Molly Guinness

Christopher Hitchens and The Spectator: writing full of curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour

Christopher Hitchens and The Spectator: writing full of curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour
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After Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011, Douglas Murray wrote in the Spectator that he’d had 'a talent for making us, his readers, want to be better people. He used his abilities not to close down questions and ideas, but to open them up. In the process he made you, the reader, aware that you needed to do more, engage more, think more and know more. Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to impress the writer.'

To nearly everything he wrote, Hitchens brought curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour and a vast frame of reference. It’s been a great pleasure looking through the recently digitised Spectator archive for Hitchens highlights.

One of his most chilling pieces is called Dead Men on Leave, written thirty years ago. Hitchens recounts an interview he had with Mazen Sabry al-Banna, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Nidal was 'leader of the renegade extremist faction of al-Fatah and a man sought for murder and conspiracy by both the Israelis and the PLO'. The interview began with an invitation to visit one of his camps and to undergo some training:

'He took my declining of his offer quite calmly, but then shifted mercurially in his approach. Did I, he wanted to know, ever meet Said Hammami? Hammami was then the PLO envoy in London, who had in a celebrated article in the Times advocated mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. I knew him and liked him and agreed with him. 'Tell him,' said Abu Nidal, 'to be careful. We do not tolerate traitors.' I delivered this billet-doux back in London, and Said shrugged. He had been threatened before, but saw no alternative to an 'open door' policy. A few months later, a man walked through his open door and shot him dead. Abu Nidal 'claimed credit', as the argot has it, for the deed.'

The article goes on to chart the fate of another exponent of mutual recognition, Dr Issam Sartawi, who was also murdered: 'All in all, it's been a pitiful year for those who hope for a solution short of colonisation, annexation or irredentism.' On the Israeli side, three senior Jewish figures, Pierre Mendes-France, Nahum Goldmann and Philip Klutznick, also called for Palestinian independence, mutual recognition between the two contending parties, and direct negotiations. Hitchens ends ominously:

'Since the statement was signed and published, both Mendes-France and Nahum Goldmann have died, and Issain Sartawi has been murdered. Israeli dissent is being swamped in a sea of chauvinism: but any future Palestinian advocate of self criticism will have to consider himself a dead man on leave.'

In another piece from 1983, Give them back their Marbles, Hitchens is at his furious best, especially when he gets to the argument that giving back the marbles might set a precedent that would put museum culture under threat:

'The third argument — what if everybody wanted his stuff back? — is the old last-ditch standby of the bureaucrat. It is the authentic voice of the nanny and the pen-pusher. Either an action is right or it isn't.'

That final sentence seems to be the motivating principle of much of Hitchens’s work. When an action or a thought was not right, woe betide it. Noam Chomsky and others on the 'soft left' were dealt a blow in 2001. Hitchens’s piece on the Fascist Sympathies of the Soft Left, published less than three weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers, is worth reading in full:

'What is known in American psycho-babble as 'denial' strikes in many insidious forms. It can express itself as the simple refusal to admit that a painful event has occurred. It may manifest itself as a cheery rationalisation of something ghastly. Or it can involve a crude shifting of blame. It's actually a more useful term than it sometimes looks.

'The reaction of much of the Left to the human and moral catastrophe at the World Trade Center, and to the aggression that lies behind it, has partaken of all three variants. For me, the best encapsulation came in an angry email I received shortly after I denounced the rationalisers in a column published in New York. It came from Sam Husseini, who runs a dove-ish Washington outfit innocuously called the Institute for Public Accuracy... The forces of Osama bin Laden, he wrote, 'could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem like it was supposed to — and the US stopped the sanctions and the bombing on Iraq'.

'That neatly synthesised all three facets of denial. 'Envelope-stuffing' reduces the members of al-Qa'eda to the manageable status of everyday political activists with a programme; the same image obstructs the recognition of the full impact of the attack; the diplomatic measures that supposedly could have warded off the atrocity become, by an obvious transference, the source of responsibility for it. This is something more like self-hatred than appeasement.'

Later in the same piece:

'I might, from where I am sitting, be a short walk from a gutted Capitol or a shattered White House. I am quite certain that in such a case the rationalising left-liberals would still be telling me that my chickens were coming home to roost. Only those who chose to die fighting rather than allow such a profanity, and such a further toll in lives, stood between us and the fourth death squad. One iota of such innate fortitude is worth all the writings of Noam Chomsky, who coldly compared the plan of 11 September to a stupid and cruel and cynical raid by Bill Clinton on Khartoum in August 1998.

'To mention this banana-republic degradation of the United States in the same breath as a plan, deliberated for months, to inflict maximum horror upon the innocent is to abandon every standard that makes intellectual and moral discrimination possible. To put it at its very lowest, and most elementary, at least the missiles launched by Clinton were not full of passengers.'

There’s not space to quote his attempt to undo the 'grandiose absurdity of the Kenndy myth', his detective work on Cyprus, his dryly amusing description of the Reagan administration’s bodyguard of lies or his description of being mugged in New York, when he 'realised with absolute certainty that if I had had a gun I would have shot him in the back', but they are all stamped with that urgent message: do more, engage more, think more, know more.