Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Inhabitants, famously, of a country surrounded by oceans and allies, Americans have a reputation for not knowing what's going on in the rest of the world. While not exclusively for U.S. readers, Bob Harris's Who Hates Whom tackles such ignorance from an idiosyncratic angle, per the subtitle: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up: A Woefully Incomplete Guide.

As the tone of that title (and subtitle) indicates, you should not expect from Who Hates Whom a formal -- or even TV documentary-style -- study of the causes of war, despotism, and long-simmering international hatreds. To the extent possible with such a cheerless topic, what you actually get here is a breezy race through large-scale violent current events, and the history behind them.

Harris makes no secret of his "qualifications" for writing this. He's been a television host (for a show about urban legends) and writer (for CSI, Bones, and other shows), a stand-up comedian, a successful game-show contestant (according to his Web site, he's accumulated cash and prizes worth over $350,000 on Jeopardy! and other shows), and a designer of puzzles. His educational background? Electrical engineering. His previous book, Adventures in Trebekistan, recounted his history of success (and otherwise) on Jeopardy! All of which, he notes, "qualifies me for squat. I'm lucky I'm allowed to drive."

But as I knew before picking this up, he's also an incisive commentator on current events. On the right subjects, politics and current events among others, he's less joke machine than satirist.

In working on this review, I couldn't think of a single example of the book's major shortcomings which Harris doesn't concede right at the outset. Yes, it was out of date the minute it came out. (Publication date: 2007.) True, he's a US citizen (and has lived here most but not all of his life), born in 1963, and this can't help biasing his choices and his observations. And fair enough: at 218 pages, Who Hates Whom can't present a complete picture of a single conflict, let alone dozens of them.

None of those problems prevents it from achieving its central aim: to provide a clear, concise understanding of the world's major trouble spots. "This book is meant to be handy when you see something explode on CNN but they switch to Anna Nicole Smith still being dead before you're sure what went kaboom."

Right. He jokes about Anna Nicole Smith media coverage. (And that, from the Introduction, was just the first of numerous references to it.) But that the joke is dated doesn't make it unfunny, and it doesn't invalidate the joke's point, and it didn't weaken my desire for even a superficial, not too out-of-date understanding of the subject.

The book is organized geographically. It covers conflicts, first, in the Middle East and central Asia, moves on to Africa, then to south Asia, east and southeast Asia, the Americas, and wraps up in Europe. Reading about so many different historical and current events, in so many countries, one after another, can be exhausting: it exhausts the mind (the "my brain is ready to explode" effect), and it exhausts the soul ("human beings sure are cruel and they sure are stupid"). You may begin thinking that kidding at all about such stuff trivializes it; yet you may come (as I did) to look forward to the next joke, even a weak and easy one, just for a little psychological relief.

One of the best things about Who Hates Whom, for me, was -- despite Harris's built-in and unavoidable biases -- its neutrality:
I have come to recommend strongly against looking for "good guys." Conflicts often aren't two-sided, and our capacity for rationalization means even the "right" side usually does lousy things. So be ready for conflicts with two marginally bad guys, three bad guys and no good guys, etc.
(See that cover? The two opposing forces are identical; they're differently-colored mirror images.)

If you seek ammunition for a current-events debate about which side is "right," in other words, you need to look elsewhere. Harris does note paragons of nobility and innocent victims. It's just that they all turn out, or so it seems, not to be the principal parties in any conflict. They're individuals. Exceptions and bystanders.

So do you put down Who Hates Whom in despair, believing that nowhere is safe and sane? Not if you read it through the last chapter, which notes:
Get an atlas and cross off the countries that you'd really never visit any part of because you know that they're just too dangerous. There may be dozens, but even then, you'll be surprised at how little you trim.
The book's last few lines may strike you as insufficiently cynical, given all the mass murder and insanity, fear and egotism and self-certainty in the world which you've just read about. Hope and common sense may feel like pretty flimsy weapons to be matched up against bullets and machetes. But really, y'know? They're the only things that have ever worked, consistently. And they have worked: despite official assurances to the contrary, the world has grown demonstrably safer over the course of decades and centuries.

Note: You can preview Who Hates Whom on Google Books, if you'd like a peek before committing to the whole thing.

1 comment:

Marie R said...

I picked up this book after reading your commentary. After years of being woefully under-educated on world events, I finally feel like a have a basic grasp of some of the major conflicts. Whenever a major world event is mentioned on the news, I now rush to my book to re-familiarize myself with the history of the region.

Thanks for the review--I wouldn't have heard of this book otherwise!