In an ironic twist of fate, Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel and the “official version” of the Iraq war ended on the same weekend. A most intense propagandistic time, which must have been a field day for students of journalism everywhere. When the eulogies from the political and media class became too much to handle, I turned to my “Twitter friends” for a bit of perspective, but the hagiography continued. The blogosphere was more real. For one, a few independent thinkers were correctly pointing out how much Iraq was a turning point for both men, and not only for Hitchens.
Indeed, while the Iraq war took center stage in all of Hitchens’ obits, most writers spared Havel his association with it. It felt like there was a collective, yet instinctive and genuine act of revisionism to erase the only stain that may blemish one of the very few mortals still eligible for canonization. I made two mental notes.
First, it looks like we still need Saints and second, we seem to be starting to come to terms with just how wrong and destructive was the Iraq invasion. Saying so now is not too late as I am afraid that the worst may still be yet to come in that troubled land, especially after the weekend’s withdrawal of the last of US troops. But I regress.
Back to Hitchens and Havel. Both men started their careers idolizing George Orwell. Both ended their days cheering for George W. Bush. Both wanted to be literary figures while dabbling in politics. Both craved attention by trying to be unorthodox thinkers. Both were beholden –one later, the other earlier– to the idea of confronting evil. Both believed –one loudly, the other less so– that the U.S. can be a “superpower for democracy”. Both supported the Iraq invasion. Both smoked -and at least one of them drank- until they were ravaged by cancer. Both were accredited members in good standing of western media and political class, which lavished on them the remarkably intense praise that could be witnessed last weekend.
Hitchens was a buffoon warrior and a mere pamphleteer, who spent the 80s as a Trotskyite and a Kissinger detractor, the 90s as a self-righteous Bill Clinton hater, and the last decade as a cheerleader for perpetual war on supposedly real — though often imaginary– foe suitably framed to be evil of Biblical proportions. Some mention his unpredictability, others point to his independence of mind. I only see lack of principle. So, I guess I’ve never quite gotten the cult of Hitchens.
Havel was an idealistic figure, a true old-fashioned intellectual and a –so called– “Velvet” revolutionary who valiantly fought the dehumanizing grip of the Soviet empire on his country. “He accepted the role destiny had assigned to him, and played it beautifully,” unlike Hitchens who was always trying to thrust himself on destiny with brute force. I –like many others– was a great admirer of Havel until that fateful January day in Prague 2003, when he led a “new Europe” in a token support for an Iraq intervention, yet providing much needed credibility to instigators of war.
Here is, what David Remnick reports about that episode. “Just a few months earlier, Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and dozens of generals and other politicians were treated not merely to the usual working meetings but also to theatrical performances organized by Havel himself. The NATO visitors watched an ersatz eighteenth-century dance (complete with powdered wigs and simulated copulation) that might have been considered obscene had it not been so amusing. They listened to booming renditions of the “Ode to Joy,” a souped-up “Marseillaise,” and John Lennon’s “Power to the People.”
“I didn’t understand anything,” Rumsfeld remarked as he headed toward dinner. “I’m from Chicago.”
The tragedy is that Havel should have, in contrast, been able to perfectly understand everything in Rumsfeld’s presentation at these meetings. He is from Prague.
On one of the more important issues of the last decade, the famous dissident became a very ordinary man, who got it horrifically wrong.