In 1987 Russell Jacoby published a mournful elegy to untamed public intellectuals. He argued that the unruly, iconoclastic thinkers that had dominated the New York intellectual scene well into the 1950s were a disappearing species. They had a literary cast of mind; they knew how to write about large scale questions in a way accessible to an educated public without obfuscating their texts with unintelligible academic lingo. They were not domesticated by the perks of academia, think tanks and public grants. They were irreverent and value driven.
Well, there is good news. The above is a perfect description of Christopher Hitchens. Gifted with a phenomenal memory, with the ability to form sentences that give the reader the pleasures of linguistic precision combined with watching a good knock-out punch, Hitchens is exactly the untamed public intellectual that Jacoby mourned.
Hitch 22 is Hitchens' long-awaited memoir. It will disappoint those who have waited for scandalous gossip both about Hitchens' own private life and that of his famous friends, of who he has many. I cannot remember having found out much about either that I didn't know from earlier portrayals of Hitches, of whom quite a few have been published. Some critics have complained that he doesn't write about his wives and children or about his affairs. Well: he doesn't write about those of others either.
Hitch 22 will delight those who want to follow the journey of a belligerent public intellectual who tries to keep his moral compass intact through the vast historical transitions of the last third of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first.
Famously (or notoriously, if you wish), Hitchens has been accused of having abandoned his Trotskyist comrades, particularly after 9/11, when he went on a crusade against what he called 'fascism with an Islamist face', and even more so when he backed George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq. Some thought that he did so because he wanted to be loyal to his new homeland, the United States. Other simply thought that the remarkable quantities of alcohol that he had imbued over his life had blunted his mind.
Personally I had little sympathy for Hitchens' support of the Iraq invasion. I thought that he had lost both his moral compass and his political judgment, because it was so obvious that George W. Bush's doctrines were taking America in a disastrous direction that combined unilateralism, overestimation of America's power to change the world and the trampling of human rights ranging from Abu Ghraib to Guantanamo.
Hitch 22 has made me reconsider, if not George W. Bush, whom I continue to consider an unadulterated catastrophe for the US and the world, at least Hitchens' motivations for what looked like a political U-turn. Hitchens has been trying, throughout his life as a public intellectual, to maintain something that sounds rather simple but is dauntingly difficult: a sense of what moral decency could mean in politics.
He was a Trotskyist because he wanted to adhere to socialist ideals without subscribing to Soviet totalitarianism. But he derided the European left's impotence when it came to issues like intervening in Kosovo, after it had looked on, with much handwringing, at the atrocities of Bosnia but without mustering any political will to actually do something.
Hitchens' crusade (and I use this term on purpose) against political Islam began long before 9/11. He was pulled into it very personally through Khomeini's fatwa in 1989 against his close friend Salman Rushdie , who had to live undercover for years because he was under real threat (some of his translators and publishers were killed). And indeed this affair is what made Hitchens find his voice to the fullest. He writes that when he came to know about the fatwa:
"I felt at once that there was something that completely committed me. It was, if I can phrase t like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. 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." (p 268)
Hitchens should have added 'cowardice' on the hate column and 'courage' on the love column. Hitchens is famous for his ire against those he condemns or despises. This anger came out with full moral force and sheer disdain against the many writers who cowered when asked to come out in favor of Rushdie, and even more towards those who insinuated that Rushdie had almost deserved the fatwa because he had overstepped the line of politically correct respect for Muslim sensitivities.
The Rushdie affair was the point at which he gradually ceased to see the left as his political home, because the left, particularly in Europe, was curiously blind to the forces of political Islam. Hitchens kept calling Western intellectuals to task because, in their post-colonial eagerness to embrace anything non-Western, they began to team up with radical Islamist in what was to become an unholy red-green coalition. He even risked his deep friendship with Edward Said, because he could not accept that Said closed both eyes to the fact that radical Islamists were high-jacking the Palestinian cause.
Hitchens is a modern political intellectual but he is also an old fashioned moralist. He goes after hypocrisy, bigotry, cruelty and narrow-mindedness with unbridled fury and often with great courage. He blasted Kissinger long enough with accusations to force Kissinger into taking legal steps against him - and his lawyers withdrew the case when they saw that Hitchens was likely to win.
What turned Hitchens from a political writer known primarily to insiders to an international celebrity was his book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, in which he joined Dawkins, Dennett and Harris in the new Atheist's counterattack on religion. Hitchens, less bound by academic etiquette than his fellow atheists, produced a book built less on systematic argument than on scintillating prose pulling every trick in the bag. He delights in attacking religious figures venerated even by politically correct agnostics like Mother Theresa and former Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
Readers who want a grand tour through the moral issues of world politics in the last four decades will enjoy Hitch 22. I would hope that reading the book would lead them to my favorite collection of Hitchens' pieces, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere; because in the latter book Hitchens' great love, literature is at the center rather than his favorite hate-objects ranging from Clinton and Kissinger to political Islam.
I may not agree with all of Hitchens' political positions, but I cherish his voice, an unlikely combination of phenomenal erudition; uncanny memory that includes details about obscure political conflicts in forgotten corners of the earth; commitment to nothing but his moral intuitions; disdain for the timidities of political correctness; and finally a deep love for precise literary expression.
In an age where too many pundits are anxious not to offend allies in their own camp and not to take too many risks with their opponents, Hitchens is a reminder of the irreplaceable role of the untamed intellectual .