It’s often said that momentous events happen in threes, and this was the case over the weekend. Three of the most notable individuals on earth passed away, and now their souls have moved onto three different realms.
There’s been some great commentary on the passing of Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, and Kim Jong-il that I thought I’d capture here for your reflection and posterity.
The great Hitch lost his fight to esophageal cancer on Friday. While no one could have been surprised at this, his passing still comes as a shock. Here’s a man who would have given Death the bird if he could, and writing about it after, he would have made the act seem elegant, yet he proved once again that an extraordinary will alone will not prevent the body’s decay.
His passing has resulted in yet another unfulfilled item on my wish list, but at least we are left with a tremendous example of a great life lived.
Via the CATO Institute, here’s Hitch making the astute connection on the role of the creeping nanny state in needlessly and irrevocably diminishing our freedom:
So everyone is made into a snitch. Everyone is made into an enforcer. And everyone is working for the government. And all of this in the name of our health.
Now, I was very depressed by the way that this argument was conducted. There were people who stuck up for the idea that maybe there should be a bit of smoking allowed here and there. But they all said it was a matter of the revenue of the bars and the restaurants. That was the way the New York Times phrased it.
In no forum did I read: “Well, is there a question of liberty involved here at all? Is there a matter of freedom? Is there a matter of taste? Is there a matter of the relationship of citizens to one another?”
Here’s a reminiscence of a brief encounter between Hitch and an adoring fan:
Mostly, he talked and I listened, nodding enthusiastically and speaking sparingly, trying hard not to sound like a dumb kid from some small Tennessee newspaper. (I don’t think I was very successful.) He talked about reporting, he talked about Bill Clinton, he talked about Tennessee politics, which he turned out to know more about than me. That was no surprise. I got the feeling that if I had been a beekeeper from Ottawa, he would have known a lot about Canadian pollination problems, too. I finished my drink, and felt it dancing in my head. There was a lot of gin in there. He tossed back the rest of his, and asked, “Another?
Next, I have a video of Hitch and Republican man du jour Newt Gingrich on Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge from 1998.
Here’s another (12-part) video of Hitch appearing with the then-not-insane Andrew Sullivan in 2002, between the invasion of Afghanistan and the run-up to the Second Gulf War. I caught the program late in the evening the day it was broadcast. I was at my buddy’s place after a night at the bar, appropriately enough. At the time, I was more familiar with Sullivan than Hitchens, although I think my admiration for the latter grew as a result of their respective performances from this program. If I had any lingering doubts about invading Iraq, Hitchens’ argument erased them. My support for the war remains with me today.
I enjoyed Terry Glavin’s take, from Hitch’s Road to Damascus moment on 9/11 (which was related in the previous video) to his stinging candour, but mostly on his brilliant and effective use of the English language to fight for justice:
It was to the British anti-fascist writer George Orwell that Hitchens turned most often for his method, his standpoint, and his muse. As a writer, Orwell had hoped that political writing might be one day be transformed into an art, and if anyone can be said to have accomplished that, it was Hitchens. He was at turns, in one voice, Evelyn Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Albert Camus and Oscar Wilde.
But he was always his own man, and for all his fashionable friends he commanded the deepest and most abiding affections from decidedly unfashionable people that he’d never met. The Iranian poet Roya Hakakian noticed this, in her tribute to Hitchens: “Only those who have been persecuted or fallen victim to tyranny know the rare virtue that was the elemental dust of his make up. … He may have been born in England, but the blood that flowed in his veins was Third World blood. The depth of his kinship with the suffering of those with whom he has nothing in common can’t be otherwise explained.”
We used to have a “book” columnist at Maclean’s — OK, it was Mark Steyn, and soon enough we stopped pretending he was here to write about books — who was delighted to announce, week after week, that he had found another book that proved he was right about everything. That’s not how Hitchens rolled. He got the thing about Lincoln’s father from Lincoln, not from Hitchens. He wrote about it so you could share something he learned about Lincoln, not about Hitchens.
Finally, here’s the video of the classic confrontation between Hitchens and William F. Buckley.
A truly peaceful revolution is as rare as it is precious. Havel’s Velvet Revolution, which culminated even more incredibly in the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, was an enormous feat.
The first link here is from Matt Welch, the man whose writing introduced me to Havel. Welch argues, successfully in my mind, that it is Havel, not Hitchens, who was the Orwell of our times:
Christopher Hitchens, the fire-breathing British journalist who kick-started the discussion with his book Why Orwell Matters, suggested that a contemporary Eric Blair “would have seen straight through the characters who chant ‘No War On Iraq'” and helped the rest of us to “develop the fiber to call Al-Qaeda what it actually is.” Washington Post book reviewer George Scialabba stated confidently that “Orwell would associate himself with the unsexy democratic left, notably Dissent and the American Prospect,” and that “he might, in particular, have wondered aloud why the heinous terrorist murder of 3,000 Americans was a turning point in history.” Commentary tried yet again to claim Orwell as a neocon, and The Weekly Standard‘s David Brooks argued that the great man’s mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian’s shoulders: “At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell.”
At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell’s heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism — even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.
Read the whole thing.
Next, we have Havel — the future president of a free Czech Republic — channeling Orwell in 1978:
The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.
Finally, here’s Havel again, via Claire Berlinski, speaking truth to power to the president of Czechoslovakia in 1975:
For there is no one in our country who is not, in a broad sense, existentially vulnerable. Everyone has something to lose and so everyone has reason to be afraid. The range of things one can lose is broad, extending from the manifold privileges of the ruling caste and all the special opportunities afforded to the powerful–such as the enjoyment of undisturbed work, advancement and earning power, the ability to work in one’s field, access to higher education–down to the mere possibility of living in that limited degree of legal certainty available to other citizens, instead of finding oneself amongst the special class to whom not even those laws which apply to the rest of the public apply, in other words, among the victims of Czechoslovak political apartheid. Yes, everyone has someihing to lose. The humblest workman’s mate can be shifted to an even more lowly and worse-paid job. Even he can be cruelly punished for speaking his mind at a meeting or in the pub.
It is a crying shame that the spoiled brats of the Occupy Movement dare speak the same language, however inelegantly, in the Free World.
It is even more of a shame that we may never see the likes of the Velvet President again.
The line of the day comes via Ann Althhouse: “I’d like to think God let Havel and Hitchens pick the third.”
That should be enough to say it all.
It is appropriate, however, to heed what Hitchens had to say about the Hermit Kingdom and its transition from the extreme Communist left to the extreme nationalist right:
Myers makes a persuasive case that we should instead regard the Kim Jong-il system as a phenomenon of the very extreme and pathological right. It is based on totalitarian “military first” mobilization, is maintained by slave labor, and instills an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia.
Unlike previous racist dictatorships, the North Korean one has actually succeeded in producing a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others, regimented and coerced and inculcated with a death cult: This horror show is in our future, and is so ghastly that our own darling leaders dare not face it and can only peep through their fingers at what is coming.
This is a good lesson for you wannabe political scientists out there: there is no such thing as a spectrum from communism through democracy to fascism. Political ideologies are not linear; they are circular: communism distinguishes itself from fascism only by the egalitarianism of its application of terror.
Finally, again from Berlinski, here we have the consequences of complete domination of a people. Namely, hoards of nameless citizens grieving over the death of a pudgy little turd of a man. Words cannot describe.
And that’s that.