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

Geographic Implications of (Anti-)Social Media

“Someday we will build up a world telephone system, making necessary to all peoples the use of a common language or common understanding of languages, which will join all the people of the earth into one brotherhood. There will be heard throughout the earth a great voice coming out of the ether which will proclaim, ‘Peace on earth, good will towards men.'” – John J. Carty (Chief Engineer at AT&T, 1891) (Credit)

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” – Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

The Internet has brought seemingly limitless information and media, literally, to our fingertips. I have watched my mother reconnect with grammar school friends on a social media site, even though that time was decades past and half a world away. The Internet, like the Post, Telegraph, Radio, Telephone, and Television, have also served to speed information between people at distances far greater than human perception would typically allow. But, there are a few key differences. First is the ubiquity of the Internet. It can be accessed from your phone, your computer, your tablet, from a coffee shop down the street, your 5th floor apartment, your workplace, mid-air, the middle of the ocean, and extra-terrestrially (Twitter). Another difference is the sheer volume of people able to access the information – the International Telecommunication Union estimates that in 2015 3.1 billion (or half the planet’s population) was using the Internet. Virtually everyone has a cell phone (seriously the statistic is 7,085,000,000; the 2015 estimated population for the planet is 7,200,000,000). And of course, programming within the Internet has made information accessible to even more users through automated translation. There is also the depth of interaction, were bandwidth to allow it, all 7 billion users could conceivably be in the same chat room at the same time, passing information back and forth. So why hasn’t Carty’s prediction come true?

Well, Z isn’t going to sort out this thornier philosophical issue for you (an excellent place to get started, however, is Ted Robert Gurr’s Why Men Rebel,1970). Spoiler alert: academia still hasn’t come to an agreement (Z suspects the answer is both – nurture and nature, based on his observations).

The last 12-months has thrown into stark relief the impact that anti-social media (meant in its correct sense: unwilling or unable to associate in a normal or friendly way with other people) has on engendering a distinctive anti-social environment.

To put it plainly, the Internet empowers demagogues and provides a platform where one can find supportive listeners, watchers, activists, and foot soldiers anywhere in the world.

The Internet has seemingly negated the role that Geography played in minimizing the impact that these individuals would have. Would a certain Florida-based pastor (turned Freedom/French fry chef and 2016 U.S. Presidential Candidate) been known outside the state 100 years ago, outside the country 50 years ago? Only to the devoted watcher. Also complicit in the rise of demagoguery is a willing mass media complex providing microphones and coverage for various rants (I’m sure you can find your own sources).

Anti-social media and its anti-social users can now draw on social media half a world away in order to push their own message.

(via BBC)

The above image was created by a (self-described) conservative Japanese woman (all from the BBC). The caption reads: “‘I want to live a safe and clean life, eat gourmet food, go out, wear pretty things, and live a luxurious life… all at the expense of someone else.’ ‘I have an idea. I’ll become a refugee.'” The artist posts to a social media page that also includes anti-Korean messages. As the BBC astutely points out immigration in Japan remains a controversial subject despite an ageing and declining population (regular Z Geography readers will no doubt recall failed public policy encourage Japanese Brazilians to immigrate to Japan).

The publication of this image immediately brought back memories (not even a month old, sadly) of the camerawoman for Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party, who was video tapped ignominiously tripping and kicking two or three people running.

For the last month, Z Geography has watched the inevitable troll war in anonymous (and non-anonymous) comment sections around the Internet. Demagoguery has no shortage of willing participants. The Internet has flattened the Geography of Hate.

But what is shocking to Z Geography is the level of impersonal detachment shown by the camerawoman and female artist. One woman from one culture immersed in an ongoing human dilemma found it perfectly acceptable to kick a little girl as she ran by. While another woman from another culture thousands of miles away found it perfectly acceptably to create an  image based on a photo of another little girl to push a message of prejudice. Are we becoming desensitized to extremism? Probably.

But Z Geography’s bigger concern is whether this activity – cartoons, videos of kicking, and comments defending it all – serves to legitimize extremism. It is unfortunate that there isn’t a historical precedent for this sort of thing.

Oh wait.

(via wikipedia): From a 1919 Austrian postcard showing a Jew stabbing a German soldier in the back. World War 1 ended in 1918, the Holocaust began in 1941. At least 12,000 Jewish soldiers died serving Imperial Germany.

Disclaimer: Z Geography does not advocate the curbing of freedom of expression and artistry on the Internet (and sees all three as public goods, in both senses of the word).

Disenfranchising Minorities via Census: Burma (Myanmar)

In Burma (officially known as Myanmar), the government has begun the first census in three decades (according to the BBC). Of course, the document and census takers (presumably) are refusing to allow any individuals to classify themselves as Rohingya. While the article notes that the UN (which is assisting with the census) asserts that all people should be free to choose their own ethnicity – the Burmese government (not to be confused with Burman) only allows individuals to choose “Bengali” or they would not be registered.

The Rohingya are a dialect of Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims residing primarily in Arakan state, which was formerly its own kingdom until it was conquered by the Burman Empire (and subsequently incorporated into the entity now known as Burma) in the 17th or 18th century. The Rohingya’s language, a dialect of Bengali as I have indicated, is the primary basis for the government’s assertion that they are ethnically “Bengali.” In addition, this linguistic difference coupled with their predominantly Sunni Islamic religious orientation adds some (apparently unwelcome) diversity to the mostly Theravada Buddhist state.

The Burmese government, taking an increasingly Buddhist-nationalist bent (as evidenced by Aung San Suu Kyi’s deafening silence on the Rohingya’s situation), has labelled the Rohingya as “illegal immigrants” despite the community’s presence in the same area for centuries. Thousands of Rohingya have settled in neighboring Bangladesh (peopled predominantly by Bengali-speaking Sunni Muslims) in refugee camps just over the Burma-Bangladesh border. Many were forcibly (through outright violence or intimidation) migrated. As the article notes one recent spate of violence occurred in 2012, reminiscent of the Gujarat pogroms a decade earlier (where now-Prime Ministerial candidate in India Narendra Modi turned a blind eye to the killing of hundreds of Muslims in the state) the Rakhine violence began with the alleged rape of a Buddhist Rakhine girl by several Muslim Rohingya men. Hundreds died and thousands displaced in the ensuing violence.

That the government is refusing to acknowledge the Rohingya minority is of no surprise. A country’s census (typically) forms the basis for electoral districts, acknowledging (and publishing) the population of Rohingya in Rakhine state would undoubtedly find the Rohingya to be a substantial minority in the state. There is also the “official recognition” factor, acknowledging Rohingya in a Burmese census provides official recognition of their status as Burmese citizens. Herein lies the deviously cunning gem in the government’s plan, allow the Rohingya to either acknowledge they are “Bengalis” and therefore “illegal immigrants” or don’t allow them to register at all and therefore have a basis to deny citizenship (and voting rights).

Even if the United Nations manages to convince the government to back down and allow “Rohingya” to be officially recognized, the government still has options to oppress the minorities. Borrowing a page from North Carolina’s playbook – there is the tried-and-true tactic of gerrymandering electoral districts in Rakhine state to minimize the impact of the Rohingya vote. If that doesn’t work, there is also a myriad ways to keep minorities out of the polls or simply discount their votes.

And there is the potential for violence, while most Rohingya are probably unlikely to undertake violent activity – they are under siege, as evidenced by the forced migrations over several decades, the government’s latest action likely will fuel resentment among the community. A troubling thought is the potential for the census forms to be used to target “Bengali”-Rohingya. Again referencing the Gujarat pogroms, riot leaders had voter lists (otherwise names and addresses) of Muslims throughout the community to focus the killings and looting. Beyond the Rohingya community, other ethnic minorities (such as the Karen and Shan) are also watching the census with anticipation. These larger minority communities are also armed, organized, and concentrated geographically.


Geographic Impact of Demography: Haryana’s Male Preference

The preference of much of South Asia’s families for male children has been well documented in both academic and popular papers. Often, male preference is attributed to “cultural” factors grounded in both social/community preference and perception (like status or standing in the community) and in economics (males viewed as more likely to provide money for the family). While the historical extent of male preference is outside the scope of this post, we can safely say that male preference at birth (manifested by female infanticide, the killing of female foetuses, and sex-selective abortions) has been ongoing for at least the past 30 years, probably longer. The population impact has been terrible, according to United Nations Population Fund paper published in 2010, India is “missing” over 600,000 girls, and that’s only from prenatal selection (or sex-selective abortion) between 2001 and 2007. In other words, that does not count infanticide making the number of missing higher.

Today’s post looks at the demographic impact of this “cultural” preference on geography through the case of Haryana, a state in India’s northwest. But first, how do we know there is a preference among families and society for males? Aside from the anecdotal “cultural” evidence, depictions in media and so on, there are demographic statistics we rely on. As part of the preliminary results of the 2011 Indian Census, the Indian government published the total sex ratio (the number of women per 1,000 men) of its states and territories based on the results from the 2011 and 2001 censuses. Available on wikipedia (as well as the Census website, and reproduced below), we find that Haryana is among the worst states for the total sex ratio, 877 women per 1,000 men. The total sex ratio is reflective of the population at-large, and while it does reveal male preference over time it doesn’t reflect current levels (or the persistence) of male preference at birth. The child sex ratio (defined as the ratio of girls to 1,000 boys aged 0 to 6) is another measure of sexual imbalance in a young population, but it is also influenced by such factors as non-registration of female children. Finally, the sex ratio at birth (defined as the number of female babies born per 1,000 male babies) captures male preference at birth, including sex-selective abortions, but misses infanticide. When looking at these numbers, its important to keep in mind what other factors (besides the one you’re looking for) is potentially influencing the statistic.

Haryan’s child sex ratio betrays a continuing preference for males (and potentially, under-reporting of females). According to the Census data, the 2011 child sex ratio was 830 girls per 1,000 boys (compared with 877 girls per 1,000 boys in the total population). The child sex ratio has only a slight disparity between rural and urban areas with rural areas reporting 831 girls and urban areas reporting 829 girls per 1,000 boys. The all India child sex ratio is 914 girls per 1,000 boys (as reported in the Economic Times), as that article notes, this is actually a decrease from 2001, when the ratio was 927. The Haryana data also betrays a significant decrease in the child sex ratio, from 964 girls to the current ratio of 830. This is very large decrease and I wonder if it is a typo (perhaps 864?) or an example in a collapse in the reporting of female children in the system?

Even without the revelation of the lower sex ratio between the decadal censuses, the lower sex ratio is significant. Depending on the demographer you ask, a “normal” sex ratio is just over 1,000 girls to 1,000 boys. The reason for this is that females are naturally stronger than males, not strong as in physical strength, but in terms of physiological resilience. Female babies are stronger and women tend to live longer. Examine population pyramids for any country and you will almost always find larger numbers of elderly women (especially in the 80s, 90s, and 100+ age ranges) than men. Sorry guys, but we are the weaker of the species and we try to make up for it with physical prowess (which kills or maims us and generally shortens our life spans anyways, see: war).

While this low child sex ratio in Haryana (and India in general, with the notable exception of Kerala state) implies a continuing problem for the next generation or two, the geographic behavior of Haryana residents has already been affected. According to the Times of India article that inspired this post, a study funded by the Norwegian embassy in India found that the “skewed” sex ratio in Haryana is forcing “poor, upper caste youths” to “hunt for brides” in other states of India; Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra, and West Bengal. One of the key findings of course is that the unbalanced sex ratio in Haryana is disproportionately affecting poorer upper caste men. For a bit of background, India is infamous for its caste which, generally, organizes the population into four broad-based classes and “out-castes” (from which we derive the term “outcast”). Of course, each caste group is further sub-divided so that even among the top caste (or Brahmin) there are higher sub-castes than others. What makes the caste system infamous is its rigidity, its direct and indirect influence on your life chances, and of course, that it still exists (though steps are being taken to lessen its influence). Its similar to civil rights movement in the United States, and that’s not even completed yet, everything is a work in progress. At any rate, rich upper caste youth in Haryana have a greater chance of marrying other upper caste women in Haryana (since there’s less women they can be pickier).

Another very interesting finding is that “shortage of women is not common across all caste groups in the conjugal regions, but is endemic in dominant caste groups of Jats and Yadavs.” The implication is that this situation is a rich person’s problem. Like most societies, the rich in India have the most vested interest in maintaining the status quo: the caste system (of which they sit atop), dowry, and other such “traditional” notions. But the interesting turn of events is that some of the dominant caste group’s are, literally, unable to propagate their own communities. While more detailed census information would be needed to ascertain whether the population is decreasing, that some upper caste men have to leave the state to find a wife is indicative of the problem. And of course, the article discusses one of the ways that women can climb the caste ladder – their families lie about their caste to the new-comers.

Ultimately, these two developments: potential population decline of high caste groups and the progeny of upper-caste and not-upper caste marriages will have to be absorbed by Haryana’s, and probably India’s, society. This is unlikely to be a problem unique to Haryana, as the table of child sex ratios below reveals. It seems that demography is either going to force high caste population groups to either abandon their traditional preference for males or their preference for marrying only other high caste females. In effect, demography is challenging the future viability of the caste system. And there’s already inkling of social discontent, as the article reports, out-of-town brides as stigmatized as “bought” (or “sold” by their parents) by other, presumably locally-born, women. One wonders what will become of the children, who will have to grow up with similar taunts and questions of their actual caste? And since this is a widespread problem in Haryana, might future communities and cultural organizations appear there emphasizing far away places like Odisha or Assam? Might this, eventually, be the spark that eventually overcomes regionalism in India, creating an actual “Indian” identity?

Total Sex Ratio of India, 2011/2001 (via Census of India)

Total Sex Ratio of India, 2011/2001 (via Census of India)