Christopher Hitchens On 'This American Moment'

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What is at stake in the 2008 election? Talk of the Nation's new series asks artists, journalists, scholars and politicians to describe the impact of "This American Moment" in the nation's history. Today, author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens weighs in.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

Now, as we await the speech by Senator Obama tomorrow in Denver and Republicans prepare to gather in Saint Paul, we continue This American Moment. All this week and next, we're taking a step back to put this election and this campaign season in context. We're asking a different guest every day to tell us what he or she thinks is at stake, what this election means to him or her. And today we talk with a relatively new American.

Christopher Hitchens became a United States citizen in April of last year, that, of course, after his famous political conversion from the left, with iconoclastic positions now at several spots along the political spectrum. We'd especially like to hear from conservative voters today. What's the significance of This American Moment? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on out blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and the author of many books, including "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." He joins us today from a studio at Stanford University. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS (Contributing Editor, Vanity Fair; Author, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything"): Very nice of you to invite me.

CONAN: And you're a longtime observer of the American political scene. This, though, is going to be the first time you're going to be able to vote for president. And I wonder what this moment means to you.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, that's right. I've actually already voted in the primaries in Washington. There were - as you know, we're disenfranchised. We have taxation without representation in point of congressional representation. And I'm a single-issue voter, to get straight to the point. I'm really only interested in the candidate who's toughest and least apologetic when it comes to the confrontation with Islamic Jihadism.

CONAN: That's the central issue for you?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes.

CONAN: Why?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, because I think it's the principal threat and because I think that it tests our readiness to say that we think our civilization is worth fighting for and is better than those who attack it. And I look - not just with politicians but full time with commentators, intellectuals, friends, for any note of apology, any sort of weakness or indecision on that point which I've come to consider to be morally and ideologically central.

CONAN: We've had a lot of discussion after the brief war between Russia and Georgia that this reminds us that there's an awful lot of politics going on elsewhere in the world, not just the emergence of a more nationalist Russia, the challenge of China, which we saw its economic wealth put to such great benefit to its cause in its presentation of the Olympic Games. An awful lot going and a lot of people saying, wait a minute, this threat from al-Qaeda and Islamic - extreme Islamic movements, it's just part of a larger mosaic. We have to put it in context.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I wouldn't want to differ very strongly with that, and I've been writing a lot about the emergence, under Vladimir Putin, of a new form of Russian imperialism. Actually, Russian Orthodox imperialism. It's very little remarked that the cement, the political, ideological cement of the Russian regime now, communism having collapsed and imploded, is increasingly a confessional one.

When Mr. Medvedev was sworn in, for example, he had to kiss some holy icon in the presence of an archbishop. The Russian Orthodox Church has demanded and got tremendous privileges for itself in exchange for becoming a prop and mouthpiece of the regime. And so there's a real danger now of a Russian religious-cum-nationalist chauvinist imperialism, and it's not just in Georgia but in the Ukraine, where I'm convinced the Russians were behind the poisoning of the freely elected president there, and in the attempt to sabotage the economy of the Estonia, in the siding with Slobodan Milosevic and his heirs in the Balkans, and in countless other places, too. It's very, very serious business.

But you'll notice, you will notice that Russia and China, invariably at the United Nations, move to block American action, to repress or hem in or punish other kinds of outlaw. Who stands behind Mugabi at the United Nations? Russia and China do. Who tried successfully to prevent the United Nations from speaking with one voice on its most signal violation of its resolutions, Iraq? Russia and China, again. North Korea the same. Burma the same.

CONAN: Given those examples, though, you still regard September the 11th as the critical moment, the pivotal moment?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, I think I'd have to say I do. Because it meant suddenly that it was as dangerous, if you like, to be in America as it was to be overseas. So that the false distinction that's made by the anti-war movement between being over there and over here was exposed for all to see as an illusion. Although a number of people, a large amount of people still share in it. In other words, when I've been in Iraq or Afghanistan, I've probably been safer because I can carry a weapon if I have to, or I can go with people who do, than my wife and daughter are living in Washington.

CONAN: Where they now can carry weapons, too, thanks to the Supreme Court.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, how right you are, though my wife on principle wouldn't do that. It has been decided, I think correctly, that the ban that Washington had was unconstitutional.

CONAN: Before the attacks of September the 11th, you were widely regarded as a leftist. Do you now regard yourself as a conservative? And does that equate to Republican?

Mr. HITCHENS: No. I don't regard myself as any kind of conservative, except conceivably neo, and that word, of course, is a ridiculous appellation, because it's used to describe a group that was ready to make war on the status quo, which is not a conservative position. But I don't like that appellation.

I consider myself a radical. My friends in Iraq, for example, in particular the leadership of autonomous Kurdistan, all have socialist and often communist backgrounds. It's also true of quite a lot of those who are resisting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and was true of the many Bosnian fighters against Slobodan Milosevic. It was on these points of foreign policy where I decided that America was not interventionist enough, which, of course, did mean a bit of a breach with old comrades on the left. I felt the international left in the countries concerned took the same position as I did. So, in my view, it's the left that's become reactionary and isolationist and parochial.

CONAN: We're talking to Christopher Hitchens about This American Moment. His most recent book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," and given that title of that book, are you comfortable with either of major political parties in this country?

Mr. HITCHENS: No. One of the most repellent spectacles at election times is the pretense of piety on the part of people running for office. I personally think these people are not pushing, as they think they are, at an open door. All the recent opinion poll findings show that the largest group of - sorry, the fastest-growing group of opinion in America is made up of those who have no religious affiliation. That's not to say these people are atheists, but they are not affiliated - they don't go to any church. Fast and growing and large, and in my travels around the country debating in churches and in synagogues on the religious question, I've also found there's a great deal of doubt and skepticisms among people who identify as believers, as well. And third, I think there's a very great consensus, including among people who are devout and are genuinely religious, that religion should not be exploited by politicians.

So there's nothing more vulgar than the sound of someone saying, God Bless America, someone who doesn't really believe it, but he thinks it will make him look good to other people. I think it's the most nauseating spectacle.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on the conversation. Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's get Bill on, Bill's calling us from Chicago, Illinois.

BILL (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon, gentleman. I just wanted to say, I characterize myself as conservative because that's a convenient label. Unfortunately, there isn't a label for what I am because I see this election as being a challenge between individuals who are willing to stand up and say, this is what I believe, and this new, dangerous in my opinion, collectivist view that well, we need to rule by committee. We need to make everybody happy.

I really question, sometimes, whether political candidates have the spine to take a stand and take an unpopular position that may be the right position, because it seems like there's this real challenge now of are we going to do what's popular or do what's right. And I'll take my comments off the air.

CONAN: Well, Bill, quickly, I just wondered how you saw that differentiation playing out in this campaign. Which side is which? I think Bill has already left us.

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, I know - I sure know what he's going through. I mean, the thing that's - if we're going to talk about our pet peeves about electoral demagogy, mine is - and I find it amusing, too, and we had a lot it from Denver this week and you can bet we're in for a lot more - here's how you can prove this is the greatest country in the world, OK? Because everyone in it is having a really - is everyone in the United States having a really hard time. It's the greatest country in the world because people are unemployed, because our people are hurting, because they are struggling, because they are sick and they can't meet their doctor's bills and so on. It's in the same speech all the time, and no one ever seems to notice.

CONAN: Let's get a question from here in the Newseum.

MATTHEW (Audience Member): Hi, I'm Matthew.

Mr. HITCHENS: Or as Spiro Agnew apparently once said, this is the greatest country in the nation. Or was it the greatest nation in the country? I can't remember.

CONAN: Probably both. Sir, I'm sorry.

MATTHEW (Caller): Hi, I'm Matthew from Atlanta. It seems that with so many issues causing concern for American voters this year, it's kind of difficult to pinpoint a single defining point, but for me, it seems that as Russia has just openly stated that it has no fear of another Cold War, we have a choice ahead of us, especially among conservatives, and you had encouraged conservative voters to comment. And the question, it seems to me, is do we bargain with Russia? Do we play ball with Russia in order obtain their cooperation with the Iranian problem and the North Korean problem? Or on the other hand, do we draw a, you know, a thick red line around the Eastern Bloc, ex-Soviet states that we've, you know, sort of pledged our support and our protection of.

CONAN: Chris Hitchens, what do you think?

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes. Well, there was a big argument about this about a decade ago under the Clinton Administration, about NATO expansion. And the underlying principal difference was this. Some said, if you expand NATO, you will provoke the Russians. They'll think they're being encircled. And the other, opposite case was, they are going to try and regain their temporarily lost influence in Eastern and Balkan Europe, in any case. So the quicker we can get as many members as we can under the protective umbrella in this period of Russian - what shall we call it - eclipse, the better.

I think the second view was the more intelligent one. The Russians are going to be expansionist whether we provoke them to it or not. For example, the Russians keep saying that we're trying to encircle them. In what sense does the independence of Kosovo, a land-locked province, former Yugoslavia, with no common border with Russia, threaten Russia with encirclement? In what sense does the independence of the Baltic states - which the Soviets gained as territory in a deal with Hitler, a direct bargain between Stalin and Hitler - would it constitute an encirclement? This is insulting. In what sense does the independence of Georgia constitute an encirclement? What we are facing, and we may as well give it its right name, is what I called it earlier, a chauvinistic, theocratic in part, xenophobic Russian imperialism.

CONAN: We're talking with Christopher Hitchens on This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. So given what you've described as the centrality, the single issue you'd said, is to who will be tougher and less apologetic about Islamic extremism, and what you've been talking about about Russia, what do you see as being at stake in this election?

Mr. HITCHENS: Well, precisely that. There are those - I think I'll try and condense my thought into one. There are those who recognize that we are in a fight with other superpowers, or potential superpowers, as well as with radical Jihadist Islam, and there are those who don't recognize it, and then there are those, of whom I think Senator Obama is one, who recognize it all right, when it's pointed out to them, don't disagree, but you can tell wish it wasn't true.

CONAN: Wish it wasn't true and...

Mr. HITCHENS: Wish it wasn't true. By the way, this is not a left-right distinction because I would say that probably the most articulate spokesman for the anti-war movement in this country is Pat Buchanan, who is in no sense a leftist. And it's also true, of course, that another group of the right wing around what might be called the Kissinger Associates Group, they're sometimes known as the Realists, has also been very opposed, say, in the intervention in Iraq. So it isn't a simple ideological division.

CONAN: I wonder, as you look at this election and now your participation in it, does that change your views as to what it means to be an American at all?

Mr. HITCHENS: No. I mean, one of the reasons I decided to apply for American citizenship after something like a quarter of century of living here on a British, European Union passport and a green card, was my identification with the United States in the post-September 11th period. And my resentment, really, at the complacency and hypocrisy of what was sometimes characterized in our press as the European worldview of these matters, one that either put America on all fours with its enemies, making it morally equivalent, or even worse, said it was - it had brought these revenges upon itself.

CONAN: And in the current context we see a Western Europe which relies on the Russians for what? Half their natural gas and a quarter of their petroleum, being considerably less aggressive than the United States.

Mr. HITCHENS: Yes, with the exception, I'm happy to say, of the British Labour Government, which has been pretty forthright about Georgia and other matters, as has the leader of the opposition in Britain, David Cameron. But yes, you're right. The European instinct is, as it has always been, to temporize on these questions.

CONAN: And China, finally, the enormous economic challenge. China has been much more cautious in terms of its foreign policy.

HITCHINS: Well, a little more, yes. But I mean, just take one very salient case, that of Darfur. If people want to shout, blood for oil, this is the time they should be doing it. China takes almost all of Sudan's oil and in return supplies it with the sinews of genocide, the weaponry with which to complete what's nearly already done - the mass murder of the people of Darfur. And provides them also with diplomatic cover. It's also the case that China is the great defender of the North Korean regime, an incurable totalitarian aggressor, and the Burmese military dictatorship, and Robert Mugabi in Zimbabwe. This isn't a militarized aggression by China, but it's the export of violence and tyranny by other means. It bears watching.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. HITCHENS: It bears watching by all those who say we should rely on the UN, by the way. Between them, Russia and China can always outvote us.

CONAN: Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His most recent book, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poison Everything." He joined us today from a studio on the campus at Stanford University. Tomorrow, we continue This American Moment with former President Jimmy Carter. Please stay tuned to NPR for more live coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Denver on many public radio stations and at npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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