Rosenbaum, Hitchens and the Left

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

no idea.

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

the Dread.

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

levels, that

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.

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4 Responses to Rosenbaum, Hitchens and the Left

  1. Stefan Geens says:

    Rosenbaum does not believe that the left thinks McCarthy is worse than Stalin. He believes that the left thinks Ashcroft is a greater menace than Bin Laden, and this happens to be the precise sentiment that led Hitchens to quit The Nation; he says so in the last paragraph of his piece–go look it up. Can it be that in your estimation, when Rosenbaum says this, he is being tone deaf, but when Hitchens posits the same view almost verbatim, he’s “far more intelligent and nuanced?”

    And Rosenbaum’s whole article is about making the point you only grant Hitchens: Just as Hitchens clarifies that there were those on the left who “exposed and opposed” Stalin, Rosenbaum find his own leftist hero who is capable of making a stand against Bin Laden. Namely: Christopher Hitchens. (And, admittedly, himself.)

    Your other critique of Rosenbaum seems rather slight (or perhaps you were flailing?): Have you ever seen hyperlinks to past news articles in a newspaper, no less a pink one?

  2. Felix says:

    You’re wrong, Stefan, Rosenbaum does believe the Left thinks McCarthy was worse than Stalin. See him in his own high-sarcasm mode (his emphases kept in):

    As if it was maybe just an accident that Marxist-Leninist regimes turned totalitarian and genocidal. No connection there. The judgment that McCarthyism was the chief crime of the Cold War era doesnÌt need a bit of a rethink, even when put up against the mass murder of dissidents by Marxist states.

    Believing that McCarthy was worse than Stalin is ridiculous, and no one does. Believing that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden, however, is perfectly justifiable (even if it’s wrong). John Ashcroft has torn up the Constitution of the United States; Osama bin Laden is a defeated man who might not even be alive and who has no base any longer to launch attacks against anyone. As a non-US citizen in New York, I can be arrested, denied an attorney, tried in secret, and sentenced to death without appeal. I can also be the victim of a terrorist attack. The only question is which is more likely: and about that, reasonable Leftists can disagree.

    As for the hyperlinks, yes, I’ve seen hyperlinks to past stories on newspapers’ websites. Even on pink newspapers’ websites.

  3. Martin Gorda says:

    If you can get past the stylistic narcissism of his essays (the written equivalent of someone who likes to hear themselves talk), Ron Rosenbaum has little to offer his readers.

    He writes as though you are already party to his views, as though the simple act of Ron Rosenbaum trashing Gore Vidal or Pete Seeger, or extolling Chris Hitchens is enough. We don’t need facts or reasoned arguments, just read a passage where Ron gives it to some whacko lefty.

    And what about all those lefty whackos? I mean how can they possibly entertain ideas that are so far beyond the mainstream that even Ron Rosenbaum cannot countenance them. Oswald didn’t kill JFK? Get outta here! You’re joking right?

    On the plus side, writers of Rosenbaum’s caliber will only ever “preach to the choir.” Rosenbaum is a literary Rush Limbaugh. Theirs is a style of polemic that compels neither thought nor reflection. Mind pap for the mindless wishing to remain that way.

    I’ve read my last Rosenbaum piece. Life is too short to waste on bad logic and self-enamored writers.

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