Christopher Hitchens And The Uses Of Demagoguery

by Edward S. Herman

September 23, 2002


In his latest phase as flack for the war party, Christopher Hitchens has taken on some of the qualities of his leader George W. Bush. A notable similarity is in his demagogic statement of the issues "we" face since 9/11--in W's words, an "evil" enemy who hates our freedom, so "you are either with us or against us" in this new and open-ended war of good versus evil. For Hitchens, we face a "demented" enemy (bin Laden) who has made "a sort of promise" to destroy the United States of America, so that "It involves no exaggeration to say that everything depends, and has depended, on proving bin Laden wrong." Thus we now have a "direct confrontation, unmistakable confrontation between everything I loved and everything I hated. On one side the ethics of the multicultural, the secular, and the cosmopolitan...On the other, the arid monochrome of dull and vicious theocratic fascism." Further, "Only a complete moral idiot can believe for an instant that we are fighting against the wretched of the earth. We are fighting...against the scum of the earth." (Hitchens, "It's a Good Time for War Proving Osama bin Laden Wrong is the Right Thing To Do. And When We Remember That Victory is Certain, We Can Stop Scaring Ourselves to death," Boston Globe, Sept. 8, 2002).

One trick employed by both demagogues is the Manichean use of "they" and "we," with "they" being bin Laden and al Qaeda and theocratic fascists, and "we" the enlightened multiculturalists. Understandably, Hitchens is reluctant to name the leading multiculturalists in his new army, such as Bush II, John Ashcroft, Richard and Lynne Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, William Bennett, Joseph Lieberman and a host of others, assisted multinationally by Ariel Sharon, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharaff, Islam Karimov, John Howard, Tony Blair and the lot. The victims of "our" war include vast numbers of Palestinians, Afghans, Iraqis, and other people who may be "scum of the earth" for Hitchens and his allies, but perhaps not for genuine "cosmopolitans" (I return to this later).

A related trick of Bush, Hitchens & Co. is to pretend that the aim of the war is simply to destroy bin Laden, al Qaeda, terrorism, and "theocratic fascism." On this point Bush and his associates are more honest than Hitchens, as they admit to larger aims such as "regime change" in Iraq, which has nothing to do with bin Laden and theocratic fascism, and the preemptive removal of threats of "weapons of mass destruction" anywhere on the globe, except where those weapons are actually known to exist (in the hands of the United States, Israel, Russia, China, Britain, France, India and Pakistan).

It is laughable to see Hitchens pretend that the Bush administration--the decision-making arm of "we"--has no agenda beyond "proving Osama bin Laden wrong." No revenge motive in attacking Afghanistan; no taking advantage of 9/11 and the ensuing (and continuously cultivated) patriotic orgy to project power and advance oil industry interests abroad, and to pursue a regressive business and Christian right agenda at home. There is no suggestion by Hitchens that the pro-Israel lobby within the administration might use 9/11 to help Sharon's theocratic state accelerate its ethnic cleansing and repression.

Hitchens doesn't even mention the prospective war of aggression against Iraq that now preoccupies the "we" leadership. Nothing in Hitchens' Globe piece suggests that there are any larger interests that drive the foreign policy of the United States. "We" operate outside of history and without influence of any power structure dynamic to pursue ethical ends and prove Osama wrong!

Hitchens repeatedly makes the point that bin Laden can't possibly win, so that we can "stop scaring ourselves to death." He never stops to ask why "we" ARE scaring ourselves to death. He notes that "people do not make their best decisions when they are afraid," but is it possible that scaring people allows the leadership to make the decisions IT sees as best? Could it be that the "we" decision- makers find this a useful way to engineer consent? Since "we" are an ethical multicultural unit, all in this together, this is outside the orbit of Hitchens' discourse. He also fails to discuss just how powerful bin Laden and al Qaeda really are and what challenge they actually pose. Estimates of al Qaeda's size run from 200 to several thousand individuals, not quite as well armed as the United States, and therefore a challenge worthy of national mobilization only by the efforts of a magnificent propaganda system. Hitchens does not discuss how a National Missile Defense and huge increase in the military budget across the board helps in this great battle against bin Laden, or what the Bush budget tells us about his real agenda.

Hitchens' new role of war flack is perhaps most clearly revealed in his use of sources. Early in the Afghan war he said that the Pentagon was "almost pedantically" careful about civilian casualties, a conclusion based solely on Pentagon claims to that effect (The Nation, Dec. 17, 2001). Now he says "Many of the points made by the antiwar movement have been consciously assimilated by the Pentagon and its lawyers and advisers. Precision weaponry is good in itself, but its ability to discriminate is improving and will continue to improve. Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect."

Once again, the claim about conscious assimilation by the Pentagon is based on Pentagon say-so, and is therefore a direct transmission of propaganda issued by an interested party. The contrast with Hitchens' treatment of non-Pentagon sources is dramatic. He mentions an "untrustworthy figure of 3,000, which is compiled by suspect pacifist sources and takes no account of the refusal of the other side to identify itself." Here he raises the question of "trust" and suggests that pacifists might overstate figures based on their political beliefs. But he expresses not the slightest doubt about Pentagon claims of a new sensitivity, nor is there any recognition that the Pentagon might have a public relations interest in understating civilian deaths. He also fails to mention the Pentagon's admission that it has not collected data on civilian casualties, as well as its efforts to prevent others from collecting them (see Edward Herman, "'Tragic Errors' in U.S. Military Policy," Z Magazine, Sept. 2002).

In his Globe article, Hitchens becomes confused at one point, when he criticizes our leaders' failure to distinguish between enemies and friends. He goes on to say "And why should our elite, which has got everything wrong in Iran from the Shah to Oliver North's hostage-trading, be trusted just because this is an emergency?" Has he forgotten that we are all in this together fighting bin Laden and that Pentagon assertions about its bombing policies should be trusted? Is the Pentagon not run by the elite?

This strange portrayal of an elite that might not be part of "we" and that can make serious mistakes is followed immediately by his discussion of Palestine. Properly so, as he grudgingly admits that in this instance Bush and the top decision-making elite has performed imperfectly. His language is classic: "In case I should be accused of avoiding the question of Palestine, I should simply say that George W. Bush was right in making it plain to the Palestinians that suicide bombing, at this time or any other, would be suicidal for them. But this does not dissolve [sic] America's longstanding promise to sponsor mutual recognition between equal populations--a promise that has been unkept for far too long and is now made more urgent rather than less."

We may note that he fails to mention, let alone condemn, Bush's blank check to Sharon to invade the West Bank, destroy much of the Palestinian infrastructure, and beggar the Palestinian people. Hitchens does not tie this Bush policy in with the "war on terrorism," for good reason--the policy implemented here demonstrates that Bush's war is a war OF state-based terrorism and is not directed solely or mainly at al Qaeda. There is also that little problem of Hitchens' claim that "our" war is one of good and ethical folk against the "scum of the earth"--here Ariel Sharon and company, with massive U.S. aid, against the long-abused Palestinian victims of the occupation. Notice also Hitchens' reference to America's longstanding "promise" of equal treatment, now more urgent--slippery in light of Bush's quite open siding with Israel and support for the destruction of Palestine, and also dishonest in claiming a promise never made and the failure to acknowledge explicitly the durable U.S.-Israel alliance at the expense of Palestinian freedom and self-determination.

Getting back to the Afghan war, Hitchens tells us that there was no "precipitate reprisal," but only a "very well calibrated international action." As it was not immediately clear who was behind 9/11, and a major assault on Afghanistan could not be carried out on the following day, the absence of a quick violent response was not a result of patience and reasonableness. Furthermore, the eventual response was an "international action" only in a Hitchensian sense, as it was carried out in violation of the UN Charter, and by ferocious U.S. bombing, aid to the murderous warlord factions hostile to the Taliban, and bullying and bribing of allies and useful neighbors of Afghanistan. It was another coward's war, once again using high tech weaponry lavishly to keep U.S. casualties at or near zero, while going after the enemy in a manner that would cause massive civilian casualties.

It is difficult to avoid calling Hitchens a liar and apologist for anti-civilian warfare in his analysis of U.S. warmaking in Afghanistan (as in 1999 in Kosovo; see Edward Herman and David Peterson, "Letter to the Editors of The Nation on Christopher Hitchens' Minority Report on 'Body Count in Kosovo,'" June 11, 2001 [unpublished, but available at http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2001-06/19herman.htm]). As noted, Hitchens takes the Pentagon's word that they have changed course, and are "pedantically" careful to avoid civilians. He has obviously never looked at Marc Herold's massive documentation showing that the Pentagon has targeted hundreds of inhabited towns using anti-civilian weapons, with thousands of casualties. (In addition to "Dossier on Civilian Victims of U.S. Aerial Bombing of Afghanistan," http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.html, see his "U.S. Bombing and Afghan Civilian Deaths: The Official Neglect of 'Unworthy' Bodies," International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Sept. 2002). He ignores repeated stories in the British press by reporters in Afghanistan who visited bombed villages and call Pentagon claims that civilian casualties "didn't happen" lies. He doesn't mention the Pentagon's willingness to bomb civilian sites based on unverified information from untrustworthy sources. He ignores the fact that, as The New York Times finally acknowledged after one of their reporters looked closely at the evidence from 11 bombed villages, that "many civilians were killed by airstrikes hitting precisely the target they were aimed at...because in eagerness to kill Qaeda and Taliban fighters, Americans did not carefully differentiate between civilian and military targets" (Dexter Filkins," Flaws in U.S. Air War Left Hundreds of Civilians Dead, The New York Times, July 21. 2002).

Although Hitchens mentions the "refusal of the other side to identify itself" as a possible source of inflation of civilian casualties, he never addresses the plentiful evidence that the Pentagon has tried very hard to keep civilian casualties out of sight. Nor does he mention their repeated lying and cover-ups when forced to defend civilian killings. On some occasions when unable to deny killing civilians, Pentagon officials have defended this on the ground that the civilians were possibly Taliban supporters: regarding the wedding party massacre at Kakarak, Pentagon spokesman General Gregory Newbold said that "This is an area of enormous sympathy for the Taliban and al Qaeda" (see my "Tragic Errors" for further quotes along the same line)--which suggests that their concern for civilians may be non-existent in enemy territory.

If the Pentagon is willing to bomb hundreds of inhabited villages where al Qaeda MIGHT be hiding, and if they are especially unconcerned with civilian casualties in territory sympathetic to the enemy, and if the probability of civilian deaths in these raids is extremely high, this is a deliberate and acceptable killing of civilians. Hitchens' claim that only the "contemptible" enemy "deals in death without discrimination" comes from a combination of self-imposed ignorance and simple apologetics.

Hitchens finds precision weaponry "good in itself," independently of the use to which the weapons are put. Cluster bombs are "not good in themselves," but "have a heartening effect...when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops." This from a man who loves to IMAGINE how enemy forces "gloat," their "wolfish smiles" and "with what delight they must have ramped up the speed of their plane..." It is the hypothetical slaughter of enemy troops, not civilians, that heartens Hitchens, and the Pentagon assures him of their care for civilians. But Hitchens fails to acknowledge that in the real world cluster bombs were frequently dropped on civilian sites that MIGHT house an al Qaeda fighter, and that they are widely scattered and threaten civilians who might pick up unexploded canisters. He also does not mention the heavy use of depleted uranium munitions, a form of "dirty bomb" warfare posing long-term threats to Afghan civilians.

Hitchens sneers at the "pacifists'" estimate of 3,000 deaths from bombs, as well as at the earlier claim of possible mass starvation based on the effects of the bombing war. But the 3,000 figure was only the low end of verifiable numbers killed directly by bombs and missiles, and didn't take into account the much larger number injured and traumatized, and the additional minimum 20,000 refugees who died of hunger, disease and cold in refugee camps. These are surely low estimates because "we" don't collect data on such a subject, so that we will never know these totals, but Hitchens knows that they were lower than pacifists claim (see Jonathan Steele, "Forgotten Victims. The Full Human Cost of U.S. Air Strikes Will Never Be Known, but Many More Died Than Those Directly Killed by Bombs," The Guardian, May 20, 2002; Herold, "'Unworthy' Bodies").

Hitchens says that Afghanistan "is the first country in history to be bombed out of the stone age." He fails to mention that the United States played a major role in getting Afghanistan into the "stone age" in the first place, and strongly supported the Taliban's accession to power in 1996. In an earlier article Hitchens did note this prior involvement, but magically transformed it into our "responsibility"--to bomb now! We may have messed up badly way back then, and abandoned the Afghans to stone age rule, but the new "we" will put things right, by bombing.

Hitchens' lauding of the consequences of the bombing campaign is outrageous nonsense. The bombing war killed, injured and traumatized scores of thousands; caused the withholding of food aid from a starving population for months, and was a major factor in the destruction of most of the winter crop; created a vast number of internal and external refugees; polluted the countryside with cluster bombs and depleted uranium; and destroyed a very large number of urban and rural homes, bridges, mosques, electric power and water supply facilities, communications systems, and roads. The Bush administration has already opted out of allocating significant resources to rebuild what it destroyed, but that doesn't worry Hitchens. Furthermore, Bush has put in power a different regressive top leadership drawn from the war lords of the Northern Alliance, with local and regional war lords still dominant throughout Afghanistan, so that "stone age" politics still prevails and the drug trade has taken on new life.


Christopher Hitchens is a real asset to the war party, because he is a facile writer and covers over by vigorous assertion and imagery his new reactionary politics and the feeble intellectual defenses he musters for it. His value is enhanced by the fact that he is a "straddler," that is, a man in transition from an earlier left politics to apologetics for imperial wars, but with a foot still in The Nation's door and a harsh critic of Kissinger and Pinochet. He is therefore presentable as a member of the "rational left" or left that has "seen the light." Such folks are much honored by the mainstream media.

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Edward S. Herman is a Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a contributor to Z Magazine since its founding in 1988 and to ZNet. Herman is the author of numerous books, including a number of corporate and media studies. These include Corporate Control, Corporate Power (1981), the two-volume Political Economy of Human Rights (1979) and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988), both of which he co-authored with Noam Chomsky, as well as The "Terrorism" Industry: The Experts and Institutions That Shape Our View of Terror (1989), which he co-authored with Gerry O'Sullivan. Herman occasionally contributes a column to Swans.

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Published September 23, 2002
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