Portrait of Christopher Hitchens
An interview with Christopher Hitchens ("Moral and political collapse" of the Left in the US)
Washington Prism.org ^ | June 16, 2005
Christopher Hitchens is one of America's and the English speaking world's leading public intellectuals. He is the author of more than ten books, including, most recently, A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001), and Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001). He writes for leading American and British publications, including The London Review of Books, The New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He is also a regular television and radio commentator.
For many years, Hitchens was seen as one of America's leading leftist commentators. Shortly after the September 11 attacks in the United States, he began publicly criticizing fellow leftist intellectuals for what he viewed as their "moral and political collapse" in their failure to stand up to what he saw as "Islamo-fascism". He publicly feuded with many of America's leading leftist intellectuals about the war in Iraq, which he supported, much to their anger. He subsequently resigned from his position as a columnist for the Nation, America's leading leftist magazine, in protest.
Born in England, Hitchens has lived in the United States for more than twenty years. He is one of America's most recognizable intellectuals and has taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research. He spoke with Washington Prism at his home in Washington D.C.
Q - Your much-discussed separation from the American left began shortly after the September 11 attacks. What prompted your displeasure with the left?
A - The September 11 attacks were one of those rare historical moments, like 1933 in Germany or 1936 in Spain or 1968, when you are put in a position to take a strong stand for what is right. The left failed this test. Instead of strongly standing against these nihilistic murderers, people on the left, such as Noam Chomsky, began to make excuses for these murderers, openly saying that Bin ladin was, however crude in his methods, in some ways voicing a liberation theology. This is simply a moral and political collapse.
But its not only that. It’s a missed opportunity for the left. Think of it this way: If a group of theocratic nihilists drive planes full of human beings into buildings full of human beings announcing nothing by way of a program except their nihilism and if they turn out to have been sheltered by two regimes favored by the United States and the national security establishment, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to be precise, two of only three countries to recognize the Taliban, and if Republicans were totally taken by surprise by this and if the working class of New York had to step forward and become the shield of society in the person of the fire and police brigades, it seemed to me that this would have been a good opportunity for the left to demand a general revision of all the assumptions we carried about the post cold war world. We were attacked by a religious dictatorship and the working class were pushed into defending elites by the total failure of our leadership and total failure of our intelligence. The attack emanated partly from the failure of regimes supported by that same elite national security establishment– Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. If the left can’t take advantage of a moment like that: whats it for? whats its secularism for? Whats its internationalism, class attitude, democracy for?
You don’t get that many measurable historical moments in your life, but you must recognize them when they come. This was one of those moments and the left collectively decided to get it wrong and I realized at that moment that, to borrow a slogan that slightly irritates me, but is useful: "Not in my name.” I'm not part of that family. I wanted to force a split, a political split on the left to which a small extent I think succeeded. Today, there is a small pro-regime change left and I'm a proud part of it.
Q - It seems that the left had less difficulty accepting the war in Afghanistan as they did the war in Iraq.
That is true, but of the hard core left it isn’t true. They also opposed the removal of the Taliban. When it came to using force, the least they did was predict a quagmire. By the way, there weren't alone. The New York Times did so too. They said at minimum we would witness another Vietnam, which is a pretty serious charge to make as someone who believes that then and now the Vietnam war was a war of aggression and atrocity and racism. When someone says something is another Vietnam, they better be serious because that’s a serious charge.
But lets look at the case of Iraq and the left. If you asked someone who has the principles of a 1968 leftist the following question: what is your attitude to a regime that has committed genocide, invaded its neighbors, militarized its society into a police state, that has privatized its economy so it is owned by one family, that has defied the non proliferation treaty in many ways, that sought weapons to commit genocide again and cheated on inspections, that has abolished the existence of a neighboring arab muslim state? What is your view of this as anyone who is a 1968 leftist? For me, I would be appalled if anyone knew me even slightly would not guess my attitude. Iraq should have been taken care of a long time ago. Instead, when I made my view public, I was berated by the left and my view was seen as an insane eccentricity.
I should also note that I have friends and comrades in the Iraqi and Kurdish left going back at least till the early 1990s. For me, supporting the war was an elementary duty of solidarity. I said: I'm on your side and I’ll stay there until you’re in and they’re out.
Q - If there was a Democratic president on 9/11, would there have been a difference of opinion in the American left about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Not from people like Michael Moore (the American film director and strong critic of President Bush), who makes a perfectly good brownshirt [fascist]. Or Noam Chomsky. No, it would not. To them it would have been further proof that the ruling class just has two faces and one party. But I think, in the mainstream of the democratic and Republican parties, you would have seen an exact switch. Richard Holbrooke’s position (Holbrooke was Clinton's UN Ambassador and is a leading Democratic foreign policy thinker) would be Dick Cheney’s position. The ones in the middle would have just done a switch, finding arguments to support or criticize the war. In fact, I remember that people in the Clinton administration spoke of an inevitable confrontation coming with Saddam. They dropped this idea only because it was a Republican president. That is simply disgraceful. It is likewise disgraceful how many Republicans ran as isolationists against [former Vice-President] Al Gore in the 2000 elections. The only people who come out of this whole affair well are an odd fusion of the old left – the small pro regime change left – and some of the people known as neoconservatives who have a commitment to liberal democracy. Many of the neocons have Marxist backgrounds and believe in ideas and principles and have worked with both parties in power.
Q – In your book, Why Orwell Matters, you noted that Orwell once refused an invitation to speak at the League of European Freedom on the question of Yugoslavian freedom – a cause he believed in. He refused to speak because he felt that the organization failed to condemn British imperialism in India and Burma. He saw that as a fatal flaw. Do the neoconservatives have a fatal flaw: on the one hand supporting Middle East democracy, on the other refusing to condemn Israeli policies that stifle Palestinian freedom aspirations?
A – Orwell said, at the time, that he would not speak for any organization that was opposed to tyranny that did not demand British withdrawal from India and Burma. He also noted that the liberation of Europe did not include the liberation of Spain from the fascists or Portugal. He also noted that it had included the enslavement of Poland.
In the case of the Palestinians, it is generally true that United States political culture doesn’t care about the Palestinians. We are taught to think of them as an inconvenient people who are in the way of Israel and a regional settlement. They are people about whom something should be done or, more condescendingly, for whom something should be provided.
I've spent three decades writing about the Palestinians and publishing a book with Edward Said [leading Palestinian intellectual and critic of Israel] about it. All political factions in this country have been lousy on this issue, but none lousier than the Democratic party. The Democrat party truly is what some people crudely say: a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Israeli lobby. It is one thing it has never deviated on: that and abortion. The only two things the Democrats have never flip flopped about.
The neocons are honorably divided on Israel. Take Paul Wolfowitz, for example. He is very critical of settlements and the whole idea of Greater Israel. Whereas Richard Perle (a prominent neoconservative thinker) doesn’t regard the areas known as Judea and Samaria (the West bank) as occupied territory. He regards them as part of a future Israeli state. I'm looking forward to the neoconservative split on this getting wider.
Q - Some have said that only columnists and public intellectuals can afford principles, whereas politicians sometimes must succumb to realism. In your book, Why Orwell Matters, you admired Orwell because you said that he understood that that politics are fleeting but principles endure. In our day, can a politician rule by principle?
A - It depends on what the principle is. If the principle is that all men are equal or created equal, I don’t think its possible to observe that principle in practice. But if the principle is, say, something cruder such as: can we coexist with aggressive internationalist totalitarian ideologies, then I think you not only can but you should act consistently against that. Never mind the principles for one minute, but the lesson of realism is: that if you don’t fight them now you fight them later.
They [Islamist radicals or, as Hitchens calls them, Islamo-fascists] gave us no peace and we shouldn’t give them any. We can't live on the same planet as them and I'm glad because I don’t want to. I don’t want to breathe the same air as these psychopaths and murders and rapists and torturers and child abusers. Its them or me. I'm very happy about this because I know it will be them. It’s a duty and a responsibility to defeat them. But it's also a pleasure. I don’t regard it as a grim task at all.
INTERNET SOURCE: http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1457374/posts