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Matt Johnson — How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment

How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment (book cover)

Shermer and Johnson discuss:

  • Hitchens on free expression, identity politics, radicalism, interventionism, authoritarianism, patriotism, internationalism, America and Liberalism, reparations, religion, and death
  • What is the Left, the Right?
  • the many strands of liberalism
  • resurgent nationalism and authoritarianism
  • identity politics, Left and Right
  • hostility to free speech
  • great power competition between Russia and China and the US
  • nationalism vs. internationalism/globalism
  • 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Hitch’s hatred for theocracy and totalitarianism
  • why Hitch did not become a neoconservative or a warmonger or imperialist
  • Hitch’s defense of Iraq’s Kurds and the women of Afghanistan and his belief that the international community shouldn’t allow dictatorships to massacre and torture civilians
  • principles vs. politics
  • What is Enlightenment Liberalism?
  • Trump and the division of the right
  • Why left-wing illiberalism (obsession with identity politics, efforts to squelch free speech on campuses and in the media, and apologies for despotic governments and movements as long as they oppose the U.S.) is no way to resist right-wing authoritarianism
  • Hitch on the precursors to Trump: the Tea Party movement and demagogic anti-elitism of Sarah Palin
  • Putin and Russian nationalism.

Matt Johnson writes for Haaretz, Quillette, American Purpose, South China Morning Post, The Bulwark, Areo, Arc Digital, RealClearDefense, The Kansas City Star, and many other publications. His new book is How Hitchens Can Save the Left: Rediscovering Fearless Liberalism in an Age of Counter-Enlightenment.

About the Book

Christopher Hitchens was for many years considered one of the fiercest and most eloquent left-wing polemicists in the world. But on much of today’s left, he’s remembered as a defector, a warmonger, and a sellout—a supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who traded his left-wing principles for neoconservatism after the September 11 attacks.

In How Hitchens Can Save the Left, Matt Johnson argues that this easy narrative gets Hitchens exactly wrong. Hitchens was a lifelong champion of free inquiry, humanism, and universal liberal values. He was an internationalist who believed all people should have the liberty to speak and write openly, to be free of authoritarian domination, and to escape the arbitrary constraints of tribe, faith, and nation. He was a figure of the Enlightenment and a man of the left until the very end, and his example has never been more important.

Over the past several years, the liberal foundations of democratic societies have been showing signs of structural decay. On the right, nationalism and authoritarianism have been revived on both sides of the Atlantic. On the left, many activists and intellectuals have become obsessed with a reductive and censorious brand of identity politics, as well as the conviction that their own liberal democratic societies are institutionally racist, exploitative, and imperialistic. Across the democratic world, free speech, individual rights, and other basic liberal values are losing their power to inspire.

Hitchens’s case for universal Enlightenment principles won’t just help genuine liberals mount a resistance to the emerging illiberal orthodoxies on the left and the right. It will also remind us how to think and speak fearlessly in defense of those principles.

If you enjoy the podcast, please show your support by making a $5 or $10 monthly donation.

This episode was released on April 29, 2023.

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