Notes & Comments March 1999
A louse and a flea
On Christopher Hitchens
Asked who was worse, Voltaire or Rousseau, Dr. Johnson is said to have replied: Sir, it is not for me to apportion the degree of iniquity between a louse and a flea. In addition to prompting the melancholy reflections outlined above, the impeachment proceedings frequently reminded us of Johnsons remark. The spectacle emanating from Washington presented many unpalatable choices. Perhaps the most unpalatablethough paradoxically also among the most satisfyingconcerned the clash between the left-wing British journalist Christopher Hitchens and his (now former) friend, the left-wing Clinton factotum Sidney Blumenthal.
Like many on the far Left, Mr. Hitchens loathes Bill Clinton with a passion most Republicans can only admire from afar. Nevertheless, he had long been friends with Mr. Blumenthal, who bears the faintly Orwellian title of senior White House communications aide. Mr. Blumenthal had long been rumored to have been a source of disparaging innuendo about well, about many people, including the characterization of Monica Lewinsky as a stalker. Mr. Blumenthal denied under oath to a grand jury that he had leaked such rumors to journalists. His lawyer, with what now seems to have been misplaced bravado, publicly released journalists from confidentiality and challenged them to contradict Mr. Blumenthal. After receiving a call from a counsel for the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Hitchens and his wife obliged: both swore out affidavits asserting that during a lunch in March 1998 Mr. Blumenthal several times described Ms. Lewinsky as a stalker and President Clinton as her victim. Another journalist, Scott Armstrong, later swore out a third affidavit stating that Mr. Hitchens had told him about Mr. Blumenthals alleged remarks shortly after the lunch took place.
If perjury were something that officials in the Clinton White House, like other Americans, could be held liable for, Mr. Blumenthal might well be investigated by the Justice Department. Frankly, we very much doubt that this will happen. But Mr. Hitchenss decision to turn on his old friend has sparked a general outcry against him among journalists, most of whom embrace the ethic of E. M. Forster who famously declared that he would rather betray his country than his friend. The savageness of the attack has been instructive. For example, the left-wing columnist Alexander Cockburn, writing in the New York Press, produced a model of character assassination masquerading as criticism. Often, Mr. Cockburn surmised, Mr. Hitchens must have wondered what it would feel like to plant the Judas kiss. Indeed, an attempted physical embrace has often been part of the rehearsal. Manys the time male friends have had to push Christophers mouth, fragrant with martinis, away, as, amid the welcomes and goodbyes, he seeks their cheek or lips. Mr. Cockburn proceeded to describe his former friend as a Judas and a snitch, a compulsive tattler and gossip who gets a quasi-sexual frisson out of the act of tattling or betrayal. The surest way to get a secret into mass circulation, Mr. Cockburn reported, is to tell it to Hitchens, swearing him to silence as one does so.
Unpleasant, yes. But Mr. Cockburn clearly believed he had something even worse up his sleeve. For after this warm-up he went on to compare Mr. Hitchens to George Orwellalso a snitch, according to Mr. Cockburn, since, as was recently revealed, he had furnished British intelligence (the British secret police to Mr. Cockburn) with a list of Communists and fellow-travelers at the onset of the Cold War. Yet another reason to admire Orwell, in our view, but indisputably damning for those of Mr. Cockburns political persuasion. We have no idea what Mr. Hitchens thinks of the outrage directed against him by his erstwhile friends. About the comparison with George Orwell, though, he should rest easy. To alter a famous phrase, Christopher Hitchens is no George Orwell.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 7, on page 2
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