At this point I’m so comfortably situated aboard the Christopher Hitchens bandwagon that if reports surfaced of him operating an underground sex slavery network offering services that would make even debauched NFL players turn their heads to vomit in disgust, I’d just shrug, smile and think to myself, “Man, I bet the column he writes about this is gonna be fucking awesome.” Besides being a great writer, he’s the best guest any talk show host could ever hope for. He went on CNN mere hours after the death of Jerry Falwell to call the right reverend corpse an “ugly little charlatan” and lament “it’s a pity there isn’t a hell for him to go to.” He’s also gotten testy with everyone from Bill Maher to Joe Scarborough, and last year I delighted in watching him on C-Span effortlessly make a fool out of Dinesh D’Souza (not that it’s such a hard job, but still . . .) in a debate over belief in God.
He says what he means, he means what he says, he doesn’t give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks about it, and he’s not one to turn down a drink too often, either. He’s like the loud, drunk uncle whose visits you always look forward to because you just know he’ll wind up starting shit with someone — if your loud, drunk uncle is also a motherfucking genius.
His weekly column, Fighting Words, for Slate.com is compulsory reading. This week he addresses the rapidly cooling controversy surrounding the arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. for disturbing the peace in his own house. But first he sets the table with a pair of personal anecdotes. From Hitchens’s column:
There are the things you can try when confronted by a cop, and there are the things that you can’t — or had better not. Last Memorial Day, I was going in a taxi down to Washington, D.C.’s Vietnam Memorial when a police car cut across the traffic and slammed everything to a halt. Opening the window and asking what the problem was and how long it might last, I was screeched at by a stringy-haired, rat-faced blond beast, who acted as if she had been waiting all year for the chance to hurt someone. . . . She was so avid with hatred that I didn’t even try to get close enough to ask or see her name or number. The whole thing, especially my own ignoble passivity, gnaws at me still when I reflect upon it. . . .
More recently, I was walking at night in the wooded California suburb where I spend the summer, trying to think about an essay I was writing. Suddenly, a police cruiser was growling quietly next to me and shining a light. “What are you doing?” I don’t know quite what it was — I’d been bored and delayed that week at airport security — but I abruptly decided that I was in no mood, so I responded, “Who wants to know?” and continued walking. “Where do you live?” said the voice. “None of your business,” said I. “What’s under your jacket?” “What’s your probable cause for asking?” I was now almost intoxicated by my mere possession of constitutional rights. There was a pause, and then the cop asked almost pleadingly how he was to know if I was an intruder or burglar, or not. “You can't know that,” I said. “It’s for me to know and for you to find out. I hope you can come up with probable cause.” The car gurgled alongside me for a bit and then pulled away. No doubt the driver then ran some sort of check, but he didn’t come back.
I want to be this son of a bitch when I grow up. But he’s not just bragging on himself. He’s making a point about the Gates fiasco, one that so far I’ve only heard elsewhere from Tony Powell, one of the two conspicuously black sidekicks on Don Imus’s morning radio show, and from the always cogent (well . . . often cogent) Rick Rottman. Hitchens again:
In the first instance, I found again what everyone knows, which is that there are a lot of warped misfits and inadequates who are somehow allowed to join the police force. In the second instance, I found that a good cop even at dead of night can and will use his judgment, even if the “suspect” is being a slight pain in the ass. But seriously, do you think I could have pulled the second act, or would even have tried it, or been given the chance to try it, if I had been black? . . .
I can easily see how a black neighbor could have called the police when seeing professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. trying to push open the front door of his own house. And I can equally easily visualize a thuggish or oversensitive black cop answering the call. And I can also see how long it might take the misunderstanding to dawn on both parties. But Gates has a limp that partly accounts for his childhood nickname and is slight and modest in demeanor. Moreover, whatever he said to the cop was in the privacy of his own home. It is monstrous in the extreme that he should in that home be handcuffed, and then taken downtown, after it had been plainly established that he was indeed the householder.
To Hitchens, the outrage isn’t that a white cop overreacted against an hysterical, racially sensitive black university professor — it’s that the officer arrested Gates for disorderly conduct that was taking place in Gates’s own home. The mistake of Professor Gates wasn’t to protest his treatment by the officer, but to protest it for the wrong reason:
It is the U.S. Constitution, and not some competitive agglomeration of communities or constituencies, that makes a citizen the sovereign of his own home and privacy. There is absolutely no legal requirement to be polite in the defense of this right. . . .
. . . Professor Gates should have taken his stand on the Bill of Rights and not on his epidermis or that of the arresting officer, and, if he didn’t have the presence of mind to do so, that needn’t inhibit the rest of us.
And to think he used to be a commie, eh?
Speaking of ruthless despotic dictatorships, lemme talk for a second about the Republican party.
Ha! Heh. I kid the Republicans. What I actually want to do is take the last half of the article to offer yet more well-deserved propers to my favorite Republican, the fearlessly lucid David Frum. I love this guy. How do you not love a guy who has the balls to take on the nuts and clowns and demagogues in his own party, who goes on national television to argue about Sarah Palin with no less ghoulish an eater of kittens than Ann Coulter? At his New Majority website, Frum is once again challenging the louder, dumber, more popular elements of his party. This time, he’s asking if maybe his fellow Republicans and conservatives can stop, you know, trying to convince everyone that the United States is imminently going to sink into the sea and there’s nothing anyone can do about it:
The apocalyptic despair heard from today’s conservatives is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong as a description of reality, wrong politically, wrong psychologically, wrong morally.
It’s wrong first because it denies and traduces the successes and achievements of the conservative movement. The story of the world since 1975 has been a story of the marvelous return and spread of liberty, in the United States and around the world.
In 1975, the federal government set the price of every airline ticket, every ton of rail freight, every cubic foot of natural gas and every barrel of oil. It controlled the interest rates paid on checking accounts and the commission charged by stockbrokers. If you wanted to ship a crate of lettuce from one state to another, you first had to file a routemap with a federal agency. It was a crime for a private citizen to own a gold coin. . . .
. . . In almost every way that can be assessed or measured, the world is a better, freer place in 2009 than it was in 1975.
Soft despotism? It was only yesterday that the world was oppressed by hard despotism, and plenty of it! When conservatives lament the rise of despotism, we deny our own greatest achievements, our own claim to the applause of history. We reveal in this lament a childish lack of perspective and a dismal ingratitude for the work of the generation before our own.
Not to mention . . . we sound like a hysterical clutch of sore losers.
Frum was moved to comment this time by the seemingly inexhaustible sentient natural gas deposit that is Rush Limbaugh, who said on his radio show yesterday that a vote for Barack Obama was a vote for “totalitarianism, dungeons, and torture.” Being a rational sort of fella, Frum found Limbaugh’s over-the-top alarmism . . . well shit, alarming. He goes on:
The extremity of conservative pessimism attacks the foundational rules of the American political game. Since 1865, the United States has enjoyed amazing political stability. Americans have achieved this stability via tried and tested rules of the road, including the unquestioning acceptance of election results, an acknowledgement of the basic good faith of the other political party, and an absolute acceptance that people of all points of view are committed to the shared constitutional system.
If I lived in a country in imminent danger of a Bolshevik or Fascist seizure of power, I’d be a cowardly fool if I failed to use every means to prevent it, including violence if need be. If it were true that our political opponents wanted to impose tyranny on the United States – if (as Rush Limbaugh said the other day) a vote for the other party was a vote for “totalitarianism, dungeons, and torture,” then what patriot could possibly abide a political defeat?
Happily, none of those things are true. As wrong and harmful as the Obama administration’s plans are, the administration is playing by the rules of the game. To agitate people into thinking otherwise is to corrode the foundations of the American constitutional regime.
Why can’t they all be like this? Is it too much to ask? I disagree with David about Obama’s plans being wrong and harmful (most of them, anyway), but it’s a respectful disagreement, because he treats people who hold political philosophies other than his own with respect. This concept is utterly alien to the Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannitys, Mark Levins and Glenn Becks of the world, who see politics not as a philosophical exercise built on compromise and understanding between many different points of view, but more like Hitler viewed Czechoslovakia — as a region to be conquered and ruled through intimidation and brute force.
One last quote from Frum:
We should have more confidence in the people and the country than this. We should also have more charity to our political opponents – who after all are contending with hideous problems bequeathed to them by . . . by . . . well suddenly we Republicans cannot seem to remember who preceded Barack Obama in office. To listen to us, you’d think that the bailouts and takeovers started on January 20, 2009, not the previous March. You’d never know that TARP was supported by almost every Republican commentator, including the editors of National Review. Or that Vice President Cheney argued urgently in favor of the rescue of the Detroit automakers. Or that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac enjoyed the backing of Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers.
One bad election converts us from ardent admirers of the American people to glum declinists who can see only a miserable moldering of a once great nation. I should have thought that conservative patriotism was made of stronger stuff.
When was the last time you heard a liberal eviscerate the right-wing squawk-squad with such devastating precision?
Would it kill his self-destructive, near-sighted party to nominate a few more men and women like David Frum to run for public office? I don’t want the angry, ignorant hysterics who spent this past spring attending phony tea parties for the loyal opposition — I want smart, articulate, reasonable people. But not you, David. We still need you out here in the real world. Someone on your side has to hold Levin’s leash.