Christopher Hitchens: I used to read him and listen to him on television quite a bit around the time of the buildup to the Iraq war, of which he was of course greatly in favor. Since he was the most forceful and apparently most intelligent advocate among the prominent pro-war government or media figures, as well as the only representative of that type whose enthusiasm was not compromised to my sense by blatant self-interest. My thought at the time was that the whole episode was a great test of the ability of the people, or that significant portion of them who were opposed to George Bush and the agenda of his administration, to resist, not just politically but intellectually, this course of action, in which, needless to add, said people--or at least their ideas concerning right policy--were routed, humiliated and exposed as impotent and insignificant in the current configuration of society. As such I was quite anxious at the time about the outcome of the controversy. Hitchens was very convincing not only that he understood the case thoroughly and that military action was necessary beyond all reasonable doubt, but that anybody who did not arrive at the same conclusion was likely stupid, certainly cowardly, morally bankrupt, obtrusive to the progess of history, had completely missed the important lessons of the whole of western civilization in school, and other imprecations besides which such a hapless reader as myself was hardly going to be able to offer much of a defense against in his own behalf. At one point I actually considered writing him a personal letter in which I would try to explain reasonably the various objections to the war which I seemed constitutionally incapable of overcoming, well aware of the constant drumbeat from half of society, and apparently the more vigorous half, that anybody who had any objections to the main points in the case had something severely wrong with either his mind or his spirit, because for some reason--probably because he had a good literary education and sensibility--I did regard him as the sort of reasonable person who would be able to recognize that surely there were grounds on which another reasonable person could be skeptical of the war. But I got over that idea pretty quickly.
After a while I stopped reading him regularly because however clever he was, his main interest seemed to me to be to demonstrate on nearly every occasion that he was right on some matter relating either to literary interpretation and world affairs while various other people were wrong, and not merely wrong, but wrong in such a way as to render them stupid or contemptible, usually both; which perhaps they were but I came to find it tiresome after a while.
In spite of a few detractors I have come across who claim to be unimpressed by his literary education, I'm sure he had a pretty good one, certainly by any standard that prevails in the present English-speaking world. While the large range of his reading and the extent of it he committed to memory have been frequently attested to as well as demonstrated, it was his success in incorporating this knowledge into both his professional life as well as his social persona such that it seemed an inherent part of his character that served to inform and enhance it at all times that made the greatest impression, as this effect is something a great many people would like to project themselves, but very few, especially perhaps Americans, ever seem to be able to no matter how many years they devote to reading. Of course the formal education of the Hitchens-like people is perhaps a little broader than the typical American English student, such as to include history, with a strong emphasis on political and military affairs, elocution, probably some philosophy and European belles-lettres, as well as carries a greater expectation that the student will attain a serious proficiency in these areas useful for adult thinking, which is a very rare expectation to be found among American professors...I could go on about what appear to me the myriad glories of Hitchens's social life, especially the carefree and evidently brilliant London set he ran with in his early 70s youth, which included Martin Amis, at that time handsome and irresistible to women of an intellectual bent in a way that seems to have no parallel in our own age (at least that we know of yet), but I have already written more about him than most of his actual friends did.
Vaclav Havel. I had the impression when I was in his country--he was still the president at the time, though that office was considered to be politically largely ceremonial--that most people trusted him and respected him enough to consider whatever he had to say worth listening to even if they disagreed with him. There was not to my knowledge a substantial portion of the population which absolutely hated him on either personal or political grounds, which needless to say would be almost unthinkable for either a politician or a substantial literary figure in this country. At the same time Havel's image in the Western mind, so far as one exists, probably has more of a heroic, and certainly a more romantic, tinge than that which his own countrymen have of him. Being a small nation speaking an obscure language and without even any delusions of grandeur on a global scale, the Czech conception of a hero, if they would even call it that, is a lot more subdued than certainly Americans would be accustomed to thinking of it. His signature qualities as an author were a concern with the manipulation and corruption of language an advanced and particularly subtle sense of the myriad ways in which human existence, when subjected to pointed consideration, does not make any sense (I would have said absurd, but that word in English has connotations of lightness which do not always capture the sense intended). He struck me as having a mind that was not necessarily spectacular and was certainly not bombastic, but was well-organized and uncluttered by the excessive nonsense that has been the intellectual Achilles heel of the English-speaking world probably since the Restoration. Of course the price of that mind was having to grow up under oppressed circumstances, such that he himself would argue it was not worth it, though the writings and other artistic products of the people who had them contributed particular insight and beauty and seriousness to 20th century culture that was absent from their counterparts in the free West which I consider important.
Kim Jong Il. I know these guys are pound for pound maybe the worst people in the world. I of course find their country fascinating, because unlike a place like Afghanistan, where the whole mode of existence is somehow mentally inaccessible, a lot of aspects of North Korean life are superficially similiar to that in Western countries, or Western countries fifty or seventy-five years ago anyway, albeit in a kind of fake way, as if the whole society is a kind of giant model train set. Of course like most people who do not know how to hold bad opinions and still be cool and the object of fascination by women, without which qualities such opinions really are not worth having, I sincerely want the regime to fall and for North Korea to become a regular country with global banks and cell phones and a modern airport and all the rest of it, because I know the people are suffering terribly and unfairly. The more the rest of the world becomes more tied together and alike in its social and economic values however, the more interesting North Korea will continue to become to people who desire a respite from all of this modernity.