The biggest name to quit the Left and sign up with the Bush war project received a warm welcome in Beverly Hills last weekend, when Christopher Hitchens told David Horowitz's Wednesday Morning Club, "If you live long enough, you will find David Horowitz."
Hitchens stopped writing his column for The Nation in October after more than 20 years of fiercely principled and often brilliant writing about the crimes of the powerful. Horowitz, his host, is a former '60s radical who changed sides long ago and has raised big-time money from right-wing foundations to fight the Left in America.
They met at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the legendary pink palace on Sunset Boulevard where the bungalows—swathed in bougainvillea and shaded by banana trees—start at $700 per night. In a private dining room, each place setting featured a glossy brochure with photos of Rush Limbaugh and Paul Wolfowitz, previous speakers at Horowitz gatherings. Nobody in the room seemed to think $60 for salad and stuffed chicken was steep (along with $10 for parking). Sadly, none of the big names of the Hollywood Right showed up—Charleton Heston has come to past events, and Robert Duvall is on the board. This crowd of 100 consisted of the lower levels of the film biz, mostly elderly and very prosperous white people; scanning the crowd, you saw a lot of white hair and blue blazers.
Horowitz opened the proceedings with his standard line: the most important struggle today is not against Saddam Hussein, not against the Islamic terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center, but rather against the American Left and the peace movement, "a movement that defines this country itself as the enemy." Hitchens was "a hero of this war at home" because of his break with the Left.
Hitchens' talk was meandering and fairly lazy. Mostly, he argued that Saddam Hussein is bad, and therefore war is good. Of course nobody disagrees that Hussein is bad. It's Hitchens' "therefore" that poses the problem. The peace movement argues that the likely costs of war are immensely greater than any possible benefits; war will increase rather than decrease risk to the U.S. The inspectors have shown there are no nuclear weapons or facilities in Iraq. The idea that Iraq is a threat to the U.S. is ridiculous. Therefore, alternatives to war—continuation of inspections and of the no-fly zones—are better than war.
But Hitchens didn't engage those arguments. He declared instead he was against "gloom and apprehension" about the possible consequences of war and said he was "proud to be alive at this moment" when war was about to begin.
The questions were more revealing than the talk. This audience of Bush supporters still believes the Left dominates the American media. One asked, "All the news is about the anti-war demonstrations. Why aren't we in the media?" This received much nodding and murmurs of assent. (Just a few hours earlier, I had seen on CNN a long segment on a small group of pro-war demonstrators waving signs that said "USA #1" and "Let's Roll," followed by a feature on a factory making thousands of T-shirts that read "Proud to be an American.")
The next question was from a well-coifed woman. "Why is Michael Moore so popular?" she asked. "His book is No. 1, and his film was nominated for an Oscar. Why doesn't our side have a Michael Moore?" Disturbed cries of "yes!" came from the next table.
Another audience member complained, "The networks are now boycotting footage of the towers falling on Sept. 11 because they don't want us to remember."
In his responses, Hitchens mostly ignored the questions and went for the laughs. The biggest came when he ridiculed Berkeley, where he has been teaching, as "the world capital of absurd-istan." Hitchens decided to milk the laughs: "I tell them about Saddam's torture and fascism and genocide against the Kurds—they don't care. So then I tell them that in 1991, Saddam set fire to the Kuwaiti oil fields and filled the Gulf with burning oil. I tell them we need to get Saddam to protect the sea otters and birds in the Gulf—now I've got them on the run!" The audience went wild, and Hitchens didn't try to conceal a self-satisfied grin.
There was only one challenging question: "What about the consequences of U.S. military success?" Hitchens replied with a pep talk about the necessity of a long-term war to defeat Islamic fundamentalist fascism. "There is no possibility of defeat in this struggle," he said.
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Horowitz hovered near the podium throughout. He established the Wednesday Morning Club the day after Clinton was elected in November 1992 to attack Clinton as a Leftist. Horowitz's so-called "think tank," the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, received half a million dollars in 1997 from right-wing billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, who financed a lot of the inquisitorial right-wing reportage on Clinton. Horowitz's other cause has been bashing public television for alleged liberal bias. During the past decade, that campaign earned him $1.3 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS and conservative foundations, along with a PBS program, National Desk, which aired from 1997 to 2000.
Hitchens published a little book two years ago called Letters to a Young Contrarian, in which he recommended that people refuse to toe the party line—any party line—and instead question received wisdom of all kinds. He was describing his own position on the Left as a ruthless critic of clich and convention. But here at the Beverly Hills Hotel, there was no sign of Hitchens the contrarian—no more challenging the powerful, no more the maverick or rebel, not even a dissent from Horowitz's claim that the "real struggle" today is against the peace movement, not against Hussein and terrorism.
Hitchens' transformation over the past five months has been breathtaking. As the proceedings came to an end and the crowd headed out to valet parking, Horowitz looked triumphant.
Jon Wiener is a contributing editor of The Nation and teaches American history at UC Irvine.