December 20, 2011
It is sometimes said that death comes in threes, and the weekend before Christmas 2011 saw a striking trio of public figures meet their ends. Either due to a strange cosmic alignment or our creator’s bravado display of quirky humor, the past weekend’s three deaths present a baffling mix of character studies. If there’s a case to be made that God—if there is a God—has a wicked sense of humor, one need look no further than the fact that he decided to strike down two such notable examples of a worthwhile human life—and a worthless one—on the same weekend.
Based purely on my own biases, I’ve decided to organize this trio of the recently deceased into the always dependable categories of good, bad, and ugly. Depending on your political, religious, or cultural perspective, you may be inclined to rearrange my categories.
THE GOOD: VACLAV HAVEL
Apart from a few cranks in cyberspace, it’s difficult to imagine that many would bear any ill will toward one of Europe’s most seminal figures of the past century. His name commands almost universal admiration and respect, and his CV reads like it was designed to land him a place between Gandhi and MLK in the secular-saint sweepstakes: Leader of the Velvet Revolution. Father of pro-democracy movements in the dark days of Central European totalitarianism. Prisoner of conscience. Playwright. Nonviolent political agitator. He may also be the only man in memory who could lay claim to having both discussed literature with the likes of Milan Kundera and Philip Roth and partied with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger—all while helping to bring down communism. Havel was nothing so drab as a saint—he was a dude.
He was also remarkably selfless, insofar as it’s possible for any man in public life. He recommended Aung San Suu Kyi for the Nobel Prize at a time when he might have won it himself. He organized a petition of writers in defense of Kundera when the author was facing accusations of being a commie informant—this, in spite of the well-documented disagreements between the two men.
I affectionately recall some footage I saw on BBC years ago. Havel comes onto the presidential palace’s balcony to greet a cheering throng with his tousled hair, a Rolling Stones tongue-logo T-shirt, and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. In striking contrast to every military-jacket-festooned-with-medals blowhard ever to stand on a balcony and wave at their constituents, Havel yawned, gave a curt-but-friendly wave, and walked back inside with a shrug that said, “That’s all very well, but I’ve got a chick waiting in here, so could you keep the noise down a bit?” He reminded me of Groucho Marx as the Freedonian president in Duck Soup and may be the only major world leader in history who usually looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed.
He changed the world but was resolutely unpretentious while doing it.
“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”
THE BAD: CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS
I mean “bad” in the cool-bad kinda way here, as opposed to the Stalin/Hitler type of bad, which we’ll get to in a moment. Like anyone who prides themselves on being a contrarian, Hitchens was a loose cannon who within the space of seconds could be heroically defiant and articulate, then infuriatingly self-important and pompous. A lot depends on whether you agreed or disagreed with his take on a topic. Some prefer the early “Trotskyite popinjay” and detest his latter-day warmongering neocon persona. Oddly enough, it was his wildly divergent (some would say inconsistent) views that allowed him to feel at home among all ideological types. Some conservative commentators would enlist him as one of the most articulate defenders of the Bush regime while they politely ignore his strident atheism. Others who wanted a gleefully unapologetic opponent of religion on their side might have been happy to ignore his pro-war or generally more conservative sentiments. There were plenty of sides to choose from: some to like, others to hate.
On one hand he was British, but on the other, he can be forgiven for that because he was resolutely pro-American. He could be an undeniably entertaining debater—funny, aggressive, and sharp-witted. But he had the sort of petulant, tediously argumentative, high-school-debate-club personality of a man who thinks that even the subject of whether chocolate is tastier than vanilla can be settled by argumentative means, with a firm winner declared at the end.
Love him or hate him, I think most would agree that he could be an enlivening change of pace from mainstream journalism’s conformist, platitude-wielding hordes. And if you’ll allow me to modify W. C. Fields: Any man who hated Mother Teresa and Michael Moore equally couldn’t have been all bad.
“Terrorism is the tactic of demanding the impossible, and demanding it at gunpoint.”
“The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.”
THE UGLY: KIM JONG-IL
God bless the Guardian—only the UK’s premiere left-wing paper could bring themselves to describe the thuggish Li’l Kim with flattering adjectives such as “mercurial” and “enigmatic” in their obituary piece. I’m only somewhat disappointed they didn’t add something nice about his stylishly coiffed hair.
Kim Jong-Il was in many respects the anti-Havel. One did tremendous good while seeming to have little interest in the world’s spotlight or the trappings of power; the other presided over endless military parades in his laughingstock, basket-case, Stalinist dirt-heap of a country while placidly watching vast swaths of his population starve to death.
“We oppose the reactionary policies of the US government but we do not oppose the American people. We want to have many good friends in the United States.”
“You are worthress, Arec Barrwin!”
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