Editor's Note — September 15, 2016, 6:21 pm

Inside the October Issue

Robert Sullivan on the cult of Hamilton, Walter Kirn on the Republican National Convention, Rachel Nolan on El Salvador’s anti-abortion machinery, a story by Joyce Carol Oates, and more

HarpersWeb-2016-10-cover-220By now, raising any objection to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is tantamount to treason—you might as well complain about the national anthem, or spit on the flag. The musical has enthralled not only a legion of theatergoers, but politicians, celebrities, historians, and even Robert Sullivan, the author of this month’s cover story. But as he argues in “The Hamilton Cult,” the marvelously talented Miranda has managed to sin by omission. What is absent from the musical, writes Sullivan, is Hamilton’s obsessive focus on military force and wealth concentration as the building blocks of nationhood. More specifically, there is no spiffy song-and-dance number about Hamilton’s quashing of the Whiskey Rebellion—a populist uprising in the Pennsylvania hinterlands and a distant predecessor, one might argue, of the Occupy movement and the Tea Party alike. Debunking Hamilton is not really the point, of course. Sullivan is interested in history and what we do with it. “The past is complicated,” he notes, “and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble.” As his essay makes clear, putting all our chips on the Great Man theory is no longer a winning strategy.

Speaking of Great Men, or at least theoretically Great Men—our own Walter Kirn made the ultimate sacrifice in July and attended the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. These quadrennial pep rallies have become black holes for even the most diligent journalists. They are staged and sanitized to a fare-thee-well, so that nothing really happens. Reporters are there simply to note the ripple effects on social media and the nominee’s double-breasted, contempt-radiating body language. Yet somehow, Kirn brings the whole extravaganza to life. What’s more, he listens to Donald Trump’s acceptance speech with an open mind, and while the content might be appalling, he can’t help but respond to the delivery: “If he’s acting, he doesn’t know it, which isn’t acting—it’s conducting. His pauses are louder than his bursts of speech and create irresistible spaces for massive clamor. It’s working.” Whether it will work clear through to Election Day is a riddle we’ll be solving very soon.

If Trump is elected, he will appoint the next tranche of Supreme Court justices, which raises the inevitable question: what would it be like to live in a nation without Roe v. Wade? As it happens, there is a test case on hand—a nation where not only abortion but miscarriage has been criminalized to a draconian extent. That would be El Salvador, whose fearsome anti-abortion machinery Rachel Nolan explores in “Innocents.” Her report is detailed, compassionate, and infuriating. How can it be that a woman who has miscarried in a rural pasture—already a sufficient tragedy—is then arrested, tried, and threatened with up to fifty years in prison? How will Salvadoran authorities wrestle with the arrival of the Zika virus, with its attendant threat of microcephaly and other birth defects? There are glimmers of hope here, but El Salvador’s Kafkaesque crusade against its pregnant citizens shows no sign of going away.

Elsewhere in the magazine, Alexandria Neason chronicles the slow-motion collapse and unlikely resurrection of the Detroit school system. In “Division Street,” Robert Gumpert delivers an eloquent and empathetic photo study of the homeless in San Francisco—and while his black-and-white images speak for themselves, they are further enhanced by Rebecca Solnit’s brief introduction. In Readings, Nicholson Baker fails to maintain order in the classroom, and a robot emits a metallic cri-de-coeur: “Why can’t I be considered a person?” We also have Lidija Haas on Nell Zink, whose “cheerfully elastic, almost Walserian deadpan” tends to leave readers in a state of smiling unease, and Matthew Bevis on Thomas De Quincey’s very bad habits, which include substance abuse (to put it gently), voyeurism, and what Bevis calls his “self-relishing archness,” which also makes De Quincey terribly appealing to us navel-gazing moderns.

Last but not least, a reminder: our paywall, erected as a sort of Maginot Line against non-subscribers, has been modified. All visitors to our website can now read one article per month at no charge, and we encourage you not only to dip into Harper’s Magazine, but to share your discoveries on social media. (That’s right, you just saw the words Harper’s Magazine and social media in the same sentence. Despite our fondness for photogravure and pneumatic tubes, we are steadily making our way into the current century.)

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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.

Seeking Asylum·

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Out of sight on Leros, the island of the damned

Poem for Harm·

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Reflections on harm in language and the trouble with Whitman

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.

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 solid-gold toilet named “America” was stolen from Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in Oxfordshire, England.

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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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