Christopher Hitchens has a new book
out, on George Orwell. Orwell is one of those figures who tends to mean
whatever you want him to mean: he’s been adopted by political partisans
(and, indeed, non-partisans) from across the spectrum, each one of whom
finds his views perfectly encapsulated in Orwell’s body of work.
The irony, judging by the latest column
from the puffed-up Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer, is that Hitchens
himself is starting to be treated in exactly the same way – and
while he’s still alive, no less!
Stefan Geens seems to admire this piece to the point of saying
that he regrets not having had a subscription to the New York Observer.
Huh? Putting the merits or otherwise of Rosenbaum to one side, the Observer
is basically an Upper East Side gossip sheet filled with dinosaurs like
Hilton Kramer and pointless Democrats like Joe Conason. It’s read mainly
for its real-estate column, and its hilarious pieces on the difference
between Chapin and Spence. Why Geens thinks he’ll be "slowly easing"
into this piece of vanity publishing over the next few years I have
But of all the reasons to subscribe to the New York Observer, Ron Rosenbaum’s
political commentary has to be the worst. He might have interesting
insights on the puzzles of Pale
Fire, but his views on leftism in America seem little more than
a warmed-over rehash of Martin Amis’s ramblings in Koba
At the risk of sounding like Rosenbaum myself, I wrote
about the Amis book on September 8, but I didn’t go into too much detail
about the Amis v Hitchens feud: I reckoned Hitchens was more than capable
of defending himself. The difference between Rosenbaum and myself, however,
is that I provide a helpful link when I refer to my past entries, while
Rosenbaum doesn’t. His solipsism ("I think I made that clear in
a column published here on Jan. 28"; "See my Nov. 6, 2000,
column") serves no purpose: after all, no one saves their back
issues of the New York Observer, and no one is going to trek down to
the New York Public Library in attempt to follow the references.
Rosenbaum’s actually worse than Amis, at least when he gets on to the
subject of the Left’s response to September 11 – a subject on which
he rightly admires Hitchens. For while Amis picks his fights with an
articulate, named individual (Hitchens), Rosenbaum flails unimpressively
against an inchoate neo-Marxism which he sees all around him but can
never seem to cite.
Look at the "two idiocies" he tries to fight back against
in his column. The first is a relatively benign paragraph at the end
of a film review, saying that Tom Hanks in Road to Perdition
is "an American everyman, a pure-hearted killer who will commit
no end of mayhem to ensure a better life for his children." From
this, Rosenbaum deduces, after ratcheting up the sarcasm to embarrassing
Because they [Al Qaeda] hate America, they must be for liberation,
and so we can’t blame them; we must accuse ourselves of
being killers. In fact, we should thank them for providing
our witty writer with an occasion for reminding the world that the
"American everyman" is a killer. (Rosenberg’s emphases.)
This response is so wildly disproportionate to its provocation, and
bears so little relation to what was actually being said, that one worries
for whatever critical faculties Rosenbaum ever had. But it’s actually
typical of his rhetoric. Rosenbaum’s second "idiocy" –
the "idiocy di tutti idiocies", in his words –
was a nameless college professor saying that 9/11 might prompt Americans
to do what the Germans did in the 1960s, and critically examine their
Before 9/11, of course, even Rosenbaum would have agreed with the statement
that Americans ought to critically examine their past more than they
do. Now, however, saying such a thing demonstrates no less than an "inability
to distinguish America’s sporadic blundering depradations from
Germany’s past, Hitlerism".
One more example: a Slate Breakfast Table discussion
with David Gates on the anniversary of the attacks. Gates draws a parallel
between the Taliban and John Ashcroft’s obsession with "the flag
stuff, the United We Stand stuff, the under-God stuff, the rituals of
American civil religion, the encroachments of that old-time religion."
Quoting Susan Sontag, he then points out that both of them oppose "pluralism,
secularism, the equality of the sexes, dancing (all kinds), skimpy clothing
and, well, fun".
It’s easy to disagree with this. But it’s easier to simply drown the
point being made, and that’s what Rosenbaum does in response, this time
couched in a bit more politesse, since it’s a friend he’s talking to:
What comes across—and again I could be wrong—is that we
are just about the worst thing in the world. No diff between Ashcroft
and the Taliban.
But are you saying the Bush administration or America is morally equivalent
to the Taliban? Do you see any significant differences?
What kind of tone-deafness is this? Is it not possible, any more, to
make the point that the things we hate about the Taliban are actually
the same things that we hate about the present Administration? Or, at
least, is it not possible to say that without having to be boringly
explicit about the fact that yes, actually, given the choice, we’d rather
be where we are than in an Islamo-fascist theocracy?
The thing which annoys me is that Rosenbaum, in the Observer column,
is explicitly aligning himself with Hitchens, who’s far more intelligent
and nuanced, and who actually is the recipient, in Koba the Dread,
of the same sort of argument that Rosenbaum then goes on to gloss in
the last part of his piece.
For Rosenbaum, making much the same mistake as Amis, says that "the
Left [has] failed to come to terms with its history of indifference
to (at best) and support for (at worst) genocidal Marxist regimes abroad".
He slams "the contemporary Left’s curious neutrality-slash-denial
after the facts had come out about Marxist genocides—in Russia,
in China, in Cambodia, after 20 million, 50 million, who knows how many
millions had been slaughtered." The contemporary Left, he says,
has a "blind spot" when it comes to Marxist genocides, and
claims that America "is the worst force on the planet".
Here, Rosenbaum stops citing anybody at all, and given his demonstrated
knack for hyperbole, we can hardly take it that this characterisation
of the Left is in any way accurate. But even if it were, he should have
read his beloved Hitchens a bit better: here’s an excerpt from his reponse
to Amis in the Guardian.
You demand that people – you prefer the term "intellectuals"
– give an account of their attitude to the Stalin terror. Irritatingly
phrased though your demand may be, I say without any reservation that
you are absolutely right to make it. A huge number of liberals and
conservatives and social democrats, as well as communists, made a
shabby pact with "Koba", or succumbed to the fascinations
of his power. Winston Churchill told Stalin’s ambassador to London,
before the war, that he had quite warmed to the old bastard after
the Moscow Trials, which had at least put down the cosmopolitan revolutionaries
who Churchill most hated. TS Eliot returned the manuscript of Animal
Farm to George Orwell, well knowing that his refusal might condemn
it to non-publication, because he objected to its "Trotskyite"
tone. (You can read all about this illuminating episode in my little
book on Orwell.) I think we can say fairly that the names of Churchill
and Eliot are still highly regarded in conservative political and
cultural circles. You have a certain reputation for handling irony
and paradox. How could you miss an opportunity like this, and sound
off like a Telegraph editorialist instead, hugging the shore and staying
with the script?
However, while all of those and many other dirty compromises were
being made, the Bulletin of the Left Opposition was publishing exactly
the details, of famine and murder and deportation and misery, that
now shock you so much. I evidently wasted my breath in telling you
this, but there exists a historical tradition of Marxist writers –
Victor Serge, CLR James, Boris Souvarine and others – who exposed
and opposed Stalin while never ceasing to fight against empire and
fascism and exploitation. If the moral and historical audit is to
be properly drawn up, then I would unhesitatingly propose the members
of this derided, defeated diaspora, whose closest British analogue
and ally was Orwell, as the ones who come best out of the several
hells of the last century. A pity that you felt them beneath your
It is, surely, undeniable that the strongest criticism of Marxist genocide
came from the Left, and that the Right has often made very strange bedfellows
itself: note Hitchens’ point that "Moscow directly ordered the
French Communist party to help put down the rebellion against De Gaulle,
and Brezhnev both sought and received Lyndon Johnson’s advance assurance
that a Red Army invasion of Prague would be considered an ‘internal
Of course, there were misguided Stalinist apologists in the West. I
defy, however, Rosenbaum to find any leftist who still believes, as
he seems to think they all do, that McCarthy was worse than Stalin.
If this is the man who’s saying goodbye to the Left with such vitriol,
then I’m sure the Left, in turn, will say good riddance to him. And
no, Stefan, this is not what Hitchens is saying, not by a long shot.
I’m with Hitchens on the subject of whether America "deserved"
9/11. But I’m a long, long way from Rosenbaum.