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Monday, April 25, 2011

confit de Hitchens

I had supplied myself with the proper material to take care of the three hours it would take for the train from Montpellier to reach Paris: an omnibus book of Maigret mysteries. A. had supplied herself with a stack of newspapers, among them the Sunday Observer. My eye was caught by the headline of the lead story in the Culture section: Amis on Hitchens. I decided, in the middle of one of Maigret's search for the murderer of a rich bourgeois in the Sixth Arrondissement, to sneak this section of the paper from A. and read the article, because the very headline gave me a feeling of ghoulish pleasure: for if, as I think is the case, Hitchens sacrificed not only his standing as a moral entrepreneur, but his art as a writer, in order to play the minstrel to the Cheney-Rumsfeld set of neo-colonialist wankers, then isn’t the most appropriate of all punishments that of being lauded in the suet-y prose of his friend, a man who has puzzlingly sacrificed his talents as a satirist of the bourgeois egotist and the lumpen blowhard to fabricate a string of almost unreadable fictions that use the twentieth century’s great crimes as the dollhouse furniture for his pathetic misreading of his own talents? Very much in the way Jerry Lewis latching onto muscular dystrophy as his way out of clownhood, Amis has latched onto genocide - it is his very own telethon. The novels dare us to laugh at him. He is no clown, but a thinker! Both Hitchens and Amis are pros who have systematically blown up their prose, caricaturists who have become caricatures.

How far Hitchens has fallen can be measured by comparing his Slate columns to his earlier work. Here is Hitchens in 1989, reviewing a book by Gordon Brown in the London Review of Books:

“It is rather a pity, considered from the standpoint of the professional politician or opinion-taker, that nobody knows exactly what ‘credibility’ is, or how one acquires it. ‘Credibility’ doesn’t stand for anything morally straightforward, like meaning what you say or saying what you mean. Nor does it signify anything remotely quantifiable – any correlation between evidence presented and case made. Suggestively perhaps, it entered the language as a consensus euphemism during the Vietnam War, when ‘concerned’ members of the Eastern establishment spoke of a ‘credibility gap’ rather than give awful utterance to the thought that the Johnson Administration was systematically lying. To restore its ‘credibility’, that Administration was urged, not to stop lying, but to improve its public presentation. At some stage in the lesson learned from that injunction, the era of post-modern politics began. It now doesn’t seem ridiculous to have ‘approval ratings’ that fluctuate week by week, because these are based upon the all-important ‘perception’ factor, which has in turn quite lost its own relationship to the word ‘perceptive’.

When the Tories first hired a public-relations firm called Colman, Prentiss and Varley, back in the dying moments of the Macmillan regime, they got a fair bit of ribbing from cartoonists like the great Timothy Birdsall, and a certain amount of ‘negative feedback’ from their own more fastidious supporters. The Labour Party in those days was sternly opposed to the pseudo-science of PR and polling, and to the political hucksterism (such as the interviewing of candidates’ wives) that went with it. Having won and lost a number of elections since then, and having seen Conservatism reinstated to an extent unguessed-at, Labour’s leadership is now agreed on at least one big thing, which is that the battle of image, perception and credibility is what counts.”

The first sentence is the weakest, as Hitchens does not regard it as a pity that nobody ‘knows’ what credibility is – rather, he regards it as a scandal that credibility functions as though it has meaning, which is its use: to create a political vernacular that is wholly useless for promoting political change. Thus, the drift towards plutocracy is well screened from being spoken about or recognized by a complicit political elite and a media which no longer functions as a thought police for the simple reason that it has eliminated thought among both its manufacturers and audience. But after the first sentence, every sentence hits, because Hitchens mind is stocked, at this point, with the analytical tools of the Left – an excellent training for tearing down the scrim of establishment chat.

Now, here is the beginning of the "Fighting Words" column on October 16, 2006. Hitchens is writing aboutthe recently issued Lancet article reporting on an epidemiological survey that tallied up the cost of the American occupation of Iraq in human lives.

“The word lancet means either an old-fashioned surgical knife used to open a vein for the once-popular cure-all remedy of "bleeding" or "bloodletting," or (in architecture, especially Gothic) a rather narrow window. Both metaphors seem apt for the British medical journal of the same name, which appears to be seeking a reputation for conjuring bloodbaths and then reviewing them through a slitlike aperture.

In its latest edition, the Lancet publishes the estimate of some researchers at Johns Hopkins University that there have been "654,965 excess Iraqi deaths as a consequence of the war." The figure is both oddly exact and strangely imprecise: It does not clearly state, for example, that all these people have actually been killed, but it does suggest a steep climb in the Iraqi death rate. In its attribution of cause, it is also more vague than it may appear. These deaths are the claimed result, be it noted, of "the war."”

Although I chose this column at random, it is a good example of what “fighting words” means. Or rather, it helps us understand why the title is such a ghastly, tasteless, and unconsciously appropriate symbol of the moral displacement that was at the heart of Hitchens’ turn to Bush. Words, as Hitchens in 1989 would have pointed out, don’t fight. They don’t bleed. Pound your words as hard as you like, but they cannot, like swords, be turned into ploughshares. But Hitchens was a hero to the set who chose to believe that they were fighting by, well, calling anti-war people names, and making money on defense industry stocks. Hitchens’ D.C. friends, in other words.

But whatever the political slant of his views, I’m as concerned with his way of presenting them. Thus, the interesting fact is that Hitchens analysis of Lancet magazine does not, in fact, analyze the magazine at all – it is a work of ‘credibility’ journalism of the lowest order, betraying the same language fetish as the rebarbative use of “fighting words” to portray the beneficiary of getting other people to fight for one.

The article itself contains the clackery that Hitchens now specializes in, and that was done much better by the old line conservative columnists like Westbrook Pegler or Robert Novak, who at least knew how to put a little steak tartar in their dyspeptic harangues. Hitchens method is to point out that the Lancet had previously published epidemiologies that put the number of people who died in Iraq as a result of the Bush Clinton sanctions at 500,000 plus. He doesn’t dispute these figures – rather, he simply insinuates that these figures have been ‘dropped’ by the anti-war crowd. Like so much of Hitchens’ drive-by style of journalism, this reflects a hazy impression, and it is undisturbed by any epidemiological attempt to see if it is true – like, say, going to Factiva and looking up how many references to the Lancet sanctions article you find after 2001.

Hitchens isn’t stupid – far from it. So at this point in his column, he has three choices: give us a reason to think the figures are wrong; withdraw any support for using epidemiology to determine the price in human life of a policy; or find a way of distracting us from what is going on.
What he does is mix up a cocktail of all three. This is credibility saving that wouldn’t fool a goose.

“There have been several challenges to the epidemiology of the Lancet/Johns Hopkins team concerning their definition of a population sample. And it's been noticed that Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of the magazine, is a full-throated speaker at rallies of the Islamist-Leftist alliance that makes up the British Stop the War Coalition. But I see no reason in principle why anyone who endorsed the liberation of Iraq, and who opposes the death squads of the Baathist/jihadist "insurgency," should want or need to argue that the casualty figures are any lower. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that they are correct. We then enter an area of evidence and reasoning where epidemiologists are not the experts.”

What exactly is that ‘area of evidence’ into which Hitchens wants to divert his readers?

In one sense, this really is the existential problem facing the essayist, and his degenerate descendent, the pundit – they have no expertise. In fact, at their best, they are opposed to the very idea of expertise – that knowledge can be divvied up into various specialties as a sort of administrative decision by the powers that be. The essayist pits the power of his experience against the established power of the abstraction of experience, even as he raids the various disciplines for his facts and illustrations – for his poetry and his amateurism. Yet in so doing, he never mistakes his poetry for an act – his humility comes from his recognition that words don’t fight.

And yet, as he is also, institutionally, close to the journalist, he is constantly tempted to think that he is an actor – that he, the eternal bystander, is the real star. His temptation is always to become a blowhard – to harden and narrow his experience until it becomes an utterly predictable spout of verbiage in search of an act. The attraction of war for such a type is obvious – here, the bystander stands so close to ultimate acts that the illusion that one is an actor becomes almost overwhelming. It is precisely this blowhard Hitchens that Amis lards and lards and lards, until one feels that he is serving up Confit de Hitchens.

Hitchens deserves it.

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