by Barry Edelson


The Despot, the Dissident and the Doubter

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said—"Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert…Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Shelley, "Ozymandias"


Men of great consequence do not arise daily in the ranks of humanity, and it is rarer still for three whose lives were intimately bound with the most pressing political issues of their era to pass from the mortal sphere within days of one another. Two of those who died last week, Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens, are to be mourned in proportion to their impact upon the thoughts and lives of countless millions of their contemporaries. The third, Kim Jong-il, will almost certainly be remembered by history, like the ancient tyrant in Shelley's poem, in inverse proportion to his venality, and for his monumental indifference to the immense suffering of his subjects. How fitting that the passing of a dictator who presided over the most totalitarian state the world has ever known should be framed by the deaths of two men of letters who devoted much of their lives to the dismantling of despotism.

Will we ever experience a moment of exultation akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall? It would be hard to understate the sense of relief at the elimination of an existential enemy, or to overstate the bravery of someone like Havel who risked everything for his country. He was an unlikely hero. In a normal society, he would have almost certainly spent his entire life writing plays. But like Nelson Mandela, who followed a similar trajectory from political prisoner to president, Havel possessed a rare mixture of qualities: personal integrity, persuasiveness, optimism, inextinguishable energy, the ability to inspire loyalty, and an unwavering adherence to principle. The Communist state's intransigent evil made opposition to it a moral imperative, a role for which Havel was uniquely qualified. His willingness to risk his career, his family and his life granted him uncommon moral authority. His innate modesty would no doubt have prevented him from believing in his own greatness, a characteristic that made him suitable for the role of his country's first post-Communist president. What greater testament to his extraordinary life could there be than the high regard with which he was held by so many of his countrymen at the time of his death, despite the rocky road that the Czech nation has traveled since it wrested itself free from the Soviet grip. Would that the North Koreans had a Havel in their midst, or a meager ray of sunlight under which the seeds of upheaval might take root.

Hitchens was a man of letters of a very different kind. The many tributes that have been written to him in the last week, including by many who considered him a friend, make it very plain that his ardent defense of principles could make him decidedly disagreeable. Whereas we can easily imagine a cordial exchange of ideas with Havel over a quiet dinner, a couple of hours with Hitchens would more likely have made our heads spin, and leave us questioning even our most cherished beliefs. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the excessive consumption of alcohol was so famously associated with his social encounters — how else could anyone withstand the onslaught? But this was Hitchens' self-appointed role: to force us to rethink everything, to make sure that no idea was ever taken for granted. He understood better than most that the defeat of tyranny in one instance guaranteed nothing about the future. Twenty years after the crumbling of the Soviet empire, the brutal face of dictatorship still sneers at us from many parts of the world, from Kim's North Korea to Assad's Syria to Mugabe's Zimbabwe. Many countries freed from totalitarianism are democracies in name only, most notably the kleptocracy in Russia, but also a number of ex-Communist satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and a raft of post-colonial nations in Latin America and Africa.

Following in the footsteps of writers like George Orwell and Arthur Koestler, who likewise started out as leftists, Hitchens was too intellectually restless to settle into doctrine, or to ignore the depredations of a system he championed. We remember Orwell mostly for his vehemently anti-totalitarian works like "Animal Farm" and "1984", but forget that he was a committed anti-capitalist whose earlier works were withering satires on colonialism, class distinction, and rising materialism in the first half of the 20th century. This made him persona non grata among fellow travelers. Hitchens similarly broke with many friends and colleagues, over the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. He had almost nothing in common with the neoconservatives in Washington, except, to him, the most important idea of all: that dictatorship is an all-encompassing evil and must be confronted and stamped out wherever it arises. If that meant making common cause with a right-wing administration in order to rid the planet of Saddam Hussein's despicable regime, then so be it. He later regretted his failure to anticipate the Bush Administration's lack of planning and incompetence in the execution of the war, but never wavered in his support for the essential principle behind it.

"What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence."

It was a bit strange to see Havel's funeral in Prague's St. Vitus Cathedral, given that he was hardly religious in the conventional sense (despite attempts by some of the faithful to claim him as one of their own). Then again, the cathedral was kept in immaculate condition even by the Communists, and has become as much a civic space as a religious one in the minds of many Czechs. During a visit in 1988, when the overthrow of the government still seemed a distant dream, we saw first-hand that while most of Prague's buildings were shabby and, in many cases, literally crumbling before our eyes, the cathedral and its surrounding castle glistened like a movie set, maintained by the regime as an unconvincing symbol of national greatness. It was this Potemkin village that Havel took over as head of state, the unlikeliest of politicians amidst the superficial trappings of power. Like Hitchens, he was accustomed to being a writer, more comfortable as agitator than diplomat, better at supposing than building. Try to imagine the disaster that Hitchens would have been as an elected official, having to keep his opinions to himself and say what was expected of him when the occasion demanded it. This shows a stark difference in temperament: the one adaptable to an unnatural situation, the other determinedly unreasonable.

Doubt about established religion was one thing they shared, though Havel had a more nuanced view of the subject and didn't wear non-belief on his sleeve as Hitchens did. Hitchens' atheism was part and parcel of his objection to tyranny in every form. He saw little distinction between cults of personality of political leaders and the faithful's devotion to prophets and saints. Both were forms of idolatrous adherence to the unproven, and, far worse, a pretext for imposing an absolutist way of life and thought on others based on untested hypotheses. (By this definition, the Kim dynasty is deeply religious, presiding as it has over a system of coercion and mind control so effective that it would have made the priests of the Inquisition jealous. So much for "godless" Communism.) Many a clergyman who sparred with Hitchens over the years held out hope that he might experience a deathbed conversion. The predictable absence of such a scene did not stop some writers of a credulous bent (Russ Douthat in the Times, for example) to continue insisting that Hitchens was a spiritual person underneath.

This simplistic portrayal of an exceptionally complex person is grotesque, and reveals a complete misunderstanding of the man and his ideas. Hitchens' atheism was not some kind of youthful rebellion that he never outgrew, or a misguided reading of scripture, or mere cleverness run amok. It grew out of a profound conviction, born of an exhaustive reading of history, that irrationalism is a root cause of every form of evil in the world; and that the worship of ideologies and the individuals who espouse them is a constant danger to human civilization. It matters not whether ritual idolatry is conducted in a church or a circle of stones, in a parliament building or a public square. What Havel and Hitchens stood for most of all was the right of people to be free of enslavement and demagoguery, and for high priests like Kim Jong-il to be prevented from casting their toxic shadow over our one and only world.

December 24, 2011


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