A Day in the Intellectual Glare of Hitchens

Worth A Look, Culture Wars, Frontier Centre

In the Harry Potteresque Great Hall at the University of Toronto this week, two security men were poised for a confrontation, and with good reason.

Christopher Hitchens was explaining why he hates religion: Islam, because it exhibits a “horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity” while making a “cult of death, suicide and murder,” and Judaism, because it leads to Christianity.

“Look anywhere you like, to slavery, to the subjugation of women as chattel, to the burning and flogging of homosexuals, to ethnic cleansing, to anti-Semitism, for all of this look no further than a famous book that is on every pulpit in this city, and in every synagogue and every mosque. And then you’ll see whether you can square this circle: that the force that is the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship,” he said.

Stepping gingerly down from the stage, dressed like a humanities professor in jeans and a tatty blazer, he sat back down in the front row as his fans stood up and lingered by the door, plotting and rehearsing their approach.

“Want to come and have another smoke?” he said.

At last, this was the Hitchens we had all come to see – not the pudgy man at the pulpit, picking his teeth with his glasses, but the chain-smoking bon vivant, rapier-witted popper of ideological balloons, tipper of sacred cows, Trotskyist neo-con, accomplished drinker of Johnnie Walker Black, and the only man in the world who could denounce Mother Teresa as a promoter of poverty and then be invited by the Vatican to comment on her beatification.

Even a non-smoker would accept this invitation.

Outside in the closest thing Toronto gets to a smoking section, a quick tete-a-tete about the stutter he endured as an adolescent – which was exaggerated on the “ch” sound – quickly attracted a crowd, despite the rain.

“I think it began from over-announcing what I wanted to say, and getting all ready to do it, and being too ready. I would always feel when I was about to speak that I was about to cry. It’s a funny thing, that I couldn’t speak without slightly weeping as well, because I was so keen to get it all out. And then a disaster happened,” he said, in his upper crust British accent untainted by a quarter century of life in America, where he is a Washington-based columnist for Vanity Fair, among other publications.

At the time, his parents lived, unfortunately, in Chichester, but they sent him away to boarding school.

“You had to say where you were going home at the end of term. I can’t remember why we had to do this, but it came out Ch-ch-ch-chich-ch-chester. I heard that played back to me quite a lot,” he said.

In public speaking, which he does frequently and well, he has adopted the politician’s trick of eliding the last words of one sentence into the first words of the next, which prevents both stuttering and interruption. Not that either seem much of a danger for him these days. Now, at public events like these, he does the interrupting. No one else would dare.

He recalled being told by one of his first editors to develop his own writerly voice, which he considered a “self-indulgent invitation,” because style, in his youthful opinion, “was for the petit bourgeois.”

That, of course, has changed, and now his columns – recent ones have been on Borat and blow jobs – have an inimitably irreverent style. They are never vulgar, but never far off.

“What I aim to do is write like I am talking,” he said, to which one eager fan replied, with gagging flattery, “You and Gore Vidal do that.”

But his irreverence is principled, and while his address on the freedom to hate was funny, it was not frivolous, dealing as it did with matters of extreme sensitivity.

He described his forthcoming book, God Is Not Great, as “a general case against religion.” He says religions promote hatred, while demanding protection from hatred for themselves, usually in the form of censorship, to which he is intensely opposed in all its forms.

“Religion is now in the position of being an optional belief, which is quite new for it. You can say, if you like, that God is behind all this, and people say, ‘Well maybe that’s a point of view.’ But it can no longer be said that God would explain what is otherwise mysterious to us. That’s out, it’s gone, and I think people haven’t fully appreciated how important it is for religion to be one opinion among many on such an important question,” he said.

Calling religion an “opinion” is charitable, given how scornful he is of faith.

“My own view is that this planet is used as a penal colony, lunatic asylum and dumping ground by a superior civilization, to get rid of the undesirable and unfit. I can’t prove it, but you can’t disprove it either. It happens to be my view, but it doesn’t challenge any of the findings of Darwin or Huxley or Einstein or Hawking,” he said.

Earlier that night, over drinks at a Bloor Street hotel bar, Mr. Hitchens did not take kindly to the suggestion that his intellectual life – he was once an extreme leftist but sided with neo-conservatives on the Iraq War, largely out of solidarity with the Kurds, whose flag he wears on his lapel – has followed the maxim that if you are not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, and if you are still a liberal at 40 you have no brain.

“In any well-known saying, if you take out the word ‘heart’ and put in the word ‘dick,’ it’s almost as good. Try it, you’ll like it. ‘The heart has its reasons, the heart is a lonely hunter, Heart of Darkness.’ You’ll find them coming to you later on,” he said.

“I rarely change my mind. Just to keep it with Iraq, if you like, it took quite a lot to make me change my mind about the first Gulf War. It wasn’t argument so much as evidence, not quite the same thing. The evidence seemed to have gone from strong but debatable to overw As to the post-war future of Iraq, he again finds himself siding against the general public, which seems to be in favour of a prompt exit, possibly after the partitioning of Iraq among Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis. He said this strategy of partition has been “condemned by history.”

For imperial armies, “divide and conquer becomes divide and quit, which becomes partition, which becomes the great running sore,” he told an audience at the Munk Centre for International Studies earlier in the day.

He said this trend can also inform the question of Quebec secession, even though there is no “great power” doing the dividing.

All secessions have this “fissile character,” he said, and Quebec’s secession “would undoubtedly have implications beyond what the PQ believe or hope,” probably including the application of other provinces to join the United States.

Mr. Hitchens is not an easy interview. The whole experience is less a probing of the subject’s secrets than a reminder of the interviewer’s ignorance on topics of global import.

For instance, strolling by the Royal Ontario Museum with him and three others to deliver him (very late) to a dinner with academic dignitaries, it was easy to imagine what it felt like to follow Socrates around the Academy.

One of us walked backwards so as not to miss any part of Mr. Hitchens’ theory that musical ability is correlated with literary skill, and another asked him to assign her a fictional story to write, and then to critique it, to which he replied, politely: “You would have to guarantee that my verdict would not mean anything.”

At the end of the night, with his erudition flowing less freely, he said such fawning attention does not frustrate him.

“Not frustrated. Angry, maybe. I get depressed by how easily people are satisfied, with so little argument,” he said, and then went to bed. The next day, he would do it all over again in New York.