Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Hitchens Brothers, doing the ironing, and the need for consolation

These days, I catch up with political podcasts about once a fortnight, when I do the ironing (yes, I am that much of a New Man) - usually a James Delingpole, an Andrew Klavan, and, if there's time and I'm in the mood for his blistering, rapid-fire sarcasm, a Ben Shapiro. I used to listen to Radio 4 Extra, but I hit a patch where I seemed to get stuck with  The Navy Lark, Steptoe & Son, Arthur Smith or Mel Giedroyc. Anyway, this week I started off my podcast binge with James Delingpole chatting to Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, whose "housemaster in a filthy temper" manner always brings to mind the forbidding British actor, Cedric Hardwicke. Hitchens - in case you're not familiar with him - is an ascetic, fundamentalist conservative (he describes himself as a Burkean, although there was nothing particularly puritanical about Burke), who thinks it would be a jolly good idea...

...if the Church of England played a more prominent role in national life; would like to see the Conservative Party disbanded because there's nothing remotely conservative about it; believes Tony Blair is more left wing than Jeremy Corbyn; feels that Mrs. Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were vastly over-rated; and is convinced that any liberalisation of the drug laws would open the gates of hell.

I find myself in agreement with Hitchens much of the time (he's for the King James Bible, despises the EU, and loathes political correctness) but I rarely read or listen to him, because I find his brand of fervent pessimism (he describes himself as Britain's obituarist) unappealing. I don't mind being told that the country is going to hell in a handcart - in many ways, it evidently is - but when this observation leads to the conclusion that there's nothing much we can do about it, I tend to lose interest. A prediction of Armageddon should always be followed by "unless...". Of course, if it prefaces a proposal for some totalitarian system leading to an earthly Utopia, forget it. But if it's followed by some practical suggestion that might slow our downward spiral into an earthly hell, or might even, you know, improve things a bit, then I'm happy to listen.

I don't want to hearing soothing lies - I'm not a frightened infant convinced there's a monster in the bedroom cupboard, or some febrile member of the snowflake generation terrified at the prospect of hearing an opinion that doesn't accord with my ridiculous worldview. I also despise what Roger Scruton terms "unscrupulous optimists" - i.e. those who advocate replacing what just about works with some brand new, untested arrangement which might very well ruin lives, but would allow them to feel morally superior to the scheme's sensible opponents. Just as I don't enjoy films or books whose central message is "life is shit, and then you die" but which don't offer any hint as to how, in that case, to avoid despair, so I don't respond well to political commentators who (as Hitchens seems to do) tell us that things won't get any better until we've departed this vale of tears. In every office I've worked in, and on every team I've been part of, there was always someone who delighted in pointing out problems, without feeling the need to present any potential solutions. They served a purpose, true - but I never considered them "brave" or "unflinching".  I just wanted to strangle them.

I'm not saying Hitchens P. is quite that bad - but reading his stuff often feels like watching a film in which, inevitably, the hero dies and the villain triumphs. Listening to him the other day, I couldn't help agreeing with Anthony Howard, who wrote of him: "the old revolutionary socialist has lost nothing of his passion and indignation as the years have passed us all by. It is merely the convictions that have changed, not the fervour and fanaticism with which they continue to be held." If that sounds like exaggeration, consider the fact that, despite wanting Britain out of the EU, Hitchens refused to vote in the referendum because he considers referenda to be undemocratic, and he didn't believe Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are genuine Brexiteers!

What I suspect sets Hitchens apart from most others on the Right - and from most of the rest of humanity - is that he doesn't seem to require the solace of earthly hope. A relatively late convert to Christianity, he seems to have put all his hopey eggs into the basket marked "Afterlife". In addition (and I may very well be doing him a disservice here), he doesn't seem to understand why the vast majority of us - believers and non-believers - are rather partial to a bit of hope, and why we would most likely sink into despair without it. I suspect that's why Delingpole told Hitchens during their chat that he wouldn't much like to share a foxhole with him: partly it's because Hitchens has shown himself willing to throw fellow conservatives under a bus when the fancy takes him (Delingpole has been subjected to this treatment), but also, I imagine, it's because Hitchens almost seems to revel in his conviction that the country is doomed - which I imagine would strike most of us as rather ghoulish.

On the surface, the late Christopher Hitchens would appear to have been his brother's opposite - a booze-guzzling, heavy-smoking, left-wing atheist v. an abstemious, non-smoking, right-wing Christian. But, apart from a trenchant, provocative and effective way of expressing himself (and the fact that, as with his brother, I agreed with much of what he said), Hitchens C seems to have shared at least one other trait with his younger brother. Christopher's atheism was fanatical - he wrote a book called God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything - not because he had battled against the lure of faith, but because he didn't feel the need for it, and couldn't understand why almost every other human being did. This incomprehension - this mind-blindness regarding one of humanity's defining impulses -  meant that the nature and quality of his arguments against religious belief (as opposed to his attacks on specific religions) were no better than those one might expect from a fairly bright fifth former. Hitchens P might not need - or understand - the solace offered by political hope, and Hitchens C seems not have needed - or understood - the solace offered by religion. Me, I'm partial to a bit of both.

Am I being unfair to Peter Hitchens? Here's the Delingpole podcast - you decide:

I'll end with a slight digression. I've stated more than once that the only political discussions that interest me these days are between genuine right-wingers and genuine conservatives. That's probably because there an almost total lack of the sort of nauseating virtue-signalling and knee-jerk name-calling that left-wingers routinely resort to when they're losing an argument (i.e. most of the time). It's also because people on the Right are usually more interested in devising ways of making people's lives a bit better than in pushing ruinously expensive policies which obviously wouldn't work, but which allow leftists to paint their political opponents as uncaring, uncompassionate monsters. Finally, my inner conservative and inner right-winger are constantly arguing with each other - but they quit their squabbling when they hear the same argument taking place out there in the real world!

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