There was an element of spectacle even before the show began. On Wednesday night, hundreds stood in line on the street, ringing the blocks around CUNY Baruch College. They were awaiting entrance into an already sold-out Mason Hall, crammed with hordes of journalists, activists and agitators, all captured by the cameras of C-SPAN. Inside, two outspoken British heavyweights prepared for what the Guardian in London had billed the “Grapple in the Big Apple.” At stake were two competing visions of the world as presented by two respected proponents of either side of the Iraq war debate. What resulted was little more than the fawning of two egos.
Since mid-May this year, British MP George Galloway and illustrious columnist Christopher Hitchens have waged a very public feud. Ignoring the questions Hitchens posed to him about his dubious involvement in Oil for Food at a Senate hearing in Washington, Galloway addressed his interlocutor as a “drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay.” Hitchens, almost as famous for his propensity to gin as for his reincarnation into an Iraq war advocate after decades leading the intellectual left, stalked off, calling the abrasive Scotsman a “thug.”
Of late, both have pinned their controversial careers and reputations on the mast of the Iraq war: Hitchens through his faith in the benign voyage of the ship of American democracy, and Galloway in his desire to sink this vessel of imperialist delusion and greed. As a result, both have seen their stars rise in the public eye.
After his acrimonious split with The Nation — his last column for it described the magazine as an “echo chamber for those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama Bin Laden” — Hitchens has become the darling of the mainstream, not to mention conservative, press. He has been published everywhere from the New York Post to Vanity Fair and has appeared on programs from MSNBC to “The Daily Show.”
Galloway, unrelentingly accused of harboring either communist or fascist or jihadist leanings (perhaps depending on the angle of the sun), also drew attention when splitting from the Labour Party and subsequently forming the vociferously anti-war Respect Party. In the most recent election, he ran against the pro-war incumbent Labour MP of the heavily Muslim Bethnal Green & Bow seat in London and won. His debate with Hitchens over the Iraq war was a curious first stop in a sweeping U.S. national tour, whose slogan urges us to “Stand Up and Be Counted: No to War and Occupation.”
Now, in the packed auditorium, Galloway and Hitchens faced off, hurling invectives at each other from the opening remarks onward. Hitchens cited Galloway’s questionable courting of “unmentionable thugs and criminals,” most notably the ruling Assad family in Syria. Galloway vehemently objected, branding Hitchens a liar and sternly advising him that “your nose is growing.”
As Hitchens glorified the “nobility” of the Coalition’s invasion, Galloway decried his own Britain and the U.S. as “the two biggest rogue states in the world.” Hitchens suggested Galloway would rather have men like Saddam Hussein still ruling with an iron fist, saying “now this is masochism, but it’s being offered to you by sadists.” Galloway responded by noting all the corrupt governments tacitly backed by Hitchens’s new “neo-con friends” and asked acerbically “do you want me to run through the dictatorships you’re supporting … that is masochism.” As they traded stabs, the two approached each other with unconcealed venom, but equally unsatisfying arguments.
The debate about the lives of millions of people thousands of miles away descended into the head-butting of two demagogic personalities. Blustering hot air and buoyed by heckling from both camps in the audience, the contestants’ most memorable moments had little to do with debating the rights and wrongs of occupation. Responding to past jibes about his alcoholism, Hitchens located Galloway in a “gutter beneath another gutter, gurgling away.” Galloway spoke of Hitchens’s renowned socialist past and how now, with burgeoning pockets and “Zionist allies,” Hitchens had reversed the very forces of nature, “metamorphosing from a butterfly into a slug.”
Hitchens called upon the same stale, lazy criticisms of the anti-war movement — seen often in these very pages — and accused Galloway of abetting terrorism and being an enemy to Iraqi peace. Galloway dredged up the true, but sadly irrelevant, condemnation of the hawk neo-con establishment, citing how “Baathists were the best friends and customers” of the United States and Britain when Saddam committed most of his atrocities. The Scottish MP pressed on, insisting that Hitchens was kidding himself if he believed in the goodwill of American occupation. Bush’s friends in Bechtel and Halliburton are “robber barons, vulture capitalists cutting Iraq like a shwarma.” Galloway cited the sea-change in American public opinion now against a war that “has destabilized the world, multiplied your enemies,” leaving Hitchens and his few hawkish fellow travellers on the “shores of the crazed ‘neo-con’ far right-wing.”
Fed up with Galloway’s yelling and showing signs of his own disillusionment with the Bush administration, Hitchens could only offer meek appeals to “internationalism and compassion.” Yet the celebrity writer ended the event with an ironically appropriate gesture. He addressed the vocal crowd, a crowd that had come to witness a withering fight, not constructive discussion. The two gladiators were now signing books, and Hitchens warned the audience that “now, if you want to talk to me, you need a receipt. This is America.”
This is the state of today’s political discussion: Even the contest between two celebrated, clever and colorful ideologues lapses into shameless self-promotion. Galloway v. Hitchens not only emblemized the poverty of contemporary debate, but its pointlessness.
Ishaan Tharoor is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.