Christopher Hitchens on His Drinking, Why Heaven Is Like North Korea and “the Real Enemy”: “Craven Half-Assed Liberals”
By Kyle | May 26, 2007
Christopher Hitchens is number five on Amazon.com with his vigorously argued, enormously entertaining broadside against religion, the bestseller “God Is Not Great,” a book I helped launch with this April 4 Page Six item. Last week the New York Post printed brief excerpts of my May 1 chat with Hitchens in New York.
Hitchens graciously gave me over two hours of his time, so I won’tÃ‚Â waste his commentsÃ‚Â aboutÃ‚Â God, the Islamist threat, the frauds of Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, his alleged boozing and what he callsÃ‚Â the real enemy: “craven half-assed liberals.” Here is a much more complete transcript of the interview.
Q: Do you ever turn down a writing assignment?
A: It still makes me nervous to say no. Ten quid is ten quid. It buys lunch.
Q: The book is hitting the bestseller lists. Surprised?
A: Yes and no. I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton said when he was apologizing for plagiarism - which he was guilty of. I think the work of greater predecessors than myself like Richard Dawkins [author of "The God Delusion"], Daniel Dennett ["Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"] and Sam Harris ["Letter to a Christian Nation"] has created a moment for a potentially good reception for books that repudiate irrationality and theocracy. I didn’t know this when I started writing but when I realized there were so many books ahead of me I suddenly realized I wasn’t sad because we were all doing it for the same reason. Then I tried to think, well in what way could I say to someone, don’t buy Dawkins, buy me. I wouldn’t say that, I’d say buy Dawkins then buy me. But if I had to say, You don’t have to be a scientist to read my book. You don’t have to be one to read Richard’s either, but it helps. I think the case is complete without science. I would write more about philosophy and literature and I would try to press into help my experiences as a minor foreign correspondent, and I thought I would also try and be funny. I say that as solemnly as I can. I’d say it is a defense of culture against religion, of humanism against religion.
Q: Is there any particular religion that disgusts you the most?
A: I agree with Bertrand Russell that they are all co-responsible for the same fallacy. My daughter goes to a Quaker school. It would be quite absurd to say that a Quaker school is the same as the Mahdi Amy. Quakers say don’t resist evil - which in itself can be dangerous, but of course the main threat is from Islamism. The things done by the worst Islamists are not condemned by the best. The Sunni Imams have not said it is forbidden to blow up Shiite mosques in Baghdad. The Shiia authorities have not condemned the murder of Sunnis. They can’t can’t condemn the murder of fellow Muslims - f - g hell!
Q: Are you worried that you’re putting yourself in a Rushdie situation?
A: No. First, I’m not an apostate. The fatwa business applied to Muslims who have abandoned their religion. The infidels - their view is, we can’t help it. Although since the Danish cartoon business there were Muslim groups prepared to attack non-Muslims. A lot of people didn’t notice. This is new. They do ask non-Muslim authorities to oppress people and keep them quiet. That’s what bothers me much, much more. American magazines didn’t publish the Danish cartoons. At the American Society of Magazine Editors lunch I said this and someone quite important in the business, an editor, was very angry and came up to me and said, ‘We had to look after the safety of our own people.’ And I said, ‘Well, be in some other business.’ We have the First Amendment here and most of the time it’s a free ride but every so often there’s a price. [The editors] did this without a threat. Without a fight.
Q: Is your book too harsh?
A: It’s all much too mild. I don’t want to seem an intolerant Jeremiah myself.
Q: Do your secular friends back in England ask you why you’ve become a citizen of the United States of Jesus?
A: It’s the only country in the world with a secular constitution. There’s no country like it. In my own country [of birth] there are rules against criticizing religion. The head of state is head of the church. If you live in Germany you must pay a tithe to a religion. France appoints its bishops. It appoints imams of the mosques. Americans have no idea how unique freedom of worship - or in the case of me, freedom from religion - is.
Q: You were called in by the Catholic church to testify against a miracle attributed to Mother Teresa - a fraud, you say - when she was being beatified. That’s the job that used to be called devil’s advocate.
A: It’s just beyond parody. I respected their ritual procedure - shined my shoes, put on a tie, swore on the Bible - and I added that it was nice of them to ask me. They were in a hurry, it was a let’s-get-this-out-of-the-way thing - almost perfunctory. It was so obvious that the pressure was to fast-track her canonization. What it shows is that the Church is a man-made institution.
Q: Do you like to annoy people?
A: No, I don’t. When I was even quite small I didn’t take things on faith. But old ladies used to come up to me in bookstores and say, “You seem like a nice young man.” If I was just an attack dog I wouldn’t be writing books on Orwell and Jefferson. And I give quite a lot of good reviews too. If you are a culture critic of any sort in this country now part of your job is to puncture balloons and bubbles.
Q: Did anyone advise you not to write such an inflammatory book?
A: It’s not inflammatory. I wouldn’t mind if you thought so. Given how extraordinarily paranoid the religious have become it’s as if we have no feelings. As if we can’t be disgusted by the burning of the Danish embassy by uncultured lunatics. I didn’t write it to be inflammatory but I’m aware of the fact that they consider it their right to claim that anything is offensive. But that’s part of what I’m attacking. Just as a literary point, I don’t think the book is written in a way that’s designed to be offensive.
I know why there is an appeal to religion. I understand. But I think we’d be better off without it. I don’t think everyone can be an atheist. You can be an atheist and wish that the promises of religion were true. I’m glad it isn’t true. I think it would be awful if it was. I don’t want a dictatorship from heaven. I don’t want to live under such a dictatorship or any other. I’m glad it’s so self-evidently not true. They, it seems, can’t be happy until everyone agrees with them. Not me. I want people to outgrow religion - to realize that it comes from, to use a metaphor, the childhood of our species when we were afraid of the dark and afraid of death and didn’t know there was a germ cause of disease and didn’t know that micro-organisms were more powerful than we were, didn’t know about the Big Bang. But if people want to stay at home and celebrate Mass - well, they can’t do that at home - stay at home and have a statue of the Virgin or tell their children about that, I can’t stop them and I wouldn’t if I could. But they would understand that it is a private belief of their own and they are on no account to try to inflict it on me. And really that’s not very much to ask at all, is it? I don’t ask them to repudiate their opinions at all. I will of course in a debate tell them why I think their opinions are foolish or laughable or sometimes worse - and I’m not just saying that to get a laugh. But they may not bring these opinions to the public square and demand to impose them on my children. That would not be a difference of opinion. That would be a fight. I’m hoping to make that into a fight. If they try that, they will be in a fight. They can cry on the Virgin all they wish. They can believe that fossils were put in the rocks by God to mislead us. I cannot change their minds on that, but they may not attempt to teach that to my daughter using taxpayers’ money. Because that’s not a division of opinion. And if they don’t biology class at school, they’re quite free to tell their kids when they come home, ‘We have a better theory.’ I can’t stop them and I wouldn’t. They are not going to teach nonsense to my children. It is not as if there is a 50-50 difference of opinion about evolution in science class. Because there just isn’t. And I say that in their own language. They no longer call for the banning of teaching of evolution - which they did when they sure of themselves. They don’t. They only call for equal time, and they don’t call it creationism anymore, they call it intelligent design. As I said in my book, the only intelligent thing about that is the cleverness of the name that disguises its purpose, and that’s not very intelligent. They’ve admitted on this that they don’t know anymore. Oh? Okay. I’m not having them take over my school.
And I will not be told that I have to respect the opinion of someone who burns down the embassy of a small Scandinavian country and tries to sabotage its economy and kill its citizens and intimidate its government in the name of a cartoon that they say upset them. They say I have to respect their opinion. I do not have to respect them. I have contempt for it. It is my right to have contempt for it. How can they be the ones who keep on saying that they are very offended? I can be offended too. By, for example, the attempt to murder a friend of mine [Salman Rushdie] for the crime of writing a novel. When money is offered to suborn murder by the theocratic head of a foreign state to solicit the killing of someone who isn’t an Iranian for writing a novel. And to actually succeed in killing one or two of his translators and publishers. And maiming and mutilating several more. Yeah. Yeah, I can be offended by that. I find it very offensive. Why does the language of being offended, or respect, belong to them? I won’t have it.
Q: What is your favorite feud?
A: I think it is Mother Teresa. For a parodoxical reason. The Catholic press I have to say gave me quite fair treatment for that book [Hitchens' attack on Mother Teresa, "The Missionary Position."]. In particular a quite celebrated Catholic intellectual magazine in London which Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh - serious Catholics - used to write for, called The Tablet. Terrible name, but when they reviewed the book they said, ‘Well, we have to grant that Mr. Hitchens is correct in saying that one of the great dangers to our church is fanaticism, excessive zeal, and we have to grant that this woman was guilty of it and he’s pointed out a real danger in our faith and in our system, and this ought to begin a discussion.’ I really couldn’t have hoped for a more thoughtful treatment than that.
In the secular press, people said, ‘How can Hitchen attack a saint? This is a saintly woman who spent her whole life helping the poor.’ When the whole point of the book was to show that she wasn’t helping the poor. She was fleecing the poor. She was a friend of poverty, not a friend of the poor. They don’t have to agree with what I say but they can’t just say I must be wrong by definition. Mother Teresa was important to me because she the one religious fundamentalist, fanatical figure, in whom almost all secularists believed. Now these are people who are so smart. You know them. You run into them all the time. They’re incredibly clever. They know everything. They know exactly how to denounce George Bush and Karl Rove and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. In their own mental universe they absolutely had a shrine to a woman who was really really extreme religious fanatic. Pointing that out, and waiting for the consequences of that to kick in, was very instructive to me. So I suppose it is my favorite feud.
Other than that I guess I’d have to say Henry Kissinger. Because it involves every faculty that one has. The first is puncturing of a completely undeserved reputation. If you ask what his real achievements were, you come up with a very short list, if a list at all. His books, which were hugely well reviewed in the Establishment journals, have been shown to be falsified by the documents from his own State Department, the documents that he prevented for a long time from coming out. If he was in the academy and he published those books, by now he would have had to be fired or been asked to resign.
That he meets the definition of someone who’s a war criminal and a sponsor of crimes against humanity.
And again because, as with Mother Teresa, he was a favorite of the craven half-assed liberals. It wasn’t just the reactionaries who liked him. Some reactionaries, some extreme conservatives, never believed him, actually saw through him as a crook and a fraud. It was the power-worshipping consensual liberal type who fell for that kind of reputation.
More and more I find that those people are the real enemy intellectually. There’s no dishonesty like liberal dishonesty, just like there’s no intolerance like liberal intolerance. The last decade of so of my life I’ve come up against that more and more. There’s nothing they won’t excuse and no excuse they won’t deploy. Their piety and religiosity is a big aspect of that. Brilliantly exploited by Clinton. Currently being exploited by Barack Obama and by Mrs. Clinton. So cheap mediocre piety and sanctimony is their stock in trade. Whereas on the right wing, which actually is not my home and never will be, at least you can find people like Leo Strauss and Ayn Rand - who I don’t terribly like - but who could live and write without appeal to superstition. So my main criticism of the right is that they don’t realize what some of their best traditions are. They could make a perfectly good case for a free market and a smaller state without any appeal whatever to faith. And understand that the totalitarian idea, which is the main enemy that we all face, ultimately comes from the appeal to a supreme unchallengeable unchangeable total authority who can even pursue you after you’re dead. The celestial North Korea, as I call it. I’ve now finally been - it took me a long time - I used to wonder what it would be like to be, when I heard, when I was a kid, ‘Well, heaven will be everlasting praise of the Great Leader.’ I used to think, ‘Well, what would that be like?’ Now I know. I’ve seen it. My greatest failure as a journalist has been to try and describe to American readers what it would be like in North Korea. The utter misery, pointlessness and horror of that society. The article got a lot of praise. It makes me wince when people praise it, because I know, I know I utterly, utterly failed with all my powers of description, I couldn’t convey what it would be like to live in North Korea.
Q: How did you get in there?
A: By being very patient and making friends with a very bizarre individual in Beijing and paying a very big bribe and faking another identity. I didn’t go as a journalist. You can’t go as a journalist. I went as a sort of tourist through a very bizarre Beijing agency. Paid a lot of backhanders and had to fake an identity as what I actually am - which is a lecturer at the New School. They had no idea I was a reporter. Or writer. But I know now what it would be like to live in a place where there was everlasting praise. So I know what the Christian paradise would look like, feel like. They also have a father and a son who are incarnations of each other. They’re only one short of a trinity. However, even they don’t say that they’ll follow you beyond the grave. You can die and leave North Korea. It’s your only chance.
Q: Do you worry that in the most secular parts of the world, such as Europe, when belief in God goes away, pacifism rushes in to fill the void?
A: Yeah, I know. That’s been for the last five years my political life. It’s exactly to live with this contradiction that the red state U.S. is more willing to fight - real, real fighting, as fundamental as it really is - than the so-called secularists. And that the secularists are willing to apologize for terrorists. The sellout of the soft secular to jihadism has been the echoing - not even the echoing of jihadist excuses, the invention of excuses for jihadism by that lot is what’s changed my life most. And the cultural cringe of that group saying, well, ‘Islam must be in some sense be a Third World protest of the poor, it appears to be a brown-skinned religion’ - that sort of thing, the trading on Western post-colonial guilt or ignorance, that’s the weak version. And then the strong version of that, which is the transfer of the Stalinists’ belief in a Third World proletariat, now exploded, to a belief instead in disaffected Muslim masses, the George Galloway-Tariq Ali view - ‘This is the new revolution of the working class,’ in other words the complete surrender and transference from Communism to something a bit worse than National Socialism -those two things, either the liberal or the hard-line version of that, that’s what I recognize as the main political enemy.
Q: How do you reconcile all this with being a Washington host? You must be the only one in the room holding these ideas.
A: I’m not a Washington host. The New York Times the other day, reviewing the White House correspondents dinner, David - what’s his name? Who’s their media reporter?
A: Carr. Said, “Hitchens, who is something of a social arbiter in Washington.” I started a letter and decided not to send it, to The Times, saying, ‘Look, I’ve never had to ask you for an apology before but I really think I’m entitled to a retraction because this is libelous.’ (Laughs). I thought if they printed it unironically maybe people would laugh but I couldn’t be sure they would. They might cut out a couple of words and make me look like a fool. That’s the only thing I’ve read in print about myself for a long time where I really felt I have a write to complain.
Q: You were quoted as saying Georgetown was dead.
A: It’s unfortunately true. You don’t need me to know that Kay Graham and Evangeline Bruce andÃ‚Â all those great ladies have all gone. And haven’t been replaced. That’s not my insight. I’ve been trying to write about it actually for a while, but it’s not down to me to know that. I mean, that’s gone and I’m not sure that yet people realize how much it’s gone. It’s really over. But at those tables I don’t think there ever would have been any difficulty mentioning one didn’t believe in God. Nothing was off the table. Nothing was unsayable. The problem in Washington would be that there’s no meeting point at which these things get debated. Where ideas are discussed. You’re much more likely to have a political discussion or an ideological discussion in New York. In Washington they talk about who’s going to be the next Secretary of X or who’s-up-who’s-down-who’s-in-who’s-out or who do you fancy in the primaries? That’s not politics. That’s something anyone can find at a racetrack.
Q: Your detractors say you’re a drunk. Are you?
A: (Sipping Scotch and Evian) It comes up. I wrote a review of a Washington novel in which it was clear that the author thought that someone who had three glasses of white wine was pushing it. It is true that in Washington you don’t have to drink very much for being a pretty adventurous person. You can’t ask me to be the judge in my own court. You be the judge. I can take a drink if I want to. I have been known to do so. But I look to others. I give about five speeches a month. I go on TV and the radio I turn up on time, I do my stuff, I don’t miss a deadline and people find the stuff publishable. If I was a hopeless piss artist, as the English say, a lush, I doubt that I could do this. But it’s for others to say. It is one of those things where if you get a reputation for it, you can’t lose it. I’m willing to bet you that of the people who’ve said this, very few have ever met me. They see me turn up in the bookstore and I behave soberly and I read for two hours and answer questions for three hours and they say, “Yeah, but everyone knows he’s a complete -” it doesn’t disprove it. Because I might be going back to the hotel to upend the minibar. But then how do I write a column that’s going to be posted the next morning? It’s like having a reputation for being a spy or perhaps being a closet homosexual, I don’t know. But if you’ve got it, by definition you can’t disprove it. Because the more you don’t behave like it, the more people think that’s part of it. I mean I only had one Scotch now but it was right after lunch and I could sure have another but I don’t think you could tell the difference. I’ve never missed a deadline, and you could ask any editor. Never turned up late at a TV or radio show, you could ask any producer. Never been late for a class or lecture. You could ask any of my academic colleagues. And I’ve written more books than some of my critics have read. And if they say, well that only proves I’m a boozer, you know what? I really don’t care. I simply don’t care.
But if anyone would say, ‘Could you get by by drinking a bit less?’ I might say, ‘A case could be made.’ I might at that. I might at that.
Q: Martin Amis said you can’t write when you’re drinking. On the other hand, Kingsley Amis did.
A: Well, Kingsley could certainly write when he was drunk. But I think he made too much of a point of that. Kingsley had another thing he could do as a critic - he could read another author, particularly Paul Scott, Kingsley reckoned he could tell which chapters were written under the influence and which were not. And once he pointed it out to me, I thought I could too. The same is true of a lot of William Faulkner. I think I can tell when he was smashed and when he wasn’t. And the fact that the smashed stuff is better is no guide. Because you can do that for a bit but if you make that your muse, you will flame out. I make the Churchill point, ‘I’ve gotten more out of brandy than it’s gotten out of me.’ But the way he ended his life - ridiculously fat and red-faced - it’s not a great end. If it wasn’t that, my enemies would certainly find something else. But if that’s the worst they can say, then, fine. And if anyone wants to say, ‘It’s obvious from his work that he’s a slave to the bottle,’ I’d be fascinated to read it but actually no one has ever said that.
Q: Do you enjoy having enemies?
A: No. But I would think of it as a sign of weak characters if I didn’t have them. And I believe I know who they are and I think I came by them on purpose. I think I’ve given them good reason to dislike me. Their enmity has been earned, as I think friendship should be. I don’t think there are many people who just dislike me on sight or dislike me on meeting me or just dislike me. I think my enemies are people who I’ve come by honestly. And if I didn’t have enemies of that kind I suppose I’d have to say I feel I haven’t been doing my job. If you are doing it right, yeah, there should be some people who object. And sometimes strongly.
Q: Did you have a road-to-Damascus conversion when you stopped being a Marxist?
A: No. It doesn’t happen like that. That’s a stupid way to be converted - by having a flash of light and what looks to many of us in the case of the alleged Saint Paul an epileptic or schizophrenic fit that wouldn’t have been understood then. As to Marxism, I don’t think the materialist conception of history has been deposed or succeeded or transcended by a superior theory. Actually a remarkable thing about the Marxist theory of history is that’s it’s now almost universally accepted. It’s uncontroversial. I had a moment when I was writing ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian.’ Younger journalists sometimes kindly ask me for advice and I thought, well what should I say if they did ask what they ought to do politically and I realized I would once have known to tell them to get involved with the working class movement and the socialist left. Why am I not willing to say that now? I realized I wasn’t. Well, if I’m not willing to say it to them then it’s only an affectation to say it to myself. Now here is May Day, international workers day. Ten years ago I would have refused to do any work. It’s the only day of the year that I took a holiday. I had to myself three questions. One: is there an international working class socialist movement you could join? No, there isn’t. Well, will there be a revival of such a movement in the future? Is it just a lull? No, there’s not gonna be one. All right, is there a socialist critique of the capitalist order, intellectually, with or without a movement that might lead to a replacement or transcendence? No, there isn’t. Or not one that I can picture. All right then. If your answer to all three of those questions is no, then you can’t be telling the young to get involved in such a thing. I suddenly realized, well how long have I known this? And I thought, well, probably for a little while. But it hasn’t had to be confronted. I can still get together with old friends from the Sixties to reminisce about our revolutionary days and so forth knowing slightly that we were bulls - -ing but still proud of what we did. Okay, but that’s over now. As something you could recommend to your own students, could you do it? No. That’s it. That’s final. And it was strangely painless as it had already happened. Do you mind if I ask you the time?
Q: Quarter to six.
A: F -k ! No, not f -k. But potentially s - t. Not for your sake, but there’s someone I promised I’d meet at six o’clock. I might just be able to make that. You’re sure it’s not twenty to six? I wish you’d say it was.
Q: I’ve got sixteen to six.
A: All right. I have an internal clock. I know exactly when I’m about to be late.