Lind on Hitchens and “public intellectuals” in America

Michael Lind wonders about all of the praise lavished on the late Christopher Hitchens:

But though he played one on TV, Hitchens was not an intellectual, if the word has any meaning anymore. Those known by the somewhat awkward term “public intellectuals” can be based in the professoriate, the nonprofit sector, or journalism. They can even be politicians, like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But genuine intellectuals, as distinct from mere commentators or TV talking heads, need to meet two tests.

First, intellectuals need to produce some substantial works of scholarship, literature or rigorous reporting, distinct from the public affairs commentary for which they may be best known to a broad public. If you do nothing but review other people’s work or write brief columns or blog posts, it is easy to appear to be much smarter and erudite than you really are.

Second, genuine intellectuals base their interventions in public debate on the basis of some coherent view of the world. A dedication to rigorous and systematic reasoning, wherever it may lead, is what distinguishes intellectuals from lobbyists or partisan spin doctors who change their views according to the demands of a special interest or a party. It also distinguishes them from mere “contrarians” — the term Hitchens used to describe himself — who attract publicity by taking controversial stands according to their whims.

Hitchens left behind no substantial scholarly or literary work, and if he had any core principles or values they are hard to discern. He denounced the Gulf War and backed the Iraq War; he supported Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz while continuing to insist that Henry Kissinger was a war criminal.

If he was not really an intellectual, then what was Christopher Hitchens? A decade ago, a British diplomat told me that he was astonished at the reputation Hitchens had attained in the U.S.: “In Britain we think of him as a gossip columnist.”

It’s funny:  I’ve been reading various memorials to the man published over the past few weeks, and even those from his admirers also reveal the slapdash, drunken, and very unserious manner by which he  pursued the “life of the mind.”  (For example, see this very odd and I think unflattering remembrance by David Corn.)  Most feminists have never had any use for Hitchens, whose one “coherent view of the world” was simply male supremacy in all things, but in arts, letters, and comedy in particular.  Me, I dispensed with him years ago on this blog when I reviewed his utterly comical psychologizing of Michelle Obama on the basis of her senior college thesis. 

I’ve been dismayed (but unsurprised) to see lefty-types embrace Hitchens for his aggressive atheism, forgetting his stupendous lack of judgment (or perhaps his tremendous cynicism) in going all in for the nonexistent WMDs and the war in Iraq a decade ago.  But, as many people besides Lind have noted before, none of those numb-nuts pseudomacho armchair warriors has paid a price–in fact, they were most of them richly rewarded.  But, whatever.  I’m sorry Hitchens died a painful death, but I am glad that Lind has pointed out the obvious: 

[Hitchens] had more in common with Walter Winchell than with Walter Lippmann. A gossip columnist of genius, Hitchens escaped from the ghetto of little-known leftist writers when he discovered that he could become a celebrity by denouncing bigger celebrities. That strategy for self-promotion, in my opinion, explains his over-the-top attacks on Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Bill Clinton (Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga were spared the Hitchens treatment). When Princess Di and Mother Teresa died within a week of each other in 1997, I remarked to a friend, “I wonder what celebrity Hitchens will make a career out of denouncing now?” We soon found out: Bill Clinton and the biggest celebrity of all, God.

(I have another theory which might help explain Hitchens’ success in the U.S.:  Americans are still suckers for plummy English accents, and we don’t care if they were acquired at university.  People with those accents get taken seriously in the U.S. for saying things which, if said in a rather flat Kansan dialect or a Texas twang, wouldn’t seem all that smart or insightful.  I’m kind of amazed that this is true of American academics, who like to think of themselves as cosmopolitans, but I’ve seen American academics give something said in an English accent credit for being at least 30% more intelligent than something said in an ordinary American accent.) 

Michael Lind’s column is much funnier and more condemnatory of Hitchens than these brief excerpts suggest, so go read the whole thing.

26 thoughts on “Lind on Hitchens and “public intellectuals” in America

  1. Oh, so true about the English accent, but the really funny thing is that many Americans are impressed by *any* English accent, plummy or not.

    I’d peg Hitchens as someone who continued to write Oxbridge essays, and managed to get paid for it. The Oxbridge style in his time was developed by having one week to write an essay on a subject; the best students learn to write glittering short pieces, often making as outrageous an argument as possible. He’d write on any subject with a small bit of boning up, and always managed one or two references that made him look knowledgeable. He knew a lot about some things, and a little about many things, but wrote with equal certainty on both. He was a journalist (and not always a good one) rather than an intellectual.


  2. In 1988 Hitchens co-edited a book with Edward Said with the title Blaming the Victims which was a pretty good collection of articles on Palestine. Other than that I can not think of anything he did that was terribly impressive.


  3. I can think of one numbnuts, psuedo-macho, armchair warrior who did pay a price for his bellicose cheerleading-Michael Kelly- who died while reporting and looking for WMDs in Iraq.
    I guess I could add Barbara Olsen who perished on 9/11 in the plane attacking the Pentagon.
    As with Hitchens, I was sorry they died and was glad they were gone.


  4. Although I can’t forgive his misogyny and cheering for the Iraq war, Hitchens was admirable in a few respects. Most admirable to me: his prolific output. Sure, he had a ton of supports (including the plummy accent among many unearned perks of his), most of which no female writer could ever receive. But still. Second-most: his courage while suffering through an excruciating hideous disease. Third-most: his case against Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, who wreaked a lot of harm. Naysayers carp that Hitch didn’t do any primary research to write it, but “The Missionary Position” was IMO a great work of fact-gathering synthesis.


  5. I kind of ignored the guy and the conversation about him over the years. There are just so many attention-paying cerebral cells that you get and I pretty much hoard mine. Academics often make the most Anglophiliac-trending types that there are out there, though. I’ve seen it, and probably at times even *been* it. I think the word “plummy” to describe that accent is itself somewhat of a doubled britanic insert into the American dialogue-space. In any event, it makes my skin crawl more than the accent itself I think. The latter is more “pear-shaped” from what I can figure.


  6. I didn’t have a better adjective for the sound that came out of Hitch’s mouth, Indyanna. I’ll stick with it. Agree that anglophilia is quite the blight in my country’s academy.


  7. “Second-most: his courage while suffering through an excruciating hideous disease.”

    Yes. His Vanity Fair cancer essays are quite remarkable. Thoughtful and funny and poignant, and interesting for their refusal to play the role of the cancer “warrior” or “survivor.” It took real courage, and a very strong will (which is perhaps just another name for stubbornness, perhaps), to continue to crank it out to deadline, and to a very high standard of essay-writing, imo, while losing his hair and suffering from chemo-induced fatigue and nausea. Let’s give credit where credit is due.

    He was wrong about Iraq, and arrogantly so; he was insufferably arrogant. Also misogynist, yes, and part of that awful Martin Amis crowd, ugh.

    But: he was also a very good writer, and a skilled polemicist, and it’s no use pretending he was not (and no, I’m no sucker for a British accent: please.). I liked to read him even I disagreed with him (which was increasingly often, after his post-911 neo-con turn), because he at least always brought a little something to the table: a fleeting thought, the germ of an idea, an interesting quote, a provocative turn of phrase — something worth objecting to, at any rate.

    Was he an academic? No, of course he was not. He did not do original research; and he did not lay claim to a specialized area of deep expertise. Also, he was all about that macho war-time war-torn region thing: I’m here reporting from the front line, and I almost just got my head chopped off while you lot, lazy and dumb and effeminate, were lounging about in your centrally-heated living rooms watching it all on your big-screen plasma TVs, but a Bedouin elder [or someone like that] invited me into his tent to drink tea, and then I offered him a shot of my contraband whisky, because we manly men who are journalists on the front line, that’s how we roll and we’re all about keeping it real. So anyway, yeah, that could get tiresome, a little bit paint-by-numbers (Hemingway-like, or something like that) predictable.

    But it seems a bit silly to assert that he was not a ‘public intellectual,’ when he clearly served as an intellectual for some not insignificant portion of the reading public. Unless we want to say that nobody can claim to be an “intellectual” who is not a scholar and an academic, which seems a bit too restrictive to me.

    I thought he was an asshole, basically. But I also thought (and still think) that he was a gifted, if often wrong and unfair, essayist. And I’m so turned off by the impulse to take him down a few notches before his body has even turned cold in its grave, that I now find myself sort of defending Hitchens, almost despite myself, so.


  8. But: he was also a very good writer, and a skilled polemicist, and it’s no use pretending he was not (and no, I’m no sucker for a British accent: please

    So what?
    Josef Goebbels had quite a way with words, too.
    Talent in the service of evil is an evil unto itself.


  9. “But it seems a bit silly to assert that he was not a ‘public intellectual,’ when he clearly served as an intellectual for some not insignificant portion of the reading public.

    I think that’s precisely Lind’s point: what does it mean to be an “intellectual” if Christopher Hitchens played one for so many Americans? Lind doesn’t say that all public intellectuals should be academics first–I think he’s just saying that one needs to do real and substantial research on something rather than write (in Susan’s terms) clever-clever 750-2,500 word Oxbridge esssays or book reviews.

    Hitchens didn’t have intellectual values. He apparently thought (for example) that reading Michelle Obama’s senior college thesis was sufficient insight into the adult woman. It never occured to him to pick up the phone to ask for an interview, or to track down people she worked with to interview them? No, because that would take actual time and thought, and he was interested in doing a quick hit-piece on her, and interviewing Obama and people who know her would doubtlessly have complicated the simplistic, strange story about black nationalism he wanted to tell.

    I would say that he had bottom-barrel blogger values before blogs existed, but I think that would be unfair to most of the bloggers I read and link to.


  10. Hitchens was an enthusiastic, unfailing cheerleader for the Iraq invasion/occupation even when it became clear that the WMDs were a figment of Curveball’s imagination.
    Who knows what the final body count of that immoral war of choice, fuled by powerlust and greed, will be?


  11. I’ve followed this discussion with increasing skepticism over the past few days, especially regarding the differing definitions of “public intellectual.” While I completely agree that Hitchens personally argued for some highly questionable positions, what I’m most skeptical about is the way that this discussion has represented the role of the public intellectual: I’m particularly leery of the idea that an intellectual must somehow produce new knowledge, rather than simply commenting on it (like Christopher Hitchens and other members of the commentariat do). The imperative to produce knowledge is the imperative of an academic or a professor, and I think should not be imposing our professional academic standards on the broader categorical definition of an “intellectual,” (public or otherwise), which seems to me to be a label generous enough to encompass many kinds of intellectual engagement, whether they be academic, journalistic, artistic, etc.

    I guess what I’m saying here (like Mary Catherine above), is that I’m a little suspicious of the attempt to withold the label of “public intellectual” from someone, such as Hitchens, who wrote books, essays, spoke in debates, and generally successfully engaged readers on the issues of the day, simply because he did not conform to our academic standards regarding the production of knowledge.


  12. I don’t think there’s anything necessarily academic about expecting people to be competent and knowlegeable about something. As Lind suggests, journalists are also candidates for the category of “public intellectual,” but they have to do some real research and reporting.

    Here are people I would put in the category of public intellectual who have no connection whatsoever to graduate school or the academy, as far as I know: Frances FitzGerald, Joan Didion, Laurie Garrett, Chris Hedges, and hell–even Hunter S. Thompson, in his day. (This is just a handful of people at the top of my mind now–I’m sure I could list 20 given more time to think.) All of these folks have written book after book based on solid reporting and serious reflection. Opinions will vary about the quality of Hitchens’s work–maybe some of you like it, I don’t know. But I thought Lind’s point that being a public intellectual requires more than peddling gossip and writing “contrarian” hit pieces on contemporary celebrities was a worthy one.

    What did Hitchens stand for, aside from heavy drinking, gossiping, and (in the end) atheism? Call me a snob, if you like, but that’s not really a coherent intellectual agenda.


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  14. The problem is that he did more than write gossip and play the contrarian. He wrote excellent book reviews in The Atlantic. His essays in Grand Street during its heyday were marvelous. And there were pieces in other publications over the years. He wrote a lot, but people tend to fixate on Vanity Fair and, perhaps, Slate.


  15. I clearly have a broader definition of “public intellectual” than that put forth by Lind (and here endorsed by Historiann), but even with my looser and less rigorous criteria, I guess I’d have to draw the line against an equation of Hitchens with Goebbels as an intellectually serious intervention in public discourse. C’mon, Sweet Sue, really? It’s like you’ve never heard of Godwin’s law…

    Historiann, I agree with you that Hitchens on Michelle Obama was a lazy hit-piece, and a despicable piece of work at best. Certainly, his neo-con turn brought out the worst in him. Or, perhaps, allowed his former ‘allies’, now ‘enemies,’ to see what had been wrong with his approach all along (he loved to have ‘enemies,’ did Hitchens, and he was almost never fair to them). But back when he was a regular columnist for the Nation, pre-911 and etc., many an American liberal/lefty was more than happy to forgive him his rhetorical excesses, and to count Hitch amongst their ranks, and we never heard as how he wasn’t ‘really’ an intellectual.

    What I mean is: why not say that Hitchens was a public intellectual who could be a real asshole sometimes, and who sometimes got it all really wrong? What is gained by saying, ‘Well, he wasn’t *really* a public intellectual at all, of course, since he got X, Y or Z really wrong?’ That just makes it sound as though a certain stance toward X, Y, or Z is a litmus test for ‘intellectualism,’ really, which the public may not stand for, you know, and the next thing you know: you’ve got Rush Limbaugh as ‘public intellectual,’ which is ten times worse than Hitchens, surely.

    I don’t think it’s true that he had no intellectual values, btw. I think he was anti-totalitarian all the way, to the best of his lights and his abilities (which sometimes failed to meet his somewhat exalted notions of his own self, admittedly). That anti-totalitarian streak underpinned his atheism (and it’s not nothing to stand for atheism in contemporary America, I think), and also his post-911 neo-con turn (he made the mistake of thinking that a loose coalition of non-state actors should and could be equated with a modern nation-state: that was the substance of his ‘Islamo-fascism’ = Nazism error, and it was pretty serious mistake, I believe, and a major violation of Godwin’s law).

    But his public debates over the existence of God are enough to place him in the category of ‘public intellectual,’ so far as I am concerned. Do I believe that an academic philosopher in the pro-existence of God camp, such as Alasdair Macintyre, say, would have been quaking in his boots at the thought of debating Hitch? No, not really, not at all; but I’m pretty sure that’s not really the point. And I’m struck by how many Christians against whom Hitchens directed his ire and his snark have only good things to say about him (though not about ideas, naturally enough). ‘We think he was wrong [and we pray for the eternal repose of his soul, and etc.], but he talked to us, we had something of a rapport, he argued with us only because he took us seriously.’

    Also, dude died of cancer, and suffered greatly for about a year before his untimely death, and it’s unseemly, imho, to do any sort of “gotcha” for three or four months afterwards at the very least. Myself, I’d want to think that his soul was safely at rest, just a matter of common decency…


  16. You make a good case for Hitchens as a public intellectual. I don’t buy it, but it’s a good case.

    This blog is irreverent with respect to death. (Historians are generally speaking irreverent about death, otherwise it would be difficult to write anything honest about any dead person, and that’s usually who we write about.) The death of a writer makes it timely to write about him, and blogs are usually driven by current events and other commentary in the news.


  17. Mary Catherine, I agree with almost all you have written here on this subject. Thanks. Not that it should matter to your own sensibilities and standards (or my own, for that matter) but I do not think Christopher would have expected anyone to pull punches in their criticisms of him after his death.


  18. “This blog is irreverent with respect to death…”

    Fair enough, and when you put it that way, my point about a decent lapse of time now strikes me as wrong. As a public figure (whether or not a public intellectual, on which point we differ), Hitchens is certainly fair game for criticism. And I certainly don’t recommend you start writing reverent encomiums to the recently departed (which I doubt you have any inclination to do…).


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