Writer Christopher Hitchens has hit the jackpot. His new book, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has proved a runaway bestseller. Why, then, is Mr. Hitchens so angry? Eyewitnesses report that Hitchens erupted into a drunken rage at a recent promotional event for his book. Hitchens reportedly descended from the stage, visibly inebriated, approached a Roman Catholic priest in the audience, and began shouting at him, only inches from his face. Hitchens’ manner appeared so physically menacing, witnesses say, that a plainclothes bodyguard on duty at the event rushed in and escorted the drunken scribe from the room. All of this happened four and a half months ago, on May 1. It was never reported in the press. A conspiracy of silence shielded the bestselling author from the negative publicity his behavior seemingly should have earned him. Indeed, the world at large would know nothing of this incident, had Hitchens himself not chosen to mention it in the September 2007 issue of Vanity Fair. Hitchens described the encounter thus:
“…a man in a clerical collar puts up his hand. In a magnanimous mood, I say, Fair enough—let’s extend the event for a man of the cloth. This turns out to be Father George Rutler of the Church of Our Saviour, who announces that he’s on the committee of the club and will make sure that I am never invited there again. There’s some shock at this inhospitable attitude, but I think: Gosh. Holy Mother Church used to threaten people with eternal damnation. Now it’s exclusion from the Union League Club. What a comedown. In a brisk exchange near the elevator, the good father assures me that I shall die a Catholic. Why do people think this is such a good point?” (Christopher Hitchens, “God Bless Me, It’s a Bestseller!”, Vanity Fair, September 2007)
We Americans tend to idealize the British for their sense of fair play — a virtue exemplified, we are told, by that class of Englishmen who, like Mr. Hitchens, attended the finest public schools. Yet the account Hitchens wrote of his confrontation with Father Rutler seems far from sporting.
Hitchens wrote that Father Rutler used his influence as an officer of the Union League Club to get him banned from the Club. He neglected to reveal that Father Rutler might have had legitimate reasons for banning him, given the behavior which Hitchens reportedly exhibited at the May 1 event. By withholding this information, Hitchens left his readers with the impression that Father Rutler banned him simply because he wished to suppress Hitchens’ views on religion.
The evidence suggests otherwise.
Billed as, “An Evening with Christopher Hitchens“, the event was presented by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and featured a discussion between Hitchens and Peter Collier (who is Director of Publications for the Freedom Center). During that discussion, Hitchens offered many insults — laced with a generous helping of obscene, Anglo-Saxon expletives — to such beloved religious figures as the late Mother Teresa. One eyewitness states that Hitchens’ “drunken, rambling, anti-Semitic, bigoted and foul-mouthed rant” caused “two-thirds of the people to leave in disgust” before the talk had ended.
The reference to anti-Semitism relates to a brief exchange between Hitchens and Collier on the topic of circumcision, which went as follows:
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: What if I say, Everyone in the country knows that female genital mutilation is a horror show? And it should rightly be a federal crime. But male genital mutilation is a filthy Jewish practice. Doesn’t sound good, does it, to say that? You know how sensitive we can be. But what else?
And that happens to be my view. And I am damned if I’ll become an American in order to be told I can’t express it. Okay?
PETER COLLIER: It is true, of course, that genitally mutilated males have a six times lower frequency of getting AIDS in Africa, for instance, right?
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, there would be less AIDS if the Islamic and Catholic authorities didn’t say that AIDS may be bad but condoms are worse, which is the religious preachment. And by the way — I suppose we may as well get this out of the way — the jolly old foreskin –
PETER COLLIER: The foreskin.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: — the foreskin itself –
PETER COLLIER: Oh, let’s get right to it. Okay.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: When in doubt — as they always say — when in doubt, talk dick. The foreskin can be loosened. The foreskin can be loosened, and even slightly snipped — in order, for cleaning purposes. But it doesn’t have to be violently torn and excised, in the Maimonides recommendation, which is, by the way — when Maimonides mandates it, he says, not to prevent you from getting a filthy disease; it’s so that you will feel the least sexual pleasure that’s consistent with making another Jew, through a hole in the sheet. Okay? (“An Evening with Christopher Hitchens.”)
During the question-and-answer period following Hitchens’ talk, Father George Rutler took the floor and the following exchange ensued:
FATHER RUTLER: I have met saints. You cannot explain the existence of saints without God. I was nine years chaplain with Mother Teresa [inaudible]. You have called her a whore, a demagogue. She’s in heaven that you don’t believe in, but she’s praying for you. If you do not believe in heaven, that’s why you drink.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Excuse me?
FATHER RUTLER: That’s why you drink. God has offered us happiness, all of us. And you will either die a Catholic or a madman, and I’ll tell you the difference.
And secondly, I’m an officer with this club. And this conversation has been beneath the dignity of this club.
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE MEMBER: No it hasn’t been.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Well, it is now.
DAVID HOROWITZ: Okay. I–
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It is now.
FATHER RUTLER: And I’d just say that…
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Fine host you turned out to be.
FATHER RUTLER: …this club, we’ve had very open discussion. But we’ve never heard such vulgarity and bigotry.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Till now.
FATHER RUTLER: And I am, I don’t want to see this in this club again. And I think I represent the officers of this noble…
DAVID HOROWITZ: All right.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Your claim to know what a [saint] is or what heaven is is as absurd as your [inaudible] arrogance, your unkindness and your lack of hospitality.
DAVID HOROWITZ: See? Everybody –
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: You should be ashamed.
FATHER RUTLER: [inaudible]
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: And you are supposed to represent a church of charity and kindness?
DAVID HOROWITZ: I said this evening was going to be interesting and unpredictable.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS Especially [inaudible].
DAVID HOROWITZ: And anyway, thank you all for coming. And to all a good night. (”An Evening with Christopher Hitchens”)
It was after the above exchange that the real fireworks started, according to witnesses. This blog has obtained a written account of the incident by one eyewitness, which states the following:
“At the end of the event as he staggered, sweating and red faced, out of the room, he [Hitchens] advanced on Father Rutler in a threatening and physical manner, screaming that this beloved pastor and brilliant scholar whom he had never met was ‘a child molester and a lazy layabout who never did a day’s work in his life’. His behavior was so frightening that a bodyguard put himself between Hitchens and Father Rutler to protect him. Several of the event organizers then escorted Hitchens to the men’s room and when he emerged he continued his psychotic rant, repeating the same calumnious and baseless screed as before. It was then that Father Rutler, in the most charitable manner, told Hitchens [for the second time] that he will `either die a madman or a Roman Catholic’. … Unless he faces his alcoholism soon, I am betting on the ‘madman’ ending for him.” (Private communication, name of source withheld by request, 17 September 2007)
Evidently, Mr. Hitchens never met Father Rutler before their May 1 encounter, and did not know who he was. It happens that Father Rutler is a hero of 9-11. He holds a special place in the hearts of New York City’s police and firemen, for he was with them that day at Ground Zero. Before Father Mychal Judge was struck dead by a body falling from the burning towers, Father Rutler stood side-by-side with Father Judge, hearing confessions and giving the last rites to firemen en route to their deaths.
I hope and pray that Mr. Hitchens will seek the help he needs in his struggle with alcohol. And I hope that someday soon, when his mind has cleared, Mr. Hitchens will see the need to pay a visit to Father Rutler and deliver to him face to face the apology this good and saintly man so plainly deserves.
Reprinted with permission from the author’s blog, Poe.com. Parts II and III of Poe’s coverage of Hitchens to follow in days to come.