In the roughly two decades since British writer Christopher Hitchens arrived in the U.S., he has emerged as a singularly insightful, provocative, and impossible-to-ignore critic of American politics and culture. His regular columns for the left-wing think magazine The Nation and the glitzy celebrity sheet Vanity Fair stand out in both publications for their clarity of thought and prose. He famously served as one of the models for Peter Fallows, the memorable dissipated Brit journalist in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. His television appearances are legendary, none perhaps more so than his contretemps with Charlton Heston during CNN’s live coverage of the Gulf War. Hitchens insisted that Heston list what countries have borders with Iraq. After Heston flubbed the answer, he upbraided the journalist for "taking up valuable network time giving a high-school geography lesson." To which Hitchens replied: "Oh, keep your hairpiece on."
Though the 52-year-old Hitchens clearly enjoys mocking the famous and the powerful -- he once derided the House of Windsor for "sucking off [Britain’s] national tit" -- he’s no mere gadfly. In books such as The Missionary Position, No One Left to Lie To, and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he has crafted thoughtful and provocative extended indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and the former secretary of state and Nobel Peace Prize winner; his recent collection, Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere, was reviewed in the July issue of REASON. (See "Literary Legislators.")
Hitchens’ willingness to put moral principles before political alliances has earned him the wrath of ideological compatriots. When he signed an affidavit contradicting testimony by Clinton administration aide Sidney Blumenthal that the president had never circulated tales of Monica Lewinsky as a crazed stalker, Hitchens was attacked as a liar and a snitch in the pages of The Nation and almost ended his relationship with the magazine.
Hitchens’ newest book is Letters to a Young Contrarian: The Art of Mentoring (Basic Books), in which he exhorts youth to remain both principled and oppositional, freethinkers in the best Enlightenment tradition. Given such thoughts, it’s not surprising that Hitchens’ next book will be about George Orwell. Nor is it surprising to find him increasingly interested in alternatives to orthodox left-wing thinking. A regular reader of REASON -- a few years back, he wrote that he gets "more out of reading...REASON than I do out of many ‘movement’ journals" -- Hitchens has become increasingly interested in the libertarian critique of state power and its defense of individual liberty. "I am," he says, "much more inclined to stress those issues...to see that they do possess, with a capital H and a capital I, Historical Importance."
Appropriately, Rhys Southan, REASON’s Burton Gray Memorial Intern and the youngest member of our staff, interviewed Hitchens in late August.
REASON: How were you different as a young contrarian than you are as an older one?
Christopher Hitchens: The book forces me to ask that question, and yet I don’t quite. I must say that I’ve always found the generational emphasis on the way that my youth was covered to be very annoying. There were a lot of other people born in April 1949, and I just don’t feel like I have anything in common with most of them. I forget who it was who said that generation -- age group, in other words -- is the most debased form of solidarity. The idea of anyone who was born around that time having an automatic ticket to being called "a ’60s person," is annoying to me. Especially membership in the specific group that I could claim to have been a part of: not just of "the ’60s," but of 1968. There’s even a French term for it: soixante-huitard. You can now guess roughly what the political parameters were for me at the time. And you can also guess at least one of the sources of my irritation, which is that by generational analysis, Bill Clinton and I are of the same kidney and same DNA. I repudiate that with every fiber.
But I’m postponing an answer to your question. In those days, I was very much in rebellion against the state. The state had presented itself to [my fellow protestors and me], particularly through the Vietnam War, in the character of a liar and a murderer. If, at a young age, you are able to see your own government in that character, it powerfully conditions the rest of your life. I was taught very early on that the state can be, and is, a liar and a murderer. Yet I have to concede that I didn’t think there was a problem necessarily with the state, or government, or collective power.
I had been interested in libertarian ideas when I was younger. I set aside this interest in the ’60s simply because all the overwhelming political questions seemed to sideline issues of individual liberty in favor of what seemed then to be grander questions. I suppose what would make me different now is that I am much more inclined to stress those issues of individual liberty than I would have been then. And to see that they do possess, with a capital H and a capital I, Historical Importance, the very things that one thought one was looking for.
REASON: When did your focus change? In Letters, you write that you’ve "learned a good deal from the libertarian critique" of the idea that the individual belongs to the state and you praise a friend who taught you that "the crucial distinction between systems...was no longer ideological. The main political difference was between those who did, and those who did not, believe that the citizen could -- or should -- be the property of the state."
Hitchens: It’s hard to assign a date. I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics -- the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy -- there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?
There’s also something faintly ahistorical about the libertarian worldview. When I became a socialist it was largely the outcome of a study of history, taking sides, so to speak, in the battles over industrialism and war and empire. I can’t -- and this may be a limit on my own imagination or education -- picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914. I look forward to further discussions on this, but for the moment I guess I’d say that libertarianism often feels like an optional philosophy for citizens in societies or cultures that are already developed or prosperous or stable. I find libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation. The great thing about the present state of affairs is the way it combines the worst of bureaucracy with the worst of the insurance companies.
What I did was to keep two sets of books in my mind. I was certainly interested in issues that have always interested libertarians -- defining what the limits to state power are. The first political issue on which I’d ever decided to take a stand was when I was in my teens and before I’d become a socialist. It was the question of capital punishment. A large part of my outrage toward capital punishment was exactly the feeling that it was arrogating too much power to the government. It was giving life-and-death power to the state, which I didn’t think it deserved, even if it could use it wisely. I was convinced it could not and did not.
In the mid-1970s, I first met someone whom I’ve gotten to know better since, Adam Michnik, one of the more brilliant of the Polish dissidents of the time. Michnik made the luminous remark you quoted about the citizen and his relation to the state. I remember thinking, "Well, that’s a remark that’s impossible to forget."
REASON: So, do you still consider yourself a socialist?