An Interview with Peter Hitchens

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This interview was conducted in London on the 22nd of October 2015 for Spectator magazine. The original may be found here.

There is a certain contradiction to Peter Hitchens: on the one hand, he’s an author and journalist of immense energy and output; an authoritative public intellectual with his finger constantly on the pulse of Britain and beyond.

On the other hand, his speech is peppered with judgments that Britain is doomed and that all attempts to turn it around are futile. To Hitchens, it’s all hopelessly too late, no effort will yield much good, and yet, he maintains a dogged defence of his traditionalist worldview.

I arrive at the Royal Park Hotel just in time for our interview at half past three – something the notoriously pessimistic Hitchens doubted I would be able to do, given I was coming straight from the airport.

As we sit perched on two engulfing period-style sofas, I tell Hitchens of the somewhat alienating experience of arriving at Heathrow as an Australian citizen and being ushered into the ‘non-EU’ queue, remarking that the shift of emphasis from the United Kingdom to the European Union is remarkable. Immediately, Hitchens rebuffs: ‘It’s not an emphasis; it’s the law. We have no more right to enter this country than a retired KGB man from Lithuania’.

On a personal level, Hitchens is somewhat reserved, but talkative and unfailingly polite. Once sparked on a certain topic, his mind picks up threads going in several directions and carries them all to sharp conclusions. I ask him about the popularity of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) under Nigel Farage. Hitchens identifies the party with all the traits of Dad’s Army: ‘lovable, but fundamentally laughable as well’.

He wonders what happens when the two informal constituencies within Ukip’s base – ‘people who wear cravats and go to golf clubs’ and ‘working-class people in northern towns… cheesed off about mass immigration’ – come into contact at Ukip rallies, musing that ‘the incomprehension between them must be quite considerable’.

What is more important than seeking the power to control your country’s own destiny is the knowledge of what you will do with that power when you get it, says Hitchens – something he contends the ‘social and moral liberal’ Farage does not have.

On the question of immigration more broadly, Hitchens contends that the rate exceeds the country’s capacity for absorption and that migration should be evaluated on more than just economic axes.

‘If you’re the sort of person who employs cheap servants and likes going to restaurants and not paying very much then migration will be good for you, but if you’re somebody who [works] in a low-wage job and never goes to restaurants, it may look wholly different.’

When asked of former Prime Minister John Howard’s distinction that he is a multiracialist but not a multiculturalist, Hitchens responds, ‘A shared culture is the only way in which you can overcome the divisions which would otherwise be imposed by race. The only way to be multiracial is to be monocultural’.

Hitchens says that in the absence of a unifying culture, Western societies will play host to ‘people with their backs turned to each other, people who don’t speak to each other, and they don’t form a nation. It’s just a place where people happen to live – within the same physical boundaries – but it’s not a nation any more’.

Much of his beef is with neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, both of which are characterised by a support for open borders which stretches back to Thatcher’s time.

He offers those among the political establishment shocked by the rise of homegrown extremism the following advice:

‘If you have open borders and you invite a lot of Muslims to come live in your country, then don’t be surprised if they continue to act like Muslims – or blame them for it.’

On the West’s intervention in Syria and Iraq, Hitchens points out that ‘they’ve been doing it for so long and it’s had such little effect. If the world’s greatest superpower … decided to destroy at least the physical bases and the operating ability of something like Isis, they would have had a much bigger hole in it by now than they have done’.

I raise the issue of the Middle East, and Hitchens’ mind shoots to Turkey. ‘There’s also the huge problem of Turkey: the great undiscussed country at the heart of all this. I’m obsessed with Turkey.’ His instincts prove prescient given the country’s recent downing of a Russian military aircraft.

In regards to the allegation that Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern powers have lent support to ‘moderate’ militias such as the al-Nusra Front, Hitchens does not mince words. ‘We call these people moderates, [but] if they were trying to infiltrate schools in Birmingham, we would call them fanatics.’

Commenting on the criticism which followed Putin’s targeted airstrikes, Hitchens claims that our policy in the area is incoherent: ‘Anomalies are a way to find out what’s really going on. Incoherent, contradictory policies alert you, if to nothing else, to the fact that what you’re being told isn’t true’.

He believes the rise of movements such as Reclaim Australia are responses to a genuine question the West must address: how do you deal with a minority of citizens whose religion ‘is, by its nature, a rival claim on the loyalty of its adherents, at least as strong as patriotism’? The problem, in Hitchens’ eyes, is that the government prevailing over this influx of newcomers ‘mocked any attempt to suggest that British culture had any value’.

He contends that this administration ‘used multiculturalism as an excuse to dismantle British culture’.

This dismantling, says Hitchens, reflects the fact that ‘the whole front along which the Left advances changed. The Revolution no longer involves the seizure of the post office and the barracks and the railway station, it involves the seizure of the University and the school and the newspaper and the television studio’.

Hitchens should know about the tactics of the revolutionary Left. As a teenager and young adult, he was a revolutionary socialist until he ‘underwent a rapid education in real life’.

Hitchens has accused the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party coalitions of being ‘fake conservatives’: proponents of a modern brand of liberalism who pose as opponents of the left. ‘If you don’t understand the dogma of your opponents, then in the end you will end up implementing it, which is what allegedly conservative parties always do. They win elections against the parties of the left and then they carry on doing all the most important things that left-wing parties have implemented.’

‘How do you break that cycle?’ I ask.

‘I doubt whether you can. I think it’s gone too far… the one time I tried to use my supposed following to achieve something it was a total failure.’

He is referring to the last two general elections in which he begged his readers not to vote Conservative, in order that the cycle of indistinguishably liberal parties might be broken up and the space which the Tories occupy might be assumed by a ‘real’ conservative party.

When asked what motivates his writing and speaking, Hitchens gives a humble estimation of his impact. ‘I enjoy it. I learn from it. I’ve given up thinking that it will do any general good. I hope that on each occasion that I do it there might be one or two people listening who might have their minds opened to things.’

On Britons themselves, Hitchens sounds defeated. ‘We’re a very complacent, uninterested society, which is one of the reasons why we’re going down the plumbing. There’s no real spirit.’

Speaking of the human spirit itself, though, Hitchens’ reflections on the impact of living in Russia (‘the frontier’) and Moscow (‘the frontier city’) contradict this despair. He tells of going to [Russia] because he was fascinated by communism. But he ended up ‘completely gripped’ by the people of the nation itself, confiding that living there ‘changed my life’.

He speaks in genuinely inspired tones about Moscow, which he calls ‘wonderful, fascinating, lovely, full-of-character – which it reveals slowly’.

Of the significance of democracy and the free market to Russia after the collapse of the USSR, Hitchens says, ‘What marks out a civilisation before all things is the rule of laws and the liberty underneath them. And nobody ever offered them that’. As a result of what he considers misguided impositions, Russia ‘went from one ghastly, indefensible tyranny to a horrible Hobbesian chaos in three or four years’. Ultimately, Hitchens saw that ‘human societies can undergo catastrophe… and at the end, people are still standing there in a place recognisably the same and yet completely altered’.

What is the pertinence of such reflections to 21st century Britain or Australia?

‘It only takes a few turns of the screw in history and this could happen to this country… whenever anything happens to Russia, I think, “well, that could be me”.’

Perhaps, having seen the way in which the world can be turned upside down within human societies in tremendous upheaval, Hitchens is motivated by a duty to act as a watchman within his own country.

Despite his sense of futility, the same human spirit Hitchens witnessed on the streets of Moscow could yet make itself evident through any tumult awaiting Britain, Australia, and the broader West.

Hunting knives seized, scores of Christians murdered, citizenship doled out like candy: the stakes couldn’t be higher

First published as a guest post for Menzies’ House at http://www.menzieshouse.com.au/?p=6257

As the Australian Coptic Movement prepares to rally in Sydney this weekend after the Mediterranean ocean ran with the blood of 21 Coptic Christians, the stakes for action on terrorism couldn’t be higher.

Meanwhile, a week after the arrests of Fairfield residents Omar al-Katobi and Mohammad Kiad on the verge of another lone-wolf style terrorist attack, Leader of the Greens Christine Milne has branded Prime Minister Tony Abbott ‘desperate’ and ‘divisive’ for his claim that Australians have been ‘taken for mugs’ by terrorists.

Ms Milne has called for Prime Minister Abbott to turn from his clamping-down rhetoric of ending the ‘benefit of the doubt’ within the immigration and welfare system and urged him instead to support her recently introduced ‘Social Cohesion Bill’ to quell the threat of terrorism.

If passed, the Social Cohesion Bill to which Milne refers would establish a taxpayer-funded Centre for Social Cohesion, complete with Director, Deputy-Director and research staff, whose role it would be to “foster dialogue”, “distribute emerging knowledge” and “coordinate programs”.
The Bill pledges to bring together “government, law enforcement agencies, academics, researchers, and former extremists” in a national, centralised body to build “resilient communities”.

In a more cautious form of criticism, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has warned Prime Minister Tony Abbott that any politicisation of anti-terrorism measures will risk Labor’s bipartisan approach, while stopping short of ruling out Labor’s support for major reforms on metadata or the revocation of Australian citizenship.

Mr Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister in a letter of February 9 to express his “disappoint[ment] that recent media briefing has sought to politicise the development and considerations of anti-terrorism legislation.”

Milne has decided upon on a community-focused rhetoric which presupposes that it is members of the average Australian’s own tribe who fall prey to terrorism, just as some of our young people experiment with hard drugs or young men engage in ‘coward-punch’ style attacks when intoxicated.

Milne’s idea is that any aim to demonise the perpetrators of these social ills is ‘divisive’ and low, given that the perpetrators are from within the community. However, it is clear that for Australians, a narrative of incursion from outside our society, not radicalisation from within, resonates most strongly.

It is true that al-Katobi and Kaid were dubbed Australian citizens by governmental agencies, but Australians are increasingly loath to accept that documentation equates to belonging, in a clear diminution of the perceived value of citizenship.

Al-Katobi entered Australia as an Iraqi national under another person’s identity in 2008 and received both Newstart allowance and citizenship shortly after claiming political persecution. Kaid entered on a spousal visa and roundly dumped his bride shortly after receiving permanent residency.

In the light of this gleaming record, these men are viewed not as Australians who betrayed their true identity and turned on their fellow citizens, but as hostile outsiders who gamed the system of a country foreign to their own. This narrative means that Milne and her ilk will find that their rhetoric fails to connect with the concerns of everyday Australians on this issue.

Indeed, one of the most common social media comments to appear on news sites when it is reported that Australian citizens have fought for ISIS abroad is the refrain that these individuals ‘were never really Australian.’

It is noteworthy that readers of the left-leaning Sydney Morning Herald overwhelmingly voted in favour of Abbott’s proposal to revoke the citizenship of dual nationals engaged in terrorism: 83% offered in-principle support, 10% opposed the idea of revoking citizenship, and 7% were not sure.

Clearly, Australians want to see government align the rubber-stamp threshold for Australian citizenship with our own threshold of a truly Australian identity within the mainstream community.

Politicians would do well to dispense with band-aid solutions to hostile elements within our society. Labor or Liberal, leaders must start speaking to the strong realisation that many individuals living in our midst – whether they have been here for six months or six years – show no signs of being Australian in the sincere and undivided manner which citizenship would require of them.

Regardless of the unpopularity of the Abbott Government or the temptation for a Shorten-led administration to differentiate itself from the Government on this issue, only a narrative of expelling seriously hostile outsiders from the official bounds of the Australian community will hold any water in the public square – no matter who holds the reins.

Why Feminists Should Stand Up for Julie Bishop’s Right Not To Be One

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If the ultimate aim of feminists is the advancement and equality of women, not just that of women who identify as feminists, shouldn’t they be applauding the Julie Bishops of the world?

Minister Bishop’s recent refusal to call herself a ‘feminist’ has led to the cry that she is sucking up to the man’s world, spitting in the face of her suffragette forebears, and even casting doubt upon her own womanhood.

It is certainly understandable that some feminists feel disappointed and indignant that Bishop does not describe herself, and indeed her beliefs about gender equality, in the same way that they might.

Indeed, it is understandable that feminists who have spent a lifetime fighting for the empowerment of women will find Julie Bishop’s statement that she “does not acknowledge” the glass ceiling which successive waves of feminists worked to smash ignorant and even naive.

But when they insist upon policing and judging a fellow woman, aren’t feminists simply lining up hoops for a fellow woman to jump through which they would never impose upon others?

Men of all kinds of qualities are rarely asked to define themselves by their backgrounds. When Shaoquett Moselmane was asked to reflect on becoming the first Muslim to be elected to the New South Wales Parliament, he remarked to an interviewer, “To tell you the truth, Simon, I, you know, as an Australian, irrespective of what one’s religion is, it shouldn’t be counted.”

If Ed Husic said that he saw himself first and foremost as an Australian, not a Bosnian Muslim, people would probably describe him as enlightened. If the youngest member of the Federal Parliament, Wyatt Roy, dismissed the idea of focusing on youth issues and instead wanted to drive economic reform, wouldn’t we admire his passion?

The truth is that Moselmane, Husic and Roy focus on the issues which drove them into Parliament, not the qualities that others allege were keeping them away.

But when Julie Bishop attempts to do the same, saying that she “neither accepts nor rejects” the label ‘feminist’, she is immediately branded as a traitor to her kind; ungrateful, unfeeling, undoubtedly wasting her singularly female seat in the cabinet room.

But why should women have to feel “grateful” for being in power? Didn’t previous generations fight for equality of opportunity so individual achievers wouldn’t have to turn around and say “thank you” for the fruits of their own hard work?

What does it say about us when we place a particular burden on women to be so metacognitive and grateful about their progress in the world simply because they are women? What does it say about us when we refuse to appreciate the very success stories of female empowerment we’ve been looking for because the author of that success story refuses to put anything down to feminism?

Well-intentioned feminists would do well to have a look inside their own ideology in their engagement with Bishop. Surely, one of the rights feminists should champion is the right to self-definition; the right to self-determination; indeed, the right to not be a feminist.

By its own admission, feminism will only have succeeded as a movement in situations where it is no longer necessary. As a capable, articulate and self-possessed member of our Federal Cabinet, a woman who lets her actions speak louder than her ideologies, Bishop is a glimpse at a world in which feminism has done its job.

She is the herald of a world in which the highest portfolios of power are open to women who work hard, overcome natural challenges and make difficult decisions on their own terms in order to accomplish their goals.

I can’t admire a brand of feminism which sees a woman hard at work, accomplishing all the things so many of us have been told are out of our reach, and refuses to acknowledge her for it until she agrees to become a postergirl for the cause.

The kind of feminism that I admire, and the kind of feminism that we need, can take its hat off to successful women merely for the sake of seeing a fellow woman succeed – no strings attached.

Related Post:
‘Leftsplaining Feminism to Bishop Misses the Point’ by Paula Mathewson, originally posted on the ABC’s Drum.


 Related Post:
‘Leftsplaining Feminism to Bishop Misses the Point’ by Paula Mathewson, originally posted on the ABC’s Drum.

12

Dec

Reflecting On Their Former Glory: The Problem With Newspapers Today

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This year I worked as a researcher for a priest who was interested in the role his grandfather had played in the pioneering of the sport of harness trotting in Western Australia in the early twentieth century.

My work involved reviewing digitised newspaper articles from the ‘Trove’ service offered by the National Library of Australia (http://trove.nla.gov.au). This service is truly something to laud, to cherish, and most importantly, to use; through its digitised records of newspapers from the early nineteenth to late twentieth century, we have access to the most intricate of details from the last two hundred years of our country’s social and political history. It is an online equivalent to microfilm rooms in State and National libraries, which are sadly only frequented by a small group of people, most of whom are elderly Australians in the twilight of their life looking into their genealogy.

As with so much of current education and knowledge, there is not a lack of access to information or existence of accurate information, but a lack of initiative in studying it. All Australians should take the opportunity to stroll through the archival museum of Australia’s past and the startling richness of their ancestors’ lives, which are captured and immortalised in the pages of these old newspapers. Such an activity encourages an appreciation for precedence, continuity and one’s place in history. We are privy now to more information about our ancestors than ever before, but most people cannot even tell you who their great grandparents were.

Reading through the newspaper articles, advertisements, and listings week after week, I was amazed at the stark contrast between the sort of reporting of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when compared to today’s papers. Our newspapers, especially traditionally broadsheet papers like the Australian, are considered by conservatives to be a dying cultural treasure, an opinion with which I largely agree, but when such papers are compared to those by which they are preceded, they pale considerably and it becomes clear that we do not only have to conserve our papers but restore them to their former glory.

Broadly, the newspapers of those times were grammatically above reproach, consistent, and comprehensive, the latter sometimes to the point of tedium. Newspapers viewed themselves as the watchful and interested eye of the public upon all the social, political and natural occurrences of community life, rather than just reporters of trends, global affairs, and memes.

Although large sections of newspapers were dedicated to making the views and opinions of public figures known as well as publicising community debates faithfully, newspapers were not dedicated to the competition of political agendas or the unashamedly skewed telling of one side of the story. The current newspaper market is so dominated by politics and opinion that it has become necessary to politicise reporting in order to counteract the influence of the ‘other side’ of reporting. Making conjecture and spin the substance of your newspaper is not the same thing as reporting from the stance of a particular school of thought. A wide and silent section of the community do not consciously subscribe to the sort of agenda and ethos as any of the newspapers or broadcasters but merely wish to be informed. This is an inherently moderate and reasonable attitude, the true origin of an open mind, and we should reward that attitude with objective reporting.

I have heard stories of newspaper editors refusing to report on particular people as ‘pro-life’ instead of ‘anti-abortion’ at their own request. The Australian will occasionally represent people opposed to same-sex marriage as ‘pro-marriage’ whereas the Sydney Morning Herald will report that such people are ‘anti-gay’ and to the Pink News you’re a fully-fledged ‘anti-equality campaigner’. These newspapers notably take polls on reports of current events, confirming that they are interested in seeing how well their pieces have done in shaping public opinion. Something even more likely to shape public opinion is the commentary sites such as the Sydney Morning Herald place beside ‘yes’ and ‘no’ options on these polls. On the recent newspaper poll 12/12/13 concerning whether readers approved of the ACT Same-Sex Marriage Law strike-down, they wrote “No: everyone has the right to marry the person that they love”, a neat little slogan to ‘inform’ people why they might want to vote ‘no’, and merely a tautological “Yes: it was the right decision” next to the ‘Yes’ vote rather than something like “Yes: it was an unconstitutional law” or “Yes: Marriage should be left to the Federal law”.

These blatant pieces of spin belong in the media strategy of politicians with obvious vested interests in public opinion, not reputable newspapers. The maxim that “objectivity is dead” is best responded to with the assertion that if objectivity is dead, the media has killed it. Morning shows and newspapers running campaigns on divisive issues and panels that churn through the same issues week after week teach the populace that the very people reporting on occurrences are also tasked to interpret them for us. This is not to say that newspapers should not run exposés, especially into situations involving gross miscarriages of justice or corruption. But it should be up to private citizens to form opinions based on the objective reporting that newspapers provide.

If reporting is filtered through an ideological lens, the only role the public has left to play is either to follow dogma or reject it, rather than render events into opinions in their own time and in their own way. The more comprehensively events are reported, the best able the public will be to make up their mind and develop a mind of well-informed political opinion based in fact. We should remember that opinion is cheaper to formulate than detail, and with the worship of efficiency taking hold of our society in recent times, we should be immediately suspicious of news sources more keen on filling their pages with trends and opinion rather than actual happenings around the community which would take hours of manpower, concentration and fine-tuned attention. Comprehensive blogs such as Rafe Champion’s “Rafe’s Roundup” contributions (http://catallaxyfiles.com/2013/12/05/rafes-roundup-6-nov/) provide a surrogate for this sort of close attention, and it will be interesting to see how the blog genre develops in filling such gaps.

I went to Parliament yesterday to observe its proceedings and there was only one news reporter in the media gallery. Granted, there were not that many members of parliament in the chamber either, but under review was failed infrastructure projects of the Labor government and infrastructure projects threatened with cuts by the incoming government – matters of some heat and much importance. By contrast, in the early twenty first century, every major newspaper in Perth reported in obsessive detail a Town Hall argument among the executive of the Western Australian Trotting Association as to whether its system of government ought to be altered to allow more control from the executive board and less from the board of guarantors. Exact transcripts were produced for the public to absorb and make up their mind upon.  Imagine a society in which we all had such interest, not in each other’s midday meals or duckfaces, but the operations of our long-running public institutions, societies, and universities, such that every major newspaper in Sydney would publish a comprehensive report on the local RSL meeting, changes to regulations in Sydney University student associations, legal proceedings and the smallest of Parliamentary debates?

Another difference between today’s papers and those of the early twentieth century was the sense of community their papers both generated and reflected. In those days, people took locality seriously while also tracking the developments of the Anglosphere more generally. If you lived in Perth, you would read the newspaper in the morning because all of your friends’ movements and business ventures would be published in its pages – a bit like an old-fashioned form of Facebook. In some ways, as with all societal change, we haven’t discarded but rather imported the finer social detail of those newspapers onto an online medium; that of the social network. However, our social networks could be an artificial re-rendering of the sort of society that could be represented by a single paper in the past. Our population has ballooned so much and our society has become so diverse and disjointed that in order to satisfy our vague sense for ‘what is going on’ we check in with our 500-1000 Facebook friends to feel connected rather than read the newspaper, in which all the people mentioned we will hardly have met, unless we are part of the political elite. It is not the same story for local newspapers, but their readership is small and today they are all owned by Fairfax or News Limited, meaning that there is a top-down approach to local reporting, something that should surely be an oxymoron.

Back in those days, when a man of some note was on his deathbed, every major newspaper in Perth sought his state of health three times a day and published information concerning him every day. When he finally had his funeral, every single name of hundreds of mourners was published in the newspapers as well as a comprehensive account of the ceremony. Such was the extent to which people cared about the members of their community and wished to pay close attention to each other’s milestones via formal procedure, keeping each other at a respectful distance. This may be compared to the ‘selfie culture’ of the twenty-first century and the scant detail on people of interest in newspapers. What detail is published is inconsistent in that it is rarely followed-up and information loses what is crucial for it to be interesting: its sense of narrative and continuity.

The only problem with a proposed restoration to old methods is clearly that the culture of the readership has changed so much due to paradigm shifts in objectivity, a decline in literacy and vocabulary, and a technology-induced psychological need for immediacy and trends. This may be seen in the decline of readership of newspapers generally and the move from broadsheet to tabloid-style papers. I work for a company whose main duty to Fairfax is to distribute its newspapers for free. You’re more likely to see people with papers like the MX or their smartphone in their hands out in public rather than the day’s paper. If newspapers were to regain their prior nature, would the readership necessarily increase in size and retention? Would, perhaps, the readership fail to connect with that style of reporting and reject it wholesale? It’s up to us to decide, and to demand the sort of quality we are willing to reward with our money from the papers generations of Sydneysiders has sworn by for so long.

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