Peter Hitchens vs. *First Things* on COVID-19 and free speech

Peter Hitchens is a conservative journalist and author who writes a blog at Last week he published a post titled, “Please Protest against the Censorship of First Things magazine.”

Here is a taste:

For some years I have written occasionally for a thoughtful American magazine called First Things. Last week, they asked me to censor what I had written. They said: ‘We are trying to be slightly less critical of the lockdown measures on the site these days (though criticism is of course warranted), so we’ve made a few changes to the final paragraphs.

‘The First Things board has concerns about some of the pieces we have published on Covid. They have asked us to be less dismissive of Covid-19.’

They then asked me to ‘revise’ what I had written (which I have now published unrevised on the Peter Hitchens blog). I said no, and have ceased to write for them. It is a sign of the deep damage this panic is doing to Western freedom that the censor’s stupid, heavy hand should reach even into such gentle places.

Here is a taste of the piece that did not make into First Things:

The events of the past few months, in which men have tried to hold back the spread of a sub-microscopic virus with plastic screens, five-foot gaps, loose cloth muzzles, mass curfews and the closure of the world’s economies, have reminded me of the walls built to hide the Trill Mill Stream, and of my smug laughter at the story when I first heard it. Can such measures really be the answer, even if they are proportionate to the problem? We seem to be back in the era of making moonbeams out of cucumbers. Worse, most of us seem never to have heard or understood the fable of King Canute, who ordered the tide to turn back, to show his flattering courtiers that the power of governments, especially over nature, has very severe limits.

Energetic testing seems to show that the virus has slipped past these modern defences with ease, though in most cases without troubling its carriers all that much. But what it has also shown is that the more you test , the more you find and that in most cases, the virus is not that dangerous to those who catch it. Yet this discovery has absolutely no effect on government policies or on media accounts of the problem, which continue as if this was an exact repeat of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

Many, in fact never even have any symptoms. Yet up go the plastic screens and on go the muzzles (a beloved library known to me, supposedly a quiet refuge for thought and research, has followed this trend, so making it almost unbearable to go there any more). Does the clue to our current state of wilful folly lie in Donne’s warning that learning without an understanding of the true nature of the universe is hubristic and will never get us very far, that ‘all knowledge that begins not, and ends not with His glory, is but a giddy, but a vertiginous circle, but an elaborate and exquisite ignorance’?  

So what is going on here? First Things, especially its editor, R.R. Reno, has taken a lot of heat for questioning the COVID-19 lockdown. We blogged about Reno’s coronavirus columns here and here and here.

The names of the members of the First Things board can be found here.

The First Things e-mail to Hitchens suggests that there may be some tension between the board and the editorial staff. Meanwhile, Hitchens is upset because his piece downplaying COVID-19 will not get an airing at this conservative magazine.

I should also add that I learned about Hitchens’s blog post when court evangelical Eric Metaxas shared it on his Facebook page. Metaxas, who has been doing his radio show from a bunker in his house, also seems to think that COVID-19 is not a serious threat.

By the way, Hitchens and Metaxas did not seem to be entirely on the same page a few months ago when they were discussing topics such as COVID-19 and “taking a knee.” This is unusual for a Metaxas interview. He mostly interviews people who agree with him.