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.
I've been a defense contractor for a couple years, and unfortunately, a lot in this book speaks to my experience. I see little real purpose to the project I'm working on, and little conviction among the military personnel we work with that the occupation of Afghanistan has achieved much good. I've also learned a lot about the capabilities of drone technology, and worry that its use by shadowy agencies is expanding unchecked. Where are we going and why?
Maddow may be a darling of the liberal media, but much of what she has to say in this book will speak to readers in other camps, too, particularly libertarians. While her bias isn't too hidden, she thoughtfully refrains from overt side-taking or demonizing any leader. Rather, "Drift" sticks to its title and focuses on how US military power has become detached from its democratic citizen-soldier ideals and turned into something it was never intended to be: a tool of political convenience. Sweeping through the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, she looks at how legal barriers to war have steadily been swept aside; turning it into a prerogative of the executive branch; at how the veil of secrecy has become a cloak of deniability for official incompetence; at how war-related duties have been outsourced to third parties with dubious interests and little accountability; and at how overseas conflicts now go on for years, scarcely affecting the lives of much of the civilian population.
Younger readers, who have never known a world without a militarized CIA, remote-control assassinations, or invasions on flimsy pretexts, may appreciate the history lesson. We see how the sense of low national prestige during the Carter era led to a bold new narrative under Reagan -- and a bold new flouting of executive limitations, culminating in the embarrassing debacle of the Iran-Contra affair. We learn how more checks and balances eroded during the Gulf War under George Bush senior, who, in characteristic fashion, seemed peevish that Congress would make his job *difficult*. We see the rise through the ranks of unabashedly Machiavellian neo-cons, such as Dick Cheney. The book examines the horrifying misdeeds of private contractors during the Clinton years, and the expanding secret drone wars under Obama, operating under an absurd pretense at legality involving a bird-hunting area in Pakistan. As icing on the cake, Maddow adds a chapter reminding us of our decaying world-devastating nuclear arsenal, still prone to Strangelovian accidents and mishandling.
I enjoyed Maddow’s dry sense of humor, her relish (in the audiobook) at quoting f-bombs from various military personnel, and her amusing characterization of Congress as constant evaders of being held responsible for meaningful (and potentially bad) decisions.
The book might have been longer, and certainly skims over some prime material, such as the George W. Bush administration and its response to 9/11. Then again, so much attention has been paid to that in recent years, it’s probably valuable that Maddow takes the spotlight *off* Bush, and highlights the steady disconnect between military power and the public under other presidents. Lest Democrats don’t think their guy or gal can be culpable, too.
Well worth a read, if you’re an American who believes that the government ought to make its case to the public *before* bombing someone, and that those officials in charge of implementing the plan ought to be held accountable for it. If you’re not, Drift might wake you up to why it matters.