PEN 2010: Christopher Hitchens in Conversation with Salman Rushdie

Democracy Media


It is a daunting task to write a synopsis of an event led by men with wit as sharp as Christopher Hitchens and Salman Rushdie. PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2010's final event, held in the auspicious Great Hall of Cooper Union, was supposed to be the site of a talk given by Sherman Alexie on the artistic, political and economic responsibilities of writers in the digital age but due to unforseen circumstances, he was unable to host the closing plenary. 


After a brief introduction from Rushie, Hitchens (Johnny Walker Red and Coke dangling from the fingers of his left hand, long strands of his greasy blond hair rolled over to the left) began by divulging stories relating to Arthur Miller which poignantly pointed out, as Hitchens stated, "crucibles, past and present." It is now depressingly easy to instill fear in Americans, Hitchens stated, and this contagion of fear has led to American citizens giving up their very freedoms and constitution. "And for what?" he asks. And when is too much? In acrid moments, Hitchens stated that some will say, "I would have taken a stand at some point," and asks, "What would I do if the neighbors were being placed on the trains?" Importantly underlining the many "I would-haves," Hitchens nailed home the point that the time to act is now, not in some distant future; that the very dystopia that we claim we fear so much is truly upon us. And where is the outrage? The, "I'll act better next time," won't cut it, Hitchens noted. 


There are moments, Hitchens points out, when the time arises to act. Playwright Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller were at the American Embassy in Turkey and loudly voiced their disapproval of the Turkish government's handling of the Kurds. And it turns out that there is, "Never a good time for keeping your mouth shut." Salman Rushdie, on 14 February, 1989, was hit by a fatwa requiring Rushdie's execution by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, due to his publication of The Satanic Verses and the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad withinMany at PEN at the time, Hitchens explained, were reluctant to sign a list begun by Susan Sontag (then President of PEN) to support Rushdie (including Miller who later consented to signing). This persuasiveness of fear can make people's commitments to the basic values of a society tenuous at best. 

The present phase of fear, according to Hitchens, began five years ago when the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad were reproduced in a Danish newspaper and Danish citizens and government officials (not to mention the author of said photos) were systematically targeted by Islamic extremists. It was at this point that Hitchens' words began to grate ever so slightly. While extolling the good natured Danish (their "vibrant economy" and "peaceful citizens" which I do not doubt there are many), the framing of those that responded with violence as crazed, non-sensical extremists seemed a bit all-too-familiar. In a testosterone-laden stance, Hitchens outlined how the Bush administration's response to the violence with apologies for the effects of said cartoons was a response laden with fear of reprisal, a fear to stand up to what was "right." Hitchens made a call to journalists everywhere to stand up and in this age of the image, where there is a network of outlets for news and information, the response should be for all papers, far and wide, to publish the cartoons in solidarity with the Danish paper. Instead, papers and magazines pulled all issues with the images within once they saw the violent response they invoked. This is, Hitchens stated, "crying before you were hurt."

In a similar vein, Hitchens mentioned the South Park episode recently pulled by Comedy Central, the network known for pushing the boundaries of the admissible in television. While I am apt to jump on the boat for issues that arise which denote the degeneration of our society into one run by fear, obsessive deliberation and ignorance, the approach that Hitchens seemed to take to this issue was one reeking of testosterone, the, "Put up your fists and fight for what is right. The war is now!" and so on. As much as I can appreciate this, having grown up in a family of males that largely operate in this manner, this story seems to have been told before and things just seem a bit more complicated than all that. 

Hitchens painted a reality where the air was thickening with excuses as reprisal becomes the thing to fear most and called upon us, the "children of the revolution," to stand up and fight for the issues "our" forfathers died for. To agree with people continually, Hitchens stated, was cowardice masquerading as respect. False or mystical U.S. histories aside about forfathers and who died for what causes, etc. I could not help but be struck by the insistence of both Hitchens and Rushdie to face violence with bravery rather than cowardice and wondered if this was not the very thing which led us to wage two disastrous wars in the "War on Terror" (the link to the entire event appears at the end of this entry for you to garner your own opinion on this). 

Religion of course, played a central role in the latter part of the event (Hitchens, God Is Not Great), the topics of intelligent design and anti-Darwinism, theocracy's use of religion as a tool for terror, the romantic allure of Al Qaeda to young men with little hope for the future in the region of the Middle East and beyond, and the Crusades as the most retarding moment in Western Civilization framed the discussion between Hitchens and Rushdie. In a comical moment from Rushdie, when asked about the fatwa and his feeling towards Ayatollah Khomeini, he stated, "I would just like to point out something between me and the Ayatollah Khomeini: one of us is dead." 

In the Q&A session, Hitchens was asked about the pledge of allegiance and the role of God within. Hitchens explained that the pledge of allegiance (written by a Socialist) only had "Under God" added in the 1950's under Eisenhower. The main reason according to Hitchens? To keep the pledge from being able to be repeated in Russia's educational system during the height of the Cold War. 

Overall, the final event was provocative, engaging but at times, laden with a heavy dose of machismo. In one of the final questions of the evening, Rushdie was asked whether he felt outside organizations that support movements or individuals in countries other than there own facing censure or violence offer more help than hinderance to those movements or individuals. Rushdie could only note that PEN's support has been instrumental for many people around the world in freeing their voices to be heard outside their country's borders, including his own. "Tyranny does not like publicity," Rushdie stated, and noted that the best way to challenge tyrannical governments is to shine as much light on their practices and abuses as possible.

The time for the voices of the PEN 2010 event to be heard had come to a close. The voices of PEN 2011 emerged on the near horizon. 



Watch the whole event: here


Panelist's Bios (click on their names to go to their works):

Salman Rushdie (moderator): author of many novels, including Midnight’s Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, The Ground Beneath Her Feet,Fury, Shalimar the Clown, and, most recently, The Enchantress of Florence. He has won numerous awards, including the Man Booker Prize, the “Booker of Bookers,” and the Whitbread Prize, and he was awarded a knighthood for services to literature in 2007. A former President of PEN American Center, he currently chairs the World Voices Festival.

Christopher Hitchens: born in Portsmouth, England in 1949. Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. He is the author of numerous books, including works on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Mother Teresa, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and his No. 1 New York Times and National Book Award nominee, God Is Not Great. His next book,Hitch-22: A Memoir, will be released this June.



Journalism, PEN 2010