I almost feel sorry for Christopher Hitchens. I attended the “debate” that he engaged in last Monday with Al Sharpton at the New York Public Library. The entire episode was a surreal example of how diminished is Hitchens’ reputation as a public intellectual. For weeks before the event, the library had advertised it as a discussion with him about his new book, [God Is Not Great] — the latest handbook of apostasy to join an ever-growing list of atheist polemics. Then, for some reason (lagging ticket sales?) about a week before the event, it suddenly became a debate with Rev. Al Sharpton. Bizarre, to say the least. Perhaps they were hoping for verbal pyrotechnics — The Thrilla in The Celeste Bartos Forum… so to speak. A reporter for the New York Times wrote it up as a title bout, even listing the proceedings in “Rounds”, which was generous.
A slick self-promoter best known in New York as a man who never met a microphone he didn’t like and who made his name during the notorious [Tawana Brawley fiasco], Sharpton hardly seemed the proper foil for Hitchens’ intellectual challenge of scripture and its place in public life. Though “ordained” at the age of nine (whatever that means), he has never shown much ethical compunction in his own public life, so it was unclear how he could be seen as a defender of religious ethics in the public lives of others. Perhaps, having recently achieved a coup of sorts by raking Don Imus over the coals for his racist mutterings and contributing to his downfall, Sharpton felt that he was anointed to speak on matters of public morals. Ah, but as we know from Proverbs 16:18 Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. As events would turn out to show…
The Debate of the Century. Pardon the shakiness of the shot, I was snoring when I took it.
Moderator Jacob Weisberg of Slate started the proceedings off by asking each of the participants to make an opening statement and Hitchens, still thinking this was a real debate, took to it with gusto, riffing on Sharpton’s age nine ordination by remarking that at about the same age he had lost his faith as a result of being able to see through the idiotic explanations that the nuns who taught him provided for natural phenomena (e.g., vegetation was made green by God because that is the most restful color for people to view). He wrote his book because he is offended by the increasing insistence of the faithful to introduce religion into formerly secular areas of public life. Likening theocracies to North Korea, he argued for reason as the basis of politics. Bulldog that he is, Hitchens then prepared to destabilize his opponent by treading onto truly holy ground for African-Americans: the religious motivation of Martin Luther King. He raised the question of whether King — who had studied Hegel and other philosophers — required religion to support the moral imperative of desegregation, or merely used references to Genesis and Exodus as metaphor. Saying that he preferred to refer to King as “Doctor”, a truly honorific title, he closed his speech by saying pointedly to Sharpton that the title “Reverend” was something to be lived down. Ouch.
He needn’t have brought out the big guns because it was clear within minutes that Sharpton brought nothing in return. Though the book under debate had surely been provided to him in advance, Rev. Al’s reading of it apparently never got past the title because in his response — and throughout the interminable event — he merely stated that Hitchens argument was apparently with the misuse of religion by certain of the faithful, but did not directly address why, in fact, God is not great. It was a rather literal reading of even just the title, but it was a point nonetheless. Hitchens — I imagine already popping a bead or two of cold sweat — explained that there was no way to know whether God existed or not, so his book dealt with its operational manifestation in public life. Wasted breath. Sharpton, who would not or could not respond to Hitchens’ criticism of scripture, merely repeated his complaint and added that, in addition to the goodness of God standing outside the veracity of scripture (the debate, such as it was, was ceded at that point), God was required for the goodness of men, else we are lost to the perils of moral relativism.
I watched Hitchens throughout the increasingly inane parrying that followed. At first he seemed to relish having such an easy adversary and there was some delight in receiving Sharpton’s coup de grace of the evening when he referred to Hitchens as a “man of faith” because he still believed in Saddam’s WMDs (applause), but by the time Sharpton said, “In the name of God North Korea has done bad things” I think it started dawning on Hitchens the awful implications of the evening for him. He was visibly squirming toward the end when Sharpton started referring to him, for some reason, as “Richard”: he had become the second banana in a bad comedy called The Rev. Al Show. That the story that came out of the debate was all about The Gaffe, wherein Sharpton said that we don’t have to worry about a Mormon running for president because, “those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway”, could only pour salt on a wound.
As I said at the start, I almost feel sorry for Christopher Hitchens. The author of [Why Orwell Matters], diminished by his public alliance with a government that Orwell would have despised, still tries in his brutish way to carry forth the fight against fascism. That’s what the atheist polemic is about, though even there his punch doesn’t land. He’s late to a party that, since the resurgence of the Democrats in the last election, is already breaking up. He’s got the stink of yesterday on him and if he’s not careful he’s heading toward irrelevance and more public embarrassments like this one.