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Gary Younge
Cruising for a bruising

Like a boxer bigging himself up before a fight, George Galloway said that he was not in the slightest bit nervous about his forthcoming debate with Christopher Hitchens on whether the Iraq war was justified and necessary. "He's all washed up, like Sonny Liston," said the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow.

But in his prime even Liston had attributes that would make his opponents tremble. "He was the big black Negro in every white man's hallway, waiting to do him in," wrote Amiri Baraka in praise of Liston. "A heavy-faced replica of every whipped-up woogie in the world ... finally here to collect his pound of flesh."

And so it was (melanin content notwithstanding) that Hitchens, who supports the war, stood outside Baruch College, looking for a hallway to lurk in. With just minutes to go he was still handing out leaflets denouncing Galloway. "There'll be no courtesies and no handshakes," said Hitchens, laying the ground rules for minimum civility.

What had been billed as "the grapple in the Big Apple" in the end owed more to pugilism than polemics, with jibes, like jabs, missing more often than they landed, and many a blow below the belt.

Hitchens berated Galloway for his "sinister piffle", congratulating him on "being 100% consistent in [his] support for thugs and criminals" and declaring: "The man's search for a Fatherland knows no ends." Galloway branded Hitchens a hypocrite and "a jester at the court of the Bourbon Bushes". Describing Hitchens' journey from the left to the right, Galloway said: "What we have witnessed is something unique in natural history. It's the first metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug." In the heat of battle the fact that butterflies come from caterpillars did not temper the applause from the audience, roughly two-thirds of whom backed Galloway.

Having both torched the moral high ground, they would both later claim it as their own. At one point Galloway told Hitchens "Your nose is growing," only to deride his opponent for his "cheap demagoguery". Hitchens scolded the jeering audience for their "zoo-like noises", only to say that Galloway's "vile and cheap guttersnipe abuse is a disgrace".

In a debate that drew as much from the culture of the playground as the traditions of parliament, no hyperbolic stone was left unturned.

In response to one of Galloway's answers Hitchens said: "Beneath each gutter there's another gutter gurgling away." Galloway later shot back: "You've fallen out of the gutter into the sewer."

When they last met, just before Galloway testified before the Senate in May, he called Hitchens a "drink-sodden former Trotskyist popinjay". Hitchens replied "You're a real thug, aren't you?" Four months later, the level of debate didn't get much more sophisticated than that.

If the tone was emblematic of the divisive rancour that has made public discourse in general, and the Iraqi debate in particular, so uncivil, the venue was equally symbolic. For when historians come to judge Wednesday's event the first question they might ask is why in a city the size of New York, two British polemicists were needed to conduct it.

The "sold out" sign on the doors of Baruch College spoke volumes about the thirst for open public debate on the issue, and the rarity of home-grown voices who might quench it. For a subject that is often discussed but seldom debated, the talent had to be imported.

Hitchens, who has lived in the US for some time and acquired dual citizenship, occasionally interchanged "I" for "we" - meaning Americans. But this was a very British affair: the raucous knockabout of two men who both learned their craft at party conference fringe meetings, rather than setpiece primetime deliveries to televised party conventions.

If there was light amid all this heat it shone not from their well-rehearsed and familiar arguments, but from their mis-steps. Galloway learned the hard way that four years after the attacks on the twin towers there are still some things you cannot say about September 11 that are common currency in Britain just a few months after the July 7 bombings.

"You may believe they came out of a clear blue sky," he said to a chorus of boos and single-finger gestures. "But they came out of a swamp of hatred created by us." Hitchens replied: "You picked the wrong city to say that in, and the wrong month."

But it was Hitchens who made the greater gaffe when he implied, to howls of disbelief, that race played no part in those who perished in Hurricane Katrina, and that George Bush could not have helped the victims because he was obstructed by state officials. At this point he might have taken his cue from Liston, who spat out his mouthpiece as the bell tolled for the seventh round against Muhammad Ali, declaring "That's it". But he soldiered on. Having lost the audience he then turned on them. "I'm just reminding you that you're on telly," he said. "I just hope your friends and relatives aren't watching."

Galloway won on points. Sadly, by the end of the night, few could remember what the point was.

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