Book Review: No Dig, No Fly, No Go (Mark Monmonier)

Feeling under the weather (aren’t we always?) so I offer you a book review written in 2012 for an assigned reading:


Monmonier, Mark. No Dig, No Fly, No Go: How maps restrict and control. 2010. Chicago, U.S.: University of Chicago Press.

In No Dig, No Fly, No Go, Mark Monmonier builds on his earlier 1996 work, How to Lie with Maps, by providing an in-depth look at one aspect of cartography the realm of so-called “prohibitive cartography.” In the book, Monmonier critically examines maps from the perspective of how they restrict and control, but provides his analysis in a language that is accessible to the layperson (in this case the non-academic Geographer). While I find Monmonier’s book refreshing and occasionally insightful, I remain wanting.

At the most basic level, Mark Monmonier explores how maps influence human behavior. More specifically, he seeks to answer how maps restrict access, mobility, and the use of spaces and places. From this standpoint alone, Monmonier’s work should be required reading for cartographers and political geographers from the undergraduate level. If we (partially) define Geography as the study of human interaction with the environment than Monmonier’s book becomes immediately important, for its subject is how maps, or rather authorities, attempt to regulate humans’ interactions with their environment. Primarily, Monmonier’s sources include news articles, legal cases, and maps (naturally). The first two provide historical and contemporary context for the various aspects of prohibitive cartography. For the most part, these sources work well for his overall purpose, which is to weave a narrative of how maps influence, and influenced, our lives at various times and at a variety of scales.

Monmonier loosely organizes the book around the concepts of theme, scale, and time. Each chapter examines a different theme of “prohibitive cartography.” Monmonier, after an introduction as to why boundaries “matter,” begins with a historical look at how maps played a role in delineating plots of land in the United States. He then takes a smaller scale look at this same theme with a look at how international states maintain their territorial integrity through maps and how maps affect governments’ view of their integrity. The following chapter takes this point to the colonial period, examining how maps justified the creation of colonies or partitions during peace. Likewise, Monmonier than examines the affects maps had on delineating maritime boundaries and exclusive economic zones. Moving back to the intra-state scale, Monmonier first examines how boundaries are set at the local and provincial (state) levels in the United States. In “Divide and Govern,” Monmonier also introduces political gerrymandering, which then forms the basis of the next chapter. An interesting discussion in this chapter is Monmonier’s suggestion of improvements to U.S. congressional districting. Following this deeper look at how politicians can utilizes maps to influence voting outcomes, Monmonier then examines how map-makers can utilize maps to influence where we do business, through the processes of redlining and greenlining. The next two chapters follow the theme of economics at the local level through discussions of zoning and rezoning plans and how maps influence changes (or not) in the built landscape, whether by rezoning industrial areas as commercial or by banishing red light districts to the far corners of a county. The first of the last two chapters focuses on the title and offers observations on how maps impact these aspects, digging, flying, going, of human activity. The last chapter examines relatively new developments in technology and how it integrates with “prohibitive cartography.” As we can see from this cursory summary of Monmonier’s book, the impact that maps have had on spatial restrictions span time from colonialism to the 2000s, scale form the parcel to international level, and in a variety of subtle and overt ways. In essence, Monmonier seems to suggest that states and governments crush us on all sides with maps attempting to regulate our existence. Offered not as a value judgment but as an objective observation, Monmonier’s book provides a valuable discussion on the impacts that maps have had but there are limitations.

The first, and most significant limitation, is the book’s scope. The limitation is immediately apparent to a critical eye examining the book’s sub-title; Monmonier purports to show us “how maps restrict and control.” However, this isn’t the case. Maps do not restrict or control access, they influence human actions. In this context, maps attempt to restrict and control. This nuance is more than a semantic argument or request for clarification; it strikes at the heart of the book. I contend that maps do not restrict at all, how could they? Maps are on paper, on a screen, or on a disk, it is impossible for it to prohibit anything. Maps are only prohibitive if individuals and communities accept them as such. Monmonier takes this basic assumption as an underlying fact throughout his book. For the most part, his examples support his thesis that maps restrict and control; however, he may be guilty of either cherry-picking his data, at worst, or unknowingly misleading his readers. Perhaps a more apt sub-title would be “how Western maps restrict and control.” For it is in the “West,” a gross and undefined generalization admittedly, that communities almost ubiquitously accept the power of the map. Monmonier provides ample evidence of this, particularly for the United States, throughout his book. Most of the evidence relates to court cases settled, in part, through the use of the map. Notable examples include a boundary dispute stemming from hydrological changes in Kansas’s Peuker v. Canter (27-29) or Florida’s right-of-way case in Enos v. Casey Mountain, Inc. (24-25). At the international level, comprised of states following the nation-state concept derived in Westphalia, Monmonier again shows how maps (or geographic phenomena) played an integral role throughout history from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas that split the world between Spain and Portugal to the competing claims on Antarctica in the second half of the 20th century. At the local level in the U.S. context and the international context, Monmonier’s assumptions seems to hold, but does it at the local level elsewhere?

I contend that it does not. To take an extreme example, I would cite the Durrand Line that splits the Pashtun linguistic nation between Afghanistan and Pakistan. While the British certainly attempted to police this border during the height of European imperialism, at best their activities were a nuisance. In the 2000s, we find that the line is all but nonexistent as various groups, including violent ones, routinely violate it. Monmonier acknowledges that newly independent states from European imperialists “could not unify dissimilar peoples lumped together by artificial boundaries” (58). However, I find that he does not go far enough. Not only do these states not unify dissimilar communities, they could not enforce the state’s view of its territoriality, i.e. that Pakistan ends at the Durrand line. For their part, the Pashtuns, who the British had split across the border, probably perceived the world in much the same way as they had prior to the split; the Durrand Line was merely a line on a piece of paper. Referring back to the title of the introductory chapter, the boundary doesn’t matter. In addition to this significant lapse in analysis, Monmonier would also benefit from additional technical information to contextualize his comments.

Monmonier’s view on GPS devices should include additional nuance from a technical aspect. As Monmonier is attempting to steer a middle course between providing a jargon-free work accessible to cartographic newcomers and professionals, he may have inadvertently cut some useful detail. For instance, the lay person (particularly homeowner) would want to know that the “highly precise handheld GPS” that Monmonier is referring to still has quite a bit of room for error (something between 10 and 15 feet). While that circle of error may be small enough for most applications, I would hesitate on relying on a GPS to “quickly determine whether a fencepost or rosebush is on [my] property or a neighbor’s” (22). Monmonier should also have considered additional details on non-technical items in order to balance the message of the book. One possibility is how cartography played a role in the decision taken by the military commander responsible for Hawaii to not to implement the order for the relocation of Japanese Americans located in the state to the mainland (as discussed in 174-175).

A final discussion point that I believe Monmonier missed was with the issue of “greenlining” found in chapter 8. While Monmonier provides an in-depth discussion at the beginning of the chapter on “redlining,” or the process of cartographically demarcating “dangerous” areas to preclude them from various services, he provides only one half of the available discussion on “greenlining.” While Monmonier acknowledges that this process involves “mapping out areas within which firms that create jobs receive tax breaks or outright grants” in areas that he describes as “a city’s green, A-list neighborhoods,” he doesn’t discuss some of the other implications of this practice (124-125). One worth discussing at length, is the implication that this practice concentrates additional financial resources in sections of a place that already enjoy substantial financial clout. It seems puzzling, and Monmonier doesn’t discuss this apparent contradiction, that governments are utilizing public resources to combat “unemployment, underemployment, or out-migration” in areas that don’t traditionally experience these phenomena (124). This contradiction might be the source of the lukewarm outcome where these programs result in neither success nor failure.

As I noted at the beginning of this review, we should consider Monmonier’s book an important part of the political geographic and cartographic literature. However, as this review has pointed out, there is at least one glaring omission, which is a discussion of how people decide, or choose to, follow a map’s suggestions. This omission notwithstanding, Monmonier’s examination of the role maps play in delineating ownership at a variety or scales and the overt and subtle messages transmitted by maps to suggest where to go and what to do are important discussion and research points. Any work that causes us to pause and reexamine what we take for granted at a most basic level, in Mark Monmonier’s case the veracity and objectivity of a map, will always have a timeless quality to them.

In conclusion, Mark Monmonier’s exploration of how maps influence human behavior fills a gap in cartographic and political geographic literature. Drawing on historical and contemporary events and court cases, Monmonier discusses the various ways in which maps can restrict our movement, our ownership, and how they impact our worldview at a variety of scales. Despite the wide scope of the book it is incomplete. In the future, I hope to read Monmonier’s thoughts on how people prescribe importance and validity to maps and how maps can be simultaneously important or not in delineating the same area.

Military Geography and Mali: the Afghanistan-effect

There’s one good thing about international crises of the day, they always provide good fodder for blog posts, particularly those blogs concentrating on Geography. Foreign Policy seems to allow almost anyone to write a guest column and I always find myself commenting on it. If anyone at Foreign Policy should happen across this blog, I hereby volunteer myself to write! I’ve discussed Mali twice now, first in general terms of the organic state concept, and then again to discuss the Council on Foreign Relations’ view of the Malian situation (with the requisite plug for organic state).

A recent article from FP (on Mali) boldly states that “Mali is not a Stan”. For those not in the know, a ‘Stan, is what the kids these days call the Central Asian republics – Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Dagestan, Uighurstan – you know predominantly Islamic in religious orientation, fairly poor economically (Kazakhstan doing somewhat better), and with a bit of a problem with radical Islamist militancy. Let me be clear here: Islamism is not Islam, the -ism is a political ideology based on the religion that is the latter. So when I say radical Islamist militancy, I’m talking about violent militants espousing the idea of a state structured on Islamic principles. Typically the stated way to get to this state is to overthrow the current one, violently. Of course, who gets to decide what principles are “acceptable” in this new state is usually decided by the militant with the biggest gun. Go figure. So in FP’s view, Mali is not a predominantly Islamic, economically poor state with bit of a problem with radical Islamist militants. Curious. As the most cursory search engine research engine will tell you – 90% of Malians claim to be Islamic, the economy is in shambles (like the state), and there is most definitely a problem with violent Islamists. But to FP’s credit, Mali is most definitely not in Central Asia.

Mali in West Africa (via NatGeo)

What they actually meant is that Mali is not AfghaniSTAN, or more accurately that Mali isn’t a place where France will bogged down, like the U.S. did in Afghanistan. The first piece of evidence offered is that Mali has some history of centralized rule, unlike Afghanistan. The prime example of this? The Malian Empire which lasted about 300 years, from the 13th to 16th centuries. If we’re playing the “I-had-an-ancient-empire” game than Afghanistan had at least one too, the Ghaznavid dynasty, granted they were Turkic and Persianized, but they ruled from Ghazni, Afghanistan. In addition, the Ghaznavid’s empire was several times larger than the Mali Empire. Maintaining an empire over increasing distances implies some degree of centralization, though admittedly there is also a good chance of decentralization as inefficiencies develop (an organic state model would be useful in depicting this, I really need to do this!). And there’s a more glaring problem with FP’s assertion, the Mali Empire didn’t even stretch in the area of Mali that is home to the Tuareg tribes and violent Islamists today, check out the map below. So while there may be “some history” of centralized power in Mali, the prime case didn’t even include the vast northern reaches of the country. Though it’s topographically dominated by sand dunes, people still live, work, and make their homes there.

the Mali Empire, ca. 1350 (via wikipedia)

The second piece of evidence is that France supposedly has a deep knowledge of the country and that they are “practically drowning” in expertise, thanks to their colonial history. On top of this “most educated Malians still speak French” making “it much easier for French forces to relate to average Malians.” This last sentence doesn’t even make sense. Most educated Malians speak French, therefore French forces can relate to average Malians? According to Ethnologue, a generally reliable source of data, a whopping 9,000 French speakers exist in Mali (I actually find that hard to believe), based on 1993 data. Perhaps this is the number of speakers of near-native French proficiency, French is taught in school and is the official language but Bambara is the most widely understood (and I bet the French troops aren’t speaking Bambara). And then there’s the colonial legacy of “expertise” I’m sure the French were “drowning” in expertise with respect to Algeria and Vietnam, both countries they had colonized, both countries experienced anti-colonial revolutions, and both earned their independence (in addition to two others:  Laos and Cambodia). In fact, I would argue that having a colonial history with a place probably results in chauvinistic attitudes, especially when the former colonizers are confronting what they consider to be “backwards,” “uneducated,” “tribal,” guerrillas.

Third, FP asserts that Mali isn’t Afghanistan because ethnicity isn’t the same basis of contention that it is in Afghanistan. Rather, differing interpretations of Islam is the most interesting “social dynamic”. And, absurdly, FP states that “there is no neighboring state or individuals in that state who share militants’ ethnicity and have the backing of elements of a hostile spy agency.” First, the Tuareg’s range is FAR beyond Mali’s borders encompassing Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Of course, I’m not privy to whether or not the Tuareg militants are back by a spies, but do they need to be? With most of Africa now awash with small-arms any movement (not just violent Islamist ones) could acquire weaponry at very modest prices. More importantly, FP’s framework for religion and ethnicity is completely monolithic. To FP, ethnicity and religion are separate identities, this is erroneous. Ethnicity and religion have been, and will probably always be, linked. The reason is that these are aspects of a person’s identity. Academics often speak of a person’s “multiple” identities and this is probably the reason for the confusion. Rather, each of us has one identity with roots in a social communities. One person may be Irish and another person English, but another aspect of their identity could be religious: Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Zoroastrian Another aspect could be sexual orientation, language, gender, social class, education, and any number of “observable” social markers. Which one is “most important” to an individual, to an organization, or to a “nation” is difficult to predict and varies based on who you talk to, when you talk to them, and who you are. Ultimately, all aspects of an individual’s identity do matter because organizations and movements largely form around one or two aspects in order to not only delimit membership in the group but also to make inclusive of as many people as possible. By the same token, these movements and organizations adapt which part of the identity is emphasized based on the needs of the movement. Attributing a conflict to one aspect of identity is dangerous, uncritical, and lazy. As humanity routinely demonstrates, we have a fantastic ability to differentiate between each other and organize ourselves accordingly.

map of significant Tuareg populations (via wikipedia)

Finally, I mostly agree with the article’s final point that France’s political objectives are much different from the United States’ in Afghanistan in 2001. Most importantly, the article observes that it is unlikely for the French to “stick around” and “attempt to govern on their own terms,” adding that “the bulk of peace-building” will be undertaken by African forces. The stated goal of French intervention is simply “to rid northern Mali of Islamist militants.”

To me France’s objectives are not to solve the root of northern Mali’s violence, but rather to provide a bandage to a sick old man. I’ve written about the need for increased state capacity in previous posts, the French intervention for worse, isn’t about that. But you can’t really blame the French government, the French government isn’t beholden to Malian voters and French taxpayers certainly aren’t going to tolerate expending cash and coin in creating a functioning state apparatus with the ability to project itself into the Saharan wastes. Neither should we be held in awe by France’s actions, the stated goal is to push the rebel-insurgent state back, then leave. Does France really expect African states to be able to create state capacity in Mali when most of them can’t assure state control over their own territories? One thing that is novel is the articulation, before the beginning, of clear objectives for intervention – General (retired) Rupert Smith articulated this in a great book, The Utility of Force.

In closing, I’d argue that every conflict has the opportunity to become somebody’s “Afghanistan.” Geographers and historians are uniquely positioned in academia, they are often forced to look at a variety of scales and times and through multi-disciplinary lenses. Historians focus on time and must be able to follow the threads of economics, politics, culture, and a myriad other disciplines. Geographers focus on place and must do the same, remaining cognizant of the influence of terrain, economics, social groups, and other specialist disciplines. Often, you begin to realize that though there are always stark differences there are also striking similarities spanning places, and times. Geography’s disciplinary emphasis on physical terrain and human activity leaves many well placed to analyze military conflicts, in fact there is an “official” sub-discipline in Geography called, “military geography.” Consider this recent article from the Times of India on violent Islamist activity in Mali, “the Islamists have put up little resistance, many of them fleeing to the Adrar des Ifoghas massif around Kidal, a craggy mountain landscape honeycombed with caves…” Sounds a lot like Afghanistan doesn’t it?