Letters to a Young Contrarian


By Christopher Hitchens

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From bestselling author and provocateur Christopher Hitchens, the classic guide to the art of principled dissent and disagreement

In Letters to a Young Contrarian, bestselling author and world-class provocateur Christopher Hitchens inspires the radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels, and angry young (wo)men of tomorrow. Exploring the entire range of "contrary positions"—from noble dissident to gratuitous nag—Hitchens introduces the next generation to the minds and the misfits who influenced him, invoking such mentors as Emile Zola, Rosa Parks, and George Orwell. As is his trademark, Hitchens pointedly pitches himself in contrast to stagnant attitudes across the ideological spectrum. No other writer has matched Hitchens's understanding of the importance of disagreement—to personal integrity, to informed discussion, to true progress, to democracy itself.


The Art of Mentoring from Basic Books
Letters to a Young Lawyer
Alan Dershowitz
Letters to a Young Contrarian
Christopher Hitchens
Letters to a Young Golfer
Bob Duval
Letters to a Young Conservative
Dinesh D'Souza
Letters to a Young Activist
Todd Gitlin
Letters to a Young Therapist
Mary Pipher
Letters to a Young Chef
Daniel Boulud
Letters to a Young Gymnast
Nadia Comaneci
Letters to a Young Catholic
George Weigel
Letters to a Young Actor
Robert Brustein

Also by Christopher Hitchens
Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays
Blood, Class, and Empire:
The Enduring Anglo-American Relationship
A Long Short War:
The Postponed Liberation of Iraq
Why Orwell Matters
Left Hooks, Right Crosses:
A Decade of Political Writing
Orwell's Victory
The Trial of Henry Kissinger
Unacknowledged Legislation:
Writers in the Public Sphere
No One Left to Lie To:
The Values of the Worst Family
The Missionary Position:
Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice
For the Sake of Argument:
Essays and Minority Reports
The Monarchy
Blood, Class, and Nostalgia:
Anglo-American Ironies
Prepared for the Worst:
Selected Essays and Minority Reports
Hostage to History:
Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger

In memory of Peter Sedgwick

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. While the book has been with its editors and printers, I have been occupied on several other fronts, as you know. And a stray question of yours floated into my mind: 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. And I don't believe those authors who say that they don't care about reviews or notices. However, it does tire me to read, time and again, reviews and notices that are based on clippings from earlier reviews and notices. Thus, there's always an early paragraph, usually written in a standard form of borrowed words, that says "Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana as well as Bill Clinton, now turns to . . . ."
Of course, as you guessed, this is dispiriting. For one thing, it bores me to see my supposed "profession" reduced to recycling. Nobody ever even has the originality to say "Hitchens, who criticised Mother Teresa for her warm endorsement of the Duvalier regime in Haiti." This is the surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death. However, it wasn't self-pity that prompted me to write. Let me tell you what happened to me in the course of a single month, between May and June of 2001.
At the direct request of the Vatican, I was invited to give evidence for the opposing side in the hearings on Mother Teresa's impending canonisation. It was an astonishing opportunity to play Devil's Advocate in the literal sense, and I must say that the Church behaved with infinitely more care and scruple than my liberal critics. A closed room, a Bible, a tape-recorder, a Monsignor, a Deacon and a Father—a solemn exercise in deposition, where I was encouraged to produce all my findings and opinions. I'll tell you all about it at another time; the point is that the record is not now the monopoly of the fundamentalists.
British television broadcast an exhaustive documentary on Princess Diana, giving (at last) proper space and time to those of us who did not subscribe to her cult. I was interviewed at some length, and didn't receive a fraction of the hysterical mailbag that was, not long ago, an occupational hazard. Who could make that soufflé rise twice?
Slobodan Milosevic was taken to the Hague to face a tribunal. I didn't exactly rejoice at the way he was effectively "bought" from Serbia in exchange for promises of financial aid, but it is some years now since he undertook at Dayton to cooperate with the tribunal, and enough was enough. I thought of all the arguments I'd had about Srebrenica and Sarajevo and Kosovo, and all the half-baked excuses that had been offered for doing nothing to stop Serbo-fascism, and all the times in Bosnia when the situation had seemed hopeless, and allowed myself to be quietly proud of what little I'd done, as well as ashamed by how little that was.
Bill Clinton's approving Presidential initials were found on a note written by his half-brother Roger, who had been engaged in trying to obtain a pardon for a drug-dealer and also engaged in explaining how he'd come by a brick-thick block of traveler's checks. There was the usual obfuscation about "no proven quid pro quo" but I noticed, in the aftermath of the Rich pardon, that it had been several months since I'd been able to get into a fight over whether Clinton was a cheap crook or not. Believe me, I remember when this was otherwise.…
Henry Kissinger, challenged on television to meet my accusation that he was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, responded with a maniacal and desperate attempt to change the subject, and denounced me as a denier of the Nazi Holocaust. (He also followed custom in mentioning Mother Teresa and, for some reason, Jackie Kennedy.) This enabled me to bring legal proceedings against him, both for defamation in my own case and - via the discovery process - to demonstrate that he was a practised and habitual liar. Considering what I had said about him in print, the disproportion between my suing him and him suing me was evident to all. But I could prove that what I said was true, whereas he could not, and that is still a difference. (Adlai Stevenson once said to Richard Nixon: "If you stop telling lies about me I'll stop telling the truth about you." I like the euphony, but I'd have no right to make such a bargain with the man who devastated Cambodia and Cyprus and Chile and East Timor.)
So this was an amazing and wondrous month; perhaps the best of my life. (I finished my centennial study of George Orwell in the same period. Much more civilised to be writing about him than any of the above.) I tell you about it not just in order to boast, though there is that. It went to make up for many, many other months, when the celebrity culture and the spin-scum and the crooked lawyers and pseudo-statesmen and clerics seemed to have everything their own way. They will be back, of course. They are always "back". They never leave. But their victory is not pre-determined. And there are vindications to be had as well, far sweeter than anything contained in the meretricious illusion of good notices or "a good press".
I hope I shall be able to reinforce some of this in the following pages, which I once again thank you for provoking me to write.
—Christopher Hitchens
Stanford, California
Independence Day 2001

The ensuing pages represent my tentative acceptance of a challenge that was made to me in the early months of the year 2000. Could I offer any advice to the young and the restless; any counsel that would help them avoid disillusionment? Among my students at the New School in New York, and in the bars and cafes of the other campuses where I spoke, there were many who retained the unfashionable hope of changing the world for the better and (which is not quite the same thing) of living a life that would be, as far as possible, self-determined. This conversation had taken many forms over the years, until I began to feel the weight of every millisecond that marked me as a grizzled soixante-huitard, or survivor of the last intelligible era of revolutionary upheaval, the one that partly ended and partly culminated in les evenements de quatre-vingt neuf. Then came the proposal to state and discuss the matter in epistolary form; to be specific, the form suggested by Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet. My immediate reaction was to recall what Byron said in his poem of reproach to the servile Greeks:
And shall thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?
However, various of my students thought it might be worthwhile, or at least potentially amusing, and the following letters are written to one of them in distilled form, as if he/she represented them all.

My dear X,
So then—you rather tend to flatter and embarrass me, when you inquire my advice as to how a radical or "contrarian" life may be lived. The flattery is in your suggestion that I might be anybody's "model," when almost by definition a single existence cannot furnish any pattern (and, if it is lived in dissent, should not anyway be supposed to be emulated). The embarrassment lies in the very title that you propose. It is a strange thing, but it remains true that our language and culture contain no proper word for your aspiration. The noble title of "dissident" must be earned rather than claimed; it connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement, and it has been consecrated by many exemplary and courageous men and women. "Radical" is a useful and honorable term—in many ways it's my preferred one—but it comes with various health warnings that I'll discuss with you in a later missive. Our remaining expressions—"maverick," "loose cannon," "rebel," "angry young man," "gadfly"—are all slightly affectionate and diminutive and are, perhaps for that reason, somewhat condescending. It can be understood from them that society, like a benign family, tolerates and even admires eccentricity. Even the term "Iconoclast" is seldom used negatively, but rather to suggest that the breaking of images is a harmless discharge of energy. There even exist official phrases of approbation for this tendency, of which the latest is the supposedly praiseworthy ability to "think outside the box." I myself hope to live long enough to graduate, from being a "bad boy"—which I once was—to becoming "a curmudgeon." And then "the enormous condescension of posterity"—a rather suggestive phrase minted by E.P. Thompson, a heretic who was a veteran when I was but a lad—may cover my bones.
Go too far outside "the box," of course, and you will encounter a vernacular that is much less "tolerant." Here, the key words are "fanatic," "troublemaker," "misfit" or "malcontent." In between we can find numberless self-congratulatory memoirs, with generic titles such as Against the Stream, or Against the Current. (Harold Rosenberg, writing about his fellow "New York intellectuals," once gave this school the collective name of "the herd of independent minds.")
Meanwhile, the ceaseless requirements of the entertainment industry also threaten to deprive us of other forms of critical style, and of the means of appreciating them. To be called "satirical" or "ironic" is now to be patronised in a different way; the satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like "irony" has become a lazy synonym for "anomie," there is scant room for originality.
However, let us not repine. It's too much to expect to live in an age that is actually propitious for dissent. And most people, most of the time, prefer to seek approval or security. Nor should this surprise us (and nor, incidentally, are those desires contemptible in themselves). Nonetheless, there are in all periods people who feel themselves in some fashion to be apart. And it is not too much to say that humanity is very much in debt to such people, whether it chooses to acknowledge the debt or not. (Don't expect to be thanked, by the way. The life of an oppositionist is supposed to be difficult.)
I nearly hit upon the word "dissenter" just now, which might do as a definition if it were not for certain religious and sectarian connotations. The same problem arises with "freethinker." But the latter term is probably the superior one, since it makes an essential point about thinking for oneself. The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. The term "intellectual" was originally coined by those in France who believed in the guilt of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. They thought that they were defending an organic, harmonious and ordered society against nihilism, and they deployed this contemptuous word against those they regarded as the diseased, the introspective, the disloyal and the unsound. The word hasn't completely lost this association even now, though it is less frequently used as an insult. (And, like "Tory," "impressionist" and "suffragette," all of them originated as terms of abuse or scorn, it has been annexed by some of its targets and worn with pride.) One feels something of the same sense of embarrassment in claiming to be an "intellectual" as one does in purporting to be a dissident, but the figure of Emile Zola offers encouragement, and his singular campaign for justice is one of the imperishable examples of what may be accomplished by an individual.


  • "Hitchens exhibits precisely the combination of indignation and intellect that he recommends to others."—New York Times Book Review
  • "[Hitchens] is, first and last, a writer, an always exciting, often exacting, furious polemicist."—Boston Globe
  • "Letters shows Hitchens's best....[H]e makes entertaining mincemeat of self-satisfied politicians and shreds received ideas and media-spun consensus with a fearlessness that is invaluable in our mealymouthed punditocracy."—Village Voice
  • "Delicious....[Letters to a Young Contrarian] showcases Hitchens at his most savage and wise."—Progressive
  • "Part revolutionist, part court jester, he is possessed of a wickedly effective prose style and sense of moral purpose....True democracy would not exist without Hitchens and his ilk. May this book breed many more contrarians, young and old alike."—Timeout New York

On Sale
Apr 13, 2005
Page Count
160 pages
Basic Books

Christopher Hitchens

About the Author

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a prolific author, columnist, editor, and book critic, writing on issues ranging from politics, to religion, to the nature of debate itself. Hitchens' 2007 manifesto God Is Not Great was a #1 New York Times bestseller and National Book Award nominee. His other New York Times bestsellers include Hitch 22Arguably, and Mortality

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