Speaking Truth to Power

Against the Current, No. 21, July/August 1989

David Finkel

Prepared for the Worst
Selected Essays and Minority Reports
by Christopher Hitchens
New York: Hill and Wang, 1988, $19.95.

READERS OF THE Nation are familiar with Christopher Hitchens’ “Minority Report” column alternating with Alexander Cockburn’s “Beat the Devil.” The newly published collection Prepared For The Worst includes many of these columns together with selections from other newspapers and essays from Grand Street, Harper’s and elsewhere.

Hitchens’ politics draw from the experience of the British left of the 960s, influenced in particular by the anti-Stalinist revolutionary International Socialism group and by many years of work as a journalist on the left in the United States. One of his strengths is a willingness to be iconoclastic any time, any place.

At a meeting with Palestinian journalists in East Jerusalem in 1982 (a few weeks before the Israeli assault on Lebanon), where both of us were participants in a journalists’ delegation, a naive U.S. left-wing reporter asked whether the Palestinians had taken their grievances to the World Union of Journalists in Prague.* Hitchens muttered audibly enough for all to hear, “There are no journalists in Prague.”

Hitchens brings the same disrespect to the study of the unique weirdnesses of U.S. culture. The following comment on a televised 1985debatebetween the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Jesse Jackson on South Africa offer a late twentieth-century spin on Alexis de Tocqueville’s famous celebration of American religion:

“Both know as much about South Africa as I do about molecular biology. It’s a curious thing in American life that the most abject nonsense will be excused if the utterer can claim the sanction of religion. A country which forbids an established church by law is prey to any denomination. The best that can be said is that this is pluralism of a kind.” (278)

This is the kind of language that can anger the right, scandalize the left (especially in the era of liberation theology) and give lesser writers a serious inferiority complex.

Like any collection of topical pieces, mostly from weekly or monthly periodicals, the articles here vary in their degree of lasting interest All, however, are genuinely entertaining and good, mostly clean fun.

There are several essays here I would commend as essential. It may be due ID my own priority of concerns, or to Hitchens’, that I found the most powerful essays to be those that touch on the Palestine/Israel struggle. It’s probably both – Hitchens is co-editor with Edward Said of an important collection, Blaming the Victims (Verso, 1988), on the false writing of crucial aspects of Middle East his­ tory – as well as the centrality of the issue to the recent evolution (and degeneration) of U.S. intellectual debate.

• “Holy Land Heretic” is a profile of Israel Shahak, chairperson of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. Shahak’s work is indispensable for students of Israeli society and for human rights activists. (Shahak’s discussion of Israel as a form of apartheid society appeared in ATC 1.)

Hitchens’ essay, based on a series of lengthy discussions with Shahak in Israel, offers the only available introduction to this highly important, but politically unaffiliated and underpublicized, critic of Zionist thought and practice (22- 39).

• “The Chorus and Cassandra” unravels the tangle of smears levelled against Noam Chomsky: in particular, that Chomsky denied the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea, that he endorsed a denial of the Nazi Holocaust and that he supports the destruction of Israel (58-77).

This collection of charges, devoid of factual merit but exceptionally useful in keeping Chomsky out of such journals as the New York Review of Books and causing a number of his speaking engagements to be cancelled, can therefore be expected to be infinitely recycled. What Hitchens has done here is to set the record straight on these charges, thus providing a lasting reference to save the rest of us the necessity of following the obscene paper trail through years of letters and columns of the Nation, Dissent and other publications in several languages.

• “Born-Again Conformist” reverses the pattern of the two previously cited essays. Instead of a defense of important critical intellectuals whose work is subject to neglect or abuse, we have here a dissection of an intellectually trivial figure who achieved public stardom – Norman Podhoretz, an example of “writers who believe they are Orwell but who think like Babbitt… a born-again conformist with some interesting disorders of the ego.”

It was a dirty job, but somebody had to actually read Podhoretz’s productions of the past two decades, in which all radical criticism of American society is labelled “anti-Semitic.”

Hitchens is a good writer for the job, particularly since he himself knows anti-Semitism when he sees it and, unlike some of the fuzzier types on the left, gives it no quarter. (See the skewering of Louis Farrakhan, “The Charmer,” 18-21). Commenting on Podhoretz’s September 1982, Commentary article defending the invasion of Lebanon, for which Podhoretz appropriated Emile Zola’s “J’ Accuse” (the    title   of Zola’s 1898 defense of Alfred Dreyfus), Hitchens concludes: “Any fool can see that Begin uses the memory of the Holocaust to muffle his own guilt. But it takes a real fool to confuse the editor of Commentary with Emile Zola.” (113-121)

There is also fine stuff here on the Reagan years, the media and lran­Contragate. In an important study of “Watergate Revisited: The Greek Connection” Hitchens draws on the work of Greek journalist Elias P. Demetracopoulos to suggest a possible motive for the original Watergate break-in: Richard Nixon’s desire to suppress evidence of his connections to ultra-right Greek­ American businessman Thomas A. Pappas, who appears to have funneled money from the fascist military junta to Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968 (287-296).

Two particularly striking pieces, however, deserve special mention.

• In “The Cathouse and the Cross,” an account of a 1987 visit to El Salvador, the militant atheist Hitchens finds himself face to face with the Popular Church on the ground, in a mass celebrated in a refugee camp: “Without warning, I found my hands being taken by ragged strangers and the word paz intoned. A lifetime of Protestant reserve and later atheist conviction seemed compromised by my smile.”

While there are many extant enthusiastic accounts of base communities, liberation theologies and popular churches in Central America, Hitchens; observations are powerfully affecting precisely because of the author’s distance from religious observance and his trenchant refusal to sentimentalize about it. (177-188)

* Finally, there is “On Not Knowing the Half of It,” in which Hitches recounts how he learned – years after his mother’s death and very shortly before his father’s – that his mother was Jewish, a fact his father had never known.

Hitchens writes of his rediscovered heritage:

“Under the (Nazi) Nuremburg Laws, I would have been counted a Blumenthal of Breslau, and the denial of that will stop with me. Under the Law of Return, I can supposedly redeem myself by moving into the Jerusalem home from which my friend Edward Said has been evicted. We must be able to do better than that. We still live in the prehistory of the human race, where no tribalism can be much better than another and where humanism and internationalism, so much derided, need an unsentimental and decisive restatement.” (345-357)

This concluding essay, a moving reflection on the dialectic of universal humanity and personal identity, rounds out the statement Hitchens makes in the book’s introduction: “Despite the idiotic sneer that such principles are ‘fashionable,’ it is always the ideas of secularism, libertarianism, internationalism and solidarity that stand in need of reaffirmation.”

*The same willingness to be unpopular also shows in Hitchens’ recent “Minority Report” column in The Nation criticizing the struggle for abortion rights. While I want to register my total disagreement with the position taken by Hitchens both on the issue of abortion and on the pro-choice movement, the issue does not come up in this collection.

July-August 1989, ATC 21

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