Coffee House From the archive

Christopher Hitchens and The Spectator: writing full of curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour

30 June 2013

4:16 PM

30 June 2013

4:16 PM

After Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011, Douglas Murray wrote in the Spectator that he’d had ‘a talent for making us, his readers, want to be better people. He used his abilities not to close down questions and ideas, but to open them up. In the process he made you, the reader, aware that you needed to do more, engage more, think more and know more. Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to impress the writer.’

To nearly everything he wrote, Hitchens brought curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour and a vast frame of reference. It’s been a great pleasure looking through the recently digitised Spectator archive for Hitchens highlights.

One of his most chilling pieces is called Dead Men on Leave, written thirty years ago. Hitchens recounts an interview he had with Mazen Sabry al-Banna, who went by the nom de guerre Abu Nidal was ‘leader of the renegade extremist faction of al-Fatah and a man sought for murder and conspiracy by both the Israelis and the PLO’. The interview began with an invitation to visit one of his camps and to undergo some training:

‘He took my declining of his offer quite calmly, but then shifted mercurially in his approach. Did I, he wanted to know, ever meet Said Hammami? Hammami was then the PLO envoy in London, who had in a celebrated article in the Times advocated mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestinians. I knew him and liked him and agreed with him. ‘Tell him,’ said Abu Nidal, ‘to be careful. We do not tolerate traitors.’ I delivered this billet-doux back in London, and Said shrugged. He had been threatened before, but saw no alternative to an ‘open door’ policy. A few months later, a man walked through his open door and shot him dead. Abu Nidal ‘claimed credit’, as the argot has it, for the deed.’


The article goes on to chart the fate of another exponent of mutual recognition, Dr Issam Sartawi, who was also murdered: ‘All in all, it’s been a pitiful year for those who hope for a solution short of colonisation, annexation or irredentism.’ On the Israeli side, three senior Jewish figures, Pierre Mendes-France, Nahum Goldmann and Philip Klutznick, also called for Palestinian independence, mutual recognition between the two contending parties, and direct negotiations. Hitchens ends ominously:

‘Since the statement was signed and published, both Mendes-France and Nahum Goldmann have died, and Issain Sartawi has been murdered. Israeli dissent is being swamped in a sea of chauvinism: but any future Palestinian advocate of self criticism will have to consider himself a dead man on leave.’

In another piece from 1983, Give them back their Marbles, Hitchens is at his furious best, especially when he gets to the argument that giving back the marbles might set a precedent that would put museum culture under threat:

‘The third argument — what if everybody wanted his stuff back? — is the old last-ditch standby of the bureaucrat. It is the authentic voice of the nanny and the pen-pusher. Either an action is right or it isn’t.’

That final sentence seems to be the motivating principle of much of Hitchens’s work. When an action or a thought was not right, woe betide it. Noam Chomsky and others on the ‘soft left’ were dealt a blow in 2001. Hitchens’s piece on the Fascist Sympathies of the Soft Left, published less than three weeks after the attacks on the Twin Towers, is worth reading in full:

‘What is known in American psycho-babble as ‘denial’ strikes in many insidious forms. It can express itself as the simple refusal to admit that a painful event has occurred. It may manifest itself as a cheery rationalisation of something ghastly. Or it can involve a crude shifting of blame. It’s actually a more useful term than it sometimes looks.

‘The reaction of much of the Left to the human and moral catastrophe at the World Trade Center, and to the aggression that lies behind it, has partaken of all three variants. For me, the best encapsulation came in an angry email I received shortly after I denounced the rationalisers in a column published in New York. It came from Sam Husseini, who runs a dove-ish Washington outfit innocuously called the Institute for Public Accuracy… The forces of Osama bin Laden, he wrote, ‘could not get volunteers to stuff envelopes if Israel had withdrawn from Jerusalem like it was supposed to — and the US stopped the sanctions and the bombing on Iraq’.

‘That neatly synthesised all three facets of denial. ‘Envelope-stuffing’ reduces the members of al-Qa’eda to the manageable status of everyday political activists with a programme; the same image obstructs the recognition of the full impact of the attack; the diplomatic measures that supposedly could have warded off the atrocity become, by an obvious transference, the source of responsibility for it. This is something more like self-hatred than appeasement.’

Later in the same piece:

‘I might, from where I am sitting, be a short walk from a gutted Capitol or a shattered White House. I am quite certain that in such a case the rationalising left-liberals would still be telling me that my chickens were coming home to roost. Only those who chose to die fighting rather than allow such a profanity, and such a further toll in lives, stood between us and the fourth death squad. One iota of such innate fortitude is worth all the writings of Noam Chomsky, who coldly compared the plan of 11 September to a stupid and cruel and cynical raid by Bill Clinton on Khartoum in August 1998.

‘To mention this banana-republic degradation of the United States in the same breath as a plan, deliberated for months, to inflict maximum horror upon the innocent is to abandon every standard that makes intellectual and moral discrimination possible. To put it at its very lowest, and most elementary, at least the missiles launched by Clinton were not full of passengers.’

There’s not space to quote his attempt to undo the ‘grandiose absurdity of the Kenndy myth‘, his detective work on Cyprus, his dryly amusing description of the Reagan administration’s bodyguard of lies or his description of being mugged in New York, when he ‘realised with absolute certainty that if I had had a gun I would have shot him in the back’, but they are all stamped with that urgent message: do more, engage more, think more, know more.

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Show comments
  • The_greyhound

    There must be a particular sort of mediocre mind that C. Hitchens appealed to. Most of what he said does not bear scrutiny.

    Study the passage cited above –

    ‘The third argument — what if everybody wanted his stuff back? — is
    the old last-ditch standby of the bureaucrat. It is the authentic voice
    of the nanny and the pen-pusher. Either an action is right or it isn’t.’

    and you can see exactly what I mean. The sort of writing aimed at the English graduate – apparently sharp, but devoid of intellectual rigour or real meaning.

    I quite like his brother, but a lot of people find him too incisive and uncomfortably radical.

    • Ben

      Yes, because intelligent minds perpetually vacillate and never make up their minds on anything, right? What other people might ask for if the marbles were returned really has nothing to do with whether they should be returned or not. I would’ve thought that would be pretty obvious to someone with as mighty a mind as yourself.

      • The_greyhound

        I had never heard that intelligent minds perpetually vacillate. Smart people make up their minds fairly readily on most issues – they just don’t depend on ridiculous posturing of the sort that Hitchens depended on in the passage I quoted – stigmatising arguments simply because of who deployed them, and then announcing an answer based on nothing but his own unsupported prejudice.

        But I guess you are intellectually too unsophisticated to spot that.

        • Ben

          Taking a stand on one side of an issue is ‘ridiculous posturing’ eh?

          I see you didn’t bother to suggest how potential future requests have anything to do with whether the marbles should be returned or not?

          That’s right genius: Hitchens has a ‘mediocre mind’ and i’m ‘intellectually unsophisticated’ – funny how you’ve got nothing to say other than ad hominem attacks on the intelligence of others. Particularly in my case, where you have no discernable way of knowing who i am, or how intelligent i may or may not be. Insecure about something are we?

  • therealguyfaux

    One gets the sense that C. Hitchens was the sort that was possibly in error but never in doubt, as the tired phrase has it, and he didn’t much care if he didn’t agree with those who found alignment with him on other issues. And it’s my image of him that if you had the effrontery ever to say to him, “How could a man of your intellect, ya da da, ya da dee,” I have no doubt but what his reply would have ended with “…and the horse you rode in on!”

  • Don Logan

    And now we have Pippa Middleton..

  • Bob Hutton

    Hitchens may have been a brilliant writer but he was an avowed atheist. I sincerely hope that he made his peace with God before he died. If he failed to do this then he is in deep trouble now, and will be for all eternity.

    • Andy

      Well he was a ‘leftie’ so you can be quite sure the Almighty has sent him to ‘the other place’, least for a 1000 years, possibly far longer.

      • Daniel Maris

        I very much doubt Brother Bob believes in purgatory.

    • Daniel Maris

      Yes, but surely some Christian denominations are in error, given they offer opposing positions on numerous topics. So, surely you should be offering this advice to yourself. ” I sincerely hope I have made peace with God and haven’t been misled by some whacky denomination into just thinking I’ve been saved. Because that would be rather ironic, given the sanctimonious nature of the advice I proffer to others. “

    • Abhay

      That’s a vile things to say.
      You may think you are religious but you have no religious instincts.

      • Bob Hutton

        Reply to “Abhay”: My comments were not vile. I have simply outlined basic New Testament teaching. I would suggest you obtain a copy of the NewTestament for yourself and read it through.

        • Abhay

          Have read it. But this is not a place for theological debates so I will desist.

          I could, similarly, recommend several scriptural and secular books to you but I am not about to do that either.

          You need some sunshine, step out and feel the daylight on yourself. Let it illuminate your mind.

          • Bob Hutton

            You say that I need some sunshine – you need salvation for your soul.

            • Abhay

              You are taking this conversation down the pipe and I am dignifying you by responding. But I will do that for your sake.

              I have been guaranteed my salvation so don’t worry about that. But do go out and seek sunshine before you seek salvation. And yes, polish your shoes.

              • Bob Hutton

                You say that you have been guaranteed your salvation. Have you repented of your sins and accepted The Lord Jesus as your personal Saviour? If you have not done this then your soul is not saved. Faith in Him as Lord and Saviour is the ONLY way of salvation for our souls.

  • lgeubank

    To me, Hitchens had an intellect like lightning– he sometimes emitted flashes of brilliance, but you never knew where he would strike next.

    You could never tell what side of an issue he would come down on, because there seemed to be no coherent underlying principle, no overall organizing schema for his thinking. He was random.

    I don’t trust such people even when I agree with them. They’re just a likely next time to make a rabid attack on Mother Teresa or something.

  • judyk113

    Once again, another piece of crawling hagiography for the vastly indulged and overrated Chistopher Hitchens. Far from bringing analytical rigour to everything he wrote, Hitchens had a record of espousing and celebrating people and ideas that were both mendacious and pernicious.

    One of the worst examples was his unchanging devotion to an ignorant and rabid Jewish anti-semite chemistry lecturer called Israel Shahak as an intellectual guide to Judaism and who he celebrated as “a great and serious man“. Hitchens celebrated Shahak’s view that what was essential for Jews to do was to give up on their religion and their commitment to national self determination:

    He had no heroes and no dogmas and no party allegiances. If he admitted to any intellectual model, it would have been Spinoza. For Shahak, the liberation of the Jewish people was an aspect of the Enlightenment, and involved their own self-emancipation from ghetto life and from clerical control, no less than from ancient “Gentile” prejudice. It therefore naturally ensued that Jews should never traffic in superstitions or racial myths; they stood to lose the most from the toleration of such rubbish.

    Benjamin Kerstein has written an extended analysis of Hitchen’s embrace of anti-semitic themes here. Kerstein demonstrates convincingly that this isn’t just a case of Hitchens having had an animus against Judaism as he had against all religions. In this extract, it becomes clear that he shared and thoroughly approved of Voltaire’s view that Judaism was the ultimate evil:

    For Hitchens, the evils he lists are not just religious tenets; they are ingrained in the Jews themselves. The rituals and practices of Judaism, he charges, are debased by the Jews’ obsession with money, as exemplified by the “hypocrites and frauds who abound in talmudic Jewish rationalization” and who operate according to the principle: “‘Don’t do any work on the Sabbath yourself, but pay someone else to do it for you. You obeyed the letter of the law: who’s counting?'” (Hitchens’s world abounds, apparently, in dutifulshabbos goyim.) Circumcision, he claims, is the “sexual mutilation of small boys” and “most probably a symbolic survival from the animal and human sacrifices which were such a feature of the gore-soaked landscape of the Old Testament.” As for anti-Semitism, the Jews brought it on themselves. “By claiming to be ‘chosen’ in a special exclusive covenant with the Almighty,” Hitchens writes, “they invited hatred and suspicion and evinced their own form of racism.”

    Hitchens’s loathing for Judaism, or rather the grotesque caricature he refers to as Judaism, is particularly evident in his treatment of Hanukkah, a holiday marking the 2nd-century B.C.E. victory of a Jewish revolt led by the Maccabees. For Hitchens, the Maccabees’ defeat of the Hellenistic regime of Antiochus Epiphanes was a disaster, because Antiochus, far from being a villainous tyrant, had “weaned many people away from the sacrifices, the circumcisions, the belief in a special relationship with God, and the other reactionary manifestations of an ancient and cruel faith.”

    To put it kindly, this is false; for the rather less benign details, one may consult I Maccabees and Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. In brief, the “weaning away” lauded by Hitchens involved the forcible suppression of Jewish culture, religion, and ritual, along with torture, imperial occupation, and mass murder, including the slaughter of children: in other words, the very things that this self-proclaimed global humanist violently denounces whenever the Jews are not involved.

    For Hitchens, the Jewish rejection of Hellenistic Greek culture in favor of what he calls “tribal Jewish backwardness” constitutes something like a crime against humanity. This belief is an important one, and he appears to have come by it very early on. In his recently published autobiography, Hitch-22, he laments that, in the world-historical struggle between Athens and Jerusalem, the former tragically lost out to the latter’s “stone-faced demand for continence, sacrifice, and conformity, and the devising of ever-crueler punishments for deviance.” The fact that, historically speaking, the “ever-crueler punishments for deviance” were inflicted by Athens upon Jerusalem, and not vice-versa, is something that, for Hitchens, is apparently not worth mentioning.

    In short, Judaism is to blame for everything Hitchens hates about monotheism as a whole. “As a convinced atheist, I ought to agree with Voltaire,” he writes of the father of Enlightenment anti-Semitism,

    that Judaism is not just one more religion, but in its way the root of religious evil. Without the stern, joyless rabbis and their 613 dour prohibitions, we might have avoided the whole nightmare of the Old Testament, and the brutal, crude wrenching of that into prophecy-derived Christianity, and the later plagiarism and mutation of Judaism and Christianity into the various rival forms of Islam.

    “Most of the time,” he concludes, “I do concur with Voltaire, but not without acknowledging that Judaism is dialectical.”

    • Ben

      So because Hitchens disliked Judeo-Christian superstition he’s an anti-semite? Considering he despised the monotheistic religions, and that Judaism was the genesis of these, it is pretty obvious that he would dislike Jewish mysticism and religion. I don’t see how that equates with anti-semitism, but OK. However, one wonders why you needed to write so much crap to make such as simple and obvious point as ‘Christopher Hitchens doesn’t like monotheism.’

      Learn how to construct an argument! Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time with verbose, platitudinous and uninteresting garbage.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    We could do with some more curiosity, indignation and analytical rigour from dave and Willy about this instead of banning the likes of Robert Spencer

    • Daniel Maris

      Would be nice if Amnesty International weas in the van of condemnation instead of issuing a mouse-squeak at some stage.

  • ugly_fish

    Off topic – share and propogate this:

    • Daniel Maris

      Can I just be clear on this – we are talking about the religion of peace here…the one that Cameron and co are always bleating on about…and these are the rebels that Hague wants to back?

  • Abhay

    Christopher Hitchens was a great polemicist, had a way with words and phrases, and a staggering range of historical references to clobber opponents down with. He was very entertaining to listen to which is what I do mostly. It was fun to watch him take down loud-mouthed idiots and cheap propagandists.

    I have not read him much aside from ‘God is not Great’ which is not a great book in my opinion. He did contort a lot in defending Bush – wish he didn’t feel obliged to do that. I also think he retained some dialectical – materialistic, Marxian viewpoints till the end especially in analysing history.

    But overall I agree with ”Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to impress the writer.’’

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Hitch was tons of fun. I wouldn’t trust him any further than I could throw him, but he was reliably provocative, and spurred on the argument as any good contrarian should do, and with intelligence and wit and captivating writing.

      It’s hard to believe that he once wrote for this mediocre publication.

      • Abhay

        ‘Intelligence, wit and captivating writing’..
        That is much more than what we can say for a lot of other so called accomplished people.
        Rest in peace Hitch