“Don’t take refuge in the false security of consensus” : Hitchens on free speech

I must have watched well over a hundred YouTube clips of Christopher Hitchens, but there never seems to be an end—nor do I ever get bored. I proffer this one, on the eighth anniversary of his death, as my favorite. It’s Hitchens on free speech, given in Toronto in 2006, and shows his usual combination of erudition, eloquence, and wit—all in service of a cause I hold dear. It is the best specimen of his oratory: the one I’d show people to display his virtues. (I wonder if he had any notes before him.) It has the advantage, too, of being short: 21 minutes. Further, it has his greatest bon mot, starting at 7:05, and one of his most passionate declamations against religion, starting at 15:09.

I love his offhand remark, at the beginning, that you’re welcome to attack him so long as you’ve read the relevant works of Milton, Mill, and Paine. (You can be sure that Hitchens knew them well.)

Alongside the mandatory ideological indoctrination given to almost every student entering American colleges, they should be required to watch this video. (We should all watch it at least once a year.)

It’s been eight years on since we had Hitchens, and nobody has risen to replace him. Nor do I expect that to happen.


  1. Posted December 15, 2019 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. Every American high school English, History and Civics teacher should show this video to every class, every year. Show them what a towering public intellectual looks like, compared to the dull knuckleheaded pundits we’re normally relegated to watching

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

      You can also show them clips from the Kennedy/Nixon debates. There they can see 2 presidential candidates who are prepared to discuss weighty and complex issues at great depth, while also making a point of being civil.

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking of that old Carly Simon song, Nobody Does It Better.

  3. rickflick
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    Hitch, at his best.

  4. FA
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Douglas Murray

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Excuse me? Your comment makes no sense.

      • davelenny
        Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

        I think this is a response to your last paragraph.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted December 15, 2019 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

          Douglas Murray is good, but not that good.

  5. Mark Grieveson
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    He wonderfully concentrates my own diffuse thoughts into crystalline quotable prose

  6. Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    “…the speakers for the opposition to the motion, as eloquent as….*one*…of them was..”

    Does anyone know who the (unfortunate) opposition speakers were?

    Here is Hitch insisting on freedom of speech for white nationalist Tom Metzger, who doesn’t have the courage to speak openly and winds up cowering behind innuendo and suggestion.


    (And here’s Hitchens telling someone to shut up.)

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    … the relevant works of Milton, Mill, and Paine. (You can be sure that Hitchens knew them well.)

    Hitchens did, after all, write a literary biography of Paine’s book The Rights of Man. No contemporary writer, save perhaps Gore Vidal, worked as well at the junction of politics and literature.

    Nevertheless, I think the Hitch was a bit too hard in his talk on Justice O.W. Holmes, Jr. To be sure, Holmes reached the wrong result in his majority opinion in Schenck v. United States (1919), the WWI Yiddish pamphleteer case Hitchens discusses. But once Louis Brandeis joined the Court and captured his ear, and once Holmes began his famous exchange of missives with the aptly named (and later circuit court judge) Learned Hand, Holmes quite rapidly came quite a distance on Free Speech.

    As evidence therefor, I’d invite your attention to his famous dissent (joined by Brandeis) in Abrams v. United States, decided later the same year as Schenck. In it he set forth the precursor to the “incitement to imminent violence” test for the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause that the Court itself eventually adopted in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted December 15, 2019 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

      Although not a relative in any way I always approved of his actions, especially around 1968 when registering for the draft.

  8. merilee
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 2:59 pm | Permalink


  9. Raymond Cox
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I am not sure I can go along with his defence of holocaust-deniers. He seems uncomfortably close to suggesting that the occurrence of the holocaust is just an opinion. There seems to me to be a distinction between opinions, however horrible, which should be defended, and denial of historical facts, which just causes confusion.

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

      But you cannot determine which are opinions and which are facts unless you are allowed to discuss and consider the issue.

    • A C Harper
      Posted December 15, 2019 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      It might make you feel queasy but once you start censoring speech about some subject then you have to argue the case about who decides which subjects are no-go.

      There are plenty of people who consider that they are right and that discussion of certain subjects are socially unacceptable but

      If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
      ~ George Orwell

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      He didn’t defend Holocaust deniers. He defended their right not to be put in prison for denying the Holocaust.

      Given the huge quantities of evidence that the Holocaust occurred, why are people so frightened of a few nut jobs who pretend it didn’t? The response to Holocaust deniers should not be to put them in jail – historically, that’s what governments did to people who disagreed with the party line. What you should do is present the evidence that shows the Holocaust denier is wrong.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted December 15, 2019 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

      Blanket banning of differing opinions of details of the Holocaust gives great ammunition to those who have doubts.
      Banning dissent almost proves that there is something to hide.
      Certainly for those with doubts.

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      Actually, I’ve read some Holocaust denialism and the answers to it (Michael Shermer does a great job in one of his books–I think Why Do People Believe Weird Things?). If someone says, as the denialists do, “Well, there’s no evidence that Hitler actually ordered the destruction of the Jews?”, how would you answer them? You couldn’t, not unless you get to hear those claims and the responses.

      Holoaust denialism is, to me, one of the best arguments for free speech.

  10. Muffy Ferro
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    I really miss Christopher Hitchens. I wish he were here to comment on US politics and the excess on both the left and right. But thank goodness for YouTube.

    • merilee
      Posted December 15, 2019 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

      He would have been tearing-his-remaining-hair-out eloquent of Trump and co.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 16, 2019 at 8:20 am | Permalink

        Maybe we should be grateful he was spared the Trump disaster. On the other hand, he might have relished tearing into Mr Trump.

    • Posted December 15, 2019 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      I miss him like hell. He would have had a field day with both extremes on the left and on the right today. He was such a sweet man in person, too, but that wit was razor sharp.

      • Nicolaas Stempels
        Posted December 16, 2019 at 8:24 am | Permalink

        Yes, I’ve always heard that in private relations he was graceful to friend and enemy alike, and a great host.
        And I heard that before his death, so this is not some de mortuis nil nisi bonum.

  11. Posted December 15, 2019 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    As to who decided what us limited, that goes to the legislature and the . courts. They decide what is legal and not legal, in our country based on the constitution.

  12. Les Faby
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    His point about a bible verse contributing to anti-semitism is correct but it isn’t in “John”. It is
    Matthew 27:25
    “Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children.”

    • Les Faby
      Posted December 15, 2019 at 9:40 pm | Permalink

      My link is queued up to the point where Hitchens made the comment.

  13. Jimbo
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    This speech is one of my favorites too. Thanks PCC for the homage to Hitch. Like you, I think I will watch his speeches until I shrug off my own mortal coil.

    My other favorites are his debate with Tony Blair and the devastating indictment of the Catholic church he mustered together with intellectual confrere Steven Fry.

  14. Jimbo
    Posted December 15, 2019 at 9:48 pm | Permalink

    On this somber occasion of the anniversary of Hitch’s death, Merry Hitchmas everybody!

  15. Matthew North
    Posted December 16, 2019 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    I watched this video when it first came out, and many times over the years since. Christopher Hitchens is SO needed now in these ridiculous times. He would have DESPISED Trump, just like all sane and honest people do.

  16. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted December 16, 2019 at 4:12 am | Permalink

    Well, I cam’t get that video type to work. But I looked up the three name drops, and it appears they were poets and intellectuals that suggested free speech.

    Is Hitchens suggesting you can’t discuss free speech without discussing its history? That seems odd, it would be like saying you need to read (the today unreadable) Newton in order to be a car designer.

    After all, we should all be able to discuss free speech (but perhaps not with Hitchens, I would need to see the video and I can’t). We should do it since it is codified in UDHR by democratic means. And as always I suggest the latest statistics on societies is the necessary background material when discussing societal matters.

    • Matt
      Posted December 16, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

      One of the three Hitchens cited was Thomas Paine’s Introduction to Age of Reason:


      I PUT the following work under your protection. It contains my opinions upon Religion. You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the Right of every Man to his own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.

      The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

      Your affectionate friend and fellow-citizen,


      Luxembourg, 8th Pluviose, Second Year of the French Republic, one and indivisible.

      January 27, O. S. 1794.

  17. James Bramlett
    Posted December 16, 2019 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Thank you for showing this clip and your tribute to Mr. Hitchens. He will always be one of my true heroes. Can’t even count the number of times I’ve stated, “Wish I had said that”. RIP, Christopher Hitchens. We sure could use you now!

  18. Posted December 16, 2019 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    He has an interesting speaking technique wherein he very often pauses in the middle of a sentence, then runs straight into the next a the end of the first. It gives movement to the talk.

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