Editor's Note — October 20, 2017, 11:00 am

Inside the November Issue

Rebecca Solnit, J. C. Hallman, Vivian Gornick, Dale Maharidge, and more

For the last few years, Confederate monuments have been toppling throughout the South—a process that has only accelerated since the violence in Charlottesville in August. There have been fewer such disputes north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yet New York City, which has never removed a statue for ideological reasons, may now tear down its bronze likeness of J. Marion Sims, the so-called Father of Gynecology. Sims owed much of his renown to a series of experimental surgeries he performed on young enslaved women during the 1840s. His contemporaries hardly blinked at this dubious arrangement—hadn’t the experiments allowed Sims to cure vesicovaginal fistula, a widespread and horrific disorder? But as J. C. Hallman reveals in “Monumental Error,” much of the surgeon’s career was an exercise in self-promotion and ethical corner-cutting, which left many of his patients mutilated or dead. At the same time, Sims always thought he was curing something. How, then, do we assess the legacy of such an ambiguous figure? How do we choose to memorialize the past with the full knowledge that, in Hallman’s words, “history is fluid, but bronze is not”? 

In “Pushing the Limit,” Alexandra Starr explores the U.S. Olympic Committee’s efforts to combat sexual abuse in sports. The extent of such misconduct, almost always by coaches, is staggering. The traditional response has been to quietly suspend abusers, or avoid the subject entirely—which is precisely what has protected such predators, Harvey Weinstein among them, for decades at a time. Now the U.S.O.C. has unveiled SafeSport, a watchdog group meant to investigate abuse claims. It seems like a step in the right direction, but Starr is skeptical about the group’s ability to transform sports culture, in which coaches are treated as household gods. Instead, SafeSport may well end up, as one former coach wearily put it, a “toothless tiger.”

While the Republican Party keeps struggling to absorb Donald Trump—it’s like an organ transplant gone awry—the Democrats, too, seem unsure of the best path forward. Should they rely on the old centrist approach (and the old centrist candidates), which blew up in their faces in 2016? Or should they recruit a whole new generation of Democrats and try to work outside the clapped-out party structure? Amanda Litman, the former Hillary Clinton operative at the heart of Lisa Rab’s “Star Search,” has put her chips on the second approach. Her organization, Run for Something, enlisted and coached millennial candidates for local office across the country in June. The electoral results were a mixed bag—but the organization’s success (if that’s the right word) may be measured by its slow-motion absorption by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

In “Bumpy Ride,” Dale Maharidge describes the reverse evolution of our infrastructure, as paved roads across the nation crumble, and municipalities turn to an unlikely solution: gravel. Vivian Gornick reckons with the shape-shifting masterpiece that is Sons and Lovers, and the ways in which a great novel seems to reconfigure itself each time we return to it. In “Preaching to the Choir,” Rebecca Solnit rehabilitates that hoary phrase. “To win politically,” she argues, “you don’t need to win over people who differ from you, you need to motivate your own.” And in “Bad Dog,” Rafil Kroll-Zaidi delivers a sad, sinister, exquisitely controlled work of fiction. (Note to canine lovers: this might not be your bowl of kibble, but give it a try.)

In Readings, we learn about the ideal skill set for a sex robot and the “small but keen Finnish knife with a reindeer-bone handle” that served the poet Joan Murray as a fetish object during her 1940 trek across New England. There is a miniature fiction by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a poem by George Oppen, and an account of the 2012 trial of Pussy Riot, in which the mean-spirited plaintiffs pop up like action figures to denounce the three defendants. (Russian justice in action: “The dog vomits at the entrance to the courtroom; the judge steps over the puddle.”) Finally, we have a formidable troika of critics—Christine SmallwoodLidija HaasDayna Tortorici—and the usual cornucopia of enlightenment in Findings: “Dry climates produce languages with fewer vowels.” 

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Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

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In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

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When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

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America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
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