Tag Archives: Politics

Arguably, our great loss

“Well, call me old-fashioned if you will, but I have always taken the view that swastika symbols exist for one purpose only—to be defaced.” —Christopher Hitchens, from “The Swastika and the Cedar”

Any blogger who pretends to write about books (note to self) would do well to read the essays of the late Christopher Hitchens. Arguably, his last book to be published before his death from esophageal cancer in December 2011, is largely a collection of book reviews written for Vanity Fair, Slate, The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, The New Statesman, The Wilson Quarterly, and sundry newspapers here and in Britain. Most were written in the preceding ten years.

In its entirety, the book is a massive tribute to Hitchens’ eclectic erudition. The collection is a feast of brilliant, impassioned argument for anyone who holds views on American history, the British empire, literature, politics, the Left, the Right, famous authors, infamous dictators, religion, atheism, fascism, capitalism, journalism, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, language, or popular culture. I may have left something out.

12618752Whether Hitchens is criticizing the West’s tolerance of North Korea’s psychotic theocracy, lamenting the deterioration of political campaign slogans, or reassessing the works of Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, P.G. Wodehouse, Graham Greene, or his good friend Martin Amis, what illuminates each essay is his objectivity, honesty and critical insight. In clear, engaging prose, Hitchens comes off as if he is conversing with an intelligent friend. (Thankfully, I read the book on my Kindle, since I frequently had to look up words he used; invariably they were pitch perfect.)

Hitchens honed his prose through decades of journalism, “pamphleteering” as he liked to call it. After attending Oxford, he began his career at The New Statesman, Britain’s left-leaning political affairs magazine (equivalent to The Nation in the U.S., to which he subsequently contributed as well).

In his memoir Hitch-22 (reprinted in 2011 with the poignant, unflinching preface he wrote after receiving his death sentence from the doctors), Hitchens charted the evolution of his political views from the antiwar-protesting Trotskyist of his Oxford days to the naturalized American advocate for democracy and pluralism in the post-9/11 world.

Much like George Orwell (whom he admired enough to write the book-length study, Why Orwell Matters), Hitchens experienced a political conversion that shaped everything he subsequently wrote, including the essays in Arguably.

Orwell of course went to Spain as a socialist to fight fascism, only to discover that totalitarian oppression was ingrained in both political systems. A bullet through the neck nearly muted that discovery forever, but Orwell survived and documented his experience in one of his finest works, Homage to Catalonia. He devoted the rest of his life, in works of allegory and essay, to warn the West of the inherent tyranny of political isms and the need to defend democracy and individual freedom from this threat at all cost.

7332753For Hitchens, doubts about the Marxist Left first surfaced during travels to Cuba, Portugal and Poland in the sixties and seventies. When, in 1982, Argentina’s military dictatorship attempted to seize the Falkland Islands, unlike many of his colleagues, Hitchens agreed with the Iron Lady’s decision to send the British fleet to defend the islands, not for the timeworn reasons of empire but to defeat a tyranny.

And, in 1988, when the Ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses, Hitchens condemned the prevarications of many liberal intellectuals, politicians and religious leaders and launched a staunch public defense of his close friend. As he wrote in Hitch-22, “It was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying, and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual, and the defense of free expression. Plus, of course, friendship…”

9/11, however, was Hitchens’ Spain—the crystalline solidification of his evolving convictions. Just as Orwell determined party-line Communism to be the great totalitarian threat of his day, so Hitchens perceived fundamentalist religion, especially the intolerant strain of Islam espoused by Al Qaida and the Taliban, as the new totalitarian threat to Western humanism. “They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates,” he wrote in the introduction to Arguably. “Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.”

Hitchens’ wholehearted support for the invasion of Iraq and the ouster of Saddam Hussein troubled many of his liberal friends, but for him this stance was consistent with his revulsion for tyranny in any shape or form. Like Churchill in the thirties directing his rhetoric against the rising tide of National Socialism, Hitchens was willing to become a political outlier in order to warn against the new intolerant fascism he saw in extremist Islam.

I bring up this backstory only because Hitchens applies the same consistent logic to all of the essays in this collection. You may agree or disagree with this masterful polemicist, but always you will find him adhering to a high standard of debate, basing his arguments on empiricism and laying them out with incisive wit. And I guarantee that no matter how much or how little you agree with him, you will come away from Arguably with a long list of books to read or reread, a few new words, and an invigorated desire to grapple with the important issues of our world. Indeed, we have lost a great pamphleteer.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

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To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild

There is little new to tell about World War One. John Keegan, Hew Strachan and others have written comprehensive, well-researched histories of the conflict that resulted in 20 million casualties and set in motion the turbulent waves of nationalism that dominated the 20th Century. Barbara Tuchman wrote vividly about the diplomatic failures that resulted in the headlong rush to war. For firsthand accounts of the trenches, nothing compares to the memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.

But in this finely written account Adam Hochschild achieves something new by contrasting key proponents of the British war machine with the pacifists who attempted to stop it. From the suffragette and worker movements came a few brave souls opposed to the purblind patriotism that swept the nation and encouraged millions of young men to march to their deaths. The object lesson of Keir Hardie, Bertrand Russell, the Pankhursts, and the 6000 conscientious objectors who refused to fight might be: individuals must stand firm in their convictions to change the world. But the parallel truth is more frightening: when a nation confronts a perceived threat to its existence, voices opposing it are muffled, propaganda overwhelms truth, and civil liberties go by the board–even in great democracies.

We like to think we would have confronted the politicians and generals whose arguments for persevering in a senseless war grew weaker and weaker with each disastrous campaign, but the more likely truth is that we too would have condemned the opponents as treasonous cowards and marched with the rest toward the great debacle.

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Coming soon… Under a False Flag

My debut novel, Under a False Flag, will be published in summer 2012 as a Kindle Direct Publishing e-book and in paperback from The Taciturn Press. Look for it on Amazon.com.

October, 1972. For two years the CIA has waged a secret war against the Marxist government of Chile. The Nixon administration, still mired in Vietnam and soon to be overwhelmed by the Watergate scandal, insists that Chile’s president, “that bastard” Salvador Allende, must go.

Rookie CIA officer Will Porter joins the covert war, operating under non-official cover. As nationwide strikes, paramilitary terrorism and bitterly contested elections bring Chile to the brink of civil war, Will learns from his hard-nosed boss, Deputy Station Chief Ed Lipton, just how far the CIA will go to achieve its objective. Soon, Will’s own game of deception results in grave and unanticipated consequences for his friends.

In the Graham Greene-like world of Under a False Flag, fear begets deception and deception begets cruelty.

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