During a recent exchange with a good friend, I criticised Sam Harris for the logic that he employed to form his position on the longstanding conflict in Israel. You can read my thoughts on that here: https://orbitalmick.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/sam-harriss-inexplicable-defence-of-israel/
As we conversed about what makes a good thinker, I posited that Harris could not be classed as such because of the degrees of intellectual dishonesty and/or willful ignorance that permeate his position on Israel. Although I agree with Harris more than with Peter Hitchens on virtually every topic, I consider Hitchens the superior thinker. In The Abolition of Britain, the logic, facts and reasoning that he uses to reach his opinion are beyond reproach. Each topic is expertly argued and backed up with copious relevant facts and statistics.
Disclaimer: Hitchens writes about British society and, being Irish, I do not have a deep knowledge of the United Kingdom. However, some of the observations here are applicable to Irish society. One of Hitchens’ central conclusions is that “government has supplanted God and can solve all dissensions”, which is difficult to argue against: the postmodern division of people into social structures has resulted in the focus being taken off the individual. Writing in 2003, at a time when he was warning of the dangers of the UK becoming embroiled in the disastrous Iraq war, Hitchens characterises the modern leftist movement as having learnt to “leave the institution standing…but revolutionise its culture by more subtle means. Such an approach allows the left to win elections while appearing to be conservative”. This astute observation reminds me of Chomsky’s description in Who Rules the World? of how the, supposedly, leftist Bill Clinton “outflanked George H.W. Bush from the right” in the 1992 US presidential election.
Hitchens questions whether prisons should be there to punish or to serve as punishment in and of themselves, especially when violent, modern criminals and terrorists can use force, but the state cannot. Is society tough enough on criminals? “The convicted criminal should suffer for his crime and be known to suffer…he should do hard physical work…picking up litter” and lose other rights, such as access to a telephone. It is difficult to argue with Hitchens here, as the balance has shifted towards the rights of the prisoners and not the innocent people who rely on an effective justice system to ensure that their personal liberty is protected. Hitchens is also incisive on the lax reasons that society has begun accepting from offenders. “Criminals do not offend against their fellow human beings because they have too little self-esteem but because they have too much,” he writes, and it is absolutely true. All too frequently, we observe the social status of criminals paraded as a mitigating factor when faced with the consequences of their crimes. The obvious problem here is that once you let a social structure, be it class or any other, justify immoral actions, then it will lead a wholescale, mass “understanding”, or worse, justification, of crime which is exactly what has transpired. Hitchens writes of the experience that the great Bertrand Russell had whilst in prison for six months in 1918: Russell memorably said “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable”, and it was an example of exactly whom society should not have aimed prisons at – namely famous intellectuals. If we cater for this type of prisoner, which is increasingly what has happened, then we eliminate the deterrent for would-be offenders.
In calling for a complete “remoralisation of society” Hitchens notes that prison conditions were softened up as “the kitchens had already adapted to the twenty-first century’s fads and necessities, with two kinds of vegetarian and one vegan menu”. I am not so sure that I would describe opting out of the mass torture and slaughter of animals as a fad, given that they are routinely murdered in the cruellest, cheapest manner. People taking a principled stand against this abhorrent fact of modern life are to be commended because, as Peter Singer has written, “In suffering, animals are our equal”. Perhaps the modern prison system could teach the prisoners about the cruelty that we force these creatures to endure, which might increase their empathy for animals and inspire them to reconsider how they treat their fellow human beings. Hitchens believes that “vegetarian diets, anti-bullying campaigns and therapy cannot be the right answer”. The references remind one of Trotsky’s sneering attitude to the topic in Terrorism and Communism when he wrote that “we were never concerned with the Kantian, priestly and vegetarian Quaker prattle about the sacredness of human life”. Educating prisoners about the cruelty we dole out to animals may just lead to a more peaceful existence on our planet.
The Abolition of Liberty is highly informative. For instance, I was familiar with the term “Screw” but not its interesting etymology: “Between 1895 and 1921 Ruggles-Brise made great changes in the local prisons, where most minor offenders then served their terms. When he took charge, convicts still had to turn useless cranks, slowly grinding stone to powder, in their cells. These cranks could be set tighter or looser by a screw on the outside of a cell-hence the name “Screw” still given to prison officers”. I also enjoyed learning that the menial prison task of “oakum-picking”, the pulling and fraying of pieces of old rope to form mattress-stuffing fibre, begat the expression “money for old rope”.
Hitchens holds the introduction of ID cards in 1940 as an example of the British state intruding too far on the individual liberty of its citizens. It is a topical subject in Ireland, as our government seeks to introduce a not-dissimilar form of national identity card. Since the book’s publication in 2003, the need for the state to justify itself is even greater, given the increased digitisation of our lives. The less information a state has about its citizens the better it is for all concerned. ID cards were initially introduced to enforce conscription in the United Kingdom and Hitchens makes the salient point that nobody ever asked the question about what use the Germans would have made of the ID cards if they had won the war! Many of us in peaceful Western democracies have come to view the state as a benevolent actor yet what if it ceased to be so and used its increased power it has against us? Hitchens’ words ring true today as I ponder Ireland’s unnecessary dabbling with ID cards: “The real reason for the introduction of cards had always been the state’s natural instinct to increase its power over the people at every opportunity”. Think of what Snowden uncovered about what the US – and the UK- governments were doing with the digital information that they had acquired. The state has to justify any increase in the power that it wants. With ID cards, Hitchens is correct and the burden cannot be carried. When they were abolished in 1952, the “English love of privacy (which) separated us from most of our continental neighbours” was reintroduced. “The temptation to use information improperly is great, and is best limited by making sure that those who hold it know as little as possible”. These crucial words bring to mind the corruption in Ireland in 2017 when members of the Gardaí tried to smear a whistle-blower with false accusations. Why on earth would we give our government more unnecessary power? In the digital (or any) age, it is not a risk that citizens in a free society should take.
Hitchens remarks on the incredible increase in reported crime, from 103,000 cases in 1921 to 5,200,000 in 2001. This is an astronomical escalation, even when one accounts for pretty well any possible variable one can think of. Hitchens believes the increase is in part down to society treating its criminals too well, stating that the “single most serious mistake made by modern democracies is to imagine that criminality can be contained or discouraged by being more considerate or kinder to criminals” and that “by sucking all personal responsibility out of the population” it has made criminality a matter of fortune and not “self-discipline”. Once this takes place, he writes, the left will inevitably “reach increasingly for the crude bludgeons of authoritarian rule, curfews, surveillance, confiscations, and limitations on the liberties of all to control the licence of a criminal few”.
Hitchens also deems the British courts too lenient. In the United Kingdom in 1999, 7,000 of the 37,000 convicted of burglary were let off with a warning and it is obvious that “too many laws and regulations give privileges to defendants”. This is evident in Ireland, too, and it is a change that has taken place surreptitiously, which nobody seems to have considered may not be in our collective best interests. In 1901, the United Kingdom’s population was 32,000,000 with a police force of 42,000. In 1991 the population was 50,000,000 with a police force of 125,000. Consequently, the police force had the requisite numbers to do the job. However, Hitchens diagnoses the British police force as having lost its way. He contends that although it was established in 1829 to prevent and deter crime, this has evolved to merely responding to crime after the fact rather than attempting to stop it in the first place. I cannot disagree. On a micro scale, I have some experience in the area as I work in retail. Prevention is absolutely the correct strategy. That the British people did not even get a chance to vote on such a momentous change in direction speaks volumes for how clandestine some gigantic changes in society truly are. Hitchens believes that when the British Police force began to hire more female officers and university graduates that this accelerated the philosophy of reactive non-engagement with the public, as the physicality of being a nasty old bruiser on the beat was gone, and that this resulted in criminals being undeterred. Specifically, Hitchens notes that this change “nurtured the idea that the police are mainly a detective and record keeping organisation, rather than an active prevention force” and that it changed the police force into being more elitist than was necessary. Hitchens coins a great term for this new reactive style: “Fire brigade policing”, which is accurate when considering the effect that it had. I disagree with Hitchens on the number of female officers because equality of opportunity is essential in a fair society. However, I take his point that any officer, male or female, needs to be on the beat and physically capable of deterring crime.
On the modern epidemic on the crime of drug taking, Hitchens writes that “This feeble (non-enforcement) approach to the drug issue is yet another result of the elite’s rejection of absolute right and wrong”. The word “elite” here implies that it is only a tiny minority who consider taking drugs an acceptable form of recreation. I disagree as it is evident that thousands of people take drugs every weekend. Hitchens argues that this is as a result of lax enforcement. This is true to an extent, yet the demand for drugs is similar to that of alcohol, cigarettes and unhealthy foods. It is an economic fact that where there is a demand there will be a supply. At present this supply is illegal but enforcement will not stop it. Moreover, why does the state have the right to dictate what substances people should take? If you truly believe in personal liberty, then you have to accept that the state does not have a right to make this moral decision on your behalf. Legalise, regulate and tax drugs. Nothing will change until we accept that the demand is there and will not go away. One country that I have visited that does regulate the supply of drugs effectively is Japan but, again, it is a question of how much demand is stymied. On the flip side, Hitchens raises the excellent point that drug users steal to fund their drug habits, which causes an increase in crime. This is true. I suggest we get tougher on the actual criminality. Personal liberty is acceptable up until the point that somebody takes another individuals liberty. Hitchens writes that “Drugs are the enemy of the moral society in which effort is rewarded by exaltation and success in this world” because they rob people of their ambitions. Again, there is a lot of truth to this idea, but it is possible to use drugs occasionally and recreationally as part of a sensible and moral life.
Hitchens uses Alaska’s 1990 overthrowing of the previous 1975 legalisation which decriminalised cannabis as proof that it did not work for them. Fair point. He cites John Stuart Mill’s idea that freedom should not stretch to include that which harms, which is true. However, the key point is who gets to decide what harms us? Only the people in a sovereign nation-state can, nobody else. Most certainly, the state cannot make this moral decision on our behalf without first consulting the people.
“It is the state that is answerable to us,” writes Hitchens, and I stand in full agreement. He quotes Orwell’s excellent insight that “all of us have private things we wish to hide” as proof that the state should not intrude too far in the lives of its citizens. It is immensely refreshing to read somebody who thinks cogently and deeply about his positions and who does not conform to the general groupthink so prevalent in modern liberal democracies. As evolution naturally stretches and reinvents the fabric of society, Hitchens notes that “change was generally seen as good, new automatically better than old”. This is far from an idle point: all major changes should be thoroughly examined before being introduced. When we fail to do this then we will end up with the debacles such as the current one in the United Kingdom where “the police have permanently withdrawn from the streets and are unable to detect or prosecute most crimes”. In no society, now or in the future, will this be successful. We need to think critically and decide together, in a democratic fashion, about which direction we want society to move in.