By Jeremy Lott
Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing
Edited by Christopher Hitchens and Christopher Caldwell
Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books
352 pp.; $16.95, paper
Americans—those who care about politics, anyway—are often divided into two groups: a Left and a Right. The Left does a lot of marching, reads alternative weeklies and The New York Times, supports Democrats for public office, and accuses the right of nefarious motives and vast conspiracies. The Right, for its part, reads The Wall Street Journal editorial page, tends to vote Republican, and believes as an article of faith that the media is controlled by liberals.
Yes, these are stereotypes—stereotypes that are partly undermined by comparing the editors of Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing—but they nevertheless contain grains of truth. Co-editor Christopher Caldwell writes in his introduction: "An evangelical drill sergeant in Texas who votes Republican and a gay social worker in San Francisco who votes Green can be fairly said to occupy opposite ideological poles." However, he continues, "Since September 11, 2001, the two of them should also realize that they are interchangeable American archetypes in the eyes of all their country's enemies, and many of its friends." Or, as George Orwell put it during World War II: "My country left or right."
This patriotic sentiment is shared by Orwellphile co-editor Christopher Hitchens, the left-wing British expatriate who recently gave up his column in The Nation because of its belligerence to the Bush Administration's "war on terror." That Hitchens was likely bound by contract to his former magazine's press, Nation Books, goes a long way toward explaining why the "Left Hooks" half of the book (the opening half) is so lame.
Granted, it has a few good essays. Nat Hentoff sounds off about the necessity of the Left's commitment to free speech, even when it doesn't like what the speaker is saying. Marshall Berman reviews The Communist Manifesto with consummate skill; Caldwell admits that if he had read such a persuasive pitch when he was 15, the Left "might have had me." And, the Andrew Cohen essay walks away with the best title award without much competition: "Me and My Zeitgeist." However, the essays in Hitchens' section are drawn from a very narrow range of publications—five essays from The Progressive; ten from The Nation; one each from The Los Angeles Times, The Baffler, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal—and have a certain staleness about them.
To be fair, part of this staleness is due to the subject matter. The '90s are now only a few years behind us, but they feel like a far-off and wearying era. Some of Caldwell's selections—particularly those dealing with former President Clinton's impeachment—have likewise grown hard on the eyes. (For my money, the best article in the collection is by my former colleague, Charles Paul Freund, on how the Clinton propaganda machine tried to shift the public perception of the pictures of armed police abducting Elian Gonzales from the residence of his extended family.)
It's almost a shame that Hitchens and Caldwell were chosen to edit Left Hooks, Right Crosses, because they chose not to include any of their own writing in the collection. A primer on the political writing of the 1990s that doesn't include at least one "Minority Report" dispatch—not to mention Caldwell's famous article on "The Southern Captivity of the GOP"— feels incomplete.
However, this omission may have had little to do with modesty and more to do with the kind of book they were editing. Caldwell is a conservative who voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 and opposed impeachment; favors gun control, abortion (though not the partial-birth variety) and relatively open borders; and wrote scathingly of the war in Kosovo. Hitchens is a self-proclaimed "Marxist" (but, strangely, no longer a socialist) who loathes all organized faiths; opposes abortion; argued for Clinton's impeachment; and cheered for the war in Kosovo. Though Caldwell is known as a man of the Right and Hitchens a man of the Left, neither tows any rigid party line.
The editors' independent streaks are occasionally reflected in their selection of essays. "Right Crosses" includes pieces on both sides of the war in Kosovo as well as stories by people who would not identify themselves as conservatives. The "Left Hooks" half has several articles critical of dogmatic leftism. But both parts of the book chafe against the reality that avid political junkies are going to pick up this book hoping that their preferred half knocks the stuffing out of its ideological opposite.