Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Reading

The Man in Charge in Afghanistan — A profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal stepped off the whirring Black Hawk and headed straight into town. He had come to Garmsir, a dusty outpost along the Helmand River in southern Afghanistan, to size up the war that President Obama has asked him to save. McChrystal pulled off his flak jacket and helmet. His face, skeletal and austere, seemed a piece of the desert itself.

He was surrounded by a clutch of bodyguards, normal for a four-star general, and an array of the Marine officers charged with overseeing the town. Garmsir had been under Taliban control until May 2008, when a force of American Marines swept in and cleared it. Since then, the British, then the Americans, have been holding it and trying, ever so slowly, to build something in Garmsir — a government, an army, a police force — for the first time since the war began more than eight years ago.

The Marines around McChrystal, including the local battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christian Cabaniss, looked surprised, even alarmed, when McChrystal removed his protective gear. But as the group walked the rutted streets into Garmsir’s bazaar, they began taking off their helmets, too.

“Who owns the land here?” McChrystal asked, peering up the street and into the shops. “Is it owned by the farmers or by landlords?”

It was the sort of question a sociologist, or an economist, would ask. No one offered an answer.

“If you owned 200 acres here, would you live on it, or would you live somewhere else?” McChrystal asked.

The entourage entered the bazaar. The Afghans sensed that an important American had arrived, and they began to gather in groups inside the stalls. Then the general stopped and turned.

“What do you need here?” McChrystal asked.

A translator turned the general’s words into Pashto.

“We need schools!” one Afghan called back. “Schools!”

“We’re working on that,” McChrystal said. “Those things take time.”

McChrystal walked some more, engaging another group of Afghans. He posed the same question.

“Security,” a man said. “We need security. Security first, then the other things will be possible.”

“That is what we are trying to do,” McChrystal said. “But it’s going to take time. Success takes time.”

The questions kept coming, and the answer was the same. After a couple of hours, McChrystal put on his helmet and flak jacket, boarded the Black Hawk and flew to another town.

Continued below the fold.

Lord, Have Mercy — Leonard Pitts, Jr. on the “conservative” bible.

This new Bible is from Conservapedia, a website that bills itself as a conservative alternative to the perceived liberal bias of Wikipedia, the user-edited online reference.

You may judge Conservapedia’s own bias by reading its definition of liberal: ”someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing.”

For the record, Wikipedia defines conservative as a word referring ”to various political and social philosophies that support tradition and the status quo, or that call for a return to the values and society of an earlier age….”

Now, having protected unwary Americans from — ahem — Wikipedia’s bias, Conservapedia founder Andrew Schlafly (son of Phyllis) tackles perceived bias in the Good Book. He proposes to correct the Bible by creating a new translation based upon 10 principles, including: concision (as opposed to ”liberal wordiness”); an emphasis on ”free market parables” and the exclusion of ”liberal passages” he says were inserted into the original text. One such would be the well-known story of the adulterous woman brought before Christ by a crowd eager to see her punished; Jesus says the one without sin should cast the first stone.

As Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman demonstrates in his book, Misquoting Jesus, that passage and others were indeed inserted into the Gospels — by copyists whose transcriptions were once the primary means by which Bibles and other books were disseminated. We’re talking about the era before the printing press, i.e., pre-15th century, so apparently, ”liberals” have been at this a long time.


But here’s the thing: When no authority can be regarded as unimpeachable by both right and left, when no fact can be universally accepted as such, when anything you prefer not to believe is automatically dismissed as a product of ”bias,” you impoverish intellect and render informed debate impossible.

You may think Dwyane Wade is the best there is, and I may prefer Kobe Bryant, but if we can’t agree they both play a game called basketball, if you say it’s basketball but my conservative dictionary tells me it’s actually checkers, then we can’t even have the debate; our assumptions are too fundamentally incompatible. We live in different realities.

As in the recent spectacle of Americans shouting past each other like Martians and Venusians arguing in Farsi.

Conservapedia’s effort to remake Jesus of Nazareth in the image of Dick Cheney suggests a future filled with more of the same. A conservative Bible?

Lord, have mercy.

Broadway Bound via Brighton Beach — Noah Robbins gets a big break.

For Noah Robbins, the shift in the universe happened on the escalator at the Tenleytown Metro station. He and his mom were on their way to Georgetown Day School for a rehearsal of “The Producers,” in which he was playing a lead role.

As the stairs rose, his mother saw she had a cellphone message. When she returned the call moments later, the news took their breath away: Noah was going to Broadway.

And not just going, like on a charter bus to “Phantom.” About a month shy of graduating from high school, the slight, talented kid from Potomac was being offered the lead in a Broadway play. The sort of thing that only happens to actors who’ve toiled for years and years, to movie stars seeking a new career challenge or to Ruby Keeler in “42nd Street.”

Just like that, Robbins left the cozy support network of school theatricals for the cutthroat hubbub of the commercial stage. The part itself — that of Eugene Jerome, teenage narrator of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” — was storied, featured in the first major revival of Neil Simon’s autobiographical family comedy since its 1983 debut. That production, which ran for years, happened to do quite a bit of good for the actor who originated the part, Matthew Broderick.

“At that moment, it felt like, ‘How did this happen?’ ” says Robbins, who just turned 19 but could pass for 15 — the age of the character he plays. He’s sitting in the living room of the Upper West Side apartment his parents, Larry and Leslie, have rented for what they hope will be an extended run of Noah’s excellent Broadway adventure. The play, now in preview performances, officially opens Oct. 25. That’s when the New York critics will weigh in, helping decide whether the revival thrives or heads to an early grave.

It’s still hard for Robbins to take in the magnitude of this opportunity. He’s a star-struck young man receiving his baptism in the theater world’s biggest pond. One day during rehearsals in a Times Square building filled with Broadway shows-in-progress, he got into an elevator and found himself face to face with one of his idols, Nathan Lane, who is starring in a musical version of “The Addams Family” later this season.

It was a little too much for Robbins, whose knees all but buckled. “I get in the elevator, I’m sweating,” he recalls. “And I press the wrong floor because I’m so nervous.”

Don’t worry, kid… that happens to everyone who gets the big break.

Doonesbury — Time for a re-boot.