David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002), 384 pp., $26.
"Blurbing" is the publishing world's term for soliciting advance reviews from an author's colleagues for inclusion on a trade book's back cover. Since only favorably disposed colleagues are solicited, the vast majority of "blurbs", unsurprisingly, are raves. Warning flares should therefore go up whenever blurbs are decidedly lukewarm, as they are for David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. Three of its five blurbs are anything but rave endorsements. "I do not agree with all of Rieff's judgments", says Brian Urquhart, former UN Undersecretary General and widely acknowledged as a creator of UN peacekeeping. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer says, "I disagree with some of his conclusions", and longtime human rights advocate Aryeh Neier invites the reader to "agree or disagree with Rieff."
When such critiques are the most favorable comments a publisher can solicit, there is usually a reason. And in this case there certainly is: despite saying very little--and saying it with mind-numbing repetition--Rieff manages to contradict himself so often that it leaves the reader shell-shocked in confusion and muttering in complaint. The only message that comes through clearly is that David Rieff is a frustrated fellow. He claims to be frustrated by the state of humanitarian intervention, something that in theory could be improved. But most readers will see that the roots of Rieff's frustration actually lie in the stubborn realities of human nature and international politics, which are not likely to be ameliorated anytime soon.