In 2018 I wrote this column about the “perpetually grouchy British conservative commentator Peter Hitchens” and his “sour First Things review,” in which he panned, as I described, “two widely admired inspirational films that celebrate British WWII heroism, Darkest Hour and Dunkirk.”
More recently, Jason Vickers chided Hitchens for another First Things column, this time on Britain’s response to coronavirus, which Hitchens thought confirmed Britain’s demise.
Hitchens contacted me to say our portrayal of his views had been unfair. So in my interview with him, he explains his perspective on points we at Providence critiqued. He also reflects on this current moment of protest and iconoclasm in the West, observing that he has transitioned from young Trotskyist to conservative Anglican, while many cultural elites are still stuck in 1968.
If Hitchens is grouchy, he is enjoyably so, and I hope you’ll enjoy our chat as much as I did.
Rough Transcript of the Conversation:
TOOLEY: Hello this is Mark Tooley editor of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy as well as president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy here in Washington DC, and I have the pleasure of talking to Peter Hitchens, British columnist, journalist, thinker, author of many books. And specifically, we’re going to start out by talking about a couple of columns in Providence that reference Mr. Hitchens to which he has objected. I believe specifically in my column I had referred to him as grouchy and gloomy. So, I want to give Mr. Hitchens a chance to respond and to explain to us his wider perspective. So, Mr. Hitchens thank you so much for joining us.
HITCHENS: Well it’s a pleasure. I think sometimes it’s useful, if you find something you disagree with, to take it up, because you can then sort these things out. And grouchy and gloomy I may well be, people can judge that themselves when they get to know me. But sometimes there are things about which it’s necessary to be grouchy and gloomy.
The thing that I first wanted to raise with you was an article you wrote about the reviews—well not exactly reviews—but commentaries I’d given on two movies—one the Dunkirk movie, the other the one supposedly about Churchill, The Finest Hour. Which I thought were bad films historically, either empty or illiterate, and generally false in their tone. And you took me up and I have to turn to quote from the thing which you particularly said here, which was that you thought that I might prefer a dribble and shlock to this sort of thing, which is absolutely not my point. My point was these films—the film Dunkirk was so bad, that as I sat through it, I increasingly wished that the Germans would hurry up and come because at least they might bring a plot. There wasn’t any. There was no historical context. There was no understanding of how the British army came to be standing up to its armpits in saltwater, or what had happened beforehand or anything to do with it. And there are many films, some good, some superb which have been made about the Second World War in Britain. Two in fact, one a 1958 version of Dunkirk which was far, far more interesting, about the political and historical context and about the struggle for morale which was going on in Britain at the time, when Britain was by no means convinced in 1940 that it had joined the right war. And also, brilliant films, probably one of the best 10 best war films ever made, such as The Cruel Sea, particularly interesting to me because my father was in the Royal Navy during the Second World War and experienced some of the things which it shows. And he always found that film to be convincing and persuasive, as is the book on which it was based. I’m not against war films; I’m not against the idea that the young, particularly, should be reminded of the sacrifice of their elders, but I think this should be done intelligently.
You also criticized my attitude towards the United States, seeming to suggest that I was in some way hostile to the United States, and this is just simply not true I lived with great delight in Bethesda, Maryland for two years. I had wonderful American neighbors who were immensely hospitable. I spent much of the time traveling through most of the 50 states, and always with fascination and pleasure. But one of the things I learned was this: The United States is not a big England. It’s a separate country, with its own culture and its own needs. And it’s foolish, as far many British people do, to imagine that somehow there’s some sort of shoulder to shoulder fraternity between the two countries. They have to have different interests; I don’t resent or object to that. If we have different interests from the United States, we should pursue them and likewise. For me the relationship would be a lot better if it was stripped of the false sentimentality of a special relationship which doesn’t exist.
I thought you were unfair and possibly had a trouble to look too much into what I thought about either the Anglo-American relationship or the Second World War before writing the piece. I’d strongly recommend that you read my new book, unreviewed, largely on both sides of the Atlantic called The Phony Victory which is about the origins of the Second World War and actually the rather awkward relationship between the United States and Britain, which existed at the beginning of the war, which is now largely forgotten. In fact the brilliant Lynne Olsen, a great popular historian, has written a fantastic book about that era called Those Angry Days, which fascinatingly has never been published on this side of the Atlantic, possibly because it would upset too many people, but I don’t mind about upsetting people as you may have noticed.
The other thing that I was troubled about was a piece written partly about First Things magazine, by one of your colleagues, more recently, which dismissed an article I’d written about the shutdown of the British economy as if the argument was closed, as if there was no disagreement among experts about whether this was a wise policy or not. My whole point in everything and I said—interesting the article that I written for First Things was much more impressionistic about the effects of the shutdown on my home city of Oxford—but my point has always been that experts disagree profoundly on whether this is wise. And I think any intelligent person looking at the way in which this turned out can see that there are at least serious questions to be asked about whether it was a sensible thing to shut down the economies of the major countries and to subject people to what is effectively mass house arrest, a completely unprecedented measure of quarantining the healthy, which has had enormous serious effects on economies and societies throughout the Western world and which I suspect has had something to do with triggering the very, very strange movements which have arisen in in recent days. One for the tearing down of statues, and the other for the—actually I put it, “the huge politicization of undoubted occasions of police brutality in the United States.”
So those are my fundamental objections to what you’ve done. I thought well I’d write to you about it and say, “Look, we shouldn’t be on bad terms without even knowing each other.” If we want to be enemies, we might at least know who we’re fighting. But on the other hand, you might, if you examine me more closely, find that I wasn’t as bad as you thought.
TOOLEY: Well I appreciate that very much, I definitely need to start reading your books, and since you mentioned the current historical moment, there were yesterday on social media many, many comments about a picture of you at the demonstration in Oxford against the statue of Cecil Rhodes. And you were portrayed as defiantly standing while others took the knee, so share with us about that a little bit if you could.
HITCHENS: Well I’ve blogged about this; I’ve been the recipient of unjustified praise. The event was nothing like as dramatic as that. First of all, nobody took the knee, as the saying goes. They took the buttock. They all sat down; they were urged to do that for, it was, eight minutes and 46 seconds—and you know the symbolism of that. I didn’t sit down, but I was under no real pressure to do so. It was a very a good-natured demonstration; nobody shouted at me, or threatened me, or told me in any way to sit down.
In any case I was there partly as a citizen of my city. I’ve been an Oxford resident now for more than half a century, and I know it very well. And partly I was there as a journalist, and journalists are not supposed, according to the training that I had, to give any sort of open expression of their partisanship, at things like demonstrations or party conventions. So, it didn’t seem to me to be a thing that I ought to do.
So, I’ve been praised for doing something which actually didn’t cost me very much, if anything at all. It was great fun to get the praise, but I think I have to say, it wasn’t deserved.
TOOLEY: In terms of this moment of iconoclasm, these protests against Cecil Rhodes, the destruction of the statue in Portsmouth, to the man involved in the slave trade, the graffiti on Churchill statue in London, of course many more examples here right in the US, how do you respond to it?
HITCHENS: Well of those, I think the graffiti on the Churchill statues is the most disturbing. I think most people in this country would have thought probably 10, 15, even five years ago, that, whatever you might think of his politics and some of his opinions, the Churchill’s contribution to the liberty of the world was so great that he should be immune from this kind of abuse. And I thought for somebody to think that it was legitimate to adorn abuse on the plinth of such a statue in parliament square, which is the symbolic heart, as it might be, of our parliamentary democracy, was quite a step away from what has formerly been the consensus. If that’s not something that we all share, then I’m not sure what it is that we do share. And if there’s a gulf as big as that between me and the people making the protests, can I really treat them as opponents? And more importantly—because they’re in the ascendant now—can they treat me as an opponent, or do they view me as an enemy? And I’ve felt for a long time that the left’s view of conservatives has been not that they’re wrong, but they’re bad. And it’s very hard to have a debate with somebody who despises you and very hard also have a debate with somebody you despise. And if society fractures to that extent, is there is there any future in it? Can you continue a civil society with a level of division that severe? I was extremely frightened by that.
The statues themselves—there are varying arguments. I personally am not particularly troubled about the statue of Cecil Rhodes. He was in many ways a scoundrel, and by the standards of today his politics are pretty repellent. And the statue is also mildly blasphemous in a way too complicated to explain, so I wouldn’t particularly object if the college decided, the Oriole College on which it stands, decided to take it down. I wouldn’t want to die in a ditch for a statue of Cecil Rhodes. It’s also not a great work of art, by any matter of means.
So there are no real arguments to say that we should we should make a huge struggle to save it, but I do wonder whether the people who are demanding that it should be pulled down really care about any of that, or whether their desire is to obliterate a past which previously existed. And this is what frightens me enormously about current events, this desire to obliterate the past. Because he who controls the past, controls the future, as we know. And if you find yourself living in a country which should abolish its own memories, then it would be a country which, it would be very easy for people who are malevolent to manipulate in directions which it shouldn’t go into.
TOOLEY: Now, you were a very young man at the time, but I believe you have some pretty firm memories of the tumult of 1968. How does 2020 compare to 1968, if in any way?
HITCHENS: Well it compares in one very significant way. When I was a revolutionary Marxist in those years—and I certainly took part in some pretty appalling demonstrations—the worst of the things I took part in were attempts to prevent people from exercising free speech—those are things I’m actively ashamed of. But the thing was that at that time, what we were doing was opposed pretty solidly by the whole establishment from left to right. Now what you find is that people who take out those sorts of positions, that they have the sympathy of large parts of the establishment and indeed of the police, and of the church, and the academy, and this is a huge change. At the time, we were we were quite rightly opposed by what you might then have called the establishment. Now it seems to me that something has gone so soft that it’s prepared to appease and kowtow to these sorts of protesters without any real questioning of either their motives or the eventual outcome of what they desire. That’s the biggest difference.
TOOLEY: So, 1968 is the establishment now, is that what you’re essentially saying?
HITCHENS: Absolutely it is, yes. And I think that’s been the great change. But of course, people stopped having the sort of hair and clothes that they had in 1968, and they stopped screaming and chatting in the streets, and they embarked on the famous long march through the institutions. And that long march has now been successful; they are there. And so, these poor children who now demonstrate as if they were bold, and radical, and unconventional revolutionaries, are actually merely endorsing a revolution that’s already taken place.
TOOLEY: And stylistically they seem pretty tame if you look at Paris in 1968, like for example.
HITCHENS: Well maybe, I don’t know. I mean the thing is that Paris in 1968 was mostly about sex. It began with an argument about men being allowed to girls’ dormitories—the University of Ontario—and that I think sums up most of what it was about. We all thought in the 60s we were incredibly adventurous, and that we had invented sex, which I think young generations often do think. And what we were doing was perhaps a little bit more original, but it’s difficult to think of new styles of student revolution really, isn’t it? They’re all bound to be roughly the same. The first one will always be the most spectacular. As with so many things, the first taste is always the most entrancing.
TOOLEY: Now in 1968 you were, I believe, a Trotskyist. You’ve undergone an unusual political and spiritual journey over the last 52 years. If you could tell us a little bit how you went from Trotskyist to conservative Anglican?
HITCHENS: But it’s not unusual at all. What I’ve done is what young men have done all down the ages, since Wordsworth and before that. I was radical when I was young; I became conservative when I got older. This is normal, the fascinating thing is not me; the fascinating thing is all those people who were revolutionaries in 1968 and still are—the people who well into their 60s attend Rolling Stones concerts. This is the bizarre thing. I’ve become normally middle-aged and indeed, old, and done what everybody in all previous generations, probably since the Roman Empire and the age of Athenian democracy. Young men are radical. they cease to be radical when they get older. I’m a cliché. It’s the others you have to ask about. Why didn’t they? Why didn’t they stop being revolutionaries as they got older? That’s the really pressing question.
TOOLEY: And you’re a communicant of the Church of England now is that correct?
HITCHENS: That’s absolutely correct, yes.
TOOLEY: And what are your thoughts on the current state of the Church of England?
HITCHENS: Oh, I pay no attention to the current state of the Church of England. The Church of England is the 1662 prayer book and the authorized version of the Bible and some very fine architecture and some lovely music. And the current hierarchy and all the rest of it I try to pay as little attention to them as I possibly can.
TOOLEY: Gives you greater serenity that way.
HITCHENS: [Inaudible] I don’t know; they’re not it.
TOOLEY: Now it’s safe to say that you are a cultural pessimist, but as a Christian you must be also a man of hope.
HITCHENS: Well a person of eternal hope, yes, but temporal hope seems to me to be—I think one of the 19th century popes just used the phrase satanic optimism—a belief in the ability of man to actually create perfection on earth, or indeed to maintain civilizations. One of the hymns we used to sing at school, “The Day Thou Gavest Lord, is Ended, The Darkness Falls at Thy Behest,” contained this this irritating verse in which it said “Thy throne shall never like earth’s proud empires pass away.” And I used to think “What do you mean, the British empire is never going to pass away?” Well it jolly well did, didn’t it? Empires always do, as the United States is discovering and as eventually the Chinese will discover. Temporal empires always do. And in the in the course of their passing, the civilizations which are built on them suffer and crumble and collapse. I’ve seen catastrophe; I was living in the Soviet Union at the end of the communist era, and one of the things I learned from it is that catastrophes happen, and that people survive them. It’s not as if the whole world is drowned in fire and then water. That in some ways would for many people be preferable. Everything that you knew was taken from you—the society in which you grew up, everything that you believed in, not to mention your savings, and your job, and your house, and you’re left standing there living a life as a ghost of your former self. And these things happen; they have little to do with eternity.
I have always been very struck by a very short passage—I’m not as keen on G.K. Chesterton as a lot of people are—there’s a short passage in one of the Father Brown Stories in which he’s asked in some strange and wistful place, “Do you believe in doom?” and he says, “Yes, I do.” And he also says we look at life as a man looking at the wrong side of the tapestry, completely misunderstanding the pattern. And I think a lot of the time we do this. We don’t really understand the effects of our actions. And then he says this really crucial thing, “What we do here, matters somewhere else.” And I’m a great believer, and I’m quite capable of being optimistic about all of that—about eternity and about there being justice in the universe—but that doesn’t mean I either seek or expect to find justice or anything remotely resembling it in temporal societies. And I also think that it’s irresponsible for grown-up people to be optimistic when all the signs point in the opposite direction. You mislead people into failing to prepare for bad things which they could cope with better. We’re too optimistic about material things; too pessimistic about eternal things.
TOOLEY: Well the phrase satanic optimism is going to stick in my mind for a while.
HITCHENS: You’ll have to look it up; I can’t remember which book it was, but it’s stuck in mine.
TOOLEY: Peter Hitchens author, columnist, thinker, thank you so much for a very enjoyable conversation.
HITCHENS: Thank you very much for having me; thanks a lot.