Christopher Hitchens On “Crucibles: Past and Present”

A couple of weeks ago, Christopher Hitchens delivered “The Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture” and then was interviewed by Salman Rushdie.  During the speech he quoted this superb poem from Edna St. Vincent Millay:

Conscientious Objector
I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

And he puts a couple points really well, he writes of his response to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie:

What I remember thinking on that day, which was the 14th of February, 1989, was, “Well, for me, for my lot, this is the case, this is the test”.  We often wondered, “What will it be in our generation.”  Most free speech cases, you’ll find, if you look into them, from the trial of Sorates onwards, have been to do with blasphemy.  Socrates, Galileo, Spinoza, you can fill in blanks for yourself.  Almost always someone is said to have “gone too far this time” and to have outraged the sensibilities of the community, as well as the laws and the codes of the state and the city and profaned the gods.

Rushdie adds to this:

Blasphemy–the refusal to accept the church as the limiting point on thought–is something which throughout human history which has been thing that has moved the human race forward.  You mentioned Galileo and Socrates.  One should also remind people that the trial of Jesus Christ was a blasphemy trial.  And from those three, you can say you have Western religious belief, Western scientific understanding, and Western philosophy.  They all emerge from blasphemy cases.

Hitchens’s response to the editors who refused to reprint the Danish cartoons after violence broke out:

Of what value is your first amendment, of what value is the enormous money that you make out of free expression, the giant revenues that are to be made in a country that enjoys the right of free publication if it won’t be defended at the very first challenge?

Rushdie on newspapers’ acquiescence to violent demands that they not reprint the infamous Danish cartoons, out of “respect”:

It seems to me one of the most mealy mouthed pieces of language that has developed to justify this kind of behavior is a kind of reinvention of the word respect .  It seemed to mean, when I was growing up, that respect meant that you took people seriously, it didn’t mean that you never disagreed with them.  To respect someone is to say, “okay, we’ll take on what you have to say and if I don’t agree with it I will offer a counterargument”.  The idea that it would be disrespectful to someone to in any way disagree from their system of belief is a new idea, a new meaning for the term respect, and it seems to me to have nothing to do with respect, but what it actually means is “I am too afraid to do it”.  So what you have is cowardice masquerading as respect.

The full speech and subsequent conversation:

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And if you don’t have time for whole thing, at least skip over to the 28 minute mark for their jokes about suicide bombers’ disappointed arrivals in heaven.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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