Citizen Hitch: Godless provocateur Christopher Hitchens pledges allegiance to America
By Holiday Dmitri
Christopher Hitchens turned 58 on April 13. The occasion might typically have passed with little fanfare, but this year, the scruffy British ex-pat had reason to celebrate. Early that day, on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, he was sworn in as a citizen of the United States. It was a doff of the cap to a country he had already called home for more than a quarter century, but it was also a symbolic gesture of solidarity. As everyone knows by now, the reformed Trotskyite resigned from his post at the Nation after 9/11 to assume what has become his unofficial charge: indefatigable defender of the Bush Administration's adventures in Iraq. Application approved!
Hitchens has always loved a good fight, and his latest literary endeavor, “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” (Twelve, $24.99), is sure to piss off enough readers to satisfy his thirst. Of course, the book is just another stop on Mr. Hitchens's personal journey to hell, which began at age nine, when he became an atheist, and reached a crescendo in 2002, when the Vatican called him to testify against Mother Teresa during her beatification process. Asked in a recent interview if he had ever prayed in his life, he responded, “Probably once for an erection, but not addressed to anyone in particular. Nor completely addressed to my cock.”
Radar sat down for lunch with the iconoclast in his Washington, D.C., home a couple of days after he and wife Carol Blue hosted Vanity Fair's White House Correspondents' Dinner after-party. Over a bowl of oatmeal (“I've got high cholesterol,” he explained), followed by cigarettes, Scotch, and a plate of thinly-sliced prosciutto, the Hitch gave us his take on piety, fanaticism, and life as a newly minted American.
RADAR: You've said that religion is “the big subject until the end of [your] life.” Was it easy then to write God Is Not Great?
HITCHENS: Yes, it's a book I've been writing all my life. I spent a couple of weeks putting up huge pieces of drawing paper, making a diagram of the questions I'd have to answer, and then arranging them in chapters. Basically doing a wall map of the book and then pinning it up next to my word processor. I did it in two days. That was the hard part. It took me five months to write the book. I don't want to make it sound easy, it wasn't. But the hardest thing was getting 30 years of work into a wall map.
To what do you attribute your prolific output?
Well, I find writing recreational. I used to do it to relax when I was a kid. I realized early on that there were a few things that I can do with any skill: write an essay and give a speech. I can do both of those very easily. Nothing to boast about, but I also have an extremely good memory. Still, that's all I have: I can talk, I can write, and I've got a good memory. And I have strong opinions, I suppose. So I just tried getting better at it. I just focused.
All writers go on about how difficult writing is, and of course there's that, because it gets harder when you compare yourself to better people, but to be absolutely frank, I don't find writing hard at all. I could in a course of a day perfectly easily write a column that's 1,000 words for Slate and a book review for the Sunday Times of London, for example.
I am one of the people who knew very, very early in life that they only wanted to do one thing, which is to write. I didn't pick it; it picked me.
When did it pick you?
When I was about 10.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
A short history of the Napoleonic Wars.
When you were 10?
It's still unfinished, but that was the plan.
What do you read on a daily basis?
I don't read things online. People tell me I should, but I almost never do. I get the New York Times and the Washington Post every day. I quickly read them to find out what other people think the story is. That said, it doesn't take me very long. But I make my own newspaper. People e-mail me from all over the place, and someone will undoubtedly always send me a piece from Iraq or from Turkey or Japan that they thought interesting. I've been having correspondence for a long time with a young Marine in Iraq. I have people who just write to me, and I learn more from what they send than from reading any newspaper. I'm also easy to find. I'm in the phone book and people know it.
You make yourself readily accessible.
Yes. I think it's important. Well, I believe, first, that one should. Because if I were to go appearing on books and on the radio and telling everyone what I think, getting in their face, I ought really, out of politeness, have them get their turn. But they do get a little nutcase…
As in stalkers?
Yes. I had one just this weekend. Harmless, I think, but you can never be sure. They tend to go away. They get bored and see someone else on another show. There was this mad woman, whom I got rid of finally. She was a nuisance because she rang me nightly, drunk, talking to my voicemail and using it all up so it couldn't take any more messages. She was obsessed with me, but then she would decide when she was drunk that she disapproved of me. She was a sad person. I got rid of her by filing a restraining order and once picking up the phone — and it was her I think expecting my voice mail — and being fantastically unpleasant. Not threatening, but as rude as I knew. I think it gave her a shock. I wouldn't be surprised if she waits two or three years and then comes back. She's like that.
I think anyone whose had any sort of public reputation, even as small as mine, knows by now that there will be something on the Web or something in the ether for people who are mad, because, as we just found out, the culture now presents huge opportunities for people who are maladjusted.
Right, as we saw in the recent case of Seung-Hui Cho. What did you think of the Virginia Tech shooting?
I don't think about it. To me it's a non-event. There will always be a tragedy with some little kid falling down a mineshaft some week. Horrible things will always happen, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it. We had a moment of silence at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. But why not for the 116 people who were torn to pieces in Iraq, which does have implications for us, because the people who did that want to do it to everybody? Instead, this little nutcase has state power. I hate it!
When I heard about the Virginia Tech event, I thought, This is horrible, because I knew there would be nothing on the television, in the newspapers, or on the airwaves for weeks. Everyone wants the shooting to be about them, the Russian Federation included. If you look through my window you'll see the Russian Federation has its flag half-mast. What does the Russian Federation have to do with Virginia Tech? Nothing! Nor do I. Nor do you. Though are you Korean?
I thought [mutual friend] Windsor said you were Korean. I'm sorry. Because I was just going to say you don't look it. But you say Taiwanese. That's interesting, because Taiwan's airline is China Airlines, but you don't say Chinese?
No. My parents raised me to think of Taiwan as separate from China.
I know what you mean. I always say I'm English, not British.
But now you can say you're an American as well. Congratulations.
Thank you. You too?
Thank you. You've lived in this country since 1981. Why did you recently decide to become an American citizen?
Why did I do it? It was a post-September 11th feeling. I realized that I've been living here a long time and that this country, this society, had been pretty welcoming to me. I was just cruising along with a green card and felt like I was cheating on my dues.
And if you want to argue for war, you do it in two ways: One is to argue there is a war, which I think everyone believes, and the other is that we should be fighting in it, which means advocating in public that people go to Iraq or Afghanistan. I felt I probably ought to be a citizen for that.
Now that you're able to vote in the next presidential election, are you going to register for a particular political party?
No. I don't have any party allegiances. Before I could vote, I wrote in a column that I was for the re-election of George Bush, Sr. That was the first time I ever wrote or said in public who I was for. If George Bush, Sr., had that second term, I think we would be living in a better world in lots of ways. One of which would have been, we never would have elected George Bush, Jr. People forget that. People who always vote Democratic don't realize that if they didn't want this George Bush they should have voted for the last. They think of it as zero-sum: You're either an elephant or a donkey. I hate the whole mentality. It produces boring parties and bad politicians. I've never been a supporter of either party in America. My line is that I dislike the Republicans, but I despise the Democrats.
That said, any ideas on who you'll be voting for in the 2008 presidential election?
I couldn't tell you now for whom, except if it was today, if you have everyone who is currently seeking a nomination running for president, I'd vote for Giuliani because of the war. Mrs. Clinton has a good position on the war, too. If she were running against an anti-war Republican, which could happen, if it was Hillary vs. Chuck Hagel, let's say — he's not running, but let's suppose he was — well, then I'd vote for her. Because she's serious about the war — or at least she has to pretend to be. I'm a single-issue voter.
With Giuliani, I also admire what he did in New York. He's proven that he can run and improve things by governing. And the second thing, very important, is that he does not come from a small town, and he cannot run a campaign saying, “Vote for me because I come from a small town.” I hope I never have to hear that ever again. Candidates who go on about their small town roots make me sick. The third thing is, of course, with every candidate, you want to know what would they be like when things get really tough. Well, with Giuliani, we sort of know that. He and Tony Blair were the only bright spots on that day [9/11]. So I find it pretty easy making up my mind. It certainly would have to be Giuliani.
But that said, Mr. Giuliani is very obviously not going to be the candidate for the Bible Belt, whereas Mrs. Clinton would love to be if she could, and she is trying her best to be. I would vote for a pro-war, religious person over an anti-war atheist.
But do you feel that the religious Right has hijacked the GOP? I mean, is there a place for an atheist in the Republican Party?
Sure. Though you certainly cannot be one and have a chance at the Republican ticket. I would say that's absolutely the case. They insist more and more on piety. But the only member of Congress I know who will not say he is a believer is a Republican. He's a libertarian I think.
I thought the only one was Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA)?
There's another one more recently who said this: Ed Royce (R-CA). He's a very bright guy from some greater Los Angeles district, and he simply says, “I'm not a person of faith.” So is Karl Rove for example. [Editor's note: According to the congressman's communications director, Royce is a “practicing Roman Catholic.”]
Also, the two leading public intellectuals of the American Right in the last two, three decades are Ayn Rand and Leo Strauss. Ayn Rand raised a huge number of free market concerns and was a libertarian, and Leo Strauss is well known to be the philosopher of what is now stupidly called neo-conservatism. Both had contempt for religion. Their attitudes toward it was the same as mine: that it's a silly man-made illusion.
On the Democratic side, almost all their heroes are religious. Martin Luther King. The Kennedys. People like that. The left is saturated with the religious. A lot of my book is an attack on liberal religious illusions. When people hear I'm writing a book on religion, they think, that Hitchens is taking on the Christian Right now. That's not it. They're hardly worth mentioning. They don't say anything interesting now. They're just sick people.
Both sides attempt to use religion for their own benefit. Do you think the American people will ever accept an atheist president?
Well, we better hope so or we're saying goodbye to Mr. Lincoln and Mr. Jefferson. But I think the answer is yes. If they were satisfied with all the other conditions, sure. The opinion polls are misleading. If you asked someone, “Would you vote for an elderly, divorced, second-rate Hollywood actor for president?” They'd say no. Or, “Would you vote for a Baptist peanut farmer?” Probably not — and I wish they hadn't in that case. Another example, in the case of, “Would you vote for a woman president?” very few people would say no, but a lot of people would say no if it was Mrs. Clinton or Dianne Feinstein. It's the same if you ask, “Would you vote for an atheist?”
Did your upbringing turn you into an atheist?
No, I'm lucky that way. Some people do react very badly to being abused as children, or bullied or terrified by stories of Hell. Not me. What terrified me weren't the Hell stories, but how hellish Heaven sounded.
Why did Heaven sound like Hell?
Eternal penance. You can never stop — like North Korea. In North Korea, they have compulsory worship from dawn until dusk. That's all there is, everything is praise. So now I know what it would be like. I know it must be the most proximate place we have on Earth to being in Hell. But at least you can die and get out of North Korea. Kim Jong-Il does not promise you he'll follow you into the grave. But you can't die and get away from fucking Jesus.
This hatred you have for religion, was it solidified by 9/11?
The terrible feeling I had that day, which occurred when I was entering my 50s, was that what [had] started would go on for the rest of my life. But it wasn't a completely horrible feeling, because I then knew what I was doing — opposing religious evils — and I'm quite happy if that's all I do for the rest of my life.
Do you think we will win the War on Terror and defeat radical Islam?
No, no. None of these wars ever get won, but we're not going to lose the war against Islamic jihad, which is what it really is. I don't know how we will define our victory, but they will lose. It will do terrible damage, but where it succeeds is where it fails. When the Taliban had taken over Afghanistan that was the end of it. Because once they try to run a society out of a Holy Book, they will fail.
Just as, for example, I say this about people who are frightened by the Christian Right, which a lot of people in this country are, that the last time they won a victory was in the 1920s. They had two victories then: they banned the sale of alcohol, and they won the argument over the teaching of evolution — at least in Tennessee. Well, their victory was completely discredited, and they never got over the ridicule they suffered from winning.
If they won, if they elected a president or member of Congress to ban abortion, impose school prayer as mandatory, or instill the teaching of Creationism, that would be the end of it. They would regret their victory forever because it would lead to colossal failure and discredit them. It wouldn't last very long and would, I hope, lead to civil war, which they will lose, but for which it would be a great pleasure to take part. But they're so stupid, they don't think about these things. Likewise, any society conquered by the jihadist will destroy itself.
But are all religions equally reprehensible from a moral standpoint?
Yes, I think so. If not morally, intellectually reprehensible. They all say you should surrender reason to faith, which is what I think the original problem is. Obviously a Quaker is not a jihadist. Quakers don't preach anything evil. But they preach non-resistance to evil, however, which I think is an evil notion, but it's not the same as putting a bomb in a girl's school in Belgium. The surrender of reason to faith is what leads to those bombs going off in Belgium, so I'm opposed to any of those surrenders.
There's been an explosion of books coming out recently on atheism. What kind of impact do you hope yours will have?
Well, I've already had one public event for it, which was in Arkansas, and they gave me a standing ovation and all the books there sold. I think this [sort of reception] wouldn't have been true two years ago, but now a point of resistance has been reached. From the spread of Muslim fanaticism to the West, to the attempt to teach religious nonsense in American schools, to the stupidity of the president's faith-based initiative in handing out subsidies to religious nutcases, to the church saying that AIDS in Africa is bad but that condoms are worse than AIDS, to being told a Danish cartoonist can't do his job without being in danger — things like that. A great number of people who expected they could lead secular lives are fed up and have had enough of the religious bullying.
How do you respond to the argument that atheists are now exhibiting the same characteristics they hate about religion-namely being righteous and dogmatic?
If you ask me, do I dislike Islamic jihadist more than they dislike me? The answer would be, I hope so. Am I as intolerant of them as they are of me? I'm working on it. But that doesn't make me a fundamentalist. If you were a fundamentalist believer in the First Amendment, you are a fundamental believer in the right of other people to have their opinion. That's not the same as saying you're a fanatic who says other people can be killed because of their belief.
People attempt to say that we are fundamentalists, too. It sounds clever, but I think it's bound to fail. A fundamentalist is someone who believes in the literal truth of certain text, you're not free not to believe it. But there's not one position that any of us [atheists] hold that's remotely like that. Everything we believe in depends on everything being open to doubt and experiment. If we hold those views very strongly and say that we don't think any other views are valid — a view that isn't in favor of free inquiry and skepticism — that doesn't make us dogmatic. Our belief is in objective scrutiny and evidence — including our own.
But can we survive without religion, or do we need to believe in something no matter what?
We certainly could survive without religion. Religion promises people something it cannot possibly guarantee. In fact — I insist on saying this — there are things that are beyond my knowledge. But religious people aren't saying that. They're saying they do know. Now, I've met a lot of religious people, none of them gigantically more intelligent than me, and certainly none of them smart enough to say they know what God's mind is. I don't grant that any human being could know that. But they insist that they do — they are interpreting His words.
Joseph Ratzinger, who now calls himself Pope Benedict XVI and claims to be the vicar of Christ on Earth, doesn't strike me as someone who is up to the average intelligence of most of my friends. If he weren't making these claims about himself, no one would listen to a word he says! He's a completely undistinguished human being.
So if we could live without God, what would be an atheist society to model ourselves after?
Well, we can't have a state without religion. You cannot prevent people from worshipping in their own way. But I think society could, through its education system and the examples of its politicians, gently suggest that reading Jefferson or Voltaire or Paine wouldn't be harmful to you. I think Einstein was as near as we would have to an ideal person. It's the first time you have someone who is purely mind. But you couldn't have an Einsteinian state… though there was nearly an Einsteinian society. He was offered the presidency in the state of Israel. But he said no, as one could have predicted he would.
How would Israel be different if he had said yes?
Well it couldn't have been worse. Actually in some ways, I wish that he had said yes because he was a very strong believer in a binational state. And he was against expelling and subjugating the Palestinians. He might have made some difference, though not much, as the presidency is a ceremonial role. But the speeches that he would have made — that he did make — would have gotten more attention if he were the president. He was someone I really, really, really wish I could've met. I don't put pictures up of people on my wall, and I never did even when I was a teenager.
But if you did?
Sigourney Weaver because of Alien.
I had no idea…
Maybe Sigourney, but definitely Einstein, and maybe Orwell and Camus and Proust. But I don't do that. I think if someone comes into my room, it should take them a while to work out what I think.
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