Asking the necessary questions

Last week I picked up a book of Christopher Hitchens essays and writing. It was on the remainder table and so I got it cheap.

Returning to the shop with book in hand I briefly wondered at how such a book could be remaindered, and reflected on that as a commentary on today’s society. Hitchens was a controversial character, but also one of the best and most important journalists of the last 30 years. He came as near as any journalist in that time to being a celebrity journalist, an erudite, witty and often outspoken critic and commentator of the times. If anyone should be read then its him, but, it seems, not even that is enough to sell a book.

Was it always so? I speculated that once upon a time – a time before mine – that collected writings like this would have been snapped up without reaching the discount table. In a time before TV, before the internet, I wondered if stellar journalists like Hitchens were relative stars (Mencken, Lardner, Liebling, Agee etc – and when I was a kid I remember reading Mike Royko and Russel Baker with pleasure). I imagined it being a slower time, a time with less distraction, a time more reflective, a time when people could take in information at their own pace and chew it over at their leisure.

I wonder if that’s simply my imagination. It worries me that people these days inquire less deeply than they did once, and are not nearly as curious. When you get a lot of ready information as we do now, but all of it shallow, it’s easy to accept it without looking any further. In a way information and news comes too easily these days, but in an age of sound bites and media manipulation it’s unwise to accept only what is dished up to you.* How many people bother to look deeper these days? How many are actually aware that they should?

If there is a decline in western civilisation then the root cause may well correspond to a decline in critical thinking.

That’s why the likes of Hitchens are so important. Whether you agreed with him or not – and there was much I didn’t – he was a provocative and intelligent commentator. He was a man who forced you to think, and to question. Agreeing with his point of view was less the point (though in the majority of occasions I found myself sympathetic) than actually being forced into a position yourself. That’s what we need these days, more informed opinions.

Hitchens took on some big subjects, and that’s where much of the controversy arose. Unfortunately most of it is not the sort of thing we discuss around dinner tables any more. He also wrote about art, literature, culture and history. These are important because they give context to what we experience today.

It seems to me that so much of popular culture today is immediate, transient, and ultimately disposable. There is little historical context, and even less thought of it as a concept. That makes for a poorer life I think when you consider so much richness is overlooked. It makes for a more dangerous life too when you recall the dictum that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As someone who reads widely and deeply I do so from an undiminished curiosity, and sheer pleasure. There is great delight in learning, and in adding the store of knowledge which, in turn, adds depth to the experience of living; and great satisfaction in being forced to think.

A man without opinions is a drone, and not worth knowing, but a man with considered opinions is a pleasure to meet and converse with. The best of them drive our society forward because they ask the questions we need to answer. Such a man was Hitchens, foremost of all that ilk, an elegant writer, a sophisticated thinker, and possibly the most erudite journalist I have ever read.

* Marshall McLuhan: “The mass media is a propaganda machine designed to promote mindless, conformist, consumption.”

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