I am often described to my irritation as a ‘contrarian’. It is actually a pity that our culture doesn’t have a good vernacular word for an oppositionist or even for someone who tries to do his own thinking: the word ‘dissident’ can’t be self-conferred because it is really a title of honor that has to be won or earned, while terms like ‘gadfly’ or ‘maverick’ are somehow trivial and condescending as well as over-full of self-regard. And I’ve lost count of the number of memoirs by old writers or ex-writers that have titles like ‘Against the Stream,’ ‘Against the Current,’ ‘Minority of One,’ ‘Breaking Ranks’ and so forth—all of them lending point to Harold Rosenberg’s withering remark about ‘the herd of independent minds.’
Even when I was quite young I disliked being called a ‘rebel’: it seemed to make the patronizing suggestion that ‘questioning authority’ was part of a ‘phase’ through which I would naturally go. On the contrary, I was a relatively well-behaved and well-mannered boy, and chose my battles with some deliberation rather than just thinking with my hormones. It’s also accurate in my case, that true rebels hate their own rebellion. They know by experience that it is not a cool and glamorous lifestyle; it takes a courageous fool to say things that have not been said and to do things that have not been done.
And at the end of the day, today’s civilizations grow by agreement, accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations. Today’s rebels and revolutionaries are only eddies, they keep the stream from getting stagnant but they get swept down and absorbed, they’re a side issue. Quiet desperation is another name for this human condition. It’s like revolutionaries had learnt that they can’t remodel society by day after tomorrow, haven’t the wisdom to and shouldn’t be permitted to. I’d have no respect for them. They think civilizations grow and change and decline, they aren’t remade.
That means that something must be radically wrong with a culture and a civilization when its youth begins to desert it. Youth is the natural time for revolt, for experiment, for a generous idealism that is eager for action. Any civilization which has the wisdom of self-preservation will allow a certain margin of freedom for the expression of this youthful mood. But the plain, unpalatable fact is that in America today that margin of freedom has been reduced to the vanishing point. Rebellious youth is not wanted here. In our environment there is nothing to challenge our young men; there is no flexibility, no color, no possibility for adventure, no chance to shape events more generously than is permitted under the rules of highly organized looting. All our institutional life combines for the common purpose of blackjacking our youth into the acceptance of the status quo; and not acceptance of it merely, but rather its glorification.
In those days, you felt, in spite of all bureaucracy and inefficiency, something that was like the feeling you expected to have and did not have when you made your first communion. It was a feeling of consecration to a duty toward all of the oppressed of the world which would be as difficult and embarrassing to speak about as religious experience and yet it was as authentic as the feeling you had when you heard Bach, or stood in Chartres Cathedral or the Cathedral at León and saw the light coming through the great windows; or when you saw Mantegna and Greco and Brueghel in the Prado. It gave you a part in something that you could believe in wholly and completely and in which you felt an absolute brotherhood with the others who were engaged in it. It was something that you had never known before but that you had experienced now and you gave such importance to it and the reasons for it that you own death seemed of complete unimportance; only a thing to be avoided because it would interfere with the performance of your duty. But the best thing was that there was something you could do about this feeling and this necessity too. You could fight.
Contrarian? – Dugutigui’s essay of frangments by Christopher Hitchens, Wallace Stegner, Harold Edmund Stearns & Ernest Hemingway