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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More from James Marcus:

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

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

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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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