Editor's Note — October 14, 2016, 5:35 pm

Inside the November Issue

Thomas Frank on how the media exterminates political reform, Trudy Lieberman on the fate of Medicare, Chris Offutt on the changing face of Appalachia, a story by Stephen Dixon, and more

HarpersWeb-201611-cover-410Earlier this year, during the prolonged cage match of the Democratic primary, it became clear that much of the media viewed the candidacy of Bernie Sanders with amusement, irritation, and contempt. The caricature of the Vermont senator as a socialist Pied Piper, leading his flock of millennials straight over the electoral cliff, certainly contributed to his defeat.  This we already know. But in this month’s cover story, “Swat Team,” Thomas Frank takes a deeper look at the phenomenon, using the Washington Post—arguably the house organ of the nation’s political class—as his test case. Frank read through some two hundred editorials and op-eds about Sanders, many of them almost comically derisive. (Sample headline: NOMINATING SANDERS WOULD BE INSANE.) His trawl through this material—a kind of Great Dismal Swamp of tongue-clucking rhetoric—is both amusing and instructive. But Frank has a bigger point to make about the media’s role in quashing reform, and its addiction to tiptoeing incrementalism as the only true path in American politics.

By now, of course, the media has largely deserted the buffoonish figure of Donald Trump. But he still commands a sizable slice of the electorate, and has a demonstrated gift for bouncing back from self-inflicted catastrophe—he will remain a threat, and bigly, until Election Day. Chris Offutt, making his first appearance in the magazine, explores Trump’s appeal to white working-class voters in a meditative essay, “In the Hollow.” The author, himself a product of the Kentucky backwoods, has much to say about the role of pride—and its inverse, shame—in the Appalachian psyche. Meanwhile, artist Steve Mumford attends Trump rallies in Virginia and Maine, and captures their brassy, boisterous, Hillary-hating vibe in “Campaign Sketches.”

Farther from home, Jennifer Percy chronicles a seat-of-the-pants operation to rescue Christian hostages in “Escape from the Caliphate.” Her protagonist, a Good Samaritan named Emad Matti, knows exactly how to strike deals with the devil—in this case, Islamic State functionaries in Iraq. The ethical conundrum of bargaining with terrorists troubles him not one jot. The point is to extract as many hostages as possible and bring them to the safe harbor of Kirkuk, and Percy’s portrait of this embattled pragmatist, delicately negotiating for human lives via cell phone, is a keeper.

Elsewhere in the magazine, Trudy Lieberman describes how Medicare—one of those dastardly entitlements so hated by GOP grandees, and so loved by its actual beneficiaries—may succumb to the poison pill of privatization within just a few years. In Readings, Claire-Louise Bennett dilates on schnitzel and its discontents, Mark Morris tells us how to cry onstage, and Liana Finck plays the circle game in a series of witty drawings. William Deresiewicz reviews three books on the history of television and explains why, after decades of mediocrity, the medium has improved so drastically since the turn of the millennium. And finally, we have a story by Stephen Dixon, full of gentle regrets and long, head-spinning, heart-tickling sentences.

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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.

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.’ ”

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.

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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