Roving thoughts and provocations

Stupid Questions

Tim Parks

Abner Dean

Most writers complain about the people who come to hear them talk. Or rather the questions they ask. It’s time to wonder whether these people are really asking dumb questions. Why are writers so determined to focus exclusively on their novels, as if there were no continuity between writing and life?

Pakistan: Who’s Afraid of the ISI?

Ali Sethi

Fareed Khan/AP

Over the past week, a shocking debate has raged in Pakistan, in full view of the Pakistani people, about the nature and power of the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI, the country’s elusive, military-operated spy agency, which has been blamed for the attempted assassination of journalist Hamid Mir, who hosts one of Geo TV’s most popular current affairs programs.

How Many Have We Killed?

David Cole

Khaled Abdullah/Reuters/Corbis

According to credible accounts, Obama has overseen the killing of several thousand people in drone strikes since taking office. Why only admit to the four Americans’ deaths? Is the issue of targeted killings only appropriate for debate when we kill our own citizens? Don’t all human beings have a right to life?

Ukraine: Hate in Progress

Tim Judah

Tim Judah

Talk to people manning the anti-government barricades in eastern Ukraine, and one thing in particular is scary. They talk as though they were a long persecuted minority, as if they have forgotten that easterners under former president Viktor Yanukovych ran the country until February. All they seem to register is a hysterical drumbeat from Russia about the new Nazis of Kiev and their NATO masters.

Pain and Parentheses

Christopher Benfey

Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos

“My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three,” Nabokov writes in Lolita. I found myself wondering how many other parentheses like this there were: windows in a wall of verse or prose that suddenly open on an expanse of personal pain. Masquerading as mere asides, they might hold more punch than parentheses are usually expected to hold, more even than the surrounding sentences, and have all the more impact for their disguise as throwaways.

Inequality Is Not the Problem

Jeff Madrick

Metropolitan Museum of Art

The powerful findings of Thomas Piketty and other economists have challenged long-held assumptions that America is a meritocracy. But the problem of inequality is an inadequate description of the situation. We now have stagnating incomes for a large majority of Americans and runaway incomes at the very top. This is not so much “inequality” as a complete lack of growth for much of the country.

The Great Poets’ Brawl of ’68

Charles Simic

David Levine

As soon as the fight started, Allen Ginsberg went down on his knees and began chanting some Buddhist prayer for peace and harmony among all living creatures, which not only distracted those fighting, but also startled a few puzzled couples who had discreetly retreated into the bushes and were now returning in a hurry with their clothes in disarray.

Obamacare: The Hate Can’t Be Cured

Garry Wills

Metropolitan Museum of Art
I fear that the president declared a premature victory for the Affordable Care Act. He made the mistake of thinking that facts matter when a cult is involved. Obamacare is now, for many, haloed with hate. Retaining certitude about its essential evil is a matter of honor for one’s allies and loathing for one’s opponents.

Eleven Visits to the Sky

J. Hoberman

Cinema Guild

Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana documents Nepalese pilgrims as they are conveyed via cable car up to a Hindu temple. There are five ascents to and six descents from the mountain, an eleven-act vaudeville show in which the trips are separated by a clattering landing and an invisible cut made during the darkness of the turn-around.

My Carcass and Myself

James Gleick

In our time the transformation and transplantation of bodies are commonplace. The bionic woman, the bionic man—that’s us, more and more every day. We don’t have brain transplants yet, but we’ve thought about it. So what if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? That is the question Marcel Theroux explores in his novel Strange Bodies.