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London Press Watch

Hitchens and Sullivan in America

The New York Observer’s Ron Rosenbaum, who writes a column called “Edgy Enthusiast”, has proclaimed Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan the leading commentators in America on the war against terrorism. Both men have, from their respective left-wing and right-wing positions, deplored all criticism of the American response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Hitchens and Sullivan emigrated to the United States in the 1980s after careers, respectively, on the New Statesman and the Daily Telegraph.Below a cartoon portraying these two Britons as the Sean Connery and Michael Caine characters in the movie-version of The Man Who Would Be King, Rosenbaum suggests these two Britons are latter-day George Orwells. “Perhaps it does have something to do with their expatriate-Brit identity,” the Edgy Enthusiast muses. “One could say that Orwell is the secret weapon, the smart bomb with which Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Hitchens have achieved pre-eminence over their polemical opponents”.

News that some expatriate Britons (the day Americans cease saying “Brits” can’t come soon enough) are succeeding in the United States is welcome, although it will be greeted in Britain with the familiar grudging admiration meted out for most overseas successes, especially British successes in the US. But for two people, neither of them living in Britain, to be fêted simultaneously as the Orwells of their generation is unusual. This news is likely to lead to either a surge of jealousy among the British journalists they left behind or to a demand that one of them return to the homeland where Orwellian virtues are in short supply.

Yet even Hitchens and Sullivan might balk at Rosenbaum’s assertion that George Orwell is their “smart bomb”—the “daisy cutter” that’s allowed them to put themselves ahead of their American rivals. A “daisy cutter”, in addition to being a nasty bomb, is also the name for a very unsporting cricket delivery (which may partly explain an instinctive antipathy towards the “daisy-cutter” bomb in cricket-loving nations such as India and Pakistan).

Moreover, are the successes of Hitchens and Sullivan fully explained by the inspiration they both find in George Orwell? Or do they say as much about the country in which Hitchens and Sullivan have so adeptly inserted themselves? Orwell was courageous but famously shy. One requirement of journalism and punditry in America is to be bold, prolific, and equally comfortable with the spoken and written word. To demur is never a strength. Because almost every American newspaper and magazine is currently eager to publish whatever Hitchens and Sullivan wish to write, and because they can turn out copy relentlessly, they are in a perfect position to show off their talents. In Rosenbaum’s view, Sullivan’s productivity even outshines that of the unstoppable Hitchens. Sullivan, he says, “has turned his political Web site … into a powerful weapon of nonstop, 24/7, omnipresent total-surveillance panoptican punditry. Using his political Web zine … he’s done more than just frame the debate; he’s dominated it, smothered it with an overwhelming energy and forcefulness that allows him to riddle his opponents with ceaseless real-time hectoring and invective and polemic”.

On American television, Hitchens and Sullivan have mastered what would have surely defeated the noble but shy Orwell (had chat shows been around in his time). Neither man could ever be accused of being remotely uncomfortable in front of TV cameras. That’s often not true of their fellow guests on American political chat shows, many of whom believe that on television they must always appear reasonable and nice, as if television were a medium for making friends. Hitchens and Sullivan don’t seem to care if an appearance on TV makes them enemies. They treat the medium as if it were an enemy in itself. Yet such directness is not inherently British or American, let alone Orwellian.

The presence of George Orwell that Rosenbaum detects in the writing and performances of Hitchens and Sullivan therefore only partly explains why the two men have stood out since Sept. 11. The respective call to arms they have made suggests that Hitchens and Sullivan are not just later-day Orwells. After years in America, they have become commentators who no longer need to be forever compared to their intellectual forebears, or indeed to anyone else.