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The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed

“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.