Interview: Christopher Hitchens
There is a tendency, in profiles of Christopher Hitchens, for the bestselling atheist and militant author to be defined solely in relation to his high-profile targets and the high-velocity force at which he hits them.
Very rarely is it elucidated anywhere – except, of course, by Hitchens himself – precisely why he has gone after such perennial favourites of the general populace as Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, and Bill Clinton.
That he took exception to the first’s acceptance of money from the Haitian dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the second’s support for thermonuclear testing in India, and the third’s opportunistic decision to authorise the execution of a mentally retarded death row inmate in the middle of the 1992 Presidential election campaign, well, none of this ever really gets a look-in.
Instead, his objections are customarily glossed over with thinly-veiled contempt or patronising bemusement by those who are happy to wallow in received wisdom and consensus. “You don’t like Bill Clinton? Or Mother Theresa? But everybody knows those cats are great!”
When one takes Hitchens’ reasoned and meticulously researched attacks into proper account, however – as one must do unless one would happily accept gifts from the Duvaliers oneself, or sign away a lobotomised man’s life in order to appear tough on crime and win votes – one quickly realises that his true targets are not so much these mammals, as he likes to call them, as the mammalian vices and fallacies that they so clearly personify. Hitchens’ real targets, in this analysis, are hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty, and the suppression of liberty by tyranny. Pretty good targets, by any reasonable standard.
And now, Hitchens seems fairly certain, he has found a figure who embodies all three. The figure in question? That would be God. And it will be God, too, that Hitchens goes after when he takes to the stage of the Sydney Opera House tonight, to argue, after the title of his most recent book, that God is not great and that religion poisons everything.
“It’s just as well I like to talk about it,” Hitchens intones down the line from his Washington, DC, apartment. “Because I said at the outset I wouldn’t refuse any challenge, and I have not yet turned down anyone who’s asked me to come and defend my position. I get invited by religious institutions, not less than about twice a month, to come and talk.”
“Luckily, I find it is a subject that doesn’t become dull,” he continues. “It is in a way the essential argument. All other arguments in a way descend from this one.”
To the extent that this is true, it is no surprise that a conversation with Hitchens is liable to open out at any moment onto any one of a thousand plateaus. His conversation with The Punch, for example, takes in everything from Pope Benedict XVI (“an extreme reactionary who wants to return the Mass to Latin and welcome the Lefebvre fascists back in the fold “) to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (“like sitting in the dark having a great pot of warm piss emptied very slowly over your head”).
It touches upon 9/11 (“one of those things that is, I think quite rightly, thought of as a defining litmus”), leftist opposition to American foreign policy (“if you think that American imperialism and its globalised, capitalist form is the most dangerous thing in the world, that means you don’t think the Islamic Republic of Iran or North Korea or the Taliban is as bad,” he cautions), and the death of newspapers (“I don’t think it will be true of either the magazine or the book, but the newspaper world is going to change beyond all recognition”).
But the point on which he remains most outspoken is the poisonous influence of religion. Shown an extract from Kevin Rudd’s now-famous essay, ‘Faith In Politics’, which was published in the October 2006 issue of The Monthly, Hitchens responds that the prime minister’s argument that “Christianity must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed” sounds suspiciously to him like “wish-thinking”.
“Christianity is just as likely to be an ally – and for most of its life has been the ally – of the Establishment, the rich and the forces of law and order,” he says, “so it’s purely subjective for Rudd to say that. There’s nothing in Christianity that obliges you to take the side of the poor and the downtrodden.”
“Indeed, it’s futile to try and use Holy Scripture to support any political position,” he continues. “I deeply distrust anyone who does. Just look at what an Islamic Republic is like.”
It’s not just politics that religion poisons, however. It’s everything from the media and publishing industries to scientific inquiry to the parenting of our progeny.
“I think that it’s very questionable whether anyone should be compelled, by family or by school, to attend any religious event,” Hitchens says. “It would be very, very difficult indeed to forbid it, and I don’t think one should probably try, but that doesn’t mean that general social approval of it should be automatic. I think people should look sort of slightly askance at people who do this to their kids.”
“A lot of people would say, “Look, it’s their religion, it’s their right,’” he anticipates. “Yeah, okay. I can’t stop them. But I can withdraw approval from it. And I think one should take that line with people who say, ‘Oh, of course, we’re sending little Johnny to Saint Ignatius,’ or whatever it is, or making their children go to Sunday school.”
For it is, he says, merely a hop, skip and jump from there to the kooky ashram or the polygamist’s compound – or, indeed, from the bris to the female circumcision ritual.
“I think it should certainly be illegal to perform any operation on the genitals of the child that isn’t mandated by surgical or medical necessity,” he says. “No non-elective surgery for children of any sort. I think they should send you straight to jail for that. They do if you do it to little girls in America, but not to little boys. I think it should be across the board.”
“Just as, you know, we say to the Mormons, ‘Utah can remain a state of the Union only if you give up, not just polygamy, but what polygamy’s really a cover for, which is marrying underage girls to filthy old male relatives who can’t get laid,’” he says. “I think a few more high-profile legal and other moral cases of this kind would do an enormous amount of good. What needs to be challenged is the idea that religious belief automatically confers some sort of moral standing on a person.”
Indeed, Hitchens says, those men and women of faith we remember and respect for having served at some point or other as a moral compass – he cites Dr Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the book, the latter of whom Kevin Rudd cited too, for reasons of his own, in his essay – often managed to do so in spite of, not because of, the religious authorities the were working under. To refuse credit for our virtues, Hitchens argues, while gladly taking on debt for our vices, is to deny in the worst way possible our essential and innate humanity.
“Name me one moral action or moral statement,” he likes to challenge his lecture audiences, “that has been performed or made by a true believer and could not have been performed or made by an atheist.” To Hitchens, the idea that ‘Without God we are Nothing’ – as the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell, will be arguing at the Opera House tomorrow – is an inherently self-loathing, and loathsome, proposition. (Hitchens will not be debating Pell, as he has done large swathes of the religious establishment stateside, but one hopes they might attend each other’s talks and have a run-in in the lobby afterwards.)
Equally loathsome, he further suggests, is the idea that religion cannot be touched simply because people believe in it so fervently. He points to the recent decision of Yale University Press not to include in one of its new books, The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen, the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005 and which, as the book’s title suggests, subsequently shook the world. In addition to the usual fear of reprisals and some other base concerns, Hitchens says, the decision betrays a perverse willingness to sacrifice free speech and other fundamental liberties simply to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes.
“Something that is quite pervasive now, not just in publishing and in the academy, but elsewhere, is a version of multiculturalism, or multiculturalist etiquette, whereby you pre-emptively don’t offend anyone by not publishing anything that anyone could really disagree with,” he says. “But of course that is indeed the cost of free speech.”
“If you made the concession at all, it’s extremely likely you’ll start making it across the board,” he warns. “It becomes very, very difficult to refuse it to anybody once you concede it to anyone. This has a tremendously depressing effect on the culture.”
And so the forces secularism and reason must be rallied to the fore once again. “What I used to say to people, when I was much more engagé myself,” Hitchens says of this rallying, “is that you can’t be apolitical. It will come and get you. It’s not that you shouldn’t be neutral. It’s that you won’t be able to stay neutral.”
And on no point is this truer today, or as important, he would wager, than on the question of religious belief and the threat he is certain it poses to civilisation. “You can tell a great deal about someone from whether or not they believe they’re the object of a divine design,” he says.
“This is not a minor difference of opinion. It’s a fundamental one.”
I remember thinking that his work from Vietnam was very good at the time. I dare say if I went back and read it again I’d probably still admire quite a lot of it. But there is a word that gets overused and can be misused – namely, anti-American – and it has to be used about him. So that for me sort of spoils it, so even when I’m inclined to agree.
He’s an amazingly polymathic guy. I was having dinner the other night with Robert Conquest, who’s one of the greatest living poets in English and also scholars in poetry, and whose good opinion is hard to get and very well worth having. He said, “You know, the thing about Clive’s stuff, about Clive’s poems, is that they’re always good in one way or another.” His opinion in this case would be more worth printing than mine, but you can say that it was me who told you.
He is in many ways quite a right-wing isolationist. It’s because some people are naïve enough to confuse this with anti-imperialism that they think of him as being rather more to the left than he really is. The last time I saw him it was sort of painful and I have a feeling that probably was our last meeting.
I can see why people find him charming. He’s very ebullient, as they say. I’ve heard him make a speech, though, and he has a vice that’s always very well worth noticing because it’s always a bad sign: he doesn’t know when to sit down. He’s worse than Castro was. He won’t shut up. Then he told me that he didn’t think the United States landed on the moon and didn’t believe in the existence of Osama bin Laden. He thought all of this was all a put-up job. He’s a wacko.
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