The Unintentional Contrarian

Christopher Hitchens, The Contrarians Contrarian Who Denied The Title

I tend to find myself on the least popular side of most arguments. It is not by choice mind you. I am not the kind of person who likes to pick a fight. I am, though, not opposed to a debate. From this unenviable place I find myself in a rather precarious position in the age of identity politics. I have the least valuable inherent identifiers for commenting on a wide variety of issues that occupy the pages of print and web based media outlets. For the record, those identifiers are as follows: white, middle class, college educated male born in 1985 and raised in a mid-sized town in southern Minnesota. I grew up with a stable family, Nintendo, Jesus, public schools, and girlfriends. Pretty standard.

Those features do not appear to provide me much credit in terms of understanding what it is like to be black, poor, a woman, or any other marginalized or oppressed group. Any criticism I make about the nature and value of identity politics and the social movements it inspires can be easily dismissed as the ravings of a privileged-white-heteronormative-American-male. How can someone like that understand the animosity people of color hold for the police or a woman’s justified fear when alone at night? The sad irony is that rather than being judged by the content of my character (evidenced by chosen, not given identities) and instead by the color of my skin or where I was born, the sweeping generalizations that inevitably follow are by definition discriminatory. Since I am who I am, the argument goes, there is no way I can ever really understand the systemic nature or the experience of racism, sexism or any other form of discrimination. I would do well to just stay quiet.

But beyond those inherent identifiers are chosen identities. These gave me insight into what it is like to be a minority or to be oppressed. Because these identities fall outside the norm that my inherent features project to the rest of the world, they have allowed me to bridge the gap between my more traditionally privileged positions and those of the oppressed. The first of these is that I do not believe in God.

I remember the look on my pastor’s face when I told him. I was about thirteen and I had developed a bit of a reputation for asking annoying questions in church classes. So I finally had to come out with it. I was an atheist. Church had been a consistent component of my life growing up. Most Sundays and Wednesdays I would go do church stuff with my family, but I never really believed any of it. I went along with most of it because it was easier that way. No reason to rock the boat. By the age thirteen, pubescence and pompousness had swelled to a point that I was willing to finally tell people. Some people could not even fathom being an atheist while others did not see what the big deal was. Either way, there was a price to pay to assert a position so far from the norm. When you no longer accept religion, you have to surrender the protection that religion demands: immunity from criticism. Unfortunately that often leads to a litany of rude questions, unwarranted judgment, preconceived yet hidden assumptions and a generally negative attitude about your character. The usual outcome is social exclusion.

While that was certainly my experience, it was not mine alone. Over the course of human history the gravity well of religion has kept most human minds and actions in a close orbit around tradition. Our evolutionary impulse to listen to our parents has a reasonable grounding – one does not want to test whether they should or should not jump from a cliff edge – but it lends itself to easy abuse. The acceptance of parental authority is easily translated into other social spheres. We learn to obey authority figures and to respect status. But some of us seem incapable of doing so and therefore feel compelled, usually by good reasons and intentions, to contest the legitimacy of authority wherever we find it. When humans sought answers to questions we did not have the knowledge to truly understand, we thrust those questions up to the gods to answer. Religion is a very human impulse, but so too is the tendency to reject it. It seems inevitable that humanity would eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil at some point.

Still, that has not gone well for those who have asserted intellectual independence, specifically in the realm of religion. The length of the list containing names of those socially excluded, banished, fined, imprisoned, beaten, tortured, and killed because they asserted a disbelief in the one, or many gods, will never fully be known. Rest assured, it is long, and more names are added every day. One needs to look no further than Saudi Arabia, Israel, Syria, or Iraq see the potential dangers of the strength of will it takes to stand by your supernatural convictions. While for me the threat of death or imprisonment was slight, the social exclusion was real. Invariably after admitting that I was an atheist I was immediately put on the defensive. The barrage of questions – so easily answered by priests, rabbis and imams – came rushing forth. The answers I gave, tough as they are to accept, were rarely granted with grace. Some people even refused to go that far, condemning me as the holder of a dangerous and potentially treasonous idea that should be avoided if not simply suppressed. To be an atheist was and still is tantamount to not being a full member of society, at least not one in good standing. Rather, we atheists should be pushed to the margins and had a close eye kept on and preferably to, again, stay quiet. For the first time in my life I felt the social weight of a minority status.

Even within the Atheist community there is disagreement and marginalization. In the hyper-specialized world of 21 century capitalism, no difference is too small to matter. Every divergent position may cause such heated vitriol that both sides can, though aligned in nearly every other issue, refuse to cooperate. Some, like me, enjoy the “New Atheist” tradition while others like the more mild, complacent and socially acceptable form. It really is a matter of whether you are willing to thrust yourself into the fray, or wait for everyone else to catch up. I have never had the ability to wait.

Holding, not to mention being open about, such a socially precarious position seems stupid to most people. Sure, we should all be authentic, be proud of who we are and whatnot, but if we are honest, no one wants to commit social suicide. Becoming an atheist, especially fifteen years ago, was just that. That was not the end for me, though. When I was fifteen I had to participate in a debate for English class that though I intended it as a test of my skills to choose a topic that was a non-starter I knew just the proposition, I would find that I would come to argue my position outside class as well. That position: “The United States should adopt a Communist form of government.”

Given what we had all learned in school up to then, it seemed like an insurmountable challenge. I remembered my history lessons. The Soviet Union was the evil empire: a place without freedom, fraught with commodity shortages and little more than an archipelago of prison camps. We had been taught that America’s great struggle with the Communists exhibited not only that the American way was better than the Soviet, but that Capitalism was superior to Communism. Communism, (or Socialism or Marxism – they are synonyms as far as most Americans are concerned) they told us, is a system contrary to human nature. One where the government takes all property, forces everyone to work for the same wages, and demands a dictatorship to control the whole terrible system.

Stalin, my teachers lessoned, was Communism incarnate: a shrewd man who, though once our ally, killed millions of his own people through starvation and concentration camps. My high school history teacher was very adamant about the subject. “Stalin,” he said, “was even worse than Hitler.” From those lessons in my mind, and the minds of my classmates around the country, Nazism=Hitler > Communism=Stalin. So I had to argue for something worse than Hitler? This decision was not likely to help my already uneasy social position given my already out atheism.

As I prepared for the debate – reading the Communist Manifesto and then several other of Marx’s famous works – I was left mostly confused. I had come to one unshakable realization. My teachers had lied to me. Either they did not know what they were talking about (which was probably the case) or they had consciously or unconsciously accepted Cold War propaganda as fact. The ideas of Marxism, Socialism and Communism, first and foremost as distinguishable and independent things, are, I learned, much more nuanced and less superficial than we had been led to believe. Really it seemed to me more like an argument for a system that tapped into the very things that I had learned and enjoyed about the moral teachings of my religious education. As I read more it seemed that Socialism or better yet Communism, rather than Capitalism, was the means to bring about a better, more moral state. Marx talked about the seizure of the government by the working class, not so it could ingratiate itself with lavish luxury like in Russia, but so it could use its power to combat poverty, inequality and discrimination of all forms. The truth was there before me. I figured I could win the debate so long as I dealt with Stalin.

My adolescent study of Marx, though quick and too shallow, when combined with a dramatic conversation with a crack addict in the downtrodden Southeast side of Washington D.C., changed my perspective. No longer did I debate the issue simply to test my oratory skills. Instead I tried to undo the damage that the propaganda about Communism and the Soviet Union had done. I gave an impassioned plea for us to let go of their preconceived notions about the subject. I explained that the infantile description of Marxism that we had been taught was bunk. That it was our economic system, Capitalism, and not Socialism, which was responsible for the greatest woes: slavery, inequality, colonialism and two world wars. Stalinism, I told them, is distinct from Marxism. Sure they share a common vocabulary, but one attempts to criticize capitalism and proscribe an antidote, albeit an amorphous one. The perverse form simply usurps those same phrases which tap into the generosity of the human spirit and uses them to facilitate the consolidation of power into the hands of a small center of power. Finally, I tried to sum up the whole thing; Communism is nothing more than true democracy.

Democracy, we all agree, is the ideal, right? Well, we do not have democracy in America. Our economic system and the places we spend most of our waking hours – our jobs – are not democratic institutions but oligarchies or mini-dictatorships. Communism merely asserts that we ought to democratize work. That iss all. How could you disagree with that? After my opponents inevitably failed to adequately combat my contentions the class voted unanimously for the resolution. I was stunned. People like me, who had not grown up in the propaganda frenzy of the Cold War were able to see past the remnants of it with which we had been indoctrinated.

From then on I thrust myself into studying Marx and had to do so mostly on my own. No one was teaching about such a dangerous and radical idea. After the local newspaper published my letter to the editor cautioning my fellow citizens about the dangers of American intervention in Iraq, I received a copy of the alien and sedition act while sitting in class one afternoon. I did not know it then, but that is the very law that the government has used to silence dissent by arresting, detaining, and/or deporting anyone promoting “seditious” activities like advocating for the system I now did. As a seventeen year old kid in 2003, I finally saw how criticizing capitalism in America, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was tantamount to treason. It was not at all clear to me why though. But it did not matter.

Over the course of the last hundred years the United States government, media and education have waged a full scale assault on people like me. Though we never really learned about Marx, we did learn about the Italian anarchists Sacco and Venzetti, (as dangerous revolutionaries who were executed after being convicted of murder) but nothing of the Haymarket Riot. There were the Red Scare and the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920. As the German revolution was being drowned in blood, the American Department of Justice decided to go after radical leftists, arresting and deporting hundreds and causing the rest to hide in fear. Rather than learn about the labor struggles that had led much of the American working class to strikes and boycotts which precipitated the raids, all we had been taught was that the DOJ went after the commies because Communism is “anti-American.”

As I said, there was nothing about the labor struggles and trials of Communists and Socialists in the 1930s taught in school, despite the history being relatively recent, interesting and full of lessons about the depression that did not focus solely on the President. It is hard for Americans to believe this, but the President does not do everything. No doubt, the brief read that most students partake of our flawed history textbooks could easily convince them otherwise. Real history shows us that it is not presidents but the people who generate real and lasting change. Like the lost history of the Communist Party in organizing black laborers in the South, which paved the way for the civil rights movement, a movement whose key organizers were committed Communists. But you would never hear that in history class.

After WWII the anti-communist activity in the US swung into full gear. The propaganda machine began rolling both by the U.S. Government but also by big media, industrial and financial business as well as academia. Hollywood radicals were blacklisted. Senator McCarthy made “The House Sub-Committee on Un-American Activities” a spectacle only rivaled by the Purge Trials in Stalin’s USSR. The FBI, under Herbert Hoover who was convinced that there was an imminent threat of Communist uprising, created and implemented the COINTEL program which infiltrated and incapacitated all of the leading labor, radical, student and Marxist organizations in the United States. At one time, there were as many FBI informants in the Communist Party than there were actual Communists. Part of this campaign involved imprisoning, murdering, deporting or other ways of taking members of the movement out of commission. Taken together, by the 1980s, America’s radical left had been all but wiped out. There were few Marxist teachers in classrooms, no popular writers on the subject, only a select few political leaders that attempt to give voice to the cause. It was not because the ideas were in and of themselves fraught with error, but that they were suppressed, managed, marginalized and taken out of public view by those with the most to lose. With it went a philosophy which sought to promote the simple idea that we should not tolerate poverty, inequality and war for the sake of profit.

Because of this history, I have too been relegated to the position of “that Godless Commie” or “that crazy guy talking about revolution.” These powerful ideas are seen by so many as nothing more than a joke or a position stemming from naivety. The United States program of destroying radicals in general has been so successful that simply as a Marxist I am a minority whose voice is or should be silenced. Sure I can write my blog or speak on the street, but there is no path to power, all pathways to information to the common person are controlled by corporate and social media companies and their government regulating friends. Besides, being a communist is tantamount to being a fascist in America. I would wager that even someone with a sufficiently deep education may still have trouble telling the difference. If you did not study history or political science at the college level, and even then, how would you know? After all, it was what we all learned in school, right?

Just in case, let me be clear then. Barack Obama is not a socialist; he is a centrist capitalist politician. Adolf Hitler was not a socialist (yes, I know it the National Socialist Workers Party – but who did Hitler destroy first? He destroyed the communists), he was an ultra-conservative corporatist. Stalin claimed to be a socialist but the Soviet Union under Stalin was about as far from a democratized workforce as you could get. China is led by the Communist Party, but it is clear that there is neither democracy at work, nor in any true sense in the political sphere. This is not Communism. There have been many iterations of Marx’s perspective which have been prompted by world events since Marx’s death. All of them are attempts to make the theory work. Unfortunately revolutions occurred in the places where it was most unlikely to succeed (the non-industrial) and in the manner that quite destructive (famines and wars). This is not Socialism or Communism: it is Capitalism. If one is looking for an example of the ideas of Marx in practice, I suggest a study of the Paris Commune.

But to make this point puts you further into the margins. Even if this analysis is right, and I assure you it is, it makes no difference if no one hears it. But it does not stop there for me. Around the time I came to understand the exploitation of workers by capitalists while still trying to deal with the profound intellectual and emotional struggle of dealing with death without God, I came to yet another revelation. Much of the food I ate growing up was pretty standard northern European, white people food. You know, the standard, meat and potatoes. For the most part I liked most of it. My mom always called me a picky eater, which I guess I was, but I never thought much about what was really going on every night. Provoked by the deaths of childhood pets, coupled with the irony of the fun times I had herding sheep at my grandfather’s farm knowing of their impending slaughter, the weight of the finality of death finally hit home. It forced me to contemplate just how many lives I had been responsible for taking every day I unconsciously ate meat. I had never really made the connection.

In the course of a week it became clear that I could no longer eat meat. There is no possible moral argument for eating meat. Where one stands on the issue lies on a spectrum between unconscious meat consumption (and the results thereof) and the strictly vegan diet. This continuum is a moral one. The farther you go towards the vegan end, the more moral your dietary habits. I cannot fathom an argument that would serve to refute this assertion. I think it will be clear that no kind of religious or speciesist (humans are the top of the food chain: the moral equivalent of “it is okay because we can”) argument will suffice.

The decision to become a vegetarian at the age of sixteen again put me in the minority. In Midwestern America, so few people violated the norm that when they did, there was not much by way of support. Sure, I suppose I could have just not rocked the boat, but then I would have to resign myself to being, at best, a hypocrite and I refused to do that. The knowledge that I was right acted as a buttress, and I was able to withstand the social pressure to conform. Although much more common in 2015, this obviously morally superior dietary decision still stands as something that can serve to marginalize those who want to bring to a light a subject that most certainly needs the consciousness of people to be raised.

So, even as someone who appears to be able to take advantage of all that white, male, hetero-normative, middle class (oh, and middle class is not a real thing, by the way) privilege can provide, I too have struggled with marginalization, social exclusion, police intimidation and incarceration. I too have felt general dismissed from the rest of society. The most complicated of these positions is when it regards an identity that conforms closer to the traditional identifiers that gain one social currency nowadays. Over the last ten years I have seen the LGBT equality movement begin to really get steam and make some significant headway. First I have seen the consciousness of our nation change after an opening and the relaxation of the formerly stringent marginalization of the community en masse. It led to the opening up of social dialogue about the place of sexual orientation in our understanding of equal and human rights. I have been very proud of the American people for this, but do not get me wrong, the struggle continues.

As a bi-sexual man I feel some affinity for the movement and consider myself a member of it. But I have not participated meaningfully in gay pride parades or become wildly (though slightly) active in the gay marriage movement. There are several reasons for my arms-length relationship. First, as a Marxist I see the marginalization and oppression of gay people as a service to the ruling class by further dividing the large working class. So while I understand their struggle, if we focused on overthrowing Capitalism, then there would be no social value in LGBT discrimination of any kind. I see the gay marriage aspect of the LGBT movement as a distraction from the larger goal of lasting social change.

Marriage is an institution with a dubious past (one of passing property – the woman – from father to husband) that I am still not sure why the LGBT community would want to promote such an institution. But this is the genius of modern capitalist society. Rather than a marginalized group gaining political power to challenge the systemic nature of discrimination and exploitation as aspects that benefit a certain class, the movement spends political capital on a program aimed at attaining inclusivity into the very societal structure that allowed it in the first place. This is what happened with gay marriage and happened to the African American civil rights movement as well. Instead of seeking to topple the system that allowed and encouraged LGBT, racial, sexual, and national discrimination, these movements are guided not to revolution but to inclusion as full members of the hegemonic system. The irony is too sad to enjoy in this case.

Another reason I do not usually openly identify with the LGBT community is not because I am afraid of the backlash, but because my letter of the four – “B” – has its own unique history within the movement. This is where even within the inherent characteristics, for which gender and sexual identities surely are, can clash with the chosen even within a traditional identity based community. One of the strengths of LGT people is their more obvious challenge to hetero-normative social roles and norms except – maybe and paradoxically – marriage. This is not the case with bi-sexual people. For my own sake I am much more taken with women than I am men, and therefore present no real visible outward contest to hetero-normativity. I would appear to any observer as straight. I am married to a woman, behave very much like a “dude” for all intents and purposes, and am not branded on the tongue as it were. In many ways I fit into neither world. It is a limbo that is, as the theme again emerges, marginalizing even within the movement.

The provincial nature of the LGBT movement has caused some tension between the LGs, the Bs and the Ts. While there is a general understanding of the larger issue of equality and justice (words whose meanings are seemingly nebulous in a capitalist economy), there is not such an understanding about the particularity of the struggle on the individual identities in the larger LGBT community. Many gay and lesbian people are obviously so, and make no attempt, nor have any good reason, to hide it. They have no reason to be, but their outward expressions of that difference are now pillars of strength on which they can lean. For transgender people the struggle is one of gender identity and societal norms regarding sex and gender in general. While I freely admit that the struggle of the trans community is the most important of the four, it does not mean that others are not so as well. For some time a current has run through the more – shall I say? – conservative gay and lesbian crowd that see bisexual people has ‘having it both ways.’ We can be gay when it is convenient or when we want, and straight otherwise. Therefore, we are not really ‘all in’ like the others. They are openly different, obviously threatening the status quo, whereas bisexual people can blend in without being noticed. It seems like the safer – err – choice? I will leave you to deal with the layers of irony there.

So even my non-chosen identity is perilous in the world of identity politics and that is the limitations of it. When the ‘politics is personal’ the politics cannot be structural, and it most clearly is. While I understand the natural desire of social beings who feel marginalized in modern society to want to strive to be included in that society, the gains are temporary at best and do nothing to prevent that kind of action against a different group. Just getting to fit in does nothing to alter the structure that allowed for, or even encouraged, the discrimination to begin with. To ignore the structural impediments to progress, we only empower and legitimize the system which previously exploited us. It is like when a worker becomes an owner, a gay couple gets to marry or when a black man gets elected President. Sure, it makes us feel good, but does nothing to change the system that benefits from such exclusions, and then again benefits from the inclusion. We get taken advantage of either way. If we continue to look inward for our political perspective we will only see the gap that we can fill in the edifice of society, rather than the crumbling and unjustifiable absurdity of the whole monstrous construction itself.

Therefore, I encourage my brothers, sisters, comrades and friends around the world to think big about our problems. Step outside the confines of your innate characteristics, the identities you did not choose but came with, and see how you relate to the political and economic systems of the 21st century. Explore the criticism of religion and decided for yourself whether it make sense to you given the information to which you have access. Think about why some people (white, black, men and women) are poorer than others, and if it is justified for 90% of the wealth to be owned by 10% of the population. Consider whether you like going to work at your mini-dictatorship every day, or if you would rather have a say in your work. Think about who died for your meal, and whether marriage is all you want to see for your LGBT friends.

I can assure everyone that if you take a sober assessment of the world around you and neither accept nor dismiss anything from the start, you may realize that – although one may not look like it – they may have experienced the kind of marginalization that you have but it is not because of their skin color, or where they were born, or who they want to have sex with, but the content of their character that put them there. That experience, I assure you, may provide a unique perspective that may be worth listening to for once. If we do that, we can start making this world better for everyone.

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