Tuesday, December 21, 2004

hippies and the hitchens brand

all you need is guns

Christopher Hitchens™ applies his patented brand of booze 'n' BS to "hippies" in the December 19 New York Times Book Review. Let's see: "Hippies" thought they could transform a nation that didn't share their world view - without planning, organization, or clarity of purpose. And they thought they'd be welcomed with flowers. Then they ... hey, wait a minute! Is this a gag? Substitute "neocons" for "hippies" and we could be talking about the Iraq war. Replace grass with alcohol and we're describing "Hitch" himself. It's all part of the Hitchens™ branding scheme - phony 'contrarianism,' the 'two-fisted drinker' persona, and a wannabe theater of the outrageous directed against liberal orthodoxy.

"The marketing of the 60's has come to necessitate the blending of quite discrepant images," Hitchens writes in his typically bloviated style. He should know. He's been able to market a colorful but unreliable prose style and a combative personality into a very successful career. The contradictions and tortured logic of his opinions only seem incoherent when viewed through the lens of political thought. Don't bother. The point is not to be right, or fair, or even consistent. It's all about branding: the book jacket poses surrounded by empty glasses and full ashtrays, the unruly look, the pugnacious attitude. It's about being different, unique, memorable - and "the blending of quite discrepant images." Pay attention, pundits manqué.

Hitchens appeared on the Daily Show recently (as one of several recent guests who threaten Jon Stewart's status as the new lefty icon.) The Daily Show doesn't provide transcripts, but when Stewart asked him about his takedowns of Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi, his response was something to the effect of "People don't pay attention when you attack people they already hate, like Tom DeLay. Attack their heroes, and people sit up." At that moment I sat up. When a marketing master deigns to share his secrets, I listen. Holding his paper cup carefully so that it would be in the camera shot, Hitch was telling us how it's done.

On one level, you can't blame the guy. His anti-Clinton rants were so successful, and brought him so much attention as a Left apostate, that it must have fueled an already addictive personality. He has a certain talent for the slashing put-down and vicious innuendo. That's a skill not unlike playing the musical saw: It's impressive that someone's bothered to master it, but all it produces is grating music. Yet there's an audience for it, especially when the saw maestro presents himself as the rebel that's going to save you from all those violin-playing phonies in that boring community orchestra.

The only problem is we're not talking about bad music, but bad ethics. When Hitchens lies to support a wrongheaded policy, he contributes in his small way to people getting hurt. When he lies about decent people, whether to defend his positions or to increase his market visibility, he damages real reputations. Clinton's just the most egregious example, and he can take it. How about conservative J. P. Zmirak, who Hitchens labeled a "ruthless anti-Semite." Why? Zmirak listed the names of several prominent neoconservatives, with whom he disagrees about Iraq, in an article. The basis for Hitchens' potentially career-ending charge? The names were (according to Hitchens) ethnically Jewish, hence Zmirak is anti-Semitic.

Hitchens' writing history is filled with this kind of intellectual dishonesty - and isn't "intellectual dishonesty" just a longer way to say dishonesty? His willingness to spread misinformation about people and policies is wrong when viewed through a moral lens, but again - don't bother. It's all about the branding. Outrageous! Shocking! Critics agree: you'll never forget Hitch! It's Ann Coulter with a veneer of intellectuality and a tattered shred of ex-leftist credibility. Smearing a minor figure like Zmirak is not the behavior of a pathological liar. It's the act of a sociopathic liar, who has no feeling for the reputations he might damage or destroy in the process of self-advancement.

Hitchens ostentatiously places himself at Abbie Hoffman's funeral, lined up with fellow speakers like Bobby Seale and Allen Ginsberg - speakers "whose names," in Hitchens' words, "collectively spelled 'sixties.'" (Note to Hitch: If you want to be seen as an iconoclast, don't write in clichés.) Abbie was a marketing genius - Antonin Artaud meets Saul Alinksy - and Hitchens has tried to adopt some of his shock'n'awe style. But Abbie Hoffman had both a moral code and a higher purpose, whether you agreed with them or not. (I did.) Hitchens appears to have none, other than to propagate his brand at any cost.

Hitchens refers to "the herbivorous - in both senses - Woodstock." Hmm ... "herbivorous" rings a bell. Oh, yes. In his hatchet job on Michael Moore, Hitchens referred to the left's "image and self-image as something rather too solemn, mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous, and boring." Please get this man a new thesaurus (and an invitation to some better parties.)

There is a vague and tortured line of reasoning through the "Hippie" piece, that somehow leads through the Port Huron Statement to the anti-globalization movement, about which Hitchens writes: " the ... movement has started to reject modernity altogether, to set its sights on laboratories and on the idea of the division of labor, and to adopt symbols from Fallujah as the emblems of its resistance." Really? No citations, no quotes, no footnotes. And who leads the "movement," anyway? If you support the anti-globalization movement, you're probably out beheading someone as we speak. This is demagogic writing at its - in both senses - worst. Any reader who lets a Hitchens allegation like this one pass unquestioned hasn't been paying attention. We want documentation, Mr. Hitchens. Your credibility is no longer enough.

Hitchens writes of the inherent conservatism of the Port Huron Statement, and its "yearning for a lost agrarian simplicity." Uh-oh, "herbivores" again. The possibility that the writers were using metaphors and models appears alien to him. "Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty," say the Statement's authors, perhaps unaware that concepts like "fraternity" and "honesty" would seem like relics of the distant agrarian past to a sophisticated urbanite like Hitchens.

And so the brand plays on, dispensing its toxic but memorable product while conspicuously displaying the logo: the carefully disheveled hair, the paper cup, and the aroma of stale cigarettes. Like so many branding campaigns, in the end it's all sizzle and no steak.