Whatever happened to Hitchens?

In case you’ve been wondering, here’s the headsup [via Tim D.] I used to really enjoy Hitchens’ acerbic and witty writing – but he’s descended into a sad self-parody. And lest I be accused of disliking him now that he’s joined the forces of evil, I think that it can easily be argued that his writing has become less punchy and his arguments confused. But maybe, as George Scialabba observes, there is an element of disappointment at his political switch:

If a hall of fame were established for contemporary book reviewers?Äîwell, why not? There’s one for ad executives, poker players, and probably porn stars?ÄîChristopher Hitchens would very likely be its second inductee. (James Wood, of course, would be the first.) About an amazing range of literary and political figures?ÄîProust, Joyce, Borges, Byron, Bellow, Orhan Pamuk, Tom Paine, Trotsky, Churchill, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Israel Shahak, and a hundred others?Äîhe has supplied the basic information, limned the relevant controversies, hazarded an original perception or two, and thrown out half a dozen fine phrases, causing between fifteen and forty- five minutes of reading time to pass entirely unnoticed. His very, very frequent political columns have occasionally seemed tossed off, it’s true; but his books about Cyprus, the Palestinians, the British monarchy, and the Elgin Marbles are seriously argued. Though he lives in Washington, DC, and is said to be very fond of fancy parties, he has famously insulted and called for the incarceration of a sitting President and a ubiquitously befriended diplomat and Nobel laureate. And he appears on all those self-important TV talk shows without wearing a tie. How can you not admire someone like that?

Actually, it’s not so difficult, I’ve discovered. All the someone in question has to do is begin thinking differently from me about a few important matters, and in no time I find that his qualities have subtly metamorphosed. His abundance of colorful anecdotes now looks like incessant and ingenious self-promotion. His marvelous copiousness and fluency strike me as mere mellifluous facility and mechanical prolixity. A prose style I thought deliciously suave and sinuous I now find preening and overelaborate. His fearless cheekiness has become truculent bravado; his namedropping has gone from endearing foible to excruciating tic; his extraordinary dialectical agility seems like resourceful and unscrupulous sophistry; his entertaining literary asides like garrulousness and vulgar display; his bracing contrariness, tiresome perversity. Strange, this alteration of perspective; and even stranger, it sometimes occurs to me that if he changed his opinions again and agreed with me, all his qualities would once more reverse polarity and appear in their original splendor. A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking.


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30 responses to “Whatever happened to Hitchens?”

  1. Kim

    I tell you – this Sciaballa character can write like a demon too! Any paragraph finishing in “A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking” makes me go all tingly. And such alliteration. Must go to bed and contemplate this languorous language!

  2. Kim

    I tell you – this Sciaballa character can write like a demon too! Any paragraph finishing in “A very instructive experience, epistemologically speaking” makes me go all tingly. And such alliteration. Must go to bed and contemplate this languorous language!

  3. Kim

    ps – still like Hitchens’ book on Clinton!

  4. Kim

    ps – still like Hitchens’ book on Clinton!

  5. Andrew Norton

    I don’t read a lot of Hitchens’ political commentary (though his attack on Michael Moore was a lot of fun) but his monthly literary essay in The Atlantic is still well worth reading, IMHO.

    Being a modest consumer of his political work I can’t really say if there has been a decline, but he was basically a Trot for quite a while, and there is a common psychological path for such people (or at least the few that are intelligent and sane). They experience revulsion at their former comrades de facto support for every tryanny with an anti-Western pose, and in order to cleanse themselves of this taint launch into hyperbolic attacks on the left. Reason and rigour are often collateral damage. David Horowitz, who gets a mention in the link, is perhaps the most extreme case of this, but there are many others.

  6. Andrew Norton

    I don’t read a lot of Hitchens’ political commentary (though his attack on Michael Moore was a lot of fun) but his monthly literary essay in The Atlantic is still well worth reading, IMHO.

    Being a modest consumer of his political work I can’t really say if there has been a decline, but he was basically a Trot for quite a while, and there is a common psychological path for such people (or at least the few that are intelligent and sane). They experience revulsion at their former comrades de facto support for every tryanny with an anti-Western pose, and in order to cleanse themselves of this taint launch into hyperbolic attacks on the left. Reason and rigour are often collateral damage. David Horowitz, who gets a mention in the link, is perhaps the most extreme case of this, but there are many others.

  7. Mark

    I agree about his writing in The Atlantic, Andrew – perhaps it’s the case that his political columns are dashed off too quickly?

  8. Mark

    I agree about his writing in The Atlantic, Andrew – perhaps it’s the case that his political columns are dashed off too quickly?

  9. Gaby

    Thanks for linking to this article. Very enjoyable and well argued and written. Totally agree Kim. If nothing else, a fair summary of his current thinking together with succinct criticisms of those views.

    I’ve read a fair bit of Hitchens and have always enjoyed his lucid and combatative style. I enjoyed both the literary and political pieces. I’ll have to hunt out his Atlantic stuff.

    I don’t this his “war on terror” stuff is as cogent, or even coherent. The Moore piece was terrible.

    I wonder what Gore Vidal thinks of him now?

  10. Gaby

    Thanks for linking to this article. Very enjoyable and well argued and written. Totally agree Kim. If nothing else, a fair summary of his current thinking together with succinct criticisms of those views.

    I’ve read a fair bit of Hitchens and have always enjoyed his lucid and combatative style. I enjoyed both the literary and political pieces. I’ll have to hunt out his Atlantic stuff.

    I don’t this his “war on terror” stuff is as cogent, or even coherent. The Moore piece was terrible.

    I wonder what Gore Vidal thinks of him now?

  11. Matthew

    I was talking to someone who knew him fairly well at one point & they think that the decline in his work is because of how much alcohol he consumes.
    Personally I think that his opinions seem to be getting closer & closer to those of his right wing brother “Peter Hitchens” who sometimes writes for papers in the UK & has also written a few books. IIRC Peter was also a lot more left wing originally & then drifted across.

  12. Matthew

    I was talking to someone who knew him fairly well at one point & they think that the decline in his work is because of how much alcohol he consumes.
    Personally I think that his opinions seem to be getting closer & closer to those of his right wing brother “Peter Hitchens” who sometimes writes for papers in the UK & has also written a few books. IIRC Peter was also a lot more left wing originally & then drifted across.

  13. fred lapides

    That is to say: when he writes stuff I approve of, he is great. When he writes stuff I disapprove of politically he is worthless…it’s all about me!

  14. fred lapides

    That is to say: when he writes stuff I approve of, he is great. When he writes stuff I disapprove of politically he is worthless…it’s all about me!

  15. James Farrell

    Disagree, Fred. What has turned me off is his recent reliance on cheap debating tactics. In a public debate on the war two years ago he asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed that ‘oil is not something worth fighting for’. What the hell is that supposed to mean? And later he would ask his adversaries: ‘Would you rather deal with Uday or Qusay’?, as if this somehow showed up the case against war as fatuous.

    And then there’s the failure to acknowledge mistakes. Hitchens assured us all unequivocally that WMDs would be found. Two years later, when even Bush and Blair are admitting there weren’t any after all, Hitchens is still desperately trying to convince us, and berating the media for missing ‘the big story’. This is to say nothing of his complicitly in the Big Fudge whereby chemical weapons (which Saddam did have) were lumped together with nuclear weapons (which might have been a basis for war, but which Saddam didn’t have) under the amoarphous heading WMD. I don’t read everything he writes, but where is the article admitting that this part of the case for war, if not the other parts, was wrong? I think the Hitchens of twenty years ago would have been less stubborn.

  16. James Farrell

    Disagree, Fred. What has turned me off is his recent reliance on cheap debating tactics. In a public debate on the war two years ago he asked the audience to raise their hands if they believed that ‘oil is not something worth fighting for’. What the hell is that supposed to mean? And later he would ask his adversaries: ‘Would you rather deal with Uday or Qusay’?, as if this somehow showed up the case against war as fatuous.

    And then there’s the failure to acknowledge mistakes. Hitchens assured us all unequivocally that WMDs would be found. Two years later, when even Bush and Blair are admitting there weren’t any after all, Hitchens is still desperately trying to convince us, and berating the media for missing ‘the big story’. This is to say nothing of his complicitly in the Big Fudge whereby chemical weapons (which Saddam did have) were lumped together with nuclear weapons (which might have been a basis for war, but which Saddam didn’t have) under the amoarphous heading WMD. I don’t read everything he writes, but where is the article admitting that this part of the case for war, if not the other parts, was wrong? I think the Hitchens of twenty years ago would have been less stubborn.

  17. Irant

    Cool thing about being State side is that the magazines are bloody cheap. I did pick up this issue of the Atlantic but nor for Hitchen. It was for Bernard-Henri Levy’s In the Footsteps of Tocqueville. Alas I haven’t had a chance to really get into it. Got 12 hours on a 747 tomorrow and depending on the movies I’ll have a read.

  18. Irant

    Cool thing about being State side is that the magazines are bloody cheap. I did pick up this issue of the Atlantic but nor for Hitchen. It was for Bernard-Henri Levy’s In the Footsteps of Tocqueville. Alas I haven’t had a chance to really get into it. Got 12 hours on a 747 tomorrow and depending on the movies I’ll have a read.

  19. Rob

    ‘Whatever happened to Hitchens?’

    Maybe he got better? Some of us do recover, eventually, though it can take years.

    Yes, it’s the old ‘I too was once a socialist’ meme, folks. Will I never be free of it?

  20. Rob

    ‘Whatever happened to Hitchens?’

    Maybe he got better? Some of us do recover, eventually, though it can take years.

    Yes, it’s the old ‘I too was once a socialist’ meme, folks. Will I never be free of it?

  21. Nabakov

    I think there’s also a bit of that life-trajectory thing you find in middle-aged, middle-class englishmen of a certain stripe and broad vintage – like those that played songs of revolution and sexual and drug transgression and then settled down as Conservative voting country squires.

  22. Nabakov

    I think there’s also a bit of that life-trajectory thing you find in middle-aged, middle-class englishmen of a certain stripe and broad vintage – like those that played songs of revolution and sexual and drug transgression and then settled down as Conservative voting country squires.

  23. Rob

    Hitchens’ old mate Martin Amis is another such – though not sure if they’re still mates since Amis wrote ‘Koba the Dread’, which takes a swipe at Hitchens for not being revisionist enough.

  24. Rob

    Hitchens’ old mate Martin Amis is another such – though not sure if they’re still mates since Amis wrote ‘Koba the Dread’, which takes a swipe at Hitchens for not being revisionist enough.

  25. James Farrell
  26. James Farrell
  27. Rob

    Interesting article. Liked:

    But the suspicion remains that America is not behaving rationally – that America is behaving like someone still in shock.

    More than a ‘suspicion’, maybe? Over at Troppo I tried to suggest that the US lost its head after 9/11, and its actions against Iraq were based on fear, rage and hurt rather than by any coherent strategy.

  28. Rob

    Interesting article. Liked:

    But the suspicion remains that America is not behaving rationally – that America is behaving like someone still in shock.

    More than a ‘suspicion’, maybe? Over at Troppo I tried to suggest that the US lost its head after 9/11, and its actions against Iraq were based on fear, rage and hurt rather than by any coherent strategy.

  29. Rob

    Should have added ‘OT, sorry’ – sorry.

  30. Rob

    Should have added ‘OT, sorry’ – sorry.