My editors at Index on Censorship magazine, London, receive lots of nutty notes from enraged readers, but this was special:
“Greg Palast’s hastily-written article entitled, Kissing the Whip. What on earth is Index doing when it allows its space to be wasted, and its reputation for seriousness lowered, by ignorance and pettiness of this sort?”
Christopher Hitchens, a British transplant in America, whose posh accent and carefully hedged nastiness made him New York’s favorite cocktail party revolutionary, was in high dudgeon. I had written:
Britons, as they constantly remind me, are SUBJECTS not citizens. British-born journalist Christopher Hitchens, scourge of authorities on two continents, stunned Americans by submitting to deposition by US government prosecutors during the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Clearly, habits of subjugation die hard.
The mild reproving mention of his collaboration with Republican politicians would not be countenanced by this subject of the Crown.
Hitchens huffed and he puffed:
“Everything in this passage is either false or irrelevant. The House Judiciary Committee, which prepared the case against Clinton, is not an arm of the U.S. government. . . . I did not ‘submit’ to any process, but freely agreed to a request for my testimony. . . . If Mr. Palast does not understand the impeachment provisions of the U.S. Constitution, he has no business patronizing the hapless Brits for their lack of a Bill of Rights.”
Chastened by this dressing-down, I replied with humility:
Mr. Christopher Hitchens
I write to you to offer a sincere apology for my words in print which appear to have deeply wounded your pride and your justly earned sense of your own worth. I did not mean to offend a person as important and accomplished as yourself in the arts of essay and condescension.
I often say that social critics such as ourselves, whose profession it is to censure others, should withstand with grace and humor that which we dish out so easily. But, given your stature and deserved celebrity, I agree we should make you an exception, and grant you an immunity from any and all criticism. For though your work seldom discomfits the powerful, it does flatter the Left at a time when we so need an appreciation of our prejudices.
I must admit that had I edited, as well as authored, the piece, I would not have concluded with any mention of your story . . . your antics in Washington were not as noteworthy in my estimation as you believe.
Forgive us, for we had other things on our mind as we approached publication. Index exposed the vicious system of British censorship — and came close to crossing the line of the Official Secrets Act as interpreted by MI5 and MI6.
We ad long discussion about what to do in case Index were charged under the Act, our computers seized or the editors and I arrested. I admit, while focusing on the difficulties of facing down state repression, I did not give more careful attention to your personal feelings.
I am horrified that in what you rightly term my ‘ignorance and pettiness,’ I stated you ‘submitted’ to a request to provide testimony in Kenneth Starr’s prosecution of President Clinton. Had you done so, it would have been a violation of American journalistic ethics: reporters must never provide source information to aid a state prosecution.
I now gladly correct the record. You did not ‘submit’ to testify but, as you say, ‘freely agreed’ to take part in Kenneth Starr’s official witch-hunt.
Therefore, I would ask Index to run the following retraction:
“Mr. Greg Palast wishes to apologize unreservedly to Mr. Christopher Hitchens whose actions are at all times honorable, commendable and always, without exception, beyond the criticism of so-called investigative reporters such as Mr. Palast. Mr. Palast is terribly ashamed.”
Sincerely, Your Servant,
London and New York
[“Mr. Hitchens Habit of Subjugation” is excerpted from Palast’s book,The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (Penguin & Constable Robinson 2004). For a story far more significant than the dust-up between Palast and Hitchens — the arrest of British journalists and the Official Secrets Act — read a larger excerpt, “Kissing the Censor’s Whip”