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On the Contrary

Christopher Hitchens' philosophy a tonic for difficult times



Modeling itself after Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, an Art Nouveau--era perennial that has kept its currency as a ubiquitous graduation gift for sensitive English majors, Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian hopes to do for the radical life what Rilke did for the life of the poet. Advice, encouragement, a few war stories, an attitude in place of a political philosophy -- Hitchens has a good idea of what appeals to a young mind.

How does he arrive at the slightly arch self-definition "contrarian"? By a process of elimination: "dissident" is conferred by authority rather than self-appropriated; "rebel" implies a symbiotic relationship with power rather than a truly adversarial one; "maverick," "gadfly" and "iconoclast" are affectionate and a little condescending; "freethinker " and "dissenter" have specific religious and historical connotations. "Contrarian" is appropriate because it suggests a temperament as well as a political stance:

In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. ... There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks may be kindled.

Peace, unity, harmony and deference to a higher authority, Hitchens asserts, are hallmarks of a particular kind of hell -- a religious one:

Imagine a state of endless praise and gratitude and adoration, as the Testaments ceaselessly enjoin us to do, and you have conjured a world of hellish nullity and conformism.

As he mentions in the preface, Hitchens is best known as the author of a pair of broadsides that attack the almost universal adoration of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. (He notes with considerable pride that the notoriety of his book on Mother Teresa led the Vatican to invite him to "play Devil's Advocate in the literal sense." He was recently impelled to give arguments against Mother Teresa's canonization.)

But side by side with this compulsion to question authority and received opinion is a genuine admiration for those radical figures whose clear-sightedness, independence and wiliness are combined with courage, in men and women such as Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Alexander Solzhenitzyn and Vaclav Havel. Contrary as always, Hitchens ventures the opinion that what sustains many of these heroic figures is not their religious faith but their pessimism:

For those facing a long haul and a series of defeats, pessimism can be an ally. (Apart from anything else, as some American Indians have also discovered, the presentation of the bleakest and starkest possible figure can have the paradoxical effect of mobilizing the emotions and the intellect.) ... the moment of near despair is quite often the moment that precedes courage rather than resignation. In a sense, with the back to the wall and no exit but death or acceptance, the options narrow to one.

Hitchens is a self-proclaimed "grizzled soixante-huitard" -- a '60s veteran -- but he is no friend of what he calls the " identity politics" that arose from that era:

I remember very well the first time I heard the saying "The Personal is Political." I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse ... People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and about who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in less interesting form of the narcissism of small difference, because each identity group begat its subgroups and "specificities."

Relentlessly skeptical, rational and internationalist in outlook (there's a facetious account of a wrangle with a government official who objects to Hitchens listing his race as "human" on a government form), Hitchens is heir to a tradition that starts with Voltaire and extends through such figures as Marx, Zola, Eugene Debs and Chomsky. The paradox that keeps their antinomian stance and their irony from becoming mere contrariness is this.

... of those who are drawn into oppositional activity of mentality it can often be observed that they are rebellious or independent types. Yet the best of them are actuated by concern for others, and for causes and movements larger than themselves.

Completed shortly before Sept. 11, Letters to a Young Contrarian has a real relevance to our current predicament. In a prescient passage, Hitchens writes:

The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism.

As probably the most visible public intellectual on the Left -- certainly the only one currently writing for Vanity Fair, the talking head that Nightline picks when they want a dissenting opinion on Bosnia, Nixon, or Kissinger and next to Gore Vidal, the only leftie who has anything approaching Gap ad recognition -- Hitchens no doubt feels an obligation to inspire the young. Rambling, digressive, engaged rather than detached in its persistent irony, and probably more coherent as the expression of a personality than of a political philosophy, Letters to a Young Contrarian recommends itself to the young for those very reasons.

Quoting the dissident writer George Konrad, Hitchens concludes:

Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses ... . If you don't like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.

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