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Vanity Fair’s Christopher Hitchens on Christianity’s handling of slavery in history, and a whole lot of shaking going on in Iran?

Thursday, February 8, 2007
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HH: We begin as we do most Wednesdays when we are lucky with Christopher Hitchens, columnist for Vanity Fair. Mr. Hitchens, welcome back.

CH: Nice to be asked again.

HH: Now were you a Cambridge or an Oxford guy?

CH: Oxford.

HH: And so…

CH: Can’t you tell?

HH: Well, I don’t know. Wilberforce was Cambridge. I was trying to make a connection there. Do you much admire William Wilberforce?

CH: Very greatly, yes.

HH: Why?

CH: Well, he was one of the great Englishmen, and he shamed, among others, the United States by getting the British empire to get rid of slavery before you did.

HH: A man of great, deep faith, though.

CH: No question about it. Many of those who were anti-slavers were motivated by faith, though of course, so was slavery sustained by religion for most of its existence, and it still is.

HH: But driven out of existence by abolitionists who were primarily Christians in the United States and in England.

CH: No, not primarily. That would not be true of the founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society, for example. It wouldn’t be true of Thomas Paine. I don’t think it would be true of Benjamin Franklin, who was another member.

HH: But certainly true about John Wolman, the first anti-slavery activist of great repute.

CH: But as far as we know, it’s a very interesting question that you raise, actually, because slavery, for most of its existence, was, as you know, justified, Biblically, and is justifiable, Biblically, because the warrant for it does exist in those old books. The first time we know of that there was a religious petition against it was from the Mennonites of Pennsylvania in the 18th Century, the first time anyone ever said anything against it. And all the Churches at the time, as all the Islamic authorities who were operating the other side of the trade in Africa, justified it from their holy books. So if you want to have it one way, you have to be prepared to admit it on the other. They were helping to undo the damage they’d originally inflicted, and of those, for example, William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of The Liberator, began as an extreme Calvinist. This is a bit later in the game in America, but he began as an extreme Calvinist who said that the Constitution of the United States, and the Union itself was a covenant with death and should be swept away in blood and fire.

HH: Now of course today in the world…

CH: He later became a humanist, and an admirer of Paine.

HH: Today in the world, there are more enslaved people than there were at the time of Wilberforce, and Christianity, of course, condemns that everywhere, does it not?

CH: As far as I know, yes. I mean, I know that many Evangelical Christians have been very much to the front in condemning slavery in Africa, and people trafficking, which is one of its modern forms…

HH: Yes.

CH: And in most places where it now occurs legally in Africa, it’s justified by the Koran.

HH: Now let me ask you something. Which college at Oxford were you?

CH: Balliol.

HH: And what is the difference nowadays between Oxford and Cambridge?

CH: Well, the traditional difference was always that Oxford was less interested in science. I mean, Darwin was a Cambridge man, the atom was split in Cambridge, John Maynard Keynes was at Cambridge. The sciences…

HH: We’re not going to hold that against them.

CH: The scientific on the modern side, if you like, were a bit more emphasized in Cambridge. Oxford was always more to do with history and classics. This is a very rough distinction, and was, of course, it was King Charles I’s capital for a while during the civil war. It was the home of royalism, tradition, often known as the home of lost causes. Oxford’s sort of more Quixotic, more reactionary, Cambridge a bit more brisk…

HH: Is that why you chose Oxford over Cambridge?

CH: Well, I was very lucky. I was at…my boarding school was in Cambridge. I was at a Methodist boarding school there between the ages of 13 and 17, and so I saw a lot of Cambridge, and after that, decided that I’d rather apply to go to university in Oxford, not because I wanted to get out of Cambridge, but because I thought if I was lucky, I’d get it both ways, which I did.

HH: Now how old are you?

CH: I will be 58 this year.

HH: So when you were in secondary school, public school, was it still the sort of horrific sort of bullying places that we’ve read so much about? Or was it rather civilized?

CH: I think I was lucky in being at a school…it was all male, it was boarding, it was illegal to have any conversation with a female in the town, for example, and punishable, and you had to go, you were forced to go to Chapel every day, and all that kind of thing, but because it was in the city, not out on some terrible heath or moor, and because a lot of the masters were part time dons at the university, it was quite enlightened. And the Methodist tradition doesn’t emphasize as much as the Church of England thinks like being in the cadet corps, or empire building, or violence games of football and cricket, that sort of thing.

HH: Last question, before we go to Iran.

CH: And to answer the question that you deliberately, carefully, rather sweetly didn’t ask, you didn’t absolutely have to subject yourself to homosexual rape.

HH: (laughing) I didn’t imply that question. No, what I…

CH: But the option was always there.

HH: (laughing) I’m sure it was. I actually have very little interest in that.

CH: And there wasn’t that much flogging, but there was still enough to go around.

HH: What did you think about, through your hour of Chapel a day?

CH: Well, I made…I took advantage of the opportunity to study the two Testaments, and the Cranmer Prayer Book, and the King James version, of course.

HH: And so do you have a favorite book of the Gospels, or of the New Testament or Old?

CH: Oh, the Old, it would be the book of Job as I was very amused to see how Dean answered when he was asked what his favorite New Testament book was (laughing).

HH: (laughing)

CH: Do you remember that?

HH: Yes, I do. It was…

CH: I remember thinking that’s funny, but how anyone could think it was in the New Testament made me…there was in there…in the King James version, there’s wonderful literary value, among other things. And where it says in the book of Job, Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward, I remember that stayed in my mind, and St. Paul’s epistle to the Philippians, of the New. But most of it, I decided was the most awful sinister nonsense.

HH: Yeah, well someday, like John Newton, perhaps, the scales will drop. Christopher Hitchens, in Iran, a game is being played out in Baghdad there. One of their senior ministers has been snatched. There’s some speculation that we put someone up to it. We’ve denied that. What is going on with Iran right now? What ought we to be thinking about their new deployment of centrifuges at Natanz in large numbers?

CH: Well, one thing to think about that is something that hardly ever gets mentioned, which is the following. Ask any seismologist you like. Iran has a huge earthquake coming sometime in the next few years. We don’t know exactly when, of course, but we know, we can study these faults and these fault lines quite well, and Iran is very, very high on the list for a very, very major earthquake. It will be a gigantic tragedy when it hits, by the way, because as someone who’s been in Tehran, I can tell you there isn’t a single building there that’s up to code in any way. It’s a mess of traffic jams and corruption. It’s built on a spider web of faults. I mention this because when it hits, the fact that there’ll be underground nuclear facilities will be not the least of the problem, and no one’s doing enough thinking about this, and I think it should be up to the United States government to say something in public, to the world, and to the Iranian people, saying that’s not an internal affair for you. This is going to concern us all, and we know about seismology, and indeed how to protect against earthquakes. And the time to start talking about this would be now. It would be yet another way to speaking directly to the people of Persia, over the heads of the lunatics who currently rule them.

HH: Have you read Thomas P.M. Barnett’s The Pentagon’s New Map?

CH: No, I’ve not, I’m sorry to say.

HH: Fantastic book, well and widely influential inside the Pentagon. He argues on this program and in the book that Iran is in fact close to collapse, we just have to push it in the right way. Do you agree with that? The Iranian regime?

CH: Well, I had the same experience as every other reporter and diplomat I’ve talked to who’s been there when I was there, which is you don’t have to even try on the street to get into conversation with Iranians who come up to you and say how much they can’t stand the mullahs, how well they understand that their country is being run into ruin and beggary and backwardness by them, and how much they would like to have a real election instead of a phony one, and how much they would like to have the American embassy in Tehran reopen. That’s a very, very common thing. Most…I won’t say most Iranians have a direct relative outside the country or in the United States, but almost everybody has at least a cousin, and they’re in touch with them, and they know what’s going on. It’s not like Iraq or North Korea. They know what they’re missing, if you see what I mean.

HH: Right.

CH: And I think that that is our secret weapon in this confrontation. The big disappointment to me, well, it’s not the only one, but of the Iraq expedition was I hoped, I still do, that getting rid of a totalitarian slum next door, mainly with a Shia population, would have a positive effect by producing democratic ferment on Iran. And by the way, I think in the long run, that’s not a totally futile law or a romantic belief.

HH: No, it may yet happen.

CH: At present, though, the people taking most advantage of the disorder are the Iranian, pro-Iranian militias. But they may not be the only ones to have a say in this.

HH: And who do you think is going to prevail in the civil war on the West Bank? Hamas or Fatah?

CH: A lot of…that depends a bit on Iran, too, because bizarrely, given the ideology of Hamas, and also of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is a Sunni one with some sympathy for Wahabist sort of ideology. At the moment, their armorer, because they’ve lost Iraq, among other patrons, has become Iran. I don’t think that’s a very stable relationship for them to be having, and I think the Sunni-Shia schism will fully replicate itself a bit in that area. But the…I’m afraid the main strength of Fatah is its simply institutional patronage, machine-style.

HH: So you’re going to bet on Hamas?

CH: …existence which I mean, Hamas, at least people who join Hamas are doing so because they’re highly motivated. They’re zealots. People who join the front intend to do it because they want a job. In a race between the two, usually, the zealots win.

HH: Christopher Hitchens of Vanity Fair, always a pleasure. Look forward to talking to you again soon.

End of interview.

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