The Ambiguous Legacy of Christopher Hitchens


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a freelance journalist and blogger. He considers Bob Dylan and Walter Sobchak to be the two great Jewish thinkers of our time; he thinks Kafka was half-right when he said there was hope, "but not for us"; and he can be reached through the twitter via @eliasisquith or via email. The opinions he expresses on the blog and throughout the interwebs are exclusively his own.

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10 Responses

  1. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    To be blunt, my impression was that Hitchens was a fearless truth-teller; just not to himself.Report

  2. Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

    The consequentialist argument here lacks a clarity and therefore moral force.  Had the consequences of toppling Saddam had been less dramatic [some thousands rather than ~100,000 Iraqi dead], the moral force of this condemnation of Hitchens begins to dissipate.

    Even the figure of ~100,000 requires context:

    1) In a moral calculus, Saddam had already killed more, between the Iran-Iraq war and his own domestic murders.  In the future, there was no reason to conclude that his continued rule, followed by his sons Uday and Atilla would have been more moderate.

    2) Madeleine Albright had already confessed to Lesley Stahl and the Muslim world to killing 1 million Iraqi women and children during the Clinton sanctions regime.

    3) The bad guys killed most of that 100,000, not the US, who killed mostly bad guys.

    What moral responsibility can be laid at Hitchens’ feet? Only those of forseeable consequences.  Now, there are really two wars here, not one.  The second was the influx of al-Qaeders who ended up making what was hopefully their last stand in Iraq, and repelled the Muslim world [and its future in it] with their manifest brutality.  Could this have been necessarily or reasonably foreseen?  Perhaps, but perhaps not. Nobody can say what will result now in Egypt and especially Libya from their own interregnums.

    And if they do not turn out completely badly, we cannot rule out, via consequentialism, that al-Qaeda’s last stand in Iraq is the reason they aren’t a player elsewhere here in 2011.

    Hitchens took pains to get out of the line of fire at Dubya, not that it helped.  The incompetence of the post-Saddam conduct of the peace [not war] is also a separate issue.  But per the “al-Qaeda’s last stand” argument above, Hitchens compared them to the Khmer Rouge, a murderous problem that eventually had to be dealt with one way or another, but somebody or another.

    “But not all the ironies are at Bush’s expense. Change only the name of the analogous country and it becomes fairly clear that in Iraq we are fighting not the Vietcong, but the Khmer Rouge, as the Vietcong eventually had to do on our behalf. The logic of history is pitiless and Bush is not the only one who will find this out.”

    If we use the consequentialist method and pretend to an omniscience about future history, then we must look to the logic of all of the history surrounding the Iraq mess, including al-Qaeda-as-Khmer Rouge.  At some point they were going to precipitate a mess like they did in Iraq; the only question was when and where.

    The moral calculus that places the blame at the US’ [or Hitchens’] feet leaves out necessary elements of the equation.



  3. Here’s the thing. I agree with you about Hitchens’ Iraq writings operating very much as a force for ill. I could hardly disagree with him more on that topic, and probably 75% of the other opinions he held. That doesn’t change the fact that he earnestly and honestly believed differently. It seems wrong to celebrate him for his bluntness, erudition, and polemicism on those topics where we happen to agree with him, but then view those same traits as a moral failing on topics where we disagreed with him.

    When we celebrate Hitchens, we are celebrating his talents as a writer, his honesty with others, and his relentless, if terribly imperfect, pursuit of truth.Report

    • I’m actually not so sure of his interest in truth or his honesty, even before his turn towards neoconservatism — but certainly much of his Iraq writing was nasty propaganda well below his capacities, if not his history. I think if you remove his anti-theist work there’s little to recommend him besides his raw talents as a writer and speaker, which were often extraordinary. And I think the anti-theist work was really admirable more for what it meant to many people than its own intellectual merit.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      Agreed.  We should count on writers to be wrong; he did it well.  Many writers were wrong about Iraq in various ways. It’s certainly (in my view) a knock on his record, but I don’t think it’s something that hangs on his legacy in a way that clouds the entire thing.  It’s quite myopic to see it this way, and I half think that many those who do must have only became aware of him shortly before he took the position, so that it came to define him for them in a way that shuts out his greater record.  I hope if nothing else, those who say that the Iraq episode defined this man’s legacy as a writer on a scale equal to everything else he did, which seems to be the point of this post, either have made that assessment in full awareness of just what the corpus of work it is that they are balancing this past decade’s work against, or else now go and familiarize themselves with it.

      I also think it is ridiculously overstated to say that writers such as him, with no particular connection to the government (unlike party organs such as the National Review which straightforwardly propagandize for whatever is the mainstream Republican policy or political imperative of the moment, and thus act effectively as a communications arm of the government when their party is in power), actually bear responsibility for the decision to wage war.  That responsibility lies with government officials.  Professional public writers who offer their earnestly held view are not literally responsible for decisions made by actual officeholders merely because those decisions are in accord with the views they expressed.  To have expressed an opinion about a war that was proposed and executed by a government that he had no connection to of any kind is not to have done “unforgivable harm.”  Yes, a writer can be forgiven for getting something wrong, even advocacy for a war: in fact it’s a stretch to say it was even he who caused the harm.  Even among liberal hawks in the journalistic community, the extent to which his advocacy was actually decisive in lending leftish legitimacy to the enterprise was limited.  George Packer springs to mind.  Bill Keller.  As great as he was, it’s a mistake to think Hitchens had the establishment influence that these figures did.  And that’s due precisely to what we admire about him: he hadn’t kissed nearly enough asses, or rings, for that.Report

      • I think this is more the myth of Hitchens than the reality. He was friends with Wolfowitz, had Scalia over for dinner parties (among countless other elites); he was well known as a social climber and for being relentlessly ambitious, had Chertoff swear him in when he gained his citizenship, found himself, in the wake of his Iraq support, suddenly constantly on TV — CNN, Fox, HBO, etc.  — and I guarantee you that far, far more people knew Chris Hitchens than Bill Keller or George Packer. And I think writers and public intellectuals do have significant influence, but that’s a bigger convo.Report

        • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Elias Isquith says:

          It is, and you might be right.  If I do not understand his influence entirely, then perhaps it right to say he was literally responsible in part for the war.  Surely this still pales compared to the role of government decision makers.  And I still believe that his record from prior to this era is not being fully considered by those who insist on seeing his work as being defined by Iraq more than by all the rest.  There is a lot that come before, not least on Israel and Palestine.Report

  4. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    Not quite sure how I missed this until now, but great post Elias.  I am most struck by how each of us approaches the same man from not only different viewpoints, but regarding different and (largely) unrelated parts of his whole.

    A mistake we make with most people, I think, is to view them from such a narrow scope.  As I get older, I find that we are all more complicated than we like to think.

    Mostly though, the firs thing: great post.Report