Editor's Note — February 17, 2017, 2:13 pm

Inside the March Issue

Andrew Cockburn on turning Texas blue, Masha Gessen on the spread of antigay ideology, Calvin Baker on how Obama negotiated America’s racial tightrope, Mary Cuddehe on the dealth penalty as a conservative conundrum, a story by David Szalay, and more

Harpers-Magazine-March-2017-4Despite widespread street protests and some spine-stiffening from the judiciary, these are dark times for Democrats. The party has lost control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, and is clinging with its collective fingernails to whatever power it still holds at the state level. Yet Andrew Cockburn has found a glimmer of hope, and in an unlikely place. In “Texas Is the Future,” he recounts how a band of activists known as the Texas Organizing Project pulled off a Democratic coup in Harris County, expelling local G.O.P. grandees and racking up a 160,000-vote margin for Hillary Clinton in November. The secret? Cultivating a “shadow electorate” of Latino and African-American voters, who number in the millions but have been repeatedly burned by Democratic candidates in the past. If the party hopes to regain power at the state and national level, this is probably the template. But it will take work, patience, focus, and a willingness to really listen to the grievances of those voters the party has traditionally taken for granted.

Things look little better abroad. In “Family Values,” Masha Gessen chronicles her visit to the World Congress of Families in Tbilisi, Georgia, where opponents of gay rights gather to celebrate their victories. The author, who describes herself as “queer, Jewish, anti-Putin, and a critic of marriage as an institution,” is not the sort of person to receive a warm welcome at the W.C.F. Yet she attended as a kind of thought experiment: could she find any common ground with her hosts? (The answer is not encouraging.) In “City of Gilt,” meanwhile, Tanya Gold takes a tour of post-Brexit London, paying particular mind to Karl Marx’s old haunts. The metropolis strikes her as a glittering ruin, its exterior unable to conceal decades of neoliberal rot. Her indignation reaches a comic climax at Harrods, a shrine to conspicuous consumption jammed with goods so ugly that Gold can feel “only pity: for the maker, the buyer, the voyeur, the world.”

Indeed, as we wait for the latest insane, non-spell-checked edict from the Oval Office, it’s getting increasingly hard not to pine for the old days, prior to January 20.  In “Black Like Who?,” Calvin Baker looks back at Barack Obama’s ascent and his exquisite navigation of America’s racial tightrope. This isn’t an evaluation of the former president’s policy record. The author is more interested in Obama’s symbolic role, for Americans both black (who saw him “as one of the last black firsts”) and white (who hoped that his presence in the White House could help to transcend the nation’s dismal racial history). “It is a history,” writes Baker, “from which both blacks and white wish to be redeemed—even if their pathways through it have often been mutually unrecognizable.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Mary Cuddehe looks at the unlikely transformation of the death penalty—or more accurately, its abolition—into a conservative cause. (The arguments, just for the record, are both moral and fiscal; enforcing the death penalty in Florida annually costs taxpayers $51 million more than lifetime imprisonment.) Manga makes its first appearance in Harper’s Magazine with Kazuto Tatsuta’s “Itchy Nose,” a peek into daily life at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, where workers in hazmat suits are still cleaning up after the disaster of the 2011 tsunami. There is also a new Easy Chair from Rebecca Solnit, whose previous columns just won a National Magazine Award. In Readings, we have journal excerpts from the late, great Christa Wolf, a dual interview with Allen Ginsberg and his father, a letter from Donald Trump’s grandfather (in which he begs not to be deported from the Kingdom of Bavaria!), and a snippet from the Simple Sabotage Field Manual of 1944. Bringing up the rear is a muted, marmoreal work of fiction by David Szalay and some shrewd critical appraisals from the likes of Christopher Beha, Nat Segnit, and Molly Fischer.

Finally, a heads up to all users of the Harper’s Magazine app: it’s about to go the way of the dodo. At the end of February, we will discontinue the app and upgrade our website for mobile viewing. We urge you to register your account with Harpers.org, if you haven’t already. To do so, open the app, select My Subscription, and enter your information. That way, you will have uninterrupted access to Harper’s Magazine on your computer, tablet, or phone, and can romp to your heart’s content in our capacious archives. You will also continue to receive the print edition of the magazine, hand-delivered to your home by a U.S. government employee. Any questions, please contact dodo@harpers.org.

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December 2018


The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“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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