With his trademark cigarette-in-hand and throaty British accent, Christopher Hitchens, famed author, political eye, and Vanity Fair columnist, discussed the virtues of being a neoconservative to a packed room of students and faculty this Wednesday. Sponsored by the John M. Olin Center on Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, "Can One Be a Neoconservative?" ended with Hitchens walking out of the building for a smoke. Several students breathed his second-hand smoke while carrying on intellectual chitchat. Students at his side, he walked all the way to the Quadrangle Club, where he dined with a handful of his fans.
Characterized by his rhetorical abilities, which have often been known to enhance the content of his political assertions, Hitchens followed Director of the Olin Center and professor of political science Nathon Tarcov's introduction by saying, "Thank you, Nathan, Professor Tarcov, for that particularly cryptic and terse introduction." Periodically sliding his hands through his hair, Hitchens discussed a timeline of events, from 1989 to present, through which he encountered various forms of and insights toward neoconservatism.
"In 1989, if you'd asked me the same question ["Can one be a neoconservative?"], I would've answered with a series of negatives and negations," he said.
Coined by socialist Michael Harrington in the 1970s, the term "neoconservative" originally referred to the movement of anti-Soviet liberals and social democrats who focused primarily on confronting the Soviet bloc abroad.
Hitchens described the neoconservatives as a movement "capable of dishonesty" and "afflicted with self-hatred and denial." "This school is inclined to the worship of power," he said. "And they're brilliant." He discussed the split between various strands of neoconservative thought, and argued that U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's theory was the direct opposite of Henry Kissinger's under the Nixon-Ford administrations, in that it sees "shame and disgrace" in ruling other states by proxy.
Hitchens also expressed his support for the Iraq war. "Coexistence with psychopathic, aggressive dictators is not possible. And that's a good thing," Hitchens said. "Because it's not desirable."
When asked by an audience member how he could be so pro-war when so many lives were being taken and so much money was being spent on the military, he responded, "I'm not myself a pacifist. I don't think pacifism's a morally strong position. Sometimes it's immoral not to act."
He argued that "much more violence and cruelty" could come as a result of not acting preemptively. He criticized the pacifist mentality that "We don't want to get our boots dirty at some fucking place like Kurdistan."
According to Hitchens, if a nation breaks with genocide laws, commits repeated aggression to its neighbors, does not follow the rules of nuclear nonproliferation treaties, and serves as a state supporter of international terrorism, it should be reprimanded militarily. "Iraq did all four," he said. "It can't be sovereign."
Wearing a Kurdish flag on his lapel, Hitchens also spoke about his support for the Kurdish people in their fight for independence.
Hitchens said he is a big fan of the University of Chicago and it's "bracing climate," adding that he even advised Joshua Bartel, a fourth-year in the College studying philosophy and Hitchens's wife's second-cousin, to choose this University when he was considering different colleges.
Bartel said he thought a lot of people agree with Hitchens just because they like the way he talks. "You can judge this by how eager and ready people are to laugh at what he says, even if it is not particularly funny," Bartel said. "Of course, I cannot say it is easy to challenge him on any of his political points. He is a man of deep conviction and, however overstated he may seem, there is absolutely nothing disingenuous about what he says."
At the dinner following the talk, someone asked Hitchens why he was always so sure he was attacking the right people. He answered, in his sardonic humor: "I'm a mammal, and like any mammal, I know an enemy when I see one."