The Men Who Would Be Orwell

It’s a little disconcerting, isn’t it, that two expatriate

Brits-Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens-have turned out to be the most

forceful, eloquent and influential voices in the American debate over the Sept.

11 attacks and their meaning.

Yes, there have been other articulate voices on all sides of the

question, but after four months of discourse, debate and contention, it’s hard

to deny that Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens have made the most difference : Mr. Hitchens by challenging

the Left to recognize the terrorists not as somewhat misguided spokesmen for

the wretched of the earth, but as “Islamo-fascists”-theocratic oppressors of the wretched of the earth.

And Mr. Sullivan by challenging the Right to question the danger that may lurk

in the heart of all fundamentalist versions of religion, not just Islam-perhaps

in the heart of religion itself.

But maybe it’s not an accident that these two self-exiles from

the U.K. have dominated the American debate. Perhaps it does have something to

do with their expatriate-Brit identity: As part of their intellectual

birthright, both are in possession of, both are possessed by , the spirit

of George Orwell. Both are steeped in Orwell; both have quoted him during the

current crisis. Both have looked on our Sept. 11 through the lens of Orwell’s

July 1940, when he was a lonely voice confronting defeatism on the Right and

Left in the face of Hitler, at a time when England itself stood virtually alone

in defying the Third Reich. One could say that Orwell is the secret weapon, the

smart bomb with which Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens have achieved preeminence

over their polemical opponents.

Yes, one could question the precision of the analogy to Orwell’s

time; one could ask whether they’re winning the debate because we happen to be

winning the war (or at least this phase of it). But it seems undeniable that in

their separate ways, Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens seem to be winning the war over the war, the war of words. And that

it is Orwell’s vision-his legacy and example, and the perhaps-unspoken

competition for his mantle-that has made the difference.

But more important than the question of whether they’ve won the

debate is the way they’ve framed the

debate. The way that, coming from opposite ends of the ideological and

theological spectrum, they’ve focused the question of “root causes” not on

American power, but rather on some dark power at the heart of religion. That

was the radical import of Mr. Sullivan’s immensely influential Oct. 7 Sunday New York Times Magazine piece, when he

went beyond blaming “fundamentalism” to say that “It seems almost as if there

is something inherent in religious monotheism that lends itself to this kind of

terrorist temptation.”

In other words, it may not be enough to attribute Sept. 11 to

easily dismissible “religious fanaticism.” It may be necessary instead to

question whether religion itself-the kind of religion that bases itself on

supposedly inerrant holy texts-is responsible for recurrently convincing not

just terrorists, but established churches and states, that they have God’s

sanction to slaughter innocent unbelievers. To ask whether the terrorist

attacks can be attributed not just to a “perversion of religion,” but to

something in the logic of religion itself.

For Mr. Hitchens, this is a far less conflicted position than for

Mr. Sullivan. But it is the pivot on which, in large measure, he has succeeded

in turning around the Left, or a large segment of it (aside from the

Chomskyites). Turning around those who saw America as somehow to blame, who

sought to portray our power as the real culprit. In his columns in The Nation , Mr. Hitchens dramatically

recast the terrorists as “fascists with an Islamic face” and then (an even more

effective compression) as “Islamo-fascists.” (What leftist, after all, wants to

be seen siding with fascists?) Mr. Hitchens fought to a standstill those in The Nation (and the nation) who, as he

put it, “maintained that the al Qaeda death squads were trying to utter a cry

for help for the woes of the world.”

One senses that it’s very personal as well as ideological for Mr.

Hitchens that he feels he’s been at war with “Islamo-fascists” since the

Khomeini regime sentenced his close friend Salman Rushdie to death for

blasphemy. Thus perhaps the candor with which Mr. Hitchens conceded that, on

Sept. 11, in addition to experiencing the “gamut of emotions from rage to

nausea, I also discovered another sensation, and to my surprise and pleasure it

turned out to be exhilaration. Here was the most frightful enemy-theological

barbarism-in plain view.”

In a different, perhaps more

complex way, it must be personal with Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic

conservative, since his church-along with most orthodox Western

religions-condemns his homosexuality; and yet he remains devout and wants his

church to accept him.

But agree or disagree with Mr. Sullivan, it’s hard to deny that

he is the surprising new media/political development of the post–Sept. 11

period. A media/political development because he’s gone beyond his influential

print platforms, The Times of London

and The Times of New York. What gives

him an edge in impact and reach over Mr. Hitchens (and just about everyone

else) is the way he’s turned his political Web site (Web zine, Web log, online

diary-whatever you want to call andrewsullivan.com) into a powerful weapon of

nonstop, 24/7, omnipresent total-surveillance panopticon punditry. Using his

political Web zine (a form pioneered by Mickey Kaus in his witty

Kausfiles.com), he’s done more than just frame the debate; he’s dominated it, smothered it with an

overwhelming energy and forcefulness that allows him to riddle his opponents

with ceaseless real-time hectoring and invective and polemic.

Nothing escapes the guy .

Let some lefty in London be heard to compare the burqa imposed by the Taliban

with the “enforced smile” of the American supermarket-checkout girl, and Mr.

Sullivan is there holding this idiotic moral equivalence up to ridicule for the

rest of the media, who are prominent among the six million page views a month

he says  his site has been getting since

Sept. 11.

And let some traditional conservative in the National Review Online carp at Mr. Sullivan’s heretical libertarian

views on sex and drugs, or his penchant for writing about his boyfriend as well

as the Taliban, and Mr. Sullivan turns his riposte into a moving apologia pro vita sua that should give

the carper second thoughts for seeking to marginalize the most interesting

conservative thinker to emerge in a long time.

It was only after Sept. 11 that I began surfing the Net heavily,

but I quickly became cognizant of the way the Sullivanian Total Presence method

of dominating the debate worked. The preemptive midnight Times Op-Ed frame game he plays, for instance: I’m a habitual early

riser, but by the time I log on at 5 a.m., I often find that Mr. Sullivan has

been hard at work in the minutes after midnight, when the Times edition for the next day first comes online, giving him a

chance to digest, spit out, spin and frame whatever the Times Op-Ed columnists say in such a way that his spin will be available and often read before the regular Times

e-mail delivery to media in-boxes appears.

Thus, many in the media will read Thomas Friedman or Maureen Dowd

or Paul Krugman through the preemptive-strike lens that Mr. Sullivan has

already framed them in. No surprise he quotes Machiavelli at one point in his

“Daily Dish,” the running-diary- cum -polemic- cum -meta-media-criticism feature of his

Web zine.

What’s puzzling is when he actually does go to sleep, since his posts appear pretty much around the

clock. He just exhausts everyone else .

All this while on a heavy regimen of anti-H.I.V. drugs whose sometimes

debilitating side effects don’t seem to keep him from riding herd on the

intelligentsia, administering verbal canings to those in the punditocracy who

don’t see things his way.

There was, in fact, one remarkable and moving posting Mr.

Sullivan wrote in December, in which he goes into detail about his decision to

adopt a different strategy in his H.I.V.-medication regimen. Some studies had

persuaded him to stop or cycle some of his meds for a while to mitigate the

side effects. He tells us that he’s been the better for it in terms of T-cell

count-but then there came a dismaying rise in his “viral load” (the level of

H.I.V. particles in his bloodstream). “From being undetectable it went to 2,500

… then leaped to 48,000 in the aftermath of Sept. 11.” Did it have something to

do with the stress of the war, or the cycling of the meds? “I can’t help

relating my battle against H.I.V.” and the war, he wrote at another point.

Both, in a way, are a war against terror cells, the ones within and the ones

without (yes, yes, I’ve read Illness as

Metaphor , but I don’t think its proscription on metaphor is the last word

on the subject). I wondered if the kind of generalship it’s taken to engage in

waging the war on the enemy within

him has shaped his generalship in that other war he’s waging, the polemical

war, the war of words, of ideas-the war about

the war.

It’s been interesting to compare Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Sullivan

during the post–Sept. 11 polemical wars. One thing they share is that, unlike

most American writers, they can be both smart and fast-very irritating to those of us who find writing a

labor-intensive thing. I’m tempted (out of bitterness, I’m sure) to attribute

this speed and facility to the terror inculcated by caning at British boarding

schools, an internalized terror of procrastination that gets them off and

writing, even though I have no factual basis for this conjecture. (I just want

it to be true.)

Another thing they share is that they are both coming off minor

personal and political scandales , Mr.

Hitchens for having given a deposition against his longtime friend Sidney

Blumenthal to G.O.P. investigators during the Clinton-impeachment frenzy.

Perhaps Orwell was the model here as well, since Orwell supplied the names of

suspected communist fellow travelers to British internal-security authorities.

The man was not a saint; nor is Mr. Hitchens-or Mr. Sullivan, who was the

subject of controversy when someone snitched him out for frequenting chat rooms

devoted to “dating” between those who liked “bareback,” unprotected sex. (Mr.

Sullivan maintained that he was only looking for those who, like him, were

already H.I.V.-positive.)

But I think it would be reductive (and untrue) to attribute their

current crusading posture as a response. More important to their polemical

preeminence is the impact and imprint of Orwell, so that their quick and

powerful response to Sept. 11, to the self-hatred and defeatism they saw, was

second nature. They were also both tuned in to the response of the British

left, whose anti-Americanism and, at times, anti-Semitism Mr. Sullivan in

particular has an infallible radar for. And the British left, far more than the

American left, was exhibiting the same kind

of pacifism and defeatism in the wake of Sept. 11 that Orwell confronted in

July 1940.

It was a period in Orwell’s career as an anti-Communist left

polemicist when the Hitler-Stalin alliance had shamefully silenced much of the

left, and the fall of France had left the U.K. alone facing the two colossi of

Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Mr. Sullivan in particular has come up with some remarkable

excerpts from Orwell’s wartime diaries, unpublished until 1998. Here is Orwell

in July 1940, when America was still sidelined in the struggle against Hitler,

paralyzed by America Firsters like the disgraceful false hero Charles

Lindbergh. (Transatlantic flight versus lapdog for the Third Reich? You do the

math.)

The British public, Orwell wrote, supported Churchill, but the

chattering classes of the time did not: “The London ‘Left’ intelligentsia are

now completely defeatist, look on the situation and all but wish to surrender.

How easy it ought to have been to foresee,” he wrote.

Of course, Orwell was writing at a particularly perfidious time

in the history of the Marxist left, when the Communist parties in the West,

echoing the abominable rhetoric of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, were taking the

line that the British struggle against Hitler was merely a squabble among

morally indistinguishable versions of capitalism. I’ve written about the way

this moral paralysis is reflected in Charlie Chaplin’s stupidly overrated 1940

film The Great Dictator , a toothless

trivialization of Hitler hailed by appeasers of the left and right for a

disingenuous pacifism that objectively aided Hitler’s cause.

The problem of making comparisons between the Nazi era and our

own is a complex one. (In the February Atlantic

Monthly  I suggest that, in mindset

if not magnitude, there are ways we can

compare bin Laden’s and Hitler’s crimes.) But Mr. Hitchens’ brilliant stroke

was to come up with a phrase that compresses the parallel into one hyphenated

word, “Islamo-fascists”-a coinage that has, I think, been devastatingly

effective in describing who the terrorists, the Al Qaeda–Taliban nexus, really are. “Islamo-fascists”: It’s a

coinage that has caught on; Andrew Sullivan now uses it himself.

But Mr. Hitchens’ argument

goes beyond phrasemaking: He has reframed the way many on the left perceive the

conflict. My only problem with Mr. Hitchens is his unwillingness to

re-evaluate, in light of these arguments, his unrelenting strictures against an

Israeli government facing an Arab world that, tutored by Islamo-fascist clerics

steeped in Nazi hate literature, increasingly seems not to want to negotiate

with the Jewish state, but rather to exterminate it.

 

Is there an implicit,

unspoken competition between these two Orwell devotees over who will turn out

to be the Orwell figure of Sept. 11? Perhaps not consciously, but if there is,

I’d suggest they deserve to share the honor, each for taking on his own

political base.           

What fascinates me about Mr.

Sullivan is his optimism. Maybe it comes from his faith. But in the first two

months after Sept. 11, and before the fall of Kabul, it was impressive-and now

looks prescient. It was a time when, though I supported the aim of wiping out

the terrorists, I must confess that I, like many bred of Vietnam-era pessimism,

was expecting a quagmire (though I didn’t leap into print with the prediction,

as many did). A quagmire, and the fall of Pakistan (and the “Islamic bomb”) to

the fundamentalists, and more terror attacks at home for the foreseeable future

(it’s just my tragic sense of life). These things still may happen, but Mr. Sullivan’s optimism about the military outcome

in Afghanistan seemed to trump the gloomy predictions from both liberal Vietnam

pessimists and neo-conservative hawks who thought the war wouldn’t be

prosecuted vigorously enough.

Mr. Sullivan’s invincible optimism only seemed to falter once, in

the week before Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul fell, when he posted to his Web zine a

weary-sounding note that he’d been “depressed” recently. But the weariness may

be understandable: I think Andrew Sullivan has a more difficult job with his constituency on the Right than

Christopher Hitchens does with his on the Left. Because Mr. Sullivan’s critique

of the terrorists goes to the heart of the conflict within conservatism-and the

conflict within himself, as someone who

suffers from his church’s intolerance of his identity.

Can conservatism be about preserving the lasting values of

civilization and dismantling the

separation of church and state, if monotheistic religions seem recurrently-at

least in their fundamentalist forms-to threaten

the values of civilization? To give us jihads, pogroms, Inquisitions and that

hateful moron who shot Yitzhak Rabin? (As one of the characters in the

brilliant war-skeptic satirical Web cartoon “Get Your War On” at http://www.mnftiu.cc,

puts it: “Thank you God for your healing gift of religion.”)

I guess where I differ most from Mr. Sullivan is his long-term

optimism, his long-term faith in the possibility of a reconciliation between

civilization- civil society in every

sense of the word-and revealed religion. After three millennia of people

slaughtering each other in greater and greater numbers over religious

certainties, I wish I could share that optimism.

Even the short-term optimism

raises a question: Do Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens seem to be winning the war

over the war because the tide turned so dramatically in Afghanistan? What if

something Very Wrong happens-if another attack of similar murderous magnitude,

or a spate of suicide bombings in American malls, brings the war home again? Is

Sullivanian optimism a hostage to fortune? Does he believe, as the President

evidently does, that we can “end” terrorism and root out all the “evildoers”

that threaten us? Or do we face a darker, far more prolonged and tragic

struggle that may never be resolved?

My other reservation about

Andrew Sullivan is that he sometimes seems to carry his polemical zeal a little

too far. His various “Sontag Awards” (including one named after one of my

estimable Observer colleagues), as

well as the sometimes unnecessary touch of cruelty with which he plays this

naming-and-shaming game-the virtual public caning of his opponents-can

sometimes be more about intimidation than persuasion. There is a whiff (if only

a whiff) of the branding of heretics at times.

He’s defended his tactics by arguing that, in the first weeks

after Sept. 11, the same kind of defeatist, self-hating rhetoric Orwell railed

against needed

to be combated with scathing responses. And it’s true that one has to wonder

where the debate among intellectuals might be now had it not been for Mr.

Hitchens’ and Mr. Sullivan’s force and fire. (And he’s right to say there

really was-and still is-what Thomas Friedman calls a “Yes, but … ” response to

Sept. 11, an “it was bad but ultimately our fault” attitude alive and well in

New York. I’ve heard it firsthand.)

These questions aside, I think

Mr. Sullivan’s breakthrough to a new kind of fusion of personal and political

commentary is a remarkable achievement. It makes one imagine what the effect

might have been if Orwell had the opportunity to turn his wartime diaries into

a real-time online weapon.

It’s true that the candor of

Mr. Sullivan’s online diary can sometimes approach the verge of “too much

information.” As when he graphically documented his exploding-toilet situation

this past New Year’s Eve, telling us that “as I plopped myself innocently down

on the porcelain, a fizzing sound behind me became a gushing sound and water

was suddenly pouring into my apartment …. “

There’s a kind of funny,

rather endearing conclusion to the story: “After about half an hour of my

acting like Shelley Winters in The

Poseidon Adventure ,” Mr. Sullivan called “a friend in construction” who “showed

up like a Guardian Angel. Old Faithful subsided [and] I gave my savior some

Moët and took him out to a dance club for the night. I got back at 6 a.m.… “

But soon he’s up and

surveilling the Web for Error again: Nicholas Kristof of The Times ‘ Op-Ed page must

be refuted about Somalia! Mr. Hitchens spares us the gush and fizz of the

exploding toilet, the Shelley Winters moments, and Orwell probably wouldn’t

have posted them on his Web site. But

perhaps that’s what makes Andrew Sullivan more of an Orwell for our age.