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Wishing for "A Modest Proposal"

by Joan L. Cannon

In the October 26 edition of The New York Times Magazine there is an article that should shock the ethical and even the reasonable parts of any reader's brain. The title is "Once Upon a Time in Namibia" with a subhead, "Sergio Leone Meets Ralph Lauren in an African Ghost Town." The title alone takes an entire page.

The first picture is a moody low-key photo of a girl with scraggly hair seated in a window opening (sic.) with an artful lens-flare the brightest spot in the near-silhouette of the picture.  She appears to be looking thoughtfully down on a completely barren landscape with a glaring white sky above.  One can barely see that she is clad in a jacket with raveling hem on the three-quarter sleeve, a tight, long sleeve protrudes from that, and she seems to be wearing a necklace. The picture's caption identifies the designer of the jacket, which is priced at $2,910, pants (invisible) at $1,240, a belt (also invisible and unpriced), and a Lanvin necklace. That little price list is the only text on the page.

The next two pages are photos of respectively, a truly giraffe-like figure clad in a sort of slouch hat, two-piece tan dress, elbow-length black gloves, and stiletto-heeled shoes.  She is leaning against a scabrous interior wall in a building obviously long abandoned. The facing page shows a desert landscape photographed through a ruined window and absent wall indicated by the remains of severely weathered wood that form the frame. In the near distance is what appears to be the same model in the same hat, but this time in a black evening gown accompanied by what look like long brown leather gauntlets. The left-hand page in the spread again has the only text for both pages. It consists of the clothes designer's names and the prices for the main items. They begin in excess of one thousand dollars, and the gown on the right-hand page is $10,000.

This same style (?) continues for four more pages, each as heat-drenched and arid and empty as the first. The dramatic atmosphere of once-inhabited desolation is astonishing — an effective photo essay on a recently independent and obviously nearly destitute part of Africa.

If the reader thinks that, it's only for a brief instant, before he gets to the sparse, tiny, white-ink inscriptions on the lower corners of the pages.

The model is extremely thin and extremely tall and her hair needs combing. The clothes are black or tan and without exception unflattering. The prices are staggering. The pictures are artistic, emotionally charged, and memorable.

I felt as if I'd fallen into some kind of out-of-body experience, or had misread the few words available after the whole page of elaborate fonts and background for the title. What was the editor thinking? Above all, I wondered, Why was that place used as a setting for those designers to exhibit those clothes at those prices? Above all, what was the editor thinking?

There seems to be no excuse for the callousness of the choice of such a site for the exploitation of conspicuous consumption. I thought of Swift's ability to flay human folly and wished I could somehow convey in the way he would have done the combination of fury and incredulity that assailed me as I looked at that spread in a respected, traditionally liberal medium I've known since childhood. If "the medium is the message," I tremble for us all who can accept it without question.

©2008 Joan L. Cannon for



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