Arguably


Christopher Hitchens
2011


One of the most striking things about Hitchens’s latest book is just how far he has let the authoritarian and judgemental parts of his former Marxism inform his more recent politics.

When I finished reading Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, I disliked it so much that I decided not to review it. Why waste my time on a book I didn’t like?

This time, Hitchens has issued a book only half of which I dislike very much, and I propose here to dismiss that half as quickly as I can and move on to the half that I like.

That’s the thing with Christopher Hitchens. He refuses to be just one thing or the other. As soon as he’s finished delighting you with a singular take on a familiar novel, he hits you over the head with another shot of his rampant and incessant Islamophobia.

Some writers just refuse to stop fooling around, settle down, and write with comfortable predictability.

From the last sentence you can probably tell that while I find Hitchens often insufferable, I never find him dull. I think he does that on purpose, just to keep us on our mental toes. Always the provocateur, that Hitchens.

If Hitch-22 suffered from an eventually insufferable round of meetings and dinners and binges with people who are now famous and important, not to mention a grindingly detailed exposition of the minute differences between this and that small group of university radicals, Arguably labours under its author’s tiresome repetition of the sins of Islam — and the greater sins of Westerners who kowtow and cater and defer and excuse the excesses and injustices that Hitchens sees so clearly.

If he’s not ranting about the evils of the veil, much less the burka, he’s reminding us that “perhaps 1.5 million Europeans and Americans were enslaved in Islamic North Africa between 1530 and 1780,” and that instead of letting our racial guilt over black slavery blur our vision now, we should get over it and head to the neocon dark side.

Indeed, one of the most striking things about Hitchens’s latest book is just how far he has let the authoritarian and judgemental parts of his former Marxism inform his more recent politics.

If this political and moral lapsing were all that Arguably contained, it would hardly be worth reading, and certainly not worth reviewing here. The good news is that there’s some very good writing, and some very entertaining analysis, in this volume.

Many of the articles are book reviews. Like all really good reviewers, Hitchens uses the book at hand as a starting point for a related, often larger point. Anyone, as I well know, can write a more or less competent review that recasts the contents of a book in compressed form. The best reviewers treat the book as a starting point, not as a closed subject.

The best essays in Arguably are sparked by literary and historical biographies, but he’s not above the occasional foray into current popular fiction, such as the Harry Potter series and the Millennium trilogy.

Neither series is trashed entirely, but neither emerges unscathed, by any means.

When Hitchens visited a bookshop on the occasion of the publication of the last volume of the series, his chief observation was that “Orwell would have recoiled at seeing the symbol of Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists on otherwise unblemished brows, even if the emblem was tamed by its new white-magic associations.”

And regarding J. K. Rowling’s skills as a crafter of stories, Hitchens notes that the plots of the books are so convoluted that Rowling is far too often forced into the worst kind of extended exposition:

The repeated tactic of deus ex machina (without a deus) has a deplorable effect on both the plot and the dialogue. The need for Rowling to play catchup with her many convolutions infects her characters as well. Here is Harry trying to straighten things out with a servile house-elf: “I don’t understand you, Kreacher,” he said finally. “Voldemort tried to kill you, Regulus died to bring Voldemort down, but you were still happy to betray Sirius to Voldemort? You were happy to go to Narcissa and Bellatrix, and pass information to Voldemort through them …” Yes, well, one sees why he is confused.

When it comes to Steig Larsson, Hitchens dismisses his overtly feminist themes as a species of “reaction formation,” to use an old psychology term:

… moral righteousness comes in very useful for the action of the novels, because it allows the depiction of a great deal of cruelty to women, smuggled through customs under the disguise of a strong disapproval.

Hitchens explains that the kinky sex and repeated torture in the books is included in the service of a progressive political agenda — the kind that the younger Hitchens once would have supported without the sarcasm so evident here:

His best excuse for his own prurience is that these serial killers and torture fanciers are practicing a form of capitalism and that their racket is protected by a pornographic alliance with a form of Fascism, its lower ranks made up of hideous bikers and meth runners. This is not just sex or crime—it’s politics!

So, when am I going to get to the good stuff, the essays that I like unreservedly? Now seems like a good time, if anyone else is still here.

Hitchens’s reach is wide, and the subjects of his essays range from John Brown to Mark Twain, from Upton Sinclair to Prince Charles. Can you guess which one of the four he doesn’t admire?

It’s certainly not John Brown of whom Hitchens disapproves. Hitchens writes that Brown “far from being a crazed fanatic, was a serious legatee of the English and American Revolutions who anticipated the Emancipation Proclamation and all that has ensued from it.” Hitchens makes his admiration even clearer:

Our world might be a good deal worse than it is had not numberless African-Americans, from that day to this, taken John Brown as proof that fraternity and equality, as well as liberty, were feasible things and could be exemplified by real people.

Mark Twain was also, of course, an advocate of social reform and an opponent of slavery. But his greatness lies in his ability to make most of his many sorts of social comment and moral criticism witty and, not the same thing, entertaining. Hitchens shares this assessment of Twain, writing approvingly of a man who “impaled the founder of Christian Science on a stake of contemptuous ridicule and who dismissed the Book of Mormon as ‘chloroform in print.’” And, “until his appearance, even writers as adventurous as Hawthorne and Melville would have been gratified to receive the praise of a comparison to Walter Scott.”

Unfortunately for Hitchens, the Twain biography he’s reviewing misses too much of the good stuff. In a criticism that could be applied just as well to Twain’s
Autobiography, Hitchens writes that Twain “wrote altogether too many words, and now his biographer has cited too many of the mediocre ones and not enough of the brilliant ones.” Hitchens’s final judgment is short and telling: “It is altogether wrong that a book about Mark Twain should be boring.”

Mark Twain remains a frequently-read and relevant bastion of the American canon, but time has not been as kind to another great reformer, Upton Sinclair. Despite this neglect, Hitchens calls Sinclair’s The Jungle ”the most successful attempt ever made to fictionalize the central passages of Marx’s Das Kapital.“

Some of the best parts of the best essays in Arguably are the too few places where Hitchens presents a detailed exposition of key passages of the books about which he’s writing. His presentation of the plight of the worker in The Jungle is one of these insightful and enlightening passages:

The odds are so arranged that no honest person can ever hope to win. The landlord, the saloonkeeper, the foreman, the shopkeeper, the ward heeler, all are leagued against the gullible toiler in such a way that he can scarcely find time to imagine what his actual employer or boss might be getting away with. To this accumulation of adversity Jurgis invariably responds with the mantra “I will work harder.” This is exactly what the innocent cart horse Boxer later says as he wears out his muscles on the cynical futilities of Animal Farm.

Hitchens emphasizes Sinclair’s realism, noting with others that Sinclair’s description of the conditions in the meat packing houses was so graphic that, rather than sparking reform in the ways that the workers were treated, his words spurred an investigation into the handling of raw meat. Forget the workers — make sure that my beef is safe to eat!

But Hitchens’s praise of Sinclair is not unlimited. He notes of Sinclair that “like Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, he couldn’t help being exceedingly impressed by the dynamic, innovative, and productive energy of capitalism.”

After many stops — essays on JFK’s masking of his Addison’s disease, capital punishment in Texas, and the animal rights movement among them — Hitchens arrives at one of his favourite targets: Charles, Prince of Wales.

Hitchens recognizes the unwelcome but unavoidable demise of the Queen and considers the ascendancy of Charles to the English throne:

In strict constitutional terms, this ought not to matter much. The English monarchy, as has been said, reigns but does not rule. From the aesthetic point of view it will matter a bit, because the prospect of a morose bat-eared and chinless man, prematurely aged, and with the most abysmal taste in royal consorts, is a distinctly lowering one.

The immediate reason for taking on Charles in print once again was a speech Charles gave to a British Muslim organization. That alone would put Charles on the outs with Hitchens, but the speech’s content — a call for a reduction in the influence of science in the world, and a return to faith in “universal values” — sent him round the bend.

OK, part of this is down to Hitchens’s hatred of anything spiritual, relativistic, or Muslim (especially Muslim). But Charles is an easy target, and Hitchens can be entertainingly scathing.

Hitchens summarizes Charles’s theme:

In his view, materialism and consumerism represented an imbalance, “where mechanistic thinking is so predominant,” and which “goes back at least to Galileo’s assertion that there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion.” He described the scientific worldview as an affront to all the world’s “sacred traditions.”

It doesn’t take a dirty rotten Muslim-loving sod to find fault with Charles’s call for a return to all the mushy consolations of the mythological and otherwise spiritual. Hitchens wades right in, saying of Charles that “this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense.”

Hitchens’s arch rationalism comes directly to the fore in his assessment of Charles’s aim:

So this is where all the vapid talk about the “soul” of the universe is actually headed. Once the hard-won principles of reason and science have been discredited, the world will not pass into the hands of credulous herbivores who keep crystals by their sides and swoon over the poems of Khalil Gibran. The “vacuum” will be invaded instead by determined fundamentalists of every stripe who already know the truth by means of revelation and who actually seek real and serious power in the here and now.

It’s too bad that Hitchens can’t keep his mind on traditional and amusing character assassination. If he could have done so, Arguably would have been thoroughly entertaining.

Unfortunately, far too often we get passages like this one, near the end of the book:

The fascistic subculture that has taken root in Britain and that lives by violence and hatred is composed of two main elements. One is a refugee phenomenon, made up of shady exiles from the Middle East and Asia who are exploiting London’s traditional hospitality, and one is the projection of an immigrant group that has its origins in a particularly backward and reactionary part of Pakistan.

That’s a sentiment that Niall Ferguson could love, and it’s the side of Christopher Hitchens that I wish he’d kept to himself.

After all, aren’t cultured Brits taught at an early age to smother and internalize their crasser anti-social tendencies?

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