Editor's Note — August 12, 2016, 11:52 am

Inside the September Issue

Andrew Cockburn on the Saudi slaughter in Yemen, Carolyn Kormann on California homeowners’ battle with nature, Alan Jacobs on the disappearance of Christian intellectuals, a forum on a post-Obama foreign policy, a story by Alice McDermott, and more

HarpersWeb-201609-cover-302x410All politics is local, goes the cliché, and presidents are usually urged to look no further than their own backyards. Some, of course, have argued to the contrary—Richard Nixon compared domestic politics to “building outhouses in Peoria.” But the current election cycle threatens to turn this cherished rule on its head. It’s not just the ongoing meltdown in the Middle East, or the spate of bloody terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Issues such as immigration, trade, and disarmament have so blurred the line between domestic and foreign policy that the two can no longer be separated—all politics is now global. Yet there has been little cogent discussion of this brave new world by any of the presidential contenders, beyond vague threats to carpet-bomb the Caliphate, close the borders, and launch what Hillary Clinton calls an “intelligence surge.” We hope to jump-start the conversation with “Tearing Up the Map,” a forum featuring Andrew J. Bacevich, Hamid Dabashi, Paula J. Dobriansky, Hassan Hassan, Kori Schake, and Dominique De Villepin. The participants are an ideologically diverse bunch, and are frequently at loggerheads throughout. Yet they all agree with Villepin’s belief that “we are in a very transitional international order,” one in which “the map is completely blurred.” The real question is whether this reshuffling of the deck amounts to a barely contained catastrophe—or, if we’re lucky, an opportunity to fix what is surely broken.

On a (somewhat) lighter note, Carolyn Kormann explores the lawn-care habits of the rich and famous in “Land of Sod.” California, as we all know, is in the grip of an historic drought. Last year, announcing a water-restriction regime that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Dune novels, Governor Jerry Brown added: “The idea of your nice little green grass getting lots of water every day? That’s going to be a thing of the past.” Some residents have heeded his words, tearing out their lawns and replacing them with scrub, desert-friendly natives, or trompe-l’oeil green paint. But others, especially in the manicured pastures of Beverly Hills and other upscale Los Angeles neighborhoods, have engaged in what can only be called a turf war. To hell with our dying planet—bring on the designer sod!

Apocalyptic scenarios of a darker sort return to the fore in two other pieces. In “Acceptable Losses,” Andrew Cockburn expertly chronicles the Saudi Arabian slaughter in Yemen—which the United States has not only tolerated but encouraged by means of massive arms sales. Given the recent declassification of 28 redacted pages from the 9/11 report, with their tongue-clucking hints of Saudi collusion, this is probably a good moment to examine our special relationship with Riyadh. In “Only an Apocalypse Can Save Us Now,” Mark Lilla delves into the politics of nostalgia and its noxious flip side: belief in a lost Golden Age, to be reclaimed by force. In Lilla’s view, this formula fits the Islamists to perfection. Yet it has been equally irresistible to the West—especially to those with an exaggerated sense of victimhood. “There is little that is uniquely Muslim in this myth,” writes the author. “Even its success in mobilizing the faithful and inspiring acts of extraordinary violence has precedents in the Crusades and in Nazi efforts to return to Rome by way of Valhalla. When the Golden Age meets the Apocalypse the earth begins to quake.”

Elsewhere, Geoff Dyer writes about tennis—or about the quasi-impossibility of writing about tennis—and Sarah Manguso wrestles with the shortest of short forms: the aphorism. “The Man Who Loved Metaphors” offers a bracing bit of Jonathan-on-Jonathan violence (Dee on Safran Foer, that is), while Alan Jacobs investigates the brief flourishing and mysterious disappearance of the Christian intellectual in “The Watchmen.” Alice McDermott appears in our pages for the first time with “Home.” Finally, in this month’s Easy Chair, Rebecca Solnit goes to the movies—or more specifically, watches Giant at ten-year intervals, marveling at its stealth investigation of gender politics, with three queer actors orbiting the heterosexual sunburst that is Elizabeth Taylor.

Last but not least: this issue marks my first as editor of Harper’s Magazine. I’m honored to be steering such a distinguished and (one hopes) unsinkable vessel, and hope to do it proud.

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More from James Marcus:

Editor's Note April 12, 2018, 5:58 pm

Inside the May Issue

Rebecca Solnit, Rick Moody, Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Dee, and more

Editor's Note March 19, 2018, 12:18 pm

Inside the April Issue

Thomas Frank, Elaine Blair, Andrew Cockburn, Lidija Haas, Corey Robin, and more…

Editor's Note February 12, 2018, 11:15 am

Inside the March Issue

Rebecca Solnit, Katie Roiphe, Sallie Tisdale, and more

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October 2019


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.

Long Shot·

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Ihave had many names, but as a sniper I went by Azad, which means “free” or “freedom” in Kurdish. I had been fighting for sixteen months in Kurdish territory in northern Syria when in April 2015 I was asked to leave my position on the eastern front, close to the Turkish border, and join an advance on our southwestern one. Eight months earlier, we had been down to our last few hundred yards, and, outnumbered five to one, had made a last stand in Kobanî. In January, after more than four months of fighting street-to-street and room-by-room, we recaptured the town and reversed what was, until then, an unstoppable jihadi tide. In the battles since, we had pushed ­ISIS far enough in every direction that crossing our territory was no longer a short dash through the streets but a five-hour drive across open country. As we set out to the north, I could make out the snowy peaks in southern Turkey where they say Noah once beached his ark. Below them, rolling toward us, were the wide, grassy valleys and pine forests of Mesopotamia, the land between the Euphrates and the Tigris where our people have lived for twelve thousand years.

The story of my people is filled with bitter ironies. The Kurds are one of the world’s oldest peoples and, as pioneers of agriculture, were once among its most advanced. Though the rest of the world now largely overlooks that it was Kurds who were among the first to create a civilization, the evidence is there. In 1995, German archaeologists began excavating a temple at Göbekli Tepe in northern Kurdistan. They found a structure flanked by stone pillars carved with bulls, foxes, and cranes, which they dated to around 10,000 bce. At the end of the last Ice Age, and seven thousand years before the erection of Stonehenge or the pyramids at Giza, my ancestors were living together as shamans, artists, farmers, and engineers.

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.

Power of Attorney·

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In a Walmart parking lot in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 2015, a white police officer named Stephen Rankin shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen-­year-­old black man named William Chapman. “This is my second one,” he told a bystander seconds after firing the fatal shots, seemingly in reference to an incident four years earlier, when he had shot and killed another unarmed man, an immigrant from Kazakhstan. Rankin, a Navy veteran, had been arresting Chapman for shoplifting when, he claimed, Chapman charged him in a manner so threatening that he feared for his life, leaving him no option but to shoot to kill—­the standard and almost invariably successful defense for officers when called to account for shooting civilians. Rankin had faced no charges for his earlier killing, but this time, something unexpected happened: Rankin was indicted on a charge of first-­degree murder by Portsmouth’s newly elected chief prosecutor, thirty-­one-year-­old Stephanie Morales. Furthermore, she announced that she would try the case herself, the first time she had ever prosecuted a homicide. “No one could remember us having an actual prosecution for the killing of an unarmed person by the police,” Morales told me. “I got a lot of feedback, a lot of people saying, ‘You shouldn’t try this case. If you don’t win, it may affect your reelection. Let someone else do it.’ ”

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 federal judge authored a 69-page ruling preventing New York City from enforcing zoning laws pertaining to adult bookstores and strip clubs.

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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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