“To be in opposition is not to be a nihilist,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in his 2001 volume Letters to a Young Contrarian. “And there is no decent or charted way of making a living at it. It is something you are, and not something you do.” In this conception, running against the grain of conventional wisdom is not some pose or conscious choice for the committed contrarian; it is something that is embedded in a person’s worldview on an almost genetic level. The impulse to rejection or argument is not a role one plays, it is an essential facet of who one is.
Hitchens’s short book is a foundational text for John Semley, the Toronto essayist and columnist, and provides a kind of template for Semley’s own attempt at producing a considered justification of naysaying, criticism, or simply bucking cultural trends for the sheer pleasure of it. So significant was Hitchens to the adolescent Semley that the latter includes a coda to his own manifesto on contrariness composed in the style of a letter addressed to an anonymous “X.”
“Nowadays, admitting to liking Hitchens feels vaguely unfashionable, like still caring about Ricky Gervais or U2,” Semley writes. “But they all (Hitchens, Gervais, U2) boast achievements, despite subsequent slumps into irrelevance. And anyway, what kind of a freethinker would I be if I wasn’t willing to risk looking unfashionable?” Reading this, one might be forgiven for thinking it the kind of milquetoast equivocation that would have sent Hitchens into quivering fits of conniption. Semley’s impulse to distance himself from Hitchens’s later incarnation as “a hardened neo-con performing pseudo-intellectual PR for the George W. Bush administration” is understandable. But no self-respecting polemicist should be so quick to pre-emptively qualify their opinions or enthusiasms for fear of audience backlash. It is precisely this reaction, after all, that being a contrarian – or, in Semley’s more contemporary conception, a “hater” – invites.
Then again, Hitchens was able to deploy his broadsides – everything from the case for viewing Henry Kissinger as a war criminal to a blistering attack on the legacy of Mother Teresa (whom Hitchens called “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud”) – without having to worry about being dragged on Twitter. In 2018, there is a fine and frequently floating line between being a hater and being a troll; one can infer from Semley that the two, while not synonymous, can be conflated in the same individual.
The film critic Armond White – a black, gay neo-con who dismisses the cinematic worth of Paul Thomas Anderson but wholly embraces the artistic value of Michael Bay – seems to enjoy provocation for its own sake, but Semley appears genuinely confused as to whether White’s opinions are sincere or entirely disingenuous. “Is he a knowing contrarian, the hater’s hater, chucking grenades and causing drama for his own amusement? Or is he guided by some deeper mission to expand the parameters of critical thought? Or is he, by now, a creature of pure, curdled resentment?” Semley doesn’t arrive at a final answer to these questions (finding evidence for all three propositions depending on where he looks), which illustrates one of the roadblocks to defining what constitutes a hater in our media-saturated, crowdsourced culture, to say nothing about illustrating what makes a contrarian pose advantageous from a critical or political standpoint.
Semley is on much firmer ground when he engages in a critique of our consensus culture, one built around the kind of bland agreeability that prizes the judgment of internet aggregators (Rotten Tomatoes is Semley’s arch-villain, but one could also substitute Amazon, Goodreads, or Metacritic) over the considered opinions of experts in a particular field. The herd instinct that drives an audience to glom onto a movie that has been “certified fresh” by a computer algorithm results in a “new and dangerous standard of agreeability,” the net result of which is a conflation of high and low culture into a kind of mushy middle ground that has little to offer beyond the mindless comfort of familiarity.
Where Semley errs is in thinking this is somehow new. “There is slowly emerging a tepid, flaccid Middlebrow Culture that threatens to engulf everything in its spreading ooze.” So wrote the American critic Dwight Macdonald in 1953. (Incidentally, that essay – “A Theory of Mass Culture” – was originally printed in the journal Diogenes, named after the Greek exile and cynic who provides Semley with a kind of Platonic ideal for what he conceives a hater as being.) Railing against this kind of complacent conformity to mass taste is unquestionably necessary in our consumerist environment (when the multiplex is overrun by corporate products spewed from the all-powerful, vertically integrated triumvirate of Disney, Marvel, and Lucasfilm), but even Semley recognizes that this can go too far (the attempt, for example, to rescue nu metal avatars Korn from well-deserved disdain).
If Semley is ultimately unclear as to exactly how one should go about being a hater while avoiding slipping over into trolldom on one hand or kitsch on the other, his book is nonetheless interesting as an artifact in the tradition of Diogenes, Macdonald, Hitchens, and their ilk – thinkers who argued against running with the crowd simply for the sake of fitting in. And if Korn is still anathema, Semley is not adverse to singing the praises of the largely forgotten Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, Lulu. Though one might easily raise those stakes by pointing out the virtues of Reed’s putatively unlistenable feedback album Metal Machine Music, which could serve as a soundtrack for a hater’s manifesto such as this one.