Christopher Hitchens Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Dissenting Voice: Conversation with Christopher Hitchens; April 25, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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In your new book, you call yourself a contrarian, and ...

Well, my publisher does.

Your publisher does, okay. But in identifying or accepting that label, you seem to be saying you're born to it, it's in you to be that way. Is that true? Do you feel that about yourself?

Well, if you will forgive just a moment of vanity, book cover part of that book of mine, Letters to a Young Contrarian, consists of an argument with my publisher about why I still think the title sucks. Because I think the word "contrarian" has something cringe-making about it. It's a bit like being a licensed jester or a permitted awkward customer or bad boy or loose cannon. Although, we have an interesting wealth, very interesting to me, of the profusion of condescending terms we do have for dissent. But as I also point out, if you say you're a dissenter or a dissident, you're claiming a term of honor that that you can't just claim, you have to earn.

However, yes, the oppositional character, I am certain, is innate in some people. I'm not sure if it's innate originally in all people and only manifest in some; I couldn't say. But I do know for certain that it was innate in me, and that I seem to have found going through life that I naturally meet other people who feel the same. It's very difficult to explain, but you recognize the symptoms of a fellow suffer when you encounter one.

I know you don't like to be put in a political generation ...

No, I don't mind.

So let me ask you, how do you think you were affected by the sixties?

I have no choice but to put myself in a political generation. But I'm glad you say the sixties because I've always thought that of all the kinds of human solidarity, the generational is the lowest. (I wish I could find out the name of the person who said that.) Because what do you have to do except have an accident of birth? I mean, to be a sixties person, all you have to do is to be born in a certain year, like select wine, except not as good. To be a '68-er, however, a "soixante-huitard" -- we even have a French term for it now -- you have to have been someone who in some sense felt or saw the '68 crises coming, and was, in some sense, ready for it, or, if not that, was totally swept up in it, realized that here was a crux moment, a hinge year. I'm lucky in that I made my decision that I thought it was going to be key in '67, the year I went to Oxford actually, and joined a small Trotskyesque/Luxembourgist organization, which in the next year quadrupled ... no, much more than quadrupled its membership.

In the other sense of the sixties, I was rather cold towards things like drug-taking, which I think is a pathetic pursuit, to the mistaking of work for play, to the cult of youth, to all that sort of rather bogus utopianism. I never felt very strongly about that, I just did think it was a year to be compared with 1848, as the European and international revolution.

What do you think were the consequences of that period?

I don't mean to say, by the way, by that that I was against sex or rock 'n' roll, there was a center out of that. But a lot of what people now ... and what is now sold and marketed as the sixties .... I mean, my hair remained much the same length; I stayed away from wearing beads; as I told you, I have contempt for narcotics, that kind of stuff, and for gurus. Actually, one of the things that I spend a fair amount of time doing is defending a certain interpretation of the sixties, especially the '68-er, from the cheap and illusory and often bogus stuff that is described as having been the sixties. And that led me to a confrontation in my life, which if you don't mind ...

Yeah. No, please.

... might help us focus on another question, which I hope you're going to ask me, which is the about the most famous of my class at Oxford, or of my generation, actually: William Jefferson Clinton. book coverWhen people started to say, both for him and against him, "Well, at least he sure does express the spirit of the sixties," I thought, "No, no, not while I'm around, he's not going to get away with being the exemplary sixties person." That's a big difference. That's one of many quarrels between him and me.

And it was because, in whatever respect he identified with the right things of the sixties, he later renounced that identification.

And when he was doing that, he was "going along to get along." I actually know why he can claim not to have inhaled, because I remember it only too well: he's allergic to smoke, as it happens. But he's not allergic to brownies, into which large numbers of leaves can be mashed and mainlined. It was a rather clever response of his, but shows the essential cheapness and dishonesty of the guy. And he was, I would say, a draft dodger, rather than an antiwar person. In other words, he's the cheap and nasty version of something that actually was, in many ways, culturally worth having.

What do you think had an enduring effect from the sixties, in terms of our outlook on the world?

It exposed the hollowness of the Cold War, in two ways. One, it said that there may or may not be a struggle with authoritarian communism; but you can't, in the name of that, justify the devastation by chemical pollutants and napalm and phosphorus of the people and landscape of Vietnam, nor can you justify having in Europe governments like that of General DeGaulle, General Franco, General Salazar, and General Papadopoulos, four European governments of the NATO alliance. We got rid of all them, or the '68 generation got rid of all that lot. And we at least contributed to stopping an unjust, aggressive war.

But the people whom I got to know in Cuba and Czechoslovakia and Poland in that era vindicated the promise in what may now be an even more important way. The last seismic echoes of [the sixties], I think, are what took place in 1989. It seemed direct, and in some ways unintentional, but many of the same people I knew then became part of the leadership of that great movement of emancipation. And also, you can tell from the style of the people in the streets of Berlin and Prague and Poland that year -- blue jeans, rock 'n' roll, posters of John Lennon and so forth. But, yes, they had noticed there was something liberating about this, too. So in a way, the best vindication didn't come to me until I was -- what, 39, 40 -- but it was well worth waiting for.

And as a man who studies history, you were ready to wait, that it took longer than it should have.

Well, Hegel says somewhere that the owl of Minerva doesn't take wing until dusk, the owls don't fly until it starts to get dark. It's an overused image, in some ways, but it's always been attractive to me because it is only at the close of epoch that you can really say that it was an epoch at all, you can give it some kind of measure and depth. And, yes, I don't think the owls of '68 became Minerva-like until '89. And even Timothy Garten Ash, who took the same view, in a funny way, from a more conservative position than I did, diagnosed it roughly the same way, and managed to do it in a hieroglyphic. I don't believe in numerology, but if you write the letters 68 and 89 and then turn them upside down, they are the same.

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