Tuesday 5 June 2012

Christopher Hitchens on "the prohibitionist mentality"

I'm very grateful to Brad Rodu for sending me the transcript of a speech given by Christopher Hitchens in 2004. The topic was tobacco harm reduction, but Hitchens spoke more generally about the individual's rights in a free society. It's a fascinating document and I trust Dr Rodu will not mind me reproducing it below (it has not been published before). I was particularly interested in his views about prohibition and the war on drugs which were, as so often, the opposite of his brother's. He also takes on the 'think of the children' argument which, as he says, is a recipe for infantilising us all. Also of interest are his views on addiction and smoking bans, as well as his response to the seemingly inevitable question of being a tobacco industry 'shill'.

Tobacco at the Crossroads: A Debate on the Ethics of Reduced Harm Products, Southern Methodist University, Saturday October 23, 2004

Keynote Speaker: Christopher Hitchens

SMU Staff: It is my great pleasure and honor to introduce to you today a well-received author, columnist and lecturer who has been a long-time contributing editor to the Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair to name a few. He majored in philosophy, politics and economics while studying at Oxford University where he received his diploma in 1970. He has written numerous books as well as was a critic for Newsday, and on several television shows such as Hardball. He will also be publishing a book this month of essays entitled Love, Poverty and War. It is such a privilege to have him here today to share with us his views on these exciting topics. So would you help me in welcoming Mr. Christopher Hitchens?

Mr. Christopher Hitchens: Bless you. Thank you, Chelsea, for that handsome introduction, and thank you ladies and gentlemen for coming. It was a special delight for me to find on my way in that someone has gone to all the trouble to put the First Amendment in stone on the wall. I only have it in poster form on my office door at home so I do see it every day but I think it should be incised in a lapidary manner on the wall of every university in this country and other institutions of higher learning, and it certainly has a bearing on the subject we met to discuss today. I am in the happy position of just having just finished a small book about Thomas Jefferson. And that’s meant I’ve had to spend a great deal of time reading again about the debates that went into the writing of the United States Constitution and its wonderful Bill of Rights and Amendments. And probably everyone has at one point or another had to wonder how it is that a mysterious and rather beautiful phrase appears in the preamble to that constitution. Up until then, all English, American and European reformists and liberals trying to establish the right of self-government over arbitrary power, whether monarchal or religious, had said that they wanted to defend life, liberty and property. This was the trinity, if you like, of political and intellectual reform in that epoch.

There’s a twist of genius, an X factor you might say, in the great substitution in our great founding document for property – the pursuit of happiness. One way this has to translate, I think, for the modern American is that the citizen can in no way be the property of the state, and that everyone has the right to go to Hell in their own way. What is undecided and unstipulated in the constitution after all, we know, is left to the citizen to decide, not the government. As you know, in a little while we will be getting very specific about harm reduction and different aspects of it, and I know I’m going to have a very educated panel. So I thought I would cut and erase this by saying something more general, perhaps, about the cultural climate in which we met to discuss all this. And I just have a couple of anecdotes of my own, which I hope will be illustrative.

I know this sounds like the opening of a bad joke. It is not. I was in a bar in Kentucky the other day. I asked for a drink and the barman said that would be fine but he would need to see my ID. I was partly flattered and partly insulted. I said to him are you serious? He said I’m very serious. No ID, no drink. So I said well, you must be joking. And he said are you trying to make me look stupid? And I said no, only you can do that, but why is this? He said it was zero tolerance; everyone had to show an ID. And I said come on. Finally, he took pity on me and said do you know why this is? And I said yes, I would like that. He said, well, our whole chain has had to take this policy because we were recently sued by a 70-year-old man asked for a drink and wasn’t asked for an ID, and he sued on the grounds of age discrimination. In other words, if he had been 18 he would have had to show an ID but if he 70, he didn’t. What could be more discriminating than that? And I said, and you are telling me that the courts upheld that suit, aren’t you? He said, that’s right. That’s what they did. Yes. So that’s why we are doing this.

Well, my next item. I wrote a short book about Mother Theresa not long ago, and I called it – some people will think this bad taste – I called it The Missionary Position. It’s not bad taste at all. It’s about religion in India and that’s why I didn’t call it Sacred Cow, which might have been bad taste. But when it was made into a motion picture, a documentary, which it was, to my annoyance the company that made it called it Hell’s Angel, which I thought was definitely clutsy. But, anyway, that is highly irrelevant except I went to the University of Rochester, New York to show the film at a festival and there was quite a big protest outside by some devout people who thought I had been profane. And I walked through the crowd, and there was this gang being held back by a cordon yelling at me and waving. And they were kind of hairy and leathery and greasy. My penny hasn’t dropped. Perhaps yours has. And I went over and said, Gentlemen, was it me you were looking for? And they handed me a piece of paper. It was a writ I was served just there, and it was the Hell’s Angels Chapter of Upstate New York suing me for breach of copyright. And I said, was that it? And they said ya; you got the writ, read it. And they got on their bikes and rode away, and I thought it’s finally happened. Everyone in America is now a lawyer.

You see where I am going with this. Everywhere I go, whether I’m trying to be a critic, a lecturer or just trying to buy a drink between engagements or just have a sustaining cigarette, there is someone who knows better than me what’s good for me and who will bar my roads of pleasure, not just to the attainment of happiness but even as happiness as a pursuit and I’m beginning to resent it. And I’m hoping to evoke some of this resentment in you, too. You may find that you will become (?) by being forced to have an airbag in your car or a seatbelt or be unable to take a bicycle ride in some states without taking a helmet with you and putting it on. You won’t be able to take your children – I can’t any longer - in large parts of my hometown Washington, DC, to the swings because swings can be dangerous and if there aren’t enough warnings posted, a kid might fall off, burst into tears, and then someone would have a case against the makers of the swings. And this is beginning, as I say, to get me down just as it got me down being approached by legalized Hell’s Angels in Rochester, New York. 

Now there’s a man called Richard Carmona, whom you ought to know if you don’t, because he’s your Surgeon General. And he recently testified before Congress on the matter of harm reduction. If you have the packet, you can read what he says. There is a very interesting appendix to it and he wanted to say that there is no point in trying to make a better mousetrap, a less injurious cigarette or to (?) tobacco in a less harmful form; that would only be colluding with the racket that is big tobacco. It is not good for you to be told you have these options because there is someone who knows better than you about this, and for your own good will tell you that you can’t be told what your choices are because you might make the wrong one. This is the tone of voice, which I think one will want to resist.

If people can’t publicly advertise and campaign for and call attention to using their own money to give a wide range of money, then it is actually true that the First Amendment has been breached in more than one way – that should be self-evident – but what I object to most is the repeated use of the word kids in this propaganda. If you read the rest of the comment in this statement, I think he says kids several dozen times. There is a whole group called the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the address of this is to the children. I would prefer to say children because I think kids is a patronizing word for child, even a patronizing word for infant. But I noted the robotic way in which it is continually inserted into the argument. It seems to be that this robotic repetition is designed to do something rather, potentially at any rate, rather sinister; that is to say to infantilize the rest of us. We must all be treated as if we were all children who had to be protected from risk and harm. We are not allowed to grow up. The standard of safety of conduct of consumption must be regulated by the average child or kid to use the condescending term and not by the exercise of adult judgment by people who know that life consists of choices and that the freedom to make them consists of risks and that none of these freedoms would be available to us without the risk and danger that was undertaken in order to enshrine them, in this case happily in stone.

The direction I feel we are headed is this: the campaign to treat us all like children in matters of harm reduction and consumption of certain products is going to have all the glory and majesty and success as the war on drugs. That is where I think we are headed now. I think in almost every generation there is one superstition or barbarous practice or absurd, self-defeating policy that later people look back on and think what were they thinking; what was wrong with the human mentality in that epoch, witch burning, for example. The hunt for old ladies with cats as familiars with Satan and the public burning of same; it went on for a long time; slavery – that man could have property in man – that not even our Declaration of Independence or its first ten or so amendments had the nerve to undue – this was taken for granted; and the sale of alcohol, manufacture and consumption of alcohol illegal. Everybody knows that led or organized crime, to corruption, to violence, to every possible social ill, but at the time it seemed to be common sense. Those are the sorts of things we should be afraid of repeating, and I think most notably of all and the one we could do the most about and the swiftest – the prohibitionist mentality and prohibitionist legislation.

So, with that ladies and gentlemen, I hope I haven’t exhausted your patience, I look forward very much to getting real and specific with the panelists and as ever and as before, I’m very grateful for you coming. Thank you.

SMU Staff: Thank you, again, so much for your words, Mr. Hitchens. We are now going to invite the student representatives from each group to come forward and take a seat at our panel to ask more specific questions to Mr. Hitchens, and if we have time at the end we will also take questions from the floor. So would those students please come forward and take a seat up here.

Mr. Hitchens: I feel like a conductor without a baton, somehow. Who starts?

Audience Member: I guess one of the main concerns we had in our group was what was the FDA’s responsibility or what should it be in the regulation of the tobacco industry because if they do regulate it – nicotine is addictive – and if it is a drug and it is causing harmful things in the tobacco industry, how could they with their rules and regulations still allow it to be legal?

Mr. Hitchens: My position on this is simple. Humans have addictive streaks in their personality – most of them do - there will be something for everybody. I know that makes it sound like sex but its not meant to. Everybody does something. No one that I know has ever taken up cigarette smoking under the impression it is good for them. Most people, in fact, don’t even enjoy their first cigarette. I certainly didn’t. I remember where I was. It was actually that Methodist boarding school behind the bicycle sheds. But if you persist with it, it can be a great help to you; at least, it is to me. It helps me concentrate when I am writing. Nicotine has been shown to be good for short-term concentration. It also helps ward off Alzheimer’s disease, amazingly enough. I don’t see why it hasn’t got the right to publicize that. I don’t think there is any point in listing it as a narcotic, or supposing anyone that uses it is in need of any kind of treatment or advice from the government at all. I am a straight libertarian on this point. It is my business. I’m sure there will be a passive smoking question. Maybe I should wait until that comes. 

Audience Member: Excuse me, my question is this: AIDS and cancer we know the pharmaceutical companies are creating cures and research for creating cures for these types of illnesses or problems but our question is: is there any type of pill that will cure the addiction to smoking and should pharmaceutical companies take this initiative to enter into this field that could possibly turn into a billion dollar industry?

Mr. Hitchens: I don’t know if there is a type of pill. There are certainly various ways of kicking it if you want to. There are patches that give you nicotine but not into the lungs, as everyone knows. There are ways of using a lower intensity nicotine to chew or to snort snuff as well, which in some countries is legal but in a large number of European countries is not. In some places, as you know, it can’t even be advertised. No one I know who has succeeded in giving up has done it without the help of some kind of hypnosis, usual involving the use of another drug, but again, I don’t think it can be just swallowed. 

Audience Member: Should a victim of secondhand smoke be held responsible for being inflicted, or should those who created the secondhand smoke be held responsible? How do you pinpoint responsibility financially, the cost of inflicting upon someone else or yourself?

Mr. Hitchens: As you may know, there is a book by Jacob Solomon [sic - Sullum] who has been accused, I think falsely, of being a shill for big tobacco. He quite a clever libertarian author, also, saying that the science on secondhand smoking is junk, that there is no such thing as getting real disorders from anyone else’s smoke. And I believe, at any rate, that book deserves a better hearing than it has received. But I would rather not take my stand on that. I believe it is obviously noxious to some people. I know people who can’t bear to be around it and who become short of breath or get terrible headaches, for example. And that’s why I think it is perfectly right and defensible to ban cigarette smoking on, for example, airliners or anywhere else where people have to be or where they can’t escape it. But as you must have noticed, we have gotten to the point of prohibition and gone well beyond the protection of someone who doesn’t want to be exposed to smoke and its behavior modification for those who do. I’ll give you the easiest example of that, and for once I won’t use the example of a bar or restaurant. The Metro linertrain from Washington, DC to New York I used to take a lot and still do. It used to have a smoking car and it was the last car on the train. You didn’t have to go into it if you didn’t want to. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere. If you needed the men’s room or the ladies room or the club car or the restaurant car, you didn’t have to pass into this carriage but when you opened the door to that carriage you really felt like giving up, I’ve got to say. It was like the worst (?) in the history of the world. But, after bit you got used to it, and nobody likes a quitter, you know; we hung in there. Well, then it was decided we will take that car off the train. Now that’s just telling you if there is anything we can do to make your journey more miserable and less comfortable, please let us know. This has nothing to do with passive smoking it must be plain.

Audience Member: Do you think peer pressure is a factor in an individual’s decision to smoke, and if so do you believe there’s a problem with that and do you have any thoughts on stopping peer pressure from being that factor?

Mr. Hitchens: No, I know there is peer pressure because the people who are after me most to stop it are my children. And I try not to smoke around them in case the passive smoking does not turn out to be junk. I’m not going to use them as an experiment for that, obviously. So if I could have had the opportunity of rephrasing your question, I would say that peer pressure is probably the best kind because authoritarian pressure parental or pedagogic, very probably will be counter productive whereas a number of people give it up because they don’t identify with the sort of kids you who bring it on. 

Audience Member: Knowing that a product is addictive and that it is inevitably going to cause harm, how can you expect the people who do not engage in that act to pay for the things that will inevitably cause harm because smoking is addictive and nicotine is addictive?

Mr. Hitchens: Addiction I think, if I may say so, is moral rather than ethical judgment. It’s judgmental in that special extra sense. Human beings are addiction prone. Cravings of one sort or another will be satisfied. To call it an addiction is to borrow from the moralizing of the war on drugs where the addict is the object of either pity or hatred but it is presumed in some sense that he has lost control of his personal integrity. But I don’t think this is true at all so I don’t really accept the implied ethics of your question. And then I personally believe that if there weren’t access to alcohol and drugs there would be a great deal more suicide and a great deal more depression. I am absolutely certain of it, in fact. I don’t want to sound too utilitarian about this but if you are interested in the sharing of the greatest happiness in the greatest number and if you are interested in the moral, ethical and is seems also financial and provisional tradeoffs, then you’ve got to build them all in. And this argument so far has not done that, and I’m afraid your question doesn’t quite do it, if you don’t mind me saying so.

SMU Staff: We are now going to take a moment and thank you, panel, for your questions, and we are also going to give you, the audience, and an opportunity now to ask any questions you may have lingering.

Mr. Hitchens: I wouldn’t be hurt if there are questions, but I have to say I think the panelists you should applaud asked a fairly exhaustive amount of questions. Well done. But apparently not completely exhaustive. Boring repeat questions will be dealt with very strictly.

Audience Member: I was going to ask you what you would say to the few of us who are actually opposed to everything, smoking, drinking, drugs, all that.

Mr. Hitchens: What I’d say to you is how sorry I feel. You have no idea what you are missing. 

Audience Member: Mr. Hitchens, you have talked about that you get some benefits from smoking and I assume those are the benefits you get from the nicotine in the cigarettes and you are willing to trade that off for harm that comes from the tar and the carbon monoxide and the other things that are part of what is called the delivery system of getting nicotine from a cigarette rather than a patch. Our country also gets a lot of benefit from caffeine through drinking coffee. The rest of the stuff in the coffee doesn’t seem as harmful as the rest of the stuff in the cigarette smoke. And that is why I think there might be some distinction between the ethics regarding tobacco and caffeine. Would you not concede that if you could get those benefits from a way that wasn’t so harmful to yourself and other people that there would be nothing wrong with limiting nicotine intake that would not be so dangerous for the government or anybody else?

Mr. Hitchens: Well, you restate very well, if I may say so, the very ground that we were brought together to discuss today. What about it?

Audience Member: We haven’t discussed much.

Mr. Hitchens: No, but I was surprised there weren’t more questions about it, but I think because to most people it is self-evident, but it may be a dream that has been with us since Eden that if we could have all this without all that, which I think may be a sort of utopian illusion, myself. You know, the feeling that if only I could eat this and not get fat or never get fat or whatever, you know it is going to happen to everyone in the end. I have been down the road. I’ve had a look at this. No one comes out of this a winner I promise you. No one comes out ahead. It is taken care of but if you are just stopped somewhere, it can be a great insurance against boredom, and in my case against suicide. I think it helps short-term concentration and a great number of good writers wouldn’t have produced their good writing without it. John Paul Sartre, for example, who I think is a good writer, but he would have rather died than give up. He knew that was a choice. Well, how are you going to quantify being without his later work? I think it is worth the blathering of many Surgeon Generals myself.

Audience Member: Mr. Hitchens, thank you for being here today and being willing to take the opposite side of an issue. Credibility is very important, especially when you come before a group that is interested in ethics. It might help us to know where you are coming from with regards to financial remuneration. Are you supported or have you been supported by the tobacco industry to go out and take this position?

Mr. Hitchens: No, but I would happily receive money from them. I do this for a living and I have three children. I wouldn’t, unless the implication of what you say would be a matter of credibility was that I would say something that I don’t otherwise believe in order to attract money from a client desperate enough to solicit my services. I suppose I would have to think about taking offense if that’s what you meant, but I don’t believe that it was.

Audience Member: The question is not meant to be offensive. It is be appealing because you do stand before–

Mr. Hitchens: Full disclosure. You don’t have to explain what you mean, please, not to an audience of this intelligence. I feel sure, not yet, but if it is offered, I shant refuse it. I have written a number of articles, for example, defending smokers’ rights and tobacco manufacturers rights and never got a dime on the side for it so far. And I keep wondering why Johnny Walker Black doesn’t use me as an endorser because I keep mentioning the charms of the stuff. I do product placement quite often. And I feel out of full disclosure I should say what whiskey it is I drink. I haven’t even had a free bottle from them so far. But I don’t myself think there would be any shame in that unless someone was to say that I seem like a pushover or very easily bored but then I would have wasted my time with you wouldn’t I because I would have left you with the impression that I was that kind of chap. And if you can’t put yourself in the safekeeping of other people’s good opinion, then you have no self-respect to lose. Is this a present, because I’m not sure, and it isn’t.

SMU Staff: Thank you. We’d like to take one moment to thank you for your time, Mr. Hitchens, for your opinions, for your strong position, for taking the time to share with us. We have given you a little gift to you from us –

Mr. Hitchens: Oh, I am benefiting from it – thank you.

SMU Staff: So thank you ladies and gentlemen for one more round of applause.

Mr. Hitchens: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for having me.


Anonymous said...

Natter, natter, but this seems to be a crucial typo here:

"If people can’t publicly advertise and campaign for and call attention to using their own money to give a wide range of money,"

I think, in context, the last word there should be "choice."

And thank you for publishing this.


JJ said...

The words from the US Surgeon General about not trying to create safer cigarettes are clues to the real purpose of smoking bans...to protect the cigarette industry and its ingredient suppliers from astronomical liabilities for contaminating typical products with untested and known deadly substances.
That includes residues of any of hundreds of pesticides, dioxin-delivering chlorine pesticides and chlorine-bleached paper, burn accelerants, PO-210 radiation from certain phosphate fertilizers, and any number out of over 1000 untested and toxic non-tobacco additives....none of that labeled.

The bans serve to distract by blaming the unwitting, secretly-poisoned victims and the unpatented, public-domain tobacco plant.
Other beneficiaries of the smoke ban crusade are public officials who, perhaps for many decades, approved and enabled, and profited from, this mass poisoning and mass experimentation on people without Informed Consent.

Ample reference material can be found at http://fauxbacco.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Agreed, Walt; that stood out immediately for me, too:

"If people can’t publicly advertise and campaign for and call attention to using their own money to give a wide range of money,"

The second "money" might be choice, or perhaps "options".

Still, if it's been typed up by hand from audio it's generally a magnificent job; could be all too easy to type ahead and make an error like that.

That sentence on the face of it parses oddly too, but perhaps makes more conversational sense if one imagines a couple of commas, say:

"If people can’t publicly advertise and campaign for and call attention to, using their own money, to give a wide range of (?),"

Anyway, also: Thanks!!


Suboptimal Planet said...

Had Hitchens been hitting the Johnny Walker Black? I was expecting him to be more eloquent.

I suppose transcripts rarely read well.

What's truly shocking, though, is how inarticulate and incoherent the questions were, from the panel as well as the audience.

Is Southern Methodist University actually a special-needs school for lobotomised and highly indoctrinated teenagers?

neil craig said...

Om the matter of "kids" being used to support bannin g thjings.

In a newspaper letter I once used the term "using children as moral human shields" to describe someone doing so. I believe it was a quite effective description & think it is descriptive.

Anonymous said...

"...I seem like a pushover or very easily bored but then I would have wasted my time with you..."

I think there is a transcription error in there, a mis-hearing by whoever transcribed HItchens' British accent maybe? I think "bored" should be "bought"