New Yorkers live to complain. Get them going on the subject of their city and you’ll hear about how much better it used to be from residents as young as twelve and as old as ninety-two. Provide a writer with the eloquence of Kevin Baker the space to air his thoughts on the matter and you end up with the lyrical lament that is Harper’s July cover story. In “The Death of a Once Great City,” Baker identifies a disease plaguing those American towns where wealth has quashed diversity; he calls it “the urban crisis of affluence.” Efforts to make New York City a better place to live have rendered the town shiny and boring. “We have signed on to political scams and mindless development schemes that are so exclusive they are more destructive than all they were supposed to improve,” Baker writes. “The neighborhoods themselves look much improved; it’s just the people that were lost.” What’s happening in New York is indicative of a national problem. “We now live in an America where we believe that we no longer have any ability to control the system we live under.”
Imani Perry, a professor of African-American Studies at Princeton, returns to her home state of Alabama and experiences another kind of domestic longing, one that is less despairing than Baker’s. “As the South goes, so goes the nation,” the saying goes, but Perry finds that for every Roy Moore there is a Doug Jones or a Randall Woodfin, the progressive mayor of Birmingham. She looks to the works of Gordon Parks and Zora Neale Hurston and their vision of black life in the state. “The echoing horror of slavery cuts both ways,” Perry writes. “The South is disaster and it is also miracle.”
For years, Australia shipped refugees and asylum seekers who arrived on its shores to a detention center where the conditions amounted to imprisonment and abuse. Late last year, the facility, on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, was abruptly closed, but the 400-some men living there refused to leave. Michael Green was one of only a few journalists to follow the ensuing standoff with the Australian government, the violent removal of the men, and their current trajectories. In “No Exit,” he depicts an unlikely brotherhood created in the face of hopelessness.
Rebecca Solnit explores the ways in which current political labels no longer line up with political realities. The terms “left” and “right” originated during the French Revolution, so why are we still using them to define where we stand? Since the election of 2016, countless debates have exposed the splintering among both Democrats and Republicans. Solnit calls for new descriptive language as a way to reconcile those disagreements.
In this month’s Annotation, Jeff Sharlet explores America’s authoritarian inclinations as expressed in the Thin Blue Line flag, the banner of the Blue Lives Matter movement. A violent, compelling short story by Jess Walter is set in mid-nineteenth-century Washington State, as two thieves are chased down the Spokane River by the men they have robbed. The narrator, who uses an antiquated vernacular, is one of the culprits, a seventeen-year-old who finds a mysterious and poignant bond emerging between himself and one of his pursuers.
Elsewhere in the issue: the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is Michael Cohen; the United States’ shoddy record on human rights; and fun with Google algorithms. Lidija Haas reviews Christian Kracht’s latest novel, Nat Segnit critiques critic James Wood’s return to fiction, and Joanna Biggs considers Deborah Levy’s foremothers and heiresses.