by Christopher Hitchens
122 pp hb Verso London 1999
The disappearance of politics in today’s world reflects the disappearance of resistance to rational hedonism. “Give ’em what they want” has become the grand principle of what passes for public life. To put it formally, only a few crazies now dispute that the final goal of public life is a rational system for maximizing individual satisfactions as much and equally as possible.
In the absence of politics disputes that once were political take on a purely technical form. How can prosperity be promoted, diffused and secured? How can noneconomic considerations—ethnic and religious ties and so on—be rendered irrelevant? Any substantive issues, for example the conflict between maximizing satisfactions and equalizing them, get turned into just another technical matter, with the “right” arguing that reducing taxes and regulation increases production and helps the poor and the “left” claiming the same for egalitarian initiatives.
Technocracy rules, at least in theory. The problem is that men can not be technocrats. Political life that has nothing to inspire devotion soon becomes an arena not for maximizing utility but for the manipulative or brutal pursuit of self-interest. The vision of equal freedom and prosperity that legitimated the post-War order has therefore died as a serious goal and become a symbolic prop for a system the essential nihilism of which becomes increasingly obvious.
No One Left to Lie To is a slice of that nihilism as seen by Christopher Hitchens, an Englishman who writes for Vanity Fair and who, like many others, relies on the old dreams of the Left to give moral justification to the life of a self-indulgent climber.
Whatever his flaws, Mr Hitchens is obstinate. He insists that his dreams have some influence, if not on his life, then at least on his political alignments. Recent years have seen liberals abandon all principle to save liberalism, in the person of Bill Clinton, from the supposed threat of Greedy Right-Wing Theocrats. Hitchens refuses to save liberalism by destroying it; in something as central to his sense of self as progressive politics he insists on purity, or at least substance. He is therefore furious about the Clinton Administration’s routine betrayal of the left, in which the latter gets symbolism while its opponents secure more solid rewards for cooperation.
That procedure is called “triangulation.” Hitchens portrays it as a reactionary concoction of words for the masses and pie for the classes, but his view is that of a left-wing sectarian. Political life based on self-interest and manipulation tends to concentrate wealth and power, but that does not make it “conservative” unless one defines conservatism, as Hitchens does, as mere selfishness. Using the energy of core supporters who have nowhere else to go, and giving them symbolism while those in a position to demand it get substance, is an old maneuver for “rightist” as well as “leftist” politicians. Richard Nixon, betrayer of Taiwan, architect of detente and affirmative action, proposer of the guaranteed annual income, was another master practitioner.
Like other anti-Clinton writers, Hitchens has a wealth of material to draw on. He adds little to what is known from other sources, although it was diverting to learn that Dick Morris is a cousin of both left- liberal cartoonist Jules Feiffer and homosexual McCarthyite Roy Cohn. His examples of Clinton’s betrayal of the left are not always persuasive. He uses “racism” as a universal club to beat those he dislikes, but it is misplaced to base a charge of racism on betrayal of blacks by a man who betrays everyone. The book would also be more impressive if Hitchens’ facts inspired confidence. He is too self- involved to care about such things, and his specific assertions are often dubious. One, an apparently ungrounded story of a shake-down of an Indian tribe by a Democratic consultant, has led to a libel suit that halted distribution of this book.
On some events, usually those for which he names sources, Hitchens becomes quite persuasive, and it is illuminating to read an unfriendly left-wing perspective on Clinton. The most disgusting action he recounts was Clinton’s return to Arkansas in the midst of his New Hampshire primary campaign so he could show his opposition to crime by presiding over the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, a convicted murderer who had become mentally incompetent as a result of shooting himself in the head when arrested. Perhaps more disturbing as a grand public matter, although not something to which Hitchens’ perspective adds much, was the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, which Hitchens’ detailed account makes incomprehensible except as a ploy to distract attention from the Lewinsky affair. Other examples involve welfare policy and the like, although those who see fundamental problems with the bureaucratic welfare state will have doubts about the story Mr Hitchens tells.
Triangulation can spring from either lack of principle or a feeling that there may be something to an opposing position that after all enjoys broad and strong support. To Mr Hitchens, a political bigot, the latter possibility is inconceivable, and it is in fact far less plausible with respect to the Clinton than (for example) the Nixon administration. Part of the difference has to do with personal qualities. Clinton is radically defective, morally and intellectually, in a way previous presidents were not. He is a man of impulse whose quick intelligence can’t turn itself to anything beyond short-term personal gain; hence Hitchens’ correct emphasis on the unity of the public and private man. Nixon, in contrast, could act on a reasoned conception of the public good; he declined to contest the 1960 presidential election, although he believed on good grounds that John Kennedy had stolen it, and however one might criticize his foreign policy it was based on serious thought rather than focus groups.
More importantly, the world has become less friendly to principled conduct since Nixon’s day. In recent decades coherent public thought has become more difficult to sustain. Pop culture and multiculturalism have made the public less a body capable of coherent action and more a chaotic mass of impulse and sensation. The techniques of manipulation—polling, focus groups, “spin” and so on—have advanced to meet the opportunities offered. One result has been the political career of Bill Clinton, a man of personal magnetism and tactical genius but no integrity, whose associates, as Hitchens observes, “act like cult members while they are still under the spell, and talk like ex-cult members as soon as they have broken away.” Clinton’s ties to Hollywood are based on common skill in momentary illusion, and he has earned the hatred of conservatives less by specific policies than by his manipulation and corruption of everything he touches.
The inner collapse of the left has left it little but ambition and partisanship to feed on. What drives it is less hope than fear and hatred of right-wingers. Although touched by the decadence of the left, Mr Hitchens maintains some degree of independence and hopes for something better. His dealings with Clinton supporters show the difficulties of an attempt to rise above the partisanship of a left that now consists of little else. In the past Hitchens has taken positions at odds with those usual on the left, for example on abortion, while remaining a leftist in good standing. Opposition to Clinton has put him in a wholly different situation. His revelation that White House adviser Sidney Blumenthal, a former friend, had tried to use him as a conduit for a story depicting Monica Lewinsky as a mentally unstable “stalker” was ferociously condemned on the left as a gross personal betrayal for the benefit of demonic right-wing persecutors. The attacks have gone so far as to accuse Hitchens, who has Jewish ancestry, of the ultimate sin of Holocaust revisionism.
Hitchens, a morally mixed man, seems a model of honesty in contrast to his attackers. His case draws attention to the way the left-liberalism now intellectually dominant has joined greed and manipulation to promote the power of rationalized economic institutions, such as world markets and multinational bureaucracies, through the abolition of every alternate authority, including personal integrity. At some point some of those who are part of the process decide they can’t stand it any more and drop out. It is to Mr Hitchens’ credit that he has done so in this instance. One hopes that having stepped down from the bus he will stay off it and go on to further discoveries as to the nature of political life today.