The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed
A review of Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour.
March 3, 2013 - 7:00 am
“He was, in an idiom he would have understood, a petty bourgeois individualist who esteemed collectivism at least some of the time but never submitted to it himself. He resented the rich and powerful but enjoyed their company.” As I read these words, which appear in the prologue of a new book by Richard Seymour, I made an incomplete mental list of people to whom they could apply: George Bernard Shaw seems to fit quite nicely, as does J.K. Galbraith. Moving along the spectrum from alleged intellectuals to proven fools, one could add Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, and Edward Asner. It becomes clear rather quickly that the only ones susceptible to this charge are those who base their politics on a distinction between the individual and the collective—a dubious premise in itself, and thus one that is bound to lead to stark differences between theory and practice.
The target of the charge, therefore, is usually those on the Left, who are to varying degrees comfortable with the distinction, and who face the ire of both foes on the right as well as their more puritanical comrades. The accused this time around is Christopher Hitchens (Peace Be Upon Him), a man whom Seymour regards as the quintessential “apostate leftist.” Titled Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, this book (excuse me: “extended political essay”) is published by Verso, ironically the same radical press that put out many of Hitchens’s own books, including The Trial of Henry Kissinger, from which Seymour draws his subtitle. The tradition of Verso is to perform surgery without anesthesia, to get the job done in a hundred pages or less, and to use a shotgun instead of a scalpel. The aim is always nothing less than the pure destruction of one’s opponent: to burn him and scatter his ashes and then send wilted flowers to the mourners.
And who better to conduct such violent proceedings than a Marxist-Leninist? Seymour is a British writer who runs a blog called “Lenin’s Tomb.” Please note that his username on the blog is indeed “lenin,” lowercase and everything, and that I cannot detect any hint of irony or shame in his use of the moniker. His other work includes a book titled The Liberal Defence of Murder, in which he investigates how Western liberal “imperialists” have justified military intervention in the dubious name of humanitarianism. (The inherent “imperialism” of “liberal capitalist” societies is a concept that, for Seymour, has achieved the same epistemic status as Mount Everest or the germ theory of disease.) You might feel uncomfortable reading moral judgments from someone who proudly bears the name of one of the great terrorist-murderers of the 20th century. Then again, Seymour isn’t himself a murderer; he just plays one on the Internet.
Unhitched is an attempt to demonstrate that its subject’s career was defined by a thoroughgoing intellectual shoddiness and “gratuitous self-display”: nostalgia for empire, racism, misogyny, etc. I can only say that this book is about as close to a waste of time as you can get, unless you’re being paid to review it. It tries very hard not to appear to be what it is: revenge against a deserter of the faith. As someone who turned away from “anti-imperialism” to defend the freedoms of the West (terms that are, in this book, permanently ensconced in scare quotes), Hitchens is the ultimate target for the hard left, confirming Alexander Cockburn’s observation that, for Marxists, the idea of political debate is to stand in a circle, point the guns inward, and pull the trigger.
Seymour alleges that Hitchens’s nastiness even took the form of piracy. He writes, for instance, that Hitchens’s book The Missionary Position, an indictment of Mother Teresa, was actually the work of an uncredited Indian author:
The manuscript was judged to need rewriting, and was purchased by Verso with the intention of offering the idea to an Anglophone author. Hitchens, with his acknowledged contempt for religion and propensity for refined iconoclasm, could hardly have been more well suited. What he produced was an intelligently written indictment, but the original hardback made no acknowledgment of the input of several colleagues.
This makes Verso, the publisher of the very book in which these words appear, complicit in what Seymour obviously regards as plagiarism. If they bought the manuscript, they knew to whom partial credit should be given, no? And yet no editor or executive chose to give it. Perhaps Seymour’s next book should be The Trial of Verso, published, of course, by Verso. The only source for the charge is an “interview” (more likely a barroom chat) with Tariq Ali, a figure who appears regularly in these pages to fire random shots at Hitchens’s character. It’s amusing but ultimately tiresome: Ali is an admitted defender of “the resistance” in Iraq, including those who “resist” by blowing up fellow resisters. Anything he says is tinged with the same moral cretinism of which Seymour accuses Hitchens.
I was, however, prepared to be more amused than educated. Before reading this book, I saw an op-ed by Seymour in the Guardian, which offered a taste of what was to come. That op-ed contains a modified version of the following words from the book’s prologue:
The episodes in Hitchens’s trajectory to the right are well known: l’affaire Rushdie, the Bosnia wars, the skirmishes with the Clinton White House, and finally the September 11 attacks. The main conclusions that Hitchens drew from these milestones were that religion, specifically Islam, constituted an underestimated force for evil in world affairs, that the US empire could be a countervailing force for good….
I had asked myself how Seymour could consider these instances part of Hitchens’s “right turn.” Wasn’t his criticism of Bill Clinton based on the president’s alleged conservatism? How is opposition to religion exclusively, or even at all, a “right-wing” position? And how could opposition to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie be criticized on any ground? (Actually, I asked these questions with my tongue firmly in cheek; I knew how it would all play out.)
I had also wondered whether these absurdities would resolve themselves in long form. It seems now that I have an answer, albeit an unsatisfying one: Seymour simply regards Hitchens as a lout through and through. His argument is not so much that the above positions are necessarily conservative (he accuses liberals of them all the time); it is that Hitchens was always self-serving and unprincipled, such that even when he was ostensibly a leftist, he was in fact a closet imperialist and a masseur for the egos of the powerful. Everything Hitchens has written is thus, to one degree or another, an exercise in hypocritical vacillation, opportunism and showboating. He was “Hypocritchens.”
This argument has a certain internal consistency to it, but ends up falling flat when you pierce the ideological bubble inside which it’s made. Seymour has himself writing in circles: Hitchens was essentially repulsive because he became conservative, and he became conservative because he was essentially repulsive. As Hitchens himself might have written, how much tautology can we endure? Taking this position allows Seymour to criticize what would be difficult to denounce without recourse to the ad hominem. Hitchens’s savaging of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa on Rushdie, for example, is filed under a chapter bearing the word “theophobia” in its title. The charge of racism and bigotry is nearby: The Rushdie affair, you see, was “saturated with” certain imperial attitudes “and could not be limited to the issue of free speech that Hitchens preferred to fight.” Moreover,“There is also Hitchens’s emerging attitude towards Islam itself to register. For a host of Islamophobic commentators, the Rushdie affair signified a civilisational clash between the West and Islam.”
On the pragmatic level, this puts Seymour, doubtless against his will, in the same company as George H.W. Bush and Hugh Trevor-Roper, who insisted that the death sentence was a matter for the Persians to quibble about. Who are we to interfere, if only rhetorically, in the matters of a great religion? Seymour justifies this by writing some drivel about how Islamism needs to be contextualized as the outgrowth of Western colonialism. The real reason for his demurral, as anyone who regularly reads hard-left polemic knows, is that Islam is a religion mainly of the darker-skinned, and is therefore off limits to the critical theorists.
Seymour proves, too, what the apostate Hitchens said of his former comrades: the idea that if you disagree, you are doing so only for the lowest and basest of reasons. Hitchens’s inconsistent opinions on Desert Storm and the NATO interventions in the Balkans are chalked up to opportunism, not to the inevitable wavering of someone who has had a genuine change of heart. (One of the smoking guns is that Hitchens took longer to change his mind about the first Gulf War than he had let on.) As a bonus, we are reminded that Seymour’s opinions on the Balkans line up quite nicely with those who regard Srebrenica as capitalist agitprop designed to help NATO “carve up” the former Yugoslavia.
By the time you get to the book’s factual errors, then, you’ve really stopped caring. Seymour cites a 1990 C-SPAN appearance by Hitchens with a certain “Richard Critchley.” No: that appearance was with the late Richard Critchfield, and it’s a pity Seymour hasn’t heard of him. Elsewhere, Seymour writes in defense of Edward Said: “Put briefly, there is no history of colonial or imperial control of Europe or North America by India, Egypt, or Japan, through which ‘the West’ could be constructed.”
There is a certain way to lie by telling the truth, and this is it. Why mention only these countries and continents, and thus tendentiously rig the assertion? You may have noticed Seymour doesn’t mention greater Arab or Turkish imperialism; if he did, he’d have to contend with the Umayyads’ conquering of Spain and the absorption of Sicily. He’d also be forced to mention how the Ottoman Empire, under Suleiman, asserted control over a large portion of Europe, including present-day Greece, Serbia, Kosovo and other Balkan states, parts of Hungary, as well as led sieges on Austria, Poland, Italy and, with the help of France, Nice and Corsica. Said himself wrote much about the Ottoman period; oddly, Seymour’s historical point, made in defense of Said, excludes the very places on which Said wrote.
Then again, there is precedent for this lie-by-partial-truth method in Said’s own work. A literary theorist, Said lacked the scruple of a historian, so like his defenders, he elided large chunks of his own subject for ideological and symbolic reasons. In the introduction to Orientalism, for instance, he asserts that “Britain and France dominated the Eastern Mediterranean from about the end of the seventeenth century on.” This is partially true as an isolated fact—by the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire had begun to recede from those parts—but in the context of a book about Western imperial attitudes, it’s evasive and tendentious. As Bernard Lewis pointed out, Said picked this arbitrary starting point only so he didn’t have to remind the reader of the many centuries of non-Western, non-white imperialism that had preceded it.
Tangential, you say, until you recognize the same contempt for the reader lurking in Seymour’s criticism of Hitchens. Others might think that the proper way to critique a book like this is to defend Hitchens. But this grants Seymour too much by giving in to his initial premise: that Hitchens is the type of scurrilous fellow who would need defending. It is much more helpful to discern the ways Seymour is likely to pull the wool over your eyes. To give a few examples, pulled at random from this book:
As Hitchens had rightly guessed, the inability of the forces of the left to impose their own solution to this malaise [the decline of the British Empire] would open the opportunity for the hard right. This was where Thatcherism had come in. But the early years of Thatcher’s administration had, as Hitchens noted, only exacerbated the crisis. The Falklands invasion had acted on this, producing an ideal opportunity structure for someone like Thatcher to offer iron leadership.
The revolutionary filiations of Hitchens in this period [his university years] were hardly insincere, but they seem to have coexisted with an unspoken feeling for an England that had passed away. And as he lost the revolutionary faith, a part of him saw in Thatcherism an authentic force for renewal.
It is as though the mere act of writing certain words were enough to demonstrate the a priori falsity of Hitchens’s views (or imputed views). One notices in this book the repetition of words of like “nationalism,” “patriotism,” and, of course, “neoconservative,” as though no further explanation is necessary. (Seymour regards any patriotic or nationalist sentiments as the symptom of false consciousness–though not, one suspects, the nationalistic feelings of a Ho Chi Minh or Daniel Ortega.) It is never explained, for instance, why Hitchens was actually wrong to support retaking the Falklands, a conflict alluded to many times throughout the book. Apparently writing the word “Thatcherism,” with the appropriate implied scorn, is enough to do the trick, but the mature reader expects explanation, not merely innuendo.
You have to supply the explanation yourself. It becomes clear that, for someone like Seymour, there is no state of affairs in which it would be acceptable for Western nations to use military force. You cannot please or argue with someone like this, and it is precisely at this point that the fair-minded reader loses interest. He loses interest because it soon also becomes clear that every argument you encounter is unfalsifiable. This is, therefore, not a book about Christopher Hitchens; it is simply a masturbatory reiteration of one’s political religion. The subject might as well have been William F. Buckley, Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, or Czeslaw Milosz. The book would have been identical. For this reason it’s worthless.
Back to the Falklands: The fascist Argentinian junta invades the sovereign territory of another nation. Though the British had been willing to renegotiate the Falklands’ status (and had unfortunately drawn down naval defenses for them before the invasion), the inhabitants of the islands are fiercely loyal to the queen and wish to remain British.
What do you do?
Try to imagine this from the radical’s point of view. Resorting to the UN is out of the question, controlled as it is by imperialists. NATO’s out, too—that neo-colonial strike force. Retake the islands with the Royal Navy? Imperialism. What about other avenues of diplomacy with General Galtieri? Designed to fail, since the imperialists were in charge of negotiations. The shuttle diplomacy of the imperial war-criminal Alexander Haig produced nothing, proving his imperial war criminality. Tam Dalyell had it right: Thatcher sank the Belgrano so she didn’t have to accept that Peruvian peace plan, and so she could boost her approval ratings before going after the miners’ union.
In other words, a radical of any stripe can never offer real answers, just conspiracy theories and impotent counterfactuals: Britain had no business controlling the Falklands in the first place, they say. If only England hadn’t been so imperialist hundreds of years ago, this never would have happened. And there lies the essence of the whole radical parlor game: everything that exists deserves not to exist. One of the great things about taking this stance is that it makes all your arguments true by definition. Since your ideal world doesn’t exist, never existed, and never will or could exist, you are free to criticize anything and everything by holding the world to impossible standards… and everything fails by impossible standards. You needn’t consider reality since reality is specifically the thing against which you’re arguing. Meanwhile, the rest of us must contend with those intractable “facts on the ground.” Once you recognize that, in the above Falklands scenario, no course of action would have satisfied the radical, you realize how pointless and boring it is to read Unhitched and the million other books like it. Even doing nothing, and letting the Argentinians keep the islands, would have brought the same charge of imperialism: “Look at the evil Thatcher, abandoning poor Brits to a right-wing anti-communist regime!”
In the final analysis, then, this a book that rests on the barely concealed premise that the personal is political. Early on, Seymour argues that he will do his best to avoid capitulating to this principle. This is right before he tells us that Hitchens was the product of an upbringing that was behind his “urge to prove himself socially.” Within a few chapters, Hitchens is accused of everything from racism to treating waiters poorly at restaurants. Enough. Seymour is one of those writers whose only hope of visibility comes from bad reviews; he might even affect to appreciate this review, as he has with other negative ones, as a boost to his publicity. He can turn such phrases if he likes, but he can’t turn our heads long enough to slip this shabby invective past us, playing the polemicist when he’s closer to the jester.