Ah, 9 o’clock on a chilly Sunday morning in August. Decision time: do I get up and watch Insiders, or do I stay in my nice warm bed and listen to Background Briefing?
Bed usually wins, and that decision last Sunday gave me a treat: Christopher Hitchens’ recent talk at the Commonwealth Club in Silicon Valley, California. The full transcript (including the Q & A session which occupied the second half of the program and is well worth reading) is here. I hope some of you find Hitchens’ remarks as interesting as I did.
By the way, the program will be rebroadcast this evening at 7pm.
The Axis of Evil revisited
by Christopher Hitchens
My claim to expertise on this is simply that I am, as far as I know, the only writer to have sampled the different conditions of these three regimes, or samples of regime; the kind of government as I'll start right out by phrasing it, considers the citizen essentially to be the property of the State.
Now the danger that that sort of government poses not just to its own people, or to its neighbours, but actually to the civilised world order, and the discrepant forms which that takes and in which one might have to think about it and possibly even think about confronting it, and we only have about an hour I'm told together, and you can count on me to do most of the talking, or at least that's what I aim to do, either Q&A or directly addressing you, but what I want to do is take no more than the first half, just to give you an idea of what these systems are like and why you should mind, why you should take an interest.
I suppose I'll start with Iraq, which is best described by - has best been captured by under its old regime form, a brilliant author an Iraqi-English, half Iraqi, half English author called Kanan Makiya, who had to write for a long time under a protected pseudonym of Samir al Khalil, and wrote a tremendous book called The Republic of Fear, which is the best four-word description that one could have of the regime of Saddam Hussein. If you can get hold of it, and you can if you go back to look at the program that Kanan Makiya and Hodding Carter once did for Public Broadcasting, you can actually get to see one of the most chilling, annihilatingly chilling actually, videos that was ever made in the 20th century. It shows the moment at which Saddam Hussein, the actual moment at which Saddam Hussein seized power in Iraq for himself. We don't have that moment in Germany, we didn't have that moment in Russia, we know what happened after the assassination in Leningrad and the opportunity it gave to Stalin to seize supreme power. We know roughly what happened in the Night of the Long Knives when Adolf Hitler realised that he could massacre every rival of his not just in German politics but within his own party, which is always the crucial thing. But with Iraq, we do have the actual moment, and you see it, there's the Central Committee of the Baath Party, perhaps 100 people, sitting in a very formal array in the conference room, and Saddam Hussein is chairing them from a podium, smoking a large cigar, and suddenly without warning to anyone, in is dragged between two guards and in chains, a broken man, a man who has obviously physically and mentally been utterly destroyed; his personality has been evacuated. And prodded a bit, he stumbles through a confession that implicates himself and others in a plot to destroy the Iraqi Republic to remove the regime of the Baath Party, and to ruin the Iraqi Revolution, the counter-revolution no less. He says the regime behind it is the Syrian regime, it could have been anybody, it could have been international Zionism, it could have been anything you like, but it actually implicates in this case the Syrian Baath Party rivals.
Having confessed for himself and having begged to be executed for his crimes, having been reduced to a state of complete abjection, the man then says 'The following members of this Central Committee were with me in this plot', and he begins to read out their names, slowly, and as this happens you can see as the guards move, every time a name is mentioned and they grab the man and lead him out of the door. And after about a dozen of these, there's panic, sheer animal panic starts to spread, among those who haven't yet been named, and in the hope that they're not going to be they start screaming and jumping up and saying 'Glory to Saddam Hussein our leader; all praise to him the sun, the moon, the stars of Iraq' praying that it won't be them but of course there's nothing makes any difference, the harvest just goes on randomly. They're taken off the chessboard and taken out, and so half of them are gone and the rest are just limp and done for and almost dying with relief that it wasn't them.
It's the most extraordinary live show of a real for keeps political purge that you'll ever see. And then there's the second half which has been seen by much fewer people and was not shown on PBS where the surviving half are told to go out in the yard and are given guns and are told to shoot the convicted half. Now they're in the plot. Now they are cemented to the leadership.
Now Kanan Makiya in his book says correctly, he says Hitler wouldn't have thought of that. Stalin didn't even think of that, and he thought about these things a lot, about how to get one member of the Central Committee to betray another member and keep them all guessing, so that you're the ultimate beneficiary but this is that added little touch of sadomasochistic genius, this is the adding of The Godfather and The Sopranos to the mixture of Nazism and Stalinism that was in fact the birth of Baathist ideology to begin with. In case you don't know or haven't studied it, the Iraqi Baath Socialist Party was modelled in large part on admiration for European National Socialist and Fascist movements, hoped to emulate them especially in their nationalism against the West. But mutated by Saddam Hussein it became also one that very, very much admired, he had a great admiration for and grew a special moustache in admiration of the work of Yosif Vissarionovitch Dzugashvili, the great Georgian known to us historically as Stalin. So you had him in modern Iraq, a regime in our own time, that was openly, directly modelled upon the two most extreme examples of European totalitarianism.
When I used to go there in those days, it's often very difficult when you come out of a country like this, to explain to people quite what it's like when you're there; the atmosphere of terror, the look that comes into people's eyes when you mention the name of the leader, the absolute look of flash of panic, 'anything could happen to me now'. The person who spills their cup of coffee in the morning on a copy of the party paper that has the leader's picture on it, and everyone in the café goes completely quiet. He just desecrated a picture of the leader; the police are on their way now. You've just made the biggest mistake of your life, and it's very likely that your family will go to prison with you, and maybe they'll have to watch you being tortured, and if they do, they'll have to applaud. And if they have to watch you being executed they'll be later sent a bill for the bullets that were used to be fired into the back of your head because no-one's exempt.
It's often I think very, very hard for people who live in civilised countries, democratic countries, to understand what it would be like to live even a day under a regime that was like this. I used to find in arguments about Iraq that I knew right away when someone didn't know what they were talking about. The dead giveaway would always be when they would say, 'All right, I agree, Saddam Hussein is a bad guy', I'd say, 'Now that means you don't know, you don't know anything about him, if that's what you think. You don't know what it would be like to be sitting at home wondering where your daughter was and finding out because the police came around, banging on the door, handed you a video while they stood there, of her being raped by their colleagues, just to show you who was boss.'
The word 'evil', which I began with, I think does need a bit of justification. Many people think that to even use the word 'evil' is sort of naïve or morally too judgmental or, you know what I'm driving at, too simplistic. And yet it's somehow a word without which we cannot do. Hannah Arendt in her study of totalitarianism borrowed from Immanuel Kant the concept of radical evil, of evil that's so evil that in the end it destroys itself, it's so committed to evil and it's so committed to hatred and cruelty that it becomes suicidal. My definition of it is the surplus value that's generated by totalitarianism. It means you do more violence, more cruelty than you absolutely have to to stay in power. You've already made your point, you've done everything you need to do to make people realise that you're in power, but you somehow can't stop, there has to be a special appetite that must view special prisons for rape, there must be special mass graves just for children. There must be the desire to see how far you can go, and even if you knew this will in the end bring retribution, it's worth it in some sense, for its own sake. Maybe that's the only redeeming thing about it, maybe the irrationality is the one saving grace of it, but at any rate it's not a word it seems, that we can abolish from our vocabulary. If you doubt me, just ask any liberal how they're going to vote at the next election and they'll always say it's for the lesser evil. Somehow the word is necessary even in relativistic terms.
I haven't started with Iraq; I haven't begun to tell you what it's like. The nearest I can come from personal experience would be I suppose being present when a mass grave in a district of the south, was being opened, near Babylon, just after the intervention in 2003, and I was there; I'd gone with a group of my fellow reporters and the temperature in Iraq at midday around that time goes well above 100, and you have to be coated in sunscreen at all times, and you're coated in sweat anyway, and it gets in your hair and in your clothes and on your face, you're sort of covered in slime in effect, protective slime, and that's fine until the wind gets up a bit as the mass grave is being excavated, and you find that you're being covered in a coat of powder. Grey powder, which is made of people. It's the filth and the smut of people who'd been buried en masse for a long time and were just being dug up and are being now blown around in it in a grave. If you want to feel dirty, if you want to feel dirtied up by the experience of fascism, try finding that you're 12 hours away from a shower and you can't get dead person out of your hair, or off your face, there's nothing you can do about it, you're stuck with it, you're tainted, you're polluted, and you're living in a country or visiting a country in this case which is digging itself slowly out of a generalised mass grave.
So that was Iraq for very nearly 40 years. As I say I've only time for thumbnail sketches this evening. Vignettes. I wrote a piece from North Korea called Visit to a Small Planet which is a line I stole from a play of Gore Vidal's, because it did seem to me as if I had left this planet completely to go on this visit to the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, and it was as if coming back from another spatial body altogether. And the article got, I have to say for myself, a lot of praise, a lot of good reviews and a lot of notice, and every time I got praised for it, I used feel slightly congealed, slightly nauseated, because I knew that of all the articles I've ever written as a foreign correspondent, it was probably the greatest failure. I had not got near to describing for an American audience, what it would be like. 'By the way, we know where your children go to school.' What it would be like to be a North Korean even for a day, and I'm not sure I can try it even now. I'll give it a shot. My friend Martin Amis wrote a book called The War Against Cliché or is it The War On Cliché? saying that as all of us who write and think and speak try to remind ourselves there's nothing worse than using borrowed phrases. Once you've said 'the heat was stifling', 'she was rummaging in her handbag' to win two Nobel Prizes was 'no mean achievement', once you're using someone else's words, and that's part of literary intellectual death, so we try and avoid it. So when I went (reeling back a little here just to spool it back) when I went to Czechoslovakia under the old Communist regime one day in the '80s, I thought to myself whatever I do, whatever happens to me in Prague I'm not going to use the name Kafka, I'm just not going to do it. I won't do it; it's so easy, everyone else does, I'm not going to. I'll write the first non-Kafka mentioning piece. So I went to this meeting of this then-unknown dissident, Vasilav Havel and various of his Czech friends and Slovak friends in an apartment in Prague and we thought that no-one knew that he had these visitors coming from America, but someone must have given us away because it wasn't long before the door fell in and in come police dogs and guys in leather coats carrying heavy electric torches and truncheons and so on, slammed me up against the wall and said, 'You're under arrest and you've got to come with us.' And I said - I thought of saying 'I demand to see the Ambassador', and I said, 'What's the charge?' And they said, 'We don't have to tell you the charge'. And I thought "fuck". Now I do have to mention Kafka. Totalitarian is a cliché, dictatorship is based on clichéd thinking, on very tried and tested uniform stuff. They don't mind that they're boring, they don't mind that they're obvious, their point is made and I thought 'Now you've made me, I know you're going to make me do it'. Well multiply that by as much as you can and you have the following surmise.
I went to North Korea, finally got in, took me a long time, had to go under a second identity, had to pay a huge bribe, I was there, I got there. And I thought I know what I'm not going to say about North Korea, I'm not going to say it. The schoolchildren are marched to school carrying pictures of the Dear Leader and the Great Leader. The loudspeakers speak of nothing but the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. At workplaces there are sessions set apart every day for cries of hatred against the United States and the West and South Korea. I'm still not going to do it. They won't make me say 1984, they just won't make me do it.
But eventually they make you do it. You have to, your mind just adjusts to it.
The North Korean State was started in 1950-'51, that's the year 1984 was published for the first time. You think, could it be that someone handed a Korean translation of this to Kim Il Sung and said 'Do you think we could make this fly?' and he paged through and said, 'I don't know, but we could sure give it the old college try', because that's what it looks as if they did. There is no private life for a North Korean. There isn't a moment when you are not either on parade or when you're not on parade, told to stay indoors. You're not wanted, stay at home you're under curfew. Lights are out in Pyongyang and that's the capital city at 8.30. You can't go out after dark, stay in. There's nothing to watch, there's nothing to see. All the television programs, when it's working, are all about the Dear Leader, as are all operas, all films, all concert performances and all public lectures. There's nothing else to talk about.
The light of the human being, this is what I failed to convey in my article, is completely pointless. The concept of liberty or humour or irony or happiness or love doesn't exist. You are there simply as a prop for the State. And though used to be, as with any slave system, that they would feed you in return for your services. That compact broke down a couple of decades ago. Now they don't feed you either. They barely clothe you. The so-called demilitarised zone, you've seen the word 'demilitarised zone' haven't you, in the press even quite recently. Why do they call it demilitarised zone? Words lose their meanings so fast; it's the most militarised zone on the planet. There are nuclear mines sown in the DMZ, there's a concentrating of force and violence on either side of it that is unequalled anywhere, it's the most militarised zone in the world. That's the only place where North Korea and South Korean soldiers meet directly face-to-face, staring at each other across the table. They change guard about five or six times a day. The North Koreans naturally put up their best soldiers to stand there, to put the best, bravest, toughest face on North Korea. The best ones they can find are six inches shorter than the South Korean ones are. That's what a famine state is, on top of a slave state. We now have millions and millions of North Korean children totally stunted in mind and body and will have to be dealt with at some point, who have been raised to believe that they live in a regime that is run by a god. And here I must just indicate - I was going to do this later but I'll say it now - there's a thing that took me ages to notice about reading George Orwell's 1984, I wrote a book about it, I'd written many articles about it. It took me a long time to notice something, that's so obvious it's crying to be said.
In 1984 it's assumed there's no more religion, there's no church in 1984 not even a tame State church, there's nothing. No-one mentions the idea of faith, except in Big Brother. Quite interesting, it's as if it's an entirely secular dictatorship. In North Korea you might think that was the case since it has an officially Communistic ideology, but it's not, it's the most religious state it's possible to imagine. It's actually two people who have been fused into one, maybe this is reminding you of something, there's the father and there's the son. It's one short of a trinity. The other way of phrasing it is this: when the President, our President writes to Kim Jong Il, the son, the Dear Leader, he doesn't call him Dear Mr President, he calls him Dear Mr Secretary. Have you ever noticed that? Why is that? Because he's not the President of North Korea, he's the head of the Communist Party, the North Korean Workers' Party and he's the Head of the Army. He's not Head of the State. The Head of the State is his father who's been dead for 15 years. So it's a necrocracy, or a mauselocracy or a thanatocracy in which the one is diffused into being with the other, and where both of them are said to have had miraculous births attended by miraculous phenomena such as, for example, birds singing in Korean, when they were born.
So that this is possibly the most deiocratic country as I've ever seen. Or that there has ever been, where the only duty of the citizen starving and stunted and enslaved as he or she may be, is the worship of the leader and of the leader's father.
I should say a few words about Iran which is the one I visited most recently and which is maybe the one that's nearest the front of our minds. The Iranian people were converted to Islam not very much longer after the conquest of the Arab world by Islam, but they refused to adopt the Arabic language, and it's a great point of pride to them that Persian culture and the Persian language and Persian literature survived the conversion to Islam. And the conversion to Islam also was for most of them not the Sunni majority form, but the Shia one. So there's a great discrepancy between Iranian society and many other of what we think of as Arab Muslim States and systems. And there are many, many discrepant views within the Shia theology about what's the proper role of religion in society or in the State, should it rule now, should it claim to govern people in the here and now, or should it wait until the Messiah, the 12th Imam, comes back and would it only be then appropriate for religious rule to bring about a world of universal justice and vindication.
This is a very live argument in Iran and among Iranians and has been for a very long time, but since the advent of the Ayatollah Khomeni sometimes called the Iranian revolution of 1979, I would say myself the Iranian counter-revolution since the entire people of Iran, every layer of Iranian society took to the streets to overthrow the Shah, only to find that the revolution had been taken from them and hijacked by a clerical caste who then used violence against all those who had helped them to overthrow the Shah and then posted a revolution of their own. I believe that's better described as a counter-revolution than a revolution. It was a revolution anyway, but ideologically the version of totalitarianism I'm talking about here has a religions name, unlike Iraqi Baathism or Kim Il Sungism: it's called the guardianship of the jurist or the cleric. It was originally invented to say that orphans, children, mad people, lost people were to be looked after as wards of the State. Many decided that this should be extended to everybody. Everyone in Iran is now perceived to be a child with a paternal authority vested in the Guardian Council and the Sufi elders. They're supposed to be grateful. They can never for a moment not be afforded this wonderful protection. The father who will never go away. The father who will never quit caring for them. It's ironic I think that this should be the case in Iran and I think that those who proposed the idea and kept it going for the last few decades failed to notice something exactly to do with paternity. The Iranian people lost,we think , at least a million, maybe a million and a half young people in the terrifying war they waged with Saddam Hussein. In order to make up the numbers after this very depleting war the Ayatollahs promised Iranian mothers very large subsidies if they would breed more children, which they did. If you had a large family, four or five, you get a great deal of State subsidy. The consequences are what I call a baby boomerang. There are now, we think, probably more than 50% of the Iranian population under 25, and it's rather outgrowing the tutelage of parenthood. And so the mullahs have, by accident, by unintended consequence, brought about a generation that doesn't like them. In particular among the females.
So the moment is coming, I think it may already in fact have come, when the system will no longer work. But in the meantime, the appearance of an open society, not an open society but a relatively open one when compared with Saddam's Iraq or North Korea, where all is allowed but all is guided and all is finally decided by a religious guardian has reached the point that Lenin used to describe as a revolutionary situation. It is a situation where the old order cannot continue in the old way, is unable to do so, and where those whom it rules do not wish, have no further desire, to be ruled in the old way, but it could be that there is something incompatible between us and our needs and our desires and our nature, and the idea of a human system that can guarantee everything, that can control everything, that can know everything and that can control and know and run everybody. And on that hope we must repose our own hopes.
So thank you for being my prisoners and I look forward to being your hostage in the next half. Thank you.