Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: book banning, party politics, caped crusaders and more.

The editors

February 27, 2023

Decline of liberalism: Do we live in a post-liberal world? Many thinkers, left and right, argue that it’s time to give up the trappings of liberalism and replace it with something more effective. In the closing essay for The Harper Review’s inaugural issue, Niko Malhotra argues that liberalism admittedly erodes one of the essential characteristics of human life: what he dubs “unchosen obligations,” the responsibilities we have that are meaningful and fulfilling precisely because they’re involuntary. But Malhotra cautions against a wholesale rejection of liberalism, advocating instead to protect these unchosen obligations within a prosperous and free liberal democracy. Read Malhotra’s essay now in The Harper Review.

Our empty promises: Almost a month after the initial train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the national press and politicians have started giving this disaster the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, David Graham writes for The Atlantic, the response has been divided along partisan lines. Democrats, Graham claims, have difficulty providing anything but technocratic policy lectures, while Republicans pay lip service to the issue in public but exacerbate it in private. Ultimately, no politicians have offered anything to those affected by the train derailment beyond empty promises—those, too, have only been offered due to the attention this story has gained through grassroots efforts. What happens when interest dries up? Residents of East Palestine may soon face that reality.

Techno-pessimism: After controversies in Silicon Valley involving Twitter’s Elon Musk and FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried, “startup founders have begun to look more like frauds than philosopher kings,” the editors of The Drift write. For the politics and culture magazine’s ninth issue, eleven writers, some of whom have worked in the tech industry, tackle the topic of Big Tech’s future. The editors note that over 150,000 tech workers lost their jobs in 2022 alone and stocks have plunged. What are we to make of the downturn in the public perception of Big Tech that has come as a result? David Ethan Jones-Krause, an organizer with the Alphabet Workers Union; Sophie Haigney, an editor at The Paris Review; and more weigh in.

Burn, baby, burn: Who’s afraid of J.K. Rowling? Plenty of people, according to a new podcast from Bari Weiss’s The Free Press. In the second episode of The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling (controversial for its title alone), activist and former member of the Westboro Baptist Church Megan Phelps-Roper interviews the Potter author on the series’s explosive popularity in the nineties. And explosive it was, given that one Harry Potter book signing received a bomb threat from far-right Christians attempting to protect American children from witchcraft. Asked about the decade fraught with religious fundamentalism, book bannings, the rising twenty-four-hour news cycle, and the violence of Columbine, Rowling expresses a John Stuart Mill–inspired dedication to free speech: “[book] burning is the last resort of people who cannot argue.”

I solemly swear: In early January, news of congressman Robert Garcia swearing into office on a first-edition 1939 copy of “Superman No. 1” flew under the radar, as did an essay by Rabbi Daniel Feldman musing on the significance of Garcia’s choice. The essay, which appeared in Tablet, proves that The Harper Review is not the only publication considering the links between caped crusaders and common cultural values. Feldman argues that Superman embodies the power and importance of chinuch, a Hebrew word signifying moral education. Superman is not a weapon or symbol of power, but rather a testament to the importance of an honest upbringing and values-based education to proof the lucky and the strong against the strains of corruption—and it is exactly this sort of resilience in the face of moral corruption, Feldman suggests, that all congressmen could take to heart as they are sworn into office.