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Faux of Orwell

Christopher Hitchens comes up short.

By 7.16.03

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I had what I thought was good idea for this week's column. Since the subject is the writing of Christopher Hitchens, and since "Hitch" does some of his best work in bars, I would go to the local pub, pen and scratch pad in hand, and not start writing until I had at least a few drinks in me. The idea was to get into his state of mind, if not his head.

"It won't work," said an old friend after he listened to my spiel.

"What do you mean it won't work?"

"I mean it won't work. In order to get into Hitchens' 'state of mind,' you'd have to show up with a few shots of vodka in you, and then down three or four beers before you could even start writing, and then drink your way through the article. You'll pass out before you even get close," he said.

So readers will have to cope with my sober analysis of his latest polemical thrust: A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq. The only original material in this 104-page collection is the introduction, written before the war, and the epilogue, "After the Fall." The rest consists of his online columns for Slate from last November to this April, one throwaway piece for Seattle's alternative weekly The Stranger, and a France bashing op-ed for the Wall Street Journal.

This is a very limited sample of Hitchens's war writings, though I suspect the reasons for this restriction were more for contractual reasons than modesty. Following September 11, Hitchens used his old "Minority Report" column to rail against terrorism, "Islamofascism" and, most endearingly to conservatives, his fellow leftists. He attacked Noam Chomsky and tore stripes out of antiwar protesters. He supported the action in Afghanistan and then agitated for invasion in Iraq. This generated large mailbags of angry letters, and his name rose to even greater prominence than before, as warbloggers touted this militant pro-Western Marxist.

But then he decided he was tired of his writings appearing in The Nation alongside writers "who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." He ended an October column, which made the case for invading Iraq, by abruptly announcing that his byline would no longer appear in the magazine. Slate's Jacob Weisberg first gave Hitchens the regular "fighting words" column and then collected those columns into the present volume.

Hitchens explains in the intro to A Long Short War, "I have tried for much of my life to write as if I was composing my sentences to be read posthumously…I am sincere when I say that the idea of the posthumous never quite deserts me." But readers might wish that it had. Though his relationship with The Nation was often troubled his writing for the lefty rag had a certain adversarial edge to it. After September 11, he regularly jolted longtime readers in their seats, and forced critics to concede that well, yes, the editors of The Nation put out a lot of anti-American tripe, but at least they published Christopher Hitchens.

Of course, The Nation wasn't the only party to lose out in this very public separation. Though I remain a fan of Hitchens' casually vicious swipes (e.g., "If the name Harold Koh is unfamiliar to you it is because he was President Clinton's undersecretary for human rights."), his "fighting words" column is nowhere near as good as "Minority Report" was. The emphasis is very much on the second half of the title -- most columns begin with a discussion of a term (e.g., "empire," "unilateralism," "WMDs") being bandied about in the press at the time, digress from there, and then draw back to the intro for the perfunctory conclusion. Gone is any attempt to convince a hostile constituency to give war a chance, replaced by a series of dismissive snorts and deep sighs.

This is quite a letdown from the man who fashions himself the modern reincarnation of Orwell. Hitchens tried for a sort of "Politics of the English Language" lite and wound up with a bad McGuffey reader impression instead.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.