Brit Twit


I have been reading the February issue of Vanity Fair wherein Christopher Hitchens, a British subject, describes Mother Teresa "the ghoul of Calcutta." Mr. Hitchens' essay -- "Mother Teresa and Me" -- is a justification of a television expose that he wrote and presented last year on Britain's Channel Four.

Mr. Hitchens belongs among that generation of British journalists and editors -- amoral aliens -- who have invaded New York and Washington. These expats are like characters from a minor Evelyn Waugh novel; they are craven and coarse and contemptuous of the colonials. In New York, the knaves edit He )) and She fashion magazines. They disport themselves in political journals. But the great Brit obsession is with fame.

Tina Brown is perhaps the most famous of the pilgrims. She left London some years ago, after editing a society mag called The Tattler. Ms. Brown was paid to bring her shallow sensibility to bear on Vanity Fair in the 1980s. Vanity Fair has made a specialty of in-depth interviews with personalities of no depth. It became a huge success, reckoned in pages of advertisements.

British tabloids are notorious for an obsession with provincial celebrity -- the dipso-duke, the tycoon caught whoopsy in his high heels. Americans always thought the genre had something to do with working-class resentment of the upper class.

Tina Brown, who is not of the British working class, brought to the pages of Vanity Fair an obsession with celebrity that revealed a resentment of those in the world more famous than she. (Was the resentment more British than working-class?) Her method was puff and deflate. For every pre-lapsarian interview with Demi Moore, there must be a dies irae -- the sordid demise of an international whore.

Christopher Hitchens has certainly earned his reputation as a khaki boohla-walah -- he has traveled much among the benighted of the world. And he has written books and magazine articles from the superiority of having been born in England. But, alas, he is not famous. Not as famous as Tina Brown, who left Vanity Fair a while back to work her magic on The New Yorker.

The truth is, Mr. Hitchens is never going to be famous. A larger truth is that Ms. Brown is not famous either, except among the booths of Vanity Fair.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta is famous. There cannot be many alive on this earth who, by the age of 13, have not heard of her -- perhaps a mark of how badly the world wants her legend.

Mr. Hitchens' assertion, in the spirit of Vanity Fair, is that Mother Teresa is an evil woman who accepts the money of criminal businessmen and consorts with dictators; that Mother Teresa is a "tireless and self-serving campaigner for Vatican fundamentalism," because she speaks against abortion. Mr. Hitchens, late of England, rehearses a conundrum worthy of Nanki-poo: "What if [Mother Teresa's] actions were being judged by her reputation, rather than the other way around?"


Mr. Hitchens' observations are far from elegancies. Certainly far from the "Vanity Fair" of William Makepeace Thackeray, that great heart.

Ah, but Mr. Hitchens belongs to another London, post-war, post-modern, post-royal, post-its: The bright, young, disgusted things have inherited a country where marmalade jars and tea canisters yet bespeak empire with their little patents and coronets. But the world is entirely elsewhere. Shanghai is London now. Or Los Angeles. Or Mexico City. Sadly, only a few thousand souls among the billions alive in the great world are conversant with the controversies of Vanity Fair.

The audience for Brit twit is much diminished. America becomes the last outpost of empire. Clever Brits have figured out that Americans are verbally repressed and easily cowed. You can shock an American audience to laughter by saying the impolite, by being blue or crass.

Mr. Hitchens brands Mother Teresa "Mama Cow." She is a "tough egg," has "a face like a cake left out in the rain," is "the world's most famous Albanian," now that John Belushi is dead. None of these interesting observations can be conveyed with anything less than a British accent.

Caring too much is bad form in London, too tiresome. Mr. Hitchens dares his reader to get angry. The pose is not to have a stake in any matter. Though, of course, the clever drones do have their saints and their pieties -- fur lib, AIDS, St. John Lennon. Clever Brits are leftish, secular. They are anti-Christian (an apoplectic Archbishop of Canterbury has been a stock comic character for a hundred years). They are vaguely for the Dalai Lama and all of that -- bells, mist. They most certainly abhor what they call "fundamentalism," especially any Muslim or Christian variant, which is synonymous with taking life seriously, which is not any longer possible.

In his piece, Mr. Hitchens recalls editorial meetings at the now defunct Private Eye: "Claude Cockburn would sit the team of hacks and satirists around the table and say, 'Right. Who does everyone think is wonderful? Who gets a free pass?' " Someone in the room would venture a name like Albert Schweitzer. "Let's go after Schweitzer!"

From such a generation would come the great Humpty Dumpty of our age, Salman Rushdie. Mr. Rushdie, the prisoner of irony, the novelist, alas had no idea that words might have real consequence in the great world (that haunting phrase of the Victorians never meant to convey the world, but only the world the British influenced.)

"Rushdie tells me that he can't wait to see the show [on Mother Teresa]. We exchange nervous jokes about fatwas, and I say that his troubles with the believers are much more serious than mine."

Mr. Hitchens chose his target more carefully, a woman of unassailable reputation, and the New York literary scene capitulates easily to an accented sneer.

It is interesting that the British tabloid tradition now feeds mass American tastes, high and low. "Hard Copy" and the Globe are quoted by middle-class Americans. But the Brits have taken over the upper end of the American magazine rack as well.

Tina Brown has coarsened The New Yorker, vulgarized an American institution, and Americans seem to approve the change, seem to welcome the dross of London, even as they gird themselves against illegal immigrants from the world that still believes.

Richard Rodriguez, author of "Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father," wrote this commentary for Pacific News


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