I have three memories of Christopher Hitchens, who died this week, that are worth sharing.
I first got to know Christopher when I began working at The Nation magazine in 1983, when he was then writing his Minority Report column. I started there as an intern, and slowly made my way up the publishing and editorial totem poles. By the fall of 1984, my job title was something like director of publicity and promotion, which meant that I was in charge of trying to get Nation writers and stories into the mainstream media.
It was a challenging time to be on the left in America. Ronald Reagan cruised to re-election against the hapless Walter Mondale. Just about everything I cared about–civil rights, human rights, ending the danger of nuclear war, economic inequality–none of that seemed to matter to the people in charge in Washington, DC. The New Right was ascendant and the left seemed powerless, or worse, divided amongst itself by identity politics. And these were the days before the Internet, when being in a minority meant being marginalized, seemingly shut out of the national conversation. A handful of major media outlets–the TV networks, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek–set the agenda. If you weren’t on their radar, it was as if you didn’t exist.
Here is where Christopher first made a deep impression on me. We had somehow gotten him placed on Firing Line, William F. Buckley’s long-running political talk show. He was there as the ostensible balance to R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., then the swashbuckling young editor of The American Spectator and Buckley protege, who had a new book out to flog called “The Liberal Crack-up.” The date was December 11, 1984.The whole video does not appear to be available online, but I have found the printed transcript on a Stanford website. A snippet is up on YouTube (from which this photo is snagged) but it only gives a few minutes of opening remarks between Buckley and Tyrrell.) The whole transcript is worth reading through, not just because it shows the young Hitchens’ rhetorical strengths in all their glory (at one point he accuses Buckley of “an undistributed middle” in his logic), but because of what it displays about Hitchens’ political values, at least back then. It starts with Buckley tossing a softball at Tyrrell that is supposed to help him showcase his book, but soon Hitchens has seized the upper ground, arguing that for Tyrrell to sneer at liberal losers like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter means he must also believe that Richard Nixon was good for America, calling his administration’s “appalling corruption…practically…a coup against the Constitution in Washington.”
This gets Buckley’s goat, and the old man (who was then very much in his prime) tries to argue that nothing Nixon did was worse than the Kennedys (John and Bobby) who secretly taped Martin Luther King Jr, or even FDR’s use of taping. But Hitchens keeps the upper hand, declaring that he had often criticized the Kennedy and Johnson administrations for their abuses of power, but “in Watergate quantity was turning into quality; that there was an attempt to institutionalize the use of agencies of the state as a private political police force.” Moments after making that point, he goads Tyrrell into declaring that he indeed thought that Nixon’s election in 1972 was a good thing.
The argument meanders for a while, with Hitchens making fun of Tyrrell’s feeble attempts to turn his opposition to feminism into some kind of old-fashioned gallantry. But all along it’s clear that Tyrrell is completely outmatched by Hitchens, who has turned the discussion of the Liberal Crack-Up into a roaring defense of the left, and Buckley keeps stepping in to try to save his protege, to little effect. The two men of the Right think they have god and the facts on their side, since Reagan and Reaganism are at their heights, this being December 1984, but Hitchens refuses to do what just about every liberal was doing back then, which was to bow his head and accept that this meant the battles of the 1960s were wrongheaded and futile.
The high point comes when he declares:
“The American left–American radicals and American liberals, many of them–in starting the civil rights movement for black Americans, in combatting an unjust war in Indochina and in beginning the emancipation of women–the way we think about sex–changed the way everyone thinks and the way everyone lives far beyond the borders of the United States. It was a tremendous time, and the whole world is in debt to the American left–I’d rather call it–for those three enterprises. Now it’s true that they’re all now in rather low water, those movements, but I see not reason to sneer at them now or to forget the grand contribution they made, unsurpassed by any conservative rival.”
Later he adds:
“I’ll just remind you I began by saying that when I still lived in England before I became an emigrant, I was, as many, many millions of people were, very inspired by the American examples, in particular Dr. King, but also, later, the movement to arrest the unjust war in Indochina and, as I say, it was American women who really began to show women in the advanced countries that they needn’t live on the assumptions that had dictated their lives up till then. These were the examples that stirred me and that I still am inclined to defend….attitudes of my peer group–other people like me who are white and male, I mean by that–towards women have undergone a vast improvement in the last 15 years or so. I think one of the good things about the civil rights movement was how it improved the moral standards of white people, and I think one of the great things about the women’s movement, or the feminist movement, if you like, is that it’s changed the way that men think. And I think that’s been good for our sake as well as theirs. That’s what’s good about reform movements is that they’re not what are now called interest groups or selfish, narrow, contained things.”
Hearing that said back in 1984 left a strong impression on me. Here was this young guy, outnumbered two to one, producing a ringing defense of the biggest liberal causes of our time. The American left, he was saying, mattered in the lives of millions of people. There was no need to apologize for it.
Fast forward to April 11, 2000. Working with political science professor Frances Fox Piven, I helped put together a conference on “Third Parties and Independent Politics” at the CUNY Graduate Center. I had been doing a lot of reporting and writing about third party efforts ranging from Ralph Nader and Ross Perot to Jesse Ventura and the New Party (which later took root in NY as the Working Families Party), and for this event we managed to get a terrific array of speakers from inside these movements as well as from the left wing of the Democratic Party. Hitchens was a featured speaker, though the moment I remember most had nothing to do with his time on stage. (You can listen to an audio recording of the plenary session here.)
It had been a number of years since I had seen Christopher (I left the Nation in 1997), though we kept in light touch throughout. For example, he had gladly contributed a fantastic essay of his for The Gulf War Reader, an anthology I co-edited with Christopher Cerf back in 1991. Christopher’s essay, “Realpolitik: A Game Gone Tilt,” was a tour-de-force critique of America’s disturbing pattern of cozying up to dictators in the Persian Gulf, and then in tilting one way or the other, letting our allies launch foolish wars like Iraq’s 1980 attack on Iran, its genocidal assault on the Kurds and then its 1991 attack on Kuwait.
Something had happened to him, though, despite the continued brilliance of his writing. To put it frankly, he looked like shit. At CUNY, he showed up bedraggled and wearing open-toed shoes, which I think he said he needed because he had some kind of skin condition. The drinking and smoking and terrible eating habits showed. I felt badly for him but didn’t bother saying anything; we all knew Christopher wanted to live this way and wouldn’t have it any other way.
There’s a moment though, from the conference, that made me start to wonder about Christopher’s independence of mind. My friend Dan Cantor, who had just gotten NY’s Working Families Party off the ground a few years earlier, was on stage making a nuanced point about how progressives could attract the support of white working class people, mainly by emphasizing common economic concerns. Christopher ambled up to the mike to ask a question: “Well,” he declared to Cantor, “you surely must think you have your finger on the clitoris of the working class.”
It was a shocking statement. Why would he choose such language? And why attack Cantor, a fundamentally decent and hardworking political activist, in such a coarse way in public? It was at this point that I decided I didn’t really understand Hitchens at all, and wouldn’t try to engage with him further. While he could be incredibly charming and friendly to people he knew–and I always felt that he related to me honestly and with respect–his apparent need to show off and top everyone else in public could have some very ugly effects.
In later years, we only crossed paths twice if memory serves, both times by email. The first, as recounted here on my blog, was over a minor point that I took him to task over, and as you can see, he was fairly gracious in admitting a mistake, albeit a modest one. The second was about a year ago, after I started reading his memoir Hitch-22. The fact that he was terminally ill had recently become public. Somewhere early in the book he has a line about not waiting until too late to send a note.
So I wrote him:
Though I know we haven’t seen each other in many years, and thus our friendship is one of those “weak ties” things that some people think don’t matter, I first and foremost appreciate that you were always unfailingly decent and kind to me when we were both colleagues at The Nation. And then later, when I asked you for a favor or to show up at some conference or another that I was doing or appear in one of my anthologies on the Gulf/Iraq Wars, you were always a gentleman. That for me counts enormously. You know this already but that has always been your most redeeming quality, whatever your political choices. Life is too fucking short to live it any other way. Thank you for always being a mensch to me. Now, get well!
He wrote back:
That’s very generous of you.
I hope you thrive.
I could never finish reading his memoir. While I enjoyed learning about his early life and in particular was deeply moved by the impact of his mother’s suicide, by the middle of the book where he brags about becoming a citizen of the United States under the watchful eye of then Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, I started to give up. When I arrived at his long chapter on the Iraq War, which I knew would be full of his defense of that terrible mistake, I put the book down. It was too narcissistic for me. The Hitchens I knew and respected so highly from 1984 was no longer the Hitchens of the present. I realize that they are both part of the fuller picture and that we are all entitled to our contradictions. But I prefer to remember him the way he was when he was younger and not after success, booze and the other demons in his life took him to where he ended up.