Essay:Stephen Fry and Friends, Intelligence Squared discussion
This was originally going to be a discussion between Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens, much publicised amongst British atheist circles and very much looked forward to. But with Hitchens suddenly becoming ill they turned it into a discussion about him instead, with guests and friends hopefully to try and compensate for the ticket price even though one half of the originally billed duo wouldn't be present. Tickets to the event were highly sought, and it was screened live to various cinemas. Alternatively you could pay a £5 subscription to get it for 30 days over the internet (kinda pointless as I expect it to be on YouTube by now). So I got together in a room with a bunch of people I'd never met before (except one) and watched it. This was originally going to be a brief review of what I remember, but grew too large for that. It's now in that awkward area between a comment and an actual review of substantial length.
Stephen Fry and friends on the life, loves and hates of Christopher Hitchens
Well, the discussion was okay. Obviously with Hitch out of action it wasn't what was originally intended. It approached being rather uncomfortable as it seemed more like a eulogy (remember he's not dead yet, and even sent in an email or two for Fry to read out) and it seemed like the guests were struggling to remember to keep referring to him in the present rather than past tense! In a way, I'm glad Hitchens wasn't there - Stephen Fry seemed to be constantly remarking how handsome the man was to the point where I expected that if Hitch did turn up Fry would mount him there and then! Amusing segment with Sean Penn, although it was cut short thanks to the magic of Google+, funniest moment was certainly when Fry remarked that Penn was smoking live on television and that it would have been less shocking for him to just get his cock out on stage. Dawkins then enters for a chat and I'm suddenly wondering if the atheist and agnostic group I've just joined in watching this is right for me as 3-4 people in the room applauded him merely walking on stage. Doing this in an auditorium is one thing, but as what is effectively a home audience? That's something else entirely, and bugged me. Oh dear, let the hero worship commence! (Though I begin to notice by glancing around the room that atheists are very attractive people and I'm almost distracted for a moment)
So, the conversation between Fry and Dawkins was short and sweet. Nothing out the usual territory for when Dawkins is on stage seemingly improvising, this was possibly extended slightly because Sean Penn was cut so short (they're both good orators and formal conversationalists, but as ringmaster and working on the hoof Fry may have found himself a little too deep). Dawkins' most astute observation was actually political rather than religious; remarking that the left-right dynamic in politics seems to hold true for most people and one belief is usually a good indicator of the rest - but that when it comes to Hitchens, that doesn't work, but why the hell should it? The world is a complex place, and Hitchens is a complex man and the labels of "right" and "left" do him a great disservice. I'm rather annoyed that point didn't get an applause from an audience that seemed to be clap happy whenever anyone said anything because I think that, if anything, Hitchens' strongest aspect is the fact that is doesn't subscribe to the all-or-nothing of political alignment, he goes with what his mind reasons is right, not what his political allies tell him - and this is a Rare Thing. What followed was a more general appraisal of the man's depth of character, wide ranging views, courage and so on tossed in with anecdotes and invariably his drinking and smoking habits. General arse-licking and brown-nosing commences for the next 45 minutes or so as a succession of grey-bearded and balding men are presented via satellite (Salmon Rushdie and James Fenton's exposed scalps practically glistened under the studio lights, for their skin coloured bonts shone so much). And so, this seemed to be mostly just a straight up discussion of Hitchens' life, which was actually fascinating and certainly a great insight into the man. This is where the premature eulogy aspect seemed to be most apparent and most disturbing (he's not dead yet, dammit!). Did include a funny story about the word games that Rushie and Hitchens used to play (as you do), including one that involved taking song titles and replacing the word "love" for "hysterical sex" - and so barely a second later me and a friend glanced at each other, and in perfect synergy suggested 'Elephant Hysterical Sex Medley'. We party fucking hard in this part of town.
The three questions that they managed to shoehorn in at the end were, well, kinda pointless really. The first guy seemed to think that he represented the "new generation" of critical thinkers, can't really remember what his point was but I distrust anyone who describes themselves as critical (I always describe myself as an aspiring rationalist at best). I think he asked "where do we go next" after religion is beaten, or something like that - Dawkins replies that he'll continue to focus on religion because that's his camp and the cause he's chosen to take on, but is happy that people also want to change focus. Fry discusses the semantics of the word "focus", oh Fry, you... Second guy then asked if you can have civil debate with believers while still firmly attacking them, citing a recent tour Hitchens had with a Reverend Someone-or-other. Dawkins merely expresses disappointment with that documentary because it just wasn't composed very well and jumps around a lot, he does plug an upcoming talk with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and... well, that's it for that one. Final guy was the punchline of the event for me. From UCLU's newly formed Atheist Club (okay, so I was also watching this with my university's atheist club...) he stood up and kissed Dawkins' backside about how they all first came to Atheism (capital letter deliberate as always) through his book and then moved on, naturally, to Hitchens' book and wanted to know where to go next and who to move on and follow. Why is this the punchline and grand irony for me? Because the first thing Fry and Dawkins talked about was Monty Python's Life of Brian, specifically the scene where Brian is telling people not to follow prophets and that we're all individuals (well, I'm not).
bomination 23:16, 9 November 2011 (UTC)
- Update: With Hitch's death on December 16th, I have this hindsight-induced feeling that all that were invited to speak knew he had little time left, and we aware of what they were doing and saying about him. Perhaps they were very aware that a televised live discussion between Fry and Hitchens would not be able to take place.