It was like 1968 all over again. The long lines in front of Mason Hall at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center on 23rd Street snaked around the block in both directions. The air was heavy - with the sultry stickiness of late summer, the acrid tang of incense, the excited murmurs of aging activists in shabby clothes sporting "Impeach Cheney" buttons, passing out copies of "Worker's World," advising us to "Tell the criminals in the White House to stop the war."
A time warp? No, a debate between the journalist Christopher Hitchens and the British lawmaker George Galloway. Sponsored by the New Press, the International Socialist Review, the Nation Institute, and the National Council of Arab-Americans, the event was a much-anticipated rematch - or "rumble in the jungle," as the Guardian gleefully put it. Last May, when Mr. Galloway came to testify before the U.S. Senate about his involvement in the oil-for-food scandal, he had few answers but plenty of abuse for "neo-cons," "Zionists," and the "lickspittle Republican committee" that was engaged in creating "the mother of all smokescreens" by accusing him, George Galloway, leader of the Respect party, lawmaker for Bethnal Green, of profiting from what is probably the biggest financial scandal in history.
Rough stuff. But Mr. Galloway had bile left over for Mr. Hitchens, whom he described as "a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay." A few years ago, he had adulated Mr. Hitchens as the most eloquent polemicist in the world. But that was before Mr. Hitchens began asking embarrassing questions about the Right Honorable Member's, um, opened-handed policy with respect to Iraqi oil allocations and friendship with his "dear, dear friend" Tariq Aziz and Saddam Hussein, the "courageous" leader who, Mr. Galloway wrote in 1994,"came closest to creating a truly Iraqi national identity."
More than 1,200 people crowded into Mason Hall to watch the spectacle. The atmosphere was brittle with passion. Most of the audience was patently hostile to Mr. Hitchens ("You're disgusting," one audience member shouted several times over the course of the evening). The format was a classic debate, replete with a moderator from Pacifica Radio. Mr. Hitchens spoke for, Mr. Galloway against, the resolution that the war to liberate Iraq was a good thing.
Mr. Hitchens began by asking for a moment of silence in honor of the more than 160 people who had been murdered that day in Iraq by terrorists. That was too much for the audience, which erupted with cries of "Demagoguery!" and accusations that the Bush administration had killed - what was it, 100,000? 100,000,000? Quite a large number - of men, women, and children in Iraq.
That, as Mr. Hitchens noted with satisfaction, was a revealing response. One hundred and sixty people are murdered by ravening fanatics and you cannot bear to accord them the respect of a moment's silence. He went on to ask what the world would look like today if the anti-war campaigners of the last fifteen years had had their way.
Well, Saddam Hussein would still be in power, and would be master of Kuwait and its oil reserves. Milosevic would still be strutting in Kosovo, have by now completed his task of "ethnic cleansing." The Taliban would be busy blowing up Buddhist statuary and stoning adulterers and homosexuals in Afghanistan. Colonel Gadhafi would doubtless still be pursuing his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
And so on.
Mr. Hitchens then asked the audience to consider some of the positive results of the war. Saddam Hussein, a man complicit in the murder and torture of hundreds of thousands, was in jail, no longer presiding over a country that was "a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave below." Iraq was even now debating a new demo cratic constitution for itself - a first in the Arab world. Colonel Gadhafi had decided to abandon his efforts to acquire a nuclear arsenal and was cooperating with American and British officials. The spirit of democracy, ignited in Iraq, was awakening among the people of Iran and elsewhere in the Arab world. Sure, there are problems in Iraq - serious problems - but there was also real progress.
Mr. Hitchens concluded by saying that it was a "disgrace" that a British lawmaker should go before the U.S. Senate, not to testify, but to decline to testify and resort to "guttersnipe abuse" when questioned.
The audience was erupting loudly now, cheers contending with boos, but Mr. Hitchens persisted: It was more than a disgrace, he said, it was a "crime" that Mr. Galloway should have "profited from the theft of money" from the oil-for-food program. Mr. Galloway's "search for a tyrannical fatherland never ends," Mr. Hitchens said, "the Soviet Union let him down, Albania's gone," his "criminal connections" with Saddam Hussein's regime have been exposed. As recently as the end of July, Mr. Galloway was in Damascus, saluting Syria as a "castle of Arab dignity."
Hard words, comrades! But unfortunately for Mr. Galloway, Mr. Hitchens's charges are well-documented.
Not to worry, though.
William Hazlitt long ago wrote that "those who lack delicacy hold us in their power." Mr. Galloway certainly lacked delicacy. And he held the audience in the palm of his hand. He began by telling how much he admired Christopher Hitchens - not the man who stood there now - the "hypocrite Hitchens," but his earlier, more radical avatar, the man who protested the Vietnam War, supported the Palestinians, who even opposed the first Gulf War.
Mr. Galloway was there to debate Christopher Hitchens about whether the war to liberate Iraq was a good thing. He had no difficulty making it clear that he thought not. But he did have trouble staying on the subject. He flitted bat-if-not-butterfly-like from Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the "crazed religious fundamentalists" who apparently rule America. The audience instantly warmed to that theme, and Mr. Galloway was eager to gratify them further. Britain and America, he said, "are the biggest rogue states in the world today." Wild applause. Remember the planes that hit the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001? Those planes did not come out of a clear blue sky, Mr. Galloway said, "they came out of a swamp of hatred created by us." More applause.
You have to give Mr. Galloway this: He really is a rhetorical artist of sorts, a maker of surreal verbal collages boasting high emotional wattage but only traces of fact. "Sharon," "Israel," "Halliburton" - the audience purred, "vulture capitalists," "the miserable malevolent incompetents" who even failed to retrieve the bodies from the flooded streets of New Orleans. Mr. Galloway's claque loved it. What did it have to do with the topic at hand? Er, nothing.
But then neither did his entirely gratuitous insertion of the word "racism" into the discussion. Mr. Hitchens is a racist because ... well, it wasn't really clear why Mr. Galloway thinks that.
Low comedy? Yes. And it's comic, too, that Mr. Galloway should be embarking on an "anti-war tour" around America and Canada with Jane Fonda.
Less funny is the fact that at least 1,000 of the people huddled in Mason Hall on Wednesday do not regard Mr. Galloway as a deranged comedian. They look upon him as a political sage, a voice of freedom, a speaker of truth to power. It is pathetic. It is also vicious.
Granted, George Galloway is in some ways a ridiculous figure. But he reminds us of the astringent truth that the preposterous has no trouble cohabiting with the malevolent.
Mr. Kimball is co-editor and publisher of the New Criterion.