Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘National Geographic

The unique continent

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Early in 1939, the science fiction editor John W. Campbell wrote to Lester del Rey to propose a story idea. As Del Rey recalled years later: “The idea was that maybe [Neanderthals weren’t] killed off fighting Cro-Magnon, but rather died of frustration from meeting a race with a superior culture. I didn’t exactly accept it as good anthropology, but the story took shape easily.” The result, “The Day is Done,” appeared in the May 1939 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, and it moved Isaac Asimov so much that he wept as he read it on the subway. To a modern reader, the most striking thing about it is probably the unsigned editorial note—clearly written by Campbell—that followed the story on its original publication. The magazine didn’t usually provide this kind of extended commentary on specific works of fiction, so many readers must have read it closely, including the following passage:

Anthropologists believe today that, as Lester del Rey has here portrayed, the Neanderthal man died out due to heartbreak…Incredible? Senseless to attribute such feelings to them? We have on earth today an exact and frightening duplication of that cosmic tragedy. The Bushmen of Tasmania are gone; the aboriginal race of Australia are going, become useless beggars without self-respect hanging on the fringes of the white man’s civilization, unable to reach understanding of man’s higher intelligence, and paralyzed to hopelessness thereby. Those who have not contacted white men continue in their own ways, but any missionary, any government protector sent to them—brings death by hopelessness! There is no help for them, for help is death.

I was reminded of these lines after Susan Goldberg, the editor of National Geographic, published a remarkable essay headlined “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.” The magazine has taken a commendable first step—although not the last—to coming to grips with its legacy, and Goldberg outlines its history of reinforcing or creating racial stereotypes in devastating detail. As an example of the ideas that were quietly passed along to its readers, Goldberg cites an article about Australia from 1916, in which pictures of two Aboriginal people carry the stark caption: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.” And when you examine the article itself, which is available elsewhere online, you find language that is so reminiscent of Campbell that I wonder if he might not have read it:

The blackfellow is not a “degraded savage,” but rather a primitive man placed in an unfavorable environment. When food and water are abundant the aboriginal is kind to the infirm, and even shows traits of generosity and gratitude. When the struggle for existence is severe he becomes an animal searching for its pretty. Mentally he is a weak child, with uncontrolled feelings, without initiative or sense of responsibility. In many respects he is intelligent and profits by education, but abstract ideas are apparently beyond his reach. His ignorance, superstition, and fear, rather than viciousness and evil intentions, make him dangerous to strangers.

And as an excellent article by Gavin Evans of The Guardian recently pointed out, this kind of “race science” has never disappeared—it just evolved with the times.

Goldberg doesn’t identify the author of “Lonely Australia: The Unique Continent,” but his background might be the most notable point of all. His name was Herbert E. Gregory, and he was nothing less than the director of the geology department at Yale University. He was an expert on the geography of “the Navajo country” of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah; he extensively documented his studies of “the Indians and geology of Peru”; and shortly after the article was published, he became the director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the home of the largest collection of Polynesian artifacts in the world. Gregory, in other words, was “interested in Indians,” to use Paul Chaat Smith’s devastating phrase, but he was also a distinguished scholar whose career amounted to a guided tour of the areas where contact between native and colonizing peoples took place. In a government publication titled The Navajo Country, which appeared the same year as his piece for National Geographic, Gregory wrote:

To my mind the period of direct contact with nature is the true “heroic age” of human history, an age in which heroic accomplishment and heroic endurance are parts of the daily routine. The activities of people on this stage of progress deserve a place among the cherished traditions of the human race. I believe also that the sanest missionary effort includes an endeavor to assist the uncivilized man in his adjustment to natural laws…This country is also the home of the vigorous and promising Navajos—a tribe in remarkably close adjustment to their physical surroundings. To improve the condition of this long-neglected but capable race, to render their life more intelligently wholesome by applying scientific knowledge, gives pleasures in no degree less than that obtained by the study of the interesting geologic problems which this country affords.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and I know only as much about Gregory as I’ve been able to find in a morning of research. But I know something about Campbell, and I feel justified in pointing out a common pattern. Both Campbell and Gregory were intelligent, educated men in positions of authority who were trusted by their readers to provide information about how the world worked. Astounding was the news of the future, while National Geographic, in the minds of many subscribers, represented the past, and you could probably perform a similar analysis of the magazines on which people relied for their understanding of the present. For all their accomplishments, both men had unexamined ideas about race that quietly undermined the stated goals of the publications in which their work appeared. Campbell undeniably did a great deal for science fiction, but by failing to see that his views were excluding voices that could have elevated the entire genre, he arguably did just as much to hold it back. Try to imagine an editor in the thirties who believed that he had the ability and the obligation to develop a diverse range of writers, and you end up with a revolution in science fiction that would have dwarfed everything that Campbell actually accomplished. And this isn’t a matter of projecting our own values onto an earlier time—Campbell actively conceived of himself as an innovator, and he deserves to be judged by his own high standards. The same holds true for the National Geographic Society, which was founded “to increase and diffuse geographic knowledge,” but often settled for received notions, even if it expanded the horizons of its audience in other ways. Goldberg quotes John Edwin Mason, a professor at the University of Virginia: “It’s possible to say that a magazine can open people’s eyes at the same time it closes them.” This was equally true of Astounding, which defined itself and its readers in ways that we have yet to overcome. And these definitions still matter. As the tagline once read on all of the ads in National Geographic: “Mention the Geographic—it identifies you.”

Birdman, or the unexpected virtue of ignorance

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Jonathan Franzen

By now, many of you have probably read Jonathan Franzen’s baffling New Yorker essay on climate change, as well as the rebuttals it quickly inspired from a wide range of scientists and conservationists. Franzen opens his article by describing himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man,” and he argues that the issue of climate change has usurped time, money, and resources from environmental efforts focused on saving particular species. His proposed solution, if he has one, can be hard to parse in its specifics, but he seems to envision the future as a choice between two alternatives:

We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Franzen doesn’t leave much doubt about where his sympathies lie—although we should also note the neat rhetorical trick here of referring to climate change as a “human” catastrophe, when it’s nothing if not an existential threat to countless species, birds included. And the science and politics behind the piece have already been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. (In Franzen’s insistence that all models are “fraught with uncertainties,” and that “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse” in the wake of global warming, he verges perilously close to his own brand of denialism.)

Still, I don’t think anyone really expected Franzen to come up with startling insights on either science or public policy. What I find more interesting—and which I haven’t seen analyzed so far—are his opinions on the one subject on which he can credibly speak with authority: the way we talk, or ought to talk, about issues like climate change and conservation. He writes:

As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Conservation work, in contrast, is novelistic. No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple.

I think that Franzen gets this precisely wrong, and in ways that are more revealing than he intended. Both climate change and conservation are complicated subjects, but on the level that we’re discussing here—mobilizing voters or donors, raising money, and turning a scientific problem into a political one—conservation has an enormous emotional advantage. Environmental groups have long since learned the power of the flagship species, charismatic megafauna like the elephant or panda that can cement an issue in the collective imagination. It’s what climate change needs but has never had. And although the specifics of either topic may be hard to describe on Twitter, a picture of an endangered spotted owl nests easily on Instagram.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And I know for a fact that Franzen understands this point perfectly, because it parallels the circumstances of his own environmental awakening. In his essay “My Bird Problem,” he says that he first became interested in nature through birdwatching, which in turn was sparked by a confluence of personal factors, including his childlessness, a troubled romantic relationship, and the death of his mother. “Always, in the past,” he writes, “I’d felt like a failure at the task of being satisfied by nature’s beauty.” Birdwatching became his gateway into the natural world, to the point where “nature had become the place where the birds were.” (There’s also a sense in which his obsession with birdwatching was an expression—or alternative form—of his work as a novelist: he describes it as learning how to pay attention, which only meant applying the same intense degree of noticing to nature as he did to human lives.) Later, his birdwatching trips in Europe awakened him to the plight of songbirds, which were being hunted ruthlessly in countries like Malta and Albania, a subject that he’s addressed with great passion and eloquence for The New Yorker and National Geographic. Yet the connection remains indelibly emotional: few readers will ever forget the moment Franzen goes to sample ambelopoulia, or grilled songbird, at a restaurant in Cyprus, and ends by burying their two tiny bodies in the earth with his fingers.

In other words, Franzen’s interest in environmental issues, including climate change, is rooted in an irrational—but genuine—thicket of autobiographical feeling, and much of his recent New Yorker piece reads like the work of a very smart man who has already reached an intuitive conclusion and is casting about for its intellectual justification. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of emotion in motivating environmental action. And Franzen is manifestly aware of its potency: a crucial subplot in his novel Freedom involves the use of the cerulean warbler as a “poster bird” for the larger issue of overpopulation. (As Walter, the protagonist, says: “As long as we put a cerulean warbler on our literature, I can do whatever I want.”) Later, when asked why the foundation has chosen to focus on the warbler, its benefactor says: “I like the bird. It’s a pretty little bird.” Compare this with Franzen’s feelings for a yellow wagtail he saw in Cairo: “My reaction was emotional: Here was a tiny, confiding, warm-blooded, beautifully plumaged animal that had just flown several hundred miles across the desert.” The language is more elevated, but the emotion is the same. And it’s exactly what climate change has always lacked. Instead, it needs writers who can talk about systems of behavior, distill complicated issues into vivid terms, and draw a line between present action and its consequences far in the future. It needs novelists, in short, like Franzen himself. And if he really thinks that climate change is something that can be explicated on Twitter, it’s because his heart has already been captured by a different kind of tweet.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2015 at 9:49 am

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