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The Hitch from central casting

8 October 2009

In terror of boredom, Christopher Hitchens talked to a receptive audience at the Sydney Opera House, writes Brett Evans


José Ramírez/ensceptico

José Ramírez/ensceptico

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is the sort of intellectual who would rather have a fight than a feed (provided, of course, it didn’t endanger his pursuit of a drink). Over the years he’s taken on Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton. Lately, he’s turned his attention to God.

Last Saturday night at the Sydney Opera House, the British-born polemicist and literary critic commanded the stage of the Concert Hall and preached the good word of militant atheism to a capacity crowd. From my position in the nosebleed seats, he appeared as the “Hitch” from central casting. I couldn’t see if he was wearing his famous Kurdistan flag lapel badge, but all the other well-known Hitchian characteristics were in evidence. He was dishevelled (tick), pudgy (tick) and pugnacious (tick): a less handsome but much, much more intelligent version of Russell Crowe, in fact.

Speaking to the topic “Religion Poisons Everything” he promoted his bestselling book God Is Not Great with charm, erudition and some rather good jokes. (“What do you get if you cross a Jehovah’s Witness with a Unitarian? Someone who knocks on your door for no apparent reason.”) To the audible delight of the crowd he mocked the spavined idea of God and tore at the logical inconsistencies of organised religion.

In the course of the evening he also told the story of Fawziya Youssef, a twelve-year-old Yemeni girl who had recently bled to death while attempting to give birth to a stillborn baby. She had, Hitchens told us, been “legally married at the age of eleven to a man twice her age.” With real emotion he pointed out that attempts to reform the age of marriage in Yemen had been thwarted by Islamic political parties. It was a shocking example of how ancient stupidities can still wreak their havoc in an age of quantum mechanics and space travel.

Though not mentioned overtly during the course of the evening, the Hitchens diatribe against religion is the continuation of his personal War on Terror by other means. The former proud Trotskyist famously put his considerable intellectual powers at the service of the so-called War on Terror in the wake of 11 September 2001 – the attacks in which almost 3000 citizens of the world were murdered by Islamist fanatics. It was a clarifying moment for Hitchens; as he said not long after the attacks: “at last, a war of everything I loved against everything I hated.” In quick order Hitchens was throwing his weight behind the born-again Christian who occupied the White House and was supporting the Bush administration’s crusades in the Middle East.

I had never before heard the story of Fawziya Youssef’s unpardonable death, but as Hitchens told it to his Opera House audience I couldn’t help but remember the story of another little girl. It starts – in my mind at least – with the image of a box tumbling through the sky.

A few days before Hitchens’s Opera House speech the British Ministry of Defence had revealed that an unnamed six-year-old Afghan girl had died after an 18kg box of propaganda leaflets dropped by the RAF landed on top of her. Although the girl was killed on 27 June in the lead-up to the recent Afghan presidential elections, her death was not made public until 30 September, well after polling day – but perhaps that’s another story.

I am appalled by the fate of Fawziya Youssef, but as a citizen of Australia, I am connected to the death of the little Afghan girl; she died as a direct result of a war I am part of.

At this point in articles about Hitchens it is common for writers of the liberal left to denounce him for his support of the military adventures in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This won’t be the case here. True, the invasion of Iraq never made any sense. As the Australian expert on guerrilla war and State Department adviser David Kilcullen has put it, the invasion of Iraq was “an extremely serious strategic error.” Or to put it even more simply, it was a bloody stupid idea. But I have always considered the west’s war in Afghanistan to have been a just cause.

The doctrine of jus ad bellum states that war is permissible if it is defensive and intended to correct a suffered wrong – tracking down the perpetrators of September 11th and overthrowing the government that gave them their base of operations seemed to me justified. Unfortunately for the recently elected Barack Obama there is another equally important tenet of the just war theory: there must be some probability of success. In the next few weeks Obama must make a momentous decision – maybe the defining one of his presidency: he must change course in Afghanistan by either sending in more troops or substantially altering his strategy. The revelations this week by Peter Galbraith, a former United Nations official in Afghanistan, that the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s presidency relies upon a massive electoral fraud will only add to his woes.

If President Obama does fail to send in another 40,000 troops as his generals are asking, I fully expect Hitchens to burst into print declaring that Obama has gone soft on the war against terrorism, and regretting that he had ever voted for him last November.

Advocating more troops, a greater commitment, is now the easy option. The war in Afghanistan entered its ninth year on Thursday and it can’t go on much longer without a reasonable chance of success. Just ask the parents of the little Afghan girl who was killed – quite literally – by our attempts to spread democracy.

Hitchens obviously derives a great deal of pleasure from advocating on behalf of an unpopular position. His refusal to take shelter in the majority may even have a psychological basis. As he once said of himself: “Boredom creates a physical sensation of terror in me.”

At sixty Hitchens has reached the age at which his hero, Leon Trotsky, was murdered. Of how “man” would live under socialism, Trotsky once wrote: “[He] will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonious, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above these heights, new peaks will rise.”

It’s pretty much my favourite quote from the communist scriptures; it’s such a wonderfully wacky flight of fancy. You wait, once we get the ownership of the means of production sorted out this thing is really gonna take off.

It seems that even a man of Trotsky’s undoubted intellect was capable of risible hyperbole at times. Hitchens may have rejected the socialism of Trotsky, but he does seem to have kept at least one of the Old Man’s tendencies close to heart. •

A video recording of this event can be found at ABC Fora

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Coup leader Voreqe (“Frank”) Bainimarama, interim prime minister of Fiji, addresses the UN General Assembly last month. Devra Berkowitz/UN Photo

Coup leader Voreqe (“Frank”) Bainimarama, interim prime minister of Fiji, addresses the UN General Assembly last month. Devra Berkowitz/UN Photo