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

Soccer and the Death of Nations?

Occasionally, sports and popular media inadvertently highlight global trends. These stories link heady academic concepts to activities derisively considered “beneath” the Ivory Tower (depending on the observer of course). More pointedly, I think these stories provide a useful illustration of (sometimes) unnecessarily abstract geographic concepts. Today’s post combines two of my favorite geographic topics: soccer and identity and how both are affected by migration (for an excellent read on this field of study I recommend: How Soccer Explains the World: an Unlikely theory of globalization).
Z Geography is no friend of nationalism, to honestly declare my bias, so I read the comments of a footballer with a mixture of academic interest and irritation. As the BBC reported back in October 2013, the footballer argued that “if you live in England for five years it doesn’t make you English” and that “the only people who should play for England are English people.” For added context, these comments came as an Under-21 footballer decides who he’ll (potentially) represent at the international level. As the article points out, the footballer (who is, presumably, ethnically Kosovar-Albanian) qualifies to play for Belgium (place of birth), Serbia (as Kosovo is not recognized by the United Nations), Albania (through parents), and Turkey (through grandparents). The footballer would potentially be able to play for England, if he first lived in that place for 5 years.
The “English” footballer issued these public comments presumably to state exactly who he thinks an English person is. The problem as it so often is with public comments, is the qualification. The “English” footballer in question later qualified that he didn’t mean people ONLY people born in England but also people who immigrated to the country as children. He implies that those came to the…uhh…area of England “when [they’re] an adult” aren’t English. To him they only came for a passport.
Ah nationalism. What the heck is a nation anyway? Isn’t it the same as a state?
Ask a political geographer the difference between nation and state and you’ll likely get an hour lecture on the difference. For our purposes, a “nation” is an imagined community populated by individuals with ties to an ill-defined territory that is often NOT tied to specific state (i.e. country boundaries). A “state” is an entity with sovereign administration over a defined geographic area. The two are not equivalent.
Take, for example, the state of Belgium. That entity, a parliamentary republic comprised of courts, police, public schools and hospitals, and so on, has complete sovereignty within the state’s boundaries. That state is peopled by many more nations than just the Dutch-speaking Flemish. There are French-speaking Walloons, Germans, and a myriad others (and these are just ethnic identities!). Let me be clear, the nation-state has, and will always be, a myth (and if you say Japan then I invite you to send your thoughts to the people of Okinawa, the Ainu, and the Brazilians).
Back to football, what does this sport have to do with the nation? Nothing and everything. Obviously, these teams (to include the Olympic teams) are representations of something, perhaps we should call them symbols? They’re a rallying point for people. The ultimate question, of course, is who people?
Yes, the “English.” But who are the English? These comments point to a debate over what constitutes an Englishman or Englishwoman. Is it birth? Is it period of residency? Or is it something else? Let’s be clear – anti-immigrant attitudes are just as prevalent in “England” (just ask the Normans… errr… Saxons…. errr.. Celts!) as they are elsewhere.
This footballer, a public figure, is saying what is on the minds of many “English”, some of whom feel exactly as he does. They even have their own political party! In a world where international migration is the norm for families in a variety of income groups, neophobia/xenophobia/racism is bound to crop up. We would be lying to ourselves if we thought that certain public figures don’t share these sentiments.
Is England dying? Hardly. Whether the immigrants an locals, like it or not, the idea of what constitutes “England” and the “English” is changing. Immigrants clinging to the “home culture” will still adapt to their new homes and locals resisting immigrant influence will be sorely disappointed. Thus, the concept of the “English” national team needs to adapt with the times.
Z Geography’s solution is to reconceptualize what the symbol, the England national team stands for. It doesn’t just some narrow definition of English based on visual markers (race, class, ethnicity, language, religion), it includes everyone, locals, immigrants old and new, who feel some significant tie to the people, places, and experiences within that area. In effect, we should turn the symbolism from the people to the place – much like local sporting clubs have done as they opened up to players from elsewhere.
A complete radical solution would be for the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland to coalesce into an actual United Kingdom team (oh how naive Z Geography!).
Post Script:
Just in case my American readers get any funny ideas, our own World Cup team has no less than 4 players born internationally, in Germany and Norway.
Z Geography is willing to admit that the England/Wales/Northern Ireland/Scotland issue is murky in terms of football. Wikipedia has an explanation of why there are four separate “national” teams for one country. The answer is the curious development of the body governing football. There is no United Kingdom squad because there is no United Kingdom Football Association, there is a separate Scottish Football Association, Football Association of Wales, and Irish Football Association (now only for Northern Ireland).

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!)

Tennessee proposes to combine history and geography

As reported by the Associated Press a few days ago, Tennessee state officials have proposed to combine history and geography curricula into a combined course a move that “will give students a deeper grasp of both subjects and free up more time for teaching language skills.” Educators, on the other hand, “predict that spending less time on geography will lead to a dearth of knowledge about geotechnical systems” (that is, GIS). This would be a most unfortunate outcome, not only for Geography, but for History as well.

Tennessee’s proposal would effectively fly in the face of German philosopher Immanuel Kant‘s work. He argued that human knowledge (science) could be organized in three ways. The first way was on the type of object studied, thus, biologists study biology (life), chemistry study chemicals, botanists study plant life. The second way was to study a number of things using a temporal dimension, everything studied has a certain time associated with it. Today’s plants have predecessors from million of years ago. Today’s political systems have evolved over time. This is History. The third way was to understand objects based on spatial relationships, Geography. To me (granted I’m a Geography booster), History and Geography are the foundation of the social sciences. Everything has a historical and geographic context, from political systems to river courses to atoms and chemical reactions, time and space affect each discipline.

Tennessee’s proposal doesn’t seem to agree with Kant and I don’t quite see the logic behind the argument that combining two disciplines into a single course gives students a “deeper grasp” of both subject matters. What I think is going to happen is that already poor geographic literacy rates in this country will continue to drop, at least in Tennessee. A further problem is the framing of geographic education, by the educators apparently, as primarily oriented with technology and IT. I agree that the tool of GIS has been a boon to the discipline. I love GIS and use it every day and make excuses to come up with ridiculous projects for myself (see: organic state). But to argue that the state should save Geography as a separate curriculum because of the potential impact on the state’s ability to harness “geotechnical systems” is just short sighted. Like a basic understanding of economics, political science, and government, a basic understanding of Geography is absolutely necessary to function in our globalizing and glocalizing world.

I did end up finding the website for the Tennessee Geographic Alliance (based at the University of Tennessee [Knoxville]). They cite the “deplorable ignorance of Geography among student and adult populations” as one of their raison d’être. I emailed one of the coordinator asking for comments on Tennessee’s proposal and if I get a response I shall certainly publish it. So stay tuned and in the mean time, I wonder what every one else thinks – is it a good move to combine history and geography classes? I don’t see it.