I spent a pleasant hour this afternoon at the Royal Geographical Society listening to Christopher Hitchens and Bernard-Henri Levy "in conversation", part of the IQ2 London-Paris Festival. Levy is a dashing French philosophe, once summed up in the aphorism "God is dead but my hair is perfect", and he and Hitchens seemed to agree on just about everything, especailly their own importance as 'intellectuals'. To judge by the applause that punctuated the discussion, most of the packed audience were fans of Hitchens, Levy or both, so the atmosphere was cloying, to say the least. In one especially toe-curling incident a woman at the front stood and declared that she adored Hitchens, had written a book on the Elgin Marbles "to catch your eye", and insisted that were she not already pregnant she would love to have his child.
Hitchens and Levy are good value, though there were no suprises in what they had to say on Iraq, Palestine, Israel and so on. Things got more interesting when the discussion turned to India. Hitchens argued that America, after ignoring India for many year, was showing signs that it might be about to make common cause with "the world's other great secular democracy" against Al-Quaeda and Islamism. He pointed out fairly that Hindus are demonised as much as Jews by Islamists and that India had suffered attacks from Al-Quaeda. One of the good things about September 11, said Hitchens, was that the US discovered who its friends and enemies really were.
In which case, said Levy, why does America continue to support Pakistan, the centre of Al-Quaeda activities (not just in the mountains, but in Karachi itself). The US has been duped, he said, by Musharraf who hands over alleged Al Quaeda number 2s at strategic moments (such as when the Senate is voting on financial aid to Pakistan). He had made this very point to Condoleexa Rice ("who I found charmante") and she had no adequate response.
Hitchens (in response to the nutty stalker woman) talked interestingly on the link between sexual repression, political violence and totalitarianism, citing Wilhelm Reich, China's "one-child" policy, societies after major wars in which swathes of the male population are killed (he didn't specifically mention post-WW1 Germany, but clearly had it in mind). Islamist terrorists are denied access to women, and their sexual repression is translated into political violence - hence the power of the promise of virgins awaiting the suicide bomber in paradise. Though, if they had read the Talmud, Hitchens said, they would know that for every virgin, there is a mother-in-law.
Levy related this to the veil debate, arguing with reference to a French phenomenologist that to cover the face is to deny an essential part of humanity. When women are not veiled, it is possible to have relations with them that are far more delightful and passionate. Well, he is French.
Hitchens got the loudest applause of the afternoon by coming over all Clint Eastwood on the veil issue: "I can be offended too. So don't make me say something that I can't take back".