Although I thought the Atlantic was pretty Leftist, it also seems to be pretty reasonable, or at least anti-woke. The latest issue contains two such pieces, the first a long critique of the New York Times‘s “1619 Project” written by Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton and one of the signatories of a critical letter to the NYT that the paper’s editor slapped down. Note that there is pushback against Wilentz’s Atlantic piece already (see here and here). The arguments seem to revolve largely about historical details that seem inconsequential, but those details bear crucially on the Times‘s contention that this country was founded on slavery—in particular, that the American Revolution was an attempt by colonists both Northern and Southern to retain slavery—and that slavery’s sequelae are responsible for and highly visible in most modern American institutions. Read and judge for yourself.
But today’s post is about the second piece in the Atlantic, which isn’t as controversial—at least to readers on this site. It’s by George Packer, a staff writer for the magazine, and is a transcript of his Hitchens Prize speech. What is the Hitchens Prize, you ask? I didn’t know about it either, but it’s been awarded for five years by the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation. The Foundation’s site says this:
The Hitchens Prize will be awarded annually by the Foundation to an author or journalist whose work reflects a commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence. The Prize is named in honor of the late Christopher Hitchens, a writer whose career was a rare if not unique expression of those qualities.
Indeed: Hitch always said and wrote what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular (remember his excoriation because of his favoring the Iraq war?).
Besides Packer, the winners have been these folks:
I’m not sure why Packer, a journalist as well as a prolific writer specializing in history, nabbed the prize this year, but perhaps readers more familiar with his work can enlighten us. His essay below, however (click on screenshot), is “contrarian” in the sense that it pushes back against the increasing tendency of writers to temper what they say lest they offend those vociferous Pecksniffs on social media. We all know of this phenomenon: the worries about writing about ethnic groups different from yours, the demonization of writers (especially in “young adult fiction”) who aren’t ideologically pure, and, as Packer mentions, the shameful refusal of many PEN members to endorse the organization’s freedom-of-expression award to Charlie Hebdo in 2015 (see here and here). There’s no doubt that the Offense Culture is having a chilling effect on writers, as with Amélie Wen Zhao’s Blood Heir, which, after vicious attacks on Twitter about her “racial insensitivity,” she first canceled but then decided to publish. (Other examples are rife: see here and here for some recent cases.)
Anyway, I’ll give a few excerpts from Packer’s speech below the screenshot, so you can see the tenor of his remarks. Let’s hope that other candidates for the prize keep coming along, bucking the trend of “going along to get along.”
Excerpts. Note that Packer and Hitchens did have their differences, but that didn’t keep them from sharing libations. (Emphases in the statements below are mine.)
As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it? What are the enemies of writing today?
. . . But this solidarity isn’t what I mean by belonging. I mean that writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to. The group might be a political faction, an ethnicity or a sexuality, a literary clique. The answer makes reading a lot simpler. It tells us what to expect from the writer’s work, and even what to think of it. Groups save us a lot of trouble by doing our thinking for us.
. . . Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
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.
And indeed, those afraid to read what makes them uncomfortable are getting fewer and fewer.
Here’s an hourlong conversation between Hitchens and Packer, both Orwell lovers discussing their favorite author (Packer edited two volumes of Orwell’s essays).