Havel and Hitchens

A few years ago, the department of defense conducted a study on the impact of alcohol on air force pilots.  The results were predictable.   Most pilots who drank any substantial amount had impaired ability to fly.  But one unexpected result was the discovery that 1 in 12 actually had improved coordination and focus.  

It’s not enough to change our laws about alcohol.  Nor is it information we would want to be taken advantage of.   

But it might explain how Hitch was able to drink and write so effectively.  I have, myself, attempted the same, but with unimpressive results.  After the third glass I resort only to watching repeat Louis CK or cat videos.  

Clearly Hitchens entertained his many admirers, which is perhaps one reason he was able to resist how the media trivializes the serious.  With a prodigious memory, Hitchens could pump out witty, trenchant and convincing articles about many number of political and literary subjects.    He could seem authoritative in spite of a lack of authority on any given issue.

He did, however, know who to read.  He was friends with great authors; he knew who had inside information and what parties to attend.  If being a “liberal” means a skepticism of any authority, he maintained that position with some confidence as the local gadabout to whom the media turned

Havel, however, though a liberal, understood the limits of media.  In a sense, Havel remained someone who valued integrity, thought he would be outmaneuvered by a more politically sophisticated other Vaclav, who understood that the currency of power was more convincing than the currency of international adoration.  Hitch’s liberalism he gleefully attached to the neo-conservatives, who would admit no sense of failure in the war upon Iraq, blind to the many deaths his commitment to secularism would justify.    What’s an Islamic life when we’re delivering godless government to the Arabs?  

At their best they were both uncompromising toward some sort of authority, offering a voice of the individual conscience against the state and any sort of ideological tyranny, unyielding in exposing hypocrisy.  Yet although both loved engaging others, Havel practiced the hard work of politics. Hitchens was satisfied with writing about the suffering of others, but although he was impatient with any sense of grey aside from the people he supported.

While I occasionally admired Hitchen’s aggressive, take no prisoner’s style, Havel, the philosopher, was patient, searching.  Hitchens attacked weakness in personal shortcomings while Havel sought to expose the big lie.  

 And God?  Although Havel was an agnostic he was comfortable with religious language, and understood its place within human experience and literature.   It may be that Havel, having placed beauty, love and truth at the forefront, understood how atheism’s truncated imagination fit well within totalitarianism, adopting a reverent agnosticism that was plastic, magnanimous and forgiving.  Although Havel was no lover of religion or its institutions, he understood that the religious impulse could equally threaten the powers of tyranny, and not merely justify them. 

I wish, of course, Hitchens had actually debated a religious intellectual of some stature.  Although he had some quick and effective ripostes that revealed the ignorance of his opponents, he could get sloppy when speaking of religion.  Would not the Archbishop of Canterbury have found delight in sitting across from him?  Perhaps not.  ++Rowan lacked the quick soundbite or the irreverent humor.  The theologian David Bentley Hart had the erudition and an equal vocabulary, but probably lacked the charm.   Was there not a single theologian who could correct Hitchen’s misrepresentations, or expose his cleverness as simply poetic shoddiness?  He was routinely opposed by charlatans and mediocre intellects.

I admit, although I was occasionally enthralled by his attacks on Islamic Fundamentalism, I believe Hitchen’s understanding of Islam was shallow.  He ignored the data how the political and economic instability and oppression anchored of third-world hostility towards the west.  He could give some lip service to his opponent rhetorically, but ignoring it with his quicker, glib retorts. 

Of course, Hitchens  believed that analysis was capitulation.  It meant he got some issues seriously wrong.  As he said, vindication was one of his greatest pleasures, and he was hesitant to give it up.  

But in both of them we have lost two public intellectuals – men not confined to the academy, forced into tightly narrow disciplines, or seduced by it; who engaged and entertained, who were not shy in speaking their mind.  They read far and wide.  They reveled in communicating with princes and presidents, with writers.  Our age does not reward wide reading or memorization, but on glib, infuriating or optimistic soundbites that conceal, rather than reveal, our current plight.  Our academics are specialized and Balkanized, relying on the paycheck of demanding institutions, lacking the time to contribute to the needs of the public.  And they do not develop the skill to speak on Fox News.    

I will miss both witers, and hope that other intellectuals may rise to take their place in the public and in politics. 

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