George Packer gets Hitchens Prize for free expression, decries the Offense Culture as a detriment to writing and thinking

January 24, 2020 • 9:45 am

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:

2018 – Masha Gessen, Journalist and Author
2017 – Graydon Carter, Editor
2016 – Marty Baron, Executive Editor of the Washington Post
2015 – Alex Gibney, Documentary Filmmaker

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).

h/t: cesar

22 thoughts on “George Packer gets Hitchens Prize for free expression, decries the Offense Culture as a detriment to writing and thinking

    1. Mine too. He had an excellent piece in The Atlantic some months ago on having to make school choices in New York City, and the profound (and, one hopes, temporary) effect identity politics has come to have on the system over the past 5-6 years.

  1. To quote a transgendered author who was subjected to quite appalling abuse from Bernie Sanders supporters after they came out in support of Hillary Clinton in 2016

    “If ever I were to teach a writing class or workshop, which I doubt I ever will, I’d want to include an exercise that requires students to create a character whose worldview, politics, religious beliefs, etc. are utterly, hopelessly at odds with their own, and then write that character sympathetically. I think I see too many young SFF authors today wedged too firmly within their comfort zones.”

    1. And what better way than to lear empathy than to get into the thinking of another person completely different from you!

  2. Hearing the two authors chatting gives the feeling of overhearing them in the living room or on the back porch. It’s encouraging to see Hitches voice of freedom carried on by others.

  3. At this moment, I do not have the time to write an in-depth comment on the Wilentz interpretation of Lincoln and his views toward slavery and race. Perhaps I will have the time later in the day. I will say just now that Wilentz criticizes those who cherry pick incidents that put Lincoln in a negative light. In reality, Wilentz cherry picks as much or more than anyone else.

  4. Hmm.

    Graydon Carter – Hitch’s longtime editor at Vanity Fair.

    Now Packer. Wonder who nominated him? Jeff Goldberg – his editor!

    “The 2018 Hitchens Prize also marks a new partnership between the Foundation and The Atlantic…Jeff Goldberg, Editor of The Atlantic, has joined the selection committee for the Hitchens Prize…”

    Seems a rather small pond they are fishing in.

  5. In terms of the “1619 Project”….there is also this twitter chain with a Cambridge prof of American history. Unfortunately, it seems to stoop to suggesting that Wilentz is racist….

    “That this continues after multiple rounds of exchange, and that Wilentz has chosen in particular to fixate on Nikole Hannah-Jones’s sweeping and synoptic essay, tells us much more about Wilentz than about the project.”

    Would love reader thoughts….It does seem odd to me that slavery, which as Orlando Patterson has shown, has been nearly ubiquitous and ageless would be so affixed to the United States to the point that its founding is attributed to a “slaveocracy”-as the 1619 Project editor Nikole Hannah-Jones contends. Especially since it would fight a war soon after 1776 in which slavery was paramount.

    The push-back I see to the criticism of 1619 Project seems largely tit-for-tat on relevant, yet arcane, points.

    But the larger point of slavery’s developing disrepute in the West and the United States is left largely untouched. Which is what ultimately the charge of “overreach” rests.

      1. Thank you…..I was amazed by how snarky Guyatt’s response was. And the charges of racism, sad and predictable.

        You should read Guyatt’s twitter thread responding to Wilentz, if you haven’t.

    1. Wilentz seems to get in many academic disputes. He has had a running exchange with several historians on the question of whether the Constitution was pro-slavery or not.

      Wilentz takes a very charitable view of Lincoln. Lincoln was an ambitious politician and a creature of his times, first as a Whig, then as a Republican. It is not hard to point to statements of Lincoln that would be considered racist by our present standards. Of course, most people, even those who had moral qualms about slavery, were racist by today’s standards.

      A myriad of Lincoln scholars have spent much time trying to play amateur psychologist, something they are eminently unqualified for. That is, they continually try to get into Lincoln’s head, attempting to figure out what Lincoln REALLY believed, which, according to them, could have been different from what Lincoln the politician said. This is silly. All we have it what Lincoln wrote and said. Lincoln orated and wrote prodigiously. Thus, one can find Lincoln on both sides of issues related to slavery and race except that he was consistent that slavery was immoral, wanted to see it disappear someday, and should not be allowed to expand into the federal territories.

      Despite this, Lincoln was a great president for the following reasons. He did what a different Republican president may not have done.

      1. He used armed force to suppress the rebellion. Any other president may very well have condemned secession, but done nothing to reverse it.
      2. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
      3. He refused to negotiate Confederate independence, even when the war was going badly.
      4. He supported the enlistment of black soldiers into the Union army.
      5. At the end of his life, he seemed to favor the rights of freed blacks to vote. But, he died before one can say with any degree of certainty what he would have done if he lived.

      Of course, if the Union had lost the war, he would have been rated the worst president ever, not the best.

  6. An update on Titania’s pussy song.

    It comes from Sweden and one of the singers is apparently a former feminist member of the Swedish parliament. Luai Ahmed, who posted it, is a young, gay, ex-muslim refugee from Yemen, who is prolific on Twitter and Youtube. His mother, back home, is feminist activist.

    Feminism, leftism generally, means something rather different in Sweden, he suggests. Indeed, he found he had merely swapped the authoritarian right for the authoritarian left. Interesting interview (in English) here:

    Finally, turns out the song is a ‘real’ one, recorded by the French band Catastrophe, Party in my Pussy, in 2016:

  7. Damn, that’s a good piece by Packer in The Atlantic. The first section captures the essence of Christopher Hitchens as well as anything I’ve seen in print.

    The Hitch was, for my money anyway, the best essayist of his generation — a worthy successor to le bon-papa of the discursive, bellestristic essay, Michel de Montaigne. George Packer has staked a claim to a place of his own in that lineage.

    1. To quote Caitlin R. Kiernan, the transgendered author I quoted earlier:

      “And, in the end, no one ever said anything ever again that could possibly offend anyone, so great was the fear of retribution. It was safer not to speak. No one felt oppressed or triggered ever again. Outrage and offense became a thing of the past, along with comedy and art, literature and casual conversation, film and, for that matter, sex. And there was peace and bland silence and a smothering grey stillness where once there had been a vibrant culture.”

      I’m also reminded of the words of Nicola Griffin in her introduction to ‘Slow River’, where she points out that while she includes sexual abuse of children in the plotline, she was not the victim of it.

  8. Just watched the whole Hitchens-Packer conversation and found it riveting. Do you know when it took place? i am one Atlantic behind in my reading so will save Packer’s article for soonish.

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