Last week we took a first look at the September 19 issue of the New York Times Magazine to see the peculiar spin given there to the history of Christianity's relations with Islam. That issue is the fourth of six special "Millennium Issues" to be published this year. Introducing the issue, the editors remark,

much of what the world knows about the last 1,000 years it has learned from artists. Visual artists have always been intentional chroniclers. They have also been unintentional historians, showing us through their art the intimate details of life long ago. The goal of this special issue ... is to give history back to artists. We asked an array of recognized artists from around the world to reimagine milestone moments of the past millennium. Taken together, their works form a modern time line, a way of seeing distant history through new eyes.

The subject is history, then, but a revisionist history—seen "through new eyes." And so the subject is also ourselves, our culture, our sense of where we are at this juncture.

This isn't just another magazine. It is an elaborately—and expensively—prepared manifesto from the nation's most influential newspaper. What is it that the people at the New York Times are telling us?

To get the answer, you don't need to read between the lines. Each work of art contributed by the assembled "array of recognized artists from around the world" is accompanied by a text that explains the image on the page. Imagine an excruciatingly intrusive museum guide who takes it upon himself to "explain" every painting, every sculpture to you. Bad enough that he won't shut up, but on top of that it's clear that he fears you are none too bright. (Here we see the logical extension of the practice now widespread in galleries displaying contemporary art, where the work of art comes with the artist's own explanation.)

Even sans commentary, the import of most of the art works is pretty clear. Consider for example Catherine Chalmers's "Hello, Columbus." Three smallish photographs form a vertical series on the page. In the first, several cockroaches are clambering on and around a tomato. In the second frame, the insides of the tomato have been exposed a bit by the busy cockroaches. In the third frame, much of the tomato is gone, and what remains is a mushy pulp swarming with cockroaches. Turn the page, thinking perhaps to find another work of art, and you encounter a striking two-page spread—the centerfold of this whole issue, as it were—showing the ravaged tomato and the voracious roaches in extreme close-up. Oh yes, and one more detail: the cockroaches are painted white with red crosses (as in the Cross, the sign of Jesus) on their backs.

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In case you fail to get the message, the guide is right at your shoulder to explain:

These works by Catherine Chalmers depict one of the shock troops of the European invasion, the cockroach, fastening upon the bounty of the New World, represented by the tomato. [Get it now, dummy?] The insect shown in these photographs, painted with an image that festooned Columbus's sails, did so well in its new home that it is now called the American cockroach.

"An image that festooned Columbus's sails": that coyness is a nice touch, isn't it?

This sweeping vision of the last millennium is not limited to America, or to the West. I was interested to see that two of the images in this "modern time line" center on China and its relations with the West. (I have been fascinated by China and its culture since I was a child, in part because my grandmother was a missionary there; my mother spent her girlhood in Shanghai.) One image, by Doug and Mike Starn, depicts the transmission of knowledge from China to the West. ("At the dawn of the millennium, China was centuries ahead of the West in science and technology," the commentary begins.) A second image, by the photographer David LaChapelle, comes later in the issue. This one is headed "The Drug Wars: Imperialism had everything to do with the price of tea in China."

What's most interesting in this case is not the image—a predictably lurid scene of mostly unclothed Asian women and Anglo sailors, all "in thrall to a giant syringe"—but the commentary. Did you know that the Opium Wars (the mid-19th-century conflict that pitted Britain and other Western powers against China) "sparked the drug epidemic that plagues us today"? And by sparked, a very clear causal chain is intended: the next sentence tells us that "It is the modern consequence of a long-ago act that fashion photographer David LaChapelle highlights in this photo montage." So today's heroin plague was caused by imperialism. Another lesson tomorrow, children.

Here's a scene that isn't shown in this gallery. It took place in the eighteenth century, when the Chinese coveted the southern mountain lands of the Hmong:

Sonom, the last recorded Hmong king in China, and his entire court were prevailed upon to surrender with honor on the condition that peace would come. The king and his court agreed to be taken to Peking where, upon their arrival, they discovered a plot: they were to be tortured and killed as part of a festival . ...

At a signal from the emperor, the tortures began. With gags in their mouths, King Sonom, his advisors, his doctors, and his aunt were cut into small pieces. Their heads were exhibited in cages with signs designating their names and titles. On following days, those of lesser rank were executed. Of this delegation only a few survived and they were given to the victorious Chinese officers as slaves.
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Imperialism is a cant word, almost meaningless except as an expression of moral superiority. The passage about the Hmong comes from a book called Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992, by Jane Hamilton-Merritt (available in paperback from Indiana University Press). The story it tells merits the word "tragic," which is so often bandied about, and it reveals, among other things, the way in which the United States used and then abandoned the Hmong. There is plenty of wickedness to go around.

History such as the New York Times Magazine's millennium special purveys cartoon history, as simplistic and self-righteous in its own way as the jingoistic stuff that many of us were raised on, and that still appears too often in Christian guise (as in Bill Bright's recent history that makes the Founding Fathers sound like evangelicals). Resist it. Reject it. Make fun of it. And will somebody please bring the Raid.

Related Elsewhere

See all of The New York Times Magazine's special millennium issues online. They are the only back issues of the magazine available for free at the Times Web site.