Christopher Hitchens vs. Chris Hedges

The "Is God...Great?" Debate

King Middle School, Berkeley, May 24, 2007

a video and photo report

The American political landscape experienced an epochal re-alignment on May 24. A subtle yet far-reaching tectonic shift.

You probably didn't notice. But you will, eventually.

Because it was on that date in Berkeley, California that the radical left reversed what had been its immutable rejection of religion and for the first time embraced spirituality.

Why? Well, that's what we're about to find out.

Hedges on the left, Hitchens on the right.

The arena where this pivotal re-alignment took place was the King Middle School auditorium in Berkeley, where far-left "progressive" journalist Chris Hedges formally debated iconoclastic "neocon" pundit Christopher Hitchens. (Videos of the debate and photos from the event can be found below.) The topic of the debate was "Is God...Great?", a riff on the title of Hitchens' new book, God Is Not Great.

Surprising as it might seem in a contemporary political landscape where mocking religion is an established liberal pastime, and where Christianity and spirituality are most often associated with conservatism, it was Hitchens -- now loathed by the left for not toeing the party line over the Iraq War -- who attacked religion, while the neo-Socialist, anti-patriotic, radical Hedges volunteered for the seemingly topsy-turvy position of having to defend spirituality and the existence of God.

How did this strange state of affairs come to pass? In one word: Islam.

The left -- of which Hitchens was a part until recently -- has always been anti-religion. But now, they've become caught in a philosophical bind: how can they promote multiculturalism -- and by extension all non-Western cultures, such as fundamentalist Islam -- if they condemn religion in general? Neocon pundits have since 9/11 frequently accused the left of being in bed with Muslim extremists, a charge which the left has vehemently denied. But with every denial their position was becoming more and more untenable, as the verbiage and narratives of Islamic radicals and "anti-war" progressives have grown to become virtually indistinguishable.

Someone had to take the lead and resolve the dilemma that the left had created for itself. And so it was Hedges who stepped forward in this debate to test the waters for the first time, taking what is for him (and the left) a revolutionary position: that spirituality and religion -- with the noteworthy exception of organized Christianity -- is good.

Now, at no point did Hedges state that he was performing this amazing flipflop specifically due to Islam. He didn't need to say it -- because Hitchens said it for him. In fact, Hitchens repeatedly tore the roof off of Hedges' carefully constructed rhetorical edifice, saying aloud the exact thoughts that Hedges and the left didn't want anyone to hear.

OK, let's be frank: Hitchens absolutely mopped the floor with Hedges. It was an embarrassment, really. Scroll down to watch the videos of Hitchens' performance to see what I mean.

The proprietor of the "Cranky Bastard" blog was also in attendance that night, and posted such an accurate description of the debate that I'll simply quote from it here:
Hedges was there to try to debate, but by starting with a rebuttal, instead of an introduction during the time with that title, he put himself on the immediate defensive, a stance from which he could not wiggle. Also completely unfair for the lackluster Hedges was a monotonous tone that proved that it was his father, not him, who was the Presbyterian minister. Hedges could not fill a room, much less a sanctuary full of people to listen to his boring drivel.

I wasn't the only one who thought this way of Hedges. After his weak introduction, a man sitting behind me who would probably ordinarily want to agree with Hedges on some of his points said he was "full of bullshit". I could toast to that.

Hedges is merely a well-read and well-traveled man, but lacks any ability to put those experiences in proper context as was on full display when he dopily proclaimed that "biblical literalists do not exist". Uh what??? He also fueled the flame heartily when he told the crowd, some of whom were actually there to see him (although just a couple), that "once religious stories are written, they decay into literature". You would have thought he had just done a ghetto "Yo mama" line. Hitchens, with all of his energy and passion, reminded Hedges that to say anything "decays into literature" is to not fully understand the value and power of the written word.

I believe, in an attempt to try to deflect some of Hitchens' ire (but really only to make him gleefully more "inhumane"), Hedges said that "to argue whether or not God exists is futile". Uhh, that is why you are here, right?

The conversation did not get truly twisted until Hedges went on his anti-corporation, pro-Palestinian suicide bomber rant. He asserted that these idiotic suicide bombers who blow up civilians are "affirming themselves through death". He said that they were woefully unemployed, to which Hitchy replied "God forbid a KKK'er (also a Christian organization) be unemployed", for Hedges would think it okay to noose black folks. Hedges' argument made me physically sick to my stomach. I found it hard to believe that anyone could feel comfortable putting out this kind of nonsense in front of other people. It is one thing to be a dope in the comfort and privacy of your own home, but quite another to take it to a stage in front of paying patrons.

Toward what was feeling like the end, Hitchy asked the "moderator" if we were nearing the end. She said yes, and he started fumbling around in his pockets. Out came a cigarette. Another collective gasp from an audience that must have really thought he would light up in a California public space. He is a rogue, but not an unlawful one. As soon as he heard the last word, he jumped out of his chair, as did I, to go puff ourselves into calm.
  Hitchens in a nicotine frenzy after the debate.
  Zaytuna Institute students monitoring the proceedings.
Cranky Bastard's characterization of Hedges' speaking style was right on the money: he was so relentlessly dreary and soporific that at one point during Hedges' speech his sonorous tones apparently managed to hypnotize the woman seated in front of me, who nodded off twice.

(It was for this reason, and because I was there specifically to see Hitchens, not Hedges -- and also because my camera didn't have nearly enough memory to record the entire two-hour event -- that most of my video is of Hitchens speaking. I didn't record Hedges' introductory lullaby, nor some of his answers to audience questions. If you're intently interested in what Hedges' exact words were, you'll have to wait until the event's sponsors [who videotaped the evening] release their version.)

Speaking of the event's sponsors: the debate was hosted by three groups: Cody's Books, KPFA radio, and the Zaytuna Institute. Now, one would expect a bookstore and a radio station to host authors in a debate, but -- the Zaytuna Institute? What's that?

Well, remember when I mentioned that Islam was the key to unlocking this whole conundrum? The Zaytuna Institute is a local Islamic training facility which, according to their Web site, requires students "to wear proper Islamic clothing" while teaching them to become imams and experts on the Qur'an.

There were entire rows of seats in the auditorium reserved for Zaytuna Institute staff and students, and many others sat elsewhere in the hall as well (see photo on the right, for example). Throughout the debate, whenever Hedges attacked Christianity, the United States or Israel, and when he praised the Palestinians or defended the Muslim point of view, the Zaytuna crowd cheered and clapped. Whenever Hitchens criticized suicide bombing or praised the goals of the Iraq War, they booed and grumbled.

So, the entire purpose of the debate came into focus: Hedges was there essentially to defend Islam, and the Zaytuna Institute had invited him for this very reason. He was obviously their favorite, and Hitchens was cast as the villain. (Even though, as it turned out, a great number of Hitchens fans showed up as well.)

But Hedges was in a delicate position. He couldn't overtly defend Islam in preference to all other religions, lest he lose his veneer of impartiality. So he hardly mentioned Islam at all. Hence, his strategy became this: to praise spirituality, but then criticize every organized religion except Islam. So he ended up championing Islam in a backhanded way. (Also, after repeatedly proffering excuses and explanations for suicide bombers, Hedges was so pestered by Hitchens that he was compelled to say at one point that he did condemn the practice; but as Hitchens later pointed out, Hedges' words rang hollow because most of his other statements justified suicide bombing.)

Enough with the introductory remarks, already! Let's get to the videos, shall we?


I took nearly an hour's worth of videos throughout the evening, recording Hitchens' introduction, and then some of the banter back and forth between the two men, with the focus (as was my interest) on Hitchens' incendiary verbiage. However, I know that most people will not be interested in watching the entire hour. So I created two "highlight reels" to give a good idea of the drubbing Hitchens gave to Hedges.

Below, you will find a total of nine videos. (Note: see update below)

The first one is essential viewing for everyone: a five-minute compilation of Hitchens in fine form, thumping Hedges and everything he stands for. Below this "Christopher Hitchens Highlights Compilation #1" I have pasted in a complete transcription.

The second video is similar to the first: a "best-of" collection of additional material, this one being ten minutes long.

And finally, below that, a seven-part video record of the entire evening (or at least Hitchens' entire evening, with some Hedges thrown in), presented in ten-minute segments, in chronological order. (Note: This is not a complete official video of the debate, but rather just those portions that I managed to capture.)

Finally, below the videos, you will find some additional photographs from the event.

Christopher Hitchens Highlights Compilation #1

Hitchens: The decline -- not to say the moral eclipse -- of the secular left has just been illustrated on this very platform by someone, who makes excuses for suicide murder and tries to trace them to a second-rate sociology.


Hitchens: But, to what I think is the hidden agenda of the question: 'Is George Bush on a Christian crusade in Iraq and Afghanistan?' Obviously not, obviously not. Anyone who's studied what's happening in either of those countries now knows that the whole of American policy -- and by the way a lot of your own future, ladies and gentlemen -- is staked on the hope that federal secular democrats can emerge from this terrible combat. We can protect them and offer them help while they do so. We know that they're there, that we are -- I've met them, I love them, they're our friends. Every member of the 82nd Airborne Division could be a snake-handling congregationalist, for all I know, but these men and women, though you sneer and jeer at them, and snigger when you hear applause and excuses for suicide bombers -- and you have to live with the shame of having done that -- these people are guarding you while you sleep, whether you know it or not. And they're also creating space for secularism to emerge, and you better hope that they are successful.

Hedges: I feel like I should be reading Kipling's White Man's Burden.

Audience: Laughter.

Hitchens: What you mean is you wish you had read it.


Hitchens: It's exact equivalent of the evil nonsense taught by Hedges and friends of his, who say the suicide bombers in Palestine are driven to it by despair. Have you read the manifestos of these suicide bombers? Have you seen the videos they make? Have you seen the manifestos they put out? The propaganda that they generate? These are not people in despair. These are people in a state of religious exultation. Who are promised everything. Who are in a state of hope. Who are in a state of adoration for their evil mullahs. And for their filthy religion. It's this that makes them think they have the right to kill others while taking their own lives. If despair among Palestinians was enough to create psychopathic criminal behavior, there's been enough despair for a long time, and enough misery to go around. It is to excuse the vicious, filthy forces of Islamic jihad to offer any other explanation but that it is their own evil preaching, their own vile religion, their own racism, their own apocalyptic ideology that makes them think they have the right to kill everyone in this room, and go to paradise as a reward. I won't listen, nor should you, to anyone who euphemizes or excuses this evil wicked thing.

Religion consists now, we find, no longer of moral absolutes. It used to be, when I debated with religious types, they would say, 'Yes, circumcision is good; masturbation is bad. We know this, because God tells us so. Hacking of the genitals of a child with a sharp stone is divine; touching them with a hand -- not so great.' We know -- so we knew where we were. We were absolute. Now [gesturing towards Chris Hedges] it's all relative. Now it's all completely relative. It's made up a la carte and cherry-picked by mediocre pseudo-intellectuals who want you to believe that the following thing that would have happened -- in the year, in the month of the year that the liberation of Iraq took place, that finally, after an endless thesaurus of United Nations resolutions condemning every aspect of its regime, that Iraq was free from the proprietorship of Saddam Hussein -- that was March, 2003 -- do you know what would have happened in April, 2003? Iraq was going to be the chair of the United Nations Special Committee on Disarmament. Some people think that would have been a better outcome. More humane, more legal, less troubling, altogether more dealable with. Just as Iran and Libya have just been re-elected to that very Committee on Disarmament at the United Nations. I ask you: You pick that kind of relativism, you'll also find you're dealing with a very surreptitious form of absolutism, which is only capable of describing as fascistic relatively comical forces (who I've denounced up- and downhill all my life in the United States), but cannot use the word totalitarianism about the religion that actually conducts jihad, actually organizes totalitarianism, actually inflicts misery, pain, unemployment, and despair upon millions of people, and then claims what it has done as the license for suicide and murder. A perfect picture [gesturing towards Chris Hedges] has been given to you of the cretinous relationship between sloppy moral relativism, half-baked religious absolutism, and the journalism that lies in between.

Thank you.

Moderator: Chris Hedges? [Inviting him to respond.]

Hedges: [Waves his hand, to indicate 'No more.']

UPDATE: The following videos (formerly visible here) were taken offline by YouTube, after a complaint from Pacifica Foundation (the parent company of KPFA), due to what they claim was some sort of "copyright violation." Until YouTube reverses this ridiculous decision, the videos will unfortunately have to remain unavailable here. Sorry! But you can still scroll down for more photos.

Christopher Hitchens Highlights Compilation #2

Christopher Hitchens debating Chris Hedges on the topic "Is God...Great?", parts 1 - 7

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7


Here are some additional photos from the evening:

Before the debate, Hitchens chatted with some members of the audience. Notice that he was wearing an American flag pin.

The latest books by Hedges (American Fascists) and Hitchens (God Is Not Great) were on sale in the lobby.

The Revolutionary Communist Party also had a booth in the lobby to hawk their wares.

After the debate, Hedges signed books for fans.

Some of Hedges' supporters were wearing Islamic garb.

Hitchens seemed almost gleeful as he took notes for his rebuttal of Hedges' speech.


Here are some additional links to coverage of the event:

The Contra Costa Times had a nice article about the debate.
Alternet also covered the event.
The Tomten's Porridge blog had an informative posting as well.


This site is not set up to take comments from readers; if you wish to say something about this essay or the debate, you can leave comments on the YouTube pages for any of the videos posted above (click on the YouTube logo in the lower right-hand corner of each screenshot to go to the separate YouTube page for that video).

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