There seems to be something sleazy and easy about George Galloway. Christopher Hitchens is an eloquent intellectual bully, and when the two men met to debate the war in Iraq, Galloway didn't stand a chance.
The Galloway-Hitchens debate, billed as "The Grapple in the Big Apple," happened at New York's Baruch College on September 14 before a sold-out crowd. It struck me as sad that such an American debate -- arguably necessary, as too much debate about US policy is squelched in the name of consensus -- would be between two Brits. The audience generated by the heavily advertised debate evidenced hunger for such discourse.
Christopher Hitchens, one-time hero of the Trotskyist left, is well-known to North Americans as a big-thinking writer and acerbic pundit. More recently, however, The Hitch (as he is often known) has been reviled in progressive circles for taking political postures on Iraq and on the wider war on terrorism which are virtually indistinguishable from those of so-called neoconservatives.
George Galloway is less well-known. In Britain, the Scottish MP -- he now represents an east London constituency -- is better known for his far-left (read: verging on old-line Communist) convictions. He was ejected from the Labour Party in 2003 for reportedly urging British troops in Iraq to disobey the orders of "Tony Blair's lie machine."
Galloway surfaced in the US last year to appear before the US Senate Subcommittee on Investigations. He was there ostensibly to answer accusations that he took bribes from Saddam Hussein's regime. Galloway's sneering contempt for US senators and US imperialism drew the ire of American patriots and pro-war pundits. But, with that, Galloway also became a darling of many in progressive anti-war circles.
"The Hitch" and "Gorgeous George" reportedly bumped against one another at the Senate last spring. Their exchange was shorn of civility. Galloway apparently called Hitchens a "drink-sodden, former Trotskyist popinjay." Hitchens apparently replied, "You're a real thug, aren't you?" That set the tone for the public debate that would happen months later.
Thinking person's porn
The debate was disappointing. It turned out to be not so much a dialectic or clash of ideas, but really just two political Brits airing their visceral contempt for one another before a crowd. However lurid in tone, it was entertaining. Such events can be the thinking person's outing to a strip club or porno theatre. Both men were predictable, saying exactly what their respective boosters wanted to hear.
Galloway played hard on themes of US imperialism (comparisons to Vietnam) and cronyism by the Bush administration's neo-con comrades. He was onto something, no doubt.
But this was personal. For Galloway, it seems that Hitchens personifies these US policy sins. Galloway accused Hitchens of being a "jester at the court of the Bourbon Bushes." Describing his opponent's rightward lurch, Galloway said: "What we have witnessed is something unique in natural history: the metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug."
Galloway's posse of supporters hissed and hooted at Hitchens throughout the debate. Hitchens was characteristically cool, urging them to cease and desist with the "zoo-like noises," which, he reminded them, were being recorded.
Hitchens played on his argument in favor of the war as a humanitarian policy. He has often argued that realist status quo politics will not do: that doing nothing in the face of "evil" does not mean nothing happens; it means something else happens. For Hitchens, more than a decade of sanctions on Iraq were immoral unless regime change was the end goal. Thus, he insists, the war is justifiable.
As much as I'm personally dismayed by Hitchens's defence of what I consider indefensible, Galloway was the wrong man to go up against his brainpower. Galloway, with his union-hall rhetoric and his penchant for cheap ad hominem throwaways, confronted The Hitch's Marxist-trained intellect and Oxford debating skill.
But, therein lies the key point: Hitch is a public intellectual arguing vociferously in favor of a war that is being fought, lost, and died for by other human beings far, far away.
This is where "Gorgeous George" did land one good punch. "This war," Galloway said, "in which he [Hitchens] glories, although I wish, how I wish he would put on tin hat and pick up a gun, and go and fight himself. How I wish, how I wish to see that sight."
Galloway's point sums up everything that's so pornographic about old men in suits and narrow-shouldered pundits plumping for war. War seems so virtual and easy when it's reduced to an ideas game. And, in that respect, the entertainment value of such a debate is more lurid than the seediest strip club or porno theatre.
Andres Kahar is a disillusioned writer living in Toronto.