Glenn Loury and Matt Johnson discuss the legacy of Hitchens

July 19, 2023 • 12:00 pm

Who among us hasn’t said to themselves, “I wish Hitchens were here. What would he make of all the identity politics going down?” And indeed, given the man’s unpredictability, it’s hard to know, though Matt Johnson thinks that Hitch would definitely be antiwoke.

Johnson recently came out with a new book, How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.  There’s a six-minute video discussion below, and an intro and Q&A on Loury’s website. Click below to read Loury’s intro and an excerpt, and then watch the video (you can skip the printed Q&A since the text beyond the intro is a transcript).

Here’s Loury’s intro:

Identitarianism is now so deeply ingrained in left-liberal politics, it’s easy to forget that things weren’t always this way. Material economic concerns once formed the solid core of left activism and thought on the domestic front: labor protections, combating economic inequality, providing services for the poor, and so on. Anyone who didn’t put those issues at the center of their politics couldn’t reasonably call themselves a member of the left. Now these quite serious issues have been displaced by a superficial obsession with race and identity. If you’re not calling for “racial justice,” it seems, it doesn’t matter how many warehouse workers you organize. Even Bernie Sanders found himself in the crosshairs of his ostensible allies when he downplayed identity politics in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

Christopher Hitchens was a writer and thinker produced by—but not reducible to—that older tradition of left-wing thought and activism. For much of his life, he was an advocate for organized labor and a strong social safety net. He took the ideas of justice, equality, and democracy very seriously. Sometimes this led him to positions that would be at home on today’s left, as when he advocated for reparations for the descendants of slaves. But sometimes his commitments put him at odds with his fellow travelers, as when he supported the invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Iraqis were being deprived by Saddam Hussein of their right to democratic self-determination.

Hitchens also believed that identity politics was a cheap substitute for what he saw as real political action. My guest this week, the writer Matt Johnson, thinks that, on that issue, Hitchens had it right. In fact, Matt wrote an excellent book about it. There was nobody quite like Hitch. His rhetorical force and precision, his moral clarity (even when he was wrong), and his wit seem in short supply today. I’ve hosted some left-liberals, like Mark Lilla and Norman Finkelstein, who are unafraid to speak out against “their side” on identity politics. And clearly Matt believes that the left can recover something of Hitch’s spirit, otherwise he wouldn’t have written the book. Despite my own political commitments, I hope he’s right.

I’ve read Johnson’s book, and it’s pretty darn good, though if you know your Hitchens well, you may find little that is new. Nevertheless, Johnson’s argument, supported with quotes, is persuasive.

Below, Johnson tells us about the pervasiveness of identity politics, and Loury asks him why are liberals, for instance, so divided given that they can’t agree on fundamental liberal issues.

One comment: Hitchens was in favor of reparations towards minorities, though Johnson implies otherwise. You can see that in this video debate between Hitchens and, ironically, Glenn Loury.

One question and answer:

GLENN LOURY: How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment. The great Christopher Hitchens can save the left. The left’s in trouble. It’s worth saving, says Matt Johnson. And one of the reasons it’s in trouble is because it’s immersed in what Hitch called “the sinister bullshit” of identity politics. And Hitchens can save us from that, too. How so?

MATT JOHNSON: He was very opposed to identitarianism, because he saw it as regressive. In one article, he wrote, “If we were dogs, we would all be the same breed.” Emphasizing human difference is unhealthy and it’s tribal and it’s become very obsessive on the left. You know, I’ve listened to you for years, Glenn, you and John McWhorter. I’m not a fan of the DiAngelo school of identitarianism, not a fan of Kendi.

These guys, they really do frustrate me. I look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and I wonder what Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin would say about a movement that encourages large audiences of white people and corporations to look inward and identify and root out the racism instead of just looking at inequities in the society and trying to address them on a fundamental level.

It’s this toxin. It’s so easy to be tribal. It’s so easy to identify with a group. And Hitchens, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, for example, just said that identity politics is a cheap excuse for politics to the extent that the left was enmeshed in it, which it really has been for a long time. It was giving away one of the most important moral principles that it could hold, which would be universalism. We should try to move toward a colorblind society. I know that saying that automatically gets you branded a reactionary. It’s like saying “all lives matter.” You’re viewed as somebody who’s fighting the progress of racial justice in the country. I really do think that that should be the end goal. And if it takes 200 years, so be it. If it takes 500 years, so be it.

But I think there are a lot of people who don’t think it’s the goal we’re striving for. I think they think that race is this eternal fact about us, and racial division is an eternal fact about our politics. And Hitchens always hated that idea, and he thought we could be radical enough to get past it.

11 thoughts on “Glenn Loury and Matt Johnson discuss the legacy of Hitchens

  1. The full interview is well worth a listen. Glenn Loury is an excellent and generally fair-minded interlocutor. He’s quite willing to engage with folks outside the Overton Window at both edges. I subscribe to his Substack. As an admirer of Hitch, I will be reading Matt Johnson’s book soon.

  2. As Kenan Malik put it, we have moved from the politics of solidarity to the politics of identity. The former creates the sort of broad coalition that is necessary to get things done in politics. The latter just leads to factionalism.

  3. Weird addendum here: PETER Hitchens, brother, is a major league a**hole. He seems to make a point and name of being fundamentally wrong on pretty much anything.

    1. The off-brand Hitchens has stopped by this website on occasion, to mix it up with Jerry and the commenters. See, e.g., here.

      1. I have this feeling, admittedly based on no evidence other than that he loves to insult anybody who praises his big brother, that Peter Hitchens is lurking in this comment section right now, as he has done many times before.

    2. I thought maybe he was jealous of his much more famous and important brother. Waaaa! Mom loved you best. Waaaa!”

  4. “Instead of recognizing that individualism is an appreciation of diversity at the most fundamental level, the identitarian left says we should only care about the superficial diversity of demography. Instead of voting for candidates on the basis of their principles and positions, as some out-of-touch old socialists insist, we should vote for the ones who have the right skin color and reproductive organs.”

    (Johnson, Matt. /How Hitchens Can Save the Left./ Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2023. p. 94)

    I think Stanley Fish has drawn a relevant distinction from the voter’s perspective:

    “We should distinguish, I think, between two forms of identity politics. The first I have already named “tribal”; it is the politics based on who a candidate is rather than on what he or she believes or argues for. And that, I agree, is usually a bad idea. (I say “usually” because it is possible to argue that the election of a black or female president, no matter what his or her positions happen to be, will be more than a symbolic correction of the errors that have marred the country’s history, and an important international statement as well.) The second form of identity politics is what I call “interest” identity politics. It is based on the assumption (itself resting on history and observation) that because of his or her race or ethnicity or gender a candidate might pursue an agenda that would advance the interests a voter is committed to. Not only is there nothing wrong with such a calculation—it is both rational and considered—I don’t see that there is an alternative to voting on the basis of interest.”

    (Fish, Stanley. /Think Again: Contrarian Reflections on Life, Culture, Politics, Religion, Law, and Education./ Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015. pp. 147-8)

  5. I wonder what Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin would say about a movement that encourages large audiences of white people and corporations to look inward and identify and root out the racism instead of just looking at inequities in the society and trying to address them on a fundamental level.

    I think the intention of “anti-racism” is not to end racism—if it is, by what means? When does the endpoint come?— but to perpetuate it. It exploits guilt on the one side, and resentment on the other, and is designed to be a permanent punishment for the oppressors, even long after the last oppression, they must still be punished, and, most importantly, pay up. It is not a system that appeals to our better angels, but rather the opposite. A colourblind society of equal opportunity is the only kind of utopia we should strive towards. I don’t believe Hitch would disagree with that.

  6. I love Christopher Hitchens, and have read the book. I thought the book tried too hard to lionize Hitchens, trying to justify even his support of the Iraq war. It was more an attempt at hagiography than a judicious evaluation of his many strengths and few weaknesses.

    1. I haven’t read the book, but I agree that Hitchens’s support of the Iraq War was misguided and hard to support, because on the ground that he chose to justify it — Saddam prevented his peoples’ self-determination and trampled on their individual rights, both perfectly true — the choice of Iraq as the target of invasion was arbitrary. On *that* ground, why not invade, say, Saudi Arabia, Burma, Iran, or China, all of which were egregious abusers of human rights on a larger scale than Iraq? Why choose to destroy virtually the only Arab state in which Al-Qaeda was unable to operate (ironically thanks to the efficiency of its police state), transforming it instead into a flowering hotbed of Islamist and sectarian terrorism? Only the personal obsessions of the Bush family plus the machinations of the oil industry, personified in Dick Cheney, make sense of the choice of Iraq, not Saddam’s human rights record. Hitchens must have understood this, which makes his support for the war disingenuous.

  7. Mr. Johnson’s brief dismissal of John Mearsheimer is perfuntory and facile. Who is anyone to differ with Mr. Johnson, especially anyone who is more than a few years older and more experienced? Would that Professor Loury had pressed him more on the NATO eastward expansion.

    Reminds me of Anne Applebaum on Christopher Lydon’s “Open Source” podcast a year or two ago, opining that “George Kennan was wrong [about warning about NATO eastward expansion],” that “he was wrong about many things,” without specifying a few of the “many things” about which Kennan was wrong.

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