Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Star, has an interesting op-ed today (“On Not Debating Christopher Hitchens”) about Hitchens’ visit to Beirut and the lecture he gave, entitled “Who are the Revolutionaries In Today’s Middle East?” In the article, Young sets his sights on a surprising target: the audience at the lecture, the majority of whom were students at the American University of Beirut. From Young’s perspective, Hitchens’ talk was a sad exercise in throwing pearls before swine, such was the ingratitude and boorishness of his interlocutors:
“You could distil his argument down to one sentence: The Arab world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and the US, alongside the true “Arab revolutionaries”, is responsible for this outcome. Instead of addressing that point, many in the audience resorted to the oldest of rhetorical subterfuges: When you don’t like an argument, change the subject; which only tended to show how we in the region seem incapable of engaging in constructive self-doubt about our own affairs.”
I was at the lecture, and while I might agree with Young about the lackluster quality of most of the questions, I think he does a disservice to the intelligence of most of the attendees when he accuses them of failing to lap up whatever slop Hitchens threw before them.
And slop it was, if we are being fair. Christopher Hitchens is a deeply learned man and one worth listening to on a great many subjects, but his performance at AUB that night was one that a younger version of himself would have brilliantly and mercilessly eviscerated. The subject matter at hand – the moral prerogative of interventionism, the role of the United States in overthrowing dictatorships and spreading democracy, the utter bankruptcy of the Arab nationalist project, the oppressiveness of various theocratic movements, etc. – are all worthy and serious themes for debate. And this is precisely why I was so disappointed to hear Hitchens make his case, because he did it so poorly and childishly. Rather than laying out a thoughtful and carefully-reasoned answer to the important question of what it means to be a revolutionary in today’s Middle East, he waxed on endlessly about Kurdistan, Walid Jumblatt, Kurdistan, head scarves, gas chambers, and Kurdistan. It was a flashy, overbearing, and jingoistic performance that really fooled no one. Except, surprisingly, Michael Young.
The problem with the lecture was not its thesis (“The Arab world is better off without Saddam Hussein, and the US… is responsible for this outcome”), but rather Hitchens’ unwillingness or inability to outline the corollaries and conclusions that derive from it. Should Middle Eastern revolutionaries pledge themselves to the cause of the United States even when it does not act “in the defense of universal liberal values”? What about in the vast majority of cases where it acts in direct opposition to those values? Does the acceptance of Saddam’s deposal validate the means by which it was achieved, and exonerate the mistakes made in the course of the war effort? These were not questions meant to evade Hitchens’ thesis; rather, they constituted one invitation after another (consistently rejected and evaded by the real master of rhetorical subterfuges in that room) to make his case for an America-centered theory of Middle Eastern revolution.
At one point in his article, Young argues that Hitchens is one of the few Western public intellectuals to confront the burning question that has faced the left in recent years, namely:
“If a tyrannical leader is abusing his own people, is it the duty of the left to confront him in all ways possible, including force, because that may be the only course open in defending human rights and human liberty, even if this requires depending on the United States for its success?”
A valid question, but a naïve one? After all, in how many cases can leftist revolutionaries depend on the United States to confront tyrannical and abusive leaders in our region? No one made this point more convincingly and thoughtfully than Rami Khoury, who argued that while many people would agree with Hitchens about the failure and oppressiveness of the existing state system, they cannot count on a muscular and principled stance against tyranny from the United States in the vast majority of cases. The entire hall erupted in applause when Rami made his point. Hitchens’ response? A sulking one-liner about moral equivalency.
Mr. Young, Christopher Hitchens did not come to Beirut to debate anyone. He came to make a spectacle of himself on the streets of Hamra and in the newspapers. There are many eloquent and sensible advocates of the United States out there; the Lebanon Renaissance Foundation shouldn’t confine itself to an opportunistic and glib ex-communist who “once wrote a book with Edward Said.”