Home > Current Affairs, Politics > Hitchens, Havel, and Kim Jong-il: Mixed Legacies

Hitchens, Havel, and Kim Jong-il: Mixed Legacies

Kicking the can invisible late last week after a battle with cancer, essayist, critic, rhetorician, alcohol lover, atheist and all-around magnificent bastard Christopher Hitchens leaves behind a hefty if decidedly mixed legacy of words. Although best known for his no-prisoners attacks on religion and for fearlessly criticizing swiftly-canonized public figures (Princess Diana, Mother Theresa, Jerry Falwell) right after their deaths, Hitchens also cultivated a bit of a misogynist streak, infamously declaring women comedians inherent non-funny and peppering his opinions on political women with epithets of a decidedly sexist nature (the highly maternal adjective “overweening” comes up very often in his discussions of Hillary Clinton, he called the Dixie Chicks “fat fucking slags” after they mildly criticized George W Bush, and once suggested that the ex-beauty queen Sarah Palin had more of a future in porn than she did in politics).


Hitchens’ most prominent transgression, however, had to be his overwhelming support for the Bush Administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Glenn Greenwald explores in a recent post on his blog at Salon, Hitchens’ great enthusiasm for the venture reflected that of the American pundit and political elite, and his moral certainty about the war (even long after it was clear to nearly everyone what a mistake it was) sprang from an irrationality as rigid as that of the people he repeatedly called “Islamofascists”, a passion rooted in his ruthlessly anti-clerical atheism (though Greenwald misses this as a source).

Although Hitchens could fire off a rhetorical volley like few others, his writing rarely displayed nuanced thought on par with its trenchant, often vicious, wit. Though his TV and debate appearances could be fun to observe as pure theatre, his writing influenced my own little if at all. Hitchens wielded his prodigious vocabulary like a sledgehammer, displaying an Orwellian moral dedication to directness and a related distrust of metaphor. Like his hero Orwell, Hitchens was ever on guard against the potential of the English language to mislead, to manipulate, and to alter the terms of reality. If the language is being used that way anyway, I always figured, might as well join in and employ it to the full advantage of your chosen cause.


Turning language to a chosen cause is certainly what Vaclav Havel did. The writer and first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic passed away recently as well, and though I know only a bit about him, he is the towering, representative figure of his country’s politics over the past few decades. Given the cultural history of the Czechs, it should not be too surprising that their great statesman of the end of the turbulent 20th century should be a scholar. Havel demonstrated a differing and perhaps more strictly practical approach to political and social issues than did Hitchens, but was no less stringent and ardent in his activities.

The third in last week’s fascinating troika of expiring public figures left a legacy of highly unambiguously negative effects rather unlike the mixed baggage of Hitchens and Havel. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death at 69 leaves the most closed society in the world in the lurch, even if the succession of his son Kim Jong-un has settled the question of which personality will inherit the mass cult for the moment. North Korea, like many totalitarian states, has elevated its system beyond even its Supreme Leader, and the survival of the regime is hardly in much doubt. A miraculous but unlikely Manchurian Spring uprising aside, the new boss is likely to be virtually the same as the old boss, especially since Jong-il’s forcible mass adoration was not really based on anything but the loftiest imagined qualities.


This is what made Jong-il such an amusing (if unforgivably racially stereotyped) villain in the puppet farce Team America: he was a tabula rasa of evil who could be imbued with whatever hilarious quirks imaginative satirists like Trey Parker and Matt Stone could fathom (their flamboyant version of Saddam Hussein on South Park was cut from the same cloth). Since the support network of his isolated dictatorship could not allow itself provide any personality insight to the wider world (or else believed it was under no obligation to do so), his rabble-rousing American opponents thrust their own ludicrous version of his monomania into the void. But it leaves a lingering question. What was this actual man actually like, beyond the obscuring scaffolding of propaganda that was constantly erected around him? As with many features of North Korea’s social reality, we may never really know.

Categories: Current Affairs, Politics
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: