AUTHOR’S NOTE: I had just finished this essay when I heard the terrible news that my friend Christopher had a cancer whose prognosis was dire. My heart and thoughts go out to him, as they would to a brother. I have known Christopher as a man of great courage and decency and have an affection for him that is not adequately expressed in the intellectual argument that follows. It is indeed an intellectual argument, and Christopher, I am sure, will welcome it as a testament to the way in which he has challenged us all — just as I am sure that he will continue to do so.
This is the second of a two-part series. You can read Part 1 here.
In the 1970s, Hitchens adopted a “second identity,” making more and more frequent trips to America, eventually migrating across the Atlantic and setting up shop at The Nation. It was, as always for him, a two-track engagement. On the one hand there was the America that functioned as the Left’s version of capitalist hell — a racist, imperialist bastion of international oppression. Exposing the evils of his new lodging was the way Hitchens paid his dues at The Nation but also reconciled himself to the fact that he was enjoying residence in the “belly of the beast.” For America was a land of expansive contradictions and freedoms that were entirely seductive to the other side of Hitchens’s personality: “Here was a country that could engage in a frightening and debilitating and unjust war, and undergo a simultaneous convulsion of its cities on the question of justice for its oldest and largest minority, and start a conversation on the rights of women . . . and have a show trial of confessed saboteurs in Chicago where the incredibly guilty defendants actually got off.”
Would that Hitchens had allowed the generous, free-spirited, creative side of America, which spoke with such resonance to his own, to temper the scorn he poured on it in his Nation years. But the guilty pleasures he experienced in enemy territory had to be paid for by a pact he had made which precluded a just accounting. “My personal way of becoming Americanized,” he explains, “was to remain a blood brother of the American left.” But the Left that had emerged in the campaign against the Vietnam War was increasingly defined by a corrosive anti-Americanism, incompatible with a proper appreciation of American virtues.
As Hitchens became more familiar with his new environment, the increasing irrationality of this anti-American fervor began to take its toll on a sensibility so oppositely tuned. It began with the discordant attitudes his Nation
comrades expressed towards the totalitarian enemy, which did not sit well with a Trotskyist familiar with the toll of Stalin’s victims. “I was often made aware in Nation
circles that there really were people who did think that Joseph McCarthy had been far, far worse than Joseph Stalin.” Noam Chomsky unnerved him by saying that America’s democracy was morally worse than the Soviet police state. His “much-admired” friend Gore Vidal shocked him by describing the F.B.I. as “our KGB” and then by writing an anti-Semitic screed — which Hitchens protested while the best man at his wedding, Victor Navasky, published it, saying “Well, Gore is Gore.”
Hitchens’s tensions with the Left had actually begun with the election of Bill Clinton, a veteran of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the first Sixties progressive to be elected to the White House. He had met Clinton when they both were students at Oxford and took a strong disliking to the presidential candidate when he ordered the execution of a mentally retarded black prisoner, Ricky Ray Rector, as a campaign ploy to demonstrate that he was tough on crime. The dislike increased with Clinton’s actions in office and led to a sharp tract Hitchens eventually published about the president and the first lady, called No One Left To Lie To: The Worst Family. In the Reason interview, Hitchens recalled how this reached a point where he felt he might have to resign from The Nation over its embrace of Clinton. “It completely squandered the claim of a magazine like the Nation to be a journal of opposition.”
These tensions came to the surface in the spring of 1999, when Hitchens testified before a congressional committee against Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. His testimony ended a 15-year friendship with Blumenthal and elicited attacks from a large cohort of Hitchens’s comrades. Yet in another of its critical lacunae, Hitchens’s memoir fails to mention Blumenthal or the friendship, or the effect this schism may have had on him.
Blumenthal had been tasked with intimidating female witnesses to Clinton’s sexual abuse by defaming them to Washington reporters. Blumenthal chose Hitchens to transmit these defamations, and Hitchens chose to expose Blumenthal instead. Hitchens’s transgression in the eyes of his leftist comrades was compounded by the fact that the head of the congressional committee to which he gave his testimony was Henry Hyde, a pro-life conservative they ferociously hated.