In Search of Rationalizations: A Literary Review of Ben Burgis’ “Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, Where He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matter”
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2022 01 14
It is usually a bad idea for the literary critic, whatever their standing, to dabble in psychological analysis of authors. Like reading tea leaves or telling fortunes, it usually has little to do with what the critic knows about psychology and a lot to do with how credulous they think the reader is.
And yet, there’s something about Ben Burgis’ newest book, Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, What He Got Wrong, and Why He Still Matters (from here on out shortened to Christopher Hitchens) that gives it a taste of confession; in the midst of random tangents, prose as flat as the feet of clumsy dancers, and unimaginative speculation, one gets the feeling that Burgis is not writing about Hitchens to us but about his thoughts about Hitchens to himself. He wants to explain to himself–justify it even–why he likes Christopher Hitchens, and why that’s okay.
In doing so, we get a book that makes a claim that is almost dialectical, but even more so ironic: it claims to be examining, on some level, the rationalizations of Christopher Hitchens, Anglo-American journalist and expatriate of the Left, trying to discern their truth. And yet, in this winding but short–thank a non-existent God–book, Burgis seems to be expressing and exposing his own rationalizations for liking Hitchens. Every time he finds a rationalization–assuming he actually ends one of his tangents long enough to give it a look–he replaces it with his own assumptions.
Now, I took my time with this book for two reasons: one, having seen the way Ben Burgis responds to criticism, I wanted to read this book carefully. The charge of ‘intellectual dishonesty’ and ‘not having read the book well’ are always on Burgis’ lips, and he readies himself to fling them if he can. So I guess I must attest to my diligence; I reviewed this book carefully, as I do all books I read. I marked it up, I did my research. This is not an act of dishonesty or ‘bad faith’–not the right usage of that word, but whatever–this is just an opinion formed from actually reading the book. Which is, I surmise, more than I can say for the people whose congratulations are pinned up in the front of this book.
But second, I took my time because I truly believe we are long overdue for a real grappling and reckoning with the legacy of Christopher Hitchens. I, for one, do like Christopher Hitchens; he was a brilliant literary critic, a dubious political thinker, and a writer who has a style almost unmatched by anyone going back to Gore Vidal and, beyond him, H.L. Mencken. It would do the Left, Marxist or not, some good to have Hitchens finally situated in our history of ideas and the people who produce them.
But this book isn’t it.
It was a bright day in April, and all the clocks struck 2016. Or, rather, that is how the book begins. We get a few pages of a random raising of the spectacle specter of 2016, where Burgis decides that the best way to begin discussing Christopher Hitchens is to bring up he died, that Hillary Clinton then ran for president against Bernie Sanders, and to mention, in essence, ‘hey, do you remember how much Hitchens hated the Clintons?’ This approach makes me think of a guy who, upon saying anything slightly controversial, puts their hands in front of their face and says ‘please don’t hit me, I got your lunch money’. For Burgis, Hitchens hatred of Clintons is that lunch money. He clearly, and understandable, is writing for a left-wing audience, and so approaches the crowd with treats in his pocket.
From here, one gets chapter after chapter, until Chapter Five, of Christopher Hitchens existing in the peripheral of the author; the first two chapters are devoted to using Christopher Hitchens as a way for the author to discuss his views on topics. In the first chapter, this is not as egregious; he mentions Christopher Hitchens views in relationship to Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger, to Mother Teresa, and advocates an interesting point about Hitchens’ change from earthly polemics to metaphysical musings. While this was by no means great–he basically does a ‘compare and contrast’ for several pages–he sprinkles in speculations that have little to no bearing on Christopher Hitchens. For example, in the middle of his ‘compare and contrast’ with a claim in Hillary Clinton’s memoir and criticism given by Hitchens, we get this:
"If Hitchens had beaten cancer in 2011 and lived long enough to write about the 2016 election, it’s safe to say that he would have had nothing positive to say about Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination. Would he have supported Bernie Sanders?" (p. 5)
My issue with this is two fold: one, this is the beginning of the book, not the end. Speculation of the ‘if X had lived’ comes after you have explained and expressed the legacy of an individual, not at the beginning. Based on a few pages of Burgis telling us Hitchens hated the Clintons, why jump to that sort of speculation? Not to mention that it is speculation for something as unimportant ‘would Hitchens have supported my favorite politician in this election that he did not live to see?’ This speculation is about as helpful as Mr. McClure, from The Simpsons, telling Jimmy that cow would eat him, if given the chance.
But secondly, this is the beginning of an epidemic in Burgis’ book; a continuous tendency to use Hitchens for random, tangential discussions, rather than discussing Hitchens himself. Maybe, instead of speculating about a hypothetical on Hitchens’ potential presidential choice, Burgis could have discussed Hitchens’ dislike of the Clintons as contradictory to his advocacy of US intervention in Bosnia, and how this expresses a tendency of Hitchens to contradict himself. This is done, by way of Hitchens’ Jewish heritage, by Marc Tracy in his article The Tenth Man for Tablet Magazine. Burgis could have set the stage for several of the discussions he clumsily bumbles into later on if he had not wasted the first chapter laying ‘his own cards on the table’ and bringing up whether he or Michael Brooks believed about cultures having or not having essences. He could have set the stage for a better discussion, even if he did not change the topics he picked, about Christopher Hitchens’ and his beliefs. This was supposed to be a book about Christopher Hitchens.
If you need another example of this, Chapter 2 might as well be called "Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret…oh, and Hitchens!" From page 14 to page 20, there is a long discussion about the Euthyphro Dilemma, Descartes, John Stuart Mill, Philippa Foot, Kant, and Divine Command Ethics. Hitchens is not mentioned until page 18, just to throw in that Euthyphro’s dilemma might be what Hitchens was on about when he challenged people to name an ethical action or proposition that the religious can do that the atheist cannot. This is then used to bring up the Right, Descartes, and the notion of subjectivity until page 21, where we get to a discussion about Larry Tauton, which is where this chapter should have begun–or, at the very least, Burgis should have began with discussing what Hitchens believed, before philosophically breaking it down. In other words, if Burgis were telling you how to put a bit on a horse, he would tell you to begin at its ass and work your way forward.
And during this lesson, you will hear little about the horse, and everything about Burgis’ opinion on fences.
It would be exhausting for me, nevermind the reader, to have to go through every chapter and work out everything that is wrong. Not only is that tedious, but it is not worth it because what Ben Burgis has to say about Christopher Hitchens, overall, is negligible. What exactly does he tell us? Well, if we did as Burgis should have done, but didn’t, and organize his book by the subtitle on the front, then we can ask this: what does he think Hitchens got right? What does he think Hitchens got wrong? And why does he think Hitchens matters?
To the first question, the answer from Burgis seems split between pontification and speculation: we get his Sanders-worshiping speculation to start, and then we get little more than: "Hitchens was a pretty good radical when he was younger, perhaps we should cut him some slack." I have seen this point made in a YouTube comment on one of those ‘Hitchslap’ videos that Burgis dislikes. It’s only difference is that it did not come with a bibliography.
It is hard to ascertain, exactly, what Christopher Hitchens got right, because beyond the above assertions, there is no chapter or chapters dedicated to what Christopher Hitchens got right. In Chapter 3, "Drink Sodden Former Trotskyist Popinjay?", we get a background about Hitchens: he began as a Trotskyist, taken under the wing of Peter Sedgwick, and from there Hitchens goes on to be the writer we have come to know him as. Burgis does a good job, between tangents, of explaining Hitchens’ ideals, or what he speculates them to be. Even before meeting Sedgwick, Burgis claims, Hitchens seems to have been left wing, evidenced by him taking part in the protests against the Vietnam War.
This is followed up by a history lesson about Stalin, Soviet Russia, and the totalitarian acts that led many–especially Trotskyists–to become anti-Stalinist, which Burgis clumsily segues away from to show that, later in life, Hitchens was still a defender of Marxism and Communism, citing his admittedly wonderful essay Don’t. Be. Silly., an open letter to his friend Martin Amis. From here, Burgis lurches again, going on and on and on and on about how wrong Christopher Htichens was about Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not say this because Hitchens was right–he wasn’t–but Burgis was supposed to be telling us, or I hoped he was, what Hitchens got right. But it seems that, every few pages or so, Burgis comes around with a sign around his neck, ringing a bell and screaming "I know Hitchens was wrong about Iraq and Afghanistan! I know! I know!". As stated before, he is proverbially covering his face, afraid he is going to be beaten up.
From all of this, what Hitchens got ‘right’ seems like it can be expressed like this: he hated Clinton, he was against capitalism, he was once a Trotskyist and his radical work before the 90’s might have suggested he would have supported Sanders. What Burgis’ meant by ‘right’, it seems, is what Hitchens did or said that he agreed with, and so we see Burgis spend his time trying to align beliefs between himself and Hitchens. He wants to match Hitchens to himself. To say that this first answer is weak would be an understatement; it’s barely even an answer.
Now, to the second question: what Hitchens got wrong? Luckily, Burgis dedicates a whole chapter to this, and it is the best of all the chapters. Burgis argues that Hitchens was a socialist who, in the face of the fall of the Soviet Union and the gray milieu that was our end-of-history politics of the 90’s, Hitchens turned to believing that revolution was not possible via the working class, and so revolution by any means was preferable to none at all. As Burgis writes:
"What this probably shows is that, long before he realized that his views had changed, Hitchens had been gradually worn down by the political atmosphere of the 1990’s, where every talking head in the world took it for granted that the great struggles between visions of how to organize society that had characterized the twentieth century had ended with the fall of the Soviet Union. In this era, even if you didn’t want to believe Margret Thatcher’s dictum that "there is no alternative," it was part of the ideological drinking water.
By the time Hitchen’s politics shifted, he’d spent much of his life as a globe-trotting journalist getting to know people who lived under despotic regimes. During the decades when his radical Left convictions were intact, he presumably believed that some fresh wave of socialist revolutions would one day sweep those regimes into the dustbin of history. When he gave up on that, he still wasn’t ready to give up hope on there being some other path to democratic transformation." (p. 128-129)
This, in and of itself, would have been an interesting topic to wrestle with. Did Hitchens’ have reason to give up hope? How does this relate to the current mess of "Leftist" in American politics? Is this the danger of Leftist failures; that people shift from revolution for all to revolution by all means, at all cost? But Burgis does little with this, only to say that it led Hitchens towards a "cynical and more conservative direction", and leaves it at that, moving on to talk about Christopher Hitchens being at high end parties and his admission that everything America does is imperial.
Throughout the book, Burgis hints that he finds Hitchens’ point of departure to be in his book Letters to a Young Contrarian (a book I own, in fact), first only as a departure into his New Atheism, and then as a place for evidence that Hitchens had lost faith in a coming ‘classless society’. Burgis also criticizes Hitchens’ foreword to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as it lumps the aim of communist revolution with utopianism. Burgis could have, easily, drawn a line between Hitchens’ loss of faith in revolution and his advocacy of intervention–in every instance, from Bosnia to Afghanistan–but instead his criticism of Hitchens is summed up in the last page of Chapter 5, where he writes that:
"The problem with Hitchens in the final phase of his career isn’t that there was too much residual Trotskyism in his political bloodstream. It’s that there was far too little." (p. 132)
Really? The problem with Hitchens was a lack of ideological adherence? This is a problem of loyalty? With all the evidence Burgis has, spread about as oddly as it is, this is your conclusion? It seems that Burgis may want to go back and re-read the title of his favorite late-Hitchens article, because it applies here.
Don’t. Be. Silly.
Finally, why does Hitchens matter? This question is the centerpiece of the last chapter in Burgis’ small book, titled "Remembering Christopher Hitchens". Of all the chapters that have been written in this book, this was the weakest. Perhaps it is no surprise that the conclusion of a book that is so badly organized, so timid, and so tangential, would therefore end with neither a whimper or a bang, but a shrug.
What reason does Burgis give for Hitchens’ legacy in four whole pages? Again, it is a chapter of what Burgis believed Hitchens would have thought of Donald Trump, how he admired Christopher Hitchens in high school and mournfully toasted to his death with a Johnnie Walker Black. He jumps off into a tangent about atheism being argued and how atheists who do not argue about God are "so comfortable in their non-belief that they think of these claims the way the rest of us think of the various propositions being propounded by the homeless woman who stands on the street corner screaming about the microchip the aliens put up her nostrils…" (A side note, Burgis may write about comedians, but he should not try to be like them). He tells us about the possibility of authoritarian secularism, and tells us you do not "have to be an Atheist with a capital A to be interested in thinking hard about…" the metaphysical arguments surrounding God.
He mentions Hitchens’ literary criticism, and then notes that:
"He also wrote so much about figures like T.S. Eliot and Jane Austen and Marcel Proust and F. Scott Fitzgerald that a book like this one could have been written just on Hitch as a literary critic. In fact, I hope someone does write that book. It couldn’t be me, though. I’ve read about five percent of his source material. Honestly, the part of Hitchens’ output that’s most important to me has always been the part that became the most indefensible in the last part of his life–his political commentary." (p. 136)
While I cannot express enough how much I hope a book like this one is not written about Hitchens’, I bring this up because, at the end of this chapter, Burgis writes this:
"The veil separating longform articles from social media posts feels a little thinner everyday. Whether I’m reading 3000 words on why The Muppet Show was, in retrospect, extremely problematic or 5000 words on why people who think The Muppet Show was problematic are as bad as the East German secret police, I can’t help but think we need more Christopher Hitchenes. I’d like for the new ones to be more like the Hitchens of 1986 or 1997 or even 1999 than the Hitchens of 2002, but when I think about his response to Martin Amis in Slate that year, I desperately want even that Hitchens back. Really, things have gotten bad enough that one won’t be enough. We need a hundred of him." (p.137)
If you can put aside, for a second, just how vague and empty this ‘conclusion’ is, consider that he wrote this book to express, among other things, why Hitchens matters. He states that you could write a whole book on his literary criticism, which he is not doing because he prefers to focus on Hitchens’ political commentary. But then, he ends the book by saying Hitchens’ legacy sits squarely on his talent as a writer. There is nothing (except Acknowledgements) beyond that paragraph quoted above. That’s all. That is how it ends.
Hitchens matters because he has a wonderful style? That sounds like someone who, while in petto admires Hitchens, when faced with an assessment in public merely shrugs and says, ‘Oh, he is just a good writer.’ Anyone whose only justification of liking this or that writer is their style is lying to you, and either like something unsavory about that writer, or they have mindlessly accepted the writer, and thus have no reason to like them. What kind of conclusion of Hitchens’ political commentary is this? I think that, at its most psychological, this was merely the safest of rationalizations for the importance of Christopher Hitchens. This is not to mention that this assessment has very, very little to do with Hitchens’ politics, since style is not a political phenomenon but a matter of personal tastes. For example, there are any number of conservative writers who have great styles. In an interview with Brian Lamb in 1993, Christopher Hitchens noted he admired the style of William Safire, Nixon speechwriter and a columnist for The New York Times.
I sense, here, a capitulation, an act of cowardice. And I wish, since Burgis admired Hitchens’ style so much as to make it his legacy, that he might have taken some pointers and written with a prose that didn’t mimic Ben Stein trying to find Bueller.
I am not one of the anti-Hitchens people who exist now, looking to take a crack at anything remotely referring to him. I actually like Christopher Hitchens, and I am of the belief that, given it has been a decade or so since his death, we could look back on this man and at least get some perspective on this man. Polemicist, literary critic, professor, and orator, Christopher Hitchens was a child of the Left that dragged itself away from 1968 and the Vietnam War and tried to get itself upright in the face of what was to come, and failed. Hitchens was a literary type, asked to commit to Sartre’s demand for engagement, but found himself desiring exporting revolution rather than creating it. As he passed through the counterculture of the 80’s, he took on its over-the-counter style of exporting, packaging, and selling what we once called writing.
Does this mean I think he was right, absolutely and completely, and should be forgiven any critical analysis? No. As Anaxagoras said in reaction to his son’s death, so we should have said in reaction to Hitchens–and anyone’s–death: sciebam me genuisse mortalem. Our world, our nation, our culture begot a mortal, and mortals make mistakes. It is up to us to decide how–and if–to forgive them, and we do that by trying to make sense of them.
This is the task of Ben Burgis’ book, to ascertain what Hitchens got right, how he went wrong, and why he matters. And he fails to do so. I have already gone over the way the content itself fails to do so. There is a great deal about how the book was put together in and of itself that obstructs this book’s purpose: bad organization, meaningless tangents, an attempt to condense an analysis of nine debates into 51 pages, the constant ass-backwards approach to analysis–beginning with the analysis before even mentioning or presenting what Hitchens thought–and the seemingly narcissistic narrative approach, where every so often we are accosted by what Ben Burgis thinks…what one must suffer just to get to the end and find out that the ‘conclusion’ of the book is as ephemeral as one of Burgis’ videos about ‘dunking’ on some hapless libertarian.
The two pillars of rationalizations are speculation and fantasy, both of which are prevalent in this book. Add in pontification, and you get the quasi-academic drunken stupor that is the process of exploration in this book. As Burgis looks for rationalizations for Hitchens’ support of American intervention, he is engaged in an infantile search for his own rationalizations, ending the book with the weakest of these rationalizations. Like a guy trying to explain away a bad date, Burgis seems to implicitly claim to be victim to the bewitching powers of alcohol–the alcohol, fittingly, being Hitchens’ éclat, in this metaphor–and so distances himself from the experience while keeping it close enough to evoke when he is having a good time. The analysis of Hitchens is, more than anything, a search for the best reason to like a politically unpopular writer. For some of us, the winds of political popularity blow right over us; for Burgis, it seems, it blows him right over.
There might not be a lot of things we can agree on calling Christopher Hitchens’ accomplishments–I am more than certain I will get my fair share of heckling for even being nice to the man–but I hope, after reading this book that we can all agree on one accomplishment for good ol’ Hitch: that he died instead of living long enough to read this book.