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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Hitchens’

When you’ve written one inarguably brilliant novel (I refer to The Beach) and had a hand in making one of the most influential movies of the last 15 years (that would be 28 Days Later), I think you’ve earned the right to have anything else you produce treated with at least a modicum of interest and anticipation. So it was that I and a few friends found ourselves trotting off to see Ex Machina, a new SF movie written and directed by Alex Garland (also responsible for… well, see the start of the paragraph).

ex machina

Arriving at the cinema I found myself treated to a surprise cameo, not in the film itself but in the theatre, for who should be sitting across the aisle to us but my very slight acquaintance and one-time commenter on this blog, Mr Peter Hitchens (the writer, Mail on Sunday columnist, Right Wing thinker, and compiler of amusing indices). I know some people are surprised by my regard and fondness for Mr H, given our politics are – to put it mildly – somewhat divergent, but I have great respect for his intellect and integrity. Plus, anyone whom David Cameron thinks is ‘a maniac’ must be doing something right.

Trying not to let Mr H’s presence distract me too much, I settled down to watch the film. It concerns Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young employee of a major corporation who wins the staff lottery, for which the prize is to visit the head of the company at his remote, futuristic compound. Said boss is Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), and – having compelled Caleb to sign a comprehensive non-disclosure agreement – he reveals what he’s been working on.

Not only has Nathan seemingly solved the numerous problems of designing convincingly humanoid robots, he has also cracked the knotty issue of strong AI – probably. The thing is, he can’t be sure whether his creation is genuinely sentient or not, and to this end wants Caleb to interact with the construct and see if he is convinced of her sentience. For, yes, it is a she: the android (or should that be gynoid? Hmmm) is named Ava and played by Alicia Vikander (Ava looks rather like Robocop’s half-finished little sister).

Suffice to say that Caleb finds himself much taken with Ava, and increasingly sympathetic to her plight as – apparently – nothing but a very complex toy in the hands of the increasingly sinister and objectionable Nathan. But can he really trust either of them? And is everything going on quite what it seems to be?

One of the things propelling me to see Ex Machina was the glowing reviews it received from other acquaintances, and the first thing I have to say is that this is absolutely not a bad film. Though it clearly shows the influences of a number of other prominent SF films (others have suggested it is similar to both Westworld and I, Robot), it wears these quite lightly, and while it some degree resembles the ‘cerebral’ type of SF movie most frequently made between 1968 and 1977, the narrative is never cumbersome or especially difficult to follow. (Perhaps just as well, given I was uncomfortably aware of buzzes and flashes coming from the smartphone of one of Britain’s most prominent Right Wing commentators at several points during the film.)

As I’m sure many people are sick of being reminded, artificial intelligence is one of the few serious subjects on which I feel qualified to offer an opinion, having written a dissertation on it, and as a serious examination of the topic I think Ex Machina is only a qualified success at best. Garland has clearly done his research on the topic, with name-checks for thought-experiments like the black-and-white room and talk of the importance of invested semantics and so on, so it certainly sounds competent. On the other hand, many references are made to the Turing test, with Caleb’s encounters with Ava described as being an extended version of one – but I’m afraid this seemed to me to be so methodologically unsound I was instantly sceptical (his knowing she is a machine all along essentially invalidates the test per se, to say nothing of the Turing test being somewhat discredited as genuine assessment of AI anyway). As it turns out, the fact that this isn’t a ‘proper’ Turing test turns out to be central to the plot, with Nathan fully aware of its shortcomings – but it doesn’t explain why Caleb isn’t more dubious of what he’s participating in. Oh well: to err is human (which does seem to be one of the film’s themes).

In any case, the film is clearly intended to function as a fable rather than a naturalistic drama, although quite what it’s about is not entirely clear. There is a time-honoured tradition of any story about AI or robotics concluding with what Isaac Asimov used to refer to as the clank-clank-aaargh stage, but it would obviously be spoiling the story for me to reveal if Ex Machina also goes in this direction. For most of its duration it seems to be addressing many of the issues involved in the development of strong AI only in passing – if we did build a sentient machine, what moral right would we have to effectively hold it in slavery? – and it seemed to me that the film was rather more concerned not with human-machine relations but how people treat each other, and specifically the way in which men objectify women. It’s not by chance that Nathan’s AI has female form. It’s an interesting approach to the issue, but again what the film is trying to say beyond the obvious is unclear (and if Alex Garland really is serious about criticising male objectification of women, making a film in which every major female character has a full-frontal nude scene is a slightly odd way of doing so).

Nevertheless, Garland’s direction is assured and the film looks very impressive throughout: the visuals have a pristine coolness that matches the measured tone of proceeding. Every shot feels like it has been very carefully worked out and made as immaculate as possible. The problem with this, however, is that the visuals sometimes dominate and render the story itself somewhat inscrutable. This is problematic when what the film is trying to say is open to several interpretations, most of which are mutually exclusive. Is it suggesting that machine intelligence will essentially prove to be cold and unknowable, something inherently alien and perhaps hostile? Or is it trying to indicate quite the opposite, that our machine creations will only be flawed and dangerous inasmuch as they resemble us so closely? It’s not that the film is deliberately ambiguous on this, but more that it doesn’t really suggest it has any real position at all.

At the risk of stealing the Mail on Sunday’s thunder (and there are some words I never thought I’d type), I can reveal that Mr Hitchens found the film to be generally enjoyable, although he thought it descended into absurdity in the last five minutes. Well, I had less of a problem with that than he did, and I was pleasantly surprised, during our brief chat, to discover his familiarity with 70s SF touchstones – I had to remind myself he really doesn’t know me and restrain my indignation at the suggestion I might not have seen Westworld myself (Mr H, should you be reading, the link to the review is up the page). (Despite his good-natured grumbling about being asked for instant film criticism, I thought he had a decent crack at it.)

On the whole I thought this was a superior SF movie and a very impressive debut from Garland. This may not be the only low-budget, highbrow genre movie we see this year starring Isaacs and Gleeson (NB: irony is present), but it may well prove the most interesting. Still, it’s not perfect – it bears a certain resemblance to an episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, just one slightly less impressive than most. If that sounds like damnation by faint praise, it really isn’t meant to: this is a good film, just not quite a great one.

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Another year gone by, and (as has become a bit of a tradition) another look at the last twelve months on the blog. Hey, if nothing else it helps to break up the endless flow of film reviews and Doctor Who-related cobblers, right?

Speaking personally, this has been a slightly odd year – the diploma course which really defined the first half of the year for me concluded moderately well, though not quite as well as I’d hoped, and as for the second half… My summer job felt like a bit of a slog for the first time since I started doing it, while throughout this Autumn I’ve felt my relationship with my rest-of-the-year employer growing increasingly strained. Added to this, since the diploma finished I’ve been without a medium-to-long-term goal for the first time since 2006, and it feels like I’ve been drifting and lacking in focus ever since. I’m increasingly realising that I need to keep pushing and challenging myself if I’m not going to lapse into self-absorption and melancholia. As I lead a fairly solitary life, something which I’ve realised is unlikely ever to change, this sort of thing is a constant concern anyway. It’s good to stay self-aware, I suppose.

navelgazer

Anyway, there were just under 10,000 views of this blog in 2012, which sounds nice but I’ve no idea how it compares to anyone else’s. Naive old fool, I thought I was doing okay with 35 followers after two years, before a friend chirpily informed me that her company’s blog had picked up 250 followers after a week. Over a thousand of those visits all came on the same day, mainly as a result of the Mail on Sunday‘s website publicising my piece on Peter Hitchens and Howard Marks’ debate on drugs laws (oh, the shame, the shame). Obviously I need to write more positive things about Hitchens so he links to me again, and just hope people stick around for the Hammer horror reviews. Well, I’m sure a worse plan is conceivable.

hitchensmarks

The Hitchens thing was the biggest draw of the year by far, with the bulk of the rest of the top five being bankers from 2011 – the final instalment of the original run of Natural History of Evil continues to pack ’em in, along with that silly piece about Lacey Banghard and her two great assets (her Christian name and surname, of course). The only 2012 piece to make the list was… the review of 2011 (sigh), mainly, I suspect, because it also talks about Miss Banghard. I suspect a pattern has been established.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

A rare photo of Lacey Banghard where her face is the most prominent element.

Bringing up the rear was another hardy perennial, the review of The Viking Queen. I am completely stumped as to why this keeps pulling in the readers week after week after week – there isn’t, so far as I can tell, anything accidentally suggestive in there that could confuse a search engine, nor is this a notable cult film. Why are so many people reading this one post and ignoring much better-written material completely? I must confess I’m starting to get mildly irritated by it.

viking_queen

The bulk of what I’ve written this year has been film reviews, as usual. I thought the overall quality was higher than in 2011, but with fewer really outstanding individual films – the best things I saw at the cinema this year were Lawrence of Arabia (from 1962), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (from 1943) and RoboCop (from 1987). Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as there were still some great movies being released – Chronicle, The Cabin in the Woods, The Raid and The Imposter all turned out to be off-the-radar hits, while there were some quality blockbusters too – The Avengers was better than it really had any right to be, while The Dark Knight Rises, though not Christopher Nolan at the absolute top of his game, was still hugely impressive and deeply satisfying. Despite all that, if I had to name my favourite film from 2012 it would probably be Searching for Sugar Man. An extremely difficult call though.

sugar

I think I’ve gone on in quite enough detail about my issues with the Autumn’s crop of Doctor Who, especially as the Christmas show has given me hope that a new and much more impressive approach may be in the offing. Obviously 2013 will be a massive year for all of us who love Doctor Who – expectations are enormous, and it’s difficult to imagine quite how the custodians of the show and the BBC will be able to meet them all.

In the end surprisingly little wargaming or serious uke-playing happened this year, mainly because for a large chunk of the Autumn I was either on holiday abroad or in the grip of one of those emotional entanglements which has occasionally complicated my life prior to this point. A shame, because the wargaming and uke-playing would at least have given me material for a worthwhile post or four.

 Expectations for 2013 are guarded, currently: if I can work solidly and feel like I am making some sort of professional progress, and continue to be a good friend and family member to those around me, I will be happy, regardless of whether I can afford a holiday, or World War Z is any good. Although it would be nice to finally get a WFB army painted before 9th Edition appears on the horizon. We shall see.

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Regular readers may recall the fairly unusual occurrence of my trailing a future event, to wit last Thursday’s debate on the legalisation of cannabis, held at Waterstones Oxford and occurring between ‘Protestant iconoclast’ Peter Hitchens and ‘the most sophisticated drug dealer in the history of the world’, Howard Marks. I note that, according to his own blog, Mr H himself feels unable to accurately relate what went on, on account of his being a participant. With the big man thus having effectively recused himself – well, what can I say? – here’s how it seemed to me at the time.

I turned up for the event nice and early, while the shop itself was still open, and passed a few pleasant minutes, as usual, browsing the graphic novel shelves. (I note that Neonomicon is still on sale in a non-sealed format which anyone of any age can pick up and look through. Somebody really ought to have a word with the booksellers about this.) I still couldn’t quite justify buying Mega-City Justice – it may end up being another Christmas present to myself – but it did occur to me that Peter Hitchens might share my own sneaking admiration for Judge Dredd’s inflexible moral stance. Who can say.

Anyway people were starting to drift in and I thought it prudent to actually grab a seat. At this point I found myself actively considering the question of what kind of person would go to a personal appearance by Hitchens and Marks for the first time: identifying who was here to support who was not especially difficult, shall we say. At the risk of generalising inappropriately, a goodly portion resembled the solid Tory stock of Mr Hitchens’ natural consituency, while much of the remainder were clearly people who take life very easily indeed. (I myself, of course, was there as a helpless thinker and fascinated long-term Hitchens-watcher.) Some people had even brought their kids, which startled me inordinately, mainly because it seemed to me this could be a highly-charged encounter with passions surging on both sides. Should it all kick off I resolved to go down with the first punch that connected and crawl discreetly to the lift.

Hey ho. Not long after seven we were treated to a highly rigorous security check from the Waterstones staff (‘Can everyone please wave their ticket in the air?’) and then the two men themselves descended from the lofty heights of the bookshop Costa (they’re turning up everywhere) to commence the event.

Things took an unexpected turn as the moderator revealed that the dyed-in-the-wool conservative commentator and the convicted drug dealer are actually great friends with a history of saying very nice things about one another – Hitchens is a ‘courteous and considerate friend’ and a ‘brilliant writer and debater’, according to Marks, while Hitchens has unstintingly praised Marks’ chivalry and decency (as well as other positive qualities) too. This was a surprise.

So the proceedings, as they got underway, are slightly more clubbable than I’d expected, with both speakers provided with comfy armchairs and microphones. Marks spoke first, reading from notes: the gist of what he says – cannabis was only internationally banned by the League of Nations as an afterthought to the banning of opium, the ban has done nothing to reduce demand or supply and is instead only responsible for a vast black market with its devastating attendant evils, and that given that people are always going to smoke weed, having it distributed by criminals is the least desirable option – is probably rather less striking than his method of imparting it. Never having heard Marks speak before, I’d no idea he was Welsh – but he is, and very very Welsh. Delivering his statement in mellifluous Welsh tones with more than a hint of theatricality, seated in his comfy chair throughout, Howard Marks’ opening statement is rather like a very strange episode of Jackanory.

And then Peter Hitchens rises to speak. I must confess to partly being here in order to see what Hitchens is like in person, being much more familiar with his writing and occasional TV appearances. Well, rather to my surprise, Mr H is a much more likeable and charismatic figure than his reputation might suggest – he opens with a gag, which I would never have expected (not a great gag, but as it’s virtually the same as one I used myself on this blog earlier this year there’s a limit to how critical I can honestly be), is generous to his opponent throughout, and he’s good-humoured and thoughtful rather than an inflexible martinet.

Basically, Hitchens’ line is that cannabis is at least as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, two drugs far less socially acceptable, with a documented history of causing serious mental illness in a significant percentage of users. As a result it would be folly to make it easier to acquire, and the only sensible course is to try and drive it out of acceptable society entirely. It’s a lot harder to make things illegal than to legalise them, and so it’s better not to take the chance.

This argument depends heavily on the strength of the evidence as to how dangerous cannabis is – I’m not really qualified to comment on this either way, but I respect Hitchens enough to believe that he hasn’t just invented this stuff out of the air. But, given this is the case, it’s difficult to take issue with Hitchens’ argument.

However, in the Q&A which follows, various people try: most of the questions are for Hitchens, from people taking issue with his views. I’ve already commented that the current system seems a bit inconsistent to me – why make cannabis illegal when alcohol, an equally damaging drug, is free available? And this same point is made to Hitchens. Rather unexpectedly (possibly you should just assume that everything that went down at this event was rather unexpected, as I appear to be typing those words rather a lot), Hitchens’ response is pragmatic: he’d support an alcohol ban with great pleasure, but the fact of the long history of it as a presence in society would make this almost impossible to enact and enforce.

There’s another interesting moment when it’s put to Mr H that the prohibition of cannabis is responsible for tremendous suffering across the developing world, by putting the cannabis trade into the hands of organised criminals, with the result that numerous minor wars and insurgencies are largely funded by the sale of drugs. Needless to say Hitchens disagrees – the market for cannabis which these criminals operate to meet only exists due to the existing drug laws not being enforced with sufficient rigour. This is more questionable ground – can people really be persuaded or cowed into not wanting to get off their heads? – but it’s not obviously incoherent either.

A year ago I would have said that Peter Hitchens and I had nothing in common and would be capable of little interaction other than arguing, but it really does seem to me that he was talking rationally and very persuasively at this event. And his arguments were based not on handed-down moral absolutism but an appeal to a sense of collective responsibility and the value of all members of society. Given the dangers of cannabis, for someone to still argue that it should be widely available is for that person to declare they are indifferent to the lives of all those damaged by the drug – it seems to me this is basically a deeply selfish position, and one I could not personally justify to myself.

These principles – concern for society as a whole, collective responsibility, and so on – are not ones I would traditionally associate with members of the Right. I am increasingly wondering if the whole Left-Right dichotomy isn’t hopelessly simplistic when it comes to breaking down what people actually believe. I’ve always called my own politics left-of-centre but there are a few issues, usually social ones, in which I realise my views are actually quite traditional. My left-of-centreness is mainly based on my dislike of free market economics and unfettered capitalism – but as the economy is the main political issue of our time, that’s the bit that really counts.

Nevertheless it seems to me that, just as certain writers and commentators demonise some ideas in such a way as to discourage people from genuinely thinking about what it is they actually objecting to (the transformation of concepts such as Human Rights, Health and Safety, and Political Correctness into straw-men targets to be reflexively abjured), so the very left-right idea can be a barrier to people with useful and valuable things to say to each other actually communicating. Empty tribalism gets in the way.

I turned up to the event as a Don’t Know, but left in provisional agreement with prohibition. Howard Marks was amusing and memorable but, truth be told, Peter Hitchens was genuinely impressive throughout, not least during his final contribution. Challenged to justify why a potentially harmful drug like cannabis should be banned while two definitely dangerous ones remain on sale legally, Hitchens rose to his feet and for the first time we got some of the passion and force that suffuses most of his columns in the MoS. Again, what he says makes sense: ‘we have two dangerous legal drugs already, so why not add a third?’ is an absurd position to take. ‘You may say there is only a chance that cannabis will cause you harm, but should you be one of the unfortunates whose mental health is damaged by this drug – that would not be a chance, my dear sir, that would be a catastrophe for you and for everyone who loves you!’ It’s an electric moment and at its conclusion Hitchens flops back into his seat, not making eye contact with anyone. It’s the only time he seems genuinely angry all evening.

It’s been a stimulating evening and has caused me to question my own beliefs in some detail – perhaps it’s too easy to hide behind abstract principle when there are issues of people’s real lives to take into account. In the end, feeling it’s only good manners, I pick up a copy of Hitchens’ book and – seeing as I’m there – attach myself to the queue to get Mr H to sign it himself. The queue to have copies of Howard Marks’ Book of Dope Stories autographed is much longer; Marks’ microphone is still live and rumblings and mutterings and excerpts from startling anecdotes are randomly emerging from the speakers.

Nevertheless, Hitchens signs the book and we shake hands. ‘I disagree with you on a lot of things,’ I say, ‘but I’m always interested in hearing what you have to say, and I have a lot of respect for you as a thinker and a writer.’

Peter Hitchens’ eyes widen. Could these words have moved him? Could this be the beginning of the washing away of the old left-right dichotomy? Could we be about to forge a bold new intellectual axis which will reshape British politics for generations to come?

‘I’m sorry,’ he says in the gentlest and mildest of voices, gesturing to the amplifier behind his head. ‘But I couldn’t hear a word you said.’

Oh well, can’t win ’em all. British politics will have to stumble on as before.

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And now, to coin a phrase, for a little bit of politics. One of the more startling NCJG moments of 2012 to date came round about Easter-time when your correspondent found himself embroiled in a rigorous and yet terribly polite discussion with none other than Mr Peter Hitchens, the noted Mail on Sunday columnist, author, and ‘maniac’ (according to the Rt. Hon. David Cameron), as an indirect result of my seeing him in the street in Oxford.

I know what you must be thinking, and I too was startled to learn that Mr H was a reader of this here blog. Much thought on this topic has led me to conclude that one of three possibilities must be true – a), Mr H, when not bewailing the state of the nation, is very keen on reading semi-comic film reviews, accounts of wargaming disasters, and waffle about cult TV programmes; b), Mr H googles himself on a regular basis (don’t think too harshly of him, we’ve all been there); or c), he came across it in some other fashion which is less potentially amusing but also less likely to provoke a writ.

Anyway, since that point I have occasionally seen Mr H out and about around Oxford, always in roughly the same neighbourhood of the city centre, often upon his bicycle but never appearing to particularly enjoy riding it very much. Then again, to my mind Mr H never gives the impression of enjoying anything very much, although he has assured me he enjoys arguing with people (which some might say was just as well, given the nature of the beliefs he shares with the public with such dedication).

I would probably not go so far as to say I actually like Mr H, as we are just a bit too far apart on the political spectrum, but close reading of his works has left me with a definite respect for his intelligence and integrity, and it does occur to me that the reason why he is so execrated in certain circles is not what he says but the manner in which he says it: not so much the message but the medium. In any case, the news that Mr H was scheduled to make a proper public appearance in my adopted home city was cause for much pricking up of ears in the garret.

The reason for this is, of course, that Mr H has a new book out which I suppose I am obliged to plug. Ahem: said tome is The War We Never Fought: The British Establishment’s Surrender to Drugs. The main thrust of Mr H’s latest opus really doesn’t need much more explication from me, which is just as well as I’ve no intention of actually buying or reading the thing – you can sort of work out the gist from the title.

Now, rather than just letting Mr H stentorianly … you know, I’ve been on holiday, so I’m perhaps a bit rusty, but I can’t for the life of me think of an adequate verb to describe the way our man expresses himself… rather than just letting Mr H do his thing to a crowd (who may well have been frisked on the way in for rotten vegetables, etc), possibly with the odd selected reading from the book in question, what we have to look forward to is in fact a debate on British drugs policy, with Mr H naturally speaking in favour of total abolition.

Possibly rather mischievously, the good people at Waterstone’s (hosting the event) have recruited, to speak in favour of recreational drugs, the author, commentator and convicted drug dealer Howard Marks (aka Mr Nice). It says something about the status of Mr H in the public eye that, in a confrontation with a convicted criminal with past connections to the Mafia, the Yakuza, and the IRA, for many people he will still be the bad guy.

This baffles me a bit, probably because I am generally dubious about the cult of the celebrity criminal: a modern phenomenon I genuinely can’t understand. I actually know very little about Howard Marks, and have never really had any interest in learning more. I will be very surprised if he has the kind of intellectual firepower to seriously contest the issue with Mr H.

The set-to isn’t until Thursday night so I have no idea how things are going to unfold. My prediction is that Mr H will be proceeding from a position of principle, while Howard Marks will be rather more pragmatic.

Personally, my own views on the drug question are as follows. Currently we’re in a situation in most countries where there are a multiplicity of recreational drugs available, some of which are legal and some of which are not. Quite where you drop the legal barrier, in terms of which are which, is what interests me: tradition and precedent, to me, are not sufficient grounds for maintaining such a ban.

Most people, hearing the word drugs in this context, won’t think of nicotine and alcohol simply because they are legal – even though they are both potentially harmful and, certainly in the latter case, the cause of much social ill. And – to paraphrase Bill Hicks, someone who always struck me as a source of much wisdom on this topic (if only Bill was around to debate Hitchens – he would only have been 50, if he were still with us) – if you give one room of people unlimited alcohol, and the one next door unlimited cannabis, everyone knows which will be the most pleasant room to be in two or three hours down the line.

In short, go ahead and ban cannabis and mushrooms, but if you’re going to do that you really need a rock-solid argument as to why you shouldn’t also prohibit the sale of alcohol and cigarettes. And I’ve never heard one yet. Maybe Mr H will be the man to produce one this week; I am curious to see if he does. In any case, I will let you know how it all kicks off and which telling blows, if any, get landed by the literary gladiators. Should be a memorable confrontation no matter how it turns out.

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So, yeah, anyway, I came out of the Odeon in Oxford yesterday (not the coffee shop, the new one) when I noticed a man looking at the cinema with an expression I can only describe as baleful. Had this been the coffee shop it would be sort of understandable (I have been known to glower at the indignities inflicted on a formerly exemplary cinema myself), but no. And, what was more, I sort of recognised the man. It took me a while to figure out where from, because it does when you see somebody in the flesh who you’ve only previously seen on TV or in a photo. I eventually figured out who the guy was (or at least who he strongly resembled) – it was Peter Hitchens.

That at least explained the baleful stare, because baleful is really Peter Hitchens’ default mode. Peter Hitchens is – well, you know, when I was planning this thing out in my head on the bus home I was all set to go with ‘Peter Hitchens is one of the arch-dukes in the demonic hierarchy of that circle of Hell  managed by the Daily Mail’, but you know what, I’m not going to. I appreciate that by even letting you in on that I am rather ineptly trying to have my cake and eat it, but you know what, it’s a good line and I’d hate to lose it completely.

So I’m not going to stick the boot in on the guy but stick to facts he himself would agree with. Peter Hitchens is a journalist and commentator, appearing primarily in the right-wing UK press and as a purveyor of conservative viewpoints in the media. He is a conservative himself, but – if I read the situation correctly – would demur if described as a Conservative, quite simply because he considers the party to currently be utterly lacking in backbone and not nearly aggressive enough in pursuing a conservative agenda.

Some examples of Mr Hitchens’ personal opinions: he considers Labour’s abolition of the hereditary principle in the House of Lords as ‘constitutional vandalism’. Based on recent pronouncements on TV, I suspect he would also have negative things to say were there to be any attempt to abolish the principle of primogeniture (basically, institutionalised sex discrimination) in the UK royal succession. The largely peaceful resolution of the Northern Irish conflict was a ‘collapse and a surrender to lawlessness’. Fighting against Nazism in the Second World War was a mistake: ‘Imagine: no European Union, probably no Nato, no United Nations, no courts of Human Rights, no Starbucks, no McDonald’s, no kilograms, no mass migration’ (disagreeable consequences of the conflict, in Mr Hitchens’ view). Some people deserve to live in poverty (and, furthermore, there are no ‘truly poor people’ in the UK). He is pro-death penalty and anti-abortion, but then you could probably have guessed that.

[Believe it or not, folks – and I’m not entirely sure I do myself – but someone claiming to be the one and only Mr H got in touch with me (see comments section below) and complained, with uncharacteristic mildness, that I had misrepresented his views on the Second World War. He didn’t go into details as to how, but in the interests of fairness, and to avoid accusations of quote-mining, here is Peter Hitchens’ original article so you can see for yourselves where he’s coming from.

PS. A bit later: or check out the comments section where Mr H recaps what he actually thinks on this topic. Nothing if not scrupulously fair, wot?- A]

My own views are, of course, considerably different, but then this is not really surprising given that even David Cameron, who emanates from roughly the same area of the political spectrum, has publicly described Peter Hitchens as a ‘maniac’.

I’m not sure I’d go that far. I vehemently disagree with virtually everything Hitchens comes out with – every time I take the plunge and glance through one of his Mail on Sunday columns a peculiar gloom and low-level fury grips me, possibly almost as a Pavlovian response – but he comes across as a sane, rational and intelligent man, the substance of his views excepted, of course (put it this way, he’s more cogent than Richard Littlejohn). I have known of him and followed his thinking for nearly 15 years, since a Mail piece frothing about the ‘evil knowledge’ released into the national bloodstream by people swearing on TV in good old This Life (‘These Nasty Lives Will Poison Real Life’ was, I believe, the subheader).

And so to the question I posed my (Mail reading) landlord and landlady some time later: what exactly is the appropriate response for a civilised socialist upon encountering Peter Hitchens in the street? Ray, my landlord, had an easy answer: ‘You go up to him and punch him on the nose.’ I have to say this never really occurred to me as an option. Satisfying though it might well have been, lamping Hitchens was never really on the cards, largely due to my own matchless lack of both physical courage and co-ordination, but also because, well, it’s not really my style.

Of course, there was also the issue of it perhaps not being Hitchens at all. Lamping some unfortunate stranger already saddled with the drawback of being a dead ringer for Peter Hitchens would, surely, just be adding insult to injury. But I did momentarily consider going up to him and saying ‘Peter Hitchens, I despise you, everything you write and say, and everything you stand for: you and people like you are a drag anchor on the culture of this country and a major cause of whatever misery and other problems are currently besetting it’.

But, as you’ve probably guessed, I didn’t. Hitchens went off to glower balefully at something else in Oxford city centre (God knows what; I shudder to think) and I buggered off to GBK for a cheeseburger. My spleen remained unvented; Hitchens remained oblivious.

And I think part of the reason why is due to Hitchens’ attitude towards people like me, not all of whom show such restraint. After all, there was for a while a Facebook group named ‘Peter Hitchens Must Die’. One importunate beggar who only received Hitchens’ views on charitable giving (‘few things are more wicked’ than modern begging and its practitioners) did indeed stick one on him, if Hitchens himself is to be believed.

Quite possibly amusing though all this is it does just provide ammunition for Hitchens and his acolytes to sneer at people holding differing views to them. Oh, those immature, hate-filled, intellectually-incontinent Lefties! They can’t win an argument so they just to try to win a fight! It just provides another opportunity for people on the Right to rehearse the arrogance and presumption of the right-to-rule that we see every day in the workings of the Tories in our current government.

So lamping Hitchens or giving him an earful would just be counter-productive. I think progressives are better, more intelligent, more decent people than the Right would have the world believe. I think liberal and socialist ideas are more coherent and humane than anything the other side can come up with, and I think this can be proven in any venue you care to mention.

But in order to do this I had to treat Hitchens with a courtesy I don’t think his ideas strictly deserve. You know the old saw: ‘one of the greatest victories you can gain over someone is to beat him at politeness’ – perhaps not completely applicable in this situation, but you know what I mean. I wandered off to GBK feeling I had probably retained the high moral ground.

Of course, there are a couple of downsides to all this. One is that, as a result of my civilised inertia, Hitchens remained completely oblivious to the soul-searching and victory of liberal thought to which he was a party. The other is that, as a result of all this, the last time I met someone I genuinely admire, we ended up having a mild row, while the last time I encountered someone I heartily dislike we went our separate ways without him being at all perturbed or rattled in his objectionable worldview. It isn’t easy being the good guy, I suppose.

P.S. A bit later: It occurs to me that even publishing this piece gives Peter Hitchens ample material for an item in his column along the lines of ‘Smug Lefty believes showing basic good manners are grounds for considering oneself superior’. You just can’t win with some people I suppose. Maybe I should have lamped him or just called him names after all.  

 

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