About a month ago, Christopher Hitchens, one of the great English-language essayists of our time, passed away. In the time since that unfortunate loss, a flood of obituaries has honored the man. According to the standard accounts, Hitchens was a writer, a rascal, and advocate possessing a remarkable talent for provoking and alienating others – even when he was right.
Hitchens had the unique opportunity (and responsibility) of providing people with a glimpse of the world. Writing for a spate of widely read publications, he tackled everything from “Why Women Aren’t Funny” to “The Case for Humanitarian Intervention,” controversially urging the latter before and during the American war in Iraq.
And his prose – erudite, elegant, and evocative – was remarkable. Simply put, the man could write.
Even so, Hitchens had two glaring weaknesses. First, like many intelligent people, Hitchens was too confident in his opinions. As a consequence, he was susceptible to cloaking ideological presumptions in the garb of observational commentary – a common charge, but true nonetheless. Second, though this may have been inevitable given the breadth and pace of his work, Hitchens was often wrong about the facts. So while he was a powerful observer, Hitchens could get in his own way.
Take the lesson of Lebanon, where Hitchens traveled in 2009.
Sponsored by a Lebanese pro-democracy foundation, Hitchens visited the tumultuous country to give a talk at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Like many others who’ve set foot in Lebanon, Hitchens took a beating (figuratively and literally).
AUB is one of the more prestigious universities in the Middle East, with a rich intellectual history including on-campus crises surrounding a late-19th century debate on Darwinism and a mid-20th century controversy over Arab nationalism and Westernization in Lebanon. In short, despite its dysfunctional administration, AUB has been a hotbed for debate and activism since its inception in 1866.
Perhaps unawares, Hitchens expected a friendly reception on campus, with the polite and deferential questions one might hear at a policy event in Washington, DC. The crowd roughed him up; he roughed himself up, really. Most disastrously, while fielding questions after his talk, Hitchens identified Walid Jumblatt as one of the Middle East’s “true revolutionaries.” Of course, as Hitchens knew perfectly well, Jumblatt was and is the neo-feudal leader of the Druze community and head of a centuries-old political household in the Levant.
Hitchens would later suffer worse at the hands of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), a bunch of garden-variety thugs masquerading as members of a sophisticated political movement. Walking down Hamra, a bustling street that once was one of the more cosmopolitan places in the Arab world, Hitchens spotted one of the many SSNP flags and signs that have hung over the area, protected by embedded party partisans, since 2008.
As Hitchens details in “The Swastika and the Cedar,” the zubaiyaa – the SSNP insignia that resembles a spinning swastika, but which party intellectuals claim invokes the cross and crescent of Lebanon’s spiritual families – offended his sensibilities. He began defacing the sign, barely getting through the “C of a well-known epithet” before SSNP youths assaulted him and nearly dragged him away for questioning in broad daylight.
On the details, Hitchens deserved every beating he took. He was profoundly mistaken in equating Jumblatt, a survivalist par excellence, with the Lebanese activists at the heart of the Cedar Revolution or with revolutionaries that have emerged during the Arab Spring. And it was foolish and arrogant – just plain stupid – to deface an SSNP sign in a neighborhood dominated by its thugs.
At a deeper level, however, people’s response to Hitchens matters more. At AUB, Hitchens took an academic beating in a public forum where he had agreed to air his views and defend his convictions. In his writing, he practically admitted that he was fair game. In Hamra, by contrast, members of a political party (or gang) almost beat him to a pulp on a public street – a main thoroughfare, in truth – which they regard as their private playground.
The Hamra incident was symptomatic of a problem that Hitchens recognized, though he expressed it poorly. Despite lacking an intimate knowledge of the Levant, or perhaps because he was not burdened with such baggage, Hitchens saw clearly that “those [in Lebanon] who inconvenience Syria by their criticisms are bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view.”
Not much has changed since he wrote those words – not yet, at least. In fact, the scope of dissent and countervailing violence has only broadened.
At home, where nearly a year of dissent has not swayed the entrenched elite, and in Lebanon, which the Assad regime still regards as a runaway coastal province, a Levantine clique of cabals fights thoughts with bullets, confronts words with bombs, and rewards dissent with death. Most troublingly, sandwiched between corrupt regimes and dynamic Islamists, ostensible Arab liberals – including Lebanon’s March 14 coalition – are increasingly compelled to accept the logic of violence.
Though he was often wrong and though he deployed an alienating sort of polemical fury, Hitchens died in his bed of illness, perhaps a product of his own excesses. He did not, thus, die at the hands of those he disagreed with.
It was a spectacular life and a quiet death. The converse awaits Lebanese and other regional public figures, as they live in fearful silence and self-censorship or die from violent acts engendered by disagreement. Until intellectuals, activists, and politicians are willing and able to live or die on their own terms, the Middle East – especially the perpetually unstable Levant – will not see a better tomorrow.