Editor's Note — January 16, 2015, 11:20 am

Introducing the February Issue

Christopher Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the BLM, Michael Ames examines the economics of incarceration, Annie Murphy reflects on Bolivia’s lost coast, and more

“Good fences make good neighbors.” It’s an oft-quoted line from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” and one that’s often misinterpreted — Frost means to question the concept, not endorse it. But by the end of Christopher Ketcham’s February cover story, “The Great Republican Land Heist,” I found myself wondering if some sturdy fences might be useful after all. Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the Bureau of Land Management over the estimated $1.1 million in unpaid fees and fines he’s accrued for grazing his cattle on public property in Nevada. After spending time with Bundy — and his cadre of armed followers — Ketcham begins to wonder about the future of federally managed land. The goal of people like Bundy, Ketcham concludes, is “to attack the value of public lands, to reduce their worth in the public eye, to diminish and defund the institutions that protect the land, and to neuter enforcement.” As Ketcham explains, “What ranchers have always wanted, and what extractive industries in general want, is private exploitation with costs paid by the public.” It seems possible that they will succeed in achieving this goal — especially given the results of last year’s midterm elections. The consequences for the environment could be dire: “Grazing,” Ketcham writes, “is the chief cause of desertification in North America, and it has irrevocably altered the surviving ecosystems not yet reduced to dust.”

Climate change is on Rebecca Solnit’s mind in this month’s Easy Chair column, in which she contemplates the destruction visited on the planet by World War II. “From one perspective,” she acknowledges, in 1945 “what we call the world had never been more devastated. From another, however, the world was in magnificent, Edenic shape. No great garbage patch swirled around the Pacific, and albatrosses, sea turtles, and dolphins in remote reaches were not strangling on plastic they mistook for edible matter.” Her list goes on. Sooner or later, she reminds us, we will have to leave the Age of Petroleum behind. If we wait until nature forces our hand, we will have to make the transition “on a planet whose wreckage will be far deeper and wider than anything World War II produced.”

Michael Ames’s report on the privatization of prisons reaches a grim conclusion about the possibility of reform. The barbed-wire fences that surround the incarcerated may not make for good neighbors, but they do make for good business. Ames writes that private prisons are the “standard-bearers of innovation” in the corrections industry. “Their business model,” he explains, “is a simple exchange of money for services: the company owns or operates a secure building, and state or federal agencies pay out a per diem for each man, woman, and adolescent it incarcerates. The more prisoners held, and the longer they stay, the more money the company earns.” And the more money the company earns, the more it can contribute to the political campaigns of legislators who might, under other circumstances, be ideologically opposed to the troubling size, condition, and demographic makeup of the American prison population.

In her Letter from La Paz, Annie Murphy finds a country still mourning its Pacific coast, which was lost over a century ago in Bolivia’s war with Chile. Perhaps it’s no wonder: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America; Chile, whose per capita GDP is more than five times larger, is the richest. But, Murphy writes, “if Bolivia’s ambition to regain its coastline has been a source of pain, it has also allowed the country to imagine … the possibility of something beautiful and mysterious that is always just beyond reach.” Murphy talks to three soldiers who, in 2013, were arrested when they crossed the border into Chile while trailing smugglers. During their imprisonment, they glimpsed the water that used to be Bolivia’s. “All three,” she reports, “said they would only consider returning to the sea if it were Bolivia’s sea. As long as the ocean belonged to Chile, they would never go near it again.”

Our February Readings includes an excerpt from Wendell Berry’s new book, an argument against atomization, which reduces the body to “an assembly of parts provisionally joined, a ‘basket case’ sure enough”; selections from accounts of threats made against employees of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management since 2010 (“He refers,” one account reads, “to a female U.S.F.S. employee hundreds of times as ‘Little Smoky Bear Girl.’ He repeatedly accuses the district supervisor of placing ‘Little Smokey Bear Girl’ to entice him with her ‘sex’ for the purposes of murdering him”); and a list of reasons given for missing work, collected by CareerBuilder (“needed to stay home to tend to depressed cat”).

Also in this issue: Terry Castle’s sensitive, sharp, and sympathetic examination of the work of photographer Vivian Maier, in whose self-portraits Castle sees a self-confidence that is “aggressive — almost regal”; an investigation into the modern art of the book review by our own Christopher Beha; new fiction by Alejandro Zambra, which was translated by Megan McDowell; a sketch of the ties that bound Lynn Freed, first as a child, then as an adult, to a servant in her parents’ home in Apartheid-era South Africa; and a photo essay by Samuel James, featuring a wolf-hybrid sanctuary where many of the caretakers are U.S. combat veterans.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note September 12, 2019, 12:33 pm

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

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Inside the September Issue

Rich Cohen visits the N.F.L. combine; Rachel Poser investigates Zionist archeology; Sean Williams on the Black Axe; an acid-fueled memoir by Chris Rush

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Inside the August Issue

Ted Conover among the homesteaders of Colorado’s San Luis Valley; Christopher Ketcham on the Gilets Jaunes; Marc de Miramon on former Rwandan President Paul Kagame; Jacob Mikanowski on Hungary’s far right

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October 2019


Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

Good Bad Bad Good·

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About fifteen years ago, my roommate and I developed a classification system for TV and movies. Each title was slotted into one of four categories: Good-Good; Bad-Good; Good-Bad; Bad-Bad. The first qualifier was qualitative, while the second represented a high-low binary, the title’s aspiration toward capital-A Art or lack thereof.

Some taxonomies were inarguable. The O.C., a Fox series about California rich kids and their beautiful swimming pools, was delightfully Good-Bad. Paul Haggis’s heavy-handed morality play, Crash, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, was gallingly Bad-Good. The films of Francois Truffaut, Good-Good; the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men, Bad-Bad.

Poem for Harm·

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Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

Constitution in Crisis·

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America’s Constitution was once celebrated as a radical and successful blueprint for democratic governance, a model for fledgling republics across the world. But decades of political gridlock, electoral corruption, and dysfunction in our system of government have forced scholars, activists, and citizens to question the document’s ability to address 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?

This spring, Harper’s Magazine invited five lawmakers and scholars to New York University’s law school to consider the constitutional crisis of the twenty-­first century. The event was moderated by Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown and the author of How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything: Tales from the Pentagon.

Life after Life·

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For time ylost, this know ye,
By no way may recovered be.

I spent thirty-eight years in prison and have been a free man for just under two. After killing a man named Thomas Allen Fellowes in a drunken, drugged-up fistfight in 1980, when I was nineteen years old, I was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Former California governor Jerry Brown commuted my sentence and I was released in 2017, five days before Christmas. The law in California, like in most states, grants the governor the right to alter sentences. After many years of advocating for the reformation of the prison system into one that encourages rehabilitation, I had my life restored to me.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:


A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

A group of researchers studying the Loch Ness Monster did not rule out the possibility of its existence, but speculated that it is possibly a giant eel.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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