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:

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

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

Inside the March Issue

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.

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.

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.

Secrets and Lies·

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In 1973, when Barry Singer was a fifteen-year-old student at New York’s Yeshiva University High School for Boys, the vice principal, Rabbi George Finkelstein, stopped him in a stairwell. Claiming he wanted to check his tzitzit—the strings attached to Singer’s prayer shawl—Finkelstein, Singer says, pushed the boy over the third-floor banister, in full view of his classmates, and reached down his pants. “If he’s not wearing tzitzit,” Finkelstein told the surrounding children, “he’s going over the stairs!”

“He played it as a joke, but I was completely at his mercy,” Singer recalled. For the rest of his time at Yeshiva, Singer would often wear his tzitzit on the outside of his shirt—though this was regarded as rebellious—for fear that Finkelstein might find an excuse to assault him again.

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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