Christopher Hitchens on Letters to a Young Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens"The voice of reason is small but persistent."
-An inscription from the Sigmund Freud memorial in Vienna

Christopher Hitchens regularly writes for Vanity Fair and contributes to such publications as Granta, The London Review Of Books, The New York Review Of Books, The Los Angeles Times, Dissent, New Left Review and The Times Literary Supplement. His Letters To A Young Contrarian was published in the fall of 2001.

Modeled on Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, Hitchens' book is loosely constructed as a series of correspondences to a young person considering a life of dissidence. Contrarian extraordinaire Hitchens explores a wide range of dissent and cites examples of contrarians such as George Orwell, Emile Zola to Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. Christopher Hitchens is a zealous proponent of the dialectic as an agent of social progress. His rhetorical skills and nimbleness of mind are in full evidence in this slender tome.

This conversation was the second Hitchens and I had in 2001; the first was occasioned by the publication of The Trial of Henry Kissinger and his collection of literary essays, Unacknowledged Legislation. Now, with the recently published Letters, our dialogue continued. We met just after Hitchens' return from Pakistan, a voyage he documented in "On the Frontier of Apocalypse," Vanity Fair (January 2002).

Robert Birnbaum: Is there such a thing as an old contrarian?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes…

RB: Would that be you?

CH: It's a curmudgeon, if you are not careful. There are people, one of whom I knew — of the two I'll mention — Bertrand Russell and Jessica Mitford, both people, [who] it seems to me, succeeded in getting more radical as they got older. Without becoming idiotic figures, without becoming cartoon figures or making old fools of themselves.

RB: In the case of Russell, that's arguable.

CH: Well, there were foolish things he did in his later years, but they were analogous to the foolish things he had done when he was young.

RB: Ah, consistency in foolishness.

CH: I wouldn't say he didn't have a foolish streak and couldn't sometimes be taken in by charlatans or encouraged to make slightly rash statements. That wasn't a problem with his age. I remember thinking it was very unfair, not to say graceless, for some people to say, "That just proves the old boy's mind is softening." There seems to me no doubt that he was extremely lucid until the final days of his 92nd year. So yeah, some people ask me if I have always been like this, and now it's the first time I've been asked, "Am I always going to be like this?" It's a nice change of pace.

RB: The terminology starts to shift with the developmental process. As a youth one can be, perhaps, a rebel or a contrarian, but as one gets older, can one be a contrarian?

CH: When you get asked by Basic Books to be the author of a volume to be entitled Letters to A Young Contarian, then you do know you have become middle-aged. You know they wouldn't ask you if it weren't evident to them that you have become some kind of grizzled veteran. So that's goodbye to youth or any illusions about retaining it. And also you have to realize that, if you are to take the book seriously, which I did, and you write to people that you have actually met. I had in mind some students of mine, younger journalists I knew, people who had written or e-mailed me…

RB: So in the book you were responding to real correspondence?

CH: As I was writing, I always had somebody or sometimes some composite character in mind. [It] makes it much easier to write, for one reason. And, for another, these were real questions. Again, that reminds me of what I already know. People who are perfectly grown who are my students, when I talk about what happened in 1968 have no idea of it from their own memory. Of course, that gives me a very vertiginous feeling.

RB: Just that?

CH: Well, things like that. Mainly to do with memory and references. What reference can you make to be certain that someone instantly gets it? That's actually a very difficult task for all teaching.

RB: Excuse me for being picky — and I know you are Oxford-educated — but why so many French and Latin references?

CH: You know what?

RB: What?

CH: If I was to do it again or if I were to read it again in proof I would do less of that. It struck me that there was too much of it in such a short text. The reason why I sometimes resort to them…

RB: Because they say what you want to say better?

CH: Actually, yes. And more tersely. There is another reason…

RB: I didn't think you were showing off.

CH: No. Because it isn't any great achievement to know a few phrases. There is another reason, actually it's subliminal. One of the people with whom I was corresponding in my mind is a Lebanese-Palestinian student of mine whose preferred language was French. And their English is good and my French is very bad. We would in common conversation resort to quite a few Facon de parler. I can manage that much. This justification has only just occurred to me…

RB: Do you think about people looking at you and questioning what price you are paying for being a contrarian?

CH: Sure I do. Because I am one of those doing the looking. It's an easy way of embarrassing me if you want to give me a good review. It's actually happened to me a couple of times. It's embarrassing in a way even to tell you about it. A couple of reviewers of my last book…

RB: The Trial of Henry Kissinger?

CH: …and also Unacknowledged Legislations — compare me to George Orwell. Now if somebody thinks that, I don't mind. If they say it, I don't mind. If they put it where other people can see it, I do mind. I can imagine other people reading that and saying, "What are you fucking talking about?" I can understand why, too. I've obviously been strongly marked by reading him [Orwell], that's fine. Or to have it said that I am a strong admirer. That's fine. I'm about to bring a book out on him for his centennial in 2003. But when you think of what he had to go through to make his point and I've had to go through…it is nothing short of highly embarrassing. The only thing I can tell myself is that there have been moments where I would have thought that it would have taken practically nothing to take a strong position. The example from my book is Salman Rushdie. It seemed to me there was no time to waste in deciding what one thought about that [the fatwa] and what should be done. A lot of people did hang back for what I would regard as slightly cowardly reasons. Whenever, I am praised, as I was on the radio this morning, for my courage — I do reply and I try not to make it an affectation, "It is not brave to do it — anything I have done. The things I have done it would have been cowardly not to have done, but the moments when push comes to shove have really yet to arrive." Therefore, one should keep rehearsing for when we might need it.

RB: You have told me that you make a point of, every year, going somewhere dangerous.

CH: That's true. Countries either difficult or dangerous…

RB: Are you thrill-seeking?

CH: No, that's to remind me…and describe it also in the book how being in Bosnia was a life- and mind-altering experience for me. I discovered there, as I had already found in other places where there is fighting going on, that I'm never going to be a war correspondent. I've worn a flak jacket and done some drives over difficult roads and have been shot at. I know what it's like to have a bullet go past my ear. It wasn't a ricochet; someone had fired hoping to kill me. Everyone should have that sensation, but I don't need it more than once. I got it with incredible speed. There are journalists that do it all the time that I hugely admire, but I couldn't be one of them. I've just come back from Pakistan and Kashmir and from the Afghanistan border. Last year it was North Korea. Not necessarily dangerous. It's kind of risky and extremely difficult…an arduous place to be. Before that most of the examples would have been from the former Yugoslavia. I have more or less kept that promise [to myself]. And also Kurdistan. Lebanon. Over the last ten twelve years, I think I have kept the promise.

RB: Being a war correspondent means being where the action and not just hanging out in a hotel lounge in Kabul or Sarajevo?

CH: Yeah. Being the guys at the front line and actually taking more risks than the soldiers do. Especially the photographers, they have to not just be there but have to have a point of advantage. They can't just hunker down. I know a lot of people who make a living this way. Some of whom I suspect of being spaced out, affectless sadistic types, thrill seekers…you get jaded and need constant reinforcement of violence.

RB: Like John Savage's character in your buddy Oliver Stone's movie, Salvador?

chris hitchensCH: Yeah. And some are extremely brave and intelligent people who…

RB: I just wanted to get a mention of Oliver Stone…

CH: Oh yes, Mister Stone.

RB: I find myself referring to you as the 'ubiquitous' Christopher Hitchens…

CH: That's kind.

RB: It seems true.

CH: It just seems that way. It just seems that there is more of me than there is. Well, everything is in the timing, I think. It's a bizarre feeling in a way. Because to say that Sept. 11 changed everything is probably the most obvious thing anyone could conceivably say. So here I am being a very dissenting and combative and critical member of the vast majority. But when I say that I really mean it. I felt on that day as if I had changed…as if there had been a whole change in the zeitgeist, as if one's own molecules had been part of it. I also found that I had a sensation — that when I examined it, it surprised me — after I had been through rage and disgust, and depression and so on. There was something left over that was keeping me awake. It was exhilaration. I was excited. I thought, "This battle has really been joined now with theocratic fascism. If it goes on all my life, I will never get bored with fighting that."

RB: Who is fighting that battle?

CH: What I was astounded by was the number of people who not only felt that prospect a dismal one but who, while I'm sure they mouthed the idea that everything had changed, tried as best they could to act as if " I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted."

RB: (laughs)…

CH: Oh, the clowns who took this view. Clowns and thugs, I would actually say. Chomsky and Stone were salient. As it happens I brushed up against them very early in the argument…we've been pounding away ever since.

RB: I have to say that you seem to have resorted to Stalinist-era jargon. Using the phrase, 'Finkelstein-Chomsky-Zinn faction or clique' or something like that in The Nation.

CH: Oh yeah. I read all three of their effusions. Crummy though the suggestion of equivalence was, what alarmed me far more than that was the utter refusal to realize that something new had happened…I know at least as much about Marxism as they do, and one thing I definitely remember from the opening of the 18th Brumaire, is "that the tendency of people when learning a new language or trying to is to translate it back into the one they already know." This is not necessarily a good tendency. What these guys were just saying proves me right. That's appalling. I was willing to say, "Well, whatever the consequences of this are, I'm not going to tell you immediately that I know them. I can only tell you about the situation…And, for example, in a battle against theocratic fascism there will be realignment. There already has been…Now I can't let you get away with the idea of Stalinist technique." I hadn't quite put it this way, the Buhkarin-Rykoff-Chomsky bloc of rotten elements. I think I said "quarter." I was pretty neutral, But come to think of it, it's always in my cortex, somewhere.

RB: You are exhilarated because the battle has been joined. We know one of the protagonists. Are you not worried about the New Coalition, the free democratic coalition?

CH: I am very worried about the coalition with Pakistan. It's a very bad idea. It was the coalition with Pakistan that created Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the first place. My worry has been there from the beginning… I signed a petition in June, which I can show you — I didn't just sign it — my name was on the…

RB: I'll accept your word…

CH: My name was on the — I talk this way because I think I'm on the radio…not all the time. My name is on the masthead of the petition as it was sent out with all kinds of people I have recently quarreled with, like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem (over Clinton). But I was very proud that they wanted my name on this thing — as far back as June, about he scandalous treatment of women in Afghanistan. Something about which the United States had nothing to say at that point. It recognized the Taliban regime because it was Pakistan's client, therefore it was ours. For a long time I have thought there has been a great problem of under reaction to the Taliban and to religious fundamentalism. Now we are cutting with the grain in that argument. You can say to any audience in America anywhere on any subject, you can speak firmly to them about the need to fight this and they know you are right. If any administration spokesman spoke and said we are only against it in this case, we'd be on a shady and sticky wicket.

RB: You are not concerned that this is a cartoon where a bad guy has been identified, and in the next incident of "bad guyism," the principles that have been invoked here will have to be reiterated, or it will have to be suggested again what principles we are espousing? Which is to say…

CH: Fine by me. Those are the principles I am most interested in defending. Those are the bad guys I am most interested in whacking out. People keep saying, I think rather feebly, "Oh well, Bin Laden, if you cut him down another will grow in his place, maybe another three or four." I'm not so sure that is true because he seems to me to be a rather one-of-a-kind, kind of guy. Look at his deputies — they are average thugs and ranters — and if he died, the first thing that they would do would be to start cutting each other's throats, I guarantee you, to see who would be next in line, the anointed one. So I'm not sure that the assumption that others would take his place is a safe one. Though there are people who wish it to be true. What I could guarantee and is a safe assumption is that in that case, at least 10,000 to one would spring up to kill him all over again. And I would be happy to recruit them.

RB: You are anti-capital punishment, aren't you?

CH: I'm not a pacifist.

RB: Would this be the first instance of you expressing an interest in killing someone?

CH: Certainly not.

RB: Really?

CH: Undoubtedly, it would not be. There are a lot of people who if they knew what I thought about them…I would hope would die right there…

RB: (laughs heartily)

CH: I would wish, I would hope for Bin Laden to be captured and taken to the International Tribunal that the United States so stupidly has not yet signed on to. I think again you see a pattern…the tendency of the argument would be to say, "We wish we had somewhere to take him." Well, you should have thought of that before. That's dialectics to me. That's exploiting the ironies of the situation. It's not collapsing in front of them, worrying about double standard. I think it would be a superb occasion if it were properly conducted. To show Bin Laden something about a proper trial. Also to show the Muslim world that not everything about the West is repulsive and also to those who do [think that] to say, "Look, we are now going to show all of them what happened at the World Trade Center."

RB: Is that really a lesson we need to broadcast to the Muslim world?

CH: Yes, I personally believe that there is a clash of civilizations. I don't see why people are so reluctant to adopt this view. I think it's because they wish there were not… since there is one, let it be well-conducted on our side.

RB: You discuss simplicity in this book and one example you cite is the fatwa…and that if an adversary can not disavow the murder of writers for what they write then you can have no further debate…

CH: I did that on Crossfire

RB: Who was your adversary?

CH: Some American Muslim leader. You see, for me, this battle has been going at least since…Some scumbag from some verminous mosque came on …I said, "Let's get one thing out of the way, you are opposed to the offer of money for the murder of my friend [Salman Rushdie] then we can discuss anything you like?" He appealed to Pat Buchanan, who was his defender, of course. "Islam's feeling have been very much hurt." I said, "We'll get to that, I promise you. But first I want your assurance…" And he said, "For Muslim peoples, it is the feeling…" I said, "Look, hold it right there, you are not getting past me. You're just not. I'll waste your whole hour if you want." And I did. And at the end I came right up to him. I know where you live. I have your home phone number. It's the only way.

RB: When we last spoke, I remarked to you my amazement at the BBC's Jeremy Paxson relentless probing of Tony Blair and how that kind of interrogatory never happens here…

CH: No, there's much too little of that on American TV in general. Actually, it was a stalemate because Buchanan wouldn't let me speak either. Because Buchanan is pro-fatwa

RB: Wait a minute. You think Pat Buchanan is pro-fatwa?

CH: More or less. Look, here's the situation. There were those who said that the problem was the offer of bounty for the murder of a novelist in the name of theocratic…that was the problem. I was one of those. The Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John Jay O'Connor, another ignorant peasant, the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic Jews, the Archbishop of Canterbury all said the problem was blasphemy. The Observatorie Romano, the Vatican newspaper, said the problem was blasphemy…a kind of reverse ecumenism. Though no other countries endorsed the fatwa, they all more or less said it was problem of blasphemy, too. So there you have all the cloaks, all the verminous vestments of mullahs and rabbis and priests…a fat target. Again, I had a sort of Hegelian moment. I know exactly what this means to me. This is what I was born to be arguing. This is perfect. It was like being in love; I couldn't think of anyone but Salman. I kept trying to get his name into the conversation. And it was a very great battle and we won. They withdrew the bloody fatwa.

RB: They did?

CH: Absolutely. He [Rushdie] goes anywhere he likes without bodyguards. And better still, the mullahs, the turbaned turds in Teheran, are having a hard time holding on to power against the youth and the intelligentsia and masses in their country. Who will, I think, succeed in removing them. So it was worth it. Every bleat that you heard from people was repeated recently…

RB: 'Bleat' as in the sound sheep make?

CH: Bleat, bleat bleat…not from the usual flocks, and "What could we do about Afghanistan its impossible terrain. Ancient hatreds…" Absolute crock. It would have meant a surrender to barbarism, to fascism….

RB: In writing this book, besides imparting the accumulated wisdom of your years to youngsters, you assume a public role. Like being designated his intellectual heir by Gore Vidal…where do you fit in the media culture in this country? How are people positioning you and is it controllable?

CH: Long may this question continue to be asked. I don't want there to be an answer to that, but I do want it to be asked. I do want huddles of people to form to ask them. I want to be a widespread topic of conversation, and I want people to go out and buy my little books. Which they haven't been doing much until recently. I was box-office death for a long time. Lost a lot of publishers that way. I don't know if this is contrarian or not, but of the people who are cited as my fans or endorsers on the back of this book, I think it says Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Edward Said and someone else.

RB: There are only those three.

CH: …anyway since the jacket was printed, I've had a great disagreement with all those three people. They haven't all taken the same line on the recent crisis.

RB: Susan Sontag?

CH: Susan's position…I just think she didn't write enough. She's much more thoughtful about it than that New Yorker squib. And Edward Said is not Noam Chomsky…Gore Vidal the same, he has taken this as an occasion to lecture America on the sins of empire. I feel like I have just spent a whole year doing that, trying to get Kissinger rounded up, so I didn't have to prove that. And I wouldn't take a word of that back. But I didn't think now was the precise moment…

RB: Who wrote about Kissinger calling CNN when he was stalled in Germany during the Sept. 11 aftermath to offer his analysis?

CH: Oh yes, Michael Thomas in the New York Observer

RB: He probably finds Kissinger as odious as you do.

CH: No, excuse me, hold it right there. Don't let anybody say that. By the way, I think perhaps I should take back the word "verminous" as applied to a mosque. A vermin is a mullah. I don't want to back off completely…"towelhead" is a vulgarism. But it isn't racist. There ought to be a good word for people who wear Hassidic clothing, beanies or any robes and so forth — anything that is in your face, that forces you to notice that there are religious differences and also anyone who wears that with any air of superiority. In Jerusalem, the secular Israelis referred to the heavily cowled extremists as the "Crows." Anyway, "towelheads" is too thuggish…

RB: You do a good job of coining phrases or at least original iterations…I've never seen the verb "ventriloquize" before. Is that a common usage?

CH: It's not common, but I don't think I've coined it. What do you do when you operate the dummy?

RB: Puppetize?

CH: I think you ventriloquize.

RB: I'm commending you.

CH: I'm glad you like it. In this case I am using it in a different mode…

RB: Amongst the gems in this book, I liked: "Innocence only takes 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." [p. 50] That's upbeat. Would your younger students grasp that?

CH: I haven't heard from a single young person since this…

RB: How much are you going out and talking this book up?

CH: Quite a bit. The people who come and see me…it looks like a geriatric ward. These are people who probably looked on me fondly when I was young myself. I wouldn't say I had much feedback from the "young." I guess it will take time. I do hope it will come in the form of letters…

RB: This is your third book this year…

CH: If you put it like that, it makes me seem like a bit of a hack…the collection wasn't really a book, it's just a collection. The Kissinger thing, I've been writing in my head for a long time, and I happened to be very lucky and very unlucky at the timing. And this one was actually the first book I've been approached to write.

RB: Given your frequent appearances on cable, has there been talk of a television show for you?

CH: It comes up a lot.

RB: Do you want to?

CH: No. I decided a long time ago I didn't want to do that.

RB: What about documentaries?

CH: Yes, I am making one on Kissinger.

RB: I know you are on a tight schedule. Thanks for your time.

CH: Thank you.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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