Of the many political books released these days, few do much more than jostle some brain cells around and give readers the warm fuzzy feeling of being unassailably right. Not that this is necessarily a criticism, but the work of any number of bestselling pundits on the left and right is not intended to surprise anyone. The point is to reprocess and build on basic broad ideas that are clung to with a certain degree of political religiosity. Why else does one side or the other consider it a victory when a particular red or blue literary soldier tops the New York Times bestseller list?
It is this milieu that makes the recent success of Christopher Hitchens seem utterly improbable. The targets in this Brit writer’s latest collection of essays Love, Poverty, and War (Nation Books, 496 pages, $16.95) are so eclectic and the sacred cows slain so varied, it is impossible to imagine any other human being aside from Mr. Hitchens reading this collection without taking offense at one comment or another. Nevertheless, as Hitchens himself notes of his own reading habits in one essay, “I’m a big boy and can bear the thought of being offended.” So should his readers.
Granted, the collection may not be appropriate gift for the uncle who loves The O’Reilly Factor or the college-aged cousin who cannot stop jabbering about Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. It will, however, make you laugh, scoff, shake and nod your head in agreement and disagreement at turns, and dazzle you even when you believe the author could not be more wrong. Better still, from essay to essay you’ll never know what’s coming next. How many other political essayists alive today would be willing to mix explorations of the work of Aldous Huxley and James Joyce with treatises on Islamofascism, smoking laws, and terrorism? And how many of that small number could do so as agilely as Hitchens?
One can only imagine the shock of a conservative who picks up the book purely on the basis of Hitchens’ vocal pro-Iraq war punditry and finds it kicks off with a debunking of some of the most honored moments in the career of Winston Churchill, not to mention Hitchens’ subsequent blasts at instant hero Mel Gibson, Henry Kissinger, and Mother Teresa. Likewise, a liberal familiar only with Hitchens’ Orwell book or his association with The Nation will likely be taken aback by eviscerations of Noam Chomsky, John F. Kennedy apologists (“an applauding chorus demanding that the flickering Tinkerbell not be allowed to expire.”), and a certain ex-Arkansas governor: In the aftermath of the missile strike on the Sudanese aspirin factory, Hitchens writes, “I look at Bill Clinton’s face — when I can bring myself to do it — and ask: ‘People were put to death to save that?'” Hitchens also provides the single most useful deconstruction of Fahrenheit 9/11, labeling the film “a sinister exercise in moral frivolity” and, further, “a possible fusion between the turgid routines of MoveOn.org and the filmic standards, if not exactly the filmic skills, of Sergei Eisenstein or Leni Riefenstahl.”
Whether any one of these figures is a hero or a villain to a particular reader is really of little consequence. There is no universal law demanding that we agree with every written line of every book we read. (Hitchens, you may have noticed, has little interest in Gospel Truth.) But how strong are our heroes if they cannot endure a bit of literary needling? It is in the challenge that the true mettle is tested. It is only when we fear the vulnerability of our heroes that we cling to the officially sanctioned version of events and close our eyes and ears to any contrarian evidence. Neither my brain nor my bookshelf is being remodeled based solely on the words of Christopher Hitchens, but, by the same token, thinking people have to be willing to entertain new arguments and change their minds if necessary.
Love, Poverty, and War is, however, much more than a simple polemic by a clever, angry man sitting in a comfortable office. It is a travel narrative that takes us to the hot spots of the last decade — Indonesia, Kurdistan, Iraq, North Korea, Cuba, Pakistan — and describes them in vivid detail. For example, in one heart-breaking passage, Hitchens stops at a Pyongyang snack cart to find that the only delicacies served are warm water and stale bread. On a lighter note, Hitchens visits with Civil War re-enactors, takes a romantic drive down Route 66, and pens a hilarious piece in which he goes to New York with the specific intent of breaking all the stupid laws that have been put in place by the “micro-megalomaniac” Mayor Michael Bloomberg, i.e. sitting on milk crates, smoking under awnings, riding a bicycle without both feet on the pedals, etc.
The book ends with several of Hitchens most eloquent post-September 11 articles, as well as his defenses of military action against Afghanistan and Iraq, views that transformed him from a visionary to a pariah in the eyes of many of his former allies on the left.
“I did not, I wish to state, become a journalist because there was no other ‘profession’ that would have me,” Hitchens writes in the introduction. “I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”
And so he has not. Love, Poverty, and War may not offer constant warm and fuzzy feelings, but it is nonetheless an expansive, educated, above all, challenging take on the complicated world we find ourselves in.
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