A Nasty Piece of Work

By Kirchick, James | Newsweek, February 22, 2013 | Go to article overview
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A Nasty Piece of Work

Kirchick, James, Newsweek

Byline: James Kirchick

A tawdry new book accuses the late great Hitchens of plagiarism--and worse.

One of the journalistic impulses for which the late Christopher Hitchens will be remembered was a propensity for writing nasty obituaries of people he loathed immediately after their deaths. It was only a matter of days, sometimes hours, following the expiration of figures such as Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, or Alexander Haig (to name just a few of the targets of his wrath) that Hitchens would take to the print columns or the airwaves and denounce the recently departed as a "thieving, fanatical Albanian dwarf," "hyperactive debutante," "cruel and stupid lizard," "Chaucerian fraud," and "neurotic narcissist with an unquenchable craving for power," respectively. "For a lot of people, their first love is what they'll always remember," Hitchens once told C-SPAN's Brian Lamb. "For me it's always been the first hate, and I think that hatred, though it provides often rather junky energy, is a terrific way of getting you out of bed in the morning and keeping you going."

In light of this, the one thing that can be said in praise of Richard Seymour's UnHitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens, is that its subject would appreciate the effort. Indeed, I bet that Hitchens would be highly pleased that someone had expended so much time and energy to denounce him posthumously in the style that he had himself mastered, even if it took the author more than a year since Hitchens's death to produce it. Concocted in the style of a 17th-century polemical pamphlet (a literary template favored by Hitchens), UnHitched purports to be an "extended political essay" that exposes its subject as, among other things, a "terrible liar," "ouvrierist" (one of several words deployed by the overly earnest Seymour that will drive even more learned readers to the dictionary), a plagiarist, and, most unforgivable among Hitchens's erstwhile friends and colleagues on the Anglo-American socialist left, "the George W. Bush administration's amanuensis." (Full disclosure: Hitchens was a friend, mentor, and neighbor of mine.)

Undergirding all of these accusations is the assertion that Hitchens was an opportunist, and that his supposed transformation from a radical into a "left-wing defector with a soft spot for empire" was a conscious rebranding assumed for reasons of self-promotion. Seymour claims that the narrative of a left-to-right shift, however, was wildly overstated, particularly by Hitchens himself, and that "not only was Hitchens a man of the right in his last years, but his predilections for a certain kind of right-wing radicalism ... pre-dated his apostasy."

An early example of Hitchens's reactionary sympathies that Seymour cites is his support for Great Britain in the 1982 Falklands War, a jingoistic position Seymour attributes to "melancholic feelings associated with the passing of fantasies of imperial omnipotence." Seymour imputes imperialist motives solely to the British attempt to regain control over the islands, and not the grossly illegal and unprovoked invasion by Argentina. In so doing, he puts himself on the side of the late and unlamented Argentine military junta, not to mention some of the more hardline members of the Reagan administration, including United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who advocated that Washington side with Buenos Aires. And Seymour has the gall to claim that Hitchens betrayed leftist principles?

Elsewhere, Seymour describes Hitchens as a "nationalist" or supporter of "nationalism," the "nation" to which he ultimately offered his slavish devotion being not the country of his birth but rather his adopted homeland of the United States. "In Hitchens' case, amor patriae took the place of socialist confraternity," Seymour judges. It is this claim, perhaps more than any other, that would anger Hitchens most were he alive today.

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A Nasty Piece of Work


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