A CRITICAL DISTANCE: Literature and Politics

Monday, July 23, 2001

What is the proper role of the intellectual in public life? Plato believed that philosophers should govern society. He founded his famous Academy with the hope of creating such "philosopher kings." Another philosopher, Immanuel Kant, however, believed that "the possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason." Therefore, he argued that intellectuals should keep a proper distance from the political realm. Who is right, Kant or Plato?

Recorded on Monday, July 23, 2001

P>Peter Robinson: Today on Uncommon Knowledge, what the eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling called, the bloody crossroads, the intersection of literature with politics.

Announcer: Funding for this program is provided by The John M. Olin Foundation and The Starr Foundation.


Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. On our show today, The Role of the Intellectual in Public Life.

Consider two philosophers. Philosopher number one, Plato, one of the greats of ancient Greece. Plato believed, perhaps not surprisingly, that philosophers should govern society. He founded his famous academy in the hope of training just such philosopher kings.

Philosopher number two, the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant held, and I quote, "The possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason." Kant therefore believed that intellectuals should keep their distance from public life. So, which is it, Plato or Kant?

Joining us today to cast their votes, two men who are themselves public intellectuals. Timothy Garton Ash is a historian and journalist whose latest book is entitled, A History of the Present. Christopher Hitchens is a journalist and an instructor at the New School in New York. His latest book is entitled, Unacknowledged Legislation, Writers in the Public Sphere.

Title: A Critical Distance

Gentlemen, the proper role of the intellectual in public life; Plato believed in the rule of the wise, the philosopher king. According to him, intellectuals ought to be running the show. According to Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, intellectuals sho--should maintain a study dif--distance from public life. To quote Kant, "The possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason." So whose side are you on, Plato's or Kant's?

Timothy Garton Ash: Definitely Kant.

Christopher Hitchens: It has to be Immanuel. And I like to think that--that it's true, as I believe it is, that the origin of the word "intellectual" is, um, as with some other terms of honor, um, an insult. It was--it was what, ah, the crusade forces in France, or some of them, were called by those who thought that there was definitely something unsound about the sort of people who would go out of their way to inconvenience an orderly society by defending the rights of some scrofulous Jew. Um, and I--I think that it should never lose its association with the slightly subversive and angular and disreputable.

Peter Robinson: You are happy to be disreputable Christopher?

Christopher Hitchens: Well I may as well be.

Timothy Garton Ash: Then--and I completely agree with that. And--and to put it another way, I think that intellectuals should, whatever the society they're in, always be dissidents.

Peter Robinson: But what about Vaclav Havel, leading example of a pure intellectual who entered public life and he says that his writings as president of Czechoslovakia and then as the Czech Republic, he views as a simple extension of his writings as a play write and as a dissident? Originally a dissident and an intellectual then a public figure, but to him it's the same intellectual process.

Timothy Garton Ash: Well this is an argument that, as you know, I've had with him through the last decade. Because I think he was, in many ways in the 1980's, the model of the (spectator engage) (different language) of the engaged political intellectual criticizing power. But I don't think it is possible to be simultaneously an intellectual and a practicing politician, because I think that intellectuals and politicians necessarily use words in different ways. The--the business of politics is about living in half-truth at best, if not lying. That's what politicians do. That's what they have to do.

Christopher Hitchens: I--I want to just, if I may, add something to what Timothy said.

Peter Robinson: Ca--carry on.

Christopher Hitchens: He knows Havel much better than I. I've only met him once. I had a long conversation with him at lunch in fact in--in Prague not--he hadn't been president that long at that point. And…

Peter Robinson: You two do get around.

Christopher Hitchens: And--I remember thinking that, when I asked him say about a thing that I know upsets him, um, the treatment of the Gypsies in--in the Czech lands. Or, um, Bosnia or what he--I thought he took a very good position when he was in power. Um, or the split with Slovakia, which I though he handled very poorly from what little I knew of it. I still thought it--it is extraordinary to be able to have a conversation with somebody who has political power, to whom the concepts one is using are not foreign. And I don't know if I completely, therefore, agree with Tim. I mean, I had many disagreements say with, Senator Moynihan in Washington, when he was a Senator. But it was nice to know that there was at least one member of the great deliberative body with whom you could have an intelligent dinner party conversation.

Timothy Garton Ash: Well and…

Christopher Hitchens: After all, I think Thomas Jefferson wasn't that bad a president.

Timothy Garton Ash: Yeah, but he wasn't an intellectual while he was president. I mean, the point is this; of course it's a very good thing to have educated, cultured people in politics. It raises politics. But what--but--but they are two different roles. The intellectual is always the dissident that's subversive, who--whose job simply is to tell it as it is. To find the most uncomfortable truth, the most subversive facts and then to lay that out. The politician, who has to satisfy many constituencies, who has to be reelected, is using words in different ways. And so I actually think it's quite an important point that--that there is a line somewhere. That we are both politically engaged intellectuals. But there is a point at which you cross the line, and I think that point is when you get involved in the direct competition for power. And that's when you start trimming your analysis.

Peter Robinson: Let's contrast Timothy's position with that of Vaclav Havel.

Title: Czechs and Balances

Peter Robinson: Havel, in an address to the United States Congress, quote, "Intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent." Garton Ash said he--he implied to Garton Ash. So, who are you going to plump for?

Christopher Hitchens: It comes--it comes to most intellectuals at certain points, some--some kind of, ah, crux. I mean even George Orwell, who I think we mustn't agree too much, but I think Timothy and I would also regard as perhaps the gold standard in these matters, agreed to become a government employee of a lonely time, a powerless kind of a bureaucrat. Um…

Peter Robinson: What was the position he held?

Christopher Hitchens: In the BBC during the war, broadcasting propaganda, the one thing he most hated. He--he wrote as if he detested the job. Room 101 was actually the name of the room in which he operated at the BBC. And the--the signs that he modeled the ministry of truth on the ghastly building in Portland Place the BBC is talking about.

Peter Robinson: The Ministry of Truth in 1984.

Christopher Hitchens: However, if you look at what he did, I've--I've actually re--recently been re-reading his, ah, I say re-reading, a lot of it's newly published, um, the letters and diaries broadcast that he was responsible for during that period. I don't think he needed to be so ashamed. He was actually helping to maintain a very high standard of conversation between England and its Indian…

Peter Robinson: You're shaking your head like the…

[Talking at the same time]

Timothy Garton Ash: I'm shaking my head because it's quite clear to me that that is--that is nowhere near my line, which is involving directly in the competition for power.

Peter Robinson: But you do have a clean head on disagreement with Havel over this.

Timothy Garton Ash: I do absolutely. There's no question about that. And I think that it's very important, A, for a democracy that has both, it has good politicians of course. You know, politicians have read a few books, that--that helps. But also that it has people who understand themselves as independent intellectuals. And, you know, I'm coming from an experience in Central and Eastern Europe where the hopes of independence and freedom and democracy were kept alive for decades by intellectuals who had this, as it were, this pride of role. Who felt that it was--it was--it was almost a mission to be an independent and critical intellectual. And I think that's terribly important.

Peter Robinson: And--but in the dissident movement, were they not engaged in politics? Were they not struggle for leadership of the dissident?

Timothy Garton Ash: They were--they were engaged in what they called anti-politics. They were engaged in creating the conditions that would make politics possible.

Christopher Hitchens: Indeed, and I was about to say, and by the way, what I'd said about the Orwell wasn't meant to be a direct opposition to--to what Tim had said about political competition, just a matter of compromising with (?). But the, well making an accommodation to it, a knowing sacrifice I think would be the best way of putting it. But the author of…

Peter Robinson: Next, Christopher Hitchens on the role of intellectuals in shaping political discourse.

Title: Paper Tigers

Peter Robinson: Christopher, in your book, you write that in your graduate class at the New School in New York, you--you're still teaching at the New School?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes.

Peter Robinson: I'm--I'm quoting you now, "I sought to show how often, when all parties in this state were agreed on a matter, it was individual pens which created the moral space for a true argument," closed quote. I love the term, without knowing quite what you mean by it, moral space.

Christopher Hitchens: Well, I was writing this specifically about the United States and the role of individual writers in this culture because the United States is different from all the others in that it's based on writing, it's based on documents, it's a work in progress and these documents are open for and are subjected to revision. And so, and there's a special amendment that protects the right of free expression, though there's nothing in the constitution that guarantees, for example, that there should be political parties. So it's a wonderful space in itself. It's more a matter of expanding those, um, those things that are latent into a space and the examples I give are, everyone was agreed, there was no political domestic argument over slavery for nearly two generations, until a couple of people began to write about it. Frederick Douglas is the example I give. Perhaps one of the original American writers. In other words a writer who couldn't have been formed in any other country.

Peter Robinson: Wh--wh--what would you do with Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, which is not a--a--a work of great intellectual prowess, you wouldn't put it up there against The Analysis and Exhortation of Frederick Douglas, and yet it was a tremendously powerful book, speaking of creating moral space.

Christopher Hitchens: It's--it's Orwell's favorite example of the good bad book and of--and of the definition of the good bad being something that stands the test of time. And it is said, I--I don't know if it's a (?) or not, I sort of hope not. Anyway, it's widely believed that when Mr. Lincoln was introduced to her, he said, "So you're the little lady who started this big war?"

Peter Robinson: This big war, that's right.

Christopher Hitchens: Something like that. Um, and it was probably not that much of an exaggeration. At a time, for example, when almost everyone thought that the, um, Spanish American War and the United--the United State's annexation of Philippines and Cuba and Puerto Rico, was a good thing, Mark Twain and William Dean Howell's decided to speak out against it, and what they said is better remembered than what President McKinley said now.

Peter Robinson: If you put yourself in the position of someone who sits through your--your graduate course, would they walk away from that--would they walk away from that, ah, Hitchens implies, I just--I sense that Hitchens believes that the writer and intellectual has a duty to become politically engaged. Or--I'm trying--again I'm trying to find here your actual stand with regard to Timothy's thesis here, that the--that the critical distance is essential. You really argue that--that--that there's a duty not to mix the two.

Timothy Garton Ash: On the contrary. No, no.

Peter Robinson: No.

Timothy Garton Ash: I--I've been misunderstood. I believe very much in the role of the politically engaged intellectual. What [unint.] called the specter to engage. And I think both of us have tried to do that. But I think precisely when you're doing that--when you regard yourself as having a public role, you have to be clear in your own mind that there is a line beyond which you do not go. And this is the line that I'm talking about.

Peter Robinson: Active party politics.

Timothy Garton Ash: And I think that--and--and yeah, exactly. And actually Orwell of Sacred Memory you know, himself said, having briefly been a member of the Independent Labor Party, then resigned and said, "I think it's better that political writers should not belong to political parties." And actually I think this…

Peter Robinson: Next topic, the role of intellectuals in bringing on the fall of Communist Eastern Europe.

Title: Written into the History Books

Peter Robinson: Christopher, you also write in your book of the Soviet Block, quote, "Which collapsed amid laughter and ig--ignominy without the loss of a single life as a consequence," I'm coming to you with this, so bear those three words in mind, "as a consequence of a civil opposition led by satirical play writes, ironic essayists, and subversive poets," closed quote.

Christopher Hitchens: Not the Soviet Union, I was talking about the Czechoslovakian Occupation Regime.

Peter Robinson: Oh really?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes, and particularly there about Havel…, the jazz section, the, um, the--the Czech…

Peter Robinson: But you're not going to--you don't mean to suggest that the--that--that--that the tanks and armies and deployments of missiles didn't have something to do with ending the Cold War?

Christopher Hitchens: I'm not going to say that I think they didn't, but I'm going to say that I think the--the Czech opposition deserves the credit for collapsing that regime.

Peter Robinson: And for the Velvet Revolution?

Timothy Garton Ash: And--and I'm gonna agree with that. I mean obviously, it would be absurd to say this was the only cause. I mean the economic failure of communism; Gorbacev, Reagan, ah, even the peace movement all had something to do with it. But, these regimes were of a particular kind which was brilliantly described by Orwell.

Peter Robinson: When you say these regimes, let's be specific here.

Timothy Garton Ash: Communist regimes. Communist regimes, all Communist…

Peter Robinson: All of them, Soviet as well?

Timothy Garton Ash: All--absolutely--absolutely. All the Communist regimes. They lived by creating a certain false reality. Through News Week--Newspeak, through the (?). Through systematic organized line, in--in which certain things, as Orwell described it, couldn't be said, couldn't even be thought, because the words were not available. And what the dissidents did by telling the truth, by living in truth as Havel did it, is--is to act like an icebreaker through the ice of--of newspeak. And it was terribly important that people suddenly saw that there were--there was a group of people here who were telling the truth.

Christopher Hitchens: I--if I could…

Peter Robinson: Yes?

Christopher Hitchens: …that what I wrote there is a coder to what I wrote about a--a short poem which I can recite, if you like.

Peter Robinson: Fire away.

Christopher Hitchens: …by W.H. Auden, which he wrote in 1968, when the tanks first moved in. This is, in other words, my point about the--the pen versus the tank…

Peter Robinson: Right, go ahead.

Christopher Hitchens: …or a version of your point. And he--he wrote from across the border in Austria, um, in August of 68', he wrote a poem called, um, The Ogre, which goes: The ogre does what ogres can. Deeds quite impossible for man. But one prize is beyond his reach. The ogre cannot master speech. About a subjugated plane, amid the suffering of the slain, the ogre stalks with hands on hips, while drivel gushes from his lips. And he sort of foretold the way in which this absurdist standard had been set up by force could be collapsed, in a sense, by irony.

Timothy Garton Ash: But--but--but something much more than drivel. In a way, I mean it's a brilliant poem, I think a wonderful poem, and I love Christopher's piece about it. But in a way that's--Auden had too English an intelligence to understand this--this--this--this capacity which Orwell did understand, of newspeak, just to cover their ground so that certain things could not even be thought.

Peter Robinson: Okay, so then let me ask you then to rate the place in that movement of telling the truth of John Paul, II. Where does he rate as a dissident and as a intellectual with regard to the actual effectiveness of his words in bringing an end to the regimes in the east?

Timothy Garton Ash: I--in my view, he has an absolutely enormous role. I would argue, um, without John Paul, II, no solidarity movement in Poland. And without the solidarity movement in Poland, no Gorbacev in the form in which we discovered him in the late 1980's, wanting to transform the east European Empire. And John Paul, II, although in many ways a very conservative figure, ah, one of his--the central things he did was to say that everyone, not just Catholics, which is what the church had said up to his time, but everyone has God given universal human rights, and to have human rights being preached from every pulpit in Poland was absolutely crucial.

Peter Robinson: You grant all that?

Christopher Hitchens: Yes. Yes, even if it was sometimes ventriloquized through rather bizarre Polish clergymen like Cardinal Glimp [ph.] who didn't seem to like the solidarity of the dissident movement at all. Though something in me wants to, ah, resist his holiness, the fact of the matter is he's--you can prove that he's a man of principle in other--other matters as well. For example, in a thing that matters very much to me, um, I think he's--he's almost single-handedly changed the teaching of the church on the filthy practice of capital punishment. And he's had a big effect on the way that that argument has changed its shape in the United States in the last couple of years.

[Talking at the same time]

Peter Robinson: He has not changed the teaching.

Christopher Hitchens: No, he hasn't made it--he hasn't anathematized it.

Peter Robinson: Nor could he actually.

Christopher Hitchens: No. Nor--nor perhaps should he, because it would be better to make people think for themselves than to condemn something and tell them they have to follow it. But he certainly made it plain that he thinks that only in the most exceptional circumstances is--is the state justified in doing such a thing.

Timothy Garton Ash: In fact, he's also…

Peter Robinson: Let me press these guests a little bit harder. Is it genuinely impossible for a politician to be an intellectual?

Title: Political Animals

Peter Robinson: You both subscribe to this quotation from Immanuel Kant, "The possession of power unavoidably spoils the free use of reason." Now, I'll grant that that may be the ordinary course, but I'd like to suggest that perhaps that it isn't always the case that that's a bit of an overstatement from Kant. Let's take, um, I'll reach way back, St. Thomas Moore, active as a politician, also an intellectual, never stops making his case. Some of the most beautiful prose that he writes is from prison to his daughter Meg in which he's making political arguments as well as religious arguments. Unavoidable--unavoidably spoils the free use of reason? That is an overstatement, don't you agree?

Timothy Garton Ash: No, I--I--I don't. I think it is unavoidably spoils. And I have to come back to Havel for a moment because, you know, here is one of the greatest political writers--one of the greatest independent spirits of our time. And I, in my view, he's--he's writing, his analysis, has been spoiled by the too long possession of power. I have to say that.

Christopher Hitchens: I mean I--we both chose Kant over the plutonic, if not..

Peter Robinson: Yes, yes.

[Talking at the same time)]

Peter Robinson: I want to revisit it.

Christopher Hitchens: I would say, in a way what he says is a tortology, because it certainly spoils its free use. In other words, if you become a politician, by definition, you've sacrificed a certain amount of your in--independence as an intellectual. It doesn't mean that you…

[Talking at same time]

Peter Robinson: But anymore than a journalist who has deadlines to meet and editors to please?

Christopher Hitchens: That it spoils the use of reason would I think not be the case. I mean, someone could be perfectly capable of reasoning, but the--the temptation for that to become rationalization would have to some extent…

Peter Robinson: Let's--let's take Lincoln then, the Gettysburg Address, the second inaugural address, the very act of statesmanship is the occasion that pushes him to think so lucidly and to produce such beautiful prose. And both of those strike me as great statements in the interest of--of truth--great truths about the United States and about the moment--that moment in history. I don't see any corruption in Lincoln at all.

Timothy Garton Ash: Right, no. Uh, I mean there's no doubt that politicians are capable of magnificent pieces of prose and magnificent statements of universal truths, but I think if you looked at the totality of Lincoln's record, you would of course find many times where he made compromises. Where he said one thing to one person and another thing to--to another. Um, I think there are two different things here. One is about the way politicians use words. Words are instruments for the preservation of their power. And that means, inevitably that you use words in a different way. The second thing is that I think there is something about the long possession of power that really does turn the head. And I do believe this. You remember Blake said, the strongest poison ever known came from Caesar's laurel crown. And I don't know any politician who's been in power for longer than a few years whose head hasn't been slightly turned by it.

Peter Robinson: Last question. From where and on what topics will the next powerful intellectual voices emerge?

Title: A Cry in the Wilderness

Peter Robinson: Christopher, you write, "In the United States, we aw--we await a writer who can summon every nerve to cleanse the country from the filthy stain of the death penalty. There is as yet, no Blake or Camus, or Kessler to synthesize justice and reason with outrage to compose the poem or novel as did Herman Melville with Flogging in His White Jacket that will constitute the needful, moral legislation." Do you feel the need for a writer to produce moral legislation on that subject or any other subject in this country?

Timothy Garton Ash: Well, unlike Christopher, I don't live here. So, I don't experience it, you know, from year to year.

Peter Robinson: In Europe then.

Timothy Garton Ash: But in Europe, absolutely.

Peter Robinson: And what--what--what do you have the sense that you're waiting for a voice to synthesize?

Timothy Garton Ash: Um, I think one thing is the nature of Europe itself. I mean, I think we are at a moment where a European patriotism is called for and it needs a great writer to come along and tell us what Europe should stand for. What Europe is is everything, but what it should be. I'll give you one other example. The fact that two billion people in the world live on less than two dollars a day. I feel the need for a great political writer, another Orwell to come along and arouse our consciences about that.

Peter Robinson: Do you feel--it--it strikes me, one place where I myself feel a need is for a new Solzhenitsyn. You're talking about the need for an identity for Europe. It strikes me as almost surprising, given the literary tradition of Russia, that no--at least here in the west, I'm not aware of any new voice arising and giving direction and--and a sense of substance to the new Russia, do you feel that at all?

Christopher Hitchens: Well not only do I feel that, though I'm tremendously unqualified to comment on Russian rising, but I'm--I'm startled that something that hardly anyone ever seems to mention, which is that once he went back home, Solzhenitsyn appears to have ceased to be a writer.

Timothy Garton Ash: Well he's become a (?)…

Christopher Hitchens: Become a (?)…

Peter Robinson: Even more corrupting than power.

[Talking at the same time]

Christopher Hitchens: Hasn't--hasn't--seems to have--seems…

Peter Robinson: Something like this.

Christopher Hitchens: …seems--as he's perfectly entitled to do of course. Uh, but seems to have declined, ah, the challenge that his country now presents. Uh, uh, that is a striking fact on its own. Because there must have been many years when even he wondered if he'd ever see his country again. But it's a daunting task.

Peter Robinson: Do you have any hunch of why, that is to say…

Timothy Garton Ash: Can I just suggest an explanation?

Peter Robinson: Please do.

Timothy Garton Ash: I think--I think one of the things that I learned from the end of the Cold War, when suddenly all the circumstances changed, is how much people are dependent on a particular set of circumstances. That is to say, there are people who are magnificent in resistance in war and terrible and corrupt in peace. And it's the very same person.

Christopher Hitchens: You're not saying Solzhenitsyn is terrible and corrupt in peace?

Timothy Garton Ash: Well he's pretty terrible in--in--in...

[Talking at the same time]

Timothy Garton Ash: I don't know about corrupt, but he's certainly pretty terrible in the kind of views he preaches. But it's the same man. And there's a sort of, you know, divine stubbornness. I mean (inaudible) is another example, right, of someone who was magnificent in resistance and then, when democracy come, turns into the most pigheaded reactionary authoritarian, but it's the same man.

Peter Robinson: Gentlemen, final question. You are both addressing the last evening of Christopher's graduate class at the New School in New York, and you must sum up in two or three sentences, the proper role of the intellectual in public life. You presumably have done it once or twice, so we'll go to you first. Sum it up.

Christopher Hitchens: Student's I would say (inaudible). Um, don't trust anyone, especially not the person who's telling you this, your teacher, that's me. Um, learn to read and think for yourself. In other words, the intellectual is a permanent--the life of the intellectual is or ought to be a permanent, uh, reproach to the idea that there can be arguments from authority. Uh, good arguments only come from continuing argument from confrontation, from struggle. They--they're not established in, uh, teachable and passable on.

Peter Robinson: Timothy?

Timothy Garton Ash: I completely agree with that. Independents, doubting everything, and Orwell, at one point in one of his great essays, burst into a Methodist, revivalist hymn which said it all. He said, "Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose sure. Dare to make it known."

Peter Robinson: Timothy and Christopher, thank you very much.

Peter Robinson: Both Timothy Garton Ash and Christopher Hitchens sided with Immanuel Kant over Plato, holding that intellectuals should become engaged with public life, but as dissidents and critics, not as holders of power. Sorry about that Plato, back on the shelf with you. I'm Peter Robinson, thanks for joining us.