Daniel W. Drezner

A bad week for public intellectuals

I was never formally introduced to either Vaclav Havel or Christopher Hitchens, but I encountered both of them exactly once.  I was lucky enough to hear Havel deliver a speech at Stanford University in the fall of 1994.  I don’t remember much about the speech itself beyond a vaguely metaphysical theme.  What I do remember ...

I was never formally introduced to either Vaclav Havel or Christopher Hitchens, but I encountered both of them exactly once.  I was lucky enough to hear Havel deliver a speech at Stanford University in the fall of 1994.  I don’t remember much about the speech itself beyond a vaguely metaphysical theme.  What I do remember is a specific physical gesture.  At one point during the proceedings, at Havel’s request, Joan Baez came on stage, played her guitar, and sang a song.  After Havel spoke, everyone exited the stage, Havel last.  He noticed Baez’s guitar, and picked it up.  As he left the stage, he looked over his shoulder and raised the guitar over his head.  The expression on his face screamed, "can you believe I’m holding Joan Baez’s friggin’ guitar??!!!

My encounter with Hitchens was a little more mundane — we were both participating at an AEI panel in early 2001 on international law.  I was on a morning panel, and afterwards, Hitchens gave the lunch keynote.  I can recall the standard Hitchens attributes:  him reeking of cigarettes and alcohol, but nevertheless giving a very good speech.  What I also remember is talking with one of the AEI assistants who was tasked with "handling" Hitchens for the day.  We started chatting, and at one point she said plainly, "the minute he leaves here will not be soon enough for me." 

I’d love to be able to divine some deeper meaning from their deaths, but I’m not quite as inspired a writer as either of them.  It’s funny to think that Hitchens started out politically to the left of Havel, swerving a bit to his right about a decade ago, but that’s not a theme.  Rather, this being a blog, I have two unrelated thoughts. 

First, as someone who has written a thing or two about public intellectuals, Havel really was extraordinary as someone who could be trusted with power.  As Mark Lilla noted in his excellent The Reckless Mind, intellectuals don’t really have a distinguished track record when they actually acquire power.  Havel was a notable exception — perhaps because he never really thought he should have it.  In David Remnick’s New Yorker write-up of the end of Havel’s (politically successful) presidency, the politics of doubt that I like so much shines through quite clearly: 

At times, Havel felt thoroughly insufficient, a fraud. A familiar Prague voice, the voice of Kafka, told him what anyone who has grown up in a police state knows instinctually—that it could all end as easily as it started.

"I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my Presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to stand trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks," he told a startled audience at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, less than six months after taking office. "Nor would I be surprised if I were to suddenly hear the reveille and wake up in my prison cell, and then, with great bemusement, proceed to tell my fellow-prisoners everything that had happened to me in the past six months. The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am the stronger my suspicion is that there has been some mistake."

In Havel’s thirteen years as President—first of Czechoslovakia and then, after the Slovaks and the Czechs divided into two states, in 1993, of the Czech Republic—many of his advisers repeatedly begged him to delete, or at least soften, these public moments of self-doubt. What effect would they have on an exhausted people waiting for the radical transformation of their country? (Imagine Chirac or Blair, Bush or Schröder beginning a national address with an ode to his midnight dread!) Havel, however, would not be edited. The Presidential speech was the only literary genre left to him now, his most direct means of expressing not only his personal feelings but also the spirit of the distinctively human politics he wanted to encourage after so many decades of inhuman ideology. "Some aides tried to stop him, but these speeches had a therapeutic value for him," Havel’s closest aide, Vladimír Hanzel, told me.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed recently, most people are mediocre and, if they were given power, would likely not exercise it all that benevolently.   Havel was about as far away from mediocre as one could be. 

Hitchens was not mediocre, but neither was he gentle, and so his passing generated a more variegated response.  There was the eruption of fond memories from fellow writers at his ability to consume and produce prodigious amounts of prose and other substances — this one is my favorite.  It’s also led Glenn Greenwald to grouse about the hagiography that the death of public figures ostensibly produces: 

We are all taught that it is impolite to speak ill of the dead, particularly in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death. For a private person, in a private setting, that makes perfect sense. Most human beings are complex and shaped by conflicting drives, defined by both good and bad acts. That’s more or less what it means to be human. And — when it comes to private individuals — it’s entirely appropriate to emphasize the positives of someone’s life and avoid criticisms upon their death: it comforts their grieving loved ones and honors their memory. In that context, there’s just no reason, no benefit, to highlight their flaws.

But that is completely inapplicable to the death of a public person, especially one who is political. When someone dies who is a public figure by virtue of their political acts — like Ronald Reagan — discussions of them upon death will be inherently politicized. How they are remembered is not strictly a matter of the sensitivities of their loved ones, but has substantial impact on the culture which discusses their lives. To allow significant political figures to be heralded with purely one-sided requiems — enforced by misguided (even if well-intentioned) notions of private etiquette that bar discussions of their bad acts — is not a matter of politeness; it’s deceitful and propagandistic. To exploit the sentiments of sympathy produced by death to enshrine a political figure as Great and Noble is to sanction, or at best minimize, their sins. Misapplying private death etiquette to public figures creates false history and glorifies the ignoble.

Meh.  I read a lot of the Hitchens write-ups, and a fair number of them were pretty blunt about his personal and political dark sides.  Even critics like Corey Robin acknowledge the  "consistent line" of “Yes, he was wrong on Iraq, but…”  in the public responses to his death.  This suggests that Hitchens has not, in fact, been a subject of one-sided requiems. even by those who liked him. 

I suspect two things are going on in the public reaction to Hitchens’ death, one unique to him and one that’s more general.  What was unique about Hitchens was that he was an archetype brought to life.  Here was a real, honest-to-goodness heavy drinking, heavy smoking, occasionally rude Brit who could nevertheless dash off excellent writing on a daily basis.  Where do you actually see that outside of the movies nowadays? 

The more general trend is that in an age of self-publishing, perhaps the personal and the public are more fused than Greenwald realizes or comprehends.  Hitchens hung around with a lot of writers, and as friends it’s not shocking that their initial responses will be to talk about the private individual behind the public persona.  As time passess, more strangers will push back, there will be more sober reassessments, and eventually some kind of perspective is achieved.  The thing about the internet is that it amplifies these cycles of reactions and counterreactions for all to see.   

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