Critic at Large
Christopher Hitchens seems happy here in the heartland of political correctness. And he should. Hitchens, English-born columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation and currently a visiting instructor at Cal's graduate school of journalism, likes nothing better than branding sacred cows for what they are. The Pope, President Clinton, Queen Elizabeth -- all have felt the sting of Hitchens' critical analysis.
In his 1995 book Missionary Position, Hitchens debunked saint-in-the-making Mother Teresa, pointing out that, among her many less-than-virtuous acts, she lent support to Haiti's despotic Duvalier regime, and refused to give back over $1 million she'd taken from convicted S&L fraud Charles Keating, even after she'd been informed that Keating swindled themoney. Commenting on Mother Teresa's famous home for the poor in Calcutta, Hitchens wrote that the facilities were primitive at best. Why, he wondered, didn't she spend some of her considerable fortune on an actual hospital? Because, he suggested, treatment wasn't the point -- suffering was a necessary ingredient in the Mother Teresa myth.
Soon after her death last year, Hitchens rose to amend the reputation of Princess Diana. Appearing frequently on Sunday-morning TV round tables, headded dissent to the adulation. Diana was a "spoiled brat," says Hitchens, who happens to know both of her half-brothers. He notes that in her will, which was recently made public, she left nary a pound to charity. "Everything she did in the last years of her life was done to embarrass or annoy her ex-husband," he says. "Everything."
In addition to his gigs at Vanity Fair and The Nation, Hitchens, 49, is a regular contributor to The Times Literary Supplement, New York Times Review of Books, Granta and Vogue. He spends most of his time in Washington D.C., where he lives with his wife and two kids. I met him at a sidewalk cafe in north Berkeley, where we spoke over several late-morning glasses of wine.
The Monthly: Do you think there's any chance Clinton could be impeached?
Christopher Hitchens: No. Though it's difficult to see why not, in that no one would really miss him. It used to be said that you couldn't impeach Nixon because there was so much important business going on, crises like Vietnam andChina. There's absolutely no reason not to impeach Clinton -- he would disappear.
TM: So why is he still so popular?
CH: He's not popular. The press is less popular. People wish to be left aloneby this story. But if they're not it's not the fault of the press. The pressisn't inventing this thing. The press for a long time wouldn't print anythingon Paula Jones. It's not true the press has been looking for dirt. Quite thecontrary.
TM: What about all these European comparisons you hear -- that if Clinton werephilandering as president of France he'd be up for a medal. Is that really thecase?
CH: Americans who say that have never been to France. Francois Mitterrand could have had a baby on the side by a woman not his wife and no one would have cared. And no one should care, if that's what Clinton were doing. I certainly would not. Nor would I care if he was being sucked off on a daily basis by George Stephanopolous. But if Mr. Mitterrand had put the other lady on the payroll, the French would care just like anybody would. So all this stuff about, "Let's be more grown-up, let's be more French,"that's all crap. This is the president who thinks that homosexuals are not morally fit to be in the armed forces. Who poses with Billy Graham at the national prayer breakfast. Who preaches abstinence as a solution to teenage sexual problems. He's a big, blubbering Baptist preacher, as a matter fact. If it was just that, people would be laughing and saying serves him right, for his piety alone. As for saying he's being witch-hunted by Kenneth Starr, he should be lucky that he's not caught in any of the laws he's passed himself, to do with crime and terrorism and habeas corpus. People's doors can be kicked in and they can have everything taken away, including themselves, for having the wrong kind of cigarette. It's been the worst presidency for civil liberties since Nixon, and that's another reason why he's not being witch-hunted. In fact, I think Kenneth Starr has been a very lenient prosecutor.
TM: How's this whole thing going to sort itself out?
CH: With the usual nothingness. I can see why people in this country talk so much about closure, because they never get it. They've been trying to get over Vietnam for how many years? The Iran-Contra thing fizzled out. It was allowed to die a death of 1,000 lawyers. We don't even know what the burglars were looking for in the Watergate building. Nixon copped a plea. Cover up is essential to consensus and consensus is essential to people having a quiet life. That's what they want. But if anything were to happen, they wouldn't miss Clinton for a day.
TM: You really think so?
CH: Anyone can do what Clinton does. He just has to be chief executive of USA Incorporated. Give a smiling annual report to the shareholders. It's a job any fool can be trained for. Gore has been trained for it all his life. No one would miss Bill Clinton.
TM: Did you support Clinton initially?
CH: No. I disliked him on sight, I have to say, in New Hampshire.
TM: Were you a Jerry Brown guy?
CH: I would have been for Brown, and not just because he was the best of a bad bunch. I thought he was quite good. But I disliked Clinton because of the Ricky Ray Rector business. He left New Hampshire to go back to Arkansas and execute a man who was essentially unfit to plead -- he certainly didn't understand the charges against him, would have met any ordinary definition of clemency. I don't even think the Chinese execute people who are mentally disabled. Rector was lobotomized. And it was very clear that Clinton did what he did to send a racist signal. It was as clear as it could possibly be. The week of Gennifer Flowers he kept saying, "Why don't we talk about the issues?" So I asked him this: "Isn't executing a mentally retarded black man for votes a clearer indication of what your morality is than what you do with blondes on the side?" Clinton just turned his back on me. Walked away. It turned out he didn't want to change the subject from Gennifer Flowers. Not unless it was, "Mr. President, can you tell us more about your middle-class tax cut?" Which he got a lot of. The middle-class tax cut and national health care. Thanks a lot. I would rather be talking about Gennifer Flowers to this day for all the good that did.
TM: It's all a little disheartening.
CH: Not to me. It cheers me up.
TM: Why's that?
CH: I take the I.F. Stone position, which I learned when I was very young inWashington: never believe anything they say until it's at least twice officially denied. And that's not just a joke for special occasions. I keep it pinned on the wall above my typewriter. It's one of the things you have to keep in mind all the time. And the other thing, which is from my friend Michael Kinsley: in Washington, the scandal is not what's illegal, it's what's legal. That's kind of worth remembering too.
TM: If you weren't a journalist what would you be doing?
CH: I've had to think about that. Because every time I roll the paper into the machine, I think this is the day they're going to find me out. And what will I do when they have? I've realized there isn't anything else I could possibly do. I don't think I could be a lawyer, for example, and I'm now too fat to sell my body. And too fat to be a bookie's runner. I could be a good bar man.
TM: I could see you doing that.
CH: If they'd allow cigarettes back in the bars.
TM: Do you prefer the U.S. to England?
CH: I always knew I wanted to come to America. I couldn't have told you why, but I did. At quite a young age. I used to have quite vivid dreams of being in New York. Strange, but I did. And I took every chance I could to come here. That was before I knew what it would be like. To English people there's a sense of magnetic attraction, because as wonderful as it is living in England, it is bloody small and rather predictable.
TM: Do you think Americans are overly impressed with all things English?
CH: They're overimpressed with things about England that I'm underimpressed by. For example, the monarchy, the class system, the theme-park aspect, as if the whole country was covered in thatch, a few people who are eccentrics and some people with coronets, "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Masterpiece Theater." Instead of being keen on the British national health service, or the BBC as a broadcasting organization, both of which are better than their American equivalents. But they don't admire that kind of thing. They don't borrow the right stuff. Instead you get a lot of tawdry, semi-monarchical, pseudo-aristocratic bullshit.
TM: What do you think about America's role as the world's policeman? Do you agree with people who say we should clean up our own problems first?
CH: Well, that's a self-pitying argument, because it suggests that the United States is, out of its own generosity, spending all this time on other people's countries. The fact is it's good business for the United States, or at least for large sections of its establishment, to have a say in how Indonesia's run. Secondly, I very much doubt that that money would be going to the ghettos otherwise. The United States has many, many more people in poverty, as a proportion, than many countries with the same kind of economic system that are much poorer than itself. Many more. You don't in France see old people eating dog food. You could get rid of that if you wanted to. The United States has a fantastically high level of illiteracy. In some cities it's at third-world level. But in quite poor countries like Ireland they abolished illiteracy quite a long time ago. It's an act of will. You just have to want to do it. It isn't very expensive. In Sweden, much-maligned Sweden,you can take a kid out of the classroom at random and run the ruler on him -- teeth, rate of growth, skin, nutrition, all of that, do a profile of the child -- and you'd be able to make no guess as to what social class his parents come from. Now, many people say, "Well, the level of state interference you get with taxation isn't worth it." I don't think that's been put to a fair test in a rich country, but anyway, if it isn't worth it, people should just say so. Say, "Alright, these kids are just consequences that we bear." Then we can shut up, please, about family values, protecting children from pornography and all the other stuff when we've basically renounced them.
TM: Do you ever worry that some Catholic out there is going to come after you for what you wrote about Mother Teresa?
CH: Well, don't worry about "what if." I've already had all that. Somebody sent me a tape, in fact, of a sermon preached by some bizarre guy who more or less said it was a civic duty.
TM: To off you?
CH: Yeah. And I've had things left on my answering machine, saying they know where my children go to school. I've had it a lot. Almost always from believers. The other time was when I had Salman Rushdie in my apartment, when he was on the run, and someone thoughtfully printed the fact in the New York Times. We got a little bit of action from that too. But I've always remembered one of Bobby Kennedy's last remarks: that those who write don't shoot, and those who shoot don't write. Sirhan only wrote in his diary -- he never threatened anybody. I think generally it's true that those who threaten, they feel they've got it off their chest by threatening. I think probably if it ever happens to me it'll be somebody who hasn't been ringing me up in the middle of the night. But I certainly wouldn't say that fundamentalist religion should be banned. I don't think it should be and I also don't think it can be. It fulfills some terrible unmet need in the psyche. However, I don't think that when we have new crises of thought or action, such as, say, cloning, that the networks should instinctively turn to the priesthood to find out what the moral advice should be, as if they're likely to know more than we. The assumption is, "We'd better find a bishop here." I've never been able to understand why.
TM: Because they're closer to God?
CH: I think the assumption that ethics and religion are connected should be challenged. You can certainly have one without the other -- religion without ethics -- that's been proved. I maintain that the corollary is much stronger -- that you can very easily have ethics without religion. In fact that's how most people lead their moral lives.
TM: What about Berkeley's religion, political correctness. How would you define that? Using multiculturalism to stifle debate?
CH: It's what we've all become slightly fed up with hearing is politically correct. If I say I think the doctrine of purgatory is a ludicrous doctrine and also a wicked one, that's my challenge to Catholic teaching. If you say I can't say that because I'll offend the Catholic community, you're trying to change the subject. Especially since many of the Catholic community are people who are Puerto Rican or Mexican, people who are considered to have a vulnerable position in society. Black Americans did not ask to come here and were not treated very nicely when they were brought here. And I know some people think that they should be very careful not to be rude about black people, and I think they should be very careful indeed. Because we shouldn't say of this community that it owes us an explanation. I really don't think it does. But anyone who's come here voluntarily, so to speak, does.
TM: Is that your one sacred cow, blacks?
CH: No, it isn't, because I've very much attacked Minister Farrakhan. In fact I've challenged him in print and said we have a tape where he seems to me to actually confess to the murder of Malcom X. It's a wonderful film, called Brother Minister, which no one will show because it's more trouble than it's fucking well worth. Somebody, it certainly wasn't a white person, went into the mosque on Savior's Day, February, about five years ago, and they took a secret video of Farrakhan giving the Savior's Day address. I would say he came as close as you'd need -- maybe under very strict rules of evidence not close enough -- to admitting to the murder. Certainly to taking responsibility for it.
TM: What do you think of ebonics?
CH: Ebonics is a crock. Mr. Maulana Karenga is a complete idiot. Has been for a long time. Rather sinister idiot. I remember him from the '60s. He was called Ron Karenga then. He had an outfit called US, a crackpot African-nationalist organization which turned out to be set up by the FBI to upset the Black Panthers. He's wrong in saying that the phonemes of black American speech are African. They're not. This is not Swahili. There are people on the North Carolina coast who still speak Guller. Now, the Guller language is certainly an African language. That's an amazing fact, that there are still people in America who speak a language from before slavery. But the fact that black American kids say "aks" instead of "ask" is because of segregation and ignorance. Ebonics is a foolish solution to a real problem. Karenga says kids should be taught "aks" rather than "ask," but it would leave them worse off than they are now. He should have the chain pulled on him, I think. And these poor saps at the school board who say white is a color -- it just makes you want to weep. For example, I think James Baldwin should be on the curriculum -- I think he's not, but he should be. James Baldwin's favorite author was Henry James, but if James Baldwin thought Henry James was being removed from the curriculum so he, James Baldwin, could be on it, he would make astrenuous effort to come back from the dead.
TM: You were fairly critical of Princess Diana after she died last year. What did you have against her? I mean, she did campaign against landmines.
CH: Well, this is not a trick question, but can you tell me who was the American Nobel Prize winner for peace last year?
CH: I don't think anyone in this cafe could. But she did the landmines. Why has no one ever heard of her? Princess Diana made one trip to Angola in her jeans, which I think was one of the best things she did. By the way, what does Princess Diana have in common with a minefield?
TM: I give up.
CH: Easy to lay, very difficult and dangerous and expensive to get rid of. Do know what Monica Lewinsky asked her rabbi?
TM: I'm afraid to ask.
CH: "Is it meat or dairy?"
TM: You slay me.
CH: These are essential. Did you notice Princess Diana's will the other day? It was published, finally, in London when I was there last week. She had a fortune, quite a lot of it originally derived from public money, and she didn't leave a dime to any known charity. She distributed this fortune among members of the richest families in the country. She was a spoiled brat. I know people who know her very well. And I know both her half-brothers. Everything she did in the last years of her life was done to embarrass or annoy her ex-husband. Everything. She was determined to keep on pissing off him and his family with her high profile. Her real attachment to her causes was very slight. I have nothing against her, but I'm against people living their lives through her. I think that's pathetic and potentially sinister and, like all such things, if people make themselves that credulous, that gullible, they're too easily led. The House of Windsor should be removed as the ruling family.Britain should be a republic. I would say that whether they were nice people or not. They're not terribly nice or, fortunately, until Diana came along, very glamorous either. All this magic fairytale crap -- she was the only fairytale thing in it. Yet she wasn't a member of the family. They threw her out. That didn't make me on her side, though. What I liked about her last years was it looked as if it was going to be a long-running feud between her and the rest of them and they could both lose. That was my plan. So I was as sorry as the next person when she got hit.
TM: You said not all the reaction to your Mother Teresa story in Vanity Fair was unfavorable.
CH: Eighty percent of the mail was in favor, either from people who agreed or took a second look. People who knew the story from their personal lives sent letters. Paul Turley, the deputy district attorney in Los Angeles when Charles Keating was about to be sentenced, wrote. He had received a letter from Mother Teresa asking him to let Keating off. Turley wrote back telling her that Keating was not a friend of the poor. He's actually a thief of the poor. He also asked back the money that Keating had given her, $1.25 million. She never replied.
TM: I understand Jerry Brown still supports Mother Teresa.
CH: He considers himself a vaguely Augustian Catholic and he worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. He's not taking it back. He's used to sleeping on the floor.
TM: Do you find that the Bay Area lives up to it's reputation for diversity?
CH: Well, certainly compared to Washington. The number of occasions where I've been able to go to an interesting literary or cultural event without trying too hard is pretty impressive, actually.
TM: More so than D.C.?
CH: D.C. can be pretty boring. There isn't much in the way of theater. Authors come and do their readings, but ...
TM: Admit it -- it's a town of journalists and lawyers, right?
CH: Yeah, that's right. And too many of the latter. It's objectively very interesting. Most people send their best diplomats there. The World Bank and the IMF have a huge clutch of really intelligent people from all over the world. Most newspapers and broadcasting outfits send their brightest correspondents to Washington. So there's a lot of good company, but it tends to be obsessed, drowned with work and going to bed early.
TM: What do you think of the press here?
CH: I quite like the "Datebook" section. I've gotten used to that. It's quite user friendly. And I know Phil Bronstein a bit, who I think is a good guy.
TM: Do you know his new bride, Sharon Stone?
CH: I've met her. I've been doing these literary lunches in San Francisco with Victoria Hughes, the wife of Bob Hughes, the Australian art critic. So, I went last week for a lunchtime chat, and Mr. Bronstein came with his bride.
TM: What do you think of the Chronicle versus the Examiner?
CH: The competition between these two papers must be very debilitating. You can see it on Sunday, when they appear to be propping each other up like two drunks.
Paul Kilduff is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.