Letters to a Young Contrarian

A few weeks ago I read Letters to a Young Contrarian (ISBN 0-465-03033-5) by Christopher Hitchens. The book is part of a series published by Basic Books called “The Art of Mentoring”. Hitchens has made his career as a journalist, literary critic, political commentator and public intellectual. The pieces in Letters to a Young Contrarian are gems – finely crafted essays on living the examined life in public.


Contrarian is a fair description of his place in life, although generally the word contrarian refers to a stock-market investment strategy. He is also described as a gadfly, a maverick, a radical and a provocateur. I suspect that he takes a forceful stand on issues as part of his public persona, but he brings genuine passion to his writing.
He is basically a liberal and socialist commentator, but has been called right-wing after he made a few moves that surprized his original peers and readers. He attacked Bill Clinton as a serial rapist and liar, and supported the American-led invasion of Iraq. These moves were seen by some of his old peers as a betrayal of their principles. I see them as proof of his independence and the power of his principles. He became alienated from the left’s sordid affair with Islamism (radical or fundamentalist Islam), whether in terms of supporting it as a form of Third World liberation, or as multiculturalism and identity politics a long time ago. The Wikipedia entry on Hitchens mentions his friendship with Salman Rushdie as an early factor in his hostility to Islamist principles, and he has continued to support liberal critics of Islamic fundamentalism like the Dutch liberal politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali in his article “Jihad in the Netherlands”. His support for the invasion of Iraq is also tied to his horror that the rich and powerful states of American and Europe have tolerated ethnic cleansing, genocide, and state terrorism in Bosnia, Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan, North Korea and Iraq, under the rubric of respect for the autonomy of foreign governments or respect for international law.
There is a site called the Christopher Hitchens Web with links to many of his articles published online, and a few articles about him or debating with him. Another article of interest – Peter Wilby reviews Hitchen’s latest book Love, Poverty and War: journeys and essays in the New Statesman.
In Chapter 10 of Letters to a Young Contrarian, he says that people who persecute religion are to be avoided at all costs, but he is himself critical of superstitious beliefs and tends to criticize the political views of religious groups and leaders. He antagonizes Islamists, and bashes conservative Catholics with abandon. His farewell to the late Polish Pope was savage, and he has attacked Mother Theresa as a Fascist when she supported the Duvallier regime in Haiti. His criticisms are not confined to the views and practices of the more socially conservative religious groups. In Chapter 3, he makes some hard points about some of the prevalent beliefs of modern Western culture – the striving for a nice blissful state where there is no confrontation or strife, the reverence for assorted Eastern gurus, including the Dalai Lama. He dismisses a passage from one of the Dalai Lama’s books as a string of fatuous non sequiturs with “not even a string of chewing gum to connect the premise to the conclusion”.
He used to have a column in The Nation called Minority Report which should delight the fans of Philip K. Dick (a great writer, somewhat bizarre in his personal life, devoted to altered consciousness, drugs, countercultural ideas, conspiracy theories, esoteric ideas and crackpot theories) and SF generally.
I like a passage near the end of Letters to a Young Contrarian:

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.

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