Juan Cole – Christopher Hitchens Blog War

On Tuesday, Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Slate arguing the University of Michigan historian/Middle East Studies prof/blogger Juan Cole is “a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist community.” He stakes his case partly on comments Cole made as part of a “Gulf 2000” e-mail listserv.

Cole responded yesterday expressing his outrage that Hitchens published these comments, apparently forwarded to him by a listserv member, because “It has a strict rule that messages appearing there will not be forwarded off the list.” He then asserts,

Well, I don’t think it is any secret that Hitchens has for some time had a very serious and debilitating drinking problem. He once showed up drunk to a talk I gave and heckled me. I can only imagine that he was deep in his cups when he wrote, or had some far Rightwing think tank write, his current piece of yellow journalism. I am sorry to witness the ruin of a once-fine journalistic mind.

Later in the day, Hugh Hewitt had Hitchens on his radio program to respond to the response. He begins by calling Cole “10th rate, and he’s a sordid apologist for Islamist terrorism, and for Islamist terrorist regimes.” He later observes, “His English is, by the way, very poor. I can’t believe his Persian is excellent, because his English is lousy.”

Hewitt then pointed out the above quote from Cole and notes that Andrew Sullivan witnessed him quite sober at the event. Hitchens demurs on the sobriety front:

I’m sure with Andrew, I must have had a drink to celebrate the piece. So he may be exaggerating that. And I can take a drink if I have to, but for some reason, my opponents think it’s incredibly important to represent me as a falling down alcoholic. And I mean, look, I don’t have to reply to a slander like that. They can ask themselves how it is that I manage to turn in copy that everyone wants to print, on demand, regularly, every week and every month. And I show up regularly to give lectures and television appearances also. And it would, I think, show if I was a hopeless case.

A reasonable response, methinks. Indeed, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if Hitchens is able to produce the volume and quality of work his does under the influence, I’d like to have some of his stash.

Hitchens continues:

Well, I’ve always thought that attacks of that kind, wherever they come from, were invariably a sign of weakness. I mean, if Juan Cole wrote a piece attacking me, and all I could think of in reply was to say well, he seems like a dope fiend, or a closet case, or a pederast, I would feel that I wasn’t really meeting his argument, I mean, that I hadn’t replied to the points he’d made against me. The ad hominem is widely and rightly denounced, because it shows a collapse on the part of the person who uses it. They won’t reply to your point, they won’t reply to your case. And Cole, who is the embodiment of the mediocre, this would not surprise me in the least. I mean, he writes as if he’s drunk, because you have to, the sentences are made up of syntactical train wrecks. But I don’t think it’s alcohol in his case. I think it’s illiteracy, simply.

An attack against ad hominem attacks using ad hominem attacks is rather amusing.

This morning, Cole points a post by Helena Cobban wherein she opines “anyone who’s known Chris for even one-fourth as long as I have would have to admit the guy has long had a very serious drinking problem” and that “If Chris Hitchens is not in an AA program, I am sure he needs to get into one. In the meantime, the rest of us should hold him quite accountable for his sleazy actions. Being an alcoholic does not give you a ‘carte blanche’, or indeed any other kind of an excuse, to disregard the rules of human society and decent behavior.” The violation, remember, being the publication of comments Cole actually wrote but presumed were private on a list to which Hitchens was not a member and had not agreed to provide confidentiality.

The ad hominem attacks back and forth between such demonstrably intelligent folks as these are rather juvenile and counterproductive to advancing their respective arguments. As to the merits of Cole’s charges, I would assert that Hitchens’ sobriety is irrelevant, the publication of the email well within the bounds of journalistic ethics, and Hitchens’ failure to contact Cole for his response as part of the fact gathering process rather shoddy for a professional journalist, let alone one of Hitchens’ stature.

Update: Megan McArdle expands greatly on the journalistic ethics angle.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, Middle East, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mark says:

    The ad hominem attacks back and forth between such demonstrably intelligent folks as these are rather juvenile

    Juvenile, perhaps. But awfully entertaining!

  2. DC Loser says:

    Has Hitchens always been this cranky. I don’t know, but I do think that his crankiness has increased proportionally as the events in Iraq has gone south. Hitchens does have a lot riding on his credibility as a vociferous proponent of the war. But you have to admit this is much more entertaining then when he was just a run of the mill Marxist.

  3. Pug says:

    I have to wonder why if Cole is just â??a minor nuisance on the fringes of the academic Muslim apologist communityâ??, how come the old drunk have such a huge hard on for him.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Pug: I disagree with Hitchen’s characterization of Cole as either 10th rate or marginal. One could, nonetheless, think he is both those things and nonetheless recognize that his blog and status as a public intellectual gives him amplified influence.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    For a really over-the-top take on this kerfuffle see Iowahawk.

  6. Dodd says:

    I wonder what Cole’s position on the Grey Lady’s publication of the NSA eavesdropping story is…?

  7. Yo says:

    Is it just me, or is anyone else a bit unnerved by Cole’s use of some nasty imagry in his response?

  8. Jazz says:

    Hitchens is definitely an alcoholic. I see him coming in and out of the bar at all hours of the day. Well… usually just until they take my keys away. And if it wasn’t hitchens, it was a girl who looks a lot like him.

  9. Steve Verdon says:

    Expecting e-mails to a listserv, which can have a large number of recipients, to be private is rather stupid.

    Calling somebody a drunk in response is not just juvenile, but very sleazy. But I expect no better from Juan Cole; in fact I’d say it is par for the course.

  10. DC Loser says:

    Calling somebody a drunk in response is not just juvenile, but very sleazy.

    Ted Kennedy will drink to that.

  11. Gawaine says:

    I hope Hitchens at least got permission from the New York Times editorial staff before publishing the emails. I mean, they’re the people who decide what’s allowed to be printed, right?

  12. floyd says:

    tell me, who is more fun to read or hear than hitchens. he has brilliance and style!

  13. legion says:

    While I agree that bringing up Hitchen’s alleged alcoholism may be a low blow, Cole also takes him to task on misrepresenting both the letter and implication of Cole’s writing. I haven’t seen Hitch, or Hewitt, or anyone for that matter defend Hitchens from that…