Friday, October 12, 2007

Hitchens ni Houlihan

Christopher Hitchens, left (photo by Art Streiber for Vanity Fair), and the man whose death he inspired, Mark Jennings Daily (family photo).

Surely Christopher Hitchens has by now turned the traditional stance of the contrarian into something like amoral, free-form performance art. The famously "scotch-fueled" Oxbridge pundit spent the first decades of his career exoriating the right, and extolling the left, in part from the wacky pages of The Nation - then, after the World Trade Center towers fell, he did an about face and became a cheerleader for the Bush administration's war in Iraq. Yes, I know, a simplification - but this is a short column, and frankly, Hitchens doesn't deserve much better: so just savor, for a moment, the pungent irony of a public intellectual who recognizes the error of his ways - only to get it all wrong, again. God may not be great, but you have to admit, He has a sense of humor. These days, alas, the joke has turned into a sick one: Hitchens is no longer just amusingly wrong, he now has blood on his hands. Literally, as they say in L.A.

Still, you have to hand it to the old dragon - he's always known how to turn, via the alchemy of grotesque self-disclosure (see photo above), the humiliation of intellectual defeat into the thrill of rhetorical victory, and his response to the death of Lieutenant Mark Daily, the idealistic young American who actually fell for his war-mongering, is surely one for the history books.

At first, one imagines a confrontation with the actual toll of his roar might chasten this paper lion; upon reading of the death of Daily, "a registered Democrat and self-described agnostic . . .[with] decided reservations about the war in Iraq," Hitch notices that "writings by author and columnist Christopher Hitchens . . . deeply influenced him [to sign up]." Hitch's immediate reaction? "I don't exaggerate by much when I say that I froze. I certainly felt a very deep pang of cold dismay."

Wow. A deep pang, huh. Of course said dismay is tinged with ego: "Over dramatizing myself a bit (emphasis added) in the angst of the moment, I found I was thinking of William Butler Years, who was chilled to discover that the Irish rebels of 1916 had gone to their deaths quoting his play Cathleen ni Houlihan." Uh-huh. Rude beast. Slouching off to the Middle East. Gotcha. Don't think, though, that Hitch isn't also simultaneously aware of the fact that he hardly rates a boil on Yeats's dead ass: "Abruptly dismissing any comparison between myself and one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, I feverishly clicked on all the links from the article . . ." What he finds is that yes, his writings were crucial to Daily's decision to enlist; and that, incredibly, Daily's family actually "would like to hear from" him.

And this is where the piece descends from conceited, but still possibly sympathetic, moral awareness into something like self-serving dreck. Hitchens begins his self-absolution with the following:

In his brilliant book What Is History?, Professor E. H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it round a blind corner, and hits another man, who is crossing the road to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn't straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit?

It doesn't take much to perceive that none of this has anything to do with Christopher Hitchens or Mark Daily. Neither the man who had one drink too many, nor the lax inspector of brakes, et. al., were involved in the act of persuasion, which is Hitchens's stock-in-trade, and the crux of the current case. Surely Hitch, who took a degree in philosophy and politics, knows this; indeed, anyone who could pour scorn so precisely on the moral delusions of religion could only be dissembling with this particular gambit. Needless to say, the ethics of persuasion is a tangled intellectual wood - still, if we were all entirely free moral agents, then I doubt Hitchens - or any other writer - would bother writing columns. Hitchens influenced poor Mr. Daily - by his own account, his influence was the deciding factor in the events leading to his death; to pretend otherwise empties all Hitchens's work of its supposed salience. The only question here is: how should Hitchens atone for his acts?

Hitch's answer seems to be to face the tragedy he engendered - the trouble is, he winds up wrapping himself in the nobility of Mr. Daily's shroud. The Dailys invite Hitchens to join in their grief; as he's probably its prime instigator, you'd think Hitch might hesitate - but unsurprisingly, his "I'm-like-Yeats-oh-no-no-not-really" egotism allows him to quell any such qualms. And why should he have qualms? The family assures him that Mr. Daily "signed up with his eyes wide open" and "assured us that if he knew the possible outcome might be this [death], he would still go rather than have the option of living to age 50 and never having served his country." We learn more about the fallen hero's almost amazing earnestness - he writes to his wife that "My desire to 'save the world' is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you," and discover that his death (he was killed by a landmine) was actually precipitated when he traded places with another Humvee which he felt was not fully armored - the occupant of which was a father of seven.

Crying yet? I was too - and that's the whole idea, my friends. Within the space of a few paragraphs, Hitchens expertly obscures his own peculiar position with the heroism of Mr. Daily. But Hitch goes even further - soon he's on Mr. Daily's favorite beach - the scene of his boyhood vacations - strewing his ashes into the sky, and quoting Shakespeare before becoming "a trifle choked up."

Again, I was too - only because I felt like throwing up. The Shakespeare quote was painful enough - it was the speech from the last act of the Scottish tragedy which begins "Your son, my lord has paid a soldier's debt" and ends with "Your cause of sorrow/Must not be measured by his worth, for then/it hath no end." Mark Jennings Daily deserved no less. But soon Hitchens is also citing Orwell's famous line about Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War - "I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for" - and suddenly, the whole conceit of his article falls apart.

Because Iraq was transparently not a state of affairs worth fighting for - it was never, as Hitchens would pretend, "a decent cause . . . hijacked by goons and thugs." The goons and thugs were there from the beginning, and Hitchens willingly threw in his lot with them - and he cried shame on anyone who refused. Yes, Mark Daily's eyes may have been open when he enlisted, but they were young eyes, and youth rarely limns the depravity and cunning of its elders. Indeed, he couldn't even see through Christopher Hitchens.

Poor, beautiful Mr. Daily; perhaps the envy at the world's root festered at his unalloyed virtue and so led Christopher Hitchens his way. Or perhaps God in his mercy used Hitch as an instrument to save those seven from the orphanage - who can say? Hitchens seems willing to face the tragedy he inspired, but only if he can evade responsibility for it. And yet the evidence is stark: Daily trusted Hitchens on Iraq. And Hitchens was old enough - and educated enough, and worldly enough - to know better, far better. Negligence is the best case you can make for him. And even negligence has its debt to pay.

So if Hitchens imagines that choking up a bit on that desolate beach is all he owes Mark Daily's ghost, I'm here to say he's wrong. There is no court to pass judgment on him (just as there is no court to pass judgment on - dare I say it? - Henry Kissinger), but in the court of his own mind, surely Hitchens understands the most appropriate punishment: to disavow his war-mongering. And stop his writing. Now.

Because there's another Mark Daily out there, somewhere. And he deserves to live.

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