Flak Magazine | Christopher Hitchens, 01.08.



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The Dismemberment Man: Christopher Hitchens
by Neil Fitzgerald

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Christopher Hitchens describes himself with increasing frequency as a porpoise, the roots of which come from the Latin words for "pig" and "fish." The casual viewer of his TV punditry, however, might find the image of a common toad more fitting. His eyes possess that amphibian's protuberant quality and his tongue is just as elastic in debate. This particular toad is unusual, however: it comes fitted with tobacco-stained gnashers and whiskey on its breath. Struggling for a metaphor for the man was recently not quite so tricky. Back in 2006, when his jowls still sported dense shrubbery, a grizzly bear would have perfectly captured the iconoclast, red-eyed from a continual cocktail hour and spoiling for an intellectual ruckus. George Galloway, the querulous Scot and Respect MP, memorably anthropomorphised The Hitch during a debate at Baruch College in New York in 2005. Galloway was marvelling at his opponent's political volte-face from left to right when he sneered: "What Mr. Hitchens has done is unique in natural history; the first-ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug." It was a debate that Hitchens lost on points if you a) were a bitter leftie (Gary Younge in The Guardian) and b) could consider Galloway's series of vaguely vulgar, vaguely witty ad hominem attacks to be a cogent argument. The original Young Contrarian is still a redoubtable foe at 58. As a self-styled oppositionist, Hitchens is a heavyweight hitter when it comes to verbal pugilism, combining the lyrical fluidity of a rapper with the erudite language of an academic. He is often encountered sitting in a studio, facing the camera, squat but with open-collared dapperness. Hearing out his opponent, be they a religious "nutbag," bleeding-heart anti-war Democrat or Fox anchor bully-boy, his bulbous eyes become two menacingly hypnotic gyres, as he attempts to out-stare the camera lens. He bides his time, sucking in his top lip, drawing breath and failing to suppress snorts of indignation or derision. A cartoon bull, he claws the earth with his hooves as the toreador waves a red flag in his face. And then, customarily, he makes one or two habitual hand-dashes through what remains of this aging lion's mane, sizes up his opponent's weak spots and prepares to put the verbal boot in. There's a kind of Hitchens's Greatest Wits on Youtube from his appearances Fox, CNN's Anderson Cooper 360 et al. posted by devotees. This nuanced repositioning of the hair is mere sleight of hand, for that tar-lined larynx is already letting fly with a verbal shoeing in its smoky baritone. The performance is quite mesmerising, employing the same dynamics as a Beethoven symphony and Nirvana grunge anthem: quiet-loud-quiet and fast-slow-fast, closing with a final crescendo in which the sustained rhetorical brilliance gives way to a more voluminous volley of negative epithets, either pleasingly archaic: huckster, charlatan, guttersnipe; or pleasingly comic: little toad. There is certainly something that warms one to this careerist commentator. Initially, there is the appeal of the contrarian poseur. Such defiance continues in his louche lifestyle of cigarettes and cocktails. His dinner parties are capable of becoming the subject of national debate via discursive New Yorker articles on what The Hitch said.

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Flak Magazine | Christopher Hitchens, 01.08.08


Finding myself charmed by the charisma, erudition and lyrical flow of his primetime punditry, the whimsy grows of what it would be like to attend a Hitchens soiree: of being let in on the lengthy prurient jokes, chowing down on controversy and comestibles, sinking Scotch with the deipnosophist, as he lights up a Montecristo and deftly weaves quotations from Camus or Byron into the dialogue. From my armchair, I would perceive a man living an enviable life — one with time to read and thoroughly digest what is read; one that's free-ranging, discursive and boozy, where shoulders are rubbed with the world's movers and shakers: martinis with Wolfowicz, dinner with Rushdie or Greenspan. Today's world is one of projection. The ghetto-fabulous 50 Cent bigs up the bubbly-swillin', Cuban-puffin' lifestyle in his demotic parlance ("Teachin' the hoodrats what Cristal taste like"); the Hitch gets on with living it — bling-free, no-nonsense and unapologetic. Such adolescent admiration also arises because what he most resembles is a dying breed: a Hemingway Man, known once upon a time as "a Man's Man." As hard-boiled as Chandler's Phillip Marlowe, he has charisma and insouciance, and an anachronistic lexicon — perhaps academically demotic describes it best, with hints of the great British essayists: George Orwell and William Hazlitt. These days, the Old School machismo duellists are bowing out one by one, with, it has to be said, more of a senescent whimper than a defiant howl. Take wife-mauler Mailer, the life-long deity-mocker who, when the blinds were coming down on his own long and tumultuous life, seems to have quaked at the knees and found God. It's hard to imagine Hardman Hitchens going the same way. Along with his wingman — fellow neophyte hawk Martin Amis — he is something of a welcome rarity among today's wibbling liberal punditry, those who take stances that seek to offend no one by remaining within the ever-shifting domain of what is PC. What Hitchens offers audiences is a pair of cojones: bellicosity, yes, but with the brains to back up his thunder. The Hitch, who prefers to be called an anti-theist than an atheist, seems to be becoming increasingly antithetical to the nanny state and PC status quo — drinking Johnny Walker Black neat, chaining his beloved Rothmans Blue smokes in the face of encroaching bans on smoking in public and still capable of an astonishing U-turn when it comes to his political posturing. Hitchens' Trotskyite roots have receded with his hairline, and from having once been the Left's most faithful comrade, post-9/11 Hitchens now has at least nine of his ten toes in the neo-conservative camp. Interestingly, several neocon leading lights including Stephen Schwartz and Max Kampelman also possess a Trotskyite past — there's something about "perpetual global revolution" that naturally seems to lead to "perpetual war to promote democracy." And although he himself eschews the sobriquet "Neo-Con," his pro-war propaganda has impressed the eye of the Bush scriptwriters so much so that they've begun employing Hitchens' phraseology ("Islamo-fascism") in Dubya's speeches. His idea, of "fascism with an Islamic face" or "theocratic fascism," has been labelled as unhelpful by many commentators, including British historian Niall Ferguson: "...what we see at the moment is an attempt to interpret our present predicament in a rather caricatured World War II idiom. 'Islamo-fascism' illustrates the point well, because it's a completely misleading concept. In fact, there's virtually no overlap between the ideology of al Qaeda and fascism." Given the proximity of evangelical religion to America's Grand Old Party, this recent love-in will become more problematic given the bestseller-list status of Hitchens' latest polemic: God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His comments about Moral Majority co-founder and Southern Baptist televangelist Jerry Falwell caused consternation, especially as the man was still lukewarm on the mortuary slab. Here's a free sample: "The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing, that you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called reverend." Falwell was not alone in having his coffin rattled by a Hitchens broadside. Another daisy-pusher who felt the acerbic tongue and splenetic nib of this firebrand was Mother Teresa, one of Catholicism's best-known modern-day contenders for sainthood. Hitchens was asked by the Vatican to play the part formerly known as "Devil's Advocate" during the Mother Theresa canonisation process. He was always happy to undercut any veneration of the supposed Angel of Calcutta by referring to her as "the ghoul of Calcutta" or, more concisely, "that bitch." And when the pious hound him with adjectives like merciless and uncharitable, heathen that he is, The Hitch remains wholly unrepentant. With a seemingly uncanny knack of skewering off-the-cuff — "If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox" — he portrays himself as Washington's very own Rent-a-Wit, a Wilde for the War Machine. How often, then, are his bitchings mere posture, hack-work to pay the bills?

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16/10/08 14:45

Flak Magazine | Christopher Hitchens, 01.08.08


In The New York Times Book Review, Michael Kinsley wrote of Christopher Hitchens: "The big strategic challenge for a career like this is to remain interesting, and the easiest tactic for doing that is surprise." One senses always the presence of the provocateur, a theatrical mote, that of a player self-reflexively aware of the stage he resides on and the necessity of maintaining interest in himself, which he does with a Neocon standby: shock and awe. The risk comes with such a career choice, that of public-prosecutor-cum-Poet's-Corner-soapbox-orator, of ending up walking round with your foot stuck permanently in your cakehole. And Hitchens has managed this with spectacular aplomb over the year, with his description of 9/11 in an article for Boston.com on the first anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. He says he felt the general spectrum, from disgust to rage, and, unusually, another more socially unpalatable reaction: "And to my surprise (and pleasure), it was exhilaration. I am not particularly a war lover, and on the occasions when I have seen warfare as a travelling writer, I have tended to shudder. But here was a direct, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated." And the porpoise is not without his prurience: blow jobs, anal sex and that staid lad-mag novelty — the "back, sack and crack' — have all made an appearance in his Vanity Fair column. In interviews on God Is Not Great he labors the point concerning the misogyny of religion, with its renunciation of menstrual blood and the female reproductive organs. Something Hitchens is always quick to remind us is that he has no qualms with a woman's genitalia — in fact, quite the contrary, ladeez... What should one call such Roger Moore-esque eyebrow-arching? A bon motte? Facebook Groups abound, both for and against the arch-antagonist: Christians Praying For Christopher Hitchens; Christopher Hitchens Is The Balls; Christopher Hitchens Is Not Great. The Hitch even has his own dedicated ombudsman c/o Hitchwatch, a blog which likes to highlight his shortcomings as a writer, while on Youtube, Hitchens devotees post clips of some of his finest primetime battles on the American news networks. The Huffington Post — a liberal aggregated blog — is also a fan of pointing out discrepancies and hypocrisies in his columns, analysing every caustic comment and deconstructing every neologism that the Neoconoclast makes. Here in my armchair, I find myself entertained by this man. Nay, tickled, entertained and edified. And I wonder, should I be alarmed by this? Is it just the articulate displays of erudition? Is it the rebel stance? Is it simply his obsession with the cocktail hour, his cocked-middle-finger approach to modern attitudes concerning booze intake and smoke inhalation? Perhaps it's the insouciance in the face of the Fox News Smackdown approach to debate: loaded questions, audible sneers, transparent vitriol, greeted by Hitchens with: "Sir, if you will allow me to speak..." Where do you stand on the Hitchens issue? It's hardly a topic of mass debate sweeping the globe, but worthy of comment all the same. But if his phrases are being picked up by the man generally considered "Leader of the Free World," this man's words matter. As part of Generation Y-bother, politically apathetic, mistrustful of media, with snide cynicism being our only stance, it is nice to be reminded of what it means to fully occupy a position, to inhabit an ideology, to expose oneself with what could be viewed as anachronistic, heart-on-sleeve impassioned beliefs. But I'm troubled when people refer to him as George Orwell's heir. As someone who was awakened into politics by Orwell's prose, with its "windowpane" transparency, I recognize similarities in their passion to engage with the political world with words. But the similarities stop there. Orwell was also a man of action, shouldering a rifle in Catalonia with the Spanish Left for his anti-fascist beliefs. Hitchens' bellicose war cries are done from the safety of his desk, scotch in hand. On his travels, he brandishes vitriol and a pen. Ultimately, for all his great intellectualism and wit, he reminds one of a Henry Miller quote concerning what it is to be a politician: "One has to be a lowbrow, a bit of a murderer, to be a politician, ready and willing to see people sacrificed, slaughtered, for the sake of an idea, whether a good one or a bad one." Perhaps he will be remembered thus: Great on thunder, short on lightning. E-mail Neil Fitzgerald at ispistole at yahoo dot com.

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Flak Magazine | Christopher Hitchens, 01.08.08


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