Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The shirking of intellectual duty

A recent book review in Foreign Policy (http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/04/11/pakistan_a_hard_country) does not appear to have been written by someone who is both non-partisan and academically sound.

The reviewer praises the book, calling it "comprehensive":

> This insightful, comprehensive portrait of Pakistan is the perfect antidote to stereotypical descriptions of the country

However, the reviewer admits, later, to the book having missed some key areas:

> There is surprisingly little on the U.S. drone program in Pakistan's tribal areas, one of the most controversial subjects in the context of strained U.S.-Pakistan relations...Lieven's discussion of the Pakistani economy is also limited...

The reviewer than labels these and other omissions as being of a "minor" nature. The drone strikes, "one of the most controversial subjects", by the reviewer's own account, and the national economy are labeled minor, in no very deft fashion.

The reviewer wishes to end on a positive note:

> ....an intuitive, intelligent, and invaluable text.

Is this the reviewer's (unconscious, perhaps) love of alliteration, or does the text satisfy on all three fronts?

What does "intuitive" mean?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive".

So, the reviewer knew really what the writer was leading up to, even before having read the text? The writer came up with conclusions and presented premises that the reviewer was previously comfortable with? Is this the reason for the positive review? Intelligent and invaluable because you reinforce my world-view.

The OED also suggests that a secondary meaning exists, but chiefly in the context of computer software, "easy to use and understand". Was the book accompanied by a list of key pages that reviewers ought to read? Were sections relevant to reviewers highlighted?

Or did the writers intentionally use easy language, making the book accessible also to non-native speakers of English?

> It is to Lieven's credit that he allows Pakistanis to express their own understanding of the nation's predicament through extensive direct quotes. This narrative device helps uncover the logic behind traits that may seem indecipherable - or even suicidal - to the outsider; the barbaric rulings of western-educated tribal chiefs, the apathy of civilian law-enforcers in the face of militant attacks, or the average Pakistani's appetite for conspiracy theories about the U.S. and India.

Direct quotes are fun. They make an account appear authentic. The reviewer suggests that direct quotes help uncover the logic behind indecipherable/suicidal traits. Is the reviewer attempting to ascribe a "logic" to these very unpleasant traits? To justify them?

> The subtlety and fluency with which Lieven deconstructs the quirks of Pakistani society may lead some to write him off as an apologist for the country. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Why can nothing be further from the truth? The reviewer does not inform us. (The next sentence about the book containing dire warnings about Pakistan's future is not a particularly novel idea) Indeed, it would appear that the reviewer has recognized that the author might be seen as an apologist for Pakistan, especially after having "known" the country for more than twenty years (as the reviewer informs us), does not wish this to happen, and attempts to nip such thinking in the bud.

> His resounding message to the Washington is to avoid incursions into Pakistani territory by U.S. ground forces, even in the event of a terrorist attack with Pakistani origins on American soil.

Superfluous definite article in "the Washington".

And why is this a "resounding" message? It would appear that the reviewer is trying too hard.

So what's the recommendation? That the US, with the world's largest military, and a history of wars in foreign countries, should not exercise any military option at all, after having been attacked? Does not appear to be awfully realistic. Or that the US should employ drones, the USAF and navy to attack terrorist installations in Pakistan?

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