Thursday, January 27, 2011

Comments on a professor's draft article on a math school in Pakistan

Dear [redacted],

Sorry I took so long on this.
[grammar and usage comments]
Now the important things, bearing in mind that I do not bear you any ill will...

                   p. 1
         first line, long spiel

The first eight words, "A crucial ally of America's War on Terror," are an unmitigated disaster that will turn off readers far less revolutionary than me. I find myself hoping against hope that you didn't mean them in the way that I interpreted them. This phrase implies (hopefully unintentionally?) a myriad of positions which you may or may not hold, but which are at least orthogonal to, if not possibly detrimental to, the goal of the article. I will sum up my adverse reactions.

(0) "The US" is a more neutral appelation than "America." The latter usage also seems to irritate people from other parts of North, South, and Central America.

(1) The usage of the rhetorical framing of "War on Terror" seems to imply the following,
which may alienate people.

a) The name makes sense. This is disputed. Most obviously, the name itself doesn't make sense. Terror is an emotion; quoting Jon Stewart (I think), "Yeah, and we're going to take on that bastard ennui next." So it should be short for a "war on terrorism." But terrorism is a political tactic. Paraphrasing something Lt. Gen. William Odom, US Army (Ret.) said in 2002, it makes as much sense to declare war on terrorism as to declare war on night attacks. Terrorism will exist when people are politically motivated and desperate enough. It fundamentally cannot be defeated by war.

b) The "War on Terror" is just. The ensuing American wars (mainly Iraq and Afghanistan, but don't forget the lesser military operations and drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia) are necessary, appropriate, and right.

c) You are not paying close enough attention to properly genuflect to US foreign policy. The "GWOT" was Bush administration rhetoric; the Obama administration, while stepping up the wars themselves, has backed off the "War on Terror" name.

(2) The notion that the "War on Terror" can have a "crucial ally" seems to imply an acceptance that the "War on Terror" itself (whatever it is) is crucial. This is at the very least disputable. It is correlated with, but distinct from, the following constellation of offensive beliefs.

(a) The "War on Terror" is honest, in that it is about what it claims to be about, the safety of US residents (or at least citizens). You may recall that in 2002-3, the government cycled through a half-dozen different justifications for the incipient invasion of Iraq. It was like Whac-A-Mole, except everyone already knew the moles would win. The arguments that it would increase safety of US citizens were quickly defeated, so the Bush administration came up with new ones.

(b) The "War on Terror" has been or will be successful in its alleged goal of making US (and world?) residents safer. This is pretty objectively false, even discounting the death toll in the armed forces from the wars themselves. Many people agree with me on this, including people as radical as Pervez Musharraf and David Cameron.

(c) If the real goals of "War on Terror" differ from the stated ones, they are still justified in some way. Many people wildly disagree with this, certainly as it applies to the actual wars that have ensued. It doesn't take a deeply cynical person to see in these wars, say, a doomed empire fighting for resources, providing justification for its vast weapons expenditures, shoring up its economy with military Keynesianism, or just flexing its muscle to show people who's boss. Again, America's wars are just.

(3) The notion that Pakistan *is* a crucial ally seems to imply that Pakistan's government is correct in embracing US foreign policy, either because the US's goals are noble, or because supporting these policies are good in some way for Pakistan, rather than extremely risky. This is again very contentious, in and out of Pakistan.

(4) The citing of Pakistan as a crucial ally in the very first line implies that Pakistan's importance, if any, is due to its relationship with the US. I can see that offending people.

Even if you accept any of these abominable positions, I think including them in the first line of your paper is probably not a good idea.

          par. 2, line 1
Was it the empires that made it glorious? The Raj?

What is "glory" anyway? Was ancient Athens glorious? It had a burgeoning literary, philosophical, and mathematical culture; it had democracy for property owners; it also fought wars of conquest against its neighboring city-states, and between two-fifths and four-fifths of its inhabitants were slaves. Was the Roman Republic glorious, then? The Roman Empire? Han Dynasty China? The Xiong-nu? The Huns? The Mongol Empire? Considerations of "glory" of a country, and especially of an empire, tend to not consider the condition of the majority of people who have to live there. To me, there is nothing glorious about conquering people and demanding their submission, and that puts my damper on my considering most political entities "glorious."

          par. 2, line 2
Before the British occupation, I don't know if the subcontinent was ever under the control of a single political entity at any time. The "succession of ancient empires" line seems to imply that India progressed monotonically from empire to empire, rather than frequently being divided between different empires and numerous small states.

          par. 2, line 3
If you're playing up Pakistan's plight, then since you mention Partition, you could mention that it cost millions of lives.


          col. 2, line 7
This is not as surprising as it may seem; compare the situation in Iran, where most college students are women. (See, e.g. this.)

          col. 2, line -12
I couldn't find a homepage (in English, at least) for this institution on the Internet. Are you sure it's the right name? Either way, I think it's a bad idea to call it the ISI: to most people with a passing familiarity with Pakistan, that's the Inter-Services Intelligence. Also, you never mention it again, so including an acronym doesn't really help.

                    p. 3
          line 5
An "important societal need"? I am all for mathematics, but I am not sure that it is. As you yourself say in the next paragraph, "it is difficult to make a case for theoretical mathematics when millions of people, displaced from their homes, lack food, clean water, and medical care."
Apparently ASSMS graduates are eminently employable, but that's not necessarily the same thing as being useful. Consider the article you sent me about investment bankers. I'm forced to agree with G. H. Hardy that one of the best things pure mathematics may have going for it is that it is at least mostly harmeless.

In recent years I've come to view colleges, certainly in the US, as essentially a credentialing industry. The teaching part of college isn't concerned mostly with educating people per se, but with making money, and societally, as a way of creaing technical workers, propagating a managerial and/or middle class, and providing a means of rationing out jobs to people who college somehow "qualifies." I am all for the pursuit of knowledge and wish I could consider myself an intellectual, but that is not the primary reason why institutions of higher education exist, at least in the US. I hope the ASSMS graduates are serving a more important societal need than I anticipate myself filling.

          last paragraph, first sentence
This is overly broad. Terrorism usually isn't a consequence strictly of misery per se; there have been plenty of times and places where most of the population lived in misery but terrorism did not thrive. Secondly, laws in and of themselves do not stop misery, and lawlessness doesn't necessarily arise therefrom. Consider police states, where misery can abound without much lawlessness seemingly being able to occur.

Secondly, this line seems to be trying to tie in the ASSMS with counter-terrorism in order to solicit aid. I am not sure this is a safe bet; I think it seems rather tenuous, and doesn't tie in well to the preceding paragraph.

Finally, citing "lawlessness" as a scourge in the same breath with terrorism strikes me as comical. I thought of both Han Fei and Polyanna. Then I thought of how the Chinese Communist Party is still referred to as "bandits" in Taiwan. Apparently their repressive state bureaucracy is on a par with highwaymen ambushing travellers, stealing their money, and fleeing into the mountains. I've thought of this as a holdover from the pre-1949 era, but it seems like it also reflects a mindset where illegality is an insult, to be applied to anyone you disagree with.

I don't know if this is a residue of some Legalism you acquired culturally or through education, or something else, but I don't think it's right. Laws don't make people good, and I don't think that a lawless society is necessarily a miserable one. I think people have the capacity to regulate their own behavior, and while I'm not against the law per se, I think it's a mistake to fetishize it. One must keep in mind that people create the law, and often people who derive a definite advantage from it. At its best it outlines a population's notion of justice, but more often it is used to make one group serve another.

          last paragraph, second sentence
My personal view reverses the clause order: While the development of mathematics is a step in the right direction, it cannot be expected to solve any of the ills of a society.

That's it for the proofreading.

Finally, I'd like to talk about the book. When I gave it to you, I suspected it might not be your cup of tea. You asked me with concern, after having looked at it briefly, whether Tariq Ali could be relied upon to be objective. My answer is no, of course not, and neither can anybody else. I think writing objectively about history or politics is impossible, and claiming to do so is dishonest to both writer and reader.

So when people refer to a piece of writing as objective, I think they actually mean something else. Namely, there is a "safe" range of discourse in any society containing views that can be considered "objective," and opinions outside of that range are considered to fail that objectivity test. American newspapers and television offer brilliant examples of this, but I know the same is true of the UK and I believe it is universal. But there's nothing more inherently true in the statements of someone who attempts to be middle-of-the-road or to hide their own opinions in their writing. It's just perceived to be that way because those views are socially acceptable. There are any number of instances of actual falsehood being common knowledge in a society. I much prefer candor, people who let you know their agenda before they begin. In giving you that book on Pakistan, I hoped, probably naively, to provide you a different point of view.