Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Hitch and hiked deaths

Christopher Hitchens is a pretty good writer -- erudite, insightful, witty -- until the topic becomes Iraq. Then he loses it. Unfortunately, these days the topic is generally Iraq.

This week (yes, I'm late to the party) he takes aim at The Lancet for publishing a recent peer-reviewed study from Johns Hopkins on excess deaths in Iraq since the invasion, poking fun at their "imprecise" figure; he's as ignorant of statistical sampling as he is of missile technology ("Not that there are any non-ballistic missiles" -- strange that the Iraq war hawk should be ignorant of guided missiles). Similar to the side-swipe that I just made at him, he takes a swipe at a letter to the editor that Lancet published some years earlier, on excess deaths of children due to sanctions.

After that, it gets a bit murkier: I really can't understand what he's saying. The few claims he makes that I follow -- such as that the occupying forces "issue regular statistics" on civilian deaths -- seem risibly naive. But mostly he doesn't make any claims at all, only insinuations, and it's hard to tell what those are too.

Why waste time on Hitchens? Because he used to be a valuable and entertaining writer and has done useful work in the past, including exposing such people as Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa. (I wonder why more people never asked the obvious question: how did the good Mother spend those millions of dollars she received from prizes and donors over the world, and why didn't some of that money go into improving medical facilities at her hospices?) And he's still capable of taking accurate aim, with entertaining results, at the Catholic church and other easy targets when he feels like it. But he could have been a relevant writer. If he hoped, by defecting from the left (a defection I'm quite in sympathy with), to become more in tune with the new American century, it hasn't worked. He used to be amusing; now he's a joke.

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