Christopher Hitchens, intellectual and contrarian

Author, gadfly, pundit and social critic Christopher Hitchens offers up more of his unusual, sardonic take on the failings of the modern world.

Frontier Centre: In your book, Why Orwell Matters, you say, in agreement with Orwell, “that it matters not what you think but how you think.” What do you mean by that?

Christopher Hitchens: I mean that is more interesting than to have you check off whether you are okay on certain positions or questions. I am interested in how people arrive at a conclusion. I am interested in knowing if they are able to think for themselves, not necessarily to have an original thought, but to be able to recognize an original thought, to distinguish it from a received opinion.

FC: You cite the anarchist left to the effect that the real problem is not authoritarianism; it is people who want to obey. Can you expand on that?

CH: You can go to an airport in America now and see the children of the revolution standing in line, thanking the people who are frisking them, confiscating, subjecting them to embarrassment, annoyance and delay, seizing their private property and not really contributing, as far as we know at all, to their security. It helps them to take part in the illusion of protection. Nobody pushes back and says, “This is ridiculous,” partly because they are afraid. Some people even go so far—there is less of this now, I think, but I have seen it a lot—as to say “Thank you” to these people, “You know we’re really glad you’re here, we appreciate your work,” and so on. That this is an awful kind of abject masochism would be a thought at the very front of few minds today.

FC: Why is it ridiculous?

CH: The last election in the United States, for a top-of-the-head example. The very commonly asked question, and possibly a decisive one, was, “Which candidate makes you feel safer?” Mr. Bush must have carried well. Could anything be more pathetic than people asking for a “Big Brother” who says, “I will make you feel safe.” It wasn’t even really, “Which candidate makes you feel safer?” That would be a complicated question. This assumes the people are servile, credulous and trusting, and they shouldn’t be any of those things. They should be taking responsibility themselves for this.

FC: Why is it ridiculous at the airport?

CH: We know that whenever anyone runs a test, often it is a government agency, how easy it would be to get a gun on that plane. It always gets through. We know that the people that are hired into the frisking industry are not, on the whole, first page; it is not a job a first-rate person would want. It is dull and routinized. We know that many of them have criminal records that they didn’t confess. We know that there has been a huge increase in pilfering and theft of private property in the course of this, from luggage and from passengers, and we know that while all this effort is going on, there is something else that isn’t being done. In particular, for example, the really critical thing would be the checking of baggage on planes, the checking of luggage, and cargo, as with the ships. You couldn’t do this absurd airport frisking job for the trains, I think everything would break down if you did. But that means I could put a bomb on a train or hijack a train anytime I wanted. No one can stop me driving into the Holland Tunnel or Lincoln Tunnel with those practices. They couldn’t apply the same principle. Why do they do it at airports? Why, because they can, and because it gives an impression of activity, and shares the wealth a bit.

FC: Do you still call yourself a socialist?

CH: I don’t.

FC: When India went through its post-independence phase of socialism, the government cut off supplies of newsprint and ink to opposition newspapers. If the state appropriates more power to regulate economic life, how can intellectual life be protected?

CH: I am not sure that India’s state planning is a fair test of the socialist idea. But I don’t think it is really relevant any longer, perhaps not even possible to say that one is a socialist. There is a crucial flaw in the socialist’s ethos in a way, and certainly in its practice; it actually took me a long time to agree with this conclusion. Under socialism, you can’t really come up with a pricing policy. This is a very, very strenuous objection. There is another objection, which is that it encourages the state to use economic power to gain social control over its citizens. I think it would be possible to have quite a high level of government spending and still have an open, democratic society, but the truth of the matter is that the socialist movement is a thing of the past.

FC: Do you believe in government ownership of companies, hospitals, power companies and the like?

CH: I am strictly pragmatic about a thing like that. I only care about whether it works or not, whether it is efficient, whether it is transparent. If really put to it, I suppose I can think of some public enterprises that are quite exemplary, For the moment, I can’t think of an example, but I dare say one could be found or a friend on the left could point one out to me believably. But as Hernando Desoto and others have pointed out, the market can also coexist with all kinds of corruption, illegality, coercion and inefficiency. But there is no non-market system in effect, so the operation of some kind of market seems now to be to me indisputable. You have to make the case that there should be an exception made to that, and no doubt there would be one. I don’t know, for example, if Canadian healthcare or the Canadian Pacific Railway deserve their reputation. But this is very pragmatic, marginal stuff that we are talking here. The critical thing is to have a system that maximizes the chance of innovation. I began to weaken in my allegiance to socialist interpretations. Not of history, because I think like a Marxist when I think about political economy, power, history and so on.

FC: How does capitalism promote innovation?

CH: The capitalist system—which in post-war times still retained quite a lot of its faults and contradictions, the same ones that had earlier been analyzed—managed to bring off a second, or we might even say a third industrial revolution. It’s the one that enables me to carry my workplace around under my arm and to be a small businessman, if you like, and a self-sustaining producer with independent work by non-alienated labour. It means I don’t have to combine with anyone else in a union to get my job done. Because of a simple technology, you are able to become self-sustaining. If you called me either a worker or a capitalist, it wouldn’t really matter.

FC: Do you think unions are becoming obsolete?

CH: No, I don’t think that they are, obviously as long as anyone alive is willing to take advantage of others. There will always be a need for collective bargaining to prevent that from happening. Presumably, that is not antithetical to the market, because you don’t actually want an emiserated, ground-down workforce, that is not very efficient. You don’t want a workforce that gets sick and doesn’t have health care, or one that isn’t well educated. To me the sense of “social” in socialist is still valid because we have an interest in the welfare of others, even if we only have it selfishly. That is something we can’t afford to forget. Unions at their best are an example of that form of solidarity.

FC: Do you consider globalization, with its emphasis on competition, as a positive force on balance?

CH: Sure. If someone has spent not much of his life studying the work of Karl Marx, the whole argument has a very weird and almost irrelevant ring and tone to it. Marx pointed out, as did John Hobson, the great liberal theorist of imperialism, that somewhere around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century suddenly there was no part of the world that had not been assimilated to the global economy, if only by imperialism or conquest and expansionism that weren’t always pretty. But it was increasingly irrelevant to think in terms of national economies; we were all linked. Unless I have missed something, this idea of the sudden realization of globalization is absolutely nothing new. It is simply a more entrenched version of the same thing. It does seem to some extent to undermine the nation-state, and there are many ways in which I don’t think that a bad thing. I am an internationalist by nature.

FC: Our Human Rights Commission in Alberta is taking up charges of “hate mail” against a magazine that published the infamous Danish cartoons of Mohammed. What is your response to politically correct governments that help enforce Islamic speech codes, and the clamour that we shouldn’t offend minorities by publishing such things?

CH: All those commissions should be shut down. There should be no such commissions. There is nobody good enough in the world to be a censor. I know a lot of very brilliant people with very good taste who understand all the nuances and ironies of words and literature and pictures, people who are superbly qualified to have that job, as long as they don’t get it. No one should have that job. It should not come out of public money. The debate on what is and what is not good taste should take place between people who cannot coerce one another. Any attempt at the enforcement of a code or speech would be in my country illegal and unconstitutional, as it should be in yours. It has to stop and it has to stop now because it will grow like a weed. In the industrial democracy movement, and also in libertarian papers, I have seen the statement, “No man is good enough to be another man’s master.” We always end up with people having to give instructions that others will follow. No matter how it emerges, there is an important truth in the qualified statement, “No man is good enough to be a censor” that is a flat-out fundamentalist proposition to me.

FC: What’s your opinion of specific restrictions on private choice? Your take on mandatory bicycle helmets, for instance?

CH: You ride a bicycle at your own risk.

FC: Seat-belt laws.

CH: You are not a passenger at your own risk. You are part of the fate of others in the car. You should do as the driver says, and the driver should tell you to buckle up.

FC: Red light cameras and photo radar.

CH: Sinister.

FC: A minimum age to drink liquor.

CH: Preposterous. Especially in a country that has young men and women in the armed services who are allowed to join at an age younger than that, or allows people to vote below that age.

FC: In Canada, government liquor monopolies.

CH: As long as they get the job done.

FC: Jaywalking.

CH: Borderline, victimless, at their own risk.

FC: Marijuana.

CH: Another thing that no person is good enough to decide is what you put in your own body. Marijuana is a medicine. I have heard and read convincing arguments and had convincing testimony from real people who say that marijuana is a very useful medicine for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and for glaucoma. To keep that out of the reach of the sick, it seems to me, is sadistic.

FC: Smoking bans.

CH: My essential, unquestionable principle is the right of someone to be unmolested by my smoke. Even in my own home, I will ask guests if they mind if I smoke. They’d better say they don’t, but I think that I should ask. In some cases, it actually physically distresses them, it makes them ill, which one doesn’t have the right to do. But a point was passed about ten years ago, I believe, where that ceased to be the objective of policy and it became instead behaviour modification paid for by taxpayers money. In other words, you can’t have a city that has smoking bars and non-smoking bars; it can’t be left to the good faith of proprietors and guests. The redefinition of venues for hospitality as essentially work places is a grim, utilitarian motif, and there is no question that it is prohibitionist. It doesn’t say, “We will protect non-smokers,” it says, “We will pursue smokers.” That is a very dangerous precedent.

FC: On one of the more bizarre twists of smoking bans, merchants here and in some other Canadian provinces are now required to place curtains or solid doors around their tobacco products. “Out of sight, out of children’s minds,” runs the logic. What is your reaction to that?

CH: It ridiculously presumes that everyone who ever started smoking did it for their health, and that it is probably a very wise policy not to allow that bad thought to occur. It’s like the legend of the Victorians putting up drapes to hide the legs of pianos and tables because the very thought or the mention of the word “leg” was too subversive and dangerous.

FC: In Vanity Fair, you wrote that “cigarettes improve my short-term concentration, aid my digestion, make me a finer writer and better dinner companion, and in several other ways prolong my life.” Why do so many people equate medical purity with the good life?

CH: I think it’s a mingling of the Puritan and in some ways the Catholic traditions. One is not allowed to let someone go to hell in their own way, so it is a religious duty in effect to intervene for their own good. That seems to be the major initial impulse. It is overlaid now by the very sanctimonious idea that, if you can mention health and especially if you can get the word “kid” into the same sentence, you are entitled to do anything. There is no privacy you can’t invade; there is no restriction you cannot write. I think one ought to be very watchful.

FC: Tobacco comes in various forms. Do you have any preferences? Cigars, cigarettes, smokeless tobacco?

CH: Canadian cigarettes, Rothman’s Blue. For many years now, I have used no other. If they were banned, my father was a pipe smoker, but I could never get the hang of it. Cigars do nothing for me, smokeless tobacco neither, and I am not interested in any kind of dope. I am a very medium, “paced up and down the wicket” guy. I drink Johnny Walker Black and I smoke Rothman’s Blue.

FC: You give less weight to economic arguments against smoking bans and their effect on businesses like bars and restaurants. Is the freedom to make a profit not an important part of this same sense of individual autonomy you want to preserve? Is freedom divisible?

CH: Freedom is not divisible. But the argument that business might be affected by the smoking ban seem to me a paltry one when set against the right of free choice on the part of the restaurateur or bar owner and his or her clientèle. I further gather that it hasn’t worked as an argument. It was put forward by the industry. Even if the findings are true—and I haven’t myself interrogated them—the bans in places like New York haven’t in fact affected the volume of trade in restaurants. Unless I absolutely have to go to a restaurant that doesn’t allow smoking, I myself won’t go, but I can’t believe that subtracting my contribution to the bar and restaurant business would show up somewhere after all I have done. I don’t think many people are only going home now or to other people’s houses. I have noticed a tendency to that in New York.

FC: Canadians used to cross the American border with ease, but security is taking over as the only value. Haven’t terrorists won the war if we let this fetish dominate our lives?

CH: Everyone knows the counter-argument, which is that the northern and southern borders of the United States are too permeable. I doubt very much that these restrictions are in any way qualifying that, because I think it is too easy to cross illegally. But it is true that most of these measures end up punishing only the innocent and the law-abiding. They are collective punishment, too. The assumption of guilt is made.

FC: Many Canadians like the fact that our soldiers are now deployed in Afghanistan, but are appalled to hear their mission includes the interdiction of illegal drugs. Is that what the war against Islamic fundamentalism is about?

CH: I have myself been in Afghanistan, though I haven’t seen any Canadian soldiers. I have seen them in other countries like Cyprus and I am full of admiration for the work that they do. I have written about this quite a lot, and I’ve written that there is probably no way that Afghanistan can be regained by the caliphate. The memory of that is so horrible, the hatred for it is so great, that I don’t think that it can come back. I don’t think that Afghanistan can become an Al-Qaeda base in the way that it was. There is only one way that the new Afghanistan can be lost, and it is by destroying what is for many people their only crop. Afghanistan used to be famous for producing grapes, mainly grown to make raisins. If you were in a market in Bombay and there were piles of raisins, you would ask if they were Afghan. They don’t make wine, fools that they are, because of their stupid religion but they do make wonderful grapes. Someone who plants a vine in a valley in Afghanistan this year is an optimist, as he is not going to see anything back from that for some time. But it is being done, and I know people who are helping do it. Someone who plants poppies is going to get some rent out of it for something that everybody wants relatively quickly, maybe while he is doing his vines. To turn up as a liberator and say, “We have come to free you, but do you mind standing still for a few minutes while we burn your only crop?” is a contradiction in terms. It is insane. We should be buying the Afghan crop until they are back on their feet. If we absolutely insist, we can throw it away, but we could make very good pain-killers out of it. In fact, we pay Turkey to grow the ingredients for heroin so we can make analgesics, of which there is a great shortage in the United States now, so much that they are under-prescribed. Many people are in needless pain. It would be a “win, win” to buy the Afghan poppy crop, which would help while they diversify.

FC: You said you would like the world to match the globalization of production by the globalization of a common standard for justice and ethics. Is that inevitable, perhaps like English becoming the international language? Will most countries come to appreciate the superiority of classical western concepts of freedom and rights?

CH: I am not sure we are good enough to call all these concepts classically western. Greece wasn’t really part of the west when some of these concepts were being added. But in effect, yes. There is a great simplicity to the ideas of separation of powers, democratic elections and secularism. Separation in the sense that showing religion is protected, but as a private belief, a matter of conscience. There is no country in the world where these ideas don’t take root if they are given a chance, even if they are not immediately intelligible. We are all members of the same mammalian species. If we were dogs we would not be all the same breed. I know people in Afghanistan who care more about constitutional democracy then some Americans I could name.

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