Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Christopher Hitchens and the Jewish Lust for Militarism

with 4 comments

by weiner

A few years ago I saw Christopher Hitchens speak about his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. It was about 6 pm, and Hitch has hammered. Glassy eyed and on unsteady legs, Hitchens delivered a marvelous address, both interesting and hilarious.

I certainly don’t agree with all his positions, but I admire his skill with the pen and his role as provocateur. And after reading this uncharitable interview, I discovered we have something in common. The author, Decca Aitkenhead, notes:

When the invasion of Iraq was first debated, one couldn’t fail to notice the preponderance of left-wing men of a certain age who came out in support of the war. Radicals as adults, but often from conservative backgrounds, now beginning to confront their own mortality, and preoccupied by masculinity and legacy, their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.

In 2006, Hitchens’ wife, the American writer Carol Blue, told the New Yorker her husband was one of “those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been. There’s a whole tough-guy, ‘I am violent, I will use violence, I will take some of these people out before I die’ talk, which is key to his psychology – I don’t care what he says. I think it is partly to do with his upbringing.”

Is there any truth in what his wife said? He pauses for a second. Then, unexpectedly: “Yeah. Yes. One of the things I’ve realised, writing the book, is that it has to be true.”

I was a left-wing man of a much younger age then, but I also supported the Iraq War. I’ve though about this a lot over the years. I certainly think it has something to do with my particular Canadian-Jewish upbringing: I grew up in a household where the major war of interest was not Vietnam, but World War II,  the “good war.” Both my grandparents and my great uncle had fought in it, for either Poland or the Soviets or both. The other wars I knew about, of course, were Israel’s wars, chiefly the War of Independence, the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, all understood by my uncritical Zionist mind as righteous struggles for Israel’s survival.

Like many a young Jewish boy though, I had my issues with masculinity. Growing up, I never much cared for Sesame Street, but loved He-Man and G.I. Joe. I became a big boxing fan. In college, I read Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, and was struck by the final section, where Alexander Portnoy visits Israel and exclaims, “Here we’re the WASPs!” Visiting Israel myself, seeing the proud Jewish men (often really boys) in uniforms, armed with M-16s, I was in awe of the macho Sabra ideal even before I read Leon Uris’ Exodus, which only happened a few years later.

When Matt Taibbi wrote this post, excoriating David Brooks for his attributing a militaristic “Christian” zeal to George W. Bush and even Barack Obama in their leadership in the War on Terror. The religion that jumped out at me, though, when I read the piece, was not Christianity but Judaism. First Taibbi admitted that his attitude towards Brooks “is colored by certain strong feelings… about his appearance–he just looks like a professional groveler/ass-kisser.” Taibbi went on:

Brooks is the kind of character who has thrived everywhere he’s lived throughout human history; it’s incredibly easy to imagine the nebbishy, hairy-kneed Gaius Domitus Brooksius strolling through Rome and swelling with pride over his new appointment to the post of Senior Licker of the Caligulan butt crack.

Taibbi’s use of the word nebbish was telling. Later, he employed the term again:

Brooks is a perfect example of the kind of spineless Beltway geek we always see beating the war drum at times like these. It’s because nebbishly [sic] little dorks like Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum got their books dumped in high school that we end up dropping daisy cutters on Afghan sheep herds and shipping working class American kids halfway around the world to get their nuts blown off. That sounds like a simplistic explanation, but anyone who doesn’t have a keen ear for the pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred is going to have a hard time understanding Washington politics.

When I first read this, an alarm went off in my head: “Brooks and Paul Wolfowitz and David Frum,” Jew, Jew, Jew. I looked at Taibbi’s wikipedia page, and noted that he had played some form of professional basketball and baseball. Here was the cool, hip goyish athlete, picking on the nerdy, nebbishy Jews.

This resonated with me because I had been there, even if I went to an all-Jewish high school and the bullies there were Jews too. I don’t think Taibbi is an antisemite. In fact, I think he’s on to something, but he veered off track when focusing on “Christian Warriors.” He was right to identify the “pencil-pusher’s eternal quest for macho cred” but it’s very often a Jewish quest, including Brooks and Wolfowitz and Frum but also Hitchens (despite his being anti-Zionist) and undoubtedly many others. I know it because I felt it, and still feel it, even if my views on particular military conflicts have changed.


Written by David Weinfeld

May 22, 2010 at 11:24

4 Responses

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  1. Zach Snyder.


    May 26, 2010 at 18:22

  2. […] and fans has shifted dramatically. Boxing has always been popular among American immigrants. Every young Jewish schlemiel who aspired to some sort of masculine ideal has devoured books like The Jewish Boxer’s Hall of Fame or When Boxing was a Jewish Sport. In […]

  3. […] verse makes me happy. Maybe that’s because of my own unresolved issues concerning the military and masculinity. Unfortunately, lots of people innocent people got boots in their ass, and Bin Laden’s butt […]

  4. […] made him more interesting. He tended to hyperbole, but he was not a battle-hungry sadist. He had an ambiguous relationship to militarism, to be sure, as many of us armchair warriors do. But he was not the bad man his critics make him […]

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