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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Taking on the Icons

One of the areas that you have focused on in several small books are the icons of popular culture or of political power, and essentially, pricking the balloon of illusion around them, Clinton being one. What is involved in that work? Does it flow naturally from all that you've said about yourself -- a contrarian, a person who looks at things from the outside? And what is it about our culture and our political system that creates these icons?

Can I leave the second question for the last and come back?


It has occurred to me, though I wasn't fully aware of this while I was doing it, that of the three main targets that I've had (or for you to be nice enough to credit me with) over the last decade or so -- Mother Teresa, the so-called Mother Teresa of Calcutta; the "new Democrat," Mr. Clinton; and the supposed "people's princess," Diana Spencer -- all of these were quarrels between me and populism. Because I think it's easy to say that you distrust the government, that you distrust the state. Again, that's something almost no one will take you up on. But if you say that you are very often pretty sure that it's the majority who is wrong and the way the public opinion is constructed that's wrong, the way that popular mandates are construed that's wrong, then you can be accused of being an elitist or a snob and so on, and then you know you're on to something.

So what I realized was that in doing these three things, I basically had been settling an account with liberal illusions. book coverOkay? Wake up any liberal -- or don't even wake them up, just walk up and say, "Hmm, you're opposed, aren't you, to religious fundamentalism?" "Of course, I am," is one of the most okay things a liberal can say. Well, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a fanatical fundamentalist, and, indeed, she took the most extreme line, a line far more extreme than her own church, on all matters -- of economics, of morality, of politics, of authority. And proselytizing among helpless people, trying to bribe them with handfuls of rice; praising the Duvalier family because it stood up for the Catholic interest in Haiti; fawning on Nancy Reagan, Charles Keating of the Lincoln Savings & Loan -- all this was right there for anyone to see. They wouldn't see it, though, because, "No, no she's a saint, she's doing work with the poor.... " In fact, the "poorest of the poor" was the mantra. They didn't want to hear that she was a fundamentalist. They thought she was on our side, so to speak.

The same with the "people's princess," the ludicrous idea that a people's position can be passed on by heredity succession. But they were sure. If you ask them, "Are you for monarchy and for heredity power?" "No." "Is she a people's princess?" "Yes."

Then the big white whale, Clinton. What about someone who is a war criminal, a taker of bribes from foreign dictatorships, almost certainly a rapist (plausibly accused, anyway, by three believable women, of rape), executed a black man who was so mentally retarded that he was unable to plead or to understand the charges -- "You're against all that, right?" But you're for it when it's someone who you think is a "New Democrat."

I sometimes think all my birthdays would come at once, everyone's making it too easy for me, but all these targets were left alone and unguarded. So I thought, "Well, I would be untrue to myself if I don't take at least a second look." But it was liberal illusions in all three cases.

Most recently -- I wouldn't say that Noam Chomsky was an icon; it would be rude to say that and untrue, nor is it true that he is a guru. Certainly, he doesn't want to be one or a cult leader. But he does have this status of something very like an intellectual leader and authority among a very large number of people, especially on campuses. I did think it was necessary to have a fight with him about the insinuation -- no, actually, sometimes the assertion that the inhabitants of the United States of America were morally equivalent to the membership of al Qaeda. And that was probably the bitterest of them all, and lost me the most friends.

The interesting question becomes why do groups, whether in the case of Chomsky, the left, or in the case of liberals, Clinton -- what is the dynamic that puts these icons before us?

Well, I know what the answer to that is. It's the same vicarious impulse as makes people think, which is my main critique of religion, that they can cast their sins, say, onto a scapegoat, so they can all then take their sins away. I mean, can you imagine a more repulsive idea? I cannot. Or a bigger abdication of what we call personal responsibility. It's a horrific idea, but it's preached by our churches. Many people don't have time to follow, say, politics all the time, or as much as they should. They're aware that they don't, but they think, "What I'll do is I'll find a candidate, I'll give him my vote, and then he can do the politics for me. I'm not going to do anything about the Third World myself; I can't. It's too much. It's awful. I know I should do something, but I can't. But here's this woman in Calcutta, who claims to be a saint. Well, I'll send her a quid or a dollar, or at least pretend that I thought she was doing it," because the rich world has a plural conscience, "she can get on with doing that for me." Or Princess Diana, perhaps, would be the auxiliary, you know, she'll look after the crippled children. It's been vicarious, it's letting other people lead your life for you and make your decisions for you. And you're slightly relieved, and you hope you've made the right call. It's a bit like celebrity culture, actually. It's taking people and judging not their reputation by their action, but their actions by their reputations. So you're living a little through them.

I'm against the virtual life, and I'm against the vicarious life. I think people should get a life of their own. So that's what I'm arguing for them to do. Because of that, one can be accused of being the snob, the superior type and so on. As I say, an accusation that includes me, delights me.

It sounds like what you're witnessing or what is behind what you're witnessing is an abdication of responsibility.

Certainly. It's a willing surrender. I'd rather say, almost a pleasurable, masochistic surrender. We'll leave that to Bill or Mother T or whoever it might be. Sure. Then we can go on with doing ... I'm never sure exactly what they get. What are they doing with the rest of their lives, these people? I'm not sure. But I do know this, that if you point out to them that they've been fooled, they just gave their savings to someone who is a swamp real estate artist, they do not thank you to point it out, they're much more likely to blame you than the person who has just defrauded or deceived them. Why? Because they don't like to be told that they are gullible. People like to think that they're smart, and wised-up.

Do you surprise yourself in the fact that a British lefty has wound up in the United States, writing about American politics?

No, not at all. The United States is fantastically hospitable, in the first place. In the second place, it's very hospitable to writers. And in the third place -- this may be a privilege that is just pure luck on my part -- it's very hospitable to English people.

The big secret of the United States is class and empire. Okay, everyone knows there is a class system and an empire, but it's not officially admitted to. Whereas, in England, those are the subjects that we're brought up inhaling with the milk of our mamas. We know something about it, and we can intuit it, it's part of our instinct as well as our education. Actually, it does give you a slight edge in arguments about the United States. I think that's the key, myself, rather than any literary ability, which is often what Americans believe. They think that the British are more elegant and ironic than they are. It's not true at all, the British are very crude, and very unironic and very literal minded, for the most part.

But I don't want everyone to find it out, by the way, this trade secret. Long may the illusion that British people have a clearer hold on the Oxford English Dictionary persist.

I see. I see. But you were saying you didn't want to give the trade secrets away, that this is a field where there's a lot of work to be done.

I'll just have to hope that this channel is only watched by the elite.

Which is very possible, or even by fewer. You said recently in an interview that I saw, that you're a socialist living in a time when capitalism is more revolutionary.


Talk a little bit about that, and what it tells us about your politics.

Can I just add to my last point? Thomas Paine, the greatest Englishman of his time, and perhaps all time, was also the greatest American of his time. His pamphlets probably first used the term "United States of America." So it may be for that reason, too, that English lefties feel at home here.

And to my point, then, about what my politics are, I remember writing that or something like it. I may possibly have said, "I'm a Marxist living in a time where only capitalism appears to have revolutionary potential." Because it's easier to say that I still think like a Marxist, politically, because I do; it's the way I was trained. I think the materialist conception of history hasn't been bettered as an explanation of the way things happen. But the prescriptive bit, what should happen, or what's going to happen, seems to me to have dissolved rather. So that to say that one is a socialist is more like expressing an attitude than really a politics.

There came time, actually, when I was writing the Letters to a Young Contrarian when I thought, "Look, this is for the young, and it actually is written to students of mine." I don't address it, but I always have them in mind, individuals, when I'm writing. Well, you mustn't try to fool anybody; if you're going to do that, you mustn't lie to the young. If you've concluded that there is no longer an international socialist movement, that it's not going to revive, you're really only being opposed to that if you say that you're a socialist and nothing else. And that's the position I'm in now.

But I miss it. I miss it like an amputated limb. I miss the way that there used to be an international left. And I'm very distressed and appalled at what's rushed in to fill the vacuum of the critique of liberal capitalism. Because what's come in to fill that gap is much more something like bureaucratic primitivism, if not worse -- fascism -- that is now the alternative to the globalized capitalist structure. Now, that's an even greater reproach, if you like. But one must look the facts in the face.

How do you account for the failure of the left to deal with the events of 9/11? Does it relate this here?

Well, I'll accept your question in the form in which you put it. I don't think all the left failed at this point at all.

Right, yeah.

But there was a tremendous failure involving a large element of the left to think of it as something new, even, or to think of it as something dangerous. And, yes, I think it honestly was. Many people said, "Well, at least it's anti-globalization." Now, that should have warned people of how callow and facile their critique was. They say, "Well, if this could be a part of it, maybe there's something wrong with your critique now." Because never mind what the Taliban and al Qaeda forces want to do to you, why don't you just take a look at what they've done to the societies they can influence, societies where ...


... the concept of time and the future and the power system is as far as possible abolished, the first task of a totalitarian regime. "Everything that isn't forbidden is compulsory. Everything that isn't compulsory is forbidden." The abjection of women and of the sexual instinct, another unfailing sign of the totalitarian impulse. The destruction of all art and culture and music, and the very rapid emiseration of everyone, so that the hope, I suppose, would be that they would be so poor and so ignorant that they wouldn't even know that they were living in a bad situation. But probably, however, there have been enough education, enough culture, enough experience for people to be able to survive it. But that's no thanks to the people who tried to enforce it.

I personally find when there's a confrontation between everything I love -- scientific inquiry, reason, cosmopolitanism, secularism, emancipation of women (and those are the things I love, by the way) -- and everything I hate -- Stone Age fascism, religious bullshit, and so on -- it's a no-brainer. I know exactly which side I'm on, and I knew right away. I felt exhilaration on the 11th of September, and I feel slightly ashamed to say that, in view of the fact that so many people lost their lives that day. But when the day was over, and I had been through the gamut of rage and disgust and nausea and so on -- not fear, I will claim for myself. I'm not afraid of people like that. I'm very angered by them. But there was something I hadn't analyzed when I went into in myself, and I was pleased to find it was exuberance. I thought, "Okay, right. I'll never get bored with fighting against these people." And their defeat will be absolute, it will be complete.

Is it because that event dispelled the illusions about what the adversary was up to?

Yes, in part, and because it made people value, or had the potential for making people value, things like science, reason, secularism. I would prefer to say, myself, atheism, but nobody listens. The enlightenment, things people take for granted. Rather as when my friend, Salman Rushdie, was threatened with murder for money, for bounty, by the party leader on the 14th of February, 1989, I thought, "Well, okay, this is easy to decide." But a lot of people then were saying, "But, you know, what about Muslim sensitivities? I mean, may he not have offended some people?" And I said, "Just listen to what you' re saying, do you have any idea what you sound like when you're saying that?" We had to put up with a fair bit of this, this time, too.

I've also felt that we owed the people of Afghanistan a debt, that we had let these Taliban characters take over their lives and their country because they were the clients of our filthy Pakistani military clients. I thought, "Well, here, at last, one can point out to people, we have to cancel this appalling debt, and remove this foul regime." And I'm only sorry it didn't lead to the collapse of the Pakistani one.

You write, in talking about our present times, "The next phase or epic is already discernible. It is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the globalization of production by the globalization of a common standard for justice and ethics." Does this help us understand why a big piece of your enormous output is devoted to looking at human rights violations, the hypocrisy of those in power with regard to those issues?

If you say so; I would take it as a compliment.

To stay with globalization for a moment, it seems to me obvious, and has been obvious for a long time, that whether you call it globalization or not, the world has increasingly become one economy, we all live in the same economy, some of us a bit more than others. But it is interdependent and recognizable as such. Well, does that mean we all live in the same society? Shouldn't it mean that? No, it doesn't. Oddly enough, it doesn't quite mean that. Some of us have different kinds of societies within this which are better off than the other, and have more claim on human rights and justice. So I think if we're going to have [globalization] -- we're always being told of the benefits of it one way, we should be allowed to claim on our own behalf and that of others, the counterpart. That, therefore, is what politics is to me. It isn't, therefore, anti-globalizing. It's cutting with the grain and saying this should be properly shared and administered.

And then there's the exciting thought because of universal jurisdiction, which is a concept that's come into common use in international law now, and the abolition of sovereign immunity as a defense for crimes against humanity, that even the largest and most powerful and the wealthy stated them all, and the one that now most insists that there's a common standard for human rights in international law, would say, "We've agreed to apply these standards to ourselves." An elementary point that one needs to be fought over.

Is that what is involved in a project like your book on Kissinger, The Trial of Henry Kissinger?

My campaign to get book cover Kissinger brought within the order of law is something I'm very proud of, not because I think it was morally or ethnically right, but because I think it was somewhat prescient. I decided if I wrote a book, if it was called something like "Why Henry Kissinger is a Scum-Bag and Has Done Some Filthy Things," for one thing, I'd still be writing it, and it would be a shelf long, it would never end. It would have to be updated every time the Library of Congress or the State Department declassifies a new document, by the way. There's another chapter of horror each time that happens. Let's go with what we know and say, "Why not apply to this, the standards that have been established in the Pinochet and Milosevic hearings, and see if ...?" And they do, basically.

I may have made the odd false analogy here, and I've had some very intelligent critiques from lawyers about how I might have refined the point. But, generally, yes, it fits, and it involves the most colossal question: Are human rights campaigns and human rights hearings and human rights tribunals and procedures to be applied only to losers and/or to small countries or small political leaders? Is it just a means of cleaning up the nasty element of the small fry, or is really supposed to apply to the whole of humanity? In the case of Henry Kissinger, to dramatize it like this: Never before has anyone this senior in the government of the country on the winning side of a series of wars been asked to account for his behavior and for the things he ordered and authorized and covered up. Though these are so far only tentative lawsuits, mainly requiring information, they have within them the potential -- they force the question on the United States and its citizens: Do we expect to abide by the standards being imposed on others? Well, there couldn't be a more important question than that.

There is another motive, of course, which is that I simply think that the mere continued existence of this man in this culture, and the way he is fawned on by my profession, the press, and another profession of which I'm a part-time member, the academy, and another profession for which I'm concerned, the publishing industry -- all of whom have colluded in his lies, his fraudulence, his falsified publications. That's something that, on aesthetic grounds alone, makes one determined to put it right.

It sounds to me like in your work you're obviously a journalist, but only part journalist. I mean, the journalist who goes out and does the digging and finds the evidence, for example, in the Kissinger book, gathers the information that is coming out and so on, but on the other hand, somebody who is really very theoretical, who sees a big picture and relates that research to it. This is an obvious point on the one hand, but on the other hand, many of your colleagues don't do that in the American press.

Well, you keep putting me in this false position of asking questions which allow me to answer by saying, "Well, how right you are to say it!" There should already be a statue to me in Lafayette Square. I mean, I find it so difficult ... you're pushing in at an open door -- I warn you.

It's more like this. Look, as to the digging,I acknowledge in my Kissinger book, most of the spade work on the Kissinger stuff was done by other people, or is bought at the sacrifice of other people's lives. In other words, we know of certain terrible atrocities which Kissinger committed. I'm simply assembling raw material, which is very dearly bought. And, yeah, it's true, when I thought to myself, "Now, wouldn't it be nice to do an investigation into the crimes of a recent secular state? I wonder which one?" I'm sure if I dug into the life of Cyrus Vance, I would uncover all kinds of .... I didn't need a road map to decide which one it was going to be, no. I mean, one is not flying completely blind. And so there's that.

But, by the way, according to the Chomskyan world view, I would have done just as well to investigate Cyrus Vance because, you know, it's all the same. It's the system, not only one individual. I don't, quite obviously, believe that, and individuals do count and make a difference, and so does individual character.

The reductio ad absurdum would be why didn't I do Madeline Albright or Cyrus Vance, I'd discover equally bad things -- not so. This is a truly spectacular case of an international rolling crime wave associated with one man.

But I would far rather be recognized or discussed for what I have written in the same year about Oscar Wilde, or Anthony Powell, or Patrick O'Brian, or Arthur Conan Doyle, because this is what I really do most of the time. And it's much harder, it involves much more reading and much more thinking. Politics, you know, no one could abstain from, but it shouldn't be much more than 25 percent of anyone's life, I think.

Let's talk about this other part of your life, which we haven't addressed: a scholarly effort to understand some of the great writers of our time. Is that kind of work different? And in what ways is it different than writing about public issues?

It's true, in my main collection of work on that kind of topic, I do say that the public sphere of these things is always important, and someone who has no knowledge of or interest in politics would be slightly ... not necessarily blind in one eye, but perhaps a little near- or long-sighted. It's necessary to have that. So if you're reviewing, say, Patrick O'Brian's wonderful sequence of novels about the Napoleonic war at sea, if you don't know something about what was going on then and what the struggle was between the French Revolution and Napoleonic successions to it, and the British Empire, yes, the novels would be that much less interesting. Indeed, I begin the argument there by saying that, actually, the Napoleonic wars should be called the first World War, that was the first global war there ever was.

With someone like Anthony Powell, for example, who has written an extraordinary novel sequence about English life, social life in the upper class, and the Proustian classes in London in the twentieth century, if you don't know the game -- some social history -- you'll be to some extent disabled. But it would be quite possible to read it, I think, for pleasure alone, just as what it reveals about human nature and human motivation. He's comparable, I think, to George Elliott in that way, [making] some guess about what makes people behave the way they do, and knowing what life is like.

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