The Brawl at Baruch
Galloway vs. Hitchens
By LOUIS PROYECT
Although I left 90 minutes into the Galloway-Hitchens debate, I feel pretty confident that I had taken in the high points, such as they were. The event succeeded more as theater than as education, with both characters playing to the gallery and practically imitating themselves.
The basic problem is that a debate over the war in Iraq is a little bit like debating whether the earth is round or flat, or as Galloway put it, "Is there any sentient being on this planet who still believes that this war was just and necessary?" Apart from the inner circles of the Bush administration, Hitchens and the odd band of his admirers drawn to the debate, that is.
In his opening 20 minute presentation, Hitchens made the case for how much the better the world is since March 2003, when the USA invaded Iraq. This was basically a rehash of an article he wrote for the hardcore neoconservative "Weekly Standard" that can be read here:
Hitchens was answered by both Alexander Cockburn and by Juan Cole.
Galloway responded with withering scorn, dwelling at length on Hitchens's stance during the first Gulf War. All of the arguments he made for going into Iraq today could have been made in 1991, and even more strongly since most of Saddam Hussein's depredations occurred during the 1980s, including the gassing of the Kurds. But this did not stop Hitchens from opposing the war. In a follow-up in the next round, Hitchens claimed that he was "mistaken" at the time and left it at that. But the most satisfying part of Galloway's remarks, and what most people came to hear, was his characterization of Hitchens as an exception to the laws of evolutionary biology. He once was a butterfly, making beautiful speeches against the Gulf War in 1991, but has turned into a slug, leaving a trail of slime behind him.
When I was outside on the sidewalk before the event started, I noticed a shabby looking character passing out leaflets to people waiting on line to buy a ticket. After a few seconds, I realized it was none other than Hitchens himself and not some crazed Trotskyist sectarian calling for a New International. The leaflet was a screed against Galloway, accusing him of corrupt profiteering over the dead bodies of Iraqi children through the oil for food program. The charges found in the leaflet can be read at http://www.hitchensweb.com/ along with others just as baseless. The main impression I got from Hitchens is that he is rather crazed at this point. I tried to imagine Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman or some other fan of the war in Iraq resorting to mass leafleting in this fashion. I was unsuccessful.
Hitchens's supporters in the audience were just as crazed as their hero. While Galloway's supporters, including me, were content to absorb his rapier-like arguments, the opposite side seemed more like the sort of people who show up at athletic events, including one woman who kept screaming at the top of her lungs. Another Hitchens supporter, a young man in his mid-20's I would guess, sat in the row in front of me and seemed determined to argue with everybody around him in what he must have considered a superior Socratic method: "So you would have not intervened against Hitler then?" But mostly he couldn't sit still, jumping around in his seat like a monkey overdosed on Methamphetamines.
Amidst all the brawling, there were some educational points. When Hitchens mentioned the "Cedar Revolution" in Lebanon as a positive consequence of Bush's war, Galloway replied that if there were elections in Lebanon tomorrow, the head of Hizbollah would likely be elected. However, since he is a Moslem that would be impossible since the constitution bars anybody but Christians from taking office. Where did that constitution come from, Galloway asked? It was imposed as the result of the invasion of the US marines in 1958. That was a valuable point and one worth following up on.
CSPAN2's "BookTV" will be showing the debate this Saturday. Check it out for some lively entertainment and some useful arguments against the war in Iraq, as if any more were needed at this point.
Louis Proyect writes for SWANS. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The big showdown
New Yorkers queued around the block to see two British political heavyweights - writer Christopher Hitchens and MP George Galloway - square up over the war in Iraq. Andrew Anthony flew to america to take them both on...
Sunday September 18, 2005
Outside the Mason Hall in Gramercy Park, Manhattan, a long line of people stretched around the block as they queued for the sold-out showdown between Christopher Hitchens, the English journalist and essayist domiciled in America, and George Galloway, the Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. Billed as the Grapple in the Big Apple, this two-Brit debate on the Iraq war had galvanised and divided New York's political classes in a manner that perhaps no native orators could achieve. For fans of a certain kind of muscular polemic, Hitchens v Galloway was the equivalent of an historic heavyweight prize fight. Indeed, so oversubscribed was the event that some were suggesting, not entirely in jest, that it should have been moved to Madison Square Garden, scene of countless boxing epics. As it was, in the more claustrophobic setting of a community college, tempers were running high.
This country is the most evil empire the world has ever known,' announced Bill Mann, a short stocky man with a flat nose and a Brooklyn accent that made Tony Curtis sound like Gregory Peck. Mann informed me with unshakeable confidence that there would not be a single Hitchens supporter in the audience. 'I support Hitchens,' said David Katz, a rather lugubrious-looking character standing directly behind Mann. Suddenly a street-corner argument was served up like an undercard bout before the main event. Mann presented his thesis that America had killed more people than any other nation and that the Soviet Union liberated Europe. 'Yeah, tell that to the Poles, and the Czechs and the Romanians,' said Katz, as he defended America's global record on fighting for freedom. Katz's speech did not go down well with the crowd and one woman, who told me that she was a 'progressive egalitarian humanist', became so exasperated that she stormed off. 'It's OK,' explained Katz, 'that's my wife.'
Further along, dressed in black and hobbling on crutches, was a man named Roy Rollin who said that he was a 'far-left Trotskyite' backing Galloway. He looked like Richard III and spoke like Rick from The Young Ones. 'Hitchens has sold his soul to the imperial bourgeoisie to ingratiate himself into the ruling class of America,' he said. These days you would have to rent out an early Woody Allen comedy if you wanted to hear an American employ this kind of language, but Rollin was not joking. Nor was anyone else.
The sense that the proceedings were something of a throwback to a more revolutionary era became impossible to ignore when Hitchens turned up and began distributing leaflets to the crowd. They listed Galloway's various statements and political positions down the years, most of which were news to those gathered. To them Galloway was a plain-speaking Scot who had socked it to a Senate committee back in May. Some were surprised to read that he had saluted Saddam Hussein and praised other Middle East dictators like Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Nevertheless, Hitchens was met with a volley of abuse, much of it from Rollin, though nothing like what was to come.
Teetering on the elegant side of dishevelled, Hitchens cut a defiant figure shuffling along the line. 'Have you got the sheet on fascism?' he asked, as he proffered another leaflet. A veteran of these kinds of meetings, he seemed to relish the contest. In years gone by when he was a columnist with the Nation (the voice of the American dissenting left), he was feted by the very people who were now calling him 'disgusting', 'an opportunistic whore', and other less complimentary terms. Nowadays he is denounced by metropolitan radicals as a turncoat. First for backing the invasion of Afghanistan, following the 9/11 attacks, and then, more controversially, for endorsing the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Yet buried beneath the accusations and counter accusations, the sense of fringe politics betrayal and disloyalty, this dispute in a college hall also pointed to the heart of much larger issues such as anti-imperialism and principled intervention, totalitarianism and democracy, jihadi terrorism and American militarism. Thus it was a kind of theatrical representation of the disagreements that are currently reshaping, splitting and even destroying what was once known as the Left.
To get a clearer picture of this fracture, I wanted to speak to Hitchens and Galloway before their clash. I wanted to visit their respective training camps and discuss at length their opposing outlooks away from the heated atmosphere of the ring - excuse me, stage. First I planned to travel to Portugal to see Galloway in his infamous holiday home. Then I would go to Washington, where Hitchens now makes a comfortable living as one of the most prolific and gifted political writers in the business.
Everything seemed set until I made a cardinal error. Just a week before the interview with Galloway, I wrote a column that questioned his views on the relationship between free speech and religion. At the Edinburgh festival, he had warned in a discussion on a television adaptation of The Satanic Verses that anyone who offended religious beliefs should be aware that they would suffer 'blowback'. 'You should do it very carefully,' he cautioned. As the comment was addressed to a panel that included Salman Rushdie, who knew all about 'blowback', it might have been construed as indelicate or even threatening. I wondered in print how Galloway could appear to be so sensitive to the issue of faith while at the same time lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union (what he called the 'biggest catastrophe of my life'), an atheist state in which many people had been imprisoned for 25 years in slave labour camps for the crime of praying. But it seems that Galloway, the tough former boxer from Dundee, can take most things in his stride, except criticism. The interview was off. 'I don't want to talk to you,' he told me on the phone, 'and that's it.'
This was a shame. I was looking forward to Portugal, and had already mentally packed my swimming trunks. With the possible exception of Robert Kilroy-Silk, a man with whom he has a number of uncanny similarities, Galloway is the most deeply tanned politician ever to step foot in Parliament. My guess was that we would have had our chat poolside. It might not have ranked alongside Galloway's midnights swims with Fidel Castro in Cuba, but it would have been a welcome break from what we workers refer to as the struggle.
There were also some questions I wanted to put to him. For instance, if he is so firmly committed to anti-imperialism that in any battle between North Korea, Kim Jong-Il's slave state, and the United States he has said that he would side with North Korea, why did he appear to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a war that is estimated to have killed as many as 1.5 million people and also inspired a generation of jihadis? How could Galloway denounce Arab dictatorships yet toady up to Saddam in 1994, when he was well aware of his endless crimes. 'I thought the President would appreciate to know,' he told the dictator to his face, 'that even today, three years after the war, I still meet families who are calling their new-born sons Saddam. I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability.' How could he go to Syria and announce that the country was 'lucky to have Bashar al-Assad as her president' when its people had no say in the matter. And was there any level of terrorist barbarity in Iraq and elsewhere that he would condemn, or was everything acceptable in the war against Western capitalism and democracy? The answers would have to wait. Still, I hoped to talk to him in New York before or after the debate.
In the meantime I flew to Washington DC to put another set of questions to Hitchens. Given that neither Hitchens nor Galloway are men who recoil from the sound of their own voice, and both have a persuasive talent with words, it would be a challenge to invent two more contrasting personalities. Hitchens is a former public schoolboy who went to Oxford, while Galloway attended grammar school in Dundee and graduated with honours from the uncompromising study that is the Scottish Labour Party. Both were drawn to the far left, Hitchens to the Trotskyist International Socialists, which he soon quit, and Galloway to what was effectively the Stalinist wing of the Labour movement. He is careful not to praise Stalin the man but rather his achievements in 'industrialising' the Soviet Union - a process that led, of course, to millions of deaths. But perhaps their most commented-upon difference is that Galloway is a teetotaller, while Hitchens, to put it at its mildest, is not.
I met up with Hitchens at a Georgetown restaurant after a White House party thrown for President Talabani of Iraq. He was with a number of Washington wonks and Kurdish supporters, and also Ann Clwyd, Tony Blair's special envoy on human rights to Iraq. Clwyd had known Talabani since his days as a Kurdish resistance leader fighting Saddam. She could recall visiting him in the mountains when the idea that he would become president seemed so fanciful as to be absurd. What she could not recall was the anti-Saddam activism that Galloway insists he once took part in. The Respect MP claims that he was a staunch opponent of Saddam, only supporting his cause after Iraq invaded Kuwait and thereby made an enemy of the US.
In that first Gulf War, Hitchens, too, took Iraq's side against the US-led coalition. 'At the time I would freely admit I really hated Bush senior,' he told me. 'But I quite soon began to feel like a dog being washed. I did know about the nature of the Saddam regime because I'd already been in Iraq. I had no excuse not to know. I suppose I have to plead guilty to thinking of Kuwait as a royal family rather than a nation, but I knew better. I was fatally irresolute about this.'
It was a visit to Kurdistan, where he saw that Bush Snr was viewed as a hero, that changed his mind. For a long time he had thought that unless the Americans created a Palestinian homeland they had no business in the Middle East. 'I still do believe in the establishment of a Palestinian homeland but I no longer think that everything else has to be postponed.'
It's this kind of analysis that has led many of his former allies to dismiss him as a neo-conservative. 'No,' he states, 'I'm not any kind of conservative.' All the same, he admires the neo-cons' willingness to confront the status quo. 'One heard people who claimed to have radical credentials say that the removal of Saddam would destabilise the Middle East. Well excuse me comrades, you like it the way it is? Destabilisation is now a bad word?'
Of course, many people surveying the instability of Iraq today do indeed question the wisdom of the intervention. In a perceptive essay he wrote on Churchill, Hitchens suggested a few years ago that the British wartime leader was too committed to war 'to turn back without risking ridicule or obloquy'.
I asked him if he ever felt aware of the same risk. 'There is no analogy to the Churchill position,' he replies. 'What would it take for me to desert [the Iraqi secular and democratic forces]? Well nothing, there is no way. It's like saying, "Oh I couldn't very well be your friend after you'd gone broke and been mugged, and after that burglary at your home."'
Nor is he any more tolerant of the argument that Iraq is another Vietnam. 'There were no fascists against the Vietnam war but every fascist group is against the war in Iraq. I was not against the Vietnam war; I was pro-the Vietnamese revolution. And I would be the same today. Galloway is not anti-war. He's pro-war on the other side. He's gone to all the trouble to make that clear and in a way I admire that. I think he is hypocritical insofar as he doesn't always say the things in London that he says in the Middle East.'
Hitchens says that he no longer has any political allegiances, and something he mentioned just before we parted - after a 4am finish at his downtown apartment - seemed to point to where the chasm had opened up between himself and his opponents. 'It's not really an argument about the facts of the matter. It's an argument about the mentality.'
Whatever patience or sympathy he once had with the outlook that sees the West only as the problem and never the solution had been exhausted. His side and Galloway's side were separated by fundamentally opposing perceptions of reality that could not be bridged by means of reason. It did not bode well for the debate.
In New York I introduced myself to Galloway before the hostilities were under way. He smiled and said hello then turned and walked away. I was beginning to accept that he was not going to talk to me. The event had been arranged as part of his American book tour, promoting Mr Galloway Goes to Washington. Tomorrow in Chicago he is speaking with Jane Fonda, a partnership that was organised, much to Hitchens's amusement, by Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues
At last Hitchens and Galloway took their positions at podiums on either side of the stage, neither looking at the other. Among the audience was Oona King, the former Labour MP defeated by Galloway in Bethnal Green. In his beard and open-necked casual blue shirt, the Englishman resembled the part-time college lecturer that he in fact is. Galloway, by fastidious contrast, was wearing a beige suit with a carefully co-ordinated tie, his bronze pate shining under the stage lights. Hitchens began his proposal - 'the war in Iraq is just and necessary' - by calling for a minute's silence for the 160 Iraqis murdered that morning in Baghdad by al-Qaeda.
There were instant boos and hails of protest from some members of the audience. In July in Syria Galloway had given a speech celebrating the '145 military operations every day' made by 'these poor Iraqis - ragged people with their sandals and their Kalashnikovs ...' But the Iraqis killed on Wednesday were poor labourers looking for work and they were blown apart by sophisticated explosives. It was not clear to me at least why they were unworthy of a minute's silence.
In many ways, the level of debate never recovered from this indecency. Both speakers accused one another of sinking to the gutter and both made direct attacks on the other, though it was Galloway who was perhaps the more personal. Seeking to trump the 'drink-sodden former Trotskyist popinjay' remark with which he had bested Hitchens outside the Senate committee meeting back in May, he reflected on his earlier admiration for the writer. He had gone on to make natural history, said Galloway, 'by metamorphosing from a butterfly into a slug'. After that he then accused Hitchens of being 'ready to fight to the last drop of other people's blood'.
These were prepared insults that may have pleased a section of the crowd but said nothing about the situation in Iraq today, much less the situation under Saddam. But the cheers that they elicited appeared to lift Galloway, or at least the volume of his voice, till he reached a pitch of finger-waving declamation that was both comical and a little frightening to behold. Even the moderator, the less than neutral anti-war broadcaster, Amy Goodman, was moved to ask Galloway to place the microphone further away from his mouth.
But it was to no avail. 'You did write like an angel,' Galloway screamed at Hitchens, 'and now you are working for the devil. Damn you and damn all your words.' At one of the more surreal moments in the evening, Galloway, his tan reddening as the veins in his neck did battle with his tie, accused Hitchens of 'cheap demagoguery'. The 'popinjay' may have his faults, but demagoguery is not his style. Instead he prefers a more urbane approach of teasing out ironies and inconsistencies. How, he wondered, after Galloway had invoked Cindy Sheehan, the antiwar protesting mother of a slain soldier, could he go to Syria and praise the murderers of the son then come here and offer support for the mother.
Yet Hitchens allowed much of the goodwill he built up to dissipate when he refused to blame George Bush for the debacle in New Orleans, and resisted the idea that racism played a part in the plight of the abandoned citizens of the Gulf coast. It seemed almost as if he had it with the bien pensants of the left and wanted to get at them any way that he could.
As the debate drew to a close, both speakers were eager to finish. Like two fighters who had no more punches to throw, they were waiting for the bell. Opinion was divided over who triumphed, though from where I sat Hitchens won on points. America may see itself as the home of democracy, but there was no vote. So it was left to the market to decide. A post-event book signing was convened and it was noticeable that the queue was almost twice as long to see Hitchens.
In the end the evening served to confirm much of what we already knew: Galloway will ally himself with anyone, no matter what their politics, against what he calls the 'two biggest rogue states in the world', America and Britain. And Hitchens has developed a steely contempt for the defeatism of his former friends. 'This is masochism,' he told the audience, 'but it's being offered to you by a sadist.'
Afterwards Amy Goodman told me that in the US it was hard 'to get a debate in which two people disagreed with each other'. I'm not sure that that's true, though it might be that to get two people who disagree with each other as much as Hitchens and Galloway you have to look to Britain, which has a more rumbustious tradition in these matters. In any case, the two sides of what was once the left - the interventionists and the anti-imperialists - have seldom seemed so far apart, nor Iraq so far away.
Galloway and Hitchens get down and very dirty
From James Bone of The Times, in New York
George Galloway, the anti-war Respect Party MP from Bethnal Green, is guilty of "sinister piffle". Christopher Hitchens, the pro-intervention polemicist who writes a column for Vanity Fair, practises "Goebbellian tricks".
The two rival titans of the raging row over Iraq engaged in an intellectual prize fight in New York last night that quickly degenerated into knock-down, drag-out bar-room brawl.
Before a jeering crowd of more than 1,000 in a college auditorium, the two men - once allies on the Left - hurled invective at each other for almost two hours, until exhaustion set in.
A scruffy, sweating Mr Hitchens accused Mr Galloway of being an apologist for dictators, fresh from Damascus where he had praised the 145 attacks a day by Iraqi insurgents on coalition troops.
"The man’s hunt for a tyrannical fatherland never ends," Mr Hitchens said. "The Soviet Union let him down, Albania’s gone ... Saddam’s been overthrown... But on to the next, in Damascus."
In an apparent Freudian slip, Mr Hitchens confused the Dundee-born politician at one point with Libyan leader "Mr Gaddafi".
Mr Galloway, inexplicably tanned and looking worthy of the nickname "Gorgeous George" in a well-pressed biege suit, denounced Mr Hitchens as a former-Trotskyist stooge for a reactionary government in Washington bent on dominating the Iraqi people.
"People like Mr Hitchens are willing to fight to the last drop of other people’s blood, " the MP said to wild applause."How I wish he would put on a tin hat and pick up a gun and go and fight himself."
Mr Galloway argued that the war in Iraq had made the world less safe and that Islamic fundamentalism was now on the rise with "10,000 new bin Ladens".
The show-down grew out of a clash between the two when Mr Galloway testified in May before a United States Senate sub-committee that had accused him of profiting from the oil-for-food scandal. At that chaotic meeting, Mr Galloway extravagantly dismissed the exiled British journalist as a "drink-soaked, former-Trotskyist popinjay". Mr Hitchens responded by challenging the MP to a proper debate. Mr Galloway accepted the challenge while on an anti-war speaking tour of America and promoting his new book about the Senate hearings, Mr Galloway Goes to Washington.
For the Americans in the audience, the debate offered a airing of differences by two British proxies for arguments over Iraq that are seldom articulated so vigorously in the United States. Though a vote was never taken, the motion before the audience was: "The war in Iraq was necessary and just."
Combat began on the pavement outside with Mr Hitchens handing out leaflets noting Mr Galloway’s more egregious tributes to Saddam, including the infamous 1994 speech in Baghdad in which he told the Iraqi strongman: "I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability."
Once inside, Mr Galloway cleverly contrasted his opponent’s past record of support for Palestinian fighters and opposition to the 1991 war in Iraq to his current pro-war stance.
"What you have witnessed is something unique in natural history - the first ever metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug," Mr Galloway informed the appreciative crowd. "I do not know what it was," he said. "I do not know if it was Vanity Fair or the lucrative contracts you have landed since. Maybe it was the whisky. Somehow, you decided in 2002/3 to take a line that was in complete opposition to the line you used to take. Were you wrong in ‘91 or are you wrong now?"
Unabashed, Mr Hitchens conceded that his views had changed since 1991. "I have not repudiated them. It’s just that I no longer hold to them," he said to hoots of derison from the audience. He explained that the transformation took place when he found himself among the Kurds of northern Iraq at the end of the war in Iraq in 1991. He vowed to support their secular, leftist opposition to the "fascism" of Saddam.
Even as accomplished a demagogue as Mr Galloway eventually overstepped the mark. To boos from the audience, he suggested that American foreign policy was to blame for the September 11 attacks - particularly Washington’s support for Israel.
"Some believe that those aeroplanes on September 11 came out of a clear blue sky. I believe they came out of a swamp of hatred created by us," he proclaimed. "I believe that because the total, complete unending and bottomless support for General Sharon’s crimes against the Palestinian people."
Mr Hitchens also blundered by issuing an unpopular defence of the Bush administration’s handling of the flooding of New Orleans. "This is where it ends," Mr Galloway crowed. "You start off being the liberal mouthpiece for one of the most reactionary governments this country has ever known and you end up a mouthpiece and apologist for these miserable malevolent incompetents who cannot even pick up the bodies of their own citizens in New Orleans. You know, Mr Hitchens, you are a court jester - not in Camelot like other miserable liberals before you, but in the court of the Bourbon Bushes."
For a college audience in New York, opinion was fairly evenly divided. Although Mr Galloway had student anti-war sentiment on his side, Mr Hitchens held on to supporters of Israel and the Kurds.
"I think it was a tie," said Michael Thompson, a political science professor at William Patterson University in New Jersey. "It was more rhetorical than it was substantive. There was just too much ad hominem oratory."
"The outcome of this debate is going to be seen in ten years time. History will tell," said Pepe Lopez, an anti-war advertising executive. "Hitchens was wrong."
Among those watching was Oona King, the Labour MP defeated by Mr Galloway at the last election. "I think Galloway won in terms of oratory skills," she said."I think it’s great to see Britons bringing the tradition of debate to the United States. But at the end of the day, they are two very arrogant men who both have very flawed arguments."
Here is the audio