On Letters to A Young Contrarian

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. 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 or 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. -Christopher Hitchens


Last December, when I read in the news that Christopher Hitchens had died, I just sat in front of my computer and cried. I dug out my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian, the first of Hitchens’ books that I had ever read, devoured it in one sitting and carried it around with me everywhere I went for the next two weeks. I was touched with a deep and immediate sense of loss that might seem excessive given that I had never even met the man. But I felt I knew Christopher Hitchens—his voice and very unique, poignant and authentic way of seeing the world—made me feel he had always been a part of my life. Not only did I know him but I have engaged with his ideas deeply and often in the six years since I have ‘discovered’ him.

I don’t know how much I actually understood the first time I read it, at eighteen years old, but something about Hitchens’ voice compelled me to go back and revisit Letters To A Young Contrarian periodically throughout the years. Each time I discovered new layers of meaning and complex creative connections of ideas. I remember this one passage in which he speaks of transcendence, and urges his readers to be wary of it and of the people that exalt it. At eighteen, I believed transcendence a worthy pursuit and could not understand Hitchens’ warning. It is around that time that my obsession with reality, perception and meaning began. I was just then becoming aware of the limits of my own perspective, truly realizing, for the first time, the full scope of what it means to experience reality as a human being, trapped and embedded in our need for meaning; destined to live in structures that we forget we have built ourselves and which are founded upon limiting assumptions and, too often, imaginary binaries. I had revolutionary ideas about breaking free from the system back then, of shattering the boundaries of cognition and getting at, discovering, The Real—whatever that might be. It took me a long time to understand what Hitchens meant, and I think that the process of working through his ideas was, ultimately, equally as valuable as understanding them. In the case of transcendence, my own ideas became more aligned with Hitchens’  over time but there are other instances where, having worked through his logic, I maintained my own opinion and rejected his. In either case, engaging with his thinking process and ideas has always made me engage more deeply with my own.

The Letters had been a gift from my father, which he had given to me shortly before I left for Tanzania on a gap year between high school and college. I was going to Tanzania, for five months, to work in an orphanage, but to be honest, the motives of my trip were not “humanitarian” or altruistic. I had been to Dar es Salaam my senior year of high school and had fallen in love with the energy, light and pace of the city. I would be lying however, if I did not own up to some warm, glowy and completely foolish feelings of being a good person for taking care of other people’s babies. I think it’s fair to say that Christopher Hitchens’ well dispensed advice in Letters to A Young Contrarian, saved me from being the a**hole, or at least made me less so, that my age and situation predisposed me to be. This is not so say that there is something horrifyingly self-righteous and misguided about most people’s attempts to help others. Quite the contrary; but good intentions, left unattended and unexamined, can turn lethal. And that, in my opinion, is one of the most salient aspects of Hitchens’ work: his unfailing commitment to show how solutions can turn into problems when not designed and implemented with the well-being of the end users in mind and their direct collaboration along every step of the project.

Hitchens, in the short time I have ‘known’ him has been a mentor and has pushed me to think more deeply about the sort or life I want to lead and the impact and consequences of my choices and actions, whether moral, intellectual, emotional or physical. So naturally, as I embark on a yearlong project to lead a hyper-examined and carefully designed life based on living out abstract concepts from books, it is to Hitchens, in his Letters to a Young Contrarian, that I turn once again. It is a magical moment, the rereading of old books and the rediscovery of old marginalia, scribbled in handwritings that change over the years, next to passages of text highlighted in different colors. Following is a list of quotes from the Letters that I want to keep in mind as I carry out the rethinked*annex project.

Source: Hitchens, Christopher. Letters to a Young Contrarian. Cambridge: Basic Books, 2001. Print.


*…on design thinking…*

The essential element of historical materialism as applied to ethical and social matters was (and actually still is) this: it demonstrated how much unhappiness and injustice and irrationality was man-made. Once the fog of supposedly god-given conditions had been dispelled, the decision to tolerate such conditions was exactly that—a decision. “The West,” at least, has happily never recovered from this discovery; you would be astounded if you looked up the books and commentaries of only a century ago and saw what was taken for granted before the Marxist irruption. Fatalism and piety were the least of it; this was cynicism allied to utilitarianism. 99

Anyway, what you swiftly realize if you peek over the wall of your own immediate neighborhood or environment, and travel beyond it, is, first that we have a huge surplus of people who wouldn’t change anything about the way they were born, or the group they were born into, but second that “humanity” (and the idea of change) is best represented by those who have the wit not to think, or should I say feel, in this way. 113


*…on integrative thinking…*

[…] don’t allow your thinking to be done for you by any party or faction, however high-minded. Distrust any speaker who talks confidently about “we,” or speaks in the name of “us.” Distrust yourself if you hear these tones creeping into your own style. The search for security and majority is not always the same as solidarity; it can be another name for consensus and tyranny and tribalism. Never forget that, even if there are “’masses to be invoked, or “the people” to be praised, they and it must by definition be composed of individuals. 99

Thus in order to be a “radical” one must be open to the possibility that one’s own core assumptions are misconceived. 102

P.S. A note on language. Be even more suspicious than I was just telling you to be, of all those who employ the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription, designed to suggest that “we” are all agreed on “our” interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged…”) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs. 103

There’s a small paradox here; the job of supposed intellectuals is to combat oversimplification or reductionism and to say, well, actually, it’s more complicated than that. At least, that’s part of the job. However, you must have noticed how often certain “complexities” are introduced as a means of obfuscation. Here it becomes necessary to ply with glee the celebrated razor of old Occam, dispose of unnecessary assumptions, and proclaim that, actually, things are less complicated than they appear. Very often in my experience, the extraneous or irrelevant complexities are inserted when a matter of elementary justice of principle is at issue. 47


 *…on living an examined life…*

[…] everybody can do something, and that the role of dissident is not, and should not be, a claim of membership in a communion of saints. In other words, the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example. 94

Try your hardest to combat atrophy and routine. To question The Obvious and the given is an essential element of the maxim de omnius dubitandum. 52

How to ward off atrophy and routine, you ask? Well, I can give you a small and perhaps ridiculous example. Every day, the New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” it says. It’s been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine that most readers have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check it every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know that I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my life span. 53

[…] very often the hardest thing to see is what is right in front of your nose. And there is, not infrequently, a considerable social pressure not to take note of the obvious. 50

One is sometimes asked “by what right?” one presumes to offer judgment. Quo warranto? is a very old and very justified question. But the right and warrant of an individual critic does not need to be demonstrated in the same was as that of a holder of power. It is in most ways its own justification. That is why so many irritating dissidents have been described by their enemies as “self-appointed.” (Once again, you see, the surreptitious suggestion of elitism and arrogance.) “Self-appointed” suits me fine. Nobody asked me to do this and it would not be the same thing I do if they had asked me. I can’t be fired any more than I can be promoted. I am happy in the ranks of the self-employed. If I am stupid or on poor form, nobody suffers but me. To the question, Who do you think you are? I can return the calm response: Who wants to know? 81

I want to urge you very strongly to travel as much as you can, and to evolve yourself as an internationalist. It’s as important a part of your education as a radical as the reading of any book. 105

The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should 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. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganising it. 138

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. 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 or 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. 140

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.” [George Konrad] May it be so with you, and may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognize them. 141

Remember that saying nothing is also a decision, and that the relativists and the “nonjudgmental” have made up their minds just as much, if not as firmly. This is simply another way of reminding you that, if you decide to pass judgments and make criticisms and take forward positions, you both can and should expect a few hearings to convene on yourself. A welcome prospect, I trust. It certainly helps prevent the art and science of disputation from dying out amongst us. 83

[…] the figure of Emile Zola offers encouragement, and his singular campaign for justice is one of the imperishable examples of what may be accomplished by an individual. 4

There’s an old argument about whether full bellies or empty bellies lead to contentment or revolt: it’s an argument not worth having. The crucial organ is the mind, not the gut. People assert themselves out of an unquenchable sense of dignity. 112

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 third hand opinions of so many others. 126


*…on empathy…*

Ruthless and arrogant though power can appear, it is only ever held by mere mammals who excrete and yearn, and who suffer from insomnia and insecurity. These mammals are also necessarily vain in the extreme, and often wish to be liked almost as much as they desire to be feared. 87

I like the fact that he had feet of clay and a digestive tract and reproductive organs: all human achievement must also be accomplished by mammals and this realization (interestingly negated by sexless plaster saints and representations of angels) puts us on a useful spot. It strongly suggests that anyone could do what the heroes have done. Our current culture, with its stupid emphasis on the “role model,” offers as examples the lives of superstars and princesses and other pseudo-ethereal beings whose lives—fortunate, I think—cannot by definition be emulated. 92

In one way, travelling has narrowed my mind. What I have discovered is something very ordinary and unexciting, which is that humans are the same everywhere and that the degree of variation between members of our species is very slight. This is of course an encouraging finding; it helps arm you against news programs back home that show seething or abject masses of either fanatical or torpid people. In another way it is a depressing finding; the sort of things that make people quarrel and make them stupid are the same everywhere. The two worst things, as one can work out without leaving home, are racism and religion. 107

We still inhabit the prehistory of our race, and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawking have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos. But how much more addictive is the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith. 108

In some ways I feel sorry for racists and religious fanatics, because they so much miss the point of being human, and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart, and decide to hate them all the more, because of the misery they inflict and because of the contemptible excuses they advance for doing so. It especially annoys me when racists are accused of “discrimination.” The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one “race” to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination. 109

I don’t seem to have said enough about the compensating or positive element of exposure to travel. Just as you discover that stupidity and cruelty are the same everywhere, you find that the essential elements of humanism are the same everywhere, too. 111

The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the “globalization” of production by the globalization of a common standard for justice and ethics. That may sound mild to the point of the herbivorous: I can assure you it will not be in the least a moderate undertaking. It will provide more than enough scope for the most ambitious radical. 136

Radicalism is humanism or it is nothing; the proper study of mankind is man and the ability to laugh is the one of the faculties that defines the human and distinguishes the species from other animals. (With the other higher mammals, which I do not in the least wish to insult, there may be high levels of playfulness and even some practical jokes, but no irony.) 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; we fear the psychopathic and the reptilian when we meet characters like Anthony Powell’s Widmerpool. 115

One way of phrasing it might be to say that injustice and irrationality are inevitable parts of the human condition, but that challenges to them are inevitable also. 27


*…on being a free thinker…*

Always look to the language. 25

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but how it thinks. 3

To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do. 12

We know as a law of physics that heat is the chief, if not the only, source of light. Reducing the sun to room temperature would decrease light to nothing at all, as well as generating a definite chill. The truth cannot lie, but if it could, it would lie somewhere in between. On some grave questions, there is no difference to be split; one does not look for synthesis between verity and falsehood: the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next. As for the chiaroscuro, or the light and shade, the platitude is at least a little more artistic. (Watching a Civil War reenactment at Gettysburg a few years ago, I wrote in my notebook that those who wore the Gray had been conditioned to think in terms of black and white.) Neither black nor white are true colors, but then neither is grey. 20-21

[…] our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved. 56

One must have the nerve to assert that, while people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others. 82

The question you ask—what to read and whom to study—is one that I receive quite often. It ought to be an easy inquiry to answer. But it isn’t, and this is for a series of reasons. The first and most obvious is that you should not look for arguments from authority. You must have noticed that I make liberal use of extracts and quotations, not just to show off my reading but also to lighten my text and make use of those who can express my thoughts better than I am able to. So I am not immune from the weakness against which I am counseling you. I do have some sources of inspiration to which I recur, but it would not always be clear why they have come to mean what they do to me. 85

If you care about the points of agreement and civility, then, you had better be well-equipped with points of argument and combativity, because if you are not then the “center” will be occupied and defined without your having helped to decide it, or determine what and were it is. 21

Alain, in Martin du Gard’s Lieutenant Colonel Maumort says the first rule—he calls it the rule of rules—is the art of challenging what is appealing. You will notice that he describes this as an “art”: it is not enough simply to set oneself up as a person who distrusts majority taste as a matter or principle or perhaps conceit; that way lies snobbery and frigidity. However, it will very often be found that people are highly attached to illusions or prejudices, and are not just the sullen victims of dogma or orthodoxy. If you have ever argued with a religious devotee, for example, you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute, and that you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument. The same is true of visceral patriots, and admirers of monarchy and aristocracy. Allegiance is a powerful force in human affairs; it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary. 28

It is very seldom, as he noticed, that in debate any one of two evenly matched antagonists will succeed in actually convincing or “converting” the other. But it is equally seldom that in a properly conducted argument either antagonist will end up holding exactly the same position as that with which he began. Concessions, refinements and adjustments will occur, and each initial position will have undergone modification even if it remains ostensibly the “same.” Not even the most apparently glacial “system” is immune to this rule. 29

Beware of identity politics. I’ll rephrase that: have nothing to do with identity politics. I remember very well the first time I heard the saying “The Personal Is Political.” It began as a sort of reaction to the defeats and downturns that followed 1968: a consolation prize, as you might say, for people who had missed that year. I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse. Nor was I wrong. People began to stand up at meetings and orate about how they felt, not about what or how they thought, and how who they were rather than what (if anything) they had done or stood for. It became the replication in even less interesting form of the narcissism of small difference, because each identity group begat its subgroups and “specificities.” 112


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