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My dear X,
So thenyou 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 termin many ways it's my preferred onebut 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 "thinkoutside the box." I myself hope to live long enough to graduate, from being a "bad boy"which I once wasto 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 ladmay 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.
Zola did not in fact require much intellectual capacity to mount his defense of one wronged man. He applied, first, the forensic and journalistic skills that he was used to employing for the social background of his novels. These put him in the possession of the unarguable facts. But the mere facts were not sufficient, because the anti-Dreyfusards did not base their real case on the actual guilt or innocence of the defendant. They openly maintained that, for reasons of state, it was better not to reopen the case. Such a reopening would only serve to dissipate public confidence in order and in institutions. Why take this risk at all? And why on earth take it on behalf of a Jew? The partisans of Dreyfus therefore had to face the accusation not that they were mistaken as to the facts, but that they were treacherous, unpatriotic and irreligious; accusations which tended to keep some prudent people out of the fray.
There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Fiat justitiaruat caelum. "Do justice, and let the skies fall." In every epoch, there have been those to argue that "greater" goods, such as tribal solidarity or social cohesion, take precedence over the demands of justice. It is supposed to be an axiom of "Western" civilisation that the individual, or the truth, may not be sacrificed to hypothetical benefits such as "order." But in point of fact, such immolations have been very common. To the extent that the ideal is at least paid lip service, this result is the outcome of individual struggles against the collective instinct for a quiet life. Emile Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile role played by clericalism, by racial hatred, by militarism and by the fetishisation of "the nation" and the state. His caustic and brilliant epistolary campaign of 1897 and 1898 may be read as a curtain-raiser for most of the great contests that roiled the coming twentieth century.
People forget that, before he addressed his most celebrated letter, J'Accuse, to the president of the Republic, Zola had also issued open letters to the youth of France, and to France itself. He did not confine himself to excoriating the corrupted elite, but held up a mirror in which public opinion could see its own ugliness reflected. To the young people he wrote, after recalling the braver days when the Latin Quarter had been ablaze with sympathy for Poland and Greece, of his disgust with the students who had demonstrated against the Dreyfusards:
Anti-Semites among our young men? They do exist then, do they? This idiotic poison has really already overthrown their intellects and corrupted their souls? What a saddening, what a disquieting element for the twentieth century which is about to dawn. 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!
Describing the sick moral atmosphere, Zola used a striking image:
A shameful terror reigns, the bravest turn cowards, and no one dares say what he thinks for fear of being denounced as a traitor and a bribe-taker. The few newspapers which at first stood out for justice are now crawling in the dust before their readers ...
He returned to this theme in his letter to the French nation, asking his fellow citizens to consider:
Are you aware that the danger lies precisely in this somber obstinacy of public opinion? A hundred newspapers repeat daily that public opinion does not wish the innocence of Dreyfus, that his guilt is necessary to the safety of the country. And do you know to what point you yourself will be guilty, should those in authority take advantage of such a sophism to stifle the truth?
Never one to be abstract in his analysis of society, Zola exposed the almost sadomasochistic relationship that existed between insecure mobs and their adulation of "strong men" and the military:
Examine your conscience. Was it in truth your Army which you wished to defend when none were attacking it? Was it not rather the sword that you felt the sudden need of extolling?
At bottom, yours is not yet the real republican blood; the sight of a plumed helmet still makes your heart beat quicker, no king can come amongst us but you fall in love with him.... It is not of your Army that you are thinking, but of the General who happens to have caught your fancy.
Finest of all in my opinion was Zola's direct and measured indictment of the complicity of the Church:
And do you know where else you walk, France? You go to the Church of Rome, you return to that past of intolerance and theocracy against which the greatest of your children fought.... Today, the tactics of the anti-Semites are very simple. Catholicism, seeking in vain to influence the people, founded workmen's clubs and multiplied pilgrimages; it failed to win them back or lead them again to the foot of the altar. The question seemed definitely settled, the churches remained empty, the people had lost their faith. And behold, circumstances have occurred which make it possible to infect them with an anti-Semitic fury, and having been poisoned with this virus of fanaticism, they are launched upon the streets to shout "Down with the Jews! Death to the Jews!" ... When the people of France have been changed into fanatics and torturers, when their generosity and love of the rights of man, conquered with so much difficulty, have been rooted up out of their hearts, then no doubt God will do the rest.
This was saeva indignatio of a quality not seen since Swift himself. So that by the time Zola addressed himself, on the front page of L'Aurore, to President Felix Faure he was only completing the details of his bill of indictment, and accusing a syndicate of reactionaries of committing a double crimethat of framing an innocent man and acquitting a guilty one. (It's always as well to remember, when considering "miscarriages" of justice, as the authorities so neutrally and quaintly like to call them, that the framing of the innocent axiomatically involves the exculpation of the guilty. This is abortion, not miscarriage.)
Read Zola with care and you will be less astonished by the follies and crimesfrom Verdun to Vichythat later overtook France, and indeed overtook an entire Europe of show trials and camps and martial parades and infallible leaders. You will also understand better why it is that the papacy, which now seems to try again almost every day, can never manage an honest or clear statement on its history with Jews, Protestants and unbelievers. And all of this can be derived from one determined and principled individual exercising his right to say no, and insisting (as Zola successfully did) on his day, not "in court" as we again too neutrally say, but in the dock.
Another observation from antiquity has it that, while courage is not in itself one of the primary virtues, it is the quality that makes the exercise of the virtues possible. Again, this removes it from the strict province of the "intellectual." Galileo may have made a discovery that overthrew the complacent cosmology of the Church fathers, but when threatened with the instruments of torture he also made a swift recantation. The sun and the planets were, of course, unaffected by this disavowal, and the latter continued to revolve around the former whatever the Vatican said. (Galileo himself, as he finished his recantation, may or may not have murmured, "epur si muove""It still does move.")
But he furnishes us with an example of objective-free inquiry, rather than of heretical courage. Others had to be courageous on his behalf, as Zola had to be brave on behalf of Dreyfus. (Incidentally, it now seems more and more certain that Zola was murdered in his bed, rather than accidentally stifled by a faulty fire and a blocked chimney; further proof that great men are most frequently not honored in their own time or country.)
I think often of my late friend Ron Ridenhour, who became briefly famous when, as an American serviceman in Vietnam, he collected and exposed the evidence of the hideous massacre of the villagers at My Lai in March 1968. One of the hardest things for anyone to face is the conclusion that his or her "own" side is in the wrong when engaged in a war. The pressure to keep silent and be a "team player" is reinforceable by the accusations of cowardice or treachery that will swiftly be made against dissenters. Sinister phrases of coercion, such as "stabbing in the back" or "giving ammunition to the enemy," have their origin in this dilemma and are always available to help compel unanimity. For resisting this, and for insisting that American officers and men be bound by the customary laws of war, Ron Ridenhour put many people in safer positions to shame. It probably helped, as he once told me, that he himself was the son of a poor white Arizona good ol' boy family, rather than a bookish or pointy-headed bleeding heart. It all began, in his recollection, when as an uneducated draftee he was lying in his bunk and overheard a group of fellow enlisted men planning a nighttime assault on the only black soldier in the hut. Ron said that he sat up in his; own bunk, and heard himself saying, "If you want to do that, you have to come through me." As so often, the determination of one individual was enough to dishearten those whose courage was mob-derived. Butt remember, until the crucial moment arrived he had no idea that he was going to behave in this way.
In my life I have had the privilege and luck of meeting and interviewing a number of brave dissidents in many and various countries and societies. Very frequently, they can trace their careers (which partly "chose" them rather than being chosen by them) to an incident in early life where they felt obliged to make or take a stand. Sometimes, too, a precept is offered and takes root. Bertrand Russell in his Autobiography records that his rather fearsome Puritan grandmother "gave me a Bible with her favourite texts written on the fly-leaf. Among these was 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.' Her emphasis upon this text led me in later life to be not afraid of belonging to small minorities." It's rather affecting to find the future hammer of the Christians being "confirmed" in this way. It also proves that sound maxims can appear in the least probable places.
Quite often, the "baptism" of a future dissenter occurs in something unplanned, such as a spontaneous resistance to an episode of bullying or bigotry, or a challenge to some piece of pedagogical stupidity. There is good reason to think that such reactions arise from something innate rather than something inculcated: Nickleby doesn't know until the moment of the crisis that he is going to stick up for poor Smike. Noam Chomsky recalls hearing the news of the obliteration of Hiroshima as a young man, and experiencing the need to go off and find solitude because there was nobody he felt he could talk to. It would be encouraging to believe that such reactions are innate, because then we can be certain that they will continue to occur, and will not depend for their occurrence upon the transmission of good examples or morality tales.
It may be that you, my dear X, recognise something of yourself in these instances; a disposition to resistance, however slight, against arbitrary authority or witless mass opinion, or a thrill of recognition when you encounter some well-wrought phrase from a free intelligence. If so, let us continue to correspond so that I may draw from your experience even as you flatter me by asking to draw upon mine. For the moment, do bear in mind that the cynics have a point, of a sort, when they speak of the "professional nay-sayer." To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist. And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.
Excerpted from letters to a young contrarian
by Christopher Hitchens. Copyright © 2001 by Christopher Hitchens. Excerpted by permission.