April 8, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The conservative Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens has humorously described himself as a “minor celebrity” in his home country, Great Britain—“not famous enough to get airline upgrades, but famous enough to have to behave extremely well in public.” Or, as he told me on the phone from his home in Oxford last week: “I am not, in my country, a wholly obscure person.” That’s probably a bit of an understatement. He is certainly at times a “lone voice crying in the wilderness,” but he could be better described as polemicist with a podium, or perhaps even a prophet with a microphone.
On this side of the Atlantic, the name “Hitchens” generally brings to mind the somewhat hedonistic and very atheist Christopher Hitchens, the late writer who enjoyed a wide audience by intelligently and wittily attacking almost everyone with distinctive flair. Christopher was, incidentally, Peter’s older brother, and the brothers had historically engaged in longstanding public feuds on their profound points of difference. Peter’s outstanding tome The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith was in part a response to Christopher’s polemically fierce but philosophically feeble God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Christopher’s pugnacious anti-theism made him quite famous in North America. On the other side of the Atlantic, Peter is renowned, among other things, for expounding on quite a different worldview. In his view, without God, “Man can in a matter of minutes justify the incineration of populated cities; the deportation, slaughter, disease and starvation of inconvenient people and the mass murder of the unborn.”
Peter Hitchens has had a fascinating and fruitful career. Conforming in some ways to the old maxim, “If you’re not a socialist at the age of 20 you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative at the age of 40, you have no brain,” as a young man in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, he wrote for a time for a Trotskyist newspaper. Subsequently as a journalist, he reported on the collapse of the Soviet Union from Moscow, the fall of the apartheid system from South Africa, documented the US military intervention in Somalia in 1992, and wrote several beautiful pieces undercover from Iran in 2007. That’s to say nothing of his six books, most of which focus on social and cultural decline—the decline of British conservatism (The Broken Compass), the brokenness of the legal system (The Abolition of Liberty), cultural acceptance of so-called “recreational drugs” (The War We Never Fought), and the decline of Great Britain as a nation (The Abolition of Britain.) Hitchens holds nothing back in his cultural condemnations—James Silver of The Guardian accurately describes his style as “molten Old Testament fury shot through with visceral wit.”
Hitchens describes himself as a “Burkean conservative,” but it’s a mistake to see him simply as an advocate for a political ideology. He has, rather, an internally consistent worldview based on his belief that “there is such a thing as truth, and it’s discoverable.” For Hitchens, an Anglican Christian, the very “idea that the universe is discoverable” would be a neutered and irrelevant one without Christianity. If Hitchens’ body of work is viewed from this perspective, it becomes impossible to regard his books and columns as a series of independent and reactive opinions (like so many of his brother Christopher’s were), but rather social critiques stemming from a devout faith in a Higher Power, a moral order, and the necessity of a free society. Thus, my telephone conversation with Peter Hitchens rarely stays on topic—each social issue and political happening is promptly placed in its broader context.
Peter Hitchens is, as anyone who reads his columns knows, a pessimist. He believes Western civilization, especially in Europe, is creaking rather loudly, and uses his column to amplify that fact regularly. “I just say I’m realistic,” Hitchens tells me, “I think the outlook for Christian civilization is currently rather bleak, and I think that anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding himself.” He lists quickly a number of proofs for his assertion: mass divorce resulting in untold damage to a generation of young people, the rejection of marriage by the current generation leading to increased dependence on the state, abortion on demand, and morally (and even ideologically) bankrupt “conservative” politicians.
Even debating such things has become difficult, Hitchens notes, because, “People are taught, almost universally, what to think, and those classes of society who were previously taught to think, no longer are. You actually get people who might be thought to rank as intellectuals or important thinkers who don’t actually think, and who are as ill-accessible to logic as anyone.”
One proof supporting this assertion, of course, is the abortion debate in both Great Britain and Canada. “People deceive themselves because they believe it in their interests to do so,” Hitchens says, “They either want to indulge their own actions, or they want to avoid confronting the actions of others for the private life.” When I ask him what his opinion is on the phenomenon of the Left’s worship of science abruptly ceasing whenever embryology is brought up, Hitchens replies, “The more people shout about science and knowledge and reason, the more likely it seems to me that they will probably be ignoring them in some important part of their lives.”
While restrictions on freedom of speech vary in both Canada and Britain, pro-abortion protestors on both sides of the Atlantic seem to agree that some evidence should never see the light of day. “It is undoubtedly true,” Hitchens notes, “that knowledge of what an abortion does, particularly pictorially, is one of the very few things which is almost totally true to say is completely censored, particularly from mainstream television.”
The rhetorician is quick to admit that supporters of abortion have, up until now, soundly defeated us in the area of rhetoric. “I saw a little bumper sticker in the US: ‘Against abortion? Don’t have one,’” he relates, “I always thought that someone should produce a bumper sticker saying, ‘Against murder? Don’t commit one,’ which is the same logic. The thing is that people don’t realize that it’s the same logic because the recognition of the humanity of the baby is what’s been withdrawn. That’s been the great success of the pro-abortion lobby, to suggest that there is only one human involved in an abortion, when in fact there are two.”
Beyond rhetorical manoeuvrings, Hitchens believes that the battle against abortion was greatly disadvantaged when the Left launched a social revolution to undermine the institution of life-long marriage: “In all Western Christian countries, in the late or middle 1960’s, laws came into place which meant that if two parties had voluntarily agreed to swear a marriage oath and take part in that, if one of those parties decided to dissolve the marriage and the other wanted to maintain the oath that they’d sworn, the state had the power, ultimately backed by police force and prison, to drag out of the family home the person who wished to abide by the oath and support the person who wished to break it. It was an enormous eruption of state power in the private life. Absolutely devastating, revolutionary beyond all measure.”
This more or less ceded territory—Hitchens cites the “puny effort” of the church and political conservatives to stand up for marriage–and helped pave the way for the destruction of human life championed by abortion activists. “I think that abortion is much beloved by revolutionaries,” Hitchens comments darkly, “because they always like the mob to get their hands in blood and commit some sort of crime of their own.”
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All of this being said, Peter Hitchens has no intention of giving up the fight for a better society. “Say not the struggle naught availeth,” he points out, “If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars.” (I haven’t managed to retain as many literary quotations as Hitchens has, and I’m forced to Google the lines—they’re taken from Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem Say not the Struggle naught Availeth.) I mention to him that he once wrote concerning abortion that, “Those who wonder what they would have done had they lived at the time of some terrible injustice now know the answer. We do live in such a time. And we do nothing.” For a moment, Hitchens almost sounds like an optimist: “These things come,” he says, “People achieve them. I can’t see the sight of it, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. We can’t give up. We’re not allowed to despair.”
“The true historian living in actual times is always trying to penetrate the disguises in which history advances itself,” he adds, “Things don’t look at the time you experience them the way they’ll look in the history books…It’s possible that a great revulsion against secularism and the Century of Self is coming.”
Or perhaps Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem says it better:
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making,
Comes silent, flooding in, the main.