Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: Reaganomics, revolution, Richard III, and more.

The editors

December 1, 2023

Fighting words and the world wide web: Over Thanksgiving break, The Harper Review’s readers have been in for a double feature: this season’s epistolary debate wrapped up with a letter by Jerry Yao, and Levi Freedman reflects on digital technology. In response to the proposition that “friends should share your values,” Yao provides some advice for sparring, verbal and otherwise, with friendly opponents. For a change of pace, read Freedman’s review of A Web of Our Own Making, a recent book by University of Chicago Social Thought alum Antón Barba-Kay that considers the insidious and profoundly revolutionary nature of digital technology. And, if you’re in Chicago, pick up your copy of the autumn issue at Ex Libris Café this Thursday, November 30, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.!

New atheism is dead: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Dutch-American women’s rights activist and outspoken critic of Islam, has converted to Christianity. So where does that leave New Atheism? In a recent essay for UnHerd, Ali details her journey from Islam to atheism and then back to faith twenty years later. Formerly a central figure of New Atheism—an early twenty-first-century movement of atheist academics, scientists, and philosophers whose most prominent members include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett—Ali now writes that “God is dead!” cannot equip the West for civilizational war against Russia, China, Islamism, and even the viral spread of “woke ideology” coming from within. Is Ali’s religious conversion, as her critics claim, more of a strategic move in service of the culture wars than a genuine shift in personal belief? Read her essay to judge for yourself.

Cold case: Phillipa Langley, the British writer and historian who discovered the long-lost skeleton of Richard III, recently published a book detailing her latest historical exploits. In The Princes in the Tower: Solving History’s Greatest Cold Case (Simon and Schuster, 2023) she investigates the disappearances of Edward V and his brother Richard Shrewsbury, the Duke of York. After arriving in London for Edward’s coronation, the two young princes were declared unfit for rule and shut up in the Tower of London. Soon after, the pair vanished and Richard III was crowned king; it appeared that Richard III had the two boys murdered. But Langley argues that Richard III is not the monster that history (and Shakespeare!) made him out to be. Langley argues that Richard III’s framing is a product of Tudor-era revisionist history, and claims that the young Edward and Richard were the real princes. To confirm Langley’s case, all that’s needed is King Charles III’s permission to test the skeletons’ DNA—though the results could challenge the British crown. Perhaps this new treatment of the case will result in answers to British history’s most famous unsolved murder.

Sexual revolution now!: Last September, The Free Press, a news outlet founded by former New York Times journalist Bari Weiss, hosted a debate entitled, “Has the Sexual Revolution Failed?” The social movement—and technological advances, such as birth control—of the sixties and seventies challenged traditional mores and radically changed Western society. For the online centrist or conservative, the debate featured a star-studded lineup. Arguing for the sexual revolution’s failure was Louise Perry, author of The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, and Anna Khachiyan, the cohost of the podcast “Red Scare”; the opposition was Grimes—musician, ex-wife of Elon Musk, and artificial intelligence advocate—and Sarah Haider, who cofounded Ex-Muslims of North America. At long last, a recording of the debate has been released on Weiss’s podcast, “Honestly.” The results are ultimately ambiguous: Khachiyan jumps ship in favor of the sexual revolution, and all four debaters must contend with the progressive nature of such a debate. In the revolution’s wake, what future can be proposed?

The rise and fall of Reaganomics: Nostalgia for the fifties and sixties has remained a consistent theme in contemporary American politics for years, but this begs the question: how did the era’s perceived and real prosperity come to an end? One popular theory holds that the shift from the post–New Deal welfare state to a neoliberal model was to blame. In an essay for The Atlantic, writer Rogé Karma combines insights from three books to argue that the United States was receptive to the “free-market fundamentalism” of the Chicago school of economics in the 1980s not just due to issues of race, class, or Democrat elitism, but a combination of all three. Taken together, Heather McGee’s 2021 The Sum of Us, Gary Gerstle’s 2022 The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order, and David Leonhardt’s 2023 Ours Was the Shining Future, Karma writes, suggest that American politics has reached another inflection point—which direction we’ll head is up to us.