An exchange with Peter Hitchens, Part I

Well, it was a pleasant surprise to find my short piece on Peter Hitchens has drawn a response from the man himself. You can read his article below, and I’ll now proceed to respond accordingly.

The main problem, as he sees it, with my observations is the implication that he yearns for a return to halcyon days, and of course these days never existed. To be fair, I was referring more so to the reactionary press in general when I wrote: ‘Fortunately, it is too late to turn back the clock on the progress achieved in our attitudes to sexuality, gender and race. The malaise of the reactionary press is really down to this harsh reality.’ In retrospect, I should’ve been sharper on this distinction and avoided the conflation.

On an ironic note, it was the socialist movement which emerged out of the despair of the loss of the non-industrial pre-capitalist world, and in that regard it was backward-looking, while at the same time pushing forwards to a better world. It’s perfectly clear to my side that it’s the future we’re fighting over, and that it requires historical perspective to see this era as transient.

I should make clear that the purpose of my article was to convey the reasons why Peter Hitchens stands out from the commentariat – a herd of independent minds if there ever was one. It wasn’t intending to rehash the standard critique of the Hitchens brand of traditionalist conservatism. He’s right on several key issues: the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria; civil liberties and free-speech. But it’s also the case that he’s wrong in much of his prognosis.

As Mr. Hitchens emphasises, in my article I observe: ‘the way he frames left-wing politics really comes from the position he takes on cultural and socio-moral issues. “It is because the left’s ideas – by their nature – undermine conscience, self-restraint, deferred gratification, lifelong marriage and strong, indivisible families headed by authoritative fathers.”

Mr. Hitchens writes: ‘But he doesn’t say whether he accepts or rejects this, or even what he actually thinks about conscience (can he be against it?) or the other things I list as virtues undermined by the strong modern state.’

On conscience, I think moral values have a necessary role in any human community, as I’m a moral realist; but I wouldn’t say this is inherently ‘conservative’. We can still debate what constitutes right and wrong, though I will say that I do not know of any leftist who embraces moral relativism. It would be completely inconsistent as moral relativism cannot be expected to uphold any values, and certainly not egalitarian values.

As for deferred gratification, it was the liberalisation of credit which inverted this ‘deferral’ and left many people to spend first and work off the debt later. Of course, this wouldn’t be the case if the wage share of GDP for the working-class hadn’t been squeezed for the last 40 years. So this is not a monopoly of the middle-classes, but it has been turned on its head in recent decades. The picture is much more complex.

A great many people living on benefits, particularly those trying to raise children on benefits, practice forms of deferred gratification by effectively fasting. I know this because I come from a single-parent household, and I knew many others in similar circumstances, very often the lone parent will eat less and less to save up for Christmas. I don’t expect the Mail to portray this side of so-called ‘dependency culture’, but it’s revealing that they are so blind to it.

When it comes to monogamy, my own view is that it will outlast its competitors (particularly the fad of polyamory) due to its simplicity and mutuality. I don’t romanticise the institution of marriage, its clear strong relationships and families will be formed whether it exists or not.  I was somewhat sceptical of marriage equality because it was clearly a highly conservative proposal. Civil partnerships were the progressive innovation and offered a secular alternative free of a morally bankrupt and increasingly repressive state.

Understandably, Mr. Hitchens found fault with my dismissive remark: ‘He’s wrong on almost all cultural and social issues’. As I hadn’t set out to critique every one of the positions he’s ever taken I didn’t feel the need to go into specifics. But I’ll be forthright and specific here.

A perfect example of where Hitchens goes wrong: addiction. The claim that there is no objective basis for addiction is simply untrue. As medical professionals will tell you, the liver physically changes in the course of prolonged alcohol consumption and this can run alongside a psychological dependency on the drug’s effects. The answer is abstinence and therapy, but there is a very high recidivism rate. The denial of addiction is not only wrong, it is an unnecessary point to make.

The cases for/against the legalisation of drugs can be made without such a point. Likewise, it is possible to question the prevailing culture of hedonism without the presupposition that it is all a matter of ‘free-choice’ (a manifestly liberal point in itself). The only sensible hedonism was advocated and practiced by Epicurus. As long as it remains almost taboo to turn down a drink it will be likely for functioning alcoholics, let alone non-functioning ones, to emerge. But I doubt this will be put right by silly bans and regressive taxes.

To conclude, it’s only possible to rail against conventional wisdom once it has become convention. Mr. Hitchens is sincere in his wish to reorder society, but if he were to succeed he would not only make his work defunct, he would also provide the basis for it to be torn down all over again. That being said, I don’t see anything ‘radical’ in extolling fashionable hedonism.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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