Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire!
Christopher Eric Hitchens (13 April 1949 – 15 December 2011) was an English intellectual, polemicist, and socio-political critic who expressed himself as an author, orator, essayist, journalist, and columnist.
Hitchens was the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of over 30 books, including five collections of essays on culture, politics, and literature. He became an American citizen in 2007.
A staple of public discourse, his confrontational style of debate made him both a lauded public intellectual and a controversial public figure.
Hitchens was born the elder of two boys in Portsmouth, Hampshire. Even when they were children Christopher never got on well with his brother Peter Hitchens, a Christian and later a socially conservative journalist.
As an anti-theist, he regarded all religions as false, harmful, and authoritarian. He argued in favour of free expression and scientific discovery and asserted that it was superior to religion as an ethical code of conduct for human civilisation. He also advocated for separation of church and state. The dictum, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence”, has become known as Hitchens’s razor.
Later in life, Hitchens identified as a secular Jew after he discovered his mother was Jewish. His mother had been a ‘Wren’ (a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service). While Eric, Christopher farther was deployed on HMS Jamaica which took part in the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst in the Battle of the North Cape on 26 December 1943. Christopher would pay tribute to his father’s contribution to the war: “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done.” He also stated that “the remark that most summed him [his father] up was the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been ‘the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing’.
Christopher’s only sibling was the journalist and author Peter Hitchens, who is two years younger. Christopher said in 2005 the main difference between the two is belief in the existence of God. Peter became a member of the International Socialists (forerunners of the modern Socialist Workers’ Party) from 1968 to 1975 (beginning at age 17) after Christopher introduced him to them.
In June 2010, Hitchens was on tour in New York promoting his memoirs Hitch-22 when he was taken into emergency care suffering from a severe pericardial effusion. Soon after, he announced he was postponing his tour to undergo treatment for oesophageal cancer.
Hitchens died of pneumonia on 15 December 2011 in the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, aged 62. In accordance with his wishes, his body was donated to medical research. Mortality, a collection of seven of Hitchens’s Vanity Fair essays about his illness, was published posthumously in September 2012.
Why Even Hate Speech Needs to Be Protected
Being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear must extend, above all, to those who think differently.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
The debate on free speech as never been so controversial, from Left and right there are advocates of free speech often shouted down and extinguished by the new authoritarian facisim of ‘cancel culture,’ centrist puritans ready to bann chrismas and take away your mince pies “Screw the Puritans and Eat More Mince Pies!”
Arguments are not won by shutting down the opposition, they are won through rigours debate and intelligent argument.
Others have taken it upon themselves to restrict the freedom of speech. On many colleges and universities, radicals have either banned or shouted down speakers, most of whom are conservatives. Various outfits like Twitter and Facebook have suspended or banned altogether those whose political views they find offensive.
Then there are the countless examples of those who make some public remark, often innocuous, that someone else finds offensive. That’s when the onslaught begins. The Puritans had their stocks and whipping posts; we have our social justice warrior mobs ready to humiliate or threaten everyone from a uniformed social media comment to a comedian’s joke in a nightclub.
Freedom of speech means hearing opinions we may find offensive, but where is it written that we have the right not to be offended?
If we disagree with the political opinions of a speaker, we have the right to picket that speaker, but not the right to shout him down or drive him from the stage. When we do so, we are destroying the rights of those who wish to listen to him. We are also destroying our own opportunity to hear an opponent and respond with reason and arguments to his position.
Christopher Hitchens once offered these thoughts on free speech in a controversial lecture:
It is not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear, and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view.
Indeed as John Stuart Mill said: if all of society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person it would be most important, in fact it would become even more important, that that one heretic be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.
Hitchens ends by saying to his audience, “You are giving away what is most precious in your own society.”
Freedom of speech, freedom to practice our religion—Hitchens was an atheist who despised Christianity, indeed all religions, but our First Amendment entitles him to these views—freedom of the press, freedom of assembly: these are some things that should be most precious to us. They are the foundation stones of our freedom.
And we must fight to keep them.
My own opinion is a very simple one. The right of others to free expression is part of my own. If someone’s voice is silenced, then I am deprived of the right to hear. Moreover, I have never met nor heard of anybody I would trust with the job of deciding in advance what it might be permissible for me or anyone else to say or read. That freedom of expression consists of being able to tell people what they may not wish to hear, and that it must extend, above all, to those who think differently is, to me, self-evident. -Christopher Hitchens
Hitchens most famous talk on freedom of speech was the famous Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! here is the text in full.
Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Now you’ve heard it, not shouted in a crowded theatre admittedly as I realize I seem now to have shouted it in the Hogwarts dining room but the point is made. Everyone knows the fatuous verdict of the greatly over-praised Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes who asked for an actual example of when it would be proper to limit speech or defy it as an action, gave that to shouting fire in a crowded theatre. Its very often forgotten what he was doing in that case, was sending to prison a group of Yiddish speaking socialists whose literature was printed in a language most Americans couldn’t read opposing President Wilson’s participation in the First World War and the dragging of the United States into this sanguinary conflict which the Yiddish speaking socialists had fled from Russia to escape. In fact, it could be just as plausibly argued that the Yiddish speaking socialists, who were jailed by the excellent and over-praised judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, were the real fire-fighters – were the ones who were shouting fire when there really was fire in a very crowded theatre indeed, and who is to decide?
Well, keep that question if you would, ladies and gentlemen brothers and sisters I hope I may say comrades and friends, before your minds. I exempt myself from the speaker’s kind offer of protection that was so generously proffered at the opening of this evening. Anyone who wants to say anything abusive about or to me is quite free to do so and welcome, in fact, at their own risk but before they do that they must have taken, as I’m sure we all should, a short refresh of course in the classic texts on this matter, which are: John Milton’s “Areopagitica”, Areopagitica being the great hill of Athens, for discussion and free expression; Thomas Paine’s introduction to “the Age of Reason”; and I would say John Stewart Mill’s essay On Liberty, in which it is variously said….
I’ll be very daring, and summarize all three of these great gentlemen of the great tradition of especially English liberty in one go: what they say is: It’s not just the right of the person who speaks to be heard, it is the right of everyone in the audience to listen and to hear, and every time you silence somebody you make yourself a prisoner of your own action because you deny yourself the right to hear something. In other words, your own right to hear and be exposed is as much involved in all these cases as is the right of the other to voice his or her view. Indeed as John Stewart Mill said, if all of society were agreed on the truth and beauty and value of one proposition, all except one person it would be most important in fact it would become even more important that that one heretic be heard because we would still benefit from his perhaps outrageous or appalling view.
In more modern times this has been put I think best by a personal heroine of mine Rosa Luxemburg, who said that “the freedom of speech is meaningless unless it means the freedom of the person who thinks differently”. My great friend John O’Sullivan, former editor of the National Review and I think probably my most conservative and reactionary Catholic friend, once said as a tiny thought experiment he said: “If you hear the Pope saying he believes in God you think well the Pope’s doing his job again today. If you hear the Pope saying he’s really begun to doubt the existence of God you begin to think he might be on to something”.
Well, if everybody in North America is forced to attend a school training in sensitivity or in Holocaust awareness and is taught to study the final solution, about which nothing was actually done by this country or North America or the United Kingdom while it was going on but let’s say as if in compensation for that everyone’s made to swallow an official and unalterable story of it now and it’s taught as the great moral exemplar the great modern equivalent of the morally lacking elements of the Second World War a way of stilling our uneasy conscience about that combat, if that’s the case with everybody as it more or less is and one person gets up and says, “You know what, this Holocaust? I’m not sure it even happened. In fact, I’m pretty certain it didn’t. Indeed I begin to wonder if the only thing is that the Jews brought a little bit of violence on themselves”. That person doesn’t just have a right to speak, that person’s right to speak must be given extra protection because what he has to say must have taken him some effort to come up with.
Might be, might contain, a grain of historical truth. Might, in any case, give people to think about why do they know what they already think that they know? How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? It’s always worth establishing, first a principle, saying “What would you do if you met a flat Earth society member?” “Come to think of it, how can I prove the Earth is round?” “Am I sure about the theory of evolution? I know it’s supposed to be true. Here’s someone who says no such thing, it’s all intelligent design”. “How sure am I in my own views?” Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be okay because you’re in the safely moral majority.
One of the proudest moments of my life, that’s to say in the recent past, has been defending the British historian David Irving who is now in prison in Austria for nothing more than the potential of uttering an unwelcomed thought on Austrian soil. He didn’t actually say anything in Austria. He wasn’t even accused of saying anything, he was accused of perhaps planning to say something that violated an Austrian law that says only one version of the history of the Second World War may be taught in our brave little tyrannical republic. The republic that gave us Kurt Volheim as secretary general of the United Nations, a man wanted in several countries for war crimes. You know the country that has Jörg Haider, the leader of its own fascist party, in the cabinet that sent David Irving to jail. You know the two things that have made Austria famous, given it, it’s reputation by any chance? Just while I’ve got you….? I hope there are some Austrians here to be upset by that. Well, it pities if not but the two greatest achievements of Austria are to convince the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese. Now to this proud record they can add they have the courage finally to face their past and lock up a British historian whose committed no crime except that of thought in writing and that’s a scandal and I can’t find a seconder when I propose this but I don’t care. I don’t need a seconder, my own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time, and anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get on a line and kiss my ass.
Now, I don’t know how many of you don’t feel that you’re grown up enough to decide this for yourselves and think you need to be protected from David Irving’s addition of the Goebbels’ diaries for example out of which I learned more about the Third Reich than I had from studying Hugh Trevor-Roper and A.J.P. Taylor combined when I was at Oxford. But for those of you who do, I recommend another short course of revision. Go again and see not just the film and the play but read the text of Robert Bolt’s wonderful play “Man For All Seasons”, some of you must have seen it – where Sir Thomas Moore decides that he would rather die than lie or betray his faith and at one moment Moore is arguing with a particularly vicious witch-hunting prosecutor (a servant of the king and a hungry and ambitious man), and Moore says to this man “You’d break the law to punish the Devil, wouldn’t you?” And the prosecutor, the witch hunter, says “Break it?” He says “I’d cut down every law in England if I could do that, if I could capture him.” And Moore says “Yes you would, wouldn’t you? And then when you corner the Devil and the Devil turned round to meet you, where would you run for protection? All the laws of England having been cut down and flattened, who would protect you then?” Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, that every time you violate or propose to violate the free speech of someone else you, in potentia, you’re making a rod for your own back because the other question raised by justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is simply this: “Whose going to decide? To whom do you reward the right to decide which speech is harmful? Or who is the harmful speaker? Or to determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the task of being the censor?” Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what’s fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched?
Did you hear any speaker in the opposition to this motion, eloquent as one of them was… to whom you would delegate the task of deciding for you what you could read? To whom you would give the job of deciding for you? Relieve you of the responsibility of hearing what you might have to hear? Do you know anyone, hands up do you know anyone to whom you’d give this job? Does anyone have a nominee? You mean there’s no one in Canada good enough to decide what I can read or hear? I had no idea but there’s a law that says there must be such a person or there’s a sub-section of some piddling law that says it. Well to hell with that law then, it’s inviting you to be liars and hypocrites and to deny what you evidently know already. About this censorious instinct, we basically know all that we need to know and we’ve known it for a long time. It comes from an old story about another great Englishman, sorry to sound so particular about that this evening, Dr Samuel Johnson the great lexicographer the author of the first – compiler, I should say – of the first great dictionary of the English language. When it was complete, Dr Johnson was waited on by both delegations of; the people to congratulate him of the nobility of the quality; of the commons; of the Lords; and also by delegations of respectable ladies of London, who tended on him in his Fleet Street lodgings and congratulated him: “Dr Johnson,” they said, “We are delighted to find that you have not included any indecent or obscene words in your dictionary.” “Ladies,” said Dr Johnson, “I congratulate you on being able to look them up”. Anyone that can understand that joke, and I’m pleased to see that 10% of you can, gets the point about censorship especially prior restraint as it’s known in the United States where it’s banned by the first amendment to the constitution. It may not be determined in advance what words are apt or inapt, no one has the knowledge that would be required to make that call and – more to the point – one has to suspect the motives of those that do so, in particular: the motives of those who are determined to be offended; of those who will go through a treasure house of English, like Dr Johnson’s first lexicon, in search of filthy words to satisfy themselves and some instinct about which I dare not speculate.
Now, I am absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion. Absolutely convinced of it. I’m glad that you applaud because it’s a very great problem for those that oppose this motion, isn’t it? How are they going to ban religion? How are they going to stop the expression of religious loathing, hatred and bigotry? I speak as someone who is a fairly regular target of this, and not just in rhetorical form. I have been the target of many death threats. I know within a short distance of where I’m currently living in Washington I can name two or three people whose names you probably know who can’t go anywhere now without a security detail because of the criticisms they’ve made of one monotheism in particular and this is in the capital city of the United States. So I know what I’m talking about and I also have to notice that the sort of people who ring me up and say they know where my children go to school, and they say that they know what my home number is and where I live, and what they’re going to do to them and my wife and me and who, I have to take seriously because they have done it to people I know, are just the people who are going to seek the protection of the hate speech law if I say what I think about their religion which I’m now going to do. I don’t have any, what you call, ethnic bias. No grudge of that sort. I can rub along with pretty much anyone of any, as it were, origin or sexual orientation or language group except people from Yorkshire of course who are completely untakable.
I’m beginning to resent the confusion that’s being imposed on us now and there was some of it this evening between religious belief, blasphemy, ethnicity, profanity and what one might call multicultural etiquette. It’s quite common now for people to use the expression, for example, anti-Islamic racism as if an attack on a religion was an attack on an Ethnic group. The word Islamophobia, in fact, is beginning to acquire the opprobrium of what was once reserved for racial prejudice. This is a subtle and very nasty insinuation that needs to meet head on. Who said what if Falwell said he hates fags? What if people act upon that? The bible says you have to hate fags. If Falwell says it, he’s saying it because the Bible says it so he’s right, yes it might make people go out and use violence. What are you going to do about that? You’re up against a group of people who will say “You put your hands on my Bible and we’ll call the hate speech police!” Now, what are you going to do when you’ve dug that trap for yourself? Somebody said that anti-Semitism and Kristallnacht was the result of ten years of Jew-bating. Ten years? You must be joking, it’s the result of 2000 years of Christianity based on one verse of one chapter of St. John’s gospel which led to a pogrom after every Eastern sermon, every year for hundreds of years because it claims that the Jews demanded the blood of Christ beyond the heads of themselves and all their children to the remotest generation. That’s the warrant and license for and incitement to anti-Jewish pogroms. What are you going to do about that? Where’s your piddling sub-section now? Does it say St. John’s gospel must be censored? Do I, who’ve read Freud and know what the future of an illusion really is and know that religious belief is ineradicable as long as we remain a stupid poorly evolved mammalian species, think that some Canadian law is going to solve this problem? Please, no our problem this: our pre-frontal lobes are too small and our adrenaline glands are too big and our thumb-finger proposition isn’t all that it might be and we’re afraid of the dark and we’re afraid to die and we believe in the truths of holy books that are so stupid and so fabricated that a child can, and all children do as you can tell by their questions, actually see through them and I think it should be with religion, treated with ridicule and hatred and contempt and I claim that right.
Now, let’s not dance around – not all monotheisms are exactly the same at the moment. They’re all based on the same illusion they’re all plagiarisms of each other, but there’s one in particular that at the moment is proposing a serious menace to not just freedom of speech but freedom of expression but to quite a lot of other freedoms too. This is the religion that exhibits the horrible trio of self-hatred, self-righteousness and self-pity. I’m talking about militant Islam. Globally it’s a gigantic power. Globally it’s a gigantic power. It controls; an enormous amount of oil; wealth; several large countries and states; with an enormous fortune. It’s pumping the ideology of Wahhabism and Salafism around the world; poisoning societies everywhere it goes; ruining the minds of children; stultifying the young in it’s madrassas; training people in violence, making a cult of death and suicide and murder. That’s what it does globally, its quite strong. In our societies as a cringing minority whose faith he might offend, which deserves all protection that the small and vulnerable group might need.
Now it makes quite large claims for itself, doesn’t it? It says its the final revelation. It says that God spoke to one illiterate businessman in the Arabian peninsula three times through an archangel and that the resulting material, as you can see when you read it, is largely plagiarised from the old and the new testament. Almost all of it actually ineptly from the old and the new testament. It is to be accepted as a divine revelation and as the final and unalterable word and unalterable one and that those who don’t accept this revelation are to be treated as cattle, infidels, slaves Victims, I’ll tell you what I don’t think Muhammad ever heard those voices, I don’t believe it. The likelihood that I’m right as opposed to the likelihood that a shepherd who couldn’t read had bits of the old and new testament re-dictated to him by an archangel I think puts me much more near the position of being objectively correct. But who is the one under threat? The person who promulgates this and says “I better listen because if I don’t I’m in danger” or me, who thinks this is so silly you can even publish a cartoon about it. And up go the placards and up go the yells and the howls and the screams, “Behead those!” This is in London… this is in Toronto…. this is in New York…. It’s right in our midst now, “Behead those!” “Behead those who cartoon Islam!” Do they get arrested for hate speech? No.. Might I get in trouble for what I’ve just said about the prophet Muhammad? Yes I might. Where are your priorities ladies and gentlemen? You’re giving away what’s most precious in your own society and you’re giving it away without a fight and you’re even praising the people who want to deny you the right to resist it. Shame on you while you do this. Make the best use of the time you’ve got left. This is really serious.
Now, if you look anywhere you like because we’ve had invocations of a rather drivelling and sickly kind tonight of our sympathy, “What about the poor fags… what about the poor Jews… the wretched women who can’t take the abuse…?” And the slaves and their descendants and the tribes who didn’t make it and were told that their land was forfeit. Look anywhere you like for the warrant of slavery, for the subjection of women as chattel, for the burning and flogging of homosexuals – for all of this you look no further than a famous book that’s on every pulpit in every city, and in every synagogue, and in every mosque. and then just see whether you can square the fact that the force that is the main source of hatred is also the main caller for censorship and when you realize that you’re therefore this evening faced with a gigantic false antithesis, I hope that still won’t give you from stopping the motion before you the resounding endorsement that it deserves. Thanks awfully. Night.
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