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Christopher Hitchens' memoir a romp for all political persuasions

 

Sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, full-time provocateur, Christopher Hitchens keeps both sides of the aisle spellbound with `Hitch-22.'

 

Christopher Hitchens
Christopher Hitchens
CHRISTIAN WITKIN

IF YOU GO

What: Christopher Hitchens and ``Hitch-22: A Memoir''

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: Temple Judea, 5500 Granada Blvd., Coral Gables

Cost: $10 tickets available at all Books & Books locations and may be applied toward the purchase of ``Hitch-22'' or any other book

Info: 305-442-4408; booksandbooks.com

Special to The Miami Herald

Few political essayists raise as many hackles -- among conservatives and liberals -- as Christopher Hitchens does. In the wary eyes of many on the right, Hitchens continues to be an unrepentant Trotskyite. Indeed, he remained a prominent party member of Great Britain's International Socialists well into the 1970s, long after the rest of his fellow class-of-1968ers had climbed down from the barricades. Moreover, for all Hitchens' thundering about the ``sick relativism'' of Western liberalism, his bestselling 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, would hardly have won him new friends with the Focus-on-the-Family crowd.

Yet on the left there is often outright hostility towards Hitchens' stances. The title of his 1999 book, No One Left To Lie To: The Triangulations Of William Jefferson Clinton, neatly summarizes his take on that Democratic Party standard-bearer and his ``Third Way'' disciples. Hitchens' move to testify against Clinton before Congress during l'affaire Lewinsky even had some erstwhile allies invoking Elia Kazan's ``naming names'' in 1952 during congressional hearings on communism in Hollywood. More recently, Hitchens has written impassioned defenses of the war in Iraq as not only morally justified but also an essential front in the global battle against ``fascism with an Islamic face'' -- hardly a position that endears him to his former colleagues at The Nation.

Expect a fresh round of audience consternation during Monday's Books & Books-hosted appearance at Temple Judea in Coral Gables. Hitchens' new Hitch-22: A Memoir covers all this rocky ideological terrain, beginning with his strict British boarding-school upbringing, on through the plummy halls of Oxford and, eventually, his emigration to -- and citizenship in -- the United States. The result is an absolute joy to read, regardless of one's political persuasion. Alongside five decades' worth of sharp reportage from international hot spots are intimately thoughtful considerations of Hitchens' friendships (and occasional public spats) with British authors such as Martin Amis, James Fenton and Salman Rushdie, as well as American intellectual figures, among them Noam Chomsky, Edward Said and Susan Sontag. But while the self-analysis runs deep, the tone remains dryly witty, whether Hitchens is recalling a 1977 interview with then-Argentine junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla (``Bony-thin and mediocre in appearance, with a scrubby moustache . . . like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush'') or decrying the state of his adopted homeland's English muffins (``a travesty of both Englishness and muffindom'').

Q: Would it be safe to say that Hitch-22 is the story of your falling out of love with Marxism and in love with all the possibilities inherent in the American Dream?

A: It'd be tempting to say that, but it wouldn't be true. I still do think as a Marxist in many ways. I don't call myself a socialist anymore, but that would've happened to me wherever I lived. It fell away. Marx's best writing is on America, especially about Lincoln and the Civil War. He thought of the United States as the great future country of revolution and equality and freedom. And Russia as the great country of backwardness and stupidity and servility. He was right, by the way, about both things.

Q: In Hitch-22 you write of an eye-opening 1968 visit to Havana. Two years later, during a San Francisco trip, you describe the Black Panthers' ``breakfast program'' -- then another leftist sacred cow -- as having ``degenerated into a shakedown of local merchants.'' Was there a precise moment when you said to yourself, ``That's the breaking point, I can't be a part of this left anymore!''

A: There is a moment that occurs in the book when I was 14 in boarding school. They have the legal right to force me to attend a Christian service in which I don't believe and have no interest. They can make me attend, but they can't make me pray. And I decide, ostentatiously, not to bend -- to sit up so everyone can see me. I'd like to think that moment occurs several times throughout the book. One has to resist the totalitarian in whatever form it becomes: The right side to be on is the skeptical side, the uncertainty side, the Socratic side.

Q: Many of your critics say you've been anything but Socratic in addressing radical Islamism. What precisely do you think our government should be doing differently in the Middle East?

A: Sorry, I'm only going to talk about what's in the book. I'm not on the TV opinion shows. So don't ask me about Obama. Don't ask me about the oil spill. Discuss the person revealed in these memoirs. [Sighs] Day One of my book tour. There are so many other things we could talk about. You could ask me about my friendship with Susan Sontag.

Q: Love to! You write about how proud you were to stand with Sontag in unconditionally defending Salman Rushdie after Iran's Ayatollah placed a fatwa on his head for writing The Satanic Verses -- while others on the left said Rushdie deserved blame for offending Muslims. Yet after 9/11 you and Sontag were on opposite sides of the debate. You attack her for being part of the clique that ``contented themselves with inexpensive, unserious remarks about American machismo or Bush's `cowboy' style.'' Why did she go off the rails?

A: But she came back on! I meant to put this in a footnote, but I thought it too self-referential -- even for me. In an interview with Salon some months later, she corrected her position and said her views had been modified by her friend, Chris Hitchens. Which spoiled the moment for me.

Q: Because she shortened your name?

A: You can't hope for perfection in those moments of geo-political reflection. But she didn't carry on with the absurd stuff she was induced to. I think it was all conditioned by something that does happen with intellectuals. Which is the wish to not say what everyone else is going to say.

Q: So since President Bush -- and the bulk of mainstream opinion -- declared that radical Islamism was an existential threat to the West, Sontag felt compelled to initially say the opposite? Just to strike an iconoclastic pose?

A: After 9/11, one wished to have the same integrity, solidarity and courage that society was showing. Not this flashy, crummy, morally dubious, promiscuous tripe being uttered by the so-called thinkers. It was a big opportunity missed by the left: The tripe noises were initially made by the right. The CIA and the FBI have historically been not trusted by the left -- quite rightly -- and they had completely left the country defenseless, had absolutely failed. It was a time for the population to demand a united front against this deadly enemy. Instead they started making excuses for the enemy. They threw it all away.

Q: Does the Obama administration have a better perspective on all this?

A: Don't try it! I'm not going to talk about anything but my views in the book. [chuckling] Hitch-22, available at better bookstores.

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