Chris Hitchens, the controversial journalist, just got beaten up by some Syrian Nazi Party goons for defacing one of their public posters.
I believe that this is what "speaking truth to power" and opposing Nazis actually looks like. (Sorry if you don't like the link to the blogger reporting on that; it's the only report that appears to have confirmed the facts with Hitchens, the other stuff is third hand). Some people throw those words around a lot, but most of the time doesn't mean anything at all when people in the West say it. The only thing that whole "truth to power" routine normally signals is that the speaker's narcissism has overmatched his ability to provide an accurate assessment of the events occurring outside of his interior life.
I only mention Hitch because I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between ourselves, and the state. It's kind of a line-of-work thing for me in my law practice, but it's also a personal concern for me at all times. Yeah, I'm pretty weird like that. How do we view the government, what's our relationship to it? What about other people's relationship to their governments?
I like Hitchens' take on things because he's critical of everybody's positions, and when he doesn't agree with me (frequently) he makes me think really hard about my own beliefs. Regardless of how you feel about Chris Hitchens personally, he's made a good attempt in the last decade or so to imitate the later life stages of his hero, George Orwell, a gravely flawed man who grew up out of revolutionary leftism, to oppose the "smelly little orthodoxies" of the political parties of his day. Orwell made a case that the organizing principle of public life should be common decency based in moral order - an odd "small c conservative" position for a man of the left to take, but one that he came to honestly as the result of his personal experiences. When Orwell realized the enormity of the Communist cause he had linked up with in Spain, and saw a couple varieties of communist totalitarians on his left and a couple varieties of fascist totalitarians on his right, he revolted against it, discussing it with honesty. Homage to Catalonia is a horrifying tale because it's a simple, disinterested telling of the truth that doesn't make any real ideological argument; it just says what happeed. Orwell lost many friends because he wrote that book; his life was threatened because of it.
Honesty, of course, is the cruelest virtue, at least if you are the flawed person who is being discussed in an honest manner, or a big fan of the person being skewered by it. As a result of his honesty about a wide rage of topics, Orwell was hated by many on both sides of the political spectrum and libeled in the vilest terms. Some criticisms of Orwell are very valid; like many who have read Orwell, I find his ability to diagnose a problem unmatched, but his prescriptions for fixing it are somewhat wanting at times, often quite simplistic and naive. Yet at all times, you find decency and honesty in his discussions of the issues of the day. This, apparently, is unforgiveable. You want to know where Orwell's decency and honesty led him? To praising that most non-superfluous man of the libertarian right, Friedrich Hayek, in a review of Hayek's seminal Road to Serfdom. Orwell said:
In the negative part of Professor Hayek’s thesis there is a great deal of truth. It cannot be said too often - at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough - that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamed of.For a man of the left to praise what was obviously a revolutionary document of the libertarian right (a book that was reviled by the establishment on both sides of the Atlantic but particularly in Orwell's England) took an act of honesty and courage that few were capable of at the time. It shows a largeness of character that most people don't seem capable of.
Chris Hitchens made a similar evolution from reliable journalist footsoldier of the leftist movement, a reliable party man of the sort all political parties are staffed by, into a man with a leftist ideology and independent conscience but who has rejected party orthodoxy, preferring to speak his mind at all times, frequently with great penetration. This often irritates the parties of the left and right. I disagree with him often but greatly respect him for his willingness to seek, understand and convey the truth.
I also honor Hitch's impish desire to puncture any smelly little orthodoxies that he sees somebody trying to impose, whether it is his former party-mates, the people in the opposition party, or the Syrian Nazi Party. Don't kid yourself that Hitchens was just vandalizing a poster. Mockery and defiance are two of the most effective political tactics one can deploy; our political scene is as toxic as it is today because many people believe the best way to advance partisan interests is to cut down the character of the other party. He knew what he was doing, and it was good.
As noted anti-Nazi Jake Blues said, in a similar vein, "I hate Illinois Nazis..." Making the Illinois Nazis into a laughing stock - with the ridiculous uniforms, the latent homosexuality, the jumping-into-the-water scene, the comedy of errors at Wrigley Field - was one of the most effective ways to undercut them. That mockery, that bit of free speech, did more to hold the Nazis up to ridicule and to marginalize their odious viewpoints than the Skokie Village Counsel could ever have hoped to achieve with their Supreme Court-overturned opposition to the Skokie Nazi marches. Looking at The Blues Brothers in retrospect, it was very decent of Belushi and Akroyd to pay homage to many of the pioneers of American music, and very decent of them to use cutting humor to undercut the Nazis. It was also honest about their loser nature.
Hitch's simple scrawling of "No, f*** you!" on the Nazis' poster is of a piece with earlier, decent-minded skewerings of totalitarianism. I admire him for doing it.
I'm not telling you what to think about domestic politics here, or advocating that you become a Hitchens devotee, alright? I'm just saying is that it was very decent of Hitchens to do the same thing he always does but to do it in a foreign land, speaking up for a people who are afraid to speak out publicly for fear of getting their asses kicked. He spoke truth to power, and got his ass kicked by Nazis as a consequence. A fairly small but oppressive exile Nazi party isn't exactly the Third Reich, and fascism doesn't always wear a brown shirt and a swastika armband. We're not talking about running a resistance movement. But what Hitchens did is exactly what speaking truth to power and opposing fascism really looks like. On some days, he's a guy well worth imitating. Chapeaux to Hitch, at least today.
Update: Why it's important to regularly question what you think you know:
Understand that the Coens are capable of churning out very peculiar but altogether sane pop cultural artifacts. That they're more and more taking the lazy-ass David Lynch route by simply throwing "weirdness" at the screen -- one of the oldest and least difficult tricks in the book -- is a real shame.
I laughed out loud a few times during "The Big Lebowski," and Jeff Bridges, as always, is very good, but after I write this review, I'll probably never think about the movie again. And I spend way too much time thinking about movies.
Got that? The Big Lebowski, characterized as forgettable by CNN reviewer Paul Tatara. Challenging your beliefs, and valuing people who challenge your beliefs, is how you get a "do-over" in the intellectual sweepstakes. I'm not saying you ought to chuck out everything you believe at the merest challenge. But you should be both open to change, and willing to defend what you believe (at least on important points).