In July, I read Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, the paperback release of which I had been waiting for. (Sadly, Hitchens has been struck with esophageal cancer since the original hardback version was published last year. I wish him a speedy recovery.) He has for a long time been a writer I look out for: his erudition and wit have enlivened the book pages of Atlantic Monthly, and I have enjoyed his polemic god is not Great, as well as his collections of essays. A few years ago, Atlantic Monthly published a letter of mine, challenging Hitchens as to why he had not discussed Michael Straight’s assertion that P. G. Wodehouse had expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini in the early 1930s, and Hitchens wrote a shrewd response in the magazine.
Hitch-22 is generally very incisive, insightful, allusive, and entertaining. Hitchens has a wonderfully broad span of interest, and a refreshingly contrarian perspective. But the author comes over as very pleased with himself. He is a big ‘friend-collector’ (although not in the class of Denis Healey: see TheFriendsofDenisHealey). He took a long time to discard his Trotskyist rompers, all the time eager to take the capitalist’s shilling, and remains a ‘socialist’ of undisclosed persuasions. He does not clearly understand what ‘fascism’ is, and his romantic exploration of his Jewish roots lacks the rigour that he brings in his analysis of other issues, showing several categorical mistakes. Like his idol, George Orwell, he seems to have a photographic memory, but, also like Orwell, he is a bit careless in not checking his quotation authorities properly. His accounts of the word-games he plays with his equally self-satisfied literary friends are cringe-making in the extreme. He takes cheap shots at names like Ayn Rand and Stanley Baldwin, without providing any analysis. (And the title he chose for his atheist treatise is absurd, as it explicitly gives the attribute of existence to an entity whose existence he denies.)
But it is in his justification of the war in Iraq that finds Hitchens at his most awkward. Since he had witnessed the horrors of Saddam Hussein’s regime at first hand, he presents the need for intervention by ‘the international community’ (yes, that meaningless cliché – another mythological entity believed in by the ingenuous) as a call for moral action. Yet this argument is rife with contradictions and unimagined complexities. In a letter last year on this subject to the historian, Correlli Barnett (with whom I am in occasional contact, though I cannot claim him as a friend), I wrote, after reading a letter of his in the Spectator that complained about the role of ‘moral obligation’ and ‘mission’ in the execution of British foreign policy:
“i) Foreign policy has to be considered within the pragmatics of economic affordability, and furtherance of national interests. Claiming that such complex issues as nation-building, and resolution of civil wars and tribal conflicts, can be reduced to unambiguous decisions about morality simply devalues the whole debate.
- ii) If such decisions were really ‘moral’ ones, there would be no choices, no compromises to be made. If it is moral to insert ourselves into Afghanistan, say, it would presumably be immoral not to do so in Somalia or the Congo, for example. Yet the country has to choose. What is the moral guidance for such choices?
iii) The only Law that really takes effect is the Law of Unintended Consequences. For every such apparently well-intended action, there will be outcomes that have deleterious, even fatal, results on some, such as the killing of innocent schoolchildren in drone attacks. What is the morality implicit in that, if the premier goal is one made on specious grounds of morality?
- iv) I don’t believe that you can raise a volunteer army on the basis that a soldier might have to give his (or her) life simply because a politician (and party) believes that a mission not tightly bound to the nation’s interest and survival has to be undertaken. That itself is immoral, to me.”
(Dr. Barnett agreed with all my points.) Since then, this debate should have intensified, but in fact David Cameron’s coalition has fallen into the same trap. If Colonel Qaddafi should be brought down, why not Robert Mugabe? Or Bashar al-Hassad? Or Kim Jong Il? Or any other number of murderous dictators? For if it is a moral imperative (for whom?) to intervene when a tyrant kills his own citizens, it must be immoral not to do so in circumstances elsewhere. Yet we all know that would be impossible. The challenge has to boil down to pragmatics and priorities, not estimates of moral obligation. Hitchens never discusses this aspect of the problem, and, for all the admission of his maintenance of two sets of mental books, thus falls short in his role of public intellectual.
The normal Commonplace updates posted (Commonplace2011). (July 31, 2011)
I should record that I received a courteous reply from the ODNB editors: it had been busy putting out a new release. A quiet month: updates to Commonplace2011 only. (June 30, 2011)