Christopher Hitchens

Letters to a Young Contrarian

"...moment of near despair is quite often the moment that precedes courage rather than resignation. "

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A fiery, eloquent, direct condemnation of injustice, fundamentalist unreason, religious prosecution, and a loud encouragement to think for one's self.

In The Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens shares a fervent belief in responsibility, justice, reason, and thinking. This often sets him on collision course with figures of authority and power - whether they be governments, religions, or fundamentalists.

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!

He urges the reader throughout the book to think for one's self, to reason through difficult question and never to accept wholesale scripts coming from anywhere - especially not from nations and religions. He underlines the power an individual has, even when faced with mobs and magnitudes.

As so often, the determination of one individual was enough to dishearten those whose courage was mob-derived. But remember, until the crucial moment arrived he had no idea that he was going to behave in this way.

Truth, justice, and freedom aren't a given. No one can assure them unless every individual prizes them above his or her own comfort. They require courage and courage requires them.

Frederick Douglass announced that those who expected truth or justice without a struggle were like those who could imagine the sea without an image of the tempest.

He invites us to connect with our fellows on the grounds of truth and respect, so that we may learn and teach without violence - neither physical nor psychological.

The great reward, if that’s the right word, lies in the people you will meet when engaged in the same work, the lessons you will learn, and the confidence you will acquire from having some experiences and convictions of your own—to set against the received or thirdhand opinions of so many others.

But when facing terror and threat of violence, Hitchens takes pleasure in dismantling it on the grounds of logic and sheer eloquence. He knows the other side won't budge, but his hope is to plant the seed of scepticism in the mind of the audience. This is evident in his commentary on the death sentence Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued for the prominent writer Salman Rushdie.

May I assume that you are opposed without reservation to the suborning of the murder, for pay, of a literary figure? It was educational to see how often this assurance would be withheld, or offered in a qualified form. In those cases, I would refuse to debate any further. So I was a reductionist in that instance, and proud of my simple-mindedness.

Lastly, Hitchens abandons all debate and addresses the reader directly in a voice that is difficult to shy away from.

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.

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