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15 December 2021updated 11 Jan 2022 8:41am

The temptations of Christopher Hitchens

Why the crusading journalist failed to assume the mantle of George Orwell.

By Ross Douthat

Over the Thanksgiving holiday the Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh expressed a sentiment I hear from time to time among connoisseurs of punditry – that our era, the age of Trumpism and wokeness and Covid controversy, badly misses the words and wits of Christopher Hitchens, who was taken from the stage before his time. Ganesh offered a particularly interesting version of this take, because he went halfway to conceding something that Hitchens’ critics (I was one of them) might say has become more palpable since his passing in 2011: that his great talents were expended on causes that have not exactly stood the test of time. But Ganesh framed this reality as an indictment of the somewhat-empty – dare one say, decadent – times in which Hitch lived:

“The trouble is, the artist dwarfed his canvas. Hitchens had the misfortune to peak during one of world history’s blander interludes. If he overcommitted to the war on terror, it was because here, at last, was a worthier foe than a long-retired Henry Kissinger and the ghastliness of the Clintons. His atheism aged better (no, it is not “its own kind of religion”) but the resort to a celestial target rather shows how thin the pickings were on Earth. He was made for our time, not his own. The great vacancy in today’s public life is for an equal scourge of the censorious left and the feral right: a fanatical sceptic… The opportunities to impose himself, to speak for an unspoken-for mass, would have been greater now than in, say, 2005, when politics was so temperate that I forgot to vote.”

I’m not convinced that the vacancy is really so vast as Ganesh suggests. Is there actually a desperate shortage of pundits willing to oppose “the censorious left and the feral right” alike? I can think of various prominent thinkers at famous magazines and hallowed universities and notable Substacks who do exactly that. They are not carrying the day, but they are certainly making the arguments that Ganesh imagines Hitchens making. And if you find the journalist Anne Applebaum or the intellectual historian Mark Lilla too cautious in the volleys they aim leftward, or the gang at The Dispatch – a US centre-right magazine – too tempered in their attacks on the Trumpian right, might I suggest reading Andrew Sullivan, an equally famous British expat who currently dishes it with Hitchens-esque brio to both sides.

I’m not saying that Sullivan’s contemporary work is interchangeable from what Hitchens might have turned out; for one thing there’s the matter of Sullivan’s complicated Catholic faith, which separates him from the purist scepticism to which Hitchens theoretically aspired. But as Ganesh backhandedly acknowledges (“that he himself never entirely threw off [dogmatism] only made him a more credible witness against it”), the official Hitchens scepticism was applied more in the breach than in the observance. The youthful Trotskyist became the fervent liberal hawk and still-more fervent anti-theist, a man of passions and righteous hatreds to the end.

And in the misdirection of those passions, I think, you can see something that’s similar to Ganesh’s diagnosis, but subtly different – less a portrait of a man ill-served by the smallness of his times, and more a case of a man tempted by the smallness of his times into some serious intellectual mistakes. Hitchens wanted to be a second Orwell, a scourge of smelly orthodoxies no matter their origination – a fine aspiration! But it wasn’t just that the targets that he chose for his critiques, from Thatcherism in his youth down to “Islamofascism” and religion writ large in late middle age, weren’t ultimately the equivalent of National Socialism and Stalinism. It was that in the process of inflating his enemies, he signed up for causes that were themselves simply bad – bad and irrelevant, in the case of late-Cold War Trotskyism, and then bad and actively destructive in the case of both Iraq hawkishness and the New Atheism.

Indeed, the idea that the US could bring democracy to the Middle East by force of arms, and the idea that the decline of Western monotheism would enlighten and radically improve late-modern civilisation were, in hindsight, two of the most erroneous ideas of the early- to mid-2000s. And not many people held to both of them at once, which meant that Hitchens effectively achieved what you might call the reverse Orwell: being so boldly independent of ideological faction that you get more important things terribly wrong than the more ordinary sort of scribbler.

In this sense the aspect of his career that Ganesh emphasises, the search for causes and enemies worthy of his romantic and crusading spirit, illustrates what in The Decadent Society I describe as the dangers of anti-decadence – the way the desire for a great war or a great enemy can supply a “cure” for stagnation or gridlock or repetition that makes the world more interesting but also makes it worse.

Here there is a special irony that in the very spring that the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, Hitchens appeared in the Atlantic with a caustic essay on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which he dismissed (wrongly) as the place where Waugh’s reactionary mood finally curdled and his gifts essentially ran out. Because in an important way the Hitchens of the war on terror era quite resembles Waugh’s protagonist in that Second World War-era saga, the English Catholic aristocrat Guy Crouchback, for whom the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact – the alliance of the totalitarians – felt like a moment of grand opportunity and purpose for an otherwise-decaying civilisation: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms.” Coming from a different ideological vantage point, this was exactly the Hitchens reaction to 11 September: it filled him with “exhilaration” because it promised “a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate”.

At the end of Waugh’s novels, Crouchback ends up disillusioned: he meets a Jewish refugee in the Balkans who speaks of the “will to war” in 1930s Europe, the way that “even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war”. She asks him: “Were there none in England?”

“God help me,” Crouchback answers, “I was one of them.”

I’ve always liked that passage in part because that’s how I feel about myself, thinking back on some of my jejune writings (very) early in the war on terror, my own youthful, right-wing exhilaration at the possibility that meaning was finally coming back.

I don’t think Hitchens ever came around to that kind of regret, but I do think his most important work stands, for now at least, as a monument to a variation on the temptation that Waugh describes. He wanted to join a great battle to save his particular vision of liberal civilisation, but he chose his crucial causes poorly, winning pyrrhic victories that mostly deepened decadence, and left that same civilisation more unhappy, endangered and internally divided than before.

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This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance