Galloway and Hitchens, New York, 14 September 2005 – an eyewitness account

I knew this would be a night to remember soon after leaving the subway stop. Less than a block away, the queue started. From the entrance to Mason Hall, it twisted down 23rd Street and onto Lexington Avenue. Its sweaty torso, dripping in the clammy heat of a September evening, reached all the way down to 22nd Street, before snaking back almost as far as Third Avenue.

Mounting expectations

This was not the queue for people looking for tickets. No, those sad souls were soon put right as to the hopelessness of their cause. It was not the queue for people wanting to pick up their already-reserved tickets from the box office. That queue had its own, separate path. The queue that brought in mind Soviet food shortages from the early 1990s was merely the queue of ticket-holders waiting to get into the hall.

A rather desperate-looking young woman was offering $100 for two tickets (face value – $12). Leaflet-wielders made their rounds up and down the queue. Did I know that 9/11 was a conspiracy cooked up by the US government? That the workers should rise up and overthrow the evil cabal of Washington? That Galloway, the ‘toad of Damascus’, was a tool of vile dictators? Pavement debates about the merits of the war, the failures of Bush, and the anticipated entertainment, sprang up all around.

I joined the queue at 6.20pm. The event was due to start at 7pm. Such was the pressure for seats, so overwhelmed were the door staff, that the first words were not uttered until it was almost 7.45pm.

The motion: ‘The March 2003 war in Iraq was necessary and just’

The two men entered from opposite sides of the platform. There was enough aggressive testosterone in the room to give Britney Spears chest hair. Amy Goodman, the curiously lacklustre and frustratingly non-interventionist moderator, gave a short introduction, and they were off. Naked mud wresting was never such compelling spectator sport.

Both men spoke with few or no notes. Both men were eloquent. Both men knew how to work an audience. Both men had enough facts at their fingertips to double the size of Wikipedia. Neither man made more than a cursory attempt to illuminate.

Hitchens listed his view of the benefits of the war: Saddam in jail, freedom of speech for Iraqis, Libya’s abandonment of its WMDs, democracy spreading in the Arab world.

Galloway focused on the suffering of the Iraqi people from the war, the 100,000 dead, the increased terrorism the war had fostered, the hatred of the West that was growing across the world.

More heat than light

But mostly, they hurled insults at one another. Insults poured in a vertiginous torrent. There was enough hatred, yes, real hatred, between these two men to keep a small civil war going for several decades.

Hitchens started by accusing Galloway of ‘slobbering’. Slobbering then over Saddam. Now slobbering over Assad of Syria. Slobbering over every loathsome dictator he came across (although, disappointingly, he didn’t accuse him of slobbering over Slobodan..).

For Galloway, Hitchens had performed a feat never before seen in the natural world: he had undergone a ‘metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug’ and was now wallowing in his own slime. People like Hitchens, he said, are ready to fight ‘to the last drop of other people’s blood’.

The audience loved it. Or, rather, the audience loved hating the speaker they were opposed to. From where I was sitting, it seemed the audience was reasonably evenly divided, with perhaps a small advantage to Galloway. It frequently got rowdy. It frequently got profane. It frequently was great fun.

Things threatened to turn ugly when Galloway described the attacks of 11 September 2001 as coming from ‘a swamp of hatred created by us’. Shouts of ‘how dare you!’, ‘go home!’ and worse echoed across the hall. When Hitchens replied by evoking the memory of the 9/11 dead in his favour, he was subjected to a similar barrage of audience invective. New Yorkers, it’s quite clear, do not take kindly to having the events of four years ago used to score cheap political points, whichever side they’re on.

What remained unsaid

For the first hour or so, this was all very entertaining. But the searing heat in the hall began to take its toll. Hitchens, whose scruffiness always seems rather deliberate, was sweating profusely. Galloway, in his immaculate and undoubtedly extremely expensive suit, looked more composed, but even he was wiping his brow more and more frequently.

I began to long for some real substance, for both men to be asked to address those thorny parts of their arguments, rather than being allowed simply to grandstand.

To take just two examples:

Hitchens never properly addressed the issue of whether the horror that is today’s Iraq in any way shook his faith in the rightness of the war. He was never asked whether the numerous factual negative consequences of the war could ever have any bearing on his argument, and what, if any, responsibility the US and UK bore for these. Simply denouncing the Lancet’s casualty figures as ‘crazed fabrications’ was really not good enough.

Galloway made much of the illegality of the war. He was never pressed on whether, had the war been given UN approval, he would then have supported it – or whether Western powers ever had in principle the right or the duty to intervene in sovereign states to prevent atrocities.

Both men might well have good answers to these questions. But we were never to know, as adding quotations to the Oxford Dictionary of Insults seemed all too often to be their one and only aim.

The best bits

Where was Hitchens good? He was good in defending his own support for the war, and his change of heart over the last decade. He had the sense to admit that Bush and Blair had done world politics a disservice in selling the war as a way of ridding humanity of the imminent threat of Saddam. And his rhetoric was forceful in both cataloguing the reasons for wanting Saddam gone, and in listing the positive developments that had resulted from his departure.

And Galloway? His best moment was his analysis of previous attempts by Western government to impose order on benighted countries – attempts, he said, that were notable by their ending in failure. He exposed as a fallacy the hope that merely ridding those countries of ‘foreign insurgents’ would solve the problem.

And the winner is?..

I suspect that supporters of either side would claim their man as the winner. I entered the hall with many questions in my head. I left with hardly any of them answered.

I’ll end with this rather enigmatic statement made during the debate, which I scribbled without attribution into my notebook:

This is masochism, but it is being offered to you by a sadist.


This post can also be found at Third Avenue.

  1. Chris B said:

    That quote you can’t attribute was by Hitchens, I believe he was referring to George’s support for enemies away from home, and then returning to the UK and recommending that we surrender to the self same people. Not too far off a description I’d say, FWIW.

  2. The quote is Hitchens, but he’s used it before (I *think* in a Slate piece, but it may be in an interview). Certainly “this is masochism” is his take on liberals and others and the attitude that some of the causes of 9/11 originated from the US/the West.

    I saw some of the webcast last night — up to Galloway’s second 10 minutes. For me, Hitchens was the more impressive, but partly because GG’s supporters seemed ruder, which CH dealt with well. I think the problem with both is that Hitchens is clearly defending some other war — an ideal, principled, purely humanitarian war, with no realpolitik (like say the abolition of slavery; an analogy he has used in the past) while Galloway’s alliances seem far from admirable. Hitchens’ putting the murder of Casey Sheehan on a contact of GG was superb — probably the best single barb of the evening. (As with much both said, I’ll need some convincing that the truth is a simple as that.)

    I agree with you on the best bits, but those are the best arguments no matter who makes them. I’m touched by the argument for tyrant removal; but the history of botched foreign interventions (and in the case of Iraq, the really sketchy post invasion plans) swung me against the invasion. Nothing in this changed my mind.

  3. Dave – I think you’re right, which only adds to my frustration at last night’s debate. I would just add that both men had plenty of supporters – Galloway’s were a bit closer to the microphones (my impression, anyway). The pro-Hitchenites were just as vocal in the hall, but this may not come across as well in the broadcast.

  4. bwanadik said:

    Watching these bruisers – for all their faults, especially in gorgeous’ case – slug it out in front of fawning yankee fanboys gives this liberal universalist a peculiar feeling. Something like, national pride?

  5. Ben P said:

    That sounds about right to me – or the summary I would give, although I wasn’t there of course.

    It was the kind of spectacle – I’d compare it to WWF wrestling (or WWE, as it is known now). The folks at Harry’s Place are raving, for the most part, about how great Hitchens is, but then again they would. My sense is that this debate isn’t going to change anyone’s minds – I don’t even know if its worth making this point, really. People are just going to take out of it what they brought into it, really. Its a bit like a sports rivalry more than anything else.

    BTW, as to the whole Harry’s Place types – could someone explain there obsession with Galloway? About half of their posts are devoted to this fringe politician who has no significant popular following. I mean, to me – and maybe this is just speaking from an American context – Galloway is just a more media-savvy version of these Social Freedom Party (or whatever it is they’re called) types who stand on street corners in cities like Seattle (where I live) and then get less than 1% of the vote in elections. I mean who cares. The guy’s a loon. Lets move on.

    Are they just using him as a useful strawman so they don’t have to defend themselves against more serious and sophisticated arguments against the Iraq War (some of which you mention)? Or is it some kind of self-absorbed inter “left” squabble reminiscent of the famous schisms amongst Marxists of yesteryear? I suspect its a bit of both.

  6. I think the point is being missed by both the poster, the two contestants, the audience and the commentators!

    This is what Democracy in action is all about! This is Freedom of Speech! In the greatest city of what many care to aver is the greatest country in the world, here is living proof that one nut-case can stand up and shout at another nut-case about his beliefs, in the sure and certain knowledge that there is no-one standing taking notes, or planning to do a little mid-night arrest sessions!

    The whole shebang was, from the little I’ve personaly seen and heard, courtesy of the Beeb and Channel Four, vintage Galloway leavened with a smidgen of Hitchen, but it could have been Cindy Sheehan and the blogger Blackfive on the same platform and the result would have been just as superior! Can anyone imagine that sort of clash taking place ANYWHERE in this wide world except in the United States of America! Call that country what you will, and there are plenty who do, that two-hour session is what America is, and does!

    Well done George, and well done Peter, but most of all, well done America!

  7. Mike, you watched two British bruisers debate, House of Commons style, “courtesy of the Beeb and Channel Four.” And you can’t imagine “that sort of clash” outside the US. Odd, I call that.

  8. TCM said:

    Some dumb schmucks pay good money for a bit of highly scripted and rehearsed third-rate light entertainment and a dodgy souvenir book (one for each side, just to maximise sales), the fans boo and cheer at and with each other throughout, and everyone goes home afterwards with a vacuous smile on their faces (and, in the case of the two pugilists, with bigger bank balances). Meanwhile, the status quo remains unchanged.

    It was, as Mike C intimates, a classic American-style spectacle. Enough witty one-liners amongst the dull, rehashed storyline to keep you passively watching but ultimately unfulfilling in every respect. In fact, just like ‘Friends’ but without the benefit of a bit of eye candy.

    My political aspirations are just a little bit more ambitious than this.