The Blog

What Would Hitchens Do

Standing in the shadow of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and western norms we need to learn from and implement those principles of free speech that Hitchens advocated.

In times like this we ache in his absence. "One of the joys of living in a world filled with stupidity and hypocrisy was to see Hitch respond. That pleasure is now denied us." As Sam Harris said.

In the aftermath of the slaughter of satirists forceful voices came out loudly. Andrew Sullivan responded with an unflinching retort. Other verbal pugilists came flying from the hangars; Kenan Malik, Alex Massie, Douglas Murray, Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch, Martin Rowson.

Salman Rushie, the Hitch's friend and fellow controversialist, denounced the murder and declaimed the irreducible principle of free speech.

But nobody came near the effortless, unrelenting eloquence we came so exogenously to expect of Christopher Hitchens. The Cicero plus Demosthenes in debate, as Martin Amis put it so beautifully.

We're used to it by now. Every time a clerically-inspired desecration visits society, we turn to Hitch, lamenting his passing, yearning for his counsel, thirsting for his lead. Andrew Sullivan has numerous posts under the tag "Hitch bait" which have been published in the wake of some religious depravity. After Charlie a number of articles materialised considering how Hitch would react. His polemic in response to the Danish cartoon campaign of sabotage and intimidation was republished by Slate.

I want to consider what he would say. And I know you cannot ventriloquise the dead, Christopher said so himself. But just as Hitch said he could infer that Orwell would have opposed the Vietnam War, so I believe we can infer a great deal of what Hitch would have said in response to the grievous attack on Charlie Hebdo and the free press.

For Christopher Hitchens, we know he would say "it's my life the First Amendment." Carol Blue said it after his death, "Christopher believed in an absolute First Amendment."

I believe he would have said something like this, as he said of the Fatwa issued against Salman Rushie 35 years ago:

"A very radical challenge I thought to every possible value that's represented by the Western enlightenment, to free expression."

He would have blasted canon-balls of invective at the legacy media for their total prostration before the cudgel wavers:

"I'm ashamed to say it on behalf of my profession, not one American newspaper or network agreed to show those cartoons. Even as an objective news story."

Something Luz of Charlie Hebdo roared against:

"I was pretty sad when I saw some magazine covers such as the New York Times refusing to publish our front page. For fear. For fear ot terrorists."

Hitchens also said:

"In the United States of America in 2006, there wasn't a single member of our profession in a position to make a decision who would stand up for one day to outright blackmail. And people say to me, 'Why do you keep mentioning the extremists?' Because the extremists are the tail that wag the whole dog. And my profession proves it, and your culture proves it, and you were humiliated by this... It's a responsibility: first, solidarity with the Danes; second, people should see what the fuss is about."

We can discern more by looking at the precedents. In response to the Muhammed cartoons published by in Jyllands-Posten 2005, Hitchens wrote 'The case for Mocking religion', decrying it "depressing to have to restate these obvious precepts". Namely:

"There can be no negotiation under duress or under the threat of blackmail and assassination. And civil society means that free expression trumps the emotions of anyone to whom free expression might be inconvenient."


"Therefore there is a strong case for saying that the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and those who have reprinted its efforts out of solidarity, are affirming the right to criticize not merely Islam but religion in general."

This is what Georges Wolinski said in 2006 in reaction to the Danish scandal. Satirists do not assail islam in isolation, but assail all religions equally.

"What could I have said [to the press about the Danish Muhammad cartooons], beyond the same old thing. We laugh at everything. That is what we do. No subject is off limits."

Hitch also wrote in Slate 'Stand Up For Denmark!' and said:

"You may have noticed the recurrence of the term "One point two billion Muslims." A few years ago, I became used to the charge that in defending Salman Rushdie, say, I had "offended a billion Muslims." Evidently, the number has gone up since I first heard this ridiculous complaint. But observe the implied threat. There is not just safety in numbers, but danger in numbers. How many Danes or Jews or freethinkers are there? You can see what the "spokesmen" are insinuating by this tactic of mass psychology and mobbishness."

And he said elsewhere:

"Within many Islamic countries there are people who have a greater respect for pluralism than there are people in Britain who would like to censor me for criticising Islam, for example."

He would oppose in totallity the repeated bleat that criticism of Islam is islamophobic and racist. He said:

"You cannot be a racist by criticising the Islamic religion, by definition you cannot. There's now a stupid term that's trying to be imported into our culture, "islamophobia", as if to group it with racism in general. Nonsense. I won't have it. I dislike Islam very much, just as I do all religions, and ive every tight to say that I think it's an absurd and wicked belief."

He would have called "moral cretins" those who said France and Charlie Hebdo has it coming, and called an "outrage to moral responsibility" against those who said Charlie were provocateurs.

On the wider point on the left that these attacks are the blow-back of western intervention in the Middle East, there would be no vacillation from Hitchens. As he said:

"The grievance and animosity predate even the Balfour Declaration."

"Islamic fundamentalism is not created by American democracy."

Standing in the shadow of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and western norms we need to learn from and implement those principles of free speech that Hitchens advocated. Now is no time for lay down, capitulationist liberalism. To put it in Hitchean terms, what islamists want and end to is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend.

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