Inside the October Issue
A forum on the constitution; Andrew Cockburn on progressive prosecutors; Adam Wilson interrogates the Golden Age of TV; Linda Stasi on sexual abuse in the world of Orthodox Judaism
At Harper’s Magazine we’re not big on theme issues, but every now and then one rhymes. This October, the majority of pieces are concerned with confinement—in prisons real or imagined, at the hands of those who hurt us and the institutions that protect them, by the failure of the criminal-justice system, by national identity, and above all, by the United States Constitution. For this month’s cover, we asked five lawmakers and scholars whether the nation’s founding document is capable of addressing the thorniest issues of modern political life. Does the path out of our current era of stalemate, minority rule, and executive abuse require amending the Constitution? Do we need a new constitutional convention to rewrite the document and update it for the twenty-first century? Should we abolish it entirely? Legal scholar Rosa Brooks, who serves on the board of the Harper’s Magazine Foundation, leads the conversation.
In recent years, the Catholic Church’s long history of protecting predatory priests has gone from shocking to sadly familiar; meanwhile a similar and more deftly concealed sexual scandal has been unfolding in New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities. Like their Christian counterparts, rabbis long suspected of abusing youths have gotten away with their alleged crimes, aided in no small part by institutions that are more concerned with their reputation and finances than the children entrusted to them. That may change with the recent passage of the Child Victims Act, which has extended New York’s statute of limitations in such cases. Linda Stasi, a reporter and columnist for the New York Daily News, gets inside an insular sect that allowed suspected pedophiles to evade legal action—and even maintain authoritative positions in schools—and recounts the experiences of long-silenced accusers.
There is no writer more capable of showing the humanity of a prison population that increases every year than Kenneth E. Hartman, whose first essay for Harper’s was written and published while he was still serving a life sentence begun at age nineteen. Hartman lived in “the house of many doors” for thirty-eight years before his sentence was commuted by former California governor Jerry Brown in 2017. In this, his third piece in the magazine, Hartman speaks to others who were freed after being incarcerated for decades to learn how they have adapted to a “society that is so different from the one from which they were removed as to be like another planet.” Their stories illustrate the many failings of a criminal-justice system that makes no attempt to help former inmates adjust to life outside.
Is there hope for meaningful judicial reform in this country? Andrew Cockburn thinks there is. In “Power of Attorney,” he meets several recently elected district attorneys with progressive agendas who promise to redress racial bias, reduce the prison population, eliminate cash bail, and ensure police accountability. Prosecutors wield massive amounts of power in the U.S. legal system, Cockburn explains, effectively deciding “who to punish, and how severely.” The progressive new guard faces an established order (often within their own offices) that is resistant to change, but as one tells Cockburn, “Nobody is giving up.”
Where do we go to escape? To television, of course, where we may enjoy the abundant offerings of a Golden Age. Prestige dramas galore! A treasure trove of innovative comedies! All met upon their release by drooling critics or, at the very least, bestowed with the same reverent consideration the latest Toni Morrison novel once received, in the very publications that review serious literature. It’s so easy to convince ourselves that an evening devoted to a Netflix series is as well spent as one occupied with Beloved (the book, not the movie). Don’t be so sure, writes Adam Wilson, who argues that this isn’t a Golden Age of TV, it’s Peak TV, with quantity for sure, but not much quality, let alone art.
This month’s short story, “Carlitos in Charge” by Alejandro Varela, is a comedic take on how decisions are made at the United Nations. In Readings, Amazon reviewers taste the latest vintage of Pinot Meow, a non-alcoholic beet-based drink for cats.