Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Born April 1949 Died 15 December 2011: Two Obituaries

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Of the two, the Guardian or the Telegraph, I think I prefer the Guardian, it being a bit more warts n'all than the Telegraph.

Christopher Hitchens obituary

Maverick, polemical journalist whose career was a rollercoaster of love and loathing
Peter Wilby
16 December 2011

For most of his career, Christopher Hitchens, who has died of oesophageal cancer aged 62, was the left's biggest journalistic star, writing and broadcasting with wit, style and originality in a period when such qualities were in short supply among those of similar political persuasion. Nobody else spoke with such confidence and passion for what Americans called "liberalism" and Hitchens (regarding "liberal" as too "evasive") called "socialism".

His targets were the abusers of power, particularly Henry Kissinger (whom he tried to bring to trial for his role in bombing Cambodia and overthrowing the Allende regime in Chile) and Bill Clinton. He was unrelenting in his support for the Palestinian cause and his excoriation of America's projections of power in Asia and Latin America. He was a polemicist rather than an analyst or political thinker – his headteacher at the Leys school in Cambridge presciently forecast a future as a pamphleteer – and, like all the best polemicists, brought to his work outstanding skills of reporting and observation.

To these, he added wide reading, not always worn lightly, an extraordinary memory – he seemed, his friend Ian McEwan observed, to enjoy "instant neurological recall" of anything he had ever read or heard – and a vigorous, if sometimes pompous writing style, heavily laden with adjectives, elegantly looping sub-clauses and archaic phrases such as "allow me to inform you".

His socialism was always essentially internationalist, particularly since the British working classes responded sluggishly to literature he handed out at factory gates for the International Socialists, a Trotskyist group of which he was a member from 1966 to 1976. He had little interest in social or economic policy and, in later life, seemed somewhat bemused at questions about his three children being educated privately.

Hitchens travelled widely as a young man, often at his own expense, visiting, for example, Poland, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and Argentina at crucial moments in their anti-totalitarian struggles, offering fraternal solidarity and parcels of blue jeans. Later, he rarely wrote at length about any country without visiting it, sometimes at risk of arrest or physical attack. His loathing of tyranny was consistent: unlike many of the 1960s generation, he never harboured illusions about Mao or Castro. His concerns grew about the left's selective tolerance for totalitarian regimes – as early as 1983, he ruffled "comrades" by supporting Margaret Thatcher's war against General Leopoldo Galtieri's Argentina – but they did not initially threaten a rupture in his political loyalties.

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, however, Hitchens announced he was no longer on the left – while denying he had become any kind of conservative – and "swore a sort of oath to remain coldly furious" until "fascism with an Islamic face" was "brought to a most strict and merciless account".

To the horror of former allies, he accepted invitations to the George W Bush White House; embraced the deputy defence secretary and Iraq war hawk Paul Wolfowitz as a friend ("they were finishing each other's sentences", was one account of an early meeting); and resigned from the Nation, America's foremost leftwing weekly. In 2007, after living in the US for more than 25 years, he took out American citizenship in a ceremony presided over by Bush's head of homeland security. Long friendships with the aristocracy of the Anglo-American left – Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Alexander Cockburn, Edward Said – ended in harsh exchanges. Gore Vidal once named Hitchens as his inheritor or dauphin. The relevant quotation appeared on the dustjacket of Hitch-22, Hitchens's memoir published in 2010, but was overlain by a red cross with "no, CH" inscribed beside it.

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth to parents of humble origins who progressed to the fringes of what George Orwell (a Hitchens role-model) would have termed the lower-upper-middle-classes. His father was a naval commander of "flinty and adamant" Tory views who became a school bursar. Father and son were never close; Christopher and his younger brother, Peter. The first love of Hitchens's life was his mother, "the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari". She insisted (at least according to Hitchens) he should go to boarding school because "if there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it".

He was already a Labour supporter at school, organising the party's "campaign" in a mock election, and joining a CND march from Aldermaston. At Balliol College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics, and economics, he "rehearsed", as he put it, for 1968. But he led a curiously dualistic life. By day, "Chris" addressed car workers through a bullhorn on an upturned milk crate while by night "Christopher" wore a dinner jacket to address the Oxford Union or dine with the warden of All Souls. (He did not, in fact, like being called "Chris" – his mother would not, he explained, wish her firstborn to be addressed "as if he were a taxi-driver or pothole-filler" – and found "Hitch", which most friends used, more acceptable.) While not exactly a social climber, Hitchens wished to be on intimate terms with important people.

Equally dualistic was his sex life. He was almost expelled from school for homosexuality and later boasted that at Oxford he slept with two future (male) Tory cabinet ministers. But also at Oxford, he lost his virginity to a girl who had pictures of him plastered over her bedroom wall and he eventually became a dedicated heterosexual because, he said, his looks deteriorated to the point where no man would have him. more Guardian

- - -

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, who has died aged 62, described himself as an “essayist and a contrarian” and, as a journalist, critic, war correspondent and bon vivant, enjoyed a 40-year career as one of the world’s most ubiquitous, prolific and provocative public intellectuals.

He began as a leading iconoclast of the Left and, during the 1970s, was a voluble member of a talented and raffish gang, with Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and James Fenton, which gave the New Statesman magazine its glittery literary edge. But he got tired of British politics and, in 1981, moved to America where, despite occasional disagreements with his erstwhile comrades (as when he took Britain’s side against the Argentine junta in the Falklands conflict), his repeated assaults on such hate figures as Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger continued to guarantee him a welcome in radical circles.

All this changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, an event he interpreted as a turning point in “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate”. He became an outspoken opponent of “Islamofascism”, forging a breach with the Left which became a permanent rift after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

While his erstwhile colleagues were out on the streets proclaiming “Not in Our Name” (a slogan he found nauseating in its “unstinting self-regard”), Hitchens emerged as one of the fiercest cheerleaders for George W Bush’s strategy of “regime change”. To the inevitable accusations of betrayal (George Galloway described him as the “first ever metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug”), Hitchens responded with characteristic gusto: such attacks, he said, washed off him “like jizz off a porn star’s face”.

But, as Hitchens confessed in his memoir Hitch-22 (2010), there had always been a “Janus-faced” side to his personality. When he was a child, his mother told his father, during an argument over whether they could afford to send him to private school: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it.”

At the time this was more her aspiration than his, yet Hitchens acknowledged that alongside the donkey-jacketed revolutionary “Chris”, veteran of the Aldermaston marches, there was the suave, good-looking and socially ambitious “Christopher” – “Hypocritchens”, as he was known at Balliol – who enjoyed the company of “confident young men who owned fast cars” and frequented the Union and the Gridiron Club.

The young man spraying pro-Vietcong slogans on car plant walls or marching the streets toting some insurgent flag, might, the same evening, be found at a Right-wing dining club happily gobbling up a pudding called “bombe Hanoi”. Friends later joked that the sentence least likely to emerge from Hitchens’s mouth was: “I don’t care how rich you are, I’m not coming to your party.”

Though he claimed to keep “two sets of books” when it came to political purpose and social ambition, his “Mr Both Ways” approach was as much intellectual as social. He claimed to be faithful to the values of “Left opposition” heroes, such as Rosa Luxembourg, Leon Trotsky and George Orwell, but was always too sceptical and independent-minded to fall for the tedious dogmas of mainstream Marxism – or any other “ism”.

He took pride in “asking annoying questions at every opportunity” and, as a journalist, made a point of going out to see things for himself, whether it was a war zone or a convention of Civil War re-enactors. Even at the height of student radicalism in 1968, he spotted, on a trip to Cuba, the oppressive side of the Castro revolution, acknowledging, when he found himself bombarded by showers of pebbles and the taunt “Sovietico” from the street urchins of Havana, that he had been granted a glimpse of “unscripted public opinion”.

The author or co-author of 17 books, as well as pamphlets and collections of essays, Hitchens was a prolific columnist and, particularly in America, a formidable participant in public debates. He found it difficult to see a sacred cow without lobbing a hand grenade, and his more eminent targets included Mother Teresa (whom he portrayed as a fundamentalist Catholic bigot who gladhanded totalitarian regimes and was “a friend of poverty” rather than of the poor); Bill Clinton (the subject of No-One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (1999)); and God, the subject of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007).

Hitchens’s natural pugnacity seems to have earned him grudging admiration in some unlikely quarters. In his memoir he recalled an encounter with Mrs Thatcher (whom he found “surprisingly sexy”) not long after her election to the Tory leadership; their inevitable argument ended with the future Iron Lady ordering him to bend over so that she could spank him on the bottom with a rolled-up parliamentary order paper, afterwards mouthing the words, “Naughty boy!” more Telegraph

No comments: