They started coming days after Sept. 11, the crass come-ons wrapped in patriotism or solemnity or grief: "Buy a Twin Towers pendant and 10 percent of the proceeds will go to 9/11 relief." And 90 percent will go in our pockets, thank you very much.
As odious as these ambulance-chasing e-mailers are, they are but little fish when compared with the barracudas who troll the lobbies of Washington, seeking to feed on federal largesse with whatever current event they can use for bait.
That lobbyists act this way is, of course, no surprise, and it's only slightly more distressing when their excuse is the unprecedented calamity of the attacks on America. But the accumulation of how low they will stoop, as laid out by Bill Hogan in the April Mother Jones, makes worthwhile reading.
For example, the farm lobby saw the buildings fall and concluded that the attacks had "bolstered the argument that food production is vital to the national interest." Another group claimed that "protecting the nation's coastline is also vitally important," which might have worked had the group not been the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association and the pitch not been for $135 million of sand for "beach nourishment."
Hogan doesn't rely only on expected voices to deride the gluttony. When someone says that "it's pretty much open season," it mostly just expresses the obvious. But when the someone is James Albertine, president of the American League of Lobbyists, that's got some weight.
The magazine's lead story, on "The Fundamental John Ashcroft," is also a worthy effort. David Corn details both the disinterested start that Ashcroft evinced as attorney general and the transformation triggered by Sept. 11: Ashcroft changed not only his mien but his politics, such as when he called for some immigration hearings to be held in secret, when a year earlier, Corn writes, Ashcroft argued that using secret evidence in immigration hearings was unfair to an accused.
The typical Mother Jones story leans left, of course, and so does this one, but the story is not a hatchet job. Corn quotes a government lawyer saying that Ashcroft is smart and a fast read, and allows, in a left-handed sort of way, that "Ashcroft's performance was not that of a full-fledged religious-right crusader" before citing actions that have disappointed that part of the spectrum.
For a slightly less-balanced story, let's turn to Dwell, a magazine that sprang from somewhere near the intersection of House Beautiful (for content) and Wired (for design) in fall 2000. "Slugging It Out in Louisville," by senior editor Allison Arieff, follows up on the saga of the Wyatts, an arty couple seeking to have their little corner of modernism in a Louisville neighborhood where things just aren't done that way.
The guts of the tale are interesting, but what's particularly amusing is how Arieff frames it. There is, for instance, her description of Brenda Burchett, the neighbor who's leading the opposition. Arieff compares her to Mrs. Kravitz, who lived across the street on the sitcom "Bewitched," an allusion that has never been made in flattery.
When Arieff discusses neighbors' objections that the house glows, she writes, "well, it does - but only on the rare occasions when the Wyatts choose to light it from within. When they do, it's breathtakingly beautiful." Translation: The complaint is valid, but the perpetrators don't usually commit the offense, and besides, the cretins would love it if they had any taste.
The magazine first visited the situation in December 2000, an action it says galvanized opposition to the house, which conceivably could be razed if opponents win. Perhaps it is editors' guilt over having alerted neighbors that explains the snobbery that oozes from so many paragraphs.
OH, THE PHYSIOGNOMY!
Before picking up the March issue of Smithsonian, I would have been unable to use the word "physiognomy" in a sentence. (Random House defines it as "the art of determining character or personal characteristics from the form or features of the body, especially of the face.") But the magazine manages not one but two such sentences, and both of them by famous people.
Its lead story is about grown-ups who like to climb trees, a recreational sport that isn't new but appears to be in extended infancy: Tree Climbers International, for example, which is dedicated to tree climbing at a very high level, has only 600 members, according to Jim Morrison's story.
Such a story would rightly include reverence for "the planet's tallest living organisms," and naturalist John Muir, writing a hundred years ago, obliges, describing giant sequoias as "lonely, silent, serene, with a physiognomy almost godlike."
Then, further further into the issue, the Museum of Fine Arts gets a nod for its "Impressionist Still Life" exhibition. There, in a caption on the first of six pages, is Paul Cezanne, declaring that "people think a sugar bowl doesn't have a physiognomy, a soul."
In the main, Smithsonian is written without pretension, quite accessible, and filled with interesting people and lustrous photography. (Current example: Louis Psihoyos's pictures that help tell the tree climbers' story.)
So noting such a rare double is of little value, except perhaps to put a face on a slight little oddity.