Signs & Symbols

Certain writers do one thing so well, they eventually become predictable, known for their schtick. Loyal readers, in fact, come to look forward to the next outing. Christopher Hitchens, for example, has been known for more than three decades as a dependable curmudgeon, good for a vitriolic rant every few weeks or so.

His career also has taken some compelling twists and turns over the years. Though British-born, he's come to make his home here in America. But even before he decided to cross the pond for good, he was pretty much a fixture on the left, who whacked the Republicans and any other conservatives in a prose style that approximated a demented English public-school headmaster carrying a big stick.

He conducted his forays from comfortable perches like The Nation and Vanity Fair. Still, he was never doctrinaire. He gave the Islamists a run for their money when they issued a fatwa against his friend, Salman Rushdie, after the novelist published The Satanic Verses, which some found blasphemous.

Still, he was generally viewed — and appeared to view himself — as a man of the left, that is, until the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He broke with The Nation, very stormily, and began praising President George W. Bush and the war on terror. I thought it very brave of him to make such a move, one that can often cost writers their entire careers.

But I've come to think, especially recently, that such twists and turns have just been part of the Hitchens persona, and that his stomping on his past every so often is how he's constructed a career for himself here, where such displays of bile seem more amusing than back in England, where literary nay-sayers — especially nasty ones — are a dime a dozen.

I think Hitchens tests the winds, then decides which way to zig or zag. It was particularly evident after he wrote his most recent book, God Is Not Great. Granted, he's always been a determined secularist, but the book seemed a well-timed way to capitalize on the zeitgeist.

I feel the same way about a recent piece he did on Chanukah for, which was distressingly nasty and had a similar whiff of opportunism to it. I could imagine him deliberating over each one of his moves: It's holiday time. What can I say that would be truly outrageous and piss off a whole lot of people?

The piece was unrelenting in its antagonism toward Chanukah and any other religious expression at this time of year. He talks about how Jewish and gentile symbols — whether trees, wreaths, crèches or lighted candles — are all childish and ridiculous. "The display of the menorah at this season, however, has a precise meaning and is an explicit celebration of the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason. As such it is a direct negation of the First Amendment and it is time for the secularists and the civil libertarians to find the courage to say so."

There's lots more where that came from, if you're interested.



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