Norman Finkelstein on Christopher Hitchens (brilliant!)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Sep 10 11:00:15 MDT 2003

Counterpunch, September 10, 2003

"Fraternally Yours, Chris":
Hitchens as Model Apostate

Editors' note: Norman Finkelstein is writing a political memoir, which
will serve as the introduction to a new edition of his book, The Rise
and Fall of Palestine, to be published by New Press next year. Below is
an excerpt on the phenomenon of political apostasy, focusing primarily
on Hitchens' recent grab-bag of writings in support of the US attack on
Iraq. The title refers to how ex-leftist Christopher Hitchens used to
sign off his correspondence. CounterPunch's forthcoming The Politics of
Anti-Semitism, has a fine essay by Finkelstein, on his bizarre
experience of being attacked in Germany as an anti-Semite. AC/JSC

I'm occasionally asked whether I still consider myself a Marxist. Even
if my "faith" had lapsed, I wouldn't advertise it, not from shame at
having been wrong (although admittedly this would be a factor) but
rather from fear of arousing even a faint suspicion of opportunism. To
borrow from the lingo of a former academic fad, if, in public life, the
"signifier" is "I'm no longer a Marxist," then the "signified" usually
is, "I'm selling out." No doubt one can, in light of further study and
life experience, come to repudiate past convictions. One might also
decide that youthful ideals, especially when the responsibilities of
family kick in and the prospects for radical change dim while the
certainty of one's finitude sharpens, are too heavy a burden to bear;
although it might be hoped that this accommodation, however
understandable (if disappointing), were accomplished with candor and an
appropriate degree of humility rather than, what's usually the case,
scorn for those who keep plugging away. It is when the phenomenon of
political apostasy is accompanied by fanfare and fireworks that it
becomes truly repellent.

Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated,
apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction,
discovering the virtues of the status quo. "The last thing you can be
accused of is having turned your coat," Thomas Mann wrote a convert to
National Socialism right after Hitler's seizure of power. "You always
wore it the 'right' way around." If apostasy weren't conditioned by
power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in
both directions. But that's never been the case. The would-be apostate
almost always pulls towards power's magnetic field, rarely away. However
elaborate the testimonials on how one came to "see the light," the
impetus behind political apostasy is--pardon my cynicism--a fairly
straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in,
on earthly pleasures. Indeed, an apostate can even capitalize on the
past to increase his or her current exchange value. Professional
ex-radical Todd Gitlin never fails to mention, when denouncing those to
his left, that he was a former head of Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS). Never mind that this was four decades ago; although president of
my sixth-grade class 40 years ago, I don't keep bringing it up.
Shouldn't there be a statute of limitations on the exploitation of one's
political past? In any event, it's hard to figure why an acknowledgment
of former errors should enhance one's current credibility. If, by a
person's own admission, he or she had got it all wrong, why should
anyone pay heed to his or her new opinions? Doesn't it make more sense
attending to those who got there sooner rather than later? A member of
the Flat-Earth Society who suddenly discovers the world is round doesn't
get to keynote an astronomers' convention. Indeed, the prudent inference
would seem to be, once an idiot, always an idiot. It's child's play to
assemble a lengthy list--Roger Garaudy, Boris Yeltsin, David Horowitz,
Bernard Henri-Levy--bearing out this commonsensical wisdom.

Yet, an apostate is usually astute enough to understand that, in order
to catch the public eye and reap the attendant benefits, merely
registering this or that doubt about one's prior convictions, or nuanced
disagreements with former comrades (which, after all, is how a reasoned
change of heart would normally evolve), won't suffice. For, incremental
change, or fundamental change by accretion, doesn't get the buzz going:
there must be a dramatic rupture with one's past. Conversion and
zealotry, just like revelation and apostasy, are flip sides of the same
coin, the currency of a political culture having more in common with
religion than rational discourse. A rite of passage for apostates
peculiar to U.S. political culture is bashing Noam Chomsky. It's the
political equivalent of a bar mitzvah, a ritual signaling that one has
"grown up"--i.e., grown out of one's "childish" past. It's hard to pick
up an article or book by ex-radicals--Gitlin's Letters to a Young
Activist, Paul Berman's Terror and Liberalism--that doesn't include a
hysterical attack on him. Behind this venom there's also a transparent
psychological factor at play. Chomsky mirrors their idealistic past as
well as sordid present, an obstinate reminder that they once had
principles but no longer do, that they sold out but he didn't. Hating to
be reminded, they keep trying to shatter the glass. He's the demon from
the past that, after recantation, no amount of incantation can exorcise.



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