Editor's Note — September 18, 2017, 1:04 pm

Inside the October Issue

Marilynne Robinson, Andrew Cockburn, Ben Mauk, Elisabeth Zerofsky, Eileen Myles, and more…

Whatever his faults (and they are far too numerous to list here), Donald Trump certainly has a gift for monopolizing the national news—for putting it in an egregious, fact-free headlock. Add to that the disappearance of regional papers across the country, and we can easily forget that vital events are still unfolding in our backyards. In “All Over This Land,” we have tried to put local politics back at center stage. The forum features a distinguished roster of contributors, including Edwidge Danticat (on immigration protests in Miami), Paul Theroux (on the Hawaiian microcosm), Jesmyn Ward (on health care in Mississippi), Marilynne Robinson (on Iowa’s lurch to the right), Lydia Davis (on dipping her toe into small-town government), Lisa Elmaleh (on eminent domain in West Virginia), and Steve Mumford (on fishermen in Maine). The tone is alternately indignant, wry, hopeful, despairing. Yet all of the pieces remind us that much of what goes on inside the Beltway is political theater—a kind of Kabuki for cable-news junkies—while real life transpires elsewhere, anywhere.

In “States of Decay,” Ben Mauk and photographer Balazs Gardi venture into America’s nuclear heartland, where the crumbling remains of our once thriving uranium industry have yet to be bulldozed out of existence. The old mines and waste sites are what we might generously call picturesque ruins. Yet even these Ozymandian eyesores are still capable of emitting toxic levels of radiation, and some may even reopen for business, should the industry emerge from its decades-long swoon. Elisabeth Zerofsky ventures further afield in “Everyman’s War,” to Lithuania and Estonia—where paramilitaries are preparing to fight off the Russian hordes. And in “Crime and Punishment,” Andrew Cockburn explores the possibility that the Saudis, whose connivance in the 9/11 attacks has been suspected for years, will finally face their accusers in court.

By now it may appear that Harper’s Magazine is your one-stop-shop for long-form dystopia. Not true! We revel in the lighter side as well—just take a look at Tom Bissell’s essay on the resurgence of Saturday Night Live. Technically speaking, of course, this resurgence is owed to the election of Donald Trump, so there is a whiff of dystopia after all. But Bissell is typically astute about the show’s long evolution, and about its fated intersection with our pernicious POTUS. In the end, he argues that Trump’s “brand of comedy—cruel and joyless and denuded of laughter—has become his cultural revenge.” 

In Readings, we have a chronicle of canine coitus by Eileen Myles, a skinny poem by Dawn Lundy Martin, some dirty realism by Samanta Schweblin, and a frank confession by the Louisville Courier-Journal that the paper had incorrectly referred to a hot dog as a “sandwich” on multiple occasions between 1887 and 1966. (Take that, fake news!) Michelle Dean delves into the nightmare logic of the rebooted Twin Peaks, and David Means delivers some fictional fisticuffs in “Fistfight, Sacramento, August 1950.” Last but not least, there is another superb Easy Chair essay from Walter Kirn, in which he suggests that in this fight-or-flight moment for American civilization, “an affinity for or awe of certain creatures might be more motivating than fear for ourselves.”     

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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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