We have been here before. Are there five words as comforting these days when the most fundamental aspects of our lives seem so out of balance? A shifting economy caused by rapid innovation, man-made environmental threats, terrifying weather patterns, cheap credit, rural poverty, heartland populism, fears of socialism, and a politician from New York, newly arrived in D.C., with an ambitious domestic agenda—I’m referring to 1933, not 2019, though, as Kevin Baker points out in May’s cover story, the laundry list of national woes that led to the Great Depression bears a striking resemblance to the crises we face today. In “Where Our New World Begins,” Baker presents a compelling case for the Green New Deal by laying out the history, vision, hurdles, and ultimate success of its twentieth-century precursor. “Like every other human endeavor, the New Deal did not work perfectly,” Baker writes, in an essay that is as clear-eyed as it is passionate. “The men and women who put it into motion made mistakes, and they were not always able to overcome the opposition. They were forced to compromise and improvise and rethink what they were doing. But they made it work. They controlled a seemingly uncontrollable crisis—a series of existential threats, really, in the United States and the wider world—and in so doing they expanded human liberty at a time when so many others were trying to do away with it.” Let’s hope that history repeats itself all the way to the solution.
What else isn’t new? Trump’s stupidity. Yet we feel obliged to stay abreast of his every preposterous deed and utterance. Harper’s Magazine Executive Editor Christopher Beha calls it “our collective political monomania,” a pathology whose incubation period started before Trump and won’t subside after he’s gone, no matter how much MSNBC you watch. In this month’s Easy Chair, Beha urges us to redirect our attention to worthier things. “Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art.” If that sounds too ephemeral—if you’re convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that hyper-attention to politics is what will keep our democracy intact—Beha fortifies his argument with a political case for disengagement and a definition of resistance whose wisdom is unimpeachable.
Over the past few years Joe Kloc, another member of Harper’s editorial staff, spent time following a group of people living on abandoned boats off the shore of Sausalito, California, one of America’s wealthiest cities. Would it be a kind of paradise or hell? A little of both, Kloc finds, as he gets to know the “anchor-outs,” as they call themselves. Writing in our pages for the first time, Kloc, an associate editor, weaves their stories into an affectionate portrait of life on the water that explores the personal impulses and economic hardships that first led the anchor-outs offshore, and considers the often-serious costs to pursuing a life that would seem to promise total freedom.
In 2012, Raúl Mijango, a former leftist guerrilla commander, negotiated a secret truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, whose decades-long war had driven the country’s annual murder rate to rank among the world’s highest. Mijango’s truce cut the murder rate by more than half, the most dramatic reduction of gang violence El Salvador had ever experienced. But now, seven years later, the truce is null and void, and Mijango is in prison. Is Mijango, as many Salvadorans believe, a public enemy who helped strengthen gangs, attempting to enrich himself in the process, or is he a hero who saved thousands of lives at great personal risk? Daniel Castro speaks to the controversial figure, who compares himself to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to try to get to the truth of a story that is central to understanding the United States’ responsibility for the current migration crisis and that might hold the key to solving the root problem of gang violence in the region today.
Also in the issue: a vandalized painting and the legacy of Ivan the Terrible, Nathaniel Rich on how climate change created modern civilization, and fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.