Christopher Hitchens has issued a challenge. In the preface to his new book of essays Letters to a Young Contrarian, (Basic Books, 141 pgs) he expresses displeasure at the way he envisions critics will begin their reviews of the book. He claims that most reviews of his work begin in roughly the same manner, briefly running down the list of people he has taken to task, and in so doing attempt to pigeonhole him as a cantankerous muckraker, taking on the rich and powerful simply because they are rich and powerful while ignoring the factual, albeit controversial claims he makes. So, in the spirit of radical journalism and to throw a wrench in the cookie-cutter approach to contemporary book criticism, I will mention Hitchens' previous accounts of Mother Theresa, Princess Diana and Bill Clinton only to recommend them to readers looking for well-written, engaging and factual reportage. See, Chris? You got at least one critic to bite.
I'm not sure if Hitchens is aware of it (though I rather expect he is) but his heading off of his critics at the pass like this anticipates two points he later makes in the book on how best to make a contentious point in the face of inevitable criticism. First, he advises, always be witty, and if possible ironic. As he says: "Radicalism is humanism or it is nothing; the proper study of mankind is man and the ability to laugh is one of the faculties that defines the human and distinguishes the species from other animals." The second point is to always try to anticipate your opponents attack before it can be launched. Here's to consistency, 'Hitch.
The remainder of the book cleverly follows the format of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, the difference being that Hitchens is addressing a fictional student who is asking advice on how to prepare for a life dedicated to taking on the Establishment (see also: big business, government and those pundits who, when speaking for themselves, use the term "we") for its inherent hypocrisy and empty promises. Having made a career out of doing just this, Hitchens is well suited for the task, taking up where tireless cultural critics such as Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Gore Vidal, George Konrad and Edward Said have previously laid the groundwork for literate and passionate public dissent.
To live and work at odds with received opinion in the manner of a Hitchens or a Vidal, however, it's often easy to become a bile-spewing rumormonger a la Bill O'Reilly. To be a successful Contrarian is to able to bend the public ear and make your point to the greatest number of people, and coming off as a bitter and isolated neo-luddite will only hurt your cause. Rather, you must learn to temper your dissent with healthy doses of humor, reasoned analysis, and self-criticism in order to advance your argument while keeping the audience engaged. (If you need an illustrative example of two people arguing the same case in radically different ways, try reading something by Ralph "Sunshine" Nader some time, then compare it with a Michael Moore op-ed on the same subject). "To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist.' Hitchens writes in one of the letters. "And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do."
Never accused of being a relativist, Hitchens sings the praises of reasoned disagreement and rational argument in the political education of any thinking person. What a healthy sentiment it is to hear someone stick up for the ability to disagree at a time when our country, politically and morally, lurches toward some nebulous middle ground in order not to offend an increasingly sensitive, and bored, polity. Since debate with the like-minded usually only serves to reinforce previously held opinion, Hitchens recommends seeking out those who disagree with you on principal, not in order to annoy or convert them to your cause, but instead to increase your own rhetorical prowess and maybe, just maybe, learn a thing or two. "Time spent arguing with the faithful is, oddly enough, almost never wasted.," he says. The primary sin any informed citizen can commit is the sin of silence, and even if it may seem frustrating, (personal side note time: I was obsessed with logging on to lucianne.com, a far-right message board, during the Bush-Gore Battle Royal last year, and I'm only now beginning to un-convince myself that we're all doomed), you will at the very least reap the benefits of being able to articulate both sides of an argument while finding ways to head off objections to, and find the flaws in, your own argument.
The way in which the book lays out the political in somewhat personal -- and even emotional -- terms may lead it one day to find a place next to some of the more interesting, and often forgotten, personal testimonials of our time. Books such as Henry Miller's The Time of the Assassins, Orwell's Down and Out in London and Paris, or even the more recent, if more academic Achieving our Country by philosopher Richard Rorty come to mind as works in which the writer makes a case for their own view of the social evolution of our society filtered through the lens of personal experience and deeply held conviction.
In the end, does Hitchens spell out the secret to living a full and satisfied
life while placing yourself firmly in the oppositionist camp? Of course
not. But what he does do is treat the subject in a realistic way. Constantly
finding fault with the way things are is a difficult life that invariably
leads to, as he admits, "many dark nights of the soul." But
there is an element of hope involved in any form of criticism; a determination
to live life "as if" the world could be different, "as
if" social justice were attainable and a full public accounting of
our leaders activities could be laid out for public consumption. It is
a hope grounded in building something better, and not just tearing down
what already exists.