I have continued to be fascinated by the conversation between James Delingpole and Peter Hitchens that I was discussing yesterday. Picking up where I left off, about 9 minutes in;
JD: I can see why you believe in tough laws. You think that if something is wrong or poses a threat to public health then the government has a duty to eradicate it by any means.
PH: No, no, that’s a misunderstanding. I don’t believe in eradication. I’m not a utopian. I don’t think foolish or evil things can be eradicated from any human society. But it can be seriously discouraged and diminished. I believe for instance that the amount of domestic abuse will most certainly have gone up as the amount of alcohol consumed has risen. I think that’s a national evil, and we could have done something to reduce it, not prevent it. And I think that the consequences of any kind of use of marijuana are only just becoming known, appear to be serious, and it would be incredibly irresponsible at such a moment to abandon the laws against it. You used the phrase Tough Laws. If a law isn’t tough, it’s not a law. A law has to be enforced to be effective. We have laws, but we don’t enforce them.
JD: So my counter would be that I don’t idolise the law. I’m worried about the law. For me individual liberty is more important. And I think it’s a natural human instinct to desire altered states.
PH: Here I must interpose the words of Karl Marx: “No man fights freedom. He fights at most the freedom of others.” It’s absolutely true. All freedoms compete. And I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a right, because I don’t think that rights exist. But freedoms do, and the job of any civilised society is to make sure that one person’s freedom does not interfere too much in the freedoms of other people. That’s the best you can hope for. if we allow people the freedom to use mind-altering drugs on a large scale, we’d buy ourselves immediate membership of the third world. And the level of efficiency in almost every public service would be lowered. The level of safety likewise. Unless you were prepared – and if you were prepared to accept – to accept an immediate, draconian regime of drug testing from anything from driving school buses to performing surgery, leave alone just even driving lorries because otherwise you could not conceivably tolerate it, people would be permanently too high to do the jobs they’re expected. You would endanger so many people’s happiness.
JD: But this is just your Hitchens’ fantasy of all the terrible things that can go wrong…You’re not thinking all the pleasure … What about people’s pleasure in altered states?
PH: What about people’s pleasure in driving while drunk? You’re too young. I can remember relatives of mine saying I can drive perfectly happily while I’m drunk. It’s going to ruin my evenings having this breathalyser. The carnage that these people were causing as the price of their pleasure was atrocious. As soon as it was possible the law had to be brought in to reduce it, which it very successfully did, because it was enforced.
JD: Would you agree that you’re a puritan?
PH: Absolutely. I’m proud of being a puritan, but that makes me more unembarrassed about putting forward the ideas that I put forward, but the ideas I put forward would be just as rational in the mouth of somebody who was not a puritan.
JD: You never smoked weed or anything like that?
PH: I made attempts in my school. A very stupid and regrettable thing that I should never have done. I didn’t know what I was playing with.
JD: I see. You tried a bit of weed. You didn’t enjoy it. You drink at the most two glasses of wine. So it’s very easy for you to say that these things should be banned…
PH: I don’t care whether it’s easy for me to say it or not. The question is not whether I am a complete bastard or somebody who wants to ruin other people’s pleasure. It may well be that I’m all these things, and ugly to boot. The question remains: Am I right? And the answer to that is: Yes I am.
James Delingpole comes over as a very familiar figure to me: the pot smoker who likes altered states of mind. But Peter Hitchens regarded even his own attempts to smoke it as “stupid and regrettable”. And Hitchens is much more interesting to me because my experience is much more akin to Delingpole’s than Hitchens’, and I always find contrary views puzzling.
And Hitchens is, at very least, highly consistent. He lumps smoking and alcohol and marijuana together, as all posing menaces to society, and needing to be restricted by law. Open the gates to any of them, and society would collapse: we would become a third world country overnight. The efficiency and safety of everything would fall. People would be permanently too high to do their jobs. And so on.
Is this true? Is that really what would happen? And was there actually “carnage” on the roads of England before the drink-drive laws were enacted in 1965? I was a boy at the time, and I don’t remember feeling a intense sense of relief at the time that I would be able to now cross roads without fear of being run down by drunken car drivers. For I don’t remember seeing any of them. If there had been, wouldn’t it have been something that would have been a regular sight? Carloads of drunks in a ditch here, and other cars up against trees and lamp posts there, and maybe even a few floating down rivers where they had careered through bridge railings? I never saw any of it.
And if people get drunk, do they become completely incapable of controlling a motor vehicle? Not in my experience. In my experience they just become optimistic about their driving abilities. When I have driven while under the influence, I have noticed that I tend to drive faster, take corners faster, and so on. But I never once crashed a car while driving under the influence. I did once knock down a lamp post, driving a van after having had a few drinks in a pub. But that wasn’t because I was drunk, but rather that the van door unexpectedly swung open as we turned onto the carriageway from the pub car park, and I lost control of it as I reached out to pull the door shut. (I’m actually rather proud to have knocked down a lamp post, and regard it as something of a feather in my cap).
My guess is that the “carnage” was a yet another statistical construct. It was certainly not a matter of ordinary, everyday experience. And the roads of Britain did not become “safe spaces” the day the law was enacted. They remained just as dangerous as ever. You still had to Look Left, Then Right, And Left Again, before you crossed them. You might not be run down by a drunk, but you were just as likely to be run down by a speeding car or motorcycle or truck as before. Perhaps the mounting speed limits served to reduce this other “carnage” a little.
The same applied to getting stoned on marijuana. Were people unable to drive cars under the influence of the dreaded weed? No. They were perfectly capable of driving them. I noticed that, if anything, in my experience I would become more pessimistic about my driving skills when under its influence. I would drive more slowly, and take corners more slowly. And since alcohol increased my optimism, while marijuana decreased it, I found that a judicious mix of the two would result in me driving much as I usually did.
Equally, did smoking pot incapacitate anyone from doing their job? I personally never found it helped much, but a number of my fellow computer programmers swore that they worked much better under its influence than without it. And Silicon Valley in California was reputed to be wholly staffed by hippie and ex-hippie stoners. I never found that I worked better under the influence of alcohol either, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are prepared to honestly swear that they work much better in some environments (e.g. Fleet Street?) with a few drinks under their belt.
And going back to driving cars, in my experience of simply being tired or well lunched (and sleepy) has just as great a deleterious effect on my driving as any drink or psychotropic drug. Much the same happens when people drive while angry, or upset. I’ve written before of the effect on my driving of playing F1 Grand Prix computer simulation models all day, before climbing into my car, and mounting pavements and spinning the car, both within a distance of about a mile.
Peter Hitchens, it would seem, is someone who has never got drunk, never got stoned, and never smoked any cigarettes, and so has absolutely no experience of any of them, and so draws on the wisdom he has received from authorities of one sort or other: police, judges, doctors, clergymen, etc, precisely because he has no personal experience of his own to draw on. And this is a common characteristic of our age, it would seem, that we all rely on experts of one kind or other, rather than our own experience and reason.
I can almost imagine that Peter Hitchens has never gone swimming either, for fear that he might drown (which is something that actually does happen on beaches and in swimming pools) And I can imagine him being possessed of all the statistics of what swimming used to be like before there were armies of lifeguards on beaches, and adults didn’t have to wear water-wings, as I’m sure they do now.
Aside from all that, do freedoms compete with each other, as Hitchens asserts? Does my freedom to play pool compete with your freedom to play chess? I don’t see how.
But in the transcribed passage above, the most interesting thing that Hitchens comes out with is his (rather obscure) quotation from Marx. Doesn’t that mean he remains a Marxist? Who would quote Marx as an authority other than a Marxist? I don’t give a damn what Marx thought, and so am unlikely to ever quote him. And to me what that very strongly suggested was that Peter Hitchens remained just as much a Marxist and a Trotskyite as he had ever been, but now was simply a disillusioned one, who no longer believed that the Marxist utopia could ever be realised.
I’m beginning to believe that, if there are no Communists left in Russia (something I wrote with which Dmitri agreed when he read it), it’s because the experience of Russians between 1917 and 1987 was quite enough to disabuse them of any idea that Communism was a workable idea. But we in the West could hang onto the delusion that it might work, precisely because we had never tried it and personally experienced it. For in the end it’s only personal experience that relieves anyone of any illusions about it promoted by any dogma.
I think that tomorrow, if I remain interested enough, I might transcribe what Hitchens had to say about his time as a Trotskyite – because I think he still is one, even if he is a deeply disillusioned one,