Empty Radicalism

In a recent New Statesman article, writer and critic Tomiwa Owilade explored, amongst other things, the platform that YouTube has given to a great many public intellectuals: from philosoper Bertrand Russell to linguist Noam Chomsky. This is a phenomena that, over the years, I have come to greatly cherish. And the specific voice that I have enjoyed most is that of the late Christopher Hitchens: the journalist and author who garnered infamy and adulation for his impassioned case against religion. Hitchens’ presence on YouTube is dominated by his often impressive ability, across a variety of debates and conversations, to seemingly batter his faithful opponents into a near-befuddled submission. Those who worship him sheepishly refer to these moments as ‘Hitchslaps’ — a term that speaks volumes about the strange fanaticism that still follows the man almost a decade after his departure.

The greatest crime commited by his quasi-cult following, however, is that they cling to the least interesting aspects of what Hitchens’ YouTube vault has to offer. If you take the time to cut through the clickbait collections and worn-out debates (many of which have an almost inevitable trend toward superficiality) you will find that the man was, for the last few decades of the twentieth century, nothing more than an incredibly inisghtful journalist. His regular appearances on a host of C-SPAN programmes, where he discussed the often-sorry state of Anglo-American politics, are exemplary cases of incisive and sound judgement. Sitting back and listening to his political commentary, such as his take on the evils of Aparthied in South Africa and the condemnable ascent of the Clintons, provides a remarkably different picture than that painted by his New Athiesm fame; a picture coloured by an enviable balance of sublety, rigour and wit.

Fast forward to the mid-naughties, Hitchens had transformed into a pariah among the American left; Many of whom saw his support for foreign interventionism as a betrayal of his proffessed anti-imperialist principles. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that his defense of the Iraq War was a direct consequence of the anti-totalitarian politics that he had always forwarded; an anti-totalitarianism that was only hardened when vast swathes of the left softened their position at the close of the Cold War. The Satanic Verses controversy, in which a fatwa was issued against the author Salmand Rushdie, and the lack of urgency paid to the breakup of the former Yugsoliva, which led to the Bosnian Genocide, put Hitchens increasingly at odds with his leftist contemporaries. And his anti-pacifist, liberal internationalism became an increasingly rightward opinion in an largely gentle public political culture. Rather than pushing him to abadon his lifelong beliefs, Hitchens doubled down. His support for Iraq War was indeed something of an earthquake — but like all quakes, the plates beneath the surface had been moving for years.

Hitchens is problematic not so much because he abandoned his principles — a position that loses all veracity when you listen to the man himself — but because, as the world changed, the expression of those principles took a far less popular shape within radical circles. He was always a staunch opponent of organised religion, evident in his early condemnation of Mother Theresa’s more than questionable behaviour, but it was for a long time one significant component of a much more complex political outlook. Indeed, his most scathing critique of the saint was that she was less a defender of the poor and moreso a defender of poverty. He condemned Bill Clinton not just because he had far too much fun in the Oval Office, but because he was was a perpetrator of, and apologist for, the spread of corruption and neoliberalism across the American left. Both these positions, widely unpopular within liberal circles of conventional wisdom, made Hitchens a beloved voice among the radical, dissenting left. And in the first twenty years following his move to The United States in nineteen eighty-one, you would be hard pressed to find an occasion where his view sat nicely within the realm of popular opinion.

When Hitchens announced his staunch support for the Iraq War, however, arguing that his anti-totalitarian principles commited him to the cause, he was catapulted into what he considered the most existential of all issues: the defence of Western culture against Islamic fundamentalism. Critical polemics exposing beloved public figures, such Theresa, Clinton or Kissinger, were replaced by biographies, covering Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, that re-affirmed the beauty of the American experiment. As if by magic, Hitchens was suddenly an ally of Bush’s neoconservatives and a funny assortment of hawish liberals. He became uncompromisingly obsessed with the preservation of American democracy against “Islamo-fascism” (I am not making this word up); and the more focused, critical, and delibrative critiques of contemporary American politics, the radicalism that had made him such an important writer and thinker in the first place, took a back seat. Hitchens no doubt retained his zeal, wit, charm and orginiality — what did begin to die, however, was his talent for incisive political commentary.

The quietest and yet most alarming instance of this change of focus was his indifference toward the Obama administration: a government that, although elected with a radical mandate, simply continued the Clinton era’s rainbow conservatism. Support during the financial crisis was largely funneled toward Wall Street and big corporations, rather than the public who desperately needed support, and the country’s impending healthcare crisis was combated with pathetic half-measures. Hitchens’ response to these groundbreaking developments was telling: unaccountable corporate greed? He’s willing to “split the difference”. Thoughts on the healthcare debate? Just “wake me when it’s over.” These are not the words of an astute observer, but of a man who, steaped in the war against foreign tyranny, had become indifferent to domestic injustice. Hitchens ultimately took a steady retreat into an endlessly big picture: a picture coloured entirely by broad strokes and little nuance.

It has been said that Hitchens, with all his fire and brimstone, was built for the incessant culture wars we now seem to always find ourselves fighting. Free from the constraints of broadcast television, his oratory prowess would have made for an endlessly entertaining experience in an era choc-full of colourful characters; be it Trump, Jordan Peterson, Tucker Carlson, Ben Shapiro or any other personality who dared to walk into his crossfire. The Religious Right has only grown in its power since his untimely death, and despite everything that I am currently arguing, I often wish that he were here to cut open a few sluggish debates. Like Orwell, Hitchens’ unwavering commitment to speak with precision and truthfulness lent his words an extraordinary amount of heft. Wherever he appeared, and whatever he was saying, you could sense on an almost instinctual level that he well and truly believed in his own words; and that, crucially, he didn’t care what mess speaking them would get him into.

It is precisely Hitchens’ natural fit for our culture wars, however, that concerns me most. I have no doubt that he would have relished in heated debates regarding trans rights, free speech, campus culture and the slow evisceration of a healthy political culture. What troubles me is that, behind all the strong words and clever points, I suspect that he would do everything in his oratory power to ensure that the culture war rages on; when what we fundamentally need are those voices interesting in ending it. This is not to say, on any level, that cultural issues do not matter. Any honest person with even the weakest understanding of history knows that cultural issues must be confronted. The issue, however, is that the culture war has become totalising in its reach; enveloping our attention in a way that reduces every important conversation, be it economic, political, or cultural, to a bottomless shouting match. More than just a distraction from economic and material issues, the conflict has become a complete sideshow to that endless cultural conversation that we should always be having with one another; a conservation free from condemnation, vitriol and self-righteousness.

For all his virtues, and there were many, it has to be said that Hitchens was not interested in bringing the conversation back to a more proportional, deliberative style. In his final decade on this Earth, he dropped his subtle radicalism and sharp eye for an increasingly fervent idealism. Washington became his holy land. The Founding Fathers became his prophets. And there was little room for the kind of critical optimism, and incisive journalism, that he once exuded before the September 11th attacks. And so whilst he would likely provide an endlessly important take concerning the current state of free speech — especially with the very recent assassination attempt on Salman Rusdie — he would also spend a great deal of time defending the ideals of western liberalism, as he did so in his final years, without saying anything that advances or unravels the present condition of Western democracy. Trapped in your browser, the man will be always be interesting. Perhaps we should consider, however, all the ways in which his words nowadays would come up empty.

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