George MacDonald Fraser, in his imperishable classic Flashman's Lady, has his hero remark of old Solomon Haslam, the English public schoolboy turned Borneo pirate who starts having second thoughts after he kidnaps Flashman and his wife:
But what was he to do now? Unless he chopped us both (which seemed far-fetched, pirate and Old Etonian though he was) it seemed to me he had no choice but to set us free with apologies, and sail away, grief-stricken, to join the foreign legion, or become a monk, or an American citizen.
On a not unrelated note, earlier this spring the United States of America welcomed Christopher Hitchens into the registers of its citizenry, where he joined countless others among Europe's tired, its poor, and its huddled masses of contributing editors to Vanity Fair, yearning to breathe free—no doubt from Graydon Carter. No dank and crowded immigration hall for Hitchens, though: the ceremony was conducted on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC, and just as the publicity campaign for his latest polemic, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was warming up. The book has done well, becoming a New York Times bestseller, and the buzz surrounding it has not been hurt by a series of convenient news making events, notably the fact that one of the leading candidates for the Republican nomination—Mitt Romney—adheres to a religious denomination still unaccepted by many in America (Mormonism), and that Jerry Falwell, perhaps the most prominent voice for a politicised American Christianity, just died.
Or perhaps these aren't so much useful conveniences as they are signs that religion is always part of the public conversation in America; if it hadn't been these, it would have been something else. In any event, by far the most entertaining television in America this month was to be found on Fox News' Hannity and Colmes, where Hitchens ‘faced off’ with Ralph Reed over the legacy of Jerry Falwell. Reasonable people might disagree over where the entertainment peaked. Was it when Hitchens challenged Reed to ‘play the world's smallest violin’ while the former head of the Christian Coalition and close business associate of Jack Abramoff counseled some measure of respect for the family of the departed? Or was it the sheer beta-maleness of Colmes, who, before being completely steamrolled by his interlocutors, barely got out a single reference to Falwell's ‘impacting legacy,’ a piece of journalistic non-speak notable not only for saying absolutely nothing, but also for completing the needless journey of the word 'impact' from noun to verb and, now, to gerund? Or was it when Hannity called Hitchens a ‘jack-ass,’ and, his grammar coming ever so close to core meltdown, made reference to that ‘pseudo-intellectually mind of yours’?
Ignorant armies, perhaps, clashing not by night but by the dim, reflected light of the American flag which often waves in corner of Fox New's broadcast. Yet, for all the ad hominem, the positions were clear and the argument significant: just what is the role religion in American society? Hannity and Reed, Christians in name if not always in practice, were broadly supportive of Falwell's life's work to make a political interpretation of Christianity relevant on the American scene. Hitchens, whose anti-religiosity seems part of a larger instinct to oppose totalitarianism in any arguable manifestation, wishes his newly adopted country to be truer to the legacy of Jefferson, and refuse faith a place in politics which it had once meaningfully had in Europe, and which it constitutionally retains to this day (see, for reference, the Queen and the Church of England). Colmes, we presume, was just hoping no one would strike him in the confusion.
The symbolism of Hitchens taking his oath at Jefferson's lovely memorial on the National Mall was no accident. Hitchens' politics mirror closely those of America's third president, and his style of political discourse does as well. For both men, the rhetoric comes hot, and in the heat sometimes the light doesn't shine as far as it otherwise might. Being originally English, Hitchens suffers (and, though born Virginian, Jefferson does as well) from the severe restriction that he sometimes mistakes being clever for being wise. We Americans, not being very clever as a nation, are nonetheless greatly impressed.
In politics, it's results that matter, not philosophy, and a flamethrower yields you more than a pen light. Such is democracy. But one encounters a very different Hitchens in his literary criticism. His essays in the Atlantic Monthly, on writers including Kipling, Stoppard, Buchan and beyond, are representative. There is the unsettling sense in the criticism of, not only a corpus, but a whole psychic corpse being dissected on the page before one's very eyes: the organs being laid out and described in turn, the sinews and skeletal connections stretched and chewed, critiqued, compared with other notable cases, and most importantly examined under bright light, in full honesty, with their blemishes and their beauties all on display. One gets these literary subjects in full—and one is grateful for it.
As for the man's political mode, one may occasionally question the subtlety of the rhetoric, but too many err in questioning his good faith. Here, of course, I'm suggesting an indulgence which Hitchens all too rarely grants his enemies (was Mother Teresa—one of the more notorious victims of Hitchens’s polemics—really a conscious fraud)? There is always the sense that Hitchens is motivated more by what he hates than by what he loves, and those hates have remained remarkably constant, with totalitarianism consistently topping the list. The most serious charge regularly leveled against him—that his contrarianism is opportunistic, done for attention or even for profit—won't stick in the long run. The frustration with the man tends to arise due to his success in navigating the post—Cold War intellectual landscape: while the Left is still trying to revive a struggle which has, for all intents and purposes, been lost, the civilisation (Western, just to be clear) which it was trying to reform from within by means both democratic and revolutionary, has come under threat from without. Nineteen-sixty-eight has come, with Hitchens very much on those barricades—right out in Broad Street, opposite Balliol College, as a matter of fact—but it has long gone as well, and though there is much work to be done in our own range of social models, those who consider ‘John Ashcroft a greater menace than Osama bin Laden,’ as Hitchens put it upon departing The Nation’s editorial staff in 2002, are the ones who have missed the boat, and not he.
It puts one in mind of Joe Louis's remark upon joining the US Army at the outset of World War II: ‘Might be a lot wrong with America but nothing Hitler can fix.’ And the relevance of a remark involving National Socialism—a populist, rightwing movement born of the local failure of the liberal democratic model and promising a totalitarian and virtually religious solution to the domination of the Volk by the an international Jewish elite—is not merely coincidental, as Hitchens would not hesitate to point out. Some say the term ‘Islamofascist,’ which he has done much to popularise, is hysterical demagoguery, and others, fair historical analogy. In any event, it is an American voice now which makes the comparison, and that same voice continues to wage the fight against populist rightwingery within the polity, as well as without. Those that consider this contradictory would do well to shine a little light, or even a little heat, on their own assumptions.
Aaron MacLean is also an American citizen. From 2003 to 2006 he was a Marshall Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. His work has appeared in The Weekly Standard and The American.