By Kelly Sloan
I had intended a couple of weeks ago to write a column reflecting on the newly-late Christopher Hitchens – out of respect for him as a writer, if in no particular admiration for what he wrote – when I was confronted with the news of the death of Vaclav Havel, the hero of the Czechs.
While still contemplating an appropriate review of these two disparate lives, I was met with the very welcome news of the expiration of North Korean maniac-in-chief Kim Jong Il.
It struck me how the abhorrent philosophy and practice of communism shaped and defined each of these three; one who dedicated a lifetime to resisting it, one who embraced it intellectually to varying degrees over his lifetime, and one whose own wretched lifetime was spent inflicting it with a cruel, unrelenting brutality upon his own unfortunate people.
The greatest of these three was, of course, Vaclav Havel, the playwright, dissident, writer, and eventual president, who pulled Czechoslovakia from the morass of Eastern European communism in1989. He became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist President following the Velvet Revolution, presided over the country’s peaceful breakup, and served as the new Czech Republic’s first head of state. But his legacy far transcends the encyclopedia entries of his life.
Havel’s most potent weapon was his pen, which he used with a skill sufficient to sear a desire for freedom in the hearts and minds of the oppressed, strike to the rotting core of his totalitarian overlords, and land him in jail on several occasions. His propensity for mockingly illustrating absurdity was a useful trait when writing about communism. That, along with his quiet, unsought, but determined leadership, places him on history’s stage with other heroes of the Cold War, such as Lech Walesa and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Contrast with Christopher Hitchens, who was himself a study in contrasts. Like Havel, his greatest asset was his acerbic quill – a gifted polemicist, and undeniable master of the vituperative arts, he could so often, in the same paragraph, both debase the medium with superfluous vulgarity, and enhance it with an erudite wit. An ardent opponent of the Vietnam War, he emerged onto the public scene loathing American power, only to come to admire and embrace it following a 9-11 inspired epiphany. An early ideologue who started his public life as a true-believing Marxist, friend of such as Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, and apologist for international communism, he nonetheless possessed enough intellectual honesty to revisit some of his presumptions and associations over time. He came to seemingly reject any position once it became doctrinaire, save his unremitting, and often irrationally dogmatic atheism – indeed, the one thing on which he was, paradoxically, dogmatic.
One was always left with the impression, accurate or not, that Hitchens took the positions he did less out of any allegiance to philosophical conviction, than to grant himself the satisfaction of simply being the consummate controversialist. Where Havel displayed courage, Hitchens displayed an amused, disputatious contempt.
But if Hitchen’s virtues were merely technical and academic, at least they were discernable. The same cannot be said of Kim Jong Il. As “Dear Leader” of a concentration camp masquerading as a nation, Kim presided over an orchestrated genocide of a kind not known in the 21st century, and only barely rivaled in the 20th. His narcissistic idiosyncrasies were strange and disturbing enough, but his cleaving to a Marxist ideology that continues to hold his hopelessly miserable country in a death grip marked him as a criminal writ large.
So three men died, in three different parts of the world, over one weekend. One, the dictator of a country so bad that Maoist China is a more attractive option for defectors, will rightly be remembered with revulsion, the Orwellian hysterics of carefully filmed North Koreans notwithstanding. One will be remembered as a gifted writer who, more often than not, was on the wrong side, defending the indefensible, but still independent enough to allow occasional shafts of light through — perhaps, one hopes, even to the point that he may have privately cushioned a most shocking eschatological surprise.
And one will be remembered for shining light into the darkest of places, suffering for it, eventually leading a nation in triumph over oppression, and inspiring others to do the same. Havel was unique among the three for being the only one to have endured life under the system that Hitchens intellectualized and Kim personified. This may have ultimately resulted in the spirituality that most clearly distinguished him. While reluctant to quite make that last definitive step to becoming “officially” Christian, neither was he reluctant to express his disapproval of atheism, having seen firsthand what its enforcement did to a people. He spoke admiringly of Christianity, and wrote often about a transcendent moral authority — and was most appalled by communism’s attempts at replacing that authority with its own, through the denying of the human spirit.
This made his championship of freedom universal, extended not merely to his own people, but to those enslaved by the barbarity of communism across the world; from dissidents in China, to those in Cuba — to those in North Korea, where the need for the courage of a Vaclav Havel could not be more gravely, painfully needed.
He once remarked, in a phrase laden with understatement, that he “was not one of Fidel Castro’s favorite people.” Would that any of us live a life that would permit such an epitaph.