Like a cockfight, the event at UCLA’s Royce Hall seemed as if it had been put together surreptitiously to evade detection by anybody but the most ardent fans of the most uncomfortable Thanksgiving conversation imaginable: namely, one about God and politics.
“I tend to begin any talk on this subject with an apology, because I am bound to say something very derogatory about religion tonight,” said Sam Harris, professional atheist and best-selling author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, to the kind of delighted applause that, if you had just walked into the room, you might’ve thought was for somebody who had just thrown a cigarette into the air and caught it in his mouth. But then that’s the appeal of Sam Harris, who, even if you’ve only seen pictures of him, is as likable in appearance as Ben Stiller and as gawkishly un-debonair, in the most endearing way, as anybody’s overachieving little brother.
The program was titled “Religion, Politics and the End of the World: A Debate Between Sam Harris and Chris Hedges” and was the first event organized by the Webby Award–winning news-and-information site Truthdig.com, whose editor in chief, Robert Scheer, was the evening’s referee.
In contrast to Harris’ GQ-ed IQ/Izod-iness, Christopher Hedges, who is the former Middle East bureau chief for The New York Times and the author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, wore a leather coat and the thick-soled shoes of an electrician, or an exterminator, or a pinochle player attempting to toughen up his appearance with the opposite of a loafer. He looked, while waiting patiently for Harris to finish with his opening statement, as if his mother were late in picking him up from school and, at any minute, he’d have to leave to strap on a backpack crammed with very thick books.
Following Harris’ relatively brief explanation as to why God sucked so bad, Hedges stood and walked across the stage to stand behind a podium and to read from a prepared speech that lasted just under 27 minutes, effectively reminding the large majority of shifters and groaners in the auditorium why they hated church so much.
Ultimately, the weightiness of the debate that followed made Scheer appear as if he were juggling bowling balls and, in the end, as if he’d been moderating an argument between Mr. Potato Head and Mr. Potatah Head about which was the proper way to pronounce their name. Nothing was settled, and nobody was victorious, and everybody left the hall with the same favorite color they’d walked in with. And then it happened.
While loitering around the signing area in an adjacent room with the event organizers, perhaps some of most devout atheists I’d ever hung out with, I overheard someone say, “Hey, did you see Phil Spector? He was in the balcony.”
A small crowd formed around him, as if he were the only light in the room. “His bodyguard pushed me out of the way, I swear to God.”
“Are you sure, Phil Spector?” someone wanted to know, her brow knitted.
“Yeah, the blond wig, the funny pants — it had to be him!”
“Maybe it was Florence Henderson,” said a Judas; there’s always one in the crowd.
“No, it was fucking Phil Spector, man! Phil Spector!”
Just then, Robert Scheer’s wife appeared with some friends to announce that somebody had just seen Phil Spector come out of the restroom.
Nobody wanted to speak, breathe or move. Everybody just wanted to believe that that creepy little raw biscuit of a face had been looking down on us. It was all the meaning we needed to make our lives, at least for the evening, spectacular.