By Christopher Hitchens:
Three men: Mohamed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu – a Tunisian street vendor, an Egyptian restaurateur and a Libyan husband and father. In the spring of 2011, the first of them set himself alight in the town of Sidi Bouzid, in protest at just one too many humiliations at the hands of petty officialdom. The second also took his own life as Egyptians began to rebel en masse at the stagnation and meaninglessness of Mubarak's Egypt. The third, it might be said, gave his life as well as took it: loading up his modest car with petrol and home-made explosives and blasting open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi – symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Gaddafi regime in Libya.
In the long human struggle, the idea of "martyrdom" presents itself with a Janus-like face. Those willing to die for a cause larger than themselves have been honoured from the Periclean funeral oration to the Gettysburg Address. Viewed more sceptically, those with a zeal to die have sometimes been suspect for excessive enthusiasm and self-righteousness; even fanaticism. The anthem of my old party, the British Labour party, speaks passionately of a flag that is deepest red, and which has "shrouded oft our martyred dead". Underneath my college windows at Oxford stood – stands – the memorial to the "Oxford Martyrs", Bishops Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, who were burned alive for Protestant heresies by the Catholic Queen Mary in October 1555. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church," wrote the church father Tertullian in late first-century Carthage, and the association of the martyr with blind faith has been consistent down the centuries, with the faction being burned often waiting for its own turn to do the burning. I think the Labour party can be acquitted on that charge. So can Jan Palach, the young Czech student who immolated himself in Wenceslas Square in January 1969 in protest against the Soviet occupation of his country. I helped to organise a rally at the Oxford Memorial in his honour, and later became associated with the Palach Press, a centre of exile dissent and publication which was a contributor, two decades later, to the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989. This was a completely secular and civil initiative, which never caused a drop of human blood to be spilled.
Especially over the course of the last 10 years, the word "martyr" has been utterly degraded by the wolfish image of Mohammed Atta: a cold and loveless zombie – a suicide murderer – who took as many innocents with him as he could manage. The organisations that find and train men like Atta have since been responsible for unutterable crimes in many countries and societies, from England to Iraq, in their attempt to create a system where the cold and loveless zombie would be the norm, and culture would be dead. They claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates. Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.
The Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan martyrs were thinking and acting much more like Palach than like Atta. They were not trying to take life. They desired, rather, that it be lived on a higher level than that of a serf, treated as an inconvenience by a moribund oligarchy. They did not make sordid and boastful claims, about how their homicidal actions would earn them a place in a gross fantasy of carnal afterlife. They did not wish to inspire hoarse, yelling mobs, tossing coffins on a sea of hysteria. Jan Palach told his closest comrades that the deep reason for his gesture was not just the occupation, but the awful apathy that was settling over Prague as that "spring" gave way to a frosty winter. In preferring a life-affirming death to a living death-in-life, the harbingers of the Arab spring likewise hoped to galvanise their fellow-subjects and make them aspire to be citizens. Tides will ebb, waves will recede, the landscape will turn brown and dusty again, but nothing can expel from the Arab mind the example and esprit of Tahrir. Once again it is demonstrated that people do not love their chains or their jailers, and that the aspiration for a civilised life, that "universal eligibility to be noble," as Saul Bellow's Augie March so imperishably phrases it, is proper and common to all.
Invited to deliver a lecture at the American University of Beirut in February 2009, with the suggested title of "Who are the real revolutionaries in the Middle East?" I did my best to blow on the few sparks that then seemed dimly perceptible. I instanced the burgeoning civil resistance in Iran. I cited the great Egyptian dissident and political scientist (and political prisoner) Saad-Eddin Ibrahim, now recognised as one of the intellectual fathers of the Tahrir movement. I praised the "Cedar Revolution" movement in Lebanon itself, which had brought about a season of hope and succeeded in putting an end to the long Syrian occupation of the country. I took the side of the Kurdish forces in Iraq who had helped write "finis" to the Caligula regime of Saddam Hussein, while also beginning the work of autonomy for the region's largest and most oppressed minority. I praised the work of Salam Fayyad, who was attempting to bring "transparency" to bear on the baroque corruption of the "Palestinian Authority". These were the disparate but not-unconnected strands out of which, I hoped and part-believed, a new cloth could be woven.
It was clear that a good number of the audience (including, I regret to say, most of the Americans) regarded me as some kind of stooge. For them, revolutionary authenticity belonged to groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, resolute opponents of the global colossus and tireless fighters against Zionism. For me, this was yet another round in a long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist left and the anti-totalitarian left. In one shape or another, I have been involved – on both sides of it – all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side. (This may not seem much of a claim, but some things need to be found out by experience and not merely derived from principle.) The forces who regard pluralism as a virtue, "moderate" though that may make them sound, are far more profoundly revolutionary (and quite likely, over the longer-term, to make better anti-imperialists as well).
Evolving or honing any of these viewpoints has necessitated constant argument about the idea of America. There is currently much easy talk about the "decline" of my adopted country, both in confidence and in resources. I don't choose to join this denigration. The secular republic with the separation of powers is still the approximate model, whether acknowledged or not, of several democratic revolutions that are in progress or impending. Sometimes the United States is worthy of the respect to which this emulation entitles it: sometimes not. Where not – as in the question of waterboarding – I endeavour to say so. I also believe that the literature and letters of the country since the founding show forth a certain allegiance to the revolutionary and emancipating idea.
"Barbarism," wrote Alain Finkielkraut not long ago, "is not the inheritance of our pre-history. It is the companion that dogs our every step." In writing, quite a lot, about the examples and lessons of past totalitarianisms, I try not to banish the spectre too much. And how easy it is to recognise the revenant shapes which the old unchanging enemies – racism, leader-worship, superstition – assume when they reappear among us (often bodyguarded by their new apologists). Over the years I have attempted to alleviate the morbid task of combat, by writing also about authors and artists who have contributed to culture and civilisation: not words or concepts that can be defended simply in the abstract. It took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Vladimir Nabokov …
The people who must never have power are the humourless. To impossible certainties of rectitude they ally tedium and uniformity. Since an essential element of the American idea is its variety, I have tried always to celebrate things that are amusing for their own sake, or ridiculous but revealing, or simply of intrinsic interest. All of the above might apply to the subject of my little essay on the art and science of the blowjob, for example, while not quite saving me from the most instantly misinterpreted of all my articles, concerning the humour-deficit as registered by gender. Still, I like to believe that these small-scale ventures, too, make some contribution to a conversation without limits or proscriptions; the sine qua non of the sort of society that knows to keep the solemn and the pious at bay.
In the preface to my first collection of essays, Prepared for the Worst, in 1988, I annexed a thought of Nadine Gordimer's, to the effect that a serious person should try and write posthumously. By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints – of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and perhaps especially intellectual opinion – did not operate. Impossible perhaps to live up to, this admonition and aspiration did possess some muscle, as well as some warning of how it can decay. Then, about a year ago, I was informed by a doctor that I might have as little as another year to live. In consequence, some of my recent articles were written with the full consciousness that they may be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected. But it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending.