The French journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy has been writing a series of pieces for The Atlantic Monthly about his travels around the United States last year.
His article for the October issue (available online to subscribers only, unfortunately) provides a remarkable picture of Christopher Hitchens which may surprise those who like to caricature him as a former radical who sold out to the rich and powerful.
To set the scene: In the autumn of 2004, Hitchens has invited Lévy to meet him in Pittsburgh, where Henry Kissinger is scheduled to give a lecture. As a counter-event, Hitchens is to speak at a local screening of the documentary “The Trials of Henry Kissinger,” based on his book of the similar name charging the former secretary of state with war crimes.
As soon as I get there I go to the Gypsy Café, a trendy bar in the South Side district where the enfant terrible of the intelligentsia and a crack team of fellow conspirators (someone from the Warhol museum, the editor of the alternative paper sponsoring Hitchens’s rival lecture, a producer of independent documentaries, a professor) are putting the last touches on what is turning out to be something of a guerrilla operation.
From there I go to Heinz Hall, where, in front of a room filled with burgundy-velvet armchairs that remind me more of a brothel in Maupassant than of a lecture hall, the secretary of state under Nixon and Ford utters, in his gruff, stentorian voice, a litany of self-satisfied platitudes (“the dust of China and India” … the necessity to “identify big problems and reduce them to little problems” … yes to the war, but a half-hearted yes, just for a short while, keeping in mind the perspective of “perpetual peace” that was “proclaimed by Immanuel Kant”).
Suddenly Hitchens arrives; he has evidently made a switch in tactics and, using another journalist’s pass, has been able without warning to get access to the inner lobby of the auditorium. The conspirator turned provocateur hurls abuse at the attendees near him (“Toads! You’re all toads who’ve come to listen to a toad …”) before getting himself thrown out by security guards who, noticing me with him, throw me out too and force me to erase from my camera, in front of them, the part of the lecture I have filmed.
So we walk arm in arm into the night, with obligatory stops at bars on Penn and Liberty Avenues, and with a meager escort of reporters thrilled by the incident and the excitement Hitchens is causing in their sleeping city: Death to toads! A kingdom of toads for a bottle of wine! On our way to the Harris Theater, where the film must be almost over, a signal that the discussion can begin …
This film is Kissinger’s nightmare, Hitchens says, delighted. Wherever that bastard goes, my film precedes or follows him. Wherever he talks, there’s someone there during the question-and-answer session who asks him about his war crimes in Chile, in Indochina, in Timor. Do you realize that because of my film he can’t travel anywhere freely? Do you know that in Paris a magistrate came looking for him, even to his suite at the Ritz? That son of a bitch … Leave that lowly toad to us … You’ll see … [Do I detect a similarity in Hitchens’s attitude toward Kissinger and his feelings about George Galloway?]
We’ve arrived at the theater.
It’s one of those independent art-house movie theaters, old-fashioned and militant, that still exist in some ordinary American towns. Black-and-white posters for Grand Illusion and Citizen Kane. Ads for the workshops, festivals, and retrospectives that the Pittsburgh Filmmakers are organizing here.
In front of the ticket office flyers saying “Kerry or Bush, it doesn’t matter, as long as we get out of Iraq”—which is, of course, the exact opposite of Hitchens’s stance.
And an audience in keeping with the place, made up of old leftists with salt-and-pepper ponytails, political tattoos on their forearms, pierced ears—and immediately I see that they’re in the uncomfortable position of having come to applaud a cult film (this Kissinger trial, this ultra-left charge against Richard Nixon’s secretary of state, is obviously all they care about) and also to express their incomprehension about what the film’s progenitor has become. How can he, without renouncing what he has said about Kissinger, agree on the Iraq question with Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rice, and the various others who in their eyes are the new embodiment of the same old American right?
I’m watching Hitchens on the stage, behind his lectern.
I observe him suddenly energized, fielding questions, battling, making fun of his opponents, pleading, insulting, explaining that yes, he is against Saddam just as he was against Pinochet, it’s the same fight that’s going on, the same antitotalitarianism being replayed; democratic revolution (as Clémençeau said about the French Revolution) “has to be taken as a whole”; jihad is just one more fascism. What a pity you didn’t understand; you are the left wing of a big party of toads …
The scene has its appeal.
It always takes a kind of courage to run the risk of disappointing or alienating your own followers; and in this case it takes courage to stand firm on both fronts—to stand in front of these 150 leftists for whom Hitchens used to be a hero, and who ask nothing more than to go on celebrating him as one, and tell them, “I am and I am not one of you. There is Hitchens No. 1, who is responsible for this film, and who, ten years later, wouldn’t take one word or shot away from it. But there is Hitchens No. 2, who continues the fight without you, by supporting the war in Iraq.”
So perhaps this is yet another way of differentiating the pro-regime-change Left from the rest of the the Left: We see no essential difference between Hitchens No. 1 and Hitchens No. 2.
(“The Trials of Henry Kissinger” is available on DVD and worth seeing.)