Nick Ternette on Christopher Hitchens

It was with some hesitation that I approached the press interview with Christopher Hitchens, who is ranked as one of the top 5 intellectuals in the world. I mean, here […]

It was with some hesitation that I approached the press interview with Christopher Hitchens, who is ranked as one of the top 5 intellectuals in the world. I mean, here I am—a lonely, old socialist interviewing an ex-Marxist and libertarian! I had heard nothing good about Hitchens, except for the fact that he was a “traitor” to the cause for supporting Bush and the war in Iraq. Arrogant, aloof, condescending and angry were words that were used to describe him. (Angry? That’s true! He is an incessant smoker and was infuriated that he couldn’t smoke in a restaurant and had to go outside.)

I’m not the kind of person that has ever accepted pre-conceived notions about people (unless I’m assured that they are fascist!). I wait to meet someone before I make my own judgement. And surprise, surprise. Never mind leftist biases, I found Hitchens to be sociable, personable and even friendly towards me.

One of the first questions that I asked him, thinking that I would shake him up a bit, was, “How does a Trotskyist become an Ayn Randist? Or more to the point, how does a Marxist-Leninist become a libertarian? Without blinking an eye, Hitchens responded that he was in no way an Ayn Randist, considered her a second-rate novelist and had absolutely no use for her “objectivist” philosophy. The only thing he admired about Rand was that she was, as he is, a steadfast atheist. He said that economist Milton Friedman, Joseph Schumpeter, and especially George Orwell, were the libertarians that he did admire. But then again, he praised Karl Marx for his writings on what capitalism was all about. Now if that isn’t eclectic, I don’t know what is!

Now in my experience, those who were once communists and have turned away from communism are the harshest critics of communism. And hey, I know many communists who, when they have become disillusioned with communism either drop out of politics or become social democrats. So I was a bit worried about how he was going to respond to my question of his being a Trotskyist. Instead, he was quite fascinated that I had some knowledge of Trotskyism. I asked him if he had been a Heleite (a socialist sect) or a member of the International Socialists (IS). He laughed, saying that Gerry Healy’s sect was a cult while the IS is a serious social movement. He was also familiar with Ernest Mandel and Tariq Ali (an actual friend of his)—socialists from the 1960s! He was quite eager to talk about the split in the Trotskyist movement during World War II on the question of whether or not the Soviet Union was a deformed workers’ state of state capitalism, including C. L. R. James (whom Hitchens had met) and Raya Dunayevskaya (secretary to Leon Trotsky in Mexico, whom I had met).

Hey, for a so-called “traitor,” he does not watch any television, does not work on May Day, which he still considers to be a significant historical day, has absolutely no use for right-wing radio broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh (he thinks he’s an “idiot” and can’t understand why people listen to him). Most interestingly, Hitchens wears a lapel pin of the flag of Kurdistan (the northern part of Iraq), whose leader is a member of the IS, of which he is an honourary member.

His speech to a sell-out audience at the Fairmont Hotel, sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, had nothing to do with his past politics, but more to do with the so-called “busybody” state—or more to the point, the use of state power to regulate personal choices. In his view, citizens are not the property of the state. The “busybody” state encompasses such things as security issues, multi-cultural and theocracy issues. Hitchens humourously described the new “security” being enforced by the U.S. since 9/11. In a nutshell, he said, “Don’t try to be funny! It’s against the law!”. His description of the American people’s view on their government in general was, “We love government because government protects us!”

His most vicious attack was on religion. As he said, prohibition was the greatest triumph of the American right, but was ultimately its failure. In his view the “market” is smarter than “religion”. He feels that the “busybody” state that prohibits smoking, prostitution, drugs and creates stringent liquor laws as well as forcing people to wear seatbelts (although here he agrees that if you don’t wear a seatbelt you could possibly injure someone else) are encompassed in the notion that the state is the parent and the citizens are the children—you, as citizens, do what the parents (the state) says because the state knows best. All this leads to what I have always said—socialism for the rich and free enterprise for the poor—because of our willingness to be treated as property of the state.

At some point here, as a socialist, there is a conflict between collective and individual responsibility. Those who believe in collective responsibility are more socialist, while those believing in individual responsibility become libertarians. But what Hitchens seems to be trying to do (which is what I have also attempted to do) is to intertwine the two. I have long argued that “small is beautiful”, less government is better—especially in social issues (i.e. prostitution, freedom of speech, etc.). The only area that I disagree with Hitchens is the right to smoke. It is my view that smoking must be banned because of the tragic and tremendous personal and health costs that result.

On the other hand, his views on Afghanistan and Iraq were contrary to mine. In fact, I think Hitchens lacks an understanding of the situation in these countries. When asked whether he thought the Americans had made any mistakes when it came to invading Iraq, Hitchens replied that he felt that the biggest mistake was that George Bush, Sr., didn’t invade Iraq in 1990 and get rid of Saddam Hussein then. While his views on Afghanistan were interesting, to say the least, he suggested that prior to the poppy (heroin) trade, Afghanistan was famous for its vineyards (with wine being banned in that country, they let the grapes turn into raisins). His view is that the Americans should be buying up poppies so that heroin can be sold legally as a painkiller. In my opinion, that’s going a bit too far—I can see legalizing marijuana, but heroin??? He’s very soft on George Bush, saying he doesn’t believe that the religious right influences the President as much as it did other Presidents (Carter, a “born-again” Christian and Bill Clinton who carries a Bible with him wherever he goes).

No question, Christopher Hitchens is a pundit, a literary critic, historian, gadfly, a socialist and a libertarian. This doesn’t make him a “traitor” to any one cause, but rather a fascinating human being. As I left the room, we addressed each other as “comrade”.

Nick Ternette is a community and political activist, freelance writer and broadcaster.

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