Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

In Letters to a Young Contrarian (MJF Books, 2001) Christopher Hitches explains his position as one of the great skeptics of our generation. By this point in his career he was retreating from some of the leftist positions of the first half of his career. Although he has often been described as having become a conservative, especially after the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2001, what is more accurate is that he backed off from the absolutism of Old New Left and Marxist thinking. He remained committed to human rights, to most of the positions he had previously held, but no longer saw himself as a leftist—rather, as a skeptic, a naysayer, a contrarian. Of course, with the events of 2001 (which had not occurred when he wrote this book), he found himself in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, though he disagreed with the administration conducting them.

In these letters to a fictional “young contrarian,” Hitchens defines a position of intellectual, philosophical, and political independence from any absolutist position, any position that does not stand up to logical thinking. This includes, of course, religion, whose rejection Hitchens explains in several of the letters. Along the way, he takes shots at the Dalai Lama, Princess Diana, Bill Clinton, and others for whom he did not care. At the same time, he expresses admiration for Eugene Debs, Emile Zola, and others.

Hitchens sometimes g"ets caught up in the rhetorical glibness of being Hitchens. But for most of the pages in this book he exemplifies, and insists on, a position of intellectual rigor and moral courage. This paragraph in the last of the letters sets down his basic advice to his correspondent:

“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 for 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.’

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