I can catalog a long list of areas where Christopher Hitchens and I disagree. He is a radical atheist, I am a believing Jew. He abhors science fiction, I find it to be some of the most thoughtful literature of our time. He is a liberal, I am conservative. The list goes on: one of the reasons I enjoy reading Hitchens’ essays so much is that I can usually find something in each where he and I are in such deep disagreement, and yet he is so eloquent, that I am compelled to re-examine the basis of my beliefs. I consider myself fortunate to have such a foil.
One point on which he and I agree, however, is on our mutual distaste for the brand of conservatism embraced by the playwright and screenwriter David Mamet. Mamet supports Sarah Palin, declares that America is a “Christian country,” and even for me, severely oversimplifies the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I want very much to like Mamet, having not only enjoyed his work but also found myself in agreement with many of his indictments of modern American liberalism as expressed in his 2008 essay in The Village Voice. Mamet is older than I, but I have been a conservative for rather longer than he, so I read his Voice piece with the bemused pleasure of someone who finds those he admires agreeing with him.
Sadly, however, Mamet’s flight from the left to the right did not set him down in conservative territory. Rather, he has flown all the way right, alighting on a square deep in reactionary Tea Party territory, and his new attitude is marked with the zealotry that is so often the mark of the righteous convert. As much as I want take pleasure in Mamet’s enlightenment, I can only join Hitchens in shaking my head at a heartfelt zeal that is not matched by either rhetorical balance or intellectual rigor. What should have been a manifesto wound up being a polemic.
As for Hitchens, where he disappoints in his review, beyond delivering a gratuitous rabbit punch to the great rabbinical sage Hillel, is that he does not ask whether Mamet is the best intellectual light the conservatives can put forth, or indeed whether there might be someone who can articulate a less reactionary position to counter the Palin-Tea Party-Beck-Koch axis. Hitchens would, apparently, prefer to have his readers think “oh, this is what conservatives are all about. Yuck.” This rhetorical device, implying that an extremist viewpoint is typical of an entire people or movement, is not only one of Hitchens’ favorite tools, but one used by demagogues of all political inclinations.
In this, Hitchens is emblematic of the challenge independent conservatives face in crafting an independent, progressive conservative movement. The far right wishes to present themselves as more centrist and mainstream than they are, and the left are happy to oblige, hoping to attract the disaffected to their own ranks.
And yet, there lies the opportunity.