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.