Why does Smithsonian feel the need to be so topical?
For this department a distinguished writer is asked to read the magazine’s feature articles before publication and to comment or elaborate on them or take issue with them.
Ok, call me an unpatriotic grump, but I don’t see why everything we read these days has to have something to do with anthrax or Afghanistan. The September 11 attacks were a tragedy of shocking proportions for Americans, but they did not—contrary to the extreme statements made at the time—change our world forever in ways that will sever the future from the past. We readers are still pretty much the same people we were before, and we still have the same desire for diverse, touching, informative material of all sorts. So why do all our publications (and Smithsonian is certainly not alone in this) feel the need to grind our noses in their own topicality, month after desperate month? And why can’t a little of the connection-making be left up to the reader?
Take the article on Lewis Hine’s photographs of Empire State Building in the first paragraph was enough to bring the World Trade Center to my mind. And the article could have ended beautifully, evocatively, with the phrase, "And we still do." Why, then, do we need that overstated, mawkish, subtlety-crushing final paragraph, which directs our thoughts into a channel they had already taken more naturally on their own?
The same was true, I felt, about the article on Louis Pasteur. Do we really need to hear about anthrax again? And though the deaths have been tragic, surely "anthrax devastation" is too strong a phrase for the hysterical scare we went through in the fall.
The Afghanistan photographs and text about United States not decided to wage war over that ground. But my problem with the piece stems from another source: its patently exploitive exoticism. How are we ever going to understand or sympathize with a culture if we view it as a conglomeration of long beards, odd urinating habits and hidden Arabian Nights treasures? The need to see Afghanistan and other largely Muslim societies as part of the same world we inhabit is more pressing than it ever has been (if September 11 did not teach us that, what did it teach us?), and in the face of such urgency, I find the viewpoint of this piece distinctly disturbing. Afghanistan may not have changed much since Marco Polo’s time, but—at least to judge by this piece—our own xenophobia hasn’t improved much since the late 19th century.
The strongest article in the issue, as a piece of reportage and writing, is Frances Fitzgerald’s account of her latest trip to Vietnam. Like the Hine piece as it would have been without the final paragraph, this is a nice way of commenting indirectly on current events. We are once again engaged in a war with a distant culture that is explicitly antagonistic to our modernized, industrialized, highly capitalized society. Buried in the cleanly written, straightforward descriptions of FitzGerald’s report is a subtly presented story about the conflict between two worlds of thought, each of which considers itself to be inarguably correct. But no position, as FitzGerald perceives, is inarguable, and her final paragraph, which alludes to "the traditional order reasserting itself in order to deal with what Westerners blithely call modernization," shows how clearly she understands this. If the articles mentioned above suffer from undue topicality, this piece benefits from something quite different: an informed sense of history.
Not every article in the issue touches on current events, and of course I enjoyed most the ones that don’t. I liked reading about John Steinbeck’s naturalism (though I can’t forgive the omission of East of Eden in the list of his best novels). I enjoyed the dragonfly piece and the tiger piece for opposing reasons: the dragonfly one because it is written with self-conscious, self-mocking wit, the tiger one because it exhibits the kind of blinkered restriction of vision one doesn’t usually find outside of Dickens’ most obsessive characters. Yes, we can take a special kind of delight in the non-human natural world (as the dragonfly piece so delicately suggests), but this does not mean we have to slight the rights of humans. The tiger expert clearly felt that it was somehow unreasonable of the local residents to resent the tigers for eating up their relatives and neighbors; and though I could see that he did his best to overcome this perspective—the Tigers Rule perspective, you might call it—he distinctly failed to do so.
My favorite piece in the issue, finally, is the one on Mies Van der Rohe and the Richard Liebmann-Smith had been. He had found something deeply, engagingly silly to say that was nonetheless a striking insight into Mies’ architectural style—and he trusted me to figure out the connection. If only all the other pieces in this issue could have done as much.