Does our Society support open societies?

President Obama calls for global commitment to open and accountable government during a speech at the United Nations on September 23, 2010.

“Experience shows us that history is on the side of liberty; that the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. To put it simply, democracy, more than any other form of government, delivers for our citizens. And I believe that truth will only grow stronger in a world where the borders between nations are blurred. America is working to shape a world that fosters this openness, for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings.”

President Obama’s message is one that National Geographic used to understand and communicate in the pages of our Society’s official journal.

Today, though, our Society defends trees and glaciers instead of building upon what President Obama rightly calls “the strongest foundation for human progress… open economies, open societies, and open governments.”

Why has National Geographic

This troubling editorial trend reminds us of a breathtaking observation by Mike Fay, NGS Explorer-in-Residence and globe-trotting environmentalist. (It’s worth noting that Mike’s moment of candor came not in the pages of National Geographic, but during an interview in 2006 with Women’s Wear Daily.)

Women’s Wear Daily: But don’t a lot of the countries you’re working in have dysfunctional governments?

Mike Fay: Yeah, but wherever you go on earth, humans organize themselves in some way. I find often the less national influence there is in the management equation, the more successful you are, because you’re dealing with local warlords. You can go right to the guy in charge and say, “Hey, we’re seeing way too much decrease in vegetation here, way too much willy-nilly burning here, let’s do something about it.” That guy can make that decision right there. He doesn’t have to ask the president, he doesn’t have to ask some minister. I think you can make progress more easily there than you can in this country. That’s for sure. [emphasis added]

We can see the bumper sticker now:

How did our Society get into this terribly awkward position? It’s odd, especially since National Geographic was once a journalistic echo of President Obama’s declaration that…

“History is on the side of liberty.”

P.S. In a bipartisan spirit, our Society’s recent dance with dictators also wouldn’t sit well with this Republican icon:

≡  photo of President Obama via USA Today

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