The Lioness in Winter

April 8, 2007

The saddest thing about Christopher Hitchens is that for all his slithery untrustworthiness on anything having to do with Iraq — particularly his continuing smoke-and-mirrors justifications for supporting the whole crackbrained invasion — he remains an interesting and worthwhile writer on most other topics.

This article about the late Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, spotlighted on the Vanity Fair site because it’s up for an award, combines an informed appreciation of her intellectually combative manner with an equally savvy diagnosis of how corporate infotainment culture has rotted away the style and the substance of journalistic interviews:

Do you really remember any recent interview with a major politician? Usually, the only thing that stands out in the mind is some stupid gaffe or piece of rambling incoherence. And if you go and check the original, it generally turns out that this was prompted by a dull or rambling question. Try reading the next transcript of a presidential “news conference,” and see which makes you whimper more: the chief executive’s train-wreck syntax or the lame and contrived promptings from the press. Oriana’s questions were tautly phrased and persistent. She researched her subjects minutely before going to see them, and each one of her published transcripts was preceded by an essay of several pages in length concerning the politics and the mentality of the interviewee. She proceeded, as Jeeves used to phrase it, from an appreciation of “the psychology of the individual.” Thus, a provocative or impudent question from her would not be a vulgar attempt to shock but a well-timed challenge, usually after a lot of listening, and often taking the form of a statement. (To Yasser Arafat: “Conclusion: you don’t at all want the peace that everyone is hoping for.”)

As I noted in my own appreciation of Fallaci following her death last year, her skepticism about the rise of militant Islam and her indignation at the treatment of Muslim women tipped into coarse, hysterical bigotry during the last years of Fallaci’s life. Because I thought her attacks on Islam would automatically meet with his favor, I was interested to see Hitchens taken aback as well:

Gone was the rather rawboned-looking young woman who had once had her share of romantic involvement with “Third World” and leftist guerrilla fighters. Instead, a tiny, emaciated, black-clad Italian lady (who really did exclaim “Mamma mia!” at intervals) ranged exhaustingly around her tiny kitchen, cooking me the fattiest sausage I have ever eaten and declaiming that the Muslim immigrants to Europe were the advance guard of a new Islamic conquest. The “sons of Allah breed like rats”— this was the least of what she said in a famous polemic entitled The Rage and the Pride, written in a blaze of fury after September 11, 2001, and propelled onto the Italian best-seller list. It got her part of what she wanted after the long and depressing retirement caused by her illness. She became notorious all over again, was the subject of lawsuits from outraged groups who wanted to silence her, and managed to dominate the front pages. When someone becomes obsessed with the hygiene and reproduction of another group, it can be a bad sign: Oriana’s conversation (actually there was no conversation, since she scarcely drew breath) was thick with obscenities. I shall put them in Italian — brutto stronzo, vaffanculo — and omit some others. As to those who disagreed with her, or who did not see the danger as she did, well, they were no more than cretini and disgraciatti. It was like standing in a wind tunnel of cloacal abuse. Another bad sign was that she had started to refer to herself as “Fallaci.”

The whole article is worth reading, but even more worthwhile would be some quality time with a copy of Interview With History, Fallaci’s collection of interviews with the great and the ones who only thought they were.

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