Heretics, Horsemen and Horsewoman

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Anyone interested in Christopher Hitchens will likely appreciate activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s most recent book,  Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now.  Ayaan was born in Somalia, but escaped her repressive upbringing, and a bumpy road (she was working with Danish cartoonist Theo Van Gogh when he was killed), and  became an activist.  In Heretic she asserts that Islam must be reformed, and that change can come only from within the religion.  She then lays out recommendations for how such reform can be achieved.  Not surprisingly, this has irritated some.  Brandies University, in a sad move for a learning institution, revoked it’s offer to give her an honorary degree (New York Times: Brandeis Cancels Plan to Give Honorary Degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Critic of Islam).  The University caved in to pressure from those calling her anti-Islam.  Hitchens warned on many occasions, that the day would come where one would not even be able to criticize Islam without being called an Islamophobe.  We are there.

Ayaan and Christopher had a connection.  He contributed the forward to her 2008 book Infidel and also wrote about her in an piece for Slate Magazine in 2007 (She’s No Fundamentalist: What people get wrong about Ayaan Hirsi Ali).

Ayaan was scheduled to participate in the original meeting of the so called Four Horseman (the provocative informal two-hour discussion with Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris) but had to cancel at the last minute. She did, however, participate in a follow up event with the same group (minus Christopher of course) at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, in Australia.  Dawkins welcomed her as a Horsewoman.

In the clip below, Ayaan responds to a question by Mr. Hitchens at the 2007 at the American Enterprise Institute.

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Christopher and Ayaan at a book signing. (Photo from ChristopherHitchenswatch).

If you want to learn more about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, visit the site of her foundation, the AHA Foundation, which aims to put an end to honor violence, forced marriages and female genital mutilation.

Charlie Hebdo: What would Hitchens do?

When French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo was attacked on January 7, 2015, and 12 employees were gunned down because someone didn’t like the cartoons it published, I felt acutely, Christopher’s absence on the media circuit. While some were saying it was unwise for Charlie Hebdo to have published the cartoons in the first place (meaning they may have had it coming to them), I was glad to see that this time, many journalists and elected officials did speak up for freedom of speech (maybe this was a turning point?). As a staunch defender of the right to free speech (he described himself as a first amendment absolutist), Christopher certainly would not have been silent.  Recall that he strongly defended Salman Rushdie, when a death contract was placed on him for writing a novel, and spoke out with conviction when Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh, was stabbed to death after publishing cartoons some found to be offensive. If you are interested to know what Christopher might have said, here are three particularly relevant videos that may give us an indication (two brief talks, and one longer, good debate):

What do you think of freedom of speech for the theme of the first HitchFest?

Meet Lucien (not a fractious juvenile)

In “Love, Poverty, and War” Christopher recounted the day he spent protesting what he saw as the restrictive laws that had just been put in place by NY mayor Mike Bloomberg.  He had lunch at one of his favorite New York haunts, Lucien’s in the East Village.  I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Lucien over the last year.  He was a great friend to Christopher and he told me the relationship was not about politics, debate or issues Christopher wrote about – it was just a joyful human to human connection between two people who liked each other very much. If you meet Lucien, you will understand why this was so  – he and his son Zac treat you like you are a guest having dinner in their home.  They provide old world charm, style, and excellent food.  Below is an excerpt from “Love, Poverty, and War” (from the copy Lucien keeps in the restaurant).



Lucien showed my friend and me the wine Hitch preferred (which he often drank before getting to to the Johnnie Walker Black), and also the dish he named after his friend – roasted squab with wild mushroom risotto and a slice of fresh foie gras.

Lucien (l) with artist Ilona Royce Smithkin, and Tom Casesa, the author of this blog (r).


Hitchens on the menu!
Tom, with filmmaker Hector Carosso holding “Hitch 22” and Lucien’s copy of “Love, Poverty, and War”. Notice the photo of Christopher on the wall above us (slightly obscured by the reflection of the lights).
Lucien (r) enjoying the company of a friend and patron.

Provoking Hitchens

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Hello All!

I’m publishing this blog to discuss Christopher Hitchens and his ideas.  It will be partly biographical, but more importantly, it will be about ideas that were important to Hitchens, and it will use current events to highlight these ideas.  Those of us who follow Christopher’s work, acutely feel his absence when topics he cared about (freedom of speech, separation of church and state, and free thinking, to name a few) are highlighted in the media.

I’ve spent much of this last year on a personal journey to learn more about Christopher, whom I never met.  I’ve been meeting people in his circle, who have helped me better understand him.   I will post about my experiences, and welcome any ‘leads’ or introductions to people who can help with this.  Thanks to those of you that have so far been kind enough to help me meet some of these individuals.

I have exciting news.  I am in the process of organizing a Christopher Hitchens festival in New York City (more about that in future postings) and I’d like to hear the opinions of the community as I continue to shape the outline and themes.  So far the reception to the idea has been fantastic – I found a great partner to work with and I am excited about seeing the vision realized.

As the name of this blog implies, it (and the festival) will embrace the tone and spirit of Christopher – provocative and feisty at times.  Hitch was not known to stray clear of contentious topics or confrontational engagements (understatement!).  The festival will feature debates, and participants will be encouraged to shake it up and to not hold back – the way Hitchens would want it to be.

The idea for the festival came after I hosted a tribute event when Hitch passed.  It was a small gathering of friends and acquaintances who met in the West Village of New York City.  We selected three essays from “Arguably”, and debated them over glasses of Johnnie Walker Black (Hitch called it “Mr. Walker’s amber restorative”). We placed a hard copy of the book on the table so we would have his intimidating glance looking down on us, keeping the discussion on point.

A special mention is due to filmmaker Hector Carosso, for providing the space for that meeting, and for coming up with the name of this blog (Thanks Hector!)

I hope this blog inspires interest in, and discussion of Christopher and his work, and I look forward to meeting the community of fans, free thinkers, and also, those who disagreed with him.