UPDATE: Note that Peter Hitchens himself has responded to this post, somewhat acrimoniously, at this link in the comments below. He’s not banned or anything, so feel free to address his remarks. Maybe he’ll respond; who knows?
Here’s an interesting—and acrimonious—conversation between Maajid Nawaz, who apparently has a program on Britain’s LBC Radio, and journalist Peter Hitchens (brother of You Know Who). Go to the link to hear the 9 minutes of bluster and yelling—almost all of it from Hitchens—or hear it on YouTube, without only the audio, here.) The topic is marijuana, and before Hitchens and Nawaz got into the fracas, Nawaz had expressed the opinion that marijuana should be legalized (see video at bottom of the page at the first link).
I didn’t know that Peter Hitchens was stringently against drugs, including marijuana, which he says in this interview is clearly connected with mental illness and should remain illegal. He calls it a “legal poison”—just like alcohol and tobacco.
Nawaz then asks him the obvious question, “In your opinion, how do you distinguish the health risks that are related to alcohol, and the social costs of alcohol consumption, versus marijuana?” For it’s clear that whatever “damage” marijuana does (and I don’t know about the clear connection to mental illness asserted by Hitchens), the social and medical consequences of alcohol use are much more severe. Hitchens’s response is that once the genie is out of the bottle—once alcohol is legal, as it is—then you can’t ban it any more. Hitchens says as well that if alcohol hadn’t been legalized, he would have banned that as well! Imagine, no pubs and no pints! What a dour and unempathic killjoy!
To that statement I would have replied (and maybe Nawaz doesn’t know this), that the U.S. did ban alcohol after it had been in use for several centuries: the Prohibition experiment that lasted from 1920-1933. It was a dismal failure, and perhaps Hitchens would argue that it was doomed to fail because people already were aware of the benefits of alcohol. But we also know about the benefits of marijuana, and prohibition hasn’t worked there, either. That’s why it will gradually become legal all over America. If Hitchens is right, on the other hand, we can expect an epidemic of mental illness in Colorado and Oregon, two states where public purchase of marijuana for recreational use is legal.
Nawaz, who (in contrast to Hitchens) keeps his cool, finally loses it at about 7:30 when Hitchens says that “cynical businessmen” who market alcohol and tobacco are even worse than gangsters. That’s simple hyperbole.
I have a few points to make about Peter Hitchens. The first is that there’s a remarkable similarity between his voice and his style of rhetoric and those of his late brother Christopher. I don’t know if this reflects genetics, a common environment (likely both, since they’re brothers), or Peter’s conscious adoption of his brother’s style. Regardless, it’s a bit eerie to hear crazy conservative sentiments being expressed in a voice we’re used to for touting atheism, rationality, and, of course, Mr. Walker’s amber restorative.
Second, digging a bit deeper into Peter Hitchens and drugs (he’s apparently written a book I’ve not read), I found out that he and Russell Brand used to have very similar dustups (see here, for instance). Brand sees abuse as a form of illness that shouldn’t be criminalized. Peter Hitchens sees it as a “crime”, something that people do voluntarily, and that users should simply be clapped in jail. In fact, Hitchens says at 8:35 in the interview, “The very word ‘addiction’ assumes that the person involved has no no free will.” But he thinks people have free will, so “addiction” isn’t a real phenomenon. Hitchens clearly has no idea about the physiological and psychological bases of addiction.
Now think about the “free will” argument against addiction and for jailing. Hitchens isn’t espousing “compatibilist” free will here; he’s espousing a purely dualistic and libertarian free will. And if you think that those who believe in libertarian free will do no harm to society, there’s your counterexample.
Hitchens sees drug use as a “bad choice” that someone makes, and instead of being treated, they should go straight to jail. A determinist would argue against that, taking Brand’s side of the debate, and I think Brand is clearly right. Nobody makes a libertarian “choice” to use drugs, and recognizing that it’s the consequence of one’s genes and one’s environment breeds a lot more sympathy than Hitchens has.
It’s also clear that Hitchens’s view of punishing drug abusers is based on retribution: they made the wrong choice and should be punished for it, not treated! (To be fair, also sees incarceration for drug use as a deterrent, something that a determinist might contemplate—though I think a strong argument can be made for rehabilitation, perhaps in a locked hospital setting.)
Decca Aitkenhead, reviewing Hitchens’s drug book (The War We Never Fought) in the Guardian, and criticized it severely, also emphasizes the fallacy of Hitchens’s free-will argument:
Hitchens thinks there is no such thing as addiction? “No, it’s just laughable. I believe in free will. People take drugs because they enjoy it.” I agree that many people take drugs such as cannabis because they like it – but doesn’t he wonder why those same people would never dream of touching heroin? Happy, successful, stable people seldom inject smack, whereas most junkies suffered catastrophic childhoods, often in care and often abused. Doesn’t that tell us something critically important about the difference between drugs?
When I saw Hitchens’s view of free will and retribution, I immediately guessed that he was religious. And I was right about that, as I discovered from this video (I really don’t know much about Peter Hitchens except that he has a column in the Sunday Mail):
I still maintain that a). most people who believe in free will, as surveys show, are pure dualists, who think people “could have done otherwise”; and b). emphasizing determinism over dualism will have far more beneficial consequences for society than emphasizing that we have a form of free will compatible with determinism. Peter Hitchens’s vindictiveness shows that pretty clearly.
Finally, it’s clear that Peter Hitchens, besides being vindictive, is petty and jealous, perhaps because he was always in the shadow of his more famous—and more rational—older brother. Even after the exchange with Nawaz above, he couldn’t resist tw**ting at Nawaz, who immediately made him look petty.
After all, who listens to LBC, while Hitchens has a weekly column in Britain’s most widely-read newspaper. It’s still very strange that two brothers, both having British University educations, wound up so differently. Peter was even a Trotskyite Socialist at one point, and a member of the Labour Party at another. I’m curious whether any of his conservatism is simply a form of contrarianism—a reaction to Christopher’s views and success.