Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Letters to a Young Contrarian

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 AM

For all the sad stories we read of how churlish anti-intellectualism rules the schoolyard and the do-gooders of the PTA, Basic Books offers America’s youth a bracing corrective with its new Art of Mentoring Series. Christopher Hitchens, columnist and commentator extraordinaire, delivers the inaugural volume. Post-Sept. 11, his extended highbrow advice column for Vanity Fair is an invigorating tonic to the moronic, knee-jerk jingoism that grips much of the country.

Hitchens begins by cautioning the would-be dissenter that “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.” He praises, in particular, the French writer, Emile Zola, who could have sat back on the comfortable laurels of fame, but instead came to the defense of Dreyfus. Zola’s blistering accusation of injustice shamed a nation ready to condemn an innocent man. Hitchens, who learned late in life that he, like Dreyfus, was Jewish, has little tolerance for intolerance of any kind.

Not surprisingly, then, he goes on to score unmitigated bull’s eyes on two related topics: race and religion. “We still inhabit the prehistory of our race,” he writes “and have not caught up with the immense discoveries about our own nature and about the nature of the universe. The unspooling of the skein of the genome has effectively abolished racism and creationism, and the amazing findings of Hubble and Hawkings have allowed us to guess at the origins of the cosmos.” Alas, much of the world’s population prefers “the familiar old garbage about tribe and nation and faith.”

Strangely, while Hitchens delights in pointing out that the monotheistic religions of the world are not much more than elaborate Santa Claus swindles of surveillance and vague reward, he offers little in the way of alternatives. Existentialism gets short shrift, appearing as it does in the bummer ’50s. If we are to have humanism, Hitchens implies, let us find its apogee in the ’60s, when he and fellow travelers fought the craven powers of the day. Mercifully, he spares us protest stories: “I know that nothing is more tedious than front line recollections of a ’60s radical.”

If only he were equally stingy in parceling out the sort of post-facto justifications hippies make for their decline during the ensuing two decades. Indeed, perhaps sensing that old cynics lie in wait, Hitchens invokes Vaclav Havel’s dedication to the principle of living “as if” one were in a democracy, even under the appalling conditions of state communism or the amoral realpolitik of Kissinger, a favorite bogeyman of our guide. When he turns his righteous bile to the recent debacles in the Balkans, one senses Hitchens back up at cruising altitude.

“The high ambition seems to be this,” he concludes: “That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism.” When a man can walk this kind of talk, you best be buying his book … if not for a rebel-in-training then a waning rebel in need of a tonic. A must.

Timothy Dugdale writes about books and visual culture for the Metro Times. E-mail him at


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