Alcoholism, Privacy and Blogging: the Cole-Hitchens Feud

Maybe you haven’t followed the on-line feud over whether rightwing columnist Christopher Hitchens’s alleged alcoholism led him to publish on Slate a statement by the influential scholar Juan Cole that Cole believed to be confidential. Cole had made the statement on a confidential listserv called “Gulf 2000.” He felt violated when Hitchens quoted from it, and mused that Hitchens may have done so because he’s an alcoholic.

Cole writes

Well, I don’t think it is any secret that Hitchens has for some time had a very serious and debilitating drinking problem. He once showed up drunk to a talk I gave and heckled me. I can only imagine that he was deep in his cups when he wrote, or had some far Rightwing think tank write, his current piece of yellow journalism. I am sorry to witness the ruin of a once-fine journalistic mind.

Whether or not you think Hitchens is an alcoholic (and what I saw of him years ago would support that belief then), it’s great the conversation is happening. It’s probably relevant, to begin with. And it’s Cole’s honest opinion. And it would never appear in the mainstream press. That’s because the print press is so monetized. You get paid so much for issuing opinions in the mainstream press, and they make so much off those opinions, that libel concerns encircle every loaded statement. (Let alone the usual social groupthink questions: Unh, can we really say this??) In the blogosphere it’s about information and true opinion. Hitchens’s friends get to counter the claim or ignore it. There’s a free discussion, closer to what intellectuals are saying to one another on telephones and in bars (sorry!), not a stilted and false one.

Though Andrew Sullivan’s claim that his countryman was sober at the time—

I was at Hitch’s yesterday as he filed the piece. He was stone-cold sober. And on top form.

doesn’t seem entirely relevant. As Dan Swanson points out to me, the nastiness and self-centeredness of alcoholic behavior doesn’t require having had a drink..

Not that I would come down on Cole’s side here (as I do on his views of the Middle East). Cole is a very important thinker, for good reason; he has great judgment and knowledge. I gather that Hitchens is not in the listserv. If someone in the listserv passed on Cole’s confidential statement to Hitchens, and Hitchens chose to publish it, how different is that, in form, from what the New York Times so nobly did in breaking the story about Bush’s illegal wiretaps? Yes, the leaker violated an oath in giving the journalist info; the journalist shared the leaker’s view that the info was important, and passed it on to his readers.