I have a confession to make: for a brief period (just a little bit, just a very, very little while) I was attracted to Robert Kaplan.
I know, I know. He’s pessimistic. He’s a little cocky. And there’s that whole Balkan War thing.
Still. There’s just something about him — he believes so strongly that he’s the final authority on everything from Slovenia to Somalia that you start to believe it, too. He’s a well-travelled, well-paid journalist. Not only that, he’s an author. Of books. About other countries. Hot. He also makes some good points, especially about U.S. stupidity concerning rebel movements in Eritrea and about Henry Kissinger. And let’s face it: all that talk about the imminent collapse of the world as we know it just makes you want to snuggle up close to someone who looks like he knew what was going to happen all along.
But. I also nurture a deep-rooted love and respect for Tom Bissell, another journalist-come-travel writer whose raw, unapologetic — yet still humorous and tender — portrayals of the former Soviet Unionhave sometimes taught me more about Russia than actually living there — an affirmation of things I have seen and thought and wondered but was too afraid or unsure of to put into words.
Bissell is like the mysterious older brother of your best friend — the one who graduated with a liberal arts degree and then joined the Peace Corps. He came back with giardia and uncut hair and a tan that was half sun and half dirt, carrying a thick, worn, dusty journal full of (articulate, beautiful, introspective) insights based on late nights listening to the tales of old men’s lives and conversations about everything from lemons to lynchings with street vendors and taxi drivers and other people whose stories never get told. Kaplan is like the econ professor you had in college who projected an irresistible aura of educated, hard-earned arrogance and condescension from behind his podium — the one you hated but still worked endlessly to please because he had eighty thousand degrees from Harvard, knew everything and was always, unfailingly, maddeningly right.
I mentioned earlier that books are worth their weight in gold here. After a friend loaned me The Coming Anarchy,a collection of Kaplan’s essays on American foreign policy, I wrote frantically to friends and family and begged for almost everything he’s written. And then, to stave off the literary cravings, I went online and rummaged around the Virginia Quarterly Review for articles to tide me over until the packages arrived.
Bissell had a piece up. A long piece. A long piece about Robert Kaplan. A long, scathing piece about Robert Kaplan, in which Bissell describes him as, to paraphrase mildly, a no-talent ass clown.
Kaplan’s other critics have pointed out his unwavering pessimism and his tendency to ignore individual responsibility in favor of the overwhelming, inevitable forces of history, ethnicity and religion. Bissell was a little more frank. “Kaplan… is an incompetent thinker and a miserable writer,” he states directly. “The damage he has done to literature [is] unforgivable.”
Peace Corps boy just dissed the prof, hardcore, and I’m finding the lectures a little harder to listen to than I did before.