Q&A with Christopher Hitchens
BRIAN LAMB: Christopher Hitches, I just checked and I’ve interviewed you 20 times since 1983 and I must say this is one of the hardest.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS; VANITY FAIR; WRITER: Well.
LAMB: Because you haven’t been well.
HITCHENS: Not very, no.
LAMB: What’s the current status of your cancer?
HITCHENS: I have a tumor in my esophagus which is metastasized as they’ve spread to my lymph nodes and I’m afraid they’re not completely sure to part of my lung. And it’s at stage four and the thing to note about stage four is that there is no stage five.
So it concentrates the mind a bit. But I have some wonderful oncologists working with me and they’re on we’re on the verge of a whole number of new treatments, some which may apply to me. The chemotherapy is holding it at bay.
I apologize that my voice is a bit husky today.
But that’s the situation.
So, I have to practice staying alive and preparing to die at the same time. Which, as my memoir says, is actually what one has to do all the time, as much a fact. I mean you’re never more than a breath away. But it’s a bit more vivid to me now. Sort of doctors in the morning and lawyers in the afternoon.
LAMB: Why did you decide to take us through that journey you’re writing in Vanity Fair?
HITCHENS: Well, I was wondering whether I wanted to or not. To make a I didn’t want to make a parade of my condition, but I was very intelligently pressed to do it by my editor, Graydon Carter of Vanity Fair. And I tried to do it in such a way as it wasn’t a parade of my feelings or some yellow ribbon type journalism. And I’ve been told that some people have been comforted by it a bit, or identified with it to some degree. If you have a lemon make lemonade would be the other explanation. Better than staring at the wall. It is a great subject. Everyone has to do this at one point or another. Either survive or die off, something like this. It’s one thing one is certainly born to do.
So, as an extension of the memoir I published when I was hit with it, I thought well, I should keep up the narrative because this is very much a part of my life.
LAMB: How’s your life
HITCHENS: And I should add, because of these experimental treatments, I’ve had my genome sequenced for example, I’m very unique in this way, very lucky. I’m able to write about some really quite exciting new developments in the field of oncology which I hope will shortly become more available to more people. It’s a rather tantalizing time to have cancer, this time, for me, someone of my age, because there are treatments that I can see that are just out of my reach probably. Which is both encouraging and annoying if you’d like. And there are others that are probably just within it. My constitution is very good. All my other vital signs are excellent. Everything from my liver to my blood pressure is excellent, superb in fact. Unjustly so, as a lot of my friends would say. But if I can hang on, there are quite a few expedients I can and intend to try.
LAMB: But you just had your gall bladder out, and that had nothing to do with
HITCHENS: No, I had a very bad episode a couple of weeks ago. I crashed as my doctor, normally very aberrantly diffident guy said. I mean I had a meltdown in my bone marrow. That can happen with chemotherapy. I’ve had a crisis with white and blood cells at the same time as my gall bladder went rancid and I was in terrible pain. Thought I had a burst appendix. So I was really flat out. But I’ve now lost the gall bladder and I’ve gained some blood transfusion, so I’m back, hanging on.
LAMB: Broad question, but what has this done to the old head?
HITCHENS: Well, the worst of the initial treatments was what’s called chemo brain in the trade where you feel fogged in the head, where you barely even want to read, let alone write. And that terrified me very much because I thought if I can’t do that, well my raison d’κtre in a way have gone in the literal sense. I wouldn’t have a very persuasive reason to live and I didn’t want to give in to despair. But it turns out the chemo brain is transitory. I mean I still suffer from terrible exhaustion. I’ve got it now physically, but I’m quite lucid, at least in my own opinion. I could write a column today if I was lucky. If I had some strong coffee. I can certainly read and converse. But if anything was to spread in that direction I mean then I probably would feel that was the end.
LAMB: Esophageal cancer.
HITCHENS: Yes. It’s right in the core and through near the viscera to be really amenable to radiation apparently so I have to do chemo until a personalized genomic treatment. Because this is a disease of our genes, can be (found) for me.
LAMB: What has been the reaction from other people to your condition? Because you know a ton of people.
HITCHENS: Yes, and I’m also known to quite a lot more people now. And because I had to cancel a book tour just as it was beginning, a rather lavish book tour, back, in the summer, I couldn’t just do a fade and go into treatment, I had to make a statement because I was some kind of public figure about why I couldn’t keep these appointments and people had gone to a lot of trouble. I had to say something. So it became overnight a sort of news item. I guess it must have been a slow week. And I imagine partly because of my opinions about the supernatural and the religious life. I also got a lot of attention because people thought well surely now will be the time for me to make a reconsideration, withdraw from the principles of a lifetime, make my peace with some church or other, and was a lot of public talk about that. Was a day of prayer for me, a national day of prayer? Which I took kindly. I thought it was at least a suggesture (ph) of solidarity. But that was by the way prayer in my favor.
There were other people who lobbied of the divine in the opposite direction, presuming to instruct him in either case seems to me a bit presumptuous, but people can’t seem to help that. And I’ve had an amazing number of letters from people, I still get them, handwritten ones to the house as well as e-mails to my office in New York saying really the nicest things, most of them, not all. And trying to assure me that in their minds my life hasn’t been a waste of time, even if it ends prematurely. I’m 62 in April, if I make it that far. And believe me that’s been encouraging. I’ve learned something from it which is of course like most of the things one knows that are important, already known to me, but I really know it now. Never put off writing a letter to someone who’s in distress. It’s always very much appreciated and I’m not asking for more people to write to me, but if they have someone in mind, or someone known to them and they haven’t quite got around to it yet, I’d urge them to do it. It’s been a terrific help to me, I must say, and I’m not a particularly what’s the word? Vulnerable person in that way. Not that easily stirred, but this has been very, very moving for me and very confirming.
LAMB: Has any of your, at least professional enemies, come to you during this time? If they have what did they say to you/
HITCHENS: Well professional enemies are I suppose rivals or people that take the opposite view. all of them have been very nice and I’ve had I mean been, I mean newspaper columns written about me in the New York Times (INAUDIBLE) by David Brooks, very generous column and another one by Timothy Egan and the times. There was an editorial in the Times of London. I began to feel as if I was reading my obituaries a bit, because I was still alive. Only the nice bits would be printed, as it were. And I thought, it’s nice, but of course it gave me this slightly creepy feeling of it being premature as well.
I don’t know how many personal enemies I have. People just didn’t like me in other words. One on whose nerves I get. But the number of people who’ve written to me saying they hope I suffer now and then forever after I’ve died is I’d say hearteningly small.
LAMB: Go back for a moment, because it was quite a series of events. I mean I’m I have your memoir in my hands in which the first ...
HITCHENS: So should everybody.
LAMB: Yes. The first seven pages are all about death. Did you have any premonition at all?
HITCHENS: No. But it is weird, isn’t it?
No, I had a free gift from the National Portrait Gallery in London which publishes a magazine for subscribers about its upcoming exhibitions and there was an exhibition for the friends of Martin Amos (ph), who was a friend of mine. Photographs which included me. Because one of the people featured had died while the catalogue was going to press, they put hastily in the words the late, but they put it next to my name. So for the first time in my life, I saw the words the late Christopher Hitchens in print and it does so it were of used (ph) the expression, concentrate the mind. They wrote to me groveling. I think t hey thought I was going to sue. And said they’ve all been withdrawn. We’ll pub (ph) them, only a few got out. So it’s all right. And I said, no, no. I want you to send me as many as you’ve got. Because it makes a wonderful mini introduction to my memo which I nearly finished then.
So I wrote a it’s called a prologue with premonitions ...reminiscence, sorry. Meditation on death. But at that stage I had no ideas how ill I was, none.
LAMB: But you went on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart right around the time that you found out.
HITCHENS: I went on that show the day I was diagnosed, yes.
LAMB: Did you know it at the time?
HITCHENS: Yes, I’d been told in the morning. I’d woken up in New York feeling very ill and had to be taken to hospital. And they said I thought I had presenting heart attack. And they said it’s not your heart, you can discharge yourself if you want, though we recommend you stay in for observation. But whatever you do, the next stop must be an oncologist, there’s clearly a tumor. We ...probably in your esophagus but its spread. So I decided to discharge myself because I wanted to do the Stewart show and also that evening a big event at the New York YHCA, the 92nd Street Y, so a big public event with Salman Rushdie and I managed to do both of these without showing any ill effects, but I’d just had the sentence read to me.
LAMB: Let’s watch just a little bit of the Stewart show so people can see when they see this, you know that you’ve got a real problem. Let’s just watch this.
HITCHENS: Yes, I’ve never seen it.
Actually, as I saw you on the Jon Stewart show you looked like you had a sense of humor, you were fairly normal. What was your head telling you when you were talking out there?
HITCHENS: Well, I’d just buried the thought for what it took to do the show. And then later this onstage event with Saul Man (ph) which also went very well. It was only at the dinner after that that I began to feel I couldn’t carry on anymore. But I should get through it. I don’t think anyone noticed. But I was ... like every opportunity between these events I was violently sick. I threw up very powerfully.
LAMB: Had you had any indication at all that something was going wrong?
HITCHENS: No, I’d had nothing but very, very good annual checkup reports in my doctors ...on all fronts.
LAMB: Your father died of esophageal cancer.
HITCHENS: He did. At the age of 79.
LAMB: Had that penetrated? I mean it was it a ...
HITCHENS: I mention it in the book. I would have written that before I found out myself. But no. I suppose because I used to smoke very heavily I was afraid of always getting it in the lung. I seem to lead a charmed life, but the thing about esophageal cancer is you can have it for quite a while, it’s very hard to detect unless you have an upper GI almost every month and you’re looking for it, you’re very likely to miss it. And it doesn’t usually present, as they say, until it’s metastasized. By the time I went to the doctor for biopsy it was very easy to do because you could feel it in the lymph node on my neck, which is not a good sign.
LAMB: You began what kind of treatment?
HITCHENS: I began a cycplasian (ph) it’s called treatment of chemotherapy which made me then lose all my hair. It’s growing back with the new chemical I’m trying, slightly. It made me lose a lot of weight and made me very tired but knocked it back perceptibly. I mean you could it was measurably reduced.
LAMB: And where did you have this done?
HITCHENS: In Bethesda.
LAMB: and that started what month last year?
LAMB: And it ended when?
HITCHENS: Well, it’s still going on.
LAMB: Still going on?
HITCHENS: Yes, I’m hoping now, you see because thanks to a wonderful American Dr. Francis Collins who’s the head of the National Institute of Health, which includes the National Cancer Institute who did the human genome project, brought it in as you know ahead of time and under budget. Marvelous scientific achievement.
He and I have met because we’re opposite sides of the religion debate. We became friends that way. He’s a very convinced Christian. And we’ve become friendly debaters and he’s taking it very kindly interest in my case and has helped me have my genome sequenced and trying to look for a more perfect identifiable match for any mutation they can find that’s peculiar to me that can be targeted by a special drug.
So today is Friday the 14th, I don’t know when this will be shown ...
LAMB: Soon, soon.
HITCHENS: On Monday I’m going in ... I hope to try that, if I’m strong enough if my bone marrow has recovered enough. And that involves 6 million no excuse me, 6 billion DNA matches of my tumor set against 6 billion DNA matches of my blood to look for something that was individually mutated that wasn’t in my genes. Absolutely extraordinary what can be done now. Had to go to St. Louis to do it.
LAMB: Why St. Louis?
HITCHENS: That seems to be where the project is for finding out how the genome can be applied to individuals predicaments in medicine. It’ll be common place soon. There’s a terrible lack of funding, as you perhaps know. I might just say a word about this now so people can write their congressman. In the most recent budget a terrible collapse in funding to the NIH and of course there’s this stupid attempt to limit the extent to which actually existing embryonic cells can be used for this kind of thing and I’ve become well, I was anyway before this, but I’ve would like to become more than I am of an advocate for overcoming these pseudoscientific obstacles to medical research.
LAMB: So where did you get your did you get your chemo treatment at NIH?
HITCHENS: No, no. I’ve had various tests there but I just go to my regular oncologist. He’s a very brilliant man called Dr. Smith in Bethesda who’s who consults over the internet with a panel of like minded experts and they work out of Sloan Kettering and elsewhere. They work out a protocol for me and adjust it every few weeks.
LAMB: In the Vanity Fair December issue you wrote about a woman who came up to you.
HITCHENS: Oh yes.
LAMB: At a when you were signing books.
LAMB: She starts off by saying ...
HITCHENS: Shall I tell it?
LAMB: If you can tell, I didn’t I’ve got it I’ve got it here in case. Yes, tell what happened.
HITCHENS: Well, this is my campaign to have a book of cancer etiquette published, which I might do. Signing books in New York after a debate with Cherick Ramadan (ph) about Islam. A long line. A woman at the front comes towards me. She doesn’t even have a book for me to sign, hasn’t bought one. Says, I’m sorry to hear you’re ill. And I said, well it’s very nice of you to say so. She said a cousin of mine had cancer. And I said, I’m really sorry to hear that and he said yes, in the liver. And I said, oh that’s dreadful, I’m really, that’s awful. And she said, but he got better. And I said, oh good. And then she said, but he got much worse again. And I said, oh I’m sorry. And she said, of course he was a homosexual. And I thought, I’m not going to say of course, because how was I supposed to know. And all his friends and family abandoned him and he died alone and in great pain, agony, incontinence, piercing pain, humiliation, indescribable horror. And I said, oh well, I ...I was beginning to run out of things to say, but I expressed commiseration at that and then she said I just wanted you to know I know exactly what you’re going through.
And I and then left, without having ...
LAMB: Didn’t buy a book.
HITCHENS: Buy a book. So I thought, now, would she have treated me like that if I was well? Of course not. But people think they have the almost the right, if not a duty to do it if you aren’t. So and I think we need patients also need to suffer it, to reciprocate by not sort of inflicting it on people. I actually have a badge and I’m not wearing it, a button that says don’t ask and I won’t tell.
Some people do make a huge parade of their condition. I’ve tried to write about it in other context. I wrote about the national day of prayer and why I wasn’t joining it. I’ve written about imaginative new gene based treatments. Things like that. I don’t just want to write my own tumor diaries. That would be a little (INAUDILBE) perhaps.
LAMB: Your wrote in your prologue of your book, as I said, a lot about death ...
HITCHENS: Which is called?
LAMB: Hitch 22.
I personally want to do death in the active and not the passive and to be there to look it in the eye and be doing something when it comes for me. Why? What’s that mean anyway?
HITCHENS: Well, it’s part of life. So I’d like to be conscious for it. But this is what I thought then. And it ideally I’d like to be making a speech perhaps, or making love, or I don’t know, sitting with friends. Or, if I had more notice, conceivably to try a sort of synchratic terminus where people gather round and you try and make a fist of a decent farewell. I’ve have had cause to reconsider that now because if this cancer doesn’t go into remission, it’s a very unpleasant way to die.
HITCHENS: Well, one quite probable way of doing it is to choke in your own puke, for example. Not a very good thing. And it can be preceded by all kinds of humiliations. So it’s not that you’re going to die and you’re resigned or reconciled to that as part of life, it’s that the sentence includes that you be tortured for a bit before you die and so it I know feel slight bravado about what I wrote then. I would still, if it were possible, like to be awake and looking at people, and if I’m lucky, talking to them. But I’m not so sure I would insist on it. It might be as well to sort of slip away in a narcotic stupor. It might be. But still there’s something about that it may sound very old fashioned and you can say it strikes me as a bit ignoble. As I say, its part of life, I want to I want to get as much out of it as I can.
LAMB: How much of during this period, have you talked about this kind of thing with Carol Blue, your wife?
HITCHENS: Well, a lot. Because she’s been a great prop and stay for me. She’s she does things I don’t like to do. Going on the internet, looking up every conceivable ramification of treatment and possibility, tirelessly looking for new doctors and new avenues and things like that. So we talk a lot about it. About losing. About what would happen when I’ve gone? Actually barely have talked about that. My determination is that I’m not going to die of it well, I’m not going to die of it now. I might die with it, perhaps some years from now. But that is a possibility and I’m certainly going to do everything I can to be an experimental subject for other treatments, even if they don’t work for me. That would be I say in the book, I quote the great American scholar Horace Mann who said until you’ve done something for humanity you should be ashamed to die.
So, it’s quite a high standard to reach ... well, that would be doing something for humanity at a fairly small cost to myself, even if it involved protracting the treatment unnecessarily, I’d be willing to do it.
LAMB: In the middle of all this, a couple of weeks ago you debated Tony Blair ...
LAMB: In Toronto.
HITCHENS: I’ve carried on debating on this and other questions ...
LAMB: but we covered it and I want to run just a clip of you making some points. He’s sitting on the stage there with you. Let’s watch that and we’ll come back and ask you about it (ph).
LAMB: Why did you do that debate? When was it actually?
HITCHENS: It was at thanksgiving.
LAMB: And what condition were you in then?
HITCHENS: Well, I sort of timed my treatments so that it would come because I had a lot of notice of the event. So that it would come at the end of the testament, when I’m much usually much stronger. Because it would have been very irresponsible it was a huge event. A lot of trouble, money went into fixing it up and getting Blair and getting security and all this stuff. So it wasn’t well, I never like to cancel anyway, but I couldn’t do that. So I was feeling OK. Very tired, but physically all right and mentally quite alert and it was the first time Blair had had a public debate since he stopped being prime minister, on any subject.
LAMB: And then you wrote about it in Vanity Fair.
LAMB: And what was your take from all that? I mean you were taking the well, you tell us your position and his position.
HITCHENS: Well, I debate with religious people all the time, mentioned Terry Gramant (ph), Rabbi Schmooli (ph), all kinds of people I have debated since I became sick. Blair is of course a new convert to Roman Catholicism so I wanted to question a bit about that. And then, one can only do one thing at a time, usually in these debates, and the point I wanted him to concede was that the evils that people like myself speak about when we talk about religion, he will always and his co-thinkers will always acknowledge and they’ll say this was done in the name of religion. And I said, you must drop that. There is scriptural warrant and authority very clearly in the holy books, which are supposed to be the word of god, for these evils. So it’s a cop-out to use a vulgarity to say it’s in the name of. Its you can just say it’s a parody of, you have to face the responsibility.
Well, in fact, when we were asked by one questioner to say what had been the strongest point made by the other, he said that he agreed that I was right. That the problem is that there is scriptural authority for a great deal of atrocity and cruelty and stupidity in the holy books. So that’s my best memory of the evening I suppose.
When I asked him I opened with a long quotation from Cardinal Newman (ph), whose beautification he’d just recommended to the pope and supported, a very wicked, in my view, quotation from Newman’s (ph) apologie (ph). And then, I wanted to know whether he thought the pope was the vicar of Christ on earth, whether the catholic church was the one true church and it was quite strange, he didn’t come up to the scratch to fight me on that. You could not have told him anything he said that he was a roman catholic at all. He could have been a very weak sort of Christian socialist liberal. Basically, says that Christianity is OK because it makes people do good works and give money to charity, which it no one denies its true, but has nothing to do with the relevance or the truth of the matter. So but he’s a man with whom I sympathize in other ways. I’ve known little bit for quite a long time. So it was an unusual interesting debate.
Excuse me. Sorry, Brian. Just have a sip here. My medicine.
LAMB: You and I’ve first interview I ever conducted with you was on November the 7, 1983.
HITCHENS: I remember it was the winter of ’83. Yes.
LAMB: The call in show.
LAMB: And I want to just run it’s a minute, 24 seconds. And then we’ll talk about this.
HITCHENS: All right.
LAMB: Well, you can see how times have changed from that clip. There you were on our set smoking.
HITCHENS: Yes. I was doing that until quite late on. I forget when it stopped.
LAMB: I can’t remember when we
HITCHENS: It’s incredible now when I see as one often does, that shot of Walter Cronkite announcing the president’s death in Dallas in ’63, the whole studio looks like Chernobyl. Ashtrays stretching as far as the eye can see.
LAMB: And I also appreciated you calling me David on that show. It kind of was humbling.
HITCHENS: Well it’s the name was then the name of a very distinguished Los Angeles Times Africa correspondent.
LAMB: That was the reason.
HITCHENS: David Lamb, yes.
LAMB: Anyway ...
HITCHENS: Sorry all the same. I think it’s very important to get people’s names.
LAMB: Oh that was it was its fun to see this for both of us go back at that time. But you know in those days you were fairly there’s a lot of bravado about smoking and drinking. And I for the first book notes book we did, I went with you to a bar.
HITCHENS: I remember.
LAMB: And you had your computer and a glass of something and a cigarette.
HITCHENS: Yes, I used to write my columns in Timberlake’s bar on Connecticut Avenue.
LAMB: Do you ever think that this all this wouldn’t have happened without that? And did your father smoke? Is that where he got
HITCHENS: Yes, my father was a pipe smoker and a reasonably consistent drinker too. And I can’t but think that that’s what contributed to it. We didn’t learn much from his death, my brother and I, because he was diagnosed and died almost right away. We didn’t find out much about. I know it was lower down than where mine is and it probably inoperable then. But it wasn’t a teaching moment.
LAMB: Is yours by the way, is yours inoperable?
HITCHENS: Well, it couldn’t yes, it can’t be cut out. No, it’s spread.
HITCHENS: Yes, its spread, it can’t be cut out. And it’s too near my lungs and my heart to be properly radiated. So it has to be chemo and or targeted gene therapy.
LAMB: But over those years, when you were smoking
HITCHENS: So to answer your question, of course, I always knew that there’s a risk in the bohemian lifestyle and I decided to take it because whether its an illusion or not, I don’t think it is, it helped my concentration, it stopped me being bored, stopped other people being boring, to some extent, it would keep me awake, it would make me want the evening to go on longer, to prolong the conversation, to enhance the moment. If I was asked, would I do it again, the answer is probably yes, I’d have quit earlier, possibly, hoping to get away with the whole thing.
Easy for me to say, not very nice for my children to hear. It sounds irresponsible if I say yes, I’d do all that again to you. But the truth is it would be hypocritical of me to say no, I’d never touch the stuff if I’d known, because I did know, everyone knows. And I decided all of life is a wager, I’m going to wager on this bit. And I can’t make it come out any other way. It’s strange, I almost don’t even regret it, though I should. Because it’s just impossible for me to picture life without wine and other things fueling the company. And keeping me reading and traveling and energizing me. It worked for me. It really did.
LAMB: What over the years has bored you? You use that word more than once in your writing.
HITCHENS: Yes, well, it’s a vice, of course. Acedia, I think it’s actually one of the deadly sins. Boredom was the anteroom to despair. Sort of the feeling that anime (ph), that nothings interesting, nothings worth I am too prone to it. I get easily tired of I don’t know, committee meetings or not that I have to do many of those. Or waiting in line. I’m a very, very impatient person.
So, I’m very happy by myself, I’m lucky in that way. If I’ve got enough to read and something to write about and a bit of alcohol for me to add an edge, not to dull it.
It’s been a formula.
LAMB: During this time of your illness, how have you passed the time when and have you had a lot of pain during this time?
HITCHENS: Yes. Well, I especially before I found it was the gall bladder and not the side effects, I was becoming worried that I was some overdoing the pain killers. It should have been the other way around, but I said to the doctors look I’m living I’m in danger, living from pill to pill. I surely shouldn’t be taking this much morphine or codeine based stuff. I was beginning to feel woozy. But I’d like to think that the gall bladder was the cause of that because before then the pain hadn’t been all that acute. It was quite dealable with, quite manageable.
LAMB: You had ...
HITCHENS: It became unbearable.
LAMB: When we’re talking, how many days ago did you have your gall bladder out?
HITCHENS: Ten, I think. Eight or 10.
LAMB: And did you have the laparoscopic?
HITCHENS: Yes. It was all over very quickly. Once they found it.
LAMB: And do you feel better because of it?
HITCHENS: Not yet. Because the general anesthetic takes a long time to wear off. At least it has with me, given how weak I was already and how much weight I’ve lost and how little food I’ve been taking.
I couldn’t have done this yesterday for example.
HITCHENS: No absolutely not. I could hardly get out of bed.
LAMB: About 30 some years ago, 36 years go or seven years ago a man named Stewart Alsop, a columnist for Newsweek.
LAMB: Had leukemia, the AML acute difficult leukemia and wrote about it. I don’t know did you have you gone back and looked at any of his columns?
HITCHENS: I have not, no.
LAMB: And he told a story. He was at NIH and I think he might have had bone marrow transplant, I can’t remember for sure, but I remember I was glued to it and he took us all the way through his process. How much more are we going to hear from you about your situation ...
HITCHENS: I hope a lot. I mean I don’t say that just for my own sake ...
LAMB: And what kind of thinks are you thinking about telling us now?
HITCHENS: Well, I think the main thing is to emphasize the extraordinary innovations in this kind of this (INAUDIBLE) medicine that are becoming available base on our new knowledge of our genetic makeup. And so in so far as these treatments are applicable to me, which they some of them are. I’m hoping to write in some detail and alert people to possibilities that they may not yet know about that exist, even for quite hard cases, quite advanced cases.
LAMB: Any thought of writing a book? I mean you mentioned earlier ...
HITCHENS: Yes, yes. I thought I’d write a book that was both about facing death and about the struggle for life and how one motivation for the latter in my case, apart from the obvious ones is precisely to see if I can participate in pushing those boundaries back and enlarging the area of scientific knowledge.
LAMB: Have you lost interest in certain things in the world?
LAMB: Not at all?
HITCHENS: No, not in the least.
LAMB: And as you sit here today, what would be your number one interest of things going on in the world?
HITCHENS: Right now?
LAMB: Right now.
HITCHENS: Well, the looking at today’s paper, which is the first thing I do every day still, I suppose it would it would have to be one version or another of the confrontation with Islamic jihad. In particular the appallingly serious news from Pakistan in the last few weeks where the whole the whole threat seems to me to be amped up noticeably in a way we haven’t quite internalized. Where the chief minister of the country’s most important state, Mr. Samantasier (ph) is murdered in cold blood by someone pretending to be his body guard on the ground that he opposes an existing blaspheme law, not even that he’s committed blaspheme. And so that anyone claiming to be a Muslim is entitled to kill him and that this got the endorsement of all the religious authorities, of all the (INAUDILBE) in Pakistan. So it used to be bad enough on conviction by a court of the charge of blaspheme you could face a death sentence but you’d have been through a jury and appeals process (INAUDIBLE). Bad enough in all conscience, but warranted by the Quran if you care, which I don’t.
But now, permission to anybody to appoint himself an executioner on the spot and be the agent of the religion in murdering anyone they like. This is fantastically dangerous and we decide to invest ourselves completely in the idea that there are moderates to be found, if we can pay them, who will fend this off. I don’t think there’s a prayer of that, to coin a phrase. Especially if we appear to be their patrons.
LAMB: How do you I mean ...
HITCHENS: I think we’re totally fooling ourselves.
LAMB: What about this process of having to face this illness are you surprised about? And the reason I ask you about I mean you went off on some substance there and some people just give all that up when they are faced with this kind of situation. I mean what’s changed, what about this process surprised you?
HITCHENS: My internal process?
LAMB: Your process of becoming ill and they tell you you’ve got stage four ...
LAMB: Esophageal cancer and all that I mean are you surprised about any of this the last six months? Because you’ve obviously thought about it. You wrote seven pages about death (INAUDILBE).
HITCHENS: Yes. Well, I think a memoir of a person who just past 60 has to face that. So I thought I owed that much to the readers. No, it hasn’t been all that surprising. I don’t know. It’s a commonplace thing. I mean I don’t I wrote this somewhere. I mean I don’t sit around asking myself why me, and if I did the cosmos wouldn’t bother to favor me with a reply. Wouldn’t even say why not. It’s a commonplace thing that’s not in my age and previous habits, it’s almost laughably predictable. The only interesting thing about it is its possible amenability to treatments that were unknown until very recently. The outcome of brilliant work by devoted people, some of whom I’m very lucky to count as friends.
LAMB: You know there are many examples we hear from friends and people we’ve known over the years where a doctor will say some very straight forward and crude things and ...
LAMB: Make life very uncomfortable. I remember there was a reporter in this town with the Washington Post you told me one day he’s no longer with us. The doctor called him after he’d had tests and he says, guess what, you got the big C. And I mean I couldn’t believe that he actually, you know happened. But the reason I bring this up is ...
HITCHENS: That is a big crass, I must say.
LAMB: What marks would you give the medical professional and the way they’ve treated you and have they give you hope that this thing can be licked?
HITCHENS: they’ve given me more than a margin of hope it can be licked, yes. And they haven’t pronounced on my chances unless I’ve asked them. Which I decided not to do at first until it occurred to me that it would be very useful for if you like accounting purposes to have a rough idea. Because one has to plan for ones loved ones and descendants.
I thought so for actuarial reasons I’d like to have a guess. They don’t like being asked because they don’t really know.
And the best answer I got was the following. If you took 1000 people who were myself, in other words, my age, my state of health, my gender, I think, 1000 of us today, half of us would be dead within a year. Of the remaining half, others might hope to live more than a year and of that number, quite a number. To live for a considerable number of years, they can’t do better than that. That was from a very senior person at the NIH who was expecting the question.
LAMB: What is your reaction to people like me? I mean we come to your apartment, we want to sit down and talk to you know why we’re here. We want to hear this story and you’ve had a bunch here, you know are you surprised at that?
HITCHENS: Little bit, yes. I was. But a lot of it I know has been to do with my stance on religion. A very large number of people have asked me doesn’t it change your attitude to the infinite, the eternal the supernatural and so forth. I’ve said that I really don’t see why it should. I’ve never thought it as a particularly searching question. If I I spent a lot of my life deciding that there isn’t any redemption, there is no salvation, that there’s no afterlife. That there’s no supervising boss. To if I was to tell you well now I’ve got a malignancy in my esophagus, that changes everything. You would think, I hope, the main effect had been on my IQ. It’s a complete logical non sequitur. It’s nothing to do with it.
So, I’ve enjoyed taking part in that argument. And there’s a certain ghoulish element, even about the nice people who’ve been praying for me. Because they are not just praying for my recovery, they’re praying for my reconciliation with religion. And I I proposed a trade off the other day, I said, I tell you what, what if we secularists stop going to hospitals and walking around the wards and asking if people are religious when they are in extremeness and in their last days and saying look, you’ve still got a little time, why don’t you live the last few days of it as a free person. You’ll feel much better. All that nonsense they taught you. You know you could still have every chance to give it up. Experience the life of a free thinking autonomous person. Don’t live in fear, don’t believe in mythology. They I don’t think they’d welcome it. And of course, we don’t do that. But it seems to be considered the right of almost everybody to do it the other way around. I don’t resent it at all, because I like every opportunity for the argument, but it a lot of it has been to do with that. I don’t flatter myself as a public figure, I rate all that highly.
LAMB: The book notes show we did in ’93. It’s a short clip. I want to run this and get your reaction to it.
This is a clip where you talk about how hating people can be a good thing if it is channeled correctly.
LAMB: So, is it still a good idea to hate people.
HITCHENS: Well, since it’s not really avoidable, I think the question is how to if you like, turn it to advantage. One of the things I don’t like about Christianity is the idea of compulsory love because I think it’s bound to lead to hypocrisy. People pretending to love more than they do. And also since it’s coupled with the injunction to love a god, you’re also supposed to fear, there’s every chance of that sort of curdling. There’s something very honest by contrast, to finding someone completely unbearable. I mean someone like Henry Kissinger for example. It’s bad to let it it’s a bit like alcohol if you’d like. It’s a good servant but it’s a bad master. I mean I have a completely cold hatred and contempt for Henry Kissinger, but it doesn’t waste much of my time. It s just that it enables me to penetrate, I think, the sort of fog of sentiment and bogus reputation in which he’s shrouded and protected.
And it doesn’t eat away at me. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, doesn’t poison me. Doesn’t fill me with bile. But I can’t pretend that it’s just a matter of political disagreement. I mean I think there is such a thing as evil in the world. And sometimes, personified. And I think was under no obligation to be ambivalent there.
LAMB: Did you change your mind at all about Mother Theresa?
HITCHENS: What would change my mind about her? I didn’t never one couldn’t exactly hate her. Because in a way she was a pathetic figure. But I detested the influence that she had. I could tell you why in a sentence if you want. Well, the very reason is that she’s so celebrated, we have this apparent concern for the poor of the world, or the poorest of the poor as she was always obliging us to say. Well as it happens we know what the cure for poverty is or what a certain cure for poverty is and it goes under the name the empowerment of women. It works everywhere, Bangladesh, Bolivia, name it. Give women some control over their reproductive cycle. Get them off the animal routine of breeding machine and the level of poverty will decline, sharply. It’s never, never known to fail. It’s a consistent finding. Just for an example, this is my central point about, Mother Theresa spent her entire life opposing the only thing that works. Opposing all forms of birth control, comparing them to abortion, which she called murder. I mean directly, in here Nobel Prize speech. Said that was the main threat to peace in the world, which is a fanatical stupid thing to say. That’s basically it. That plus the reputation for sanctity that she got for preaching this nonsense. But one could add, her friendship was the worst of the richest of the rich. People like Charles Keating of the savings and loan who was a great friend of hers. She took sterling money from him, refused when the court asked to return it. Took money from the devaluated dictatorship in Haiti which treated the poor like pigs, worse. Blessed them in return, gave them divine sanction. Goes on. Her whole effect was entirely retrograde and no one ever wrote any but one story about her until I wrote my critique. And in that book, it’s very short, I make five or six other direct accusations against her, backed up by fact and that books been reviewed by ever newspaper in the world, including all the religious press. And no one’s ever pointed out a mistake in it. Not one. And if half of what I say is true about her, then none of what is commonly believed about her is true. But I’m used to this now. People need, every now and then a complete illusion. And this was one.
LAMB: What would you do if Henry Kissinger decided to call you and bury the hatchet after all these years?
HITCHENS: I would be extremely interesting. But one of the reasons I detest him is I sort of know that couldn’t happen. He wouldn’t even agree, when I was writing my book about him, to have questions submitted in writing. Let alone to meet me. He’s made it a condition when he appears on television programs that he not be asked about the book. I know this from the producers, several of them. He made it a condition of his appearance at the national press club, which I don’t think should have agreed that he not be asked about the book.
Never mind his attitude to me. There’s no reason to like me, but I mean I would have pretended I if I was him I would have pretended who’s this guy Hitchens, I don’t care. But I know I needled him. But more important. If you think of the things he’s been found out as having done, lying about Vietnam, lying about Chile, Bangladesh (INAUDILBE), the deaths of so many people needlessly for the vanity of himself and his criminal president.
We have other people from that period in our history, Robert McNamara, the Bundy (ph) brothers, others, William Colby (ph) who in their books, in their memoirs, tried to make some kind of restitution. They said actually this was pretty bad policy and we sort of suspected at the time that it was bad, maybe worse. We’re sort of sorry and actually we have some evidence we feel we should share with you, some disclosures that you should have had at the time. Make so much up (ph).
Kissingers never said a word of self criticism. Not one. And he gets very petulant and angry and spoiled and ugly when he’s criticized. So the as jeeves (ph) says in another context verti (ph), the contingency sir, is a remote one. But if he was to try it, I’d be fascinated to meet him. Of course.
LAMB: We don’t have much time.
HITCHENS: Look, don’t say that. I’ll be the judge of that.
LAMB: If you knew that there was a certain amount of time left, I have no idea six months, a year, whatever. If things you want to do? Maybe gone through that process?
HITCHENS: Yes, but what they don’t tell you, you see, is what kind of months these will be. That’s the other reason they don’t like being asked.
LAMB: What have you not done (INAUDILBE).
HITCHENS: I mean if I was in you probably remember Stephen Solarz. The late congressman.
HITCHENS: Very interesting man. Had the same thing as me. Died recently. But before he died, he’d had about four or five cancer for years and he’d done a lot of traveling, he kept up his interest in human rights and international policy and then he got word that it was back and probably that that was it and he made fairly short work of dying. This was a few weeks ago.
That’s what I’d need to know. I mean the great loss to me in the last few months is the inability to travel. I got to Toronto for thanksgiving. That wasn’t that hard. I’ve been to California. I’ve been to with a private plane, very kindly that was sent for me to do a speaking engagement in Montana. I’ve finally got to see the Little Bighorn, which I’ve always wanted to. And the wonderful national park. So I’ve now only got three American states unvisited.
LAMB: Which ones?
HITCHENS: The Dakotas and Nebraska. I’ve done all the others plus Puerto Rico.
LAMB: Any plan to go back to your home country? You’re an American citizen
HITCHENS: Yes, I worried it’s sentimental I know, but someone said to me randomly the other day, are you afraid of not seeing England again and I realized yes I was. I can’t bear the idea of not going back. At least once. But I couldn’t do it now. I might have to be told I was on what they call a chemo holiday.
LAMB: We are out of time and I think the best way to end it is to say I’ll see you in a couple years.
LAMB: And we’ll do this again.
HITCHENS: You bet.
LAMB: Thank you very much.
HITCHENS: My pleasure. It is, Brian, isn’t it?