So the author and journalist, Christopher Hitchens, has died aged 62. All day the mainstream media have been broadcasting glowing tributes to Hitchens. One reporter on Britain’s Channel 4 News even claimed that Hitchens had consistently taken a “stand against abusers of power”. But at least one dissenting view made it through the airwaves. In an interview for BBC News, Hitchens’ erstwhile fellow traveller Tariq Ali talked of Hitchens’s shameful support for Western imperialism. The interviewer’s unease was palpable, and predictably enough, the interview was terminated rather abruptly when Ali moved on to the matter of Hitchens’ narcissism.
For the last quarter of a century, Hitchens’ hard-drinking, tough-talking image has made him the poster-boy of the liberal intelligentsia in the UK and US. Hitchens could certainly be a lot of fun. He delighted in pointing out the hypocrisy and mendacity of certain powerful individuals – such as Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (so-called ‘Mother’ Teresa), Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton – and he did so with aplomb. Indeed, there is no denying that ‘the Hitch’ was a consummate prose stylist and a seductively sonorous public speaker. But, as Richard Seymour notes, Hitchens, for all his svelte polemic, was a rather conventional sort of thinker who had “difficulty in handling complex arguments”. And more importantly, like his champion, the British writer and comedian Stephen Fry (for who can forget Fry’s attempts to reassure the British public, following the MP’s expenses scandal in 2009, that all is well with liberal democracy), Hitchens abused his persuasive powers in support of the status quo.
It is a common misconception that Hitchens drifted rightwards following 9/11. In fact, Hitchens was always on the side of capital, starting out as a Trotskyist and ending up, only slightly more conventionally, as a liberal. He was also a consistent pro-imperialist, supporting the British invasion of the Falklands in the 1980s, the brutal attacks on Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the equally savage invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the following decade. Indeed, Hitchens consistently supported US and British national interests, making a mockery of his claim to be an internationalist.
Moreover, as Glenn Greenwald reminds us, Hitchens’s viciousness and bellicosity were remarkable. Writing about Iraq, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate any Koran, and he admitted to being exhilarated by the 9/11 attacks, on the grounds that they provided him with an opportunity to launch his literary war against ‘Islamofascism’ (like a querulous teenager, Hitchens saw ‘fascism’ everywhere – or, to be more precise, everywhere that Western interests were threatened). He even called the Dixie Chicks ‘sluts’ and ‘fucking fat slags’ for mildly criticising the US president. These are all reasons why, despite his literary achievements, Hitchens should be remembered as a repugnant propagandist for the rich and powerful.