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Anniversary Issues Reveal a Lot About Changes in U.S. Culture

April 15, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN

Do magazines shape the culture or merely reflect it?

As it happens, four magazines celebrate anniversaries in May, and their celebratory issues offer insight into four very different intersections of culture and media.

* The biggest anniversary belongs to TV Guide, which marks its 40th by naming the best television shows in history.

The magazine made its choices, it reveals, based on such criteria as quality, how well the show has withstood the test of time and "the influence and impact of the series, both on the medium of television and on American culture."

Serious couch potatoes will be horrified to discover that "The Rockford Files" isn't named Best Show Ever.

But the other choices seem reasonable, if safe. Each category names a winner from the magazine's four decades--the '50s to the '80s--and, usually, an overall winner.

Here's a sampling, with the final winner left out in fairness to check-stand browsers:

Best Sitcoms: "I Love Lucy," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "MASH" and "Cheers." (OK, "MASH" won overall. Jay Leno spilled the beans already.)

Best Game Shows: "What's My Line?," "Password," "Jeopardy!" and "Wheel of Fortune."

Best Westerns: "Maverick," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke" and . . . Whoa, there! The Western trail seems to have run out in the 1980s.

Best Cartoons: "Gumby," "The Bullwinkle Show," "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" and "The Simpsons."

* TV Guide had already been around 15 years in 1968, when a mimeographed broadside titled Reason first appeared.

Now the May issue of Reason arrives, all polished and professional, with a history of the last 25 years as only libertarians could write it.

The collection of articles--"25 Years, What Now? The Next Quarter Century"--is heavy with the polysyllabic free market ruminations to which fans of Ayn Rand are prone.

It's also surprisingly upbeat.

"In 1968 to be a pessimist about world freedom was to be a realist. . . . Are 1993's realists, by way of contrast, the optimists?" asks Loren E. Lomasky.

The answer seems to be yes . No one takes more joy in communism's downfall than a libertarian, and the glee is thick here.

"The bourgeois have won," writes University of Iowa professor Donald McCloskey. "Furthermore, they deserve to win, since they are the good guys. The 21st Century will be the century of the universal middle class. . . . The class structure that the intellectuals analyzed so vigorously in 1848 and have since tried to keep in place is going or is gone."

Says John McClaughry: "The world of 2018 will feature a dynamic, flexible global economy, with economic rewards flowing to those with brain power, a work ethic and a governmental regime built on sound respect for property rights, stable currency and governmental restraint."

Finally, editor Virginia Postrel manages the seemingly impossible: She finds a new and refreshingly unusual vantage point from which to examine the much discussed issue of diversity.

Take just a small piece of her intricate analysis. Here's what she says about language and "how we describe ourselves": Deceased Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall's wife is Filipina, and the couple's sons are both married to white women.

"Ethnicity has always been an easier barrier for Americans to cross than race," she writes. " Black and white are ghettos captured in words. Hispanic was invented to turn the latest wave of immigrants into a new race and a new race problem. But Latinos stubbornly resist that term (and Latino), preferring to be called Mexican or Cuban or Salvadoran or whatever. . . .

"The best news on the language front is, however, the oh-so-cumbersome term African-American . . . . African-American turns race into ethnicity. It transforms the huge, insurmountable difference of Jim Crow into the small, interesting details of urban neighborhoods. . . . It changes color into a person, into an American. It is, in fact, a de-Balkanizing term. Eventually, perhaps, we may not even need it.

"What, after all, do you call Thurgood Marshall's grandchildren?"

* 1973, the year Reason chides for birthing the Federal Energy Administration, also spawned Backpacker magazine.

Most Reason readers will probably find Backpacker's 20th anniversary issue, with its enthusiastic endorsement of all regulations environmental, about as pleasant as a barefoot stroll through desert tortoise habitat.

Others will find the issue extremely well-executed, a pleasant reminder of how far the appreciation of nature has come and how deeply ingrained the outdoor life remains in American culture.

True adventurers will enjoy the guide to equipment advances during the last 20 years. Remember the days before dome tents, Gore-Tex and polypropylene long johns?

Backpacker's "best of" lists are, in some ways, the best of the anniversary lot, illustrated with wanderlust-inspiring photographs. And who knew that of the 10 highest U.S. waterfalls, seven are in Yosemite? Or that three of the world's tallest are in that park?

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