Sunday, October 31, 2004

I'm confused. This has got to be one of the stranger US presidential elections of recent years within the world of punditry. Of course, most pundits will be behaving predictably. But there are a few surprises. No more so than in the world of self-righteous ex-pat British hawks, where Andrew Sullivan has come out (reluctantly) for Kerry, and Christopher Hitchens, who until recently was proclaiming Rosa Luxembourg his political hero (and may still, for all I know) has come out for Bush.
Or has he? I'm not sure what to think. First (I think), Hitchens was surveyed along with other Slate contributors, and said that he would vote for Kerry. Granted, Hitchens's reasoning is at once convoluted, and redolent of that morally smug dyspepsia which has tended to characterise so much of his recent work. Hitchens continues to aspire to the mantle of Orwell. One of the dangers of doing this is that if one's wrong -- or if one doesn't get the balance exactly right, and falls into the trap of being either too snide, or too morally superior -- one can sound just like a crank. As it is, Hitchens, in his attempts to claim the moral high ground, call a spade a spade, tell it like it is, and cut through all the pretense to the moral truth, winds up sounding, to me, rather self-indulgent, and not entirely serious. Thus, he writes:
'There is one's subjective vote, one's objective vote, and one's ironic vote. Subjectively, Bush (and Blair) deserve to be re-elected because they called the enemy by its right name and were determined to confront it. Objectively, Bush deserves to be sacked for his flabbergasting failure to prepare for such an essential confrontation.'
First of all, the reason for Hitchens's subjective vote seems distinctly shaky to me. 'Calling the enemy by its right name'? Would that be Bush and co's repeated attempts to create a link between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of 9/11/01? By being determined to confront it, does Hitchens mean Bush's allowing bin Laden to escape, his failure to act on intelligence reform or to take the necessary steps to protect American cities against, and prepare them for, future terrorist attacks, his continuing cooperation with our highly dubious allies in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the administration's failure to commit sufficient troops to its reckless adventure in Iraq, or to plan properly for the invasion's aftermath? True, Hitchens notes this latter failure under the 'objective' heading. But to vote for subjective reasons -- which means, so far as i can tell, because Hitchens is attracted to the morally absolutist (and simplistic and grandstanding) rhetoric of Bush and his advisors -- strikes me as a shocking piece of political irresponsibility, of emotional self-indulgence. There should be no contest here. When deciding whom one wants to have over for dinner, subjective reasoning may do. In making decisions that possibly affect large numbers of people's lives, objective reasoning, so far as possible, should prevail.
In the end, Hitchens seems to come out in favour of Kerry -- I think -- because he doesn't like him, and thinks it right that 'Kerry should get his worst private nightmare and have to report for duty'. If this is indeed Kerry's worst nightmare, he seems to be striving awfully hard for its accomplishment; Hitchens here falls into anti-Kerry calumny like the most venal of GOP hacks. But this final recourse to irony seems like a further piece of self-indulgence. Hitchens is, in the end, not truly penetrating; he is merely cute. This is not the act of a responsible, morally committed public intellectual; it's preening.
Still, however perverse and sulky his explanation, Hitchens does say that he's voting for Kerry. Odd, then, to see a column in today's Observer with the headline 'Why I'm voting for Bush (but only just)', with Hitchens's name under it. Of course, Hitchens is still the courageous lone fighter, independent of partisan politics; he is, after all, 'only just' voting for Bush (odd; I thought that, when one cast a ballot, one actually voted or didn't for a candidate; while the reasoning behind the vote may be a matter -- and often should be -- of fine discrimination and grappling with ambivalence, the act itself is all or nothing). He begins the column unpromisingly by lamenting how difficult elections are for people 'who fancy that they live by political principles' (no, not difficult, actually, but 'hellish'. Ah yes; the agony of those with tender consciences is truly a Dantean experience). Hitchens argument, once again, moves forward with strange reasoning, serenely certain statements that, when one thinks about them, actually are by no means as self-evident in their validity as Hitchens seems to suppose. He explains that for him the election is a single-issue one -- though he doesn't say what that issue is, one assumes that it is terrorism, or perhaps Hitchens's favourite bogey of 'Islamofascism' (which is a real and powerful enough beast, to be sure; I'm not sure however that its importance makes the fate of civil liberties, or the economy, or social justice and the maintenance of what remains of the welfare state in the US of no importance whatsoever.) Hitch calls the President's handling of Iraq 'near-impeachable', and calls his personality excruciating, and grants that he may be a mindless religious fanatic. But this doesn't really matter -- it is just a second or third order consideration -- because Bush, having once been a simple-minded isolationist, did a U-turn after September 11th (and became a simple-minded unilaterialist. THis is not, in fact, such a great transformation; pace Pat Buchanan and co, isolationism and unilateralist interventionism, while opposite in their policy results, rest on much the same attitude of know-nothing contempt towards the rest of the world. New foreign policy; old danger.) Hitchens also talks of Kerry's 'lapse into isolationism'. I'm not sure what he's talking about. Kerry has remained what he's always been -- a realistic internationalist with a faith (perhaps an excessive one) in the power and importance of diplomacy and alliances.
Hitchens goes on to defend Bush in the most intellectually stringent of ways -- by attacking the 'nihilism' of Bush-haters. We shall leave aside whether he is correct in his characterisation of the anti-war left, or how much the anti-war left really matters, and how much they have to do with John Kerry (as an interesting mental exercise, by the way, substitute Communist for anti-war left and see how much Hitchens resembles the old red-baiters). Instead, I'd like to ask: so what? Does the awfulness of much of the anti-war left negate the awfulness of Bush? Did the awfulness of Bush negate that of Saddam? At one point, many people were fond of the mantra 'Just because Bush thinks it, doesn't mean it's wrong'. Which is theoretically true, although it is remarkable to find how often Bush's saying something has been a fairly reliable predictor for it turning out to be wrong (someone should perhaps do a statistical study of this). The same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for the other side. Just because the isolationist Left says it, doesn't mean its wrong. (Also, while we're talking about the anti-war left, and equating Kerry with it, does anyone care to remember Ralph Nader?)
Hitchens continues to go on to try to smear opponents of Bush by association -- with Pat Buchanan and the British Conservative Party (many of whom voted in favour of the Iraq war) and Vladimir Putin (who has come out in support of Bush's re-election -- one of the few foreign leaders to do so -- and who welcomes the 'war on terror' as an excuse to pulverise the Chechens, and to use that pulverisation as an excuse for rolling back Russian democracy, or what's left of it. Hitchens seems, at times, to be on his way to living the in the alternative reality of Anne Coulterland.)
Hitchens goes on to tell the moving story of Masuda Jalal, 'a brave Afghan physician who was now able to run for the presidency. I asked her about her support for the intervention in Iraq. 'For us,' she said, 'the battle against terrorism and against dictatorship are the same thing.' I dare you to smirk at such simple-mindedness as that.' No, indeed not. I don't think that opposing Bush is about smirking at simple-mindedness. I think its about being incensed at Bush's failure to properly fund or staff the reconstruction of Afghanistan, of his allowing much of it to degenerate into warlord-dominated chaos while he went chasing after Saddam. Of this, of course, Hitchens makes no mention.
Hitchens goes on: 'The President, notwithstanding his shortcomings of intellect, has been able to say repeatedly the essential thing: that we are involved in this war without apology and without remorse.' Again, note the emphasis (common among many Bush supporters) on words rather than deeds, on strength rather than intellect, on certainty rather than understanding. If rhetoric and serene self-assurance were all it took to win wars, then backing Bush would indeed be a good thing. But I tend to doubt this.
Most pathetic, however, is Hitchens's conclusion: ' have made my own escape from self-imposed quandary. Once you have done it, there's no going back. I have met a few other former hostages, and they all agree that the relief is unbelievable.' Well, I'm sure we all feel better. Because that's the important thing, after all: that Christopher Hitchens escape the 'hellish' 'quandry' in which he, noble man who 'live[s] by political principle' was in, and is among the few, virtuous souls -- former 'hostages' (Hitchens's cheapening of that word, in the circumstances, seems especially ham-handed) who now feel 'relief'. Again, the self-importance and self-indulgence are staggering.
I once admired Hitchens, and once found myself partly persuaded by his arguments. But I've now come to the conclusion -- and it's not a cheering one -- that for him the parading of virtue and moral clarity and intellectual seriousness is more important than reality. His mental gymnastics seem more directed at feeling good about himself than, contra his own protestations, doing good for others.
On one thing, though, Christopher Hitchens remains consistent: his contempt for liberals. He has made a career of supporting liberal principles, and insulting liberals for their timorousness in their support of those principles. This criticism is often just. But it can also lead to a worship of conviction -- and strength, and simple-mindedness, and self-righteousness -- in its own right, and a dismissal of the really hard and honest work of thought and action, which often requires compromise and involves hesitation and depends on recognising complexity.
One of the prime personal and intellectual failings which led the Communist left to failure or atrocity repeatedly throughout the past century was their lack of humility. In this, Hitchens remains true to his roots. This is unfortunate.

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