Polemics

There are countless reasons why Christopher Hitchens has been a figure of international interest for decades, especially after his death in 2011. His bafflingly eloquent prose paired with his inexhaustible interest in politics provide the first hints of why his career in journalism was so successful. Most evidently, however, may have been Hitchens’ penchant for—and there is no reason to be overly verbose about this—making many people very angry for long periods of time. Enter Richard Seymour and his ironically titled, if you recognize the reference to one of his subject’s own philippics, Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens. 

Unhitched comes as a Counterblasts installment, part of a series from Verso Books, a publication Hitchens also frequented, aiming to revive a sort of polemical pamphleteering tradition. Seymour’s argument is best contextualized in terms of political spectra. Above all, this is a row between two leftists, one of which insists on disallowing his opponent from posthumous membership on the left at all. Unhitched is an act of creating distance. Seymour deviates from the traditional view of Hitchens as a figure who, although on the left for most of his life, defied neat categorization and instead insist that Hitchens fits a recognizable and common type: the apostate leftist.

"Christopher Hitchens speaking at The Amaz!ng Meeting held at the Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada" -  ensceptico - CC BY 2.0

“Christopher Hitchens speaking at The Amaz!ng Meeting held at the Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada” – ensceptico – CC BY 2.0

Although it surveys a vast array of his subject’s body of work, Seymour’s analysis pivots on one issue, and it is the same one that inspires nearly all of the critiques of Hitchens that came from the left: Iraq. Hitchens followed the same basic pattern as many on the left in the United States. Unanimous support in the Senate for the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 set the framework for a collective understanding of Saddam Hussein as worse than the run-of-the-mill dictator. It is a memory many wish to repress, but a majority of Democratic senators did indeed vote for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.

Little needs to be said for what followed except for the fact that, before admitting that he was mistaken on Iraq and that the war was handled poorly—which he eventually did, completing the cycle of so many of his comrades—Christopher Hitchens became stuck. It was within those few years that the situation in Iraq was deteriorating and support for the war plummeting that Hitchens dug in and lost so many friends on the left. It is this period that obsesses Seymour. Hitchens’ early work and later reversal mean very little in comparison with those years when Hitchens stuck out like a sore thumb among his fellow intellectuals. As bewildering as that period was, it does not warrant Seymour’s accusations. What is truly puzzling about this work is Seymour’s preoccupation with foreign policy as the defining aspect of one’s ideology. He speaks of Hitchens’ “decision to back Bush” as if agreeing with him on the issue of Iraq implied a deep ideological connection between the two, which it never did.

From the starting point of Iraq, Seymour branches out to the rest of Hitchens’ array of writings and searches for the right wing attitudes he assumes underlie his subject’s life trajectory. In spite of Hitchens’ lack of comfort with Leninism and preference for Trotsky—two well-documented and decades-upheld explanations predicating his departure from the International Socialists as the organization started to lean in favor of the former—Seymour insists that something else must have been going on. Seymour brings the issue up with baffling regularity, but the incredulity is not all that surprising coming from the owner of the blog “Lenin’s Tomb”.

More common in the book are arguments like the one Seymour presents regarding Hitchens’ distaste for President Bill Clinton. Rather than accept the obvious conclusion that Clinton’s technocratic style clashed with Hitchens’ fondness for explicit social protest, Seymour instead insists that the critiques expressed a latent conservatism waiting until the Bush era to express itself. Unsurprisingly, Seymour overlooks Hitchens’ general criticism of President Bush to focus instead—and only—on foreign policy. Hitchens the atheist is also painted as a closet conservative, in spite of the fact that the sharpest of his barbs pierced those on the religious right.

“Unabashedly a prosecution,” Unhitched does little to stray from the usual ad hominem critiques to which Hitchens is usually subjected, in spite of the author’s initial reluctance to judge the man rather than his views. There is a great deal of irony in the progression of Seymour’s vitriol. He chose the book’s subtitle in order to send the message that, by the end of his life, Hitchens had become precisely what he loathed (ironically, The Trial of Henry Kissinger is one of the few works to elicit Seymour’s praise). There are points throughout the book in which Seymour himself appears to embody the type of hyperbolic and lazy prose habits of which he accuses his subject. Ranging from a deliberately straight-faced accusation of “concupiscence” for Margaret Thatcher to repetitive usage of the “John Bull” label, Seymour’s habit of lapsing into schoolyard taunts gets old quickly enough. Rather than adding humor or wit to his prose, the cheap insults take over. Referring to his subject’s strong emotional reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Seymour’s tasteless pun that Hitchens’ heart was “taking wing like a passenger jet” speaks for itself. When you are not sure whether or not your subject is a “lumpen sadistic boor,” your own credibility is what should be called into question.

There is one superb moment in Unhitched in which Seymour pairs Hitchens’ admonitions in Letters to a Young Contrarian with his own rhetoric regarding the War on Terror merely a few years later. After having warned his readers to distrust any speaker relying on confident shouts of “we” or “us” and the bullish tones that may settle alongside them, Hitchens did proceed to employ these very rhetorical measures while defending the War in Iraq. This is one of the rare cases in which Seymour bases his critique on a change in argumentative technique rather than viewpoint, and it is a shame that those moments come so rarely in Unhitched.

It goes without saying that Christopher Hitchens was a master of provocation. No one denies this, but the reverberations can become troubling at times.  It appears as though Richard Seymour identified with Hitchens to a certain extent. From an outside perspective, the two have quite a lot in common. Perhaps his frustration derives from this closeness; watching a kindred spirit go awry can be painful. Iraq aside, however, if you were on the political left you would still want Christopher Hitchens at your side. He convinced all of us that there is an art to prosecution. Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens is even more ironic than it first appears, and not at all in a good way.

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Joshua Barthel