I’m saddened by the passing of Christopher Hitchens, a writer whose exquisite style I’ve admired for as long as I’ve been old enough to know what’s any good. Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to properly mourn him without reflecting on his failings. All the encomia so far have been adulatory, and much of that is deserved. But I think they’re also missing the point, both by failing to properly contextualize his contribution, but also by not being true to the spirit of the man. Perhaps it’s too easy for me to say never having met him, but I can’t help think that he’d have preferred to be engaged with critically, even as his lifeless body is still warm. So here’s a stab at it:
Hitchens will not be remembered for the substance of his arguments, for he was not philosophically inclined despite his vast erudition. He viciously (and often rightly) attacked religion for its moral hypocrisies and its bigoted stances, yet his own convictions remained unexamined. He had a messianic zeal for defending those he saw as weak and powerless, and a similarly powerful revulsion at those he judged as hucksters or tyrants. These noble instincts were sacrosanct to him, but this very ethical rigidity, which found him admirers among the Trotskyite internationalists on the Left before Iraq, and among the unreflective lower-neocons afterwards, ultimately makes his judgment on most things suspect at best. At bottom, his beautiful, agile prose belied a certain kind of unsophisticated and reductive worldview which all too often led him to propagandize rather than to reason, to argue rather than to think.
Let’s leave the Iraq catastrophe aside. Others have done a fine job of holding him accountable for his unrepentant errors of judgment there. Consider instead his position on the Balkans, where many of his critics on the Left might agree he was on the “correct” side of the fight. Though his activism on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims and (later) the Kosovar Albanians seems beyond reproach, his moral certitude prevented him from being all that insightful.
Hitchens wrote in 1992 from Sarajevo:
Entering the handsome old Austro-Hungarian edifice that houses the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and which absorbed several hits that day, I was panting with relief as I gained the shelter of the vestibule when I saw a poster facing me. Executed in yellow and black, it was a combined logo featuring the Star of David, the Islamic star and crescent, the Roman Catholic cross and the more elaborate cruciform of the Serbian and Bosnian Orthodox. Gens una summus, read the superscription. ‘We are one people’. Here, rendered in iconographic terms, was the defiant remnant of ‘the Yugoslav idea’ (pictures of Tito are still common, in both public and private settings, in Sarajevo). And here, also, was all that was left of internationalism. The display was striking, and not just because it rebuked the primitive mayhem in the immediate vicinity. All across former Yugoslavia, a kind of mass surrender to unreason is taking place, hoisting emblems very different from the Sarajevan.
He was not alone in his bewilderment and sorrow. Thousands of intermarried families were ripped apart by the conflict, and true believers in Titoist Yugoslavia, many still members of the Yugoslav Communist Party, continued to think that the cosmopolitanism was recoverable—if only the bad, irrational people were stopped from messing things up. Hitchens was far too well-read to not have at least become acquainted with the complicated national histories of the peoples involved. Many Bosnian Muslims identified with and fought on the side of the Croatian Nazi puppet regime in World War II, which was itself a hideous reaction to decades of Serbian chauvinism and repression in the post-WWI Yugoslavia. Yet when writing about the war, he never weighed down his arguments with such background. The problems in the Balkans always boiled down to the easily-personified: Milosevic, Karadzic, Tudjman and other “primitives” were conspiring to destroy an idyll.
Reality is far messier. An overwhelming number of the Serbian people enthusiastically supported the regimes of Milosevic and Karadzic, and saw the wars as just struggles for national unification. Though his image is slowly tarnishing, Tudjman is still seen as the man who finally delivered Croatia’s true independence after many thousands of years of vassalage—a kind of father of the nation. Alija Izetbegovic said many cosmopolitan-sounding things to Western audiences, but dabbled in Islamicism at various points in his career and at times during the war advocated for a Muslim state in Bosnia. And independent Kosovo was founded and continues to be led by corrupt former guerrillas who, as guerrillas are wont to do, indulged in various outrages, and continue to have links to organized crime.
This is not to take Robert Kaplan’s view of the Balkans as a region beset by savage, irrational peoples slitting each others’ throats on account of ancient grudges. And it’s not an argument for moral equivalence—Milosevic’s Serbian state was clearly the aggressor in all the Balkan conflicts in the 1990s, and that counts for a lot.
But it certainly should complicate any outsider’s calculus for intervention. And if intervention is finally decided on, the intervener’s mind should be focused on what he wants the region to look like once the guns have gone silent. Because in some non-trivial sense, the evil leaders fanning the flames of conflict are themselves merely epiphenomenal to deeper divisions within these societies—divisions which had been actively suppressed in Tito’s Yugoslavia.
But Hitchens has no insight for us here. Like the most common activist, he cannot bring himself to think in terms beyond right and wrong, black and white. An injustice is being perpetrated, and it is our duty to address it. Underlying this is an unstated belief that just beyond the horizon, once unreason has been extirpated, a peaceful cosmopolitanism beckons. Except it doesn’t. Kosovo and Bosnia are dismal failures as states and could erupt in violence again. Croatia and Serbia are faring better, but mostly because their sizable pre-war minorities have been displaced and ethno-national rivalries no longer disturb the democratic process.
Hitchens’ simplistic vision and concomitant lack of insight into the knotty realities of the Balkan conflict is common to humanitarian interventionists, responsibility-to-protectors, liberal hawks and neoconservatives whose high-minded errors of judgment keep bogging us down in a procession of noble-sounding conflicts in the 21st century (all of which Hitchens resoundingly endorsed). People murmurred that 9/11 changed him profoundly, even though he claimed he was writing from his long-held convictions. But since he staunchly opposed the first Gulf War, it was perhaps Bosnia that converted him, much like it bequeathed a calling to Samantha Power.
Like H.L. Mencken before him, Christopher Hitchens will be remembered as an endlessly entertaining and admirable stylist and pugilist, and rightfully so. As the historical context in which he lived fades from memory, his legacy will be reduced to a series of quotable bon mots (“The four most over-rated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics”), and perhaps his literary essays and moving end-of-life ruminations. And this, of course, is no small thing to leave behind. But we should keep in mind that with his passing, what we have lost is a profoundly literate and entertaining activist, not a profoundly penetrating political mind.