Genesis of the Dispatches
The Genesis of Shoumatopia.com and DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com
I’ve been writing for magazines for thirty years. I was a staff writer for the New Yorker from l978 to l990 and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair from l995 until July of 2001. I specialize in writing about remote parts of the world, places that are not on the modern wavelength or grid. Lemurs in Madagascar, pygmies in the Ituri Forest, the murder of Dian Fossey in Rwanda, of Chico Mendes in the Amazon, the abduction of the eleventh Panchen Lama in Tibet, the race to find the winter colonies of the monarch butterfly in Mexico. The New York Times described me in the mid-eighties as “consistently the farthest-flung of the New Yorker’s far-flung correspondants.”
The eighty-some pieces I’ve cranked out since I first broke out into print, in Rolling Stone Magazine in l971, have been a tremendously rewarding experience in terms of the people I’ve gotten to meet and the places I’ve been able to get to. But there were things that bothered me about writing for glossy general-interest magazines from the beginning. The ads for $10,000-dollar necklaces that shared the page with my story of running around in the rainforest with some local dude I was paying top dollar in that part of the world—fifty cents a day—to be my guide.
These ads, of course, made it possible for me to go to these places and to actually make a living from writing about them, which would be inconceivable in almost any country except the U.S. and a few others. I told myself that everybody renders unto Caesar one way or the other, that I was recycling a minute soupcon of America’s opulence to a few of the dirt-poor, dark-skinned billions of people Jack Kerouac called “the Fellahin Indians of the world,” and that I was doing something subversive planting stories about such non-celebrities in the mainstream American media. Here are some snapshots of the people I’m talking about that I’ve taken over the years.
Only in the last couple of years did I begin to learn what had to be done to get the diamonds for the necklace in the case of the rocks that are “conflict diamonds.” Elephants are being killed to feed the miners, the proceeds are going to arm guerillas with weapons from the West with which they are massacring the local people and exterminating the wildlife. The malaise I felt about being underwritten by these ads and showcased beside them intensified as I kept going to these last remote, pristine places and finding that they were being destroyed what Simon Elegant, a journalist for Asia Times, has called the “cancer of modern life.” This cancer takes many forms, from chainsaws and bulldozers, to television and Coca Cola to the effects of hundreds of million car exhausts on the global climate. The modern world’s insatiable appetite for resources is wiping out many traditional cultures and magnificent ecosystems around the world. The very world that I was going to great lengths to escape.
If Jeremy Rivkin is right, 66% of the world’s resources are flowing to the USA, which is only 4% of the world’s population, so that we can enjoy our enviable lifestyle, the American good life which we take to be as much our inalienable right as we do our many freedoms. “Hey, so we’re doing more than our bit,” as a darkly humorous friend at Rolling Stone puts it. The glossy magazines of course glorify and incentivate this selfish and obliviously destructive hyperconsumption.
Once I put this together, found out for instance as I did last fall that gorillas are being mowed down and roasted by miners of a rare mineral in the Congo called coltan that is necessary for every cellphone, I felt as if I was condoning and legitimizing extinction by being a beneficiary of the enormously successful capitalism that was largely responsible for it. Local population growth is of course the other big factor.
On top of these growing moral reservations, I also had basic creative problems with the magazine-article genre itself. A magazine article is a set, one-dimensional, and to me very confining form. It has to have a beginning, middle, and end and to stay on one track and move along readably, while reality is an infinitely more confused and multi-layered affair. It was peeling these layers that to me was the most fascinating part about being a “journalist,” a profession I didn’t chose as much as fell back on in my late twenties, after abortive careers as a poet and singer-songerwriter. I have, it is safe to say, an unusually curious and far-ranging mind, and I have always been interested in the full story, in all its complexity and ambiguity, and over the years doing my best to deliver it has become my personal contract with the reader. But to do this generally requires at least twenty or thirty thousand words—a novella-length piece rather than a short-story-length one. But no magazine publishes pieces of such length any more. The only one that ever did was the New Yorker under the editorship of the legendary William Shawn, who devised the open-ended “long fact” piece, to do full justice to important subjects, which were often ones that not many people knew about and were not on the mainstream media’s radar.
I was a practitioner of this wonderfully commodious form, a long fact writer, until Mr. Shawn retired in 1986, and for several years thereafter. By 1990 the genre was pretty much extinct. The New Yorker today, under the editorship of David Remnick, is one of the few publications that still regularly runs solid, substantial pieces on foreign and domestic issues, but you rarely see a piece in any magazine that is longer than 10,000 words. The environment and Africa, two of my main beats and among the most important problems for the planet, are getting short shrift. The current zeitgeist is anti-environmental, anti-intellectual, parochial, and dumbed down. It was no accident that George W got to be our 43rd president. He was its poster boy. Magazines if they expect to attract high circulation have to be in sync with the zeitgeist. I begin to look through them at found that in issue after issue there was nothing there, nothing to read or think about, only articles on the latest Hollywood scandal or palm-sized organizer.
Things came to a head this spring. Here I was 54 years old. I had written ten books and all these magazines articles, but I had only managed to express maybe 5% of what I wanted to get out. Most of the really interesting stuff is in the 285 numbered journals, with forty thousand or so pages of notes, that I have been keeping religiously since the late sixties. I wanted to go through them and organize this vast body of impressions and information from all over the world, in every state of mind. But I had become a servant of the media. It was very well-paid and seductive. I got to meet and interact with people I never would have otherwise : Donald Trump, Robert Redford, the Dalai Lama, Uma Thurman. But my intellectual curiosity and cultural plasticity were becoming more and more of a liability. I had always felt like something of a renegade and a misfit in the magazine world. Now I felt that way more than ever. I needed to take charge of my own product and my own life, to be true to myself. So I cast about for alternative ways to support my writing and my family. Some way to make the fifteen years or so remaining in my career as productive and useful as possible.
In the fall of 2000 the United Nations Foundation, Ted Turner’s billion-dollar fund to support the programs of the United Nations, hired me to do a report on four national parks in the eastern-rebel-held part of the Congo, whose wildlife includes some of the crown jewels of the American kingdom like the mountain gorilla and the okapi and is being decimated by a collection of desperate individuals, many of them psychotic killers, who are holed up in the parks and living off the game. Harper’s Magazine was also interested in a piece on my trip. The income from the foundation and the magazine added up to only half of what I was making, but I realized that this double assignment offered the alternative I was looking for. Plus I was doing something useful and something that I believed in: contributing to raising consciousness about the world’s fast-disappearing species and cultures. I could make up the difference by stepping up book production.
So I made several calls, one to a environmental foundation and the other two a group of people who are interested in promoting coverage of Tibet and its problems, and by the end of the afternoon I had raised $70,000. This gave me the courage to proceed.
Gradually a grand vision of a website in which I would finally be able to express myself fully began to take shape in my mind. It could have music, photos and video footage, and everything I have ever written and will write from now on. I could post all ten books and all the magazine articles and start working my way through the notebooks. It would be the unprecedented record of a consciousness, a peripatetic version of Proust. There could be special sections devoted to butterflies and mushrooms—two forms of life that I have a special affinity to. The possibilities, I realized, were unlimited.
My family and friends and I toyed with several names for the site : Ultraflung, The Total Suitcase, the Sauntering Suitcase, Shoumatovia, which my second son thought sounded sinister. He suggested Shoumatopia. Which has just the right positive utopian ring, as well as implying the reader is going to get a veritable cornucopia of information that he isn’t going to be able to get anywhere else. The range of the site would be unprecedentedly broad. For golfers there would be a section called Investigative Golf—a new form of journalism—post-gonzo, participant-observor, dada– that I invented in the early nineties, at the height of my obsession with the game, and perfected by playing rounds with O.J.Simpson’s and Clinton’s buddies and on the old colonial courses in central Africa. The very eclectic nature of the site would attract a large readership naturally and organically.
It happened that my good friend Anthony Sapienza was starting a web magazine called The Spook, and he has been giving me a lot of advice and play in his magazine, which is a complete gas and a totally refreshing entry into the fray. I’m basically a technophobe and a cyber ignoramus. So my oldest son, Andre, has been designing the sites. He just graduated from the University of Vermont where he created a site to raise consciousness in the ski world about global warming called Slush Sucks.
We have started by putting up DispatchesFromTheVanishingWorld.com, which is its own URL and is the only part of Shoumatopia that has backing. The first Dispatch contains a discussion of loss in general that tries to identify how the loss of the planet’s biological and cultural diversity is different from other types of loss. It ends with a section on the calamitous events of September 11, which made me realize that our own modern culture is just as vulnerable as the cultures and species it is wiping out, that the mission of the Dispatches has to be expanded to embrace our own society, which has so many uniquely great things going for it that would be horrible to lose. Many of the negative aspects, including the aspects of the magazine trade that were bugging me, have been rectified by Mr. Bin Laden. I won’t have much to anything to bitch about for the foreseeable future. The barons and tinpot dictators of the magazine world have been taken down a few pegs, and we are going to be seeing a sharp reduction in the ads for ten thousand dollar necklaces. So I’m willing to cut them some slack for the time being.
But when I do have something to contribute, it will appear in a truculent Lieblingesque, Menckenesque media column of Shoumatopia called Memoirs of the Magazine Trade.
The feedback so far has been very positive. With all my books and magazine pieces, I have a fairly considerable following. The last time I made a random sampling of the American population, it was my impression that roughly one in two hundred Americans was familiar with my by-line. But this was ten years ago, when my fleeting and fickly flickering star was its hottest. Even if a tenth of that number learns about the sites and wants to find out what Shoumatoff is up to, that’s still 280,000 people. So I think that Shoumatopia and the Dispatches are a viable concept, for which there is a definite need, a definable niche. The people and organizations who are going to be part of it will appear. Just yesterday I went hiking with someone who is interested in commissioning an indepth, independent report on an issue having to do with the future of the Adirondacks. We’re still making this up as we go along, and it’s still in the very early stages, but if I can get the backing for two or three years, I think the two sister sites will have established themselves as a widely-read and welcome addition and alternative to what’s out there.
— Alex Shoumatoff, October 9, 2001