Monday, December 12, 2016

Losing Patience with Peter Hitchens

The British traditionalist conservative Peter Hitchens used to be one of my big heroes, but I'm finding myself losing patience with him, and visiting his blog much less often.

Here is a recent interview he gave, which helped confirm me in my sense of frustration. 

In discussing God, Mr. Hitchens repeats the same thing he has repeated for years-- that there is no way of proving the existence of God either way, and that everybody just has to decide whether they would rather live in a universe with purpose and meaning or "a cosmic car crash".

Mr. Hitchens has admitted he has no head for theology, but he's still willing to dismiss theological and philosophical arguments on the demonstrability of God's existence which have taxed the wits of some of the greatest minds in history.

Personally, I believe the demands Christianity makes of us can't be predicted on a 'maybe' or a leap of faith alone. Thankfully, the Catholic Church has decreed that: "God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason". (And so He can. I personally find the argument from contingency completely convincing.)

Lyrical evocations of Evensong in chilly old cathedrals are worthless, if you ultimately can't affirm the existence of God.

He also discusses Brexit in the interview. (Mr. Hitchens refuses to use the term Brexit, just as he refers to Christmas as 'the Feast of the Nativity' and refers to John Le Carré by his real name, David Cornwell-- it all seems rather fussy and pedantic.) Hitchens has been calling for Britain's secession from the EU for many years, but admits to not having voted in the recent referendum on that subject, said he is against referenda in the UK on principle, and wishes instead that a parliamentary majority in favour of leaving had passed the necessary legislation.

That was never going to happen. The political classes and the media are so incorrigibly Europhile (in particular) and supranationalist (in general) that the only way Brexit even had a hope of coming about was in one unexpected, knock-out punch.

Hitchens predicted a constitutional crisis would be the result of the Brexit vote, and it's looking as though he was right, or almost right. He has also predicted that Britain will end up "half out" of Europe, rather than "half in" as it had been.

That's all very lofty and perceptive. But I can't help seeing the Brexit vote as something much bigger than the mechanism whereby Britain (possibly) leaves the EU. It was a spanner in the works of globalisation, just as globalisation was beginning to seem unstoppable. Peter Hitchens as a patriot should have been cheering. And voting. He should have had much higher praise for Nigel Farage, too, who achieved a sensational victory almost single-handed.

Hitchens always seems to be overcome with scruples, or doubts, at the critical moment. But that seems to me to end only in an agnostic, cultured fatalism.

Written a little later: Well, this post itself is somewhat querelous. I still have enormous admiration for Peter Hitchens, especially his tenderness for tradition and the importance he places on poetry. But his tendency to give way just at the moment he should hold firm is maddening.


  1. I'm a fellow-admirer of Peter Hitchens: of his bold defence of causes I support and of his deft command of the English language (he lavishes a page with prose as one might butter a slice of toast). I remember when I first came across his robust defence of marriage, his skewering of secularism, his frank vignettes of old England (see the first chapter of 'The Abolition of Britain'); perhaps most of all his finely-tuned observations of modern Britain: tiny details of language, manners, mannerisms, etiquette and so on, all proof of the change that has overtaken Britain. I realised that I was astonished to hear such views, which I had thought myself with which I altogether agreed, expressed in public like that, and immediately afterwards astonished at my own astonishment.

    I think he's often blunt where he needn't be, and I don't agree with him all the time by any means, but that would be precisely what he doesn't want. I think he is determined to be his own man. He is keen to avoid being co-opted or appropriated by various groups, even as he presents unparryable defences of their causes. It gives him rhetorical strength: if he can't be lumped in with the UKIP, or NIMBYs, or churchgoers, he can't be dismissed so easily. But whether he, or anybody, should employ this technique when it comes to his religious faith I don't know. I still treasure this moment, which (given the hostile audience) I think is one of the most courageous remarks I have ever heard him make:

    Thank you, by the way, for reminding me that "the only way Brexit even had a hope of coming about was in one unexpected, knock-out punch." Of course that's true. I think I'm the only person in Britain who had real trouble deciding which way to vote, and who doesn't know what to think of the result! It's good to read a sympathetic comment from an outside perspective.

  2. I had the same sense of relieved joy when I read The Abolition of Britain and realised somebody else cared about the stuff I care about, and lamented the things I lament. I also love his prose. But the problem is that this independent-mindedness of his becomes, I think, a form of self-indulgence when it reaches the stage that it's reached with him. Ultimately you have to stand for something, and not just criticize.