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Letters to a Young Contrarian
Christopher Hitchens (2001)
from 'The Art of Mentoring'


... the framing of the innocent axiomatically involves the exculpation of the guilty. (p. 8)

... while courage is not in itself one of the primary virtues, it is the quality that makes the exercise of the virtues possible. (p. 9)

... great men are most frequently not honored in their own time or country. (p. 9)

The pressure to keep silent and be a "team player" is reinforceable by the accusations of cowardice or treachery that will swiftly be made against dissenters. Sinister phrases of coercion, such as "stabbing in the back" or "giving ammunition to the enemy"... are always available to help compel unanimity. (p. 100)

I accept all of Rilke's implied challenges because of what he wrote about solitude, and the ways in which it must be welcomed rather than feared. In the mental and moral equipment of a radical or critical personality, this realisation is of the essence. Rilke also allows me to touch on matters such as the inevitable disappointment of religion and worship, the defining importance of language, the combat between the tribal and the cosmopolitan, the fate of MittelEuropa, the still-poisonous influence of the First World War, the effect of Freud, and the recurring importance of the ironic. (p. 17)

In life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. ... There must be confrontation and opposition, in order that sparks must be kindled. (p. 20)

[The Dalai Lama wrote in The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living,] "I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we all are seeking something better in life. So, I think, the very motion of our life is towards happiness." ... The very best that can be said is that he uttered a string of fatuous non sequiturs. There is not even a strand of chewing gum to connect the premise to the conclusion; the speaker simply assumes what he has to prove. (p. 22)

On Sigmund Freud's memorial in Vienna appear the words: 'The voice of reason is small, but very persistent.' (p. 27)

... 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 you are asking him to give up something more than a point in argument. (p. 28)

... it will not do to treat someone as a mental serf if he is convinced that his thralldom is honorable and voluntary. (p. 29)

George Orwell said that the prime responsibility lay in being able to tell people what they did not wish to hear. John Stuart Mill (who by a nice chance was Bertrand Russell's godfather) said that even if all were agreed on an essential proposition it would be essential to give an ear to the one person who did not, lest people forget how to justify their original agreement. Karl Marx, asked to give his favourite epigram, offered de omnibus disputandum ("everything must be doubted"). (p. 29)

Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich. (p. 31)

I cringe every time I hear denunciations fo the "politics of division" - as if politics was not division by definition. Semi-educated people join cults whose whole purpose is to dull the pain of thought, or take medications that claim to abolish anxiety. Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are repackaged for Westerners as therapy, and platitudes or tautologies masquerade as wisdom. (p. 31)

If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.(p. 33)

[This is weak. Hitchens doesn't realise he is saying he knows it is right to be skeptical.]

.... even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid. You can't achieve 100 percent control over humans, and, if you could, you could not go on doing so. It is—fortunately—too much responsibility for any human to assume, not that this keeps the control freaks from continuing to try. (p. 37)

In any average day, you may well be confronted with some species of bullying or bigotry, or some ill-phrased appeal to the general will, or some petty abuse of authority .... try behaving "as if" they need not be tolerated and are not inevitable. (p. 39)

... invitations to passivity or acquiescence are more sly, some of them making an appeal to modesty. Who are you to be the judge? Who asked you? Anyway, is this the propitious time to be making a stand? Perhaps one should await a more favorable moment? And - aha! - is there some danger of giving ammunition to the enemy?

I have two favourite texts that I keep by me to exorcise these sorts of temptations. One is an essay written by George Orwell in November 1945 and entitled "Through a Glass, Rosily":

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don't criticise: or at least criticise "constructively", which in practice always means favorably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

... According to Blake, 'A truth that's told with bad intent
Beats all the lies you can invent

[The other is a treatise written in 1908 by F. M. Cornford and entitled Microcosmographia Academica:]

... the principles, or rules of inaction ... are as follows:

The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations that you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.

... The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do any admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action that is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.

Another argument is that "the Time is not Ripe." The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived. (p. 45)

Very often in my experience, the extraneous or irrelevant complexities are inserted when a matter of elementary justice or principle is at issue. (p. 47)

... very often the hardest thing to see is what is right in front of your nose.(p. 50)

In order to be absolutely honest, I should not leave you with the impression that I am part of the generalised agnosticism of our culture. I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. .... I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case. Why do I say that? Well, there may be people who wish to live their lives under a cradle-to-grave divine supervision; a permanent surveillance and monitoring. But I cannot imagine anything more horrible or grotesque.(p. 55)

They want god on their side and believe they are doing his work - what is this, even at its very best, but an extreme form of solipsism? They proceed from conclusion to evidence; our greatest resource is the mind and the mind is not well-trained by being taught to assume what has to be proved. (p. 56)

A true believer must believe that he or she is here for a purpose and is an object of real interest to a Supreme Being; he or she must also claim to have at least an inkling of what that Supreme Being desires. I have been called arrogant myself in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator - that's beyond my conceit. (p. 57)

Sigmund Freud was surely right when he concluded that religious superstition is ineradicable, at least for as long as we fear death and fear the darkness. It belongs to the childhood of our race, and childhood is not always - as Freud also helped us to understand - our most attractive or innocent period. (p. 65)

A degree of solitude and resignation is necessary to begin with. Some people can't bear solitude, let alone the idea that the heavens are empty and that we do not even succeed in troubling their deafness with our bootless cries. To be an exile or outcast on a remote shore - many minds turn away in terror and seek any source of cosiness. I can only say that, not only when it is compared to the ghastliness of Eternal Paternalism, the concept of loneliness and exile and self-sufficiency continually bucks me up. (p. 67)

Any fool can lampoon a king or a bishop or a billionaire. A trifle more grit is required to face down a mob, or even a studio audience, that has decided it knows what it wants and is entitled to get it. (p. 77)

"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? (p. 81)

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. (p. 83)

Laughter can be the most unpleasant sound; it's an essential element in mob conduct and is part of the background noise of taunting and jeering at lynchings and executions. (p. 116)

Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the "transcendant" 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.(p. 140)

Most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security. This shouldn't surprise us. Nonetheless, there are in all periods people who feel themselves in some fashion to be apart. And it is not so much to say that humanity is very much in debt to such people, whether it chooses to acknowledge that debt or not. It's too much to expect to live in an age which is actually propitious for dissent. (back)

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, not something you do. (back)

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 life, 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 a synthesis between verity and falsehood; the sun does not rise in the east one day and in the west the next. (back)



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