Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas

by A. Jay Adler on December 21, 2011
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John Cook of Gawker writes of Christopher Hitchens that he “loathed sentiment, welcomed combat, and delighted in inflicting hard truths.” Cook undoubtedly means “sentimentality,” which masquerades everywhere as sentiment, in which case he is indisputably right about Hitchens, who would have begrudged those now attacking him only the regrettable spectacle (he surely would have believed) of their being so thoroughly wrong and their case so poorly argued. He would never have denied their – “right” is not the word; one might better say – natural uprising against him. He would simply have fought back against them.

Glenn Greenwald, who cites Cook approvingly, has written a much noted piece entitled “Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths,” in which he protests that no one

should … be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden

further, that

demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of [the praise] be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize….

This is the setup, the rationale, for Greenwald’s attack on Hitchens, Greenwald’s own moralizing corrective: some unspecified bar has been put up, prohibition established, against speaking ill of Hitchens. Where, pray tell? Hitchens died Thursday, December 15. Most obituaries appeared the following day. Over the first couple of days came the remembrances in praise and appreciation of those who thought most well of him. This is to be expected. Greenwald’s post appeared at Salon on Saturday the 17th, a mere two days after Hitchens died. Whence in those two days came the premised objection to speaking ill of the dead? Did some pal of the recently departed communicate privately to Greenwald insisting no one speak ill of his Hitch? Who?

We begin, then, with Greenwald, as is so often the case, with a fundamental dishonesty. He brings his straw man with him, and, of course, then, provides the crows, much like the army of writers and dissenting voices on Israel who write in major forums all over the country that one is “not allowed” to write critically of Israel . Something else is at work, and Greenwald will, in time, reveal it, as Cook does from the start. Writes Cook in his first sentence,

The outpouring of grief, goodwill, and teary encomia that has attended news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing would—if he was anything like the persona he presented in print—have turned his stomach.

The link, if you follow it, will be to a Huffington Post collection of tweets that appeared in the first hours after Hitchens’s death. If you read them – some from the notable, some not – you will find them not all that teary, even mixed in their consideration. What they do offer, certainly, is praise, “goodwill” and “grief.” That truly seems to be the objection.

In contrast Katha Pollit, at The Nation, whom I rarely admire, came neither to praise nor bury Hitchens. She has many old, ideological and professional bones to pick with him and might have taken the opportunity of Regarding Christopher to pick them clean. She does set them on the plate. But her consideration is of the person, the individual and the public figure, and all in all, she offers her human, not tendentious, regard. After much fair criticism, she ends:

I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Greenwald and Cook have a different agenda, and isn’t a meditation on the “protocol for public figure death.”  It is partly a justification for criticism after death, but why should one feel one needs a justification? Maybe for Greenwald it was this:

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him.

Hmn. He doesn’t say. Rarely wrote about Hitchens when alive, lays out an elaborate rationale for attacking him immediately after death. What would the pugnacious Hitch have to say about that weasel-turd of a maneuver? Because “there was nothing particularly notable about him”? Really? That why everyone is talking about him, because there is nothing notable about him? And it is his death that made him notable? And unavailable, now, to respond?


Writes Cook,

In that spirit, it must not be forgotten in mourning him that [Hitchens] got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong.

Now I must beg to differ with Cook, not about whether Hitchens got the decision Cook speaks of – support for the Iraq War – wrong, but as to what, in fact, “the single most consequential decision” of Hitchens’s life was. I claim that it was his break with the far left over Afghanistan and Islamism. In that break, the anti-totalitarian Hitchens forever separated himself from eight decades of modern left folly and moral degeneracy in defense of, and excuse for, every form of nominally anti-Imperial totalitarianism, from Marxist-Leninism to Islamist theocracy.

In contrast, many on the left – such as Hitchens’s consequently former colleagues at The Nation – opposed even the War in Afghanistan, and later – in lineal argumentative descent – the Iraq War. And this, if one focuses on Cook’s and Greenwald’s own concentrations, is what both are really writing about. Cook, as we see, makes that clear from the start. It is not, truly, that Hitchens got the single most consequential decision in his life wrong. It is that Cook thinks the Iraq War the single most consequential political event of his life, and he cannot forgive Hitchens for making a different choice in it. The same is true of Greenwald, but in his dishonesty, he offers up the red herring of opposing hagiography. Greenwald is consistently representative of a manic element on the left that will to its end days (like lingering 60s culture warriors) demonize any prominent figure who supported the Iraq War. There isn’t any excess – of moral righteousness, contempt, or vicious attack – of which naysayers accuse Hitchens in his public life that they do not exhibit against notable Iraq War proponents. One can find much to support the charge against Hitchens. Here, similarly, is Greenwald on Hitchens:

he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them.

Ah, but the likeminded will think – missing the point – but Greenwald is right. And Hitchens was wrong. And as I say, Greenwald was not about correcting posterity on Hitchens, but on the Iraq War, one proponent at a time. They did not make different, arguable choices; they were “fanatics…driven by a toxic mix of barbarism” and more.

I owe it to reader Rob that I can cite the following from the preface of Greenwald’s first book, “How Would A Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok.”

During the lead-up to the invasion, I was concerned that the hell-bent focus on invading Iraq was being driven by agendas and strategic objectives that had nothing to do with terrorism or the 9/11 attacks. The overt rationale for the invasion was exceedingly weak, particularly given that it would lead to an open-ended, incalculably costly, and intensely risky preemptive war. Around the same time, it was revealed that an invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein had been high on the agenda of various senior administration officials long before September 11. Despite these doubts, concerns, and grounds for ambivalence, I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush administration. Between the president’s performance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the swift removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that I wanted the president to succeed, because my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country, I still gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country.

It is little known that Greenwald supported the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan before it. He does not mention it in writing anymore and rarely speaks of it. He supported the war for the same reason I did: he believed that Iraq possessed WMD and that the potential consequences of that possession could not be risked. When no WMD were found, it made no difference to Hitchens, who too characteristically belittled the significance of the non-finding, and those to whom it mattered, and continued to promote many other rationales for the war that were forceful and honorable, but for me circumstantially undeterminative. Without a belief in the existence of WMD I would not have supported the war and neither, it appears, would Greenwald have. For Greenwald, however, the knowledge that a government in which he had placed a level of trust, had, at the very least, gotten it so wrong – if not manipulated the nation into war – has led to an abiding campaign of extraordinary vituperation against not just the government officials responsible, but others, outside of government, particularly journalists, who had argued for action and the rightness of it.

There is in Greenwald’s conduct a quality of animus found in the innocent betrayed, which, clearly, inferentially, he believes himself to have been. It is notable that Greenwald, now so prominent a political voice is so new not just to public advocacy, but to politics itself. He tells us also in the preface of his first book,

I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents. I believed that voting was not particularly important. Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track. Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference. I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal. But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government. My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably. For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process. I had great faith in the stability and resilience of the constitutional republic that the founders created. All that has changed. Completely.

One does not wish to fault any individual’s personal and intellectual development, but Greenwald’s is an influential, relentlessly judgmental, unsentimental and unforgiving voice in public affairs, and one must note that so well educated a man, with his legal expertise foundational to his political analysis and reputation, believed until well into his late thirties – after the 2000 Supreme Court elections decision and two wars – that “voting was not particularly important.” His knowledge of American political and economic history was such that until near 2005 he believed there was only a marginal difference made in electing Democrat or Republican and his political ideas were sufficiently amorphous as to find no coherent direction toward the left or the right, a characteristic noted of Greenwald even now. From this long-delayed and still ungrounded political consciousness comes now, daily, a kind of fury in rebellion at the late-discovered imperfection of the forces that rule (who are only the mirror of ourselves) and if you depart from its possessor on dark and difficult matters you are a scoundrel, sir – and oddly enough, multiple manipulations of fact, argument, and intent will be whipped up to expose hypocrisy.

All of which is to say that Greenwald shouldn’t worry about speaking ill of the dead. The dead if they were living would surely speak ill of him, dead or alive, and recognize, too, a faux-decorous essay for precisely what it is, just a little camouflage in the war of ideas, of which reputations and the bodies that bore them are in the end reduced to a long frontline’s fodder anyway.


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