Story by Wesley Joost
Photos by Chris Ragalie
Christopher Hitchens is at his most obstinate tonight, his daring tongue fortified to take on the mob. It is the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture at UC Berkeley where Hitchens is scheduled to discuss war and politics with author-journalist Adam Hochschild; a warm-up event for Hitchens’s tenure next year at the UC Graduate School of Journalism. The ballroom is packed with noisy students and baby boomers filled with anti-war bile and fidgeting for their chance to take part in a political row. With his longish brown hair swept back and his trademark blue shirt open at the collar Hitchens takes to the stage. The applause is punctured with smatterings of boos and jeers, because these people, many of them long-time followers of his work, already know what he is going to say.
Hitchens -- the Hitch -- is going to tell this room full of lefties, people who have loyally read his columns in The Nation and Vanity Fair for years, that the American left-wing no longer serves the purpose of revolution and the war with Iraq does. He has quit The Nation to support U.S. intervention and make an effort to force his ex-comrades to re-evaluate themselves and see that Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Islamic fundamentalists are the enemy of the civil code, human rights, diversity, free speech and everything liberals are supposed to hold dear. Striking this controversy means he can take the debate (for Iraq and his other causes) to the mainstream media, something most writers for left-wing publications like The Nation and Mother Jones are unable to do. The Left’s reaction has been a mixed bag.
Those that came to quarrel are resonant at first as he slights the right wing and summarizes his achievements in his campaign to bring Henry Kissinger to an international trial for his crimes against humanity. Kissinger’s latest summons in Paris is something he feels his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is the catalyst for. His pink puffy cheeks cracking a sweat, he gulps down his Aquafina and recounts with relish his legal correspondece with Kissinger. Hitchens challenges Kissinger's accusation (made on television) that he is a "holocaust denier"and after many letters back and forth is granted a reluctant reversal of his statement. However, it is his original intention to have Kissinger take legal action against him for libel for the allegations made in the book. Any gentleman accused of genocide would of course insist on litigation, but at the prospect of having his papers subpoenaed Kissinger demurred.
Like a comedian who just rocked the house with a famous catchphrase, the Hitch, a firm atheist, moves onto more guaranteed comedic gold: religious fundamentalism.
"Being religious is like living in North Korea. You have endless opportunities to praise the leader and thank him for everything. There are two differences: you can defect from North Korea or die and cease existing. With religion you have to go thanking him long after you're dead. It is the slave mentality, it is contemptible and cowardly, the enemy of the intellect. And I would add that the people who preach it piss me off by being so humble about it."
In fact with this jab he is economizing with an entente strike. Yet when the hard fisted Hitchens harangues his hawkish support for the annihilation of the Hussein regime the crowd cannot stomach it.
"So glib comments about imperialism get you know where," he says, after debunking a theory that the Bush attack would be an extension of U.S. Imperialism.
"OOOOOOO . . . " chide the naysayers.
"Well, it can get you animal noises," he chides back.
“People who seek neutral and evasive opinions have no right to call themselves radicals,” he says of the Left’s ambivalence over going to war with Afghanistan. “A very large part of the Left has become a status quo force. In fact they wish this had never come up, and would like to direct the agenda back to domestic policy, perhaps prescription drugs for seniors.” “Bullshit! Bullshit!” shouts a shaggy man.
“Look, another man advertising his wares,” he retorts.
While discussing comparable regime changes in South America, a bearded young man who curiously resembles John Walker Lindh (the freshly busted era) shouts, "what about Venezuela?" over and over.
"What do you think I meant by Chavez, big boy?"
During the question-and-answer period the crowd members line up at two sides of the room for a match of verbal sparing. One man holds up a sign saying Hitchens dishonors the memory of Mario Savio and his anti war efforts in the 1960’s. They keep coming and Hitchens, a heavyweight in the debating arena, does his business, knocking them all down with precedents, facts, and personal experiences.
One of those experiences being his journey to Saddam country.
In March 1988 Iraq bombs Halabja, Kurdistan with the worst chemical attack ever inflicted on a civilian city because of its support of Iran in the 8-year-war. Five thousand people are killed, leaving an aftermath of genetic mutations and cancer. The carnage is still visible when Hitchens arrives in 1992 at the dying moment of the Gulf War and it has a profound effect on him. He has his picture taken in front of an unexploded Iraqi bomb to remind others that this happened and it was Saddam Hussein's minions who did it.
“The wounds that are afflicted by these weapons are left behind for a long time and you can still see them sizzling on the flesh of the populace,” he says.
Throughout the Gulf War he is a harsh critic, refusing to take the Bush people at their face value and suspecting their motives. Now he sees the last thing he would have expected: the Kurds developing their own autonomous government in northern Iraq as an accidental offshoot of the war. Allied planes fly over the region to safeguard it as political parties and newspapers begin to thrive below.
“The Kurds ended that war as you remember, scattered around the hillsides, starving, dispersed and dispossessed. These guys are for regime change, my Kurdish comrades are. I was for regime change long before any member of the Bush clan was and if necessary I’ll still be for it long after they give it up,” says Hitchens.
Hitchens is covering the Gulf War for “Minority Report,” his column in The Nation a publication that fueled his desire to move from England to America and eventually Washington D.C. in 1982. Around the time of the fall of the Berlin wall he stops being a faithful advocate of the left-wing and becomes more unpredictable in his attacks on establishment figures and institutions. He exposes the corruption of Mother Teresa, showing her hoarding donations and helping those in her care only to die. He expands on what is already known about Bill Clinton’s dirty deeds, showing how the Democrat uses Nixonian intimidation to silence his ex-lovers. Two years ago, while writing Letters to a Young Contrarian, a book based on real letters to students of his, he realizes he cannot steer them toward a hopeless cause. The letters ask: what should one do? What stand should one take? These questions are about the Left, and Hitchens feels that alternative is collapsed. To be a radical and a contrarian means belonging to no political party.
He makes a painful split with The Nation in September of this year because of its position against the looming war with Iraq. Like a long term relationship with a girl friend -- breaking up is hard to do.
"You have to say, I'm sorry but we're through. It did have that slightly emotional and unemotional element to it because once you're lost your feeling for somebody you've lost it," says Hitchens, adding that once they figure out there is no convincing him to stay they ask: "is there someone else?" But taking his column elsewhere is not his plan at all.
This causes The Nation columnist Katha Pollitt to challenge Hitchens in an open-letter debate. She writes: "Even Kanan Makiya, the Iraqi dissident who strongly favors invasion, admitted in a recent interview in the Boston Globe that there is only a "5 percent chance" that the aftermath will be what you'd like to see: a democratic, peaceful Iraq that respects human rights, as opposed to a US military dictatorship, an Iraqi military junta, civil war or other very bad outcome."
Hitchens is sure that any outcome is better than a torturous dictatorship that supports, or is at least supported by, fundamentalist terrorism.
"If it's not true that the Left is hopelessly soft on Saddam or wet about Bin Laden or completely undecided about North Korea that means you have a lot of work to do," Hitchens says of his return letter to Pollitt. "I think that it's not just a few people, I think the rot is quite widespread throughout the Left. It may not be true of her but the point isn't for her to say, 'you've wounded me by associating me with the others.' I say you can dissociate yourself from them too."
“Of the people who have written in about our exchange I would say 9 out of 10 support me, but Christopher would say ‘that’s The Nation that’s why I had to leave,’” Pollitt says of reader response. She adds people who read about him in the mainstream press may see things differently. “America loves the story of the God that failed, the ex-leftist who repents and bashes the left. That’s a very popular narrative.”
"I hope that's not all Katha said, because it would be her falling back on a weary old position and it would further assume that one was in flight from a quasi-religious attachment. That might have been true of her earlier politics - she used to be in some dumb Stalinist sect - but is not and has never been true of mine," replied Hitchens when told of her comment.
Michael Wolff, media critic for New York magazine feels Hitchens, who is already known for appearing on political punditry shows like Hardball and Crossfire, is gearing up to become a media star.
"At some point you have to write for the mainstream because you have to write for the mainstream, and when you find yourself with other options you take them. Clearly his politics have deviated from The Nation but I think they did a long time ago and The Nation was still happy to have him so that's not the issue. The issue is his need to do something else," says Wolff.
“The left wing doesn’t exist except for people with emotional problems," continues Wolff. "We’re a highly progressive country and most people are liberal except when they aren’t, but in terms of there being a large group of people that consider themselves a part of the left-wing, that just doesn’t exist anymore.” He adds that magazines like The Progressive and The New Republic don't have enough readership, circulation, or business to be considered relevant. "Wolff’s remarks strike me, as his work does in general, as superficial. But if I think to myself, what are people missing now, what is the great thing that could happen? -- some grand movement of social reform or political change that would require really tough Left intervention to get it going. I don’t know what it be," ponders Hitchens.
Nor does he feel his recent dip into the mainstream has changed his style.
"When I was first asked to write for Vanity Fair I thought for the first time in my life I would be paid a decent amount for an article and I would have a larger potential readership. I thought that’s nice, but there has to be a price to be paid for this. What I thought would happen is that the magazine would subtly suggest that I not used certain expressions or make it easy on the reader, which editors do even when they’re not aware of it. When I was doing my last collection of pieces for the book Unacknowledged Legislation I was surprised at how many that could go in that were from Vanity Fair. No one has ever said that Hitchens writes differently for Conde Naste because he wants the money or the fame. And you can bet that’s exactly what people would say because that’s the way they argue and think people are motivated."
British author Martin Amis, Hitchens’s best friend sense their working together at the New Statesman in the early 1970s, feels that he is not alone in his journey for a new political ground.
“I think a good fraction of an entire generation (are like Hitchens). They still feel they’re of the Left. But the far Left in reality proved to be unobtainable. They’ve backed off of that but the principles are still there. (In the past) he had to defend the Left and always had been romantic about socialism. It's been hard to let that one go. I don't think socialism ever manifested itself in a way he would have approved of," says Amis, adding his shift is consistent with his overall personality: "the word contrarian covers his disposition, a desire to go against the tide. That’s a temperamental thing that can occasionally lead him astray. So he will tend to take a minority opinion instinctively."
Hitchens doesn't feel he's alone either although there aren't many with the balls to stand side by side with him.
"I’ve certainly heard from a lot of people on the Left, mostly privately, that agree with me basically about the events of Sept. 11 and the critique I made there. And quite a number or two who have the same feeling about regime changing around. Some of them write or call me to say 'you must be having a terrible time with it, and we feel sympathetic with all you’re going through.' As if it was really dangerous for me to do it, which both amuses and depresses me because it isn’t dangerous. And it makes me think -- why have they lost their spunk? Why do they think -- I wish I could say this too but I don’t think I’m up to it. I think some of them are stuck in university departments or groups of friends where they really feel they might be isolated or scorned, or even shunned. The up side is there are a lot of them," says Hitchens.
Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive doesn't hear a stampede of people running from the Left. In fact he feels that two groups, one being hardcore Democrats who feel ripped off by Bush because of the last election and the other being far-Leftists who hate Bush period, are coming together and experiencing a time of growth. In fact The Progressive is at a record high circulation of 47,000 and The Nation is coming in strong at 130,000. The one hurdle far-Left journalists have not been able to overcome is to break into the conservative mainstream press. The idea that there is a liberal media conspiracy is ridiculous he says when one looks at the conservative talk shows that dominate TV, right-wing op-ed pages, and the corporations that own the media. The fact that a lot of Democrats work at mainstream newspapers has little pull on how they operate. Hitchens sets himself apart because he has gotten out to the mainstream, says Rothschild, but only by adapting the more conventional pro-war view.
"I take him seriously as an intellectual but the power to sway hundreds of thousands of readers? I doubt it. He influences people who don't always agree with him like me. But I'm not influenced enough to wake up in the morning and say 'oh my God, I've been living my life wrong.' I entertain his arguments and think that on the merits they deserve serious contemplation and discussion. Some people won't listen to him, because he does what I criticize him for doing, which is mischaracterizing the Left, which is more nuanced than he gives it credit for," says Rothschild.
His recent shift away from the intelligentsia of The Left into the limbo land of contrarian conservatism does resemble one man who is not afraid to have his say, satirist Dennis Miller. Miller, who used to charm the crowd at Saturday Night Live with his cranky 60's liberalism has slowly morphed himself in his eight years at HBO into an f-word loving libertarian conservative rantaholic. On his most recent appearance on Jay Leno Miller blasts the Democratic Party for deserving their big losses in the last election.
"I've noticed this too," Hitchens, who has been a guest on Dennis Miller Live, observes. "I guess it would be true for me in some ways. Yet when I work as I have recently with the Kurdish rebel opposition and Iraqi underground I feel more like a Trotskyite than if I was walking around with a placard saying give Saddam Hussein a second chance. '"
It is the night before the Savio event and Hitchens is having a drink and making the rounds on the phone at his brother-in-laws house in Palo Alto. He is gracious enough to consent to as much time as his interviewer needs even though he's jet-lagged it's almost 2 a.m. on the East Coast. But even with time to free associate he isn't the type to degenerate into random discourse, he is always, for lack of a better term, 'on message.' Guiding a Hitchens interview is like guiding a wild elephant – it will go where it wants to go. For the most part this elephant wants to march into column length answers regarding his various agendas. But with a little prodding, it's possible to get him to give an answer or two he hasn't rehearsed for the crowds who come to see him on the book tour.
Speaking of the tour, he says it's one part of being a writer he enjoys very much, and it's a great way to see the country, but he still can't say exactly who his readers are, or what they get out of him.
The Hitchens fans contacted for this article come off as cultured and educated, like Horace G. Austin, who attended the Mario Savio event. He says he has been learning much about certain authors from Hitchens's literary essays, and admires the way Hitchens travels to every country he writes about. Austin considers himself a centrist who has recently made the switch from the Democratic to the Republican Party. He doesn't feel leftist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, a rival of Hitchens, have much of an effect on popular opinion.
"Hitchens is probably more a reflection of things I've wondered about and helps 'make up my mind' on issues I haven't really heard enough about (e.g. I never really knew much of Mother Teresa other than the comforting sound bites from the corporate media). He is certainly a very good writer and much needed in the US although he seems to be a sort of Cassandra screaming out true prophecies while both the Left & Right ignore him," says Carl Christensen, a Hitchens fan who lives in Philadelphia.
So what about the light-hearted Hitchens, the one who slips in witty aside at his TV appearances?
"The element that I most like in wit or in any form of criticism or discourse is the ironic, which isn’t a way of laughing exactly but it’s a way of appreciating what ought to be meant by humor. I suppose it’s a strong sense of the absurd.
"I wouldn’t say I was anger free. I have a feeling of contempt that’s quite strongly aroused. I’m annoyed at the fact that most times when I go to the Cinema, which I very seldom do now I feel insulted. I don’t like being treated like that -- what do they take me for? Same when I watch TV, which I almost never do. And when I read a lot of the press I think, god damn, why do they think their average customer is this low? It’s an insult. That gets me going."
But Hitchens, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books would like people to know he’s not all piss and vinegar, and his new book, Why Orwell Matters, an analysis of what George Orwell means to today’s radicals, is a positive offering. “Over the years people have asked me in this rather plaintive concerned tone: well, isn’t there anyone you like? For those who don’t know me it was a fair question, they might have thought of me as someone who was permanently pissed off and resentful and looking for targets,” says Hitchens. “Actually I’m not like that. I’m pissed of at the uncritical reception of those who are thugs or frauds or fundamentalists. But I can’t believe my luck: why has everyone left this for me to do? How wonderful, I can’t believe no one has ever thought of taking another look at Mother Teresa. Now, if you want to know what kind of thing I like you can read this book. On this case I’ve insisted on the gold standard.”