The most politically encouraging event on the horizon — which is a very bleak one politically — is the possibility of fusion or synthesis of some of the positions of what is to be called left and some of what is to be called libertarian. The critical junction could be, and in some ways already is, the War on Drugs.
The War on Drugs is an attempt by force, by the state, at mass behavior modification. Among other things, it is a denial of medical rights, and certainly a denial of all civil and political rights. It involves a collusion with the most gruesome possible allies in the Third World. It’s very hard for me to say that there’s an issue more important than that at the moment.
The War on Drugs does indeed present the ultimate “liberaltarian” issue. American liberals and libertarians may disagree on the proper role of the state, but I can think of few political issues that unite these two ideologically distinct groups like the perfect storm of horrible policies that comprise drug prohibition.
"What I’ll tell you is this—Christopher Hitchens’ writing changed my life. I need to go back over Letters To A Young Contrarian (I read it a decade ago) but I remember that I was struggling mightily at the time wondering why I was trying to write. And that book just clarified what a writer was supposed to be."
"The call [to war in Iraq] was an exercise in peace through strength. But the cause was yet another move in the policy of keeping a region divided and embittered, and therefore accessible to the franchisers of weaponry and the owners of black gold. An earlier regional player, Benjamin Disraeli, once sarcastically remarked that you could tell a weak government by its eagerness to resort to strong measures. The Bush administration uses strong measures to ensure weak government abroad, and has enfeebled democratic government at home. The reasoned objection must be that this is a dangerous and dishonorable pursuit, in which the wealthy gamblers have become much too accustomed to paying their bad debts with the blood of others."
Hitchens’ post-9/11 conversion to neo-conservative foreign policy views is one of the political contradictions that defined him as a commentator. This quote from the Gulf War era demonstrates just how profound of a shift Hitchens made on foreign policy, and why so many friends and colleagues abandoned him professionally, socially and politically after he declared himself in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
I think Hitchens’ conversion came from his outright disgust with Middle Eastern dictators, and a deep feeling that their regimes created a culture in which animosity toward the West, manifested in 9/11 style attacks, was allowed to fester. That innocent people, both in the West and in dictatorial regimes, suffered as a result these totalitarian leaders, I think was intolerable to him.
However, I think in his disgust, he lost sight of the inherent dangers of Good Faith Imperialist “world policing” impulses, which he identified so brilliantly in the above remarks. That he failed to see the second incursion into Iraq as a familiar brand of quagmire-inducing hazardous foreign policy, rather than a golden opportunity to pacify a volatile dictator and “free” his people, tells me that Hitchens allowed his disgust for totalitarian regimes and the radicalism they breed to overwhelm him emotionally. In doing so, he lost sight of the inherent folly of attempting to impose Democracy on a people from the outside-in through violence. It is as if he removed Burke from his bookshelf and replaced him at every turn with Fukuyama.
Sullivan recalls one of Christopher Hitchens’ favorite poems, by William Butler Yeats:
I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor, No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before. Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, A lonely impulse of delight Drove to this tumult in the clouds; I balanced all, brought all to mind, The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind In balance with this life, this death.
I remember being a sophomore in High School, a little black kid on the south side of Chicago, and being reduced to tears while trying to fend off verbal attacks from my best friends, and it all stemmed from my telling them that I did not believe in god. I remember desperately thinking, “I’m not fighting well enough. I’m alone on this and I can’t defend myself!” and the tears were borne out of a frustration that if I were only somehow better, then I could at least make my friends respect my point of view, if not see what I saw.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I found Mr. Hitchen’s work, and where I initially went to school his words were rather fortifying. He was flawed, and I don’t know what argument you could make that he was the best of men, but he was the kind of fighter that I wanted, and still want, to be. He was a man so comfortable and assured in what he knew that you could tell that he didn’t just want to just challenge the thought or the line of the moment, but more to dominate the entire basis of an idea [so much] that it left his opposition questioning the foundations of their own argument. I know that at least for me, and a few others I know, there was some mean-spirited satisfaction in having the tables turned, but over and above that was the elation in finally having not only a voice, but one that can and would be heard.
I think it must be a right of passage for every young, self-styled cosmopolitan intellectual that at some point in your intellectual development, you will engage in rigorous, heated, and perhaps even malicious debates about the Existence of God. For those who attend college, I think these debates generally start occurring in earnest after taking Philosophy 101: a watershed moment during which many young people are forced, for the first time, to start thinking a little more deeply about the Big Questions. For some, these exercises are little more than academic diversions, relevant only insomuch as they impact one’s grade at the end of the semester.
But for others, these questions are more important. Deeper questions about the Meaning of Life, Causality, Free Will…to speak more broadly, the nature of things. The small minority of college freshmen who actually give enough of a shit about these questions to argue about them passionately are, in my view, those who come to comprise the self-styled cosmopolitan intellectuals who set themselves apart (socially speaking) from their peers; not because they have to, or out of any conceited notion of Ivory-tower intellectualism (though that sensibility may inevitably inure); but because these young people simply cannot sleep at night with the feeling that some part of their ideological landscape remains unjustified. No assertion must be left to stand on empty assumptions, serving as place-holders for the absence of a well-reasoned position on any issue. The pursuit of truth becomes a rabid, compulsory exercise. One that is, frankly, decidedly uncool for a young man in his prime.
But the desire to fit in with one’s peers does not pacify the nattering mental nabobs that worry the young, self-styled cosmopolitan intellectual as he goes to sleep. As you get older, you find yourself being introduced to this or that philosopher, agreeing or disagreeing as you get along. Most will be exposed to a non-exclusive laundry list of Great Thinkers, whose names I could hardly spontaneously summarize in one list. You might start with the Greeks and their Roman counterparts: Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Sophocles, Epicurus, Heraclitus, Aeschylus, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, etc. Perhaps then you moved on to the Medieval church philosophers, drinking in Aquinas, or in my case, Augustine, spiced with the poetry of Dante’s Inferno (nobody reads Purgatorio or Paradiso, let’s face it). Many then move to the enlightenment and its heirs: Hume, Spinoza, Kant, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Mill, Voltaire, Montesquieu, De Tocqueville, Des Cartes, Nietzche, Sartre, Comte, Marx, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Oppenheimer, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, and so on. Perhaps somewhere along the line you are exposed to Eastern Philosophies, vis-a-vis Kong Fuzi, Laozi, Shang Yang, Sun Tzu, etc. Clearly I’m mincing chronological eras and schools of thought, but if you haven’t read these philosophers, you’ve probably at least heard of (most) of them.
Indeed, I would be surprised to find any individual who actually has read, from cover to cover, at least one volume from each of the above philosophers. But seeking out those who’ve read things you haven’t is part of the joy of what I might call “The Dialogue.” The Dialogue is the aggregate collection of conversations, discussions, remarks, reflections, interrogatories, debates, ponderances, thoughts and considerations that arise from the exchange of ideas with other people; namely, friends and acquaintances who, generally speaking, share your deeply uncool concern for the nature of things. These exchanges, I feel, are the meat of spiritual sustenance. Agree or disagree, you will usually walk away with a deeper appreciation, or at least a more thorough understanding, of the subject you’ve discussed with your peers.
And disagree you will. I have had many vivid, angry, aggressive, downright malicious arguments with people that I would consider friends and, for that matter, family members. Free Will is a contentious topic in my house, and I’ve attempted on more than one occasion to convince a friend that Act Utilitarianism suffers from potential tragic moral conflicts the same as Kantian Ethics. But that is a debate that I doubt shall ever be resolved.
But what I treasure most about The Dialogue is not what I’ve learned about moral truth or philosophy; rather, what I treasure most is what I’ve learned about myself and other people. After you hurt someone’s feelings in a particularly angry, harsh debate, you have time to reflect. It is easy to conclude that your disagreements bear on questions so fundamental to your character that they are not mere differences of opinion. It is easier still to conclude that, having had a contentious, angry debate with someone, they no longer fit in your life. I have certainly found myself in this position before, trying to reconcile friendships and family bonds tainted by the scars of deep ideological divisions.
But you musn’t do this. It is intellectual laziness. You can disagree without being disagreeable. And I am somewhat ashamed to say that it took me years to figure this out. I used to be the type of person that could tolerate only a moderate level of ideological deviation before I wrote people off as either irrational or immoral. And I would be derelict in my duties as a somewhat-less-young (begging your mercy on the “somewhat”) self-styled cosmopolitan intellectual if I didn’t admit that I’m hardly immune from succumbing to the temptations of derision, ad hominem, condescension, and vitriol. But I do feel that I keep my temper most of the time. And I have The Dialogue to thank for that.
The joy of Philosophy is available to everyone, but not everybody seeks it; at least not in equal measure. Some people simply don’t need to. They are content to see the world as it appears, and have no deep burning unanswered questions. To some extent, I’m jealous of these individuals. I see in them the P’u virtue, which I have never been able to achieve. Others, like myself, lie awake at night, incapable of dealing with the complex, unsolved, or incompletely sketched issues that constantly weigh upon their mind. The first time you ask yourself whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound if there’s nobody around to hear it, or whether God can create a boulder he (she?) couldn’t lift, you treat with the types of questions that I used to spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about, to the detriment of more mundane pursuits, like girls, sports statistics, or bitchin’ parties. To be frank, I still do, to the extent that I have time to simply sit and peacefully ponder anymore.
Still yet, there are those whose thirst for knowledge is not simply a function of an insatiable desire for truth. There are those who seek knowledge because they see things in the world that strike them as deeply wrong. Perhaps they don’t understand why at first, but throughout their life, they have seen a category of human action or existence that, whenever it rears its head, results almost inevitably in injustice. This force may be primal in of itself: without alignment, intention, or agency. It could even be something that is a purely social or metaphysical construct. But the injustice which flows from its existence, action, or application nonetheless drives certain people to seek to understand it: its causes, its genesis, its nature, its reason for existing, and so forth. In learning the nature of that which has gripped them with furor and indignation, they come to understand how to mitigate it, and perhaps even defeat it.
I believe this is what motivated Christopher Hitchens. A complicated and, at times, contradictory man whose work I only discovered a few years ago. Something I deeply regret, and today, regret infinitely more.