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A Marxist who saw the truth after 9/11 woke him up to 'Islamofascism'.

CHRISTOPHER Hitchens belongs to the old English tradition of pamphleteers and rabble- rousers going back to Gerrard Winstanley and Daniel Defoe. He is a polemicist par excellence, with the superb ability to marshal a variety of facts in support of his argument of the day, and successfully leave out the inconvenient ones. In this memoir he describes how early in life in school he discovered how "words could function as weapons". Words are what he is best at as journalist, essayist, lecturer, author and TV talking head. He has trashed Henry Kissinger, the Clintons, Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and, recently, Prince Charles. Not surprisingly, his column written for the electronic magazine Slate is titled 'Fighting Words'. As author of 11 books, four pamphlets and four collections of essays, in addition to his columns that appear regularly in Slate, The Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, Hitchens is the master of words and a contrarian. His most recent bestseller, before the book under review which has also been on the bestseller list since it was released in June 2010, was God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything in 2007.

Hitchens is the product of typical English petit bourgeois parents who sought upward mobility for their children by putting them in public schools. Oxford was the obvious next step, which came naturally for Hitchens, and it is there that he discovered his metier. His intellectual journey has led him from being a Trotskyite to becoming a supporter of the Bush administration's war on Iraq. Hitchens is known for his famous friendships, his prodigious ability to hold down liquor and his chain smoking. The photo on the paperback edition's cover shows Hitchens, cigarette in his mouth, wreathed in smoke. Sadly, just as this book was released, he was discovered to have esophageal cancer and is now under treatment. This is not your typical memoir. Though you learn a great deal about Hitchens' mother who hid her Jewish background and committed suicide along with her lover in Athens, and his Navy Commander father who had fought in World War II, you know next to nothing about his two marriages and three children, or for that matter, about his brother Peter, who is a distinguished journalist in his own right. In defence of this, in an interview elsewhere, Hitchens has pointed out that this is a "memoir", not an "autobiography".

In a sense, this is a collection of memories of people and events that have marked his life. Some of his chapter headings -- 'Yvonne' (his mother); 'The Fenton Factor' (about James Fenton, the poet to whom the book is dedicated); 'Martin' (as in Martin Amis, the famous UK novelist); 'Salman' (outlining his relationship with Salman Rushdie) -- bring this out. There are other famous names scattered all over the book -- writers like Ian McEwan, Gore Vidal, Edward Said and Susan Sontag, Bush administration officials such as Paul Wolfowitz and Michael Chertoff. By his own reckoning, 9/11 was his life's turning point when his inner doubts and conflicts were resolved in a flash of understanding of the way the world played out. He realised the target of the attackers was not just the centre of capitalism but of western civilisation itself. Even though he had started out as a Marxist, Hitchens is very much a self-conscious heir of the British-American democratic tradition. His books on Don Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, and his critiques of Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger, bring this out sharply as do the turns in his own life.

It is probably more accurate to trace his estrangement with the Left from Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie, which many Left-leaning intellectuals in the West refused to condemn unambiguously. Hitchens has seen his role as writer and polemicist as one that upholds the freedom of expression. It is for this reason he saw the 9/11 terror strikes as attacks by people who were purveying "fascism with an Islamic face," which was combined to form the neologism, Islamofascism. He was among the earlier writers who noted in his essay, 'On the Frontier of Apocaplypse', that it was Pakistan and not Afghanistan that was the real problem. That's what sets Hitchens apart from the Left in the West -- from people like Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, who persisted in trying to balance 9/11 with the alleged atrocities of the West against the Arab world in the past.

For most of his friends in the Left, though, the bigger surprise was Hitchens' support to the Bush administration's war on Iraq. He did not discover Iraq because of the Bush focus. His first visits to Iraq as journalist took place even before Saddam Hussein had replaced Ahmad Hassan Abu Bakr as the country's president. Visits in the years thereafter brought home the sheer evil of Saddam's regime. Because the Americans messed up the handling of the country after defeating Saddam, there is no reason to understate the enormous achievement the freedom of Iraq from Saddam's yoke has been.

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Jul 18, 2010
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