Letters To A Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens and Heroism
A series of letters responding to Christopher Hitchens' advice on the philosophy of the dissident.
As you well know, we are each assured of having only one life to live. There is no dress rehearsal and there are no do-overs. Books, by contrast, have many lives. You once described your children as your “only chance at even a glimpse of a second life, let alone an immortal one”, but I think your writings offer this same opportunity. Each time any book is opened, it is “born again” and lives once more. Anyone wishing to live a life of literature bears a responsibility to bring books back to life. This duty is also a great joy – as it was in re-reading one of your books from the eternity ago that was 2001, a short collection called Letters to a Young Contrarian.
You modelled your correspondence on Rilke’s infamous letters to a young protégé, which distilled and delivered to the developing talent what wisdom the poet had accrued in his career. I don’t know whether that young man’s instigating letter or subsequent replies were ever published, so I have no model to borrow from in my own project of responding to your letters, which expound on the topic of what it is to be a contrarian in this world. I hesitate to write to you at all in the face of how bold, arrogant even, and unsolicited this task is, but then what kind of contrarian would I be if I let those considerations stop me?
With that throat-clearing out of the way, I can turn to the questions that pester me as I begin writing: Why would I write to a person whom I’ve never met and who will never read a word of mine? I have several good reasons for certainty that no arrangement of words by me, strung together with a specific syntax and coloured by my chosen context, will pass before your eyes, but the strongest of these can also be posed as its own opening question: Why would I write to a man who is no longer alive?
(My pen, incidentally, hesitated over that last line; it wavered between considerations of delicacy and stylistic flair. “A man who is deceased” has the insincere ring of the obituary, hiding behind medical language, while “passed away” is just too flaccid. One of the most edifying lessons on writing I have absorbed through reading your work is that language should always reveal and never conceal truth. An apt analogy is useful; euphemism is a literary sin.)
So, dead you are and dead you have been for almost a full decade now, and I am very nearly two decades away from when you sent your book of letters into the world. In that book, you pull from your full quiver of epistolary arrows a letter that begins your volley with a brief account of what has changed in your life over recent months. These changes indicate a positive direction in the cultural winds, though you are rightly cautious enough to note that “the celebrity culture and the spin-scum and the crooked lawyers and pseudo-statesmen and clerics ... will be back, of course. They are always ‘back’. They never leave.”
I am not the first to wish we could have read your responses to “fake news” and “alternative facts”; pandemic lockdowns; the heresy hunts of the reactionary Left*; the socio-political shit-show of populism and cynical pragmatism infecting our politics; and the twin spectres of Brexit and Trump. Some believe that although you despised the Clintons, you could never have forgiven Hillary’s opponent in 2016 for being so historically, politically, and culturally illiterate. I flatter myself in suspecting that I gave voice to an observation you might have made, had you lived to suffer through the hysteria of 2016 – that against the many people citing Hitler as a clear precursor to Trump, Reagan is in fact the correct historical dot to connect to the orange-faced dot of the present. [My reasons for making this claim can be found here.]
And yet... I have been reading your friend Martin Amis, whose new autobiographical-novel, Inside Story, reveals how he squared the circle of your support for Bush-Cheney in 2004: “[Hitch] wants regime change [in Iraq], but from the left. An anti-fascist crusade. He thinks Republicans are better at it. War.” In the current battle between the “anti-fascist” fascists and the anti-antifa demagogues, in which the Left doesn’t look up to the fight against the extremists who have stepped in for the religious zealots you stood against, would you have been prepared to hold your nose and sign up to the Republicans again because they might be better at this war?
In wondering what the inimitable Hitch might have made of all of this, I am really wondering: What do I make of all of this? What should my response be to the latest precipice our culture has walked toe-to-edge up to? So I am going to wonder out loud, and just as you addressed “X” in your letters, a figure who may well have been modelled on an individual you knew and who is universalised through the anonymising “X”, I will think specifically of the person I know through your books and speeches, while allowing that figure to stand as an everyman. And I will confine myself to wrestling specifically with your conception of contrarianism, setting it against my own ideas for an alternative concept I will spend my next letter attempting to name.
* You frequently remonstrated in your journalism against the lazy adoption of inexact terms, so I feel compelled to point out the way my contemporaries label the disproportionately loud fringe of the Left as “radical”. I am inclined to think of them instead as reactionary, as any social progress made over the last fifty years away from seeing race as an important determiner of worth is anathema to them. In the name of revolution, they insist we discard such progress and revert to routine race-baiting.
Well then, let’s begin with terms and work from there. One of your letters details synonyms for “contrarian” and discusses the aptitude or failure of each in capturing the essence of your own position, so allow me to do the same. I want to discuss heroism. I almost instinctively capitalised the word, until I recalled your disdain for Rilke’s “strenuous Capitalisation of the Abstract”. Still, there is a desire in me to indicate that what I am thinking of is some kind of supercategory, that I am not referring to specific acts of bravery but a grand principle. How then do we speak (and therefore think) of heroism?
In the same way that, as you point out, our culture saddles contrarianism with diminutives such as “maverick”, “gadfly”, and “angry young man”, so too the notion of heroism has its related though perverted form in “white knight”. At least those casual epithets for the contrarian are affectionate and therefore merely condescending; those who use the “white knight” insult intend to scorn their targets. It also says much about today’s relationship to heroism that the noble figure of chivalry is now a parody in which the hero is a mere “goody two-shoes” (another diminutive for the hero) who sticks his nose where it is unwanted, to garner plaudits publicly for his pretence to valour.
“White knight” tends to apply only to those on the Left, for espousing so-called “woke” values or taking up “leftie” causes. The ridiculed white knight is most commonly a man acting in defence of a woman, usually online, with a feminist credo on his coat of arms. Just as the woke white knight is ridiculed for his posturing as a concerned do-gooder, the conservative individualist is mocked for quaint, outdated views and demonised for a supposed “indifference” to the oft-capitalised Other. When he claims to act in defence of a set of values, or his country, or the foundations of western culture, progressives accuse him of acting only to preserve a prejudicial system that benefits him. Both Left and Right sniggeringly accuse the other of “virtue signalling” when they are seen as too sincere in the way they express their values.
As you see, dismissive ridicule is the most frequently prescribed remedy to an abundance of sincerity. You write in your first letter of irony’s descent in the public discourse from “a precious and irreplaceable word” (and, by extension, a precious and irreplaceable concept) to “a lazy synonym for ‘anomie’”. It is with deep regret that I write from 2020, a future year you never knew, to tell you that irony in popular usage has been finally supplanted with this imposter to the throne, this cynical, witless satire of everything that might matter.
I am not immune to its sting. I have taken up positions against the common so-called wisdom, have frequently turned against the tide of my culture and have swum upstream, against the scorn, derision, and moral opprobrium of even my closest peers. I do not tremble readily, which makes it all the more unusual that I do recoil from having my sense of irony impugned. I don’t mind being seen as incorrect or morally wrong when I know I am neither, but accusations of naivety make me itch. I resent the dismissive snort and the condescending snigger at my sincerity. This is, perhaps, what comes of being raised in an age where anything true or transcendent is left to the zealots and reactionaries to discuss, while the mainstream insulates itself from candour within cheap cynicism dressed up as irony.
I find some solace in reading about your own embarrassment at many of the terms proposed to express your contrary nature. You write that you feel “something of the same embarrassment in claiming to be an ‘intellectual’ as one does in purporting to be a dissident”. Words like “intellectual” and “dissident” (and I’d add “hero”) must be “earned rather than claimed”. These are terms that may be bestowed on a person, and the recipient will often conceal pride with a modest shake of the head or mumbling about having not done much really; it feels decidedly pretentious to adopt those labels voluntarily.
Heroism, however, differs here in an important respect. It carries with it in our present age a weight of ridiculousness, a whiff of the quaint and vaguely absurd, so that we don’t tend to christen others with the label. It is seen as too sincere, too well-meaning, too hopeful (so goes the unspoken reasoning of the postmodern era) for any switched-on grown-up to take seriously. But step up to this challenge, contrarians wherever you may still be: The common consensus has so drained irony of its power that the cultural dissident must turn to sincerity as a tool of rebellion. David Foster Wallace had ideas of this kind about how to save literature from the intellectual cul-de-sac it had stumbled into:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ ... might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions ... with reverence and conviction.”
Rest assured, dear Hitch, this is not to eschew true irony, which the good life cannot be without, but to refute the false kind of irony made of sarcasm and a fear of candour. Against the anxiety that espousing heroism looks silly, I take some solace from your conviction that being a dissident “connotes sacrifice and risk” and Foster Wallace’s belief that “real rebels ... risk disapproval”.
So this is what today’s cultural rebels must resist in order to get on with the important work of a generation, but what is it they stand for? In my next letter, I’ll explore what heroism means.
With terms on the table, it seems time now to address their substance, to take up the task of fleshing out the words heroism and heroic with meaning. If I may appropriate the structure of an elegantly composed observation in one of your letters, where you write that “the essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks”, I’ll construct my own maxim: The essence of the heroic life lies not in who you are, but in what you do. This is not a life lived nominally, nor is it a birth right; it is a struggle one voluntarily takes up each day, rising to the challenge to be more than one is by default.
That’s a workable definition of the heroic life, but what of heroism itself? I’d like to suggest that heroism is the independent struggle for the betterment of a community. Acting as my own cross-examiner in stress-testing this definition, the internal contrarian leans on its adjective: “independent”. It might seem that this requirement for individualism rules out group projects, from humanitarian organisations to nations, as being heroic. And yet there seems to be an innate heroism to one country sending aid to another in crisis (less altruistic considerations of a realpolitik nature aside). It is no great feat of cognition to understand that in this magnified context, one nation among many becomes an individual actor that can improve or impair the situation of the global community.
I notice a lack of robust defence in your letters against the objection that being contrarian carries no inherent moral value. What could be more contrary to our most widespread and well-established social norms than living as Fred West or Jeffrey Dahmer? No refutation of this is required to know that you would perhaps concede that the serial killer lifestyle is contrarian (adjectival) and yet insist that this does not make an individual a contrarian (as a noun) in the sense that vibrates to your dissident tune. Still, anticipation of a stupid objection is a prophylactic against a pointless debate, so I built one into my understanding of heroism – it definitionally requires an ethically positive output.
Where your position and mine create real friction is in the direction of the individual’s efforts. Whereas I aim the hero’s work towards the good of the community, you describe the battle of the contrarian as the individual pitted against the group. The radical in your estimation “struggles against the collective instinct for a quiet life”. You highlight the truth that there have always been those who “argue that ‘greater’ goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over the demands of justice”. Where those making such claims go wrong, and you do not go far enough to point it out, is in imagining that there is any actual divide between justice for the individual and the wellbeing of the community.
Clerics have played on this false dichotomy in claiming that the marriage rights of gay individuals are a threat to their religious community; it is left to secularists to point out that the defence of the right to marry is a defence of the right to be religious. The state may interfere with neither. Equally, justice for the individual always benefits the society that, seeing the singular person dealt with fairly, can be confident of the same treatment for all of its members. The individual instance becomes a widespread principle. In fact, my example with the clerics against gay marriage demonstrates the true battlefield and its opposing sides, which are not the individual against the group, but democratic power versus power in the grip of a narrow but dominant force.
In your defence of the equitable distribution of rights against the tyranny of ruling powers, in your advocacy of the republic against autocracy, in your championing of the Kurdish people, the principles of free expression and thought, and the dignity of the downtrodden – in these causes and many more, you (though you would no doubt raise your hand in modest protest and make a wry comment to deflect the praise) lived a life of heroism.
And I will finish this letter here, before the lure of bathos can lead me to undercut this sincerity with a joke.
You lived at the end of a once-enduring assumption that there was something like a collective humanity, even if subdivided into smaller collections of nations, religions, and political affiliations. Indeed, the needless divisiveness of these subdivisions seems to have been a motivating force behind much of your life’s work: to scuff the marking line dividing here from there, to point and laugh at the nothingness that sectarians take to be so concrete, in order to remind us that there is only one category to which any person belongs – humanity. You saw clearly that to reach this ultimate state of interconnectedness, we must reject arbitrary groupings that set up irrelevant distinctions.
Your burden is also mine, as it is and has been the responsibility of all humanists. And yet my road to that ever-distant goal is markedly different to yours. You fought against the oldest of human follies, tribalism, (a postscript to one of your letters advises suspicion of “all those who employ the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ without your permission ... [because] as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs”) but we in the second and now third decades of this young century are faced with a new challenge: resisting the suicidal drift of our culture into an amorphous nowhere with no connections between its isolated denizens. A wide and distant-reaching view of history makes me cautious about presuming that anything in any age, especially one’s own, is truly unique, and yet I cannot shake this conviction that the atomisation of western culture is a new kind of threat in its scope, if not its character.
It will please you to know that the fight of your life has not been won. Asked by Richard Dawkins during a roundtable discussion if you wouldn’t prefer a world in which religion had vanished, you were characteristically honest enough to say you would lament the total absence of the faithful because you “would be left with no one to argue with”. Well, you would not suffer the boredom of peacetime today. The religious debate is still with us (of course) and so is the vacuous trend known as identity politics, your first encounter with which you write of as hearing the slogan “The Personal Is Political” and knowing that “a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse”.
This movement to associate oneself – and everyone else – with identity groups based on race, sexuality, and other accidents of birth might seem to refute the idea that our society is overly individualistic. However, the identitarian move to wipe out the individual and turn him or her into an avatar of group representation is little more than another method of deifying difference, of running the felt tip a few more times over the line drawn between “me” and “you” to make it thicker, bolder, to make the border less permeable. Identitarians embrace group identity to authenticate their demand that others stay out of the group’s territory – hence the facile doctrine of “cultural appropriation”. (Your friend Amis again, also from his new book: “In literature there is no room for territoriality. So politely ignore all warnings about ‘cultural appropriation’ and the like. Go where your pen takes you. Fiction is freedom and freedom is indivisible.”) Identity politics is a rehash of the sectarian religious squabbles you eviscerated in print and in speech throughout your career.
Your fight goes on, but in addition to it is this new challenge of resisting the social fragmentation that leads to cultural decay. It also means it is not sufficient and probably isn’t even tenable now for radicals to seek the cracks and to pry them open in hope of finding something greater within. What seems most urgently needed is a rediscovery of where the divisions make contact, however remotely or tenuously. The explorer now is the person who discovers the bridges between what we took to be lonesome, drifting ice floes, to show us that each is in fact part of an intact landmass. The radical is now the person resisting the only thing left that unites us, which is our disunity.
This so often feels like a losing battle, but it is one we cannot afford to give up on. I am reminded of the closing words of Ulysses in Tennyson’s famous poem. The heroic adventurer has spent his life fighting and travelling across the map, but this is not the source of his weariness in old age; his boredom is brought on by a lack of the energising elixir that is life itself.
“Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Perhaps this, in the end, is the final feature we ought to attribute to the heroic: not that heroism always wins, but that it never yields when it loses. The heroism of not giving in, of continuing against the strength of the opposition to do something worthwhile. As the comic George Carlin put it: “I like it when a flower or a little tuft of grass grows through a crack in the concrete. It’s so fuckin’ heroic.”
Here is where I leave you, Christopher, though only for now; I will remember you again, bring your books to life again. In the meantime, there is work to do. There is always work to do.
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• Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens (2001)
• Inside Story, Martin Amis (2020)
• E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, David Foster Wallace (1993)
• The Four Horseman - Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris , CaNANDian [YouTube] (2012)
• Ulysses, in “Poems”, Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1842)
• Brain Droppings, George Carlin (1997)