The Believer

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Christopher Hitchens, Calcutta, 2001; photograph by Sebastião Salgado

Near the end of his new book, Hitch-22, which is neither strictly a memoir nor quite a political essay but something in between, Christopher Hitchens informs the reader that he has, at long last, learned how to “think for oneself,” implying that he had failed to do so before reaching the riper side of middle age. This may not be the most dramatic way to conclude a life story. Still, thinking for oneself is always a good thing. And, he writes,

the ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting…just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think.
Like many people who count “Hitch” among their friends, I have watched with a certain degree of dismay how this lifelong champion of left-wing, anti-imperialist causes, this scourge of armed American hubris, this erstwhile booster of Vietcong and Sandinistas, this ex-Trot who delighted in calling his friends and allies “comrades,” ended up as a loud drummer boy for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, a tub-thumper for neoconservatism, and a strident American patriot. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the prime movers behind the Iraq war, became his new comrade. Michael Chertoff, head of the Homeland Security Department under Bush, presided over his citizenship ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Ah, some will say, with a tolerant chuckle, how typical of Hitch the maverick, Hitch the contrarian: another day, another prank. It is indeed not always easy to take this consummate entertainer entirely seriously, but in this case I think one should. In fact, Hitch’s turn is not the move of a maverick. If eccentricity were all there was to it, his book would still have offered some of the amusement for which he is justly celebrated, but it would have no more relevance than that. Far from being a lone contrarian, however, Hitchens is a follower of a contemporary fashion of sorts. Quite a few former leftists, in Europe as well as the US, have joined the neo- and not so neo-conservatives in the belief that we are engaged in a war of civilizations, that September 11, 2001, is comparable to 1939, that “Islamofascism” is the Nazi threat of our time, and that our shared hour of peril will sort out the heroes from the cowards, the resisters from the collaborators.

There was nothing inherently reprehensible about supporting the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was after all one of the world’s most monstrous dictators. In this respect, Hitchens had some good company: Adam Michnik, Václav Havel, Michael Ignatieff, to name but a few. It is in the denunciation of those who failed to share his enthusiasm for armed force that Hitchens sounds a little unhinged. He believes that the US State Department…

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