Sam Smith: You are supposed to be kind to the recently departed, even if it requires considerable deceit. But Christopher Hitchens wouldn’t have liked it. After all, one of the stories he told was of the journalist reporting from Africa during the British empire who wired his editor, “Daily Mail correspondent shot.” His editor immediately wired back, “Why you unshot?” So, in Christopher’s honor, here some unedited things I wrote about him:
WHAT IF HE WAS WRONG BOTH TIMES?
Sam Smith – Well educated Brits have it over their American peers for one important reason: their accents. The use of this accent to intimidate, impress and amuse citizens of their former colony is one of their great cons, repeatedly passing for argument and intellect. It’s a hard shtick for Americans to counter, witness Barack Obama’s tedious pseudo-thoughtfulness and boring lectures.
Fortunately, my family had an English girl live with us during World War II and she returned later to go to college, staying down the hall from me. Thanks to Ann, I learned to be skeptical of the British educated classes, even though my own father had gone to Oxford and we were visited by a steady stream of his friends and distant English relatives.
By the time I was in my 30s, I was unimpressed enough to disrupt a dinner at the home of a woman who had been on the margins of the Bloomsbury group and who started disparaging Andrew Young, then our ambassador to the U.N.
Young had alienated the elite on both sides of the Atlantic by calling Israel “stubborn and intransigent” and actually meeting with representatives of the PLO. He also took an active role in the some of the disputes on the African continent.
I pointed out that Young was simply trying to resolve some of the problems that the late British empire had left behind for us. But you were not meant to say such things over a polite dinner in England. Shortly thereafter, the hostess got up from the table and turned on the television to relieve the tension.
I felt that was a bit unfair – to be lorded over by the presumptively wise and not be allowed to return fire. But it was at that point, I suppose, that I learned an important bilateral lesson: don’t take shit from a Brit.
Thus, I have a somewhat different view of Christopher Hitchens than many journalists and reviewers. After all, even though he is now an American, Hitch still wantonly uses classic British cons to make his points.
For some years, we served together on a board that helped to fund a number of the top whistle blowing organizations in Washington and threw a bit of money to investigative journalists.
I liked him, enjoyed him, and was happy, when he was there, not to be the most bumptious and cynical one in the room. But I also thought of him as one of those well educated beings to whom associations were more important than action and to whom words were to be valued more for their sound than for their utility.
Those writing of Hitchens’ transformation from hard left to hard right tend to be so dazzled by his sentences that they miss an important point: Hitchens, like many of the time, had used the 1960s as a crash pad for his soul. Because the people writing about this seldom have experience with, or sympathy for, what happened in the 1960s, they are unable to distinguish between those who played roles and those who played a role.
I recognize the difference because I have done both. A decade older than Hitchens, I was part of a disjointed, dissatisfied, disrespectful subculture far more influenced by the Beats, Miles Davis and Humphrey Bogart than by many of our professors. Some years before Hitchens went to Cuba, Fidel Castro came to Harvard. I recalled later:
“The most noteworthy figure to appear at Harvard during my tenure was the newly victorious Fidel Castro, who spoke to 8,000 enthusiastic faculty and students (including one from Brandeis named Abbie Hoffman) at Dillon Field House. Castro was still considered a hero by many Americans for having overthrown the egregious Batista. While those of us who had taken Soc Sci 2 knew that not all revolutions were for the better, there was about this one a romance that took my thoughts far from Harvard Square as a top Castro lieutenant, sitting in front of my little recorder in the Bick, told me of his days with Fidel in the mountains. Castro was booed only once according to my broadcast report later that evening, when he “attempted to defend the execution of Cuban war criminals after the revolution. Castro asked his listeners, ‘you want something else?’ and proceed to give them a fifteen minute further explanation.”
It was a time, unlike the 1960s, when even political romance was to be viewed with a little caution. Besides, uncritical enthusiasm was too close to being uncool.
A decade later Hitchens went to Cuba and described it this way:
“As the Paris revolt faded from its May glory, and as the blooms of the Prague Spring began to feel a pinch, I vanished to Cuba and spent a hot summer in a camp in the province of Pinar del Río, where sixty-eighters of every stripe had forgathered, ostensibly to plant coffee but mostly to drink it (and rum) and to discuss new horizons of revolution.”
Hardly a substantial contribution to the cause, especially when you consider what was going on in other places at that time. I don’t begrudge him for this. After all, just this evening a friend recalled going to Washington protests in the 1960s largely for the parties and the girls. But that is part of the story that gets lost in the myth. And, in the years to follow, it never would occur to me that the failings of Fidel Castro could be replaced by those of Margaret Thatcher and Dick Cheney.
When the 1960s came into full bloom, I was already in my thirties and thus, according to the theorists, not to be trusted. But, in truth, much older leftists were often doing the real organizing while well-theorized young intellectuals were just doing the strutting. The latter tended to get the press, the former got the job done.
When Hitchens made his political shift, he stopped coming to our board meetings. I ran into him one day at my de facto conference room, the table in the southwest corner of La Tomate restaurant.
He was a bit sad to be losing his old friends and I was a bit sad to be losing him as one. Afterwards, I sent him an email noting that I was one of six children and thus was used to, even enjoyed, being around those with whom I didn’t agree. At one point, I said, my older brother, director of energy for Puerto Rico, was trying to build an oil port at the same time my youngest sister, an environmentalist, was trying to stop one in Maine.
He wrote a nice note back and that was the last I heard from him.
Sam Smith – News that Christopher Hitchens had discovered his inner imperial self was greeted exuberantly by the Washington Post, which gave him Kissingeresque space to lash out at his former comrades on the left.
As I read Hitchens’ piece, two things came to mind. The first was Elmer Davis’ comment about those on the hard left who had taken a hard right turn: it never seemed to occur to them that they might be wrong both times. The second thought was of a Sunday long ago when one of my sons was being confirmed in the Episcopal Church so he would not later, as my friend Warren Myers once said, miss the exquisite pleasure of losing one’s faith. The bishop did his job perfunctorily and then turned towards the altar. Just a moment, our minister said, “We also have one to be received.” The bishop suddenly brightened because those simple words signified true triumph: he was about to grab for his church a former servant of the Pope. It is one thing to get little boys to pretend for a morning that they understand the Apostles’ Creed; quite another for a real Catholic to defect. The editor of the Post Outlook section probably felt the same joy.
I, however, was troubled by a matter that lay beyond Christopher’s view on Iraq, arguable as that was. Once again “the left” was being defined by the habits, opinions, and proclivities of a tiny minority with whom the author had some familiarity. This tendency, predominant among writers at either end of the New York shuttle, is so misleading that it brings into question the other matters being discussed.
In fact, there are a number of lefts. There is an ideological left centered in New York City, which seems barely aware that the socialist factionalism of the 1930s and 1940s is no longer relevant. If these leftists were baseball announcers, they would spend their time debating the relative virtues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams rather than describing what was happening on the field. They tend to be tedious, trivial, and anachronistically tendentious. They are also largely irrelevant.
The intellectual left, in its academic variety at least, has also dried up, similarly a victim of too much discussion of archaic matters that leaves little time for today’s work. It is probably not accidental that the best idea to revive black politics that some professors could come up with was the reparations issue; it is just so much more comfortable discussing slavery rather than the current mass imprisonment of young black males, housing discrimination or the role of the black soldier in imperial America. There are exceptions such as Howard Zinn and those medical professors working on national health care. But the campus has been corporatized and specialized like everything else and to the extent that there is a living left, it is one that has yet to graduate.
The institutional left, much of it headquartered in Washington, is largely engaged in sterile, ritualistic reiteration of what were once vibrant mechanisms for hope. Then there is then what might be called iconographic left, which uses the power of images, sounds and words. It can be as useful as Rage Against the Machine and as stupid as Barbra Streisand. But it is rarely more than the semiotic quartermaster corps of a larger movement. The most important exception is when the images, sounds, or words serve as a catalyst – a writer offering a new idea, a rock musician catching just the right lyrics, and so forth.
Even at their best, these lefts – ideological, intellectual, institutional, iconographic – represent but a final fraction of what is needed for significant social and political change. The really important left – the idiomatic, colloquial left of people who never read the Nation, let alone have a column in it – is what really makes things happen. And unless you happen to be Betty Friedan or Martin Luther King Jr. saying just the right words at just the right moment, the truth is that the left to which Hitchens alludes simply isn’t that important.
I have always been far closer to the idiomatic, colloquial left than to the more elite varieties. In fact, I missed much of the conventional 60s because I was working with SNCC and running a newspaper in a community on the edge of riot, and helping to start a progressive third party that would actually elect people to office. I have never gotten on that well with Hitchens’ former pals in the elite left because I never could find the time to straighten out my paradigm.
It turns out it wasn’t all that important anyway, because the people who made the difference were not the famous talkers but the little known doers, ordinary people, who in Conrad’s phrase, for one brief moment did something out of the ordinary. They were people who had not studied Marx and Hegel and couldn’t tell a Trotskyite from a troll. But they knew, in Pogo’s words, when to “stand on the piano and demand outrage action.”
Hitchens and his ilk will continue to have their little debates, all carefully framed in a manner that excludes most of the people they claim to care about and most of the people who actually produce change. It worked at university and it works now. But it has little to do with either America or the left as it really is.