A potent and mischievous writer, the late Christopher Hitchens was one of the heroes of my prolonged adolescence. He showed me that non-fiction can be interesting. While I was never entirely convinced he was a socialist – his flat in Washington looked rather nice – I never doubted his genuine solicitude for people rather than vague abstractions like “humanity” or “the oppressed.” Defending what he thought were the best interests of real human beings, he displayed a moral and physical courage that shames most journalists, including me. Even when he was wrong, he was almost always smart, funny, and interesting – except when he was talking about religion, a subject that turned him into a tiresome and obstreperous hack.
It might seem impolite to describe him that way, but a clear, forceful writing style is one of the things I tried to learn from him. Although he wasn’t always the best commentator on the topics he covered – merely the most televised – his speeches made for compulsive listening and his writing for compulsive reading. I read his books and essays as if they were thrillers, and never stopped to consider his arguments or question his attitudes. Luckily for us, Mr Johnson has pondered these things, and judges that Mr Hitchens is a helpful guide to modern politics.
In this new book about Mr Hitchens, Mr Johnson has two aims. The first is to show that, contrary to polemics such as Richard Seymour’s Unhitched, Mr Hitchens was always a man of the “left.” The second is to show that Mr Hitchens can save this endangered political group by providing an example of someone committed to free inquiry, humanism, and universal values. I agree with Mr Johnson on the first point, though maybe for different reasons. I have serious disagreements about the second.
Mr Johnson summarises the argument with admirable clarity in his introduction: “The left isn’t a single amorphous entity – it’s a vast constellation of (often conflicting) ideas and principles. Hitchens’s style of left-wing radicalism is now out of fashion, but it has a long and venerable history: George Orwell’s unwavering opposition to totalitarianism and censorship, Bayard Rustin’s advocacy for universal civil rights without appealing to tribalism and identity politics, the post-communist anti-totalitarianism that emerged on the European left in the second half of the twentieth century.” Mr Hitchens recognised that “Enlightenment values” — democracy, pluralism, human rights, freedom of expression — are universal and the most “stable, just, and rational foundation for any civil society” around the world.
But this is all too abstract – which policies did Mr Hitchens actually support? Well, Mr Hitchens’s independence, vaunted by himself and believed by others, meant he held some unpopular positions. He endorsed the sexual revolution when the literati endorsed it. He endorsed the legalisation of drugs when the literati endorsed it. He endorsed the European Union when the literati endorsed it. He endorsed atheism when the literati endorsed it. He endorsed the idea of human rights when the literati endorsed it. He vociferously endorsed the Iraq War, a position he shared with only the U.S. government, the U.K. government, the Australian government, the Pentagon, and most of the English-speaking media.
So how are these positions related? In the chapter called “First Amendment Absolutism,” Mr Johnson describes Mr Hitchens’s belief in pluralism and open inquiry, especially in defiance of religious authorities. In his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Mr Hitchens claimed that “all religions have staunchly resisted any attempt to translate their sacred texts” into vernacular languages so that they can be understood and challenged. Mr Johnson replicates the claim, despite it being demonstrably false. (Diarmaid MacCulloch’s outstanding book The History of Christianity has a section about early biblical translation.) In fact, it’s an old cliché from Protestant polemics, which Mr Hitchens uncritically repeated. When commenting on history, he was a Prot bot.
The point is, though, that Mr Hitchens thought the American Constitution, especially its First Amendment, was the chief guarantor of free expression and the free exercise of religion. Wielding the least inhibited pen in journalism, Mr Hitchens moved to the United States partly to benefit from its constitution, but he famously upheld everyone’s right to free speech, notably by defending this right on behalf of Salman Rushdie and David Irving – brave, principled acts I can’t see anyone replicating today. I suppose there’s nothing too unpleasant about this argument, though I wonder if our society really has lost the ability to discern inspired art from wanton sleaze and must permit all expression lest it outlaw something precious.
This first chapter, defending absolute freedom of expression, leads to the next, which argues against identity politics. For Mr Hitchens, the shift towards tribalism was a renunciation of the left-wing principle of universalism, the idea that rights and values apply to everyone. Universal “Enlightenment” concepts such as the primacy of the individual and unconstrained free inquiry — the argument continues — are antithetical to the practice of evaluating opinions based on the sex or race of the person who holds them. Mr Hitchens laboured on behalf of marginalised groups but held that the quality of your argument had nothing to do with your identity. As Mr Johnson puts it, if “there’s one Enlightenment value that underlies all the rest, it’s the idea that reason is the starting point for civilization – arguments in favour of philosophical principles and public policies have to amount to more than personal and subjective statements. They have to offer reasons for a course of action beyond assertions of identity-based authority.”
I agree that people should support their claims with reasons and not identities, but I don’t know if Mr Hitchens is the best model here. He often substituted dogmatic pugilism in place of orderly argument; his opposition to tribalism and dedication to rational debate might be more persuasive if he hadn’t made a career of spewing pints of bile on his opponents. Nevertheless, he believed that people should strive to transcend their racial, religious, and national differences, and thus advocated for the development and expansion of international institutions.
This leads to the middle part of the book, which, in my view, is where it is most consistent and most troubling. Mr Hitchens was a lifelong admirer of Leon Trotsky, but eventually stopped calling himself a socialist and stopped arguing for the demise of capitalism. He once said he missed his old political convictions “as if they were an amputated limb.”
He needn’t have worried. He found a suitable prosthetic in Anglo-American interventionism.
Mr Johnson is right to argue that Mr Hitchens was consistently left-wing. Mr Hitchens supported military intervention in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He praised Tony Blair for that reason, saying in a 2005 interview:
“Prime Minister Blair considers it a matter of principle that we don’t coexist – our party doesn’t coexist with totalitarian or racist or aggressive or theocratic regimes or movements, and has sent British forces to defend Sierra Leone against the hand loppers and barbarians who were sent in from Liberia … to Afghanistan to oppose the Taliban, and to Iraq to assist in the liberation – long overdue – of Mesopotamia. The finest traditions, I think, of the socialist movement have always been internationalist and in solidarity. And on that, I think he scores very high.”
The “left” doesn’t only represent sugar and spice and everything nice. Its impatience, fervour, and willingness to sacrifice people for ideals are well documented: the French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917. The people who bombed Kosovo and Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan and many other places weren’t conservative: they were the Jacobins of Washington and the Bolsheviks of Westminster.
Mr Hitchens made a strong case that humanitarian intervention is necessary to stop genocide, and Mr Johnson agrees. Mr Hitchens wanted to “fight” (his word) for a global standard of justice and ethics. This is a noble goal, and I believe there are universal values, but you must wonder if invading foreign countries is the right approach. Mr Johnson is far too forgiving to his subject, spending little time on Mr Hitchens’s repeated assertions about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.” To be fair, Mr Hitchens decried the irresponsible post-war planning, and he wasn’t the only one acting as a megaphone for the Bush and Blair administrations: Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that “Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction clearly are not meant solely for domestic use.” Mr Goldberg was punished for his misjudgement by being promoted to editor-in-chief for the influential liberal magazine The Atlantic, a position he still holds. In the media, nothing succeeds like failure.
I may be the humble writer of a minor periodical called Cosy Moments, but it seems to me that the job of a journalist is to scrutinise government claims, not regurgitate them.
Nor is this something that can be said only in hindsight. At the time, Mr Hitchens’s brother Peter Hitchens opposed the Iraq War; so too did Piers Morgan – but they’re quickly dismissed as tabloid hacks who can’t conceivably possess the acumen to do things like question official statements. Yet, for Christopher Hitchens, the doctrine of international secular liberalism and the possibility of removing Saddam Hussein were too alluring to bother with such matters like verifying political claims. At this distance, Mr Johnson’s argument for humanitarian intervention in the Middle East takes a lot of chutzpah. But it’s as weak as his subject’s.
It’s not enough of an argument to point to the atrocities of, for example, Milošević and Hussein. The proponent of intervention must ask: what are the contingencies? Is our information reliable? What can go wrong? How accurate is our bombing? How hard is it to get our troops in and out of the country? What is the long-term goal? How will interveners be held accountable for their acts? Mr Johnson doesn’t ask these questions, and neither did Mr Hitchens.
Furthermore, where is the post-intervention analysis of the supposed beneficiaries? How are they getting on now? Wouldn’t any case for humanitarian intervention need to prove that these places are better now than they were before Anglo-American intrusion? It’s notable that Mr Johnson’s book doesn’t mention Abu Ghraib or the Chilcot Inquiry.
Mr Hitchens’s back-up singers are fond of repeating what they call “Hitchens’s Razor” – “what can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Using this razor would reject Mr Hitchens’s form of atheism, as well as the claim about Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Also rejected would be the idea that you can impose liberal democracy on a country without regarding its history, its geography, and the emotional and artistic life of its people. Thinking that you can base social principles on ahistorical and abstract moral insights is the assumption of the French, American, and Bolshevik revolutions. This assumption was skewered and satirised in Evelyn Waugh’s great novel Black Mischief, published in 1932. Since then, what evidence has emerged in its favour? Well-functioning countries and institutions depend on trust, which can’t be manufactured in Washington think-tanks or dropped out of B-52 bombers.
How did Mr Hitchens respond to these arguments? The master of rational debate put it like this: “Looking at some of the mind-rotting tripe that comes my way from much of today's left, I get the impression that they go to bed saying: what have I done for Saddam Hussein or good old Slobodan or the Taliban today?”
Support American intervention or support the Taliban. It really is that simple!
Many are no longer persuaded by such arguments (if they ever were). Considering the cost – in terms of resources and people – why should Americans vote for policies which increase their taxes and send their children home in body bags? And that’s to say nothing of the incalculable harm done to other countries and their citizens.
Mr Hitchens didn’t see it that way, and neither does Mr Johnson. For them, it’s about ensuring human rights and enforcing international laws. With piquant irony – a concept Mr Hitchens loved – in Iraq, the United States and its allies waged an illegal war, suspended habeas corpus, and used torture in order to uphold the rule of law and human rights.
It’s this obsession with rights that creates some of the problems that vex Mr Johnson and vexed Mr Hitchens. Arguments for inalienable rights promote unrealistic expectations, intensify conflict (of one set of absolute rights against another), and prevent talks that might lead to concessions or at least the discovery of common ground. Who determines what a “right” is, and on what basis? The absolute nature of rights suggests that someone (it’s never clear who) has an obligation to fulfil an ever-swelling list of them – the rights to education, work, health, fun, clothes, transport, entertainment, sexual pleasure, gluten-free salads, and so on; people are to enjoy the benefits of a modern welfare society without any of the corresponding duties or any practical moral guidance. Since rights are non-negotiable, such “rights” talk encourages assertion-making, not reason-giving, discussion, and compromise.
Despite the huffing and puffing about open debate, both Mr Hitchens and Mr Johnson – like most liberals – follow recent orthodoxy in believing that the secular liberal state is the only type that is fully legitimate, and what makes it so is its protection of human rights. This ignores that even a single right may make contradictory demands, and that many “human rights” are irreconcilable. (Does no one read tragedy?)
More importantly, though, it’s hard to see what this sort of regime entrusts to political discussion. Protecting human rights is a matter for the courts, not parliament. This might explain Mr Hitchens’s support for Tony Blair, whose reforms helped establish a Supreme Court in a nation with a long tradition of parliamentary sovereignty; and his support for the European Union, which has no parliamentary opposition while the Council of Europe has its own court of human rights; and his support for the U.S.A., an extremely litigious country (if my years of watching Judge Judy are anything to go by) where the most important matters are decided by the courts, not by the people or their representatives. A liberal insistence on human rights could threaten the cherished values of free expression and free association.
Apparently, these values come from the Enlightenment. Mr Johnson imitates his subject in repeating this claim. In my view, the argument is far too Whiggish and far too Steven Pinkerish – and sure enough the eminent Canadian himself makes an appearance in this book:
“[Christopher] Hitchens thought American internationalism should be motivated by a basic set of ideas: first, Enlightenment values such as free expression, pluralism, democracy, and individual rights are, in fact, universal—they can be understood by anyone, and once understood, they will generally be chosen over the alternatives. Second, the United States should simultaneously embody and defend those values in the world. And third, nationalism, religion, and other forms of tribalism should be resisted, as they often lead to the negation of those values.
In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), Steven Pinker emphasizes the universality of the Enlightenment project: reason is the nonnegotiable starting point for any civil society; science nudges us closer to the objective nature of reality, and its hypotheses are universally testable and intelligible; humanism is the belief that human flourishing is more important than the glorification of the nation, god, or some other tribal deity; and progress has taken place on a vast scale everywhere from Europe to East Asia to the United States to sub-Saharan Africa—thanks in no small part to the Enlightenment principles outlined above.”
The definition of “Enlightenment” is looser than a sumo wrestler’s waistband. What, exactly, does it refer to? The Enlightenment spans 150 years and describes a bunch of different intellectual and cultural movements (some of them religious) in a bunch of different countries. The French “Enlightenment” was different from the German version, which was different from the English one. (So much for universal values.) Which Enlightenment principles have we inherited? From which writers? Alexander Pope? Thomas Hobbes? Jeremy Bentham? Immanuel Kant? Montesquieu? Marquis de Sade? Why are Adam Smith’s warnings about commercial society never considered part of these Enlightenment values?
(“These are the disadvantages of a commercial spirit,” he cautioned: “The minds of men are contracted, and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected, and the heroic spirit is almost utterly extinguished. (Smith, Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenue and Arms (1763), Part II, Section 17.))
The parts of the Enlightenment that are most admired are partly legacies of a Christian tradition. Medieval canon law began to codify individual rights; Tom Holland has argued that the Enlightenment arguments for universal values were modelled on similar arguments made by the Catholic Church; the practical goal of spreading liberty and education to the masses wasn’t achieved by the powdered-and-pomaded intellectuals of the coffee house but by pious Quakers and evangelical priests. Is there any clearer pre-Enlightenment argument against tribalism than this one from Galatians 3:28, which affirms a metaphysical unity of the human race, not merely a physical or social one?
There is neither Judaean nor Greek, there is neither slave nor freeman, there is no male and female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ. (My translation.)
How do we know that well-functioning democracies flourish because of “Enlightenment” principles and not despite them? Historical causation is notoriously tricky, but Mr Hitchens never even tried to prove this point. He took it for granted. So does Mr Johnson.
Here is their general strategy:
Have a questionable and anachronistic view of the Enlightenment.
Don’t worry about what the writers of the period wrote and believed, especially if they don’t agree with each other. Don’t quote any of them. Just attribute your own views to them.
Find some things that happened after the Enlightenment that you like.
Attribute these good things to the Enlightenment.
Don’t ask why about half the world continually rejects these things.
Argue that they should be spread to other countries, by military force if necessary.
If challenged, do not make a counter-argument. Instead, pick one of the following labels for your critic: reactionary, nationalist, isolationist, postmodernist, relativist, religious fanatic, dictator apologist.
A book subtitled “Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment” should do a better job of defining what it means by “Enlightenment.” It should also ask why “liberalism” is less popular than it used to be and why it should be “rediscovered.” Mr Johnson doesn’t seem to be aware of any of the criticisms of liberalism that come from both sides of the political spectrum and both sides of the Atlantic. Modern liberal nations exacerbate monstrous income inequalities that would make an emperor blush. What does it mean for a “free” society to have almost all its wealth and power and influence in the hands of a tiny group of elites? If governments and corporations ever share these resources, they do so by intervening ever more snoopily and aggressively into social, religious, and personal affairs. This is not a bug, but a feature: liberals typically affirm that the most basic aspect of their worldview is that people are naturally free to order their actions as they see fit – or at least they should be free from coercion as they do so. This has led to a new plutocracy unconstrained by the “coercive” forces of history, tradition, chivalry, duty, or nature. Without such natural and cultural restraints on autonomy, liberal states have had to regulate behaviour by imposing more and more laws: the callous bureaucracies and prying surveillance we live under hardly seem conducive to free and flourishing lives.
To the people in low-opportunity towns with scant manufacturing jobs, to the people who are at work everywhere and at home nowhere, to the people whose cost of living increases while their wages are stagnant, to the people with unimaginable levels of debt, to the people forced to live in overcrowded sub-standard housing with inflated real-estate prices, to the people who live in urban dungeons without a hint of cosiness, to the people suffering in broken families, to the people made to feel lonely and abandoned by the excesses of the sexual revolution, to the people worried about the destruction of the environment, to the people who have no familiarity with our artistic treasure houses because of a financially dear but intellectually cheap education system, to the people whose lives are sucked away by drugs, gambling, pornography – what does liberalism offer?
I feel a slight sadness as I write this: in my protracted youth, Christopher Hitchens stood as tall as the steeple. Now, he seems wistfully diminutive. I’m grateful for everything he taught me, but arguing that he can save the left is like arguing that dynamite can fix a crumbling wall.
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Thanks for this piece. I fell under the spell of New Atheism and rationalist secularism during my undergrad years. By stepping back from their rhetoric and seeing their own fideistic blind spots could one evaluate the deficiencies of such a narrative. The writings of David Bentley Hart have been instrumental in “breaking the spell” of Pinker et al. historical revisionism.
Excellent piece! Similar to your experience of Hitchens I was raised with a great love for liberal society. It was only in the last 5 years I began to see how untrue it was to the very values it claimed to support. Liberal societies claim to be the most rational and yet now can no longer recognize what male and female means. They claim to be free and yet their citizens are the most enslaved to their passions and their states demands.
I would be interested if you have come across New Polity. They are an interesting post liberal group based in the Steubenville in the USA. I don't agree with everything they say but they have interesting critiques of the liberal position and do a good job of raising attention to it's underlying assumptions.
Similarly have you come across the writing's of pope Pius XI who himself critiqued elements of liberalism in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno. Which follows on from Leo XIII's writings in Rerum Novarum