As I sit down to write up my interview with Johann Hari, his Facebook status says that he’s “trying to take another batch of death threats with good humour.” It’s an occupational hazard for a journalist who has made his reputation out of being an outspoken critic of pretty much everything that’s wrong with the world. As a result of his article in The Independent, it’s the Islamic fundamentalists who want to wring his neck this time, but I don’t expect a guy who’s been dissed by everyone from Noam Chomsky to Busted is going to shut his mouth any time soon.

Boris Johnson vs. The Chimps

Arriving hungry to Nando’s in Whitechapel, Hari struggled to find time between sentences to stuff any chicken into his mouth, and a famously big mouth at that. He was eating with his hands and clutching the Dictaphone to make sure that every word he said was captured on tape, lest I should misquote him. I ask him if he could do a better job of running London than Boris Johnson, to which he fires back, “I think a trained chimp could do a better job of running London than Boris Johnson.” I press him further, to see how far he is willing to go to slate the Mayor. How about an untrained chimp, would that do better?

“Yes, it definitely would! A chimp that did nothing more than scratch its testicles and shit on the floor would do a better job than Boris Johnson. The thing with Boris is, as a person I quite like him. He’s quite funny, he’s quite likable, but all this comedy bluster is a distraction from all the things he believes, which are really very extreme.” As he states his opinions as fact, I’m beginning to see why he rubs people up the wrong way, and also why he doesn’t lose many arguments. After getting a double first from Cambridge University, Hari has gone on to write for The Independent, the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Attitude magazine and a shed load of other publications. He’s only 30 years old, so there’s every chance that he could become the most influential political voice of our generation, if he doesn’t get lynched first.

The Biggest Cunt in Journalism

Having seen the YouTube video, I already have a good idea of what Hari is going to say when I ask him who he thinks the biggest cunt in journalism is. “Richard Littlejohn,” he says assuredly, referring to the right wing Daily Mail columnist. “He’s mentally ill. Actually, I don’t know if he’s a cunt, he’s so unhinged. I don’t hate him, but I feel desperately sorry for him.”  I can identify with Hari because he contests that the people who disagree with him are not only wrong, but clinically insane.

“Littlejohn thinks about gay sex more than I do, and I’m gay. This is a man so obsessed with homosexuality in a bizarre way, so he needs help.”

Usually a difference in opinion all boils down to different perceptions of reality, rather than any inherent right or wrong. With his education he knows this, but he never lets on, for fear that it will weaken his arguments, which are usually water tight. He abhors the political right, who “live in this bizarre, unhinged fantasy world. They never go out into the real world and see anything,” whereas he is content to live well within the real world. I wonder if he would still believe that drugs should be legalised if smack addicts lived downstairs from him. “There are smack addicts living downstairs from me! I literally live next to a heroin clinic. And that’s something to bear in mind. When you legalise, you don’t have smack addicts living down the street. In Zurich, they provided a regulatory legal framework where you can go and get heroin in clinics. Street homelessness literally ended.”

Insulting the Dalai Lama

If Noam Chomsky doesn’t like the cut of your jib, I don’t usually have a lot of time for you. In theory then, I shouldn’t have a lot of time for Johann Hari, yet here I am asking him questions, despite Chomsky coating him off a while ago. This is the only time I sense any self-doubt, lilting a little as he recalls being insulted by one of his own heroes. “Yeah, with Chomsky, erm… When you’re insulted by someone you hate, like Richard Littlejohn, you feel great. When you’re insulted by someone you respect and admire like Noam Chomsky, you don’t feel good. And I didn’t feel good about that, but I’ve had a rapprochement with him since.” Thank goodness they’ve reconciled, I think, else I would have to get up and leave on principle, leaving Johann alone to grapple with this dead chicken which he’s struggling to finish.

And there are countless others who have taken exception to his opinions, or perhaps his manner of expressing them, and not just the likely cast of right wing commentators and polemicists. So how on earth did he get on the wrong side of the Dalai Lama? “He called me fat, the bastard!”

But he looks like the guy from Banzai, and he lives on rice! Surely you over-stepped the line for the Buddhist leader to get pissed off with you?  “That was slightly odd. I went to interview him, and everyone who interviews him just says, ‘Your Holiness, you’re the best person I’ve ever met in my life, you’re amazing.’ Obviously I think the Chinese occupation in Tibet is horrific, but equally when he ran Tibet, it was a fucking slave owning theocracy and he personally owned 17,000 serfs. So I asked him about that, and obviously he’s just never used to being asked anything critical, because he started off for ten minutes pretending he didn’t speak English. But I said ‘I’ve heard you give lectures in English,’ so after another ten minutes, I thought I’d bring it back to something where we agree. So I said ‘Your Holiness, you’ve always been vary critical of income inequality in the West, so I don’t see why we have so much money, because we each only have one stomach,’ and he said: ‘But not you. You clearly have at least three.’ I thought oh my God, I’ve just been called fat by a spiritual god.”

Is there anyone else who doesn’t like him that I should know about? “Busted called me a cunt, which I was quite pleased about.”

Performance enhancing drugs for students

A while ago, Hari wrote about a drug called Modafinil, which he says makes you smarter by improving your concentration and memory. It sounds brilliant, and you can get it online. Never mind some smart arse mouthing off about social justice, new internet drugs are what most people who read these articles wish to read about. So let’s hear more about it.

“I’d recommend it for short periods, like if I was ever going to take exams again. I would definitely take it during exams because your memory is much better. I wouldn’t recommend it in the long run to anyone because we don’t know what the effect is. But definitely for people doing exams, and this is going to be an issue in the future. It’s going to be the equivalent of athletes taking steroids.” So this could lead to a situation where students, like athletes, are tested for performance enhancing drugs? “I would have thought so. Definitely you get an unfair advantage, or the people who are not taking it would be at a disadvantage.”

Despite his stellar journalistic record, I can understand why people find him irritating; he is gobby, ungainly, and paints an overly caricatured picture of his opponents in order to ridicule them. But if you look at the knuckle draggers halting society’s progress, he can be forgiven for turning their own tactics against them. He has no idea of the death threats which are on their way, but first he has to negotiate the streets of Whitechapel to his home in Aldgate East, which is dicing with death in itself. I look at this bespectacled man push through the crowds of poor, homeless and drug-addled people and imagine the society he is attempting to guide us towards, and they’re miles apart.