14 September 2011

Thank you, Mr. Hitchens

Letters to a Young ContrarianLetters to a Young Contrarian

Though no longer young, I remain at heart a contrarian, someone who is driven to question conventional wisdom and popular attitudes. Indeed, I feel this is something of a duty – one in which I am far more lax than I have any excuse to be, and clearly far more lax than Mr. Hitchens is. Living as I do in a country that has fallen victim to creeping ethno-religious totalitarianism, my conscience was not simply pricked, but speared, when I read this:

The two worst things, as one can work out without leaving home, are racism and religion. When allied, these two approximate to what I imagine fascism must have felt like.

As we Sri Lankans know all too well, he is right. As we also know, fascism is hard to stand against. Amazingly, Hitchens offers a recommendation for living conscientiously with all kinds of oppression, one he calls living ‘as if’ – living as if one were a citizen of a free society, truly able to exercise all one’s rights and duties, so that one’s way of life becomes itself a form of protest.

In order to survive those years of stalemate and realpolitik... a number of important dissidents evolved a strategy for survival. In a phrase, they decided to live ‘as if’... Vaclav Havel, then working as a marginal playwright and poet in a society and state that truly merited the title of Absurd... proposed living ‘as if’ he were a citizen of a free society, ‘as if’ lying and cowardice were not mandatory patriotic duties, ‘as if’ his government had actually signed... the various treaties and agreements that enshrine universal human rights. He called this tactic 'The Power of the Powerless’ because, even when disagreement can be almost forbidden, a state that insists on actually compelling assent can be relatively easily made to look stupid.

I found this book put heart into me, reinforcing my belief that disagreement and argument are vital to the pursuit of happiness. I am no political activist, but I believe in certain values and know certain things to be true, and I try to live by these truths and values. The struggle is hard and often seems futile, especially when one’s friends and colleagues turn away to embrace the lie. At times like this, it is good to learn that the effort is not necessarily wasted. It is rarely one feels grateful to an author for writing a book. Thank you, Mr. Hitchens.

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