Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Paine
Three Brits did a job on my head. One was a great thinker, one was a great writer and the other didn’t bother to tell me, after we had done the dirty deed a whole bunch, that she was married. But I’ll get to all that in a sec. As an American’t I’ve always felt obliged to get out in the world and not spread any message but instead absorb the message. At times the message I absorbed is not hospitable. In fact, I’ll go as far as admitting that, depending on where I’m traveling, I’ll kind of duck my head as I show my passport around airports, hotels and embassies. I know that sounds disgraceful, but hear me out.
Today it is time to admit two things. One, I will never fully understand politics, although I’ve spent the majority of my life trying and thereby turning it into both a hobby and a form of entertainment. Two, one of the first things acquired in the process of becoming an autodidact is learning that answers can sometimes take a backseat to questions. If there is anything proven by the western world’s obsession with wasteful higher education, it is that diplomas and other academic accreditation are not what they appear to be. In order to find truth in that all one has to do is look at the individuals running corporations and governments?
It became clear to me early on that in order to learn something it would be solely up to me to do so. One of the ways I’ve gone about educating myself is to not find answer but to search for questions. And there is one question that I’ve been playing around with for many years. It goes something like this: What’s the difference between Left and Right? I’m referring, of course, not to the direction of your thumbs but instead the direction of your politics.
I will forever be ashamed of the fact that when I was a child I never read anything. The reason for that isn’t worth going into here but it does have something to do with where I’m from. That’s why I should give my mother some credit for at least trying to get me to read. She did so by forcing me into our special living room. Most middle-class American’t homes have these useless and tradition filling rooms. Rarely does anyone use this room unless special occasions warrant it. It’s also the room in the American’t household that didn’t have a television. That in and of itself says a lot about where American’t family culture has been and where it’s evolved. Nonetheless, I was forced into this room and commanded to pick two full pages of the Sunday newspaper and read them in an hour. I was not allowed to read the comics, the classifieds or the obituaries. That left the front page, the community section, sports and politics. I’m proud to say that by the time I was twelve I was a master at reading the first paragraph of most articles in the politics section of the Sunday edition of the Washington Post.
You would think, after being reared in the Washington DC metropolitan area and avoiding the meat of every article on the first two pages of the Politics section of the Sunday newspaper, that at least a minimal knowledge of politics would somehow be ingrained in me. Laugh as you may at my ability to fudge my way around Mother’s attempt to educate me, but one good thing did come of it all. Unable to talk deeper than a headline vocabulary warrants, I did gain what I like to call a nugget education about practically everything. Combine that with an indoctrinating, fail-upwards public school system that is full of teachers who were better at babysitting – the stage is set for a once great country to give-in to its worst enemy: political apathy.
I suppose one can’t blame all of American’t for the reactionary stupidity of its political ways. It did try to edumacate its people. Most American’t automatons go through superficial “civic” classes in high school. I can even remember the teacher gently explaining the structure of the executive, the legislative and the judicial. I’m wondering to this day if teaching kids the mechanics of government is the root problem of why so many vehemently grow up hating something that they really cannot comprehend. Let’s face it. Understanding that you are part of a machine isn’t the same as understanding what that machine actually does. And so, it took until my early twenties and my fledging nugget education to finally realize it was time to stop being stupid. It was time to figure things out in earnest.
By my late twenties I knew I wouldn’t be living in American’t for much longer. One of the reasons for that was the political direction the country had assumed in the 1980s. For me, understanding the Right was easy because I was so negatively effected by it. Reagan and his gluttonous freak show came to pass. He and the powers-that-be had turned to posturing the Right into a godsend and placing it at the forefront of a political and subsequently fail upwards system. You would think people could easily catch on to being manipulated so candidly and easily counter it. It was truly a sight to behold how such political ideology could spread like an addiction. To actually say to someone in the early 90s that conservatism was subverting the original idears of the Constitution was like talking to one of those machines at a fun park where you put in a quarter to have your fortune told.
For someone of my generation who had the luxury of wars-of-choice and believing unabashedly in the lie of the American’t Dream, I was amused and heartbroken by the time the 90s rolled around. So, for the sake of survival and moving beyond my nugget edumacation, I jumped ship and entered the “real” world. This could only be done outside of the bubble that is The United Mistakes. Part of that journey was trying to understand what reared me. This culminated in the question: What’s the difference between Right and Left? For me, and if you follow elections and the policies that ensue, it’s hard to see a difference. Most politicians are automatons and are only allowed to speak as though both their constituency and their opponent’s constituency have a 3rd grade aptitude. Books are everywhere about politics but answers were only available by the questions those books posed. Obviously the difficulty of my search might have been due to my question, but I held to it all the same because it was simple and it was precise and it was hard to give up on something that had been with me for so long.
The fact is, through out my twenties and most of my thirties, I dabbled in finding answers. Heck, when the moment was right, I even posed the question to everyone I met. As a bartender in Washington DC during the mid to late 1980s I was audience to daily discourse over highball glasses, Sunday morning Presbyterians (the drink) and a few well-heated political arguments. Later when I got my first “real” job I would do the politically incorrect thing and try and talk about politics with colleagues and bosses. There were plenty of suggestions on how to find answers but it all lead to trying my patience and causing me to resort to unpleasantness. (FYI. There was one thread that connected all the answers I ever received. If a liberal thinking person answered my question she or he would always start by talking about what conservatives are. If a conservative answered my question she or he would always start by talking about being conservative.) Beyond all that, in my limited and indoctrinated mind, there was really nothing that separated the two sides of American’t politics. No wonder so many are disenfranchised from the political process. Right and Left politics in American’t was/is the same-difference. Would I ever overcome such cynicism?
Long into this expatriation journey the question still followed me (or was it haunting me). Oddly the answers I got even while living in Eurowasteland were not that far from the answers I got from back home. Bored of the human part of all this, there had to be another way. I had to understand what reared me and what was it that ultimately ruled my world. Now let me backtrack a bit and try to be clear about where I’m from. I was raised by the idear that is a country. Frankly, I do not have a clue as to what “parenting” even means. Although I praise my mother for her gallant efforts, that praise can only go so far for she had many hurdles to overcome, the main one being a female in this world. The concept of “family” only works for me if it’s attached to broken. And so, once discarded and left on my own – and allowing my mother to at least live a small part of her life – I eventually reached the point where in order to stop the 44 magnum from entering through my lower jaw and exiting through the top of my cranium, it was time to start moving beyond the lackadaisical nugget education and figuring out in earnest the madness of being American’t. It was time to change some of my habits, the most important one being what my mother tried and obviously succeeding in teaching me, reading. It took a while but I eventually and systematically inculcated non-fiction into my regular reading. Up to my mid-thirties, other than technology books or business management books, I had read only a handful of non-fiction books. And that’s not all.
As is the case with most fairly good looking young men who know how to make chicks laugh before scaring them away, reading historical stuff went well with easy Eurosex and the time consuming effort that level of fun requires. (Seriously. Try reading Gogol or Dostoevsky and then taking a chick out on the town. Deep literature might impress them but talking about it with them will un-impress you.) So. While doing Marie in Amsterdam I studied The Constitution. While successfully flirting with Jana in Berlin I read the Bill of Rights. After sex on the beach with Sam in Normandy I read The Federalist Papers, etc. Indeed, meaningless sex doesn’t always have to lead to meaninglessness.
One morning while watching American’t news on Eurowasteland television, I realized that there was a purpose to the vast nugget education I had acquired since rebelling against my mother. I watched Noam Chomsky debate some nitwit conservative and what a mind opening experience that turned out to be. While Sabrina complained that I had promised and not delivered her breakfast, I started to realize that something had gone wrong in my quest for knowledge. By the mid 90s the de-constructing technique that I learned from Chomsky became my standard of learning. And it fit well with my nugget education. No longer did I actually have to find answers to my (ultimate) question but instead I had to just keep moving forward, keep reading, and as they say: the journey is the way.
On a bright night in the darkest of winter, right out of nowhere, I had an epiphany. At the time I was seeing Eliza from London who was teaching English to under grads and finishing her PhD in political science at the Uni Bonn. She thought it was cute that I called my home American’t. I told her that it was my take on Tennessee Williams who I think coined the words “United Mistakes”. During an argument about the cold war and the stationing of nuclear missiles in Eurowasteland in the 80s, I took the (somewhat) conservative position that the missiles eventually fulfilled their mission because the Soviets couldn’t keep up with such technology and all of the cracks and weaknesses of their failed system were then exposed. Even though we hadn’t known each other that long, she knew that I wasn’t conservative. So she pulled out one of the books she was reading for an upcoming lecture. It was a collection of Thomas Paine’s writings. She was concentrating on Paine’s activities before he wrote Rights of Man while he was in France during the revolution. When I told her that I read some of Paine but it had been a while she doubly pushed the book my way.
One thing lead to another, the tree of knowledge was growing at both ends, and by the time I got to the late, great Christopher Hitchens, questions and answers were good. Since I’ve been doing this for so long there is no way to actually claim completion, that is that I’m satisfied I’ve actually found the answer. The reason for that is simple. Why would I want to stop? Every time a new nugget is found another appears. I’ve long since given up on coinciding knowledge acquisition and that of carnal knowledge, which means I might be consuming more and even being more productive with learning, but it is good to reflect on those sweet days and nights gone by full of words and lust.
Thomas Paine, Christopher Hitchens and Eliza, the three Brits who turned my head. What a journey, eh! Some consider Paine a major inspiration for The Declaration of Independence. But more importantly, reading Paine’s work can help break through the conservative rigamarole that is ruining American’t today. Subsequently, reading Paine lead to the discovery of Christopher Hitchens. Hitch unfortunately died in 2011 after a bought with cancer but he will live long around me as I plan on reading everything he ever wrote, including all the articles I can pull up at Vanity Fair and Slate. Hitch is the author of numerous non-fiction works about politics and politicians and a master of witty contrarian deconstructing. Hitch will also help you get a better grasp on Paine with a short and intense biography that he wrote about Paine and “Rights of Man” in 2006.
Although I don’t really believe in the after-life thing, it’s a nice thought that maybe Hitch and Paine are together preparing another pamphlet that might change the world. While most American’ts are out there in the politics of the wild-west and shoot-first, ask-later that now self-perpetuates and can’t be stopped, I can finally feel comfortable in the fact that I might never find the one answer to my personal and ultimate question but at least I can see through the ignorance that so many cannot.
Turn me head, baby.