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5.0 out of 5 stars A sorry state of affairs., 24 Sept. 2010
This review is from: The Abolition of Britain: From Winston Churchill to Princess Diana (Paperback)
The Abolition of Britain contains no lament for "the good old days", no "things aren't what they used to be" prose. Often someone saying those things will believe it, and often they will be right. Some things are not the way they used to be. This is a good thing and a bad thing, again, depending on what is being discussed. Mr Hitchens writes that Britain has been changed beyond recognition in the thirty years between the funerals of Winston Churchill and Diana Spencer. A man from 1937, he argues, would still recognise the society of 1967, but the man from 1967 would be aghast at the condition of the country thirty years later. Boring nostalgia this is not. He spends many words painting a picture of life in 1960s London: from the attitude of mourners at a funeral, to the Latin inscriptions on the coinage. He does not censor those things which were bad, and leaving them in helps gives a full - if not masterful - impression of the time.

I want to consider his position on Abortion, Adoption and the Death Penalty but also I want to take on what I think is the cornerstone to his policies; namely, the importance of Marriage. It is my opinion that his indefatigable faith in marriage, for a serious and fair minded person such as him, is ungenerous and, perhaps, unkind. He quotes, among others (but most surprisingly), D. H. Lawrence to help him make his case. It was the quote he used from Lawrence that finally convinced me he was wrong. Odd how these things work.

Is all shame legitimate?

"As late as 1965, the child of divorced parents was an exception at any school, illegitimate children were a shameful rarity{...}"

There is an unkind side to Mr. Hitchens. Imagine holding a baby, newly born, and believing the warm little person in your arms was not a "legitimate" person. It takes a certain strain of intolerance to think such thoughts. The cold, dismissive horror of the phrase, "illegitimate child", has been lost through repetition. This is a good thing. Words matter because they are used to demonstrate thoughts, and repetition of this ghastly term has diluted it to the point that most do not understand how nasty they are being. I will mention "shameful" later on.

One wonders why he comes out against all abortion. No doubt many of the unborn humans he wishes to defend are to be born of parents unmarried? Given he still manages to believe these human-beings are "illegitimate" and their existence "shameful", why not surgically assassinate those babies to be born of unmarried parents? That would prevent any illegitimacy and shame. And which does he consider worse, the shameful illegitimacy of their wretched existence or the process which exists to kill them? If he believes babies to be born of unmarried parents are legitimate enough to save from surgical assassination then what makes them illegitimate after birth?
He devotes plenty of words to the subject of unmarried mothers, and how government, the Church and society as a whole, became ever more tolerant and accepting of their existence. He tracks the "progress" of the National Council for Unmarried Mothers across the decades. He does a thorough job, and with his condensed timeline the picture is made clear. As the years ticked by, treatment of unmarried mothers became less severe, less cruel. After much chipping away, in the 1970s, the Liberal elite launched its coup de grace:

"A campaign for more humane treatment, working within conventional morality, had now become a wholly different creature, calling for a change in the moral climate."

To his credit these words are still, just, a criticism. They appear sensible comment, but are rather sinister. He is trying to offer the idea that he is all for more humane treatment within the rules, just don't change the rules, that's all. He is talking about the tipping point. But why does he refer to the campaign for more humane treatment as a "creature"? What kind of creature? And why use the phrase "moral climate"? Climates change, we all now this. Maybe "creature" and "climate" demonstrate a hatred of the change occurring, yet an acceptance that it must be so? He could have used "moral code" (as he does elsewhere.) Codes do not change, and, more importantly, the strong ones are never easy to crack. Perhaps I am just being cynical and pedantic, latching onto individual words and finding Freud's face without justification? Perhaps there is no point in picking out individual words from a sentence and wondering about the thoughts which controlled their choosing? Should one be concerned with the overall meaning of the sentence or paragraph, instead? Concern yourself with both, I say. (Would he resort to the tactics of pulling individual words from a rival's prose and using them to attack? He would, and I will offer evidence of this practice.)

I find it genuinely shocking that he talks of "conventional morality" with the tone he does. Is there a philosophical space separating "conventional morality" from "conventional wisdom"? I do not think there is because, surely, our moral code is derived from wisdom? Hardly do we take our morals from the illiterate and unlettered. Mr Hitchens has made his opinion on conventional wisdom known in another of his works: "Conventional wisdom is almost always wrong. By the time it has become conventional, it is no longer wisdom." (My Italics.) I agree with him about conventional wisdom. But does he not seem to be having it both ways, here? If conventional wisdom is almost always not wisdom (because it is conventional), is conventional morality almost always not moral?

I said I would mention shame. Mr. Hitchens quotes, in this book and another, from a letter written by Virginia Woolf after she paid a visit to T. S. Eliot. (I use his words from his other book.) Eliot was in the process of regaining his faith, and Virginia Woolf was displeased by what she saw:

"I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot [...]".

Mr. Hitchens begins his response by picking her up on her choice of certain words:

"Look at the bilious, ill-tempered words: "shameful and distressing, [...]" he begins.

What he decides is and describes as "shameful" - when he chooses to use it - is his conservative decency (frowning on unmarried mothers and their bastards.) When Virginia Wolf uses the same word, and uses it against religion, her usage (and, by definition, her opinion) can be stuffily dismissed as bad-tempered and full of bile. What prevents him tolerating her opinions? If he can direct the word "shameful" against children in one book, why, in another of his works, does he attack a person for directing it against an adult? Is this fair and balanced? Please note that he says the word itself is "bilious" and "ill-tempered."

There are many examples of cruelty which are tolerated because the cruelty is done in the name of one religion or another. Religion seems to have the worst of its behaviour ring-fenced. This is not the time to attack religion, though. It seems to me that, generally speaking, the public is at fault for automatically "respecting" religion. Hideous practices are dismissed - genital mutilation, for example - by many who waive a hand and declare that, well, it's part of the religion, innit? Yes, it is part of the religion or the culture, but does this not mean that that part of the religion or culture is barbaric and should be done away with? Should these Rabbis who mutilate male infants' genitals not be dragged, kicking and screaming, with the threat of a stiff prison sentence hanging over them if necessary, into the 21st Century? I think they should. And I think that the watering-down of the nastiness which was directed at unmarried mothers has been a worthwhile development. The cruelty toward unmarried mothers might have come from society generally, but the institution feeding it, deciding what society - or individual humans, collectively - should think, was the Church.

Of course, I understand his point. Even a dumb cow can be kept in line by a thin piece of wire with a small electric current running through it. Society needs rules and a certain minimum standard of behaviour, because without them, when every person feels free to indulge their every whim everywhere and all the time, there will be chaos. But is the only way to keep a minimum standard of behaviour and a grasp of morals amongst the majority through cruelty? What about education and sound argument? Why scare instead of convince?
Think of the wretched unmarried mother and ponder for a moment exactly how she became a mother.

A religious person - or any person slightly repressed on matters of sex, (and under the guise of delicacy or good manners) - might say she "fell pregnant." This stupid term is one still in use today. It makes the unmarried woman's pregnancy sound like she tripped, stood up, dusted herself off, and found herself inseminated. How about this: she was "made" pregnant? Or, better still, she was "impregnated" Impregnated by a man with a penis engorged with blood and cheeks flushed red with sexual desire. Is it worth mentioning that for every unmarried mother there was an unmarried father?

Reading the book, one could be forgiven for forgetting that men played a part in creating bastards. (It is also worth mentioning that delicacy and good manners are perfectly right and proper until they become euphemistic.) However, I couldn't find any mention of the stigma and shame felt by unmarried fathers anywhere in this work.

The end result of the dilution of disapproval against the unmarried mother - which resulted in the casually granted divorce for married mothers - is summed up:

"Custody of children, maintenance and property division, are now the crucial rules of engagement in what has become a fearsome sex war. The changes have all been in one direction."

Responding to the second sentence, one cannot resist a little sarcasm: No, really?

I do not wish to give the impression that Mr Hitchens cannot see the views of the other side. On the stigma of bastardy, he generously - but mysteriously tepidly - points out:

"..there was and still is a strong case for saying that this cruel label did no good and a great deal of harm, while removing it would lighten the lives of innocent victims of their parents selfishness, folly and the moral code."

Those words give the impression he is grudgingly accepting the logic. Take a long and hard look at that word, "while". That word makes what follows it sound like an unfortunate consequence of what precedes it. If you disagree read the passage again and substitute "while" for "and". Please note the utterly different flavour. The devil, I tell you, is in the details.

Are any character insights to be gained from this kind of reading? Make up your own mind. I think Peter Hitchens might be significantly more intolerant than he realises. Good for him, he is entitled to be, and it shows he means what he says and believes in something; unlike the majority who take their opinions from the latest headline and whatever provides safety in numbers. But I would prefer it if he just came out and said it, rather than revealing it by accident or being almost subliminally subtle on purpose.

Contraception, Abortion or Adoption? How about Abstension?

In August 1994 an interview with Madonna was published in Esquire. The interviewer was Norman Mailer. It was perhaps one of the few times Madonna has allowed herself to be interviewed by somebody more interesting than her. Inevitably, with those two characters in conversation together, the topic moved to matters of sex and condoms. Mailer - a man who had a fondness for liquor, the company of the fairer sex, and marijuana - detested masturbation and contraception, and fathered nine children. As the conversation about condoms progressed, Mailer offered Madonna this:

"You see, I think sex has always been dangerous. In the Middle-Ages, before modern medicine or contraception, a woman had to love a man, or feel huge lust, in order to have intercourse with him, because if she got pregnant, she could die - something like one in ten women died in childbirth. That meant your lover could be your executioner. Maybe that's the way it was meant to be. Take sex seriously. Don't believe it's there to be violated."

Maybe that's the way it was meant to be? If two humans are going to be having sex it is better that they have an intensity of feeling - some sort of emotional investment in the encounter. There is nothing more miserable than casual sex with someone you hardly know, and certainly there has been a reduction of values across every aspect of society with the increase in casual encounters. If a person holds no value for themselves, for their body, how can they be expected to put a value on basic good manners? People haggle and moan and complain about the cost of some purchase or another, yet give themselves away for free week after week. Could the problems of sex be, not what it is now leading to, but what did not lead to it.

Consequences are what make a person think twice, but the advance of medicine has taken away almost all of the consequences of casual sex. The change in values happened long before the revolution Mr Hitchens writes of. He blames the contraceptive pill, but might the blame not lie, quite simply, in the fact that a pregnant woman is extremely unlikely to die in childbirth any more? Death in childbirth was natural, was what nature intended. Only human inventions have made it almost obsolete.

Unwanted pregnancies still occur and surgical assassination is offered free and easy by the state. I agree with Mr Hitchens, this is disagreeable. He implies that he would like to see abortion made significantly more difficult to obtain - maybe on medical grounds which endangered the mother's life or in cases of rape - or abolished altogether for those pregnancies which fall outside those criteria. This is where some hysterics come in. Pro-abortion groups talk of the mother's right to choose being paramount, but don't mention her right to choose to keep her legs closed.

Abolish abortion and women with then fall into the clutches of seedy back-street operators, goes another silly argument. This would not happen. These women would fall into the seedy clutches of the private sector, whereupon they would harm their lives in other ways by taking bank-loans and overdrafts - if they were the unlucky poor - to pay the exorbitant cost the private sector would charge because it would have the monopoly. Horrid payment plans would be set up: "Kill now, pay later." The state should keep offering abortion, but charge for it. The argument is clear. Why should tax-payers foot the bill for a person's uncomplicated morals? The pregnancy would be the result - allowing for the earlier criteria - of the willing behaviour of a man and a woman. Make them pay the cost of the abortion. If they claim they cannot pay, then a means-test will be required, or benefits will need to be deducted, or parents will have to foot the bill, or their benefits will need to be deducted. Make the whole process draconian and unpleasant. (Multiple forms to be completed, giving all the lurid details. Make the forms worse if the woman cannot name the man. Any woman who allows a man to ejaculate inside her should know - as a minimum - his name and address.) In short, offer consequences without total refusal. Then, perhaps, this will make people think before they act because they have something to lose - resulting in sex becoming something which is considered, thereby requiring no abortion in the first place.

Some say that abortion is wrong and should be utterly abolished on principle, but forcing women to give birth unless they have been raped or might die is impractical now. Change the system to convince people not to engage in casual, miserable sex to begin with.
But having the children is okay, he appears to believe, because there is the option of adoption. This is not the best solution, not least because there is no deterrent for those who enjoy empty sexual encounters.

Also, many mothers will simply change their minds after the child is born - leading to protracted legal wrangling, met by the tax-payer, and legions of "experts" and social workers all fudging the issue, making a bigger mess than was necessary. In addition, what would God - assuming God exists - prefer? That humans indulged themselves and then other humans sorted the mess, or that humans were made to show, and then began to volunteer, restraint?

Adoption gives those adults with less ability to create their own children, more choice over the child they are to receive. I can remember one obnoxious toad of a man, smug and smirking, tell a documentary crew he and his wife didn't want a "ginger" child, blissfully unaware of his own nastiness. Natural parenthood is a lottery, and, more importantly, parenthood is not a right. It is a possibility which most can bring to realisation, but those who cannot have no business expecting the state to provide children for them, and if the state does, they should be given the same choice natural parents have over their child's attributes - none whatsoever. Is it moral to give parents who are to adopt any kind of choice over anything other than, perhaps, age? What is one meant to say to a child with ginger hair, or one with a slight squint, or the wrong eye colour, when they reach five or six and have not found parents? Mr Hitchens' views on adoption further damage society. When prospective adoptive parents are permitted to exercise the same level of choice over a child as they can a new car or sofa, there is a problem with the values being held. It reduces the child and parenthood to a "nice to have" or a fashion accessory and creates a perverse kind of "buyer's market".

This brings the argument back to consequences and the need to create a society which teaches - in whichever way works - that soulless sexual encounters with strangers are wrong because they are not what nature intended, and if a person chooses to have those encounters then they might be forced, quite literally, to pay for them.

The Death Penalty.

"Hell was abolished around the same time that abortion was legalized and the death penalty was done way with."

Was capital punishment "done away with" by the Cultural Revolution at the point Mr Hitchens claims? In the House of Lords, on 17 December 1969, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner (who is mentioned elsewhere in the book) said:

"In 1908 there was a big advance: we abolished capital punishment for children under 16. When my grandfather was 21 a boy of nine who had set fire to a house was hanged at Chelmsford. In a previous year a little way back, a boy of 7 and his sister of 11 were hanged at Lyme. In 1922 we abolished capital punishment for infanticide. In 1929 a Resolution in the House of Commons calling for the abolition of capital punishment resulted in the appointment of a Select Committee. In 1930 the Select Committee reported. In their Report they said: Our prolonged examination of the situation in foreign countries has increasingly confirmed us in the assurance that capital punishment may now be abolished in this country without endangering life or property, or impairing the security of society. And they recommended its abolition for five years. In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. In 1932 the Children Act abolished capital punishment for those under 18."

In 1931 capital punishment was abolished for expectant mothers. What took so long? (One wonders how many of the expectant mothers who were put to death were unmarried, and one wonders if Mr Hitchens considers hanging expectant mothers a horrid "two-for-one" with an abortion an unavoidable consequence?) Mr Hitchens mentions the Homicide Act of 1957, but chooses to not mention the other changes to capital punishment which preceded it. On the Homicide Act, he plays a safe, populist card:

"Few people realize that it was because of the 1957 Act that Myra Hindley and Ian Brady could not have been sentenced to death."
It is high profile cases of crimes against children - especially child rape and murder - which have calls for the death penalty to be reinstated. If the reintroduction of the death penalty was put to a vote in this country, capital punishment would be returned overnight. Why should this be so? Perhaps it is an example of "conventional wisdom" at play?

It could be argued capital punishment is not a deterrent, but it is a deterrent, just an ineffective one. Just as prison hardly prevents crimes being committed - such as persons stealing cars - the death penalty fails to stop persons becoming murderers because the majority of murders are not premeditated, rather a result of a temporary loss of control and a heightened emotional state. Ice-man assassinations are incredibly rare. If it were an effective deterrent then no murders would be committed within a jurisdiction which offered execution as a possible punishment for a qualifying crime.

Look around the world and ponder it. The death penalty does not even manage to prevent greedy idiots from smuggling drugs through Asia. Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's last hangman, and a man who must surely have known better than most, said the noose was no use. I suppose a baying mob, spitting at and rocking police vans, would claim they know better, and they have that right, but I have the right to claim they do not know better. Peter Hitchens' argument is the intellectualised version of the baying-mob argument; ultimately, it seems, based on an idea of religious revenge.

If punishment is what the mob requires, then why not punish the murderer or child-rapist with decades behind bars? True, no court in this liberal land is going to enforce such a sentence (or a death sentence, remember), but the mob don't even want that; they want blood, revenge and they want it ice-cold and now. This desire may well be understandable, but that is not enough in its defence.
Those humans who are determined to murder and rape other humans must be kept under lock and key and interrogated and studied. To put a paedophile to the sword is a waste of an excellent opportunity to gather intelligence on the psychology of these perverts. Keeping them incarcerated, in solitary, is a more satisfying way to deal with these insects than crushing them, but it disappoints the crowd if we do that: there is no gratifying moment for the blood-thirsty. No moment of black orgasm for the excited mob.

As intelligent beings we can empathise with the innocent. The children of the condemned are innocent victims - indirect victims, but victims just the same. Yet the drooling pack, flaming torches in one hand - occasionally a bible in the other - and snarling dogs straining at the leash, are possessed of minds which demand a kneejerk satisfaction. Other considerations - apart from the question of wrongful conviction leading to wrongful execution - are not considered. This is a shame.

Marriage.

The argument which runs through this book is that the family is the unit which allows for decent manners, morals and decent traditions to be passed from one generation to the other; that the loyalties it fashions are stronger even that patriotism, and that marriage is the sealing bond which keeps the family unit together. The family is also the way for bigotry and stupid prejudices to be passed the same way - from the breakfast table across to youngsters' ears and into their brains. "Careful what you say," goes the Sondheim lyric, "children will listen..." I agree with Mr hitchens on almost all of his views regarding the family, but disagree that the family needs to be married to be strong. Underpinning this position, is, I believe, the view that the Church is responsible for morality, that without it we do not know what is right and what is wrong, and we cannot ever hope to come to correct moral conclusions by ourselves. I find this mildly insulting, but must admit that the root-cause of morality is where even the most literate Atheist's argument is weakest.

The basic scenario goes like this. Imagine a man - unmarried but in a relationship of many years, with children, a home, and a solid, stable family life. He has no religious belief, though is not militantly Atheist in his attitude toward it. He and the mother of his children begin to have difficulties between them. Resentment grows slowly over time about many little things. The children hear arguments more and more often and live with the nagging fear that something bad is in the air. They do not eat correctly and behaviour at school is affected. The man has a choice to make. Does he stay with the family, soldier-on through the difficulties facing him and the woman, working hard to find common ground and solutions to real problems, or leave the family home, take a smaller flat - possibly close by - and become a part time parent? The decent option is to stay, it is better for all concerned, both in the immediate and long term. The man, however, does not need to be married to make this choice. If the man stays because he is married, this can (but not always) make things much worse for all concerned. When the man stays because he is married the credit for doing so is not taken by him - by him thinking decent and moral thoughts and reaching the correct conclusion himself. The choice to stay is out of his hands in a sense. It becomes a matter of "I must", rather than "I want to." This damages family life, helps to foster still more resentment and eventually more anger, and that anger invariably spills out over the children. Marriage not only takes the credit for the decision, but prevents the man from having any chance of conjuring up the correct thoughts for himself.

Imagine the process for the unmarried man. When he reaches the correct conclusion to stay, where does the credit for this correct choice go? Well, to him of course. He realises - through thinking thoughts, balancing the arguments, and coming to the realisation that family together is better - that a male and female parent, working together each day, is by far and away the best parenting option for his children. Reaching this conclusion this way pleases the man, he feels happier, his self-worth is improved, he is rightly proud of his decency. Everything about his character and daily manner is better than before. He is stronger and happier. This leads to improved relationships throughout the family, a better quality of time spent together, and stronger family bonds are the result.
Some parents are a shockingly bad influence on their children. I cannot believe that any child will come to the conclusion that their father, though he might get drunk most nights and every weekend, bully and abuse and terrify them and do the same to their mother, at least hasn't moved out and left them alone.

Mr Hitchens' father was a naval officer - no doubt a decent, restrained and loving person; the sort of chap who would stand to attention when the national anthem was played, salute the flag and soldier on through adversity. From all I have read, this man sounds a splendid fellow. Not all fathers are like that. Some are lazy and vicious, drunken and coarse, stupid, violent, obnoxious, corrupt and much worse besides. Some do violence in front of their children and many do violence to their children. And some do worse than that.
This is essential reading. It is essential for anyone who has looked at the society they live in and felt dismay. It is for anyone who has dropped their head and wondered "what happened?"

Peter Hitchens tells us in plain English: This is what happened...
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 1 Dec 2010 18:53:30 GMT
Kim Hatton says:
Shrill and terrifyingly as long as it is self-important. If only you had a 10th of Hitchen's talent.

In reply to an earlier post on 14 Jan 2011 15:20:32 GMT
Last edited by the author on 2 Aug 2014 22:05:04 BDT
Thanks for those kind words.

Mr Hitchens has read my appraisal (which sits on my blog in its full version) and responded on his own blog, hosted by The Mail. He considered it interesting, which - if you are regular reader of his essays (and I'm wondering if you are a regular reader of anything) - will know is praise of a kind.

It is a free country, of course, and you are entitled to an opinion regardless of its relevance or content.

Posted on 2 Jun 2012 23:11:22 BDT
Tobin says:
I am quite upset that you first quote genital mutilation and then ask to put a (!) Rabbi to the sword for it. Though I would not put my own son through circumcision without medical reason, it is not a mutilation. The penis is still fully functional after the cutting of the foreskin, and no adversary effects can be expected.

By contrast, genital mutilation has many terrible consequences for the women, reaching from the loss of sexual pleasure to the ripping of the muscles inside the pelvis during childbirth, sometimes leading to life-long impediment to walking.

Posted on 24 Nov 2012 11:26:57 GMT
John says:
Claptrap!

Posted on 10 Jan 2013 16:30:39 GMT
A very thoughtful review of the book, you comment 'what would happen if all restraints on the individual were removed' : If you live in England, you are living in such a society, Where the taxpayers pay for bastards, crooks, bails out perfidious bankers, frees criminals, pays for absent fathers, on and on it goes. and on and on. Morals are replaced by 'tolerance' and 'inclusion' , no consequences, anything, people have run riot. literally.

Posted on 2 Aug 2014 21:43:26 BDT
Mr B J Mann says:
But surely the illegitimacy (from para 3.....) refers to the marital status of the parents, or lack of it, as does the shaming?!

In reply to an earlier post on 2 Aug 2014 22:02:31 BDT
If that's what the author meant, that's what he should have written.

Alas, he writes of 'illegitimate children' not children of 'illegitimate parents.'
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