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Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters. I hope I can also say comrades and friends. I might go so far as to say, first, I think it’s very impressive and rather encouraging that so many people would come out on such a beautiful evening to discuss and debate such a serious and pressing subject.

I should add, though, that as a teacher, I insist that anyone who has been told by the professor that they have to be here leaves now. I will not speak to captive audiences. That’s good, then.

Alright, further to the principles of free inquiry and open debate that goes up to make a great university, my view is and will always be that it matters not what you think, anyone can have thoughts. Many people content themselves with feelings. It matters how you think. So since the case has been so well phrased by my predecessor speakers, I thought I might just begin by a thought experiment, by an argument from analogy of a case I once put myself in another context.

I wrote a book saying that the British Museum should return to Athens the chunks of the sculpture of the Parthenon, sometimes called the Elgin Marbles, always pronounced wrongly in this country. It was Lord Elgin, in fact, who had annexed them in the 18th century. It didn’t make any sense that the sculpture should be separated. It was carved as a unity. The original crime was the desecration of a great historic culture and a great historic temple, a gross insult to an entire culture and society of the Greeks. The amputation of an organic and aesthetic whole, a theft, a rape, a taking perpetrated by the strong upon the weak.

By the way, this was all done at the same time as the British fleet, Her Majesty’s fleet, was also the military guarantor of the slave trade, the triangular trade of the Atlantic, and the middle passage. Now, the points I made on this, how justice could be done, how reparation could be made, how the wrong once inflicted could be restored, made good. I could well but-ress by fact, and could do so now if I was challenged.

Additionally, I suppose, most importantly, I said that while not every crime committed in the high days of empire and war and plunder could be repaired, this one could. Restitution could be made. That sculpture had been wrenched from its context. It had been broken up. It had been segregated. It had been injured. It had been damaged in the process. Not everything could be put right, but most of it could. It could be reunited and the scars and the missing fragments and the injuries would be just part of that great narrative once the healing, once the reunification had been more or less accomplished.

Now, I was fascinated with this as a simple case, as I hope you can see. I was very impressed by the torrent of bad faith in which I was immediately doused by their arguments. Ladies and gentlemen, you may know them when people begin to introduce the irrelevant and the non-sequitur and the generalization. You know you’re onto something.

For example, people say, “Do you mean that every artifact in every museum in Europe should immediately be returned to its country of origin?” I think you can tell that that was not what I was saying. But could I get anyone to get off that song? I don’t think I could. Do you see the analogy, perhaps, to what we’re meant to discuss this evening? I think perhaps you might. There’s a constant whine and drone, what I call a white whine, when this subject comes up. People say, “What do you mean? We’d have to go back and help the Comanches get their… you know how it goes. A rather nasty combination, actually, of self-pity and self-hatred among white Americans that deserves to be, I think, treated with great scorn.

I was told, ‘Well, what about the Babylonians?’ They said, ‘Well, the Babylonians are not going to come and make a claim. The stuff from Babylon in the British Museum is probably best where it is. The Rosetta Stone and the pharaonic material there is probably best where it is. More people will see it, and there are no pharaonic Egyptians to press a claim either.’

Why are you mentioning this when there’s a real case before you that could be made and a real injustice that could be repaired? I think I know why. I think I feel the itchings and prickings of a bad conscience behind this kind and mode of argument.

Then it was said, ‘Didn’t the great noble Lord Elgin actually sort of rescue the sculpture by stealing it and using it first to decorate his private home and then to make a fortune by selling it? Wouldn’t it maybe have been worse off if it had stayed where it was?’ Well, some of the sculpture that stayed in Athens was very badly treated and has been badly knocked about.

And I heard it said this year, in an argument about the Confederate flag, no, last year, excuse me, in an argument about the Confederate battle flag in Carolina, I heard it openly said by a spokesman for the Confederacy of our present day, one of whom is now our Attorney General, but he… not that he said this, but partisans of his said this. They said, ‘Well, how would those Africans have got along if we just left them in West Africa? Didn’t we do them a favor? We made them Americans, didn’t we? We brought them here. Do they wish they had not been removed?’

Now, this argument also, I think, shows a very bad conscience indeed. I’m going to come back to this argument, by the way, bear it in mind. Bear in mind what the underlay of this discussion really is.

But always notice and pay attention where people appear to be changing the subject and just distracting or trying to redirect your attention to some theoretical or cosmic or abstract injustice that can’t be rectified, that’s beyond the reach of justice, that’s past our power to heal or to alter. In other words, beware when someone tries to make the best the enemy of the good. This is the charge I’m going to make against the good Professor Larry, whose opening speech I thought was superb. Beware of making the best the enemy of the good. That’s where I’ll turn to our present case. Review it in the same way. Conduct, if you will, the same thought experiment.

Was there an original traceable offense? Was there a taking, a theft, a rape, a dispossession, as conversation? There isn’t a thinking person who can say no to that. The evidence is very clear, and it mounts with every chapter of historical inquiry. Did it consist of, as I say, a conversation? Can it, therefore, be made good? If not all of it can be made good, can some of it be made good? Can any of it be repaired? Don’t make the best the enemy of the good. Is there anything to be rescued from this terrible story? Is there anything that can be done about it once it’s been recognized? We cannot possibly undo. I don’t actually think we even dare think of the scope of what it would take to imagine undoing the damage done to Africa, especially to West Africa, by the period of colonization, colonial division, plunder, slavery, and rape.

We can’t undo the enforced underdevelopment of Africa, though we are, you may notice, compelled to keep trying to do that on other fronts all the time, and to deal with the consequences of the amputation and dismemberment of Africa in that period. And who would say we shouldn’t do that? Little as little enough as it is, who would say it isn’t our responsibility to do that in Africa now as well? I hope none of you would.

We can’t make up for the middle passage, for the uncounted millions of people who were captured and raped and tortured before they even made it across the Atlantic to be other people’s property. We can’t undo that, but we can refuse. We can decline to forget it. If you really want to think about all the things that can’t be redeemed, you’ll be in some danger, I think, of weeping.

But in my hometown of Washington, D.C., there’s hardly one official brick piled on another that wasn’t piled there by unpaid labor under the whip. And that dead labor becomes dead capital and dead souls, dead money. And it’s piled, actually, in the Treasury Department and the federal financial system. Who took that free labor and those dead souls and that and turned it into capital and its back pay? And it’s owed and it’s overdue.

Now, Professor Larry, in his very indignant nobility, said that he would repudiate this cash. He’d say, “Keep your money. You can’t buy me like that.” I respect him very much for it. I hope he would say that. I would support him in saying it, if he would. He can only say it for himself.

It seems to me he misses two opportunities. And I’ll have to condense my remarks here. He misses the chance, a very important chance, he doesn’t want us to miseducate African-Americans, to feel dependent, to feel mendicant, to feel entitled. And I see why he says so.

He’s missing the chance to remind white society of what it does not know. He’s missing a chance to challenge the complacency and historical nullity of white society that says we don’t owe anyone anything. How dare these people bring all this stuff up? It’s too long ago.

So when he says, “Keep your damn money,” I’m all the way with him. But he can’t. He can’t say, “Keep your damn history,” and let’s turn that back too. This is America. The right to entitlement, to inheritance, to a share in the common treasury is what defines that. If it has to be fought for at law, so much the worse. But there’s no alternative but to fight over it.

And if I’ve done nothing else, I’m sure now every one of you knows that Lord Elgin is pronounced with a “h.”

TL;DR:

  • Christopher Hitchens spoke at an event about the importance of free inquiry and open debate and commended the audience for attending
  • He discussed the case of the British Museum keeping the Elgin Marbles, which were sculptures from the Parthenon, and argued for their return to Athens
  • Hitchens highlighted the injustice of the sculptures being separated from their original context and the cultural significance of their return
  • He criticized arguments that distracted from the main issue and urged people to focus on rectifying the specific case at hand
  • Hitchens then drew parallels to the larger issue of reparations and justice for historical crimes committed against Africa and African-Americans
  • He emphasized the importance of acknowledging and remembering these injustices, while also recognizing that not everything can be undone
  • Hitchens mentioned unpaid labor during the construction of Washington, D.C. and argued for the repayment of that debt
  • He concluded by stating that while he supports Professor Larry in rejecting monetary reparations, the history and acknowledgment of these crimes cannot be dismissed

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