This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Texas Freethought Convention, which was co-sponsored by the Atheist Alliance of America.
Aside from the fact that this was a very successful atheist conference in Houston, Texas, the highlight of the gathering was the Saturday night presentation of the Richard Dawkins Freethinker of the Year Award to Christopher Hitchens by Dawkins himself.
Most of you might know that I have been involved in the promotion of science and critical thinking for many years, and as such, I have attended many science/skeptical/atheist conferences, and have seen and met more amazing thinkers and speakers than a dirty white boy like me should be allowed to. I’m no expert by any stretch, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this award presentation was the skeptical/atheist/science/critical thinking event of the year.
Now, I’m not trying to sell you on the fact that the award is all that important. I don’t think patting ourselves on the back holds much iron in the grand scheme of things. But I think the circumstances and the people involved added a new dimension to the event, serendipitously creating a message and delivering it in the precise manner we should aspire to deliver it. In short, it was the most engaging speech and Q&A session I’ve seen.
The entire evening was possible due to a morbid coincidence. The convention was being held in Houston, and Hitchens is receiving treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for stage IV oesophageal cancer. Had the conference been in another city, the award would no doubt have been presented without the recipient in attendance. There was actually some concern that Hitchens’ illness would prevent him from attending, even as close as he was. But he soldiered on, and arrived to a nice ovation, just as dinner was being served.
Now, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Hitchens on a couple of occasions, and even had a drink with him at a party in Las Vegas, and I honestly never considered him much of a physical specimen. It’s simply an idea that I never associated with the man. He’s a storied drinker and a smoker, and his mental capacity is such that it normally renders all assessment of his other attrubutes moot. At least it did in my mind. But this was the first time I’d seen him in person since he was diagnosed. And as you might imagine, the toll the cancer has taken on him was quite evident.
Robbed of his hair and much of his weight, his clothes hung loosely on him, and he moved slowly and deliberately, a handkerchief in his hand to muffle the deep coughs that exploded from time to time. I won’t say I felt pity at the sight of him, because I know from reading his work and hearing his words that he is dealing with his illness with rationality and science, and the admiration I have for that certainly belies any pity. But I was concerned that he might be too frail to do anything more than wave from his seat. I suspect many others in the crowd had the same concern.
But when Richard Dawkins, eloquent as ever in his introduction, called Hitchens up to receive the award, he rose from his chair and made it to the podium.
Now, I won’t transcribe Hitchens’ speech here. I’ll let you guys watch the video below (I just wish there was video of the Q&A that followed). I’ll just say that, though I didn’t always agree with Hitchens on every subject, and though I found him smug to the point of distraction at times, I was always amazed at his verbal acumen and his wit. But the thing that struck me as so profound about this event was the fact that such powerful ideas were coming from such a debilitated body. (And dare I say, he may be a tad bit more humble now?)
Yes, it was still Hitchens. And yes, we would expect nothing less. But it drove home the idea that rational thought and delivering a rational message can be powerful in any package. In our world, the ideas are what’s important. The process of critical thought is what matters. Rationality and the scientific method are the icons. Not necessarily the people espousing them.
At any rate, last week we discussed Steve Jobs in the Thursday Inquisition. And I don’t want to eulogize Hitchens today. He may yet have some time left. But let’s open up the floor to discuss the ideas he stands for, or to give an opinion of the man himself if the mood strikes you.
Can a message have impact despite the package from which it comes? Examples? What is the most effective method of delivery? Ordinary person, straight up intellectual, or Hitchens-esque polemecist street fighter? What are your thoughts of the Hitchens and his struggle with cancer? The floor is open.