Thursday, August 13, 2015

Christopher Hitchens' "Arguably": Book Review

Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens [Hardcover]I miss Hitchens. I used to look forward to his book reviews in The Atlantic, and when I'd pick up an occasional copy of Vanity Fair, his opinions on whatever he found worthy kept my interest. Even if "Why Women Aren't Funny" in 2007 famously fell flat, in re-reading it within this massive anthology of his journalism from the last period of his life, a more sly sense of him putting us on appears.

He reminds me in this compilation of George Orwell, a forebear to whom he nods often. Like Orwell, he takes on literature, popular culture, current events, history, and politics with equal assurance. I cannot think of a writer addressing a wide if educated audience today his peer when it comes to his breadth. He compares 1984 to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in its prescience as to how a totalitarian system can exert itself and how a Reformation can erupt. He notes the same nom de guerre employed by Edmund Burke and, of all people, Rosa Luxemburg. As a former Marxist and one who knows how Trots work, he nods to how radicals frequently assume the worst possible motive of an opponent is his or her correct one. He notices how Rebecca West's sentences accumulate reflection as do Paul Scott's, so at the price of verisimilitude, a necessary chance for explanation and reflection unfolds.

Hitchens even connects Hitler's efflorescence to the moth found in the throat of a female victim in The Silence of the Lambs. Such a range merits awe. Hitchens rarely strains for the fancy phrase, but the scope of his exploration of how we think, act, and write deserves acclaim, even if you disagree. He shows deftly how Lincoln shifted the way we use the United States itself, from "are" to "is" to portray its unity after the Civil War. Speaking of war, he ends his introduction to West's Black Lamb, Grey Falcon by rallying his own allegiance to stand up for a righteous cause. She was "one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understood that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for." (221) However, in 2007 he seems to regret  his support for the first Gulf War.

"I was among those who thought and believed and argued that this example [of U.S. implementation of a "you-fly-you-die zone" over Iraqi Kurdistan] could, and should, be extended to the rest of the country: this cause became a consuming thing in my life. To describe the ensuing shambles as a disappointment or a failure or even a defeat  would be the weakest statement I could possibly make: It feels more like a sick, choking nightmare of betrayal from which there can be no awakening."(521)

These essays and pieces roam widely. They begin with American politics and history. then English literature, observations on mores and manners, foreign policy, "legacies of totalitarianism," and defenses of free speech as PC-speak inhibits bold journalism. He predicts: "Within a short while,--this is a warning--the shady term 'Islamophobia' is going to be smuggled through our customs. Anyone accused of it will be politely but firmly instructed to shut up, and to forfeit the constitutional right to criticize religion. By definition, anyone accused in this way will also be implicitly guilty." He finds presciently in an attempt to alert the world to the danger of letting fanatics shut down the Danish press for cartoons judged offensive in 2007, that "American Muslim leaders" are canny. He cites the NY Times in explaining how PR spin is spun. ''They have 'managed to build effective organizations and achieve greater integration, acceptance and economic success than their brethren in Europe have. They portray the cartoons as part of a wave of global Islamophobia and have encouraged Muslim groups in Europe to use the same term.' In other words, they are leveraging worldwide Islamic violence to drop a discreet message into the American discourse." (706)

While inevitably some entries feel lightweight, or seem already dated as to once-current events they may lack the impact of his more detailed critiques, the collection rewards one's attention. Hitchens strives to answer his critics fairly and patiently, and he keeps alive his measured wit along with a winning sense of his own failings as he struggles to make sense of our world. (Amazon US 4/5/15)

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