Huff's Fluff

Anybody could have written On Becoming Fearless…in Love, Work, and Life. That's really a shame, because the book's author, Arianna Huffington, is most definitely a somebody: a woman with the guts to switch political allegiances, take aim at the hyped-up masculinity of both Arnold Schwarzenegger and SUVs, and buck the skeptics to build the new media powerhouse Huffington Post. With all these accomplishments behind her (and bucket loads of cash in the bank) it's a mystery why Huffington has put her name on this piece of pop-psychologizing, self-help “feminism.”

On Becoming Fearless aims to teach women how to overcome anxiety “in love, work, and life.” But like much self-help literature, it has a way of convincing readers that they suffer from the very problems it purports to help them solve. By cataloging a vast array of stereotypically feminine fears -- fear of being deserted by men, fear of fat, fear of wrinkles, fear of speaking publicly, fear of taking on leadership positions (the list goes on and on) -- Huffington does less to transcend female timidity than to reinforce it.

This is disappointing, because Huffington has much she could share with female readers. Perhaps she should have penned a memoir instead. At 21 and with a thick Greek accent, Huffington became president of the famed debate team at Cambridge University. She wrote popular biographies of Picasso and Maria Callas. As a switch-hitting pundit she's been accused of hypocrisy by both the right and the left. And most recently she beat the media elite at its own game, attracting 2.6 million monthly visitors to the Huffington Post. The best parts of On Becoming Fearless aren't the warmed over rehashings of Naomi Wolf and Maureen Dowd, but Huffington's reflections on her own life, from her doomed relationship through her twenties with British public intellectual Bernard Levin, to her divorce from former Republican Congressman Michael Huffington and his subsequent coming out as bisexual, to her decision to jump into the fray as a California gubernatorial candidate in 2004.

In the book, Huffington mentions all these events, but brushes past them in favor of Oprah-style sound bites from an army of self-actualizing therapists, celebrities like Diane Keaton, Nora Ephron, and Diane von Furstenburg, and a few women-on-the-street types. One of the latter is Huffington's office manager, who contributes a list of a dozen reasons why it's great to be single. (#5: “Because I can scrub the entire bathroom floor with a very small tile brush at 1 a.m. when I am sick of looking at it.”)

Given Huffington's own choice to live an intellectually and politically engaged life and her current role as a vocal critic of the Iraq war and the mainstream media's complicity in it, On Becoming Fearless is a curiously apolitical and decidedly un-intellectual book. Huffington's preoccupation with the body and “soul”-- her suggestions to hike, meditate, try mercury detoxification -- often obscure her own commitment to the life of the mind. Sure, she namedrops writers and academics, but the cumulative effect of the book is to focus women's attention on their inner emotional selves and ambitions rather than on the challenges and injustices of the larger world.

While I don't doubt Huffington's commitment to spirituality, I particularly wonder if the decision to emphasize religion in the book represents an attempt to attract readers beyond those who support her liberal politics. In the chapter on becoming “Fearless About God and Death,” Huffington condemns Nietzsche, Freud, and Sartre for their atheism and dismisses them as selfish pessimists -- as if throwing off the mantle of inherited religious belief wasn't one of the most fearless intellectual developments of the modern era. To counter the supposed “alienation” of atheism, Huffington calls up German philosopher Herman Hesse, who wrote, “Ask for your soul! Your soul will not blame you for having cared too little about politics, for having exerted yourself too little, hated your enemies too little, or too little fortified your frontiers.”

That's strange advice for this politically strident, combative, frontier-busting media diva to endorse. And even in the anemic prose of Fearless, it seems evident that Huffington doesn't really believe it. She devotes parts of the last chapter to activism, though she sticks to relatively non-controversial causes like opposing toxic dumping and supporting Teach for America. Still, there are glimmers in Fearless of the Huffington progressives have come to know and love. She quotes playwright Eve Ensler, who wrote, “Maybe because I see how my stomach has come to occupy my attention, I see how other women's stomachs or butts or thighs or hair or skin have come to occupy their attention, so that we have very little left for the war in Iraq -- or much else, for that matter.”

Here's hoping that for her next book, Huffington takes Ensler's warning to heart. We always need fearless women like Arianna to step into the fray.

Dana Goldstein is associate editor of CampusProgress.org.

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