Hitchens: Our Finest Contrarian

To be unfashionable is to be condemned to the friendless fringe. Identify as anything other than “feminist” (as if that word even means anything anymore), and prepare to be crucified. Criticize Hillary Clinton (our defeated “champion”) and prepare to be labelled a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, etc. Bring up the hard facts and they will fall on deaf ears. If your beliefs aren’t consistent with the fashionable, you’ll be silenced and excommunicated.

This is a difficult environment to exist in when your beliefs are–well, unfashionable. Mine occasionally wander into that realm. However, to be silent and reserved is to do a  disservice to yourself and a disservice to discourse. I have been guilty of this, lately. In these tempestuous times where we’re dealing with things like the alt-right, where people don’t necessary wear the label “liberal” with pride–yet the alternative classification is considered even worse–we are forced to reckon with hard facts. When dealing in difficult reality, it is important to look to the best public contrarians for inspiration.

When grappling with my first “unfashionable” belief–that of a young atheist at a Jesuit university–I turned to Christopher Hitchens. In my interior narrative, I was a Campbellian hero and Hitchens was my guide. I devoured hours of YouTube footage. Hitchens’ books are piled high on my desk as I write this. I channelled Hitchens when questions of faith arose at dinner, in class, or—as he would’ve approved—over drinks.

In our current political landscape, now more than ever, it is important to remember Hitchens, to embody his skepticism and his lust for debate. As he tore apart institutions like the Catholic Church, as he criticized figures like Kissinger and both Clintons, we must do the same. We must be ruthless critics of our newly elected president, Donald Trump, of those he appoints, but most importantly we must be critical of ourselves, for we are the ones who have blindly–or not so blindly–sauntered along the path that got us where we are. Now more than ever, we must be willing to play the role of dissenter, of contrarian.

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Hitchens asserted, in Letters to a Young Contrarian, that critics “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.”

This proclamation, particularly now, when “fashionable” beliefs are kevlar to logic’s bullets, is a contrarian’s fight song. Hitchens kept the sacred in his sights—Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, even god himself. He sought to surmount the insurmountable, to rip holes in the putative.

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Hitchens’ tone, on the page and off, was pure authority. His allusions were many. He knew more about what he criticized than the experts he debated with. Authority on the page is one thing, there is time to sharpen prose and craft polemic, but authority from the pulpit is another. A bona fide public intellectual, Hitchens mastered both. He was always the strongest presence in the room. In a passage from God Is Not Great, Hitchens displays his multi-pronged authority, recollecting an appearance on a panel with Dennis Prager:

“He challenged me in public to answer what he called a ‘straight yes/no question,’ and I happily agreed . . . I was to imagine myself in a strange city as the evening was coming on. Toward me I was to imagine that I saw a large group of men approaching. Now—would I feel safer, or less safe, if I was to learn that they were just coming from a prayer meeting? As the reader will see, this is not a question to which a yes/no answer can be given. But I was able to answer it as if it were not hypothetical. ‘Just to stay within the letter “B,” I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.’”

Hitchens starts by dismantling the question, falsely advertised as yes/no. This eradicates Prager’s authority and boosts Hitchens’. Hitchens builds on this, meeting the hypothetical with fact. Hitchens hasn’t merely experienced Prager’s contrived scenario—he’s experienced it several times. This is authority in its highest form, a prophetic display of ethos.

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Hitchens welcomed conflict and urged his audience to engage him. He wrote, in Letters, “Conflict may be painful, but the painless solution does not exist in any case and the pursuit of it leads to the painful outcome of mindlessness and pointlessness; the apotheosis of the ostrich.”

When he opened up the floor—“Is there anyone who would like to challenge me?”—Hitchens wasn’t looking to embarrass his challengers, though he sometimes did. He wanted to hear what they had to say. It was not Hitchens’ brand of criticism to tell people how to think. That’s the wont of his antipode, religion. Hitchens intended to incite skepticism and critical thought. He wanted people to draw their own conclusions, to butt heads with him, to prevent the propagation of ostriches.

An effective tactic to engage people is to offend them. This is why Hitchens called Mother Teresa a “hideous virgin,” a “fraud and fanatic and fundamentalist,” and a “shriveled old bat.” This type of rhetoric is shocking. It garners attention. It shoves frictional ideas into public conversation and forces people to reckon with them. These are the seeds of discourse—sometimes the ideas people expect to disprove and discard end up being the ones which make the most sense.

Hitchens maintained that “civility is overrated,” and he did not shrink away from the controversial. He reminded us that “I’m offended” is not a point of view. Hitchens encouraged the offended to observe and interrogate why they felt offended. He wanted people to not merely understand, but to question their own beliefs. For example, when denouncing Islam, Hitchens didn’t sugarcoat his opinion:

“What, god speaks to some illiterate merchant warlord in Arabia, and he’s able to write this down perfectly… don’t waste my time! It’s bullshit. Also, that the archangel Gabriel speaks only Arabic it seems. It’s crap!”

Condemning a religion practiced by over a billion people as “bullshit” will undoubtedly make waves. Hitchens’ goal was to offend and, in turn, inspire engagement in lieu of blind, lemming-like ledge-jumping. In God Is Not Great, Hitchens wrote, “the human species is, biologically, only partly rational.” By calling religion “bullshit,” he wanted to shock our rational bits to life, to make us question the validity of an illiterate merchant warlord acting as divine secretary. At face value, after it’s been looked at critically, the story does seem less than probable. It smells a bit like bullshit. Death to the lemming, let logic reign.

Hitchens’ style was sometimes a slap in the face, but it worked. In a 2009 debate in London, Hitchens and Stephen Fry squared off against Archbishop John Onaiyekan and Ann Widdecombe to argue whether or not religion was a force for good. The audience was polled at the outset: 678 people saw religion as good, 1,102 did not, and 346 remained undecided. After the debate, only 268 saw religion as good, 1,876 did not, and only 34 remained unsure. After an hour, 774 audience members were swayed to Hitchens’ side.

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Labelling him merely as contrarian instigator would overlook Hitchens’ most endearing quality: his wit.

In a display of “maximum ironic self-criticism,” approaching a microphone, Hitchens remarked, “It’s the old demagogue in me. I need the pulpit…and if I can’t be erect, then at least I can be upright.” Humor such as this took the edge off Hitchens’ incisive dissection of commonly held beliefs. Even on his deathbed, in Mortality, Hitchens remained plucky. He received letters saying he was being prayed for. He replied: “Praying for what?”

To embody Hitchens is to be a tireless scholar, a skeptic with a duty to challenge a not-so-skeptical public. It is to pull no punches, to attack the sacrosanct—to go far. In Hitchens’ own words, “if you worry that you might be going too far, you have already not gone far enough. If everybody laughs, you have failed.”

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