The Sidney Awards II

[ Sat. Dec. 27. 2008 ]

Several months ago, Christopher Hitchens was sent an article about a young soldier, Mark Jennings Daily, who had been killed in Iraq. Daily was improbably all-American — born on the Fourth of July, an honors graduate from U.C.L.A., strikingly handsome. He’d been a Democrat with reservations about the war. But, “somewhere along the way, he changed his mind,” the article said. “Writings by author and commentator Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him.”

“I don’t exaggerate by much when I say I froze,” Hitchens wrote about reading that sentence.

His essay in the November issue of Vanity Fair is a meditation on his own role in Daily’s death, and a description of the family Daily left behind. Hitchens asks painful questions and steps on every opportunity to be maudlin, and yet for all its tightly controlled intellectualism, the essay packs a bigger emotional wallop than any other this year.

Daily took books by Thomas Paine, Tolstoy, John McCain and Orwell to Iraq.

“Anyone who knew me before I joined,” Daily wrote from the front, “knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience, then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me)... . Consider that there are 19-year-old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.”

Hitchens spent a day with the Daily family and then was asked to speak at a memorial service. He read a passage from “Macbeth” and later reflected: “Here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best.”

Hitchens also wrote “God Is Not Great,” which Ross Douthat reviewed provocatively in The Claremont Review of Books. Douthat noted that Hitchens specializes in picking out crackpot quotations rather than trying to closely observe the nature of spiritual experience: “Like most apologists for atheism, he evinces little interest in the topic of religion as it is actually lived, preferring to stick to the safer ground of putting the godly in the dock and cataloging their crimes against humanity.” Douthat, the believer, comes off as more curious about the world than any skeptic.

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever got is: Interview three people every day. If you try to write about politics without interviewing policy makers, you’ll wind up spewing all sorts of nonsense. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote an entire book on the Israel Lobby without ever interviewing any of their subjects.

Jeffrey Goldberg dissected their effort in The New Republic. Goldberg usefully describes Judeocentrism, the belief that Jews play a central role in world history. Walt and Mearsheimer have a tendency, Goldberg writes, to bring the vectors of recent world history back to the Jews — the rise of radical Islam, shifts in U.S. foreign policy, Sept. 11. He then offers a piece-by-piece dissection of their historical claims.

Wonks talk about inequality, but voters talk about immigration. Christopher Jencks wrote an essay on immigration in The New York Review of Books that was superb not because he took a polemical stance, but because he clarified a complex issue in an honest way.

He shows how fluid public opinion is. Certain poll questions suggest that 69 percent of Americans want to deport illegal immigrants. Others indicate the true figure is only 14 percent. He ends up at the nub of the current deadlock. Conservatives, having learned from past failures, demand “enforcement first.” Employers, fearing bankruptcy, demand the legalization of the current immigrants first. Neither powerful group will budge.

Three other essays are worth your time. In the online magazine Edge, Jonathan Haidt wrote “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” an excellent summary of how we make ethical judgments. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, J. Bradford DeLong wrote “Creative Destruction’s Reconstruction” on why Joseph Schumpeter matters to the 21st century. In her essay, “The Abduction of Opera” in The City Journal, Heather MacDonald wonders why European directors now introduce mutilation, rape, masturbation and urination into lighthearted operas like “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” She argues that a resurgent adolescent culture has allowed directors there to wallow in all manner of self-indulgence.

People Mentions: