Battling the cult of Hitchens

The author of the highly critical study, "Unhitched," addresses neoconservative criticisms of his book

Topics: Jacobin, Christopher Hitchens, Neoconservatism, Richard Seymour, Newsweek,

Battling the cult of Hitchens Christopher Hitchens
This article originally appeared on Jacobin.

Jacobin

McDonald’s had better sign me up for an advertising campaign, because I am loving itNewsweek, having mysteriously overlooked my previous work, has just reviewed UnhitchedNewsweek is massive; therefore I am massive. Fuck Bono. Fuck Bob Geldoff. The next Live 8 is hosted by me. And what a review. It is the most deliciously splenetic fanboy tribute to unreasoning hysteria that it has ever been my pleasure to gloat about. I wasn’t prepared for an opportunity like this, but I won’t pass it up all the same.

This reviewer, like every reviewer of Unhitched in the liberal media thus far, outs himself as a votary of the Hitchens personality cult. “Hitchens was a friend, mentor and neighbor of mine,” he writes, as if to reassure the reader of his objectivity in this matter. He is also, in the interests of fuller disclosure, a neoconservative writer for the Weekly Standard — just the sort of bargain basement intellectual company that Hitchens kept in his last decade. If Unhitched is written in the style of a “prosecution,” this review is an indictment.

What am I charged with? In a series of increasingly shrill non-sequiturs, I am condemned for every seditious affront to empire ever confected: anti-Americanism, apologia for the bad guys, sympathy for the devil, etc. For example, I have placed myself “on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta,” because I deemed the British war an imperialist one. Oh, well. Sorry about that. For no obvious reason, I am also deemed to believe that “a noble anti-imperialism inevitably arises out of anti-Americanism,” whatever the latter term means. Again, duly chastened.

But there’s much, much worse. “Seymour routinely defends, excuses, and minimizes the depredations of the two classes of people whom Hitchens loathed most: dictators and Islamists.” He does not! Does he? “Muammar Gaddafi’s ruthless crushing of any dissent was nothing more than an “inability to allow any form of organized opposition,” as if his jailing dissidents was tantamount to dyslexia.” Well, I don’t need any more proof than that. The reviewer even quotes this Seymour to damn him out of his own mouth. What more could one need? With regard to the Rushdie affair, I am belaboured for describing “a rather straightforward argument between the right to publish and religious totalitarianism” as “a far more nuanced “saga” that “was saturated with these meanings and could not be limited to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.”



I’m not sure how I should respond to the charge of being nuanced, but — how tantalizing this review is: “these meanings” just left hanging like that! What are they? Oh, just stuff. Proceeding: “Seymour is either ignorant or lying when he writes that ‘the editorials and clerical bluster in Iran had yielded little.’” This may or may not be a fair criticism, but it isn’t a criticism of me. In this quoted statement I am merely and explicitly summarizing Hitchens’ own rebuke to the neoconservative Daniel Pipes, written in 1999, in which he assailed the hysterical ‘clash of civilizations’ mythology that treated every threatening editorial or sermon as proof of a coming cataclysm.

Nevertheless, let it pass. The outrages continue to mount. “Seymour elsewhere mocks Hitchens, along with anyone else who viewed with alarm the murder of 3,000 Americans.” At this point, levity has to stop. There are some things one simply doesn’t joke about. I am certainly not rolling my eyes and hugging myself with laughter at this point. Seriously, what did this tasteless mockery consist of? Well, I criticized Hitchens for “conjur[ing] a civilizational challenge out of a handful of combatants with box cutters.” In my defense, if you think that needs a defense  Hitchens’ claim to have been exhilarated by the events of that day really don’t suggest that alarm was his dominant response. Further, as the reviewer must have noticed, Hitchens was himself the first to belittle such alarm. It’s “not that terrifying,” he claimed. “That kind of thing happens in a war, it has to be expected in a war, if you’re in a war you’re gonna lose a building or a plane, and maybe a small town or a school or – you should reckon about once a week. Get ready for it.”

Suddenly sounding so much more like Daniel Pipes, and so much less like his urbane critic from only a few a years before.

What else? The reviewer is aggrieved that I repeat “the paranoid claim of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez … that an attempted 2002 coup d’état was “US-supported,” in spite of the fact that there exists no evidence to support such a claim.” He has a habit, this pundit, of using the words ‘no evidence’ in the most eccentric way. The most generous translation of it is: “no evidence that I would be remotely interested in looking at.” Still, it has the dignity of being a point of view, or rather a point of non-view. Other eccentric misuses of language: “Hitchens believed that ‘Halliburton has as much right as anyone else to take over Iraq’s oil (since Iraqis plainly could not be trusted with it themselves),’ Seymour alleges.” I suppose I do “allege” this inasmuch as I cite Hitchens’ words to this effect, with an accompanying footnote. Mark the sequel: “Such wording suggests that, under the reign of Saddam Hussein, regular Iraqis had any say over their country’s munificent oil resources.” Is. That. Right?

Predictably enough — which is not to say with tiresome inevitability — some of Hitchens’ fans take greatest umbrage at the point, made in the prologue, that their immortal paladin was a habitual plagiarist. I don’t make a big deal of it, but this reviewer considers it the most serious claim in the whole book. “Seymour provides no evidence to substantiate his scandalous claims,” he expostulates. There’s that phrase again: “no evidence.” “For instance, Seymour writes that “a great deal of his work on Bill Clinton’s betrayal on health care was lifted” from another journalist, yet in the footnotes concedes, “In fairness, Hitchens credited [said journalist’s] work in the chapter in the paperback edition of No One Left to Lie To,” Hitchens’ salvo against the 42nd president.”

Now, as the reviewer would know, having scrupulously read Unhitched from first recto to final verso, the point is that the credit was not given until after Sam Husseini had cried foul about the original plagiarism. Further, other plagiarisms in the same book remained intact — as could be gleaned from the same footnote from which the reviewer cited. And, as far as I’m aware, there was no such rectification of, for example, the plagiarism of Chomsky and Herman in The Trial of Henry Kissinger, a case that the reviewer simply ignores.

“Seymour also alleges” — that word “alleges” again — “that ‘one reviewer has already detected plagiarism in the case of large tranches of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man,’ yet the review in question, while certainly negative, actually states that ‘there is of course no question of plagiarism’ by Hitchens.” Since I’ve seen this elsewhere, can I at least make the obvious point that Barrell was taking the piss? The quoted statement should be given in full: “Although Hitchens’ debt to Keane is palpable in passages like this – the same selection of facts in the same order – there is of course no question of plagiarism, for Hitchens everywhere introduces little touches of fine writing that allow him to claim ownership of what he has borrowed: the inspired choice of “heavy-footed,” for example, to describe the visits of the police, or the tellingly patronising phrase ‘the good bishop.’” Need I underline the point? Or do I have to explain what plagiarism is? The reviewer concludes: “As for other examples of what he claims to be Hitchens’ “many plagiarisms,” Seymour offers nothing.” Here, “nothing” is synonymous with the author’s previous use of the term “no evidence.”

Now this reviewer must ask himself: would mummy and daddy be proud? I don’t think so. Being so silly and telling little porkie-pies? That’s an open invitation for mister hand to take a short, sharp trip to botty-land.

You know, a cliche in many of these affronted reviews, as they labor to be condescending, is that Unhitched is the product of some desperately earnest polemicist, unleavened by irony or humor  someone who treats political difference as an unpardonable sin. I beg to differ. It is the fans who, in their undignified idolatrous zeal, manifestly can’t take a joke, or brook serious criticism. But then, isn’t that the condition of fandom, almost by definition?

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 22
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Talking Heads, 1977
    This was their first weekend as a foursome at CBGB’s, after adding Jerry Harrison, before they started recording the LP “Talking Heads: 77.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith, Bowery 1976
    Patti lit up by the Bowery streetlights. I tapped her on the shoulder, asked if I could do a picture, took two shots and everyone went back to what they were doing. 1/4 second at f/5.6 no tripod.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Blondie, 1977
    This was taken at the Punk Magazine Benefit show. According to Chris Stein (seated, on slide guitar), they were playing “Little Red Rooster.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    No Wave Punks, Bowery Summer 1978
    They were sitting just like this when I walked out of CBGB's. Me: “Don’t move” They didn’t. L to R: Harold Paris, Kristian Hoffman, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, Lydia Lunch, James Chance, Jim Sclavunos, Bradley Field, Liz Seidman.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell + Bob Quine, 1978
    Richard Hell and the Voidoids, playing CBGB's in 1978, with Richard’s peerless guitar player Robert Quine. Sorely missed, Quine died in 2004.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bathroom, 1977
    This photograph of mine was used to create the “replica” CBGB's bathroom in the Punk Couture show last summer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I got into the Met with a bathroom photo.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Stiv Bators + Divine, 1978
    Stiv Bators, Divine and the Dead Boys at the Blitz Benefit show for injured Dead Boys drummer Johnny Blitz.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977
    “The kids are all hopped up and ready to go…” View from the unique "side stage" at CBGB's that you had to walk past to get to the basement bathrooms.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Klaus Nomi, Christopher Parker, Jim Jarmusch – Bowery 1978
    Jarmusch was still in film school, Parker was starring in Jim’s first film "Permanent Vacation" and Klaus just appeared out of nowhere.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Hilly Kristal, Bowery 1977
    When I used to show people this picture of owner Hilly Kristal, they would ask me “Why did you photograph that guy? He’s not a punk!” Now they know why. None of these pictures would have existed without Hilly Kristal.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Dictators, Bowery 1976
    Handsome Dick Manitoba of the Dictators with his girlfriend Jody. I took this shot as a thank you for him returning the wallet I’d lost the night before at CBGB's. He doesn’t like that I tell people he returned it with everything in it.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Alex Chilton, Bowery 1977
    We were on the median strip on the Bowery shooting what became a 45 single sleeve for Alex’s “Bangkok.” A drop of rain landed on the camera lens by accident. Definitely a lucky night!

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery view, 1977
    The view from across the Bowery in the summer of 1977.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ramones, 1977 – never before printed
    I loved shooting The Ramones. They would play two sets a night, four nights a week at CBGB's, and I’d be there for all of them. This shot is notable for Johnny playing a Strat, rather than his usual Mosrite. Maybe he’d just broken a string. Love that hair.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Richard Hell, Bowery 1977 – never before printed
    Richard exiting CBGB's with his guitar at 4am, about to step into a Bowery rainstorm. I’ve always printed the shots of him in the rain, but this one is a real standout to me now.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Patti Smith + Ronnie Spector, 1979
    May 24th – Bob Dylan Birthday show – Patti “invited” everyone at that night’s Palladium show on 14th Street down to CBGB's to celebrate Bob Dylan’s birthday. Here, Patti and Ronnie are doing “Be My Baby.”

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Legs McNeil, 1977
    Legs, ready for his close-up, near the front door of CBGB's.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Suicide, 1977
    Rev and Alan Vega – I thought Alan was going to hit me with that chain. This was the Punk Magazine Benefit show.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Ian Hunter and Fans, outside bathroom
    I always think of “All the Young Dudes” when I look at this shot. These fans had caught Ian Hunter in the CBGB's basement outside the bathrooms, and I just stepped in to record the moment.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Tommy Ramone, 1977
    Only at CBGB's could I have gotten this shot of Tommy Ramone seen through Johnny Ramones legs.

    Once upon a time on the Bowery

    Bowery 4am, 1977
    End of the night garbage run. Time to go home.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>