Ghost of a Contrarian: Christopher Hitchens’s ‘Letters’ Revisited
Letters to a Young Contrarian: a twentieth century retrospective by a man who saw himself as a sixties radical
In late September, the spectre of a cigarette-smoking man appeared on a poster on the door of the Teahouse Theatre in Vauxhall; here was something uncannily antique—one of the last-ever examples of smoking in advertising, originating from a promotional portrait shoot for the cover of Christopher Hitchens’s 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian.
The Teahouse, known to some of its regulars as a debating venue, was to revive this early twenty-first-century figure as part of a fireside readings series that has showcased literary classics and explored influential twentieth-century political writings: Orwell’s Animal Farm, Mussolini’s The Doctrine of Fascism, and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, among others.
The book was largely a post-mortem on the intellectual battles of the twentieth century
The book is now nearly twenty years old. Hitchens wrote it in late 2000 and early 2001 for Perseus Books’ Rilke-inspired “Art of Mentoring” series, and it was published a month or so after 9/11. In view of this timeline, it occupies an eerily-placid DMZ between the “acceptable” 1990s Hitchens, whose only big sin against the political left had been to hound the centrist Bill Clinton, and the ostensibly-more isolated one post-2001, who took heart at the prospect of America using its military might against jihadis and Baathists. The book was largely a post-mortem on the intellectual battles of the twentieth century, and a lesson in writerly integrity. Today, it reads as a riposte to the new “populism” and the “awokening”.
Since Hitchens’s death from oesophageal cancer in 2011, his presence has been missed on major subjects. In a counterfactual world, it seems likely that Syria, ISIS, and the Iran nuclear negotiations (all entangled) would have occupied him in the first half of the 2010s, and that the potential unravelling of the American republic would have worried him in the second. Part of what his admirers miss, too (the Teahouse picked up on this), is his performative flair. Though new media weren’t his passion, he owes much of his legacy to his YouTube archive, wherein his long-form lectures, debates, and C-span interviews seem, in hindsight, to have provided a model for the popularity of long-form podcasts.
The Letters can be read as a guide to giving an authentic performance as a political actor. Hitchens begins by selling an imagined student his lifestyle; in one good month, he writes (with some perhaps-inauthentic modesty), he has given evidence against Mother Teresa at the Vatican, taken pride in his arguments over Bosnia as Slobodan Milosevic went to the Hague, and had the thrill of being sued by Henry Kissinger. What the world needs now, the book implies, is for the young to find their appetite for the takedown. (One wonders to what extent his search for successors may have emerged from early intimations of mortality: in one C-span interview about the book, he alsothe youth not to take up smoking.)
So here, if you were one of his young readers, was a boomer who had seen some things, been some places, and met some people, and was passing on a mixtape of lessons from ’68 and ’89 and points surrounding. The track list can be paraphrased as follows:
Letters was fundamentally a twentieth-century work by a man who thought of himself as a sixties radical
The will to resist injustice is innate; nothing can be resolved but through conflict and disputation; there are arguments in which there is no difference to be split; study the Eastern European dissidents who lived “as if” Europe was free and undivided; the sum of dissent on both sides of the Iron Curtain was a case for civil society and human rights; tell the truth even if it means “giving ammunition to the enemy”; distrust arguments from complexity where a principle is at stake; use the smugness of The New York Times to inspire your own free thought; beware that religiously or ideologically-motivated opposition contains the seeds of future oppression; don’t worry about being called an elitist; populists welcome and exploit disorder; it is easier to lampoon a king or bishop than to face down a mob; dissent is not the sole property of the left; being self-appointed and self-employed means you can’t be fired; pessimism has its uses; dissidents are not “a communion of saints”; resist the need to belong; geographical partition wastes lives; steer clear of identity politics at all costs; bore your interlocutors with points of principle till they repeat them back to you; don’t be neutral in a time of moral crisis; a well-lived life is better than a career.
The above is not, to be sure, career advice, least of all in 2020—except perhaps the bit recommending self-employment. And there are, naturally, differences between then and now. Toward the end of the book, Hitchens observes that in “modern mass society”, the “dissenting type” is unlikely to be threatened with unemployment. That reads today as a decidedly pre-social media remark and recalls the relative tolerance of the post-Cold War moment. Hitchens’s enthusiasm for civil society and human rights has undergone a degree of posthumous defeat, now that most liberal democracies have resolved to give idealism a rest. Yet on the symbiotic relationship between populism and disorder, or on the patronising narcissism of identity politics, his ghost is still very much in the fight.
In such times, it seems worth living as if the cigarette-smoking ghost still had an eye on the scene
It is tempting to return to counterfactuals, insufficient as they may be, and to imagine Hitchens at the podium in the run-up to 2016. To begin with, he might have found his right to mount the podium—at least on some university campuses—in question, and himselfagainst its enemies as described in Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s The Coddling of the American Mind. A non-tech guy, he’d have had to grapple with the meaning of Twitter for free speech amid the proliferation of disinformation and bots lighting more fires than counter-speech can put out (Hitchens himself lived the case for counter-speech, and was willing to the far-right). As regards the election, his chapter on populism suggests he’d have been perspicacious about Trump’s ability to manipulate “woke” unrest for a win. Yet it’s unlikely he’d ever have voted for a Clinton. His contempt for both candidates would, one imagines, have fired his writerly mojo anew.
But to reiterate, Letters to a Young Contrarian was fundamentally a twentieth-century work by a man who thought of himself as a sixties radical. Other sixties people like Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, with whom Hitchens would later fall out over the War on Terror, figure here in heroic roles. Radicals, he argues in the third chapter, are needed to force major issues. Would slavery have ended in America, he asks, if not for the fanaticism of John Brown? Many of his mentors—Peter Sedgwick, E.P. Thompson—were sometime British communists (and long-time socialists) who had ditched the Party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary (what a pity, then, that he never got to debate “the left” with Jordan Peterson).
Of course, Hitchens was not the only sixties radical to court influence in the 2000s, nor was he the most influential. Much of the radicalism he valued now comes to us—via less subtle mentors—in parody form: as sixties-worship gone sour, as a morbid focus on immutable characteristics, as a desire to short-circuit debate, as the unclean spirit that possesses young journalists to misrepresent their subjects so that they can gloat about the takedown. East of the old Iron Curtain, Alexander Lukashenko borrows a page from the dissidents of ’89 by carrying on “as if” there had been no pandemic, “as if” he had won a presidential election, and “as if” NATO was getting ready to invade Belarus. In such times, it seems worth living “as if” the cigarette-smoking ghost still had an eye on the scene.
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