The deaths of famous men

Apologies to those who have heard this one from me before, but I once had the good fortune to be among a small audience Christopher Hitchens gave a talk to. It was 2006, Shanghai, the Foreign Correspondents club. Hitchens walked in–half nervous, half bravado–with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes. He poured himself a stiff one, lit up a smoke and asked the audience if he was the only journalist in the room that had been to all three Axis of Evil countries that year. He then totally dismantled the idea of god and religion. I remember feeling sympathetic to his point of view, but couldn’t quite get all the way there. I was reading a lot about Buddhism at the time and finding it interesting, and he was so utterly dismissive of all religion (including Buddhism, which you don’t hear attacked that often) that it was rather shocking.

That was the thing about Hitchens, he took no prisoners. He had this total clarity of his beliefs, but unlike many dogmatists he truly had a deep reserve of knowledge about the things he felt strongly about, and even more importantly he wasn’t afraid to revise his views as he grew. He did this most famously after 9/11, when he broke from the Nation and the Left generally and supported the war on Iraq and other aspects of the Neo-con agenda. Regardless of how you feel about that break, and how it looks over time, you have to admire his chutzpah.

But to my earlier point, to hear Hitchens speak was stunning, he was so utterly confident, had so much knowledge at his disposal, had such confidence without the blemish of hubris, that he was always the smartest person around, always the best debater, and would always take on all comers.

He died, of course, last week, and I can’t help but feeling it is really a true loss. This was one of our greatest intellectuals, fierce, passionate and searching. More than the death of anyone I can imagine I feel this loss as something that is really profound because of the rich writing, debates and ideas we are deprived of had he lived longer.

And just a few days later another one of my heroes, Vaclav Havel, passed on. Havel had been sick for many years, on and off, and reports of his demise were common. He was a former chain-smoker, imprisoned many times under harsh conditions, and he lived a wild, Bohemian life, none of which is associated with longevity. At 75, he had a pretty good run and the man certainly achieved a lot.

Havel personified a small nation’s struggle against a faceless, souless form of tyranny. Even after he was thrown in jail repeatedly, denied his occupation, and forced to do menial labor, he refused the authority’s efforts to force him into exile, even though he was celebrated in the west and would have lived well. He saw things through, continued to put himself out there and on the line, forming Charter 77 in the late 70s, a landmark human rights campaign that preyed on the consciousness of the Communists and certainly helped bring about their demise. When the events of 1989 unfolded “Havel na Hrad” (Havel in the Castle) was the battle cry. And soon there he was, the philosopher/playwright and reluctant politician. The Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa were admirers and stopped by to see him. He reportedly rode a scooter through the castle’s corridors. He helped a tiny country, which had just split in half (after Czechoslovakia became the Czech Republic and Slovakia), manage incredible transitions in a peaceful manner. And he enabled that tiny country to punch above its weight because of his moral authority, addressing the US Congress and winning the Presidential Freedom Award, just a few of the countless awards and accolades he earned and which brought a spotlight to the Czech Republic and broadly to the Eastern European countries transitioning from Communism. He helped stimulate the imaginations of many young people who saw a beautiful, newly liberated country and wanted to try something new, just like the Czechs were doing.

I was one of them. I arrived there in the spring of 1998 with a backpack and a guitar and started reading Havel. His idea of speaking truth to power, of “living in truth”, was one of the things that lingers with me the most. To this day it reminds me that not denying our nature, being honest with ourselves and others, being a good person, are essential characteristics to leading a decent life. Reading Havel and following the arc of his life helped me be a better person.

I also had the chance to meet him on a few occasions through the work I was doing at the time. He was shy and didn’t speak English well, and he didn’t seem comfortable in the limelight. I interacted with him and his office on numerous occasions when he had something to say to the world about injustice or human rights and it was an honor and a privilege.

But by the time I had arrived the Czechs had soured a bit on Havel. A rather crabby and envious people, they seemed to hold him responsible for the country not realizing after the Velvet Revolution the utopian vision that was crushed by the Soviets during Prague Spring in 1968. They were displeased that he married a b-movie starlet a year after the death of his beloved wife Olga. I remember reading Havel saying the Czechs were in a “bad mood” in the late ’90s. They almost always are, and I still feel that they didn’t quite appreciate how special he was for a country like theirs.

And then there is the death of Kim Jong Il. The death of a tyrant coming right after these almost incredible men…. I’m reluctant to lump it together yet feel like it warrants inclusion. Kim Jong Il was a man who received everything in life solely because of who his father was and because of the despotic, hereditary system he set up. He was famous for his cruelty and his tastes for luxuries, even as millions starved in his country. It’s probably wrong to look for meaning in the timing of these deaths, yet I wind up always doing that kind of thing because I have this conviction that things are linked in ways we can’t know. Perhaps the link is that if you have these brave men, who fought passionately for their beliefs and the dispossessed, you have the other side that needs fighting against.

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