Friday, May 26, 2006

When I met.. Christopher Hitchens

I sat adrift of the right of Christopher Hitchens at today's lunch-time talk at the IPPR, there to discuss Thomas Paine's 'Rights of Man', the American revolution and secularisation.

Hitchens credits Paine's work with influencing the Constitution, a key document of the American revolution (1763-1789). That itself influenced the French Revolution (1789-1799) and the 'Rights of Man' can be understood as a defence of that. It seems to have much relevance today, for other countries (Hitchens is a UK ex-pat) and in terms of the general conception of universal human rights. Are there really basic rights that all are entitled to purely by virtue of their humanity? What are the responsibilities that follow from those rights? Do (other) animals have rights? What of our arbitary restriction of rights to the living? It's a short-coming of democracy: future generations are unable to vote on issues that affect them, while the dead leave a legacy that they don't have to personally experience. We had little time, between munching on sandwiches, for these questions - but some of my thoughts are below.

It's interesting that Hitchen's acknowledges that Paine's "self-evident truths" are only such because we deem them to be. They're as good as any 'God-given' rights and can be respected to the same degree, but nevertheless remain socially-constructed, socially-sanctioned. This is an enlightened view, going beyond 'Human rights are innate, unalienable, obvious' to say 'These aren't intrinsic characteristics - but they ought to be treated as such'. The American revolution, Hitchens proposes, is the only one still continuing. The Russian communist revolution was crushed - and the Chinese one slowly becomes capitalism without much fuss. Let's continue the American revolution, Hitchens seems to be saying, and take it global. America leading the world broadly supports my view that the UK remains on Democracy version 1.0, while the US benefits from the improvements in version 2.0.

A single, clear statement of what the British stand for would be helpful. Hitchens is part of a pressure group called Charter 88 that fights for such a thing in the UK. The Human Rights Act is the closest thing we have at the moment - but that is itself under worryingly constant attack.

Not just the State suffers from a close association with the Church. In equal measure, the Church may choose to avoid such association to protect itself. This, Hitchens proposes, is the insight of the American founders - that religion can flourish better by leaving citizens free to believe without interference (or support) of any kind. It's an important time to re-assert the principle of secularism: 'The Pope is fornicating with the emporer', as Hitchens quoted Dante.

I kept my questions to myself this session, though had the opportunity arisen I would ask on Faith schools: where moral values and collective identity can be sourced, if not religion. The lack of secular alternative to this useful purpose served by religious practices is a key concern - and the subject of recent debate in the New Humanist magazine. I'd like education to be separated from religion, so that you wouldn't need a signature from the local priest to get your kids into the best local school - but daily 'worship' (legally compulsory) does serve a necessary (if slightly misguided) purpose. Hitchen's only comment in this area was that at least religion in education serves to mass-produce athiests - were there no association, people might actually grow up into believers!

I talked with Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, afterwards. This mostly consisted of 'I'm a subscriber' and 'do you remember that email chat we had about the Danish cartoons and Shad Thames?'. I also briefly talked with Paul (Clough), the IPPR Finance Director and Ruth Eldridge (IPPR Events Officer) about routes into this kind of work.

Related links:

Charter 88 for a British Bill of Rights

Hitchen's book 'Thomas Paine's Rights of Man: a biography'

Wikipedia on Hitchens

Hitchens was voted number 5 top World intellectual in a (unscientific) poll run by Foreign Policy / Prospect magazines. They were:
  1. Noam Chomsky linguistics expert and critic of US foreign policy
  2. Umberto Eco writer and academic
  3. Richard Dawkins Oxford professor of public understanding of science
  4. Vaclav Havel playwright and leader of Czech velvet revolution
  5. Christopher Hitchens journalist, author, pro-Iraq war polemicist

- The Guardian

(Noam Chomsky did a lecture at Manchester University a short while ago but I couldn't make it)

New Humanist magazine

Dante (Alighieri) wrote 'The Divine Comedy', which isn't the band - and had something to do with an Inferno.

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