Missing Christopher Hitchens
"The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." So said President of the United States Barack Obama before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Monday.
Perhaps only the late columnist, writer, and polemicist Christopher Hitchens (who died this year) could have made sense of the spectacle of an American president condemning the exercise of free speech in a YouTube video made in the United States. Certainly, "the Hitch" -- as he was known to friends -- would have made a fitting response, even if he found the spectacle itself incomprehensible. Not to say unedifying.
And that shows the distance the American left has traveled in the last quarter-century. If progressive artists and progressive politicians will not defend the First Amendment, what will they defend?
In 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for what he'd said about Mohammed in his novel The Satanic Verses, it was Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag (now also gone) who aroused the American artistic community and the media to defend Rushdie's right of free speech. The response at the time was tepid at best -- something which Hitchens remarked upon.
"It seems," Christopher Hitchens wrote in the New York Times on February 17, 1989, "that many respectable people are prepared to be more critical of a novel written by a private individual than they are about a murder threat issued so boldly by a man with state power."
In Europe, the push-back against Islam was nonexistent at best -- except for Margaret Thatcher's British government, which undertook to provide what turned out to be years of protection for Salman Rushdie and his family. Rushdie, who has just published a memoir of that time, remembered his experience recently on Charlie Rose.
Twenty-three years later, the silence has spread from Europe to the United States. And the silencer-in-chief is now in the White House. As one, the president, the secretary of state, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations have all condemned Nakoula Basselly Nakoula's execrable little video.
Mr. Obama even went so far as to ask Google to take down the YouTube video. To Google's credit, it did not.
Now, granted, there are important and meaningful distinctions which one might make here. The Satanic Verses is an accomplished work of literary imagination, while Innocence of Muslims is artistically a crime against nature. Rushdie, the author of the offending novel, is a Cambridge University graduate; a sophisticated, witty writer; and an urbane, well-traveled man. Nakoula, the author of the offending video, is a convicted felon and, apparently, a tax cheat.
Their status as to nationality and vis-à-vis Islam is different, too.
And did I mention? Nakoula's video is a piece of crap -- and deeply insulting to a devout Muslim.
To which, of course, the proper a response is: so what?
Free speech, as we used to be reminded (by the left), means freedom for the speech that we hate. And the solution to a problem with free speech is -- remember? -- more speech.
From The Quotable Hitchens, from Alcohol to Zionism: the Very Best of Christopher Hitchens (2011), here are a few pertinent remarks by Hitchens himself at the time of the Rushdie controversy:
"In the responses of a liberal society to this direct affront, there has been altogether too much about the offended susceptibilities of the religious an altogether too little about the absolute right of free expression and free inquiry. One can and must be 'absolute' about these. Unlike other absolutism, they guarantee rather than abridge the rights of all -- Khomeini included -- to be heard and debated." 2/17/89
"The Muslim extremists have, in two vital sense, demanded the impossible. They have asked the slightly lazy but nonetheless conscious heirs of the Enlightenment to adopt, not the practice (which never dies out, as we know to our cost), but the principle of censorshipAnd they have demanded, for themselves, the smashing of a mirror in which they might glimpse their own reflections." 10/26/89
"One must side with Salman Rushdie not because he is an underdog but because there is no other side to be on." 10/26/89
"Freedom of speech and expression did not fall from the sky. They had to be fought for and they have to be defended." 12/03/89
"Many lazy people when asked, and many vulgar editorialists whether asked or not, will say he brought this on himself by insufficient 'sensitivity' to the feelings of Muslims. To me, the case has always seemed exactly the other way around." 3/01/93
"The Khomeini fatwa, as it now appears, was an early warning of a new confrontation as well as a reminder of an old one." 3/01/93
Of course, Christopher Hitchens had many faults. And the artist in him would have been revolted by this YouTube video. But I think he would have fought back hard nevertheless.
One reason is because he rarely passed up a chance to impugn any species of organized religion. Mother Teresa, Judaism, the Catholic Church, Islam -- you name it, Hitchens attacked it, con brio. The title of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) says it all.
The second reason is because Christopher Hitchens never doubted which side he was on in the war with jihad. The attacks of 9/11 brought him out into the street, metaphorical guns blazing. Indeed, Hitchens -- like ABC's Peter Jennings -- finally took American citizenship in specific response to 9/11. He tells that story in his autobiography, Hitch 22: A Memoir (2010).
Third, Hitchens -- at least in his post-Communist phase, anyway -- was a lover of the truth. He was, after all, a journalist. What would have enraged Christopher Hitchens today is not the all-too-predicable response of Muslims abroad and their dhimmis in the West. I think he would have aimed most of his considerable artillery at the outright, bare-faced lying by the Obama administration to cover up the circumstances surrounding the murder of our ambassador to Libya.
Hitchens couldn't stand the Clintons' mendacity, either -- and that was what led to what, in many ways, was his final break with the left. No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton (1999) is the title of his book about that. He condemned President Clinton and his cohorts' perjuries absolutely.
How the ex-Trotskyite would have savored the chance to give Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the full clip!
Now Hitchens is silent. And so is Susan Sontag. And Peter Jennings. From all sides in the MSM and the U.S. government come cries that those who wish to criticize jihad should...well, shut up. The moment which Mark Steyn and, in Great Britain, Melanie Phillips, predicted has arrived.
It didn't take long. From a full-throated defense of the First Amendment rights of an artist to the whimper of dhimmitude -- mouthed by no lesser personages than the president of the United States and his secretary of state. All in less than 25 years.
Damn. As T.S. Elliott wrote in "The Hollow Men":
This is how the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
Two weeks since the 9/11 murders in Libya, no leading Democrat or progressive has come forward to defend the anti-Mohammed video which (while it had nothing to do with that terrorist attack) has now triggered waves of rioting and killing across the Muslim world. European and American embassies and consulates are closed or heavily guarded from Indonesia to Morocco and Nigeria.
And at home? Silence. With Barack Obama in the White House and Christopher Hitchens and Susan Sontag dead, the Liberal Moment has expired.