Atanu Dey On India's Development

Hitchens: Letters to a Young Contrarian

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CHitchens “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.”

That’s Christopher Hitchens in Letters to a Young Contrarian.

I agree with Hitchens on many things, but not everything. Distrust compassion? Compassion and empathy are what make us human. I am sure that he is confusing two distinct emotions: perhaps he meant pity. Distrust pity; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Then there’s the very strange “Picture all experts as if they were mammals.” Actually, all experts are mammals. Unless of course that there are experts who are birds or reptiles. Anyway, the man was a brilliant polemicist, amazing writer and a debater par excellence. He was not a deep thinker. But then you cannot be reading & writing thousands of words a day, drinking scotch by the gallons, chain-smoking, debating, speaking at conferences, appearing on TV, making documentaries, reporting from war zones, teaching, traveling the world, promoting books — and also find the time and energy to think deeply. The bottom line: good guy who lived life king sized and mostly poured derision on the pretentious and the fake.

  • VirtualPresence

    I believe that Hitchens was a man who said what he meant and rarely ever misspoke. i think the “Distrust compassion” statement must be seen from the context of the “compassionate missionary” and their ilk. Compassion from a trusted, loving human can be an empowering feeling but the same from strangers calls their motives into question, more so in the current big-fish-eat-small-fish world we live in.

    Regarding the mammal expert remark i think he cautions us against deifying any one and that skepticism must be the order of the day, Trust but verify.

  • Guest

    I think by compassion, he refers to the kind of socialistic nonsense that we are familiar with here in India. Or the compassion that one shows towards their servant or slave. Hard rationalism is better than compassion any day of the week.

    And by mammals I think he means monkeys.

    By the way, there is this passage from Oscar Wilde in “The Soul of Man under Socialism”. Hitchens was interested in Wilde and he *might* have been thinking along these lines when talking about compassion being bad. By the way, the essay is actually a case for socialism which one can’t approve of, albeit its a philosopher’s/artist’s view of socialism. Notwithstanding the idealogical problems in the essay as a whole, I like this passage anyway:

    “The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism – are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable, though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.

    They try to solve the problem of poverty, for instance, by keeping the poor alive; or, in the case of a very advanced school, by amusing the poor.

    But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible. And the altruistic virtues have really prevented the carrying out of this aim. Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood
    by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good; and at last we have had the spectacle of men who have really studied the problem and know the life – educated men who live in the East End – coming forward and imploring the community to restrain its altruistic impulses of charity, benevolence, and the like. They do so on the ground that such charity degrades and demoralises. They are perfectly right. Charity creates a multitude of sins.”

    —-

  • shaviv

    Chidambaram today stressed the need for combining “passion for growth with compassion for poor”. If indeed he is referring to Congress’ track record of compassion for the poor, one can see quite clearly, why one should distrust compassion, as per Hitchens.