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The PEN World Voices Festival is one of those New York literary events that look so enticing to those of us who live in places that don’t see many A-list authors come through town. Every year I check out the line-up, briefly daydream about taking a few days to go up and attend some events, and end up doing nothing about it. This year, circumstances came together to allow my better half & I to take a trip to NYC in May. Happily, it coincided with Christopher Hitchens delivering the Fifth Annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture. As if that wasn’t cool enough, following the lecture Hitchens & Rushdie were to lead a public conversation about worldwide censorship & freedom of expression.
As fate would have it, the night before the event was the failed bombing attempt in Times Square. Hitchens began his remarks by commenting that the festival organizers had noted that attendance seemed to have been down at that day’s events, and if true, that would be a sad reminder that it can be easy to get people to give up the benefits of freedom of speech or assembly out of fear. Indeed, the turnout to hear these two famous writers was smaller than I had expected, so perhaps there was some validity to the organizers’ observation.
Hitchens’ lecture (which I won’t recount in detail, watch the video instead) focused on the latest prominent cases of censorship worldwide. Principally, the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and the sad fact that neither American newspapers nor the academic press who published a book on the events would actually show the cartoons. Rushdie, joining Hitchens on stage, observed that we’re seen a reinvention of the idea of respect in recent years. It used to be that respect meant you took people and their views seriously. But, now respect seems to mean politely agreeing w/ someone. It’s become politically incorrect to disagree or debate something when there are cultural differences involved, and this has essentially become an excuse for cowardice, creating a seemingly valid excuse not to speak up when freedoms are threatened.
But that’s already more summary than I intended. In an effort to <sarcasm> minimize the simplifying and deadening attributes of blog culture that people have written several books and articles about recently </sarcasm>, I’ll encourage you to watch the lecture and discussion following, rather than read any inadequate précis I could offer.
The Q&A with Hitchens and Rushdie starts at 24:25.