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Sizing Up 1990: the Jury’s Still Out

It may be that magazinedom is still burned out from its marathon post-mortem of the 1980s, or perhaps 1990 was simply a numbingly difficult year to assess. In either case, the annual surge of retrospection has been slow in coming.

Esquire sums up things fairly well in introducing its 1990 Dubious Achievement Awards: “The 1990s opened like a Fox sitcom--all high concept and terrific demographics.

“Everything looked pretty good, not just in America but worldwide. The Dubious editors thought it would be a boring year for ridicule.

“But just when things looked bleakest, the world came through. Now . . . we’re standing on the brink of a bottomless pit, and history is yelling, ‘jump!’ ”

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Still, it wasn’t a great year even for buffoonery. Louis Farrakhan told the Washington Post he had been carried into space in a UFO, Barbara Bush’s dog wrote a book, Imelda Marcos threw a party for Ferdinand, who was present in a refrigerated coffin. And, in an item titled “Boy, Were Their Faces Native American!,” Esquire reports: “Due to a computer error, an article in the Fresno Bee about Massachusetts’ budget crisis referred to new taxes that would help put the state ‘back in the African-American.’ ”

On other fronts, the Dec. 24 W magazine decided that this year marked the “Return of the Bitch.” She was defined, with apparent admiration, as “the red-hot manipulator, the she-devil, the woman who’s willing to use her wiles to get exactly what she wants.” Among the examples cited, Madonna and Roseanne Barr.

Meanwhile, in the January Advocate--the National Gay and Lesbian newsmagazine--author Randy Shilts declares 1990 “The Year of the Queer.” Offering ample examples of renewed activism, Shilts says this was a pivotal year for the gay/lesbian/bisexual community. That’s the new term, he says.

“The gay rights agenda had, quite appropriately, been largely sublimated by the health crisis during the 1980s. . . . That trend is over. Lesbians and gay men are now getting involved in politics as gay activists, not as health-care workers. This means that after a decade of near somnambulism, the gay movement is coming alive again,” he says.

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In the mainstream press, however, 1990 hasn’t been declared the year of anything.

The only magazine that approximates the imagery of the wham-bam collages that television news uses so effectively is Life. But this year’s “Special Issue” relies heavily on fabricated images to track trends rather than the tough and beautiful photojournalism for which the magazine is known. The result is sadly peculiar: The photos in the Kodak and Amway ads hit harder than most of the editorial photographs.

While there are several strong pictures, the “Special Issue” is skewed to the trivial, with cutesy studio portraits of such trendy items as battling Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and plenty of posed celebrity shots. Rather than show scenes from South Africa or even good environmental pictures--of which there were an abundance this year--the magazine features a setup portrait of a logger and an owl. Instead of photos of South Africa, there is a silly portrait of a supposed anti-apartheid demonstrator, which diminishes a far more powerful shot of Nelson Mandela relishing in his newly found freedom.

There are exceptions. The black-and-white photo of a cop kneeling over the casket of a 9-year-old gunshot victim; a rainy image of a protest breaking up outside the Kremlin; a nighttime celebration atop the Brandenberg gate.

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The best section centers on the gulf crisis, and the most poignant and troubling of those photos features a 22-year-old woman, M-16 slung over her shoulder, camouflage helmet on her head, hugging her 5-week-old daughter as she prepares to ship out for a tour of indefinite length in Saudi Arabia.

Maybe America’s editors are simply too anxious to think back on a year that could still turn too dramatic for anyone’s taste.

REQUIRED READING

* Story has it that a Stanford dean once attempted to deal with an unproductive professor by suggesting he take an early retirement at half salary. As told in the December issue of Lingua Franca, the Review of Academic Life, “the professor declined, pointing out that, after all, he was already retired on full salary.”

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The cover story in Lingua Franca goes on to discuss the issue of “Dealing with Deadwood” by looking at a proposed program designed by humanities dean Annette Kolodny at the University of Arizona. As Kolodny sees the dilemma, bright, innovative young scholars more often than not are hampered both in getting hired and getting tenure by professors who haven’t kept up with the field.

Few former students could deny that some professors go comatose after publishing their first arcane obfuscation. But this is a sticky issue. It seems possible from this article, for instance, that Kolodny is mistaking the term “cutting edge"--which she uses too often--for “politically correct,” especially as it applies to feminist literary interpretation and multiculturalism.

It is dangerous, another professor warns, to discount the old in favor of the new; to value academic trendiness over “wisdom.” As a related article puts it: “what dean Kolodny might call pruning deadwood,” another professor “would probably call clear-cutting old-growth forest.”

* It’s called “radiophobia” and it has nothing to do with a fear of hearing Michael Jackson. Rather, it’s what Soviet medical authorities call “an increased psycho-emotional reaction to a real or imagined danger of radiation.” The December Atlantic Monthly focuses on the real danger of the “ubiquitous” radiation that blankets the Soviet Union as a result of nuclear weapons’ testing and badly managed and badly designed nuclear reactors. Accompanying the sobering article by Gabriel Schoenfeld are illustrations from a 1987 Soviet handbook of protective gear, such as a radiation-proof baby carriage and a child’s radiation mask.

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NEW ON NEWSSTANDS

The “Me-Decade” is 10 years behind us, but that hasn’t stopped magazine editors from naming publications after themselves. Now Martha Stewart one-ups Grace Mirabella and Frances Lear, who put only their last names on their magazine covers. In her winter preview issue of Martha Stewart Living, the namesake editor tells us that she has written books about “my cooking, my entertaining, my family, my pets, my wedding, my gardens.” Now, thanks to Time Warner publications, she has a magazine to tell us about gift-wrapping, Christmas trees, celebrating the New Year . . . .

RIP: The December Organic Gardening features a nicely understated tribute to Robert Rodale, who became editor of that publication in 1960, and died this year in a traffic accident in the Soviet Union. Also publisher of Prevention, Bicycling, Runner’s World, and Backpacker, Rodale dedicated a good part of his life to the ideals of healthy food and sustainable agriculture.


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