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The Secret Of The Temple

Nobody knew for certain what was hidden beneath the ancient Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Trivandrum, India. But a lawyer named Ananda Padmanabhan had a hunch. According to legend, treasure was sealed in the temple vaults. Padmanabhan believed that these riches were still hidden in the basement, uncounted and unguarded. Like many observant Hindus, Padmanabhan believes that a temple’s deity—in this case, the supreme god Vishnu—resides within the temple’s walls. Deities can actually own property in India, though the law treats them as minors and they must be represented by an official guardian. At the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, the Maharaja of Travancore has this role. For centuries, the royal family’s management of the temple received little scrutiny. Nobody challenged the arrangement until 2007, when

Anthony Shadid’s Passion

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It’s hard to accept that there won’t be any more Anthony Shadid bylines in my morning paper. He’d been doing it so well for so long that I’d begun to take for granted his readiness to get the story of the Arab world, however hard the place—Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya, Syria—and bring it to us with his characteristic thoughtfulness and grace. What’s happening in the Iraqi south now that the Sadr militia has joined the political process? Anthony knows that terrain better than any foreigner. Is Tripoli about to fall? Shadid will get inside as soon as he can. Is Cairo having another revolution? He’s there and knows how to explain why it’s happening. If anyone can get into Homs, it’ll be Anthony. He combined professional excellence with quiet indefatigability, so that you only noticed it when he wasn’t on the scene. He was the Cal Ripken of foreign correspondents.

By the time I got to Iraq in the summer of 2003, Shadid knew so much about the state of Iraqis under American occupation that it was impossible to imagine anyone in the tribe of foreign reporters ever quite catching up. I met him in early 2004 at a poker game in the Washington Post bureau (it consisted of a few disorderly rooms at the decrepit and frequently targeted Sheraton Hotel). He was a little too gentle and transparent to be as good a poker player as he was a reporter. He wore the depth of his knowledge so lightly, and was so open with any newcomer who wanted to tap into it. I remember Anthony complaining about being taken for a spy by Sadrists in Najaf, a hazard of speaking fluent Arabic and passing in a crowd. It was a liability few other foreigners could hope to have. He kept returning to the subject of the Mahdi Army: he expressed a lot of empathy for the poor young Shiites who were flocking to its banner, even as he worried about their capacity for violence and extremism. (Not long after that night, the Sadrists staged an insurrection across the country that radically changed the course of the war.) Most of all, he knew that Iraq’s future belonged to those young Iraqis, not to the nominally pro-Western politicians with whom less deeply immersed journalists spent their time.

Goodbye to a Kind of War

obama-packer At the core of President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy there’s always been a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between means and ends. The goal has always been to destroy Al Qaeda, but the path to Al Qaeda led through the Afghan state and people. Because of the dense interconnections between militant groups in the Hindu Kush, and because Afghanistan once served as host to a much healthier and more dangerous Al Qaeda, Obama concluded that the global jihadists couldn’t be fought in isolation, with drones and Special Forces. We had to go after the Taliban as well, for the Taliban threatened the very existence of the regime in Kabul. So to fight terrorism we had to fight insurgents: counterinsurgency was the means, counterterrorism the end. That’s why the surge troops went to Kandahar and Helmand, not the Afghan-Pakistan border, and into population centers rather than remote areas. That’s why agriculture and legal experts were recruited and sent out into rural Afghan provinces. That’s why an entirely new office was created, under the late Richard Holbrooke, to coordinate all the civilian efforts in Afghanistan. That’s why an anti-corruption office was established in Kabul. No one in Washington wanted to use the phrase “nation-building,” but that’s what we were doing—or trying to do, and, honestly, without much success. …

Egypt and the Velvet Revolutions

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The British historian Timothy Garton Ash, who’s seen a few popular uprisings over the past quarter century, writes this in an essay called “Velvet Revolution in Past and Future,” from his recent collection “Facts Are Subversive”:

One might suggest that the best chances are to be found in semiauthoritarian states that depend to a significant degree, politically, economically and, so to speak, psychologically, on more democratic ones—and most especially when the foreign states with the most passive influence or active leverage on them are Western democracies.

When the people rise up, there’s no guarantee they’ll succeed. Just ask a Burmese or an Iranian. Egypt’s revolution has a number of counts against it, the main one being the hollow core where Egyptian civil society ought to be—the absence of institutions, groups, and leaders that could shape this massive expression of popular will into an organized counterforce to the regime’s violence, with the means to reach deep into the military hierarchy and a strategy for victory. Instead, Mubarak systematically closed off that space, so that he could say to the world: me or the Islamists, choose. In Burma in 2007, there was a similar void of opposition leadership, other than the moral power of the monks. Young Burmese later told me that they considered their headless revolution more flexible and durable than the older kind—one student called it “post-modern”—but the regime crushed it without much trouble, and hundreds of young Burmese are now rotting away in far-flung prisons.

Snow Story

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The trouble began Sunday night. Just as the storm was blowing at its wildest, I trudged out to buy milk and found two women trying to maneuver a helpless old-model compact off our Brooklyn street, two-thirds of the way down the block. Stuck at an angle near a buried fire hydrant, they were pushing and spinning and getting nowhere, with the smell of burning rubber noxiously sharp in the cold air. “Do you need some help?” No one ever answers right away, “Yes, thank you.” They’re too caught in the immediate distraction of their trap, too angry or embarrassed or wary. The women, black and in their thirties, considered the offer of a stranger emerging out of the blizzard. I explained that we could move the car fifty or sixty feet up the street, following the tracks of another car that was stuck farther up. “And how is that going to be helpful?” one of them demanded. My idea was to guide the car into a row of free parking spaces ahead of mine, but she was right: the tracks were disappearing in the snow even as we stood talking, and though we got the car out of its rut, we couldn’t advance more than five feet.

By then, an emergency vehicle had appeared behind the car. I went over to talk to the driver. “Get the car off the road any way you can,” he said tersely. “Back up, go forward, back up, go forward.” That was all the help he was offering, and I relayed it to the two women. I wondered what had possessed them to drive out into the storm in a car that could disappear in a mid-sized New York pothole. With one of them at the wheel, me and the other pushing, the car backed up and went forward a few times, and sure enough, it gained some maneuverability. Suddenly the hydrant seemed to offer a perfectly good parking place, which had been their idea in the first place—I needed fifteen minutes to get rid of my city-dwelling scruples and reach their level of survival pragmatism. And somehow, shoving the side of the car from nose and then tail, while the driver turned hard to the right and left, we managed to move it sideways toward the curb. They ended up at an oblique angle at least five feet into the street. “I’d say that’s a hundred!” one of them exclaimed. We exchanged handshakes and names, and I almost didn’t mind that the store was shuttered and there would be no milk in the morning.

James Surowiecki: Caveat Mortgagor

In 1937, the Massengill Company began selling a health product called Elixir Sulfanilamide, which contained one of the antibiotic sulfa drugs. Unfortunately, it also contained diethylene glycol, a solvent that happens to be deadly to humans. In a matter of months, the elixir killed more than a hundred consumers. The . . .

 

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