New Orleans: a national humiliation

Anthony Lane reports from the city failed by its president

As you enter New Orleans, you would not know that, two years on, the city is still reeling from the effects of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

When I ask a fellow bus passenger, a middle-aged Texan in town for a boozy weekend, about reports of rocketing crime and hundreds of thousands still living in trailers, he upbraids me. "That's a whole loada leftwing crap. Just look at the place".

It's easy to sympathise with this view. The Central Business District of the city is gleaming, full of impressive colonnaded buildings, home to banks and swanky hotels. Indeed, beholding the obvious wealth at the heart of the Big Easy brings to mind Donald Trump's comment when President Bush promised to pump $200bn into the wider Gulf Coast after Katrina. "Now anybody that lived there is going to be a multimillionaire", he said of those whose homes were destroyed.

The main tourist area, the French Quarter, looks similarly unaffected and lives up to New Orleans' reputation of being 'the city that care forgot', the birthplace of jazz and the cocktail. Wandering down legendary, decadent Bourbon Street with its loud bars offering cocktails to go, is an assault on the senses. Not only is a good time guaranteed but the French Quarter feels incredibly safe, with patrols performed not just by local police but also by the Louisiana state police and the National Guard.

It is the latter's presence, however, which hints that all is far from well. The National Guard has stayed in the city at the request of Mayor Ray Nagin, in an effort to stem an explosion in crime. Murder, almost always black on black and located away from tourist hotspots, is reaching epidemic proportions. In 2006, there were 63 murders per 100,000 residents, the highest murder rate in the entire country and ten times that of New York. This figure may well be an underestimate.

One local academic, Prof Mark VanLandingham of Tulane University, has suggested the real one is 96 per 100,000. If true, that would mean New Orleans has twice the murder rate of America's second most murderous city, Gary in Indiana.

Figures for the first three months of 2007 are equally shocking. According to the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), overall violent crime increased by 107% in the space of one year. Armed robbery was up 135% on 2006 figures and murder rose by 182%. The crime wave is out of all proportion to the rise in population – thought to have increased by 62% – as residents returned to their gutted homes. (Many seem to have abandoned the city for good and one third of New Orleanians tell pollsters they want to leave.)

In January, there was almost a murder a day, prompting a march on city hall by angry residents. As a result, overnight police checkpoints have been set up across the city and the National Guard has launched aerial patrols. There are also 22 FBI agents on patrol. But a beefed-up federal presence cannot disguise falling police numbers.

Officially, the number of officers is down from 1,668 in 2005 to 1,400 today. However, the latter figure includes sick, injured and depressed officers (there are few who don't have harrowing stories from the aftermath of Katrina). Solidifying the city's reputation as the nation's capital of crime, Fox is setting its latest police drama, K-Ville, in New Orleans.

The city is showing little sign of coping with the consequences of the complete breakdown in the criminal justice system. State charges against 3,000 criminal suspects were dropped in 2006 because of a lack of resources to prosecute them. There were 162 murders last year but only three have seen convictions. Murders often go unsolved because the city does not have the resources to fund adequate witness relocation or change witnesses' identities. Residents are all too aware that drug gangs, often linked to these murders, are living much closer to their homes since Katrina. Armed drugs dealers are now encamped in hundreds of abandoned houses in the Ninth Ward, the worst hit area of the city. Police are widely criticised for not patrolling beyond main streets. Some locals sport T-shirts with the words, "NOPD: Not Our Problem Dude" emblazoned on them.

There is one very safe way of seeing the damage wrought by Katrina and just how little has been done to help those trying to rebuild their lives in areas like the Ninth Ward. The Hurricane Katrina Tour, a guided bus tour run by national tour operator Gray Line, is the epitome of disaster tourism; taking visitors around the most wretched parts of the city. The guide, a witty, middle-aged white woman called Sandra, ended up sleeping on one of the unbroken levees and went two days without food or water before being rescued. "Is anyone here from the government?" she asks. "I want to make sure I punch the right people."

The sheer chaos after the storm smashed the city's flood walls and levees is realised by way of some amazing tales. We drive by the impressive Aquarium of the Americas, the stench from which was apparently unbearable as 10,000 fish gently cooked in the 98 degree heat. Then there is the Superdome, home to 28,000 desperate residents whose plight led to comparisons with the third world.

We go by impressive cemeteries. New Orleans, by long tradition, buries its dead above ground. The storm tore the tops off many graves with the effect that the skeletons of the long-since-departed floated next to the corpses of Katrina's 1,600 victims. Despite having the footage, American TV networks did not broadcast such images. The bus goes past houses belonging to the guide's friends, one of whom saved 65 people by cramming them into her home which has since been looted 17 times.

Another spent 10 days living on top of his home and bore witness to a deer trying to avoid the rising water by jumping from rooftop to rooftop, only to be gobbled by a shark swum in with the Gulf of Mexico. Chemical and oil spills, death by poisonous snakes, sharks, corpses and skeletons: it is anarchy even Hobbes would have found difficult to imagine.

But the true horror is more banal; it is in the sheer scale of what remains to be done, two years on. There are so many homes boarded up, still marked by paint indicating how many people – and their pets – were found dead there. Trailers are parked outside thousands of properties as people rebuild their homes. Many are beyond repair. Nine hundred houses are torn down each month in the city. There are hundreds of 'for sale' and 'now leasing' signs outside properties with smashed windows. Some of the most beautiful houses built in the richer Bayou area in the 19th Century are unscathed because they were constructed a few feet above ground (residents of old were worried about the possibility of flooding). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now requires properties most at risk to be raised three feet above ground and we see a few strange-looking homes which have been raised several feet, almost as if they are on stilts.

The bus takes a turn off one of the main roads and goes through the Ninth Ward, trailers and crumpled homes everywhere. We are in closer proximity to residents than at any other point in the trip and we see children walking barefooted. A certain queasiness sets in and the bus windows begin to feel almost like the screens at a zoo. I'm not surprised on later learning that the locals hate the tour and the gawping it entails.

The long-term damage to the economy is also obvious. We go past the place where a newly-opened 55ft shopping mall once stood and then by the rollercoasters of a derelict theme park which would take hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild. The local oyster beds were all destroyed, we are told, along with 10,000 boats. Environmental damage is apparent from the swathes of dead trees on the outskirts of the city. Marshes are still dying, due to the effects of salt water.

We see one of 50 new city landfills where debris from 2005 is still being dumped. According to Nagin the city has had to clear up six times as much debris as New York did after 9/11. A gigantic NASA compound can be seen on the horizon. Despite being badly hit, the federal government made sure it was operational just six weeks after Katrina, says the guide disgustedly, neglecting to mention that her tour was up and running only 10 weeks after that. Indeed, for all the sentimentalism about rebuilding the city, when I ask if the tour donates its profits to the victims of Katrina, the reply is a little frosty. "We've given $3000", she says. Considering that it runs twice daily, has a capacity of 40 and charges $35, I fail to disguise my surprise at such thinly-veiled parsimony.

But it is a brilliant tour, one which brings home the neglect and incompetence of Bush's administration. By the end, however, it becomes a desensitising experience as one gutted home leads on to another. "Too much. It's just too much," says the woman behind me, as the three hour trip draws to a close.

Reconstruction in New Orleans and beyond has been painfully slow. Public services in the city are in dire straits. In his recent State of the City address, Nagin said, "Healthcare in our city is in crisis…our mental health patients have been abandoned". Despite rocketing mental illness, the 300 public and private psychiatric beds destroyed by Katrina have not been replaced. The Louisiana State University hospital is on the verge of opening a 10-bed unit situated in a temporary building. Even if the city could provide more beds, it is questionable whether it could find or fund mental health workers to practice there. Higher education is in a bad way. The American Association of University Professors recently took the highly unusual step of marking out all of the city's universities for criticism.

Yet the greatest anger is directed at the failure of Road Home, the programme through which residents whose homes were destroyed or damaged, are compensated. Incredibly, along the entire Gulf Coast there are 87,000 households living in mobile homes and travel trailers and another 33,000 living in federally subsidised apartments. The federal government is supposed to provide the money to residents based on estimates made by the state of Louisiana about the level of damage their properties sustained. But the programme has an estimated shortfall of between $2.9bn and $5bn, with the result that a stunning four fifths of Road Home applicants have not received anything.

Consequently, many have failed to return. The population is thought to be around the 250,000 mark, well below the pre-Katrina population of 455,000.

Some fault the private firm put in charge of Road Home and hired by the outgoing Governor Kathleen Blanco on the basis that the private sector would be more efficient. Others ask why the state government, enjoying a budget surplus, cannot itself put more money into Road Home. But the real blame game is between the state government and FEMA.

The federal government agency's Donald Powell, President Bush's co-ordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, blames the state government for awarding grants to those ineligible for compensation. The federal government, Powell has argued, takes full responsibility for the flood damage due to the failure of the federally-managed levees but is not responsible for the hurricane's wind-related damage. Not true, says the Louisana Recovery Authority, pointing to the fact that in June 2006, the federal government approved the state's application for all to be compensated.

FEMA's position and the Road Home shortfall has resulted not only in many residents being denied the compensation to which they are legally entitled but has also led to the federal government now trying to claw back some $485m from those who have been helped – a sum it spends every 42 hours in Iraq. It is little wonder that Nagin recently lashed out at the "unfulfilled promises" of the federal government as well as "an unprecedented bureaucracy, a misguided Road Home programme, a state government flush with cash while citizens go broke trying to come home".

For her part, Blanco, a Democrat like Nagin, has blasted the amount of money given to the state. Louisiana, she says, was "low-balled" by the federal government, pointing out that neighbouring Mississippi, which was also hit by Katrina, has been given $5.5bn in grants compared to $10.4bn for Louisiana even though the latter sustained five times as much damage. The differential treatment, Blanco and many others claim, is down to Mississippi having a Republican governor who helped to get Bush elected. Moreover, hurricane-related spending decisions were signed off, until the 2006 Congressional elections, by the Senate Appropriations Committee which was chaired by a Republican Senator from Mississippi.

Just how badly some are suffering becomes clear at a protest 80 miles away in Louisiana's state capital, Baton Rouge. Apart from a few white hippies and volunteers, almost all of the 200 protestors are black and yet to receive compensation for the damage to their homes. Their placards say "Show Me The Money", pouring scorn on the federal government's claim to have spent $110bn on the Gulf Coast since Katrina. The anger is palpable. Some speakers on the steps of the Capitol building are almost screaming despite having megaphones to hand. Nagin has also joined them. He is an eloquent and impressive speaker, with an easy ability to command applause and share in the protestors' frustrations. I ask a nurse what she thought of the speech. "It was great – for all the good it will do".

Nagin has the unenviable task of radiating optimism to residents about the future whilst emphasising just how bad things are in order to get more federal funds. His poll ratings have plummeted as anger over crime and the lack of reconstruction has risen. Lakeisha, a waitress, calls him 'crooked', a word that gets used a lot. As the protest breaks up, I talk to one man, still living in his damp, rotting house and carrying a placard stating, 'Louisiana has the best politicians money can buy'. I ask if that's true of Nagin as the mayor glad-hands right next to us. "Him too. Everybody is."

There is no reason to think this is the case. Nagin made a name for himself before Katrina as a 'corruption-buster'. What such comments reflect is a dangerous contempt for, and anger at, all politicians and the institutions of government as well as the fact that in Louisiana, politics has long been a byword for brazen corruption. (Indeed, just as the city and state attempt to convince Congress that any extra money will be wisely spent, one Louisiana congressman, William "Dollar Bill" Jefferson, has been indicted on multiple counts of corruption. Amazingly, he was re-elected in 2006, despite the allegations swirling around him and the FBI discovering $90,000 hidden in his freezer.)

Another, more considered, critique of Nagin is that, as a relative newcomer to the choppy waters of Louisiana politics – before he became mayor, Nagin was a cable television executive with no previous political experience – he has been unable to navigate through a plethora of vested local interests. It must be frustrating to be simultaneously tarred by association with Louisiana politics and damned for not being well versed in it.

The flip side of being a passionate speaker is Nagin's loose tongue which has got him into trouble more than once. Campaigning for re-election last year and in need of black votes, Nagin pledged that New Orleans would remain a "chocolate city", i.e. predominantly black.

Heavily criticised in the national media and lampooned as the Willy Wonka of American politics, he apologised and then hilariously claimed his words were consistent with his previous pledges to reduce racial divisions. "How do you make chocolate?" he asked. "You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about".

Perhaps more damaging to the reputation of Nagin and the city was the choice of Ed Blakely as recovery tsar. Blakely makes Nagin look like a paragon of diplomacy. Showing total contempt for the people he was supposed to be helping, Blakely was once quoted as calling many New Orleanians "buffoons" and has compared the city to "a third world country". On another occasion, he suggested the state should learn about birth control, comparing it unfavourably to California. It was an ignorant as well as insulting remark: on average, Louisiana actually has fewer children per family than California. Worse still, when back home in Australia, Blakely went on local radio and accused the city of exaggerating its pre-Katrina population so as to maximise funds from the federal government after the storm. He apologised and blamed "a serious medical condition" for his comments. With recovery chiefs like this.

Proposals made by both Nagin and Blakely to raise more money for recovery have not progressed. Both have spoken of issuing so-called blight bonds, using damaged properties as collateral to borrow $300m. Until recently, however, the city had a bond rating of junk, stymieing such ideas. There are a plethora of blueprints, action zones, commissions and recovery agencies, but no money with which to proceed. What progress has been made is the result of loans, donations from foundations and a partial recovery of the city's tax base thanks to the return of tourists.

But however justified the criticisms of Nagin, Blakely, Blanco et al might be, as one of the organisers of the Baton Rouge protest says, "No state or city government, no matter how efficient, could have coped with this". New Orleans has been in need of a Leviathan but has instead been dealt the most uncaring and incompetent administration in modern American history.

The charge sheet against Bush's management is damning. Before Katrina hit, the Army Corps of Engineers required $62.5m to maintain Louisiana's flood control project, only for the administration to cut the budget to just $10.5m. There was a 44% reduction in spending on the levees between 2001-2005. Bush downgraded the status of FEMA, which had warned in 2001 that a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most probable disasters to befall the US. FEMA was placed in the charge of the Homeland Security department, miring it in "a dysfunctional bureaucracy", according to Hillary Clinton.

The shockingly indolent response to the disaster was, of course, a national humiliation. Some of the last people to be rescued, in nearby St Bernard, were saved not by American troops, but by the much-lampooned Canadian Mounties. And now, given the desperate shortage of cash, New Orleans is once again embarrassing the country.

Nagin recently announced that he is in contact with foreign governments who offered aid in the wake of Katrina. Their offers, totalling $854m, were rejected by the Bush administration. In an unprecedented act, Nagin has decided "to go around the federal government" to see if any of those offers are still on the table.

Whether New Orleans is in better shape to withstand another hurricane of Katrina's magnitude – it was a Category 3 hurricane by the time it hit the city – is an open question. The city successfully lobbied Congress for a strengthening of its levees and flood defences, guaranteeing it "100-year protection". But work on the new defence system will not be completed until 2011. There is no doubt that it is a big task. Though maintenance before the storm cost very little, Katrina left 225 miles of levees in need of repair with the result that the corps has been given $5.7bn. According to Col Jeff Bedey, the commander of the Hurricane Protection Office, the system "is stronger today than it was pre-Katrina".

However, the colonel was careful not to give categorical assurances and some engineers have stated that a prolonged Category 2 hurricane would flood the city once more. Ivor Van Heerden of the Louisiana State University Hurricane Centre, whose pre-Katrina warnings about the dangers facing New Orleans were ignored, maintains that there are still "weak links" in basic flood defences. According to an internal army corps report, because of the rush to offer as much protection as quickly as possible, new pumps installed in 2006 have failed to work correctly. Water has recently seeped through cracks in flood walls that have supposedly been restored.

But the potential for further ruin goes beyond the city. Nearby Terrebonne is thought to be most at risk of flooding and Congress has approved a $900m levee system. The Bush administration has yet to give the nod to construction with the result that residents have had to tax themselves $80m in order to provide 'interim protection'. The main consoling thought for anxious residents waiting for 2011 is that Katrina is often described as a '1 in 400' event. That anxiety is not helped by constant reports of what remains to be done. 'Hurricane hype' is amusingly lambasted by weather presenters on the very news programmes that generate it.

The predominating emotion is not anxiety but depression. "Everyone's depressed", says Ben, another organiser of the Baton Rouge protest. Despite having just over half its 2005 population, suicide prevention calls are up 800%. People speak of 'Katrina fatigue' – hardly surprising given the never-ending slew of bad news stories relating back to the hurricane, which can involve anything from 'ailing theatres' to having the highest rates of bankruptcy and heart attacks in the country. Nagin claims the death rate in the city is up 47% and the state as a whole continues to rank 50th in health surveys. There are a startling number of people coughing, despite the very warm summer heat.

The city at times seems almost cursed. I came across the story of one broken man whose home in the neighbourhood of Gentilly was badly damaged by the storm. He returned and spent the better part of 2006 using his life savings to rebuild it while he lived outside in a trailer, frequently fending off would-be looters. Just as he was about to move back in, a tornado ripped through the city in February, leading to 30,000 households going without power and a state of emergency being declared. It also slammed his trailer against his house. He is now living in a second trailer. He was lucky only by comparison with his neighbour, 86 year old Stella, who was killed in her newly refurbished home when her old trailer was thrown against it.

The other prevailing feeling is anger. Iraq hangs over New Orleans, almost as pungent as the smells due to poor drainage, another post-Katrina blight. Indeed, in another unguarded remark he was made to regret, Nagin suggested Katrina demonstrated God's anger at the US for going to war. Most New Orleanians are quick to link the cuts in flood defences preceding the hurricane with the president's $1 trillion war of choice. 'Make levees, not war' T-shirts are available in most tourist shops. "All that Road Home money, it went on the war", says Ann, a hotel worker who also recalls the Asian tsunami. "All that aid to a country no one had heard of, and in the US, we get nothing".

This anger is expressed most acutely by blacks. The racial divisions in the city, which was 67% black before Katrina, have always been stark. As Nagin said in his 2005 State of the City address, "Parts of our city are mired in violent crime, unemployment…and children are trapped in failing schools". Those parts were black and remain so. The anger and despair felt by blacks has been likened by Barack Obama to the situation in Los Angeles in the 1980s before race riots overtook the city in 1992.

New Orleans feels like a city at a crossroads. There is a danger that the "quiet riot" identified by Obama becomes audible and violent, that the city fails to get a grip on crime and that tens of thousands continue to wait for compensation. On the other hand, help may now come from a Democrat Congress, prodded into action by all three of the party's main presidential candidates who have promised more money should they be made president in 2008.

The city continues to be helped by a veritable army of volunteers. The work of charities like Habitat for Humanity has been invaluable. While no substitute for government action, the American volunteer culture is a truly impressive and noble sight to behold, as children from all around the country use their holidays to rebuild victims' homes. In especially rough areas like Treme, citizens are attempting to reclaim their neighbourhoods by way of rallies and public meetings. Recently, the first school in the Lower Ninth Ward was reopened, a 'Herculean effort' say local officials, considering that other dilapidated schools have had to house guard dogs to stop constant looting of pipes as well as the wood used to board the schools up.

Leaving the city centre, you are struck once more by its wealth and the fundamental strength of the city's position as a hub for big business and tourism. For all the public squalor, private investment is gathering pace. The city is manna from heaven for property speculators and 150,000 building permits, worth $3.7bn, have been issued. Furthermore, 62,000 out of the city's 81,000 businesses have now reopened. There is one particularly striking billboard, advertising a $400m, 70-storey tower which will be the tallest building in the state when completed in 2010 and which hopes to attract the affluent to condos priced between $375,000 and $3.3m. It seems somehow fitting that the proprietor is none other than Donald Trump.

The city of New Orleans has proven itself to be George Bush's domestic crucible, laying bare the sheer incompetence and callousness of the president. The administration's criminal neglect has meant that two years after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of American citizens endure a soul-destroying existence and the daily humiliations and indignities of trailer park life. Their homes destroyed, their humanity crushed and their promised compensation denied, they have become a diaspora of human detritus, left to rot by the pioneers of compassionate conservatism.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?

Amanda Edwards/Getty Images
Show Hide image

“Never be afraid of stridency”: Richard Dawkins’ interview with Christopher Hitchens

Is America heading for theocracy? How worrying is the rise of the Tea Party? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins discuss God and US politics.

The 2011 Christmas issue of the New Statesman was guest edited by Richard Dawkins. This is his interview with Christopher Hitchens from that issue. It was to be Hitchens' final interview; he died as it was published. A sensation at the time, it is now available to read online for the first time.

Richard Dawkins (left) and Christopher Hitchens in conversation

Richard Dawkins Do you have any memories of life at the New Statesman?

Christopher Hitchens Not that I want to impart. It seems like a different world and a different magazine and it happened to a different person. I’d love them to interview me one day about it, for an edition about the role of the Statesman, but I’d really rather you and I focus on the pulse of the issue, which is obviously our common cause.

RD I’ve been reading some of your recent collections of essays – I’m astounded by your sheer erudition. You seem to have read absolutely everything. I can’t think of anybody since Aldous Huxley who’s so well read.

CH It may strike some people as being broad but it’s possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn’t have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word “polymath” came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who’s interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I’ve got good memory retention. I retain what’s interesting to me, but I don’t have a lot of strategic depth. A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I’m in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I’m not. But it’s something to at least have had the comparison made – it’s better than I expected when I started.

RD As an Orwell scholar, you must have a particular view of North Korea, Stalin, the Soviet Union, and you must get irritated – perhaps even more than I do – by the constant refrain we hear: “Stalin was an atheist.”

CH We don’t know for sure that he was. Hitler definitely wasn’t. There is a possibility that Himmler was. It’s very unlikely but it wouldn’t make any difference, either way. There’s no mandate in atheism for any particular kind of politics, anyway.

RD The people who did Hitler’s dirty work were almost all religious.

CH I’m afraid the SS’s relationship with the Catholic Church is something the Church still has to deal with and does not deny.

RD Can you talk a bit about that – the relationship of Nazism with the Catholic Church?

CH The way I put it is this: if you’re writing about the history of the 1930s and the rise of totalitarianism, you can take out the word “fascist”, if you want, for Italy, Portugal, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Austria and replace it with “extremeright Catholic party”. Almost all of those regimes were in place with the help of the Vatican and with understandings from the Holy See. It’s not denied. These understandings quite often persisted after the Second World War was over and extended to comparable regimes in Argentina and elsewhere.

RD But there were individual priests who did good things.

CH Not very many. You would know their names if there were more of them. When it comes to National Socialism, there’s no question there’s a mutation, a big one – the Nazis wanted their own form of worship. Just as they thought they were a separate race, they wanted their own religion. They dug out the Norse gods, all kinds of extraordinary myths and legends from the old sagas. They wanted to control the churches. They were willing to make a deal with them. The first deal Hitler made with the Catholic Church was the Konkordat. The Church agreed to dissolve its political party and he got control over German education, which was a pretty good deal. Celebrations of his birthday were actually by order from the pulpit. When Hitler survived an assassination attempt, prayers were said, and so forth. But there’s no doubt about it, [the Nazis] wanted control – and they were willing to clash with the churches to get it. There’s another example. You swore on Almighty God that you would never break your oath to the Führer. This is not even secular, let alone atheist.

RD There was also grace before meals, personally thanking Adolf Hitler.

CH I believe there was. Certainly, you can hear the oath being taken – there are recordings of it – but this, Richard, is a red herring. It’s not even secular. They’re changing the subject.

RD But it comes up over and over again.

CH You mentioned North Korea. It is, in every sense, a theocratic state. It’s almost supernatural, in that the births of the [ruling] Kim family are considered to be mysterious and accompanied by happenings. It’s a necrocracy or mausolocracy, but there’s no possible way you could say it’s a secular state, let alone an atheist one. Attempts to found new religions should attract our scorn just as much as the alliances with the old ones do. All they’re saying is that you can’t claim Hitler was distinctively or specifically Christian: “Maybe if he had gone on much longer, he would have de-Christianised a bit more.” This is all a complete fog of nonsense. It’s bad history and it’s bad propaganda.

RD And bad logic, because there’s no connection between atheism and doing horrible things, whereas there easily can be a connection in the case of religion, as we see with modern Islam.

CH To the extent that they are new religions – Stalin worship and Kim Il-sungism – we, like all atheists, regard them with horror.

RD You debated with Tony Blair. I’m not sure I watched that. I love listening to you [but] I can’t bear listening to . . . Well, I mustn’t say that. I think he did come over as rather nice on that evening.

CH He was charming, that evening. And during the day, as well.

RD What was your impression of him?

CH You can only have one aim per debate. I had two in debating with Tony Blair. The first one was to get him to admit that it was not done – the stuff we complain of – in only the name of religion. That’s a cop-out. The authority is in the text. Second, I wanted to get him to admit, if possible, that giving money to a charity or organising a charity does not vindicate a cause. I got him to the first one and I admired his honesty. He was asked by the interlocutor at about half-time: “Which of Christopher’s points strikes you as the best?” He said: “I have to admit, he’s made his case, he’s right. This stuff, there is authority for it in the canonical texts, in Islam, Judaism.” At that point, I’m ready to fold – I’ve done what I want for the evening. We did debate whether Catholic charities and so on were a good thing and I said: “They are but they don’t prove any point and some of them are only making up for damage done.” For example, the Church had better spend a lot of money doing repair work on its Aids policy in Africa, [to make up for preaching] that condoms don’t prevent disease or, in some cases, that they spread it. It is iniquitous. It has led to a lot of people dying, horribly. Also, I’ve never looked at some of the ground operations of these charities – apart from Mother Teresa – but they do involve a lot of proselytising, a lot of propaganda. They’re not just giving out free stuff. They’re doing work to recruit.

RD And Mother Teresa was one of the worst offenders?

CH She preached that poverty was a gift from God. And she believed that women should not be given control over the reproductive cycle. Mother Teresa spent her whole life making sure that the one cure for poverty we know is sound was not implemented. So Tony Blair knows this but he doesn’t have an answer. If I say, “Your Church preaches against the one cure for poverty,” he doesn’t deny it, but he doesn’t affirm it either. But remember, I did start with a text and I asked him to comment on it first, but he never did. Cardinal Newman said he would rather the whole world and everyone in it be painfully destroyed and condemned for ever to eternal torture than one sinner go unrebuked for the stealing of a sixpence. It’s right there in the centre of the Apologia. The man whose canonisation Tony had been campaigning for. You put these discrepancies in front of him and he’s like all the others. He keeps two sets of books. And this is also, even in an honest person, shady.

RD It’s like two minds, really. One notices this with some scientists.

CH I think we all do it a bit.

RD Do we?

CH We’re all great self-persuaders.

RD But do we hold such extreme contradictions in our heads?

CH We like to think our colleagues would point them out, in our group, anyway. No one’s pointed out to me in reviewing my God book God Is Not Great that there’s a flat discrepancy between the affirmation he makes on page X and the affirmation he makes on page Y.

RD But they do accuse you of being a contrarian, which you’ve called yourself . . .

CH Well, no, I haven’t. I’ve disowned it. I was asked to address the idea of it and I began by saying it’s got grave shortcomings as an idea, but I am a bit saddled with it.

RD I’ve always been very suspicious of the leftright dimension in politics.

CH Yes; it’s broken down with me.

RD It’s astonishing how much traction the left-right continuum [has] . . . If you know what someone thinks about the death penalty or abortion, then you generally know what they think about everything else. But you clearly break that rule.

CH I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do. That has secular forms with gurus and dictators, of course, but it’s essentially the same. There have been some thinkers – Orwell is pre-eminent – who understood that, unfortunately, there is innate in humans a strong tendency to worship, to become abject. So we’re not just fighting the dictators. We’re criticising our fellow humans for trying to short-cut, to make their lives simpler, by surrendering and saying, “[If] you offer me bliss, of course I’m going to give up some of my mental freedom for that.” We say it’s a false bargain: you’ll get nothing. You’re a fool.

RD That part of you that was, or is, of the radical left is always against the totalitarian dictators.

CH Yes. I was a member of the Trotskyist group – for us, the socialist movement could only be revived if it was purged of Stalinism . . . It’s very much a point for our view that Stalinism was a theocracy.

RD One of my main beefs with religion is the way they label children as a “Catholic child” or a “Muslim child”. I’ve become a bit of a bore about it.

CH You must never be afraid of that charge, any more than stridency.

RD I will remember that.

CH If I was strident, it doesn’t matter – I was a jobbing hack, I bang my drum. You have a discipline in which you are very distinguished. You’ve educated a lot of people; nobody denies that, not even your worst enemies. You see your discipline being attacked and defamed and attempts made to drive it out.

Stridency is the least you should muster . . . It’s the shame of your colleagues that they don’t form ranks and say, “Listen, we’re going to defend our colleagues from these appalling and obfuscating elements.” If you go on about something, the worst thing the English will say about you, as we both know – as we can say of them, by the way – is that they’re boring.

RD Indeed. Only this morning, I was sent a copy of [advice from] a British government website, called something like “The Responsibilities of Parents”. One of these responsibilities was “determine the child’s religion”. Literally, determine. It means establish, cause . . . I couldn’t ask for a clearer illustration, because, sometimes, when I make my complaint about this, I’m told nobody actually does label children Catholic children or Muslim children.

CH Well, the government does. It’s borrowed, as far as I can see, in part from British imperial policy, in turn borrowed from Ottoman and previous empires – you classify your new subjects according to their faith. You can be an Ottoman citizen but you’re a Jewish one or an Armenian Christian one. And some of these faiths tell their children that the children of other faiths are going to hell. I think we can’t ban that, nor can we call it “hate speech”, which I’m dubious about anyway, but there should be a wrinkle of disapproval.

RD I would call it mental child abuse.

CH I can’t find a way, as a libertarian, of saying that people can’t raise their children, as they say, according to their rights. But the child has rights and society does, too. We don’t allow female – and I don’t think we should countenance male – genital mutilation.

Now, it would be very hard to say that you can’t tell your child that they are lucky and they have joined the one true faith. I don’t see how you stop it. I only think the rest of society should look at it with a bit of disapproval, which it doesn’t. If you’re a Mormon and you run for office and say, “Do you believe in the golden plates that were dug up by Joseph Smith?” – which [Mitt] Romney hasn’t been asked yet – sorry, you’re going to get mocked. You’re going to get laughed at.

RD There is a tendency among liberals to feel that religion should be off the table.

CH Or even that there’s anti-religious racism, which I think is a terrible limitation.

RD Romney has questions to answer.

CH Certainly, he does. The question of Mormon racism did come up, to be fair, and the Church did very belatedly make amends for saying what, in effect, it had been saying: that black people’s souls weren’t human, quite. They timed it suspiciously for the passage of legislation. Well, OK, then they grant the right of society to amend [the legislation]. To that extent, they’re opportunists.

RD But what about the daftness of Mormonism? The fact that Joseph Smith was clearly a charlatan –

CH I know, it’s extraordinary.

RD I think there is a convention in America that you don’t tackle somebody about their religion.

CH Yes, and in a way it’s attributed to pluralism. And so, to that extent, one wants to respect it, but I think it can be exploited. By many people, including splinter-group Mormons who still do things like plural marriage and, very repulsively, compulsory dowries – they basically give away their daughters, often to blood relatives. And also kinship marriages that are too close. This actually won’t quite do. When it is important, they tend to take refuge in: “You’re attacking my fundamental right.” I don’t think they really should be allowed that.

RD Do you think America is in danger of becoming a theocracy?

CH No, I don’t. The people who we mean when we talk about that – maybe the extreme Protestant evangelicals, who do want a God-run America and believe it was founded on essentially fundamentalist Protestant principles – I think they may be the most overrated threat in the country.

RD Oh, good.

CH They’ve been defeated everywhere. Why is this? In the 1920s, they had a string of victories. They banned the sale, manufacture and distribution and consumption of alcohol. They made it the constitution. They more or less managed to ban immigration from countries that had non-Protestant, non-white majorities. From these victories, they have never recovered. They’ll never recover from [the failure of] Prohibition. It was their biggest defeat. They’ll never recover from the Scopes trial. Every time they’ve tried [to introduce the teaching of creationism], the local school board or the parents or the courts have thrown it out and it’s usually because of the work of people like you, who have shown that it’s nonsense. They try to make a free speech question out of it but they will fail with that, also. People don’t want to come from the town or the state or the county that gets laughed at.

RD Yes.

CH In all my tours around the South, it’s amazing how many people – Christians as well – want to disprove the idea that they’re all in thrall to people like [the fundamentalist preacher Jerry] Falwell. They don’t want to be a laughing stock.

RD Yes.

CH And if they passed an ordinance saying there will be prayer in school every morning from now on, one of two things would happen: it would be overthrown in no time by all the courts, with barrels of laughter heaped over it, or people would say: “Very well, we’re starting with Hindu prayer on Monday.” They would regret it so bitterly that there are days when I wish they would have their own way for a short time.

RD Oh, that’s very cheering.

CH I’m a bit more worried about the extreme, reactionary nature of the papacy now. But that again doesn’t seem to command very big allegiance among the American congregation. They are disobedient on contraception, flagrantly; on divorce; on gay marriage, to an extraordinary degree that I wouldn’t have predicted; and they’re only holding firm on abortion, which, in my opinion, is actually a very strong moral question and shouldn’t be decided lightly. I feel very squeamish about it. I believe that the unborn child is a real concept, in other words. We needn’t go there, but I’m not a complete abortion-on-demand fanatic. I think it requires a bit of reflection. But anyway, even on that, the Catholic Communion is very agonised. And also, [when] you go and debate with them, very few of them could tell you very much about what the catechism really is. It’s increasingly cultural Catholicism.

RD That is true, of course.

CH So, really, the only threat from religious force in America is the same as it is, I’m afraid, in many other countries – from outside. And it’s jihadism, some of it home-grown, but some of that is so weak and so self-discrediting.

RD It’s more of a problem in Britain.

CH And many other European countries, where its alleged root causes are being allowed slightly too friendly an interrogation, I think. Make that much too friendly.

RD Some of our friends are so worried about Islam that they’re prepared to lend support to Christianity as a kind of bulwark against it.

CH I know many Muslims who, in leaving the faith, have opted to go . . . to Christianity or via it to non-belief. Some of them say it’s the personality of Jesus of Nazareth. The mild and meek one, as compared to the rather farouche, physical, martial, rather greedy . . .

RD Warlord.

CH . . . Muhammad. I can see that that might have an effect.

RD Do you ever worry that if we win and, so to speak, destroy Christianity, that vacuum would be filled by Islam?

CH No, in a funny way, I don’t worry that we’ll win. All that we can do is make absolutely sure that people know there’s a much more wonderful and interesting and beautiful alternative. No, I don’t think that Europe would fill up with Muslims as it emptied of Christians. Christianity has defeated itself in that it has become a cultural thing. There really aren’t believing Christians in the way there were generations ago.

RD Certainly in Europe that’s true – but in America?

CH There are revivals, of course, and among Jews as well. But I think there’s a very longrunning tendency in the developed world and in large areas elsewhere for people to see the virtue of secularism, the separation of church and state, because they’ve tried the alternatives . . . Every time something like a jihad or a sharia movement has taken over any country – admittedly they’ve only been able to do it in very primitive cases – it’s a smouldering wreck with no productivity.

RD Total failure. If you look at religiosity across countries of the world and, indeed, across the states of the US, you find that religiosity tends to correlate with poverty and with various other indices of social deprivation.

CH Yes. That’s also what it feeds on. But I don’t want to condescend about that. I know a lot of very educated, very prosperous, very thoughtful people who believe.

RD Do you think [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison were deists, as is often said?

CH I think they fluctuated, one by one. Jefferson is the one I’m more happy to pronounce on. The furthest he would go in public was to incline to a theistic enlightened view but, in his private correspondence, he goes much further. He says he wishes we could return to the wisdom of more than 2,000 years ago. That’s in his discussion of his own Jefferson Bible, where he cuts out everything supernatural relating to Jesus. But also, very importantly, he says to his nephew Peter Carr in a private letter [on the subject of belief]: “Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and the love of others which it will procure you.” Now, that can only be written by someone who’s had that experience.

RD It’s very good, isn’t it?

CH In my judgement, it’s an internal reading, but I think it’s a close one. There was certainly no priest at his bedside. But he did violate a rule of C S Lewis’s and here I’m on Lewis’s side. Lewis says it is a cop-out to say Jesus was a great moralist. He said it’s the one thing we must not say; it is a wicked thing to say. If he wasn’t the Son of God, he was a very evil impostor and his teachings were vain and fraudulent. You may not take the easy route here and say: “He may not have been the Son of God and he may not have been the Redeemer, but he was a wonderful moralist.” Lewis is more honest than Jefferson in this point. I admire Lewis for saying that. Rick Perry said it the other day.

RD Jesus could just have been mistaken.

CH He could. It’s not unknown for people to have the illusion that they’re God or the Son. It’s a common delusion but, again, I don’t think we need to condescend. Rick Perry once said: “Not only do I believe that Jesus is my personal saviour but I believe that those who don’t are going to eternal punishment.” He was challenged at least on the last bit and he said, “I don’t have the right to alter the doctrine. I can’t say it’s fine for me and not for others.”

RD So we ought to be on the side of these fundamentalists?

CH Not “on the side”, but I think we should say that there’s something about their honesty that we wish we could find.

RD Which we don’t get in bishops . . .

CH Our soft-centred bishops at Oxford and other people, yes.

RD I’m often asked why it is that this republic [of America], founded in secularism, is so much more religious than those western European countries that have an official state religion, like Scandinavia and Britain.

CH [Alexis] de Tocqueville has it exactly right. If you want a church in America, you have to build it by the sweat of your own brow and many have. That’s why they’re attached to them.

RD Yes.

CH [Look at] the Greek Orthodox community in Brooklyn. What’s the first thing it will do? It will build itself a little shrine. The Jews – not all of them – remarkably abandoned their religion very soon after arriving from the shtetl.

RD Are you saying that most Jews have abandoned their religion?

CH Increasingly in America. When you came to escape religious persecution and you didn’t want to replicate it, that’s a strong memory. The Jews very quickly secularised when they came. American Jews must be the most secular force on the planet now, as a collective. If they are a collective –which they’re not, really.

RD While not being religious, they often still observe the Sabbath and that kind of thing.

CH There’s got to be something cultural. I go to Passover every year. Sometimes, even I have a seder, because I want my child to know that she does come very distantly from another tradition. It would explain if she met her greatgrandfather why he spoke Yiddish. It’s cultural, but the Passover seder is also the Socratic forum. It’s dialectical. It’s accompanied by wine. It’s got the bones of quite a good discussion in it. And then there is manifest destiny. People feel America is just so lucky. It’s between two oceans, filled with minerals, wealth, beauty. It does seem providential to many people.

RD Promised land, city on a hill.

CH All that and the desire for another Eden. Some secular utopians came here with the same idea. Thomas Paine and others all thought of America as a great new start for the species.

RD But that was all secular.

CH A lot of it was, but you can’t get away from the liturgy: it’s too powerful. You will end up saying things like “promised land” and it can be mobilised for sinister purposes. But in a lot of cases, it’s a mild belief. It’s just: “We should share our good luck.”

RD I’ve heard another theory that, America being a country of immigrants, people coming from Europe, where they left their extended family and left their support system, were alone and they needed something.

CH Surely that was contained in what I just . . .

RD Maybe it was.

CH The reason why most of my friends are non-believers is not particularly that they were engaged in the arguments you and I have been having, but they were made indifferent by compulsory religion at school.

RD They got bored by it.

CH They’d had enough of it. They took from it occasionally whatever they needed – if you needed to get married, you knew where to go. Some of them, of course, are religious and some of them like the music but, generally speaking, the British people are benignly indifferent to religion.

RD And the fact that there is an established church increases that effect. Churches should not be tax-free the way that they are. Not automatically, anyway.

CH No, certainly not. If the Church has demanded that equal time be given to creationist or pseudo-creationist speculations . . . any Church that teaches that in its school and is in receipt of federal money from the faith-based initiative must, by law, also teach Darwinism and alternative teachings, in order that the debate is being taught. I don’t think they want this.

RD No.

CH Tell them if they want equal time, we’ll jolly well have it. That’s why they’ve always been against comparative religion.

RD Comparative religion would be one of the best weapons, I suspect.

CH It’s got so insipid in parts of America now that a lot of children are brought up – as their parents aren’t doing it and leave it to the schools and the schools are afraid of it – with no knowledge of any religion of any kind. I would like children to know what religion is about because [otherwise] some guru or cult or revivalists will sweep them up.

RD They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.

CH Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.

RD Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? “Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.”

CH He doesn’t!

RD He does, honestly. “Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.”

CH That’s Lamentations.

RD No, it’s Ecclesiastes. “Vanity, vanity.”

CH “Vanity, vanity.” Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

RD I bet he did. I sometimes think the poetry comes from the intriguing obscurity of mistranslation. “When the sound of the grinding is low, the grasshopper is heard in the land . . . The grasshopper shall be a burden.” What the hell?

CH The Book of Job is the other great non-religious one, I always feel. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Try to do without that. No, I’m glad we’re on the same page there. People tell me that the recitation of the Quran can have the same effect if you understand the original language. I wish I did. Some of the Catholic liturgy is attractive.

RD I don’t know enough Latin to judge that.

CH Sometimes one has just enough to be irritated.

RD Yes [laughs]. Can you say anything about Christmas?

CH Yes. There was going to be a winter solstice holiday for sure. The dominant religion was going to take it over and that would have happened without Dickens and without others.

RD The Christmas tree comes from Prince Albert; the shepherds and the wise men are all made up.

CH Cyrenius wasn’t governor of Syria, all of that. Increasingly, it’s secularised itself. This “Happy Holidays” – I don’t particularly like that, either.

RD Horrible, isn’t it? “Happy holiday season.”

CH I prefer our stuff about the cosmos.

***

The day after this interview, I was honoured to present an award to Christopher Hitchens in the presence of a large audience in Texas that gave him a standing ovation, first as he entered the hall and again at the end of his deeply moving speech. My own presentation speech ended with a tribute, in which I said that every day he demonstrates the falsehood of the lie that there are no atheists in foxholes: “Hitch is in a foxhole, and he is dealing with it with a courage, an honesty and a dignity that any of us would be, and should be, proud to muster.”