“A polemicist, not a political philosopher”

April 27, 2008 at 8:01 pm | Posted in Christopher Hitchens | Leave a comment
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Photo by Flickry ensceptico (Creative Commons)

For those among us who’ve wondered – worriedly, despairingly, even angrily – why a man who spent so much of his life in the uncompromising defence of left-wing ideals could support George W. Bush over John Kerry or John McCain over both Obama and Clinton, this section towards the end of Prospect Magazine’s profile of Christopher Hitchens is particularly instructive:

He has sought to resist any appeal from a liberal centre. “I’ve never been impressed by middle-ground or art-of-the-possible stuff,” he says. “Why would people bother with politics if that’s all they wanted to do? If you weren’t trying to see if you could expand the art of the possible, break the limits of the feasible, redefine it, expand it—why would you bother? Who wants to be just a manager?”

One answer to that may be: those people who actually want to improve conditions for the underdogs—an attitude dismissed by Hitchens as “Christian charity.” Hitchens becomes impatient when asked what has become of his views on economic or social policy. He says he no longer has preconceptions: “whatever works; wherever the evidence leads.” On the international stage, he has carved out post-ideological positions for himself that are still illuminated by the clarity of an ideological mind. Elsewhere he descends into a multitude of contradictions.

He says he now thinks that nation states are essential for democracy, but also remains in favour of a supranational Europe. He says he no longer believes redistribution works—a view that places him on the outer reaches of the free market right in Europe—yet also advocates the “Sweden formula”: that you should be able to tell nothing about the status and wealth of parents from their children. He believes the extreme income gap in America is intolerable, not out of an interest in equality but because “solidarity with others is mandated by self-interest.” He hates the “law and order” style in politics, yet approves of Rudy Giuliani’s record in New York. He has no opinion on migration because “I don’t know enough about it.” But Hitchens is a polemicist, not a political philosopher or a policy wonk.

When you add this to his to his earlier admission of being a ‘single issue’ voter who views the fight against “the intensifying menace of clerical barbarism” as the sole issue that’ll win his vote, it makes perfect sense that Hitchens would prefer the Republican over the Democrat. Never mind that the Democrat might be more likely to help the most disadvantaged in American society; never mind that the Democrat might take active measures to combat climate change; never mind that the Republican is a member of a party that practices the most egregious kind of destructive religious politics. No, if all you do in office is take an approach to Islamic fundamentalism that invokes just a measure of Hitchens’ own reactionary zeal, then you’ve won his vote.

In fact, it’s probably the most easily-won vote in Washington.

Photo by Flickry ensceptico (Creative Commons)


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