Washington Babylon

Washington Babylon — September 29, 2010, 11:37 am

Signing Out

This is my last post here at Washington Babylon and I’ll be leaving my position as Harper’s Washington Editor (I will remain as a contributing editor to the magazine). I’ve received a fellowship at the Open Society Institute and will also be leading special investigations at Global Witness, which has offices in London and in Washington. My work for both will focus on long-term international investigations. I moved to Washington in 1993, when a young, new Democratic president replaced George Bush and promised to reform politics and be a transformative leader. Backed by huge majorities in Congress and with public …

Washington Babylon — September 22, 2010, 10:51 am

Broder and Woodward Still on Lecture Circuit

Two years ago, I wrote about private groups offering big speaking fees and perks to David Broder and Bob Woodward, even though both had talked in the past about the impropriety of journalistic “buckraking.” Broder, for example, said in 1996, “It’s clear that some journalists now are in a market category where the amount of money that they can make on extracurricular activities raises, in my mind, exactly, and, clearly, in the public’s mind, exactly the same kind of conflict-of-interest questions that we are constantly raising with people in public life.” Deborah Howell, the Washington Post ombudsman at the time, …

Washington Babylon — September 21, 2010, 8:24 am

Incumbency: The Democrats’ Best Hope

The scenario for the midterm elections remains grim for Democrats, but they have two factors working in their favor. First, the pathetic state of the GOP and second, and more importantly, the advantages of incumbency. In American politics, it’s nearly impossible to lose a reelection race unless, to paraphrase an old line from former Louisiana politico Edwin Edwards, you’re caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. The main reasons for that are gerrymandered districts and the fundraising edge incumbents enjoy. “There are two parties now, the Ins and the Outs,” a congressional staffer told me. “The …

Washington Babylon — September 14, 2010, 4:31 pm

Plumbing the Depths: A review of Megan McCain’s new book

From Leon Wolf in the New Ledger: I initially had reservations about writing this book review at all. After all, it is clear to everyone who has read Meghan McCain’s twitter feed, her “articles” on The Daily Beast, or her ill-fated campaign blog that Meghan is not a paragon of clear reasoning, exemplar of familiarity with facts, nor a model of English language expertise. And after subjecting myself to 194 continuous pages of her “writing,” it became clear that none of the above-described works truly plumbed the depths of mental vacuity in which Ms. McCain aimlessly and cluelessly drifts. This …

Washington Babylon — September 9, 2010, 7:36 am

American Inequality: The making of a Banana Republic

From Tim Noah at Slate: When it comes to real as opposed to imagined social mobility, surveys find less in the United States than in much of (what we consider) the class-bound Old World. France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Spain—not to mention some newer nations like Canada and Australia—are all places where your chances of rising from the bottom are better than they are in the land of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick… According to the Central Intelligence Agency (whose patriotism I hesitate to question), income distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly …

Washington Babylon — September 6, 2010, 9:43 am

With Congress, Charity Begins at Home

Last year I posted an item about the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation, the personal charity of House Majority Whip James Clyburn. The foundation’s donors included a number of companies and groups that Clyburn had supported in Congress, especially the Nuclear Energy Institute. Today the New York Times ran a story about Clyburn’s foundation and others run by members of congress. As the Times reported: Since 2009, businesses have sent lobbyists and executives to the plush Boulders resort in Scottsdale, Ariz., for a fund-raiser for the scholarship fund of Representative Steve Buyer, Republican of Indiana; sponsored a skeet …

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Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

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Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

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The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

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In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

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My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

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