I had lunch with journalist and author Christopher Hitchens in my hometown of Portland, Oregon, this week and interviewed him over glasses of Johnny Walker Black Label downtown.
The man should need no introduction, but I’ll give him one anyway. He’s the author or editor of more than twenty books, a journalist, a literary critic, a world traveler, a teacher, and a polemicist who migrated rightward from the radical left and no longer fits in anyone’s convenient box. Last year Forbes magazine cited him as one of the 25 most influential liberals in the U.S. media, but at the same time he’s a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford. In 2005, Foreign Policy magazine cited him as one of the 100 most influential intellectuals in the world.
He’s a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, Slate, and the Atlantic, and his most recent book, God Is Not Great, made him more famous (or, if you prefer, infamous) than ever. His best book, or perhaps I should say my favorite, is Love, Poverty, and War, a rich collection of travel pieces and essays on those three most important of topics.
Hitchens is certainly famous, and is recognized on the street a lot more often than I am. A tall and slightly disheveled man in his fifties rudely interrupted our conversation outside the bar at one point and said “I can’t remember your name, but I recognize you from YouTube.”
“You should read more,” Hitchens said. He didn’t remind the man of his name.
Not two minutes later, an attractive young woman walked up to him, squeezed his arm gently, and said “I love you.”
“How often does this happen?” I said.
“This,” he said and smiled at the pretty young woman, “doesn’t happen nearly enough. But that,” he said and gestured to the man who recognized him from YouTube and would not go away, “happens too often.”
MJT: Ireland has a new anti-blasphemy law.
MJT: At the same time, Kurt Westergaard was just attacked in Denmark by a Somali nutcase with an axe for offending Muslims with his Mohammad bomb head cartoon. How is it that supposedly liberal Europeans have come to agree with Islamist fascists that people like Westergaard ought to be punished, even if they think he should be punished less severely?
Hitchens: Let’s do a brief thought experiment. I tell you the following: On New Year’s Eve, a man in his mid-seventies is having his granddaughter over for a sleep-over, his five-year old granddaughter. He is attacked in his own home by an axe-wielding maniac with homicidal intent. Your mammalian reaction, your reaction as a primate, is one of revulsion. I’m trusting you on this. [Laughs.]
MJT: Oh, yes. You are correct.
Hitchens: Then you pick up yesterday’s Guardian, one of the most liberal newspapers in the Western world, and there’s a long article that says, ah, that picture, that moral picture, that instinct to protect the old and the young doesn’t apply in this case. The man asked for it. He drew a cartoon that upset some people. We aren’t at all entitled to use our moral instincts in the correct way.
This is a sort of cultural and moral suicide, in my opinion. It’s not exactly comparable to the reaction of the church in Ireland which wants to make it illegal to criticize any religion, which in Ireland doesn’t really mean much more than one. Many Irish people I know are already publicly planning to break this law.
There you see, I have to say, a different phenomenon, maybe a different version of the same one, a claim of the right to protection against offense from a church that just lost at least two senior bishops who had to resign not because they had not thoroughly enough made themselves aware of the child abuse—why do we call it abuse? The rape and torture of children—where it seems from the Irish government’s report that only a minority of children were not made victims of this hideous iniquitous predation.
The same absurdity is present in both cases. These two religions make very large claims for themselves, that “without us you cannot get to heaven, and without us you will go to hell.” They claim the right to high, middle, and low justice over everything from public affairs to private morals. They make these immense claims for themselves and further say they should be immune from criticism. It’s not enough to be an absolutist party, but you’re not allowed to disagree. This is totalitarianism.
MJT: Here’s what I find most astonishing about this. I can understand why certain elements in the Catholic church would want to impose something like this out of self-interest. But why in the hell would a European leftist want something like this imposed to protect somebody else’s religion?
Hitchens: I’m fairly sure the Irish left, such as it is, doesn’t support this.
MJT: The current president of Ireland said Muslims have the right to be offended by Westergaard’s cartoons. I suppose that’s true as far as it goes, that everybody has the right to be offended by anything, but why…
Hitchens: Ah yes. This is not new. I’ve written about this many times. It’s reverse ecumenicism. It first became obvious to me when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie in 1989. The reaction of the official newspaper of the Vatican was that the problem wasn’t that the foreign leader of a theocratic dictatorship offered money, in public, in his own name, to suborn the murder of the writer of a book of fiction in another country, who wasn’t an Iranian citizen. The problem was not that.
You and I may have thought, bloody hell, this is a new kind of threat. But it’s an old level of threat. Blasphemy is the problem. That was also the view of the archbishop of Canterbury. The general reaction of the religious establishments to that and to the Danish case—and, by the way, of our secular State Department in the Danish case—was to say the problem was Danish offensiveness. A cartoon in a provincial town in a small Scandinavian democracy obviously should be censored by the government lest it ignite—or as Yale University Press put it, instigate—violence.
Instigation of violence can only mean one thing. I know the English language better than I know anything else.
MJT: Instigate means it’s on purpose.
Hitchens: These people are saying the grandfather and granddaughter were the authors of their own attempted assassinations. These are some of the same people who say that if I don’t believe in God I can’t know what morality is. They’ve just dissolved morality completely into relativism by saying actually, occasionally, carving up grandfathers and granddaughters with an axe on New Year’s Eve can be okay if it’s done to protect the reputation of a seventh century Arabian man who heard voices.
MJT: It’s hard to psychoanalyze other people, but I sometimes suspect that blaming Salman Rushdie and Kurt Westergaard, as many writers have, for bringing down the wrath of these maniacs from Somalia and Iran, may be a way of convincing themselves they’ll be safe as long as they don’t cross the same line. Any writer or graphic artist must, at least for a second, think oh fuck, they could come for me if I don’t watch out. They can say to themselves they’ll be fine if they don’t cross that line.
Hitchens: But the line will never stop shifting.
MJT: Of course.
Hitchens: These religious grievances aren’t all equivalent. If you’d asked me in the 1930s which religious group was the most dangerous, I’m sure I would have said the Catholic church because of its open allegiance then with…
MJT: …with Franco.
Hitchens: And Mussolini and the Ustashe. You know the story. With what you might as well call fascism.
There is now no question that if someone I know is under guard for writing something or saying something or drawing something—and I now know a lot of people who have to live their lives surrounded by bodyguards—it’s because they’ve offended what most ignorant people call Islam.
Five kids from a suburb near me in Washington were just arrested because they want to go “fight for Islam” in Afghanistan. Why doesn’t that mean they go fight for the Northern Alliance? Or for the rights of the Hazara people? Or for the emancipation of Muslim women? Or for any other number of Islamic causes? To them it can only mean the Taliban.
If we grant that these people are right or that they have a point, we grant that the Taliban does represent Islam. If we grant that the completely contrived protest against Danish cartoons by a few mullahs represents Islamic emotion, how much more contemptuous of Islamic people could we be?
MJT: The Taliban has a six percent approval rating in Afghanistan.
Hitchens: Some British Muslims tried to join Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, Mr. Zarqawi’s old gang. These are people who blow up mosques.
Hitchens: It’s the cultural cringe of the West.
You’ve been around enough to know that someone who showed the symptoms of Major Hasan in the army of Algeria, or Syria, or Tunisia, or Turkey, would have been in jail long before he could have gunned down his fellow soldiers. These countries know very well from bitter experience that you can’t allow zealotry in the army.
We say no, rather than offend Muslims we will allow zealotry in our army. There are those who say people can be made to wear garments that in some Muslim countries are illegal to wear—such as the burkha—because they represent subjection. Some of us think that surely all Muslims do this, but no. What some call our racism or cultural ignorance is, in fact, present in the Western attempt to embrace them.
MJT: You know Mullah Krekar, this fanatic in Norway from Iraqi Kurdistan?
Hitchens: I do know Mullah Krekar.
MJT: The Kurds in Iraq say if he goes home, they’ll kill him.
Hitchens: Oh, no question.
MJT: But in Norway he gets state welfare benefits.
Hitchens: Do know anyone in Iraqi Kurdistan who actually prays five times a day?
Hitchens: And you’re not going to, either. They have just as much a claim to being Muslims, Sunni Muslims, as anybody else, yet no jihadist from Birmingham went to help the Kurds when they were being genocided—or Anfalled—by Saddam’s atheist state.
The answer to your question is self-hatred, this belief that only true Muslims would want to fight against us.
Did they go to fight in Bosnia?
MJT: Actually a few of them did, some of the so-called Afghan Arabs eventually went to Bosnia.
Hitchens: People like us went to fight in Bosnia.
Did they help in the recovery of Kuwait? No.
Did they help the Northern Alliance resist the Taliban? No.
It has to be, always, the most embittered, the most fanatical, the most absolutist, and the most totalitarian. This is a real poisonous phenomenon, and we refuse to give it its real name because of a combination of ignorance and what I would call multicultural masochism.
If Major Hasan were in the Turkish army, he would not have been offered a promotion after he lectured his fellow medical officers about how “we love death more than they love life.” I don’t think in Turkey he would have made it.
MJT: Nope. In Turkey he would not have made it.
Hitchens: But he made it in Texas. And nobody wanted to report him because it could have gotten them a black mark on their own dossier for possibly being an intolerant person. This is madness.
The Christian churches have been terrible about this, as have many liberal Jews, by saying we must extend a hand. No, we must not. We must withdraw the hand.
MJT: And yet the other side, the radical Islamist side, hysterically calls us all Crusaders and Zionists.
Hitchens: Here’s a way of throwing an Oregon progressive into a state of confusion: ask him or her if they’ve read the latest Al Qaeda pronouncements on the Hindu question. Or, shall we put it another way, a billion infidels, brown-skinned, third world, living in a secular democracy, and all of them deemed by fatwa as fit only for slaughter.
Who’s the racist here? Me for pointing that out?
Remember, this Al Qaeda crap comes not out of Palestine. We’ve got three big Asian democracies, one Christian—the Philippines—one largely Sufi Indonesia, and one Hindu—India. The attempts of Al Qaeda in each case is to create a separate state, to wrench one out of the territories of these three, which would lead to more chaos and war and misery than you can imagine. The reason I’m an optimist is because if we can manage to create alliances with these three large prosperous multicultural democracies, and say that we understand the attempt by radical Islam—again, I correct myself. I should say reactionary Islam.
I don’t like the word radical being used here. I do it myself sometimes, but I’m always trying to stop myself. We say “the radical imam.” No, he’s not radical. He’s the most reactionary bleeder in the region.
Hitchens: By every definition he’s extreme, fanatic, fascist.
Underneath this indulgence, Michael, this lenience we inflict on ourselves and others, is a vague feeling among millions in the West that Islam is somehow the religion of millions of the oppressed third world, of the brown-skinned, and of the black-skinned in Somalia and Nigeria. What I call the cultural cringe is involved. It’s subliminal, but it’s played on by terms like Islamophobia coined by the propaganda of the other side. It’s designed to make you feel bad even if you don’t like it. It’s thought crime. The attempt is to make Islamophobia something you’ll be as reluctant to be accused of as being a racist.
Actually, from some people I don’t even care if I’m being called a racist. Their standards have become so low that it doesn’t hurt like it should.
Hitchens: And, by the way, that’s a disaster. Racism should be a severe accusation. It should be something you are afraid of.
MJT: It was when I was a child.
Hitchens: Islamophobia is vague and linguistically clumsy. A phobia is an irrational fear. My fear of Islamic terrorism is not irrational. It’s quite well-founded.
MJT: It is.
Hitchens: I don’t want to be sitting on a plane in Detroit and wondering if some craphound is going to blow me up.
MJT: I spent a week with you last year in Lebanon and you weren’t afraid of the Muslims all around us, nor was I.
MJT: Our hotel was on the Muslim side of Beirut.
Hitchens: I went to a Hezbollah rally unmolested. I was treated, in fact, with courtesy. You and I were given a bad time by a fascist group…
MJT: …of Greek Orthodox…
Hitchens: …of Orthodox Christians. But I don’t think we should try to relativize this too much. If you’re going to be killed by a religious fanatic, at least for the rest of our lives, it will be by a Muslim. I asked for it with the Orthodox. I went out of my way to upset them.
MJT: You did. [Laughs.]
Hitchens: You don’t have to do that with the Muslims. You can do it without knowing it with the Muslims.
A devoted English school teacher went to teach primary school kids in Sudan, in Khartoum, and the class adopted a bear as a mascot. They asked what they should call it, and the teacher said let’s call it Mohammad, it’s the most popular name. She was very nearly sentenced to death. Streets full of insane people. She was arrested. The British government had to negotiate for her life. She could not possibly have known that she had to be that careful.
If you can give the name Mohammad to a shitting, screaming, nuisance of a kid—which somebody does 5,000 times a day—then I think you should be able to give it to the class’s favorite teddy bear.
The essence of totalitarianism is that it’s systematic, thorough, and absolute, but it’s also unpredictable and capricious. It keeps everyone off balance. Editors think “let’s not run this piece,” but they’re making a big mistake. They’ll come to find an offense that was something they hadn’t guessed. They will. That’s what happened in Denmark.
MJT: That whole business was largely manufactured. Those cartoons came out months before all the rioting. Rioting in Beirut happened right after rioting in Damascus, and some of the same people were bussed in at each riot.
Hitchens: On the same busses.
MJT: On the same busses. And who do you supposed paid the drivers?
Hitchens: The Muslim world had bigger things on its mind than the small town press in Denmark.
MJT: Of course.
Hitchens: But a very sinister thing happened that I want to draw your attention to, as well. During the Rushdie affair, the embassies of several Muslim countries began to come to the British foreign office and say, about Rushdie, “isn’t there something you can do to stop this guy?” The embassy of Qatar was one, and the embassy of Saudi Arabia was another. As if the embassies in London were there to represent a religion rather than a state or a people. That was an early warning.
Egypt may be a Muslim-majority country, but the Egyptian ambassador represents, has to represent, at least ten million Coptic Christians.
Hitchens: And many unbelievers.
Then these embassies ganged up on the prime minister of Denmark and said “we insist that you get into the habit of censoring your own country’s newspapers like we do.” This was the same delegation. It’s very dangerous.
And our own State Department said the Danes should apologize. The State Department did not say “We take a solidarity position with a small democratic Scandinavian country that’s a fellow member of NATO, a long-standing ally, whose troops are helping the Muslims of Afghanistan emancipate themselves from the Taliban.” That’s the kind of thing the State Department is supposed to say, pronouncements on that kind of thing. Instead, it pronounced on what it’s not supposed to pronounce on, another country’s cartoons. Karen Hughes, I think, was responsible for that. This was the Bush Administration saying this. This was a full-scale capitulation. It has to be stopped.
To be continued…
Stay tuned for the second half where we discuss Iran, the uprising against its government, its terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon, its nuclear weapons program, and how the United States and Israel should respond.
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