Editor's Note — March 14, 2016, 1:39 pm

Introducing the April Issue

Dan Baum, Ralph Nader, Thomas Frank, Don DeLillo, Robert P. Baird, Emily Witt, and more

HarpersWeb-Cover-201604-302x410_blackIt’s a truth almost universally acknowledged that America’s war on drugs failed spectacularly. Why then, Dan Baum asks in his cover story for the April issue, “did the United States entangle itself in a policy of drug prohibition that has yielded so much misery and so few good results?” It was not until speaking to Richard Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman, that Baum began to hazard the answer he long feared: the catastrophic collateral wrought by the drug war on the lives of millions of black families was intentional. “Did we know we were lying about the drugs?” Ehrlichman told Baum in 1994. “Of course we did.” The Nixon White House thought of the antiwar left and black people as enemies. “But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Fast forward two decades, however, and it’s clear that the country’s mood has changed. To date, twenty-three states have legalized medical marijuana. The question is no longer whether we should legalize drugs but how. “If we can summon the political will,” Baum writes, “the opportunity to establish state monopoly of drug distribution,” as we did with alcohol distribution in the 1930s, is now.

In his essay on U.S. tort law, Ralph Nader examines the ways in which lobbyists have chipped away at what he calls the country’s “revolutionary process of personal-conflict resolution.” Corporate law firms, Nader writes, “now busily sound false alarms about the ever-expanding number of tort cases being brought by ‘greedy attorneys.’” What these claims fail to acknowledge, however, is that tort-law depositions unearth incriminating evidence against those at the uppermost reaches of the corporate ladder, often leading to criminal prosecutions. When the protections of tort law are circumvented, weakened, or nullified altogether, Nader concludes, it undermines the right of all citizens to protect themselves from harm caused by greedy manufacturers and to have their day in court.

In this month’s Folio, Harper’s Magazine’s managing editor Robert P. Baird tells the story of Jay Miscovich, a fifty-year-old treasure hunter who found more than a hundred pounds of emeralds on the ocean floor. “There was so many of them it was like picking cherries on a cherry tree,” he testified at a court hearing. To Miscovich, who lost everything in the financial crisis of 2007–08, the find, which was potentially worth millions, seemed like a blessing. As the saying goes, however, treasure is hard to find but easy to lose. A few years after his discovery, police found Miscovich dead of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. “I loved many beautiful woman, built my business and found an awesome treasure,” he wrote in a note to friends and family. “So don’t mourn my death, celebrate my life!”

Also in this issue: An excerpt about Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation from Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen Liberal; new fiction by Don DeLillo; Walter Kirn meditates on the uncanny valley of virtual reality; Christine Smallwood reviews David Means’s meta-fictional Hystopia, which tells an alternate history of America during the era of the Vietnam War; and Emily Witt examines how the first two seasons of Transparent enact the vital questions and messy answers of real-world identity politics.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
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Without a Trace·

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chance on any given day that the only “vegetables” served in a U.S. public school are potatoes:

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