Author and journalist Christopher Hitchens (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Liberalism’s lion

Christopher Hitchens remains unforgettable

Artillery Row Books

I always appreciated the way that Christopher Hitchens put terms of dubious provenance in quotes. When I saw the word “save” in the title of the new book by journalist Matt Johnson, How Hitchens Can Save The Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, I groaned a little. We’re already chockablock with books that claim to have the magic plan that will “save” whatever even consists of “the left” (see how easy it is?) these days, which unintentionally illustrates the problem. It reminds me of the lament of the cartoon boozer Andy Capp: “What I need is less people telling me what I need!”

How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, Matt Johnson (Pitchstone, £15.95)

Admiring the Hitch as I do, though, I can’t help but wish that he was around today as a kind of solo Greek chorus: scowling under a cloud of cigarette smoke whilst rhetorically slashing the Trumpian goon show and the clueless liberal consensus down to size. Since his stoic death in 2011, I’ve heard quite a few people wonder aloud what he might say about this or that topic. There certainly seems to be plenty to rail against on both sides of the pond, where the insights of a British-born American could be of use.


Johnson dedicates specific chapters to focusing on two of Hitchens’ abiding concerns: the necessity of free speech and the “sinister bullshit” of identity politics. It’s certainly correct to emphasise how fundamental Hitchens took the first amendment to be and how proud he was of its centrality in American life. This was one of the reasons why he admired America so deeply. He did once get roughed up after defacing a fascist sign in Beirut, which maybe counts against his free speech absolutism, but there’s no doubt that he meant it when he said that he made his living by the first amendment.

Johnson’s first example of how “the left” has failed to live up to that standard is very poorly chosen, however. Senator Tom Cotton’s New York Times op-ed fiasco, clearly an opportunistic set up, is a spectacularly unconvincing example of liberals censoring free speech. Recall that Senator Cotton was arguing to “send in the military” with “an overwhelming show of force” on those protesting the murder of George Floyd. Yes, there were some that became regrettably violent, but the vast majority were proven by a Harvard study to have been peaceful. It certainly seems relevant, whilst we’re on the topic, to reflect that Cotton’s party is currently claiming that a riot publicly stoked by influential politicians, based on sham evidence, is to be considered “legitimate political discourse”. The person who stoked it more than anyone else is desperately trying to defend himself on free speech grounds. Maybe free speech is like government spending: everyone complains about it until it benefits them.

Cotton cagily dared the Times to publish it, causing consternation amongst the editorial staff both before and after it was published, which predictably sparked plenty of controversy and an editor’s unnecessary resignation. This episode falls into the irritatingly common trap of confusing the right to speak freely with the right to demand a platform to do so. Especially as a sitting Senator, Cotton has any number of places available to him — certainly more than most — to publish that piece or whatever else he wishes to say. Not having one’s opinion published in the Times, or anywhere else for that matter, is not an infringement of anyone’s rights.

This points to a widespread, dispiriting contemporary trend of assuming that just because one’s ideas aren’t getting public traction, they are ipso facto being silenced, censored or oppressed. Hitchens certainly had a robust belief in free speech. As an equally dedicated advocate of the scientific method and accurate historical scholarship, however, he had little patience for opinions based on emotional needs or predetermined assumptions: “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

This is close to where Hitchens stood on the issue of identity politics, which he disdained but in a more nuanced way than others. Johnson is on trickier ground trying to explain Hitchens’s position, and one can sense that he knows it. There are quite a few examples of him writing “of course, but … ” and “this is not to say … ” types of constructions. It’s clear that Hitchens had zero patience for arguments that began with “speaking as a … ” because he felt that they were a shortcut to real thinking, an unearned conviction, and ultimately a pernicious version of either narcissistic myopia or passive groupthink.

That said, Hitchens didn’t want to take the extra step of more myopic critics of identity politics by suggesting that race, gender and class are completely irrelevant to politics or don’t have any influence at all on modern society. Johnson perceptively brings up the fact that he publicly argued for reparations for slavery as only one example of how he understood race’s historical relevance.

At its best, identity politics can offer a way for otherwise ignored groups to gain visibility, be heard, and use their marginalisation to explain something significant about their society and its history. At its worst, its self-justifying logic perpetuates victimhood — an endless bickering of all against all, over who has it worse.

Basing one’s politics on personal experiences can risk superficiality, but it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to an ideological cul-de-sac. How you explain what makes your experience significant, and what larger conclusions one can draw from it, is what really matters. Hitchens had an unofficial motto that can be useful: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks but in how it thinks.”

Most people probably know Hitchens through his outspoken support for the Iraq War. Johnson makes the gutsy choice to address this thorny topic directly, partly succeeding in an effort to put Hitchens’ sometimes obnoxiously presented case for war in context. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that Hitchens’ reasoning doesn’t hold up well in terms of how the war unfolded. It got to the point where it became difficult to be his fan.

Hitchens craved deeper conversation, better jokes, sharper thinking

A liberal argument could be made for the war, with all the current ambiguities of the term taken into consideration. No one shed any tears for the hanging of Saddam Hussein (though to his credit, the fiercely anti-capital punishment Hitchens argued forcefully against it). Johnson is right to point out that Hitchens’ sometimes obstreperous advocacy for the Iraq War was partly fueled by his instinctive loathing of any form of totalitarianism and his impatience with Western sluggishness to react.

The attempt at regime change was a failure in part because as the war dragged on and became an undeniable quagmire, one could start to hear plenty of Americans wonder aloud why we were even bothering to help those ungrateful Iraqis out anyway. That’s to say nothing of the maddening incompetence and mendacity of the Bush administration, which even Hitchens himself had to queasily acknowledge.

Both these points revealed the callous bad faith lurking underneath the willful idealisation of the whole project, especially after America had gotten the exciting chance to take out the bad guys. In a sense, the bungling of the Iraq war was an example of what we thought being warped by how we thought. To borrow the phrase borrowed by Colin Powell: we were certainly willing to break Iraq, but we didn’t want to buy it.

Hitchens is worthy of these kinds of book-length studies — and Johnson’s is certainly not the first nor will be the last — because he was dauntingly erudite and witty whilst having zero squeamishness about attacking conventional opinion. I have heard him describe “the itch to prick” conventional wisdom, and he voiced his desire to write “in evening clothes”. This is harder to do than it looks.

In our time, too many people are trying way too hard to look like tough, gutsy contrarians who will say the unsayable. To adapt something else Hitchens liked to say, most people do have a book in them, and for most people that’s exactly where it should stay. From presidents to pundits to provocateurs, there’s too much phoney fearlessness filling our airwaves. It only reveals how essentially vain, boring and superficial these conspicuous contrarians are — not to mention outright dangerous.

Martin Amis, Hitch’s lifelong best friend and intellectual sparring partner, confidently claimed that had his loquacious friend lived to see the rise of Trump, he would have been at the forefront of the resistance. This seems likely enough. I strongly suspect that Trump’s authoritarian demagoguery would have gotten the old leftist’s class warrior muscles pumping once again. Interviewers commented on how the anger still rose in his voice many years later when he remembered the posh sons of privilege swanning around Oxford.

Were he making the rounds today, I can easily see him agreeing with those who put part of the blame for the left’s malaise on the Democrats’ shrugging off their historical commitment to the working class. He may not have believed in socialism in his later years, but he never gave up Marxism.

It’s good to see that The Hitch is being taken seriously beyond silly clickbait about “Hitch Slaps” and clips where “Hitchens EVISCERATES” so-and-so. I think what Hitchens really wanted from the world was more sophistication — for people to be less credulous, superstitious and clannish. He craved deeper conversation, better jokes, sharper thinking.

I’m not sure that what some referred to as his vibe of “effortless superiority” will have much of an impact on the political future of the country that he so loved and considered the greatest of all subjects. He deeply wanted to uphold its founding principles as a moral gold standard. Large numbers of voters these days not only don’t care but, if anything, they use a performative patriotism as a cover to try to destroy it. Hitchens will be inspirational to some, radical and fortifying to others, but it seems at this point all that he wrote and said is ultimately unable to move the needle.

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