Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A sobering week

We got some harsh reminders this week that life doesn’t go on forever.

It started for me with Christopher Hitchens. I knew he was failing, but I still took his death like a kick in the stomach. He was a man I took a dislike to when I first heard him talk at a debate on the UC Berkeley campus with the dean of the business school. He had voted for Bush/Cheney and he was in favor of the Iraq War, and the audience, being a Berkeley audience, was probably 90% against him. He seemed to revel in the boos and hisses, and won the debate, in my view. I left that session with so much more respect than I had going in, and that respect has only grown over the years as I have become more familiar with his ideas and his way of being in the world.

He was brilliant. And he was a master of the putdown.

“I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” one of his interviewers once said to him.
“I’m not in the least surprised,” he responded.

A friend of his tells the story of being in a restaurant with him when they realized they were going to be asked to move to make room for a larger party. “You’re going to hate us for this,” the waiter said to them.
“We hate you already,” he responded.

Of Jerry Falwell, he once said, “If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox.”

At the same time, he was, in my view, the most articulate of the “four horsemen” of atheism in the English-speaking world, Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. These men seem to be riding the waves of reaction to American right wing religion and priestly child abuse and any number of other things nudging people out of their religious security blankets.

Many writers become incoherent when asked to speak, and many speakers are lousy writers, but Hitchens was a master of both the spoken and written language. Read any of his writing, see almost any of his speech events, and you will see what I mean. Listen to his debate with Tony Jones in Sydney, for example. I doubt a better articulation of the folly of religion can be found.

Then came Vaclav Havel, who brought an end to communism in his country without a bullet being fired, and demonstrated that there are places in the world actually willing to be led by playwrights instead of crooks and gangsters. Unlike Hitchens, he was shy and often inarticulate in person. He had trouble looking people in the eye, so scarred was he psychologically from five years in prison and sixteen more under constant police watch. And yet, he held out and remains everybody’s idea of a man of courage.

Then, to go from the sublime – Havel’s Velvet Revolution – to the ridiculous, there was the death of that silly little tin man in North Korea who ran a government based on extortion, starved his people, and made Stalin look good. Hitchens did wonders for your mind, Havel lifted your spirit. Kim Jong Il gave you a taste of bile in your mouth. And he leaves us now with a 27-year old four-star general with a different bad haircut from his father’s and possibly the silliest puffed-up title ever invented – the “Great Successor.” At least it would be silly if it were not so tragic. Look at the juxtaposition of this video of starvation in North Korea: with this one showing public mourning. Or the TV announcer showing the official model for crying out loud. Or this one, of the many models of weeping hysterically in formation.

On a more local level, San Franciscans learned of the death yesterday of philanthropist Warren Hellman. Among his many accomplishments, he saved San Franciscans billions by helping reform the city’s pension system, funded the city’s Free Health Clinic, helped form a new local paper in this age of dying newspapers, and brought Blue Grass to San Francisco bigtime a three-day free concert in Golden Gate Park every year. Free concert.

And finally, more sad news with the death of Cesaria Evora. If you don’t know her music, treat yourself. YouTube has 100 videos of her.

Start with Sodade (or the more “upscale” version she did in Paris. Or this one. Or this one.

The thought she won’t be making more is very hard to bear.

One guy who demonstrates how low the human race can sink. Several others who demonstrate how high they can fly. A sobering week, in both cases.

Stay healthy. Stay strong. Stay connected.


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