Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Your Powers Are Weak, Old Man

Christopher Hitchens resolved to debate straw, bragged on how he was going to destroy straw, spent many days carefully baling and arranging straw, then, in the end, was soundly thrashed by straw. How pathetic.

Yes, straw. George Galloway, while a formidable debator, is perhaps the last person I'd want to represent my side on any issue. Galloway's a bruiser but is too questionable a character, with too checkered a past, to be representative. Yet that is precisely why Hitchens is drawn to him: easy pickings, Hitch thought.

He should have known better. Hitchens was beaten in an impromptu debate with Tariq Ali two years ago, and beaten slightly less well by the mild Mark Danner in a formal debate around the same time. But time has not been kind to Hitchens's arguments -- flawed from the start -- and his stubborness and truculence compounds his weakness.

My concern here, then, is not Galloway (though he scored some great shots) but with Hitchens's case: not just with his pro-war stance, but with his general about-face. I'm not one of those snotball creepy little wingnuts/"liberals" whose first acquaintence with Hitchens's writing came from reading his degraded pieces in Slate. You know, like, say, Michael J. Totten. I read Hitchens before he was a neocon hack.

Full video of the debate is here.

Unofficial transcript, by what can be called in the kindest sense of the phrase a useful idiot, is here; God bless him for his hard work even though he did it for the wrong reasons.

Iraq had lost its sovereignty as far as a state can do under international law. There are four conditions under which a state may be deemed or said to have sacrificed its sovereignty. These are: if it participates in regular aggressions against neighboring states or occupations of their territory; if it violates all the letter and spirit of the terms of the nonpre, pre, excuse me, the non-proliferation treaty, and in other words, fools around promiscuously with the illegal acquisition of weapons of mass destruction; third, if it should violate the Genocide Convention, the signatories to which are obliged without further notice to act either to prevent or punish genocide; and fourth, if it plays host to international gangsters, nihilists, terrorists, and jihadists.

A minor point on hypocrisy, first. The United States has, at various times since signing the genocide conventions, been guilty of each of Hitchens's listed infractions. Now that does not mean I imply moral equivalance -- we have had no one personally comparable to Saddam to lead us -- but I do assert legal similarity. Hitchens, author of a wonderful book making the case against Henry Kissinger, knows what I mean. But would he propose that even during the darkest days of "Dr." Kissinger's and Tricky Dick's leadership, the US had lost all claims to sovereignty? If not, why not?

More hypocrisy: Hitchens's Dear Leader, George W. Bush, prosecutor of his beloved Iraq War, is steadfastly opposed to uniform application of international law, especially protocols which would provide for the prosecution of war criminals. I speak of this adminstration's virulent hatred of the International Criminal Court. Now why in the fuck should anyone believe that it's wise to allow a proven hater and active opponent of international law make war enforce international law? I suspect that Hitchens would reply, "irony", which stinks of the old "only Nixon could go to China" argument that Hitchens himself used to abhor.

he gives me the opportunity to say that I've been a life-long supporter of the reunification of Ireland, and with Edward Said in the early years of the intifada, as early as '86, published a book as you can still get from New Left Books/Verso, called Blaming the Victims about the, the struggle for the full establishment of Palestinian rights.

And yes it's true that I was an opponent of the last Gulf War, I don't know why anyone thought that to make such a point was a point against me. I dare I say I might not have been invited here, in this, this "Battle of the Titans" if it wasn't tolerably well known that I think I was probably mistaken on that occasion.

Here he's responding to Galloway's use of Hitchens's leftist past to score rhetorical points. So far as I know, Ali was the first to do it publicly, if only to satsify his own curiosity as to whether Hitchens had gone "completely David Horowitz on us". This sort of attack simply must be done. In crucial ways, Hitchens has revised himself. He admits to revision with regard to Iraq I, but is loathe to admit that his attitude -- which he refuses to recant -- to Vietnam, Ireland, Algeria, Palestine also contradicts his current stance.

These people are not pacifists, ladies and gentlemen, nor are they anti-imperialists. If you haven't noticed, they called for the restoration of the lost empire, the caliphate, and the imposition of Sharia law on all non-believers within its borders. That's not pacifism, that's not anti-imperialism. And to praise the people who do this...

It's almost as funny as Michael Moore saying that the Zarqawi'ite resistance in Iraq, for him, the same as the Minute Men of the American revolution.

I am sick to fucking death of this argument. It gains a lot of traction in wingnut circles, and Hitchens is its most vocal and consistent advancer. Look, the military estimates that about only 5 to 10 percent of the resistance is of foriegn origin. And how many unreconstructed Ba'athists could there be? Hitchens would have you believe that the only people in Iraq who resist, in one way or another, the occupation of their soil by Americans (whom they suspect, rightly, of having an interest in a puppet government) are nutcase bin ladenists or Saddamists. This is a fantastic slander on all Iraqis, especially with the poll numbers on how many want US out of their country ASAP. Even Hitchens's beloved Bush has publicly admitted that no one likes to be occupied, and Army brass has repeatedly stated that the initial slander on the resistance -- that it was all Ba'athists -- was a fabrication. Goddamn you, Hitchens, use some empathy! Imagine your relatives raped and murdered in Abu Ghraib, and you'll hate to the core those who did it -- or can you only imagine that when Saddam is the culprit?

Galloway counters by speaking of the Algerian resistance techniques used against the French. Of course, despite the tantalising fact that the French were the target of such violence, a reference like this means nothing to wingnuts whose beloved tanks and bombers are, by their logic, the only proper means of killin'. But to Hitchens, Galloway's criticism is lethal: Hitchens supported the Algerians. Again, refer back to the Hitchens-Ali exchange. When a movement must resist colonialism, yet has no "civilised" weaponry, guerilla tactics and "terrorism" is the only recourse. Every country in its infancy has done it. On the other hand, this doesn't excuse suicide bombing of civilians, vile no matter who does it. But how can it be right that the Viet Cong and the FLN engaged in terrorist acts to win self-determination, but wrong that Iraqis do it? Obviously, it can't be. Thus Hitchens "solves" his contradiction by smearing the whole Iraqi resistance as bin Ladenist.

And the full intent of that, the full intent of that was, and I'll say it to it, yes, yes in Fallujah was to establish a Taliban-regime and a safe-house for al-Qaeda recruiting. That's what we were facing. You think you can fight that without casualties? You're irresponsible, you're ahistorical. We take, on this side of the house, without conditions, we take our side with the struggle of the Iraqi democratic and secular left against fascism, we make no apology.

This is very smooth indeed; now who's excusing atrocities?

The French claim in Algeria was that Algeria was part of France, Algerie Francaise. We do not say Iraq Americain, Iraq Anglais, we don't.

Oh, lord. It's shit like this that has finally convinced me that Hitchens isn't merely misguided, but that he's arguing in bad faith. He knows full well that we didn't say "American Guatemala" or "American Chile" or "American Vietnam", either, but we damn well behaved as if that were the case. Indeed, our track record is so reprehensible in this regard that the obvious default position for anybody in the world who cares to think is to assume that America will be interested in pupperty and imperialism. In fact, that's why some of us opposed the war to begin with. In fact, that's why most people in the world, especially those with long memories, don't like us and probably never will.

Um, I have written that I think both Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush, um, insulted not just their own electorates, but everyone in the world, by preferring to, uh, shall we say, frighten people, uh, preferring to frighten them than to educate and enlighten them and I have written that repeatedly and I believe it very much. I think that a good cause has been greatly disfigured by that, by those political deformities.

I read everything Hitchens writes: the above statement is disingenuous at best. The man insisted that there were WMDs in Iraq long after even freepers had been embarassed by the claim. Far from being critical of the "scare them into compliance" tactic of Blair and Bush, Hitchens was one of its chief enablers.

just as I am not personally responsible for creating 100,000 al-Qaeda fighters, nor am I here as someone who can answers questions on behalf of the Bush administration, rather to the contrary. Um, the, it's, it's, it's a single issue question with me. I think the president was right to do what the previous president and vice-president, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, had only promised to do, and what the United States Senate had only voted to do, which was to move Iraq into the post-Saddam Hussein era.

Here we have a cowardly dodge of responsibility -- this from a man who carefully stretched the onus of reponsibility over the anti-war crowd to include complicity in or appeasement of everything that Saddam Hussein ever did. Then, almost accidentally, he confesses to monomania. Nope, none of the bunglings and fuck-ups of the Bushies are Hitchens's responsibility. None of it matters except that Bush removed Saddam. Here we see the worst part of radicalism: the desire to do anything so long as it's done. How it's done is immaterial.

Yet I suspect Hitchens would find that last criticism a compliment, so let me modify it. Hitchens likes to think of anything radical ("revolutionary") to be superior. So it's not radicalism at fault here: it's facile, superficial radicalism and its attendent abdication of responsibility. In reality, Hitchens has championed, shamelessly, the cause of deliberately not thinking things through.

That has run an elaborate method of concealment, uh, that offered to Mr. Tariq Aziz, Mr. Galloway's best friend, I think he told the Senate Subcommittee, he said best friend or very close friend. A man he has met twelve times, spent Christmas with, Mr. Tariq Aziz

I have no idea if Galloway met with Aziz, and don't really care for the purposes of this post. But I think it's important to point out that Hitchens has scored political cheap shots with this shit before. I recall him flaming the Vatican's foriegn ministry for doing the same thing, yet he is curiously silent when reminded that Donald fucking Rumsfeld met with Saddam Hussein and his entourage (which would presumably include Aziz) under very friendly circumstances. Rumsfeld's, and other crooks in this adminstration's, diplomacy interludes with Saddam is a much more crucial point.

That's we know that at least 20% of the population considers this resistance to be a fascist pest and have committed their heroic armed forces, because there is a rebel army in Iraq. There is a peoples' army, there is a guerilla force in Iraq, it is called the Peshmurga, it's the peoples' liberation army of Kurdistan, and it fights on our side.

Now he quotes polls. And he thinks they are to his favor.

Anyway, about the Kurds. The only reason the Kurds are not much of a part of the resistance is because they think, mistakenly IMO, that they will get a better deal from complying with colonialism than they would fighting it. Not that the Kurds trust us -- how could they, after what Henry Kissinger colluded with the Shah to do to them? -- but they no doubt have pleasant memories of the no-fly-zone era, when they were protected from Saddam but had a large degree of autonomy and self-determination (and how did the no-fly-zones work so well, Hitchens? Because there was no fucking puppet then). The 20 percent Hitchens cites in the polls, I feel safe in guessing, is Kurdish. Of course they will say, jockeying for power, that the resistance is fascist. The resistance is Arab, whom the Kurds distrust and intensely dislike.

In other words, relative Kurdish contentment with the US presence is not due to some high-mindedness or inherent ethnic virtue, but simple and flexible realpolitik and tribal self-interest (two things Hitchens despises). The minute the Kurds lose their relative over-representation in the quasi-government, they'll instantly become, in Hitchens's blanket slander, "jihadis".

If it had been up to grand ayatollah Sistani, and if you're right, if it had been up to my advice too. Mr. Paul Bremer would have had to call elections much earlier than he did and so he should have done, and make a transfer of sovereignty much sooner than he did and so he should have done. But we have no reason to doubt that the forces that favor this transition to a federal democratic system in Iraq where no one group rules by violence or terror, or by dictatorship.

Amazing. Even though Hitchens admits that there is glaring evidence that the US was none too interested in even "officially" changing the terms of sovereignty -- in giving the Iraqis the freedom this whole operation was allegedly fought for -- he says there's no reason to suspect bad faith. No wonder he can't fathom the true motives and desires of the majority of Iraqis who want us the fuck out of there.

Shame on the people, shame on the people who call this a liberation movement.

Fuck. You.

This is just blindness. Iraq is composed of three peoples who don't like each other and have no reason to form a common government. Centrifugal forces are inevitable in such a scenario, and only brutal centralising force, in the form of Saddam then, in the form of the occupying army now, can keep these people together in such a false, unwanted political construction. Hitchens, like many anti-orientalists, refuses, or is incapable, of seeing beyond his own pluralist dogma and therefore actively supports policies which ultimately thwart their right to self-determination. He thinks they are stupid or evil if they choose secession rather than federalism. I think there can be democracy in Iraq, but it won't be of Iraq. It'll be three separate countries.

I would caution people from adopting a zero sum mentality in this respect...

But I will have to add, that for people to start pumping out propaganda before the bodies have even been uncovered in New Orleans saying, and to make points, demagogic often, they wouldn't be dead if they weren't black. But people haven't been identified yet, whose parents don't know where they are. And to say this wouldn't have happened if we weren't wasting money on Arabs? That, that is an appeal to the most base, provincial, isolationist, and chauvinist mentality.

This is where dogmatic internationalism strains to the breaking point. Hitchens has always been this way; it's the Trotskyist in him. Well, I'm glad to say I've always rejected that belief. Hitchens would no doubt say then that I dont qualify as a democratic socialist, but I beg to differ. In fact, there is a pre-Stalinist tradition which Hitchens knows full well applies: the right opposition, Bukharinism.

To whom does a national government owe its first allegiance? The answer is, from whom it is composed and by whom it derives its power: its own populace. This is common sense, yet Hitchens calls it provincialism.

Hitchens ravaged John Kerry on similar grounds before the election. Kerry had argued that, what with the government's current fiscal crisis and the need of new American firehouses, it was wrong to take money from such projects for the sake of Iraqi firehouses. Of course his point also alluded to the myriad reconstruction scandals -- another Bush achievement Hitchens constantly defends -- but the obvious logic was powerful: it is ultimately a zero sum game. Except to Hitchens who, in that case too, let it hang heavily in the air that anyone who disagreed with his version of "international solidarity" was a vicious, bigoted nationalist pig.

But speaking of deviations from standard socialist doctrine, Hitchens here is an apostate in a far worse way than even the bigoted, vicious nationalists in his imagination could be when he begins to excuse the spectacular racism in the federal "reponse" to Katrina. The Guardian summed it up well:

But it was Hitchens who made the greater gaffe when he implied, to howls of disbelief, that race played no part in those who perished in Hurricane Katrina, and that George Bush could not have helped the victims because he was obstructed by state officials. At this point he might have taken his cue from Liston, who spat out his mouthpiece as the bell tolled for the seventh round against Muhammad Ali, declaring "That's it". But he soldiered on. Having lost the audience he then turned on them. "I'm just reminding you that you're on telly," he said. "I just hope your friends and relatives aren't watching."


Anyway, then Amy Goodman rather diplomatically asked Hitchens if he thought his whoring for the Bushies had paid off in TV time, other means of notoriety, and financially. Hitchens answered this in the negative pretty elegantly; put less kindly, he knew he was had. Then, after laughably denying being a mouthpiece and enabler of the Bushies, he attempted to explain his motivation for making common cause with American reactionaries while becoming an apologist for imperialism:

since even from the chair there was a question about my motive in this, and I think I can describe it fairly simply. It was rather fairly put in fact by my great antagonist Harold Meyerson, editor of the American Prospect in a recent article. He said, "Mr. Hitchens' motivation for being involved in this appears to be his old friendship and solidarity with the secular Iraqi Kurdish left forces." Well that's nice, because just for once someone's got it right how it was that I made some new friends, didn't lose the old ones unless they wanted to desert me,

Aside the self-serving conclusion, this is true. But it's an incomplete truth. Hitchens's own website links to (and apparently approves of) this explanation of his motives: it too is incomplete though useful, but unlike Hitchens's own explanation, wasn't solely created to serve the dual purposes of self-aggrandisement and obfuscation. So, I offer my list of reasons:

1. Hitchens hates religion to the same degree and with the same style that Robert Welch hated communism. He's a fanatic. And Islam is the religion that he reserves for special scorn, partly because of the awful fatwah issued by the Ayatollah Khomieni against Hitchens's friend Salman Rushdie, and partly because, I suspect, Islam is "eastern" and therefore alien. Hitchens has a lot of the "West is the Best" snotty form of ethnocentrism in him: on the edge of some of his commentary (if you know where to look; I suggest in his writings on Pakistan) can be heard the flared-nostril sneering of the classic pith-helmeted British overlord.

2. Bravado. Hitchens sees debate as war. If I may engage in some pop psychology, I also see in his unhinged tones of late a bizarre unfortunate tribute in the form of filial piety. Hitchens deeply admired his father, a Royal Navy commander. He has frequently stated that when his father helped to sink a fascist (Nazi) vessel, he accomplished more than Hitchens ever could. I think this has something to do with Hitchens seeing fascism beyond even what socialists like us by nature normally see. Hence, his popularising of the now banal phrase "islamofascism". Now islamists are encumbered by the doublewhammy: they are "fascist" as well as religious, how easy they are to hate! And in railing against them, he's flattering -- or competing with -- his father's exploits.

Hitchens subscribes to the Leninist school of debate, which could be called "exterminationist". I dont think that's a bad thing, though it's certainly gruesome when practiced by the likes of, say, David Horowitz. The problem is that when events go badly for Leninist debators, they tend to desperation. Hence Hitchens's circulations of the "other side"/"objectively pro-Saddam" slurs agains the anti-war movement. But not only that, to tie it to the macho shit (and someone else made this point in a good essay not long ago. I can't remember who), Hitchens is notorious for calling people cowardly who do not immediately decide which argument to buy, or worse, people who decide that the internal conflicts of another country are none of their business. To Hitchens, isolationists are the scum of humanity. All this he rather gives away in unguarded periods when he writes of the allure of the action and "tough decisions" of foriegn policy making, and the relative dreariness of domestic concerns. Even when Hitchens was a genuine leftist he rarely had anything specifically useful to say about helping liberal causes inside this country.

3. Deification of Orwell. This one's tricky, because admiring Orwell is a great and necessary thing. But Hitchens using Orwell for this crusade is simply without proportion or judgement. Hitchens (and thereafter, every hackish, allegedly non-conservative pro-war writer from the much dread Michael J. Totten to the genuinely execrable Glenn Reynolds) has frequently quoted this passage of Orwell's:

PACIFISM The majority of pacifists either belong to obscure religious sects or are simply humanitarians who object to the taking of life and prefer not to follow their thoughts beyond that point. But there is a minority of intellectual pacifists whose real though unadmitted motive appears to be hatred of western democracy and admiration of totalitarianism. Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writings of younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.

No doubt Orwell had a point. There's also no doubt that this is Orwell at his most irresponsible. That there are dubious or opportunistic pacifists is a fact, but since pacifism is an entirely noble and fragile belief, it's a shitty thing indeed to inculcate a knee-jerk macro-dismissal of those who claim to follow it. This is exactly what Orwell's commentary does. I'm hostile in principle to the charge of giving ammo to the enemy, but here is the finest instance I can think of as an exception. What Orwell did was provide a perfectly Inquisitional riot act for war-mongers to read to any pacifist, genuine or not. And if I recall correctly, Orwell himself acknowledged his error and disowned the offending passage, if not the thought -- that fake pacifists exist -- behind it.

3. Mutated Trotskyism. The internationalism uber alles attitude remains, but the original reasons -- class war -- for that strategy are jettisoned. This is how Hitchens can straightforwardly defend war profiteers (his sneers become more pronounced when Halliburton is mentioned; how I wish Leon Trotsky were around to opine on that), reconnoiter Vegas with Randroid fuckfaces, snarl at anti-globalisation agitators, defend to the bitter end a President far more guilty of the assorted domestic crimes and corruptions for which Hitchens hated Bill Clinton, and do no small part in enabling an authoritarian movement in America that is as overtly religious (is that irony, Hitch?) as any in the last hundred years.

4. Hitchens is congenitally incapable of acknowledging trade-offs. He didnt and doesn't want to hear that the allegedly leftist Iraq operation, when prosecuted by a stereotypical American reactionary (and under the pre-conditions of post 9-11 hysteria) was bound to result in a heavy blow to the cause of leftism inside America. He refuses to admit that the Bushies have motives for being in Iraq which no leftist, not even Hitchens in his current state of degradation, could admire. He refuses to admit that he's enabling a capital punishment (long Hitchens's sole domestic pet cause, upon which he has written eloquently and frequently) enthusiast for the sake of his Iraq War. He refuses to admit that he's enabled the most authoritarian federal regime inside America since Reagan's (whom Hitchens hated for good reason). He refuses to admit he's enabled a sorry lot that gets some of its best thrills from gutting environmental protections.

Some of us were cautious enough to know that the trade was the United States's health for the promise -- surely to be broken -- of Iraq. That's exactly what we got. Hitchens, who had a great talent, contributed to this loss and refuses all responsibility for it. Fuck him and the elephant he climbed up on. Let them both choke on straw.

*Update: I added some links.

Also, greetings, readers of Shakespearessister and Jay in Baltimore. Hitchens's turn to the dark side is a pet theme of mine; if you like this post, I have another.