A striking number of the many tributes to the late Christopher Hitchens contain in them something about having a, “difference of opinion”, with him “on certain issues”. In many cases this is a euphemistic way of referring to Hitchens’ support for the Iraq war.
Glossing over his active support for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people as a mere “difference of opinion”, does not give enough credit to the importance of Hitchens’ words and actions. What’s more, considering that having a different opinion was what he was famous for, if we are to honor his combative rhetorical spirit, we cannot go soft on him now, just because he’s dead.
After calling for the trial of Henry Kissinger on war crimes, to accept George W. Bush’s invitation to the white house, and stand arm in arm with Wolfowitz was a hypocrisy of the first order. He seemed, but I suspect was not, unaware that to launch a war of aggression was considered by the Nuremberg Tribunal to be “not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Acknowledging this would render Hitch’s common evasion – that it was not America or her allies that did the majority of the killing in Iraq, but rather local militias and, as he emphasized, terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda – irrelevant. No one was accusing America of going house to house and killing some half a million people, we accused Bush and his cabal of starting that war, him of helping them, and of cheering it on once it was started.
Regarding his anti-religious writing, as an avowed atheist, I was never impressed. He brought no arguments to the table that hadn’t already been articulated one way or another by the time of Bertrand Russel. What he brought mostly was a new level of rhetorical flair, and just a dash of self-righteousness bluster.
What’s more, his pre-occupation with the issue of Muslim religious intolerance, which he erroneously painted as the main reason for the September 11 attacks, helped contribute to a climate in which racist attacks on Muslims as a whole have become commonplace. Indeed the story of Hitch is a perfect way to trace the great failures of the left during the decade of the “war on terror”.
We allowed a wedge issue to split us between those who opposed a war of imperialism, and those who thought it was their duty to stand in defense of the women and homosexuals of Iraq, or something, (despite the fact that both women and homosexuals predictably suffered terribly form the invasion, occupation and the general chaos and poverty that followed the wholesale smashing of the Iraqi state).
The defining quote, comes from a talk he gave in a church (tweeted reverentially by his fans following his untimely demise) where he says that “since september the 11th 2001, to try and help generate an opposition to theocracy, and its depredations” has been his “main political preoccupation”. This is a soft target for a real intellectual. Arguing against theocracy in the 21st century is hardly a courageous or cognitively difficult game.
Whats more it leaves him standing shoulder to shoulder with the real threat, the rising corporatism which drove the Iraq war and other imperial projects, and which drives the growing inequality even in the countries at the centre of the empire.
For when discussing a man who till the end identified himself as an avowed marxist, calling this a difference of opinion seems inadequate. Whether through intellectual or moral failure it is hard to say, but Hitch sold us out.