Opportunities

David Gilmour

  • Prepared for the worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports by Christopher Hitchens
    Chatto, 357 pp, £15.95, April 1989, ISBN 0 7011 3459 3

Hitchens was right to go West. He needed lusher plains of political corruption across which to spread himself. He needed a country of wide horizons and myopic international vision. And he needed an administration of almost limitless power and quite exceptional stupidity. Then he could be happy, indulging in the lethal, jugulating kind of journalism at which he excels.

Of course he would have found some agreeable targets if he had stayed in Britain, but fewer and perhaps less worthy of his envenomed pen. As these essays indicate, he is much better at dealing with the monstrous legacy of Henry Kissinger than scoffing at poor Bill Rodgers of the SDP (as he and it then were). And Britain was also constricting, especially if you were a radical left-wing journalist with an upper-class accent and a taste for good port. You could always affect a proletarian accent and stop drinking port, but Hitchens, to his credit, did neither. He used, at Oxford, to do all the right things with the comrades of Balliol Junior Common Room and then slope off for a bit of hospitality from the Warden of All Souls. Later, at the New Statesman, he reasoned that being a ‘committed’ radical during the day should not prevent him from dancing at Annabel’s during the night. As an attitude it may be defensible, but it led to a certain amount of mistrust and it contributed to some unreliable journalism.

Hitchens in America is recognisably the same creature as he was in Britain, but his range is wider, his writing is more sensitive and his judgments are usually fairer, though it is unfair as well as slick to write of Berlinguer’s ‘Gucci socialism’, a phrase which more justly describes its author. He retains his gift for the felicitous phrase and an eye for humbug, and he remains a skilled puncturer of bloated reputations. This collection contains his best work (reviews of the biographies of drunk actresses and unpleasant billionaires have rightly been discarded) and includes some excellent essays on literary and political figures, some good foreign reporting (especially on Nicaragua and El Salvador), and a number of shorter polemical pieces of mixed quality on American politics. They are somewhat arbitrarily placed in the book and the reader is not helped by the absence of an index and a contents page that does not list the contents. Perhaps the publishers set out to be mysterious: neither the title (which heads the last section consisting of a single essay called something else) nor the cover (the detail of a painting by Caravaggio) seem to have anything to do with the book.

Most of the articles could be grouped under the headings Heroes, Clowns and Villains, though there would be a certain amount of overlapping between the last two categories. The Heroes section would include pieces on Tom Paine and Oscar Wilde, a passionate vindication of Noam Chomsky (‘among the few Americans of his generation to lay claim to the title of original thinker’) and a long, thoughtful portrait of Professor Shahak, the great Israeli human rights activist. There is a strikingly good article on Paul Scott’s The Raj Quartet in which Hitchens discusses the ambiguities and contradictions of British rule in India. And there is an excellent defence of George Orwell which is somewhat reminiscent of Orwell’s own essay in defence of Kipling. Hitchens lines up the most formidable detractors (Raymond Williams, Edward Said, Conor Cruise O’Brien), quotes them fairly and at length, and then demolishes them. He even follows Orwell’s injunction that a writer should be particularly severe with the work of his friends (in this case, Said). After that he has the simple task of knocking out the absurd claim of Norman Podhoretz that Orwell was ‘a forerunner of neo-conservatism’. Apart from anything else, the claim rests largely on a quotation from a 1947 essay which Podhoretz reduced and garbled in an attempt to turn Orwell into a supporter of America.

Most of the Villains section would be devoted to American politicians. Jeane Kirkpatrick and John F. Kennedy are high up in this league, but the top place is rightly reserved for Henry Kissinger. One of the mysteries about international affairs is the state of this man’s reputation. In every continent of the world (except Australia) Kissinger created havoc, sustaining old dictatorships and conjuring new ones, sabotaging peace efforts and instigating lethal military adventures. Many years ago William Shawcross and Seymour Hersh revealed the extent of his hooliganism in Cambodia and elsewhere. More recently Patrick Seale showed in his biography of Asad that Kissinger almost single-handedly wrecked the chances of a Middle East settlement after 1973. And here Christopher Hitchens contemplates the ‘doctor’s’ gifts to Latin America: ‘By murdering’ Salvador Allende and ‘by collapsing Chilean society into a dictatorship, Kissinger and his confrères educated a whole generation of Latin American radicals. Pluralism is now seen by many of them as a trap or a snare; an invitation to make yourself vulnerable; a none-too-subtle suggestion of suicide.’ Yet one of the most disastrous and unscrupulous politicians since the Second World War still preserves his reputation as a ‘statesman’.

Kissinger’s career is one of the few features of American politics that Hitchens feels able to discuss with undiluted seriousness. Armageddon cranks like Pat Robertson may be prodding us towards the nuclear holocaust but it’s impossible to discuss him as if he were a sane person. Hitchens has the same difficulty with Reagan. He proudly claims never to have lampooned the old man as a Wild West ham and shows, among other things, that the former President is an accomplished liar. But he still can’t take him seriously. ‘To listen even very briefly to Ronald Reagan is to realise that here is a man upon whose synapses the termites have dined long and well.’

Hitchens has no illusions about the capability of post-Reagan America to reform itself. The corruption of its politics, the bribery and often the crime necessary to ensure election, is too widespread to prevent the country getting the representatives it deserves. Even this has its twisted, humorous side: Hitchens shows that Congress’s most ostentatious hawks are often those who avoided the draft or fabricated a war record in Vietnam. Yet, tragically, the decadence of much of the American press prevents rational analysis of Republican foreign policy. Reagan enjoyed six years as President before facing a difficult press conference. ‘The entire media culture of Washington,’ writes Hitchens, ‘had been conditioned for soft lobs, first-name exchanges, and a jostle for the eye of Denny Brisley.’ Even periodicals such as Partisan Review, which Orwell used to write for, have degenerated into neo-conservatism while the New Republic, once the paper of Walter Lippmann and Edmund Wilson, has become ‘a vulgar echo chamber for the Contras and corporate raiders’. The failure of all but a handful of journalists and writers to challenge Reagan’s madder foreign policies prompts a neat comment from Hitchens: ‘This barely counted as trahison because those who did it could barely count themselves clercs.’

Bogus reasoning in defence of the American Right brings one inevitably back to Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary. For grandiose self-regard, pomposity of expression and insistence on seeing himself as a martyr and/or unhonoured prophet, Podhoretz is in a class of his own. One marvels at the conceit of an article like the one entitled ‘J’ Accuse’ (Commentary, September 1982), which sympathises with the perpetrators and not the victims of the crime in question. Those of us who thought that Begin and Sharon bombed too many Lebanese hospitals in 1982 are compared to anti-Dreyfusard anti-semites. His toadying to Kissinger is scarcely less remarkable and Hitchens quotes Podhoretz’s wonderful assertion that the ‘doctor’ has ‘a judicious respect for even the least powerful of nations and the sensitivity of an anthropologist to the distinctive features and beauties of even the least imposing of cultures’. Try explaining that one to the people of Chile, Palestine and Cambodia.