Hitchens Is Not Great

I realize I'm a bit tardy with this comment, but the pace of the blogosphere remains intimidating for those of us still marveling over the immediacy of e-mail. A post last week on Christopher Hitchens by Robert Imbelli provoked a lively exchange about the value of what Imbelli called Hitchens's "devilish knack for pricking the pieties of both left and right."Devilish is right. Imbelli regretted Hitchens's notorious demolition job on Mother Teresa, but was more forgiving of his denunciations of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In assessing the reliability of Hitchens's judgments, I thought dotCommonweal readers might be interested in the scurrilous things Hitchens has written about Evelyn Waugh. I've read quite a bit of Waugh, and was dubious about the claims Hitchens makes in God Is Not Great that Waugh supported "fascist movements in Spain and Croatia, and Mussolini's foul invasion of Abyssinia, because they enjoyed the support of the Vatican." With his characteristic hyperbole, Hitchens asserts that "these deformities in one of my most beloved authors arose not in spite of his faith, but because of it."Waugh was a bigot and a reactionary, but did that necessarily mean he was a fascist fellow traveler? According to Douglas Lane Patey, one of his better biographers, the idea that Waugh was sympathetic to fascism because he was a Catholic--or sympathetic to fascism at all--is a canard. That Waugh was a mouthpiece advancing the foreign policy of the Vatican is equally fatuous. Patey notes in his The Life of Evelyn Waugh that Italy was Britain's ally against Germany until 1936. Waugh's enthusiasm for the 1935 Italian attempt to "civilize" Abyssinia at gunpoint deserves condemnation, but as Patey demonstrates, Waugh's principal concern was not in following orders from the Vatican but "to persuade British readers not to sacrifice an ally against both Nazism and Communism merely over the war in Africa."Waugh was a thinker as contrarian as Hitchens pretends to be, but a good deal more knowing about the actual pieties of both the Left and Right. Asked in 1937 which side he supported in the Spanish Civil War, Waugh wrote, "As an Englishman I am not in the predicament of choosing between two evils. I am not a fascist nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism. It is mischievous to suggest that such a choice is imminent" (Patey, p. 146).Whether you regard him as mischievous or devilish, Christopher Hitchens is quite often wrong.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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