With some regularity, someone will say that something I wrote is great, but with the preface, “I don’t agree with everything he says.” It’s curious that anyone would say this. Agreeing or liking one thing doesn’t logically implicate agreeing or liking everything. But logic plays no role when disapproval is grounded in the expression of any wrongful thought.
My best understanding is that this Gertruding isn’t a signal to me, but a signal to others: it’s assumed by those looking for a fight that approval of one implies approval of all. This is the way for people to disavow assumed culpability for liking someone whom someone else does not. It strikes me as bizarre that anyone would agree with me about everything.
Oftentimes, I’m not entirely sure I agree with myself, when it becomes plain that my “take” on something conflicts with what I know to be a principled position. I try very hard to adhere to my principles, but they sometimes betray me, and I can’t explain why. For someone who wants to believe that his views are grounded in facts and logic, that principles trump partisanship, that’s a problem. It may not concern you. It may not concern others. But it very much concerns me.
In the mornings, I write stuff. It doesn’t take me long to write, as it’s entirely extemporaneous, I’m a fast typist and only write about things that interest me, which means it’s what I choose to write about and not a burden. And I have come to fully appreciate Shakespeare’s maxim that “I don’t know what I think until I see what I write.” Posts often start out in one direction and end up in another. I can’t help it, they go where reason dictates, and that’s often in an unanticipated direction.
But what happens to them then is another matter. That’s where George Packer’s homage to Christopher Hitchens* kicks in.
At a moment when democracy is under siege around the world, these scenes from our literary life sound pretty trivial. But if writers are afraid of the sound of their own voice, then honest, clear, original work is not going to flourish, and without it, the politicians and tech moguls and TV demagogues have less to worry about. It doesn’t matter if you hold impeccable views, or which side of the political divide you’re on: Fear breeds self-censorship, and self-censorship is more insidious than the state-imposed kind, because it’s a surer way of killing the impulse to think, which requires an unfettered mind.
A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police. But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless. A writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade.
Some simpletons, mostly young lawyers whose every thought is grounded in platitudes with the social justice seal of approval, inform me I’m “just” a contrarian. It’s an odd condemnation, as they may approve of my writing when it aligns with their feelings, but they only seem to concern themselves with my views when they find them unapproved.
After I’ve written something particularly controversial, I sometimes wonder how many people I’ve never heard of, I don’t know, whose likes or dislikes mean absolutely nothing to me, will let me know that I’m wrong. Why they would possibly think I care eludes me. Of course people will disagree with me. So what? What narcissistic delusion compels a baby lawyer to let me know, in the clearest possible words, that I’m wrong and horrifying, as if I’m sitting on the edge of my seat awaiting their approval?
If I wanted to be popular, I would align my writing with “allies.” Many of my old friends from the blawgosphere who have gone on to bigger and better platforms have done this, pandering to a tribe for the sake of comfort. It disappoints me to see them forfeit their integrity for clicks or likes, but they made their choice. I’ve tried not to do so. Whether I’ve succeeded is for others to decide. I’m not disappointed in myself, which is all I can be.
In my own head, I would like to think that I’m something like Hitchens. Not with drinking, or his obsession with atheism, but in his fearless lack of concern for the approval of others. This is not to say that my thoughts approach the value of a public intellectual like Hitchens, despite what some mean old man from Nebraska once called me.
Rather, that I refuse to allow the “thought police” to rent space in my head. I will use the words I choose, even if they’re not on the approved lexicon. I will anger my allies and help my enemies, if that’s where the facts and reason lead me. I will get ratioed on twitter by a million people who are furious about what I have to say.
What would HItchens do? He would say whatever he had to say and let the chips fall where they may. So will I.
A while back on the twitter, I said something to the effect that I don’t care how you feel, but I may care why you feel that way. Too few grasp this distinction, and so they will attack, condemn, call names and emote, never offering a comprehensible reason why. I assume some don’t actually know why, satisfied with feeling however they feel, and if pressed, willing to manufacture some nonsensical excuse to justify themselves. I always find it astounding that they feel compelled to lash out, as if that changes anything. Would it change anything for Hitch?
I couple days ago, a prof asked me my thoughts on a controversial case. I told him. He replied only that he disagreed, likely expecting me to try my best to persuade him. Instead, I replied, “That’s fine. You’re allowed to disagree with me.” That, in my head, is what Hitch would do.
*i never met Christopher Hitchens. If I had, he would not have taken notice, as I fall far below his orbit, so there is little chance we would have become friends or even spend some time talking over a Bowmore 18. Nonetheless, I assume permission to call him “Hitch,” as if we were old pals. I have not earned the right to call him anything other than Mr. Hitchens. I apologize for my presumptuousness and informality.