Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Harper's Magazine: The finest English-language general interest magazine

Earlier this week I finished reading the August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine (http://harpers.org/). True - four months is a long time to take to finish a single issue of a monthly magazine. In part, I’ve been too busy to read material not directly related to my working life. But mostly I took so long because I didn’t feel rushed. Harper's is simply a pleasure to savor. Further, months after publication its contents retain a remarkable currency. Indeed, the mainstream newspapers that I also read continue  referencing issues explored in Harper's months ago. Here, in any case, are some highlights from the August issue:


Petra Bartosiewicz’s “To Catch a Terrorist” will shock those not yet acquainted with the shadowy workings of the Intelligence world. For starters, Bartosiewicz’s reveals, only one person, according to U.S. Department of Justice records, has attempted to commit a terrorist act on American soil and been convicted since 9/11. At the same time the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims it has “amassed more than 1,000 federal ‘terrorism-associated’ prosecutions” during the same ten years. 


Why the totally divergent statistics? Because, Bartosiewicz explicitly states, the FBI is running a de facto ‘protection racket.’ Its details are unknown to most Americans or are otherwise classified on the grounds of 'national security.' It targets so-called ‘pre-terrorists,’ using informants (conscious, arms-length FBI allies) to rope so-called suspects (defined however the U.S. government wishes) into attempting terrorist acts, or else into merely associating with alleged terrorists, terrorist rhetoric, or loose terrorist networks. The article cites the telling example of the Miami Seven, an alleged terrorist cell said to have been busted by the FBI in 2006 for planning an attack on the Chicago Sears Tower. The plot, along with its rhetoric, as well as the opportunity for the attack, were all developed by two FBI informants. 


This pre-emptive ‘racket’, moreover, predominantly targets Muslims. Indeed, they are now essentially the exclusive target of U.S. Homeland Security terrorism-related Intelligence work. Most of this work is done at the ground level by U.S. Intelligence fusion centres, that integrate "all levels of law enforcement." The first was established in 2003. Clearly the central question this and similar scenarios raises is: Where exactly do terrorism investigations end, and terrorist acts begin? 


Ultimately, Bartosiewicz notes, today’s FBI is at liberty to “spy on whomever it wishes, for however long it wishes, even if that individual has never committed a crime or, more important, is not even suspected of one.” Further, though it is officially barred from the racial profiling of suspects, it remains otherwise free to pursue essentially the same ends through religious and/or nation-of-origin profiling. As well, Bartosiewicz adds: 


“Enhanced surveillance and wire-tapping powers initially passed under the PATRIOT Act can now be used against citizens who are merely ‘suspected of associating with radical activists’ … [including] left-leaning political protesters, whether anti-globalist, anti-capitalist, or anti-war.”


Presumably, this  includes participants in the Occupy movement that has swept American and international cities this fall?

There is so much more that I could say about the solid contents of the August 2011 issue of Harper's. In particular, don't miss Nathaniel Rich’s street-level exposé, The Luckiest Woman on Earth: Three ways to win the lottery," about the almost certainly compromised Texas Lottery system. In what remains of this post though I will restrict myself to highlighting some key points made by Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell in "The Tomist," his review of American neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama’s new book The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution


Kingwell's review is noteworthy less for what it says about Fukuyama - the book earns a negative review for failing to take a discernible position – and more for its courage in naming politics as the sham that it is. “Institutions of politics,” Kingwell remarks, justify “the advantages of the few in terms that will be swallowed by the many.” Further, he notes, if they believe they must they will use force without justification to maintain those advantages if and when the otherwise reliable force of ideology (brainwashing, conditioning, material security and comforts) fails to maintain the status quo. Elsewhere, Kingwell succinctly spells out just what this system of advantages look like:

“[E]very political system known to history has been dedicated to some form or other of legitimated extortion: polls, taxes, fines, bribes, and rents, together with their financial-arms-race counterparts of evasion, loopholes, lawyers, and regulatory capture.”


Sound bleak? Perhaps, although as 2011 draws to a close and the wealth gap in most countries widens, one must seriously wonder and ponder.

First published in 1850, Harper’s www.harpers.org remains America’s second longest continuously running magazine after Scientific American, which, in any case, is only its senior by five years. As readily available in drug stores and gas station magazine stands as in Canada’s big box and independent bookstores, Harper’s may well be the English-speaking world’s most rewarding and well-balanced monthly read. Throughout its venerable one-hundred and sixty-one year publishing history, its pages, as Wikipedia notes, have offered up the writings of everyone from Herman Melville and Mark Twain in the nineteenth century, to Winston Churchill and Sylvia Plath in the twentieth. During the past forty years its longest serving editor and contributor was Lewis H. Lapham, who stepped aside in 2006 to found a new publication known as Lapham’s Quarterly.

Continuous publication of Harper’s Magazine, as Wikipedia also notes, has been threatened on at least two notable occasions. The first instance was provoked by a perceived reactionary change in the magazine’s primary ownership, John Cowles, Jr., being the dominant backer at the time. A wave of high profile editorial and other resignations ensued, among them the well-known Norman Mailer and Bill Moyers. A second threat to the magazine’s publication transpired in the early 1980s, when the then majority controller Star Tribune announced that Harper’s would fold. In response, John R. MacArthur intervened, and with the help of several organizations established the Harper’s Magazine Foundation, which continues to publish the magazine today.  Today, in the words of Wikipedia writers, Harper’s remains a consistent and effective internal critic of American domestic and foreign policy.

Beyond all this, Harper’s is distinguished by a principled exercise of imaginative reason, a rare cosmopolitan ethos, and a uniquely tangible humanistic practice. Sober and insightful, its writers normally succeed in critiquing the increasingly mad world we inhabit without falling back on crude or rigid ideological positions. While this stance will disappoint committed Leftists, who will prefer the pages of Canadian Dimension or Z Magazine or Monthly Review, it has the undeniable virtue of enabling a forum in which a spectrum of readers can discourse and, yes, disagree, including social democrats, liberals, and even some conservatives. That being said, Harper’s has consistently published some of the most radical analyses and forward looking articles to appear on the mass market in North America in recent years.