Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

I’m not quite sure what to rate this book, but I suppose somewhere between a 3 or 4 out of 5 as a scale. Perhaps a 3.5 out of 5. I really enjoyed the surprisingly short book and it consoled me with many good tips, but it seems to have been edited from real letters to other people and some of the content – such as the anti-Imperialist socialists – felt more as if he was talking to his students or certain people within his friend group than a more public audience.

I suppose it is generally refreshing to have such an honest and open book of advice, but it seems to have run the risk of being for people close to him and not necessarily a public audience. I would recommend it and greatly enjoyed it though. I’ve been personally concerned over how my views are ever even useful or helpful in any public controversy. Sometimes, I think that it is better to just drop the subject and try to ignore it, but that always seems to make situations worse. Often, it feels useless no matter what I choose to do and giving criticism seems to backfire anyway. Everyone is more concerned with assuming the intent of others and suggesting they’re malicious rather than genuinely listening to others nowadays. I’ve grown weary and I’m all out of energy to participate since it seems like nothing that I do causes any positive change, so I thought picking up this book could help. I would say that it has helped somewhat because I had thought uniformity was the ideal, but Hitchens arguments helped reinforce that seeking uniformity and complacency often aren’t positive ends and creating conflict through argumentation – the very essence of politics according to Hitchens – helps to create meaningful change because two opposing sides will have to adjust their views based on opposition arguments. Moreover, while uniformity is never attainable, this exchange of arguments helps shift the so-called middle-ground so that one side doesn’t have control or influence over what a “compromise” or “middle-ground” should appear to be. Also, to my surprise, Hitchens shows a surprising disdain for the national news media of the West. Hitchens himself was a Western journalist and his reasons were quite surprising, it was because he wanted to see and learn about news from the sources themselves because he didn’t trust someone else to give it to him. This view seems to have become the mainstream only a few years after his passing.

It is actually shocking to see how prescient some of his arguments are in this book. He fiercely condemns Identity Politics near the last few chapters as he sees it as people speaking on their feelings and not speaking on behalf of what they believe insofar as ideals and what they’ve contributed to their ideals such as donations to political causes, going to war-torn areas as journalists to gain firsthand knowledge of those impacted by conflict, public protesting, and so on. In some ways, I’ve learned just how humble Christopher Hitchens was by reading about his experiences. Unlike Chris Hedges, who made it clear what his experience was as a Foreign Correspondent, Hitchens didn’t make it clear that he had the same amount of experience in the Yugoslavian conflicts although with interviewing Bosnians such as leaders of Bosnian resistance against attempts at genocide of their people and he doesn’t comment much on any graphic descriptions. That wasn’t the purpose of the book either, so I can’t fault him for it. He is not like Hedges, who speaks of seeing the Serbian human rights atrocities firsthand and in graphic details from what I’ve read of Hitchens content thus far. If that is a misapprehension, then I welcome being corrected. In some ways, the fact Hitchens had the same experience as a journalist is eye-opening because for some reason . . . this revelation made me disdain Chris Hedges even more than I did previously. Their interactions and opinions of each other – while hilarious – also more somberly show that even when experiencing dire situations of the worst atrocities’ humankind can do to each other, there will be diametrically opposed views on the solutions. To me, it seems as if Hedges allowed all the negative experiences to define him as a person, whereas Hitchens – despite expressing a cynical outlook – didn’t let it define his identity and work.

On points where I disagree, I think his views on having a general distrust and disdain for groupist or “tribal” identity politics was – and still is for people who promote this idea – a futile effort. It is an innate part of human behavior from what repeated studies in clinical psychology trails have revealed from what the Tajfel studies have shown. There is no moving above it. Furthermore, Hitchens distrust of groupthink seems unusually uninformed since groupthink is actually very positive provided the conditions are that they work on solving a problem and not promoting a sense of feeling secure or making everyone happy. To my surprise, perhaps I allowed criticism of his unified support with neoconservatives on the Iraq War 2003 to create a misjudgment on my part, Hitchens speaks out against nationalism. I’ve slowly warmed up to nationalist sentiments provided they don’t dehumanize anyone or think of other nation-states as somehow lesser people. Hitchens makes it clear that his moral compass made him choose his political support and that he never felt that associating with people who might be seen as unsavory ever stopped him because he felt the cause was just and he met interesting people regardless. Hitchens made it clear that he didn’t ever find himself unified with any fascists and he seems to have believed that his moral compass acted as an innate shield from such unity.

Christopher Hitchens has only grown more sorely missed by his fans (myself included) and it’ll almost be a decade since his death as of next year. The hole he left the intellectual discourse and the hearts of all his fans still simmer. I’d been a fan of his and Harris since 2007 and I regret ever having listened to or taken Chris Hedges side of the debates in 2011 after learning more about Islam thanks to a certain group that I unfortunately learned too late were mainly comprised of anti-Hindu bigots. Perhaps due to my privileged Western upbringing, I realized far too late that Hitchens and Sam Harris were the true humanists because they spoke out against human rights abuses of Muslim women when the topic wasn’t popular while Hedges must have seen the physical violence against women at some point in his various trips to the Middle East . . . and probably had thought it was just their “culture” while blaming rich white Westerners in so many of his essays. As Nietzsche, and I’m sure other philosophers, have pointed out . . . people live on in their writings. Even if you try to read the entire lifetime work of an individual, you’ll probably still learn surprising and humorous idiosyncrasies about them. The massive gulf that Hitchens has left, the sore feelings that still smolder from his diehard fans even now, and the surprising prescience of many of his old writings perhaps shows that he passed away at the right time. At least he was surrounded by friends and loved ones, I honestly think the fact he left such a gigantic hole in Western discourse reveals that he truly deserves to be remembered as one of the late 20th and early 21st centuries greatest thinkers.

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