November 28, 2017
Winter book preview — Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
by Melville House
Next month will mark six years since the death of the legendary writer, thinker, intellectual pugilist, and paragon of erudite argumentation Christopher Hitchens. A week from today, he’ll be joining some of the most rarefied drinking company in Elysium, when we publish Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations.
Here, to help you get excited and remind the world of the brilliant intellectual sharp-shooter Hitchens was, is an early excerpt from the book. This is the exchange that begins Hitchens’s 1996 interview with Matt Cherry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, for Free Inquiry magazine. It show Hitchens at his hardest-hitting—which was, ahem, very hard-hitting—and attacking one of his favorite (which is to say, ahem, very least favorite) targets: Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu, better known to the world as Mother Teresa.
MC: According to polls, Mother Teresa is the most respected woman in the world. Her name is a byword for selfless dedication in the service of humanity. So why are you picking on this sainted old woman?
CH: Partly because that impression is so widespread. But also because the sheer fact that this is considered unquestionable is a sign of what we are up against, namely the problem of credulity. One of the most salient examples of people’s willingness to believe anything if it is garbed in the appearance of holiness is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of Mother Teresa as a saint by people who would normally be thinking—however lazily—in a secular or rational manner. In other words, in every sense it is an unexamined claim.
It’s unexamined journalistically — no one really takes a look at what she does. And it is unexamined as to why it should be she who is spotlighted as opposed to many very selfless people who devote their lives to the relief of suffering in what we used to call the “Third World.” Why is it never mentioned that her stated motive for the work is that of proselytization for religious fundamentalism, for the most extreme interpretation of Catholic doctrine? If you ask most people if they agree with the pope’s views on population, for example, they say they think they are rather extreme. Well here’s someone whose life’s work is the propagation of the most extreme version of that.
That’s the first motive. The second was a sort of journalistic curiosity as to why it was that no one had asked any serious questions about Mother Teresa’s theory or practice. Regarding her practice, I couldn’t help but notice that she had rallied to the side of the Duvalier family in Haiti, for instance, that she had taken money—over a million dollars— from Charles Keating, the Lincoln Savings and Loans swindler, even though it had been shown to her that the money was stolen; that she has been an ally of the most reactionary forces in India and in many other countries; that she has campaigned recently to prevent Ireland from ceasing to be the only country in Europe with a constitutional ban on divorce, that her interventions are always timed to assist the most conservative and obscurantist forces.
MC: Do you think this is because she is a shrewd political operator or that she is just naive and used as a tool by others?
CH: I’ve often been asked that. And I couldn’t say from real acquaintance with her which view is correct, because I’ve only met her once. But from observing her I don’t think that she’s naive. I don’t think she is particularly intelligent or that she has a complex mind, but I think she has a certain cunning.
Her instincts are very good: she seems to know when and where she might be needed and to turn up, still looking very simple. But it’s a long way from Calcutta to Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti, and it’s a long way from the airport to the presidential palace. And one can’t just, in your humble way and dressed in a simple sari, turn up there. Quite a lot of things have to be arranged and thought about and allowed for in advance. You don’t end up suddenly out of sheer simple naiveté giving a speech saying that the Duvalier family love the poor. All of that involves quite a high level of planning and calculation. But I think the genius of it is to make it look simple.
One of Mother Teresa’s biographers—almost all the books written about her are by completely uncritical devotees—says, with a sense of absolute wonderment, that when Mother Teresa first met the pope in the Vatican, she arrived by bus dressed only in a sari that cost one rupee. Now that would be my definition of behaving ostentatiously. A normal person would put on at least her best scarf and take a taxi. To do it in the way that she did is the reverse of the simple path. It’s obviously theatrical and calculated. And yet it is immediately written down as a sign of her utter holiness and devotion. Well, one doesn’t have to be too cynical to see through that.
MC: You point out that, although she is very open about promoting Catholicism, Mother Teresa has this reputation of holiness amongst many non-Catholics and even secular people. And her reputation is based upon her charitable work for the sick and dying in Calcutta. What does she actually do there? What are her care facilities like?
CH: The care facilities are grotesquely simple: rudimentary, unscientific, miles behind any modern conception of what medical science is supposed to do. There have been a number of articles—I’ve collected some more since my book came out—about the failure and primitivism of her treatment of lepers and the dying, of her attitude towards medication and prophylaxis. Very rightly is it said that she tends to the dying, because if you were doing anything but dying she hasn’t really got much to offer.
This is interesting because, first, she only proclaims to be providing people with a Catholic death, and, second, because of the enormous amounts of money mainly donated to rather than raised by her Order. We’ve been unable to audit this — no one has ever demanded an accounting of how much money has flowed in her direction. With that money she could have built at least one absolutely spanking new, modern teaching hospital in Calcutta without noticing the cost.
The facilities she runs are as primitive now as when she first became a celebrity. So that’s obviously not where the money goes.
MC: How much money do you reckon she receives?
CH: Well, I have the testimony of a former very active member of her Order who worked for her for many years and ended up in the office Mother Teresa maintains in New York City. She was in charge of taking the money to the bank. She estimates that there must be $50 million in that bank account alone. She said that one of the things that began to raise doubts in her mind was that the Sisters always had to go around pretending that they were very poor and they couldn’t use the money for anything in the neighborhood that required alleviation. Under the cloak of avowed poverty they were still soliciting donations, labor, food, and so on from local merchants. This she found as a matter of con- science to be offensive.
Now if that is the case for one place in New York, and since we know what huge sums she has been given by institutions like the Nobel Peace committee, other religious institutions, secular prize-giving organizations, and so on, we can speculate that if this money was being used for the relief of suffering we would be able to see the effect.
MC: So the $50 million is a very small portion of her wealth?
CH: I think it’s a very small portion, and we should call for an audit of her organization. She carefully doesn’t keep the money in India because the Indian government requires disclosure of foreign missionary organizations’ funds.
I think the answer to questions about her wealth was given by her in an interview where she said she had opened convents and nunneries in 120 countries. The money has simply been used for the greater glory of her order and the building of dogmatic, religious institutions.
MC: So she is spending the money on her own order of nuns? And that order will be named after her?
CH: Both of those suggestions are speculation, but they are good speculation. I think the order will be named after her when she becomes a saint, which is also a certainty: she is on the fast track to canonization and would be even if we didn’t have a pope who was manufacturing saints by the bushel. He has canonized and beatified more people than eight of his predecessors combined.
MC: Hence the title of your book: The Missionary Position.
CH: That has got some people worked up. Of the very, very few people who have reviewed this book in the United States, one or two have objected to that title on the grounds that it’s “sophomoric.” Well, I think that a triple entendre requires a bit of sophistication.
Christopher Hitchens: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
ON SALE: December 5, 2017