Radical media, politics and culture.

Louis Proyect, "Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011"

Christopher Hitchens, 1949–2011
Louis Proyect

About a year or so after Hitchens began writing defenses of the war in Iraq, I stopped reading him. Bombarded as I am from wall-to-wall stupidity on network and cable television, op ed articles by Thomas Friedman, and all the rest, I just found no reason to add Hitchens to the menu.

But when I learned that he had cancer, I began reading everything he had to say about his illness including the final riveting piece in Vanity Fair that made it clear that the end was near:

"I lay at the point of death. A congestive heart failure was treated for diagnostic purposes by an angiogram that triggered a stroke. Violent and painful hiccups, uninterrupted for several days and nights, prevented the ingestion of food. My left side and one of my vocal cords became paralyzed. Some form of pleurisy set in, and I felt I was drowning in a sea of slime. In one of my lucid intervals during those days of agony, I asked my physician to discontinue all life-supporting services or show me how to do it."

Ever since the time I spent working as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, arguably the most prestigious cancer hospital in the world, I have read first-hand accounts of those stricken with the disease with a mixture of curiosity and dread. Just a few days ago, I read an extremely powerful article by Earl Shorris in Harper’s (unfortunately not online) that described his latest hospitalization for lymphoma. Shorris is the author of many outstanding books, particularly “Jews without Mercy”. Titled “American vespers: The ebbing of the body politic”, the article uses his illness as a metaphor for the current state of imperial America in defiance obviously of Susan Sontag’s refusal to see cancer as a metaphor for anything. Shorris writes:

"The radiologist slides a disc into the machine to read the results of a PET scan; the radioisotopes in the glucose emit gamma rays in sufficient amounts to be absorbed by a scintillator, which will emit points of light in the general location of a part of a body using or collecting a large amount of glucose. This sugar-hungry place may be the bladder, where all the used sugars cleansed from the blood by the kidneys will be stored until they are excreted; or the brain, which converts sweets to thoughts at an astonishing rate; or malignant cells, the restless, immortal mistakes of nature. In the case of metastases, the body appears on a computer screen festively: lights in the evening of a life. I was a Christmas tree."

Shorris’s lymphoma resonates with me since it is the same illness that took the life of Peter Camejo, whose insights I always found invaluable even during the time we had a falling out over money, and Harvey Pekar. When I used to talk to Harvey about Peter’s illness, he’d assure me that the disease was not a death sentence since he was cancer-free. Within a few months, Peter would be gone and Harvey would soon follow.

Years after leaving Sloan-Kettering I was haunted by images of the hospital. The sight of emaciated patients walking through the corridors with chemo bottles attached to their veins or children who had lost their hair lingered on a decade or more. That is not to speak of the terrible dreams I had, mostly of treatment rooms that I had never even entered. There would be a battery of frightening looking machines that really had no correspondence to any real ones, looking more like a Gahan Wilson cartoon in the New Yorker than anything else.

I can’t remember the name of the book, but at the time I read a kind of social history of the disease that mentioned Hubert Humphrey’s stay there. It pointed out that the treatment was worse than the disease, causing immense suffering with little prospects for recovery. It was understandable why the hospital was anxious to introduce a new computer system that would keep track of delinquent accounts. Typically, when a loved one entered the hospital and met the same fate as Humphrey, the aggrieved relatives of the deceased would refuse to pay their bills. My disgust with the hospital’s bottom line mentality led me to resign and go to Nicaragua in search of a volunteer job in Sandinista Nicaragua.

There’s not much I can add to what others have said about Hitchens’s political degeneration during his life and now after his death. I will conclude with a piece I wrote back in 1999 about the feud between Hitchens and Cockburn. While it is mostly about Cockburn, it anticipates Hitchens’s sharp turn to the right. The article argues that radical journalists often go astray because of a political downturn that leaves them disoriented. Perhaps if back in 1999 there was a powerful mass movement taking shape like the Occupy movement of today, Hitchens might not have gone off the rails. In any case, whatever his sins and peccadilloes over the past decade or so, I find myself touched by his death.

Feuding radical journalists

Yesterday Alexander Cockburn attacked Christopher Hitchens as a snitch and a drunk in his NY Press column. Hitchens was in the news because of his testimony in the Senate trial of Bill Clinton. He stated that long-time friend Sidney Blumenthal had told him that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker, after Blumenthal had denied this under oath. This means that Blumenthal can spend time in prison for perjury.

Cockburn tries to paint Hitchens as a latter-day version of Whittaker Chambers for snitching on a friend in the way that Chambers ratted out Alger Hiss, but the comparison seems a bit far-fetched. I agree basically with Frank Rich’s assessment on the op-ed page of today’s NY Times:

Christopher Hitchens and Sidney Blumenthal. Let me get this straight: Mr. Hitchens, a Clinton critic, signs an affidavit saying that his friend of 15 years, Mr. Blumenthal, a Clinton sycophant, aided Bill Clinton’s effort to defame Monica Lewinsky. Yet Mr. Hitchens also declares that he’d “rather be held in contempt” than actually testify against Mr. Blumenthal should the Senate put the Clinton aide on trial. The writer Christopher Buckley describes this dust-up as “a Chambers-versus-Hiss moment. . . . the kind of event in which one inevitably must take sides.”

Must we? If Mr. Hitchens won’t testify, there’s no case. Even if he were to testify, the case is still legally weak — given Mr. Blumenthal’s lawyerly testimony — and is at most a sideshow to the impeachment articles. Where are the huge principles to rally around? The fate of anti-Communism isn’t at stake — nor even the fate of the Clinton Presidency. What is on the line are the guest lists of certain Washington dinner parties, a lot of lawyers’ fees and Mr. Hitchens’s continued ability to command a spotlight on All Monica talk shows. This catfight isn’t Chambers-vs.-Hiss but Beaver-vs.-Eddie Haskell, less suitable for CNN than for Nick at Nite.

Cockburn, Hitchens and Blumenthal all started out the same way, as radical journalists in the 1960s. All three had loose ties to the organized radical movement. Cockburn worked with the Trotskyists at NLR, including Tariq Ali, Mike Davis and Robin Blackburn. Hitchens was a member of Tony Cliff’s Socialist Workers Party, a British state-capitalist sect, while Blumenthal wrote for the New Leftist Boston Phoenix.

Cockburn and Hitchens have capitalized on their leftist connections and have become quite successful as “house radicals” at the Nation. Blumenthal shifted to the right in the 1980s, because he was never as anchored to the organized left as the two others. He went to work for Martin Peretz at the New Republic and dropped all his earlier radical pretensions. This made him a candidate for the White House staff of neoliberal Bill Clinton. The most interesting thing about the Hitchens-Cockburn spat is how much energy it has generated. Cockburn is totally consumed with hatred for Hitchens, while Hitchens spends much of his time trying to promote a career as a talking head on Sunday morning television shows, in a manner similar to The Nation magazine heavy hitter Eric Alterman.

It is difficult to regard Cockburn as a leftist stalwart nowadays in light of his own dubious trips down blind alleys over the past ten years. His championing of right-wing populism and Indian gambling casinos can only trouble erstwhile supporters like me. He has also cultivated an image of backwoods misanthropic crank that summons up poet Robinson Jeffers and other notable American nut cases.

What is the explanation for this sort of odd and repellent behavior? I think the answer lies in the Clinton administration’s hegemony. During the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush team rallied left liberals and radicals against a clearly defined enemy. After Clinton took office, the institutional ties between left liberals and radicals continued–mostly through writing assignments, jobs at foundations, etc.–but the political terrain shifted. The big name radicals were slowly losing touch with their radical base, so they tended to write more and more about their private obsessions rather than public concerns. In the old days, Cockburn would write 1 column about his vacation trips or restaurant meals or personal feuds to 10 columns about the mass movement. Now the ratio seems 50/50.

This a tough time for independent radical journalists. Without a vibrant mass movement, they tend to become disoriented. Their careers loom more importantly as approaching middle or old age reminds them about the need to feather their own nest. Quarrels with the IRS, the numbers of pages a column occupies, connections to powerful funding or job sources, etc. take over one’s thinking.

The other problem is that ideological confusion crops up more frequently. When volunteers returned from picking coffee beans in Nicaragua and spoke to audiences about how inspiring a revolution could be, this energy seeped its way into left-liberal institutions like the Nation and the Institute for Policy Studies. Without that energy, our radical journalists go off on tangents about what’s wrong with socialism, rather than what’s wrong with the capitalist system.

The only solution is a radical shift in the objective conditions. Radical journalists don’t tend to be too strongly grounded in Marxism, so they need constant empirical reminders of how rotten the system is. Some of these radicals might even defect to the establishment if empirical reminders don’t come in the nick of time. We are living in a disorienting period, but there are signs of change on the horizon. The election of social democrats in Europe is the first real sign of a shift away from the capitalist consensus. More changes will come, because the capitalist system itself is forced to produce them. That part of the Communist Manifesto is as true as ever.