The pause button

Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty
July 2007: A former insurgent watches a row of coalition military vehicles in the Amariyah neighborhood of Baghdad (Credit: Chris Hondros/Getty)

As far as the bulk of the American — and for that matter, world — press is concerned, the Iraq War ended sometime in early 2008. Casualty rates suffered by American troops had dropped significantly, and this happy circumstance was generally credited to the “surge” of up to 40,000 additional troops deployed to Iraq starting the previous summer. Presidential candidate Barak Obama did his part to move the spotlight away from the Persian Gulf by pointing to Afghanistan as the site of the really important war (a claim underscored by increasing levels of violence in both Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan), and the rapidly developing global financial crisis did its part. By January 2009 it seemed likely that the average Beltway pundit would once again have trouble finding Iraq on a map.

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Banner image: Matt Schlian

A detail from Matt Schlian’s “Omnivore”. Schlian is a paper engineer and teacher; he creates kinetic sculptures (yes, out of paper) for both artistic and scientific purposes, and he has worked with biologists and engineers in visualizing and understanding such phenomena as cell division and such challenges as solar cell development. He also draws.

My drawings begin by asking indirect questions which yield no concrete answers. As with my three dimensional work, my focus is on the process rather than final product. I am fascinated with computer technology and its ability to mistranslate information. Like a game of “telephone”, multiple software programs fracture and compound text and image as they travel through different formats on the computer. Bearing little resemblance to their origin, the new information is rendered on a pen plotter creating a chaotic world rooted in happenstance. No longer legible, I see the drawings as blueprints for invisible cities, answers to questions that may unfold over time.

– Matt Schlian

"Omnivore", by Matt Schlian
"Omnivore", by Matt Schlian

An Orphan Annie Interview


Perhaps my happiest experience as a freelance writer was publishing in Lingua Franca, the late, much-lamented magazine that covered intellectual life with genuine journalistic moxie. Most journalists are baffled by ideas and alienated from the academy. The usual approach to writing about contemporary scholarship tends to be a mixture of sensationalism and scorn (for an example, see almost any issue of The New Criterion that deals with the MLA). The Lingua Franca crew weren’t like that: they didn’t shirk from the tough task of taking theory and making it into narrative without doing an injustice to intellectual integrity of the initial ideas.

Scott McLemee was the perfect Lingua Franca writer: he’s as erudite as anyone I know and has a real gift writing about complicated ideas with clarity, so that the reader ends up joining a conversation that at first brush might have been intimidating. He doesn’t talk down to readers or dazzle them with any specialized jargon but rather writes about ideas with the same faith in lucid exposition that Orwell brought to political writing or A.J. Liebling brought to sports writing, or Robert Hughes brings to art writing. Scott’s been lucky to find a great perch for his talent in the magazine Inside Higher Ed, where he as a weekly column.

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George Steiner’s Phony Learning


George Steiner’s new book.

As a literary critic and essayist George Steiner is distinguished by his erudition, which is not just impressive but even intimidating. A quick glance through his books reveals that he’s a writer confident enough to sit in judgement of a vast range of cultural figures ranging from the poets of antiquity to great composers like Bach and Beethoven to the Russian novelists of the 19th century to modern philosophers like Heidegger. “Is he a man or an encyclopedia?” you ask yourself as you read his essays.

Another question worth asking is, how much of Steiner’s erudition is real, based on actual familiarity with the artists and thinkers he’s writing about, and how much is just name-dropping? Is Steiner just the high-end equivalent of a Hollywood hanger on who has tales of chance encounters with “Angelina” and “Bobby DeNiro”.

I’m a great admirer of the poet, short story writer, painter and translator Guy Davenport, who really was a polymath. I’ve always had a soft spot for Steiner because he once lavishly praised Davenport in The New Yorker, a review that did much to bolster Davenport’s reputation and visiblity. “Davenport is among the very few truly original, truly autonomous voices now audible in American letters,” Steiner wrote. (Steiner’s review was recently republished in the essay collection George Steiner at The New Yorker, published by New Directions).

Recently while reading Guy Davenport’s letters to the publisher James Laughlin, I discovered that even Steiner’s commendable act of celebrating Davenport carried with a whiff of fraud.

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The Case for Immigration Amnesty


A sign cautioning U.S. drivers to be aware of recent arrivals from Mexico running across the highway.
A sign cautioning U.S. drivers to be aware of recent arrivals from Mexico running across the highway.


Joseph Carens is one of the world’s most interesting political theorists. I first became aware of him when I took a class in which we were assigned to read his famous essay , “Aliens and Citizens: The Case For Open Borders,” in which Carens makes the provocative argument that immigration controls should be abolished. Carens, who teaches at the University of Toronto, has made his career writing about immigration, and he often challenges deeply held assumptions about the subject that rarely receive critically examination. Even when you disagree with Carens, as I think I do on the subject of open borders, you often come away from his work feeling like you’ve learned something.

 This side of Carens is on display in a Boston Review symposium on amnesty for illegal immigrants. The symposium takes the form of an essay by Carens making the case for amnesty, followed by responses by 16 writers. Carens argues that whether someone should be grated citizenship of a country should be determined by more than purely legal considerations. It also matters how long the person has lived in that country, legally or not. He establishes his premise with the following example:

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Posner on the Corruption of Conservatism

“By the fall of 2008, the face of the Republican Party had become Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. Conservative intellectuals had no party.” So writes conservative U.S. justice Richard Posner on the blog he shares with economist Gary Becker.

Burma’s Mute Despair


The Literary Review of Canada gave me room to do a substantial review of Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles. Click the link in the middle of the last sentence to read the review, the opening of which is excerpted below:


Many travellers record their experiences with a camera. Guy Delisle relies on an older method of preserving memories. Using the digits of his hand rather than digital handheld devices, the artist keeps sketchbooks where he draws the sights he encounters in other lands. He then reworks these impressions into comic strip travelogues, currently available in three volumes each named after a foreign locale.

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