TALK REVIEW: Peter Hitchens @ Elmwood Hall
PETER Hitchens proved himself a man of immense charm and a master of rhetoric during his festival talk with local writer and broadcaster Malachi O’Doherty. That the Mail on Sunday columnist and author manages charm while also being an ultra-conservative contrarian is his rare gift. Hitchens expatiated on his sometimes borderline delusive and highly unpopular opinions: he believes, for example, there is no such thing as addiction - “you might as well believe in aliens” ; dismisses the widely accepted belief that depression is caused by a deficit of serotonin in the brain as “rubbish”; blithely declares that the homeless aren’t homeless but have simply been cast out of the family who should support them; maintains that he could carve a better political party than Cameron’s conservatives out of a banana; insists that Tony Blair was “illimitably stupid”; and is certain that cannabis is a disastrously dangerous drug. Much like his late brother Christopher, who became ever more passionate in his atheism as Peter became convinced of the existence of God, evermore left-wing and louche as Peter swung back to the right and clean living - Hitchen’s intellect fizzes with wit and momentary flashes of brilliance. But on the whole, and most unfortunately, Peter seems despairingly driven to defend terribly outmoded and often rather callous, staunchly-illiberal ideas. Promoting his latest book The War We Never Fought, which laments Britain’s lax drug laws and despairs that “the battle to halt the spread of mind-altering drugs is lost”, he denies any idea of addiction as intense physical craving or psychiatric illness; he is gobsmackingly defiant in going firmly against the grain of popular opinion, medical textbooks, the experiences of millions: only Peter knows the truth, it seems, and only Peter is right. His steadfast belief in free will leads him to believe that people simply take drugs because they enjoy it, not because they are addicted, and this decision to take drugs is a moral failing.
A committed Christian who returns repeatedly to the idea of what is moral, he yet appears to retain little Christian compassion for the poor, for drug addicts, for the plight of single mothers, broken families or women who make the agonising decision to have an abortion. He insists that a compassionate society would impose heavier penalties for those found in possession of even ‘soft’ drugs in an attempt at tough-yet-fatherly love.
The discussion swings from religion to the failings of the Tories to cannabis, the Second World War, Thatcher and Peter’s love of bread a little awkwardly, but overall this was a one-off, rather wonderful opportunity to witness a brilliant speaker holding forth - and he proves most entertaining even if, like me, you think a great deal of what he says is complete rubbish. The unfortunate truth is that while artful with his rhetorical flourishes and provocative pronouncements, Peter’s lines of reasoning are often astonishingly devoid of logic and consistency, full of huge gaping holes and packed with fallacies that would be embarrassing if encountered in an undergraduate philosophy essay never mind being advanced, in all seriousness, by a senior member of the commentariat.
For more information on events taking place as part of the Belfast Festival at Queen’s visit www.belfastfestival.com/