Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.
Whether you agree with his views or not, Christopher Hitchens was part of a breed that seems to be dying off in our dumbed-down era: the public intellectual. His essays express a formidable mind and a dry, pugnacious wit. Picture some suffer-no-fools British professor holding forth with a scotch glass in hand and you have a sense of Hitchens's style. To be sure, his opinions could be controversial -- he was outspokenly anti-religious, admired Karl Marx, and detested totalitarianism and Islamic extremism so vehemently that he broke ranks with fellow liberals who weren’t so enthusiastic about George W. Bush’s wars -- but there was refreshingly clarity and lack of dissembling to them. You could take issue with Hitch’s conclusions, but you could be certain that he wasn’t going to bow to religious orthodoxy, political correctness, or cultural double-standards. Any opponent being intellectually lazy would hear about it.
Hitchens was also very well-read, which means that about a third of the essays here, which discuss books (or some literary topic), are likely to delight some readers, but bore others. I admit that, as much as I admired Hitchens’s deftness at making connections to books and authors beyond the ones under discussion, I labored through this portion of Arguably. Still, even if my knowledge of the classics is skimpy, I found some of the biographical discussion of different writers interesting. I’ll have to check out Nabokov and W. Somerset Maugham.
However, my excitement picked up when the book got to the essays on history, culture, religion, and language. Hitchens knew how to poke apart a topic and get readers to look at it differently. Has Marx turned out to be right about capitalism, and did anyone ever really implement his ideas as he would have intended? Is the Kurdish region of Iraq a model for what the rest of that country might have been? Is Pakistan really America’s ally? What lessons do we really get from Harry Potter? His infamous Vanity Fair piece, “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is bound to rankle some readers, but many of them might not pick up on the real focus of his wit. And I had a good laugh during one of the latter essays, in which he examined the disingenuous use of the word “you” by advertisers and pamphleteers -- one of many moments when he got me to ponder something from an angle I hadn’t considered before. I even learned a few new words, such as “synecdoche”. (Yay, now I can see that Charlie Kaufman movie.)
All in all, a fine sampling of the contemplations of a strong, piquant mind, and one that had a faculty for language that the English-speaking world is rapidly losing. In an attention-deficit age in which youtube, buzzfeed, and “news” channels too moronic to call by name are supplanting the art of public disquisition, Arguably reminds us of the pleasures of that art and (arguably) its importance.
I forget what Hitchens actually sounded like, but audiobook narrator Simon Prebble is pretty effective at capturing the mannerisms I tended to imagine when reading some of these pieces in their original print form.
Majd, an Iranian-born, American-raised journalist who returned the country of his birth several times during the last decade, is intent on providing a tour of modern Iran that cautions against any simplistic understanding of a multi-layered country and its people. Though the demonstrations of 2009 showed obvious discontent with the Islamic regime, that, according to Majd, shouldn???t be read as a sign of impending rebellion. Many Iranians, particularly the working class, are proud of their nation???s Islamic roots, and the system still enjoys a popular base of support.
Majd also attempts to explain quirks of Iranian culture and attitude that often elude Westerners. He argues that there are strong traditions of rights (if not exactly ???freedoms???, in the liberal, secular Western sense) and self-effacing politeness (which means that Iranians are often far more reasonable and less extreme in person than they might be in a faceless crowd). Both these factors create a society, as he sees it, in which people act one way in public, but feel free to express themselves as they like in private, a realm that the regime is careful not to intrude too far into.
Most of this understanding is revealed in pieces as Majd travels the country and meets Iranians from different walks of life, from cab drivers to politicians to mullahs to conservative religious families to liberal intellectuals to the chic Tehranian elite. We learn, for example, that some Iranians look with contempt on the low-class style and dubious diplomatic skills of their president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while others admire him as a man from the streets who stands up to the West. Some question the need for religious strictures in public life (while being careful not to criticize Islam itself), while others find intense emotional outpouring in passion plays about the Shi'a saint, Hussein ibn Ali. They admire many things about the West, but distrust it for its past political interference. Like Americans, Iranians don???t always agree with each other, but they certainly do agree on being a people who can run their own affairs and have earned the right, through years of hardship and war, not to be told when to jump and how far by outsiders (a similarity in popular attitude to the US which, ironically, seems to fuel the ???nuclear energy??? head-butting with Washington). Generally, I found Majd to be skilled at turning his experiences into engaging, revealing anecdotes, though the larger narrative is a bit wandering.
That said, I thought that the author had some obvious biases. While he???s not uncritical of the ruling regime, he???s certainly not highly critical of it, either, and seems optimistic that the government is moving in the right direction on its own. As one of his friends puts it late in the book, ???your breath is coming from a warm place???. Meaning, of course, that someone who enjoys the freedoms and privileges of America is hardly someone to put aside the criticisms of Iranian dissidents and dissenters. Then again, that line kind of proves Majd???s thesis: Iran is too complex of a country to be easily summed up by anyone -- including himself. Will an "Islamic democracy" movement, guided from within the system itself, really bear fruit? I can't say, but Majd makes it seem plausible.
All in all, a good ???beginners guide??? to Iran, but perhaps not the guide to end one???s education with.
Don’t let the Glenn Beck endorsement fool you; this might not be the book you were expecting. The Road to Serfdom is not a utopian view of capitalism as a solution to every problem, nor is it an anti-government manifesto. Rather, the book articulates a set of cautionary arguments against the temptations of collectivism, which might promise a more just or efficient world, but delegates to a central authority the power to decide exactly what “just” and “efficient” mean. In Hayek’s view, the devil is in the details, and rarely does any distant authority have the information to set an array of prices, wages, production quotas, job assignments, and incentives in a way that’s fair and functional. The more control the central authority assumes over the economy, the less responsive and transparent its micromanagement becomes, leaving many citizens frustrated and lacking motivation (as anyone who’s ever dealt with any kind of massive bureaucracy can imagine). As political unrest grows, the authority will find itself in a position where it either has to relinquish control, or clamp down on freedoms (think of the line from the classic Who song: "...and the party on the left is now the party on the right").
Generally, I found Hayek’s arguments carefully thought-out and sensible, responding to the views of his opponents without dismissing their concerns, intelligence, or good intentions (a feature of the book that seems to have been lost on people like Glenn Beck). As a moderate liberal, I would agree that fairly structured free markets work well enough for many things, allowing most people to meet their own needs and to pursue at least some of their wants. What works just fine shouldn’t be discarded in a quest to fix what doesn’t.
But, of course, the magic word is “most”. Hayek does acknowledge that free markets aren’t a panacea, and recognizes the need for social safety nets, public education, a minimum wage, anti-exploitation laws, consumer protection laws, environmental laws, and other features of modern liberal democracies. His concern isn’t so much that the government might set regulations or provide public services, but that it do so without destroying the benefits of a competitive system or giving some interest group special advantages over others. He also argues against state-sponsored business monopolies, an indictment that would presumably include much of today’s shameless lobbying and corporate welfare. That said, I thought he glossed over the possibilities of democratic socialism, wherein citizens form local cooperative arrangements that work with local government.
All in all, I think the Road to Serfdom remains, after so many decades, a book that continues to be relevant to discussions about economics in that it outlines a sober and sensible set of warnings against the dangers of utopian thinking. However, it also doesn't purport that capitalism is an innately fair or just system (an issue that a lot of modern day Tea Partiers and Randians seem in denial of), but one whose application must evolve with a society's needs. Trouble is, the devil is in the details either way you go, and Hayek leaves the USA of the early 21st century with a lot of questions that still need good answers. For example, what do we do with the many formerly middle class Americans whose jobs have been lost to globalism and advances in technology? Many of these citizens just aren't cut out for joining the intellectual class (doctor, engineer, professor, etc.), but forcing them to compete for wages with foreign workers or machines isn't a very palatable choice. At what point does Joe Average become a piece of expensive, obsolete equipment in the eyes of capitalism? While Hayek's book is still worth reading for its arguments, I fear we may be on our way out of the reality to which his analysis easily applied.