Christopher Hitchens' book "Letters to a Young Contrarian"

in #deutsch3 months ago (edited)
Dear HiveansLiebe HiverQueridos Hiveanos
Today I'd like to share my favourite excerpts from the book "Letters to a Young Contrarian" (goodreads) by Christopher Hitchens, who was a British author and journalist. "Christopher Hitchens was a complete one-off, an amazing mixture of writer, journalist, polemicist and unique character. He was fearless in the pursuit of truth and any cause in which he believed. And there was no belief he held that he did not advocate with passion, commitment and brilliance. He was an extraordinary, compelling and colourful human being whom it was a privilege to know." (Tony Blair) (wiki)Heute meine Lieblingsauszüge aus dem Buch "Letters to a Young Contrarian" (goodreads) von Christopher Hitchens, einem britischen Autor und Journalisten. "Christopher Hitchens war ein absolutes Unikat, eine erstaunliche Mischung aus Schriftsteller, Journalist, Polemiker und einzigartigem Charakter. Er war furchtlos auf der Suche nach der Wahrheit und jeder Sache, an die er glaubte. Und es gab keine Überzeugung, die er nicht mit Leidenschaft, Engagement und Brillanz vertrat. Er war ein außergewöhnlicher, fesselnder und schillernder Mensch, und es war ein Privileg, ihn zu kennen." (Tony Blair) (wiki)Hoy mis fragmentos favoritos del libro "Letters to a Young Contrarian" (goodreads) de Christopher Hitchens, que fue un escritor y periodista británico. "Christopher Hitchens era un ser único, una mezcla asombrosa de escritor, periodista, polemista y personaje único. Era intrépido en la búsqueda de la verdad y de cualquier causa en la que creyera. Y no había creencia en la que creyera que no defendiera con pasión, compromiso y brillantez. Era un ser humano extraordinario, convincente y pintoresco, a quien fue un privilegio conocer". (Tony Blair) (wiki)

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Preface
My dear X,
Now that it’s time to launch this little paper boat onto the tide, I thought I would write you a closing letter by way of beginning.

How do I respond when I see myself or my efforts abused or misrepresented in the public prints? The brief answer is that I have become inured without becoming indifferent. I attack and criticise people myself; I have no right to expect lenience in return.

People forget that, before he addressed his most celebrated letter, J’Accuse, to the president of the Republic, Zola had also issued open letters to the youth of France, and to France itself. He did not confine himself to excoriating the corrupted elite, but held up a mirror in which public opinion could see its own ugliness reflected. To the young people he wrote, after recalling the braver days when the Latin Quarter had been ablaze with sympathy for Poland and Greece, of his disgust with the students who had demonstrated against the Dreyfusards: „Anti-Semites among our young men? They do exist then, do they? This idiotic poison has really already overthrown their intellects and corrupted their souls? What a saddening, what a disquieting element for the twentieth century which is about to dawn. A hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a hundred years after the supreme act of tolerance and emancipation, we go back to religious warfare, to the most odious and the most stupid of fanaticisms!“

This anti-Semitism is making an ugly comeback right now, but I'll write a separate post on that.Dieser Antisemitismus erlebt gerade ein hässliches Comeback, aber darüber werde ich einen separaten Beitrag schreiben.Este antisemitismo está haciendo un feo regreso en este momento, pero voy a escribir un post aparte sobre eso.

Read Zola with care and you will be less astonished by the follies and crimes —from Verdun to Vichy—that later overtook France, and indeed overtook an entire Europe of show trials and camps and martial parades and infallible leaders. You will also understand better why it is that the papacy, which now seems to try again almost every day, can never manage an honest or clear statement on its history with Jews, Protestants and unbelievers. And all of this can be derived from one determined and principled individual exercising his right to say no, and insisting (as Zola successfully did) on his day, not “in court” as we again too neutrally say, but in the dock. [...] But he furnishes us with an example of objective-free inquiry, rather than of heretical courage. Others had to be courageous on his behalf, as Zola had to be brave on behalf of Dreyfus. (Incidentally, it now seems more and more certain that Zola was murdered in his bed, rather than accidentally stifled by a faulty fire and a blocked chimney; further proof that great men are most frequently not honored in their own time or country.)

In my life I have had the privilege and luck of meeting and interviewing a number of brave dissidents in many and various countries and societies. Very frequently, they can trace their careers (which partly “chose” them rather than being chosen by them) to an incident in early life where they felt obliged to make or take a stand. Sometimes, too, a precept is offered and takes root. Bertrand Russell in his Autobiography records that his rather fearsome Puritan grandmother “gave me a Bible with her favourite texts written on the fly-leaf. Among these was ‘Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.’ Her emphasis upon this text led me in later life to be not afraid of belonging to small minorities.” It’s rather affecting to find the future hammer of the Christians being “confirmed” in this way. It also proves that sound maxims can appear in the least probable places.

It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence. If so, let us continue to correspond so that I may draw from your experience even as you flatter me by asking to draw upon mine. For the moment, do bear in mind that the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the “professional nay-sayer.” To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.

A similar objection can be registered to some of Rilke’s poetry and prose, which exhibits that species of German romanticism and idealism that I find suspect even in the most scrupulous hands. I am always and at once on the defensive, for example, when people speak of races and nations as if they were personalities and had souls and destinies and suchlike.

  • I fully agree.

As against this, we have Rilke’s astonishingly perceptive if slightly overwrought advice to the aspiring writer: There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all; ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity . . .
With much less eloquence, this is what I have been telling writing classes for years. You must feel not that you want to but that you have to. It’s worth emphasising, too, because there is a relationship, inexact to be sure but a relationship, between this desire or need and the ambition to rely upon internal exile, or dissent; the decision to live at a slight acute angle to society.

You seem to have grasped the point that there is something idiotic about those who believe that consensus (to give the hydra-headed beast just one of its names) is the highest good. Why do I use the offensive word “idiotic”? For two reasons that seem good to me; the first being my conviction that human beings do not, in fact, desire to live in some Disneyland of the mind, where there is an end to striving and a general feeling of contentment and bliss. This would be idiocy in its pejorative sense; the Athenians originally employed the term more lightly, defining as idiotis any man who was blandly indifferent to public affairs. My second reason is less intuitive. Even if we did really harbor this desire, it would fortunately be unattainable. As a species, we may by all means think ruefully about the waste and horror produced by war and other forms of rivalry and jealousy. However, this can’t alter the fact that in life we make progress by conflict and in mental life by argument and disputation. … Tautology lurks, and waits to enclose you. The Greek oracle proclaimed “Nothing Too Much” as the supreme wisdom; the lazy modern translation is “Moderation in All Things,” which is not quite the same.

“defining as idiotis any man who was blandly indifferent to public affairs” - On the one hand I agree, one the other hand the opposite is also true. Someone who can’t distance himself from public affairs, is an idiot."Als Idiot wird jeder Mann bezeichnet, der den öffentlichen Angelegenheiten gegenüber gleichgültig ist" - Einerseits stimme ich zu, andererseits gilt auch das Gegenteil. Jemand, der sich nicht von öffentlichen Angelegenheiten unabhängig machen kann, ist ein Idiot."define como idiota a cualquier hombre que se muestra indiferente ante los asuntos públicos" - Por un lado estoy de acuerdo, por otro lado lo contrario también es cierto. Alguien que no puede distanciarse de los asuntos públicos, es un idiota.

It’s often been observed that the major religions can give no convincing account of Paradise. They do much better in representing Hell; indeed one of the early Christian dogmatists, Tertullian, borrowed the vividness of the latter to lend point to the former. Among the delights of Heaven, he decided, would be the contemplation of the tortures of the damned. This anthropomorphism at least had a bit of bite to it; the problem in all the other cases is that nobody can seriously desire the dissolution of the intellect. And the pleasures and rewards of the intellect are inseparable from angst, uncertainty, conflict and even despair.

It is true that the odds in favor of stupidity or superstition or unchecked authority seem intimidating and that vast stretches of human time have seemingly elapsed with no successful challenge to these things. But it is no less true that there is an ineradicable instinct to see beyond, or through, these tyrannical conditions. One way of phrasing it might be to say that injustice and irrationality are inevitable parts of the human condition, but that challenges to them are inevitable also. On Sigmund Freud’s memorial in Vienna appear the words: “The voice of reason is small, but very persistent.” Philosophers and theologians have cogitated or defined this in differing ways, postulating that we respond to a divinely implanted “conscience” or that—as Adam Smith had it—we carry around an unseen witness to our thoughts and doings and seek to make a good impression on this worthy bystander. Neither assumption need be valid; it’s enough that we know that this innate spirit exists. We have to add the qualification, however, that even if it is presumptively latent in all of us, it very often remains just that—latent. Its existence guarantees nothing in itself, and the catalytic or Promethean moment only occurs when one individual is prepared to cease being the passive listener to such a voice and to become instead its spokesman, or representative.

It is very seldom, as Sir Karl Popper noticed, that in debate any one of two evenly matched antagonists will succeed in actually convincing or “converting” the other. But it is equally seldom that in a properly conducted argument either antagonist will end up holding exactly the same position as that with which he began. Concessions, refinements and adjustments will occur, and each initial position will have undergone modification even if it remains ostensibly the “same.”

  • Great point 👍

In rejecting Perfectionism, I don’t want you to fall into the opposite error, which is that of taking human nature just as you find it. My friend Basil Davidson, who wrote a splendid memoir of his years with the anti-Nazi partisan fighters in the Balkans, concluded from his experience that it was wrong to endorse the lazy proposition that “You can’t change human nature.” At first hand, he said, he had seen it become changed—for the worse. Ought not the corollary to hold—that if it can be altered one way it can surely be altered the other? Not necessarily: we are mammals, and the prefrontal lobe (at least while we wait for genetic engineering) is too small while the adrenaline gland is too big. Nonetheless, civilisation can increase, and at times actually has increased, the temptation to behave in a civilised way. It is only those who hope to transform humans who end up by burning them, like the waste product of a failed experiment.

I have two favorite texts that I keep by me to exorcise these sorts of temptation. One is an essay written by George Orwell in November 1945 and entitled “Through a Glass, Rosily.” He was writing at a time when the Red Army had just “liberated” much of Nazioccupied Europe, and when it was considered very poor form in some circles to make any criticism of the liberators. The Vienna correspondent of Tribune, the socialist weekly for which Orwell worked, had however seen fit to mention the rape and looting committed by Soviet forces in the city:
"The recent article by Tribune’s Vienna correspondent provoked a spate of angry letters which, besides calling him a fool and a liar and making other charges of what one might call a routine nature, also carried the very serious implication that he ought to have kept silent even if he knew he was speaking the truth. Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist."

It’s not for nothing that we celebrate the story of the small boy and the unclothed emperor. I’m no great advocate of folkloric wisdom, but this tale has stood the test because it emphasises what Orwell once said in another context: very often the hardest thing to see is what is right in front of your nose. And there is, not infrequently, a considerable social pressure not to take note of the obvious. Every parent knows the moment when children acquire the word “why” and begin to make use of it. I still don’t know quite why the sky is blue (I did know, once, but I’ve forgotten) but I’ve had to find explanations for “Daddy, why is that man sleeping on a grating?” and for other phenomena that I had become too much used to. In societies infected by the poison of racism, it has often been children (who don’t suffer innately from the infection) who have set the example. Of course, one should not idealise children, who are very suggestible and who make easy targets for indoctrination. And, of course, innocence will only take you so far. You have to be sophisticated by experience before you are old enough to argue that, say, it might be wrong to launch a thermonuclear war but not wrong, indeed only prudent, to prepare the weaponry of extermination. Or that an act that would be a loathsome crime if committed by an individual is pardonable when committed by a state. But these are the rewards of maturity, to be enjoyed only as we decline.

You seem to have guessed, from some remarks I have already made in passing, that I am not a religious believer. In order to be absolutely honest, I should not leave you with the impression that I am part of the generalised agnosticism of our culture. I am not even an atheist so much as I am an antitheist; I not only maintain that all religions are versions of the same untruth, but I hold that the influence of churches, and the effect of religious belief, is positively harmful. Reviewing the false claims of religion I do not wish, as some sentimental materialists affect to wish, that they were true. I do not envy believers their faith. I am relieved to think that the whole story is a sinister fairy tale; life would be miserable if what the faithful affirmed was actually the case.

It seems to me that Hitchens himself has a rather strong belief here.Ich habe den Eindruck, dass Hitchens hier selbst einen starken Glauben hat.Me parece que el propio Hitchens tiene una creencia bastante fuerte aquí.

Try your hardest to combat atrophy and routine. To question The Obvious and the given is an essential element of the maxim de omnius dubitandum.

There is an alternative account of dissent, wherein those who try to tell the truth are derided by the crowd, or silenced by public opinion. You may have a favorite example of your own, and if you don’t you ought to have one. The case that still moves me the most—moves me even more than Zola—is the story of those civilised and intelligent (and democratic) individuals who opposed the declaration of the First World War. They were right, and they were decent, and they were also prescient. One might relax the term “prescient” in retrospect, because the horrors that eventuated were greater by far than the horrors they had foreseen. But if you consult the record and see what happened to them — Jean Jaures shot down by a fanatic, Karl Liebknecht imprisoned for his principles, Bertrand Russell silenced—you can see the suicide of a civilisation. And, most of the time, the cheery and patriotic mob would have been as content to see them burned alive as it was to jeer at their burning in effigy.

  • 👍

Nowadays, “public opinion” is more smoothly and easily ventriloquised. I am sure you have had the experience of making up your own mind on a question and then discovering, on the evening news of the same day, that only 23.6 percent of people agree with you. Ought you to be depressed or disconcerted by this alarmingly exact dissection of the collective brain? Only if you believe that a squadron of undertalented but overpaid pseudo-scientists have truly and verifiably arrived at this conclusion. And perhaps—indeed I would argue, in any case — not even then.

The question you ask—what to read and whom to study—is one that I receive quite often. It ought to be an easy inquiry to answer. But it isn’t, and this is for a series of reasons. The first and most obvious is that you should not look for arguments from authority. You must have noticed that I make liberal use of extracts and quotations, not just to show off my reading but also to lighten my text and make use of those who can express my thoughts better than I am able to. So I am not immune from the weakness against which I am counselling you. I do have some sources of inspiration to which I recur, but it would not always be clear why they have come to mean what they do to me.

Ask in mixed company if anyone can name the last American to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. Nobel awards are well-reported here, especially in this category. You will find that nobody can do it. (The answer is Jody Williams, on behalf of the international campaign to ban land mines in 1997.) But see if you can find anyone who doesn’t know that Princess Diana once did a photo-op near a minefield. Our standard for these things is subject to its own Gresham’s Law: not only does it recognise the bogus but it overlooks and excludes the genuine. (The fish rots from the head in such matters: President Clinton sent his wife to the princess’s funeral but did not give the customary presidential call of congratulation to Ms. Williams, who had criticised him in public for withholding his superpower signature from the land mines treaty.)

  • 😂
His opposition to the Vietnam War

However—and I did not appreciate this until rather later—the draft was abolished because of the arguments of some people who weren’t even that much opposed to the war. President Nixon set up a commission to examine the subject, on which sat Professor Milton Friedman — the celebrated author of Capitalism and Freedom—and Alan Greenspan, later celebrated in his turn as chairman of the Federal Reserve, but then best-known as an acolyte of the ultralibertarian Ayn Rand. Between them, these two men persuaded the other members of the Commission that the draft was an unconscionable extension of state power, a form of taxation without representation, and a species of (Friedman’s term for it) “slavery.” So that while I and others were battling in the streets with the red flag and the flag of the NLF, the apostles of the free market were pressing our demands in the inner sanctum. The irony is probably at the expense of both of us: I draw your attention to it because there are still liberals and social-democrats who regard compulsory military conscription as a form of social program, good for the soul and good for levelling and mixing and social engineering. Thus in order to be a “radical” one must be open to the possibility that one’s own core assumptions are misconceived. I have not, since you ask, abandoned all the tenets of the Left. I still find that the materialist conception of history has not been surpassed as a means of analysing matters; I still think that there are opposing class interests; I still think that monopoly capitalism can and should be distinguished from the free market and that it has certain fatal tendencies in both the short and long term. But I have learned a good deal from the libertarian critique of this worldview, and along with this has come a respect for those who upheld that critique when almost all the reigning assumptions were statist.

  • seems like a nuanced view.

A note on language. Be even more suspicious than I was just telling you to be, of all those who employ the term “we” or “us” without your permission. This is another form of surreptitious conscription, designed to suggest that “we” are all agreed on “our” interests and identity. Populist authoritarians try to slip it past you; so do some kinds of literary critics (“our sensibilities are engaged . . . ”) Always ask who this “we” is; as often as not it’s an attempt to smuggle tribalism through the customs.

  • 👍

In some ways I feel sorry for racists and for religious fanatics, because they so much miss the point of being human, and deserve a sort of pity. But then I harden my heart, and decide to hate them all the more, because of the misery they inflict and because of the contemptible excuses they advance for doing so. It especially annoys me when racists are accused of “discrimination.” The ability to discriminate is a precious faculty; by judging all members of one “race” to be the same, the racist precisely shows himself incapable of discrimination.

  • "Discrimination" is not a bad thing.

For years, when I went to renew my annual pass at the United States Senate, I was made to fill in two forms. The first asked me for my biographical details and the second stipulated that I had signed the former under penalty of perjury. I was grateful for the latter form, because when asked to state my “race” I always put “human” in the required box. This led to a yearly row. “Put ‘white,’” I was once told—by an African-American clerk, I might add. I explained that white was not even a color, let alone a race. I also drew his attention to the perjury provision that obliged me to state only the truth. “Put ‘Caucasian,’” I was told on another occasion. I said that I had no connection with the Caucasus and no belief in the outmoded ethnology that had produced the category. So it went on until one year there was no race space on the form. I’d like to claim credit for this, though I probably can’t.

  • 😂

Tom Lehrer stopped singing when Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize, on the grounds that “satire is dead.” He was witty enough to know when to keep quiet, which many comedians are not.

A rule of thumb with humor; if you worry that you might be going too far, you have already not gone far enough. If everybody laughs, you have failed.

The high ambition, therefore, seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganising it.

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. […]

My impression of this book: Hitchens shares great thoughts and has an entertaining writing style. Overall he seems a bit obsessed to be contrarian, perhaps for its own sake: atheist or anti-theist, anti-Israel, anti-Vietnam War, but pro Iraq War. Some of these views may have been contrarian 50 years ago. Today it’s contrarian to be pro-religion or pro-Israel.Mein Eindruck von diesem Buch: Hitchens teilt sehr gute Gedanken mit und hat einen unterhaltsamen Schreibstil. Insgesamt scheint er ein wenig davon besessen zu sein, contrarian zu sein, vielleicht um seiner selbst willen: Atheist oder Anti-Theist, Anti-Israel, Anti-Vietnamkrieg, aber für den Irakkrieg. Einige dieser Ansichten mögen vor 50 Jahren contrarian gewesen sein. Heute ist es widersprüchlich, für die Religion oder für Israel zu sein.Mi impresión de este libro: Hitchens comparte grandes pensamientos y tiene un estilo de escritura entretenido. En general, parece un poco obsesionado por ser contradictorio, quizá por su propio bien: ateo o anti-teísta, anti-israelí, anti-guerra de Vietnam, pero pro-guerra de Irak. Algunas de estas opiniones podrían haber sido contrarias hace 50 años. Hoy es contradictorio ser pro-religión o pro-Israel.

Have a great day,
zuerich

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"Als Idiot wird jeder Mann bezeichnet, der den öffentlichen Angelegenheiten gegenüber gleichgültig ist" - Einerseits stimme ich zu, andererseits gilt auch das Gegenteil. Jemand, der sich nicht von öffentlichen Angelegenheiten unabhängig machen kann, ist ein Idiot.

Ich sehe das so: Erst durch deine "Zugabe" (Anmerkung) wird der Schuh passend gemacht.
Ansonsten hinterlässt Hitchens genügend Stoff für lebhafte Diskussionen – und genau das ist es doch, was niedergeschriebene Gedanken bewirken sollten.


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Thanks for this comprehensive review. I really like your observation at the end that some things that might once have been contrarian are now precisely the opposite. I always love a touch of irony.


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