Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tip of the hat, wag of the finger...

I want to (partially) tip my hat to Smithsonian Magazine for upping its own ante. It used to be solidly good in an overly bland, bright eyed and patriotic sort of way. (As toothless and pretty as National Geographic, another likeably gummy publication.)

But lately, the articles have had some bite, the writers have shown some opinions, and even covered some indisputably dangerous grounds. OK yes, you're still going to get that same damn picture of Lincoln's stovepipe topper thrown at you (yep, the one he wore to the Ford Theater that cool April 14th night). They've got a museum full of dusty old artifacts after all.

But in this month's issue (January '07), you're also going to get some fascinating (if not deeply penetrating) articles about things like the centuries old Basque/Spain conflict, or the bloody polo matches held at 12,000 ft. in the Shandur Pass region of Pakistan, or an ultra-modern maker of sundials that tell not only time but also place, or a funny riff on Samuel Johnson as the unintentional father of psychotherapy... And so on. I'm not saying this is the pinnacle of journalistic excellence, but I am saying that for a magazine you randomly flip through at the end of the day, with no expectations, they sure do go to some interesting places.

On the other hand, I can't help but notice an obsessive editorial focus on race and genealogy and human pecking orders running throughout. Perhaps this hierarchical mindset hovers in the air in Washington DC where the publication is headquartered. Even so, the notoriously unsqueamish Gazpachot was jarred by one especially creepy insert shot depicting the author of a new book on American mugshot photography. The man, Mark Michaelson, has a menacing enough face, but beyond that, you can plainly see a swastika tattooed on the palm of his hand. This detail could have easily been cropped out. In fact, it seems strangely cropped IN (and is that the red of a Nazi flag behind him?). There is no mention of it in the article. It is just alarmingly out of place even in the context of an article about vernacular mugshot photography. Why would they include this picture? Surely there are other shots of Mark Michaelson that exist. As a magazine editor myself, I can tell you that the chances of this being an oversight are extremely slim. Is this a (none too) subliminal anti-Semitic slur in a national magazine that seems to harp on bloodlines and provenance? Or is this a desperate attempt to provoke readers, to stir up controversy, and get the world to pay attention to a sleepy old magazine? Or am I nuts?

Coping with racism and cultures of hate is bad enough, but to think there might be people pushing this hot button for publicity and profit is repulsive in the extreme.

(poster from a closed Lincoln exhibition at the National Consitution Center)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. The photo of Mark Michaelson does not contain a tattoo of a swastika -- or anything else. I can see how you might think this, but your post is so definitive that I scampered off to the library to see. The picture is of Mark holding up his hands with the words "Mort Lied" written in pen. This is a reference, I think, to events at Radar Magazine. The entire photo can be seen at . I hope you will consider posting a correction/retraction. Thanks.

8:57 AM  

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