Christopher Hitchens: The Great Contrarian
Letters to a Young Contrarian sees Hitchens address the idea of a life lived in opposition through a series of classically acerbic, witty, and superbly written essays, styled as missives to a young protégé.
He begins by inquiring into what it means to be a “contrarian”, and explores an array of adjectives used to describe what he calls a “life lived in dissent.” And rather than settle on any one term or definition, Hitchens asserts that “the essence of an independent mind is not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks”. Very early on, Hitchens warns that “the noble title of dissident must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement…” He notes how the very term “intellectual” was coined by the anti Dreyfusards in France, and employed against those they regarded as “the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound”, among whose number was to be counted Emile Zola, a man whose example he commends for its courage in standing against a tyrannical majority of Church and State, and who paid the ultimate price for his oppositional views. Yet, he is also acutely aware that “the “baptism” of a future “dissenter” occurs in something unplanned such as a spontaneous resistance to an episode of bullying or bigotry, or a challenge to some piece of pedagogical stupidity.”
For Hitchens, the essence of a dissident or a dissenter is the ability to think independently and not be swayed by the majority. He argues that this quality, and the capacity to resist, is innate within everyone. He asserts that we do not “naturally aspire to some hazy Nirvana, where our critical and ironic faculties would be of no use to us”, and that such a state of “endless praise and gratitude and adoration” would be one of “hellish nullity and conformism”. Indeed, abandoning our critical faculties, or submitting them to a state of ignorant bliss, would be to “summon a vision of tedium and pointlessness.” Thus, he advocates the virtues of argument, of distrusting things like superstition and unchecked authority, in favour of a skeptical mentality, which he believes is as important for the dissenter as any armor of principle.
He admits that we may be, in our daily lives, faced with situations of bullying, bigotry or the like, and invites us not to put up with them, to act “as if” they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable, alluding here to Vaclav Havel’s “Power of the Powerless” tactic against the oppressive government at the time. Still, he recognizes the temptations to abandon, or at least avoid, such a mode of conduct, and encourages us to be alert to giving in to them, when we haven’t the energy to combat arguments against passivity and mindless obedience, especially without having meant to do so.
As can be surmised, Hitchens polarizes his readers almost without exception, because his stances and views are themselves anything but middle-of-the-road or pedantic. His views on religion, which is a central theme of much of his work, demonstrates this amply. He strenuously believes that it generates exactly such passivity and mindless obedience that we ought to be wary of. For his part, he declares himself an antitheist, one who believes not only that “all religions are the versions of the same untruth”, but who also maintains that the “influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful.” He observes that life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed were actually true, calling religion a “divine cradle to grave supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring” and deeming it worse than a Big Brother state because there is no hope that it might eventually pass away.
And what of the divine sacrifice for humanity’s sins? Hitchens calls this “vicarious redemption” and likens it to an “irrational authoritarianism” that forces redemption down people’s throats, regardless of whether they wish to be saved or not, and punishes those who dare refuse it with an eternity of torment in hell. Drawing on Thomas Paine, Hitchens explains that it is impossible for one to take on the sins of another – because one cannot assume another’s crimes as if they were one’s own, and also because such an action would relieve the sinner of individual responsibility. For this, he indicts “the whole apparatus of absolution and forgiveness” as “positively immoral”, and the concept of revealed truth as degrading the concept of free intelligence by “purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out ethical principles for ourselves.”
He offers Christianity’s few of punishment as an example of this immorality – he believes the Old Testament’s edict of an eye for an supplies the moral basis for capital punishment, and frames the Gospels’ saying that only those without sin should cast the first stone as “so relativist and “non judgmental” that it would not allow the prosecution of Charles Manson.” Not content at stopping there, he accuses Islam, Judaism and Christianity of insisting that “some turgid and contradictory and sometimes evil and mad texts, obviously written by some fairly unexceptional humans, are in fact the word of god.” And to him, recognizing that there is precisely no such thing is “an indispensible condition of intellectual liberation.”
How then is history so replete with individuals who have been strongly grounded in their respective religions? Never evasive, Hitchens reminds us that he has indeed “read, and read of, Dr. Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer…”, and responds with a question of his own – was religious belief a necessary or sufficient condition for their moral actions? Would they have not have opposed Nazism or racism if without their religious convictions? Hitchens believes it isn’t so, although he is quick to assert it may have helped them to employ religious rhetoric, and that it (religion) and helped them in amassing a following. Still, and as if to prove that this is only an exceptional case, he declares that those “courageous and selfless rebels who are unreflecting devotees of Islam, or unquestioning believers in Communism…do not really deserve the name of dissident or oppositionist” because, as he so marvelously puts it, “one can see future oppressions already inscribed in their thought patterns.”
And regardless of whether you agree with him or not, his erudition is undeniable. For me, what makes him so appealing is his uncanny ability to make the unlikeliest of arguments seem plausible through a combination of sedulous research, a most felicitous use of the English language, and a devastating argumentative ability.
One thing that always strikes me, and will strike any reader, when reading Hitchens is how well read he himself is. When answering the question of what one should read and study, he cautions at the outset that this is no easy query, most importantly because one mustn’t seek out arguments from authority. For himself, Hitchens says rather modestly that he makes liberal use of extracts and quotations “not just to show off my reading, but also to lighten the text and make use of those experts who can express my thoughts better than I am able to.” Mood is an important consideration when talking about reading, for the oppositional and critical mind is not always apt to be principled and engaging. Indeed, it is often faced with a considerable amount of discouragement, and “there are days, even years, when Diogenes has much more appeal than Wilde.” Nonetheless, he offers two great authors who have made great use of cultivating pessimism in their works – Milan Kundera in his seminal novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (describing the Russification of Czechoslovakia), and Czeslaw Milosz in his work, The Captive Mind (talking of the Baltic States being erased by Stalinism). And while conceding that he himself has never had to face circumstances as despairing or hopeless as Kundera or Milosz, he does conclude that the it is this moment of near despair that precedes courage rather than resignation, that when one’s back is against the wall, there is only one option left, a realization that he describes as being liberating.
And just as one might begin to think that Hitchens is all work and no play, he takes a charming detour away from all the shop-talk and holds forth on humour. “An individual deficient in the sense of humor represents more of a challenge to our idea of the human than a person of subnormal intelligence.” He supplies us with some wonderful examples from history of humour being used in a political context, against “the stony, unsmiling face of repressive authority, to say nothing of implacable fate.” The most amusing of these stories is that of P.G. Wodehouse, who was captured by accident by the Germans when they invaded France in 1940 – his villa just happened to be located within the portion of France that was taken under German control – and who made rather hilarious, if controversial broadcast, at the behest of the German propaganda bureaucrats. Yet, he rightly acknowledges that it may not fit well in certain scenarios, “when one want to hold society’s feet to the fire, and to force a confrontation, and to avoid the blandishments of those who always call upon everyone to lighten up” and notes that it is not the case that radicals lack a sense of humour so much as they sometimes feel obliged to be serious. Of humour, he believes the mordant kind is most likely to be revolutionary, and that it “ought to be pointed– ought to preserve its relationship to wit– and it ought to be fearless.” He even offers a rule of thumb regarding its use –“if you worry that you might be going too far, then you have already not gone far enough. If everybody laughs, you have failed.”
Notwithstanding these quick witted quips, he is careful not to overstate the value of humour and over generalize its use, once again reminding us that humour is not one size fits all, opining that “if you really care about a serious cause or a deep subject, you may have to be prepared to be boring about it.” And about being boring, Hitchens believes it has its own virtues, and indeed, entreats one not to fear being called a bore, or a “monomaniac”, for “it is one of those indicative insults that betrays the prickings of a poor conscience on the other side, or among those who have been easy on themselves.” He notes, rather sagely, that the life of the radical is itself a tedious one, that “barricades and Bastilles are not everyday occurrences” where “quotidian tasks and routines” are wont to absorb much of one’s time. And lest one be deterred by this, he adds encouragingly, and movingly, that “the great reward, if that’s the right word, lies in the people you will meet when engaged in the same work, the lessons you will learn, and the confidence you will acquire from having some experiences and convictions of your own – to set against the received or thirdhand opinions of so many others.” And to achieve what he calls the “high ambition”, he advises that one “strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality, with the maximum of ironic self criticism.”
He concludes this fine set of essays with a wonderful little envoi which resonate with the convictions he’s expressed so emphatically throughout. And although he professes to “have no peroration or clarion note on which to close”, his parting words bear quoting in full:
“Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the transcendent and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant and selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”