Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

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I wrote a column about magazines for the Globe and Mail for several years. This piece and the one that follows appeared in that space.

nly what is of a kindly nature is printed ... everything unpleasant or unduly critical being avoided.” Thus reads National Geographic’s guiding principle as formulated by its Board of Trustees in 1915. The magazine, which now has almost 40 million readers worldwide, was founded in 1888. Americans in the late nineteenth century believed in progress. They were beginning to build an empire. National Geographic would demonstrate to its readers every month that the world was an orderly, knowable and safe place. It would collect the world between its covers; reassured readers would collect the magazine.

One finds National Geographic everywhere. Last week, in an old cabin on Lake Superior, I skimmed through back issues from the thirties. There’s not a hint of the Depression. So wonderful a place is Mussolini’s Italy — it’s 1937 — that one writer, John Patric, gushes, “In three months I did not see one animal badly fed or ill-used. I did not see a child punished corporally.” His article, “Imperial Rome Reborn”, contains numerous shots of happy Young Fascists. A 1936 article on the Rhineland informs the reader that Cologne is a less drab place thanks to the brightly-coloured Nazi banners that hang everywhere. A caption reads, “A flaxen-haired girl pins posies on the stalwart warriors who have just marched into Cologne.” Everyone’s smiling.

In the decades that followed, National Geographic continued to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. Articles like “Man’s New Servant, the Friendly Atom” helped readers tiptoe worry-free into the nuclear age. A piece entitled “Cuba: America’s Sugar Bowl” conveniently ignored the conditions that eventually led to Castro. Racial tensions in the U.S. and the war in Vietnam were so played down by National Geographic that satirists had a field day. “The Happy Ghetto: Training Ground for the NBA” read one mock title. A Mad magazine parody poking fun at National Geographic’s obsession with making nice, contained a piece entitled “Why Pygmies Smell Bad.”

Reading National Geographic by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, a book that will be published this fall, points out that the magazine ignored large parts of the world for years. Because it didn’t want to say anything good about the Soviet Union, for instance, and since its editorial principles didn’t allow it to say anything bad, National Geographic published nothing about the USSR between the end of the Second World War and the late fifties, when Richard Nixon travelled there. According to Lutz and Collins, National Geographic offers its readers two worlds — the traditional and the modern and there’s little or no doubt which is better. But it’s clear that if traditional people really apply themselves, they can be just like us.

In the late seventies and through the eighties, National Geographic occasionally published more controversial material — articles about South Africa, AIDS, the effects of acid rain. Circulation declined. A May 1990 cover story on crack, crime and poverty in East Harlem was the final straw. Wilbur Garrett, the editor, who wanted the magazine to become more news oriented, was fired and the magazine returned to more predictable fare — travelogues complete with attractive, bare-breasted native women and beautifully illustrated articles about lightning and other natural phenomena. Stories without teeth. A recent piece about Cairo is summarised thus: “Facing severe pollution and high unemployment, Cairenes somehow retain a sense of serenity.” Oh ya? An article in the current issue on the new zoos briefly raises the question of whether it makes sense for zoos to become modern arks preserving and breeding species that no longer exist in the wild. The question — a good one — is dismissed without real discussion. After all, people might get upset.

What’s almost always missing in National Geographic is context. Why is there high unemployment in Cairo? Why are all those species disappearing? What are the folkways of those exotic natives we’re gazing at really about? I’m reminded of Roland Barthes’ critique of Edward Steichen’s photographic exhibit, The Family of Man, which was intended to demonstrate how alike people all over the world are. We’re all born, we all die, we all work, etc. The exhibit, said Barthes, suppressed “the determining weight of history.” It conveniently ignored such things as mortality rates and the kind of future a child faced depending on where he or she was born.

In 1989, the Gallup organization, in conjunction with the Soviet Academy of Sciences, asked young people from ten countries (including the U.S. and the USSR) to identify sixteen locations on a world map. The Americans came dead last. No surprise. If you believe you’re at the centre of things, there’s no need to know who or where anyone else is.

—Globe and Mail, July 20, 1993

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