The midterm elections brought many changes to the Democratic Party, but a familiar name sits atop early polls for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination: Joe Biden. The senator from Delaware first caught my attention during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1992, when, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden condescended to Anita Hill as she testified about her experiences working for the Supreme Court nominee. I put that memory aside during the Obama years, but I now find it impossible to square the initial impression I formed of Biden with the idea of him as the Democratic presidential hope for 2020, especially after reading the March cover story by our Washington editor, Andrew Cockburn. There is so much that is appalling in Joe Biden’s legislative record. His past stances on crime and sentencing rivaled those of Richard Nixon, his position on reproductive rights has been inconsistent to say the least, and his comfort with racism—he gave the eulogy at Strom Thurmond’s funeral—goes beyond just calling Barack Obama “the first mainstream African-American [candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Biden’s efforts on behalf of the credit card companies that dominate his home state give lie to his reputation as a friend to the working class, and Uncle Joe has borrowed from both John and Robert Kennedy in his speeches—move over, Melania. All I can say is: Uncle No! Yet, as I write, Biden leads in the polls, and he hasn’t even declared his candidacy yet.
It’s not just American white men who feel aggrieved. Their brethren in South Africa, fearful of losing their long-held status as a privileged minority, are in the midst of a global rebranding campaign; they now would like to be known as a persecuted minority, victims of nothing less than white genocide. They call their government’s attempts to rectify the economic legacy of apartheid with land reform a race war. Naturally Donald Trump took the bait, tweeting last summer about “farm seizures and large scale killing of farmers,” and right-wing extremists in the United States, Alex Jones and Ann Coulter prominent among them, have been more than happy to help with the messaging. But on a recent trip to South Africa, James Pogue, who met with white farmers and black land-reform advocates as with well as white separatists, found that reports of white genocide are a gross exaggeration. A quarter-century after the end of apartheid most land in South Africa still is owned by whites, who make up less than 10 percent of the country’s population, while blacks, who are in the majority, own just 4 percent. Fewer white farmers are murdered than black security guards and Uber drivers. None of these actual statistics have stopped the Suidlanders, a South African paramilitary group, from arming themselves and creating whites-only communities. Pogue also describes how one of their leaders, Simon Roche, went on a “Kerouac-meets-the-Klan” road trip through America that included a stop at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Lynn Freed grew up white in South Africa under apartheid with servants who referred to their employers as “Master” and “Madam.” Returning to the new South Africa in the mid-Nineties to visit her father, who is dying of lung cancer, she finds, as Pogue did years later, a country reluctant to change. Freed writes, “De facto integration had been in place for some time, at least in public places. But in most other ways life seemed to be going on as it always had.” The servants of the house (now called “domestic workers”) cling to the old ways. “They had jobs in a country falling into chaos, and were counting on the Master and Madam to stay alive long enough to see them through.”
In “Catechism of the Waters,” longtime Harper’s Magazine contributor Sallie Tisdale writes about her experience with the adorable sea lions that live and play in the Columbia River and are a favorite of tourists, though they are having a devastating effect on the river’s stock of salmon, to which local tribes have fishing rights. In this month’s Easy Chair, Kevin Baker visits the touring exhibition, Enduring Ideals: Rockwell, Roosevelt, & the Four Freedoms, and is struck by the failure of today’s left to articulate, be it in art or literature, an uplifting view of the future, as Norman Rockwell once did so inspiringly. In “Run Me to Earth,” Paul Yoon provides a gripping fictional account of two political prisoners who, in 1977 Laos, emerge from the reeducation camp where they’ve spent the past seven years. Trained to become farmers, they leave with bus tickets for the countryside, but they have other plans: to track down a sadistic interrogator and exact revenge. Also in this issue, Ferris Jabr explores the origins and art of storytelling. The Readings section includes a eulogy for Philip Roth, an account by the woman who fixed Dick Cheney’s cable, Jorge Luis Borges’s long-winded praise for short words, and a relative generalist’s refutation of general relativity.