Preview of Waters - Hitchens debate in Irish Times Saturday June 9th.
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Offender of the faith
Profile Christopher Hitchens: Expect the sparks to fly when contrarian commentator Christopher Hitchens meets John Waters for a public debate in the capital next weekend, writes Donald Clarke
Some years back I had occasion to talk to Christopher Hitchens on the telephone. Having long admired the English writer's talent for conveying controlled fury through seductively rhythmic prose, I found myself becoming unprofessionally excited as, after explaining to his wife that I needed someone to say rude things about Michael Moore, I heard footsteps advancing eagerly towards the receiver.
Hitchens did not disappoint. Taking a deep breath, he set out to explain why the director of Fahrenheit 9/11 was, in his view, a cinematic huckster of the filthiest stripe. "As scientists say about theories that are junk: it's not even wrong," he said of one particular Moore infelicity. Minutes passed. More minutes passed. An hour and a half later, my excitement now transformed into weary exasperation, I found myself desperately trying to stem the flow. "I can sense you backing towards the door," he said, before dragging me back in again.
Hitchens, who now looks like Bagpuss, the baggy feline star of 1970s children's television, has always savoured the opportunity to forward an argument.
For the greater part of his career, the man described by George Galloway MP as a "drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay" flexed his awesome rhetorical muscles on behalf of left-wing causes. Flicking through For the Sake of Argument, a Hitchens anthology published in the mid-1990s, one encounters delicious dissections of such diverse figures as Edward VIII, PJ O'Rourke and Richard Nixon. Later he published spittle-flecked diatribes against Mother Teresa and Henry Kissinger. All these pieces are fired with the Fabian zeal of a man who knows his empiriocriticism from his dialectical materialism.
Then, in the early part of this decade, something happened. As the dust settled on the remains of the World Trade Center, Hitchens, a fierce opponent of the first Gulf War, began making bellicose noises in support of George W Bush's emerging schemes to take armies into Afghanistan and Iraq. He took tea with Paul Wolfowitz, then US deputy secretary of defence. By the time Operation Desert Storm was underway, many of Hitchens's former comrades on the left had given him up for lost. The unkindest speculated that he had gone insane.
Others suggested that, like his brother, Peter Hitchens - once a Trot, now a right-wing fulminator for the Daily Mail - Christopher was, a little later than most, making that familiar journey from youthful revolutionary to middle-aged reactionary.
Christopher Hitchens would never allow such an unsophisticated diagnosis to pass unchallenged. His latest book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, could have been conceived with the express purpose of antagonising his new friends among the neoconservative movement. Featuring chapters with titles such as The Tawdriness of the Miraculous, Is Religion Child Abuse? and Religion Kills , the book is an eye- wateringly erudite, ruthlessly funny evisceration of the common idiocies that result from faith of all colours.
If anybody still had doubts as to the partial nature of Hitchens's alliance with conservative America, he or she need only take a glance at the writer's recent appearance on CNN television to discuss the death of the Rev Jerry Falwell. When asked if he believed Falwell, a dubious right-wing zealot, who suggested the attacks of 9/11 were God's punishment for America's decadence, was now sitting in heaven, Christopher puffed his cheeks out to full Bagpuss volume.
"No. And I think it's a pity there isn't a hell for him to go to," he replied. "People like that should be out in the street shouting and hollering with a cardboard sign and selling pencils from a cup. The consideration of this horrible little person is offensive to many of us."
Hitchens arrives in Dublin next week for a public debate with John Waters, a somewhat different class of controversialist, and the conversation is unlikely to be dull.
Hitchens's devout disbelief and insatiable appetite for research both date from an early age. God is Not Great tells how one Mrs Watts, the youthful Christopher's scripture teacher, used to ask her students to look up particular quotations from the Bible and summarise the implied moral. Hitchens, it hardly need be said, excelled in this task and was regularly placed at the top of the class in religious education. A crisis came, however, when Mrs Watts began musing on the generosity of God in allowing green, a soothing colour to humans, to predominate in nature. How jarring it would be, she speculated, if trees were, say, purple.
"I simply knew, almost as if I had privileged access to a higher authority, that my teacher had got everything wrong in two sentences," the adult Hitchens remembers. "The eyes were adjusted to nature, not the other way round."
Christopher Hitchens, born in 1949 to a naval father and a troubled mother (later to take her own life), allowed his awkwardness to harden into Marxism while studying philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. On graduation, he began writing for the New Statesman and, while taking time off from the development of his now legendary enthusiasm for booze, embarked on life-long friendships with fellow writers such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.
The grand era of High Hitchens began, however, with his move to the United States in 1981. Writing for such august publications as the Nation and Vanity Fair , he combined elegant critiques of George Orwell, PG Wodehouse and other literary heroes with admonitions of various right-wing bullies and, always stridently confident, became an eager contributor to any current affairs show that required five minutes of carefully composed bile. Having said goodbye to one wife, he now lives with a second, aspiring novelist Carol Blue, in a home overlooking the vice- president's residence in Washington DC.
So what did happen to Christopher Hitchens? How did the hammer of the left become the most articulate apologist for the allies' continuing engagement in Iraq? Hitchens, though eager to clarify that he long ago lost faith in Marxism, takes a similar line to that espoused by journalist Nick Cohen, another left-winger challenged by 9/11, in Cohen's (poorly titled) recent book W hat's Left? How Liberals Lost Their Way.
Both men argue that their former comrades have got things the wrong way round. Rather than Cohen and Hitchens moving away from the left, the world's liberals, by failing to resist "Islamo-Fascism", have themselves cosied up to totalitarianism and, thus, abandoned Nick and Chris, they argue. No sane person would face Hitchens and say that he is insincere in these views. Indeed, the green shoots of his campaign against radical Islam can be detected in his articles on the fatwa issued in 1989 against Salman Rushdie, a friend much referenced in God is Not Great , for writing The Satanic Verses .
That noted, we are talking about a man who has published books with such telling titles as For the Sake of Argument and Letters to a Young Contrarian. Watching Hitchens bite chunks out of complacent liberals on various talk-shows, one is left in little doubt as to the pleasure he takes from the sheer act of disagreeing with people. On a recent episode of Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, an unashamedly leftist show, Hitchens, after voluble grumbling from the audience, eventually proffered an erect finger and offered them a colourful retort. "F**k you! F**k you!" he said. He has never looked happier.
With this in mind, we should not be surprised that, after allowing the American right to believe he was on their side, Hitchens has chosen this precise moment to publish God is Not Great . David Limbaugh, author of Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christians , played right into the old contrarian's hands on his blog.
"I even speculated that Hitchens was on the verge of an ideological conversion," whined the brother of US talkshow host and commentator Rush Limbaugh. "But after watching him on Hannity and Colmes about the departed Falwell, I realised his anti-Christian and anti-theistic worldview is, for now at least, an insuperable barrier to any ideological transformation."
Peter Hitchens, who is now talking to Christopher again after a lengthy period of fraternal disengagement, adopted a tone of pained vexation in his review of the book for the Daily Mail . But Peter, reading his brother accurately despite their distance, never appears to have entertained the notion that they might end up on the same team together.
So, Christopher Hitchens has managed to make fierce enemies of both sides in the ongoing cultural wars. He should be happy, but one suspects that, like Alexander, who wept because there were no worlds left to conquer, he is probably deeply upset that there is nobody left with whom to disagree. As we speak, he is, with mischief and dissent on his mind, probably working his way through the collected works of John Waters. Take care, John.
• The debate, God is Not Great? Christopher Hitchens and John Waters, takes place at the Gate Theatre, June 17, 5pm, as part of Dublin Writers Festival. Tel: 01-881 9613/8819614
The Hitchens File
Who is he?
Fiercely articulate writer and journalist who has, in his time, railed against such diverse figures as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Mel Gibson.
Why is he in the news?
His latest book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything , has got right up the nose of neoconservatives, who, noting the former left-winger's support for the war in Iraq, felt they had acquired a new ally. He will debate the book with John Waters in Dublin next week.
Most appealing characteristic?
Fanatical enthusiasm for debate which can inspire him to continue arguments long after the moderator has gone home and the cleaners have begun sweeping round his feet.
Least appealing characteristic?
Occasional moments of ethical meltdown, such as his decision to tell House Judiciary Committee staff members that Sidney Blumenthal, a friend who once worked for Bill Clinton, had privately described Monica Lewinsky as "a stalker".
Most likely to say?
"That may be your view, but, if you had proper knowledge of the Peace of Westphalia, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the early stories of PG Wodehouse, you might see things differently. Allow me to . . ." etc.
Least Likely to say?
"Let's agree to differ."
© 2007 The Irish Times