You should wear with pride the scars on your skin

19 12 2011

Christopher Hitchens and Vaclav Havel died this past weekend.

Both men were writers deeply engaged in the politics of our time; one was more in love with words than ideas, the other, the other way around.

One man engaged in politics, the other, engaged in the engagement; both are worthy pursuits, but they are not equal to each other.

One man knew that, the other didn’t.

One was a hell of a s/wordsman, and I would have loved to have had the chance to have lost (as I would have) an argument to him. Fight above your weight class, I say, and Hitchens was certainly far above mine; losing to him would have been instructive, and if I could never have hoped to have bested him in argument, I could have applied the lessons of those beatings elsewhere.

But if I wanted to learn more than verbal fisticuffs, I would rather have sat down in a smoky pub with Havel. If Hitchens had great verbal reflexes, Havel was the far better reflector. He questioned, he doubted, he admitted the possibility of error in his steadfast search for moral clarity. He lived an absurd life, and was imprisoned by an absurd regime for pointing out its absurdity.

His stint as leader of Czechoslovakia, and later, as president of the Czech Republic, was not an unqualified success, and some of us were disappointed by his support for the Iraq war. He based that support on the grounds of the threat Saddam Hussein held for the Iraqis, not the Americans, and even that support was qualified, arguing that  “the international community has the right to intervene when human rights are liquidated in such a brutal way.”

I have some sympathy for liberal interventionism—the legacy of inaction in Rwanda—but even more suspicion; still, I can extend that sympathy to someone whose country was ripped apart by Hitler, then stomped on by the Soviets in 1968. Havel’s idealism got him through prison terms and decades of oppression, and if that same idealism led him to underestimate the Hobbesian in politics, well, I can still appreciate his admonition that Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred.

Hitchens was a champion hater and, to be honest, I can take altogether too much comfort in my own contempts. I enjoy the fight, enjoy the hardness of verbal combat and in slamming back a volley aimed at my own head. I like to win—ohhhh, do I like to win.

But winning is not enough; what is the win for?

What is needed is something different, something larger. Man’s attitude toward the world must be radically changed. We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.

. . . We must see the pluralism of the world, and not bind it by seeking common denominators or reducing everything to a single common equation. We must try harder to understand rather than to explain. . . . In short, human uniqueness, human action, and the human spirit must be rehabilitated.

From a speech before the World Economic Forum, 1992

I do not share Havel’s moral idealism, Havel’s hope, but I don’t think he’s wrong to tell us to look past ourselves, our interests and our fears, and to live in the full possibility of this human world.

I might have had fun hanging out with Hitchens, and been discomfitted by Havel, but I think the discomfitting is more fitting: unease propels me more than certainty ever will.