’inverse: le peuple irakien serait maintenant atrocement martyrisé par les sadiques d’al-Qaeda, trop contents de se vanter en plus d’avoir infligé une défaite sur le champ de bataille aux Etats-Unis. Ce qui n’aurait pas manqué de se faire rapidement savoir en Afghanistan et, nul doute, à d’autres endroits où l’ennemi opère. Christopher Hitchens
Une seule faction du monde politique américain a trouvé moyen d’excuser le genre de fanatisme religieux qui nous menace le plus directement ici et maintenant. Et cette faction, je suis désolé et furieux de le dire, est la gauche. Depuis le premier jour de l’immolation du World Trade Center jusqu’en ce moment même, une galerie de pseudo-intellectuels accepte de présenter le plus mauvais visage de l’Islam comme la voix de l’opprimé. Comment ces personnes peuvent-elles supporter de relire leur propre propagande? Les tueurs suicide palestiniens – désavoués et dénoncés par le nouveau chef de l’OLP – qualifiées de victimes du “désespoir.” Les forces d’Al-Qaida et des Taliban présentées comme des porte-paroles dévoyés de l’anti-mondialisation. Les gangsters assoiffés de sang d’Irak, qui préfereraient engloutir toute la population dans la souffrance plutôt que de les laisser voter, joliment décrits comme des “insurgés” ou même, par Michael Moore, comme l’équivalent moral de nos Pères fondateurs. Si c’est ça, le sécularisme libéral, je préfère à tous les coups un modeste et pieux Baptiste amateur de chasse au cerf du Kentucky, aussi longtemps qu’il n’essaie pas de m’imposer ses principes (ce que lui interdit d’ailleurs notre constitution). (…) George Bush est peut-être subjectivement chrétien, mais il a objectivement fait plus pour la laïcité – avec les forces armées américaines – que la totalité de la communauté agnostique américaine combinée et doublée. Christopher Hitchens
Sur la porte de ma banque à Washington, une pancarte me prie poliment, mais sans explications, d’ôter tout ce qui me cache le visage avant d’entrer dans les lieux. Une personne qui ferait irruption dans la banque avec un masque quelconque serait, à juste titre, suspecte. Cette présomption de culpabilité devrait valoir aussi hors des murs de la banque. Je serais indigné et je refuserais de traiter avec une infirmière, un docteur ou un enseignant qui cacherait son visage, ou pire, avec un inspecteur des impôts ou un douanier voilé. Ne dit-on pas toujours, dans les expressions de la vie courante, «Qu’est-ce que tu as à cacher?» et «Tu n’oses pas montrer le bout de ton nez»? (…) Je voudrais poser une question toute simple à ces pseudo-libéraux qui prônent la tolérance sur la question du voile et de la burqa: que dire alors du Ku Klux Klan? Célèbre pour ses cagoules et sa pensée réactionnaire, le gang a toujours eu pour objectif le maintien d’une pureté protestante et anglo-saxonne. Le KKK a certes le droit de défendre ses positions fondées sur la religion, c’est écrit dans le Premier amendement de la Constitution américaine. J’irais même jusqu’à dire que, lors de défilés protégés par la police, ils peuvent en toute légalité cacher leur vilain visage. Mais je ne laisserais pas un homme ou une femme encagoulés enseigner à mes enfants, entrer avec moi à la banque, ou conduire mon taxi ou mon bus -aucune loi ne m’obligera jamais à le faire. Hitchens
I don’t quite see Christopher as a ‘man of action,’ but he’s always looking for the defining moment—as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy. Ian Buruma
Hitchens was a longtime observer of the cruelty of Saddam Hussein, and had spoken publicly for his removal since 1998. He supported the cause of Kurdish independence, and had been to Halabja and seen the injuries caused there by Iraqi chemical weapons; and he was friendly with dissident Iraqis in exile, including Ahmed Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Congress, which aggressively promoted the notion, now widely discounted, that Saddam was poised to become a nuclear power. After September 11th, and the subsequent defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan (upon which Hitchens addressed the British antiwar left in the pages of the Guardian, “Ha ha ha, and yah, boo”), he had thrown himself into the debate over Iraq, making speeches and writing for Slate. Brandishing the nineteen-thirties slogan “Fascism Means War,” he argued that Saddam was something more than another tyrant; though he did not have nuclear weapons, he aspired to have them; his regime was on the verge of implosion, and better that it should implode under supervision, with the West providing “armed assistance to the imminent Iraqi and Kurdish revolutions.” Ian Parker
Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup? Alexander Cockburn
What’s great about him is that being despised is actually the source of his creativity. Thomas Cushman
He felt there was a liberal failure to get the point of what was happening.” The fatwa split the left. As “The instinct was, whenever there was any conflict between Third World opinion and the Western metropole, you’d always favor the Third World. Yet here was a case where people were forced to take the opposite view.” For Hitchens, that task was simplified by his contempt for religion. Ian Buruma
Chypre, Malouines, Affaire Rushdie, Bosnie, Kurdes, Irak, y a-t-il une cause en son temps sulfureuse que Christopher Hitchens n’aura pas défendue?
A l’heure où le retrait américain d’Irak nous est présenté comme le prétendu accomplissement d’une promesse de campagne d’un président élu sur son opposition à la guerre …
Et au lendemain de la disparition de l’ancien dissident tchèque Vaclav Havel qui, une fois devenu président, sut prendre la défense du peuple irakien …
Pendant qu’au Pays autoproclamé des Droits de l’homme on verse des larmes de crocodile sur la condamnation, largement symbolique et 20 ans après les faits, d’un président français qui avait multiplié les casseroles et trahi son premier allié comme le peuple irakien qu’il prétendait soutenir …
Comment ne pas repenser à cet autre dissident dans l’âme, l’ancien troskyste anglo-américain Christopher Hitchens décédé deux jours plus tôt …
A qui son attachement orwellien à la vérité lui valut lui aussi de ne jamais perdre de vue, y compris contre son propre camp et ses propres préjugés anti-religieux, les droits à la liberté d’un peuple opprimé?
He Knew He Was Right
How a former socialist became the Iraq war’s fiercest defender.
The New Yorker
October 16, 2006
Until not long ago, Christopher Hitchens, the British-born journalist, was a valued asset of the American left: an intellectual willing to show his teeth in the cause of righteousness. Today, Hitchens supports the Iraq war and is contemptuous of those who do not—a turn that has confused and dismayed former comrades, and brought him into odd new alliances. But his life looks much the same. He still writes a great deal, at a speed at which most people read. And, at fifty-seven, he still has an arrest-photograph air about him—looking like someone who, with as much dignity as possible, has smoothed his hair and straightened his collar after knocking the helmet off a policeman.
At a dinner a few months ago in San Francisco with his wife, Carol Blue, and some others, Hitchens wore a pale jacket and a shirt unbuttoned far enough to hint at what one ex-girlfriend has called “the pelt of the Hitch.” Hitchens, who only recently gave up the habit of smoking in the shower, was working through a pack of cigarettes while talking to two women at his end of the table: a Stanford doctor in her early thirties whom he’d met once before, and a friend of hers, a librarian. He spoke with wit and eloquence about Iranian politics and what he saw as the unnecessary handsomeness of Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco.
Hitchens writes on politics and literature; and in both lines of work he tends to start from textual readings of a subtle and suspicious-minded kind. When he is not writing, he talks in the same measured, ironic voice as his prose, with the same fluency and intellectual momentum, as if he were troubled by the thought that he might never find another audience. Hitchens likes to have his say: he takes his arguments to the cable-news channels, to West Point cadets, to panel discussions in windowless hotel conference rooms. He stays at public meetings until the crowd—dehydrated and faint—has no more questions to ask, and then he gives out his e-mail address. He is a fine, funny orator, with the mock-heroic manner of an English barrister sure of his ground (“by all means,” “if you will”), using derision, a grand diction, and looping subclauses that always carry him back to the main path. He also has the politician’s trick of eliding the last word of one sentence to the first of the next, while stressing both words, in order to close a gate against interruption. In more private settings, the rhetoric is the same—except that there are filthy jokes drawn out to twenty minutes, and longer quotations from his vast stock of remembered English poetry. He seems to be perpetually auditioning for the role of best man. Ian McEwan, the novelist, recently said of Hitchens, “It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he’s ever read, everyone he’s ever met, every story he’s ever heard.”
In the noisy front room of the North Beach restaurant where the friends had met, Hitchens made a toast: “To the Constitution of the United States, and confusion to its enemies!” The conversation was amiable and boozy; Hitchens might be said to care more for history than for individual humans, but he was in an easy mood, after a drive, in beautiful early-evening light, from Menlo Park. (He and Blue, a writer working on a novel, live with their thirteen-year-old daughter in Washington, D.C., but spend the summer in California, where her parents live.) During the ride, he had discussed with the Pakistani-born taxi-driver the virtues and vices of Benazir Bhutto, while surreptitiously using a bottle of Evian to put out a small but smoky fire that he had set in the ashtray.
And then the young doctor to his left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”
“All politicians lie!” the women said.
“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.
“But he’s a politician.”
“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”
“That’s wrong!” they said.
“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”
“But Christopher . . .”
“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”
What happened to Christopher Hitchens? How did a longtime columnist at The Nation become a contributor to the Weekly Standard, a supporter of President Bush in the 2004 election, and an invited speaker at the conservative activist David Horowitz’s forthcoming Restoration Weekend, along with Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh? Or, to put it another way, how did Hitchens come to be a “Lying, Self-Serving, Fat-Assed, Chain-Smoking, Drunken, Opportunistic, Cynical Contrarian”? (This is from the title of an essay posted on CounterPunch, a Web site co-edited by Hitchens’s former friend and Nation colleague Alexander Cockburn.) The question, in polite and impolite forms, goes around and around at Washington dinner parties: did Hitchens maintain high principles while the left drifted from him, or did he lose himself in vanity and ambition? The matter has even inspired a forthcoming anthology of attack and counterattack, “Terror, Iraq, and the Left: Christopher Hitchens and His Critics.”
On the time line of the Hitchens apostasy, which runs from revolutionary socialism to a kind of neoconservatism, many dates are marked in boldface—his reassessment cannot be fixed to any one of them—and those familiar with Hitchens’s work know that he has always thrived on sectarian battles, and always looked for “encouraging signs of polarization,” a phrase he has borrowed from his late friend Israel Shahak, the Israeli activist. But, when I talked with Hitchens, our conversation began with events in 2001. By that year, Hitchens said, he had begun to doubt if his future lay in political journalism. He had, by then, published fifteen books, including one on the Elgin Marbles dispute, and slim, scornful volumes—modern versions of eighteenth-century pamphleteering—making the case against Henry Kissinger (mass murderer), Bill Clinton (sex criminal), and Mother Teresa (friend of despots). He had written, but not yet published, an admiring book about George Orwell’s political clear-sightedness. He had a column for Vanity Fair, in addition to his “Minority Report” for The Nation, which he had started in 1982, a year after moving to America. But, he said, political commentary had become “increasingly boring. There were times when I was due to write a Nation column and I hadn’t got a hugely strong motive to write.” He no longer described himself as a socialist, an identity he had formed as a teen-ager, in the late sixties. He had taken to describing capitalism as the world’s only true revolutionary force.
“I was becoming post-ideological,” Hitchens recalled. “And I thought, Well, what I want is to write more about literature—not to dump politics, because one can never do that, but I remember thinking that I would make a real effort to understand Proust.” Wherever possible, Hitchens writes as an oppositionist, which means that his panegyrics are delivered in the form of a bodyguard’s shove against intruders; and in this case he had decided on a book-length riposte to Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life.” Hitchens finished writing his notes on September 9th, then flew to Walla Walla, Washington, to give a lecture on Henry Kissinger that coincided with the filing of a federal lawsuit against Kissinger and other Nixon Administration officials by the family of René Schneider, the Chilean military commander murdered in 1970. “I made a speech to an excited audience, and I ended, ‘I like to think that tomorrow, 11th September 2001, will be remembered for a long time as a landmark day in the struggle for human rights’—a prescient remark, I hope you’ll agree. I got a standing ovation, signed a few books, kissed a few people, went to bed reasonably contented. You know the rest.”
He went on, “The advice I’ve been giving to people all my life—that you may not be interested in the dialectic but the dialectic is interested in you; you can’t give up politics, it won’t give you up—was the advice I should have been taking myself. Because I did know that something like 9/11 would happen.” So “it was goodbye to Marcel for a bit.” (He has not written his Proust book, but, in 2004, he published a limpid essay on a new translation of “Swann’s Way”: “Through his eyes we see what actuates the dandy and the lover and the grandee and the hypocrite and the poseur, with a transparency unexampled except in Shakespeare or George Eliot,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “And this ability, so piercing and at times even alarming, is not mere knowingness. It is not, in other words, the product of cynicism. To be so perceptive and yet so innocent—that, in a phrase, is the achievement of Proust.”)
In a 2003 interview, Hitchens said that the events of September 11th filled him with “exhilaration.” His friend Ian Buruma, the writer, told me, “I don’t quite see Christopher as a ‘man of action,’ but he’s always looking for the defining moment—as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy.” Hitchens foresaw “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate.” Here was a question on which history would judge him; and just as Orwell had (in his view) got it right on the greatest questions of the twentieth century—Communism, Fascism, and imperialism—so Hitchens wanted a future student to see that he had been similarly scrupulous and clear-eyed. (He once wrote, “I have tried for much of my life to write as if I was composing my sentences to be read posthumously.”) His enemies stood in two groups: first, the forces of jihad, and, second, those in “the Chomsky-Zinn-Finkelstein quarter,” as he has put it—the cohort of American leftists who seemed too ready to see the attacks as a rebuke to American imperialism. In his first Nation column after September 11th, Hitchens wrote that “the bombers of Manhattan represent fascism with an Islamic face. . . . What they abominate about ‘the West,’ to put it in a phrase, is not what Western liberals don’t like and can’t defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state. Loose talk about chickens coming home to roost is the moral equivalent of the hateful garbage emitted by Falwell and Robertson.”
Many American liberals would have had no argument with that; nor, indeed, with the way Hitchens jabbed at the film-maker Oliver Stone at a public meeting in Manhattan a few weeks later, when Stone referred to the “revolt of September 11th.” (“Excuse me. Revolt? It was state-supported mass murder, using civilians as missiles.”) Nevertheless, Hitchens felt compelled formally to remove himself from the American left. In a clarifying sign-off a few months later, he dropped his Nation column. This may have been largely a change of address rather than a change of mind—moving out of the house long after the divorce—but he detected some inner shift in 2001. “For the first time in my life, I felt myself in the position of the policeman,” he told me. In part, this was a response to America’s panic. “Nobody knew what was going on. This giant government, and huge empire. Bush was missing. Panic, impotence, shame. I’ve never known any feeling like it. What does one do when the forces of law and order have let you down, and the whole of society is stunned and terrified? Simply, I must find out what it’s like to think like a cop. It shifts the angle, in a way that can’t really be wrenched back again.” During the I.R.A. bombing campaigns on the British mainland, which began in the nineteen-seventies, this had not happened. Then he had “kept two sets of books: I didn’t like bombs, I didn’t like the partition of Ireland.” Now he felt as if he had “taken an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
We were in Hitchens’s home in Washington. His top-floor apartment, with a wide view that includes No. 1 Observatory Circle, the Vice-Presidential residence, is large and handsome: sparely furnished, with a grand piano, books piled on the floor, a few embassy invitations on the mantelpiece, and prints and paintings propped against the walls rather than hung from them; these include an oil painting of Hitchens and Blue (a dark-haired, darkly dressed woman—a young Susan Sontag) with coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes on a table in front of them.
Hitchens has the life that a spirited thirteen-year-old boy might hope adulthood to be: he wakes up when he likes, works from home, is married to someone who wears leopard-skin high heels, and conducts heady, serious discussions late into the night. I arrived just after midday, and Hitchens said that it was “time for a cocktail”; he poured a large drink. His hair flopped over his forehead, and he pushed it back using just the tips of his fingers, his hand as unbending as a mannequin’s.
He noted that he never likes going to bed. “I’m not that keen on the idea of being unconscious,” he said. “There’s plenty of time to be unconscious coming up.” In Washington, his socializing usually takes place at home. “I can have some sort of control over who comes, what gets talked about, what gets eaten, what gets drunk, and the ashtrays,” he said. “Call me set in my ways.” (Hitchens’s predominant tone is quietly self-parodying. Even his farewells are ironic: “It’s been real,” “Stay cool.”) Guests at the Hitchens salon include people he first knew in London, who call him “Hitch,” including Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and his great friend Martin Amis (“The only blond I have ever really loved,” Hitchens once said); long-standing American friends like Christopher Buckley and Graydon Carter; an international network of dissidents and intellectuals; and, these days, such figures as David Frum, the former Bush Administration speechwriter, and Grover Norquist, the conservative activist. In September, he hosted Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a Deputy Prime Minister of the new Iraqi government. Many guests can report seeing Hitchens step out of the room after dinner, write a column, then step back almost before the topic of conversation has changed.
Rushdie recalled an evening last year. “I met Paul Wolfowitz,” he said, laughing. “And I discovered, to my immense surprise, that he’s a very nice man.” Wolfowitz, the neoconservative who served as the Deputy Secretary of Defense between 2001 and 2005, and who now runs the World Bank, was a primary architect of the invasion of Iraq; he has become the emblem of Hitchens’s new political alignments. Wolfowitz respected Hitchens’s record as a writer on human rights. He called Hitchens in the fall of 2002, at the prompting of Kevin Kellems, then his special adviser, and now an adviser at the World Bank. “It felt like Cold War espionage,” Kellems recalled. “Contacting someone on the other side you think might want to defect.” Hitchens accepted an invitation to lunch at the Pentagon. “I snuck him in,” Kellems said. “We didn’t put his name on the schedule.”
As Wolfowitz knew, Hitchens was a longtime observer of the cruelty of Saddam Hussein, and had spoken publicly for his removal since 1998. He supported the cause of Kurdish independence, and had been to Halabja and seen the injuries caused there by Iraqi chemical weapons; and he was friendly with dissident Iraqis in exile, including Ahmed Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Congress, which aggressively promoted the notion, now widely discounted, that Saddam was poised to become a nuclear power. After September 11th, and the subsequent defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan (upon which Hitchens addressed the British antiwar left in the pages of the Guardian, “Ha ha ha, and yah, boo”), he had thrown himself into the debate over Iraq, making speeches and writing for Slate. Brandishing the nineteen-thirties slogan “Fascism Means War,” he argued that Saddam was something more than another tyrant; though he did not have nuclear weapons, he aspired to have them; his regime was on the verge of implosion, and better that it should implode under supervision, with the West providing “armed assistance to the imminent Iraqi and Kurdish revolutions.” Hitchens told me, “The number of us who would have criticized Bush if he hadn’t removed Saddam—that’s certainly the smallest minority I’ve ever been a member of.”
I mentioned the Pentagon meeting. “Wolfowitz was not asking my advice about Iraq—don’t run away with that idea,” Hitchens said. “He just felt that those who worked for the ousting of Saddam should get on closer terms with each other.” According to Kellems, who attended the meeting, “Hitchens said, ‘I was trying to signal you’ ”—through his writing—“and Wolfowitz said, ‘I wondered.’” Hitchens disputes that memory; he does remember asking Wolfowitz for reassurances that, in the event of an invasion, the United States would protect the Kurds from the Turks. They talked about Rwanda and Bosnia, about the history of genocide and the cost of inaction. Kellems, who has since become a friend of Hitchens, described “two giant minds unleashed in the room. They were finishing each other’s sentences.” According to Hitchens, Wolfowitz is a “bleeding heart,” and he went on, “There are not many Republicans, or Democrats, who lie awake at night worrying about what’s happening to the Palestinians, but he does.” (Hitchens has been a decades-long agitator for the Palestinian cause; he co-edited a book on the subject with Edward Said, the late Palestinian-American scholar.) “And Wolfowitz wants America’s human-rights ethic to be straight and consistent as far as possible. And if there’s an anomaly he’s aware of it.”
On April 9, 2003, the day the statue of Saddam was pulled down in central Baghdad, Hitchens wrote, “So it turns out that all the slogans of the anti-war movement were right after all. And their demands were just. ‘No War on Iraq,’ they said—and there wasn’t a war on Iraq. Indeed, there was barely a ‘war’ at all. ‘No Blood for Oil,’ they cried, and the oil wealth of Iraq has been duly rescued from attempted sabotage with scarcely a drop spilled.” That July, Hitchens and a few other reporters flew to Baghdad with Wolfowitz. “It’s quite extraordinary to see the way that American soldiers are welcomed,” Hitchens told Fox News upon his return. “To see the work that they’re doing and not just rolling up these filthy networks of Baathists and jihadists, but building schools, opening soccer stadiums, helping people connect to the Internet, there is a really intelligent political program as well as a very tough military one.”
Three years later, Hitchens is still on Fox News talking about the Iraq war. He has not flinched from his position that the invasion was necessary, nor declined any serious invitation to defend that position publicly, even as the violence in Iraq has increased, and American opinion has turned against the intervention and the President who launched it. In this role, he has presented himself with an immense test of his rhetorical mettle—one can say that without doubting his sincerity. He often seems to have had more at stake, and certainly more oratorical energy, than anyone in the government. (In recent months, the trope of “Islamic fascism,” which Hitchens has used frequently since his 2001 Nation column, has reached the top layers of government—in August, Bush said that the country was “at war with Islamic fascists”—and he has had to deny the charge that he is writing Administration speeches.) Today, he always carries with him—like the Kurdistan flag in his lapel—debating points, worn smooth with use: Abdul Rahman Yasin, who was involved in the 1993 World Trade Center attack, took refuge in Iraq; Dr. Mahdi Obeidi, Saddam’s senior physicist, had centrifuge parts buried in his garden; as late as 2003, Iraqi agents were trying to buy missiles from North Korea; Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, offered Hitchens’s friend Rolf Ekéus, the weapons inspector, a two-and-a-half-million-dollar bribe. “I feel like Bellow’s Herzog, writing crazed letters,” Hitchens said, smiling. “The occupation has not turned out as one would have liked, but the main problem is to have underestimated the utter evil of the other side. I wouldn’t have believed they could keep up a campaign of murdering people at random.”
Hitchens asks his opponents this: “We should have left Iraq the way it was? However I replay the tape, however much I wish things had been done differently, I can’t get to that position.” He acknowledged that his support of the war had caused him some intellectual discomfort. “The most difficult thing is having to defend an Administration that isn’t defensible,” he said. On television and radio, he explained, “you’re invited on to defend the Administration’s view on something and then someone’s invited on to attack it. You don’t want to begin by putting distance, because then it looks like you’re covering your ass. You take the confrontation as it actually is. I’m not going to spend a few silky minutes saying, ‘You know, I don’t really like Bush and his attitude toward stem cells.’ No. Wait. The motion before the house is this: Is this a just and necessary war or is it not?”
He went on, “I’m open to the prosecution of the Administration, even the impeachment of some members, for the way they’ve fucked up the war, and also the way they exploit it domestically. But do not run away with the idea that my telling you this would satisfy any of my critics. They want me to immolate myself, and I sincerely believe that for some of them, when they see bad news from Iraq, the reaction is simply ‘This will make Hitchens look bad!’ I’ve been trying to avoid solipsism, but I’ve come to believe there are such people.”
Hitchens finds support on the right, of course. Peter Wehner, a deputy assistant to the President and the director of the office of strategic initiatives in the White House, invited Hitchens to give a lecture to White House staff a few years ago, and now jokingly addresses him as “Comrade” in e-mails. Wehner admired Hitchens as a “fantastic political pugilist” even when they were on opposing camps in the eighties. Now, he said, “On the issues of greatest gravity and historical importance—the war against global jihadism and the liberation of Iraq—I am thrilled to be on the same side of the divide as Christopher.”
To Hitchens’s left, there is enmity and derision. This summer, a mock-obituary, published online, described him dying in the manner of Major Kong: riding a warhead out of a B-52 in a future American war in Iran. Another Internet tribute posted a photograph of him with the caption “Hitchens: ‘I’ll Kick Saddam’s Fucking Teeth In.’ ”A parodic MySpace page introduces Hitchens this way: “I am a man of the Enlightenment. Words fall from my tongue and you eat them up like a starving kitten on the street.” Last year, Hitchens was jeered when he debated the British M.P. George Galloway in New York. When he appeared on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” this summer, Hitchens said “Fuck you” to a hostile crowd and, to Maher, “Your audience, which will clap at apparently anything, is frivolous.”
Many friends and former friends have been watching Hitchens’s progress with disappointment, or something sharper. Colin Robinson, his former publisher at Verso Books, said, “I hope it might be possible to save some bits of Christopher. It’s a terrible loss to the left—it’s so rare to have someone in the mainstream media who could go out and give the other side a dusting.” Using a similar tone of regret, Eric Alterman, a Nation columnist and an estranged friend, called him a “performance artist.” Alexander Cockburn told me, “Between the two of them, my sympathies were with Mother Teresa. If you were sitting in rags in a gutter in Calcutta, who would be more likely to give you a bowl of soup?”
Hitchens claims to be unperturbed by his critics. “You’d think I’d driven over their pets and abducted their daughters,” Hitchens said. “I’d like to know what brings that on.” A pause. “So I could do it more.” He added, “People say, ‘What’s it like to be a minority of one, or a kick-bag for the Internet?’ It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.” (Thomas Cushman, one of the editors of “Terror, Iraq, and the Left,” said of Hitchens, “What’s great about him is that being despised is actually the source of his creativity.”)
I asked Rushdie if recent events had taken their toll on his friend. “Christopher is well equipped to take care of himself,” Rushdie said, “but I do think that some of the people that he is now aligned with are not really people that he’s like. That must be very strange for him, and I worry about that.”
When I told Hitchens that some friends were worried, he smiled through his annoyance. “I suppose it’s nice to be worried about,” he said. “It’s almost like being cared about.”
In 1982, Hitchens wrote an essay for The Nation about Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” and the point he was most keen to make was that although the First World War predates the action of the novel, it remains at the center of the story. Hitchens quoted at length from Waugh’s honeyed description of the excursion made by Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte to the Venice of the early twenties, a passage of champagne cocktails and gondolas that ends with Sebastian saying, “It’s rather sad to think that whatever happens you and I can never possibly get involved in a war.”
I asked Carol Blue about this passage. She said that her husband, who was brought up in an English military family in the years following the Second World War, had an aspect of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is really key to his psychology—I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”
The Second World War was “the entire subject of conversation” when Hitchens was growing up, he told me: “I didn’t know films were made out of anything else.” Every Boxing Day, the family would toast the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst. Portsmouth, where he first lived, was still scarred by Nazi air raids. Hitchens’s father was a career Navy man from a working-class family who reached the rank of commander and, with that, a foothold in the middle classes. He met Hitchens’s mother, who was from a lower-middle-class Liverpudlian family, during the war. Commander Hitchens was not a garrulous man, but some observations of his have stuck with his son. “They are all kind of solid,” Christopher said. “He said, ‘Beware of girls with thin lips’; ‘Don’t let them see you with just your socks on’; and ‘Socialism is founded on sand.’ ” His father also said that “the war was the only time when he knew what he was doing.”
His parents, Hitchens said, were of a class that “resent but sort of envy the rich, but they’re terrified of organized labor, and feel themselves to be the neglected, solid citizens.” Commander Hitchens was a conservative of the peeved, country-going-to-the-dogs sort—a Thatcherite in waiting. Christopher abandoned that conservatism as a boy but perhaps absorbed the lesson that politics is a form of anger. “My father was not a misanthrope, exactly, but he thought that the whole thing”—that is, life—“was a bit overrated.”
Commander Hitchens had a Baptist-Calvinist background. His wife was Jewish, but she never told her husband or her children. Hitchens learned this about her—and himself—only long after her death. (“On hearing the tidings, I was pleased to find that I was pleased,” he has written.) She was more social than Hitchens’s father, and more alert to signs of class slippage: it was vital to decant milk into a jug before taking it to the table, and to avoid saying “toilet.” Hitchens once overheard an argument between his parents about the cost of boarding school, in which his mother said, “If there is going to be a ruling class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.”
She succeeded: Christopher was privately and expensively educated (as was Peter, his younger brother, who is a prominent right-wing newspaper columnist in London) and now has the accent—and white suit—of the English upper-middle classes. Ian Buruma detects in Hitchens some mix of regard and disdain “for the ‘real’ officer class. Waugh had a bit of that, and Wodehouse—Christopher’s favorite writers—which is one reason that Wodehouse ended up in America. America allows you to play the role of the fruity upper-class Englishman, whereas in En-gland you’d feel vulnerable to exposure.”
Hitchens went to boarding school, in Devon, at the age of eight. He was happy, but, he said, “a radicalizing thing for me was the realization that my parents had scrimped and saved to allow me to be the first member of my family to go to boarding school. I was surrounded by these sons of Lancastrian businessmen who thought it was their perfect right to be there. That had a huge effect: these fuckers don’t even know when they’re well off.” He also saw through Mrs. Watts, his instructor on religious matters, “who told us how good it was of God to make all our vegetation green, because it was the color that was most restful for our eyes, and how horrible it would be if it was orange. I remember sitting there, in my shorts and sandals, and thinking, That can’t be right.” Hitchens has just finished a book informed by a lifetime of steely anticlerical thought, “God Is Not Great,” to be published next year, which begins with Mrs. Watts, and goes on to say of his religious friends, “I would be quite content to go to their children’s bar-mitzvahs, to marvel at their Gothic cathedrals, to ‘respect’ their belief that the Koran was dictated, though exclusively in Arabic, to an illiterate prophet, or to interest myself in Wicca and Hindu and Jain consolations. And as it happens, I will continue to do this without insisting on the polite reciprocal condition—which is that they in turn leave me alone. But this, religion is ultimately incapable of doing. As I write these words, and as you read them, people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction. . . . Religion poisons everything.”
Hitchens used to have, at times, a “pronounced” stutter. “One way of curing it was to force yourself to speak in public,” he said. In his first school debate, Hitchens spoke against new immigration restrictions (nobody else would), and found that the techniques required—such as charm and the sudden, cutthroat withdrawal of charm—came naturally to him. His later success in America derived in part from his bruising rhetorical talents. In Britain, such qualities are on show every week at Prime Minister’s Question Time, but in America Hitchens was a novel act. “It’s extraordinary,” he said. “I’ve been invited onto shows like ‘Crossfire’ and told, ‘Can’t you hold it down a bit?’ ”
In 1964, he ran as the Labour Party candidate in his school’s mock election (again, nobody else would). He lost, but the Labour Party won in the country. The new government quickly proved itself to be, in Hitchens’s words, “completely corrupt and cynical”—backing President Johnson on Vietnam, for example. His response was to join the Party, thus starting a career of antagonistic idealism. “That’s why you join a party, to take up the struggles within it,” Hitchens explained. “And that’s what pushed me to the left—the humiliation of the Labour Government.” By the time he came to study politics, philosophy, and economics at Balliol College, Oxford—semi-official motto: “Effortless Superiority”—he had been invited to join a Trotskyist group, the International Socialists. (He was spotted while skillfully heckling a Maoist at a public meeting.)
As a student, Hitchens was good-looking and charismatic. He does not remember ever having met Bill Clinton, his Oxford contemporary, but he told me that there was a student who, at different times, was his girlfriend and Clinton’s, before she began a lifetime of lesbianism. He met Martin Amis and, for a time, shared a house with James Fenton, the poet, whom Hitchens had brought into the International Socialists. “He wore a beret—I have to tell you that he did,” Fenton said of Hitchens, remembering that his comrade “was not known as a stalwart of the ‘getting up at six to go to the factory gates’ brigade. I used to think that the revolution would break out and I’d be waking Christopher, trying to get him out of bed.”
In fact, something a little like this happened. During the Paris uprisings of 1968, transport links with France were cut before many, including Hitchens, could cross the Channel. “It’s a big regret of my life,” he said. Indeed, when he talks about the Cromwellian and American revolutions, his tone is almost nostalgic. (His personal identification with Thomas Paine is nearly as strong as it is with Orwell; his short study of Paine, published this year, was dedicated to Jalal Talabani—“first elected president of the Republic of Iraq; sworn foe of fascism and theocracy”—rather as “The Rights of Man” was dedicated to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette.) But wherever Hitchens might have been a witness to an explosion of popular feeling, either no explosion occurred or it was delayed until he left. He recalled flying out of Iraq the day before the deaths, in July, 2003, of Saddam’s sons, Uday and Qusay. When Hitchens described the celebrations that followed, you could hear a man struggling to transform a secondhand report into a firsthand one by force of will power alone: “I could have been there—it kills me! That night, the entire cityscape was a blaze of weapons being fired in celebration. It was like ten million Fourth of Julys . . .”
At times, Hitchens can look like a brain trying to pass as a muscle. He reads the world intellectually, but emphasizes his physical responses to it. Talking of jihadism, he said, “You know, recognizing an enemy—it’s not just your mental cortex. Everything in you physically conditions you to realize that this means no good, like when you see a copperhead coming toward you. It’s basic: it lives or I do.” When Hitchens’s prose hits an off note, it often includes the visceral or the pseudo-visceral, whether in a paean to oral sex for Vanity Fair (“I was at once bewitched and slain by the warm, moist cave of her mouth”) or in commentaries on current affairs: “reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers,” “the stench of common bribery, pungently reeking of crude oil.” On these occasions, the bookish Hitchens is elbowed aside by an alternate self: a man as twitchingly alert as Trotsky at the head of the Red Army.
Such performances of masculinity don’t appear exclusively on the page. Not long ago, in Baltimore, I saw Hitchens challenge a man—perhaps homeless and a little unglued mentally—who had started walking in step with his wife and a woman friend of hers while Hitchens walked some way ahead. Hitchens dropped back to form a flank between the women and the man, then said, “This is the polite version. Go away.” The man ambled off. Hitchens pressed home the victory. “Go away faster,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to cross the road?” Blue asked, innocently.
While still at Oxford, Hitchens wrote his first article for the New Statesman, a left-leaning weekly. Upon graduating and moving to London, he became an occasional contributor, while taking a number of jobs in mainstream journalism, and selling the Socialist Worker on street corners. The New Statesman was enjoying a golden moment: its staff and writers included Amis, Fenton, McEwan, and Julian Barnes, the novelist. The Friday-lunch gatherings of Statesman hot shots and other writers, in which they out-joked each other on matters of sex, literature, and nuclear disarmament, now have the status of literary legend. (The Statesman staff played a game in which the task was to think of the phrase least likely to be uttered by each member. For Hitchens: “I don’t care how rich you are, I’m not coming to your party.” For Amis: “You look a bit depressed, why don’t you sit down and tell me all about it?”)
Romantically, Hitchens described himself as playing second fiddle to an unstoppable Amis: “I’d basically be holding his coat and refilling his glass, and trying to learn from the Master.” In fact, Hitchens’s own appeal was considerable; among the girlfriends he had before his first marriage was Anna Wintour, who is now the editor of Vogue. Hitchens told me, “When I was younger—this will surprise you, seeing now the bloated carcass of the Hitch—I used to get quite a bit of attention from men. And, um. It was sometimes quite difficult, especially when you hadn’t seen it coming. I was considered reasonably pretty, I suppose, between seventeen and twenty-five. I remember noticing when it stopped, and thinking, Oh dear. What? None of these guys want to sleep with me anymore?” Asked about his own activities, he said, “Nobody who’s been to public school can pretend to know nothing of the subject. And even at university there was an epicene interlude. But it wasn’t what I wanted at all.” (In 1999, Alexander Cockburn wrote, “Many’s the time male friends have had to push Hitchens’s mouth, fragrant with martinis, away” during hellos and goodbyes; Hitchens said that he had no memory of “making a bid for the clean-limbed and cupid-lipped Alexander Cockburn.”)
In December, 1973, Hitchens, then twenty-four, published a lead article about Greek politics in the New Statesman. Datelined Athens, it was a serious, rather dry analysis of political developments following the ousting of the dictator George Papadopoulos. It avoided the kind of foreign-crisis writing he abhors. (His parody: “As I stand here pissed and weeping in this burning hell, the body of a child lies like a broken doll in the street.”) Almost the only local color was a glimpse of civil and religious icons on the wall of an Athens police station.
Although the article does not hint at it, there was an awful reason for Hitchens seeing the police-station wall. He told me the story: Not long after Hitchens graduated from Oxford, his mother left his father, and moved in with another man. “He was a charmer, which my father was not. He was witty, burbling, could do music, poetry, but couldn’t make a living. He was a flake, and not always so delicious. He had this dark, depressive side.” In the fall of 1973, a friend called Hitchens one morning in his London apartment to say she’d just read a newspaper article about the death of a Mrs. Hitchens in Athens. Hitchens flew alone to Greece, to learn that, in a suicide pact, his mother had taken an overdose of sleeping pills in a bedroom of the Georges V Hotel, while, in the bathroom, her companion had done the same, and also cut himself severely. “It was a terrible Polanski scene,” Hitchens said.
At the hotel, he said, “I went out of the bathroom to the window and had my first view of the Acropolis. It was a perfect view.” He learned that his mother had tried his number in London many times in the previous days, but he had missed the calls. “Before the days of answering machines,” he said. “If I’d picked up, it could have been enough to stop her, because I usually could make her laugh. That was a bitter reflection.”
Athens was in political turmoil— “this mad, Costa-Gavras world.” Hitchens, whose skills and taste in journalism draw him to penetrating quick studies, sized the city up. “You can learn a lot in a short time when there are tanks in the street,” he said. He wrote the article when he got home. “Everyone said, ‘Christopher, how could you?’ I said, ‘How could I not?’ It was therapeutic to write. No—consoling. Useful.” He added that, in the fifteen years before his father’s death, Hitchens never again discussed with him the death of his mother.
When Turkey invaded Cyprus the following summer, Hitchens realized that he had neglected an important part of the story. Cyprus became a specialty, and, later, the subject of his first book, which described the island as having been betrayed by outside powers; an accusing finger was pointed at Henry Kissinger. Hitchens became a figure in radical Cypriot circles, where he met his first wife, Eleni Meleagrou, whom he used to introduce as “the terrorist.” James Fenton sees Cyprus as decisive in Hitchens’s political development, not only because he had the experience of becoming a “mini-celebrity” but because of his disappointment in the British failure to protect Cyprus during the invasion: in other words, the dishonorable failure of an imperial power to make a military intervention. Hitchens, unlike Fenton and most others on the British left, supported Margaret Thatcher’s gunboat response to the Argentine occupation of the Falkland Islands, in 1982.
By then, Hitchens and Meleagrou had married and moved to America. Hitchens pounded away at Reagan and capital punishment as The Nation’s Washington columnist, and reported for other magazines from the Middle East, Central America, and Eastern Europe. The couple split up in 1989, not long after Hitchens met Carol Blue in Los Angeles. (Meleagrou and their two children, now aged twenty-two and seventeen, live in London.) That winter, Hitchens and Blue flew to Eastern Europe, to be witness to the revolutionary events of the time. It may need to be said: These were events that Hitchens welcomed. In 2001, Peter Hitchens—who has Christopher’s voice exactly, but is a churchgoer who is unpersuaded by Darwin—wrote an article in The Spectator (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) that recalled “a Reagan-era discussion about the relative merits and faults of the Western and Soviet systems, during which Christopher said that he didn’t care if the Red Army watered its horses in Hendon,” a London suburb. On the occasion being described, as Christopher later tartly explained to readers of Vanity Fair (in an article entitled “O Brother, Why Art Thou?”), he had been telling a joke. The brothers did not speak for four years. Hitchens said to me, “I’ve spent far more time talking to you than to him in the last twenty-five years.” Peter Hitchens said, “If we weren’t related, I don’t think we’d have much to do with each other,” but he showed a kind of regard for what he sees as the consistency of his brother’s position: “He’s a Trotskyist, really, not in terms of being a Bolshevik revolutionary but in that he is an idealist and he is impressed by military command.” (Peter, too, was once in the International Socialists.)
In a similar dispute, Martin Amis, in “Koba the Dread,” a nonfiction book on Stalin, cast Hitchens as, essentially, an apologist for Soviet Communism. Hitchens was irritated. He had always been “solid” on the subject of the Soviet bloc, he said; he was as much a friend of the opposition there as he was of the opposition in South Africa or in El Salvador. “Everything I’ve thought is on the record,” Hitchens went on. If he had been a Stalinist, “It would show, even if I was trying to conceal it.” Hitchens wrote two barbed responses: one in The Atlantic, and the other in the Guardian, which was headlined “DON’T. BE. SILLY.” He told me, “Martin does not know the fucking difference between Bukharin and Bakunin.” (His friendship with Amis survived this discord.)
In 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, on the ground that his novel “The Satanic Verses” defamed Islam. “There’s a sense in which all this—Christopher’s move—is partly my fault,” Rushdie said. “The fatwa made Christopher feel that radical Islam was not only trying to kill his friend; it was a huge new threat to the kind of world he wanted to live in. And I have the sense he felt there was a liberal failure to get the point of what was happening.” The fatwa split the left. As Ian Buruma put it, “The instinct was, whenever there was any conflict between Third World opinion and the Western metropole, you’d always favor the Third World. Yet here was a case where people were forced to take the opposite view.” For Hitchens, that task was simplified by his contempt for religion.
Hitchens helped arrange a meeting between Rushdie and President Clinton, in 1993. But he had by then taken a position on the President, derived from policy difference and suspicion of Clinton’s character (but also, possibly, from awareness of the gap in political potency between two Oxford contemporaries, one of them being the leader of the free world). Hitchens despised him, and charged him with drug running, rape, and other crimes. He also became one of the loudest critics of Clinton’s bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal: Clinton had “killed wogs,” he wrote, to save his skin. While Hitchens’s literary and historical writing has allowed for nuanced appraisals, even forgiveness, of morally complex figures—in a 2005 book on Jefferson, for example, Hitchens finds his way past the fact of his slaveowning—the political present elicits prosecutorial zeal.
In 1992, Hitchens had begun a column for Vanity Fair; he was happy to discover that he could vastly increase his income and readership without having to watch his tongue—“a breakthrough for me,” he said. The same year, he went to Bosnia at his own expense; as he called for armed intervention there, three years before the Clinton Administration acted, he found himself endorsing the same petitions as many neoconservatives, including Wolfowitz. In 1999, in an incident that some see as the true start of Hitchens’s political pilgrimage, he told House Judiciary Committee staff members who approached him that Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime friend who was then working in the Clinton White House, had gossiped to Hitchens about Monica Lewinsky being a “stalker.” Blumenthal had testified that he had not made such remarks, so the claim put him at risk of a perjury charge and, potentially, strengthened the impeachment case against Clinton. It was possible to read Hitchens’s action as a gesture of principle, but many who knew him saw it as a vicious act: he was “Snitchens.” “He’d got to that moment in life when he was asking himself if he could Make A Difference,” Alexander Cockburn told me, in an e-mail. “So he sloshed his way across his own personal Rubicon and tried to topple Clinton via a betrayal of his close friendship.”
When I asked Hitchens about this period, he defended his actions but also said, “It seems to me to have happened to somebody else. That’s true of a lot of the fights I took part in before 2001. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but it shrinks incredibly compared to Baghdad and Beirut and New York.”
“That episode did hurt him,” Buruma said. “He lost friends, he felt isolated in Washington, and I think there was a time when he really felt bruised.”
Hitchens’s splenetic Clinton book, “No One Left to Lie To,” was published months after the Blumenthal incident. Verso, his publishing house, threw a party at Pravda, a SoHo restaurant. Colin Robinson recalled, “It’s the only launch party I’ve ever been to where people booed the author.”
The Hitchens-Blue partnership has a grad-school air. It’s hard to see who pays the bills or fills the fridge. Blue can get stuck at the post-shower, towel-wearing stage of the day. (Her husband, with affection: “Darling, you would be so much more convincing if you were dressed.”) Hitchens is not hapless—he meets his many deadlines and catches his many planes—but it’s unsettling to watch him rinse a single spoon for four minutes, or hear the pandemonium over the supply of cigarette lighters. (He has cut back from smoking three packs a day.) He is a late-learning and scary driver. He does not wear a watch, although he looks at his bare left wrist when trying to calculate the time.
One morning during the family’s summer escape to Northern California—they stay in a guesthouse built next to the home of Blue’s parents—Blue and I drove to a local supermarket. She walked the store’s aisles with an air of rock-star puzzlement that may have been heightened for my benefit; she did not want to seem like a housewife. We left with sandwiches, a cherry pie, and two bottles of whiskey, and nothing that looked beyond the horizon of the next meal.
When we returned with our provisions, at about one o’clock, Hitchens, who had been working, was sitting at his desk with a drink. On the walls around him were some color printouts of kittens and puppies sitting in lines. He pointed to a manuscript of “God Is Not Great,” a book that he thinks may have more heft and permanence than anything he has written before, in a career of rapid responses and public lashings. “I have been, in my head, writing it for many years,” he said. “Religion is going to be the big subject until the end of my life. And I wanted to make an intervention.”
Hitchens had already finished the morning period of mail and e-mail he refers to as “telegrams and anger” (a quotation from “Howards End”). He had given his attention that day to the wiretap lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the National Security Agency; in January, he accepted the A.C.L.U.’s invitation to become a named plaintiff, denting his reputation as an Administration cheerleader. He had also begun a review of Ann Coulter’s “Godless: The Church of Liberalism,” for an obscure new British journal. He was not doing it for free, but the gesture was still generous; Hitchens, who is unusually lacking in professional competitiveness, makes himself available to younger writers and editors. He also teaches: he is presently a visiting professor at the New School, and he is supervising the Ph.D. thesis, on Orwell, of Thomas Veale, a U.S. Army major, who calls Hitchens the “only nineteen-thirties liberal in existence.”
Hitchens had started writing an hour or so before, planning on leniency: “I was thinking of hammering her for the first half and being a bit gentle the second.” (He shares Coulter’s disregard for Joseph Wilson, the diplomat.) But he had written a thousand words, and he was not through hammering. “I thought I’d do a thousand words by lunchtime—my usual ambition if I’m doing a short piece,” he said. But he now saw that he could get it all done before eating. “If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch then I shouldn’t be in this business,” he said. Not long afterward, he came into the kitchen and handed me the finished review.
We had lunch outside. Hitchens ignored the sandwiches and put his fork in the cherry pie, moving outward from the center. He had a postproduction glow. “Writing is mainly recreational,” he said. “I’m not happy when I’m not doing it.” He can entertain himself in other ways—he strained to remember them—such as “playing with the cats and the daughter. But if I take even a day away from it I’m very uneasy.”
In the past few years, Hitchens has published, in addition to his books on Orwell, Jefferson, and Paine, a book of oppositionist advice entitled “Letters to a Young Contrarian”; a collection of his writings on the Iraq war; and a giant miscellany, “Love, Poverty, and War.” He wrote “God Is Not Great” in four months. He has contributed to dozens of publications (including Golf Digest—he plays the game). He almost never uses the backspace, delete, or cut-and-paste keys. He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.
Earlier, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked, Blue had said to me, “Once in a while, it seems like he might be drunk. Aside from that, even though he’s obviously an alcoholic, he functions at a really high level and he doesn’t act like a drunk, so the only reason it’s a bad thing is it’s taking out his liver, presumably. It would be a drag for Henry Kissinger to live to a hundred and Christopher to keel over next year.”
Hitchens, too, brought up the subject of alcohol before I did. “You’re going to want to talk about this,” he said, not wrongly, pointing at his glass. (A writer likes a coöperative subject, but it can be dispiriting to make a portrait in the shadow of a gigantic self-portrait.) He was not a “piss artist,” he explained, “someone who can’t get going without a load of beer, who’s a drunk—overconfident and flushed. I can’t bear that.” He went on, “I know what I’m doing with it. And I can time it. It’s a self-medicating thing.” I took his point. Hitchens does drink a very great deal (and said of Mel Gibson’s blood-alcohol level at the time of his recent Malibu arrest—0.12 per cent—“that’s as sober as you’d ever want to be”). But he drinks like a Hemingway character: continually and to no apparent effect.
That evening at the guesthouse, Peter Berkowitz, the Straussian intellectual and Hoover Institution fellow, and Tod Lindberg, the editor of Policy Review, dropped by with family members. The back-yard pool was suddenly full of children. Someone had brought champagne, and Hitchens poured it with exaggerated disapproval. (A few years ago, he claimed that the four most overrated things in life were champagne, lobsters, anal sex, and picnics.) Hitchens went into the house and put on Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven”; he stood in the doorway and sung quietly along. He quoted Philip Larkin on Dylan: a “cawing, derisive voice.” He repeated Larkin’s words a few times, approvingly. His daughter got out of the pool, and said, pleasantly, “Can we close the door, so nobody else has to hear this?”
She went back to her friends. “Look,” Hitchens said happily. “They’re waiting for us to die.”
Hitchens and Blue flew back to Washington just after Labor Day. At the end of that week, in the Madison Hotel, Hitchens sat alongside William Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, and others on a panel convened by the David Horowitz Freedom Center. Robert (Buzz) Patterson, the conservative author and former White House military aide, introduced the event, and was applauded for a passing dig at the A.C.L.U. Hitchens, whose remarks were delivered into a warm hum of approval—“too easy,” he later said—described it as “a pleasure as well as a duty” to kill Islamic terrorists.
Horowitz has often spoken and written about his upbringing by Communist parents. Hitchens’s response, years ago, was to ask, “Who cares about his pathetic family?” But Horowitz holds no grudge, and the two men talked in the bar afterward, with the rapport that comes from being the only people in a ten-block radius who could say they had read all three volumes of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Leon Trotsky. Horowitz asked about Hitchens’s commitment to his Restoration Weekend, in Palm Beach, later in the year. Hitchens would never apologize for sharing a platform with anyone, but he wanted to know what Horowitz saw in Ann Coulter: Hadn’t he noticed the creationism in “Godless”?
“I didn’t read the Darwin pages,” Horowitz admitted.
“It’s nearly a third of the sodding book!” Hitchens said.
Hitchens had to be up early in the morning, and he began to make his way out. But a friend came up and asked him a favor, leading Hitchens to a group of young Horowitz fans. Hitchens sat down. “You really want to hear the most obscene joke in the world?” he asked them.
An hour later, Hitchens was at home, making a bacon sandwich. I asked him if he had felt a pang of envy when, in 2005, Michael Ignatieff, the author, public intellectual, and longtime U.K. resident, moved back to his native Canada to become a Liberal M.P.—and a likely future leader of his party. Hitchens replied, “Not a pang. A twinge.” When he was a young man, Hitchens was once sounded out about standing for Parliament as a Labour candidate. He took another path, but in subsequent years has occasionally thought of the politician he did not become. And today in Britain the political furniture is arranged as he would like it to be; that is, with opposition to the Iraq intervention heard as loudly on the Conservative side as on the left, and—as he sees it—a Labour Government acting in accordance with the radical, humanist, internationalist idealism of his youth. Earlier this year, Hitchens had a private meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
I asked Hitchens if he would accept a life peerage and a seat in the House of Lords. “It would be fantastically tempting,” he said, showing more eagerness than I’d expected. “I think I couldn’t do it, even though it’s no longer hereditary. I couldn’t quite see the term ‘Lord Hitchens.’ ” He added, with some feeling, “That I never had the right to walk into Parliament is something I’ll always be sorry about.”
This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hitchens’s move to America. Barring a last-minute complication, this will also be the year he becomes a citizen. He began the process not long after the attacks of 2001. The paperwork is done, he has passed the exam, and he was interviewed in June.
I asked if he’d vote in November. “I’ll run in November,” he said. “Don’t rule it out.” He added, “I can’t be President. So we can relax about that.” ♦
Le journaliste et écrivain Christopher Hitchens est mort à 62 ans
16 décembre 2011
Les lecteurs de Slate.fr le connaissaient pour ses écrits qui ne laissaient personne indifférent, ou presque. Christopher Hitchens est mort à 62 ans ce jeudi 15 décembre au MD Anderson Cancer Center de Houston, dans le Texas.
Ce journaliste prolifique, figure intellectuelle bien connue du grand public anglo-saxon, et anticonformiste célèbre, a entre autre écrit un best-seller antireligion, Dieu n’est pas grand: comment la religion empoisonne tout.
Hitchens, un contributeur de Vanity Fair et de The Atlantic, et un chroniqueur régulier de Slate.com (retrouvez ses chroniques traduites sur Slate.fr), avait découvert en juin 2010 qu’il avait un cancer de l’œsophage au stade 4, un diagnostic qui avait forcé l’iconoclaste à restreindre son rythme –il fut un temps soutenu– d’apparitions publiques, mais pas à réduire sa prodigieuse production d’essais, articles, et critiques littéraires jusqu’à ses derniers jours.
Lors d’une rare apparition dans ses derniers mois, à la convention de l’alliance athéiste d’Amérique, Hitchens avait concédé qu’il n’avait plus beaucoup de temps devant lui, mais dit qu’il ne comptait pasvarrêter de travailler à cause de la détérioration de sa santé: «Je ne vais pas abandonner jusqu’au moment où j’y serai vraiment forcé», avait-il dit, devant une ovation du public.
Hitchens a tenu sa promesse, écrivant des articles pour plusieurs publications pendant ses dernières semaines, sur tout, depuis la politique américaine jusqu’à sa propre mortalité.
En écrivant pour Vanity Fair un article publié quelques jours avant sa mort, Hitchens a réaffirmé qu’il espérait être entièrement conscient et réveillé lors de sa mort, «afin de "voir" la mort dans un sens actif, et non passif», comme il l’avait déjà expliqué à ses lecteurs avant même d’apprendre l’existence de son cancer. «J’essaye, toujours, de nourrir cette petite flamme de curiosité et de défi: prêt à jouer le jeu jusqu’à la fin et espérant qu’on ne m’épargnera rien de ce qui fait partie d’une vie», écrivait-il.
Né à Portsmouth, en Angleterre, en 1949, Hitchens a étudié à Oxford avant de lancer sa carrière journalistique dans les années 1970 avec les magazines International Socialism et le New Statesman.
Au début des années 1980, il a émigré aux Etats-Unis, où il a régulièrement chroniqué pour The Nation pendant vingt ans. Il a quitté le magazine de gauche après s’être fièrement opposé à ses rédacteurs en chef sur la guerre en Irak.
Hitchens a gagné un National Magazine Award pour ses chroniques en 2007, l’année où il est devenu, à 58 ans, citoyen américain. Le site Foreign Policy l’a inclus dans sa liste des 100 figures intellectuelles les plus importantes l’année suivante, et le magazine Forbes dans celle des 25 commentateurs progressistes les plus influents dans les médias américains en 2009, distinction qui a surpris certains étant donné le soutien bruyant d’Hitchens à la «guerre contre la terreur» de George W. Bush.
Il était souvent invité dans des émissions d’information et des débats publics et manquait rarement une occasion de défendre ses positions quand on la lui donnait. Il était l’auteur de pratiquement vingt livres dont certains traduits en français (Dieu n’est pas grand. Comment la religion empoisonne tout, Les Crimes de monsieur Kissinger) et avait récemment publié ses mémoires (Hitch-22: A Memoir) et Arguably, une compilation de ses essais les plus récents.
Hitchens est resté ferme dans sa critique de la religion même quand le pronostic sur sa maladie est devenu sombre. Dans une interview d’août 2010 avec Jeffrey Goldberg, son collègue de The Atlantic, il faisait savoir que, même si d’une manière ou d’une autre, il abjurait son athéisme fervent sur son lit de mort, cette conversion apparente ne serait qu’un geste creux.
«L’entité qui ferait un tel geste pourrait être une personne divagante et terrifiée dont le cancer a gagné le cerveau», expliquait-il. «Je ne peux garantir qu’une telle entité ne fera pas un geste aussi ridicule. Mais ce ne serait pas quelqu’un que l’on pourrait reconnaître comme moi.»
Lire l’article original sur Slate.fr
Polemicist Who Slashed All, Freely, Dies at 62
December 16, 2011
Christopher Hitchens, a slashing polemicist in the tradition of Thomas Paine and George Orwell who trained his sights on targets as various as Henry Kissinger, the British monarchy and Mother Teresa, wrote a best-seller attacking religious belief, and dismayed his former comrades on the left by enthusiastically supporting the American-led war in Iraq, died on Thursday in Houston. He was 62.
The cause was pneumonia, a complication of esophageal cancer, Vanity Fair magazine said in announcing the death, at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. Mr. Hitchens, who lived in Washington, learned he had cancer while on a publicity tour in 2010 for his memoir, “Hitch-22,” and began writing and, on television, speaking about his illness frequently.
“In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist,” Mr. Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair, for which he was a contributing editor.
He took pains to emphasize that he had not revised his position on atheism, articulated in his best-selling 2007 book, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” although he did express amused appreciation at the hope, among some concerned Christians, that he might undergo a late-life conversion.
He also professed to have no regrets for a lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking. “Writing is what’s important to me, and anything that helps me do that — or enhances and prolongs and deepens and sometimes intensifies argument and conversation — is worth it to me,” he told Charlie Rose in a television interview in 2010, adding that it was “impossible for me to imagine having my life without going to those parties, without having those late nights, without that second bottle.”
Armed with a quick wit and a keen appetite for combat, Mr. Hitchens was in constant demand as a speaker on television, radio and the debating platform, where he held forth in a sonorous, plummily accented voice that seemed at odds with his disheveled appearance. He was a master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark.
In 2007, when the interviewer Sean Hannity tried to make the case for an all-seeing God, Mr. Hitchens dismissed the idea with contempt. “It would be like living in North Korea,” he said.
Mr. Hitchens, a British Trotskyite who had lost faith in the Socialist movement, spent much of his life wandering the globe and reporting on the world’s trouble spots for The Nation magazine, the British newsmagazine The New Statesman and other publications.
His work took him to Northern Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain and Argentina in the 1970s, generally to shine a light on the evil practices of entrenched dictators or the imperial machinations of the great powers.
After moving to the United States in 1981, he added American politics to his beat, writing a biweekly Minority Report for The Nation. He wrote a monthly review-essay for The Atlantic and, as a carte-blanche columnist at Vanity Fair, filed essays on topics as various as getting a Brazilian bikini wax and the experience of being waterboarded, a volunteer assignment that he called “very much more frightening though less painful than the bikini wax.” He was also a columnist for the online magazine Slate.
His support for the Iraq war sprang from a growing conviction that radical elements in the Islamic world posed a mortal danger to Western principles of political liberty and freedom of conscience. The first stirrings of that view came in 1989 with the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwah against the novelist Salman Rushdie for his supposedly blasphemous words in “The Satanic Verses.” To Mr. Hitchens, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the threat.
In a political shift that shocked many of his friends and readers, he cut his ties to The Nation and became an outspoken advocate of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a ferocious critic of what he called “Islamofascism.” Although he denied coining the word, he popularized it.
He remained unapologetic about the war. In 2006 he told the British newspaper The Guardian: “There are a lot of people who will not be happy, it seems to me, until I am compelled to write a letter to these comrades in Iraq and say: ‘Look, guys, it’s been real, but I’m going to have to drop you now. The political cost to me is just too high.’ Do I see myself doing this? No, I do not!”
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born on April 13, 1949, in Portsmouth, England. His father was a career officer in the Royal Navy and later earned a modest living as a bookkeeper.
Though it strained the family budget, Christopher was sent to private schools in Tavistock and Cambridge, at the insistence of his mother. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it,” he overheard his mother saying to his father, clinching a spirited argument.
He was politically attuned even as a 7-year-old. “I was precocious enough to watch the news and read the papers, and I can remember October 1956, the simultaneous crisis in Hungary and Suez, very well,” he told the magazine The Progressive in 1997. “And getting a sense that the world was dangerous, a sense that the game was up, that the Empire was over.”
Even before arriving at Balliol College, Oxford, Mr. Hitchens had been drawn into left-wing politics, primarily out of opposition to the Vietnam War. After heckling a Maoist speaker at a political meeting, he was invited to join the International Socialists, a Trotskyite party. Thus began a dual career as political agitator and upper-crust sybarite. He arranged a packed schedule of antiwar demonstrations by day and Champagne-flooded parties with Oxford’s elite at night. Spare time was devoted to the study of philosophy, politics and economics.
After graduating from Oxford in 1970, he spent a year traveling across the United States. He then tried his luck as a journalist in London, where he contributed reviews, columns and editorials to The New Statesman, The Daily Express and The Evening Standard.
“I would do my day jobs at various mainstream papers and magazines and TV stations, where my title was ‘Christopher Hitchens,’ ” he wrote in “Hitch-22,” “and then sneak down to the East End, where I was variously features editor of Socialist Worker and book review editor of the theoretical monthly International Socialism.”
He became a staff writer and editor for The New Statesman in the late 1970s and fell in with a literary clique that included Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Clive James and Ian McEwan. The group liked to play a game in which members came up with the sentence least likely to be uttered by one of their number. Mr. Hitchens’s was “I don’t care how rich you are, I’m not coming to your party.”
After collaborating on a 1976 biography of James Callaghan, the Labour leader, he published his first book, “Cyprus,” in 1984 to commemorate Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus a decade earlier. A longer version was published in 1989 as “Hostage to History: Cyprus From the Ottomans to Kissinger.”
His interest in the region led to another book, “Imperial Spoils: The Curious Case of the Elgin Marbles” (1987), in which he argued that Britain should return the Elgin marbles to Greece.
In 1981 he married a Greek Cypriot, Eleni Meleagrou. The marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by their two children, Alexander and Sophia; his wife, Carol Blue, and their daughter, Antonia; and his brother, Peter.
Mr. Hitchens’s reporting on Greece came through unusual circumstances. He was summoned to Athens in 1973 because his mother, after leaving his father, had committed suicide there with her new partner. After his father’s death in 1987, he learned that his mother was Jewish, a fact she had concealed from her husband and her children.
After moving to the United States, where he eventually became a citizen, Mr. Hitchens became a fixture on television, in print and at the lectern. Many of his essays for The Nation and other magazines were collected in “Prepared for the Worst” (1988).
He also threw himself into the defense of his friend Mr. Rushdie. “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” he wrote in his memoir. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
To help rally public support, Mr. Hitchens arranged for Mr. Rushdie to be received at the White House by President Bill Clinton, one of Mr. Hitchens’s least favorite politicians and the subject of his book “No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton” (1999).
He regarded the response of left-wing intellectuals to Mr. Rushdie’s predicament as feeble, and he soon began to question many of his cherished political assumptions. He had already broken with the International Socialists when, in 1982, he astonished some of his brethren by supporting Britain’s invasion of the Falkland Islands.
The drift was reflected in books devoted to heroes like George Orwell (“Why Orwell Matters,” 2002), Thomas Paine (“Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography,” 2006) and Thomas Jefferson (“Thomas Jefferson: Author of America,” 2005).
His polemical urges found other outlets. In 2001 he excoriated Mr. Kissinger, the secretary of state in the Nixon administration, as a war criminal in the book “The Trial of Henry Kissinger.” He helped write a 2002 documentary film by the same title based on the book.
Mr. Hitchens became a campaigner against religious belief, most notably in his screed against Mother Teresa, “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” (1995), and “God Is Not Great.” He regarded Mother Teresa as a proselytizer for a retrograde version of Roman Catholicism rather than as a saintly charity worker.
“I don’t quite see Christopher as a ‘man of action,’ ” the writer Ian Buruma told The New Yorker in 2006, “but he’s always looking for the defining moment — as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy.”
One stand distressed many of his friends. In 1999, Sidney Blumenthal, an aide to Mr. Clinton and a friend of Mr. Hitchens’s, testified before a grand jury that he was not the source of damaging comments made to reporters about Monica Lewinsky, whose supposed affair with the president was under investigation by the House of Representatives.
Contacted by House investigators, Mr. Hitchens supplied information in an affidavit that, in effect, accused Mr. Blumenthal of perjury and put him in danger of being indicted.
At a lunch in 1998, Mr. Hitchens wrote, Mr. Blumenthal had characterized Ms. Lewinsky as “a stalker” and said the president was the victim of a predatory and unstable woman. Overnight, Mr. Hitchens — now called “Hitch the Snitch” by Blumenthal partisans — became persona non grata in living rooms all over Washington. In a review of “Hitch-22” in The New York Review of Books, Mr. Buruma criticized Mr. Hitchens for making politics personal.
To Mr. Hitchens, he wrote, “politics is essentially a matter of character.”
“Politicians do bad things,” Mr. Buruma continued, “because they are bad men. The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into this particular moral universe.” Mr. Hitchens’s latest collection of writings, “Arguably: Essays,” published this year, has been a best-seller and ranked among the top 10 books of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Hitchens discussed the possibility of a deathbed conversion, insisting that the odds were slim that he would admit the existence of God.
“The entity making such a remark might be a raving, terrified person whose cancer has spread to the brain,” he told The Atlantic in August 2010. “I can’t guarantee that such an entity wouldn’t make such a ridiculous remark, but no one recognizable as myself would ever make such a remark.”
Readers of “Hitch-22” already knew his feelings about the end. “I personally want to ‘do’ death in the active and not the passive,” he wrote, “and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me.”
The Rat That Roared
The Wall Street Journal
February 6, 2003
To say that the history of human emancipation would be incomplete without the French would be to commit a fatal understatement. The Encyclopedists, the proclaimers of Les Droits de l’Homme, the generous ally of the American revolution . . . the spark of 1789 and 1848 and 1871, can be found all the way from the first political measure to abolish slavery, through Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, to the gallantry of Jean Moulin and the maquis resistance. French ideas and French heroes have animated the struggle for liberty throughout modern times.
There is of course another France — the France of Petain and Poujade and Vichy and of the filthy colonial tactics pursued in Algeria and Indochina. Sometimes the U.S. has been in excellent harmony with the first France — as when Thomas Paine was given the key of the Bastille to bring to Washington, and as when Lafayette and Rochambeau made France the « oldest ally. » Sometimes American policy has been inferior to that of many French people — one might instance Roosevelt’s detestation of de Gaulle. The Eisenhower-Dulles administration encouraged the French in a course of folly in Vietnam, and went so far as to inherit it. Kennedy showed a guarded sympathy for Algerian independence, at a time when France was too arrogant to listen to his advice. So it goes. Lord Palmerston was probably right when he said that a nation can have no permanent allies, only permanent interests. It is not to be expected that any proud, historic country can be automatically counted « in. »
However, the conduct of Jacques Chirac can hardly be analyzed in these terms. Here is a man who had to run for re-election last year in order to preserve his immunity from prosecution, on charges of corruption that were grave. Here is a man who helped Saddam Hussein build a nuclear reactor and who knew very well what he wanted it for. Here is a man at the head of France who is, in effect, openly for sale. He puts me in mind of the banker in Flaubert’s « L’Education Sentimentale »: a man so habituated to corruption that he would happily pay for the pleasure of selling himself.
Here, also, is a positive monster of conceit. He and his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, have unctuously said that « force is always the last resort. » Vraiment? This was not the view of the French establishment when troops were sent to Rwanda to try and rescue the client-regime that had just unleashed ethnocide against the Tutsi. It is not, one presumes, the view of the French generals who currently treat the people and nation of Cote d’Ivoire as their fief. It was not the view of those who ordered the destruction of an unarmed ship, the Rainbow Warrior, as it lay at anchor in a New Zealand harbor after protesting the French official practice of conducting atmospheric nuclear tests in the Pacific. (I am aware that some of these outrages were conducted when the French Socialist Party was in power, but in no case did Mr. Chirac express anything other than patriotic enthusiasm. If there is a truly « unilateralist » government on the Security Council, it is France.)
We are all aware of the fact that French companies and the French state are owed immense sums of money by Saddam Hussein. We all very much hope that no private gifts to any French political figures have been made by the Iraqi Baath Party, even though such scruple on either side would be anomalous to say the very least. Is it possible that there is any more to it than that? The future government in Baghdad may very well not consider itself responsible for paying Saddam’s debts. Does this alone condition the Chirac response to a fin de regime in Iraq?
Alas, no. Recent days brought tidings of an official invitation to Paris, for Robert Mugabe. The President-for-life of Zimbabwe may have many charms, but spare cash is not among them. His treasury is as empty as the stomachs of his people. No, when the plumed parade brings Mugabe up the Champs Elysees, the only satisfaction for Mr. Chirac will be the sound of a petty slap in the face to Tony Blair, who has recently tried to abridge Mugabe’s freedom to travel. Thus we are forced to think that French diplomacy, as well as being for sale or for hire, is chiefly preoccupied with extracting advantage and prestige from the difficulties of its allies.
This can and should be distinguished from the policy of Germany. Berlin does not have a neutralist constitution, like Japan or Switzerland. But it has a strong presumption against military intervention outside its own border and Herr Schroeder, however cheaply he plays this card, is still playing a hand one may respect. One does not find German statesmen positively encouraging the delinquents of the globe, in order to reap opportunist advantages and to excite local chauvinism.
Mr. Chirac’s party is « Gaullist. » Charles de Gaulle had a colossal ego, but he felt himself compelled at a crucial moment to represent une certaine idee de la France, at a time when that nation had been betrayed into serfdom and shame by its political and military establishment. He was later adroit in extracting his country from its vicious policy in North Africa, and gave good advice to the U.S. about avoiding the same blunder in Indochina. His concern for French glory and tradition sometimes led him into error, as with his bombastic statements about « Quebec libre. » But — and this is disclosed in a fine study of the man, « A Demain de Gaulle, » by the former French leftist Regis Debray — he always refused to take seriously the claims of the Soviet Union to own Poland and Hungary and the Czech lands and Eastern Germany. He didn’t believe it would or could last: He had a sense of history.
To the permanent interests of France, he insisted on attaching une certain idee de la liberte as well. He would have nodded approvingly at Vaclav Havel’s statement — his last as Czech president — speaking boldly about the rights of the people of Iraq. And one likes to think that he would have had a fine contempt for his pygmy successor, the vain and posturing and venal man who, attempting to act the part of a balding Joan of Arc in drag, is making France into the abject procurer for Saddam. This is a case of the rat that tried to roar.