Between the Lines: March-April 2003

March 31, 2003

 

When this issue was in its planning stages, the war with Iraq was looming as a possibility. By the time the issue was in its final stages of design, the war (though certainly not the restoring of civil order) had concluded.

That rapid evolution of events illustrates a dilemma for a magazine with an intellectual focus and a bimonthly schedule: how to keep the content fresh. Representing as it does a place dedicated to forming, propagating, and debating ideas, a university magazine should be addressing the concerns of the day. But as it directs its editorial focus toward those issues, it runs the risk of trying to hit a moving target.

What a university magazine can do--what the intellectual resources available to it should compel it to do--is explore the context behind the events of the moment. This issue provides good examples.

The profile of historian Elizabeth Fenn illustrates how a subject of scholarly interest, smallpox in colonial America, can take on new relevance at a time of terrorist threats. Fenn refers to "a kind of perverse serendipity" to the success of her book. The account of an ecological disaster that followed the first Gulf War--the spilling of more than 400 million gallons of crude oil into the Arabian Gulf--highlights a seldom-explored cost of conflict. It also points to America's tenuous position in Middle Eastern countries that resent its influence.

At a time when analysts are contemplating an imperial America, sometimes with enthusiastic anticipation and sometimes with trepidation, the idea of empire is the subject of the cover story. Was Rome really the scourge of the world? Was Britain a beacon of enlightened imperial rule? And is the Bush administration's particular brand of foreign-policy assertiveness something new for this nation?

In the course of the war, the airwaves were filled with on-the-spot views. It seems to behoove a university, and a university magazine, to take the long view.