The horrifying scenes from Afghanistan over the past couple of weeks have briefly pushed the endless culture war cycle off the front pages of British newspapers. Indeed, when looking at the images of panicked crowds packed into Kabul airport pleading for their salvation, or the victims of yesterday’s tragic bomb attack, the media’s manufactured outrage about whether the woke brigade has cancelled gardening or if the trans lobby is plotting to infiltrate women’s Olympic ping-pong suddenly seems embarrassingly facile.
That said, it is useful to think about how the debate around the ‘war on terror’, which started 20 years ago, laid much of the ground for our current contentious political discourse.
It was in this pre-2008 financial crash, pre-Black Lives Matter, pre-Donald Trump era of unchallenged western supremacy that the west’s confidence in spreading its own brand of liberal capitalist democracy to all the corners of the world reached its height. This idea of western society as the final stage of human evolution continues to sit beneath many of the right’s arguments in today’s culture wars, and is at the root of some conservatives’ refusal to accept even the most muted criticism of systemic problems in society. Instead, they manufacture internal threats in order to paper over the failings and contradictions of the west’s own economic and social relations.
So, unsurprisingly, when the west faced a very real attack on 11 September 2001, many on the right were exhilarated: now there was a real external threat that they could focus on. Indeed, for many conservatives in the west, the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre served as confirmation that the 21st century was going to be the age of what the American academic Samuel P. Huntington referred to as the “clash of civilisations“.
Huntington argued that since western liberal democracy had vanquished all “foes” that came before it over the last hundred years, now, all that remained in its way was the regressive spectre of theocratic Islam. By this logic, what was at stake in the war on terror was not just questions of security or geopolitical advantage, it was a titanic struggle between light and dark, the Jedi versus the Sith, the forces of good lining up against the “axis of evil”.
Whilst today, such proclamations read like the script of a rejected Marvel movie, at the time nobody gave this understanding of global politics more intellectual credibility than the author, journalist and provocateur par excellence of Anglo-American politics, Christopher Hitchens.
Perhaps the 21st century’s most famous atheist, it’s ironic that Hitchens has become an almost-saintly figure in today’s culture wars. An inspiration for many of today’s rightwing provocateurs, Hitchens’ legacy is extremely helpful in making sense of the current political landscape, particularly in terms of how the right frames western intervention and involvement in global issues, such as the economy or climate, as a spiritual and god-given mission.
Defecting to the right.
Hitchens emerged as a writer and sloganeering protegee of the ‘new left’ in Britain in the 1970s, and was among the few voices who openly advocated for international socialism in the broadsheet press. He moved to the US in the early 1980s, with his pointed attacks on Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton only serving to reinforce his reputation as a leading critic of American neo-imperialism.
However, all of that changed after 9/11, when Hitchens broke faith with his leftist comrades, undergoing a road to Damascus-like conversion and transforming into a tub-thumping cheerleader for American military intervention.
Hitchens’ metamorphosis into the intellectual champion of the Bush administration gained him not only new political allies, but also a new level of mainstream popularity. Whilst he had long been beloved by literary critics, a place atop bestseller lists and the ability to head up packed-out speaking tours had long evaded Hitchens until he embraced US liberal interventionism.
Significantly, Hitchens didn’t gain his new mass audience through traditional print and broadcast media, but through the emerging titan of social media. He himself credited his late-stage celebrity status as being “because of Youtube“.
Hitchens unwittingly became one of the first viral Youtubers, after anonymous admirers uploaded a backlog of his interviews, speeches and debates onto the burgeoning video sharing site. His videos proved to be a perfect fit for social media given how easily they could be edited into short, punchy clips saturated in humour and conflict. Hitchens’ savage put-downs of his intellectual opponents became box office gold in the new hyper-polarised world of online political discussion.
Shifting the blame.
A strange ecosystem grew around the Hitchens Youtube universe. Posters began to create their own code around the videos, ramping up both the level of combat implied and in the dopamine hit that viewers could expect to enjoy if they watched.
Significantly, the videos wouldn’t just include information about the event or TV show, they would also be given titles like “Christopher Hitchens DESTROYS…” or “Christopher Hitchens OWNS…” with the most devastating insults earning the treasured moniker of “HITCHSLAP!” This hyper-masculine language helped to drive video views into the hundreds of thousands – and sometimes even up to the millions- setting the trend for how commentators like Jordan Peterson or Candace Owens would come to market themselves.
Hitchens, a former socialist had, in the sharpest of u-turns, become the poster boy for a growing online conservative movement that spanned conspiratorial libertarians to alt-right neo-nazis. But with the war on terror fading into the political background, as the west was beset by its own structural crises, Hitchens’ self-appointed inheritors rebranded the threat to western civilisation as coming, not from armed Islamic fundamentalists, but from blue-ticked ‘social justice warriors’.
A culture war legend.
The years after Hitchens’ untimely passing in 2011 saw the online conservative world begin to move its attention away from the war on terror in the east, and towards an internal culture war in the west. Much like how the premature death of Kurt Cobain released a pandora’s box of emaciated, long-haired opportunists all competing to take the title of ‘tortured genius of the MTV generation’, Hitchens’ death inspired a new slew of rightwing provocateurs, both online and on traditional media platforms, all doing bad karaoke versions of his trademark contrarianism.
For British rightwing commentators, in particular, Hitchens’ success story showed that there was a pot of gold waiting for anyone able to break into America’s evergreen culture wars. The same reactionary talking points – about how racial justice had gone too far or how feminism was behind all of America’s ills – that would usually be heard from the mouths of angry, midwestern talk radio DJ’s suddenly gained intellectual gravitas when delivered in the queen’s English.
The historian Niall Ferguson, the journalist Andrew Sullivan and the Youtuber Paul Joseph Watson all became contenders for the crown of ‘new British truth teller’, beloved by the American right. And, of course, their reference point is always the same: Christopher Hitchens.
Even in the US, his legacy can be felt everywhere. When Milo Yiannopoulos briefly threatened to turn online trolling into a lucrative transatlantic literary career, the talk show host Bill Maher christened him as “a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens“. Meanwhile, in 2019, the podcaster and former professor Bret Weinstein proclaimed that the author “Douglas Murray is the closest thing we have to Christopher Hitchens…But I find him more nuanced than Hitch, and vastly more careful and compassionate“.
A gamble gone wrong.
But what these Hitchens imitators never seriously reckon with is the extent to which his late-stage popularity was due to an intellectual gamble that has now been proven to have been utterly and horrifyingly wrong. Hitchens allowed his commitment to a romantic conception of western enlightenment to override his long-held critique of American intervention in countries from Vietnam to Nicaragua. After 9/11, he believed that, this time, the US and its allies really were on the side of the angels; that this time the bombs and bullets would actually clear the way for a better world to emerge. We can see over the past couple of weeks just how mistaken that gamble was.
The west’s justifications for foreign intervention in the war on terror rested on an acceptance of a fundamental moral distinction between western civilisation and the rest of the world; a belief that life here is not just different, but more just, more pure, more good. By this logic, the west takes on the omnipotent position once held by god, able to pass judgement and administer justice to others who must in return show only reverence and gratitude for such purifying violence.
Of course, the underside of this belief is that such a precious, perfect civilisation is always precarious and must be defended from an endless onslaught of threats, both internal and external. This fear is what rightwing culture warriors mobilize to empower themselves. The fact that the war on terror, which relied on this same narrative, has now been shown to have been an unmitigated disaster, will probably still not be enough to prompt them to change their minds.
Instead, they insist on laying the blame for the failure of US interventionism at the feet of “wokeness”. Apparently, the reason the war on terror failed to transform vast swathes of central and south Asia into mini-versions of Massachusetts isn’t because of the inherent hubris of the project, but because critical race theory and queer studies have undermined its ability to complete its god-given mission to reform all humanity.
For a movement that draws so much inspiration from a famed atheist, today’s conservative culture warriors’ unfaltering belief in the inherent supremacy of the west has truly become an article of faith.
This is the fourth article in Contesting Culture, a new series asking who really owns British culture. Read part one, part two and part three here.