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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Christian Lorentzen on the decline of book reviewing; Rachel Nolan on the troubled legacy of Guatemalan adoptions; Lisa Wells on the fear of flying

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Stonewall at Fifty·

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Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

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The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

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In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

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My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

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