Thursday 2 June 2011

That Peter Hitchens Debate

Forget the start of the cricket season, kids walking around in 'Class of 2011' hoodies, barbecues on sale in Tesco, and Grandma turning the central heating down to tropical, the new portent of summer is the first Voices of Freedom debate. So get yer half-lengths out lads, those lazy, hazy days have arrived!

A good one it was too, with jovial bonhomie and King Rat-esque cynicism equally represented at last night's IEA curtain-raiser.

The topic was "What are smokers' rights in a free society?", and most of the panel were of the opinion that there should at least be some. However, slouching with a pursed grin - not unlike Randall Boggs - was the panellist most attendees were there to see, and who some chose to avoid, Peter Hitchens. As expected, his opinion was quite the opposite but even so I think he surprised many with the depth of his tobacco dislike and the policies (and justification) he believed in.

Smoking, he asserted, is not a personal choice for the simple reason that you aren't in charge of your bodies at all. Those around you are. Got that? Oh come now, how hard is it to get your head around? You don't own you, other people do, and it's your duty to live life without tobacco.

He - a 'conservative' remember - wasn't thrown off course when other panel members asked if he believed smoking should be banned, either. He was of the opinion that yes, indeed, complete prohibition is a worthy goal to aim for. Because, you see, prohibition has had a bad press, and only the stupid believe that it hasn't worked before. Drug laws have been a failure because possession hasn't been an imprisonable offence since the sixties, according to Hitchens, and what we all term 'prohibition' in 1920s America wasn't that at all, it was merely a ban on manufacture and transport of alcohol, not possession. In fact, Hitchens put forward the view that it had actually been a roaring success as the US public became marginally healthier. The thousands who died of poisoning, and the murder and mayhem that came with an increase in organised crime were just collateral damage in a worthy, and successful, experiment.

He also spoke of the myth of persecution towards smokers, describing such a perception as "a failure of proportion", and tied it all up by rebutting the idea of car pollution being far worse an irritant by suggesting (hopefully in jest) curbs on driving to force people into cycling instead.

It was a real tour de force, on a par with our Phil's defence of CCTV, and Michael White's machine gun delivery of clichéd anti-libertarian fallacies last year.

But he still got a round of applause as he finished speaking, and checked that his tin helmet was securely fitted, because we're nice like that.

And the questions did, indeed, all end up being aimed at Hitchens. Amongst them your host who - having an idea that Hitchens may deny the fact that smokers are being bullied - came prepared with a few choice quotes from our Psychosis Catalogue. His slippery reply - which dodged the point of my raising the matter - was that government should have nothing to do with stopping those who attack smokers, just as there shouldn't be particular hate crimes against gays and muslims. That a crime is a crime and when an offence is committed it should be punished no matter the target. Of course, my point was that government shouldn't be encouraging such behaviour in the first place, which I pointed out to him later only to be fobbed off with another sleight of hand response.

But hey, that's what debate is meant to be all about, and the presence of Hitchens made for a lively and crackling evening. I shook his hand and, as far as I know, no-one actually called him a wanker that I know of. Quite a success.

Outside, I was rather honoured to be able to have a brief chat with another panellist, the delightfully genial Sir Ronald Harwood. I don't know how the conversation got round to Twitter, but he was baffled as to why so many people used it. I tried to explain that, for many, it's a great way of following and hearing from famous people ... though for someone who has won an Oscar for writing screenplays for mega stars and being knighted which - by definition - means he has met the Queen, perhaps he wouldn't have found that aspect overly appealing.

Still, he left with one of my cards so hopefully may pop in and browse here someday. And if he ever comments, you just watch how quickly "by appointment to the beknighted gentry" turns up as a sidebar alongside Philip's beaming mugshot.

The rest of the evening was spent outside a nearby pub chewing over what we had seen and heard, all of us clutching a copy of the Privacy International publication that was launched on the night (you can read it here, and good it is too).

I'm already looking forward to next week's debate, though I've promised myself to leave by ten at the latest to avoid the pleasant weather and company again seducing me into a situation where I am seeing two tube station entrances and hoping I guess the right one to walk through!


Vladimir said...

Hitchens is always an interesting chap to have at any debate. One small point, he's a small-c conservative. Gets quite upset if anyone calls him a Conservative, since he despises "the useless Tories".

nisakiman said...

"a situation where I am seeing two tube station entrances and hoping I guess the right one to walk through!"

That's easy. You take the right-hand entrance but with a bit of leftward bias. Works every time, believe me, I know. :¬))

You appear to have demonstrated remarkable aplomb where Hitchens was concerned. I must admit I would have been inclined to stamp on his bunions...

Dick Puddlecote said...

Cheers Vladimir, small c substituted for accuracy :)

Nisakiman: Tempting, but it would be churlish to be confrontational when someone has given great entertainment as well as highlighting the upper excesses of anti-smoking lunacy. At least he confirmed at one point that the concept of passive smoking is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Peter Hitchens is a very unusual fellow, but I cannot help but wonder if he doesn't adopt some absurd positions solely as an intellectual exercise. Almost as to say, I know this is ridiculous but look how mentally agile I am.

George Speller said...

"Hitchens put forward the view that it had actually been a roaring success as the US public became marginally healthier."

Incredibly the (surviving) population of Hiroshima was reported as being in better health after the bomb (due to all the care they got)

He'll be telling us next that 6 million didn't really die . . .

Scottie said...

"Smoking, he asserted, is not a personal choice for the simple reason that you aren't in charge of your bodies at all. Those around you are. Got that? Oh come now, how hard is it to get your head around? You don't own you, other people do, and it's your duty to live life without tobacco."

Do I understand he was referring to 2nd hand smoke in this argument?

If so that's a bit of an about turn from his viewpoint in the debate he took part in here...

Get it down you son

Dick Puddlecote said...

Scottie: No, he was referring to smoking in itself. He quite rightly dismisses the threat of second hand smoke.

Unknown said...

Nice to know DP that someone was on hand to put a question or three at that meating on behalf of us smokers. You have glanced over the whole night, understandably as there was a lot of debate going, but I look forward to reading a blow by blow account by the producers of the event.

Hope the after meeting pub event went well and you didn't feel to cold as you were forced outside for a ciggy. I will catch up with all the gos tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

Hitchens is someone I can't help respecting, or even grudgingly liking, despite the fact that I disagree with him on many issues.

I suppose it comes down to the fact that he's honest and open about his values (bonkers though they might be), unlike many people.

I'm able to agree to disagree with people (unlike many on the authoritarian left that I've met).

He might not exactly be my cup of tea, but he appears honest and well-meant, so I wouldn't mind going for a pint with him. Well...assuming that ethanol is still an acceptable drug to him, of course!

Trooper Thompson said...

Thanks for the report, Dick. I would like to have gone but had to attend a local meeting for local people. I will, however, endeavour to attend the next.

I'm not surprised at the line Hitchens took. The question I think he needs to answer is how his belief in English liberty ties in with his overtly authoritarian stance on drugs and fags.

I am Stan said...

"I shook his hand and, as far as I know, no-one actually called him a wanker that I know of."



Pat Nurse MA said...

Hitchens is a mental case. he should not be spouting his ridiculous views in a main stream newspaper and promoting the idea of hate - he should be locked up in a mental institution.

Freedom debates my arse. This issue is no longer about the ban and unless Forest sees that it is serving us very badly.

Vladimir said...

"I'm not surprised at the line Hitchens took. The question I think he needs to answer is how his belief in English liberty ties in with his overtly authoritarian stance on drugs and fags."

That is a very interesting question, revealing an apparent contradiction. If you have time, it's well worth reading through the Hitchens blog archive to find his answers. The "cannabis" keyword will produce the goods.

Civil liberties (as represented by drug legalisation/smoker's rights) were my own major point of disagreement with Hitchens for many years. But I never managed to find a logical fallacy or genuine contradiction to undermine his arguments. The best I could do was disagree with his monotheistic premise and its moral implications... and I think I'm on pretty shaky ground there.

DaveA said...

I think you will find that the reason for Peter Hitchen's recent dislike of smoking has come from the demise of his brother, Christopher. What I have read they are not particularly close, but he has cancer of the Oesophegus and was a heavy smoker and drinker.

Born in 1948 the science on smoking started off in 1954 with the Hill/Doll later Peto paper which first found the post Nazi link between smoking and cancer and was regularly updated until 2004. The American 1964 and 1967 Surgeon General's report said the same, last updated 2009 I think. Health warnings on cigarettes began in the USA in 1966 and the UK 1972.

It is unlikely Christopher Hitchens was unaware of the dangers.

Dick the Prick said...

Sounds like a good evening all in all. It does rather sound like Hitchens' was driveling a bit if other folks are in charge of us for smoking a plant - hmm, confused on that.

Jamtheman said...

What a nasty, hateful (in the literal sense) bigot Patsy Nurse is.

How someone can openly call for censorship and the locking up of a political opponent without shame makes my blood freeze.

Shame on her.

Pat Nurse MA said...

Jamtheman - you are right and I sincerely apologise having read back that comment posted in anger - but I tend to respond in ways that I feel are directed at me to make the pain as sharply felt in return.

day after day, someone like Hitchens is writing freely without restriction about his own (sudden in his case) smokerphobia which bears no relation to reality but does inspire a hatred of smokers and adds to the denormalisation plan to make us second class citizens.

Dave A - yes I read Christopher Hitchens' moving portrayal of his diagnosis and reaction to getting cancer. He was not as vindictive towards smokers or smoking as his brother is now and indeed was far more dignified than Peter and I in response.

And there we have a demonstrable example of how this trivial issue has become so divisive but I maintain smokers' right to be heard is still too unfairly overshadowed by the smokerphobes' right to silence us.

Anonymous said...

Here's what Christopher Hitchens said (post cancer) about smoking on a CSPAN (US) interview:

HITCHENS: So to answer your question, of course, I always knew that there’s a risk... and I decided to take it because whether it's an illusion or not-- I don’t think it is-- it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored, stopped other people being boring, to some extent, it would keep me awake, it would make me want the evening to go on longer, to prolong the conversation, to enhance the moment. If I was asked, would I do it again, the answer is probably yes, I’d have quit earlier, possibly, hoping to get away with the whole thing.

Easy for me to say, not very nice for my children to hear. It sounds irresponsible if I say yes, I’d do all that again to you. But the truth is it would be hypocritical of me to say no, I’d never touch the stuff if I’d known, because I did know, everyone knows. And I decided all of life is a wager, I’m going to wager on this bit. And I can’t make it come out any other way. It’s strange, I almost don’t even regret it, though I should. Because it’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine and other things fueling the company. And keeping me reading and traveling and energizing me. It worked for me. It really did.

Peter Thurgood said...

I have been away in Spain for a few weeks, or I would have commented on this earlier. When Simon Clark first said he was including Hitchens in this debate I wrote that I didn't agree that he should be invited - not so much because he is anti-smoking, but because he is anti-everything. Hitchens earns his money by being an anti-everything.

I have never read an article of his where he actually agrees with anything. Simon rebuked me for saying this, and said that we should be prepared to argue with the other side of the argument; OK that is fair enough, but Hitchens isn't the other side of our argument, he is just a person who wants to argue about anything and everything for the sake of arguing.

I have watched him on Question Time, and can anyone actually say what politics he is? He runs down Labour, knocks the Conservatives and rubbishes all the other parties. The only political opinions that he seems to have of his own are to be the opposite to everyone else.

There are many 'real' anti-smokers out there, whom I would love to hear included in a debate about smoking, Duncan Bannantyne for one - at least he is honest to himself, as hateful as he may be to my way of thinking, and especially the way he treats his own family regarding the issue of smoking.

If anyone had asked Hitchens just a year ago about his views on smoking, they would have got a completely different reply to the view he supposedly supports now. Then, when smokers were seen by the vast majority as being downtrodden, he decided to stand up for them. Now however, as more and more politicians, writers and social commentators are siding with the smokers, so Hitchens, once again, jumps on the 'opposition' bandwagon and states that he hates smokers etc etc.

Sorry to everyone who felt he put up a good argument, or thought he put up a good genuine argument, although I wasn't there, I have read much of the night's proceedings, as well as many of his boring articles, and Mr Hitchins is not the sort of person I would want to be in the company of - he is a fraud!