16 December 2011: Re-posting this review in memory of Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011. You were always an inspiration. An atheist in a foxhole. RIP
Christopher Hitchens, whose previous targets have even included Mother Teresa and Princess Diana … No, I’m kidding. This recycled introduction to one of our age’s most courageous and accomplished writers is put forth in the preface to his 2001 book, Letters to a Young Contrarian. The habit of writing reviews from clippings of other reviews is, Hitchens says, the “surreptitious way in which dissenting views are marginalised, or patronised to death.” And so, on that note, I’d encourage readers to get their hands on Love, Poetry and War – a compilation of Hitchens’ essays covering some of his more controversial (yet always well-reasoned and argued) views.
I read Letters to a Young Contrarian while living in Århus, Denmark and studying at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, at a time when I found myself among a disconcertingly small minority of students who didn’t think the publishers of those notorious cartoons depicting Mohammed deserved in some way the backlash they (and a lot of other unconnected and innocent Danes) received. Similarly, I was excited to meet the several Dutch students in my rather cosmopolitan class and discuss one of their politicians whose book, Infidel, I had recently read. When I mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, they looked at me as though I’d just raised my hand in the Nazi salute and cried Heil Hitler! She’s a racist, they said. An islamaphobe! But surely, I thought, if anyone has the right to fear the ideas inherent in Islamic dogma, it’s a woman who has endured abuse and oppression of the worse kind at its hands? If there’s anyone we should be listening to, it’s her?
Finding myself far less equipped to defend my bourgeoning opinions than someone like Christopher Hitchens, I was delighted when his book turned up as a gift from a faraway loved one in the post.
Living a long way from home, the epistolary style was perfectly timed – I was writing more letters and emails to old friends and family than I ever had before. These letters from Hitchens, addressed to the reader in the second person, seemed like an extension of that and felt thrillingly intimate, as if he was writing directly to me.
Not that I would necessarily call myself a Young Contrarian. One of Hitchens’ traits that I admire and wish I could emulate more is his courage of conviction – and willingness, where necessary, to be disliked; to have enemies. I sometimes find myself far too eager to please – or, more realistically, avoid confrontation – which means I resort to softening my views or holding back in order to keep the peace. It’s something I hope to work on, and am inspired to do so by the likes of Christopher Hitchens, and many of his colleagues and peers.
I was genuinely saddened when I heard of Hitchens’ oesophageal cancer, from which it seems his long-term survival is unlikely. I recently heard him say that he envies the young generation today – for the changes they will see in the world, the developments in science and technology and, I imagine, the opportunities they have ahead of them to express their mind, challenge hypocrisy and, importantly, to tell the truth.
Winston Churchill is quoted as having once said: “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
I may just pick up my copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian again soon to reignite the flame. Because, if there’s one way I can show my respects to a dying writer I admire, it’s to retain the courage of conviction he espouses, even when contrary to the mainstream, and even if I make a few enemies along the way.