Editor's Note — November 19, 2018, 3:32 pm

Inside the December 2018 Issue

Janine di Giovanni describes the plight of Christians in the middle east; Mychal Denzel Smith on the burden of the black public intellectual; Kathy Dobie goes inside New York City’s task force on bias crimes; Nora Caplan-Bricker considers an ethical archive of the web

For the past two millennia, Christians in the Middle East have lived through periods of quiet tolerance interrupted by bursts of brutal persecution. In Harper’s Magazine’s December cover story, the award-winning war correspondent Janine di Giovanni reports on the widespread crisis this minority population now faces. The Christian community in Iraq, one of the oldest in the world, has endured invasions by Persians, Kurds, and Turks, but, as di Giovanni explains, they may never recover from the 2003 US invasion and the devastating events it set in motion. The consequent unraveling of Iraq led to not only the rise of the Islamic State but also to a ruined economy that is driving Christians to the West in droves. Di Giovanni, who lived, worked, and worshipped alongside Iraq’s Christians throughout Saddam Hussein’s regime (altogether better days for them, as unlikely as that sounds), checks in on her former neighbors to experience, perhaps for the last time, an ancient culture that may soon cease to exist.

“As a writer, I have spent more time asking white people to see me as human than I have thinking about the world I would like to live in,” writes Mychal Denzel Smith, referring to a dilemma specific to black voices in the white-dominated media. Black public intellectuals have flourished since the Obama Administration, with such representatives as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay popping up in magazines and on TV screens in unprecedented numbers, but, as Smith explains, appealing to the “general”—that is, white—audience is inherently limiting. “The white audience does not seek out black public intellectuals to challenge their worldview; instead they are meant to serve as tour guides through a foreign experience that the white audience wishes to keep at a comfortable distance,” he writes. “White people desire a representative of the community who can provide them with a crash course.” Smith counts himself among those who have been more than willing to take on that task in order to establish his career and does not miss the irony of this essay appearing in Harper’s, “which has a white editor, a nearly all-white masthead, and a largely white subscriber base.” The work of James Baldwin, much of which appeared in these pages, has been enjoying a revival alongside the rise of this latest generation of black intellectuals. But Smith wonders how much more Baldwin might have contributed had he not been speaking primarily to whites. “What questions might he have raised? Would he have focused solely on warnings, or might he have conjured strategies of resistance?” Smith writes. “Freed from the need to talk to white people, what might Baldwin have prophesied?”

Kathy Dobie follows Michael Osgood, former deputy chief of New York City’s Hate Crimes Task Force, a law enforcement officer whose investigative skills are matched only by the palpable empathy he shows for the victims of these difficult cases. Hate crimes are one of several classes of crime in which motive must be proven, and the fact that the perpetrator and victim are often strangers makes these cases particularly hard to crack. Osgood’s team has solved every hate crime homicide and gang assault reported in New York City over the past sixteen years—an extraordinary record. (By comparison, the national solve rate for homicides is 62 percent.) Dobie follows Osgood for several months and shares insights into recent investigations, including the 2008 murder of José Sucuzhañay, one of the longest and most grueling in the unit’s history. “What makes the task force unique is the fact that it’s never about going to put cuffs on people right away,” Sergeant Patrick Rodrigo tells her. “Your job is always to be a fact finder. We work just as hard to try to find out innocence as we do guilt.”

The last time he appeared in these pages Kenneth E. Hartman offered a deeply human portrait of Christmas in prison, where he served a sentence lasting thirty-seven years. California governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence last year, and Hartman returns with an unflinching, yet profoundly compassionate account of his parents’ childhood traumas their miserable marriage, and the suffering he endured at their hands, pain that reverberates with him still. “My acute fear of abandonment manifested over and over again as my life progressed,” he writes. “This fear is my first memory, and it has never completely left me. It follows me around like the proverbial elephantine presence, occasionally breaking the furniture of my life.”

Let’s get back to happier memories—the ones we post on social media. (It’s the holidays after all.) What will become of them when Facebook inevitably folds? What of the historical record of President Trump’s Twitter rants? Nora Caplan-Bricker explores the problem of archiving the web, which, along with countless photos of avocado toast and Trumpian gibberish, contains a useful record of recent history that is well worth saving. As an example of this valuable history, Caplan-Bricker cites the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement that intensified in its aftermath.

Also in this issue: Walter Kirn on the Elon Musk mystique, J. Hoberman on the return of Orson Welles, fiction by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, and some pithy literary critiques by the FBI.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note December 13, 2018, 2:10 pm

Inside the January Issue

Fred Turner explains how the internet subverts democracy; Michel Houellebecq admires Donald Trump; Barry Lopez reports from Antartica

Editor's Note October 19, 2018, 8:00 am

Inside the November 2018 Issue

Jonathan Taplin on the progressive states’-rights movement; John Cleese proselytizes; Ana Marie Cox on the tragedy of Ted Cruz; a personal history of the Holocaust

Editor's Note September 13, 2018, 11:00 am

Inside the October 2018 Issue

The printed word in peril; poems by Ben Lerner; among Britain’s anti-Semites 

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“The Goliath of totalitarianism will be brought down by the David of the microchip,” Ronald Reagan said in 1989. He was speaking to a thousand British notables in London’s historic Guildhall, several months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reagan proclaimed that the world was on the precipice of “a new era in human history,” one that would bring “peace and freedom for all.” Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

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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.

Fighters of the YJA-STAR, the women’s force in the PKK, Sinjar, Iraq, November 2015 (detail)
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To get oriented here is difficult. The light is flat because the sky is overcast. The sun’s weak rays create only a few anemic shadows by which to judge scale and distance. Far-off objects like mountain peaks have crisp edges because the atmosphere itself is as transparent as first-water diamonds, but the mountains are not nearly as close as they seem. It’s about negative-twelve degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind is relatively calm, moving over the snow distractedly, like an animal scampering.

[caption id="attachment_271890" align="aligncenter" width="690"]True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images. True-color satellite image of Earth centered on the South Pole during winter solstice © Planet Observer/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.[/caption]

Four of the six people living here are in their tents now, next to their cookstoves, two by two, warming up and preparing their suppers. I’m the fifth of the group, almost motionless at the moment, a hundred yards south of the tent cluster, kneeling on a patch of bluish ice in the midst of a great expanse of white. I’m trying to discern a small object entombed there a few inches below the surface. Against the porcelain whites of this gently sloping landscape, I must appear starkly apparent in my cobalt blue parka and wind pants. I shift slowly right and left, lean slightly forward, then settle back, trying to get the fluxless sunlight to reveal more of the shape and texture of the object.

A multiple-exposure photograph (detail) taken every hour from 1:30 pm on December 8, 1965, to 10:10 am on December 9, 1965, showing the sun in its orbit above the South Pole, Amundsen–Scott South Pole Station © Georg Gerster/Panos Pictures
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In all sincerity, I like Americans a lot; I’ve met many lovely people in the United States, and I empathize with the shame many Americans (and not only “New York intellectuals”) feel at having such an appalling clown for a leader.

However, I have to ask—and I know what I’m requesting isn’t easy for you—that you consider things for a moment from a non-American point of view. I don’t mean “from a French point of view,” which would be asking too much; let’s say, “from the point of view of the rest of the world.”On the numerous occasions when I’ve been questioned about Donald Trump’s election, I’ve replied that I don’t give a shit. France isn’t Wyoming or Arkansas. France is an independent country, more or less, and will become totally independent once again when the European Union is dissolved (the sooner, the better).

Illustration (detail) by Ricardo Martínez
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The prepositions you’re most likely to encounter after the title of a poem are “for” or “to” and sometimes “after”—“for my daughter”; “to Bobby”; “after Pound”; etc. They signify dedication, address, homage, imitation. In the recent poems of Fred Moten, we encounter “with,” a preposition that denotes accompaniment. The little difference makes a big difference, emphasizing collaboration over the economy of the gift, suggesting that the poet and his company are fellow travelers, in the same time zone, alongside each other in the present tense of composition. (Given Moten’s acclaimed critical work on jazz, the “with” is immediately evocative of musical performance, e.g., “Miles Davis with Sonny Rollins.”) Not all “withs” are the same—there is a different intimacy in the poem “fifty little springs,” which is “with aviva,” Moten’s wife’s Hebrew name (which means springtime), than there is in “resistances,” which is “with” a critic and an artist, interlocutors of Moten’s. (The poem “13. southern pear trees” has no preposition after the title, but is excerpted from another responding to the work of Zoe Leonard, and so is still a work of fellowship.) The scale of that “with” can be small (“with aviva, as if we were all alone”) or vast (“with everybody we don’t know”), but either way the poem becomes an instance of alongsidedness instead of belatedness; the poems request, with that subtle prepositional shift, that we think of ourselves as participants in the production of meaning and not mere recipients of someone else’s eloquence.

“Untitled,” 1989, by Zoe Leonard © Zoe Leonard (detail)

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:

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