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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More from James Marcus:

From the October 2017 issue

Into the Wild

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In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

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On December 3, 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump was elected president, Amanda Litman sat alone on the porch of a bungalow in Costa Rica, thinking about the future of the Democratic Party. As Hillary Clinton’s director of email marketing, Litman raised $180 million and recruited 500,000 volunteers over the course of the campaign. She had arrived at the Javits Center on Election Night, arms full of cheap beer for the campaign staff, minutes before the pundits on TV announced that Clinton had lost Wisconsin. Later that night, on her cab ride home to Brooklyn, Litman asked the driver to pull over so she could throw up.

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In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

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One sunny winter afternoon in western Michigan, I took a ride with Leon Slater, a slight sixty-four-year-old man with a neatly trimmed white beard and intense eyes behind his spectacles. He wore a faded blue baseball cap, so formed to his head that it seemed he slept with it on. Brickyard Road, the street in front of Slater’s home, was a mess of soupy dirt and water-filled craters. The muffler of his mud-splattered maroon pickup was loose, and exhaust fumes choked the cab. He gripped the wheel with hands leathery not from age but from decades moving earth with big machines for a living. What followed was a tooth-jarring tour of Muskegon County’s rural roads, which looked as though they’d been carpet-bombed.

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Abby was a breech birth but in the thirty-one years since then most everything has been pretty smooth. Sweet kid, not a lot of trouble. None of them were. Jack and Stevie set a good example, and she followed. Top grades, all the way through. Got on well with others but took her share of meanness here and there, so she stayed thoughtful and kind. There were a few curfew or partying things and some boys before she was ready, and there was one time on a school trip to Chicago that she and some other kids got caught smoking crack cocaine, but that was so weird it almost proved the rule. No big hiccups, master’s in ecology, good state job that lets her do half time but keep benefits while Rose is little.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Number of cast members of the movie Predator who have run for governor:

3

A Georgia Tech engineer created software that endows unmanned aerial drones with a sense of guilt.

Roy Moore, a 70-year-old lawyer and Republican candidate for the US Senate who once accidentally stabbed himself with a murder weapon while prosecuting a case in an Alabama courtroom, was accused of having sexually assaulted two women, Leigh Corfman and Beverly Young Nelson, while he was an assistant district attorney in his thirties and they were 14 and 16 years old, respectively.

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"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

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