Advancing a Free Society

Two Eloquent Voices for Freedom

Monday, December 19, 2011

Like many others, I was greatly saddened this week by the passing of two eloquent voices for freedom -- Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel -- within the span of just a few days. Each will be sorely missed.

I suspect that Mr. Hitchens would have been embarrassed by comparisons with Mr. Havel, especially in light of the latter man’s sufferings and achievements in bringing about the fall of a totalitarian government. But the two had abundant qualities in common.

Both had exceptional gifts for language, writing with a precision generally unseen among their contemporaries. Both shared a finely tuned moral sense. Both were unimpressed with political orthodoxy, willing to critique the shortcomings of ideological allies as well as adversaries. Both were intensely self-critical in the best sense, subjecting their own views to constant reassessment. Both believed deeply in the virtue and potential of human freedom. Both were unbowed by the posturing of tyrants. Both were scornful of appeasement. And both left a trail of utterances that managed to stimulate even amid our age’s surfeit of unnecessary words.

In remembrance of these two men, I offer a brief quotation of each that has left a lasting impression on me.

Hitchens’s autobiography “Hitch-22,” is to a great extent the story of his gradual evolution from an indoctrinated British Trotskyist into a patriotic American. Within the longer book, the chapter “Changing Places” tells the tale in microcosm. It begins with the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and ends with Hitchens somberly taking the oath of American citizenship.

Nearly from the first moment, Hitchens realized that America was under attack from the very forces his ideological compatriots had long sworn to oppose – the forces of theocracy and intolerance --and by enthusiastic murderers of the innocent to boot. He wrote:

I did not intend to be told, I said, that the people of the United States – who included all those toiling in the Pentagon as well as all those, citizens and non-citizens, who had been immolated in Manhattan – had in any sense deserved this or brought it upon themselves. I also tried to give a name to the mirthless, medieval, death-obsessed barbarism that had so brazenly unmasked itself. It was, I said, ‘Fascism with an Islamic Face.’

Hitchens also starkly reminded his companions on the Left that their rightful place was with the earnest, diverse, working-class men and women who were defending their society and their families against the terrorists:

I talked to my graduate class at the New School for Social Research – itself partly founded as a haven for refugees from fascism – where a few of our downtown dorms had been converted into shelters. The parents of some students had urged them to desert the stricken city and head home. I told them that they’d never forgive themselves if they left New York now. I saw the improvised photo notices of the ‘missing’ and the ‘disappeared’ taped to walls and shop windows downtown, using every language from Spanish to Armenian, and heard again the echo from the victims of the death squads. I saw the awakening of a new respect for the almost-eclipsed figure of the American proletarian, who was busting his sinews in the rubble and carnage of downtown while the more refined elements wrung their hands. What an opportunity for the Left to miss. . .

Hitchens went on to record his disappointment that his views were not more widely shared among his colleagues. Like Mr. Hitchens, Mr. Havel was always asking his compatriots to do better, for themselves, for their dependents, and for those who would follow.

Perhaps my favorite speech of Havel’s was given upon the visit of the German President Richard von Weiszacker. After the German President had duly noted the horrors committed by previous Germans upon the Czech people, Havel had this to say:

Six years of Nazi rule was enough, for example, for us to have allowed ourselves to be infected with the germ of evil.  We informed on one another, both during and after the war; we accepted -- in just, as well as exaggerated, indignation -- the principle of collective guilt.  Instead of giving all those who betrayed this state a proper trial, we drove them out of the country and punished them with the kind of retribution that went beyond the rule of law.  This was not punishment.  It was revenge. Moreover, we did not expel these people on the basis of demonstrable individual guilt, but simply because they belonged to a certain nation.  And thus, on the assumption that we were clearing the way for historical justice, we hurt many innocent people, most of all women and children. And, as is usually the case in history, we hurt ourselves even more; we settled accounts with totalitarianism in a way that allowed the spirit of totalitarianism to penetrate our own activities and thus our own souls. Shortly afterward, it returned to us cruelly in the form of our inability to resist a new totalitarianism imported from elsewhere.

Havel’s warning against the insidious principle of “collective guilt” (and, for that matter, “historical justice”) is one of which people never seem to cease needing reminding. Only an individual can be guilty of something; one does not become guilty of any criminal offense merely by being a German, or Jewish, or bourgeois, or a Democrat, or a descendant of slave-owners, or by being among the so-called “1%.” The notion of collective guilt is one to which the human mind seems endlessly susceptible, and which too readily rationalizes the next round of transgressions. We need the Havels among us to remind us of what a foolish and dangerous notion it is.

May both Hitchens and Havel rest in peace, and may we have many more like them.

(photo credit: Vaclav Havel)