On Hitchens-ism: When Good is Bad; The Humanitarian Screen for War.

Christopher Hitchens

I cannot improve on Greenwald’s discussion of the way the death of Christopher Hitchens has exposed a cadre of influential writers who provided “material support” for the invasion, destruction and occupation of Iraq as not only a calculable good for humanity but also for US civic engagement.  Apparently nationalism and patriotism are inherently good.  I’m sure I don’t need to offer proof to the contrary (though I have of course already, see below for links).  Particularly taken to task here is George Packer who writes often in The New Yorker, but David Brooks is in here as well and there are undoubtedly many, many more examples (Juan Cole, for one.)

This is extensive but worth the time as it is as important to denounce the “moderate” idea of war as liberal and humanitarian.  It is always a smoke screen and any good that can be used to defend it is, as Chomsky says again and again, incidental to intentions and motivations.

I highlight it here as Greenwald often offers some of his most trenchant work via the blog label, “Various Matters,” and this can lead to a kind of dismissive attitude towards the content.  It is critical work.  Read him.  The rest of the post is Greenwald.

(5) In The New Yorker, George Packer, who vocally supported the attack on Iraq but criticized it when it starting failing, writes about Christopher Hitchens, who never deviated from full-throated support. Most of what Packer writes is, as one would expect, little more than the now-trite reminiscing about Hitchens we’ve heard from his thousands of media friends which Neal Pollack parodied so brilliantly here, but Packer’s concluding paragraph struck me as something worth highlighting:

Iraq led Hitchens to some of his worst indulgences—the propaganda trip to Iraq in Wolfowitz’s entourage, the pose of Byronic heroism. But perhaps the war and the enemies it made him helped give Hitchens the courage of his last years and months—the atheist in the foxhole. Hitchens was one of the very few people who could slash and burn you in print, then meet for drinks and talk in the true warmth of friendship, discussing a writer we both admired, garrulous to the very last. It was a sign of his essential decency that he didn’t make it personal.

Is it really “a sign of decency” to refuse to view any political ideas as not merely wrong in some abstract intellectual sense, but as a reflection of the person’s character? Obviously, there are many political disagreements — most — which can and should be conducted in perfectly good faith without the need for personal animus. Conversely, though, aren’t there some political views so repellent and sociopathic that “a sign of essential decency” is to make it personal, rather than refusing to do so? This line of thought strikes me as anything but essentially decent:

Sure, he was and remained a fervent, unrepentant public cheerleader for an aggressive, baseless attack on another country that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and displaced millions more, and sure, he was very eager to fuel an Endless War that resulted in the deaths of countless innocent men, women and children that he himself never fought in, but I’m not going to hold any of that against him. I’ll argue with him as part of entertaining, invigorating political debate, but then will be happy to go out for drinks with him — he’s a really fun guy — and will proudly call him my friend.

In what sense does “decency” compel — or even permit — that line of thought? Packer, as he usually does, is simply giving voice to the standard mindset of Washington’s political and media class. As Charles Davis put it to me by email a couple of days ago when discussing David Corn’s expressed admiration for Hitchens — the irony that the Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones, of all places, waxed so effusive about one of the nation’s leading war zealots:

That’s Washington. Issues of war and peace — life and death — are just something you argue about from 9 to 5, and only when the cameras are on. Disagreeing on the wisdom of invading and occupying other nations is like disagreeing on whether the minimum wage should be $9.50 or $9.25: nothing serious enough to end a relationship over (see: Lake, Eli). And what’s a few hundred thousand dead brown people between friends?

The bottomless willingness of political and media elites to forgive each other of their sins, insulate personal relationships from everything else, and subordinate all other considerations to loyalty to their shared membership in those circles is not “a sign of essential decency.” It’s one of the leading causes of Washington’s rot.

UPDATE II: George Packer — who wrote in the very Hitchens piece of his which I quoted here: “He and I argued a lot about the [Iraq] war. We had both supported it” — emails to object to my characterization of him as a “vocal supporter” of the war:

Dear Mr. Greenwald:

You write that I “vocally supported the attack on Iraq.” This is false

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. I never took a public position before the war. Instead, I wrote about the various arguments about the coming war in a series of articles in The New York Times Magazine. Long after the war went wrong, and after I started making regular trips to Iraq for The New Yorker, I wrote that I had been an ambivalent supporter. In other words, I outed myself when it could only do me harm–exactly the opposite of the opportunism you attribute to me. A quick review of my work would have made this clear. By not bothering, you’ve made your column a kind of echo chamber–not the same one as that of the “political and media elite,” but just as lazy.

I expect a correction.

George Packer

The distinction he’s apparently drawing — between being an unacknowledged supporter of the war and an admitted one — does not seem particularly significant, nor particularly flattering: if he thought his war support was significant enough to mention in 2005, why wasn’t it significant in 2002 and 2003? Beyond that, I did not suggest that Packer’s change of heart was opportunistic: I simply described, accurately, that it occurred (he “vocally supported the attack on Iraq but criticized it when it starting failing”).  Moreover, my former Salon colleague, Gary Kamiya, calling Packer a “liberal hawk,” wrote a long and largely flattering review in 2005 of Packer’s Iraq War book detailing his pro-war stance and how it manifested; I’ll leave it to readers to judge for themselves whether Packer’s pre-war reporting was fairly deemed “pro-war.” But, as Kamiya noted, even Packer’s change of heart was quite limited:

Packer presumably knows all this, but he refuses to admit that the idea of invading Iraq was wrong — only the execution. “Since America’s fate is now tied to Iraq’s, it might be years or even decades before the wisdom of the war can finally be judged,” Packer writes. “The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is.” In other words, it is too soon to say if our national interest has been harmed by the war.

Under the Slate headline “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the War,” here’s what Packer was saying about Iraq in 2004. The point in dispute is extremely ancillary to anything I’ve raised here, but I’ll acknowledge that Packer’s pre-war reporting, though accompanied by admitted support for the attack, was presented in the language of journalistic neutrality, rendering “vocal support” an overstatement. As was true even for the most war-enabling journalists of the time, the war support was more “concealed” than explicit.


UPDATE III [Fri.]: Regarding the last point: in 2009, The New York Times assigned Packer to review a book by former New Yorker writer Mark Danner, and Danner wrote a response to that review suggesting that their vehement disagreements over the Iraq War prior to its commencement influenced the review; Danner’s response included this passage:

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

Danner further attributes some of Packer’s criticisms of his book to the fact “that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq.” At least according to Danner, Packer was hardly hiding his support for the war. Nor, according to Danner, was Packer’s support “ambivalent,” but rather “ardent.” I was willing to post Packer’s response and concede the point without doing much work to disprove his claims because the point was so ancillary to what I was writing here, but the picture Packer painted of himself in his demand for a correction (one he repeated in his reply to Danner) is, to put it mildly, quite disputable.


UPDATE IV [Fri.]: For a real sense of the mindset Packer was propagating back then, see this New York Times Op-Ed from late September, 2001, where he declares in the first sentence: “Sept. 11 made it safe for liberals to be patriots.” Apparently, said Packer, liberals were unwilling to be patriotic ever since the Vietnam War: “the instinct for battlefield virtue went underground.” He then added: “Our civilization is, of course, decadent, but it is also free enough for us to wake up to that fact. What I dread now” — is not another attack — but rather: ”is a return to the normality we’re all supposed to seek: instead of public memorials, private consumption; instead of lines to give blood, restaurant lines.” As Corey Robin says: “One reason Packer might defend Hitchens is that their response to 9/11 was so similar. . . . In short, both Hitchens and Packer welcomed 9/11 as a deliverance from the decadence of the US” (those two were hardly alone in their 9/11-is-Good celebrations:

Less than a month after people jumped from the World Trade Center’s north tower to avoid burning to death, David Brooks asked, “Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago,” Brooks explained, “I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”

Here’s how Packer concluded his Op-Ed:

I don’t desire war — but I know that patriotic feeling makes individuals exceed themselves as the bland comforts of peace cannot. ”The only thing needed,” William James wrote in ”The Moral Equivalent of War,” ”is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” I’ve lived through this state, and I like it.

Packer may think that he concealed his war fervor, but he did a nice job helping to spread it.

Further Related Errants:

The Unambiguous Ethic of Power

Better Angels on Black Ships

Logic is what he valued, and not metaphor

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