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Christopher and Peter Hitchens

‘Classic Peter,’ said Christopher of his younger brother Peter. ‘Mad – but with a logic to the madness.’

‘Classic Christopher,’ retorted Peter. ‘Spiteful – but with a logic to the spite.’

The latest trans-Atlantic spat between the polemical brothers might have been about the occupation of Iraq or the existence of God, but in truth it doesn’t matter greatly – despite the combative volleying, they have a good deal in common.

Both went to élitist private boarding schools in Britain, and have kept the associated mannerisms. Both were once members of the Trotskyist International Socialists (now Socialist Workers Party). Both eventually turned their talents to the service of reactionary causes. And both now parade their differences in the interests of what is, for polemicists, all-important: public profile.

Oddly enough, Peter – not so brilliant, more ponderous – may have become the marginally less objectionable of the two. His Pauline conversion from revolutionary socialism, in 1975, came much sooner than that of his brother, apparently while trying to sell copies of _Socialist Worker_ on a windswept railway station in Swindon. He ‘chose liberty’ and went off to work for the _Daily Express_ newspaper as ‘the world’s worst general reporter’. There, for 24 years in relative obscurity, he followed a libertarian agenda on education and labour, with stints in Moscow and Washington. He became a devout member of the Church of England.

But there were problems. He was unable to get the Tories to adopt him as a parliamentary candidate. The _Daily Express_ was taken over by a pornographer, which offended Peter’s finer sensibilities.

So he left the Tory Party and joined the _Mail on Sunday_ as a columnist. There he became a US-style ‘paleoconservative’ scourge of political correctness, advocating good manners as a replacement. But he also opposed the invasion of Iraq, on the grounds that there were no British interests at stake. And he has little good to say for the most recent Tory leader, wealthy Eton-educated David Cameron, whom he styled ‘Toff at the Top’ in a TV documentary.

Christopher, for his part, set off to make his mark as the shambling English jester in the US, complete with ostentatious drinking. Brilliant assaults on the war in Vietnam, Henry Kissinger or Mother Teresa were accompanied by serious reporting from Cyprus, Kurdistan and other hotspots around the world. A prolific scribbler and essayist, he made periodic excursions into history, literature or philosophy. He wrote a column for the liberal _Nation_ magazine and became an acerbic critic of Bill Clinton. Gore Vidal nominated him as his ‘dauphin’ or heir apparent.

For Christopher, however, 9/11 seems to have been the equivalent of his brother’s windswept-railway-station moment. He too ‘chose liberty’ and went off to monger the War on Terror. He castigated ‘liberals’ for being soft on ‘fascism with an Islamic face’. He fell out very publicly with the _Nation_ and befriended the likes of Paul Wolfovitz instead. He argued as stridently as only he knows how for the invasion of Iraq. He took the plunge and became a US citizen.

A former colleague, Gideon Rachman, describes a recent dinner party hosted by Christopher. It was attended by Grover Nordquist (‘one of the Republican Party’s most ruthless and conservative strategists’, according to Rachman) and the conservative historian Lord Skidelsky. The topic of conversation turned to the British fascist, Oswald Mosley. Christopher said he had met David Irving, the self-declared fascist ‘historian’, and admired some of his work. Evidently, it is the Islamic face rather than the fascist substance that Hitchens finds so repulsive. His latest best-selling diatribe is called _God Is Not Great_.

‘He may have entered the really wobbly phase of mind-changing,’ counselled Peter, ‘where the floor suddenly gives way beneath you without warning.’

Christopher retorted that he was ‘ashamed to hear a member of the Hitchens family sounding like Harold Pinter on a bad day’.

What does all this amount to? Pitifully little. Together, they find themselves in a spot familiar to any self-made ‘outsider’ whose deepest ambition is to get inside. In vain do they strive, from one opinion to the next, for a logic that simply isn’t there. All that remains, after they’ve cancelled each other out, is their own profile.

New Internationalist issue 405 magazine cover This article is from the October 2007 issue of New Internationalist.
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