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It’s often tricky to identify “the best” of a certain category. But with debates, ironically enough, the question is, at least to my mind, settled. There are a lot of nominees for second place: Buckley-Vidal, Chomsky-Foucault, and Miliband–Poulantzas (Here I’m talking about debates for which we have a substantive record, so Lincoln-Douglas, Huxley-Wilberforce, and Einstein-Bohr don’t count). But the greatest recorded debate of all time is Hitchens-Galloway. No Question.
It is simply the most caustic, articulate, and galvanizing verbal clash that has ever been captured on film. If you do yourself the favor of watching it, within a minute you will have found a side — and you will be enthralled. Once, after a long, desultory day of swimming last Spring, two politically-minded friends and I decided to put Hitchens-Galloway on in the background as we poured some drinks and planned out our evening. Within 5 minutes, we were glued to the screen; within 10, we had forgotten about the night’s plans and were rehearsing arguments about the Iraq War; within 20, we had taken sides in a 2-on-1 verbal fray that eventually ended — I’m amused and embarrassed to admit — with several not-so-light shoves being thrown.
I happened to be fighting solo in that scuffle. Because I did, do now, and have always categorically opposed the invasion of Iraq. In this debate, I take the side of Mr. Galloway. My two friends, loyal as ever to the Hitch, were flanking me from the right.
This does not alter the fact that I despise almost everything I’ve subsequently read about Mr. Galloway, and believe that Hitchens is dead right in many of his cutting ad hominems against the Respect MP. Nevertheless, the gravity and intensity with which Galloway gives voice to the concerns of the anti-war Left is unmatched really by anyone I have ever seen. Like an acid reacting to its catalyst, the venom that bubbles out of Galloway is clearly a response to what he identifies as the “malevolence and incompetence” of the “neo-con gang” which occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at the time. Fanning this brushfire of wild contempt were the looming effects of Hurricane Katrina, and the naturally conjoined questions which arose from it: Why are we hemorrhaging resources over there? Don’t we need that cash and manpower here?
Galloway makes this explicit several times in the exchange, but it runs like an underlying seam through several of his rejoinders. Some of these are, in addition to very clever, scathing and overflowing with (righteous?) animosity: “What you are witnessing is something unique in natural history: the first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug”; “Never wrestle with a chimney sweep… there’s no way you can come out clean”; “People like Mr. Hitchens are ready to fight to the last drop of other people’s blood”; etc. But while these are below the belt, I don’t think they are — to borrow a line from Hitchens in the debate — beneath contempt. For one, Hitchens invites them (see the last two minutes of his opening remarks); and second, Hitchens can handle them. Galloway and Hitchens were two of the biggest alpha-males on the planet, and Galloway was not going to relent on his alpha-maleness. He couldn’t bring a knife to what was so clearly going to be a gun fight.
I can remember watching this debate when it aired on DemocracyNow the week of September 9th, 2005. I can also remember how much the Iraq question was beginning to fill the sky in the Fall of 2005 — that moment when some of us could foresee the now nearly unavoidable truth that our invasion was an enormous blunder and our occupation a Sisyphean waste. As a freshman at my conservative Southern Baptist high school, I was among the only students who felt this way about Iraq, and I can remember not only how strongly I was beginning to oppose the invasion, but also how much I despised the assumed self-righteousness of those who repeatedly excused the Bush administration’s rank deceptions and bravado.
It would be several years until I would read James Fenton’s “Prison Island”, a poem he wrote during his visit to Cambodia as the U.S. began bombing there in 1970. One particular stanza rings most acutely in my mind when I recall the bad early news out of Iraq and that 15-year-old kid who didn’t exactly know how to express why he didn’t like the war.
My dear friend, do you value the counsels of dead men?
I should say this. Fear defeat. Keep it before your minds
As much as victory. Defeat at the hands of friends,
Defeat in the plans of your confident generals.
Fear the kerchiefed captain who does not think he can die.
Ironically enough, I would for the first time stumble upon these words in the second-to-last page of Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22. The fact that Hitchens could write them without embarrassment or irony stands as verification of Michael Faraday’s immortal rejoinder. “There is nothing quite as frightening as a man who knows he is right.”
Watch “The Grapple in the Big Apple”, the greatest debate of all time (Playback begins as the debate heats up, so rewind to the start to watch all of Hitchens’s opening):
Some of my comments on the so-called “Debate of the Decade”: George Galloway versus Christopher Hitchens on the Iraq War.
For the record: I don’t endorse all of Galloway’s remarks, nor do I oppose all of Hitchens’s. I admire this debate first for the rhetorical skill and knowledge it exacted from the interlocutors, and second because it brings to light many nuanced issues surrounding the Iraq invasion and occupation — issues which we should still grapple with today.