Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Cage Match: Galloway versus Hitchens

11.24.09 The posting below was the first on Reflecting Light, more than four years ago. Probably no one at all would have read it had not "Michael Blowhard," of 2 Blowhards, given me a plug. (I had been a commenter on 2 Blowhards for some time.) I'm still grateful to him for introducing me to his audience.

As for the posting, I think it was a good enough description of the event. However, I was still rather deluded at the time concerning Iraq, which I now belive was one of the most foolish enterprises a U.S. president ever got us into before the incumbent took the reins. I haven't heard anything about George Gallagher in quite a while, but I doubt my (lack of) esteem for him would be any different today.

But I'm also somewhat less of a Chris Hitchens fan nowadays. His writing was, and is, elegant and thought-provoking, even when I disagree with his points. And he is something of an old-fashioned English eccentric, quite out of phase in personal style with the priggish modern Left, which counts in his favor. Yet a leftist he remains, or a "right liberal" in Lawrence Auster's terminology, and his positions have disappointed me too many times.

It’s hard to understand now that rhetoric was considered a high art form, a basic component of civilized life, from at least the Greek Golden Age (fifth century B.C.) right up to the 19th century. In our time, rhetoric has degenerated into speech making, with all that implies of droning banality. Likewise, we smile knowingly when we’re told that people traveled hundreds of miles to hear Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debate one another in the Illinois Senate Campaign of 1858. Those audiences, it’s assumed, showed up because they were stupefied with boredom in their farms and small towns, withering from the lack of satellite dishes affixed to their log cabins.

But the much anticipated debate on Iraq between George Galloway and Christopher Hitchens showed that a round of verbal Mutually Assured Destruction can still be electrifying. Naturally, the respective cheerleaders for Messrs. Galloway and Hitchens, as well as the punditocracy, all found much to deride, and some pronounced the whole business dreary. There was certainly plenty to make anyone cringe, but I don’t know how the great divide over Iraq could have been expressed more vividly, all the ad hominem attacks notwithstanding.

It’s a kick just to see how the two protagonists present themselves. Here is Hitchens, upholding his honor as a dissolute writer, shirt collar unbuttoned, looking like he’s just come off a three-day bender. He often plays nervously with his eyeglasses in his hands, as though not quite sure what to do with either. Still, even when he’s obviously extemporizing or heatedly interrupting to protest criticism, the phrases and sentences are beautifully constructed, the mot juste ready on his tongue.

George Galloway can’t have been better cast as Hitchens’s opposite. No honey tongued smoothie he, his roots in tough, plain-speaking Scotland on display. Yet, attired in what appears to be a cream-colored suit, white shirt and off-white tie, Galloway looks every bit the dandy. You can and should detest his ideas, but you can’t knock the delivery. He has an actor’s sense of timing and gesture, knows how to make a point even if it’s absurd.

The differences only become more pronounced as the event proceeds. Hitchens is devastating in his opening remarks, but seems to wind down gradually during the evening. Galloway begins poorly from a rhetorical standpoint, culminating in his claim that Hitchens, once a political ally, is a butterfly that has devolved into a “slug,” leaving a trail of “slime.” Crude stuff, and I’d like to think even a few of Galloway's supporters in the audience had the sensitivity to be embarrassed at it (but I wouldn’t place any bets on that being so).

Yet Galloway does, to be honest, turn out to be a thumping good defender of the indefensible. I enjoy listening to demagogues, if they are skillful enough; it’s a craft, albeit a dark one, and there’s a low pleasure in seeing it done to a turn. By the close of play, Galloway has Hitchens on the ropes. (Again, you understand, I’m just referring to delivery, not content.)

All in all, the match was nothing like the dry and stylistically impoverished discussions of issues you can watch on PBS. It was more like two hungry, caged tigers, splendid in form, allowed to try to claw each other’s guts out. Purists can decry the level of personal insults both men generated, and by the rules that have made formal debating a synonym for academic tedium, they are right. But Galloway and Hitchens each presented a viewpoint that is widely held, and put their cases strongly, even if the former's was beyond contemptible. You are unlikely to see a more spirited statement of both sides in the controversy that that has driven a wedge through the western world, and whose consequences for the future can hardly be overstated.

C-SPAN2, which morphs into Book TV on the weekends, will re-broadcast the debate on Sunday, September 25.

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