On the Killing of Chris Stevens

Yesterday Chris Stevens, Ambassador to Libya, was killed by armed men, fundamentalists offended by a video produced here in the United States.  It was a horrible act, one that deserves condemnation.

The Ambassador, by all accounts, represented the best of our foreign service.  He did not get his job because of his contributions to the administration.  He was a career diplomat, someone who served the country through the challenging work of diplomacy.  It’s not an easy job, but it is crucial.  We do not appreciate these sorts of men and women enough.   A good diplomat often earns the respect of the country they serve.  Chris Stevens did.

Good diplomats are truly the first line of defense against aggression.

The initiating cause was a hate-video written for the incendiary purposes of terrifying non-Muslims and insulting the faithful.    They’re excuse:  to inform.  It’s like crying “fire” in a crowded movie theater in order to see if the exit signs work.  The authors are now in hiding – as they should be.  They are cowards.

We are fortunate to live in a country with free speech.  But in an interconnected world what we say gets heard in the rest of the world.    We should be prepared when what we say takes a knife into the hearts of others.

But we need not lose heart.  Plenty of Muslims in the world understand that this is not the American Government.  They also, however, have opportunists who benefit from harnessing violence.  And so the cycle of hate continues.

We need not agree with glib statements that religion causes violence.  In many places throughout the world in history religions have existed together.  But when people in power are themselves fearful and society is anxious, it’s easy to light a match under the feet of the worried and watch the world burn to distract attention upon themselves.

We are one of the few countries where religious tolerance, with some exceptions, is part of our DNA.  Yes, although the Mormons, Amish, Catholics, Atheists and Jews have all experienced hardships, by and large they were each able to carve out places in our public life.  That we have been able to do this is in part because of our beginnings.  John Locke, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson showed no intellectual favoritism; and this was shared by many of their countrymen.

So what we do matters.  It matters that we have protestants and Roman Catholics living side by side.  It matters that Hindus go to Indian restaurants owned by Muslims.  It matters that Jewish institutions finance interfaith works here in Westchester.  Because it reminds the world that different religions can live in peace.

But opportunists know how to fan the flames.  And that’s who we’re talking about.  Opportunists made the video.  Opportunists stormed the embassy.  Most Americans would find the video, itself, scandalous; and few Libyans would support the murder of innocents.  Even now, they are protesting the murders.

The world watches.  If we permit interfaith hatred, it illustrates to other countries that diversity of faith is a threat to social order.  But when we visit and trust our neighbors, we show a better way.  When anyone in our country encourages Islamophobia, we should be clear:  those are not our values.   It was appropriate for the president to say that America does not seek to insult people of different faiths – because it’s true.  Even George Bush called Islam a “noble religion.” “Nobility” aside, insulting others won’t bring peace.  Showing how we live together might.

We can demonstrate a different way.

Havel and Hitchens

A few years ago, the department of defense conducted a study on the impact of alcohol on air force pilots.  The results were predictable.   Most pilots who drank any substantial amount had impaired ability to fly.  But one unexpected result was the discovery that 1 in 12 actually had improved coordination and focus.  

It’s not enough to change our laws about alcohol.  Nor is it information we would want to be taken advantage of.   

But it might explain how Hitch was able to drink and write so effectively.  I have, myself, attempted the same, but with unimpressive results.  After the third glass I resort only to watching repeat Louis CK or cat videos.  

Clearly Hitchens entertained his many admirers, which is perhaps one reason he was able to resist how the media trivializes the serious.  With a prodigious memory, Hitchens could pump out witty, trenchant and convincing articles about many number of political and literary subjects.    He could seem authoritative in spite of a lack of authority on any given issue.

He did, however, know who to read.  He was friends with great authors; he knew who had inside information and what parties to attend.  If being a “liberal” means a skepticism of any authority, he maintained that position with some confidence as the local gadabout to whom the media turned

Havel, however, though a liberal, understood the limits of media.  In a sense, Havel remained someone who valued integrity, thought he would be outmaneuvered by a more politically sophisticated other Vaclav, who understood that the currency of power was more convincing than the currency of international adoration.  Hitch’s liberalism he gleefully attached to the neo-conservatives, who would admit no sense of failure in the war upon Iraq, blind to the many deaths his commitment to secularism would justify.    What’s an Islamic life when we’re delivering godless government to the Arabs?  

At their best they were both uncompromising toward some sort of authority, offering a voice of the individual conscience against the state and any sort of ideological tyranny, unyielding in exposing hypocrisy.  Yet although both loved engaging others, Havel practiced the hard work of politics. Hitchens was satisfied with writing about the suffering of others, but although he was impatient with any sense of grey aside from the people he supported.

While I occasionally admired Hitchen’s aggressive, take no prisoner’s style, Havel, the philosopher, was patient, searching.  Hitchens attacked weakness in personal shortcomings while Havel sought to expose the big lie.  

 And God?  Although Havel was an agnostic he was comfortable with religious language, and understood its place within human experience and literature.   It may be that Havel, having placed beauty, love and truth at the forefront, understood how atheism’s truncated imagination fit well within totalitarianism, adopting a reverent agnosticism that was plastic, magnanimous and forgiving.  Although Havel was no lover of religion or its institutions, he understood that the religious impulse could equally threaten the powers of tyranny, and not merely justify them. 

I wish, of course, Hitchens had actually debated a religious intellectual of some stature.  Although he had some quick and effective ripostes that revealed the ignorance of his opponents, he could get sloppy when speaking of religion.  Would not the Archbishop of Canterbury have found delight in sitting across from him?  Perhaps not.  ++Rowan lacked the quick soundbite or the irreverent humor.  The theologian David Bentley Hart had the erudition and an equal vocabulary, but probably lacked the charm.   Was there not a single theologian who could correct Hitchen’s misrepresentations, or expose his cleverness as simply poetic shoddiness?  He was routinely opposed by charlatans and mediocre intellects.

I admit, although I was occasionally enthralled by his attacks on Islamic Fundamentalism, I believe Hitchen’s understanding of Islam was shallow.  He ignored the data how the political and economic instability and oppression anchored of third-world hostility towards the west.  He could give some lip service to his opponent rhetorically, but ignoring it with his quicker, glib retorts. 

Of course, Hitchens  believed that analysis was capitulation.  It meant he got some issues seriously wrong.  As he said, vindication was one of his greatest pleasures, and he was hesitant to give it up.  

But in both of them we have lost two public intellectuals – men not confined to the academy, forced into tightly narrow disciplines, or seduced by it; who engaged and entertained, who were not shy in speaking their mind.  They read far and wide.  They reveled in communicating with princes and presidents, with writers.  Our age does not reward wide reading or memorization, but on glib, infuriating or optimistic soundbites that conceal, rather than reveal, our current plight.  Our academics are specialized and Balkanized, relying on the paycheck of demanding institutions, lacking the time to contribute to the needs of the public.  And they do not develop the skill to speak on Fox News.    

I will miss both witers, and hope that other intellectuals may rise to take their place in the public and in politics.