Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: phonies, film, Frantz Fanon, and more.

The editors

November 2, 2023

On agreeing with your friends: Continuing this quarter’s missive debate is Benjamin Samuels, proffering a fiery defense of the editors’ proposition, “Friends should share your values.” If someone’s “worldview is poisoned,” Samuels argues, “You may invite him to dinner. You may go to his wedding. But should you be his friend?” Read Samuels’s letter at the link to assess his answer.

Seeing through: When one thinks of transparency, one should conjure up images of a freshly cleaned windowpane, not businessmen or politicians. But in today’s rush to appear perfectly authentic, the word “transparent” has been appropriated, as if it were Newspeak, by the kinds of public figures who cannot possibly mean it when they use the term. In an essay for the latest issue of The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred M. McClay, a professor of history at Hillsdale College, writes that the ideal of transparency is “phony-baloney.” Instead, all relationships—whether that between a politician and his voters, a businessman and his investors, or even two close friends—should be predicated on a division between the public and private. It’s fine, McClay argues, for leaders to pay lip service to their or their organization’s transparency—as long as they don’t begin to forget that their position requires opacity, too.

Democracy and conspiracy: Although conspiracy is often discussed in relation to eroding democracy and political instability, it has yet to be addressed as a potential window into new strategies for understanding and practicing politics. This is the basis for University of Chicago political science professor Demetra Kasimis’s upcoming lecture, in which she will discuss conspiratorial thinking in classical Athens and what it reveals about democracy. Drawing on the conspiracies evident in ancient Athenian prose, Kasimis will explore how thinkers like Plato foresaw and ruminated on the inevitable entanglement between conspiracy and democracy. Kasimis raises questions about the hidden value of conspiratorial thinking and whether narratives about democratic power from earlier ages may reveal a less presentist view of democracy for our own era. The lecture will take place this Thursday, October 26, from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m. in Kent 107.

Metaphorical violence: “What did y’all think decolonization meant? Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers,” Somali-American writer Najma Sharif posted on X—to the approval of tens of thousands—after Hamas’s terrorist attacks in Israel. While Sharif’s post was doubtlessly in poor taste, Compact Magazine’s managing editor Geoff Shullenberger writes that it got one thing right: the concept of “decolonization” has been stripped of its literal and, indeed, radical meaning as its rhetoric has been adopted by our elite institutions. (Think of the Harvard student groups who, after publicly blaming Israel for Hamas’s attack, complained that the backlash was too much “harassment.”) Drawing on Frantz Fanon, the intellectual godfather of decolonial thought, Shullenberger argues that decolonization cannot be forever separated from the brutal twentieth-century struggles for territory to which the term initially referred. “As the world becomes more dangerous again,” Shullenberger writes in the wake of the raging Israel-Hamas war, “the luxury of metaphorical radicalism may prove too costly to sustain.

Out there: What is the future of film and TV? This daunting question has dominated discussion of the entertainment world of late. Whether it be concerns over the pivot to streaming services, plummeting movie theater attendance in the wake of COVID-19, and, of course, the writers’ and actors’ guilds’ strikes, the film world appears to be weary of its future. One recent movie, however, is taking advantage of the moment to experiment with the medium. 32 Sounds, a self-described “immersive documentary and profound sensory experience,” examines sound itself. Director Sam Green and Oscar-winning audio engineer Mark Mangini (think Dune and Blade Runner) offer their piece in several forms: one tailored for the theater, another scaled down to be watched at home, and a third with music and narration performed live. Is 32 Sounds the future or merely a headline-catching gimmick?