19 December 2011

With Havel & Hitchens gone, who now carries Orwell's torch?

Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens both died this week.

They will both live on for a while though, because they each occupy a special place in my mind. They were both prominent fighters for human freedom against oppressive regimes. One, exorted the West with his intellect, wit and words to acknowledge its responsibility to fight for the ideals of freedom and against hypocrisy. The other was a politician, poet, playwright and philosopher who won a long fight with Soviet totalitarianism that will always inspire others. They were both in their own way heirs to the legacy of the contrarian genius of George Orwell, who helped define the 20th century's intellectual resistance to all forms of totalitarianism.

Vaclav Havel seems likely to go into the pantheon of our civilization's heroes of human freedom. In April 1975, after the Soviets had crushed the Prague Spring with tanks and installed a new puppet in power,  Havel (in Matt Welch's words)  "committed an act of such sheer ballsiness that the shock waves are still being felt in repressive countries 30 years later". He wrote an open letter to the Soviet installed puppet dictator, Gustav Husak, setting out why and how totalitarianism was ruining Czechoslovakia.
So far, you and your government have chosen the easy way out for yourselves, and the most dangerous road for society: the path of inner decay for the sake of outward appearances; of deadening life for the sake of increasing uniformity; of deepening the spiritual and moral crisis of our society, and ceaselessly degrading human dignity, for the puny sake of protecting your own power
This letter apparently was clandestinely distributed as a samizdat behind the Iron Curtain and has been attributed with being the catalyst for the growth of the dissident movement in Central Europe. "Absurdistan" he christened the Soviet Union. And that he was successful, with others, in eventually peacefully steering Czechoslovakia into democratic freedom is inspirational globally. Civilization is in his debt, because his example of resistance, dignity, courage and persistence can, and will be, drawn on for eons to come by those seeking succour under the oppressive yoke of totalitarian government.

Christopher Hitchens, though great in his own way: a brave contrarian and debunker of hypocrisy within the cultural cacophony of the West; and destined to continue be much loved by those that knew him or read his polemics whilst fresh, seems more likely to drift into obscurity. He will likely occasionally be dis-interned as a brilliant pamphleteer of our era by future scholars of the late 20th century, for this era could easily be forgotten, but for for the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 and 9/11.

Havel and Hitchens had much to say about both these events and their impact on our humanity and  civilizational values. The future will of course determine its own version of history on these matters, but it is to be fervently hoped that both these men will find their deserved place.

They have both been compared to, and at various times have metaphorically fought in the minds of others for the title of heir and successor to George Orwell. Hitchens wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters. In reviewing it in the Weekly Standard David Brooks argued that the great man's mantle and relevance had actually passed onto a new contrarian's shoulders: "At this moment, oddly enough, Hitchens matters more than Orwell." 

Whilst Matt Welch in the May 2003 of issue Reason argued:
At exactly the same time, the one man in the world of the living who could justifiably claim to be Orwell's heir was expounding almost daily on Saddam Hussein and international terrorism -- even while rushing through one of the most frenetic periods of a famously accomplished life. Vaclav Havel, the 66-year-old former Czech president who was term-limited out of office on February 2, built his reputation in the 1970s by being to eyewitness fact what George Orwell was to dystopian fiction. In other words, he used common sense to deconstruct rhetorical falsehoods, pulling apart the suffocating mesh of collectivist lies one carefully observed thread at a time.

So with both Havel and Hitchens now gone, who is to carry Orwell's great contrarian passion for human freedom forward?

It seems likely, and it is surely to be hoped, that the next chapter in this great and continuous battle for human dignity and freedom will be fought most intensely in the great rising super power of the East, China.

The inevitable huge tensions between the vast numbers of employers, industrialists and entrepreneurs gaining in wealth throughout China and their dysfunctional but all pervasive central and regional government overlords in the Communist Party, seems ripe territory for dissidence and courage of the scale and calibre that Orwell, Havel and Hitchens set. And even this analysis does not adequately acknowledge the role to be played by the "Power of the Powerless" in the vast social dislocation of  billions of Chinese peasants transferring from the verities of their rural villages to the relativism of urban alienation in cities on a scale never before seen in human history.  Somewhere there surely the new torchbearers for Orwell's passion for human dignity will be found and heard.

News Flash: Kim Jong-il dies.

So that illness finally got him (old and bad joke). A horrible tyrant, who oppressed millions of North Koreans for decades, goes in the same week as these two great fighters for the dignity and indomitable spirit of free people. Both the good and the bad have died this week. It emphasises the need to publicly revere the good where we can see it working, and to publicly revile the bad works of those who have not bettered the lot of their fellow humans.

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