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Hitch-22: A Review
Submitted by Marcus on Fri, 2012-07-27 08:02
I have just read Christpher Hitchen’s memoir Hitch-22. In fact I listened to it on audiobook as it was read by Hitchens himself and I thought it was going to be a real treat hearing from the man again after his death. Unfortunately it wasn’t. Authors are not usually good at reading their own work and Hitchens was no exception. He spoke too quickly and often mumbled his words. He lists one of his worst traits as impatience and it showed: he sounded bored at times and was animated in places where the content seemed trivial. He talked about word games for example he liked to play with his literary friends over the years such as Martin Amis and Salmond Rushdie, not just once but throughout the book. Not only does he relish talking about these games, childish though they are, he repeats the same jokes twice. Not just in passing but with extensive lists. One game involved replacing the word love in the title of a book or song with the words “hysterical sex”. The first time he relates this it is mildly amusing. The second time he does it, it becomes mildly disturbing. He literally takes up space by listing about forty titles with the word hysterical sex transplanted in them. His particular favourites were “Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera” and “Hysterical Sex Is All You Need”.
Knowing him mostly from his TV debates I came to this book with a high expectation of the man who fought his corner so well against the followers of religion and the opponents of US interventionism. Half way through the book though I couldn’t help feeling that he was an incredible snob too. Here was one of those publicly educated pretentious posers who are so in abundance in British high society. So it was with some surprise that I learned that Hitchens parents were not wealthy at all but sacrificed their own comfort to pay for their two sons to attend a prestigious public school, Leys School in Cambridge, in order that they could enter the upper classes. Respect! He reveals later in an interview that he picked up his left-wing ideology at school because he felt like an outsider and he wanted to challenge the establishment views he encountered there. This answer chimes well with another of his stated vices which is getting into arguments just for fun of it to counter boredom.
He engages in a Proust inspired quiz of himself which he always felt was lacking in memoirs in order to better illuminate his character. For example:
One thing became clear to me here is that he loved books. In fact he devoured them whole whether they were non-fiction, literature or poetry. Not just that he absorbed them into a phenomenal memory, but that he could seemingly quote any obscure text at will. This may sound like a cultural stereotype, but his abilities seemed less mysterious to me when I learned Hitchens was half-Jewish. More surprising though is that he did not discover this fact until he was 38 years old, having being raised a Christian. His Jewish mother never revealed to him the fact of his heritage before her untimely suicide when he was 24. By this time however he had inherited some unorthodox political positions too, such as being an anti-Zionist and embracing the “plight” of the “occupied” Palestinians.
His socialist ideology is in general anathema to many of the views he would famously become associated with. People on SOLO might be quite surprised to find that he was a devout follower of Marx and Trotsky until the end, but dismissed Atlas Shrugged as if it were a piece of inferior pulp fiction. At least you can say Hitchens was always honest and gave his opinions straight without any bullshit.
His early career in England as a journalist with the New Statesman found the fresh-faced Hitchens a left-wing internationalist who travelled from one revolutionary hotspot to the next. From the newly formed Castro government in Cuba to the prague spring in Czechoslovakia and the solidarity movement in Poland. He tried to join the mainstream Labour Party too, but never quite fit in. His lifetime hero being George Orwell, he describes how tyrannical these regimes were. In Cuba his passport was taken off him and he had stay within a compound. When he tried to stray outside of it he was reprimanded. When he cynically asked his hosts where the socialist utopia lay, they told him there was a small village some miles off where the perfect society was already in action. Not surprisingly Hitchens never found it.
In 1981, when a girlfriend of his left for New York he decided to join her. He started writing for the Nation in the US with his usual international bent. I am reminded of how George Galloway said to Hitchens in a debate post 9/11 that once Hitchens had been a beautiful butterfly, but now he had become a slug in reverse. I must remind myself that to the left-wing anti-war movement he had been a butterfly. He disliked Thatcher for her ruthlessness and thought Reagan to be a serial liar. He didn’t have much truck with the Clintons or Bushes either, disliking George HW more than George W. At this time Hitchens also became great friends with US liberal luuvies such as Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and Edward Said.
However 9/11 changed all that. Suddenly Christopher Hitchens was thrust onto a different stage, and would inaccurately become known as a “neo-con”. Outraged by the WTC attack he wrote an article entitled, “my country up or down” echoing George Orwell’s essay “my country right or left” which gave justification to a fierce patriotism when his country was under attack by savages.
He also decided to formerly become an American Citizen. The gaining of his citizenship was quite a mundane and boring experience however, involving much bureaucratic hoop jumping.
However when he bumped into the homeland secretary Michael Chertoff after the dry formalities were over he asked him for a personal citizenship ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial on his 58th birthday (and Jefferson’s 264th). He got it.
Hitchens dealing with the Iraq war and how he fell out with his former anti-war comrades over his support for it is really the best part of the book. Hitchens explains how he had visited the country himself in the past and was appalled by the ruthless regime he saw there. So much so that he always maintained that Saddam needed to go and that he would welcome the opportunity to help with that when it came.
I came away from hearing this part of the book actually feeling ashamed for even having taken the anti-war rhetoric seriously. From claiming that the US was only interested in the oil reserves to asserting that the Bush administration (so clever for once) had planned the 9/11 attack to justify the invasion of Iraq there was no depths to which they wouldn’t stoop.
He writes too about having visited Iraq after the invasion whereby American and British troops were being genuinely cheered on by crowds of Iraqi well-wishers thankful for being freed from Saddam’s rule.
I was surprised that missing from the book were Hitchens’ recent battles with religion. Indeed all mention of Richard Dawkins is relegated to just a few sentences. The remaining “four horsemen of the atheist movement” as they are known are barely mentioned. His debates on religion and the book “God is not great” are not mentioned at all. I can only assume he thought that he had already covered this material elsewhere.
So has Hitchens been vindicated by this book published in 2009 before his tragic death? Yes he has due to his uncompromising stance in defending the US against her enemies since 9/11. Who else would have stepped into the breach to point out the moral flaws of those who tried to belittle her enemies, and did not need to invoke God or flag waving in order to do it? Hitchens has an eloquent way with words that sticks in the mind long afterwards. As an author, journalist, political commentator, debater and media personality he indeed made his mark upon the world. His death last year was duly mourned and did not pass unnoticed on either side of the Atlantic. He was not a libertarian or objectivist hero; prepare to be disabused of that notion, but his legacy of belittling dictatorships will now pass on into immortality like his hero George Orwell. And perhaps they’ll get the point?
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