Perspective: The Pale Blue Dot

Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States. It used to be called Armistice Day and that name is still used by other countries who were party to World War I. While not your normal Z Geography post, per se, I will offer some geographic perspective for your consideration. While we rightfully honor hundreds of thousands of veterans and their families – who often died for our or others’ ability to choose their government or because of our honored obligations – we should also consider our own actions and those of our leaders that ultimately support bringing death, despair, and destruction to others. For a leader’s policies can result in torture, oppression, lost liberty, and worse – My Lai, Samar. I contend that no single nation, state, or religion is without this stain – so, this is a call to action for everyone and anyone.

Is Z Geography calling for a world without war? Sure, that would be nice but nearly impossible. Populist demagogues probably will continue to find ways to power and they will continue to find a willingly and supportive audience. Even worse, democratic and autocratic regimes probably will continue to alternate between domestic oppression and external conflict to advance their narrow self-interests. War, like it or not, is a part of a politician’s toolbox. It would be nice for everyone to remove that tool simultaneously.

Until that happens, the common citizen can do little more than hold their own elected (and unelected representatives) accountable for their policies. Especially the ones that bring unnecessary death, despair, and destruction. And consider, perhaps, holding these same individuals accountable for lack of policies that stop unnecessary death, despair, and destruction – Rwanda, Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

A final, geopolitical point. Such an activity by the citizen, probably would force leadership from abandoning the politically-expedient fiction that their country does not attempt to influence the internal affairs of some other state. After all, Russia is in Syria, and the Presidents of the two Chinas met (for the first time in over a half-century), barely two months before a presidential election in Taiwan.

After all, we’re all housemates in the only house in the neighborhood.

Inspiration for this post is wholly drawn from the BBC, which released a film and an accompanying article to mark the astronomer Carl Sagan’s birthday on November 9, 1934 (he passed away December 20, 1996). The eponymous pale blue dot can be found in the Voyager 1 satellite image below. Look in the far right, yellow sunbeam just below the midpoint of the image. Carl Sagan’s remarks on the subject are available on the BBC article and at the Library of Congress. A section is reproduced below.

The Pale Blue Dot (Voyager 1, 1990, NASA, via BBC)

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. — Carl Sagan, 1990

National Myth Making and Geography: Tarle-who?

Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”

To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

Geographic Knowledge and Education (via ME!)

A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.

National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.

A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

U.S. Second Siege Line (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

(formerly) British Redoubts (Yorktown, VA via ME!)

As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!

In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.

The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.

Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.

With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.

From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:

Tarleton Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Tarleton/O’Hara Historical Marker (Gloucester Point, VA via ME!)

Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).

“The Lewis Model”: Yes, it is your grandfather’s orientalism

Every now and then an article crosses my desktop that brings my palm to my face, my head to my desk, and a labored sigh from my lips.

Business Insider posted an article earlier this September on a model that purportedly “explains every culture in the world.” You see my apprehension.

First, no model can explain everything. If it did, it wouldn’t be a model. Models are representations of reality. You can model reality, i.e. create something similar to or based on reality. Since we’re fallible humans we can’t reconstruct reality, we leave something out, some critical explanatory variable.

In the Lewis model, “every culture” is broken down along a continuum between three different poles. I applaud the use of a continuum and three poles – certainly better than a either/or and a binomial model. As far as I’m concerned that’s where the attributes cease.

First the model, or at least the graphics, seem to conflate states and nations. The former, any student of political geography will tell you, are geographic units with more or less sovereignty over a space of the Earth. They are an institution and a system, in other words, not a homogeneous group of people. The “state” that is France is comprised of the courts, the Presidency, the legislative body, the police, the military, and so on and so forth. Of course, each of these components have a “cultural” aspect to it, but I don’t think this model is referring to that.

So what is it referring to? Let’s start with culture. What is that? Culture, to offer a simple definition, is the milieu of practices, customs, and beliefs learned by individuals over a long period of time. Important elements here are 1) practices, customs, beliefs – for example, don’t stand on the left on the D.C. Metrorail escalator, 2) learned – you are not born with this knowledge, you learn it through observation, practice, and being guided (most typically by parents), 3) individuals – adults and children learn this, for example I learned in my teens not to stand on the left on D.C. Metrorail escalators, 4) a period of time – most of this stuff isn’t learned immediately or after one-go, serious things take years to learn.

States, as political entities, don’t really have a culture. Organizations comprising the state, such as the military, may have their own “culture” but much of this is also generated by the individuals (mostly adults) who bring in their own culture as transplants. That leaves us with “nations”. The great imagined community. The legacy of 15th century Europe (or whenever the Treaty of Westphalia was signed). One immediate problem in the model is we say the U.S.A. is “linear-active”. Does that mean all-Americans? White Americans? Black Americans? Half-Brazilian/half-Arab Americans? Where would they fit in this framework? This model completely disregards multi-culturalism while buying into the lie that is the “nation-state”, the idea that each state is inhabited by a homogeneous “nation”.

Even worse is the variety of generalizations. First there’s the geographic generalizations – “Sub-Saharan Africa” is a category. No joke. An entire continent. Yet, Singapore a small-city state nestled between Malaysia and Indonesia is on a completely different tack than its neighbors. We can differentiate a city-state from neighbors but not differentiate within an entire continent? What about intra-country differences? I would argue that in this framework Southern Americans are more similar to “multi-active” places than Northeastern Americans, who fit the general mold of “linear-active”.

And then there’s the behavioral generalizations. Having lived and learned much of America’s so-called “culture”, I can safely say plenty of Americans (if not every single one I’ve met) violated this model. You know Americans can talk at length, particularly about themselves. You know Americans are emotional (football) and almost never stick to facts (WMD in Iraq!). My point is that these behaviors are so general that exceptions are easily found, and in sufficient quantity to make the results meaningless.

Beyond the complete lack of utility in this project, there is a more troubling aspect. The peddling of Orientalism, that bogeyman that I had (at one time) hoped had been left behind in a storm of progress and reason. Surely we can’t continue to think this way? Evidently, we can – and we will. We will continue to generalized hundreds of millions of people into quaint little categories and boxes. Even better, while we do so, we’ll make ourselves look better than them.

Do you think its any coincidence that the author (a British citizen) has this to say about the Linear-Active category of which the U.S. and U.K. are close to the poles (my commentary in parentheses):

  • Talks half of the time (at least we don’t talk all the time!)
  • Does one thing at a time (methodological!)
  • Plans ahead (rational!)
  • Polite but direct (yea!)
  • Confronts with logic (Enlightenment and the Age of Reason started here!)
  • Job-oriented (yea?)
  • Sticks to facts (Scientific method wo0t!)
  • Result-oriented (quality over quantity!)
  • Sticks to agenda (no diversions, one-track, down to business!)
  • Written word important (contracts! law suits!)
  • Restrained body language (until I flip you off.)

Even the names are borderline derogatory. Linear-active sounds boring, to be honest. Multi-active sounds hyper and unfocused (which it is based on the description). While reactive is just that. I bet if we read the paper we would be able to find veiled references to the influence of climate on these “cultures”. The Mediterranean is beautiful, thus nations there are more relaxed and unfocused.

That these papers continue to crop up in 2013 is truly terrifying. Someone believes this, others reviewed it and believed, and someone will pick this up read it over and say – now that makes sense to me. And it will probably be a German, Swiss, or Luxembourgian – since they’re (apparently) the most fact-oriented.

Places and Spaces: Filling Empty Spaces

This is the final post in a short series on the issue of “place.” Place and space are sometimes used in interchangeably, but less so recently. If you think about it, you can reason why. “Place” has connotations of significance to the people who use it. “Space” could have these same connotations, but the word itself implies a sort of nothingness: think outer space. Through this short series of posts, I’ll be emphasizing the importance of examining your own world in terms of its places and spaces. This has more implications than just academic, if you do commit to understanding places and spaces you can begin to change them and make them “better.” For an introduction to this series, click here.

In this post, we explore efforts to make spaces into places. As we saw in the second post (here) a consequence of our (the “West’s”) obsession/dependence upon automobile-borne transportation, particularly private forms, has been literal and figurative dead spaces. Spaces where nothing grows and no one goes.

One hallmark of humanity is that we do try to improve our surroundings, not only functionally but aesthetically. Of course, aesthetically pleasing places are usually tied to affluence (thanks politics!). The pictures below were all taken in Arlington, Virginia and highlight the in-between nature between places and spaces. I don’t have a clever word to describe these spots. Splace? There we go, splace. It sounds kind of silly and amorphous, which is what these splaces are.

Art under an Underpass, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Art under an Underpass, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Colored Columns, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Colored Columns, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

The two pictures above are…interesting. The first depicts art underneath a freeway overpass. I don’t know how I would feel about my artwork being relegated to an area under an underpass, countless motorists passing over your work, 99% not realizing that they’re speeding over it. As a pedestrian I suppose I appreciate the sentiment, this is on the way to the grocery store for me, but do I ever stop to admire this? No. And it’s not la gallery where the work is rotated occasionally. And if it is than I’m also making my point. I don’t stop here, I’m underneath an overpass. The second just makes me laugh whenever I run by it. Colored columns. Recently, a friend observed that it this was affluent-place behavior. I have to agree, spending money to paint overpass-support columns. Incidentally, these dead spaces end up housing the very things that birth their existence – automobiles.

An...underpark? Arlington, VA (via ME!)

An…underpark? Arlington, VA (via ME!)

And then there’s the picture at left. A park built under an overpass. It’s quite curious. I still don’t know if it’s a good idea. My friend and I visited this splace (since its right across from the colored columns above) and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I certainly doesn’t help that the building outside the shot produces a loudish buzzing. No grass. No trees. Nothing, except some benches, a trashcan, and a lot of rocks. I wouldn’t spend time here, but there are quite a few cigarette butts lying about so I guess that’s one use for this splace.

Despite these futile attempts at creating a livable place, there are some notable mentions.

Park Row, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Park Row, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Roadside Gym, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

Roadside Gym, Arlington, VA (via ME!)

The two photos above show some notable splaces. On the left is a row of benches and greenspace just outside a very tall hotel. While a wonderful idea, benches and greenspace, rather than have the benches face the green grass they face…a blank building wall. The roadside gym is actually a great idea. There is an on-ramp in this shot but it’s wonderfully obscured in most places by trees. There’s a basketball hoop, a running trail, and outdoor exercise equipment making it a place for fitness. When I’m in the area I routinely see people at the basketball hoops or sitting on the benches, relaxing.

There are some lessons to be drawn from these photos and I have been harping on these concepts throughout the series. The importance of green space. We’ve spent most of our evolutionary history outdoors, in and among greenery. I know (but can’t cite a reference) that some studies of urban workers (in Finland) found that the happiest and most stress free took frequent vacations or lunch breaks to “natural areas”, whether further in a “rural area” or in a park. Similarly, others kept pictures and paintings of greenery in their cubicles – to remind them of life outside a building. Green space needs good lighting. As we’ve spent most of our time outdoors, we’ve invariably spent it in the sun (we get vitamins from that star too). Freeway underpasses can never, ever be a place for humans. There’s no light and no green.