I never knew the late Christopher Hitchens. Friends of mine who hung peripherally around The Nation, that bastion of embattled leftiness, were full of stories about him that sketched a Falstaffian outrageousness: the time, for instance, that he tried to charge his girlfriend’s abortion to his magazine expense account. He drank famously and enormously, of course, and there was a feeling that he did so because it offered an excuse for actions that would be inexcusable if committed while sober. His peccadilloes, or worse, were as celebrated as his passions. Just one example: driven by his almost-obsessive loathing for the Clintons, he tried to get his former friend Sidney Blumenthal, who defended them, indicted for perjury. It was possible to see this too as somehow a side-effect of the lush life, treachery in a drunken rage; but it was hard to imagine him staying smashed over the whole months-long progress of the investigation. Not impossible, but hard.
His most famous betrayal, of course — that’s how many saw it — was his support for the Iraq war and George W. Bush. One could almost hope, too, that this was something he did in a decade-long drunken binge; that he’d wake up one day with a hundred thousand Iraqi corpses around him, like the smashed glass and broken friendships relicted after a more ordinary bender, and go into a twelve-step and start rifling his Rolodex for people to apologize to. He never backed off, though. The war was one thing he remained faithful to till the day he died, which as it happened was the day the US finally left Iraq — though the combat, with new combatants, will likely go on and on. Although I didn’t much follow his career, I do remember seeing him on TV in a hotel room in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, back in 2006. Saddam Hussein had just been condemned to death, and Australian news had rousted up Hitchens to comment. It must have been five in the morning in Washington, and he was still, or already, drunk. He didn’t just slur his words; whole sentences shaled over into a jumbled heap of grammar, as if they were melting below the knees. I recall wondering: Who can possibly confuse him with an expert? Why is he on TV?
Now Ace Reporter Doug Ireland has penned a short memoir of Hitchens, which, for those of us who’d largely buried the man’s memory under accusations of treachery, goes far to explain why others liked him for so long. He could be a wonderful writer; he knew a lot, although it didn’t always inform his judgment; he had an immense appetite for life, and if his loyalties were erratic, they were intense and real. (He remained loyal to Doug, at least, which is saying something.) The topic coaxes Doug out of his usual defensive perimeter of pompous prose. He writes with real feeling. It’s impossible not to be touched by the story of how Hitchens consoled Doug after his lover’s death, and dissuaded him from suicide; or by the little billets-doux of affection and respect by which Hitchens, so often bullying and competitive, encouraged a less materially successful colleague. Kudos to Doug on humanizing Hitchens; he makes one share the sense of loss he clearly, deeply feels.
It would be too much, though, to say he makes me like Hitchens, or entirely reconciles me to finding the man’s grumpy face decorating the cover of Gay City News, with the headline “My Queer Friend Christopher Hitchens.” It feels like those glossy gay periodicals that put straight celebrities up front, partly to sell copies, partly, I suspect, to speak to the gays’ deep insecurity that they’re just not good enough. We need some hetero’s approval to make us feel proud. A fellow fag’s support doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard.
Of course, I recognize that Doug wanted to memorialize Hitchens someplace, and GCN is almost the only venue that will publish him these days. Still …. Queer? What entitles the man to the epithet?
Let’s see. I tend to dismiss the schoolboy crushes and university affairs involving fellow lads and cads that Hitchens discusses in his autobiography, a matter Ireland makes much of. He quotes Hitchens’ own account:
‘He’ was a sort of strawberry blond, very slightly bowlegged, with a wicked smile that seemed to promise both innocence and experience. … He was my age. He was quite right-wing (which I swiftly decided to forgive him) but also a ‘rebel’ in the sense of being a cavalier elitist… The marvelous boy was more urbane than I was, and much more knowing, if slightly less academic. His name was Guy, and I still sometimes twitch a little when I run into someone else who’s called that — even in America, where in a way it is every boy’s name.
Were poems exchanged? Were there white-hot and snatched kisses? Did we sometimes pine for the holidays to end, so that (unlike everyone else) we actually yearned to be back at school? Yes, yes, and yes….
How very Brideshead Reedited! But British boarding schools and homoeroticism are inextricably interlinked, like rum, sodomy, and the Royal Navy. If any boys miraculously escaped it, they went on to a belated initiation at Oxbridge, like Charles Ryder. Adolescent male bisexuality was as common in the upper ranks of the United Queendom as was the assumption in classical Athens that teenage boys would enjoy the sexual tutelage of older men. In either case the normative path was always toward an adulthood of penetrating and impregnating women, and Hitchens too found pleasure in his flock of hetaerae as his beard set in and his paunch expanded. If kissing Guy makes him queer, so were Kingsley Amis and Winston Churchill.
No: there’s a certain quality to Doug’s queering of Hitchens that smacks of whitewashing — even “pinkwashing,” to use a loaded term. It’s as if he wants to excuse Hitch’s support for a murderous administration and a brutal war, not with the appeal to booze and its confusions — unusable for such an enormous perfidy — but by reinforcing the quirky dissident credentials of the dead. I don’t want queerness used that way. I resist the attempt. At the same time, I think it’s a telling move: telling about Hitchens, about the gays and their politics in these darkening days, and also about Ireland himself.
Ireland points to an exchange of emails he had with Hitch in 2003, after the latter declared his support for George W. Bush’s reelection. Doug published a redacted version of the correspondence back then; it makes intriguing reading. I do wish Ireland had left out the salutations and complimentary closes, which carry their own schoolboyish infestation of the cooties: “Hope you thrive, fraternally, Hitch,” “Duggers, old horse,” “Love and kisses for regime change from D.C. to Baghdad, Doug,” “My dearest,” “cher ami,” “Valentine smooch, Hitch.” Mass slaughter has not been so amorously discussed since the heyday of Ernst Junger.
What’s interesting is that even though Doug edits it all so as to give himself the last word and the best lines (surely an improbable thing with Hitchens), he still loses. He loses because he chooses to fight on Hitchens’ own turf: secularism versus religion. “Most important to me,” Hitchens says, “is a settled resolution to call the new fascism by something like its right name.” That means the Muslims:
I …. the most committed anti-theist of us all, have decided that the overriding issue is the willingness of the U.S. to intervene in the civil war that’s going on in the Muslim world, and to help make sure the other side loses.
Ireland keeps haplessly trying to bring up the “theocrats” around Bush, “who are quite busy trampling into the dust the constitutional insistence on the separation of church and state through a series of patronage boondoggles for the enhancement of the GOP-labeled ‘faith-based initiatives.'”
You have always proclaimed — and I am not aware it is a view you have renounced — that you are an atheist, and I’ve heard you over the years make some of the best arguments for godlessness one can proffer. But this administration’s politics are riddled with theocracy, and the way in which Bush has now put the fight against AIDS and sex education into the hands of the right-wing Christers and condom opponents and the abstinence-only crowd is crippling AIDS-prevention efforts…
Hitchens is able to demolish this with little more than a throwaway line, because when it comes to fundamentalism, Bush remains a piker. “My opposition to religion and the religious is deeper than you credit. …
However, Duggers old horse, you know better than to suggest any equivalence between American god-botherers and Osama. (The nearest to equivalence one could get would be Robertson and Falwell saying that America had it coming on 9/11: Chomsky and Fisk in clerical drag.) Nobody is going to escape their share of irony and contradiction here: Bush is actually forced to defend the secular state and to make secular allies, even if he fantasizes about some kingdom of heaven.
Timothy Garton Ash coined the phrase “enlightenment fundamentalist,” for Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Whether Hitchens (or Ireland) is enlightened in this exchange is up for argument. But the fact is, they mirror the fundamentalists perfectly: for all of them, the key determinant of whether somebody is right or wrong, good or evil, is whether they believe in God. To Islamist or Christianist, of course, what’s evil is disbelief, whereas to Ireland and Hitchens, belief (or failing to “defend the secular state”) is the mark of sin. Other than that detail, though, it’s a perfect match — one made in heaven.
Terry Eagleton has written, sensibly, that the “New Atheists” — Richard Dawkins, Martin Amis, et.al, a chorus among whom Hitchens was perhaps the loudest voice — have not just a theological but a political agenda.
Writers such as Martin Amis and Hitchens do not just want to lock terrorists away. They also tout a brand of western cultural supremacism…. Both Hitchens and Salman Rushdie have defended Amis’s slurs on Muslims. Whether they like it or not, Dawkins and his ilk have become weapons in the war on terror. Western supremacism has gravitated from the Bible to atheism.
Ireland has joined this too: promoting stringent Western laïcité as the defense and bulwark of the embattled gays. He’s published screeds against theologian Tariq Ramadan, hawking the Islamophobic rhetoric of Ramadan’s opponent Caroline Fourest. (Malise Ruthven has delivered an incisive refutation of Fourest’s claims, for those interested in the dispute.) Gay City News has also given space to a bizarre attack on French women wearing the hijab, not, one would generally think, its area of expertise:
There’s nothing sanctifying or empowering at all about the ugly black, dirty drapes that hide older Muslim women as they stagger down the street. When I see them I want to ban all the abayas, hijabs, and headscarves I see. And give a good hard kick in the balls to the young men and boys with their degenerate fathers sauntering several yards in front of the women they despise as trash.
The logical conclusion of “covering” women is a mere 3,485 miles east in Afghanistan … [O]ne thing at least is clear. That it’s not more freedom of religion most Muslim women need, but freedom from the monsters that use it to keep them safely hidden and in chains.
The message coming from Ireland and Hitchens, as with other devotees of laïcité, is clear: secularity should be the price of full citizenship, and abandoning religion and its robes the prerequisite for getting your human rights.
Somebody should investigate why, after a century of scientific advances, secularism remains largely the property of elites and a mark of privilege. (The Egyptian election returns forcibly press home the point.) Surely one reason is that, absent some larger program to build a juster, fairer here-and-now, it offers only resignation. It’s incapable of making most people happy. (And if the endlessly angry Hitchens and the jealously resentful Ireland were atheism’s only poster boys, I would get me posthaste to a monkery or a madrassa.)
But it does provide Hitchens and Ireland with common ground, even across the fissure of the Iraq invasion. And it is, in a sense, Ireland’s last defense of Hitchens. He helped the gays because he fought their greatest enemy: God. Ireland cites Hitch’s comment on his separation from his schoolboy love: “it helped teach me as vividly as anything could have that religion was cruel and stupid.” Even in supporting a stupid war, one infers, he had his eye on the real foe.
Many of my left-wing friends who had stopped speaking to Hitch were surprised that I continued to maintain warm and friendly relations with him. This was possible only because, after our pubic debate, we both instinctively avoided those subjects on which our differences were too profound.
Undoubtedly wise, but I can’t help thinking there was more at work. After all, Ireland too launched his own jihad against the jihadis midway through the Iraq war. No sooner did Iran elect Ahmadinejad in 2006 than Doug fell into a morass of speculation and outright lies that fed on popular hysteria against the mullahs. His ensuing promotion of rumors about Iran as well as Islam not only won him readers, it gave the atheism he shared with Hitchens that longed-for political field to work upon. Although Ireland insisted he opposed an actual attack upon Iran, Hitch (who cheerled happily for one: “How many Iranian dissidents are really going to be nationalistically upset by an intervention that comes in and removes the Revolutionary Guards?”) must have approved his rhetoric.
One more point. Touching on Hitchens’ bisexual escapades, Ireland observes that
In his memoir, Hitch, in describing his sexual encounters with young men while a penniless and militantly left-wing student at Oxford, relates how he’d frequently be invited by wealthy and attractive young men, often right-wingers, to lavish dinner parties with good food and even better wine and spirits and would often accept, knowing that he would have to “sing for his supper” — a euphemism that should be understood as not merely being entertaining but as “putting out.” … [The Daily Mail quoted] Oxford contemporaries of Hitch’s as saying “He had a reputation for being AC/ DC and, although a Trot, he was fancied by quite a few gay Tories and moved in those circles.”
At this point I recall with delight the rather dreadful George Galloway’s description of Hitchens as a “drink-sodden former Trotskyist popinjay”—the only good line of George’s career, and one that might see his corpse squeak into whatever corner of Westminster Abbey is reserved for purveyors of invective. (There must be one.) Something that’s never been adequately explained is the propensity of youthful Trotskyites to lurch severely rightward in later life. Saul Bellow (who was actually in Mexico trying to meet the Old Man when Ramón Mercader excavated Trotsky’s ice-cold intellect with an icepick), Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, James Burnham, Lyndon LaRouche … the list goes on and on. I suspect it has something to do with Trotskyism’s propensity for the Great Man theory of history. After all, Trotsky’s solution to bureaucratism, Stalinism, and the other ills of Communism was simply … Trotsky; give him power, and all evils would go away. The romantic belief in the brilliant, rejected hero, so immensely appealing to intellectually insecure young men, is ultimately more compatible with the Right than the Left. Hitchens only followed multitudes who had tracked the relentless logic of the Superman to its home in the country house of Colonel Blimp.
But the stories Ireland (along with Hitchens) tells suggest something more: Hitch’s early infatuation with power, and power’s regular partner, money. And this persisted. What else did Hitchens do, in attracting the attentions of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith by unequivocally shilling for their war, but “sing for his supper?” Of course, this was easier blowing: he didn’t need physically to put his lips to Wolfie’s or Feith’s distasteful members, just to the inflatable balloon of their reputations. It’s quite true, as Michael Lind writes, that the dialectics of fame always drove Hitchens’ career: he was “a gossip columnist of genius” who “escaped from the ghetto of little-known leftist writers when he discovered that he could become a celebrity by denouncing bigger celebrities.” In the last stage of his life, though, he found he could feed his fame best not by denouncing but by ingratiating the biggest celebrities of all, the wielders of bombs and the breakers of nations. It did wonders even for his literary reputation. As his former publisher at The Nation, Victor Navasky, remarks, his essayistic talents were little noticed until he moved right, where there were ready crowds of “muscular liberal” critics to acclaim him.
Doug, I’m afraid, has done the same sort of thing on a much smaller scale. He told me once that his first, sensational, deceptive postings on Iran got his blog 60,000 hits; the lure of popularity at career’s end kept the fictions coming. Gay City News, too, held its own little fire sale of its integrity. Lately it’s hosted one Ben Weinthal, a flack for the “Foundation for the Defense of Democracies,” a far-right think tank pushing for military action against America’s enemies. Weinthal’s job is to produce propaganda promoting war with Iran as well as support for Israel (the Foundation organized an “Iranian Threat Campaign” to disseminate panic about the danger). Weinthal’s first agitprop piece in GCN praised Doug Ireland to the skies, and warned of “Iran’s Anti-Gay Genocide”: a unique genocide, the first genocide in world history with no demonstrable dead. Samantha Power would be proud of it.
It’s distressing that a once-progressive rag should turn itself over to such warmongering; but you can see that Ireland and the paper’s editors are flattered by the attention, as much as Hitchens was overwhelmed by getting invites to Paul Wolfowitz’s parties. Policymakers, the powerful, the deciders, all usually ignore the gay press. But now an influential rookery of neocons, one that features Christianist Gary Bauer and Mouth-of-Sauron Richard Perle on its board, is actually complimenting Ireland’s half-baked articles and taking GCN seriously! Such interest can only be won by serving the prejudices of the powerful. Hitchens did it, in his later years; in their lesser sphere of influence, Ireland and GCN have learned to do it too.
In my view, Hitch was queer in several ways — both in the Merriam-Webster definitions of the word as “eccentric,” “unusual,” “unique” (he certainly was “sui generis”) and in the sense that he “got” us in a way that few non-gay writers ever have.
I sympathize with his mourning for a remarkable friend. But “queer” — as I learned to use it in my salad days, the days of AIDS and spreading death, of militancy and Queer Nation — implies something more than either uniqueness or understanding. It means a consistency in rebellion, refusing to fit in or satisfy the mandates of authority, refusing to kowtow or conform, either to settle for the average or sell out for privilege. It means holding fast to the impalpable stuff of difference, always situating yourself in its uncertainties and unplotted crevices rather than in a safe or named or protected place. It means not merely speaking truth to power, but startling it with the odd well-timed obscenity. It means saying “no” whenever “yes” would be easy. It means that solidarity with the dead matters more to you than the approbation of the living. Hitch was queer at times in his career, I’ll grant you that. But not at the end. You can be gay, or lesbian, or even trans and sit down at Paul Wolfowitz’s dinnertable. But queer? No. Not my kind.