Among the Intellectualoids

Going to the Mall

The Folklife Festival is nothing like the march on Washington, really.

By 7.3.08

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Between now and July 6, this year's Folklife Festival will be a fine distraction for the hordes of tourists in D.C. Beginning in 1967 with an emphasis on American Indian cultures, these days Folklife introduces audiences to "diverse" and remote cultures. Three cultures, or areas of "folklife," are highlighted every summer, displayed along tents down the National Mall.

In the past, the Folklife of regions as far-reaching as the Silk Road, South Africa, Michigan, and Northern Ireland have been explored. Clothes, crafts, food, and religion imported from each culture. Quite a few locals come along for the ride.

In the festival program, Richard Kurin, Acting Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture at the Smithsonian, laughably informed readers that the creation of the festival "was the cultural equivalent of the political march on Washington led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. It was a way of allowing voices to be heard in the heart of the country's democracy."

The comparison is absurd, of course. Other than the Mall, the two events couldn't be more dissimilar. But Kurin's reach does capture something of the randomness and silliness of Folklife. This year's three cultures were Bhutan, Texas, and NASA.

That's right, NASA.

BHUTAN OCCUPIES the central exhibit at the Mall. Where is Bhutan on the globe, you wonder? Good question. It resides quietly between China, just south of Tibet, and India's easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh.

Tourists learn that unlike its two heavy-hitting neighbors, the government of Bhutan does not measure its economic progress through Gross National Product or Gross Domestic Product, or any such indicator. Instead, they prefer to measure "Gross National Happiness" (GNH).

In a re-created Buddhist temple, painted bright with murals dedicated to the sublime stages of Gautama Buddha's life, I asked Bhutanese monk Gem Dorji about the reputed success of GNH. He answered me over the sound of incantations, horns, and drums.

"The people of Bhutan," Dorji explained as he adjusted his burgundy robe in the heat, "lead a very simple life, but a very happy life." He fingered the influence of Buddhism for this.

Each Bhutanese household has a personal altar consecrated by a monk, whom the household "invites to the house to pray on a weekly basis," according to a presenter named Kuenzang Dorji Thinley, at the Incense Making and Clay Sculpting Center.

This incense is used strictly for traditional religious purposes, not, as in the U.S., primarily to cover up the smell of one's more questionable activities from mom and dad.

ACCORDING TO the Lone Star state exhibit, the life of Texans is all about swagger. Hot food and dodgy songs make Texans two step.

The Gillette Brothers, though no Townes Van Zandt, were a highlight of the Texas program. The cowboy duo performed a set while strumming guitar and banjo.

They had one about their great granddad who "said his prayers with a shotgun cocked," and had 21 sons. The old man "raised them tough but raised them well, so their feet got cold on the road to hell."

Unlike Bhutan, though, some Texans expressed embarrassment at this image. Dawn Orsak, the curator for the Texas Food and Wine program, explained the state's "cultural diversity is so much greater than cowboys. That's what I'd hope you'd take away from this."

Part of that diversity is NASA. ("Houston, we have a problem.") But it has its own exhibit, marked by miniature rockets, and replica telescopes, located right under the Washington Monument.

In the past, Folklife has stretched the bounds of culture to feature such noble occupations as lawyer, White House worker, and -- wait for it -- Smithsonian employee, as a way to emphasize the importance of such governmental work, and -- a cynic might add -- to help secure more funding.

AS GOVERNMENT agencies go, this one's not a bad choice. A NASA exhibit has a bit more pizzazz than, say, a Department of Energy display. And just try to imagine a movie starring Tom Hanks that promotes the Department of Agriculture.

Take astronaut Joe Edwards, for example. He recounted his experiences in space flight to an audience of mostly children, who lined the front rows.

Edwards said that his sister asked him if he felt any closer to God when he was up in Outer Space. Given that he was moving at 25 times the speed of sound, he explained, and with a swimming pool's worth of hydrogen and oxygen pumping through the rocket per second, and strapped inside a 275-pound space suit, he had told her "it would be good to get intimately familiar with the Almighty before I headed into space."

NASA's particular angle in all this was to get America back to the moon and beyond. Jessica Wood, who works at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, told TAS the "purpose for another moon visit is to gain experience for living in an extraterrestrial environment before we go to Mars."

If they succeed, perhaps 30 years from now we can expect the Mall exhibits to include, say, Alaska, the United States Postal Service, and a Buddhist Martian delegation -- with the highest Gross Planetary Happiness rating in this solar system.

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About the Author

Emily Esfahani Smith, an editor at the new conservative blog Ricochet.com, is also managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas.