Stephen M. Walt

Deaths in the Family

It’s the holiday season, but Death does not observe such man-made conventions.  I’ve been more conscious of that fact this past week, in part because my mother would have been 84 last Thursday and she is woven into a whole tapestry of my holiday memories.  It is at such times that the loss is most ...

David Levenson/Getty Images
David Levenson/Getty Images

It’s the holiday season, but Death does not observe such man-made conventions.  I’ve been more conscious of that fact this past week, in part because my mother would have been 84 last Thursday and she is woven into a whole tapestry of my holiday memories.  It is at such times that the loss is most acute.

And as it happens, we have seen three notable departures this week.  Herewith a brief comment on each.

 1. Christopher Hitchens.   I never met Hitchens (though my wife knew him slightly back in the 1980s), but I’ve enjoyed several of his books and a fair bit of his commentary over the years.  His talents were considerable and his achievements worthy of note (and I’d give a fair bit to be as able and witty a writer as he was), but the outpouring of tributes this past week struck me as decidedly over-the-top.  (I can’t help but think that he would have been first in line to skewer most of them).  I don’t doubt the sincerity of his friends’ affection and or question their sense of loss, but as Glenn Greenwald notes, if you want people to say nice things about you when you’re gone, make sure a lot of your friends are well-connected Establishment writers.

Like a lot of public intellectuals, Hitchens embraced an odd set of ideological fixations at various points in his career.  He started out a Trotskyite, and ended up a cranky neoconservative fellow-traveler (at least regarding the Iraq War and the threat from radical Islam).  And his public persona never seemed tempered by self-doubt, despite having been massively wrong on more than one occasion.  A bit more humility might have made him a less successful writer, but also a more sensible one.

Is it possible that his oscillations reflected a lack of deep intellectual foundations?  He was clearly formidably well-read, but apart from his outspoken atheism, I’m not sure he had a well-developed theory for how the world really worked.  By his own account, the unifying core of his thinking was a hatred of "the totalitarian"–and especially any movement or ruler who tried to control what we think–but isn’t that about the easiest target for anyone (and especially a writer) to pick?  I mean, who’s going to rise to totalitarianism’s defense in this day and age, and especially inside the American Establishment?   (Civil liberties may be under siege these days, but we have a ways to go before we come close to true tyranny.)

That said, I was also struck by one more thought upon reading all those commentaries on his career.  I cannot imagine the American system of higher education producing anyone quite like him, and especially not the typical American Ph.D. program in the social sciences.  Whatever his flaws may have been, Hitchens was wide-ranging, provocative, willing to take unpopular positions, and above all fun to read.  Whereas graduate education in the United States is increasingly designed to take smart and ambitious young students, stamp most of the fire and creativity out of them, and make them safe, largely indistinguishable from each other, and above all, boring.   (There’s a reason we call them "academic disciplines").   So if Hitchens is your role model, for god’s (note the small "g") sake don’t go get a Ph.D.

2. Vaclav Havel.  Unlike Hitchens, Havel was a man of letters who was also a man of action.  It is one thing to write an acid-dipped portrait of Mother Theresa or a brilliant indictment of God–neither of whom could hit back in any meaningful way-but quite another to confront a communist dictatorship with the power to throw you in jail (which, in Havel’s case, it did).   And even braver to have done so long when the Soviet Empire seemed firmly intact, and one could hardly be confident that resistance would pay off. 

Havel was perhaps less successful as a post-communist political leader, but he remained mostly true to his original principles and the Czech Republic has emerged as a successful and free democracy, ranking in the top category of the Freedom House’s annual survey.  That is no small achievement, and one for which he deserves a lot of the credit.

3. Kim Jong Il.   I have nothing good to say about Kim Jong Il, whose main legacy has to been to further prolong the suffering of the North Korean people and to distract other powers from more important issues.  His father, Kim Il Sung, could at least claim to have been a patriotic opponent of the Japanese during World War II, though his subsequent rule condemned North Korea to unnecessary poverty and a pariah status among the world’s nations.   Kim Jong Il did manage to take North Korea across the nuclear threshold and was adept at extorting support from the outside world, but the former is hardly something to admire and the latter skill would not have been necessary had the regime been able to feed its own people effectively.  And the price that his countrymen have paid has been prodigious: North Korea’s per capita income is less than $1800 per annum, while South Korea’s is about $20,000.

What do I make of the transition to Kim Jong Il’s son, the twenty-seven year old Kim Jong-un?  It’s obviously an attempt to preserve the family business, and keeping a Kim at the top may be the best way to prevent in-fighting among the rest of the ruling elite and especially the senior military leadership.   But whether this untried twenty-something has the capacity to pull this off remains to be seen.  

And I keep thinking about the Corleones: the problem with a family dynasty is that sometimes the right successor isn’t around when the Don dies.  And if you don’t have Michael or even Sonny waiting in the wings, then you get Fredo.  We’ll see.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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