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The Enemies of Truth

What is George Packer so afraid of?

Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

In 2015, a nonprofit called the Dennis and Victoria Ross Foundation created an annual prize to honor the legacy of the late Christopher Hitchens. As described by the foundation’s website, the Hitchens Prize, worth $50,000, is awarded to journalists or authors who demonstrate through their work a “commitment to free expression and inquiry, a range and depth of intellect, and a willingness to pursue the truth without regard to personal or professional consequence.” In keeping with this vision, the prize’s recipients have included intrepid dissidents such as the former editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, who served on the prize’s first selection committee. The 2019 prize has been awarded to George Packer, a friend of Hitchens and a staff writer at The Atlantic, which entered into a “partnership” with the foundation in 2018 and whose editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, was named to the selection committee that year. Packer was given the prize, the foundation says, “at a ceremony held in New York, in association with The Atlantic.”

On Thursday, The Atlantic published Packer’s acceptance speech, “The Enemies of Writing,” a text that both invents a new Hitchens for our era’s discursive battles and illustrates the limits of the kind of dialogue that Packer believes is under attack.

The points Packer makes are familiar. One of the major enemies of writing, he says, is the need for belonging, as “numerically codified by social media, with its likes, retweets, friends, and followers.” As he told the ceremony’s attendees, “Writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people. When we open a book or click on an article, the first thing we want to know is which group the writer belongs to.”

Another, related enemy is the fear of social consequences. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism,” he says. “It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you.”

Both enemies, Packer says, keep writers today well short of the example set by Hitchens:

As we get further away from his much-too-early death, I find myself missing Christopher more and more. Not so much his company, but his presence as a writer. Some spirit went out of the world of letters with him. And because that’s the world in which I’ve made my life, the only one in which I can imagine a life, I take the loss of this spirit personally. Why is a career like that of Christopher Hitchens not only unlikely but almost unimaginable? Put another way: Why is the current atmosphere inhospitable to it?

Would the current environment really have been so hostile to a figure like Hitchens? One of the things that made his infamous quip about Jerry Falwell’s death in 2007 so bold—if Falwell had been given an enema, he told Sean Hannity, he could have been buried in a matchbox—was that it described his late persona almost as well. Before he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010, he was better known as an insult comic than a man of letters—less a sage our political era would have left homeless than a voice who prefigured an age of blowhards and possessed few of the traits his namesake prize has been created to honor. His writing was characterized, above all, by an incredible stubbornness, particularly on Iraq—an issue, Packer says, for which “Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat,” even as it became clear that the war was a moral and strategic catastrophe.

That obstinacy might have been a trait worth dwelling on given Packer’s critique of the certitude that he believes defines our intellectual moment. “My students have come of age during a decade when public discourse means taking a position and sticking with it,” he says. “The most influential writers are those who create a dazzling moral clarity. Its light is meant to overpower subjects, not illuminate them.” But the same could be said of Hitchens’s preferred rhetorical mode: shock and awe. He began his career as a left-wing polemicist and ended it as a zealot for American empire and the New Atheism, animated by a dogmatism that put most of the religiously faithful he disdained to shame. “[H]e not infrequently simply made arguments based not on reason or evidence but on his own gut feelings,” Alex Pareene wrote in 2015. “Much of his better polemical writing (and all of the worst of it) was clearly motivated by personal, visceral disgust.”

It eventually becomes clear that what Packer wanted to impart to his students wasn’t a wariness of moral clarity or factionalism per se—both were hallmarks of Hitchens’s rhetorical style and persona. What Packer is against is allowing a sense of moral clarity to govern the ways writers engage with each other:

For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.

This, it’s implied, is how discourse ought to be. Writers should argue fiercely about issues that matter, yes, but not so fiercely that they can’t grab drinks, settle up, and nominate each other for the Hitchens Prize. The world of ideas, as rendered by Packer, is a very different kind of place than the world where most human beings reside. Above them, the wise—people like Packer, people like Hitchens—busy themselves with the ideas that shape, and occasionally end, the lives of the rest. This is a profession made noble by abstraction. When an idea is simply an idea, things can be civil. And when things are civil, things are pure.

That, anyway, is how things appear. Underneath, as Hitchens proved, esteemed writers are possessed of exactly the same impulses and biases—the same rage and grievances—as anybody else. Moreover, one can see in Packer’s ideal not only the emotional and moral distance that makes breezy punditry about distant wars possible, but also the roots of Packer’s preoccupation with social media, which has collapsed the gap between writers and the rest of the world. It subjects them to the anger and ridicule of people who haven’t a clue how charming Hitchens was in person and have no particular reason to care—an untenably threatening development for those who believe social dynamics, more than the content of arguments themselves, are the infrastructure of their intellectual lives. For them, moral condemnation violates the sanctity of discourse itself, particularly if the target of criticism has had their intelligence established in all the usual ways—the right degrees, the right bylines at the right places—and particularly if the criticisms are made in strident tones.

This is why outrage has been redefined as a kind of stupidity. Esteemed writers can be celebrated for being loud, angry, and rude, as Hitchens was. But they are never called shrill. For shrillness connotes desperation, and desperation belongs to the lesser world—the world inhabited by ordinary people, who often argue not because they need to argue, but simply because they need.

The metaphors we use for intellectual debate—the “intellectual arena,” “marketplace of ideas”—don’t quite fit. Gladiators died. Firms can fail. But in the actual world of ideas, credibility is hard to lose once you’ve been given it. Having a few Iraq War dead-enders and dabblers in race science around keeps things fresh and interesting. The task isn’t so much picking out the bad people but spotting the bad sports—because a bad sport, it is supposed, is a bad thinker. The discourse, so conceived, isn’t an arena or a marketplace, but an endless cocktail party. Few are invited, but no one ever really leaves, not even the man turning green in the corner, set to vomit all over the carpet yet again.

Whether they know it or not, this is ultimately what drew most of Hitchens’s admirers to him. He made their ideal real and staged it in his own home. Perhaps it was this, more than the force of his writing, that kept him from facing “personal or professional consequences” for his heterodox opinions. In truth, it’s as likely that Hitchens was safe because he said little that antagonized the truly powerful.

At any rate, the consequences that befall provocateurs in America today are not terribly grave. In his speech, Packer shares the plight of one would-be contrarian who “once heard from a New York publisher that his manuscript was unacceptable because it went against a ‘consensus’ on the subject of race.” But the book was eventually picked up by a sympathetic editor and has since found “many readers.” Where one might see a positive outcome beyond the reach of the vast majority of people who hope to publish books, Packer sees the end of a horrific ordeal.

The content of the book, the merits of the arguments against consensus naturally went unmentioned, as did the author’s name. Out of concern for his safety? No. As Packer concedes, writers today don’t “live in terror of being sent to prison.” And yet, he says, the fear of public criticism today is, “in a way, more crippling.” “A writer can still write while hiding from the thought police,” he says. “But a writer who carries the thought police around in his head, who always feels compelled to ask: Can I say this? Do I have a right? Is my terminology correct? Will my allies get angry? Will it help my enemies? Could it get me ratioed on Twitter?—that writer’s words will soon become lifeless.”

As obvious as it is that those who’ve lived through regimes of formal censorship would have rather faced the risk of some mocking tweets than jail or a bullet to the head, a remarkable number of commentators today simply cannot resist the comparison. They insist, against evidence and reason, that writers are becoming justifiably timorous—even as long-standing constraints to open discourse have fallen away, replaced by the kinds of episodes Packer calls “minor but chilling.” A dustup at a liberal arts college, say, or, as Packer recounts in his speech, some drama over an award given by the PEN America Foundation. It’s difficult to see this parochialism, the endless moaning that argument has become impossible, as anything more than generational solipsism, or perhaps ordinary cowardice.

The true enemy of writing Packer conjures up isn’t belonging or fear, but the reader. The very act of responding negatively to writing has been cast as a symptom of irrationality, particularly if it’s undertaken by a sizable group of people, which is always, always, a mob. The writer in the crosshairs can play the lonely, misunderstood visionary—not Galileo, but close. “If you haven’t got a community behind you, vouching for you, cheering you on, mobbing your adversaries and slaying them, then who are you?” Packer asks. “A mere detached sliver of a writing self, always vulnerable to being punished for your independence by one group or another, or, even worse, ignored.”

This self-image cuts against the very context of Packer’s remarks—a jeremiad against intellectual insularity delivered in acceptance of a $50,000 gift from approving colleagues. This is iconoclasm in the twenty-first century, sponsored by a publication that would prefer to be seen not as one of the house organs of the American elite, but as an underground pamphlet, circulated by samizdat, illicitly keeping the flame of serious inquiry and good writing alive. But if, as Packer says, “good writing never comes from the display of virtue,” what are we to make of writers who spend much of their time trying to prove themselves more reasonable than their critics? If, as Packer argues, “a writer who’s afraid to tell people what they don’t want to hear has chosen the wrong trade,” what alternative trade should we recommend for those who regularly regale the same audiences with the same bromides about speech, expression, tribalism, and civility?

A better question: How should we evaluate the quality of our discourse? Here, the intellectual conflict Packer only briefly alludes to is instructive. Iraq was the first great moral test of the century. Almost everyone who mattered failed. Critically, those who “supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way,” as Packer says he did, and those who “supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way,” as Hitchens did, were both wrong. Nothing that ought to have been understood about that war could have been gleaned from the tone and the disposition of the arguers alone—there were meek voices and furious partisans, civil conversationalists and rude wits on both sides. What were then called the “facts on the ground” stood apart from all this.

As Packer reminds us, Hitchens once said that “views do not really count.” “It matters not what you think,” he said, “but how you think.” The remark is important because it is wrong. The views counted a great deal to the Iraqis. By the time the bombs fell, it mattered little how many strokes of the chin sent them down. And that is why a writer’s ultimate obligation isn’t to any particular mode of discourse, but to the truth.

A sense of clarity carries risks. Purely Manichean views of the world have led many astray with terrible results. But the idea that has taken hold of too much of the writing class—that writers who see a question in black and white are inherently less serious and thoughtful than those who see shades of gray—has taken us radically in the opposite direction. Our challenge as writers is to see the world as it really is. Meeting that challenge requires an openness to the possibility that certain questions are more complex than they appear, as well as the possibility that certain things are, actually, as simple as some faction of angry people says they are. We can’t know for certain until we examine the matter at hand—until we evaluate the arguments in themselves.

When we do, readers have not only a right but an obligation to tell us what they think we’ve missed. For the privilege of rendering judgments about the world around them, writers open themselves to the judgments of other people. This is the deal we make. It is a fair one.