Christopher Hitchens And That Dubious Iran ‘Quote’

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I often see people attributing the following statement to the late Christopher Hitchens on the topic of Iran:

As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”

This occurs across social media, in comment threads and in news articles.

Now, It would be untrue to claim that Christopher Hitchens never engaged in hawkish rhetoric from time to time, but given that Hitchens had also visited Iran, spoke fondly of it and voiced his solidarity with the Iranian people – I remained unconvinced with the authenticity of this particular quote.

Every attempt to identify a primary source led me back to a book called ‘Unhitched’ by Richard Seymour. This book is what one typically refers to as a ‘Hatchet Job’. Here is the quote as it appears in Seymour’s book (p92):

…when Hitchens was speaking in Madison, Wisconsin, he was asked a question about Iran. His answer shocked even the conservatives in the audience: ‘As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth’. That these barbaric vocables were uttered by someone ostensibly interested in the advancement of humanity, in solidarity and civilization, is by no means novel.

A footnote cites the following source: ‘51. Tariq Ali, interview by author, 3 January 2012’.

It appears then, that Tariq Ali told the author that Hitchens had said this about Iran. So, even though the author directly reports Hitchens as saying these words as a matter of fact – the footnote reveals that the author was actually making this claim based on what someone else had told him Hitchens had said. Still following? That ‘someone else’ also happens to be a debate opponent and critic of Christopher Hitchens.

I made these observations in a previous blog post and was happy enough with my findings to write this off as ‘hearsay’ as a result. But it gets worse. Prompted by my blog, one of my readers1 decided they would reach out to Tariq Ali via email to ask for further details, then pass those details on to me.

Rather than behave like a complete hack and simply tell you what I know because some guy asked some guy and then told me what the guy said, I reached out to Tariq Ali myself for direct confirmation. Here is our correspondence in full:

From: Stephen Knight
Date: Tuesday 05 January 2016
To: Tariq Ali
Subject: Hitchens Iran Quote

Hi Tariq,

I hope you’re well. I’m a blogger/podcaster.

I was wondering if you’d be so kind as to clear up a curiosity of mine? I’ve been trying to discern the origin of this Christopher Hitchens quote on Iran:

“As for that benighted country, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.”

In the book ‘Unhitched’, a footnote names you as the source of this information.

A reader/listener has just informed me that you were told this by someone else, rather than hearing Hitchens say it directly. Is this correct?

Would it please be possible to clarify with a response that you would be happy for me to publish on my blog?

It would be most appreciated,

Stephen


From: Tariq Ali
Date: Tuesday 05 January 2016
To: Stephen Knight
Subject: Re: Hitchens Iran Quote

I spoke at the same venue in Madison a week later and many former Hitchens fans were staggered at what he had said and withj [sic] only a few hecklers. I assume it was recorded as most of his stuff was…


There we have it. Tariq Ali hears this from a nameless ‘source’ at a venue Hitchens spoke at previously. A venue, which was at the time, absent of one Christopher Hitchens. Not only was this reported years after Hitchens was alleged to have said it, it also comes third hand, anonymously.

In summary, this quote came from a guy who told a guy he heard some people say Hitchens said something once. Needless to say, no footage of Hitchens saying these words has surfaced (to my knowledge).

Keep in mind, Seymour considers this to be the entry level diligence required when publicly painting someone as a genocidal maniac. Well, I once heard some guy say that he was told by some other guy that Richard Seymour once boasted about his upskirt photo collection. Maybe I’ll put that it in a book one day.

Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.

  1. Great work Daniel Lewis, thank you

19 comments

  • Typo, second line from last “genoicdal”.
    Good work (overall, not about the typo).

  • Incredible! With mechanisms like this, you can attribute anything to anybody. We use to do that a lot in primary school.

  • Interesting. I have observed that whenever a religious apologist seems to make a good point, he is lying. I have further observed that there are almost no exceptions to this rule. WLC has a Ph.D or two yet not even he can escape this observation.

  • “I assume it was recorded as most of his stuff was…”

    That’s not all you’re assuming, genius.

  • “Not only was this reported a year after Hitchens’s death”

    To be fair, Hitchens died in December 2011, and this was reported January 2012, so it’s actually only one month.

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  • I did some searching on the Internet and found that Christopher Hitchens spoke at the 30th annual convention of the FFRF, which was held at Monona Terrace, Madison, Wisconsin on 13 October 2007. His talk is available on YouTube. He was asked about his views of the Iranian theocracy and responded that he believed Iranian nuclear facilities should be demolished before they were in a position to develop nuclear weapons. This discussion occurs at about the 60 minute mark. He certainly didn’t use the words that are often attributed to him. Interestingly, the audience was very restrained throughout Christopher’s speech.

    Tariq Ali presented at the Chazen museum of Art, Madison, Wisconsin four days later. Considering the lack of detail around this I wouldn’t be surprised if he is confused about venues.

    Tariq Ali should either confirm the time and location of the particular presentation involved, or retract his statement on the grounds it is unsubstantiated.

  • Great work, Stephen! Thanks!

  • Great work Stephen, you have got me back as a follower. It’s sad to see the damage that the hivemind group FTB is doing, PZ and CJ helping the religious to beat down atheists

  • Thanks, Great Research.

  • Hi Stephen,

    thank you for beeing so dilligent, as always. I would just like to throw in my 2 cents into the ring on this matter. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Hitens’s opinions on foreign policy in general and on Iran in particular, might I suggest a very interesting exchange with George Packer:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8eHlWJbTuI or a short speech, for those with things to do: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrBVQjivS08

    Now I will make a bold statement: Considering his contempt for totalitarian regimes, and his sympathy and alliegence to it’s victims I think it is justified to assume, that this is a simple matter of misquotation (not withstanding everything you pointed out already).

    If he ever said anything like that, which I think i quite possible – it was almost certainly: “As for that benighted regime, I wouldn’t shed a tear if it was wiped off the face of this earth.” Which of course would mean something else entirely, or at any rate would not imply genocide.

    And this is no to say, that one has to agree with his opinions on how to get rid of such a regime. And I find it boring, tiresome and annoying, that nowdays one must apparently always include this nifty caveat, when making a point of principle to avoid trolls.

    Sorry for the overlong post, but there it is.

    Keep doing what you are doing, I very much enjoy and appreciate your Podcast.

    Greetings from Wroclaw!

  • “Shocked even the conservatives in the audience.” He is such a dogmatic simpleton.

  • Stephen, you’re a rockstar. Great work.

  • I have been searching through numerous youtube videos of Christopher Hitchens relating to Iran dating back as far as the 1980s. At no time did I find him using the phrase that has been attributed to him. The general thrust of his discussions was a great dislike of the Iranian authorities and a great respect for the Iranian people.

    It seems to me that either somebody who attended the alleged speech accurately related this particular phrase to Tariq Ali a week after the event, who then decided to sit on it for several years before accurately relating it to Richard Seymour for publication, OR they have misconstrued Christopher’s words. Considering Hitchens respect and hopes for the Iranian people, I favour the latter.

    It is particularly concerning that Tariq Ali chose not to go public with the statement while Christopher Hitchens was alive and in a position to defend himself.

  • So, having spent the last few days trawling through YouTube and the Internet, I have been unable to find any evidence of Christopher Hitchens, or anyone else for that matter, uttering the phrase “as for that benighted country …” prior to 2012. In 2012, Richard Seymour published Unhitched and the number of people quoting this phrase then mushrooms, invariably using it to claim Hitchens was a genocidal maniac.
    My take on this is that the conference Tariq Ali quoted in his email is the FFRF conference held in Madison, Wisconsin on 13 October 2007. This is the conference PZ Myers attended, and afterwards stated that Hitchens had proposed genocide, or at least wholesale execution of the population of the Moslem world. Tariq Ali was in Madison on 17 October 2007, which is consistent with being in Madison a week after the speech as per his email. There is a 76 minute video on YouTube covering all of Hitchens speech. At no time does he say “as for that benighted country …”.
    It might be worth emailing Tariq Ali again to confirm if he was advised of what Hitchens said in October 2007 and, if not, could he be more precise regarding dates. Considering he could accurately recall what Christopher Hitchens said at a conference he didn’t even attend, recalling the date should be a doddle.

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  • If you do, please include the photos themselves. Looking forward to it!

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