Harper’s Notes (2/13)

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: memory, manufacturing, maintaining mastery, and more.

The editors

February 13, 2024

Imperative history: Sami Jinich invokes Kant in his response to The Harper Review’s proposition that “We should never forget the past.” That statement is an impossible imperative, Jinich writes. We are not capable of “never forgetting,” so why ask it of ourselves? Turning to the limits of memory, he argues that it is still good to remember even if the act of recollection inevitably corrupts the past we’re reaching for. And perhaps just as we have no choice but to forget, we are also forced to remember: Rafael Llull posits in his letter that our being is nothing but an amalgamation of memories. Just as a ship is controlled by its rudder in the rear, Llull explains, we are guided by our past. Given that history is our collective memory, Llull worries that our society today lacks the knowledge of the past to guide us through turbulent waters.

The end of the world as we know it?: Just over a year ago, the Doomsday Clock was advanced to 90 seconds before midnight, signaling a consensus among experts that the world is approaching an unprecedented catastrophe. The coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan are just a few of the factors that have destabilized the liberal world order. How far should America go to maintain its global preeminence? Or is American preeminence already a thing of the past? Should America adopt a policy of appeasement towards its near-peer competitors or risk a nuclear confrontation in hopes of maintaining dominance? Steve Salerno, a professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, addresses these questions in an essay for the online magazine Quillette, which you can read at the link.

(Un)made in the USA: Will America ever be a manufacturing powerhouse again? Likely not, as Rachel Slade argues in her new book Making It in America: The Almost Impossible Quest to Manufacture in the U.S.A. (And How It Got That Way). Slade’s book recounts the story of Ben and Whitney Waxman, a young couple struggling to produce a line of hooded sweatshirts using only American materials and local, unionized workers. The Waxmans’ story reveals not only the sad state of the American manufacturing industry but also the story of how we got here and where the US can go from here, the former Boston magazine editor writes. By turns inspiring and infuriating, Making It in America is essential reading for anyone interested in America’s economic history and, more importantly, its economic future.

Gerontocracy and its discontents: Yale University law and history professor Samuel Moyn has penned a thoughtful essay on the history and perils of “gerontocracy”—rule by the old. His consideration arrives at a moment when Americans are increasingly concerned that their leaders have grown decrepit. Moyn observes in the literary magazine Granta that rule by the elderly is hardly a new phenomenon; most premodern societies revered the elderly and practiced ancestor worship. But according to Moyn, those premodern societies had a mechanism for dealing with leaders who had grown too old: they killed them. While we rightfully recoil from the thought of murdering the old and infirm, Moyn contends that we must develop humane policies to prevent the elderly from hoarding financial and political power if we wish to preserve our country’s political vitality.