Hitch the apostate

As my time with the controversial writer showed me, his true religion was the renunciation of prior belief

Published December 16, 2011 8:30PM (EST)

Christopher Hitchens    (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)
Christopher Hitchens (Shannon Stapleton / Reuters)

It was Christopher's idea to start a drinking club. We would call it the Osric Dining Society, he said, in honor of Osric, the unctuous courtier in Hamlet. He helpfully quoted several lines to illustrate the project. Hitch's purpose (besides a night of drinking on someone else's tab) was to skewer those in Washington journalism who flattered their way to the top. The year was 1986 and I knew Hitchens as a friend and columnist for the Nation magazine who lobbed corrosive broadsides at the New Republic where I worked. I thought the Osric Dining Society was a swell excuse for merriment. Anybody could attend, Hitch said, as long as they stood up to nominate one Washington journalist who excelled in what Hitch described as "the Osrician principles of flattery, deference and self-serving vacuity."

So a couple of dozen liberal writers and reporters gathered in the backroom of a Connecticut Avenue restaurant to lampoon our fellow hacks and the perennially awful state of Washington journalism. Hitch, as master of ceremonies, rose to skewer not one but a half dozen famous scribes, impugning the likes of David Broder, John McLaughlin and Fred Barnes with obscene glee. Glass of amber fluid in hand, he spun out complex and hilarious scenarios involving fellatio, barnyard animals and Morton Kondracke, and the hangover was pleasurably punishing. When I told my boss, New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, about the debauchery the next morning, he sniffed, "Oh, Sid and Hitch feeling self-satisfied again?"

Kinsley had a point. Sid, of course, was Sidney Blumenthal, then a columnist at the New Republic, who was fast becoming Christopher's best friend. What they shared, more than left-of-liberal politics and capacious self-regard, was ambition.  But while Sidney's ambition was naked and sometimes obnoxious, Christopher's was seductive and provocative. I think he realized he diminished himself a little by deprecating the Osrics of Washington journalism. If they were so dumb, how come they got on the Sunday morning chat shows and Hitch did not?

Christopher aimed to correct that mistake. By the late 1980s, he was spoiling for a fight with the left-liberal milieu in which we worked. I could tell he was becoming an apostate from socialism, at least in the forms that it actually existed in the world. As a longtime Trotskyite, he had spent too many dinner table conversations explaining away why real existing socialism had culminated in the walking corpse known as Leonid Brezhnev. Always a tireless traveler, Hitch would return to the Washington party circuit talking incredulously about "the comrades" in Eastern Europe who could not publish a book or a magazine article while living in cultural capitals like Prague and Warsaw.

Such sympathies did not always win him friends at the Nation, a publication with deep roots in the American communist movement that was adamantly opposed to Ronald Reagan and all that he stood for. While the Nationistas recoiled when Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," Hitch admitted to me that he agreed. "It's not evil like the U.S. in El Salvador," he said, referring to the CIA's role in sponsoring death squads. "But it is evil. Wouldn't you think so if you lived there?"

This relentless casting of the political in terms of the personal was not a pose for Christopher. It was his path to fulfillment, to feeling he was living and writing honestly. Apostasy — the renunciation of prior belief — was becoming his religion. And in June of 1988, I think, he had a conversion experience.

That year, Hitch had introduced me to his friend Joanne Landy, who was running an organization called the Campaign for Peace and Democracy, which touted "détente from below" as the solution to the Cold War. Christopher told me, his eyes glimmering with intrigue, of a plan to take on the communist powers that be. The campaign was going to bring together Western anti-nuclear and peace groups with the leaders of underground  human rights groups from across the Soviet bloc for a meeting in Prague, he said. Did I want to come?

At the time, it was an audacious idea. The ideological rigidities of the Cold War, often mentally consigned to the 1950s, continued well through the 1980s in Washington in a way that now seems almost absurd. At the time,  Western leftists were not enamored with anti-communist movements, such as Poland's Solidarity movement, regarding such forces as inherently reactionary, if actually pawns of the CIA. In the same way, Eastern European writers whom Christopher loved to discuss (especially Vaclav Havel and Lezek Kolakowski) sometimes mistrusted Western leftists, suspecting they might be apologists for the KGB. "It's all rubbish," Hitch told me. "They're comrades."

Landy's plan was for delegations from the West to meet up in Prague with delegations from the East and issue a joint declaration of principles. To pay for the ticket to Prague, I wrangled an assignment from Rolling Stone to write a piece about the Plastic People of the Universe, a famous underground rock band that had been banned by the communists for their long hair, harshly beautiful music and complete rejection of socialist stupidity. Fortunately for me, the mother-in-law of the Plastic People's bass player was a longtime dissident, and she was hosting the East-West summit of radicals  in her enormous ramshackle apartment.

We knew the authorities would break up any public meeting devoted to criticism of communism, so by means of furtive phone calls we contrived to gather for our first meeting. Some 30 people from a dozen countries listened as Jiri Hajek, who had served as the foreign minister during the Prague Spring of 1968, opened the meeting with a halting and eloquent plea for the creation of European Peace Parliament.  It was just like a bunch of liberals dreaming of a nuclear freeze on the Upper West Side — until someone started hammering on the door.

Glances were exchanged and our hostess finally said she had to see who it was. Several plainclothes policemen pushed their way in and insisted we had to disperse. Christopher demanded to see their ID. The leader, a grim-faced cop who didn't like the looks of a bunch of intellectuals, showed his badge. Christopher demanded a warrant. The cops didn't have a warrant and didn't have any patience for this loud-mouthed Brit. "We are lawfully gathered and will not leave," Hitch declared grandly. He denounced the cops for various violations of international law and for stepping on his shoes.

To no avail. Within about 15 minutes the cops had muscled the pudgy Hitch and the rest of us into the night without violence. Over the inevitable drinks afterward, I sensed Christopher brooding. He wondered if he should have taken a swing at the cop or least fallen to the floor and forced them to drag him out. He looked humiliated. When the dissident groups tried to meet again the next morning at another apartment, the police burst in again and didn't bother to be polite. We were all arrested, taken to a police station, declared persona non grata, and forcibly expelled from the country -- which improved Christopher's mood immensely. "A badge of honor," he told me.

To me that was the birth of Hitch the Apostate. He had always been an iconoclastic thinker in the Marxist tradition, but dissatisfaction with the whole enterprise of Marx propelled him to Prague and the glory of his arrest. A year and half later, the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet-style communism he dared to challenge in person was no more. Christopher felt vindicated in his break from socialism. His apostasy had served his ambition: to reach an audience larger than those who already agreed with him.

In the 1990s, his socialist worldview was defunct and so he became a liberal and an advocate of humanitarian intervention in the service of a Marxist-free internationalism. Escaping the leftist ghetto of the Nation, he landed in Graydon Carter's penthouse at Vanity Fair. Always more convincing as a partygoer than a man of the people, he thrived as a writer and minor celebrity. He fell out with former friends like Blumenthal and Alexander Cockburn, I think, because their ambitions — to serve Bill Clinton and the international proletariat, respectively — seemed too limited.

On Sept. 11, Christopher became an apostate again, discovering a new  enemy — Islamist jihadists — and rejecting his former faith in a liberal international order in favor of bold action against an enemy of a free society. So while people would later accuse Christopher of "selling out" by supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, I always thought he was repeating the grand gesture of 1988. He wanted to put his body on the line against the enemy of a free society, and he wanted people to read about it.

I didn't agree with him but I felt that he had come to his position about overthrowing Saddam Hussein honestly. Even in the 1980s, when Iraq barely existed in the American political conversation, Christopher spoke of his friends in Kurdistan and Iraq who had suffered from Saddam's savagery.  After Sept. 11, he wanted to go to war against Saddam, not because it would land him in a TV studio or a right-wing cocktail party (though he regarded both results as condign) but because his Iraqi friends wanted to. I respected that. It was his new friends who were more worrisome. When he assured me, "Paul is a very smart man," referring to his new pal Wolfowitz, I knew our days of amiable debate were over.

Christopher wound up doing what Wolfowitz and many a brilliant intellectual has done when he (and it usually it is "he") becomes certain that his admirable goals justify organized violence: He made a stupid mistake. He supported a war that was a disaster for the people it was supposed to help. The model democracy that he predicted would emerge turned out to be a collection of violent factions whose aspirations for self-rule Washington constantly sought to manipulate for its own ends. The jihadists he sought to defeat gained a new battleground (and were only driven out when Gen. Petraeus bribed Saddam's former allies to do the job for us). When democracy finally came to the Arab world in the awakening of 2011, its partisans were peaceful and -- Hitch's feeble arguments notwithstanding -- virtually none of them cited Iraq or Bush as inspiration.

His penchant for apostasy found much more winning expression in his 2007 atheist manifesto, "God Is Not Great." The nature of belief, not geopolitics, was his strong suit. That's why I was moved by the passage in his autobiography, "Hitch-22," where he recounted the story of a young man who had been inspired by his arguments about Iraq to enlist in the U.S. military. After the young man was killed in action, his parents invited Hitchens to a memorial service, which he attended with a combination of honor and humility.

Some might say that Christopher was a warmonger who had helped send this person to a meaningless death. But if the young man's parents did not think so, how could anyone else? Politically, I thought Christopher's ambitions in Iraq were dangerous, but as a writer I could not begrudge them. He aimed to move his readers to believe, not in superstition, but in their ideals. For better and worse, he succeeded.

Elsewhere in "Hitch 22" I looked forward to his account of our long-ago meeting in Prague.  I was disappointed to find only a dismissive line. What had been a memorable and inspiring episode for me stuck in his mind as mostly the equivalent of a boring dinner party — which gave me some insight into the scale of the life he had achieved. He wound up as one of those confident Washington pundits whom younger writers loved to loathe. But for all his ambition I think he stayed true to the ideals of the Osric Dining Society. He might have been wrong but he never resorted to flattery, deference or self-serving vacuity.

By Jefferson Morley

Jefferson Morley is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. He is the editor and co-founder of JFK Facts, a blog about the assassination of JFK. His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton.

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