DURING THE WEEK of the Democratic National Convention last year, I found myself at a conservative event at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. I had just left college in North Carolina to join the staff of FrontPageMagazine.com and its parent organization, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, so I was new both to the job and to Southern California. Wearing a navy blazer, pressed khaki pants, a red "power tie" and the fresh face of a prep-schooler, I had joined a few of my new colleagues in talking to a man who was quite my opposite—yet to whom I was immediately drawn. He spoke with a British accent, and wore a tattered tweed jacket, blue jeans, and no tie. His weary face seemed to have weathered years of trouble, and he nursed it occasionally by guiding a glass of brandy toward his mouth. As we talked, he berated various policies and public figures with the intimacy, scorn, and devastating wit usually reserved for the criticism of first wives. I didn’t bother to dissect what he was saying; I could only laugh hysterically, and think, "This guy’s really cool."
I didn’t realize at the time that I was speaking with Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t realize either that he had just written a Philippic against Bill Clinton titled, No One Left to Lie To, or that he was a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation. It didn’t even register that I was speaking with the brother of Peter Hitchens, the conservative British writer whose stunning Jeremiad titled The Abolition of Britain I had read just a few weeks earlier. None of that mattered, though. Like a young Athenian drawn to Socrates, I knew instantly that I could learn a lot from this guy, even if that knowledge left me forever corrupted. Hitchens confirmed as much when he got up and spoke to those who had assembled at the hotel. As the Democrats across town were toasting their leaders and handing the Presidential Nomination to Al Gore, Mr. Hitchens went before the audience at the Peninsula, and condemned the sitting president as a murderer, a rapist, and a war criminal—tall charges all, of course. Yet as he marshaled his enormous intellect to defend each claim—all the while maintaining his good humor – I knew I was in the presence of someone really special.
Though I’m thoroughly inoculated against his liberal ideas, my admiration for Mr. Hitchens has only grown since that hot August day of a year ago. Had I met Hitchens a few years earlier, though, I might well have ended up a leftist. That’s why concerned conservative parents might want to keep his seductive new book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, away from their teenage children—even as they devour it themselves. It is an excellent little handbook on how to live life in opposition to society’s ruling authorities. The book even contains a few lessons that most conservatives will appreciate.
Those conservative points aren’t the focus of the book, of course. The book seems to have been written instead for the youthful political "dissidents" of the left, the types who protest sweatshops, the World Trade Organization, and the War Against Terrorism. It takes the form of 18 epistles to "My Dear X" as "advice as to how a radical or ‘contrarian’ life may be lived."
"The noble title of ‘dissident’ must be earned rather than claimed," writes Hitchens. "It connotes sacrifice and risk rather than mere disagreement." He goes on to argue not only that the life of the dissident includes an appetite for conflict, a skepticism of authority, a passion for justice, and a desire to learn. "The high ambition…seems to me to be this: That one should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism."
Throughout the book, Hitchens provides examples from history, literature, and his own personal experience of how this maxim might be put into practice. In a mere 141 pages, he covers such wide-ranging topics as the "imperishable example" of Emile Zola, the virtues of travel and internationalism, and a paean to "elitism" as a willingness to buck popular opinion. Hitchens also provides some anecdotes from his long and adventurous career as a journalist. One minute, Hitchens takes us to the Balkans to observe the horrors of ethnic cleansing, the next minute we’re in the halls of congress, fighting Washington’s bureaucratic stupidities and injustices.
Hitchens treads onto some territory that some readers may find uncomfortable when he discusses Marx’s dictum, de omnibus dubitandum ("All things are to be doubted.") I, for one, bristled as I read his broadside against theism and organized religion in the ninth letter. Hitchens largely rehashes the centuries-old enlightenment-era arguments against religion (it’s divisive; it lacks logical evidence in its support; it serves as a form of mind control, etc.) I wasn’t put off so much by the unoriginality of Hitchens’ arguments here, as I was by his failure to acknowledge that religious life has itself become a sort of contrarian lifestyle in the past few decades. People who embrace the skepticism and the loose living of the Woodstock Generation are a dime a dozen. Show me someone who, in this day and age, believes in God, duty, humility, and self-denial—religious values all—and I’ll show you someone who’s on the cutting edge of a counter-revolution.
I could also dispute some of Hitchens’ remarks on the legitimate use of state authority—particularly its use of military power and the death penalty—but I won’t, lest Hitchens respond directly and dwarf my puny intellect in the process – and lest I deter you, dear reader, from purchasing an otherwise superb book. Hitchens offers enough Clinton-hatred and New York Times bashing (including an entire chapter on the paper’s "bright, smug, pompous, idiotic" slogan, "All the News that’s Fit to Print") to warm any conservative reader’s heart. And his advice to the youthful dissident is something that everyone—young or old—should digest before entering the public square.