Christopher Hitchens: Setting the record straight

By Andrew O’Brien

Since I have decided to found a society named after Christopher Hitchens and Dr. Noel Browne TD, and I have marked myself out as a ‘Hitchens-Social-Democrat’ in my twitter bio, I have been slimed with the epithets of ‘Racist’ and ‘Thatcherite’ by those who I would consider to be on the Ultra-left. This speaks volumes about the perception of Hitch by those he would at one point in his career have called comrades. Indeed, being a former believer in the fourth international, I probably would have called these people comrades as well, but because of my political evolution over the years, from being a hardcore communist, then to a brand of libertarian that would have made Alan Greenspan look like Clement Atlee, then to a belief in Anarcho-syndicalism, and latest evolution being to social democrat, with tendencies sympathetic to Anarcho-syndicalism, I am quite happy to be separate from those who make such charges against me.

It was at a session in Toners on Baggot street that I had decided to join the Labour party, after the march for choice last September. An inspiration for joining Labour was Hitch himself, and his on-again-off-again relationship with the Labour party in the UK. It was my intention to be a thorn in the side of my comrades. I had felt that they had abandoned the vision that Larkin and Connolly had put forward for the Irish proletariat, and were in danger of becoming mealy mouthed orange bookers. And believe it or not, while I sympathise with, I do not fully agree with their syndicalist vision.

It wasn’t until 2006 when Hitch finally conceded on an episode of Washington Journal on CSPAN, that he was no longer a Socialist,  and that he had indeed been using the label longer than he should have, and had been doing so to annoy the host of the programme. Again in the same year, when he launched his book, Jefferson: Author of America, he had said that European Socialism had lost its way because of the welfare state. He believed that the trade unions and the working classes had become miserly and xenophobic, looking down on immigrants coming to places like the UK, believing that the welfare state was for them and nobody else.

This in fact bears out as being true. Hitch accused Gordon Brown of destroying the Labour party, but I will disagree with him on that, and will say the rot started to set in under Blair. Now the UK is in a situation where the working class vote is going to the Tories and UKIP, and in the worst possible cases, the BNP and Britain First. Organisations like the EDL have sprung up in working class areas like Luton, and the UK branch of PEGIDA, under the leadership of Tommy Robinson have started weekly silent marches through Rotherham in protest against the police and town council’s dealing with the rape and grooming gangs operating in the town. Even some traditional Labour voters are voting in favour of Brexit, because of the amplified fallacy that the EU is responsible for the immigration problems which the UK faces. Since the initial draft of this article, the UK has voted to leave the EU by a vote of 52%-48%.

Near the end of the seventies, just as Thatcher was sweeping away dreary old men who were low energy, like Ted Heath from the leadership of the Tories, the young fleet street Journalist had seen a (what had pained him to call a ‘sexy’) woman who was full of energy who would take on the corrupt trade unions of the time. Meanwhile, others saw  a shrill middle class housewife, who was hell bent on tearing down any chance at continued strength among the syndicates on the Island. Indeed, just as she had attained the leadership of the Conservative party, the pair of them had a face to face argument about then Rhodesia, (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), resulting in Hitch bowing to her and being hit on the backside with a rolled up piece of paper, muttering ‘naughty boy’ as she left the room. Hitch, in his autobiography Hitch-22, revealed that while at Oxford, he had a number of sexual affairs with male members of her future cabinet. Martin Amis, a close friend of Christopher, had remarked once, that when the Unions had finally given in to the Tory Government, he said to him, “the problem with this country is, all the piss and vinegar has gone out of it.” Displaying at least a shred of sympathy towards them, after their downfall.

Not so famously, Hitch’s positions on the question of reproductive rights were confusing, to some, at best. In the mid 1990’s in a debate with Bill O’Donohoe of the catholic league, a sort of ACLU for catholic zealots in the United States, he had shared his admiration for the church on their position on abortion. However, on a visit to one of the Orphanages in Calcutta, run by Mother Teresa’s Sisters of charity, the Albanian Nun showed Hitch a room filled with cots, and croaked to him, ‘This is how we stop abortion’. The man admitted in his programme for Channel 4, Mother Teresa: “Hells Angel” and many times since, he did have a tenderness for the Unborn, but regarded preventing abortion as being at the bottom of the list of Calcutta’s many pressing needs. His main critique of Mother Teresa, and the church she had become a roving ambassador for, was that they had regarded abortion and contraception as being morally equivalent, that “a sheath or a pill was a murder weapon”. Indeed he covered the topic extensively in chapter 16 of his polemic god is not great: how religion poisons everything. He exclaimed “the words Unborn Child, even when used in a politicised manner, describes a material reality. However… there may be many circumstances in which it may be undesirable to carry a foetus to full term.” On multiple occasions, most notably during his debate with Tony Blair in Toronto in 2010, he had said “the best way to alleviate poverty is to give women control over their reproductive organs, and not have them chained to a cycle no better than animals, as well as throwing in some seeds and some credit”. I myself have a similar view to Hitch. At one stage I was unequivocally pro-choice, however in a bought of moral confusion for a short period I had jumped onto the pro-life cause, only to be wrangled back by friends, because they had convinced me that the issue of reproductive rights was an issue of class. I will say I support the repeal of the eighth amendment to the constitution, but so long as there is legislation in place before a referendum happens.

His most controversial position was the one he took on the Iraq war in 2003. While the Left, internationally, and I among them, tirelessly campaigned against the war, as it was seen in the cold light of day as being a vehicle by which neo-conservatives could make a grab at the resources in Iraq, Hitch took the opposite position. In terms of his foreign policy perceptions, the man was a realist, he was an advocate the first gulf war, intervening in the Balkans, and especially Kosovo, in the late 1990s, when the left in Europe were protesting against these direly needed interventions. Now just let that sink in for a moment, the left in Europe were protesting against interventions to prevent genocide in the Balkans, and therefore admonishing the fascist idea of a greater Serbian homeland, free of Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosnians and ethnic Albanians. I have to disagree with Hitch when he said that the left sunk to its lowest in the aftermath of 9/11, it happened a long time before. One could even go all the way back to 1939 when communists in Britain were against war with Hitler, because Stalin was still at peace with him, showing a litany of capitulation to fascism and statism, by those who claim to despise it. As a person who protested against the Iraq war and still thinks that it was one of the worst foreign policy decisions made in the century so far, I can understand Christopher’s views on the matter.

In the first instance, his admiration of the Kurdish people and his desire to see them safe in a free, independent and secular Kurdistan was more than enough reason to have one of the principle actors preventing such a thing happening, to be removed. It shouldn’t have to take a Guernica style attack on a minority by a tyrant for the world to realise that these people deserve their own state. During the gulf war in the 1990s, images of children scarred by red blotches from the sarin gas coming in contact with their skin flashed across television screens internationally.   

One of his last interviews he did was conducted by the Jeremy Paxman, formerly of Newsnight and currently, University Challenge on the BBC. The Question of the Iraq war was inevitably brought up. He stated that he could “not support any policy which kept Saddam in power”, which is fair enough, and must be contrast with a former Labour Party Comrade, who had spoken about the Iraqi dictator in the most glowing terms, while his people were starving to death under the onerous ‘Oil for food’ programme, of which that former comrade was alleged to have had dealings with it which were financially irregular, and was expelled from the Labour party for calling on the Iraqi people to resist the invasion by the ‘Coalition of the willing’.

One episode that went a little under the radar, especially with regards to his former comrades, turned critics, was when he was challenged, by Vanity Fair editor-in-chief, Graydon Carter, to undergo what was known in the intelligence community as ‘Enhanced Interrogation’. He was challenged to subject himself to the common fare interrogation technique, for Guantanamo detainees, especially the mastermind of 9/11, Kahlid Sheik Mohammed, of waterboarding. It was a bush appointee and veteran of the Iran/Contra affair, José Rodriguez, who headed up the CIA clandestine service which implemented these ‘interrogation’ techniques. Indeed, in an episode of 60 Minutes, it was revealed that the FBI were present during the interrogation of terror suspects, and had gotten more information from them when ‘Enhanced Interrogation’ wasn’t used. The whole ordeal which was recorded on video, looked in the first instance, that it was a very well controlled exercise, and that hitch was only being sprinkled with water, but in the epilogue to the video, Hitch revealed that he didn’t only just drop the metal indicators, which when dropped, the exercise would end, but threw them away, because of the amount of pain and stress which he was under. He was certain he had said the safety word “Red” a number of times, but conceded that it is hard to talk while being drowned. In the prologue, he had mentioned that these techniques were taught to the students on the various US military SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) courses, and the graduates had gone into ‘Private Practise’, something which Hitchens lamented. However, he had written for the Weekly Standard in 2005, saying that the difference between Abu Ghraib, pre and post invasion, was ‘The difference between night and day’, a statement but not for the actions of Lyndie England and her colleagues, might be true.

That was one of a Smorgasbord of criticisms which Hitchens had levelled against how the Bush administration was conducting the war on terror in general. While he believed himself to be among the enemies of Saddam, he had written a piece in Slate in late 2006, protesting against his hanging. He had said that the new administration, post invasion, were still operating under the laws which were passed during the Baathist regime, and the then Krudish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani refused to sign the execution order. It was the hope of Talabani and his deputy, Barham Salih, that the new Iraq would emerge without capital punishment as a form of correction. Indeed, it was the wife of the former French president Francois Mitterand, and friend of Kurdistan, Danielle Mitterand who helped foster this attitude. Hitchens remarked “I completely agree with this view, and I have not had to search through encrusted ditches for the remains of my relatives in order to arrive at it.” A view that put him at odds with his brother Peter.

In 2006, he had joined forces with the American Civil liberties union (ACLU) to protest against the warrantless wiretapping programme that the NSA had initiated under Bush. He became one of many plaintiffs in a Law suit against the NSA, saying in his statement he had “been frankly appalled by the discrepant and contradictory positions taken by the administration”. He was outraged by the fact the NSA had used law enforcement to track individual members of a Baltimore pacifist organisation in what he believed amounted to be “an appalling abuse of state power”. He closed his statement by saying “The better ostensible for an infringement upon domestic liberty, the more suspicious one ought to be of it.” With that being the case, one only wonders how vocal Hitch would have been, when Edward Snowden defected from Booz Allen (and de facto the NSA) in 2013? And would his critics on the left give him any credit for it?

To answer that question, we need only look at his friends and colleagues, such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, who are constantly slimed by ‘press’ agencies like Alternet, The Intercept and  Salon to name a few, and so called ‘Journalists’ like Max Blumenthal (Hitch admired his father), Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussein (who has compared Hitch to Donald Trump), who throw out the accusation of ‘Racist’, ‘Bigot’ and ‘Islamophobe’, and don’t care about what his colleagues have actually said, and we get the obvious answer, they wouldn’t, and so far as I have seen they haven’t. Recently a number of Journalists from the guardian and the Atlantic, like Nick Cohen, Matthew d’Ancona and David Frum, have had to write difficult articles on the spurious and flimsy claims of a deathbed conversion to Christianity by Hitch in a book by Larry Alex Taunton. Cohen felt it necessary to write to Hitchens’ eldest son, Alexander in order to ascertain the clear facts around his final moments, however he did so with trepidation and a clear respect for the feelings of Alexander.

The notion of foisting a deathbed conversion on the man is absolutely repugnant, but not nearly as bad as the constant screams of ‘Racist’ from the left, thrown on the man’s grave. Although I have never met with Hitch, and the man never knew I existed, I find the slime of this word more hurtful (and one can argue about this) than accusations of being a convert or closet Christian, for the simple fact, that I know this to be untrue. In an old episode of Washington Journal, where he is the guest, He explicitly berates the regime of P.W. Botha in South Africa for the continued policy of apartheid and describes it as a totalitarian state, describes how the Afrikaners actually came out on the side of National Socialism during the Second World War. As mentioned above, while people continuously confuse Islam to be a race, when it is a set of ideas, ideas which Hitch was not afraid to criticise, he had no problem standing up for, in his words and deeds, Bosnian Muslims, Kurdish Muslims, and ethnic Albanian Muslims living in Kosovo. At the moment I can half remember hitch describe the hideousness of racism, I think he was talking about South Africa in particular, I think he said “Racism deprives it’s victims of even a rag of decency”. In one of his appearances on Fox news, in discussion about the 2008 Democratic primary he described the uselessness of identity when electing a president, especially in light of the fact that all of the pollsters had gotten it wrong when they said that white people would vote for Hillary Clinton and Black people would vote for Barack Obama, further adding Obama had as much right to call himself white as he did black, owing to the fact he had a white mother.

As mentioned at the beginning, as late as 2006, Hitchens finally threw off the mantle of Socialist, most notably on an episode of Washington Journal. In his polemic god is not great, he describes to the reader how he had faded away from his own faith of the Trotskyite and Luxembourgist sect of Socialism, and he implored the reader (provided they were a believer in the supernatural) to do likewise. Personally, I like to characterise him as an icon of Social Democracy and as I mentioned he was my main inspiration for joining the Labour Party here in Ireland. Ever since the Salman Rushdie affair in 1989 with the publication of the Satanic Verses, he felt repulsed by his comrades, since they were admonishing the Shia Islamist regime in Iran and the Ayatollah’s simultaneous life and death sentence for Rushdie as well as the cash bounty put on head. Even after his scarlet garment had fallen to the ground, and he had stepped on it a few times, even making allies of people who currently want to see right wing nobody’s like David French challenge Donald Trump for the GOP presidential candidacy, there had been times when he had worn it again, most notably in 2009 in his article for the Atlantic, The Revenge of Karl Marx, in essence telling us that Marx and Engels had predicted the Financial crisis that started in 2008, a full 150 years in advance. That year, he had appeared on the current affairs programme in Australia, Questions and Answers, giving a blistering defence of Socialism, Social Democracy and Fabianism, saying because of it, the deserving poor were no longer subject to the charitable whims of the Religious and the Rich. According to Andrew Sullivan and Steve Wasserman, who were witness to Hitch’s last moments, after much agony trying to write it down and finally rousing himself to say it clearly, his last words were “Capitalism” – “Downfall”.

In closing, and this might not be fair to say, but Hitch was the man of multiple choice. A friend of mine, Lalo Dagach, had said to me during a podcast we had done last year, that in searching through history, you will not find a perfect Liberal – and I agree with him. The former Mayor of New York, Ed Koch once said “If you agree with me on 9 out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist”. And I agree. It is pointless to try and find purity of ideology, because you then become a fundamentalist.

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