At the Theism versus Atheism debate co-sponsored by The Stanford Review on January 27th, three fortunate Review writers interviewed famed journalist Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Hitchens has written for Vanity Fair, The Nation, Slate, and The Atlantic. In 2007, he released the best-selling book God is Not Great, a criticism of theist religions. Known for his eloquence, contrarian views, and confrontational style, Mr. Hitchens represented atheism in the debate.
The Stanford Review: We’ve seen the decline of major media publications and the rise of internet-based publications. You write for both. What is the role of the public intellectual in these new forms of discourse?
Cristopher Hitchens: A fellow countryman of mine…has written a book saying that actually there is a terrible advantage given to pseudoscience and to phonies and cowards and creeps by this apparent democratization of the media. You’ve heard of this book? He is a Silicon Valley guy, but he’s a Brit. At first I thought, “No, that’s not true, it lowers the cost of entry into the market, it makes it easier to communicate, it means I can tell students of mine, ‘Put up your own stuff, see if people will come and read it.’” I have a feeling both things are true. A lot of nonsense and superstition and demagoguery can also be certainly. . . Look, it’s always the same. All arguments simply replace the previous arguments. We’re not going to get away with this, there will always be quality stuff and stuff that has no measurement of quality, that has no taste, that has no standard. So that, for example, an effort called “Loose Change”- that blames the administration for the attack on the World Trade Center- has a greater chance, probably, of being read than the “9/11 Commission” does. So this is, in a way, not progress. I remember, actually, when I was quite young reading a little slogan in some sort of cracker barrel or Readers Digest or some equivalent or something, that it’s not progress to teach a cannibal to eat with a knife and fork. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said it was positive, but now I’m not so sure.
TSR: Along the same lines, the 2008 campaign is obviously attracting a lot of media attention. What do you of this media attention, and what do you think it should be like?
CH: Well I resent very much what my profession has been doing, which is announcing the results before people have actually voted, and handicapping it by . . . A good friend of mine—a very good reporter at Washington Post, Dan Bolz, recently wrote a piece about John Edwards. He said that John Edwards is “the vanishing candidate” in this contest. But that’s only true if John Bolz says so. John Bolz could’ve said he is the “stealth candidate,” he could’ve said he is the “sleeper candidate” . . . If he says he’s the vanishing candidate, it is so, by definition. People say that I won’t vote for John Edwards because he didn’t do well in . . . So they’ve been told before the votes took place. So this is the conventional wisdom, combined with opinion polling, which are commissioned and paid for the by the newspaper and TV stations themselves, then reported as news that they’ve created. It’s a terrible, terrible blow to whole idea of the democratic process. You do not get a chance to compare what the candidates are like, what the so-called issues are. You’re entirely told, “here are the probable ones” and “here are the ones we’ve ruled out” before a vote has been cast. And the distortion of the Iowa effect could easily be seen in New Hampshire . . . So, as a first amendment fan, in the sense of the First Amendment, 100%, absolute, if someone said to me “Do you think opinion polls should be banned during the election cycle,” I would have to say, “Yes, I sure wish they could be” . . . I’ve become terribly depressed by the way this manipulation is consecrated. By the way, these are the same people, my profession, that every now and then remember to deplore the world of money. Who do you think the money is spent on? The candidates spend it on the media. So they have every incentive to allow this corruption to go on. Because all the money that is raised is spent on buying, commissioning, studying and more or less manipulating the opinion polls which the media themselves commission. And/or on advertising, which go straight into media pockets. It’s a really outrageous invention, a sort of money and poll primary that takes place before a vote has been cast. I don’t like the money primary; I don’t like the poll primary. I don’t like the media primary. These are the three primaries that the electorate doesn’t get to know about. It’s only after the candidates have winnowed by that that they get a cut. I don’t like it, I don’t like it all.
TSR: What do you think of campaign finance reform and McCain-Fiengold?
CH: I’m against it for the same reason—because I have a great friend, the late Eugene McCarthy, whose funeral I went to, and whose last note, I have to say, was written to me; and who famously got rid of Lyndon Johnson at a critical time in the affairs of the Republic in the 1968 New Hampshire primary. And I know, or knew because they are dead now, all three of the three men- and there were only three of them- who decided that they, with their own money, make sure Eugene McCarthy could run in New Hampshire- Max Pelosky, Blair Clarke, and Martin Clerks. By the way, Clark and Perks went on the run the New Republic and The Nation. These three said, “We will make sure that the President will end this Vietnam adventure.” And they spent their own money.
Why is it called “campaign finance reform”? You see, the media does all your work for you. This current ridiculous policy of the President and the Senate majority leaders called, by the media, “a stimulus package.” If they call it that, it must be one. They didn’t say his economic proposal . . . If Condoleezza Rice goes to Afghanistan, it’s called a ‘peace mission,’ whether it is or it isn’t or Jerusalem for that matter. We’re being treated the way that we deserve to be treated…We take their word for it! And so McCain-Feingold, you try to find me one reference to it where it is not called “campaign-finance reform.” It’s always called that! McCain-Feingold means that rich individuals can’t spend their own money, and they have to leave it to lobbyists and special interest groups.
Look, the one rule I have, for any student of mine or reader of mine, is always look at the language. Half the propaganda is done before you’ve read the article or seen the broadcast. It’s a stimulus package, It’s reform, it’s a peace mission- we’ll be the judge of that! …If we have any judgment left, any critical faculties they haven’t taken away from us.
And another thing: race. There is a white vote in the primary in South Carolina. Did you know this before? Are you part of a white vote in South Carolina? Who says you are? Who says you’re voting because you’re white? That you’re part of the white? Who says there is such a thing as race? Who says the human species is subdivided? All the scientific evidence says there is only one race. Would they say, “The white species vote in South Carolina?” No they would not. Why would they take this? This is not nothing. This is not reform or stimulus, this is very important. By no measure we have can we assume people vote by race. So it’s a shameful thing, this journalism business.
What is the role that young educated people- including people like Lieutenant Mark Daily- in the struggle that you call, for example, “Islam with a fascist face” and the West?
Well, the struggle against theocracy is not just between ourselves and the Islamists. It is a struggle between those people who think that on evidence and reason, and those that say faith is a good thing in itself. Is that faith, on its own, is a great thing? This is another thing that, by the way, is echoed in our press. “Ah! He was motivated by his faith. That’s ok.” There are candidates who belong to cult groups, like the Mormon cult that say, “Are you attacking me for my faith?” Yes. You’re a member of a crackpot organization. But apparently you’re not supposed to do that. Another cliché that we echo in our echo chamber is the President’s “faith-based initiative.” What’s “faith-based?” What do you take on faith that you really think is important? You say “I believe, but I don’t care about the evidence?” Where in the rest of your life do you do a thing like that? That’s the real difference between those who do take things on faith, unexamined, without evidence, without reason, without background, without history, and those who don’t. And that’s a big difference.
TSR: Given this, what is the role of the young educated people?
CH: To become older and better educated . . . “young” is another propaganda word. The “youth” vote, the “rock” vote—the young are awful. The young are the biggest waste of time in the United States. The young are really boring, really uninteresting, can’t wait to be middle aged, and won’t even be good at being that! They ask, “what about the youth, what about the young people?” Who cares? Is it an achievement now to have an age? It’s like standing up and saying “As a gay person, I think . . .” What right have you earned by saying you’re gay? As a woman, I think . . .” What right have you earned by having a gender? What work have you done? What thinking have you taken part in? What effort have you made? As a young voter, I would say, “No! Shut up!”