Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens

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I read a brief excerpt from this book several months ago in NewsScan, and was intrigued enough by the concept of a “contrarian” to add it to my Amazon wish list, but never got around to buying it. A few weeks ago, I was at a friend’s house for dinner, and noticed that he had a copy on his bookshelf, so I asked if I could borrow it and read it.

I like it a lot. I have no idea who Hitchens is. According to the book jacket, he’s a columnist and an author. But he was asked to take part in a series, “The Art of Mentoring”, “based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Like the text it emulates, the series invites leaders of the arts, vocations, professions, obsessions and missions to contribute a text meant to shape the future of their disciplines and to inspire the careers of the next generation…” (quote from the book jacket) So he wrote a book on how to be a radical, a curmudgeon, a dissenter, or the word he eventually settled on, a contrarian.

The book is structured as a series of letters to a generalized student of his, examining several aspects of being a contrarian sprinkled liberally with historical examples as well as personal anecdotes from Hitchens’s travels. He takes on political dissent, religion, debate, humor, and psychology in various letters, with admonishments on his preferred view of the world. I think a paragraph from the last letter does a good job of summing up:

So I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. 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 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.

I really liked this book. I’m definitely getting a copy of my own at some point. Every letter has something to think about, an idea or a viewpoint that’s worth considering. One great example is a strategy that Eastern European dissidents used in the Cold War, the “as if” strategy. Vaclav Havel, among others, “realised that “resistance” in its original insurgent and militant sense was impossible in the Central Europe of the day. He therefore proposed living “as if” he were a citizen of a free society, “as if” lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, “as if” his government had actually signed the various treates and agreements that enshrine universal human rights.” Hitchens goes on to detail other examples of this strategy like the American civil rights movement or Solzhenitsyn’s writings against the gulag. It’s a powerful idea. It’s a basis for nonviolent protest. It’s also, he warns, a lonely and tiring strategy, as everybody asks you why you’re trying to fight the system. But this is the life of the contrarian in his view. “In an 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.”

I’ll never be the devoted radical that Hitchens is. I’m not going to fly off to the Balkans to document and publicize extensive human rights violations. But his viewpoint is a valuable one. Society needs people who are willing to go against the grain and question what is the norm. They serve the function of the “social T-cells” that David Brin mentions. And I can only aspire to be one of them.