Christopher Hitchens, the acerbic critic, and Vaclav Havel, the Czech leader, had one odd thing in common—besides passing away in the same week.
They both ran afoul of Noam Chomsky. Contrary to some murmurs in the blogosphere, Hitchens and Havel didn’t meet in 1988 when Hitchens was arrested and thrown out of Czechoslovakia for attending a meeting of one of Havel’s Charter 77 committees. It seems they met later when Havel was already president.
The triangular relationship between the two men and Chomsky reveals some aspects of what made them great. In a video posted online in May 2011, Chomsky is seen speaking to a supportive audience at a gathering of something called the “peace council.” When asked to respond to some of Hitchens’s critiques he claims that there are “liars and brazen liars” and then compares Hitchens to a Soviet Commissar.
When Havel traveled to speak before the U.S Congress in 1990, Chomsky condemned “the awed response to Vaclav Havel’s embarrassingly silly and morally repugnant Sunday School sermon in Congress the other day.” Chomsky went on to compare his speech with one that might have been carried out by a Communist from the Eastern bloc to the Supreme Soviet in Russia, as if Havel was groveling before U.S “tyranny.” He elaborated that the performance of Havel was “on a moral and intellectual level that is vastly below that of Third World peasants and Stalinist hacks.”
What great sin did Hitchens and Havel commit, to run afoul of Chomsky’s poison pen? They had once both been darlings of the left. “Hitch,” as he was sometimes called, was born in Portsmouth, England in 1949. Hitchens was nominally Jewish, his great grandmother having apparently been Jewish, a fact he discovered late in life. He attended a Methodist school and then Oxford, gravitating toward radical leftist circles in his opposition to the Vietnam War. He became a Trotskyite type of Communist, a typical choice of anti-Soviet intellectual radicals of his generation.
Hitchens made his mark at several leftwing newspapers such as The Nation and the New Statesmen before becoming a contributor to Vanity Fair in 1992. He never gave up his devotion to the radical left and it informed his contempt and hatred for organized religion. However, he was set on a new path by the Salmon Rushdie affair.
Rushdie, an Indian-born Muslim writer, was not of great renown when he published The Satanic Verses in 1988. The book garnered the wrath of Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini for its treatment of Islam. Four months before Khomeini, died he issued a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s death. Hitchens was surprised by the timidity of the left’s response [which was what? Silence?]. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The left, especially men like French philosopher Michel Foucault, had long been enamored of the “third way,” the Islamic revolution that Khomeini had inspired. From this point onward, Hitchens realized that he could not allow his leftism to compromise his essential love for the values of the West. An admirer of George Orwell, he came to understand well the life of the dissident, especially the leftist dissident who dares to go against left-wing orthodoxy.
“[The Rushdie affair] was, if I can phrase it like this, a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved,” Hitchens described. “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humor, the individual and the defense of free expression.”
Hitchens broke with many of his friends after the 9/11 attacks, when he became more outspoken about “Islamofacism” and “the unashamed cult of death” that had declared war on America. He expressed scorn for those on the left, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, Michael Moore and others who did not condemn the attacks, excused them or blamed them on an “inside job.” In the end, Hitchens loved freedom and didn’t make the mistake that many radicals have: allowing love of the other and self-critique to dictate support for the very things that would destroy freedom.
Havel was born in 1936 in Prague. A playwright, he became a dissident in the 1960s and spent many stints in prison in the 1970s and 80s. Elected president in 1990, he retained the post until 2003 and is remembered not only as the father of the modern Czech Republic, but one of the great dissidents who brought down Communism. He argued that: “A moral and intellectual state cannot be established through a constitution, or through law, or through directives, but only through complex, long-term, and never-ending work involving education and self-education.”
Havel was a friend to many Jews in Prague, including Karol Sidon, a fellow dissident who became chief rabbi. Only two months after his country established relations with Israel in 1990, Havel became the first Eastern European leader to visit the country, following in the footsteps Thomas Masaryk who came to British Palestine in 1930. When Havel met with President Chaim Herzog, he expressed support for the influx of Soviet Jews who were using Prague as a transit point. However, he also encouraged Israeli leaders to seek peace with Yasser Arafat, leading Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to respond, “We don’t see Arafat as a partner in the peace process.” When Havel died, he received eulogies from President Shimon Peres and a letter of mourning from the Anti-Defamation League.
Havel and Hitchens had many things in common. Israel and God weren’t among them; Hitchens detested Zionism and was a fanatic atheist, while Havel was a believer and had no beef with the Jewish state. But both men loved America, and as the American Spectator noted, they loved “its fusion of faith and freedom and the recognition that the latter cannot genuinely exist without the former.”
Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.