Hitchens once jokingly explained that terrorism, in American Govspeak, is an incoherent term that means anything from combatant to “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy.”
That was in the eighties, when Hitchens had a grasp of the linguistic cunning that makes for the politics of reaction. In the 00s, when Hitchens became famous, that grasp had slipped. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Hitchens ruined his prose when he, too, decided that terrorism is defined by “swarthy opponent of American foreign policy,” for in that decision he both rubbished his own ability to understand the nexus of power and definition that makes for propaganda, and he became one of the fruitier of the right’s propagandists, an atheist Bob Novak. Slate, at the moment, is in official mourning for Hitchens, who was a columnist there after he jumped ship from the Nation. This is rather like John Wilkes Booth donning mourning for Abe Lincoln. Slate’s infinitely meretricious reporting-plus-punditry presented just the sort of gaseous, inside the Beltway conventional wisdom (which, in an audacious P.R. move, the editors dubbed contrarianism) that killed Hitchens’ prose. His “Fighting Words” column was written in the same style that an owl digests its prey – everything is quickly swallowed, and then the bones are spit out. Thus, Hitchens would survey some vast subject that he was manifestly uninformed about – Iraq, for instance – and he would then emit a number of parenthesis long bellows, vaguely connected by his personal experience, which was all Lawrence of Arabia without Arabia, the man of action without the action. The symbol of the contradiction was Hitchens being waterboarded for the celebrity mag, Vanity Fair. As a young writer, Hitchens would surely have enjoyed the reduction of the issue of torture to a photo op next to the story about Angelinia Jolie's wonderful bosom; but of course, in the D.C. where Hitchens was most at home, the sensibility that understands the difference between photo op and action has long vanished.
That D.C. found its voice in Hitchens. Some of his most stirring columns were, in fact, in defense of chicken hawkery among those who, with great sacrifice, guide the foreign policy of the great American empire. One of them, Paul Wolfowitz, who, after being wheeled from one job he was incompetent at – in the State Department – to another job he was incompetent at – at the World Bank – was removed from his sinecure after insisting the institution pay for his mistress too, was lamented in truly pitiful tones by Hitchens, who by this time had imbibed the views of Doctor Strangelove about the need for elite males to have on had a steady supply of nubile females. But Wolfowitz was only one of the indefensibles that Hitchens buddied up to in his last years, a roll call that includes Kurdish gangsters, lowbrowed Cheneyites from the Hoover institute, and, of course, Ahmed Chalabi, the perfect 00s freedom fighter, with a biography that combined instances of Enron-like fraud with instances of peculating U.S. Government funds to an extent that would have been considered bold by Halliburtan.
Perhaps it was the contradiction between holding himself up as a moral entrepreneur – for Hitchens’ later political columns were rank with his own virtues – and keeping such evidently immoral company that did in the writer in Hitchens. There were traces of that writer even in the book on Clinton: but the writer definitely died after 9/11. Hitchens survived him and flourished in the moronic inferno of Bush’s America. He succumbs on the day that America withdraws its troops from Iraq. Surely he would have endorsed his hero, John McCain’s description of that withdrawal as a dark day for American foreign policy – it will make it that much harder to march to Teheran.