Friday, November 19, 2004

The Passion of Christopher Hitchens

Kissinger Declassified, Vanity Fair 18 Nov, shows Christopher Hitchens in good form. He turns over more grubby stones to reveal ugly truths about Henry Kissinger's complicity with the Argentinian and Chilean junta of the 1970s an 80s, drawing on the evidence recorded in "telcons" archived at

But even more interesting, to my eye, is the extent to which this piece documents how Hitchens himself has fallen or is falling out of love with the Bush administration (Not so long ago Hitchens used to meet quite frequently with Paul Wolfowitz to enthuse jointly the cause of liberation by armed force).

I am probably - as so often - way behind the curve on this, but still think it's worth noting the change, and meditating on what's behind it. (Hitchens, just about emerging from layers of irony, came out for Kerry in Slate: "Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty" - 28 Oct),

As so often, this Hitchens piece for Vanity Fair is worth reading for the style alone. For example:
Sometimes, in spite of its stolid, boring commitment to lying, a despotic regime will actually tell you all you need to know. It invents a titanic system of slave-labor camps, for example, and it gives this network of arid, landlocked isolation centers the beautiful anagram of gulag. (Adding the word "archipelago" to that piece of bureaucratic compression was the work of an aesthetic and moral genius.) The stone-faced morons who run the military junta in Burma used to call themselves slorc (State Law and Order Restoration Council), which was hardly less revealing. The Brezhnev occupation regime, imposed on the romantic city of Prague after the invasion of 1968, proclaimed its aim as "normalization": a word eloquent enough in itself to send every writer and artist either hastening across the border or entering "internal exile."

and this:

I possess a photograph of myself, from December of 1977, shaking the hand of General Jorge Rafaél Videla, who was then the dictator of Argentina. The picture was taken in the Casa Rosada, that pink presidential palace in Buenos Aires from which Juan and Evita Perón had once harangued the masses. General Videla is now under house arrest in his own country for, among other things, trading the babies of the tortured rape victims who were held in his own secret prison. You might want to run your eye back over that last sentence and appreciate every stage of it. The Macbeth family had a notoriously hard time getting the blood off their hands, or shaking the impression that their hands were still reeking. To this day I wish that I had stiffly sat down for that interview without the polite grip-and-grin that I gave to Videla.

Then, towards the end of the piece comes:

We sometimes like to sneer at the "banana republic" political culture of Latin America. But here's how things now stand...The Bush State Department, to its shame and ours, continues to say that such questions [Kissinger's complicity] should be addressed only through official diplomatic channels. This makes us complicit in the criminal behavior of a man who was in his time the (naturally, unelected) chairman and patron of the international dictators' club.

OK, one could say, he means the Powell led State Dept (at the time of writing Powell had not yet resigned), but not the neo-cons. But then comes this:

The [family of Gen. Schneider - a Chilean solider who opposed military intervention and was murdered] has standing in this matter, not just morally, but legally-because of the Alien Tort Claims Act, which allows non-Americans to seek redress in American courts. This act dates from the 18th century and was one of the first laws of the American Republic. The Bush administration recently tried and failed to have the Supreme Court strike the ancient legislation down.

Hitchens chooses his words. The way I read this, it is not a barb directed at a particular member of the Bush administration (who can be lopped off to save the body pure). It's aimed at the whole shooting match.

What kind of journey Hitchens is on? Danny Postel, who used to spend time with Hitchens, took Anthony Barnett and I round his old neighbourhood in Washington DC the week before last, including past Hitchens's apartment block The Wyoming and favourite restaurant. One can read between the lines that Hitchens drags the heavy cross of the bottle.

As one who had more than average knowledge of the nature of the Saddam regime, my position before the 2003 Iraq invasion was roughly as follows: "it's imprudent, and the US regime are gangsters, but at least the invasion will get rid of one of the most monstrous regimes of modern times and break the deadlock of the UN sanctions. Moreover, the invasion is going to happen anyway so what can one do to make the best of a bad job?". (I acknowledge faults in this line of argument. But it did seem unlikely to me that even this US administration could and would make such a mess).

Hitchens - with a more lively sense than most of the horrors of Saddam - went further, and embraced the neo-cons. Where does he stand now?

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