College Quarterly
Winter 2004 - Volume 7 Number 1
Reviews Letters to a Young Contrarian
Christopher Hitchens
New York: BasicBooks, 2001.

Letters to a Young Activist.
Todd Gitlin
New York: BasicBooks, 2003.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

In our increasingly emaciated vocabulary, one of the most meagre words is “mentor.” Like “support network” and “role model”, it ratifies the Oprah Winfrey world of cookie cutter “interpersonal relations” in which anything approaching human authenticity is obfuscated by pop sociology and psychodrivel. Sometimes it seems that genuine communication has been reduced to the level of pre-programmed comments on student transcripts.

It was, therefore, with faint enthusiasm and a touch of anxiety that I picked up two volumes in a series of small publications entitled The Art of Mentoring. The contributions are modelled on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet (1903), though I first came upon the form in its later satirical manifestation, C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters (1941). I was interested in the two books under review mainly because of the chosen authors, Todd Gitlin and Christopher Hitchens, who are both soixante-huitards and both famous within their own and increasingly wider circles. Both are accomplished writers who participated in and chronicled some of the more energizing events of our era. Their imaginary correspondents, young “activists” and young “contrarians,” attracted me as well. I was pleased to be reminded that there were enough of both to merit books of advice.

I will deal with Gitlin first. It’s a long way from the AFL-CIO centre at Port Huron, Michigan to the steps of the Low Library at Columbia University. In June, 1962, (mainly) young people from the League for Industrial Democracy and the Students for a Democratic Society gathered to construct a manifesto of resistance to corporate capitalism, racism, imperialism and sexual repression (opposition to sexism would come a little later). The most influential participants were probably Michael Harrington (the self-described “oldest young person there”), Dave Dellinger and Tom Hayden. Debates were intense. The air carried unusual voices speaking of unusual names and references: less Karl Marx, more Herbert Marcuse; less “Songs of Innocence and Experience”, more “Howl”. When it was done, the New Left was officially born. Six years later, universities from Harvard to Hawaii would be shut down over issues related to the Vietnam conflict. The confrontation at Columbia was especially unpleasant—so much so that it made a temporary celebrity of student leader Mark Rudd and was made into a Hollywood feature film, The Strawberry Statement.

When the epithets evaporated and the tear gas blew away, however, many would think of Todd Gitlin was the ur-activist of the generation. More than ersatz Irishman, Tom Hayden, who would unceremoniously dump wife Jane Fonda while pursuing a career in California politics; more than Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who would come to curious ends; more than minstrels Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Dave von Ronk, and the young Bobby Zimmerman; more than Stokely Carmichael, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and Bobby Seale; more than Martin Luther King who would be allowed to win the vote for blacks but not to connect race and class or oppose the war; more than “Tanya”, the poor little rich girl of the Symbionese Liberation Army; more even than Angela Davis; more than anybody, Todd Gitlin kept his balance, kept his principles and kept his eyes on the prize.

Astonishingly, in retrospect, the elapsed time from the execution of President John F. Kennedy to the National Guard killings of students at Kent State University was not quite six and a half years—less time than Brian Mulroney was Prime Minister of Canada, William Jefferson Clinton was President of the United States, and Tony Blair has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Yet, those two dates, 22 November, 1963 and 4 May, 1970 effectively “book-end” the Years of Hope, Days of Rage, to which sixties activist Gitlin testified in his well-received historical narrative of the same name. In that brief interlude, young people exchanged Frankie and Annette for Sgt. Pepper and Grace Slick. Hopes rose at Woodstock and fell at Altamont. The most eulogized parts of the US civil rights movement, free speech movement, and anti-war movement all came and went, as did Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Rudi Dutchke and Prague spring. Todd Gitlin lived the sixties, endured the sixties and flourished from the sixties.

Letters to a Young Activist draws on all this experience and more. He provides history lessons that yield three important political pointers:

  1. don’t do too much—“you need to channel your impulses, frustrate your spontaneity, think as well as feel, settle for less than the ideal result”;
  2. don’t do too little—“endless passivity encourages the arrogant powers to think they can get away with murder; fear of failure becomes overwhelming, and weakness, self-fulfilling”;
  3. do it just right—“be thoughtful enough to see the virtue in an outcome that’s not as good as you want but probably as good as it gets.”

His advice is wholly within the tradition of progressive American pragmatism; he is a patriot and proud of it. True, Todd Gitlin will never win accolades from John Ashcroft and Jerry Falwell. Dick Cheney and Pat Robertson will do their best to ensure that he never gets to mentor their grandchildren. Moderates, however, applaud him for being a radical icon, who nonetheless won tenure at a prestigious US university. Unlike Hoffman, Ochs and Rubin, and unlike Richard Fãrina, he is a rebel who lived to tell the tale. Of course, from what remains of the contumacious left, his musings have come in for caustic comment. Explicitly calling “professional ex-radical” Gitlin a “sell-out” (and Hitchens a “model apostate”), writers such as Chomskyite political scientist Norman Finkelstein have drawn attention to some of his questionable judgements about the yeasty rebelliousness of forty years ago.

Gitlin is hard on V. I. Lenin, Joe Stalin and the bulk of the fellow travellers of the Old Left, but unaccountably soft on Joe McCarthy. He is cranky about the Black Panther Party which “hijacked the black liberation movement.” He is cross with “feminist zealots” who, he thinks, were indifferent to raising children. He is crabby about the rhetorical and theatrical excesses of the anti-Vietnam war movement which had the effect of “nudging some voters” to the right, leaving his critic Todd Chretien to conclude that “if you [didn’t] vote for the Democrats, you are morally responsible for Nixon and Pol Pot.” Gitlin is still very angry with the Weathermen, who turned ineffectively to terrorism (elsewhere he wrote, almost smugly, “that for all their rant and bombs, in eleven years underground they killed nobody but themselves”). He is especially cantankerous on the subject of ideological splits within the Democratic Party. Ralph Nader is the object of much scorn, and anyone contemplating the creation of a third party is dismissed as indulging in “narcissism wearing the cloak of ideals.” Noam Chomsky, of course, is beneath contempt, beyond redemption and allegedly incapable of understanding that “there are worse fates than American power.”

In the end, Todd Gitlin’s advice consists of yin-yang pragmatics, an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand paean to the prototypical corporate lawyer who does an inordinate amount of pro bono work, enough to earn the suspicion but not quite the disapproval of the senior partners (it’s good for the image), or to the soccer mom with an SUV and a social conscience. To those with an eye for language, Gitlin expresses his displeasure with the word “activist,” saying that the early New Left preferred “organizer” whereas Europeans like “militant.” To him, the original term was “denatured, uncomprehending and evasive.” So what’s his current choice? “Social entrepreneur.” Enough said.

Some on the left have called this book a condescending, patronizing screed, but maybe they are just jealous, and nobody on the right ever liked him anyway.

If gravitating to the desultory middle of American politics as a sort of Dick Gephardt with panache has been the ultimate destiny of Todd Gitlin, Christopher Hitchens seems to have achieved his personal balance by loading heavily on both sides of the scale of social justice at once, thus displaying a bipolar disorder of the political mind.
Emanating out of an English “public” (i.e., “private”) school and Oxbridge, Hitchens was an honourable literary pall-bearer at the memorial for George Orwell. At their best, Hitchens’ writings were seething, scathing excoriations of depravity and hypocrisy. His anger was mostly non-partisan, as he vented equally against Henry Kissinger, Mother Teresa and William Jefferson Clinton. No simple nay-sayer, he was also a fine patron of virtue. Apart from Orwell, he wrote compellingly about people and places that rarely make the op-ed pages of daily newspapers. He was especially engaging when discussing the heroes of discerning and generous politics in eastern Europe before the collapse of the Soviet empire, in “the former Yugoslavia,” and in the Near East, where advocates of peace and decency speak out at their peril and rarely win notice, much less praise and support, from the West. He wrote for The Nation; he still writes for Vanity Fair.

His overall view is agreeably summed up in his judgement of Karl Marx. Writing in The Nation in 1983, he acknowledged that socialism was an idea before Marx, democracy was an idea before Marx, and social revolution was an idea before Marx. The great insight that Marx provided, he believed, was that you can’t have any of them until you are ready for them, and you can’t have one without the others. Understanding that socialism, democracy, and social revolution are some time off, however, does not absolve us of the responsibility of thinking, judging and acting. So, Christopher Hitchens urges us all, in the already tiresome phrase, “to speak truth to power,” for we are not merely strategic political animals but inherently moral ones as well.

For decades, Hitchens has tirelessly waged a campaign against religious bigotry and theocracy. Indeed, he has gone so far as to argue—passing even Marx in this—that religion (any religion, all religion) is not merely false but a universal and absolute evil. No mere distracting opiate of the masses, he holds that belief in God is … well, demonic. Ridding ourselves of faith in the supernatural seems to be a precondition for ameliorating conditions in the natural world.

In saying this, Hitchens parts company with much amiable and middling opinion in this and almost every other society that boasts a moderate middle at all. Hitchens does not mind that he offends. He relishes it. He is uninterested in discreditable compromises to win pragmatic reforms at the expense of what passes for his soul, and it is good for business, too.

Unlike run-of-the-mill “godless communists,” Hitchens is so erudite, so witty, so obviously well read, that his blasphemy has been cheerfully indulged by the sophisticated, and even encouraged by those who delighted in his pillorying of the pompous, the prissy and the plutocratic. Yes, he was occasionally outrageous, but he was also frightfully entertaining. Accordingly, Letters to a Young Contrarian is, for this audience and any other with the wit to listen and to learn, a minor masterwork. Some of it is recycled stuff, it is true, but the essential message is so refined, so lean and precise, so well-grounded in the tradition of the enlightenment—duly updated with a strong awareness of political economy and moderated by an understanding of the pathologies of premature revolutionary doctrine and dogma—that one leaves the book with a combined sense of caution and courage. We may have little hope, but we are invigorated and prepared to soldier on.

“What really matters about any individual,” Hitchens says, “is not what he thinks, but how he thinks.” To be independent and ever questioning is the mark of true humanity. Clarity of thought, moreover, must be accompanied by the capacity to remain steadfast in adversity, for “contrarians” (unless they possess the cocktail circuit skills and effortless prose of a Christopher Hitchens) are likely to be viewed as social pariahs and interlopers, whose offences against propriety and social order are apt to get them in a heap of trouble.

Thus, when slagging imperialism, corruption and religious mania in all its forms, Hitchens has depended on the creation and maintenance of the persona of a precocious curmudgeon, a damned fine “foole,” who has been given special dispensation to chide the king. He was poised for some time to inherit the mantle of Gore Vidal, the aristocratic class traitor who, with rippling good humour, has spent the past half-century explaining to a tractable élite just how wicked they are. Cherubic in attitude and fiendish in intent, Vidal and Hitchens have been tolerated by a comfortable empire that can license a few such ribald chaps to add exotic spice to their sumptuous tables. It is in that tradition and context that Hitchens’ deft use of argument made chronic opposition to pernicious power seem not just amusing and attractive but sometimes morally necessary.

Then came 9/11, which profoundly changed CNN and Chris Hitchens. Always associated with the political left and loosely connected to the likes of Leon Trotsky, Hitchens astonished his comrades by immediately siding with George W. Bush. At first, his bellicosity seemed to display a certain consistency. He vented against “Islamofascism” and proclaimed that this enemy was the latest and most egregious manifestation of religious insanity since witch burning, the Inquisition and the crusades. He battled with his editors at The Nation and cursed their liberal self-loathing, condemning their assumption of guilt for the downing of the World Trade Center as a complete misreading of the fact that Osama bin Laden was truly of the stuff of Mephistopheles. No amount of hand-wringing over an inglorious neocolonial past, deplorable CIA shenanigans, and hegemonic capitalism’s unimpeded economic exploitation of people of colour could explain or excuse the murderous mullahs and their legions of suicide-killers. For Hitchens, the crimes of 9/11 were not ultimately about US oil consumption and Arab oil production, nor even about assassination and torture (which Hitchens has unceasingly denounced in the past); they set a test for civility and humanity. Long a partisan of Palestinians and other oppressed peoples, Hitchens was unwilling to cavil in the face of a confrontation with larger enemies, the forces of a vengeful God.

So far, so good, but it seems that Christopher Hitchens got in his good licks just in time. Letters to a Young Contrarian is an inspiration to those who still care about what have been, of late, flaccidly called “facts” and “values.” Apart from his writerly talents, Hitchens’ marks of distinction have until recently been his ability to grasp reality, to hold firmly to principles, and to burn bridges when required. For this reason, it was possible to take seriously his arguments in support of George W. Bush, the war on terrorism, the invasion of Afghanistan and the attack on Iraq. Islamic fundamentalism is, after all, by no customary standard of virtue anything like a good thing. The Taliban were (and are) brutal opponents of minimal human rights. Saddam Hussein was by no sensible measure anything but a psychopathic thug. Osama bin Laden bears all the marks of a “holy terror.” Put these together and a preliminary case for war becomes possible. Given his history on controversial matters, Christopher Hitchens merited a hearing. Unlike satirist Dennis Miller, he gave little notice of becoming a sanctimonious bore.

That hearing, however, is not working in Hitchens’ favour. It seems he has forgotten some of the best lessons to be learned from his book. His former ally, Studs Terkel, speaks of vanity in describing how Hitchens now behaves toward his former friends. It is “his ad hominem assaults on their intelligence and integrity. It is his vulgarity of language, so unlike the guy I knew, that knocked me for a loop. I have always admired Hitchens’ insights, elegance of style and sharpness of wit. I still do. But the turn he has taken—the sharp one—is [away from] Orwell. I’m afraid that his psyche is now more possessed of vanity than of fairness.” Hitchens has now downgraded this “fairness” and re-defined it as “neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable.” He adds, “I say the hell with it.” Still relying on the claim that he is “resolutely opposed to religious fanaticism,” it appears to be time for Christopher Hitchens to re-read his own book. If nothing else, his inclination to denounce ardent religiosity has made him vulnerable to what Al Franken has called lies and the lying liars who tell them. For a man like Hitchens, to be deemed a dupe of Donald Rumsfeld must be humiliating, especially if it is true.

As for Todd Gitlin, there seems to be a kind of time warp. In Letters to a Young Activist, an affectionate Uncle Todd can be imagined giving reassuring advice to his younger self, as a beloved nephew. Back from the future, Uncle Todd encourages the younger man, who has just returned from the melodrama at Port Huron, to make sensible choices. The next seven years will be stressful. Young Todd must shore up his disdain for the wilder, angrier and more theatrical elements of the “movement.” He must be sure to remain uneasy when Phil Ochs sings his satirical song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” to be embarrassed by the antics of Abbie Hoffman, and to be horrified at the violence of “sex queen and street fighter” Bernardine Dohrn (who now teaches law at Northwestern University in Chicago). He should put down books by Hermann Hesse, Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut and make ready to join the Peace Corps, or maybe Sergeant Shriver’s domestic variant, the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). Across the border, Uncle Todd might even give a tentative nod of approval to the Company of Young Canadians, though sometimes their enthusiasm, especially as chronicled by June Callwood, would become a little excessive.

Fast forward to the new millennium and we may find Uncle Todd (“in real time”) worrying a little that a war against a Third World enemy which, like Vietnam, posed no threat to the US has been so easily won, that its iniquitous leader has been so ignominiously hauled out of a “spider-hole,” that unprecedented attacks on the US Bill of Rights have been accepted without much complaint since they were made in the name of freedom, and that Sergeant Shriver’s daughter is married to Governor Arnie. Todd Gitlin must find it all a bit discomfiting, but never mind. The worry passes. As he raises a US flag in the wake of 9/11 in solidarity with the innocent dead, Uncle Todd urges his dear activists not to fall victim to anti-Americanism. Though less rigorous, Gitlin echoes Hitchens in urging the young to “reject … evasions [and] avoid mental sloppiness.” While suspicious of “Washington’s wrong-headed policies” and the “clique in charge,” he is quick to admonish callow youth not to be blind to real terror networks.” He asks rhetorically: “Just because the US bolstered fundamentalist Islamism in Afghanistan two decades ago in an anti-Soviet cause, is the United States condemned to helpless blowback forever?” Yes, Uncle Todd is convinced that a new American idealism and patriotism will rise. He is still focussed, and we can almost hear Pete Seeger (whom Gitlin poignantly refrains from calling a Stalinist) once again singing the refrain: “Keep your eyes on the prize. Hold on. Hold on.”

Howard A. Doughty, B.A.(York), M.A.(Hawaii), M.A.(York), M.Ed.(Toronto), teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, King City. His email address is

Thanks are due to Dr. Kim Fedderson, Dean of Arts & Science at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for his constructive criticism, and to Dr. Gregory G. Gaydos of Hawaii Pacific University in Honolulu for his encouragement. They are hereby absolved (for this is said to be within my power) for all errors of fact and interpretation contained herein.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology