Essays

by Wallace Shawn (2009)

7/10

A quick read and engaging, Shawn’s spunky, refreshing take on politics and the arts exactly mirrors the kind of pugnacious Vizzini character he played in “Princess Bride.” As fresh a take as it is, it’s also (and strangely) exactly what you might have expected given the little you know about the man’s personality: direct, inventive, and more than a little self-serving (though with a wink).

His interview with Chomsky is expectedly rewarding, and he offers harsh but eloquent-in-their-crispness critiques of the U.S. with regards to Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Palestine. He has an impressive way of framing issues that makes it seem impossible to imagine another way of seeing it. A representative passage occurs early on, in the second essay, and it serves as a sort of thesis for the types of political arguments you can expect from most of the book:

In contrast to the African miner who works underground doing painfully difficult labor in terrifying conditions and then receives a minuscule reward, I have a life that is extremely pleasant. I have enough money to buy myself warm and comfortable shoes and sweaters; each Wednesday I pay a nice person to clean my apartment and keep it neat; and each April at tax time I pay my government to perform a similar service in the world outside. I pay it to try to keep the world more or less as it is, so that next year it will not suddenly be me who is working a seventy-hour week in some godforsaken pit or digging in some field under the burning sun. It’s all terrific, but my problem is that my government is the medium through which I conduct my relationships with most of my fellow human beings, and I’m obliged to note that its actions don’t conform to the principles of morality. Yes, I may be a friendly fellow to meet on the street, but I’ve found, through my government, a sneaky way to do some terrible things. . . 27-8

To sum up, this is a nice book to read if it comes across your path, as it did mine. It’s a quick read, breezy, but also filled with important ideas. I wasn’t expecting to keep it after reading, but it has enough of value to have earned a place on my shelf.

 

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