Letter From a Youngish Contrarian

23 12 2011

Mr. Hitchens,

People are influenced every day in ways we can’t really countenance. Our minds take in data and format themselves to incorporate that information in a way we’re mostly blind to. Yet most people, particularly writers and artists, are fond of listing their influences. In my undoubtedly cynical view, lists of influences are more wishful thinking than faithful reporting. They aren’t necessarily our influences as much as the component parts of the image we have of ourselves. Be that as it may.

Your short book, Letters to a Young Contrarian, was seminal in my personal and intellectual development–or pursuant to the above, is an important element of the way I’d like to see myself–but it wasn’t the first thing I read by you. That’s because I, like you, consider my greatest influence to be George Orwell. Like millions of American students, I read 1984 as a high school freshman and Animal Farm as a sophomore. I actually didn’t like 1984 when I first read it, but mostly because I intensely disliked the foreword, by Erich Fromm, that we were compelled to read and “respond” to. Re-reading it, I can’t remember what it was I found objectionable about Fromm’s deeply political elaboration of the themes of the book. But I loved Animal Farm, which I had actually first read earlier but didn’t retain. After Animal Farm, I rented every Orwell book from the local library and imbibed every word with religious relish.

It was your book Why Orwell Matters (and yes, I’m certain somebody started writing a book called Why Hitchens Matters as soon as your diagnosis was announced) that set off the same interest in your body of work. The pattern of good-way-Orwellian skepticism and material analysis was there, though his humanity (you could never have written Keep the Aspidistra Flying) was displaced or subsumed by a strong lacing of angry Oxbridgean wit.

In your iconoclastic works on Mother Teresa, Kissinger, and Clinton, I found a brave and unforgiving morality, and unabashed pride in Enlightenment ideals and dialectic method. Much of your collection Essays on Love, Poverty, and War, perhaps even more than your Letters, provide a sterling example of contrarian journalism and writing; and even more than Why Orwell Matters, stand as a testament to his legacy.

But Letters to a Young Contrarian is so sturdily assembled, so steady in its reasoning, generous without a strand of unnecessary compromise. I could quote entire pages without need of ellipsis. It was your citation of Orwell’s masterful essay Through a Glass Rosily as a “favorite text” that girded you for moments of conflict that won me over completely. Through a Glass Rosily should be required reading for America’s chattering political class, that is more concerned with narrative than even the most insular novelist. Orwell’s 70-year-old-words are distressingly relevant:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don’t criticise: or at least criticise “constructively,” which in practice always means favorably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

For the first few years of my life as a political writer, I was the worst kind of partisan, feeling my way towards a voice and worldview. Taking my cue from the partisan media that had pervaded traditional journalism, I mistook an ability to cobble together helpful facts and “reinterpretations” as marks of a good thinker, ignoring the “unseen witness” in my mind that disapproved of so much of what “my side” was doing and saying. Your reprimand helped set me straight and set that witness free:

“The catalytic or Promethean moment only occurs when one individual is prepared to cease being the passive listener to such a voice [of conscience] and to become instead its spokesman.”

Say what you believe and report what you see, not what you’d like to be so, or what may help your side. No argument is more devastating than one where you don’t bother inventing anything, or reinterpreting anything, or rationalizing anything, but use bare fact and even assume your opponents’ stated intentions are true. In law this standard is used in summary judgment motions, and nothing is more dispiriting for your opponent that to hear, “Even if I accept everything you say is true, you are still wrong.” Summary judgment is one of those particularly strong-sounding Anglo-Saxon terms that Orwell would have liked, if he had any patience for the law.

In the era where “savvy” is valued by a consolidated, insider-obsessed press corps (a disease you were not free of, frankly) and truth and opposition are considered at best gauche and at worst loony, the contrarian has fallen on hard times. Of course the contrarian is always going to be outside of the system; by hard times I mean that among the nation’s young intellectuals, writers, journalists, and activists, contrarianism’s traditional recruitment ground, opposition has been eye-rolled out of the way in favor of accommodation and loyalty and “organizational discipline.” The sight of so many devoted and brilliant young people so eager to show their ability to play nice with important people is sad, both in the sense of dolor and in the sense polite people employ it to mean pathetic.

As I feared, the election of an intellectual, youngish President who “gets it” has accelerated this problem. In my brief experience as an organizer, activist, writer, and bit of a radical myself, I have never met invective and self-delusion like that found among the President’s loyalist supporters. I made a feeble attempt to convince my fellow travelers that in fact now was the perfect time to be contrary on inauguration day in A Case for Contrarians. Re-reading it now, I find President-Elect Obama’s words about executive power particularly disheartening:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

Having made this statement, how can anybody not looking “Through a Glass, Rosily” come to the conclusion that the President is either a weakling wholly under the influence of malign forces in defense and security, or a cynical hypocrite willing to appeal to our greatest ideals with no intention of following through? He’d surely reject that as a false choice, but if there is a third option he has not articulated it.

The time is ripe for your exhortations to be heeded. If ever your examples of iconlocast were needed, they are needed now. Your fearlessness in the face of a fight–your Kissinger lawsuit comes to mind–all young writers should strive to emulate–or at least, list as an influence.

Your heady Trotskyist days were before my time, and I was a child and teenager in your Marxist critic heyday, so unfortunately by the time I was old enough, and well-read enough, to begin consuming your contemporary work as an essayist, it was at just the wrong time. But not because of your support for the war in Iraq.

You and I share a source of shame. I like you, supported the invasion. But not because I believed for a minute anything the Bush administration was saying, either as to weapons of mass destruction or a connection to al-Qaeda. I like to think being the child of a victim of Iraqi Baathist secret police is a good enough justification, but it isn’t. I knew, from the years of listening to people from the country, that there was no chance Saddam Hussein was harboring al-Qaeda, or any Islamist terrorist network, voluntarily. This makes my support of the war worse than had I had no familiarity with the country. A lifetime of stories of the horrors of the Baathist regime were my sole rationale. Saddam was evil and had to go. I didn’t anticipate the craven incompetence and greediness with which the war would be conducted–but that is a failure of judgment, too.

I was barely 22 years old and wholly inconsequential when that war started. Frankly, I found it liberating, not shameful, to admit my mistake. It wasn’t something I couldn’t have avoided, it wasn’t youthful indiscretion–plenty of people situated similarly to me came out on the right side. I have no excuse but my own personal failure. So perhaps the best influence you had on me was your negative example.

I can excuse your anti-obituary of your once-friend Edward Said as gauche, and your support of the increasingly dictatorial Kurdish Regional Government as lazy myopia; I can even write off your asinine essay about women not being as funny as men as the embarrassing words of an aging, sad former playboy wandering into territory he doesn’t understand. After all, I don’t expect you anticipated a hagiography after your death. You did people you wrote about the courtesy of treating them as flawed human beings, not symbolic abstractions.

But your stubborn cleaving to the War on Terror generally and the Iraq War specifically is not really excusable. The lazy accusations of “Islamophobia” against you belie the real problem, an eager willingness to embrace the “War” on Terror as a vehicle for your legitimate loathing of superstition, backwardness, and authoritarianism of theocratic and quasi-theocratic states. I think you saw in the milquetoast left’s eagerness to defend fundamentalist Islam as a “reasonable” reaction to Western imperialist practice your Orwell-on-Sovietism moment. I think in your own mind you were finally given the opportunity to be as brave as Orwell, to beatify yourself.

But you’re no Orwell, and you chose the wrong moment. There is no heat-of-the-moment, forest-for-trees rationale that can ever justify why you wrote this:

When you meet a battlefield officer in Iraq as often as not, you are dealing with someone who cut his or her teeth in political-humanitarian rescue in Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo or Afghanistan. Their operational skills are reconstruction, liaison with civilian forces, the cultivation of intelligence and the study of religion and ethnicity. Intelligence officers told me even then that they were getting more raw information than they could sift or process, and were being scrupulous in screening out tips that might involve grudges or revenge. This is, in every sense, a smart army.

Had you put down your own rose-colored glasses, you could have seen the situation there for what it was. Only contrition could have redeemed you, and while you bent slightly that way in admitting the war was not prosecuted perfectly, you refused to break, and now you’re gone and will never have that opportunity. Evaluation of legacies are best left to generations down the line. What we know now is that the good you could have done as the indefatigable and stilleto voice for contrarianism in a time of creeping authoritarian denial of truth you sacrificed not to some ideology or even sycophancy to power, but something maybe worse: to your fanciful image of yourself and your posterity.

To be more like your influence. I won’t insult irony by spelling it out and just let it stand there.

Thanks for writing,

Conflicts with Schools Privatization, Apparent or Otherwise

1 12 2011

A little friction met the Emanuel administration’s to-date smoothly-rolling program of partially privatizing the school system this week. First, a report in the Tribune indicated that charter schools, which are privately run schools operated on tax money, do not perform any better than public schools on average and in many cases are considerably worse. Particularly troubling for privatization advocates–who are found in both political parties and in a wide swath of the political spectrum–was the suggestion that it is in fact poverty that drags down those charters performing worse. This fact is often brought up by privatization opponents and downplayed by its champions as mere excuse making. From the Tribune report:

More than two dozen schools in some of the city’s most prominent and largest charter networks, including the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago International Charter Schools, University of Chicago and LEARN, scored well short of district averages on key standardized tests.

In two of the city’s oldest charter networks, Perspectives and Aspira, only one school — Perspectives’ IIT Math & Science Academy — surpassed CPS’ average on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, taken by elementary schoolers, or the Prairie State Achievement Examination, used in high schools.

Next, Emanuel’s choice to spearhead his school-turnaround effort brought the word “cronyism” into coverage of his administration, always a quick way to convince Chicagoans the new boss is the same as the old boss. This week the Emanuel administration announced a turbocharged CompStat program for the public schools and the expansion of the privately run Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) program, handing them six more schools to turn around. AUSL has a mixed to poor record with school turnarounds, and is connected to the Mayor through a number of campaign and policy staffers and his choice to head the Board of Education, David Vitale, raising questions of the propriety of the choice. Interestingly given the mantra of privatization advocates that public school supporters use poverty as an excuse, AUSL head Martin Koldyke defended their record by blaming kids for being slow to catch on.

Emanuel was reportedly testy when asked if there was a conflict of interest in his choice of AUSL given his political connections to them. Asked directly if there was a conflict of interest, the Mayor answered a wholly different question:

It is not a conflict to give kids a good education. It’s the responsibility I have as mayor.

Whether there was a conflict or not, this controversy, if it is that, lays bare one of the problems inherent to privatization of public trusts, namely, the ease with which, at worst, actual conflicts arise, and at best, the appearance of conflicts arise. Mayor Emanuel’s political connections to AUSL leadership are undeniable; whether they motivated in whole or in part his decision to hand them more business isn’t as germane as the ease with which he is able to hand them business, the lack of meaningful checks to that ability, and the absence of transparency in the decision. It is worth nothing that another major charter operator, United Neighborhoods Organization-Charter School Network (UNO-CSN), is headed by a co-chair of Emanuel’s Mayoral election campaign, Juan Rangel. From the outside looking in, the lesson is obvious: if you want to build a successful school operator, at the very least it helps to have strong political connections.

Now that the privatization train has started rolling, it will be more and more difficult to stop, and the Mayor’s ideological dedication to the principles underlying certainly grease those tracks. It is unfortunate that the years-old warnings that charters were unproven went unheeded. We now are looking at a class of powerful and connected rent-seekers with intense financial and professional incentives to preserve the system. If it bears out that charter schools offer not meaningful advantage over public schools, we have solved no problems while likely creating a whole new class of them.