A tortured interpretation

July 4, 2008 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism | 1 Comment
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Michael Otterman: After having been waterboarded, Christopher Hitchens recognises that it is torture. But still he defends its use:

Still, Hitchens cannot escape the grip of American exceptionalism that has so permeated his work since 9/11. “Any call to indict the United States for torture is … a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down,” he huffs.

For Hitchens, in America’s pitched battle with “tormentors and murderers”, the ends justify the means. I disagree. Communist techniques hinged on the infliction of pain elicit bad intelligence and helps fan the flames of hatred against the US. In the case of the “water treatment”, poor means corrupt good ends.

One gets the feeling when reading this that Otterman either stopped reading the Vanity Fair article about two thirds of the way through, doesn’t understand some of the big words or is quite wilfully misinterpreting his views. True, Hitchens does offer one argument in mitigation of waterboarding and chides those who claim there is an equivalence between this and the depravities practiced by terrorists (Waterboard is pretty tame, for instance, when compared to beheading).

But then goes on he defer completely to the views of Malcolm Nance, an counter-terrorism expert, who states that the information gathered through waterboarding is unlikely to be accurate, puts captured American prisoners at risk of similar treatment (surely a national security risk?) and opens the door for far worse torture treatments to be used in the future.

Otterman misrepresents Hitchens by bizarrely claiming he is so in thrall to American exceptionalism that he can excuse waterboarding. In fact, he argues the opposite; that waterboarding not only damages America’s world standing, but compromises its ability to fight terrorism. To believe in American exceptionalism, you need to be opposed to torture:

One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

I don’t know whether Otterman was just being sloppy or disengenuous, but either way he is madly, badly wrong


Hitchens on waterboarding

July 2, 2008 at 10:53 am | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism | Leave a comment
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Perhaps I should have more faith in the man, but you know it’s a strange, inverted world when your first reaction to the news that Hitchens opposes waterboarding is… relief. Every once in a while, the frustrating, belligerent old Trot writes something so good that it makes you want to hug all his old essays. This is one of ’em:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

Read the rest here. If you have the stomach for it, the video’s here.

Things you don’t want to read over breakfast

June 13, 2008 at 8:30 am | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment
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Hitchens: “I Might Orgasm In My Trousers” Over Fall Of Bill Clinton

Ewww. People have been saying for years that his Clinton obsession has bordered on a fetish. Now I guess we have the proof.

“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)

Navel-gazing punditry: Iraq 5 years on

March 18, 2008 at 9:11 am | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Iraq War, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment
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To ‘commemorate’ the fifth anniversary of the invasion/liberation of Iraq, Slate asks three of its once-vocal advocates how they got it wrong. Fred Kaplan confesses to being too trusting of the evidence offered by Colin Powell. Kanan Makiya admits to underestimating the ‘self-centeredness and sectarianism of the ruling elite and the social impact of 30 years of extreme dictatorship’. And, somewhat predictably, Christopher Hitchens assures us he didn’t get anything wrong.

This is all overshadowed by the unarguable hash that was made of the intervention itself. But I would nonetheless maintain that this incompetence doesn’t condemn the enterprise wholesale. A much-wanted war criminal was put on public trial. The Kurdish and Shiite majority was rescued from the ever-present threat of a renewed genocide. A huge, hideous military and party apparatus, directed at internal repression and external aggression was (perhaps overhastily) dismantled. The largest wetlands in the region, habitat of the historic Marsh Arabs, have been largely recuperated. Huge fresh oilfields have been found, including in formerly oil free Sunni provinces, and some important initial investment in them made. Elections have been held, and the outline of a federal system has been proposed as the only alternative to a) a sectarian despotism and b) a sectarian partition and fragmentation. Not unimportantly, a battlefield defeat has been inflicted on al-Qaida and its surrogates, who (not without some Baathist collaboration) had hoped to constitute the successor regime in a failed state and an imploded society. Further afield, a perfectly defensible case can be made that the Syrian Baathists would not have evacuated Lebanon, nor would the Qaddafi gang have turned over Libya’s (much higher than anticipated) stock of WMD if not for the ripple effect of the removal of the region’s keystone dictatorship.

None of these positive developments took place without a good deal of bungling and cruelty and unintended consequences of their own. I don’t know of a satisfactory way of evaluating one against the other any more than I quite know how to balance the disgrace of Abu Ghraib, say, against the digging up of Saddam’s immense network of mass graves. There is, however, one position that nobody can honestly hold but that many people try their best to hold. And that is what I call the Bishop Berkeley theory of Iraq, whereby if a country collapses and succumbs to trauma, and it’s not our immediate fault or direct responsibility, then it doesn’t count, and we are not involved. Nonetheless, the very thing that most repels people when they contemplate Iraq, which is the chaos and misery and fragmentation (and the deliberate intensification and augmentation of all this by the jihadists), invites the inescapable question: What would post-Saddam Iraq have looked like without a coalition presence?

The past years have seen us both shamed and threatened by the implications of the Berkeleyan attitude, from Burma to Rwanda to Darfur. Had we decided to attempt the right thing in those cases (you will notice that I say “attempt” rather than “do,” which cannot be known in advance), we could as glibly have been accused of embarking on “a war of choice.” But the thing to remember about Iraq is that all or most choice had already been forfeited. We were already deeply involved in the life-and-death struggle of that country, and March 2003 happens to mark the only time that we ever decided to intervene, after a protracted and open public debate, on the right side and for the right reasons. This must, and still does, count for something.

Matt Zeitlin has a pretty good riposte:

As far as Hitchens sees it, it’s not our responsibility to look at the consequences of advocating for an invasion.  Instead, all that matters is that we intervened on the “right side for the right reasons.”  The problem with looking at a decision this way is that it discourages the exact type of analysis that everyone admits needed to happen before Iraq.  Namely, what would the consequences of the invasion be besides removing Hussein from power?


Questions of whether of Hussein’s Iraq was “a concentration camp” or whether we were on the “right side” necessarily bracket off the types of considerations that even Hitchens and Makiya think that we ought to have made.  Hitchens is also being incredibly glib when he says that we intervened after an “open and public debate.”  Last time I checked, when advocates for a policy are presenting skewed intelligence in support of their war, no debate will be “open and public.”

Being against the war from the start, I suppose I’m entitled to indulge in some rather petty triumphalism this time of year, but the truth is I would’ve probably lived a little easier if everything I’d said against the war had been proved wrong. It’s much easier to live with being a know-nothing fool than it is knowing your government was complicit in an atrociously mismanaged war.

But these handwringing rounds of ‘who was right/who was wrong?’ make me pretty nauseous. This ‘credibility olympics’ of pundits revising their past positions in order to remain relevant shows that for all the information they might have at their disposal, these people don’t really know much more than the rest of us about either the long or short-term consequences of something as violently unpredictable as war.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter who was right; what matters is what is left. Has the apparent progress made by the Americans under General Patraeus strengthened the case for continued military involvement? Or has the failure of the Iraqis to resolve their political differences and develop a fully-functioning government highlighted the limits of achieving stability through military means alone? How much longer should coalition forces stay there, and at what cost, and isn’t there a great strategic disadvantage to having the bulk of a country’s armed forces tied up in one country and unable to respond to threats from elsewhere?

Of course, I don’t have satisfactory answers to any of these questions. Nor, I suspect, do many of the self-proclaimed pundits who’ll try to answer them regardless

Words matter

March 6, 2008 at 9:43 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, Christopher Hitchens, U.S. Politics | 1 Comment
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Sen. Barack Obama, captured by Flickr user realjames016, used on a Creative Commons license 

From a post entitled ‘Words Matter’, I give you Christopher Hitchens:

It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts. Take “Yes We Can,” for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake.

Ouch. Worry not Hitch, I don’t think anyone’s ever pegged you as a hope-smoking hippy.

Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps 10 keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators. In the new jargon, certain intelligible ideas would become inexpressible. (How could one state, for example, the famous Burkean principle that many sorts of change ought to be regarded with skepticism?) In a rather poor trade-off for this veto on complexity, many views that are expressible (and “We the People Together Dream of and Hope for New Change in America” would be really quite a long sentence in the latest junk language) will, in turn, be entirely and indeed almost beautifully unintelligible.

And to think I always assumed he was a populist. It goes without saying that such insipid slogans probably aren’t intended for a man of Mr Hitchens’ studied sophistication, but at the same time I had assumed, perhaps naively, that a man of his sophistication would be able to look beyond the insipid slogans. Evidently not.

If he had taken the time to examine the content of these speeches rather than bristling at the collection of heavily-edited cable news segments he’s watched, Mr Hitchens would’ve found that for each easily-gained applause line, Obama has actually taken more risks with his rhetoric than any other candidate still standing in this election:

From a speech at the Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta the day before Martin Luther King Day:

For most of this country’s history, we in the African-American community have been at the receiving end of man’s inhumanity to man. And all of us understand intimately the insidious role that race still sometimes plays – on the job, in the schools, in our health care system, and in our criminal justice system.

And yet, if we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that none of our hands are entirely clean. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll acknowledge that our own community has not always been true to King’s vision of a beloved community.

We have scorned our gay brothers and sisters instead of embracing them. The scourge of anti-Semitism has, at times, revealed itself in our community. For too long, some of us have seen immigrants as competitors for jobs instead of companions in the fight for opportunity.

From a speech to the Detroit Economic Club:

We know that our oil addiction is jeopardizing our national security – that we fuel our energy needs by sending $800 million a day to countries that include some of the most despotic, volatile regimes in the world. We know that oil money funds everything from the madrassas that plant the seeds of terror in young minds to the Sunni insurgents that attack our troops in Iraq. It corrupts budding democracies, and gives dictators from Venezuela to Iran the power to freely defy and threaten the international community. It even presents a target for Osama bin Laden, who has told al Qaeda to, “focus your operations on oil, especially in Iraq and the Gulf area, since this will cause [the Americans] to die off on their own.”


Good ideas are crushed under the weight of typical Washington politics. Politicians are afraid to ask the oil and auto industries to do their part, and those industries hire armies of lobbyists to make sure it stays that way. Autoworkers, understandably fearful of losing jobs, and wise to the tendency of having to pay the price of management’s mistakes, join in the resistance to change. The rest of us whip ourselves into a frenzy whenever gas prices skyrocket or a crisis like Katrina takes oil off the market, but once the headlines recede, so does our motivation to act.

From a speech to NASDAQ in New York:

In recent years, we have seen a dangerous erosion of the rules and principles that have allowed our market to work and our economy to thrive. Instead of thinking about what’s good for America or what’s good for business, a mentality has crept into certain corners of Washington and the business world that says, “what’s good for me is good enough.”


In the business world, it’s a mentality that sees conflicts of interest as opportunities for profit. The quick kill is prized without regard to long-term consequences for the financial system and the economy. And while this may benefit the few who push the envelope as far as it will go, it’s doesn’t benefit America and it doesn’t benefit the market. Just because it makes money doesn’t mean it’s good for business.

It’s bad for business when boards allow their executives to set the price of their stock options to guarantee that they’ll get rich regardless of how they perform. It’s bad for the bottom line when CEOs receive massive severance packages after letting down shareholders, firing workers and dumping their pensions; or when they throw lavish birthday parties with company funds.

Admonishing anti-Semitism and homophobia before an audience of black Americans; spelling out the imperative of tackling global warming & energy dependence in a state dependent on car manufacturers; explaining to a room full of wealthy Wall Street executives why obsessive, destructive wealth accumulation has a negative effect on the rest of the country. When judged against the somewhat lowly, say-nothing standards of US electoral politics in recent years, Barack Obama has made statements that have both inspired and provoked.

It’s unclear in his article whether Hitchens is aware of any of these statements. If, like millions of ordinary Americans, his opinion of Obama is largely formed from media coverage, then it’s not a surprise that he came to this conclusion: the media’s maniacal horserace commentary cheapens the country’s conversation and obsesses over irrelevancies. That said, I’d like to think that a journalist would do a little research before mouthing off.

But as much as he might want to use the Senator’s wilful hope-mongering as a sign of the dilution of America’s discourse, you can’t simply cherry-pick trite slogans and soundbites and pass them off as the sum of Obama’s substance. At least not if you want to get taken seriously.

Yes Christopher, words matter. I think you’d be advised to read some.

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