February, 2001 | At the small New England college
I attended, majoring in American Studies packed a great
promise: the opportunity to rub shoulders with the program
chair, legendary "Americanist" Richard Slotkin. Unfortunately
for me, Slotkin and I missed each other, shoulders and all.
As it happened, Slotkin was "on leave" for three-and-a-half
of my four years, working on a titanic study of gunslinger
mythology in the American mindset. His research yielded
no less than three books on the topic. Fascinating stuff,
if you're into that sort of thing.
Even though he was never around in those days, Slotkin
remained a badge of pride for the program. Saying you were
in "The Department of Slotkin" felt a little like Republicans
must feel when they say they're in "The Party of Lincoln,"
even if it doesn't mean much at any given time. The analogy
seems especially pertinent today, since Slotkin's new book
tackles no less a historical sacred cow than Honest Abe
Does Slotkin's Abe do anything to tip that cow,
you may ask? Far from it. In fact, it's an indulgence in
Lincoln mythology of, well, mythic proportions. Anybody
who knows his or her American history knows it's not unreasonable
to suggest that Lincoln's signature actfreeing the
slaveswas the right thing done for the wrong reasons.
His Emancipation Proclamation was an empty promise (he didn't
have the jurisdiction) and a pragmatic army recruitment
drive. If the myth seems convincing to you, consider this
infamous quotation: "If I could save the Union without freeing
a single slave," Lincoln said, "I would." To whom did he
address this and what did he mean by it? Those are challenging
questions to answerprobably even fairly mitigatingbut
the statement itself can't be ignored as a part of the man.
Slotkin's book, a thrilling historical novel that fictionalizes
Lincoln's childhood, begins not with the man, but with the
boy, and thus, more easily, the myth: it asks the
question, how did Lincoln grow up amidst the racism of early
19th century Illinois and emerge as a man most emphatically
not of his place or time? (Slotkin's answer, in part: an
imagined Huck Finn-like adventure with a "white inside"
slave sidekick.) What's so interesting about the book is
that instead of exposing American myth like his earlier
work, it takes existing myth and expands it. My only
fear is that his original point about our culture's thriving
on myth will be undermined if the book does not sell.
A far more poignant point for our day and age might be
one that throws Lincoln to the wolves, surrenders him to
any party or candidate that wants to co-opt his image. If
you take him at his wordprioritizing saving "The Union"
(read: his job) above ending the greatest crime against
humanity that America has gotten around to yetis Lincoln
any less careerist than the modern counterparts who co-opt
his name and myth?
I recently saw a TV documentary on Apple co-founder Steve
Wozniak. Now here's a man whose lasting impact on the world
has arguably not been terribly significantsure, he
invented the Apple II, but it's the II's adopted stepbrother,
the Xerox-designed Mac, that begat Apple's lasting lineage.
But the path Wozniak followed seems refreshing today compared
to those of his peers, if only because his ambition always
had teeth to it. Misstepping from the U.S. Festival to the
universal home electronic remote, at least the guy had his
heart in the right place. Meanwhile, Wozniak's former partner,
Steve Jobs, has made a career of innovationthat is,
he's become a maverick-by-numbers, passing off cosmetic
contrariness for vision and, uh, "genius." He's also made
a career of selling Apple users a myth of themselves, an
image of a different-thinking artistic computing elite,
ever-reinforced by the knowledge that 90% of the computing
world remains too unhip to punch the same colored keypads
that they do.
But if your artistic ambitions run to DVD, the Mac world
is a frustrating place to be these days. Three years into
the DVD era, Apple's DVD strategy remains a mystery. Specifically,
what are Apple's plans for the MIA DVDirector that the company
bought from Astarte and promptly buried? The return of Steve
Jobs and the rise of his G and i models seem to have guaranteed
the company a long and visible, if not necessarily especially
prosperous life. Apple is Number Two with a bullet and that
seems an oddly comfortable place to be; exclusion and exclusivity
so often go hand in hand. But where does DVDirector fit
in Apple's comfort zone? Within the company's assault on
consumer computing, is there room for advancing a professional
DVD authoring platform? Or is DVDirector doomed to be buried
like a ballot box, or to spend eternity as an extra in the
Purchasing DVDirector and its engineers could have
been a visionary move, not entirely unlike the move EMedia
implored Microsoft to make by embedding CD recording capability
in the OS some years back. Throughout the 1990s, as Windows
was winning the world, the multimedia authoring community
flocked to the Mac platform to develop titles that would,
for the most part, be run under Windows. Buying DVDirector
gave Apple a chance to cement that relationship in the DVD
era with the best justification of their Apple allegiance
that authors have ever had: building blocks of built-in
authoring and run-time support for DVD all but unimaginable
in the Windows world. But, since advancing DVD authoring
barely qualifies as a niche achievement compared to getting
the whole consumer electronics world to make colorful boxes
that look like yours, it hardly seems the kind of "career-making"
innovation that's Steve Jobs' stock in trade. Here's hoping
he steps up at MacWorld 2001 and proves me wrong.