Editor's Note — December 10, 2015, 10:55 am

Introducing the January Issue

Alan Lightman, John Darnielle, Art Spiegelman, Anne Carson, and more.

HarpersWeb-Cover-2016-01-410In 1850, in the first issue of Harper’s Magazine, the editors laid out their plan for a publication that “no one who has the slightest relish for miscellaneous reading, or the slightest desire to keep himself informed of the progress and results of the literary genius of his own age, would willingly be without.” This spring, we will relaunch the magazine with some design and editorial changes that will enliven but still honor that tradition. Most of these are top secret for now but, with my first issue as editor, I can announce a few exciting additions to our roster of staff writers. Starting in April, Walter Kirn will join Rebecca Solnit as an Easy Chair columnist. Throughout the coming year, we’ll have regular essays on film, television, music, and more from Rivka Galchen, A. S. Hamrah, and Emily Witt. And Christine Smallwood, who has been writing New Books every other month since 2014, will take over that column full time. 

Our cover story for January is a deep investigation by Scott Sayare into jihadism and the French legal system. One response to attacks like the assault on the Bataclan in Paris or the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino is to simply lock up anyone who expresses radical religious views. The French have been trying that approach since 1996, using a broad antiterror law known as association de malfaiteurs terroriste, which allows prosecutors to “detect dangerous behavior ahead of time” and “neutralize people judicially.” That mission, it now seems clear, has been a failure. To report this story, Sayare interviewed Djamel Beghal, whom the Washington Post called “the charming and chilling mentor” of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. Beghal was arrested in 2001 and eventually convicted under association de malfaiteurs terroriste; he remains in prison today. He has rarely spoken to the press, but he sent Sayare 226 pages of letters describing his life, his philosophy, and the network of jihadis he met in the French prison system. When Sayare began reporting this story, it was an open question whether France would see another massacre like the one that happened at Charlie Hebdo. Now, unfortunately, we know.

Events in France and closer to home might lead you to seek solace in the infinite, in the mysteries of our vast and expanding universe. For the lead essay in the new issue, Alan Lightman tackles perhaps the most fundamental question of all: What happened before the Big Bang? Lightman talks to physicists in the “high risk, high gain” field of quantum cosmology who are beginning to provide some answers. He considers the possibility that there were multiple big bangs, delves into the spooky phenomenon of quantum tunneling, and asks whether there is room for a divine creator in the most up-to-date theories about the origin of the universe.

Peter Rasmussen, an oncologist practicing in Salem, Oregon, spent twenty years helping terminally ill patients choose how they want to die. He became a prominent supporter of physician-assisted suicide; the original name of the case that preserved the Oregon Death with Dignity Act was Oregon and Rasmussen v. Ashcroft. In 2014, Rasmussen discovered that he had a form of brain cancer with a median survival rate of seven months. Following that diagnosis, Brooke Jarvis spent the spring and summer with Rasmussen as he considered the possibility of his own suicide and reflected on what makes a good life and a good death.

Fans of the Mountain Goats will cheer the appearance of a new contributor to Harper’s Magazine: John Darnielle, who traveled to Germany for us to report on a performance of John Cage’s ORGAN²/ASLSP that’s expected to last over 600 years. Darnielle was present for one of the only chord changes scheduled for this decade, an occasion for pilgrimages from Cage scholars and adventurous musicians alike.

Our New Books column is in many ways a celebration of variety; in the January issue, Christine Smallwood celebrates Variety: The Life of a Roman Concept, which she considers alongside books by Nicola Gardini and Jhumpa Lahiri. We also have a review by Emily Cooke of a new authorized-then-unauthorized biography of Ted Hughes (“The dogs in the street seem to have more ideas about me than I have,” Hughes once said) and a swim through several new works of animation from Japan by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi.

Also in this issue: Andrew Cockburn writes about our “special relationship” with Al Qaeda, our once and (perhaps) future ally; Art Spiegelman, a bona fide genius of comic art, discusses Art Young, a bona fide genius of political cartooning; Fredrik deBoer tells us about the relationship between Louis Farrakhan and Black Lives Matter; and Anne Carson describes what happens when a zombie meets a snake, in her first published short story. 

In that inaugural issue of Harper’s from 1850, the editors didn’t just talk about literary genius; they also made a pitch. Subscriptions were $3 a year: a rate so low, and “a value so much beyond its price,” that they predicted the magazine would “make its way into the hands or the family circle of every intelligent citizen of the United States.” I’ll note here, without further comment, that $3 in 1850 is the equivalent of $85 today, and that our current subscription price is $45.99.

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More from Christopher Cox:

Editor's Note January 14, 2016, 3:11 pm

Introducing the February Issue

Conversation October 23, 2015, 1:03 pm

Do-gooders

“The amazing thing about these people is that they are living as they believe they ought to. Imagine being able to say that!”

Conversation March 6, 2015, 8:00 am

Cuckoo Spit and Ski Jumps

Michael Paterniti discusses “Driving Mr. Albert,” a story he wrote for Harper’s, in 1997, about driving across America with Albert Einstein’s brain.

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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.

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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.

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Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

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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.

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Life after Life·

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

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:

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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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