Politics & Policy

Second Thoughts, Part 2

Horowitz on Hitchens and the Left.

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.

The hatred now descended on Hitchens’s head. In a spectacle that could only be described as a religious witch-hunt and purification, prominent leftists went into print to declare that Hitchens would not be allowed to darken their doors again. Without mentioning Blumenthal or the internal wrenchings the episode must have caused him, Hitchens reproduces a phone message left by Dorothy Healy, a well-known Communist and friend: “You stinking little rat. I always knew you were no good. You are a stool pigeon and a fink. I hope you rot in scab and blackleg hell.”

So much for the warm fraternity of the party of the working class, and a testament to the slings and arrows that Hitchens had to endure as he rethought his positions. In the Reason interview, Hitchens recalls how his progressive friends now attacked him as a “McCarthyite” and did so in the pages of The Nation, a reaction that in his words “showed the amazing persistence of antediluvian categories and thoughts on the Left . . . [which were] applied to me in a very mendacious and I thought thuggish way.” This led Hitchens to conclude that “there is no such thing as a radical Left anymore. The world of Gloria Steinem and Jesse Jackson, let’s say, has all been, though it does not realize it, hopelessly compromised by selling out to Clintonism. It became, under no pressure at all, and with no excuse and in no danger, a voluntary apologist for abuse of power.”

Although Hitchens had been hostile to me until then, and was still refusing to recognize that this was not a new development of the Left but its modus operandi, I wrote an article defending him. “This tainting and ostracism of sinners,” I observed, “is, in fact, the secret power of the leftist faith . . . . The spectacle of what happens to a heretic like Hitchens when he challenges the party code is a warning to others not to try it.” I explained the attempt to purge Hitchens in this way: “The community of the left is a community of meaning and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious. For the non-religious, politics is the art of managing the possible. For the left it is the path to social redemption. . . . It is about us being on the side of the angels, and them as the party of the damned.”

Of course Hitchens still possessed his multiple exit visas and was able to reach a modus vivendi with The Nation, whose editors agreed not to print any more defamatory attacks on him. This rendered the purge incomplete, enabling him to retain a foothold in the Left. When a year passed and he hadn’t contacted me about my piece, I reflected that he probably was resentful that a political enemy had spoken in his behalf and worsened his case. But then we chanced on each other at a Los Angeles Times book festival, and quite unexpectedly he thanked me, warmly and graciously, for the article, and we agreed to make a date for a longer talk. In that moment, our friendship began and I knew Hitchens was in a state of motion in regard to his allegiances on the left, and therefore, also, his loyalties to the country which supported him and defended his freedoms.

The turn in Hitchens’s political life would culminate on 9/11, when the United States came under attack by a new totalitarian foe. For Hitchens, the threat this adversary posed had been first brought home in the fatwa issued against his friend and fellow writer Salman Rushdie. “The realization that we were in a cultural and political war with Islamic theocracy came to me with force and certainty not on September 11, 2001, but on Febuary 14, 1989,” he told the editor of my Internet site, “when the Ayatollah Khomeini offered money in his own name to suborn the murder of my friend Salman Rushdie.”

Soon afterwards, there was another revelation. This time it was about the Leviathan with which the Left was at war and which it regarded as the command center and armorer of global oppression. The United States military had intervened to stop the genocide of Bosnian Muslims in the heart of Europe when no European or Muslim nation would. “The realization that American power could and should be used for the defense of pluralism and as a punishment for fascism came to me in Sarajevo a year or two later,” Hitchens writes. “It was the first time I found myself in the same trench as people like Paul Wolfowitz and Jeane Kirkpatrick: a shock I had to learn to get over.”

There were more shocks to come. Hitchens was in the Northwest to lecture about one of his personal bêtes noires, Henry Kissinger, when his wife called from their Washington home to tell him the World Trade Center had been struck. The attack was mounted by the same enemy who had attempted to kill his friend Salman Rushdie, and it was the same war of “everything I hated” against “everything I loved.” As he pondered the moment, he was immediately torn by two thoughts, the first a fear of being swept up in an unthinking totalitarian patriotism and the second revulsion at a comment made by one of the left-wing students who had attended his lecture: “You know what my friends are saying? They are saying it is the chickens coming home to roost.”


The remark infuriated Hitchens, provoking a response which “came welling up in me with an almost tidal force: What bloody chickens? Come to think of it, whose bloody ‘home’?” When his Nation colleagues, most prominently Noam Chomsky, regurgitated the same sentiments, a seismic crack parted the ground between them: “Regarding almost everything since Columbus as having been one big succession of genocides and land-thefts, [Chomsky] did not really believe that America was a good idea to begin with. Whereas I had come to appreciate that it most certainly was.”

Hitchens began speaking publicly to the same effect, and the more he spoke the more vicious the attacks that were directed at him from former friends on the left. In the process, more troubling thoughts began to percolate in Hitchens’s mind: “I could not bear the idea that anything I had written or said myself had contributed to this mood of cynicism and defeatism, not to mention moral imbecility on the left.”

Hitchens had found a cause, which was no longer a radical cause, which was not a fantasy of an imagined future but a present, flesh-and-blood reality that needed his support and defense: “Shall I take out papers of citizenship?” he asked at the end of a poignant post–9/11 article he wrote for Vanity Fair. “Wrong question. In every essential way, I already have.”

Once he had allowed himself to recognize that America, with its passion for liberty and openness to change, could be a force for good, other recognitions followed. Hitchens became, in his own words, “part of [the] public opinion” that supported America’s campaigns to remove the perpetrators from Afghanistan and to unseat the despot and mass murderer, Saddam Hussein, in Iraq. “The idea of ‘Reds for Bush’ might be incongruous,” he observed wryly of his support for the president, “but it was a great deal more wholesome than ‘pacifists for Saddam,’” which is what the antiwar movement that was supported by most of Hitchens’s friends had become.

Six months after the beginning of war in Iraq, Hitchens reviewed a book of my writings called Left Illusions. “With the Cold War so to speak behind us,” he wrote, “I suspected that Horowitz would find life without the old enemy a little dull. How much of an audience would there be for his twice-told tale about growing up in a doggedly loyal Communist family and his agonizing over the series of wrenches and shocks that had detached him from Marxism all together? But then, I didn’t anticipate that in the fall of 2001, I would be reading solemn polemics by leading intellectualoids proposing a strict moral equivalence — moral equivalence at best in some cases — between America and the Taliban. Nor did I expect to see street theater antiwar demonstrations, organized by open admirers of Fidel Castro, Slobodan Milosevic, and Kim Jong Il, united in the sinister line of, in effect, ‘hands off Saddam Hussein.’ So I admit that I now find the sardonic, experienced pessimism in Horowitz’s book a bit more serviceable than I once did.”

This is not the full-throated endorsement of second thoughts one might expect after such events, but then it was a familiar Hitch-22. In his final chapter, Hitchens turns to an assessment of his changes, and titles it: “Decline, Mutation or Metamorphosis?” By this point, there is no mystery: The middle term is the preferred one and the ends excluded. One of the unkinder cuts delivered in Hitchens’s envoi is to those of us who did not regard ourselves as newborn on a particular day of revelation, such as September 11, but undertook the necessary and painful task of reassessing what we did and the damage we inflicted in the life we had lived before: “So I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty, like some attention-grabbing defector, as feel it falling away from me.”

Hitchens should blush to ascribe attention-getting to others, particularly those who have been cut off for their efforts from the same cultural platforms that have made Hitchens such an intellectual celebrity. And what other reason prevents Hitchens from repudiating the loyalties that sealed the fates of so many innocents, and impeded the efforts to rescue them, as he himself acknowledges? Referring to Oscar Wilde’s suggestion that a map of the world that did not have utopia on it would not be worth consulting, Hitchens remarks, “I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison islands to which the quest has led.” But how, then, does one justify continued loyalty to those responsible?

Hitchens’s final chapter opens with the unexpected appearance of his brother, Peter, who has published a book with his own reflections about his parallel life. Peter’s book, The Broken Compass, contains a chapter Hitchens finds “unsettling.” It is an assault from a paleo-conservative perspective on the small contingent of leftists who supported the Iraq War and is pointedly called “A Comfortable Hotel on the Road to Damascus.” The “comfortable hotel” is a reference to the Iraq War and more broadly to the larger “war on terror.” Peter opposes both wars as crusades to change the world, and therefore endeavors properly eschewed by conservatives and appropriate to the utopian Left. “For the habitual leftist,” Peter comments, the war on terror “has the virtue of making him look as if he can change his mind, even when he has not really done so.”

Peter is wrong and Christopher right about the war on terror, which is not a crusade to change the world but a response to a totalitarian movement and its criminal aggressions. But he is right in perceiving that for his brother it has acquired a dimension that has all the earmarks of the utopian movement he has abandoned but is still reluctant to leave. This is Christopher Hitchens’s crusade against religion and its believers, which came to the fore in his writings and then became an obsession, following the fatwa against Salman Rushdie and the attacks of 9/11.

“The defense of science and reason is the great imperative of our time,” Hitchens writes on the last page of his book. But this is difficult for an outsider to comprehend. Science and reason aren’t under anything like the scorched-earth attacks that religion is facing at the hands of Hitchens and his new political allies. There are no best-selling broadsides called Reason Is Not Great or The Science Delusion against which Hitchens and his band of atheists are forced to contend, nor are scientific institutions being blown up and desecrated the way synagogues and churches and mosques are routinely at the hands of rival creeds.

In a moment of recognition about the nature of his former faith, Hitchens observes: “Rather like our then friend Chomsky, Edward (Said) in the final instance believed that if the United States was doing something, then that thing could not by definition be a moral or ethical action.” Perceived to be the center of global oppression, the United States personified the rule of evil in the Manichaean world that radicals inhabited. But was not Hitchens’s view of religion, as a force which “poisons everything” also one of an institution that by definition could do no right?

“As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil,” Hitchens writes in one of his extravagant tropes. And elaborates: “Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions, we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism of Judaism and Christianity into the various forms of Islam.” This leaden, totalitarian prose is alarmingly characteristic of Hitchens’s writings about religion, and the very opposite of the supple textures and multivalent cadences that normally seduce and reward his readers. “Leaden prose,” he warns us elsewhere, “always tends to be a symptom of other problems.”

The problem is that he sees religion generally, and Judaism in particular, through his old Marxist lenses, as a “sigh of the oppressed,” and imagines a liberation through the elimination of the oppressor. In the above sentence Hitchens casts the “rabbis” as a ruling class imposing its yoke on a passive flock. He is wrong on both counts. To begin, the 613 commandments are not simply prohibitions and are not merely dour. Not to oppress the weak and to honor one’s father and mother, two of them, are commandments that a less ideologically disposed Hitchens might embrace. But even if this were not the case, rabbis could hardly impose prohibitions lasting thousands of years on flocks who did not ultimately seek or need them, or regard them as useful to their earthly sojourns. Has Hitchens stopped to ask himself how it is that a tiny, dispersed people like the Jews could survive for several millennia without beliefs that inspired them and held them together? Unaccountably for some whose mind is otherwise so wonderfully alert and alive, Hitchens is impervious to the way religion speaks to needs that are timeless and provides comforts that are beneficial; and has contributed to the most spectacular achievements of human culture, including those that are scientific. The very concepts of individual rights and democracy so dear to Hitchens are also contributions of religious thought.

These particular issues are made especially pertinent by Hitchens’s discovery at the age of 45, more than two decades after his mother’s death, that Yvonne herself was Jewish, and therefore that he is as well. This discovery sends him on a quest for origins that is doomed to ambivalence since he regards Israel, the ancient home of the Jews, as a national oppressor and sees the Arabs of the Palestine Mandate as the passive oppressed. Hitchens’s dilemma is made all the more poignant by a conversation he had with Yvonne just before she took her life in which she expressed a desire “to move to Israel” without revealing to her son the reason why. It was a desire, her son now believes, that would have meant, if she had actually done it, that in going home she was “taking part in the perpetuation of an injustice.”

For Hitchens the injustice is Israel itself. He regards the Jewish inhabitants of Israel as “land-thieves” inspired by a religious myth to establish a “divine claim” and therefore a people who “wanted the land without the people.” According to Hitchens, in stealing Arab land the Jews became oppressors who “made” the Arabs victims, “with infinite cause of complaint and indefinite justification for violent retaliation.” For example, the creation of a death cult that promises sainthood and paradise to suicide bombers, who blow up women and children if they happen to be Jews? But Hitchens’s premise is fallacious, and his passion misplaced. Israel was created out of the ruins of the Turkish empire, not from an Arab — let alone a Palestinian — nation. If a Palestinian state is what the region lacks, there would have been one on the West Bank and Gaza (as there already is in Jordan) all the intervening years, if five Arab countries had not launched an aggressive war to expel the Jews and destroy their home.

Even disregarding (as Hitchens does) the historical facts, consider the war in the Middle East as it is prosecuted today: On the one side, Israel, a thriving, modern, democracy containing a million Arab citizens who enjoy more individual rights in the Jewish state than do the Arabs of any Muslim country. On the other side, a theocracy in Gaza and a fascist regime on the West Bank, without individual rights, who are prosecuting a holy war against the Jews as Jews. “Islamo-fascism” is a term that Hitchens is rightly proud to have coined. Is there a single Palestinian faction on the West Bank or in Gaza that does not align itself with the Islamo-fascists and their war against the West? Is not Israel’s war in the Middle East a war of everything that Hitchens professes to love against everything he hates? What is it that binds him to this misbegotten cause, then, but his unexamined — and unrepudiated — loyalties to a Marxist past?

Hitchens’s blindness in these matters is the most troubling of the confusions to which uncompleted second thoughts have led him and are a source of no pleasure for me. On the contrary, that my friend should be so unjust and incoherent in matters so important not only to others but to himself is both a misfortune and personal source of distress. Yet these reactionary glances do not eclipse that brilliance or the role he has played in the battle against the totalitarianism we confront today. In recognizing, however belatedly, the virtues of his adopted homeland, and in defending individual freedom against forces that are determined to crush it, my friend Hitchens has performed a worthy and necessary service, one that the Commander would have appreciated, and we should all be grateful for that.

— David Horowitz is the founder of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and co-author of One-Party Classroom: How Radical Professors at America’s Top Colleges Indoctrinate Students and Undermine Our Democracy.


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