Hitchens- With Friends Like This...

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Sun Feb 28 20:20:11 PST 1999

R I G H T_O N ! _|_ D A V I D_H O R O W I T Z SALON


Let's begin by acknowledging the obvious: I am the last person Christopher Hitchens wants to see defending him in his current imbroglio with White House henchman and ex-friend Sidney Blumenthal. Like them, Hitchens and I were also once political comrades, though we were never quite proximate enough to become friends. But for nearly two decades we have been squaring off on opposite sides of the political barricades, and I know that Hitchens' detractors will inevitably use my support of him to confirm that he has lost his political bearings and betrayed them to the other side.

For that reason, let me add that I hardly expect Hitchens to have second thoughts, politically speaking, and join those of us who are critics of the movement to which he has dedicated his life. On the contrary. As everything Hitchens has put on the public record in the last year attests, his contempt for Clinton and his decision to expose Clinton's servant as a liar spring from his deep passion for the left and for the values it claims to hold dear.

In his mordantly incisive articles in both Vanity Fair and Salon, Hitchens has demonstrated that the nation's commander in chief cynically and mendaciously deployed the armed forces of the greatest power on earth to strike at three impoverished countries, with no clear military objective in mind. Using the most advanced weaponry the world has ever seen, Clinton launched missiles into the Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq for only one tangible political purpose, to -- as Hitchens puts it -- "distract attention from his filthy lunge at a beret-wearing cupcake."

Hitchens' claim that Clinton's military actions are criminal and impeachable is surely spot-on. Republicans, it seems, were right about the character issue, and failed only to demonstrate how this mattered to the policy issues the public cares deeply about. Instead they got themselves entangled in legalistic disputes about perjury and obstruction, losing the electorate along the way. In making his own powerful case against Clinton, Hitchens has underscored how Republicans botched the process by focusing on criminality that flowed from minor abuses of power -- the sexual harassment of Paula Jones and its Monica Lewinsky subtext -- while ignoring a major abuse that involved corrupting the presidency, damaging the nation's security and killing innocents abroad.

Reading Hitchens' riveting indictment stirred unexpected feelings of nostalgia in me for the left I had once been part of. Not the actual left that I came to know and reject, but the idealistic left of my youth, when I thought our mission was to be the nation's "conscience," to speak truth to power in the name of what was just. This, as is perfectly evident from what he has written, was Hitchens' own mission in exposing Blumenthal as the willing agent of a corrupt regime and its reckless commander in chief.

Unfortunately, in carrying out this mission, Hitchens was forced to trip over the Lewinsky matter, specifically Blumenthal's effort to smear the credibility of the key witness to the president's bad faith. But that is because it was through Lewinsky that the Kenneth Starr investigators had set up the character issue in the first place.

It is difficult to believe that a sociopathic personality like Clinton's could be compartmentalized to stop at the water's edge of sex, or that he is innocent of other serious accusations against him that Starr and the Republicans have been unable to prove. In fact, the same signature behavior is apparent throughout his administration (an idea aptly captured in the title of Hitchens' forthcoming book about the president -- "No One Left To Lie To"). The presidential pathology is evident not only in his reckless private dalliances (the betrayal of family and office), but also in his strategy of political "triangulation" (the betrayal of allies and friends) and in his fire sale of the Lincoln Bedroom and advanced military technology to adversarial powers (the betrayal of country). Hitchens is quite right, therefore, to strike at the agent of the king, since the king is ultimately to blame.

Given the transparent morality of Hitchens' anti-Clinton crusade, it is all the more revealing that so many of his comrades on the left, who ought to share these concerns, have chosen instead to turn on him so viciously. In a brutal display of comradely betrayal, they have publicly shunned him in an attempt to cut him off socially from his own community. One after another, they have rushed into print to tell the world at large how repulsed they are by a man whom only yesterday they called "friend," yet whom they now apparently no longer even wish to know.

Leading this pack was Hitchens' longtime colleague at the Nation, Alexander Cockburn, who denounced him as a "Judas" and "snitch." Cockburn was followed by a second Nation columnist, Katha Pollitt, who smeared Hitchens as a throwback to McCarthy-era informers ("Let's say the Communist Party was bad and wrong -- Why help the repressive powers of the state? Let the government do its own dirty work."). She was joined by a 30-year political comrade, Todd Gitlin, who warned anyone who cared to listen that Hitchens was a social "poison," in the same toxic league as Ken Starr and Linda Tripp.

Consider the remarkable nature of this spectacle. Could one imagine a similar ritual performed by journalists of the right? Bob Novak, say, flanked by Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley, pronouncing an anathema on Bill Safire, because the columnist had called for the jailing of Ollie North during the Iran-contra hearings? Not even North felt the need to announce such a public divorce. When was the last time any conservative figure (let alone a gathering of conservatives) stepped forward to declare they were ending a private friendship over a political disagreement?

The curses rained on Hitchens' head are part of a ritual that has become familiar over generations of the left, in which dissidents are excommunicated and consigned to various Siberias for their political deviance. It is a phenomenon normal to religious cults, where purity of heart is maintained through avoiding contact with the unclean. To have caused the left to invoke so drastic a measure, Hitchens had to have violated some fundamental principles of its faith. So what were they?

There seem to be at least two charges resulting from Hitchens' transgression. One, he has been accused of "snitching" on a political ally; two, he is said to have betrayed a friend. Outrage is not the automatic response on the left to either act, however. Daniel Ellsberg, for example, is a radical snitch who betrayed not only his political allies but his own government. Yet Ellsberg remains a hero to the left. David Brock, who also kissed and told, is not exactly persona non grata among leftists either these days. The left's standards for snitching on itself are entirely different from its standards for those who snitch on its enemies.

Hitchens' longtime editor at the Nation, Victor Navasky, has written a whole volume about the McCarthy era called "Naming Names," which rests on the premise that the act of snitching is worse than the crimes it reveals, because it involves personal betrayal. On the other hand, the bond of comradeship, of loyalty, of belonging, is exactly the bond that every organized crime syndicate exploits to establish and maintain its rule.

There is an immediate reminder of these connections in the Paul Robeson centennial that progressives are observing this year. In a variety of cultural and political events on the 100th anniversary of his birth, the left is celebrating the life and achievement of one of its greatest modern heroes. Robeson, however, is a man who also betrayed his friend, Yiddish poet Itzhak Pfeffer, not to mention thousands of other Soviet Jews, who were under a death sentence imposed by Robeson's own hero, Josef Stalin. In refusing to help them, despite Pfeffer's personal plea to him to do so, Robeson was acting under a code of silence that prevented Communists like him from "snitching" on the crimes their comrades committed. They justified their silence in the name of the progressive cause, allowing the murderers among them to destroy not only millions of innocent lives, but their socialist dream as well.

Next month, the Motion Picture Academy will honor Elia Kazan, a theater legend who has been blacklisted for nearly half a century by the Hollywood left. He, too, has been called a "Judas" by leftist members of the academy protesting his award. Kazan's sin was testifying before a congressional committee about his fellow Communists who were also loyal supporters of Stalin's monstrous regime, and who conducted their own blacklist of anti-Stalinists in the entertainment community. Kazan's most celebrated film, "On the Waterfront," scripted by another disillusioned Communist, Budd Schulberg, depicts a longshoreman who "snitches" to a congressional committee that is investigating organized crime, specifically a mob that controls his own union and exploits its membership. It is a thinly-veiled commentary on Kazan's and Schulberg's experiences in the left.

"Snitching" is how the progressive mob regards the act of speaking truth to power, when the power is its own. The Mafia calls its code of silence omertà, and the penalty for speaking out against the mob is death. The left's penalty for defection in those countries where it does not exercise state power is excommunication from its community of saints. This, of course, is a kind of virtual death.

Cognizant of these realities, I avoided informing on friends or even "outing" them during my own journey out of the left many years ago. In fact, my first political statements opposing the left were made a decade after I had ceased to be an active participant in its cause, and when the battles I had participated in were over. This did not make an iota of difference, however, when it came to my former comrades denouncing me as a "renegade," as though I had somehow become an informer. I was subjected to the same kind of personal betrayal as Hitchens is experiencing now. With only a handful of exceptions, all the friends I had made in the first 40 years of my life turned their backs on me, refusing to know me, once my politics changed.

This tainting and ostracism of sinners is, in fact, the secret power of the leftist faith. It is what keeps the faithful faithful. The spectacle of what happens to a heretic like Hitchens when he challenges the party code is a warning to others not to try it. This is why Alger Hiss kept his silence to the end, and why, even 50 years after the fact, the memoirs of leftists are so elusive and disingenuous when it comes to telling the hard political and personal truths about who they were and what they did. To tell a threatening truth is to risk vanishing in the progressive communities where you have staked your life ground. Hitchens' crime is therefore not the betrayal of friendship: it is the betrayal of progressive politics, the only bond the left has ever taken seriously.

This is far from obvious to those who are not insiders. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, the otherwise perceptive Roger Kimball described what has happened to Hitchens under the following headline: "Leftists Sacrifice Truth on the Altar of Friendship." But this presumes either that the leftists were closer friends of Blumenthal than of Hitchens, or that their friendships mean more to them than their politics. None of the denouncers of Hitchens could claim a closer friendship with Blumenthal as a reason for their choice. Moreover, there is not the slightest reason to suppose that these leftists would remain friends of Blumenthal either, should he ever choose to reveal what he really knows about Clinton's obstructions of justice and the machinations of the White House crew.

To examine an actual betrayal of friendship one need go no further than Cockburn's New York Press column outing Hitchens as a compulsive snitch. Friends can take different political paths and still honor the life that was once between them, the qualities and virtues that made them friends. Cockburn was once closer to Hitchens than Blumenthal ever was. They knew each other longer and their friendship was deeper. Hitchens even named his own son Alex out of admiration for his friend. But in his column, Cockburn gratuitously smears Hitchens (who is married) as an aggressive closet homosexual, an odorous, ill-mannered and obnoxious drunk, and a pervert who gets a sexual frisson out of ratting on his intimates. Not a single member of Hitchens' former community, which includes people who have known him as a comrade for 30 years, has stepped forward to defend him from this ugly slander.

What then inspires these autos-da-fé? It is the fact that the community of the left is a community of meaning, and is bound by ties that are fundamentally religious. For the non-religious, politics is the art of managing the possible. For the left, it is the path to a social redemption. This messianism is its political essence. For the left, politics is ultimately not about practical choices, concerning which reasonable people may differ. It is about moral choices that define one as human. It is about taking sides in a war that will decide the human future and whether the principle of justice will prevail. It is about "us" being on the side of the angels, and "them" being the party of the damned. In the act of giving up Blumenthal to the congressional majority and the special prosecutor, Hitchens put power in the hands of the enemies of the people. He acted as one of them.

Katha Pollitt puts it to Hitchens this way: "Why should you, who call yourself a socialist, a man of the left, help Henry Hyde and Bob Barr and Trent Lott? If Clinton is evil, are the forces arrayed against him better, with their 100 percent ratings from the Christian Coalition, and their after-dinner speaking engagements at white supremacist clubs?"

Of course, Pollitt doesn't for a moment think that Clinton is evil. But Hitchens' new fellow travelers obviously are. Observe how easily she invokes the McCarthy stratagems to create the taint -- the demonization of Hitchens' new "friends"; the guilts by association that link him to them and them to the devil; the absurd reduction of the entire Clinton opposition to any of these links.

The casting out of Christopher Hitchens, then, is a necessary ritual to protect the left's myth of itself as a redemptive force. How could Blumenthal, who is loyal to their cause, be connected to something evil, as Hitchens suggests? All of Hitchens' attackers and all 58 members of the congressional Progressive Caucus -- yesterday's vanguard opponents of American military power -- supported the wanton strikes against the Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq, without batting a proverbial eyelash. Every one of them has found a way to excuse Clinton's abuse of supposedly disposable women like Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky. The last thing they want to do now is confront Blumenthal's collusion in a campaign to destroy one of Clinton's female nuisances when she became a political threat. After all, it's they who want the reprobate in power. In blurting out the truth, Hitchens has slammed the left up against its hypocrisies and threatened to unmask its sanctimonious pretensions. This is the threat the assault on Hitchens is designed to suppress.

Here is my own message for the condemned man: You and I, Christopher, will continue our disagreements on many important things, and perhaps most things. But I take my hat off to you for what you have done, for your dedicated pursuit of the truth and for your courage in standing up under fire. The comrades who have deserted you are not capable of such things. SALON | March 1, 1999

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