Christopher Hitchens emerges from the CBC building in the 500 block of Winnipeg’s Portage Avenue, squints into the bright mid-afternoon sky, spots a break in the traffic and launches himself into the street. He gallops across four momentarily deserted lanes of the city’s most famous street, pausing for a breath on a mid-thoroughfare traffic island, then completes his hair-tousling dash across the four remaining lanes, all in about 10 seconds. The famously forthright writer and commentator, fresh from telling Questionnaire host Margaux Watt and her audience why he loathes the nanny state and its petty rules, is walking the walk. Or, in this case, the jaywalk.
Hitchens is a man who, on certain days, breaks laws with regularity. Usually in the form of lighting up one of his beloved Rothmans cigarettes in places where smoking is forbidden–which these days is pretty well everywhere. (He once wrote of being ticketed for smoking in the office of Graydon Carter, his editor at Vanity Fair, after one of their colleagues snitched and called security.) Becoming an outlaw in today’s world does not require that Hitchens actively seek to break laws, but simply that he remain the same, while governments pass laws forcing change by criminalizing formerly acceptable behaviour.
No one around Hitchens on his whirlwind April 26 trip to Winnipeg seems to mind the cloud of smoke that surrounds him, even as he violates city ordinances. For one thing, celebrities (and if there’s such a thing as an intellectual superstar, Hitchens is it) get a pass on peccadilloes the rest of us don’t. But those who have turned out to see the author and columnist know why he’s here: to lecture on “the Busybody State” at a dinner for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, an economic and social think-tank. Lecture Hitchens about smoking in a public place? He’d love the opportunity to launch into a long and enlightening explanation about the state’s creeping subjugation.
The 57-year-old iconoclast, who holds down monthly columns in Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, thrives on controversy. And with each foray into it, he seeks out bigger and bigger targets for his attacks. In 1995, he painted the sanctified Mother Teresa as a dictator-loving enemy of the poor, in his book The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. In 1999, he accused U.S. President Bill Clinton of being a rapist and a serial liar, in No One Left To Lie To. In 2001’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he called for the former U.S. secretary of state to be prosecuted for “war crimes” committed in South America and Asia. What’s left?
“I don’t want any parents anymore,” Hitchens tells the audience. “I don’t need them. I want to grow up, so that my children can learn to grow up, too. It’s been done before. We have evidence.” No, he’s not advocating the end of Mom and Dad, but rather the big brother institutions that deem even adults to be children. Yes, it includes the nanny state, but it also includes Islam, Christianity, Judaism and any other organized religion that tells people how to live their lives. In Hitchens’ restless mind, the same kind of anti-freedom forces are at work in a vast array of modern institutions: states that require people to wear helmets to ride their bikes; bureaucracies that enforce politically correct speech codes; courts that jail pot smokers; legislatures that use national security as an excuse to quash freedom; and organized religions that claim the authority to define right and wrong. Forget atheism. Hitchens is an anti-theist. He admits that what animates him more than anything else in today’s world is his loathing of supernatural belief. That is, religion.
It’s the subject of his next book, God Is Not Great, a play on the oft-heard Muslim rallying cry, “Allahu akbar!” (God is great). In the past five years, Hitchens has been on the intellectual forefront in the battle against what he has called “fascism with an Islamic face.” When it came to the controversy over the Danish Mohammed cartoons, his writing was so activist in support of the blasphemers, that he unintentionally found himself organizing rallies in support of the right to mock religion. But while Islam is the biggest target on Hitchens’ radar screen, for obvious reasons, reading his work makes it clear that his dislike for it is nothing special. Writing in Slate about the cartoons: “It is revolting to me to breathe the same air as wafts from the exhalations of the madrasahs, or the reeking fumes of the suicide-murderers, or the sermons of Billy Graham and Joseph Ratzinger.” And: “The babyish rumor-fueled tantrums that erupt all the time, especially in the Islamic world, show yet again that faith belongs to the spoiled and selfish childhood of our species.”
Over a nightcap in the lounge at the Fairmont, Hitchens confides that his book, which he’ll be finishing this month and is scheduled for release later this year, will call for nothing less than a new enlightenment, one that challenges humanity to throw off fable, myth and superstition in favour of its own inner greatness. The message is part libertarian, part anarchistic, all utopian, both hopeful and hateful, and is a direct blow to the popular narrative that the West’s best defence against the rising threat of Islamism is the bulwark of our Judeo-Christian heritage. As Hitchens sees it, the Bible, the Koran, the Torah–they’re all mutations of the same virus. And they should all be eliminated from our public square once and for all.
The politics of Christopher Hitchens have never been easy to nail down. He began his intellectual life as a British Trotskyist. Right-wingers first encountered him when he was penning pro-union, anti-Israel, anti-Reagan tracts for socialist papers in Europe and America. Today, his most ardent enemies are on the left, particularly among the postmodern apologists for radical Islam. But like the creeping bylaws that turned a formerly law-abiding smoker into a criminal, Hitchens believes it’s the left that’s changed, not him.
He recalls three events that influenced the development of his philosophy and the current direction of his work. The first is a conversation he had in the mid-1970s with Adam Michnik, a Polish journalist and anti-communist dissident in the bad old days of the Soviet empire. “He said, ‘Whatever ideology we end up professing, whatever we have learned about ideology, you and I, Christopher, there is one principle above all that may not be violated and it is this: no politics and no system can be put forward which would use or claim that the citizen is the property of the state,'” Hitchens recounted for the Winnipeg audience. “At that moment I thought, as one does when something really obvious is said to one, in a thoughtful and as it were dialectical way, that I knew more or less what I would be doing for the rest of my life. No, citizens are not property. No, citizens cannot be owned, neither by state owners, nor by state regimes, nor by political parties, and nor by bureaucracies and certainly not by churches.”
The second influential event was when, in 1989, the Iranian ayatollah issued a fatwa calling for the assassination of novelist Salman Rushdie, who happened to be a friend of Hitchens. Like the Copenhagen cartoons, clerics had accused Rushdie’s The Satanic Versesof dishonouring their prophet, Mohammed. Hitchens noticed–and was appalled–that many of his fellow so-called progressives, rather than forcefully defending free speech and Rushdie’s life, ended up more worried about the offence being caused to Muslims. (Rushdie survived, though he remains reclusive, but his Japanese translator was murdered, his Norwegian publisher was shot, his Italian translator stabbed and beaten, and Muslims protesting against Rushdie’s Turkish translator burned down a hotel, killing 37 people.)
Sept. 11, 2001, became the third and most crystallizing moment in Hitchens’ thinking. That day, he says, made it clear to him that the biggest threat to liberty wasn’t western imperialism, as he had argued in his left-wing days, but radical Islam. “Obviously, the most important threat is that of barbaric, theocratic nihilists,” he says. But in the 12 months after 9/11, he found himself increasingly at odds with the left. Though he had once defended the post-colonialist writings of Noam Chomsky, Hitchens found himself quarrelling with Chomsky over the MIT linguist’s apologism for Islamic terror. In the Oct. 14, 2002, issue of the left-wing journal The Nation, Hitchens wrote that he believed the magazine, to which he had contributed for 20 years, had become “the echo chamber of those who truly believe that [U.S. attorney general] John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” He resigned.
Though he had been a critic of the first Iraq war, he suddenly found himself in the camp of Washington’s neo-conservative movement. Hitchens–who after more than 20 years living in the U.S. says he’s currently in the process of gaining his American citizenship–is a passionate defender of the American invasions in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
“Mr. Hitchens is an interesting example of a vanishing phenomenon: the left-wing polemicist whose commitment to democracy and pluralism is stronger than his dislike of internal enemies on the right,” says Geoffrey Hale, a political scientist at the University of Lethbridge, who is currently Visiting Canadian Fulbright Professor at Duke University in North Carolina. “Unlike many on the contemporary left, he takes the threat of Islamism and other forms of what has been called ‘Arabian fascism’ seriously, as a threat not only to the West, but to international norms of human rights and human well-being.” And consistent with the views of what Hale calls “the old left,” Hitchens takes issues of power seriously, acknowledging the UN’s inability to tackle real global problems, “particularly ones in which the use of force might be contrary to the interests of the veto-wielding members of the Security Council or of Third World kleptocracies.”
But while he’s a hawk when it comes to fighting terrorists and their sponsors overseas, Hitchens is disgusted by the rules that politicians institute in the name of fighting them at home. “I think that those of us like myself, who take a strongly pro-war position and believe that there should be an armed struggle against people like the Taliban and the Sudanese genocide and Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, who strongly believe that it’s high time that our society stood up for itself against barbarism and theocracy, well, we’ve got a special obligation to notice that war conditions can lead to the erosion of liberty,” he says.
His emerging critique of the nanny state, which rests on a classic liberal view of personal liberty, is where he diverges from law-and-order conservatives, but has only drawn him closer to the libertarian right. “Hitchens is a socialist; I’m not,” observes Dennis Owens, senior policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. “Yet I agree with him completely on his opposition to the busybody state . . . He’s a civilized socialist in the sense that he doesn’t really want to use the power that a socialist would normally want [in order] to accrue more power to the state mechanism.” In Canada, Owens says, the dangers of central planning have a special significance. “We’ve got a very large and very intrusive government that isn’t doing its core functions very well; our public schools are a disgrace,” he says. “That’s part and parcel of how we connect the Hitchens message about the busybody state to our [the Frontier Centre’s] central message of effective government.”
Not everything that Hitchens lashes out at is as big as that. Nor are they the kinds of things most people would get riled up over: seatbelt laws, bicycle helmet laws, airport security and, yes, laws against jaywalking. But in a way that’s the point. Because the intrusions are often minor, and often in the name of public safety, people are not only accepting of it, they’re usually grateful to be controlled. And it’s the smaller intrusions–such as taking your shoes off at the airport–that lead to larger ones. Hitchens is a participant in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the president, the U.S. Department of Justice, the CIA and the National Security Agency for the famous NSA wiretaps. “I can’t prove they don’t [tap my phone], and they refuse to prove they don’t either, without a warrant. Giving us–as always happens in these cases–the excuse, well, it’s for national security,” he says while on Watt’s show. “So, in the macros–the defence of the citizen and the subject against the overmighty state–at the high level, and in the micro, against local ordinances that are effectively prohibitionist, I find it essential to combat both at the same time.”
He insists that he’s “always been a libertarian” (he’s recently begun disavowing the socialist label altogether). “It’s always annoyed me,” he says of the state’s penchant for meddling. “I’ve been writing for years about people who say that–even Tony Blair–who say . . . you can kill a fox, but you can’t kill it using dogs and horses. That would be too much like fun. Why not make it into a squalid job with a shotgun. We’ll ban you if you try it any other way, and put on a funny coat. I hate that mentality. I’m not particularly pro-fox hunting, but I hate the opposite mentality more. So I’ve been writing against that tendency all my life.”
If Hitchens’ views on economics remain enigmatic–he’s wont to quote Karl Marx while defending capitalism and says he still identifies with the international labour movement–his views on religion are even more complicated. While clearly hostile to faith, he believes mankind’s religious tendencies are natural–referring to it as “junk DNA.” “It’s the bit that drags us down as a species,” he says. “Superstition and fear and also illusions.”
His own life has been a rather eclectic religious experience. Born in Portsmouth, England, his father was Baptist and Hitchens himself attended a Methodist school. Later in life, he discovered that his mother was a Jew who hid her heritage from him throughout his childhood, which makes Hitchens Jewish by the matrilineal rules of the religion. He’s been married twice, once by a Greek Orthodox priest and once by a rabbi.
But Hitchens sees the same problem with both religion and contemporary American liberalism (that is, those who look to the state to solve problems, as opposed to classical liberals who have the opposite instinct). Both assume the role of protector and instructor for grown people who should be trusted, and required, to take responsibility for themselves. He reserves a special animus for Islam and Christianity, both of which posit a central, paternalistic God. While his loathing of militant Islam is well known, his dislike of Christianity is every bit as deep. “Sometimes it’s harmless trash,” he says of Christianity. “But sometimes it’s very dangerous.” When it comes to fighting the theocrats of Arabia, he argues, Christianity is no help. Indeed, most prominent churches side with Muslims when western liberties clash with theology, such as on the cartoon debate. “This is no time to be telling people to love your enemies,” Hitchens says, in a direct assault on Jesus’ principle teaching. “They should kill their enemies. That’s the rational, moral thing to be doing.”
That flies in the face of the more common view these days that it’s the West’s mosaic heritage that guards us from tyranny. The Catholic Church, after all, was one of the strongest and most powerful challengers to Soviet imperialism and, a long time before that, to the Muslim invasions of Europe. Both the Nazis and the Communists are, notably, godless. Besides, in our western civilizations, choosing to be faithful is itself an exercise of freedom, argues Joseph Ben-Ami, executive director of the Ottawa-based Institute for Canadian Values, a faith-based policy think-tank. “It’s not imposed on anyone,” Ben-Ami says. Claims that religion, at least Christianity and Judaism, are antithetical to liberty are “based on a false premise,” he says. “The notion that liberty means no constraint is completely false. Freedom means self-constraint. And without those constraints, there is no freedom. And so religion is one of those systems that compels, if you will, individuals to behave in a manner whereby true freedom is possible in a society.” Like many of today’s conservatives, Ben-Ami sees a society steeped in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the one best prepared, philosophically, to withstand an external attack by a totalitarian force, be it religious or political. “You cannot possibly understand the emergence of liberty and democracy in North America without understanding and appreciating the deep religious, that is to say Christian, commitment, if you will, of the founding fathers of the United States, for example. These people were deeply religious. And they saw, rightly, I believe, the progress of liberty and democracy as being integral to their religious convictions.”
Hitchens rejects any claims of a relation between western civilization and its Judeo-Christian foundation, or a need to rely on Biblical traditions in the fight against radical Islam. “Religion gets its morals from humanity, not the other way around,” Hitchens says. “I mean, do they want me to believe that the Jews thought murder was OK until they got to Sinai? What an insult. Of course, it’s not true. There isn’t a word of truth in it. It’s a falsification. And it teaches people to despise themselves and to think of themselves as miserable sinners, when they are not.”
Interestingly, after spearing so many sacred cows in his Frontier Centre speech, Hitchens ended with an attack on his audience–the citizens he believes are ultimately the reason he is losing his liberty. “The problem is not the institute of the state or the bureaucracy or the cleric or the school marm or any other,” he told them. “The problem is not their endless wish for control, or their endless desire to extend their dominion. The problem is our subverting, our conformity, our politeness, our willingness to be treated like this. Our willingness, in other words to be treated as property.”
For this, Hitchens received a resounding round of applause and, after fielding more than a dozen questions from the floor, left the podium, only to be mobbed by a throng of admirers. One of them was Winnipeg luminary Gail Asper, president of the CanWest Global Foundation, who effused to Hitchens, “You are my god.” Politely, the writer held his tongue in response to what must have been, to him, the ultimate insult.
Question Period: Christopher Hitchens
What can liberal democrats do to ensure the West conquers the threat of radical Islam?
Terry O’Neill – May 22, 2006
Born: April 13, 1949, Portsmouth, England. Journalist, author.
Western Standard: What single issue most motivates you these days?
Christopher Hitchens: Since the intervention of barbarism in my life and yours in September 2001, I’ve decided that the crucial thing is to defend the open society from its enemies. Obviously, the most important threat is that of barbaric, theocratic nihilists. Not unrelated to this, though, is the tendency of the state, especially in times of war, to seize and take power from individuals and from society.
WS: What can liberal democrats do to ensure the West conquers the threat of radical Islam?
CH: [The] most important thing is not to capitulate to those who claim to be speaking for Islam when they use threats. Among the many distasteful things about the surrender of our society to the blackmail over [the Mohammed cartoons from] Denmark was the assumption implicitly being made . . . that these [threatening] people must speak for Islam. . . . We know there are many people within the Muslim world who don’t take this line and don’t behave this way. But it’s assumed that they have no spokesmen.
It happens, also, within our societies . . . local authorities very often, in their multicultural programs, make the assumption that the place to go [in response to these clashes] is the mosques and the imams . . . So we are colluding in our own destruction in this, I think. The next thing will be to ask for separate Muslim schools, and then separate Muslim schools for girls, and then separate sporting facilities and then separate courts, which I know even got to the stage of being tabled as a proposal in Ontario . . . It took humanity a long, long time to get to the stage where there was jury trial, and proper hearings and independent courts. We’re not going to hand it back to the priests we took it away from.
WS: How much is multiculturalism to blame?
CH: [It] tends to emphasize in people what multiculturalism is actually supposed to resolve, and that is tribalism. . . . You also notice this in point of free expression. Multiculturalism is very often now the excuse to tell you to shut up, because you might hurt somebody’s feelings. It’s the most potent way of self-censorship. . . . And it’s getting much more oppressive.
WS: How likely is it that radical Muslims will prevail over moderates?
CH: I would say in the long run, not so. We don’t have to run the experiment again, it’s been run many times. . . . If you try to run a society out of a holy book, it will collapse, OK? People will simply die of neglect and ignorance and preventable disease. . . . If it’s preached that all wisdom is already available in one book, there’s no reason for any more learning or innovation. If you wonder what would happen if Islamization of your society took place, look what happened to Afghanistan, or to Iran, a country full of resources and talented people that’s being run into the ground by the imams . . . The problem about that is, . . . it has no self-critical capacity. When it collapses, it first doesn’t wonder what it did wrong. It says, “There must be a foreign crusade or Jewish conspiracy that brought this about. Therefore, we must send young people who know nothing, except about explosives, who are ignorant and uncultured . . . stultified by clerical education, to commit suicide in other countries.” That’s why we can’t be indifferent to failed states. . . . Because a failed state will not keep itself to itself . . . It will look for revenge.
WS: What’s the best way to ensure that radical Islam doesn’t take root in Canada?
CH: A very strong emphasis on secular education and secular government and politics. . . . No deference to religion at all. And I fear that all of our societies have a long way to go until we accomplish that. It’s still considered . . . to be the one position you can hold that is considered by everybody to be unelectable to the point of eccentricity. We’ve allowed our respect for secularism and atheism to lapse, just when we can do with it most.