Christopher Hitchens (Photo by Marvin Joseph /The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Hitchens: Safe and unsafe

He thought America’s leaders were unworthy of its potential as a great Enlightenment republic

A Hitch in Time: Writings from The London Review of Books by Christopher Hitchens

The final page of A Hitch in Time, an anthology of twenty essays Christopher Hitchens wrote for the London Review of Books between 1983 and 2002, reproduces an email Hitchens sent to editor Mary-Kay Wilmers on 20 September, 2001: “I hope very much that the LRB is not going to adopt any fatuous Chomskyan line on this — and I take very seriously (as you may see) your injunction to regard history as predating 11/9.” The details of how Hitchens ultimately ceased to contribute — did he jump or was he pushed — are left ambiguous here, but an earlier LRB publication, London Review of Books: An Incomplete History (2020), suggests mutuality: “In or around 2002, things changed. Hitchens was no longer invited to write; had he been asked he would almost certainly have declined”.

A Hitch in Time: Writings from The London Review of Books by Christopher Hitchens Atlantic Books, £16.99

There is something slightly uncomfortable, then, about the prospect of a posthumous semi-rehabilitation, just in time for the Christmas bookselling season (and on the tenth anniversary of Hitchens’s untimely death from oesophageal cancer). The value of argument — often hair-splitting or humorous, occasionally ornery — was axiomatic for Hitchens; one of his early essay collections (also containing LRB essays) was called For The Sake of Argument (1993). The last collection published during his life was Arguably (2011). But at the LRB, the joys of argument had run aground; he saw an impending “line” and bailed; the LRB presumably had seen a “reputational risk” steaming down the tracks.

In one essay in this book, Hitchens paraphrases Theodore Adorno on American film censorship:

An aesthetically faultless movie could be made in perfect conformity with all the rules and requirements of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office.

Well, there it is. Circumscription, once observed, becomes intolerable. The essays here, written in the spirit of free-ranging debate, are presented, implicitly, retroactively, as Safe Hitchens. The further implication might be that Safe Hitchens was Better Hitchens. 

Dissonances acknowledged, the LRB has done a superb job of assembly here. These twenty essays, selected from a body of sixty, have been skilfully arranged to produce a convincing, pleasing set of juxtapositions, with apposite resonances throughout. It is further to the LRB’s credit that the book stands as a subtle riposte to the more straitened segments of academic and intellectual culture, with their unpersons and memory holes.  

The Hitchens who became so unsafe for the LRB circa 2002 was becoming an American patriot

Here, in brief, are the topics: Tom Wolfe, Desert Storm, Wodehouse, J. Edgar Hoover, Harold Wilson, Salman Rushdie, Thatcher and spanking, British police spies, Kim Philby, the Oscars, the Oklahoma City bombing, Gore Vidal, Bill Clinton, Princess Margaret, Kennedy and Nixon, 1968, the Almanach de Gotha, Isiah Berlin (over fifty pages of him), Diana Mosley, and Pinochet. 

Wolfe is “safe” territory: glib conservative humorist sends up naive sixties idealists but misses the obvious “snigger potential” at Reaganite tables. Desert Storm ought to have been “safe”, too — the LRB would presumably have liked more in this antiwar vein throughout the 2000s — but on close inspection some of the post-2002 “trouble” was brewing in Hitchens’s disdain for the isolationism of America’s antiwar leftists circa 1991: 

Except for a fistful of Trotskyists, all those attending the rally in Lafayette Park last weekend were complaining of the financial cost of the war and implying that the problems of the Middle East were none of their concern. I found myself reacting badly to the moral complacency of this. Given the history and extent of US engagement in the region, some regard for it seems obligatory for American citizens. However ill it may sound proceeding from the lips of George Bush, internationalism has a clear advantage over the language of America First. 

But there is also a passage that might have served as dire council to the George W. camp in 2002, whose words Hitchens ought to have shouted into a few ears, while he had them:

Iraq is neither ethnically nor politically homogenous. If its infrastructure and psyche are badly torn, it has the recognised potential of becoming another Lebanon, with Sunni, Shia and Kurd making up for lost time. As with Lebanon also, neighbouring countries might interest themselves in the turmoil…Iran would be unlikely to resist the chance to break the stalemate of 1988.

One marked aspect of Hitchens’s writing — pronounced enough in later life but particularly evident here — was his Freudianism, which he used as a tool of both literary and political insight. Why did Wodehouse acknowledge no debt to Wilde? Hitchens proffers a theory that he might have “repressed” The Importance of Being Earnest because a joke about the rupee touched on a trauma concerning family finances invested in India (a bit of a stretch). Predatory transvestite J. Edgar Hoover, meanwhile, is introduced by allegory with a Prussian colonel in Buchan’s Greenmantle, whose furtive interest in “soft lacy things” was “the compliment to his bluff brutality”. Blatant, Hitchens held, was better than latent. 

Hitchens had begun studying the US far right before there were many kudos to be gained for it

The other looming influence was Marx, a critical model Hitchens couldn’t bear to hear, or read, misrepresented. Submitted in evidence that Harold Wilson was a false and mediocre schmuck is a lame joke the PM once made about not having got past the footnote on page two of Das Kapital (there is no such footnote). Isaiah Berlin, who in 1967 gave a lecture on Marx at the Oxford Union which Hitchens had helped organise on behalf of the Labour Club, is marked down for “persistent misreading” of the cherished texts. The damning setup for Berlin’s too-protean liberal life is his warm relations with William and McGeorge Bundy — thinkers behind the American escalation in Vietnam.

Also in evidence is Hitchens’s unencumbered commitment to free speech. The most obvious example is “The Salman Rushdie Acid Test” (1994), itself a follow up to an earlier LRB essay, “Siding With Rushdie” (1989, collected in For the Sake of Argument). It was in these articles that Hitchens castigated establishment figures and postmodern cynics — “official and unofficial point missers” — who failed to take a stand against Ayatollah Khomeini’s attempt to hire assassins to kill the author of The Satanic Verses. (It was in these articles, too, that LRB critic David Runciman, writing in 2010, scented signs of the post-2002 unsafety: was not Hitchens’s stand a “dry run” for his response to 9/11?)

But an arguably more daring defence of free speech rests, implicit, in a 1995 piece on the Oklahoma bombing. Of the American zeitgeist following the attack, Hitchens writes, “The words ‘fascist’ and ‘racist’ are never employed — perhaps from some exaggerated anxiety about political correctness — so the terms ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘anti-racist’ are similarly muted”. Such a moment has clearly passed. Yet Hitchens, to his credit, had begun studying the US far right before there were many kudos to be gained for it. His tactics were the opposite of anyone describing themselves “anti-fascist” or “anti-racist” today. Of his early encounters with the neo-nazis who would go on to defend the atrocity, he cites a televised debate he held on CNBC (of all networks) with Tom and John Metzger, from a group called White Aryan Resistance, in 1991. That debate had conferred not an iota of advantage on the two; Hitchens tied them in knots before a wide public.

He was often accused of moving to the right, but in 2008 he favoured Obama

The Hitchens who became so unsafe for the LRB circa 2002 was becoming an American patriot. He’d come to love his adopted country, and noticed how much he loved it after it was attacked by jihadis. The upshot of his critiques of American government and foreign policy — and of his own personal rogues gallery of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Clintons — turned out not to be that America was an irredeemable global menace, but that so many of its heroes and leaders were unworthy of its potential as a great Enlightenment-inspired republic. In 2007, he took US citizenship at Monticello, a move that might today be thought impolitic, since it was a slave plantation in Jefferson’s day. Hitchens was often accused of having moved to the right, yet it’s seldom observed that, in the only federal election in which he could have voted, he favoured Barack Obama.  

The LRB’s break with Hitchens may have been understandable on the face of it; he was growing close with people in the George W. Bush administration (notably Paul Wolfowitz); leading critical journals ought to produce criticism free of influence from, or sympathy for, those close to power. Even so, as Hitchens once wrote, political choices are often a choice between future regrets. In the years after his death, the LRB laid itself open to another genre of risk by publishing inadequately-sourced conspiracy pieces by Seymour Hersh on the killing of Osama bin Laden and the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, both of which offered the LRB editors angles they mistook as “safe” (Hitchens, in his 1998 piece on Kennedy and Nixon, has Hersh going a bit too far down the rabbit hole on some fabricated Marilyn Monroe papers before, in that less dire case, aborting mission in time).  

There is a risk of overpraising Hitchens, especially in current tepid, censorious zeitgeist, in which his writing feels so revivifying (the effect may be compounded by suspicions that, if a young writer of Hitchens’s independence of mind were making his way in the current scene, he might very well be strangled in his crib). This book, so allusive to evaporated intellectual atmospheres, will be more readily digested by boomers than by the millennials who discovered Hitchens through God is Not Great (2007). A worthy service to them, and a gentle corrective to any hero worship, might be to collect his full corpus next time in a more scholarly fashion, and to fairly research, fact-check, and annotate all his material. Would the LRB think it safe to see him so elevated in the ranks of men of letters?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover