Memo from an Old Contrarian: Hitchens on Revolution, Islamism and More-Or-Less Benign Dictatorship

28 Jan

No one really knows what will come of ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and Palestine, &c.). A plethora of under-qualified voices are currently vying for interpretative hegemony, not to mention secure plottings of the various ‘implications’ for the US, global order and the very meaning of freedom in the 21st century. What will it mean for the Mammonites currently scrambling behind the curve? Will the language of ‘partnership’ and ‘reform’ contain the unrest?

It will surely not be long before someone frames the last days’ clashes in Alexandria as the eventual outcome of bombs over Baghdad. I have no particular interest in indulging such faux-talking-head insta-response. What did catch my attention was an especially contrary and confused statement from Christopher Hitchens, billed at Slate as an encouragement to juvenile Tunisia and then at The National Post as a qualified defence of ‘civilized dictatorship’.

Hitchens wants to both distance himself from a knee-jerk anti-Islamist crackdown (channelling Bellow, the repression of one is the repression of all) and to finger anti-government theocrats as the real enemy. On this account, things may not be perfect in Tunisia, but this is mainly because the government doesn’t yet “trust its citizens”, rather than because of any substantive issues of policy. After all, Tunisia is more secular than its neighbours and, better, its founding father had a healthy disrespect for the hijab and the dictates of Ramadanian abstinence.

Moreover, the Hitch opined, the trouble wouldn’t spread. Indeed:

Perhaps one reason the Tunisian crowds were able to mobilize so swiftly and to such immediate result—splitting the army leadership from the police in a matter of a few days—was simply that they knew they could. There was scant likelihood of the sort of all-out repression and bloodshed that was met by, say, the protesters against the Iranian mullahs. Thus, and sadly, it’s probably premature to say that the events in Tunis are harbingers of grass-roots movements in other states of the region.

Ah, yes! Revolt is a proof of substantive freedom! Here Hitchens seems to recapitulate a State Department line, where caution in the face of fast-moving events clearly gave way to a pre-emptive suffocating of the contaminated baby:

What happened in Tunisia strikes me as uniquely Tunisian. That the events that took place here over the past few weeks derive from particularly Tunisian grievances, from Tunisian circumstances by the Tunisian people.

More troublingly, the concern with squeezing revolt into the paucity of a secular-religious binary brings him uncomfortably close to professional douche-bag Daniel Pipes, who humbly advises the ladies and gentlemen of the foreign policy establishment that the right kind of bastards still have their uses:

As Washington sorts out options, I urge the administration to adopt two policies. First, renew the push for democratization initiated by George W. Bush in 2003, but this time with due caution, intelligence, and modesty, recognizing that his flawed implementation inadvertently facilitated the Islamists to acquire more power. Second, focus on Islamism as the civilized world’s greatest enemy and stand with our allies, including those in Tunisia, to fight this blight.

And so the question reverts to a test (for-or-against Islamo-fascism?), rather than to an account of the role of class, the actual dynamics of the different groups in revolt or (whisper it) the craven record of support for dictatorship ($1.3 billion annually in military assistance to Egypt at the last count). Perhaps even more damningly, a report of current events as actually involving serious struggles by politically-literature adults seems to professed universalists to be surplus to requirements. In all cases, what stands out is not only a primary concern for political order but also a near-satirical tempting of fate. Don’t worry: it’s not contagious.

Where does this analytical confidence come from? In Hitchens’ case, it appears entirely dependent on  anecdote, and on co-opting his relationship with Edward Said (*clump* goes the name-drop). Perhaps it would be churlish to expect more, given his current condition, but the scent of lazy political short-hand persists, still fighting the staid rhetorical battles of 2003 as the coordinates of political possibility shift beneath our feet.

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