Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas

John Cook of Gawker writes of Christopher Hitchens that he “loathed sentiment, welcomed combat, and delighted in inflicting hard truths.” Cook undoubtedly means “sentimentality,” which masquerades everywhere as sentiment, in which case he is indisputably right about Hitchens, who would have begrudged those now attacking him only the regrettable spectacle (he surely would have believed) of their being so thoroughly wrong and their case so poorly argued. He would never have denied their – “right” is not the word; one might better say – natural uprising against him. He would simply have fought back against them.

Glenn Greenwald, who cites Cook approvingly, has written a much noted piece entitled “Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths,” in which he protests that no one

should … be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden

further, that

demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of [the praise] be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize….

This is the setup, the rationale, for Greenwald’s attack on Hitchens, Greenwald’s own moralizing corrective: some unspecified bar has been put up, prohibition established, against speaking ill of Hitchens. Where, pray tell? Hitchens died Thursday, December 15. Most obituaries appeared the following day. Over the first couple of days came the remembrances in praise and appreciation of those who thought most well of him. This is to be expected. Greenwald’s post appeared at Salon on Saturday the 17th, a mere two days after Hitchens died. Whence in those two days came the premised objection to speaking ill of the dead? Did some pal of the recently departed communicate privately to Greenwald insisting no one speak ill of his Hitch? Who?

We begin, then, with Greenwald, as is so often the case, with a fundamental dishonesty. He brings his straw man with him, and, of course, then, provides the crows, much like the army of writers and dissenting voices on Israel who write in major forums all over the country that one is “not allowed” to write critically of Israel . Something else is at work, and Greenwald will, in time, reveal it, as Cook does from the start. Writes Cook in his first sentence,

The outpouring of grief, goodwill, and teary encomia that has attended news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing would—if he was anything like the persona he presented in print—have turned his stomach.

The link, if you follow it, will be to a Huffington Post collection of tweets that appeared in the first hours after Hitchens’s death. If you read them – some from the notable, some not – you will find them not all that teary, even mixed in their consideration. What they do offer, certainly, is praise, “goodwill” and “grief.” That truly seems to be the objection.

In contrast Katha Pollit, at The Nation, whom I rarely admire, came neither to praise nor bury Hitchens. She has many old, ideological and professional bones to pick with him and might have taken the opportunity of Regarding Christopher to pick them clean. She does set them on the plate. But her consideration is of the person, the individual and the public figure, and all in all, she offers her human, not tendentious, regard. After much fair criticism, she ends:

I don’t know how long Christopher will be read. Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm. But as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?

Greenwald and Cook have a different agenda, and isn’t a meditation on the “protocol for public figure death.”  It is partly a justification for criticism after death, but why should one feel one needs a justification? Maybe for Greenwald it was this:

I rarely wrote about Hitchens because, at least for the time that I’ve been writing about politics (since late 2005), there was nothing particularly notable about him.

Hmn. He doesn’t say. Rarely wrote about Hitchens when alive, lays out an elaborate rationale for attacking him immediately after death. What would the pugnacious Hitch have to say about that weasel-turd of a maneuver? Because “there was nothing particularly notable about him”? Really? That why everyone is talking about him, because there is nothing notable about him? And it is his death that made him notable? And unavailable, now, to respond?


Writes Cook,

In that spirit, it must not be forgotten in mourning him that [Hitchens] got the single most consequential decision in his life horrifically, petulantly wrong.

Now I must beg to differ with Cook, not about whether Hitchens got the decision Cook speaks of – support for the Iraq War – wrong, but as to what, in fact, “the single most consequential decision” of Hitchens’s life was. I claim that it was his break with the far left over Afghanistan and Islamism. In that break, the anti-totalitarian Hitchens forever separated himself from eight decades of modern left folly and moral degeneracy in defense of, and excuse for, every form of nominally anti-Imperial totalitarianism, from Marxist-Leninism to Islamist theocracy.

In contrast, many on the left – such as Hitchens’s consequently former colleagues at The Nation – opposed even the War in Afghanistan, and later – in lineal argumentative descent – the Iraq War. And this, if one focuses on Cook’s and Greenwald’s own concentrations, is what both are really writing about. Cook, as we see, makes that clear from the start. It is not, truly, that Hitchens got the single most consequential decision in his life wrong. It is that Cook thinks the Iraq War the single most consequential political event of his life, and he cannot forgive Hitchens for making a different choice in it. The same is true of Greenwald, but in his dishonesty, he offers up the red herring of opposing hagiography. Greenwald is consistently representative of a manic element on the left that will to its end days (like lingering 60s culture warriors) demonize any prominent figure who supported the Iraq War. There isn’t any excess – of moral righteousness, contempt, or vicious attack – of which naysayers accuse Hitchens in his public life that they do not exhibit against notable Iraq War proponents. One can find much to support the charge against Hitchens. Here, similarly, is Greenwald on Hitchens:

he was largely indistinguishable from the small army of neoconservative fanatics eager to unleash ever-greater violence against Muslims: driven by a toxic mix of barbarism, self-loving provincialism, a sense of personal inadequacy, and, most of all, a pity-inducing need to find glory and purpose in cheering on military adventures and vanquishing some foe of historically unprecedented evil even if it meant manufacturing them.

Ah, but the likeminded will think – missing the point – but Greenwald is right. And Hitchens was wrong. And as I say, Greenwald was not about correcting posterity on Hitchens, but on the Iraq War, one proponent at a time. They did not make different, arguable choices; they were “fanatics…driven by a toxic mix of barbarism” and more.

I owe it to reader Rob that I can cite the following from the preface of Greenwald’s first book, “How Would A Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok.”

During the lead-up to the invasion, I was concerned that the hell-bent focus on invading Iraq was being driven by agendas and strategic objectives that had nothing to do with terrorism or the 9/11 attacks. The overt rationale for the invasion was exceedingly weak, particularly given that it would lead to an open-ended, incalculably costly, and intensely risky preemptive war. Around the same time, it was revealed that an invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein had been high on the agenda of various senior administration officials long before September 11. Despite these doubts, concerns, and grounds for ambivalence, I had not abandoned my trust in the Bush administration. Between the president’s performance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the swift removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the fact that I wanted the president to succeed, because my loyalty is to my country and he was the leader of my country, I still gave the administration the benefit of the doubt. I believed then that the president was entitled to have his national security judgment deferred to, and to the extent that I was able to develop a definitive view, I accepted his judgment that American security really would be enhanced by the invasion of this sovereign country.

It is little known that Greenwald supported the Iraq War, and the war in Afghanistan before it. He does not mention it in writing anymore and rarely speaks of it. He supported the war for the same reason I did: he believed that Iraq possessed WMD and that the potential consequences of that possession could not be risked. When no WMD were found, it made no difference to Hitchens, who too characteristically belittled the significance of the non-finding, and those to whom it mattered, and continued to promote many other rationales for the war that were forceful and honorable, but for me circumstantially undeterminative. Without a belief in the existence of WMD I would not have supported the war and neither, it appears, would Greenwald have. For Greenwald, however, the knowledge that a government in which he had placed a level of trust, had, at the very least, gotten it so wrong – if not manipulated the nation into war – has led to an abiding campaign of extraordinary vituperation against not just the government officials responsible, but others, outside of government, particularly journalists, who had argued for action and the rightness of it.

There is in Greenwald’s conduct a quality of animus found in the innocent betrayed, which, clearly, inferentially, he believes himself to have been. It is notable that Greenwald, now so prominent a political voice is so new not just to public advocacy, but to politics itself. He tells us also in the preface of his first book,

I never voted for George W. Bush—or for any of his political opponents. I believed that voting was not particularly important. Our country, it seemed to me, was essentially on the right track. Whether Democrats or Republicans held the White House or the majorities in Congress made only the most marginal difference. I held views on some matters that could be defined as conservative, views on others that seemed liberal. But I firmly believed that our democratic system of government was sufficiently insulated from any real abuse, by our Constitution and by the checks and balances afforded by having three separate but equal branches of government. My primary political belief was that both parties were plagued by extremists who were equally dangerous and destructive, but that as long as neither extreme acquired real political power, our system would function smoothly and more or less tolerably. For that reason, although I always paid attention to political debates, I was never sufficiently moved to become engaged in the electoral process. I had great faith in the stability and resilience of the constitutional republic that the founders created. All that has changed. Completely.

One does not wish to fault any individual’s personal and intellectual development, but Greenwald’s is an influential, relentlessly judgmental, unsentimental and unforgiving voice in public affairs, and one must note that so well educated a man, with his legal expertise foundational to his political analysis and reputation, believed until well into his late thirties – after the 2000 Supreme Court elections decision and two wars – that “voting was not particularly important.” His knowledge of American political and economic history was such that until near 2005 he believed there was only a marginal difference made in electing Democrat or Republican and his political ideas were sufficiently amorphous as to find no coherent direction toward the left or the right, a characteristic noted of Greenwald even now. From this long-delayed and still ungrounded political consciousness comes now, daily, a kind of fury in rebellion at the late-discovered imperfection of the forces that rule (who are only the mirror of ourselves) and if you depart from its possessor on dark and difficult matters you are a scoundrel, sir – and oddly enough, multiple manipulations of fact, argument, and intent will be whipped up to expose hypocrisy.

All of which is to say that Greenwald shouldn’t worry about speaking ill of the dead. The dead if they were living would surely speak ill of him, dead or alive, and recognize, too, a faux-decorous essay for precisely what it is, just a little camouflage in the war of ideas, of which reputations and the bodies that bore them are in the end reduced to a long frontline’s fodder anyway.


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13 thoughts on “Christopher Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, and the War of Ideas

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  2. “His knowledge of American political and economic history was such that until near 2005 he believed there was only a marginal difference made in electing Democrat or Republican[…]”

    You mean his prescience? In general terms, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that there isn’t, in fact, a big difference at all, especially not before Obama (even though Obama, in spite of his notable domestic achievements and diplomatic improvement over Bush, is terrible in terms of whistleblower repression, drones, extraordinary rendition, etc)

    You should read Richard Seymour’s book “The Liberal Defence of Murder” and then you’ll realize that your outrage should be directed at Hitchens, Harris and other warmongers instead of Greenwald, who, indeed, held certain naive beliefs when he was younger but has now become one of the most prolific and important journalists of our time.

    1. It is clear you are not a woman in need of an abortion in Texas, or an auto worker who would have lost his job and pension if John McCain had won in 2008, or a poor elderly African-American in any of the states now under GOP legislative control and seeking to return to Jim Crow. You might not repeat so eagerly the vacuous claim of indistinction between Democrats and Republicans. To speak of what one should read, try this: .

      Try the following, too, to challenge your Greenwald fanboy status:

  3. Like almost everyone, yourself included (and myself), Greenwald had illusions about the American political system that clouded his judgment. Hitchens, on the other hand, had a deeper knowledge of our political system and knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t like playing amateur psychologist, but when he lined up with power and the neoconservatives he gained massively. And the real problem I have with him was his inability to show even the slightest amount of humility after the occupation was so incompetently handled. Unfortunately, that isn’t uncommon, it’s actually what many psychologists predict when someone makes a large mistake that’s fundamental to how they view themselves. This is one reason why I don’t demonize Hitchens.

    Greenwald was politically naive, but he doesn’t hide that fact, if you’ve followed his blog it becomes obvious that he had to learn how it worked through experience. You’ll see many smart people go through the same process and come out activists at the end, Lawrence Lessig is another good example. It’s far easier for one to construct a politically naive framework given the institutions most of us are raised within. So pointing out Greenwald’s past mistakes is not a very compelling argument for discounting his current positions, which you don’t touch in this essay in any substantive way.

    1. Jane, I think your criticism of Hitchens is fair. His belligerent bulldozing through the collapsing rationale and execution of the Iraq War revealed his judgment at its least reliable. I think it is too easily argued of anyone – without the bank account figures – that he “gained” from any intellectual position. Hitchens on the Iraq War, for good and ill – and I think there was both – was Hitchens, as a person, as always.

      I think myself neither naive nor with illusions in my Iraq War stance. I say that not to bolster myself, rather to hold Greenwald to the fire. The Bush administration got some matters wrong and manipulated others. I made the judgment, as did many other honorable and right thinking people, based on years of following Iraq and the inferential tale of the evidence, that Iraq possessed WMD. I placed a trust in action in that unique circumstance in an administration I otherwise despised. I was, rather than naive or illusional, mistaken in that judgment. I try to learn from my mistakes. It may be Greenwald’s former and still very recent political naivete that leads him to the opposite extreme: naivete and cynicism are both easy paths to follow.

      It was not my intention to address in this essay any of Greenwald’s substantive positions. I happen to agree with him on some matters – for instance, torture and the awful herd mentality and obeisance to power of mainstream journalism – but that doesn’t matter. I think Greenwald a thoroughly manipulative and dishonest public voice, more even than for the positions he takes, because of how he argues them. That was my subject here, and I have now written about Greenwald on the topic numerous times and at lenght. If you are interested, here are some of the major links.

      The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald I

      The Hypocrisy and Bullshit of Glenn Greenwald II

      The Vice of the Extremes

      How Greenwald Argues

      Greenwald-Goldberg I – The Thrilla in Vanilla

      Greenwald-Goldberg II – This Time It’s Personal

    2. WAS politically naive? He’s STILL politically naïve. This is from the OUT Magazine profile of Greenwald published on April 18, 2011:

      “One of his hopes for 2012 is that candidates will emerge to take on the red and the blue teams — he is keeping an eye on Gary Johnson, a two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, who is pro-gay and antiwar, and who could run with a Democrat like former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. He would also be happy to see a billionaire run without the help of either party, to “disrupt the two-party stranglehold.””

      Let’s look at the guy Greenwald’s keeping his eye on:

      Gary Johnson signed a late-term abortion ban. Gary Johnson doesn’t believe in global warming. Gary Johnson opposes gay marriage. Gary Johnson cut taxes on the rich. Gary Johnson cut social service programs for the poor. Gary Johnson vetoed legislation to continue collective bargaining rights for public employees.

      And one can be assured there’s more in his record that hasn’t seen the light of day.

      Does Gary Johnson sound like someone you’d be keeping your eye on as a presidential candidate? Do those “current positions” make you think twice about Glenn Greenwald’s political acumen?

      And the idea that Russ Feingold would run with Gary Johnson is beyond naïve. In fact, I’d call it downright daft. And he’s happy to see a billionaire run? What planet does he live on? Of course he supported Citizens United, so you can get more of an idea of what planet he currently occupies.

      And this doesn’t even touch the voluminous examples of his self-righteous, arrogant and insulting invective against those who deign to disagree with him. And I’m not even bringing up his constant, hypocrisy. Or the many examples where he elides and lies to make a point.

      And did I mention his illegal ‘immigrants=evil’ stance?

      “The parade of evils caused by illegal immigration is widely known, and it gets worse every day. In short, illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone. Few people dispute this, and yet nothing is done.”

      “Why should Republicans, or anyone, shy away from pointing out that illegal immigration, among its many evils, is “illegal”?

      Of course when called on it, he disowned those positions, chalking them up to political naivete. But sad to say, those words were written back in late 2005, when he’d supposedly — according to his book — left his political naivete behind.

      Greenwald is all about Greenwald. And if you want substantive critiques, simply read some of A. Jay’s other pieces on Glenn. They’ll give you a better idea about who you’re defending.

      Sorry to say, ‘Jane’, you’re the one who’s naïve.

  4. I would very much like to shake the hand of A. Jay Adler for nailing Greenwald on his obvious hypocrisy toward, and resentment of, Christopher Hitchens, couched in such a sham way. He was not interested in objectively covering the “protocol for public figure deaths” (how lame that headline was!) than he was in settling scores off a dead man who could no longer defend himself. Punk, indeed.

    1. You are the punk, but not as big a punk as this lying sack of crap, Adler.

      When are you (or Adler) going to be honest enough to say: Bush and his neo-con cretins conned me since I was horribly naive and did not bother to consider how his rotten father had conned America into the first Gulf War or that even liberals like Michael Moore nailed Bush back in 2004-another person scumbag Hitchens trashed along with Cindy Sheehan?

      I am going to hold your feet to the fire, Adler.

  5. Nice piece, Jay, and thanks for the h/t, but Greenwald was not completely disconnected from current events in 2000. Although he thought voting unimportant, the same didn’t hold true for ‘defending’ neo-Nazis.

    And note his contempt for, and vicious attacks on, those in opposition to his Nazi client. And then note his ironic use of wiretapping.

    Some things never change. Once a punk, always a punk.

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