Battle of Ideas: The New Heresies at the 2007 Battle of Ideas conference hosted by the Institute of Ideas.
'It is the customary fate of new truths,' wrote TH Huxley in 1881, 'to begin as heresies and end as superstitions'. His sentiment is increasingly pertinent today. At the dawn of the 21st century, Western societies have rediscovered the charge of heresy as a means of silencing those who question prevailing cultural orthodoxies. The label of 'denial' - applied with ever-greater promiscuity - expresses the illiberal notion that contentious issues are beyond debate. Healthy heresy - described in more enlightened times as critical thinking, sceptical enquiry, or even free speech - is again being hunted down.
The presence of healthy doubt is being ironed out by a demand for moral certainties, forcing open debate on the back foot. The notion of Holocaust denial, now raised to the status of secular blasphemy, has been revised and adopted for the modern era. The European Union has recently outlawed genocide denial; this means anyone convicted of denying the genocide of the Jews in Europe before and during the Second World War, or the mass killings in Bosnia and Rwanda, will face a prison term ranging from one to three years. Other 'thought-crimes' - whilst not against the law - also invoke the pernicious denial label, most obviously the accusation of 'climate-change denial' attributed to anyone who does not wholeheartedly embrace global warming orthodoxies.
If we stigmatise those who question 'self-evident' truths, how will interrogative debate survive? Will this modern, secular inquisition and the creation of new taboos promote a narrow conformism in public life? At a festival which adopts the slogan - free speech allowed - this final keynote discussion will examine the root causes of such censorious trends, and will investigate possibilities for re-constituting heresy in a more positive light, so that free-thinking can be encouraged rather than policed- IoI
Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the twice-monthly muckraking newsletter CounterPunch, whose Web site, www.counterpunch.org, now has a world audience in the millions.
Born and raised in Ireland, son of Claud and Patricia Cockburn, Alexander Cockburn was educated in Ireland, Scotland and England. He graduated from Oxford in 1963. He worked in London for a decade on the Times Literary Supplement, the New Statesman and New Left Review. He emigrated to the United States in 1973, worked on the Village Voice and began to contribute to a wide range of publications including the New York Review of Books, Harpers, and the Atlantic.
He has established a reputation as one of the foremost reporters and commentators of the left by writing newspaper and magazine columns for three decades. Cockburnâ€™s areas of interest include the American political scene, economics, the environment, labour issues and international policy, the perils of conspiracism.
The author of a bi-weekly column for The Nation called Beat the Devil, Cockburn also writes a syndicated newspaper column that is distributed nationally by Creators Syndicate and has appeared regularly in such papers as the Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Examiner, Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Detroit Free Press. In 1987, Cockburn authored a highly successful collection of essays, some autobiographical, entitled Corruptions of Empire, for which he was called 'the most gifted polemicist now writing in English' by the Times Literary Supplement. His diary of the late 1980s and early 1990s, The Golden Age Is In Us, drew enthusiastic reviews from many sources, such as the New York Times, which wrote of Cockburn, 'a warrior freethinker, armed with courage and gifted prose to cut down the hypocrisies of tyrants.'
Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas (IoI), which she established to create a public space where ideas can be contested without constraint.
Fox initiated the IoI while co-publisher of the current affairs journal LM magazine (formerly Living Marxism). The IoI has since worked with a variety of prestigious institutions in Britain and abroad.
Fox is a panelist on BBC Radio 4's "The Moral Maze" and is regularly invited to comment on developments in culture, education and the media on TV and radio. Fox writes regularly for national newspapers and a range of specialist journals. Fox has a monthly column in the Municipal Journal.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of the online magazine spiked and a columnist for The Times (London). He was editor of LM magazine (which he launched, originally as Living Marxism, in 1988) until it was forced to close in 2000 following a libel suit, and then launched spiked which he edited until January 2007.
Arthur Versluis, Professor of American Studies at Michigan State University, holds a doctorate from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has published numerous books and articles. His research interests include agricultural literature and issues, American and European history, Christian theosophy, comparative religion, mysticism, contemporary political and ecological issues and intellectual history. His family has owned a commercial farm in West Michigan for several generations, and so he published a book called Island Farm about the family farm, and about family farming in the modern era.
Versluis was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to Germany, and is the editor-in-chief of Esoterica, an electronic journal at http://www.esoteric.msu.edu devoted to the academic study of esotericism. He is the founding president of the Association for the Study of Esotericism.