Drunken Vainglory

Courtesy of Sonic in comments, Alexander Cockburn’s latest Hitchens gossip:

The recent memorial for long-term New York Review co-editor Barbara Epstein, sadly felled by cancer on June 15, was disfigured by an unseemly outbursts from Christopher Hitchens. There was a list of invitees for the private ceremony and C. Hitchens — a sometime NYT contributor ­ was not on the list. He implored to be admitted, and some misguidedly decent soul gave him the green light.

Visibly taken with drink, in the estimate of at least one observer, Hitchens showed up and soon made his way to Jean Stein, a close friend of Barbara Epstein, also editor of Grand Street in recent years. Hitchens spared Stein the habitual presentation of his hairy cheek but made a low, facetious bow and offered his hand.

Stein icily declined, saying she had no desire to shake hands with him for many reasons, not least the fact that Hitchens had attacked one of her best friends, Edward Said, while he was on his death bed.

As Hitchens retreated, someone remarked to him, “So your glorious war has turned out to be a total disaster, hasn’t it?”

“It is glorious,” the sodden scrivener blared, “and it IS my war because it needed Paul Wolfowitz and myself to go and convince the President to go to war.”

As mourners digested this megalomanic outburst, Hitchens continued, “And we are going to kill every Al Qaida terrist and Baathist in the country and that’s a good thing. They need to be killed and we will kill them.”

If this account is true (and there really is no reason to think it’s not), then Sonic is right: it changes things. We were wrong — Hitchens was not the opportunistic jackass journalist we’d thought; he was an active instigator.

Forgive me, but this makes him even more interesting — though of course in a very morbid sense. With Cockburn’s latest bit of information it is clear that the arc of Hitchens’s career is even more classically tragic than we’d thought. How did Hitchens get to this point? What or who caused his Darth Vader-ish turn? When, precisely, did he go “David Horowitz”?

First, for n00bs, let me emphasize: Hitchens was a hero of a journalist. I know it’s hard to believe if your introduction to him has been the morally and artistically degraded crap he writes for Slate, but believe me, Hitchens used to be a master. His archive is your friend. His old stuff can to this day be read for pleasure and profit. But since 2001, he’s been unreadable.

The conventional explanation for Hitchens is that he’s pro-war out of a misguided adopted-tribalist loyalty to the Kurds. This is true as far as it goes, yet it’s a superficial truth. A better explanation is that Hitchens is pro-war because of a unique (for a wingnut) internal clusterfuck of three biases — or, perhaps it would be better to call them tendencies.

One: Hitchens hates religion. All religion. We can sympathise with this, yes? Except Hitchens’s hate for religion is of a religious intensity. In practice this means that Hitchens is prone to apply a crusader’s zeal to his anti-religion crusade.

Two: Hitchens has never outgrown his Trotskyite internationalism. Domestic politics bores him, he sees no glory in dealing with it. Even in his days of decency Hitchens used to write about how the neoconservatives were interesting because they, unlike the neoliberals, primarily concerned themselves with questions of foriegn policy. For Hitchens, international affairs is the subject through which a journalist can display true moral courage (thus his Orwell fetish). In practice, this means that Hitchens has very stupid positions on nationalism, soveriegnty, and the “right” of geopolitical bullies to unilaterally meddle in the affairs of other countries and declare “pre-emptive” war.

Three: Despite his Marxist training, Hitchens never quite rid himself of his ingrained cultural bigotry. The West is always the Best (as Jim Morrison, another man who drank his talent away, put it) for Hitchens. Thus his occasional sneers at indigenous rights, anti-globalism, anti-colonialism, Orientalism, etc. Indeed, the single worst thing, to my mind, that he ever wrote was back before his turn to the Dark Side, and was in this vein:

But those who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway.

One need not be an automatic positivist about this. But it does happen to be the way that history is made, and to complain about it is as empty as complaint about climatic, geological or tectonic shift.

This is the moral equivalent of Holocaust-excusal; it is pure blasphemy. But such awfulness was a rare thing from Hitchens then, yet clearly the biases in him that allowed for such a gruesome moral calculus continued to percolate. Anyway, in practice this final bias overcomes his latent Marxism; when push comes to shove, Hitchens is an imperialist.

So let’s consider how the combination of these three tendencies works. Since Christianity — and Judaism to a lesser extent — are of the West, Hitchens, I think, has made a sort of peace with them — if not completely on an intellectual level, then at least politically on a pragmatic level. That leaves one other, which happens to be Other: Islam, never of the West. Therefore he’s free to concentrate all his hatred of religion on one target; in practice Hitchens is a jihadist of an anti-jihadist.

The downfall started when Hitchens’s friend Salman Rushdie had a fatwah put on him by the Ayatollah Khomeini. At the time, Hitchens was gloriously ecumenical in his denunciation of the religiously-justified death threat: he rightly condemned the religious leaders (and leaders who happened to be religious; George H. W. Bush, for one) of the West who hemmed and hawed not about free speech or death-threats, but instead used the situation to remind everyone that blasphemy was naughty. But then Hitchens eventually forgot all about Falwell, Bush, Robertson, et al, and instead only nourished his hatred of imams and mullahs. Where we on the Left properly view all these fundies as equally insane and deserving of each other, Hitchens picks and chooses — surprise surprise — going against the Saracens and making peace with the Knights Templar.

Then 9/11 and almost instantly Hitchens transformed into a David Horowitz clone.

I’ve always thought it was useful to compare and contrast Christopher Hitchens with Pat Buchanan. Hitchens is a “believing” atheist who despises religion. Buchanan is a believing Catholic. Hitchens thinks it’s worth whatever price (Imperialism) to make war on religionists of a certain sect. Buchanan does not, and preaches isolationism. Yet 40 years ago, Buchanan was a believing anti-communist, who thought it was worth whatever price (Imperialism) for the United States to make war on communists. Hitchens, of course, thought the United States should withdrawl from Southeast Asia. Hitchens was right then and horribly wrong now. Buchanan was horribly wrong then but his ultimate conclusion is right, now (if often for the wrong reasons).


Comments: 36


You left out one important chapter in the evolution of Hitchens – the Clinton years. Hitch absolutely despised Bill and Hill (see “No One Left to Lie To”), which put in him somewhat incongruously in bed with his future allies in the War on Terror.


Yeah, but a lot of Hitchens Clinton hatred was rooted in the same International beliefs he had previously voiced (hence his criticism of the bombing of the Aspirin factory on the eve of impeachment was grounded in moral concerns about the bombing, not about impeachment).


Scotch is a hell of a drug.


Snitchens got in with the right during the 90’s. He was wining and dining with Richard Mellon Scaife and other kooks of the right.

Snitchens is a lot like Kaus or Zell Miller – he knows who butters his bread. He knows he can make it as a wingnut in Washington. This is a good life for Snitch – he recently went to Europe with David Horowitz and was paid handsomely for it. I’m sure he’s making a lot of money for beeing such a knee jerk contrarian.

Would anyone bother with Mickey Kaus if he were just some average run of the mill liberal? He’d probably have some boring job writing for Mother Jones and making $40K a year. Instead, he’s on right wing talk radio, boning Ann Coulter & working for Slate/Washington Post.

The same applies for Zell Miller. No one would’ve given a rat’s ass what that crazy old coot was up to but he realized there was gold in them thar hills. He sold out, betrayed whatever thinly held beliefs and convinctions he had and was rewarded with a nice job at Fox News.

It pays to be a wingnut. It pays handsomely. And Snitchens learned this back in the 90’s.

To Hell With Snitchens!

-Holy Joe L.


The link has changed.


I think you’re both right.

Dreamweasel, that’s a valid point wrt the circles in which Hitchens then and ever-after travelled.

It’s true that he was attacking Clinton from the Left — and rightly so. “No One Left To Lie To” is still mostly a good book. But no matter what, no matter what kind of triangulations one is attacking, it’s never good enough reason to suck-up to the Scaife bunch. Hitchens disgraced himself paling around with Horowitz and Coulter and Rim Job Freeper Robinson then; it was shameful.

The only complaint I have about Hitchens’s attack on Clinton aside the meta issue is his joing in the anti-sex bullshit. There was no Arkansas Project story too lurid for Hitchens to re-circulate. Clinton’s politics, internationally and domestically (and by far the latter) deserved furious attack from the Left. But attacking Clinton on the Lewinsky front was just bullshit, inherently rightwing.

But then as we know now, if Clinton had only declared pre-emptive war on Iraq and conquered it and set-up Halliburton and Bechtel and Exxon and had tortured and murdered with abandon, Hitchens would have forgiven all his personal flaws. After all, Hitchens has no problem now with fundie-loving, death penalty-enthusing, Lord of Corruption Bush.

Murdering muslims and conqyering their territory buys you a lot of credit with Hitch. Mere aspirin factory bombings are chickenfeed.


Brilliant post … thanks.


He was wining and dining with Richard Mellon Scaife and other kooks of the right.
In his defense, the gin money has to come from somewhere— one less meal to pay for equals more gin at home (and/or at the office).


I still don’t really believe that it’s possible to have been a heroic journalist, and still write the kind of horrible thing he last wrote for Slate. He suggests that if opponents of the war are morally serious, they should volunteer as human shields against insurgent attacks. It’s absolutely a Leninist kind of comment to make, in its triumphant rejection of logic and embrace of the false equivalence, and its joy at the prospect of death for one’s ideological opponents. There’s a marvellous passage in Isaac Babel where a protagonist describes admiringly reading a Lenin speech out of the newspaper, “divining the secret curve of Lenin’s straight line”. I don’t see how anyone who could embrace that secret curve can possibly have been a decent and honest thinker.


Why didn’t someone yell to Hitchens…”Whats this “We” shit?” He hides all day drinking until he passes out. Hes turned into loud mouth pussy and needs his face punched repeatedly before he’ll ever realize what an obnoxious coward hes become. “We will kill them”…yeah, right. What a fucking poser.

IMO, someone powerful scared him into selling out after his Henry Kissinger disembowling. He reminds me of Howard Beale in Network after the “you have messed with the primal forces of nature, Mr. Beale! and you will atone!” except Hitchens went insane after the speech. He is sickening but is still given a platform because hes pro-Republican, which is about all you need to get on TV anyway.


Yeah, while I’m a n00b, you haven’t done much to convince me that Hitchens was ever more than an especially talented writer, which I already knew. I’m just about finished with Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, which is due back at the lie-barry next week. Anything Snitch-related you’d recommend?


Travis –

The Kissinger book is simply wonderful, an annihilation.

Hitchens’s three books of collected journalism, Prepared for the Worst, For the Sake of Argument, and Unacknowledged Legislation, are all great, but I’d especially recommend the middle one for a beginner. Love Poverty & War is also a collection, but it’s post-Dark Side Hitchens.

You can search for Hitchens at the Nation’s site and you’ll still be able to find a few of his pre-2001 “minority report” columns. They were free last I looked and most are good, or good enough to give you a taste.


Cool-cool. I’ll give ‘im a whirl.


This is a discussion, not an except of the book or written essay, of Hitchens and others regarding Kissinger. You can see how lucid his arguments used to be. He’s really degraded but used to be great.


And this, which is very well done; though I have no idea if it does justice to Bellow’s novel, it’s an excellent tour of all that’s abominable about neoconservatism.


boning Ann Coulter

Ewwwww! [frantic, scrambling for eye and brain bleach]

What was Snitchen’s obsession with Mother Teresa anyway? I never thought she was A Saint Who Walks This Earth but it got to be a tic with the drunk, like how wingnuts can be talking about, oh, I don’t know, baseball say, and they just have to thrown in some snark about The Clenis. I get the anti-religion thing, I loathe it too, but after a while, Snitchen’s obsession with her was a little unseemly.


Are you sure Hitchens wasn’t just participating in an effort to promote the upcoming Borat movie?

It sounds familiar…

Speaking in broken English, the mysterious man first told the decidedly pro-American crowd – it was a rodeo, of all things, in Salem, of all places – that he supported the war on terrorism.

“I hope you kill every man, woman and child in Iraq, down to the lizards,” he said, according to Brett Sharp of Star Country WSLC, who was also on stage that night as a media sponsor of the rodeo.

An uneasy murmur ran through the crowd.

“And may George W. Bush drink the blood of every man, woman and child in Iraq,” he continued, according to Robynn Jaymes, who co-hosts a morning radio show with Sharp and was also among the stunned observers.

The crowd’s reaction was loud enough for John Saunders, the civic center’s assistant director, to hear from the front office. “It was a restless kind of booing,” Saunders said.



The only thing of Hitchens I ever read and agreed with was his total debunking of the Mother Theresa (meh, more like Monster Theresa) myth.


Eh, I never read The Missionary Position itself, but did read his essays in support of it.

I think it was worthwhile. His argument that Mothe Theresa was awful rests on some solid ground:

She took money and services from the Duvaliers, Charles Keating, and (IIRC), the Hoxha regime in her native Albania. In turn, she praised such people.

She was vocally in favor of Ireland’s law, or almost-law, against divorce yet cavorted with Princess Diana and never criticised her for her divorce (in fact she defended it).

She was grossly irresponsible in that she was not so much into providing poor-relief as she was into rabidly crusading against birth control and abortion — and in Calcutta, in one of the most over-populated regions on earth.


Hitchens hated Clinton because Clinton got laid at Oxford.


Visibly taken with drink…

I just love how Snitchens provides writers all over the world with the opportunity to use all the clever ways of describing shit-faced.


Too bad he’s 57 or he could find out about “we’ll” kill them.


Once again, I bow to the superior descriptive powers of Dr. John Dolan from The eXile:


Short form: Hitchens considers himself the reincarnation of Orwell without realizing how vile Orwell could be. Worth the read.


Is Hitchens called Snitchens, here, over the Blumenthal thing? Or is there some other reason?

I don’t think Hitchens has changed, I think the politics around him has. And I think the biggest difference between Hitchens and most of the current left is that they take different assumptions about the principals in the argument. If Hitchens believed about Bush, and Rumsfeld, et al., the things that most people surmise about them, he’d be back on the right side. He accepts that they’re opperating in good faith. I think he’s wrong, but there’s no way to prove it. Of course, he’s been wrong so often, that it’s easy to guess (given everything else) that he is again.


Oh, also, I’m glad I’ve not ever been heckled at a funeral. I don’t suppose I’d respond well to it, either. Not an excuse, but, Jesus, who does that? Besides Fred Phelps, I mean.


N00b, keep in mind he wasn’t invited and blagged his way into the funeral….


That was a thoughtful, fact-filled essay which revealed a history of Hitchens that I, n00bishly, didn’t know. Very educational and incisive.

And now for something completely different…. An ass joke.

I almost didn’t read the rest of the article when I came across Cockburn’s description: “Hitchens spared Stein the habitual presentation of his hairy cheek but made a low, facetious bow….”

Why? Because I read “hairy cheek but” as “hairy butt cheek”. Which, you know, better describes Hitchens’s attitude these days toward his readers and what he habitually presents them with.


Not to particularly defend Hitchens, but from Cockburn’s description, it sounds to me as though the snooty NYRB types were pretty seriously (and perhaps deliberately) baiting Hitchens. If you want to avoid the guy, just shake his hand when he offers it, and quickly move away. Telling a drunk Hitchens you won’t shake his hand, and why, and then mocking him over the Iraq war is surely the best way possible to get him to blow up and say something amusingly horrible.

Which is not to say that Hitchens isn’t responsible for the horrible things he says, just to say that if you want to keep Hitchens from saying outrageous things at your friend’s funeral, these people didn’t do the best job of it.


And, uh, he was invited, just not on the initial invitation list. I don’t like Hitchens, but from Cockburn’s description the other people at the funeral seem at least as bad.


Wibbling and equivocation in the interest of “balance.”

I, for one, can never get enough of that.


Personally I still agree with Hitchens 95% of the time………..the 5% being the current Iraq debacle. Personally, I don’t think he has made peace with any religion, considering he still consistently rips that sadist Theresa……


It should be said that there’s a Marxist precedent for Hitchens’ view of ‘the way that history is made.’ The Communist Manifesto: ‘The bourgeoise … draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. … It compells all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production …’ There’ve long been people who read this as legislating the inevitability of plague blankets. By the time Hitchens’ came of age, the most Marxists had long since abandoned any hint of the complaisance he expresses about such things, but there was a minority current (eg the lamented Bill Warren) that looked on imperialism without disapprobation. (I don’t know Hitchens’ attitude toward Warren, who also was associated with New Left Review.)

Hitchens still evidently thinks he’d got some sort of purchase the inexorable laws of history, and that it’s a voluntarist error to cry over the broken eggs that he knows history necessitates. (It’s another matter that he’s a hypervoluntarist, not to say a DSM-style malignant narcissist, in his own conduct.)

It’s easy to overdo the idea that neoconservatives betray a mechanical Marxist influence, but there certainly is that strain of crackpot realism that excuses every hidden murder as the unavoidable price of some radiant future, whether world communism or global democracy.

I may be the odd man here, but aren’t comments about Hitchens’ alcoholism, particularly by people who don’t know him, more than a bit repulsive?


Great post. Hitchens’ tragedy is similar to that of Orwell in Catalonia: he knew what he was against, but never quite realised what that meant he’d need to be for. He wanted his Spanish Civil War, and got something much worse: not the party squabbles between the left-wing factions, but the fully-fledged neoconservative project.


[…] I don't know if you read Sadly, No! regularly, but you should. Even if you do, you may skip some of the longer posts (yeah, I'm talking about you, Retardo, God love you). In any case, this post should be read by all. It links to a Counterpunch entry from Alexander Cockburn. According to Cockburn, a drunken Hitchens claimed that he was one of the instigators of the Iraq war. […]


Hitch has a response to Cockburn’s article posted at: http://www.hitchensweb.com/


[…] Christopher Hitchens: [T]hose who view the history of North America as a narrative of genocide and slavery are, it seems to me, hopelessly stuck on this reactionary position. They can think of the Western expansion of the United States only in terms of plague blankets, bootleg booze and dead buffalo, never in terms of the medicine chest, the wheel and the railway. […]


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