Whether or not one agrees with Christopher HItchens\’ conclusions a surprising large number of people don\’t question the statements of \”fact\” on which he bases his argument. After all he is male, white, has what sounds to American ears a posh well-educated \”British accent.\” He went to the right schools and speaks with the tone of authority–so what more is there to say?
The first thing to say that HItchens not infrequently is wrong. By this I don\’t mean that frequently I disagree with HItchens\’ conclusions but rather that sometimes he is simply wrong on the facts. And since he is wrong on some facts for all I know he is wrong on many facts. And since he is well-educated enough (and has enough resources) that he can easily find out what the facts actually are then he is either consciously lying, unable to conceive of the fact he could be wrong, and feels that the point he is making is so important that fudging or overlooking a few facts is acceptable.
Case in point, in his Slate.com article Lord Haw Haw and Anwar al-Awlaki Hitchen\’s wrote:
The United States happens also to be almost uniquely generous in conferring citizenship: making it available to all those who draw their first breath within its borders.
Now that statement is a piece of arrant nonsense. Leaving aside the past actions the American government denying access to citizenship to some groups of immigrants the country is today far from being \”almost unique\” in granting birthright citizenship. The number of member nations in the UN is 193. Let\’s round up and say that there are at the moment 200 nations. Over 30 of those nations recognize birthright citizenship. So the United States is among a minority of nations there need to be far, far fewer before the phrase \”almost uniquely\” become appropriate.
Hitchens may be suffering here from \”old worldism.\” He himself was born and raised in Britain and most European nations do not grant birthright citizenship. However the United States, like most of the other nations in the Western Hemisphere, was built from immigrants and historically offered few bars to children of those immigrants becoming citizens. The mistake he makes here is not particularly relevant to the overall argument he is making however it warns the reader that he is arrogant and/or careless about facts.
A further, minor example of the same thing can be found later on in the same article when he writes of William Joyce:
He actually became rather a popular entertainment item in Britain, his arrogant drawling tones earning him the nickname “Lord Haw Haw.”
Despite that rather definitive statement as to why Joyce was known as \”Lord Haw Haw\” there is some question as which voice of German propaganda the original epithet \”Lord Haw Haw\” was used to describe. At least four different people were dubbed \”Lord Haw Haw\” during the war. We also know that some members of the British media simply used that phrase to describe any English language speaking German propagandists irrespective of their particular manners of speech.
Again, this is a minor point except that we become lazy listeners/readers and HItchens (like many other \”respected\” pundits\”) becomes a lazy writer/speaker thinker if the underpinnings of their arguments are not subjected to scrutiny.
Interestingly enough neither of these points is pertinent to the case Hitchens is arguing–indeed they obfuscate it. William Joyce (the Lord Haw Haw to whom HItchens is referring) argued as to his \”true\” citizenship as part of his defense against being executed as a traitor. He claimed that since he was actually an American citizen he could not be guilty of treason to Britain. al-Awlaki, unlike Joyce, was not tried in a court of law. al-Awlaki was not executed he was assassinated. In fact he was assassinated while outside the United States on the basis of the President \”deciding\” he was a traitor. In other words, the argument is not whether al-Awlaki was actually an American citizen but whether the President acted extra-judicially. To bring up any other points is to muddy the situation rather than make it clearer.
As George Orwell, one of Hitchens\’ favourite writers, put it. \”When there is a gap between one\’s real and one\’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”