11 March 2011

Hitchens on what breaks heroes and idealists

I should read more of Christopher Hitchen’s stuff. He’s a contributing editor and columnist for Vanity Fair, but apart from the occasional browse, I’m not a VF regular. If I hadn’t known that Hitchens wrote for the magazine, I wouldn’t have made it past the April 2011 issue’s cover photo of Robert ‘Twilight’ Pattinson molesting an alligator. I’m glad I braved that salacious image of reptilian abuse (though I suspect some minor psychic trauma was sustained), because the Hitch’s article on the Egyptian revolution (‘What I Don’t See at the Revolution’) contained a standout line, a poetic observation that captured the reason why social change is so bloody difficult, frustrating and, in many cases, nigh impossible.

But first, some context. Hitchens wrote the article before Hosni Mubarak abdicated the Egyptian Presidency. Hence its partly speculative character as Hitchens pondered on the possible outcome(s) of the protests in Tahrir Square. And he was not optimistic.

I was a small-time eye-witness to those “bliss was it in that dawn” episodes, having been in Lisbon in 1974, South Korea in 1985, Czechoslovakia in 1988, Hungary and Romania in 1989, and Chile and Poland and Spain at various points along the [revolutionary] transition. I also watched some of the early stages of the historic eruption in South Africa. And in Egypt, alas – except for the common factor of human spontaneity and irrepressible dignity, what Saul Bellow called the “universal eligibility to be noble” – I can’t find any parallels, models, or precedents at all. […] This really is a new language: the language of civil society, in which the Arab world is almost completely unlettered and unversed.

Referring to Karl Marx’s definition of revolution as “the midwife by whom the new society is born from the body of the old”, Hitchens believed that while Egypt’s “old body may be racked with pangs, and even attended by quite a few would-be midwives, it’s very difficult to find the pulse of the embryo.”

With the perfect vision afforded by hindsight, we now see that Hitchens’s misgivings about the Egyptian people’s ability and resolve are largely undue. The revolution happened, even if new challenges await the freshly emancipated country.

Now for that standout line. Appropriately, it sits within a paragraph on Iran. A textbook example of an aborted revolution, the Green Movement’s courageous efforts have been stymied by both state thuggery and, as Hitchens points out, something else equally pernicious, which I’ve highlighted below.

As we sadly remember, the Ahmadinejad crew in Iran was also able to retain power in the face of popular (mainly urban) democratic insurrection. It, too, was ruthless in the use of force and able to rely on the passivity of a large and fairly pious rural population, itself dependent in turn on state subsidy. Heroism breaks its heart, and idealism its back, on the intransigence of the credulous and the mediocre, manipulated by the cynical and the corrupt.

And that is why social change can end up stillborn.



  1. Came over from Furious Purpose. Like the post and agree with you on Hitchens - I love the way he uses language. Be sure to watch the video from CBS´s 60 Minutes for a recent - ish interview with him.

  2. Welcome vanitas, and thanks. Apparently the Hitch also writes for The Atlantic. Thinking of grabbing a copy of his autobio sometime. But between reading magazines and blogs, my book consumption has suffered.

    I'll look up that interview, if it isn't the one I've already watched. Thanks for the info.