Hitchens, the “kitsch-left”, and the cult of the individual

I was somewhat taken aback when I saw that James Bloodworth had joined the brigades calling for a ‘statue’ to the late journalist Christopher Hitchens to be erected in London’s Red Lion Square.

Taking to the pages of the Independent, he proclaimed: “Hitchens represents a break only with those parts of the left that after 9/11 didn’t feel in any sense obliged to take responsibility or make any difficult decisions, mainly because they’d given up on ever attaining power and therefore thinking about how power might be used as a force for good in the world.”

Let’s read those last words again. “How power might be used as a force for good in the world.” Wasn’t that just about everyone’s basis for opposing the invasion of Iraq? There have been multiple tragedies of Western foreign policy since 2003 and before. But the greatest is surely the notion that the USA has seemed unable to partake in international relations without some gain for military tactics and capital.

Indeed, those of us on the left who have opposed the occupation of Iraq wouldn’t find it hard to think up an example of where power has been used as a force for good. The oil wealth of Venezuela, for instance, has been invested in social projects not only for that country, but across Latin America. The last time the US was struck by a deadly hurricane, it was Venezuela who offered to step up support efforts where Bush had failed.

But don’t listen to me, I’ve given up on thinking about how power might be used as a force for good in the world.

The debate around the proposed Hitchens statue has been raging for some weeks in the local press in Camden, the London borough that is home to Red Lion Square.

The Camden New Journal revealed that Holborn councillor Awale Olad had written in an email to the proposers of the bust:

I would resign before I’d ever support the bust of a pro-war Islamophobe.

Bloodworth tells us that Olad is “kitsch-left” for saying this. We must dismiss this nonsense about opposing the commemoration of supporters of George W. Bush. It’s so fashionable, after all, and most people just opposed Dubya for the sake of it.

No, let’s face it, the only way one can stand out in today’s media is by talking about why “the left” is wrong to believe something that logic would say was left-wing. We must instead share in Hitchens’s “world of pain” at supporting the slaughter of hundreds of thousands. The important thing is that we recognise “intervention on the side of the aggressor and against the victim”, and don’t call for “the prolongation of one of the world’s worst dictatorships”.

Recognise any of these phrases? It wouldn’t surprise me if you did, for I can’t guarantee they weren’t used by the likes of Hitchens, David Aaronovitch and Nick Cohen, who gushed over the every aircraft carrier deployed by Bush and Blair. That is, while telling us that they were the unique, genuine voices of “the left”. If that ain’t kitsch, then Hitch ain’t Hitch.

There’s one sensible bit of Bloodworth’s article:

Ultimately, and in spite of this lengthy throat clearing, I would like to suggest that any decision as to whether or not it is correct to put up a statue to Christopher Hitchens should be based solely on whether or not this is an appropriate way to honour England’s greatest essayist since George Orwell.

Well in spite of my own lengthy throat-spluttering at the use of the term “kitsch-left”, no it isn’t.

It’s debatable whether the prose of Hitchens stands up to Orwell, or even that of his own brother Peter, who files right-wing columns for the Mail in decent-enough English. But let’s say we’re talking about the appropriate way to honour England’s greatest essayist since Orwell, whoever that might be.

As far as I’m aware, there’s no statue of George Orwell, a giant compared to a midget like Hitchens. And this is no bad thing. His prose can stand up for itself. You don’t need a Big Brother style personality cult of Orwell complete with towering inflated figurines. You can just read a sentence of Such, Such Were The Joys or Shooting an Elephant and feel the beauty of blunt prose shattering your knuckles.

Writers live on in their work, which in the modern day tend to survive if they’re any good. It’s bad enough that we’re obsessed with the biographical detail of living writers; so spare us a personality cult of the dead ones.