Inside the December 2018 Issue
Janine di Giovanni describes the plight of Christians in the middle east; Mychal Denzel Smith on the burden of the black public intellectual; Kathy Dobie goes inside New York City's task force on bias crimes; Nora Caplan-Bricker considers an ethical archive of the web
For the past two millennia, Christians in the Middle East have lived through periods of quiet tolerance interrupted by bursts of brutal persecution. In Harper’s Magazine’s December cover story, the award-winning war correspondent Janine di Giovanni reports on the widespread crisis this minority population now faces. The Christian community in Iraq, one of the oldest in the world, has endured invasions by Persians, Kurds, and Turks, but, as di Giovanni explains, they may never recover from the 2003 US invasion and the devastating events it set in motion. The consequent unraveling of Iraq led to not only the rise of the Islamic State but also to a ruined economy that is driving Christians to the West in droves. Di Giovanni, who lived, worked, and worshipped alongside Iraq’s Christians throughout Saddam Hussein’s regime (altogether better days for them, as unlikely as that sounds), checks in on her former neighbors to experience, perhaps for the last time, an ancient culture that may soon cease to exist.
“As a writer, I have spent more time asking white people to see me as human than I have thinking about the world I would like to live in,” writes Mychal Denzel Smith, referring to a dilemma specific to black voices in the white-dominated media. Black public intellectuals have flourished since the Obama Administration, with such representatives as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay popping up in magazines and on TV screens in unprecedented numbers, but, as Smith explains, appealing to the “general”—that is, white—audience is inherently limiting. “The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance,” he writes. “White people desire a representative of the community who can provide them with a crash course.” Smith counts himself among those who have been more than willing to take on that task in order to establish his career and does not miss the irony of this essay appearing in Harper’s, “which has a white editor, a nearly all-white masthead, and a largely white subscriber base.” The work of James Baldwin, much of which appeared in these pages, has been enjoying a revival alongside the rise of this latest generation of black intellectuals. But Smith wonders how much more Baldwin might have contributed had he not been speaking primarily to whites. “What questions might he have raised? Would he have focused solely on warnings, or might he have conjured strategies of resistance?” Smith writes. “Freed from the need to talk to white people, what might Baldwin have prophesied?”
Kathy Dobie follows Michael Osgood, former deputy chief of New York City’s Hate Crimes Task Force, a law enforcement officer whose investigative skills are matched only by the palpable empathy he shows for the victims of these difficult cases. Hate crimes are one of several classes of crime in which motive must be proven, and the fact that the perpetrator and victim are often strangers makes these cases particularly hard to crack. Osgood’s team has solved every hate crime homicide and gang assault reported in New York City over the past sixteen years—an extraordinary record. (By comparison, the national solve rate for homicides is 62 percent.) Dobie follows Osgood for several months and shares insights into recent investigations, including the 2008 murder of José Sucuzhañay, one of the longest and most grueling in the unit’s history. “What makes the task force unique is the fact that it’s never about going to put cuffs on people right away,” Sergeant Patrick Rodrigo tells her. “Your job is always to be a fact finder. We work just as hard to try to find out innocence as we do guilt.”
The last time he appeared in these pages Kenneth E. Hartman offered a deeply human portrait of Christmas in prison, where he served a sentence lasting thirty-seven years. California governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence last year, and Hartman returns with an unflinching, yet profoundly compassionate account of his parents’ childhood traumas their miserable marriage, and the suffering he endured at their hands, pain that reverberates with him still. “My acute fear of abandonment manifested over and over again as my life progressed,” he writes. “This fear is my first memory, and it has never completely left me. It follows me around like the proverbial elephantine presence, occasionally breaking the furniture of my life.”
Let’s get back to happier memories—the ones we post on social media. (It’s the holidays after all.) What will become of them when Facebook inevitably folds? What of the historical record of President Trump’s Twitter rants? Nora Caplan-Bricker explores the problem of archiving the web, which, along with countless photos of avocado toast and Trumpian gibberish, contains a useful record of recent history that is well worth saving. As an example of this valuable history, Caplan-Bricker cites the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement that intensified in its aftermath.