Editor's Note — April 11, 2019, 1:29 pm

Inside the May Issue

Kevin Baker on the (Green) New Deal; Daniel Castro meets the negotiator of a historic gang truce in El Salvador; Joe Kloc encounters full-time boat residents in Sausalito

We have been here before. Are there five words as comforting these days when the most fundamental aspects of our lives seem so out of balance? A shifting economy caused by rapid innovation, man-made environmental threats, terrifying weather patterns, cheap credit, rural poverty, heartland populism, fears of socialism, and a politician from New York, newly arrived in D.C., with an ambitious domestic agenda—I’m referring to 1933, not 2019, though, as Kevin Baker points out in May’s cover story, the laundry list of national woes that led to the Great Depression bears a striking resemblance to the crises we face today. In “Where Our New World Begins,” Baker presents a compelling case for the Green New Deal by laying out the history, vision, hurdles, and ultimate success of its twentieth-century precursor. “Like every other human endeavor, the New Deal did not work perfectly,” Baker writes, in an essay that is as clear-eyed as it is passionate. “The men and women who put it into motion made mistakes, and they were not always able to overcome the opposition. They were forced to compromise and improvise and rethink what they were doing. But they made it work. They controlled a seemingly uncontrollable crisis—a series of existential threats, really, in the United States and the wider world—and in so doing they expanded human liberty at a time when so many others were trying to do away with it.” Let’s hope that history repeats itself all the way to the solution.

What else isn’t new? Trump’s stupidity. Yet we feel obliged to stay abreast of his every preposterous deed and utterance. Harper’s Magazine Executive Editor Christopher Beha calls it “our collective political monomania,” a pathology whose incubation period started before Trump and won’t subside after he’s gone, no matter how much MSNBC you watch. In this month’s Easy Chair, Beha urges us to redirect our attention to worthier things. “Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art.” If that sounds too ephemeral—if you’re convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that hyper-attention to politics is what will keep our democracy intact—Beha fortifies his argument with a political case for disengagement and a definition of resistance whose wisdom is unimpeachable.

Over the past few years Joe Kloc, another member of Harper’s editorial staff, spent time following a group of people living on abandoned boats off the shore of Sausalito, California, one of America’s wealthiest cities. Would it be a kind of paradise or hell? A little of both, Kloc finds, as he gets to know the “anchor-outs,” as they call themselves. Writing in our pages for the first time, Kloc, an associate editor, weaves their stories into an affectionate portrait of life on the water that explores the personal impulses and economic hardships that first led the anchor-outs offshore, and considers the often-serious costs to pursuing a life that would seem to promise total freedom.

In 2012, Raúl Mijango, a former leftist guerrilla commander, negotiated a secret truce between El Salvador’s two largest gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, whose decades-long war had driven the country’s annual murder rate to rank among the world’s highest. Mijango’s truce cut the murder rate by more than half, the most dramatic reduction of gang violence El Salvador had ever experienced. But now, seven years later, the truce is null and void, and Mijango is in prison. Is Mijango, as many Salvadorans believe, a public enemy who helped strengthen gangs, attempting to enrich himself in the process, or is he a hero who saved thousands of lives at great personal risk? Daniel Castro speaks to the controversial figure, who compares himself to Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, to try to get to the truth of a story that is central to understanding the United States’ responsibility for the current migration crisis and that might hold the key to solving the root problem of gang violence in the region today.   

Also in the issue: a vandalized painting and the legacy of Ivan the Terrible, Nathaniel Rich on how climate change created modern civilization, and fiction by Joyce Carol Oates.

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More from Ellen Rosenbush:

Editor's Note August 15, 2019, 1:32 pm

Inside the September Issue

Rich Cohen visits the N.F.L. combine; Rachel Poser investigates Zionist archeology; Sean Williams on the Black Axe; an acid-fueled memoir by Chris Rush

Editor's Note July 15, 2019, 9:47 am

Inside the August Issue

Ted Conover among the homesteaders of Colorado’s San Luis Valley; Christopher Ketcham on the Gilets Jaunes; Marc de Miramon on former Rwandan President Paul Kagame; Jacob Mikanowski on Hungary’s far right

Editor's Note June 13, 2019, 1:00 pm

Inside the July Issue

At the border with William T. Vollmann; new fiction by David Szalay and Nell Zink; and more

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I was tucked in a blind behind a soda machine, with nothing in my hand but notepad and phone, when a herd of running backs broke cover and headed across the convention center floor. My God, they’re beautiful! A half dozen of them, compact as tanks, stuffed into sports shirts and cotton pants, each, around his monstrous neck, wearing a lanyard that listed number and position, name and schedule, tasks to be accomplished at the 2019 N.F.L. Scout­ing Combine. They attracted the stunned gaze of football fans and beat writers, yet, seemingly unaware of their surroundings, continued across the carpet.

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Thirty miles from the coast, on a desert plateau in the Judaean Mountains without natural resources or protection, Jerusalem is not a promising site for one of the world’s great cities, which partly explains why it has been burned to the ground twice and besieged or attacked more than seventy times. Much of the Old City that draws millions of tourists and Holy Land pilgrims dates back two thousand years, but the area ­likely served as the seat of the Judaean monarchy a full millennium before that. According to the Bible, King David conquered the Canaanite city and established it as his capital, but over centuries of destruction and rebuilding all traces of that period were lost. In 1867, a British military officer named Charles Warren set out to find the remnants of David’s kingdom. He expected to search below the famed Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, but the Ottoman authorities denied his request to excavate there. Warren decided to dig instead on a slope outside the Old City walls, observing that the Psalms describe Jerusalem as lying in a valley surrounded by hills, not on top of one.

On a Monday morning earlier this year, I walked from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to the archaeological site that Warren unearthed, the ancient core of Jerusalem now known as the City of David. In the alleys of the Old City, stone insulated the air and awnings blocked the sun, so the streets were cold and dark and the mood was somber. Only the pilgrims were up this early. American church groups filed along the Via Dolorosa, holding thin wooden crosses and singing a hymn based on a line from the Gospel of Luke: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Narrow shops sold gardenia, musk, and amber incense alongside sweatshirts promoting the Israel Defense Forces.

I passed through the Western Wall Plaza to the Dung Gate, popularly believed to mark the ancient route along which red heifers were led to the Temple for sacrifice. Outside the Old City walls, in the open air, I found light and heat and noise. Tour buses lined up like train cars along the ridge. Monday is the day when bar and bat mitzvahs are held in Israel, and drumbeats from distant celebrations mixed with the pounding of jackhammers from construction sites nearby. When I arrived at the City of David, workmen were refinishing the wooden deck at the site’s entrance and laying down a marble mosaic by the ticket window.

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Eleven years ago, on a bitter January night, dozens of young men, dressed in a uniform of black berets, white T-­shirts, and black pants, gathered on a hill overlooking the Nigerian city of Jos, shouting, dancing, and shooting guns into the black sky. A drummer pounded a rhythmic beat. Amid the roiling crowd, five men crawled toward a candlelit dais, where a white-­robed priest stood holding an axe. Leading them was John, a sophomore at the local college, powerfully built and baby-faced. Over the past six hours, he had been beaten and burned, trampled and taunted. He was exhausted. John looked out at the landscape beyond the priest. It was the harmattan season, when Saharan sand blots out the sky, and the city lights in the distance blurred in John’s eyes as if he were underwater.

John had been raised by a single mother in Kaduna, a hardscrabble city in Nigeria’s arid north. She’d worked all hours as a construction supplier, but the family still struggled to get by. Her three boys were left alone for long stretches, and they killed time hunting at a nearby lake while listening to American rap. At seventeen, John had enrolled at the University of Jos to study business. Four hours southeast of his native Kaduna, Jos was another world, temperate and green. John’s mother sent him an allowance, and he made cash on the side rearing guard dogs for sale in Port Harcourt, the perilous capital of Nigeria’s oil industry. But it wasn’t much. John’s older brother, also studying in Jos, hung around with a group of Axemen—members of the Black Axe fraternity—who partied hard and bought drugs and cars. Local media reported a flood of crimes that Axemen had allegedly committed, but his brother’s friends promised John that, were he to join the group, he wouldn’t be forced into anything illegal. He could just come to the parties, help out at the odd charity drive, and enjoy himself. It was up to him.

John knew that the Black Axe was into some “risky” stuff. But he thought it was worth it. Axemen were treated with respect and had connections to important people. Without a network, John’s chances of getting a good job post-­degree were almost nil. In his second year, he decided to join, or “bam.” On the day of the initiation, John was given a shopping list: candles, bug spray, a kola nut (a caffeinated nut native to West Africa), razor blades, and 10,000 Nigerian naira (around thirty dollars)—his bamming fee. He carried it all to the top of the hill. Once night fell, Axemen made John and the other four initiates lie on their stomachs in the dirt, pressed toge­ther shoulder to shoulder, and hurled insults at them. They reeked like goats, some Axemen screamed. Others lashed them with sticks. Each Axeman walked over their backs four times. Somebody lit the bug spray on fire, and ran the flames across them, “burning that goat stink from us,” John recalled.

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I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t get up—­just couldn’t get up, couldn’t get up or leave. All day lying in that median, unable. Was this misery or joy?

It’s happened to you, too, hasn’t it? A habit or phase, a marriage, a disease, children or drugs, money or debt—­something you believed inescapable, something that had been going on for so long that you’d forgotten any and every step taken to lead your life here. What did you do? How did this happen? When you try to solve the crossword, someone keeps adding clues.

It’s happened to us all. The impossible knowledge is the one we all want—­the big why, the big how. Who among us won’t buy that lotto ticket? This is where stories come from and, believe me, there are only two kinds: ­one, naked lies, and two, pot holders, gas masks, condoms—­something you must carefully place between yourself and a truth too dangerous to touch.

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The Catholic School, by Edoardo Albinati. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 1,280 pages. $40.

In a quiet northern suburb of Rome, a woman hears noises in the street and sends her son to investigate. Someone is locked in the trunk of a Fiat 127. The police arrive and find one girl seriously injured, together with the corpse of a second. Both have been raped, tortured, and left for dead. The survivor speaks of three young aggressors and a villa by the sea. Within hours two of the men have been arrested. The other will never be found.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

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.

After not making a public appearance for weeks and being rumored dead, the president of Turkmenistan appeared on state television and drove a rally car around The Gates of Hell, a crater of gas that has been burning since it was discovered in 1971.

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