‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France

‘Death to Jews’ hamlet row in France http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-28764207

Z is trying something new today. Today’s post, geographic naming.

A hamlet in France is known in French as “Death to Jews” or Mort aux Juifs. The name has, again, attracted attention with calls from various organizations to rename the place.

Oddly named places stirring up controversy aren’t new. U.S. states Alaska and Ohio are in a tussle over the name of Mt. McKinley named for an Ohio-born president. Alaska is pressing for the name Denali, from a deity among Alaskan tribes.

And there are other less savory names that have been the subject of controversy. Canada, in 1961, renamed Nigger Creek in British Columbia to Negro Creek.

To Z Geography more effort should be expended in community outreach and development not in, potentially,  bringing litigation against communities. Changing the name of a place doesn’t address prejudice.

What it does do is erase human history. That’s the other lesson, these place names are an important record of things that we should never forget, lest we return to the bad old days of Crusades and purges.

Chaos in Central African Republic

Dedicated followers of the news will have heard of the ongoing violence and atrocities in the Central African Republic (CAR) a country of some 4 million people. While Z Geography hasn’t stared at nearly enough data to bring you, my trusted reader, an in-depth geographic analysis of the conflict – certain threads in the recent news deserve some commentary.

The violent conflict has been increasingly labelled sectarian by French and British news media (Americans aren’t particularly interested it seems). As France24 notes the violence pits the Muslim minority, concentrated in the north along the country’s borders with Chad and Sudan and the urban areas of the south (principally Bangui, the capital), against the Christian majority. In March 2013 (yes this has been going on for almost a year) the primarily Muslim “Seleka” rebels deposed President Francois Bozize. He had been ruling for a decade or more. The new President was a Muslim, the first in the country. Though the President, Michel Djotodia, disbanded the Seleka group, former members began a campaign of violence. Former Seleka rebels are accused of “looting” and “raping” civilians, primarily Christians. The violence has since led to the creation of “anti-Balaka” (anti-Machete) vigilante groups comprised primarily of Christians.

Last month (January 2014) Djotodia resigned his presidency as part of a regional peace process to limit violence (BBC). Except violence hasn’t abated – even with the introduction of French and other African peacekeepers, notably from Rwanda (France24).

Now somewhere between 20% and 25% of the country’s population (over a million) has been displaced, that is driven from their homes, because of the violence. This includes those families now considered “refugees” (fleeing over an international border) and “internally displaced” (still within CAR). The BBC reports (using Medecins sans Frontieres figures) that 30,000 refugees are in Chad and 10,000 are in Cameroon. One human interest story carried by the BBC relates the desire of one imam (Islamic religious leader) to be the last “Muslim in CAR”. France24 reports that the entire Muslim population of a town south of Bangui had fled toward Chad as part of a convoy of 10,000 refugees.

The imam also points, and the BBC picks up on, another important demographic/cultural geographic point: many of the refugees are Muslims and are important traders supplying food, seeds, and other goods to the local population. He says:

Bangui is losing its business community which is made up largely of Muslims – they’ve been ransacking Muslim shops.

Commodity prices have gone up, a bunch of salad will cost you 200 CFA Francs (40 cents; 25p) – twice as much as a little while ago. A bar of soap is worth 100 CFA Francs (20 cents; 13p), again twice as much as before.

Buying meat? Don’t even think about it, there is none. The Fulani and nomadic Chadians that used to drive their cattle to Bangui have decided to head for Cameroon because there’s too much violence here. (BBC)

The BBC, reporting Oxfam and Action Against Hunger views, notes that the “exodus” of Muslims could lead to “catastrophic market collapse” and that only 10 wholesalers were left in Bangui, many of whom are considering fleeing. The BBC correspondent points out that Muslims were the “backbone of the local economy.” Substantial price increases or the simple disappearance of food would worsen an already serious humanitarian situation. As the BBC notes, the UN estimates 90% of Central Africans eat one meal a day. Compounding this problem is the continuing violence, which is causing cattle herders from neighboring countries to avoid entering CAR.

The persistence of violence is something of a mystery, considering the presence of armed peacekeepers. The former colonial power, France, is accused of standing by while a Christian lynch mob mutilated the body of a murdered Muslim, according to Human Rights Watch (BBC, note the article is graphic):

The French soldiers were there, just sitting metres away, and didn’t stop this horrific mutilation from taking place.

The soldiers were heavily armed, they could have easily parked one of their armoured cars next to these two bodies, which were about 50m [164 ft] apart, and stood by them until the Red Cross came to collect them.

But instead they checked out the scene and then they got back in their cars and drove away.

Tellingly “the French defence ministry has not commented.”

Further, French peacekeepers have also been accused of standing by as looting continues in Bangui. According to France24 looters “know” that the French cannot fire on them: “The peacekeepers went from door to door to try to rout the looters, who simply moved on to other targets, pushing their carts and wheelbarrows between French armoured cars. ‘The French won’t fire at us,’ one young looter said, laughing.”

On the other hand, African peacekeepers have a mandate to open fire. France24 reports that these peacekeepers fired on civilians in Bangui that were “jeering, threatening, and throwing stones at the [Muslim refugee] convoy”. Rwanda peacekeepers also shot a suspected Christian militiaman who was about to burn the body of a Muslim, whom he had killed (France24). An angry crowd shouted at the Rwandans, evidently believing they were Muslims.

The inability of the peacekeepers to impose peace (since there is no peace to keep) appears to point to the necessity of a new mandate (for at least the French) to actually fire on Christian (and Muslim) militias in order to stop violence. In many ways, CAR’s current situation is similar to the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s – there the UN peacekeeping force lacked the mandate to effectively protect Tutsi civilians during a Hutu-led pogrom.

Without a semblance of peace, Muslims will continue to flee the Central African Republic and, as we have seen, their flight could make a serious humanitarian situation into a disaster as food prices spike and supplies vanish. Further, the Muslim community’s flight is sowing the seeds of a future conflict when legitimate citizens of the Central African Republic, who are Muslim, come home from Chad, Cameroon, or wherever to reclaim their properties. As Liberia found following their decades of instability, insurgency, and civil war – the lack of documentation of who owns what will only spark renewed violence.

A quick note on the Muslim community often coinciding with the business community – particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. As Islam spread south of the Sahara (centuries ago), Muslims often moved into and settled in predominantly Christian areas. Since land, and agriculture, has traditionally been viewed as a “desirable” or “honorable” occupation Muslims were prevented from owning land, attempting to avoid relegation to being landless agricultural laborers, many turned to trade and commerce. Some were successful because of their intrinsic cultural links with Muslim caravans from the north bringing in other goods from abroad. There’s obvious parallels of this story with the Jewish experience in Europe and the Chinese experience in southeast Asia.

A “shrinking” West: a view from the village

A French parliamentarian walked a circular route (perhaps I should have just said circumambulated, but then nobody would read this blog) for 8 months and over 6,000 kilometers (over 3,700 miles) – according to France24. While the route itself would be fun to map (adding context to the discussion), Z Geography’s main interest are the comments peppered throughout the article. What they suggest to Z is that there is quite a bit of similarities between “the French public” (as France24 portrays in the chose quotes) and some sections of “the American public.” The article left me with the impression that the “declining America” argument/observation/theory could be expanded to encompass the West. Or perhaps make it a Franco-American phenomenon.

What follows is a listing of quote from the article and a short editorialized comment from Z Geography.

  • “Everywhere I went I witnessed a crisis in the standard of living, a loss of identity and the loss of a sense of a common destiny.” How often have we heard in the U.S. about the “war on the Middle Class” (from both Republicans and Democrats)
  • “People would tell me: ‘look at the state you have left our country in’,” he added. “There is no more industry, farming is in crisis, just one in ten children of farmers grudgingly says they want to carry on in agriculture.” Aside from the statistic, there’s nothing I can add. Rust Belt cities. Failing small and medium-sized farming families.
  • “And what he found was a France confused about its position in a shrinking world, an uncertainty as to the long-term effects of globalisation and a distrust for politicians who, people told him, “do not listen to us at all”. This is the key quote. Note the mention of globalization (blamed for everything from illegal immigration to loss of jobs) and the distrust of political leaders.
  • Worryingly, he also encountered “latent racism” almost everywhere, “even in the smallest villages…This is racism that seems totally unashamed,” he told Le Monde on Friday. “It is a wholescale [sic] rejection of ‘the other’ and often expressed with excessive aggression.” Another key quote with applicability to the United States. Pick your (or your party’s) favorite scape-goat. Gays. Illegal immigrants. Government Bureaucrats.

One quote that I found unsettling and woefully underexplained concerned rising “anti-Semitic rhetoric” that was “linked to wealth.” Linked how? As people gain (or lose) money there is a greater likelihood of uttering anti-Semitic comments? More information please!

That information gap aside, the quotes from France apply just as effectively to the United States. Industry has (long) been in decline, agriculture (at least the profits of) is the domain of agribusinesses, those “left behind” by globalization (more specifically: economic globalization) are angry – at the political class, their governments, and the “others.”

The only difference is that a French politician bothered to walk around the country to “take its pulse,” in the first place. The only time this happens in the U.S. is during a Presidential election.

Z Geography thinks these comments point to a more geographically diffuse sentiment. The “forces” that promoted the rapid growth of the Tea Party certainly would have similar effects in France – it’s also an advanced economy with multiple links to the global marketplace. The anger permeating economically-destroyed (let’s face it) communities in “America’s Heartland” is also on display in rural, suburban, and urban France. In other words, this isn’t a strictly American problem (or phenomenon) – it’s regional, probably even global.

Z Geography also thinks that economics plays a central role in this anger, but that is the subject for a much longer post.

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).