September 16, 2005,
It had been billed as "The Grapple in the Big Apple" and the long-awaited, much-anticipated debate between George Galloway MP and Christopher Hitchens proved just as bitingly personal and entertaining as expected. No quarter had been asked and none was given. Perhaps that was why the audience had to pass through metal directors before entering the sweltering theatre.
Largely ignoring the motion that "This House believes the 2003 war in Iraq was necessary and just" the two pugilists traded ad hominem blows for nearly two hours until they, and the crowd, were exhausted. Galloway, in the blue antiwar corner and Hitchens, in the pro-war red corner, were not prepared to let traditional debating etiquette cramp their style in New York on Wednesday night.
Citing Hitchens's transformation from an opponent of the 1991 Gulf War to an ardent supporter of regime change in Iraq now, Galloway claimed that "What you have witnessed is something unique in natural history the first ever metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug" and that "the one thing a slug leaves behind it is a trail of slime." Later, Galloway accused his opponent of "Goebellian" tactics and asked, "are there any depths to which you will not sink? You've fallen out of the gutter and into the sewer."
There may, I suppose, be more preposterous sights than the spectacle of George Galloway MP accusing an opponent of "cheap demagoguery" but few that are so delicious. There's a phrase in his native Scotland that accurately captures the essence of Galloway's character: "if he were made of chocolate he would eat himself." His nickname "Gorgeous George" was conferred on him by observers, dazzled by the glare of his own self-regard.
Hitchens quoted Flaubert's description of the banker in A Sentimental Education who was "so corrupt that he would willingly pay for the pleasure of selling himself " a line he suggested applied to President Jacques Chirac but that, to this observer at least, applies equally well, in moral terms if nothing else, to Galloway.
Galloway, resplendent in a beige suit and with the light gleaming off his balding, unfeasibly bronzed pate, drew great cheers from the sell-out, 1200-strong crowd, when he claimed that "people like Hitchens are ready to fight to the last drop of other people's blood" Repeating this wearisome "chickenhawk" argument, Galloway said, "how I wish Mister Hitchens would put on a tin hat, pick up a gun and go and fight himself."
At this point in the proceedings your correspondent could not, I'm afraid, resist wondering why Galloway had not put his own body where his mouth is and signed up with the insurgency himself. Sauce for the chickenhawk should surely be sauce for the self-styled chicken dove. Galloway did, after all, make it clear that he hoped the jihadists would prevail in Mesopotamia. Whatever else he may be, it is clear that the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow is not antiwar.
Referring to Galloway's support for Saddam Hussein and the MP's recent trip to Syria where he shared a platform with that country's dictator Bashar Assad, Hitchens declared that "The man's hunt for a tyrannical fatherland never ends. The Soviet Union let him down, Albania's gone. Saddam's been overthrown. But on to the next, in Damascus." This was good and surely indisputable stuff.
Galloway won applause from some in the crowd when he claimed that Britain and the United States are the "two biggest rogue states in the world today." He also drew cheers when, quoting Talleyrand, he argued that the invasion of Iraq was "worse than a crime, it's a blunder." It came as less than no surprise that the root of all evil in the Middle East was America's support for Israel. Fancy that! We should, apparently, "stand shoulder to shoulder" with the Iraqi "resistance" until "we've rid the world of George W Bush and Anthony Blair once and for all."
All the usual far-left pabulum was present and correct. Ill-advised support for Israel, no WMDs and no terrorists in Iraq, an invasion that has spawned 10,000 bin Laden's (a prospect that, if true, Galloway appeared somewhat too pleased by), the reaping of the whirlwind sown, the Carlyle Group, Halliburton and "vulture capitalists," a "puppet regime" putting "lipstick on the ugly face of occupation," and all the rest of it. Michael Moore with a mustache and a Scots brogue.
It was somewhat ironic then that Galloway appeared to endorse one element of neoconservative thinking when he criticized the United States for its past support of Middle Eastern dictators, suggesting that this had contributed to the "swamp" of anti-American "hatred" in the region. Here at last was a Galloway statement one could endorse without checking oneself for fleas.
Hitchens had challenged Galloway to a debate following the MP's now-famous appearance before a Senate subcommittee in Washington earlier this year at which he stridently denied profiting from Saddam Hussein's abuse of the U.N.'s oil-for-food program. The pair exchanged insults on that occasion, too, with Galloway referring to Hitchens as a "drink-soaked former-Trotskyite popinjay." That was the height of decorum compared to their exchanges in New York.
The Respect MP's appearance in Washington had made him something of a hero to elements of the American left. Sure enough, the moonbats were out in force at Baruch College on Wednesday night. "We needed a Pearl Harbor, a Gulf of Tonkin, a USS Maine. Let's get the truth out about 9/11. Let's find out why there were explosions underneath the World Trade Center at 8.30am," said one Michael Schechter, who seemed to believe that Dick Cheney was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and was all too happy to be quoted by name. To be fair, one passer by did murmur, "Please don't make him out to be representative of the Left," but Schechter was not the only member of the lunatic fringe present.
Galloway, who had the support of perhaps 70 percentof the audience, was nonetheless shouted down when he claimed that "Some of you in this hall may believe that those airplanes on September 11 came out of a clear blue sky. I believe they came out of a swamp of hatred created by us." This prompted boos from the crowd and shouts of "how dare you?" and "go home!" although there was also, sad to relate, a smattering of applause. As Hitchens noted dryly, "you may have picked the wrong city in which to say that."
After the debate was over and the two men began signing copies of their latest books (a secondary contest that was conclusively won by Hitchens who, admittedly, has the advantage of writing his own books), Hitchens said he hoped he had defeated "this pimp for fascism" but that he felt "a little befouled by doing this debate." I knew what he meant. It was, at times, nauseating to watch the Galloway peacock strut his oratorical stuff, claiming the mantle, in the name of the jihadists, of the American revolutionaries who rebelled against George III's ham-fisted rule.
The audience, for their part, seemed unsure of who had triumphed. Michael Purzycki, a student at George Washington University, resplendent in a "Ban Che Guevara" t-shirt, admitted that even though he was a Hitchens partisan, "I can't say either of them won."
But then winning was not the real point of this debate. Pride, machismo, and decency were on the line; and if both men exhibited a fair degree of the former two qualities only one displayed any measure of the latter.