Monday, November 23, 2015

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Short Takes

Police in Paris raided an apartment in the suburbs and captured a number of massacre suspects after a gun battle.

ISIS published a photo of what they claim was the type of homemade bomb that brought down the Russian airliner.

Migrants in Europe are anxious about the reception they’re getting from the U.S. and other xenophobes.

A report released showed Chicago Police are hardly ever disciplined for misconduct and abuse.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Fear Itself

The Paris attacks and the unfounded rumors that Syrian refugees might be responsible for it have turned the usual suspects who know nothing about the actual nationality of the bombers and less about what to do about them into foreign policy experts and military strategists… at least as far as getting in front of a microphone is concerned and making noise.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta took an unusually blunt approach Monday in questioning President Barack Obama about why the United States has not destroyed the Islamic State, the militant group also known as ISIS.

“A lot of Americans have this frustration that they see the United States has the greatest military in the world, it has the backing of nearly every other country in the world when it comes to taking on ISIS,” Acosta said. “I guess the question is, and if you’ll forgive the language, but why can’t we take out these bastards?”

Obama, who was speaking in Antalya, Turkey, at the G-20 summit, responded that he had “just spent the last three questions answering that very question.”

And because “Call of Duty” is a video game, not foreign policy.

Earlier Monday, Obama had defended the U.S. strategy against the Islamic State, which has largely focused on airstrikes, amid calls for deploying a large number of ground troops in response to the Paris terrorist attacks. Obama said a ground invasion would be a “mistake” because it would require using U.S. troops to occupy Iraqi and Syrian cities indefinitely.

Obama also said he respected the debate over what to do against the Islamic State, but “if folks want to pop off and have opinions about what they think they would do, present a specific plan.”

“If they think somehow their advisers are better than the Chairman of my Joint Chiefs of Staff and the folks who are actually on the ground, I want to meet them,” Obama said. “And we can have that debate. But what I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and to protect the people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies and people like France. I’m too busy for that.”

The situation got even stupider if not more xenophobic when a group of state governors — mostly Republican — announced that they would not allow Syrian refugees to be settled in their states.

More than half a dozen state governors have come out against President Obama’s plans to relocate several thousand Syrian refugees within the United States. Some have pledged to actively resist settlement of these refugees. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), for example, signed a letter to Obama that begins “as governor of Texas, I write to inform you that the State of Texas will not accept any refugees from Syria in the wake of the deadly terrorist attack in Paris.” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) issued an executive order instructing all “departments, budget units, agencies, offices, entities, and officers of the executive branch of the State of Louisiana” to “utilize all lawful means to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the State of Louisiana while this Order is in effect.”

The problem for Jindal, Abbott and the other governors opposed to admitting refugees, however, is that there is no lawful means that permits a state government to dictate immigration policy to the president in this way. As the Supreme Court explained in Hines v. Davidowitz, “the supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution.” States do not get to overrule the federal government on matters such as this one.

Just in case there is any doubt, President Obama has explicit statutory authorization to accept foreign refugees into the United States. Under the Refugee Act of 1980, the president may admit refugees who face “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion” into the United States, and the president’s power to do so is particularly robust if they determine that an “unforeseen emergency refugee situation” such as the Syrian refugee crisis exists.

Blaming the Syrian refugees for the bombing in Paris is not only wrong based on the facts, it reminds those of us with a knowledge of history of another shameful chapter in our recent past where those fleeing religious persecution were turned away.

The MS St. Louis was a German ocean liner most notable for a single voyage in 1939, in which her captain, Gustav Schröder, tried to find homes for 908 Jewish refugees from Germany, after they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, until finally accepted in various European countries, which were later engulfed in World War II. Historians have estimated that, after their return to Europe, approximately a quarter of the ship’s passengers died in concentration camps. The event was the subject of a 1974 book, Voyage of the Damned, by Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan-Witts. It was adapted for a 1976 American film of the same title.

Those governors — including Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) who apparently won’t accept any Syrians unless they’re Cubans — aren’t afraid of the unlikely possibility that among them might be a sleeper agent of ISIS; they’re afraid of showing compassion to people who aren’t like them.  (Jeb Bush said he was fine with admitting Syrian refugees as long as they were Christians.  Oh, how noble.)  How can they run for president or some cabinet post in the Cruz administration if they can’t prove they are both butch and bed-wetters?

This is exactly what ISIS wants: for America and the West to close its borders to those fleeing their caliphate and to prove that non-Muslims hate all Muslims and intend to launch the Crusades again.  So far at least a goodly number of useful idiots in Congress and various statehouses are falling in line with them.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Stop, Look, and Listen

Like a lot of people, I’ve been trying to make sense of not just the attacks in Paris, but of the whole global situation that has brought us to this point.  The endless loop of people saying the same thing while vamping between commercials on cable TV provides the background noise, but there’s very little thought behind what passes now for insight, so the best thing to do about that is either change the channel or shut it off and let the silence descend.  (This isn’t really the fault of the cable channel talkers; they have to do something to fill the time, and there are only so many re-runs of The Big Bang Theory out there.)

That’s the first step: just stop.  Keeping the noise going won’t add any more knowledge, and neither does the input of the presidential candidates who are trying to both grasp the situation and make political gains out of it.  The paid consultants don’t really know more than you do in that they don’t have access to more or different information, and even if they did, it’s probably just as confusing to them as it is to the average person paying attention.  Take a deep breath and think before you say something.

The second step is to look at the whole picture, not the facets or fragments.  It’s not just about the civil war in Syria and the refugees fleeing to Europe, or about the decay of government in Iraq, or the support of various factions by sponsor states, or even the difference between Sunnis and Shi’as.  It is all that plus the ambitions and positions of the governments involved and the local jockeying for advantage and life in the European Union and beyond.  It doesn’t mean winning a war; it means finding a way to peace with all sides at the table.

It also means that we must recognize that extremism isn’t just limited to religious fanatics in the Middle East; we have our own crop of them right here in the good old U.S.A.  Just because it’s been a while since they blew up anything and killed just as many people as died in Paris on Friday night doesn’t mean that they’ve gone away.  Their response to these attacks is just as demented and poisonous as the ones who attacked in the first place.

Finally, just listen.  The voices that need to be heard will make it through all the chatter.  Instant retaliation may feel good — it works in the movies, right? — but in real life there is no credit roll and swelling music.  The politicians and the people we elected to do the job of protecting us have to do their job without all the noise or the easy fixes that can be proposed in a Tweet.  The biggest danger we now face is the overreaction to these acts by those who would exploit it for their own gains both there and here.

Oh, and if changing your Facebook profile picture to add the French tricolor to the background makes you feel better, by all means go ahead.  We all need a little symbolism now and then.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Reading

There Is Only One Way — Charlie Pierce on how to defeat ISIS: Stop sucking up to the nations like Saudi Arabia that support them.

There was a strange stillness in the news on Saturday morning, a Saturday morning that came earlier in Paris than it did in Des Moines, a city in Iowa, one of the United States of America. The body count had stabilized. The new information came at a slow, stately pace, as though life were rearranging itself out of quiet respect for the dead. The new information came at a slow and stately pace and it arranged itself in the way that you suspected it would arrange itself when the first accounts of the mass murder began to spread out over the wired world. There has been the predictable howling from predictable people. (Judith Miller? Really? This is an opinion the world needed to hear?) There has been the straining to wedge the events of Friday night into the Procrustean nonsense of an American presidential campaign. There will be a debate among the three Democratic candidates for president in Des Moines on Saturday night. I suspect that the moderators had to toss out a whole raft of questions they already had prepared. Everything else is a distraction. It is the stately, stillness of the news itself that matters.

The attacks were a brilliantly coordinated act of war. They were a brilliantly coordinated act of pure terrorism, beyond rhyme but not beyond reason. They struck at the most cosmopolitan parts of the most cosmopolitan city in the world. They struck out at assorted sectors of western popular culture. They struck out at sports, at pop music, and at simple casual dining. They struck out at an ordinary Friday night’s entertainment. The attacks were a brilliantly coordinated statement of political and social purpose, its intent clear and unmistakable. The attacks were a brilliantly coordinated act of fanatical ideological and theological Puritanism, brewed up in the dark precincts of another of mankind’s monotheisms. They were not the first of these. (The closest parallel to what happened in Paris is what happened in Mumbai in 2008. In fact, Mumbai went on alert almost immediately after the news broke.) They, alas, are likely not going to be the last.

The stillness of the news is a place of refuge and of reason on yet another day in which both of these qualities are predictably in short supply. It is a place beyond unfocused rage, and beyond abandoned wrath, and beyond unleashed bigotry and hate. It is a place where Friday night’s savagery is recognized and memorialized, but it is not put to easy use for trivial purposes. The stillness of the news, if you seek it out, is a place where you can think, sadly and clearly, about what should happen next.

These are a few things that will not solve the terrible and tangled web of causation and violence in which the attacks of Friday night were spawned. A 242-ship Navy will not stop one motivated murderous fanatic from emptying the clip of an AK-47 into the windows of a crowded restaurant. The F-35 fighter plane will not stop a group of motivated murderous fanatics from detonating bombs at a soccer match. A missile-defense shield in Poland will not stop a platoon of motivated murderous fanatics from opening up in a jammed concert hall, or taking hostages, or taking themselves out with suicide belts when the police break down the doors. American soldiers dying in the sands of Syria or Iraq will not stop the events like what happened in Paris from happening again because American soldiers dying in the sands of Syria or Iraq will be dying there in combat against only the most obvious physical manifestation of a deeper complex of ancient causes and ancient effects made worse by the reach of the modern technology of bloodshed and murder. Nobody’s death is ever sacrifice enough for that.

Abandoning the Enlightenment values that produced democracy will not plumb the depths of the vestigial authoritarian impulse that resides in us all, the wish for kings, the desire for order, to be governed, and not to govern. Flexing and posturing and empty venting will not cure the deep sickness in the human spirit that leads people to slaughter the innocent in the middle of a weekend’s laughter. The expression of bigotry and hatred will not solve the deep desperation in the human heart that leads people to kill their fellow human beings and then blow themselves up as a final act of murderous vengeance against those they perceive to be their enemies, seen and unseen, real and imagined. Tough talk in the context of what happened in Paris is as empty as a bell rung at the bottom of a well.

Francois Hollande, the French president who was at the soccer game that was attacked, has promised that France will wage “pitiless war” against the forces that conceived and executed the attacks. Most wars are pitiless, but not all of them are fought with the combination of toughness and intelligence that this one will require. This was a lesson that the United States did not learn in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. There are things that nations can do in response that are not done out of xenophobic rage and a visceral demand for revenge. There are things that nations can do in response that do not involve scapegoating the powerless and detaining the innocent.  There is no real point in focusing a response on the people whose religion makes us nervous. States should retaliate against states.

It is long past time for the oligarchies of the Gulf states to stop paying protection to the men in the suicide belts. Their societies are stunted and parasitic. The main job of the elites there is to find enough foreign workers to ensla…er…indenture to do all the real work. The example of Qatar and the interesting business plan through which that country is building the facilities for the 2022 World Cup is instructive here. Roughly the same labor-management relationship exists for the people who clean the hotel rooms and who serve the drinks. In Qatar, for people who come from elsewhere to work, passports have been known to disappear into thin air. These are the societies that profit from terrible and tangled web of causation and violence that played out on the streets of Paris. These are the people who buy their safety with the blood of innocents far away.

It’s not like this is any kind of secret. In 2010, thanks to WikiLeaks, we learned that the State Department, under the direction of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, knew full well where the money for foreign terrorism came from. It came from countries and not from a faith. It came from sovereign states and not from an organized religion. It came from politicians and dictators, not from clerics, at least not directly. It was paid to maintain a political and social order, not to promulgate a religious revival or to launch a religious war. Religion was the fuel, the ammonium nitrate and the diesel fuel. Authoritarian oligarchy built the bomb. As long as people are dying in Paris, nobody important is dying in Doha or Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba – but the Saudi government is reluctant to stem the flow of money, according to Hillary Clinton. “More needs to be done since Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, LeT and other terrorist groups,” says a secret December 2009 paper signed by the US secretary of state. Her memo urged US diplomats to redouble their efforts to stop Gulf money reaching extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide,” she said. Three other Arab countries are listed as sources of militant money: Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The cables highlight an often ignored factor in the Pakistani and Afghan conflicts: that the violence is partly bankrolled by rich, conservative donors across the Arabian Sea whose governments do little to stop them. The problem is particularly acute in Saudi Arabia, where militants soliciting funds slip into the country disguised as holy pilgrims, set up front companies to launder funds and receive money from government-sanctioned charities.

It’s time for this to stop. It’s time to be pitiless against the bankers and against the people who invest in murder to assure their own survival in power. Assets from these states should be frozen, all over the west. Money trails should be followed, wherever they lead. People should go to jail, in every country in the world. It should be done state-to-state. Stop funding the murder of our citizens and you can have your money back. Maybe. If we’re satisfied that you’ll stop doing it. And, it goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway – not another bullet will be sold to you, let alone advanced warplanes, until this act gets cleaned up to our satisfaction. If that endangers your political position back home, that’s your problem, not ours. You are no longer trusted allies. Complain, and your diplomats will be going home. Complain more loudly, and your diplomats will be investigated and, if necessary, detained. Retaliate, and you do not want to know what will happen, but it will done with cold, reasoned and, yes, pitiless calculation. It will not be a blind punch. You will not see it coming. It will not be an attack on your faith. It will be an attack on how you conduct your business as sovereign states in a world full of sovereign states.

And the still, stately progress of the news from Paris continues. There are arrests today in Brussels, of alleged co-conspirators. The body count has stabilized. New information comes at its own pace, as if out of respect for the dead. In the stillness of the news itself, there is refuge and reason and a kind of wounded, ragged peace, as whatever rolled up from the depths of the sickness of the human heart rolls back again, like the tide and, like the tide, one day will return.

The Greatest Actor Alive — Terrence Rafferty profiles Max von Sydow.

Max von Sydow 11-14-15The swedish actor Max von Sydow first entered the consciousness of moviegoers as the medieval knight playing chess with Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). For a significant portion of his six decades onscreen, he has been the greatest actor alive. Now, in his 87th year on Earth, he may be on the verge of becoming a pop-culture icon. In December, he’ll be seen in Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens, in a role so fogged in mystery that the fan communities have been half-mad with anticipation. (Could he be Kanan Jarrus, the Last Padawan? Sifo-Dyas, maybe? Or—be still, my heart—Boba Fett?) Sometime next spring, he’ll be joining the high-attrition cast of television’s reigning fantasy-adventure franchise, Game of Thrones, whose almost equally febrile fans at least know whom he’ll be playing—a mentor character called the Three-Eyed Raven. In both parts, it’s probably safe to say, his natural authority onscreen will come in handy. His voice is deep, soft, and rich; his body is long and slender; and he wears fantasy-appropriate costumes (flowing robes, hoods, doublet and tights, whatever) as if he were born in them. His presence is commanding, mysterious. If The Seventh Seal were being made today, von Sydow might well be cast as the other guy at the chessboard, the one playing the black pieces. He’d kill.

He is, in short, having the sort of late career that eminent movie actors tend to have, popping up for a scene or two in commercial stuff that needs a touch of gravity, and receiving, as famous old actors do, the honor of “last billing”: after all the lesser players have been listed, a stand-alone credit that reads “And Max von Sydow.” When actors advance in years, you start to get them in bits and pieces—a moment here, a moment there, and then they’re gone. The ones who have the skill, the craftiness, to make an impression quickly are perfectly at home in these limited parts, and that’s the sort of actor von Sydow has been for his entire career. Even in his Bergman days, he wasn’t always the star. (Bergman, like Robert Altman, had a repertory-company approach to casting, and von Sydow played the lead in only six of the 11 features they made together between 1957 and 1971.)

Besides, being an icon isn’t all that tough, compared with real acting. The audience’s memories of past performances do a lot of the work for you. Von Sydow has appeared in well over 100 movies and TV shows, which makes for plenty of memories. Even relatively casual, non-art-house viewers may recall, say, his sodden King Osric in Conan the Barbarian (1982), or the mute, ornery tenant of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011), or the dapper assassin in the fedora in Three Days of the Condor (1975), or the shifty-eyed bureaucrat of Minority Report (2002). If nothing else, they will surely remember the title character of The Exorcist (1973), in which von Sydow, as a frail, elderly Jesuit, engaged the devil in some pretty fierce soul-to-soul combat.

His role in The Exorcist was in fact the closest he’s come to iconhood before now, and in many ways was a sort of preview of the current “And Max von Sydow” stage of his career. Then in his mid-40s, he aged himself a good 30 years to play the hired-gun demon-fighter Father Merrin; he looks younger than that now. (With his craggy face and receding hairline, and a healthy lack of vanity, von Sydow has never had a problem playing older characters; he seems to relish the challenge.) The role isn’t large—Merrin’s on-screen for only a few minutes at the beginning and then, of course, during the noisy, nausea-inducing exorcism climax—but von Sydow’s quiet power makes the character seem huge, a spiritual force of sufficient size to take on Evil itself. His Merrin combines a gunslinger’s sangfroid and an old man’s terror. During the exorcism, you can feel the effort of will it takes for the old priest to muster his concentration and his strength. What von Sydow brings to The Exorcist is more than the skimpily written part demands, maybe more than it deserves, but this is what he does in even the smallest, poorest roles. Like a novelist, he finds the human details that vivify the character.

Doonesbury — Believe it or not.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday Reading

Mission Accomplished — Tom Englehardt in The Nation on what Osama bin Laden got for his attacks.

Fourteen years of wars, interventions, assassinations, torture, kidnappings, black sites, the growth of the American national security state to monumental proportions, and the spread of Islamic extremism across much of the Greater Middle East and Africa. Fourteen years of astronomical expense, bombing campaigns galore, and a military-first foreign policy of repeated defeats, disappointments, and disasters. Fourteen years of a culture of fear in America, of endless alarms and warnings, as well as dire predictions of terrorist attacks. Fourteen years of the burial of American democracy (or rather its recreation as a billionaire’s playground and a source of spectacle and entertainment but not governance). Fourteen years of the spread of secrecy, the classification of every document in sight, the fierce prosecution of whistleblowers, and a faith-based urge to keep Americans “secure” by leaving them in the dark about what their government is doing. Fourteen years of the demobilization of the citizenry. Fourteen years of the rise of the warrior corporation, the transformation of war and intelligence gathering into profit-making activities, and the flocking of countless private contractors to the Pentagon, the NSA, the CIA, and too many other parts of the national security state to keep track of. Fourteen years of our wars coming home in the form of PTSD, the militarization of the police, and the spread of war-zone technology like drones and stingrays to the “homeland.” Fourteen years of that un-American word “homeland.” Fourteen years of the expansion of surveillance of every kind and of the development of a global surveillance system whose reach—from foreign leaders to tribal groups in the backlands of the planet—would have stunned those running the totalitarian states of the twentieth century. Fourteen years of the financial starvation of America’s infrastructure and still not a single mile of high-speed rail built anywhere in the country. Fourteen years in which to launch Afghan War 2.0, Iraq Wars 2.0 and 3.0, and Syria War 1.0. Fourteen years, that is, of the improbable made probable.

Fourteen years later, thanks a heap, Osama bin Laden. With a small number of supporters, $400,000-$500,000, and 19 suicidal hijackers, most of them Saudis, you pulled off a geopolitical magic trick of the first order. Think of it as wizardry from the theater of darkness. In the process, you did “change everything” or at least enough of everything to matter. Or rather, you goaded us into doing what you had neither the resources nor the ability to do. So let’s give credit where it’s due. Psychologically speaking, the 9/11 attacks represented precision targeting of a kind American leaders would only dream of in the years to follow. I have no idea how, but you clearly understood us so much better than we understood you or, for that matter, ourselves. You knew just which buttons of ours to push so that we would essentially carry out the rest of your plan for you. While you sat back and waited in Abbottabad, we followed the blueprints for your dreams and desires as if you had planned it and, in the process, made the world a significantly different (and significantly grimmer) place.

Fourteen years later, we don’t even grasp what we did.

Don’t Do It, Joe — Charlie Pierce on why Joe Biden shouldn’t run.

Watching Vice President Joe Biden’s appearance on Stephen Colbert’s new joint on Thursday night was like watching a man having his blood drawn with a turkey baster, one drop at a time. This is a guy who already had more tragedy than a merciful god would have allowed and that was before his son, Beau, died earlier this year. Of course, the man broke down. The wonder is that he ever gets out of bed in the morning. What he should do is continue as best he can to be the finest vice-president of my lifetime. What he should not do in his current state of emotional turmoil is run for president.

Leave aside the inescapable fact of political gravity that, as soon as he announces, his numbers begin to slide. Leave aside that his record as a senator is not exactly a progressive’s dream, and the only way to campaign effectively against Hillary Rodham Clinton is to come at her from the left, as Bernie Sanders has shown, and as Jim Webb has demonstrated from the other direction through his functional invisibility. Leave aside the fact that he’s tried it twice already and been crushed both times, once by Michael Dukakis, which ought to give anyone pause. Leave aside the fact that the whole boomlet thing seems to be the product of staffers, in Washington and in Delaware, who still see him as their last main chance. Those people are vampires.

But leave all that aside. Joe Biden shouldn’t run for president because he shouldn’t do it to himself. He has earned a unique place in the country’s heart, which is a far warmer place for him as a human being than shivering in some cornfield outside Ottumwa in the cold winter winds. A presidential campaign is a soulless mechanism designed to grind the human spirit into easily digestible nuggets. Moments of profound personal pain and loss are as unavoidable as are concussions in the NFL. It was almost unbearable to watch him speak of his son’s death even to someone as profoundly compassionate as Colbert. I would hate to see him coin that grief into political currency, or fashion it into a portion of a stump speech that would become banal the second time it was delivered. I think, at some level, he would come to hate himself for having to do that.  It’s not that I wouldn’t vote for Joe Biden, though I probably wouldn’t. It’s that I don’t want to see him hurt any more.

Revival — Ben Brantley of The New York Times on bringing back familiar shows in new productions.

So you think you’ve seen it all before — and recently, too.

I was of your mind once. Time was when looking at the schedule of a new theater season in New York would bring on a blinding déjà vu headache that threatened to send me to bed. “Not that show again,” I would think. “Didn’t I just see it a couple of years ago? Is there truly nothing new under the neon of the Rialto?”

If I were still trapped in that unenlightened state, you’d find me grousing myself hoarse about the roster of productions awaiting me on and off Broadway during the next year. Here come two more editions of Arthur Miller classics, “A View From the Bridge” (the last one was only five years ago!) and “The Crucible” (seen 13 years ago); and another couple of starry versions of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (12 years ago) and Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (three and six years ago).

And what’s this? “Fiddler on the Roof” redux. (The last revival of this beloved shtetl musical closed in 2006). And “Noises Off” and “The Gin Game” and heck, even, “The Color Purple,” a musical that completed its initial two-and-a-half year Broadway run in 2008. This new century is still relatively young. Shouldn’t there be a moratorium on bringing back shows that have already had 21st-century outings until, say, 2020?

But having read a lot recently about how negativity is bad for your health, I am determined to put a happier face on this season of wall-to-wall recycling. My new code of behavior — and I hope you’ll subscribe to it, too — is all about how to stop worrying and love the revivals.

First of all, if you’re a theater geek like me, you’ve no doubt spent hours playing the imaginary casting game with like-minded friends. Sometimes this is an exercise in silliness. (“What if Kim and Kanye did ‘Private Lives’?” or, “How about Donald Trump as Sweeney Todd?”) On other occasions, the speculation is whimsical but not entirely beyond belief. (“Think of Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon as Beatrice and Benedick in ‘Much Ado About Nothing,’ ” or maybe, “Can’t you see Taylor Swift headlining ‘Sweet Charity’?”)

But such musings are rooted in the awareness that as familiar as some of them may be, good plays are endlessly mutable entities, which take on entirely new shapes according to who is appearing in, directing and designing them. And when I think about it honestly, I have to say I wouldn’t have missed any of the many, many Hamlets and Hedda Gablers and Vanyas and Prince Hals and Momma Roses and Sally Bowleses I’ve seen over the years.

That’s because if the play or musical is good enough, any production of it — even a misfire — is going to be illuminating in some way. Seeing the gap between miscast performers and their parts may be painful. But you can also read a lot about the playwright’s intentions, and your perception of the play, within that gap.

True enough, but it’s also important to give new plays — and playwrights — the chance to get their work done so they too can enjoy being revived five years later.

Doonesbury — Trendsetting.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Short Takes

Afghans say Taliban leader Mullah Omar died in 2013.

Remains of a plane washing ashore on Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean could be from the missing Malaysia jet.

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) indicted on corruption charges.

Cincinnati police officer indicted for murder in the shooting of an unarmed man.

Refugees are camped out in France trying to get to England by the chunnel.

Finally!  Justin Verlander gets his first win as the Tigers beat the Rays 2-1.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Short Takes

Russia: Putin says he’s adding to his nuclear missile stockpile.

The Senate voted to make torture illegal permanently.

T.A.A. vote postponed until next month.

Six killed when a balcony collapsed in Berkeley.

The F.B.I. says the St. Louis Cardinals hacked the Astros.

Tropical Update: TS Bill makes landfall in Texas.

The Tigers lost to the Reds 5-2.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Short Takes

U.S. airstrikes in Libya go after leader of Algerian attack.

Marriage equality comes to Mexico.

Comet lander wakes up after hibernation.

United Airlines passengers get an unscheduled stop in Canada for 20 hours.

Tropical Update: Invest 91L could head towards the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Tigers beat Cleveland 8-1.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday Reading

Not In Service — Gillian B. White in The Atlantic on how our public transportation system advances inequality.

Transportation is about more than just moving people from point A to point B. It’s also a system that can either limit or expand the opportunities available to people based on where they live. In many cities, the areas with the shoddiest access to public transit are the most impoverished—and the lack of investment leaves many Americans without easy access to jobs, goods, and services.

To be certain, the aging and inadequate transportation infrastructure is an issue for Americans up and down the economic ladder. Throughout the country highways are crumbling, bridges are in need of repair, and railways remain inadequate. Improvement to public transportation—buses, trains, and safer routes for bicycles—is something that just about everyone who lives in a major metropolitan area has on their wish list. But there’s a difference between preference and necessity: “Public transportation is desired by many but is even more important for lower-income people who can’t afford cars,” says Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard University and author of a new book Move: Putting America’s Infrastructure Back in the Lead.

“Without really good public transportation, it’s very difficult to deal with inequality,” Kanter said. Access to just about everything associated with upward mobility and economic progress—jobs, quality food, and goods (at reasonable prices), healthcare, and schooling— relies on the ability to get around in an efficient way, and for an affordable price. A recent study from Harvard found that geographic mobility was indeed linked to economic mobility, and a 2014 study from NYU found a link between poor public-transit access and higher rates of unemployment and decreased income in New York City.

Access to good transit is not merely a question of a system’s geographic reach but also the cost to ride—and the latter is becoming an issue more and more. In the past five years many metro areas including New York, Portland, and St. Louis have seen fare hikes that place additional strain on low-income households. Recent additions to public transportation options, like bike share, should—in theory—make getting around easier and cheaper. But as it’s widely been noted, these programs tend to place their kiosks, at least at first, in more affluent neighborhoods. They also require credit cards for rental, which leaves out poorer populations who tend to not have access to such financial instruments. A recent survey of bike share users in Washington D.C., for example, found that ridership wasn’t particularly reflective of the city’s population: The city has a population that is about 50 percent black but the study found that bike-share ridership was made of up of mostly young, white males, and more than 50 percent of those using the region’s bike share system had incomes of $100,000 or more.

That leaves most low-income households to rely on older transportation methods—and therein lies the problem…

Did George W. Bush Create ISIS? — Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker digs into the quagmire.

The exchange started like this: at the end of Jeb Bush’s town-hall meeting in Reno, Nevada, on Wednesday, a college student named Ivy Ziedrich stood up and said that she had heard Bush blame the growth of ISIS on President Obama, in particular on his decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 2011. The origins of ISIS, Ziedrich said, lay in the decision by Bush’s brother, in 2003, to disband the Iraqi Army following the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government.

“It was when thirty thousand individuals who were part of the Iraqi military were forced out—they had no employment, they had no income, and they were left with access to all of the same arms and weapons.… Your brother created ISIS,’’ she said.

“All right,” Bush said. “Is that a question?”

“You don’t need to be pedantic to me, sir,” she said.

“Pedantic? Wow,” Bush said.

Ziedrich finally came forth with her query: “Why are you saying that ISIS was created by us not having a presence in the Middle East when it’s pointless wars, where we send young American men to die for the idea of American exceptionalism? Why are you spouting nationalist rhetoric to get us involved in more wars?”

Jeb replied by repeating his earlier criticism of President Obama: that Iraq had been stable until American troops had departed. “When we left Iraq, security had been arranged,” Bush said. The removal of American troops had created a security vacuum that ISIS exploited. “The result was the opposite occurred. Immediately, that void was filled.”

“Your brother created ISIS” is the kind of sound bite that grabs our attention, because it’s obviously false yet oddly rings true. Bush didn’t like it: he offered a retort and then left the stage. Meanwhile, Ziedrich had started a conversation that rippled across Twitter, Facebook, and any number of American dinner tables. Who is actually right?

Here is what happened: In 2003, the U.S. military, on orders of President Bush, invaded Iraq, and nineteen days later threw out Saddam’s government. A few days after that, President Bush or someone in his Administration decreed the dissolution of the Iraqi Army. This decision didn’t throw “thirty thousand individuals” out of a job, as Ziedrich said—the number was closer to ten times that. Overnight, at least two hundred and fifty thousand Iraqi men—armed, angry, and with military training—were suddenly humiliated and out of work.

This was probably the single most catastrophic decision of the American venture in Iraq. In a stroke, the Administration helped enable the creation of the Iraqi insurgency. Bush Administration officials involved in the decision—like Paul Bremer and Walter Slocombe—argued that they were effectively ratifying the reality that the Iraqi Army had already disintegrated.

This was manifestly not true. I talked to American military commanders who told me that leaders of entire Iraqi divisions (a division has roughly ten thousand troops) had come to them for instructions and expressed a willingness to coöperate. In fact, many American commanders argued vehemently at the time that the Iraqi military should be kept intact—that disbanding it would turn too many angry young men against the United States. But the Bush White House went ahead.

Many of those suddenly unemployed Iraqi soldiers took up arms against the United States. We’ll never know for sure how many Iraqis would have stayed in the Iraqi Army—and stayed peaceful—had it remained intact. But the evidence is overwhelming that former Iraqi soldiers formed the foundation of the insurgency.

On this point, although she understated the numbers, Ziedrich was exactly right. But how did the dissolution of the Iraqi Army lead to the creation of ISIS?

During the course of the war, Al Qaeda in Iraq grew to be the most powerful wing of the insurgency, as well as the most violent and the most psychotic. They drove truck bombs into mosques and weddings and beheaded their prisoners. But, by the time the last American soldiers had departed, in 2011, the Islamic State of Iraq, as it was then calling itself, was in a state of near-total defeat. The combination of the Iraqi-led “awakening,” along with persistent American pressure, had decimated the group and pushed them into a handful of enclaves.

Indeed, by 2011 the situation in Iraq—as former Governor Bush said—was relatively stable. “Relatively” is the key word here. Iraq was still a violent place, but nowhere near as violent as it had been. The Iraqi government was being run by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a fervent Al Qaeda foe and ostensible American ally.

But, as the last Americans left Iraq, there came the great uprising in Syria that pitted the country’s vast Sunni majority against the ruthless regime of Bashar al-Assad. Syria quickly dissolved into anarchy. Desperate and seeing an opportunity, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, dispatched a handful of soldiers to Syria, where, in a matter of months, they had gathered an army of followers and had begun attacking the Assad regime. Suddenly, Baghdadi’s group—which had been staggering toward the grave only months before—was regaining strength. In 2013, the I.S.I. became the Islamic State of Iraq in Syria. ISIS was born…

The First Lawful Same-Sex Marriage in America — Erick Eckholm in The New York Times finds the couple that did it in 1971.

MINNEAPOLIS — Long before the fight over same-sex marriage began in earnest, long before gay couples began lining up for marriage licenses, Jack Baker and Michael McConnell decided to wed.

The year was 1967. Homosexuality was still classified as a disorder, sodomy was illegal in nearly every state, and most gay men and lesbians lived in fearful secrecy.

But from the age of 14, eyeing young men in his father’s barbershop, Mr. McConnell dreamed of living “happily ever after” with a partner.

So when Mr. Baker proposed moving in together, Mr. McConnell challenged him. “If we’re going to do this,” he replied, “you have to find a way for us to get married.”

Mr. Baker remembers his initial reaction: “I had never heard of such a thing.”

He enrolled in law school to try to make it happen.

In 1970, in Minneapolis, Mr. Baker and Mr. McConnell became the first same-sex couple known to apply for a marriage license. Turned down by Hennepin County, they fought to the United States Supreme Court, where they lost their case in a one-sentence dismissal that has reverberated in federal courts and played an indirect role in pushing same-sex marriage to the high court this year.

The couple, though, did not give up. With some sleight of hand involving a legal change to a gender-neutral name, they obtained a marriage license in another county, and in 1971, in white bell-bottom pantsuits and macramé headbands, they exchanged vows before a Methodist pastor and a dozen guests in a friend’s apartment. Their three-tiered wedding cake was topped by two plastic grooms, which a friend supplied by splitting two bride-and-groom figurines.

Ever since, they have maintained that theirs was the country’s first lawful same-sex wedding. The state and federal governments have yet to grant recognition, but the pastor, Roger W. Lynn, 76, calls theirs “one of my more successful marriages.”

“They are still happily married, and they love each other,” Mr. Lynn said.

The couple, now in their early 70s, spoke this month in a rare interview in the house they share here, nearly half a century after they joined their lives and earned a place in the history of gay rights, helping to make Minnesota an early center of gay activism.

Mr. Baker said he was proud that the Supreme Court this year heard the very same constitutional arguments of equal protection and due process that he had identified as a law student in 1970.

In 2013, when the Minnesota Legislature authorized same-sex marriage and a state senator announced, “Today, love wins,” Mr. McConnell watched, enthralled, from the gallery. But the couple did not join the rush for an undisputed license.

“No,” Mr. Baker said, pounding an oak table in their living room. “To reapply now becomes an admission that what we did was not legal, and I will never admit that.”

Doonesbury — Sign me up.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Short Takes

The Amtrak train that derailed in Philadelphia was traveling at twice the speed limit.

Fast track trade authority could be back on track.

Traces of banned chemical weapons found in Syria.

House votes to end N.S.A. bulk phone data gathering.

Vatican to recognize the state of Palestine.

The Tigers lost to the Twins 6-2.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Short Takes

Tories win close to a majority in the British election.

Drone kills al-Qaeda leader who claimed credit for Charlie Hebdo attack.

The U.S. is arming and paying moderate Syrian rebels.

Senate passes Iran nuclear deal review bill.

Another for-profit college hits the hard times.

The Tigers finally win one off the Chicago White Sox 4-1.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Short Takes

Nepal asks foreign rescuers to leave as hope fades for finding more earthquake survivors.

Second gunman identified in attack in Texas.

NYPD officer shot over the weekend died from his injuries.

Supreme Court refuses to hear challenge to New Jersey ban on “gay repair” therapy.

Americans like their drones.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Short Takes

Baltimore police turned over the results of their investigation into the death of Freddie Gray to the state’s attorney.

Bernie Sanders made it official.

Wow — A teenager was rescued from the earthquake ruins in Nepal.

The American Psychological Association collaborated with the Bush administration to bolster justification of torture.

What a surprise: Research has turned up more than 20 errors and distortions in the Clinton-bashing book.

The Tigers lost 8-1 in K.C.

Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Short Takes

Aftershocks hit Nepal after Saturday’s earthquake; death count at over 3,200.

Israel says it launched airstrike along Syrian border.

Two dead, five missing after storm hits Alabama regatta.

Hawaii passes bill to raise smoking age to 21.

R.I.P. William Price Fox, author of Southern novels.

The Tigers wrapped up a series against Cleveland, winning 8-4.