Letters to a Young Contrarian

Over the summer I read Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian, twice. Its message is: bloody well stand up for what you believe in. It’s an ode to rationality and fierce decency in a world where – it says – harmful behaviour is too often defended by well-meaning apologists. In a series of letters to a young student, it says that ‘left-wing’ does not have to mean ‘relativist’, and does not mean always trying to reach a compromise: sometimes it means putting your foot down and saying ‘stop’1. It says that authority – of all kinds – should always be closely watched, and details the traps and pitfalls into which they will try to sucker you. It’s not, though, a teenage paen to being generically anti-authority, or rebelling for the sake of it – it just says we shoudn’t be ashamed to make moral judgments, regardless of who we end up allying with (but if you do end up with someone awful, don’t be afraid to call them out). It’s a sentiment plenty call bombastic or naive, to which plenty reply ‘that’s exactly the problem’. I don’t agree with everything, and I am far, far from a natural rebel2 but I finished it wanting to fix the world and not caring who I annoy in the process.

Letters also gives the lie to popular commentary regarding Mr Hitchens. It was published in 2001, pre-9/11, yet his opinions then are almost entirely consistent with his opinions now. He’s appalled by governments who refuse to make a moral stand against evil dictatorships, he’s appalled by the cowtowing to fundamentalist Islam, he’s appalled by the denigration of reason in the name of faith. Add 9/11 into the mix and it’s obvious that his current stances are (at most) logical continuations, and often no different. This is far from the beloved ‘he drove to the right after 9/11’ trope so beloved of commenters. I’d properly bought into this, and it was quite the surprise to find I was wrong.

And, not for nothing, he also has a ridiculously impressive writing style. Here’s something from his week, on the US election:

On “the issues” in these closing weeks, there really isn’t a very sharp or highly noticeable distinction to be made between the two nominees, and their “debates” have been cramped and boring affairs as a result. But the difference in character and temperament has become plainer by the day, and there is no decent way of avoiding the fact. Last week’s so-called town-hall event showed Sen. John McCain to be someone suffering from an increasingly obvious and embarrassing deficit, both cognitive and physical. And the only public events that have so far featured his absurd choice of running mate have shown her to be a deceiving and unscrupulous woman utterly unversed in any of the needful political discourses but easily trained to utter preposterous lies and to appeal to the basest element of her audience. McCain occasionally remembers to stress matters like honor and to disown innuendoes and slanders, but this only makes him look both more senile and more cynical, since it cannot (can it?) be other than his wish and design that he has engaged a deputy who does the innuendoes and slanders for him.

Regardless of the content, just look at the way your eyes glide over his sentences. They’re not short or lacking complexity, yet there are no cognitive breakpoints – it’s all effortless. How does he do that?

Letters is a short book, and I highly recommend it. And even if you disagree with everything he says, his writing is a thing to behold.

  1. I am, admittedly, a sucker for this kind of thing – I love the S3 West Wing scene where Oliver Babish explains to Abbey Bartlet why she will not settle her court case, but will instead stand up and take the bastards down. Bloody brilliant, that man. []
  2. this weekend I was about to change my Facebook strapline to ‘put a ribbon round my neck and call me a libertine’, just because I like the poetry, until I realised I fit no definition of ‘libertine’. []