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

Safe and Sound: a Carolinian Salamander!

The last few weeks I’ve devoted my time to a new geographic and cartographic project.

The project’s objective is to identify characteristics of “safe” districts for the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States. There are two sub-questions: where are these safe districts located (if they exist at all) and; what are their significant characteristics? In terms of parameters for the study. I shall only be using results from the 2010 Congressional election (for the 112th Congress, 2010-2012), though I’d prefer a longitudinal approach – digitizing the necessary data from the one election took some time. Within that election, I will be examining results for the House of Representatives, since this body (theoretically) rolls over every two years and the seats are proportional representations of population. My hope is that the results are more applicable to district characteristics than a similar study of the Senate, since that chamber’s seats are tied to perspectives and politics at a state-level rather than a more local level. To be explicit this is the previous Congress, which sat from 2010 to 2012.


Results for the 2010 election to the House of Representatives (via ME!)

The map above is one depiction of the House results from the 2010 election. It shows potentially “safe” districts (which I defined as over 70% of the available votes going to either the Republican or Democratic party) in the darkest colors, green for Republican, purple for Democratic. It also shows “strong” districts (defined as over 60% of the vote) in a lighter tone of the same colors. By the numbers: 51 districts were “safe” Democratic and 51 were “strong” Democratic. 56 were “safe” Republican and 94 were “strong” Republican. Before you get too excited, keep in mind that the House of Representatives is a proportional body based on population. Though the Republican safe districts are geographically larger, the districts more (or less) contain the same numbers of people. Thus giving rise to the common observation that urban areas vote Democratic and more rural locales (with their more diffuse across geographic space populations) vote Republican. That is common knowledge… right?

No? Well, a cursory map analysis elicits a few observations. First, the Democratic Party is hardly a “coastal” phenomenon and Republican strongholds are hardly limited to the American South and Midwest. While this isn’t news to anyone who 1) lives in these areas, 2) has a brain, 3) is a Geographer, one would be surprised by the number generalities made by U.S. media outlets, so-called pundits, and others. Second, some of us thought (myself included) that gerrymandering was dead. I’m happy (because it gives me something to write about) and sad (for the same reason) that its not.

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Political Geography in North Carolina (via ME!)

Meet North Carolina’s 12th Congressional district or the Carolinian Salamander (Caroliander?). Over 60% of the voters in this Congressional district voted for the Democratic Party candidate in the 2010 election. Without a map this statistics does not mean much. We see that four strongly Republican districts on the border (two of which voted over 70% for Republican candidates) and the, rather odd, shape of the district itself is… telling.

Initially I was going to report some demographic characteristics of these districts but since I’ve only done a very limited, cursory analysis (commonly referred to as “eye-balling”) I shall spare you my musings. Suffice to say though, with the appropriate caveats, that there is likely to be some interaction between race/ethnicity and income with the House of Representative electoral outcomes (in North Carolina) in 2010. More explicitly, I think that these districts are shaped to promote these electoral outcomes. Of course, much more research needs to be done on the method and manner in which electoral districts are demarcated in North Carolina.

The above should serve to dispel some misconceptions about U.S. politics. First, there’s really no red-state/blue-state binary. Most states include areas considered strong or safe Democratic or Republican holds, with the notable exceptions of the states with only one representative (Vermont, Montana, and so on). Second, gerrymandering! Taken together, these observations give credence to the idea that the potential spatial concentration of safe districts, say the safe and sound Republican Congressional districts of North Carolina, or Texas, deserve closer scrutiny.

Introducing Places and Spaces

This is the first in a short series of posts on the issue of “place.” Place and space are sometimes used in interchangeably, but less so recently. If you think about 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.” Consider your economic life, most people have an understanding of “value” and what it means for them, not everyone will pay for a $400 shoes, but some will. Understanding our economics and preferences, we adjust our habits accordingly. We should be doing the same thing with our places and spaces.

Of course, places and spaces are not always private. True, you have your home and you can (and should!) make that into a place, a place that you (and your family) love. But that’s not enough, we should work to make our public spaces into places. Then we should be making those public spaces better. “Better” is problematic and political, one person may want an several oaks while another prefers creepers and bushes. These decisions should be made through neighborhood planning committees and the like. But most American communities are pretty far from this point. Most American communities (cities, towns, neighborhoods) have abandoned public spaces altogether. Some have a smattering of public spaces amid a sea of private places. These are particularly dreadful. In a culture that emphasizes individual liberty and freedom, we (as Americans) have deluded ourselves into becoming irresponsible. Why should I pick up after myself in a public space? Hence we have few public places.

I owe much of the substance of these posts to James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere (1994) an older book that is absolutely timeless. I would review the book in detail but wouldn’t to spoil it for you. BUT briefly: the book provides an excellent account of the destruction of “America’s man-made landscape” by tracking the development of America’s public and private lands. Partially historically driven, Kunstler compares the obsession with commercialism and profit in the US with ingrained notions of the public sphere and public good in Old Europe. The final nail in the coffin in our public spaces was the development of the automobile. Though the overall tone of the book can, at times, feel like reactionary nostalgia the narrative and discussion is important. Perhaps most important is the observation that Americans have no little concept of the importance of public places (an observation I’m inclined to agree with based on my informal study of non-resident behaviors in a local semi-public place – post to follow).

I close with a picture of the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia. This is a pretty clear example of a (semi-)public place. I use the word semi- because certain aspects are controlled and require payment, while this assists with the maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, I’m fairly confident that the monies are also used to fund activities and budgets not associated with the place (and this is not a veiled conspiracy theory). Memorials are one area where the U.S. is fairly capable of creating excellent public places. Unfortunately, most of these areas are limited to the Greater Washington D.C. area and a few other memorialized places in other cities. Further memorials aren’t exactly good at promoting and sustaining an actual community (nation?, yes, community?, not so much). One reason, apparent in the photo, is the emphasis on creating a place of awe, respect, or reverence. This place is hard to get to, its an expansive lot, and there are rules (no playing, no running, et cetera). While each of these things make for a great memorial, as a community place, not so much.

Arlington, VA - June 2013 (via me!)

George Washington Masonic Memorial, Alexandria, VA – June 2013 (via me!)

Shock and Yawn

Foreign Policy is a terrible magazine. As of today I promise to never, ever link to another FP article (yay!) and it is officially being de-listed from my reader (hip-hip!). This is all for my personal health, you understand. In a world increasingly characterized by violence, chaos, and genocide, to say nothing of persistent poverty and “reality” TV, I need to find small ways to tap the ridiculousness of this planet, offer a geographic perspective that “elevates the discipline”, but in a way that won’t see me dead of a heart attack by 35. Challenge ACCEPTED!

But first, I need to comment on “Silicon, Iron, and Shadow” or as I would sub-title it: “We learned nothing in a decade!” The author, educated at the U.S. Military Academy (grad. ’76) and born in 1954, betrays the biases associated with that earlier generation. This isn’t necessarily bad, but to project these biases forward as the “three wars that will define America’s future” is short-sighted and probably, wrong. The three wars are, wars of Silicon, of Iron, and in Shadows (couldn’t continue the “of, sad). Of course, this tells you nothing and keeps with the long “Western” academic and political tradition of coining phrases and sound-bites that are catchy, but short on substance.

Besides bias for glitz and show, the article focuses on American’s penchant for glitz technological fixes. Need to win a War of Silicon (i.e. cyber)? Ensure (through “aquisition” – read new toys) access to long-distance standoff for naval, ground, and air forces. Not just “cyber” though, Wars of Silicon are a “deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources.” Isn’t that every new conflict, ever? Harnessing and promulgation of gun-powder? Sail? Steam? Rail road? I could imagine a similar sentiment issued at the birth of the “tank” in World War I – a new cutting-edge technology, an new advanced military capability, that happened to require substantial financial resources. My point is that this definition of Wars of Silicon is a truism, not good analysis or prediction. If I were to say that the U.S., or anybody’s military, needs to be ready to confront new technology, capabilities, whilst maintaining financial resources you’d probably say “duh.”

Then there’s the “Wars of Iron” which are supposedly different from Wars of Silicon, but aren’t really. I suppose its a different focus of the more general War. Whereas Silicon Wars could include cutting-edge tech (Silicon), Iron wars are all the stuff we’re “familiar” with tank battles, division, brigades, and so on. Think Operation Desert Storm. That our military leaders continue to emphasize that this will be the “bulk of potential conflicts” is alarming. In a human activity driven by the need for asymmetry (which is why “asymmetric” always bugged the shit out of me), to think that we’ll have something like Desert Storm in the offing is wishful thinking. I’m sure there are plenty of crazy tin-pot dictators who think their military can go toe-toe with the U.S. military in a stand-up fight, but that’s not who we should be concerned about. After all, by this very scenario we have little to fear except the casualties (of which war produces an abundance). Certainly other militaries are going to go toe-toe with each other (Georgia-Russia, 2008) but is that going to persist with U.S. involvement? Perhaps, until the conflict changes to account for U.S. superiority in a “war of iron.” The problem of our predominance is, of course, presented in material terms. We’re not investing in fighting “other wars” notably the silicon one.

Finally we have the “Wars in Shadows”, popularized by the movie Zero-Dark-Thirty. The first utterly farcical notion is that we are “well-prepared” to fight in this domain. I suppose it depends on your definition for “fight”. Can we go in and gun down folks, cowboy-style, at midnight, from helicopters, producing scores of new “terrorists” overnight without regard for implications of our actions at a more strategic level? You betcha. Can we address the roots of why we’re there in the first place? We could, probably, but it doesn’t look we’re trying very hard. There’s a counter-insurgency manual (FM 3-24) that’s a great cultural geography resource (not kidding, its in my thesis!), but given our lack of sticky success in Afghanistan and Iraq we either haven’t applied its lessons or, worse, don’t care to refine and update it. Part of the reason lies in this FP article. We’re obsessed with tech. In this example the focus is on “drones”, though it makes the case for “special operators” with actual human skills, it caveats this with adding planes and helicopters and conventional forces. And finally, this who “wars in the shadows” are presented as reactive, rather than proactive. You see the problem, the author wants you to pay for stuff to fight other states (wars of silicon/iron), while maintaining a capability for preemptive wars in the shadow.

Rather than repackaging this model of state-state conflict with the occasional state-actor conflict, the author missed an opportunity to actually tie all of these things together.

Let’s start with definitions. War, you think of World War II or Vietnam. Easy, identifiable, fits into a nice little box. This isn’t historically accurate. So I abandon that in favor of something more historical, conflict. What do you think of? Perhaps the French or American revolutions, perhaps Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia. But let’s expand it further, include the cyber “warfare”, the Silicon war, into this conflict. We can add in things like the Abbottabad raid and other one-off sorties. Conceptualizing conflict in this way we can break out of the out-dated (from World War II) model of warfare. That model witnessed the “West’s” superiority, so its understandable why we would want to cling to it (irrational, but understandable). But since every, rational, state seeks to gain unfair advantages in conflict (asymmetry) we should expand our own model to account for, let’s face it, the things we suck at: cyber (Silicon) and insurgency (not really shadow). That the article doesn’t even address this type of warfare leaves me speechless, perhaps they couldn’t figure out a catchy name?

Wars of the Flea, to borrow the book title. Could you imagine one military, say the U.S., facing off against another state’s military with an established policy to immediately go insurgent? States built upon previous insurgencies, like China, have literally written books on that method of warfare. THAT should be a future war of concern to the U.S., because it combines the resources (economic, political, demographic) and power available to a state (which isn’t typically available to a non-state entity) with the novelty of being a method of warfare that we not only have demonstrated ineptitude at dealing with, have now disavowed as a possible future. Appalling is one word to describe it. Part of the problem, moreover, is that the article’s (and the U.S.’s) fascination with techy fixes. Insurgency isn’t solved with techy fixes. The “hearts and minds” approach does. But one wonders if the U.S. military is the right organization to engage in this approach, or if it even wants to.

The U.S. needs to figure out what the military does, or doesn’t. After this the government needs to figure out a unified conflict strategy that accounts for the various levers of American power and how it can be used to bend another country’s political will, at least in situations when negotiations and direct engagement (diplomacy) fail. Violent conflict using the military is just one facet of U.S. power. For a unified conflict strategy to work, it needs to have the right components to apply the various forces. If the U.S. decides that the military is for killing and maiming, only, then so be it. But will such an organization beat an insurgency? Yes, if it breaks the Geneva Conventions. Since the U.S. isn’t looking to break those documents, it won’t. So some other organization needs to fill that role. Taken one way, the FP article doesn’t talk (at all) about things like development. Yet “development” exists within the military, there are doctors, corpsmen, and civil affairs, not to mention the “special operators.” One wonders if the author is silently agreeing with the point that the U.S. military can’t, and doesn’t want to, deal with non-combat aspects of insurgency.

In my thesis I talk about the need for development and security to solve an insurgency puzzle. The application here is obvious. The U.S. military needs to be involved in counter-insurgency, at least in what it does best, killing and maiming (read: provide security). But perhaps USAID and the State Department need an expanded role in counter-insurgency? The practical application of that question is more money for non-security “counter-insurgency” operations.

Conflict, to include “war,” is the application of multiple levers of state power, to include new military technologies and tactics, to bend another country’s government to a desired political outcome. The funny thing is, this has been war/conflict all along. But we’ve forgotten or unlearned that (very old) lesson. The U.S. wanted its independence so colonists refused to fight on-line with the British. Why would we stand toe-to-toe with drilled regulars? If your people know the land, are better shots, and there’s fewer, play to your strengths. In the end this new “tactic” bent the British political will to our desired outcome. In the next war, perhaps a government threatens to shut off the power in New England during Christmas, or Russia decides to switch off the oil to the Baltic (wait a second…), aren’t these acts of aggression? To illustrate our unlearning this lesson, see Vietnam. Militarily the U.S. and its allies smashed the Tet Offensive, yet ultimately lost the war. Why? Because North Vietnam “won” American hearts and minds. They understood, after all they beat French years before, that shaking the political power in the “West” isn’t through a military defeat, which would be largely impossible, its through making the public believe it was plausible. With the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam convinced Americans that it was a pointless, fruitless affair.

The Geography of Conflict (War) has changed, the Vietnam War exemplified this. And the U.S. still hasn’t caught on. It hasn’t caught on to the real geographic meaning behind Abu Gharib, it understands that people are upset with the atrocities there. But it doesn’t grasp the geographical and temporal implications. Those pictures got out and immediately reached eyes from Los Angeles to Phnom Phenh. A singular tactical engagement, say an attempted bombing of the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, Bangladesh, can be disseminated throughout the known world, immediately. These incidents might seem to be militarily, tactically insignificant. But a string of these “minor” events, have meaning at a much smaller (wider) scale. Drawing back on the Bangladesh example, the 17 August 2005 countrywide bombings (a bomb went off in almost all 63 districts) resulted in 2 deaths and limited damage to businesses or anything else. Militarily these bombings were completely insignificant. But the coordination to make them all explode within 30 minutes of one another, across the entire country, was an obvious strategic statement. What about less obvious things? Examining the wealth of data (which simply takes time, a pair of eyes, and half a brain) bombing patterns emerge. In Bangladesh, bombs typically targeted one of only a few venues: the main (at the time) opposition party, the Awami League, movie cinemas and local celebrations, and offices of Bangladeshi-run non-governmental organizations. Of course, this data was only available in hindsight and the bombings themselves occurred over years. But the lesson was still there: whoever was doing it had a strategic goal in mind. The group was targeting the center-left, most “secular” political party. It was targeting symbols of a “decadent” Bengali culture, films and “obscene” village plays. It was targeting NGOs working for the advancement of… women.

None of this made it into the Foreign Policy article. So let’s compare. One scenario of America’s future war is three different conflicts characterized by high-technology enabled warfare, top-down state-state fights, and limited brush-fire engagements. The other scenario is an actual revolution in military affairs, where America finds itself drawn (against its isolationist tendency) into another internal conflict, we’ll arrive late (like Kuwait) but confident of a quick victory. After all, we have technology! We arrive, but the Marines land unopposed. The Air Force enforces a no-fly zone on no one in particular. And the Navy sits, at harbor, bored. Where 50,000 enemy combatants should have at least provided something of a greeting, there are crickets instead. Except they’re not crickets, they’re fleas. And these “fleas” look suspiciously like the locals. They’re militarily-trained but the tactics are completely unfair, they should stand in line! Fight in red, I mean digital camouflage, uniforms like we do! And the U.S. public shall know, via Twitter and Facebook, that there is no hope to fight this enemy that I shall call North Chirania. And we shall leave.

And then like every good insurgency eventually does, they fill the power vacuum. They don their uniforms, and establish their insurgent state which makes use of the existing infrastructure and state apparatuses but isn’t the state.

And the U.S. asks questions of itself, and buys another Joint Strike Fighter.