The 2019 Hitchens Prize was awarded to writer George Packer for his essay, “The Enemies of Writing”, published in the Atlantic in January, 2020.
The prize is awarded annually by the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation “to an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence. The Prize is named in honor of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer whose career was a rare if not unique expression of those qualities.”
From the DVRF Website: Dennis Ross, the president and director of the Dennis & Victoria Ross Foundation, said of Packer: “We are very pleased to award George Packer the 2019 Hitchens Prize. Christopher Hitchens’s career set a standard of intellectual seriousness and integrity that continues to inspire and is our benchmark for the prize. George’s work meets that standard in every measure, and offers its own inspiration for journalists working today. We take great pride in adding him to the roster of Hitchens Prize winners.”
This past Tuesday, October 20, we lost one of the great defenders of the skeptical mind. James Randi, also known by his stage name The Amazing Randi, was a stage magician (amongst other things) who devoted much of his life to debunking pseudo-science including spoon-bending and the paranormal. He touched many lives and was an inspiration to many in the LGBTQ community when he came out in his 80s. I had the opportunity to meet him at the 2017 North Eastern Conference on Science and Skepticism. We spoke briefly about Hitchens, whom he greatly respected. For more on that event, see the posting I did at the timeas well as his NYT Obituary and the 2014 documentary An Honest Liar.
Senate Republicans have removed from a necessary intelligence bill requiring presidential campaigns to report foreign election help. Why would they do this? How much more evidence of corruption do we need? Congratulations Vichy Republicans.
Note to readers: Some have noticed this blog becoming more political, which is true. I think the times demand it. The description of the blog states that it is about Christopher Hitchens and his ideas. This falls under the idea of anti-authoritarianism and anti-corruption. Hitchens became a U.S. citizen because he valued our Constitution including its checks and balances. If you need evidence for this, read his books on Thomas Paine and on Thomas Jefferson. They are great reads and necessary for understanding Hitchens. ( I will repost this explanation in a separate post).
I’m including the following for the Republican senators:
When the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, they represented a loosely held confederacy of Atlantic states recently freed from British rule. If the American experiment was going to work, the founding fathers knew that they had to insulate their new republic from deep-pocketed interests and old alliances from Europe.
Through a course of heated conversations and compromises, safeguards against foreign influence as a corrupting force were built into the Constitution.
“The founders had just broken free from one empire, and the idea that some other empire was going to swallow them up was a constant source of fear for them,” says Mary Sarah Bilder, law professor and constitutional historian at Boston College Law School, and author of Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention.
American statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were no strangers to the backroom deals and soap-opera plot lines of 18th-century European politics. Gift-giving was common practice among foreign dignitaries, as was bestowing of titles of nobility on foreign political friends. Intermarriage of royal families was another classic way to bind the interests of two nations together.
If the United States was going to be different, the framers needed a founding document that fully recognized and defended against the corrupting influence of foreign money and power, particularly on the president.
“Article II of the Constitution gives such power to the president to run the executive branch that a president under the influence of a foreign nation would be far more dangerous than any other single individual,” says Stephen Saltzburg, professor at The George Washington University Law School. “That kind of conflict, between loyalty to the United States and loyalty to a foreign nation, would be intolerable.”
Two Key Provisions Protect Against Presidential Corruption
To guard against such conflicts and provide a remedy for a worst-case scenario of presidential corruption, the founders built two key provisions into the Constitution: the so-called “emoluments clause” and the power to impeach a president.
The emoluments clause is laid out in Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”
No gifts, no titles of nobility—the Constitution bars American presidents, ambassadors and elected representatives from even the appearance of quid pro quo. But several members of the Constitutional Convention argued this clause alone wasn’t enough to hedge against corruption of the highest office in the nation. Congress needed a remedy, a way to punish a president who crossed the line.
The Necessity of the Impeachment Clause
In James Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention, he says that Gouverneur Morris, author of the Preamble to the Constitution, didn’t originally see the necessity of impeachment until he considered the specter of foreign corruption.
“[The Executive] may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard against by displacing him,” said Morris. “One would think the King of England well secured against bribery. Yet Charles II was bribed by Louis XIV.”
In the 17 century, Charles II secretly accepted money from the power-hungry French King Louis XIV in exchange for selling off parts of England to France and publicly converting to Catholicism.
Charles II receiving the Duchess of Orleans at Dover, 1670. King Charles II of England and his sister, Henrietta Anne Stuart, negotiated the Secret Treaty of Dover, an alliance between England and France against the United Provinces of the Netherlands, in 1670. Henrietta was very close to Louis XIV of France, who was her brother-in-law.
Print Collector/Getty Images
By including both the emoluments clause and congressional impeachment powers in the Constitution, the founders believed they had a two-pronged attack against foreign influence. As Edmund Jennings Randolph said at the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, “It is impossible to guard better against corruption.”
In George Washington’s 1796 farewell address as the first president of the United States, he issued a stern warning against the poisonous influence of foreign governments on the affairs of the young nation.
“Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence… the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
While Washington resisted foreign influence as president, the framers of the Constitution recognized that the possibility of a corruptible American president was real.
“In the words of the constitutional scholar Cecilia Kenyon, many of the founders were ‘men of little faith,’” says Bilder. “They fundamentally believed that people’s private ambitions and thirst for more power or money were powerful motivators. You couldn’t rely on the goodness of human nature. In fact, you had to create these redundant structures to guard against it.”
Trump lies happen at such an astonishing pace, that it is difficult to keep track of them. There is substantial evidence for this from the tally kept by the Washington Post (18,000 as of April 2020) to Forbes noting an increase in the rate of lies (23.3/day up to 23.8/day during corona) to the Trump Lies Project sponsored by the New York Times.
The lies are part of a larger story. While he’s great at producing lies from his own mind, extemporaneously, like a great jazz improvisor, he also adopts and promotes destructive Russian created conspiracy theories.
Russia has a long history of exporting chaos and disharmony, with the goal of undermine the idea of democracy. A dramatic example is Pizza-gate, where Hilary Clinton was accused of running a child sex ring from the basement of a pizzeria. This caused deranged Trump supporter to shoot the place up with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.
The above video, The Seven Commandments of Fake News, explains how the Soviets created and spread fake news (the retro term is disinformation). It breaks the method down into seven key steps. A key step entails finding a ‘useful idiot’; someone who spreads the news unwittingly. Trump is Useful Idiot Number One. To compound the damage, he’s taught his base to believe only him and to distrust legitimate news sources. Many followers of his cult genuinely do not know any better.
Who does know better? The Republicans in Congress. Self-serving cowards like McConnell, Graham, Cruz, Rubio, Collins, Johnson, McCarthy, and the rest of the rotten lot. Our history is filled with principled men and women who risked their lives to defend our principles. The threat not of death, but of being given a nickname by the Dear Leader, was enough for them to drop their principles like a hot rock. They are beholden to an irrational and angry base they helped create by staying silent when convenient lies were told, like the birther conspiracy.
There are consequences to this cowardice. After voting not to impeach Trump, Senator Susan Collins said she thought he learned his lesson. Her expectations were not fulfilled. Trump went on to label Covid-19 a hoax, jeopardizing the lives of many who could have been saved by early intervention, and to order armed officials to use rubber bullets and toxic gasses on peaceful protestors for the sake of a photo op.
The Vichy Republicans have shown that they are incapable of protecting their constituents, defending the Constitution, or speaking out against injustices. This is banana republic stuff. They are an embarrassment and, like him, must be removed.
A quick disclaimer: Before anyone says this has nothing to do with Hitchens, it has everything to do with him. He defined the fight of his life as being against totalitarianism, which includes protecting free speech and truth. See previous post, “Taking on “What Would Hitchens Have Thought?”.
The ironically named Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been channeling money from public schools into private schools with a religious prejudice. While the country is being attacked on many levels by the Trump administration (the corruption of the Attorney General’s role, the attacks against U.S. Intelligence, the belittling of U.S. Generals, the launching of whacko conspiracy theories, the war against science, and the constant lying to name a few) it is easy to miss some of the most destructive stories. Here DeVos, with the approval of the Dear Leader, is promoting her own religious agenda at the expense of public school children. Unacceptable.
Simply raising this question invites controversy. It’s said that we can’t know what a departed person would be thinking, and we shouldn’t even be asking, because there is no way to know. The question however, is very tempting. We want to know what George Washington would think of the current state of the U.S., or what John Lennon would think of Paul’s recent albums. It’s hard not to ask. We are curious mammals.
I am not one of those who say we shouldn’t speculate. I think there are two good ways to go about specualtion about Christopher Hichens. The first is to talk to people who knew him well. They have first hand experience, and as Christopher was not one to hide his opinions, he likely discussed and debated issues in great depth with these good friends. During the course of researching and writing this blog I met with people in Christopher’s life including a New York restaraunter, a photographer who shot several cover portraits, his brother Peter in London, and some of his editors at Vanity Fair, who gave me their valuable perspecitves.
The second way to determine what a person might have thought is to study the person’s work. In Christopher’s case we are fortunate that he was such a prolific writer, speaker, and debator. There is plenty of material to evaluate. Christopher himeslef has advocated for this approach. When discussing whether historical people such as Jesus or Socrates existed, he contended that it doesn’t matter. With or without Socrates for instance, we can make evaluations by knowing his teachings and methods of thinking. In a 2009 interview pubished in Portland Monthly,Hitchens says
“If you want a good mythical story it would be the life of Socrates. We have no proof, as with Jesus, that he ever existed. We only know from witnesses to his life that he did. Like Jesus, he never wrote anything down. It doesn’t matter to me whether he did or not exist because we have his teachings, his method of thinking, and his extreme intellectual and moral courage.”
In one way, like circumstantial evidence, this method is even more reliable than speaking to his friends and acquaintances who may have personal biases. To answer the questioin “What would he think about the current environemnt?” we can follow his advice, and examine his written and spoken words. In a 2005 talk at the Commonwealth Club on his book Why Orwell Matters, he states that he can say with certainty that Orwell would have opposed the Vietnam War. He says you can do this with a historic figure if you have knowledge of his writing. This is the same point he made about Socrates.
As I continue to learn about Christopher, it’s apparent to me that his biggest issues of concern from a 10,000-foot perspective, were opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms including religion, the pursuit of truth, and solidarity amongst friends. He looked at the U.S. as being the closest to an ideal secular society, designed by its founders to have free speech, the separation of church and state, and a society where people were brought together by ideas, not tribes.
So here are my speculations:
He would see the Trump administration as one easing toward totalatarianism where:
Lies are told more often than the truth
Divison between groups of people are encouraged
American citizens are considered foreigners (his claim that a Mexican American judge can’t be fair for instance because he is Mexican)
Propaganda is spread, such as conspiracy theories
Truths, like Russian interference in our elections, are called hoaxes
The press is labeled the enemy of the people
The wall between state and church is weakened
Subordinates that work for the U.S. (Attorney General, FBI officials) are pressured to be loyal to him personally, above the citizens of the U.S.
He tells supporters not to believe what they hear or read, but to rely only on him
He would condemn the silent bystanders such as the Republican leaders who complain in private but are like scared rabbits in public where by their silence, they condone his actions.
He would dissaprove of the restrictions on free speech imposed not just by the right, but by the often-illiberal left where there is high probability of someone being offended.
He would have even lower respect now than he did during his lifetime for a weak media that is driven more by ratings than by finding the truth.
In this current environment where there are few strong courageous vioices speaking out with great wit and clarity, in favor of democracy, science, secularism and the oppressed, his voice is dearly missed.
Trump is pardoning Dinesh D’Souza who was convicted of breaking federal campaign laws. In Trump’s view prosecuting someone (on his side of the political aisle) for breaking the law is unfair. Yes, we are getting the same old tired old cry from Trump – that it’s all unfair. I view this as legal corruption. D’Souza, like racial profiler Sheriff Joe Arpaio, broke federal laws, but our system allows our President to pardon anyone almost without conditions. This highlights one of the problems with our system. We rely on the good judgement of the POTUS.
Dinesh is a skilled debater, twisting words with great arrogance and confidence. He is not a match for Hitchens however, which is why it’s a pleasure to watch their debates. The stronger the opponent, the better we can see Hitchens’ rhetorical gifts in action. This debate is a double header because he is facing two skilled debaters. Notice that at several points Hitchens is slumping back in his chair, apparently bored with his opponents tedious arguments. He does not appear to be struggling to win.
I’m not a believer personally, but I admire this minority of Evangelical Christians who actually believe in the ideas of Jesus. Crazy ideas like helping the poor and treating people equally. Of course, they are not welcome by the Mike Pence, family value, Trump Evangelicals. How dare they be compassionate?. Do read this article. It’s (slightly) encouraging.