Rarely before have reactions to an infection been able to be mapped so clearly along partisan lines. If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations, as if life or death matters were open to public debate–or how a pandemic was perceived locally. As Italian health authorities place primacy on staying at home among means to limit exposure to the novel coronavirus COVID-19: social distancing is the primary way to slow the contagion’s spread, so terrifyingly rendered in heat maps of the different metrics of cases announced, hospitalizations, or morality; but the difficulty of measuring the spread of this coronavirus suggest the maps may be undercounts.
But in the United States, disunited as ever, if suffering from misdirection in a critical way before the risks of a global pandemic appearing to center its expanding reach across the continents of North and South America, without respect of border line, the contrast between epidemiological realities and small government gospel is increasingly stubborn. Tasked with lending his professional legitimacy to President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci invited and indeed recommended all states participate in staying at home “broadly throughout the country,” outside hotspots, in a policy of physical separation, has enjoined Americans rather firmly that even “though they feel that in certain respect there are relatively few cases in their cities and their towns and their states . . there no regions in our country that are going to be exempt from an outbreak if you do not do the appropriate mitigation issues namely [of] physical separation.” But what is prudence, and what is appropriate?
Dr. Fauci refrained to issue top-down directives, even in an extraordinary situation. Even as disparities across the nation suggest many not abiding with these guidelines of distancing and local governors dallied in moving quickly to maintain public health orders where they did not see a spike in death rates or public records of infection that would warrant work stoppages. In the maps they saw, there were no maps that would compel public consensus to adopt distancing directives in mid-March, even as a national emergency was declared. Did it help that the novel coronavirus outbreak arrived on coasts and afflicted health care structures in blue states and Democratically-leaning cities and left red states that can be defined as “Trump country” less in danger of a spike? While that was true before than red the reported cases of infection spread from coast to coast, tallies seemed so low in some states as pure numbers–a few states’ official tallies reported but one!–that stay-at-home orders seemed ridiculous impositions on entire populations, economies, or across huge, agrarian tracts of land. But the problem of limiting exposure to SARS-CoV-2 load, and degree of exposure to the virus able to live in aerosolized form for up to three hours, suggest no personal contact or even proximity is necessary for transmission.
In many states–Montana, New Mexico; Oklahoma; Wyoming–a top-down issuing of stay-at-home orders seemed hard for governors to wrap their heads around, especially in the politicized nature of discourse about the virus’ spread and danger. President Trump championed measures that he had taken that restrained the greater outbreak of disease, and blamed his opponents for exaggerating its danger, that rendered political debate toxically muddy. For epidemiological realities warranted far greater emergency measures than a regular set of public addresses assuring future promises, and testing: instead, we have the website Oscar, modeled after Alexa, promoted by an insurance company closely tied to the family of son-in-law Jared Kushner, who seems keen to use inside information about the virus’ danger to turn a profit. The dangers of transmission and the effectiveness of social distancing of six feet were quite intensely debated in the medical community: the six feet rule that CDC issued looked reasonable, as a guide but airborne transmission from sneezes, aerosolization, and the virus endures in aerosolized form for up to three hours. It seems almost impossible to predict the load of the novel coronavirus one would be exposed by a simple map of mortality, let alone compromised public records conducted with limited testing and no testing for antibodies or exposure to viral load.
The outbreak had by March 10 just barely begun, but no stay-at-home order were in place. The six counties in the Bay Area, from San Jose to Marin, who issued the first helter-in-place order–Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara counties–on March 17, 2020, restricted all non-essential activity, and was extended in early April to May, followed the absence of national directives in Trump’s largely self-congratulatory address to the nation, of May 13, whose stunning absence of enacting preventive measures seemed to punt in response to the declaration that day of a global pandemic. Although incomplete testing data was not yet fully compiled, and tracking of COVID-19 in the states was woefully incomplete, and testing for COVID-19 unavailable in multiple states. The weird benign neglect that the Trump administration practiced offloaded responsibility to regional governors, many enmeshed in unproductive relations with the President, refracted through partisan conflicts that mirrored the CDC maps of confirmed cases of the disease.
Was this truly because the spread of contagious virus literalize a red-state/blue-state divide?
And even as cases in almost all the states in the union were evident by the end of the month, we focussed unduly on “hot-spots” like New York, and counted our stars we were lucky not to live there–or closed the entrances to other states to those darned New Yorkers, who maybe got what they hadn’t prepared for adequately–and the notion of a national policy seemed distant and, well, un-American in a land of personal liberty.
What was a truly critical moment demanded consensus to frame a workable national health policy. Was this a deep cartographic failure, as much as a lack of good data about the spread of infection, and accurate tallies of patients able to test positive for COVID-19? The problem was not in statistical modeling; the absence of good counts of positive cases of infection in our nation–or probably of verifiable and trusted tallies of infection rates in China, where the virus first spread–created deep misconceptions about the flow and transmission of the virus COVID-19, which later maps tracking the progression of the virus around the nation would only later try to redress and to correct. For CDC mapped the disease by choropleths that shaded statistics across areas, rather than in terms of human subjects, creating a meaningless distribution of aggregates that didn’t track the virus but rather the manifestation of symptoms, without communicating the incubation or virulent transmission of the virus, and often used buffers to individual cases, independent of population density or increased probability of infection.
The Center for Contagious Diseases, relying on diverging local tallies of verifiable cases, created meaningless aggregates of states, as if this were an electoral map–even as individual attorneys general issued stern warnings states about misleading advertisements for products marketed as COVID-19 “cures” from chlorine dioxide, hydroxychlorquine, essential oils, and garlic–echoing spiritualists’ claims in South Asia that cow dung rendered bodies cleansed of the dangerous virus. CDC national maps suggested little sense of alarm outside the coastal states by March 12–
–and even as Trump defined a “national emergency” in response to the identification of a “global pandemic,” on March 13, low “reported cases” still suggested that states were able to contain a problem that clearly spread across space in ways we didn’t fully understand–without counts for multiple states, even quite late in the COVID-19 game.
And by March 19, COVID-19 cases were growing at a record of 500 a day, as cars lined up over two miles to be tested in the rare drive-thru testing center, sending many regional health professionals into panic mode.
Poor mapping led to an insufficient awareness of the risks of transmission, and of how to best contain the virus whose spread could have been better documented in its transit through and communication to bodies. The problem of asymptomatic transmission through aerosolization of the virus in any act of speech, only restrained by spatial isolation and social distancing. Yet the resistance to a top-down directive from the executive is clear, as states have become the major implementers of policies as cases of infection grow and place stresses on public health safety. The guidelines only specify physical isolation to stay at home for those with health conditions may place them at increased risk.
The slow progress of stay-at-home orders of the sort first issued in California–and even not that uniformly adopted in the state that contains a large agrarian economy–and a large group of separatists in “the State of Jefferson” to the north!–after mid-March–that tallied the smallest degree of a reduction of travel in California’s counties, excluding its most least populated, as compiled by the New York-based geolocation start-up Unacast:
Yet such surveillance-based images of these regions of a small reduction of travel–including the agrarian Imperial Valley in the south and the farmlands of the Central Valley, to be sure, but also the isolationist north, reveal the sites that are farthest from the perception of a dire global outbreak, and it seemed the sense of a self-imposed distance from the globe, or an illusion of distance that seems to have incubated across all fifty states to a certain degree during the first three years of the Trump Presidency, nourished from the earliest days of the 2015 Trump campaign, that were rooted in sewing deep doubts about the feasibility of global accords or policy, the encouraging of the independence of states’ rights, and a profession of individual responsibility and autonomy that in the context of a global pandemic approaches libertarianism. Since then, the diffusion of new costs of growing counts of infection in non-metro areas where stay-at-home orders were absent raises huge questions.
Largely rural hold-out regions across the nations have taken the “liberty” of shrugging off top-down orders, suspicious of the logic of top-down government associated with stay-at-home orders, as a result of the devaluation of leadership and rejecting the intrusion of government prescriptions on local life. Yet isn’t it also the case that all concepts of traditions, ‘local life’ or custom. are destined to be thrown out the window in the face of a global pandemic whose epidemiological reality is unavoidable, if it is perceived by some through the lens of deeply pitched science wars? The logic of local rejection, so craftily amplified at each instance by the Trump campaign, echoing the fault-lines that Russian operatives perceived, according to Robert Mueller, as fault-lines to be exploited in American public opinion, seem eerily resilience in response to COVID-19.
The resistance to self-isolation expresses a fraught reading of the global, through lenses of the local, disarming for its indulgence of stubborn resistance to epidemiology. These are the folks who praise the design of Drew Oliver’s Giant Microbes to take the outbreak to market a stuffy–ostensibly for “educational” ends as “science products”–and order them online. The marketing of the stuffed animal take the virus as just the latest iteration of the media’s favorite charmed stuffed figure, as if with little sense of the scale of its global impact, cast as a novelty toy of the moment.
For we have no real sense of the scale, proportions, or mortality rate of the still unknown virus, offering something of a divide of skepticism about the potential extent of its danger as a public health threat. The depth of a divide, so obstinate in the face of a global pandemic, seemed quit cruelly to countermand hopes for a united or collective response to the spread of infection and replication across state lines of the sturdy–and so far unmated–single strand of RNA of SARS-CoV-2, a microbe that is so easily contracted. Quarantine was described on some social media sites as “going medieval,” to be discounted as a media hysteria, the origins of inoculation from small pox were indeed likely “medieval:” in the early eighteenth century Cotton Mather described how his “Negro man, Onesimus,” a Guamante from Southern Libya, had described the very process hearalded in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1714 as traditional in the Ottoman Empire, describing them, Mather noted in a public letter, long before he had read the Royal Society report; they derived from practices standard in sixteenth-century China.
While “stay-at-home” orders have been issued locally, a divergence among local and regional policies seems the poorest possible reaction to the spread of a virus that knows, of course, no boundaries, and whose infection has no clear relation to jurisdictional bounds. As COVID-19 traveled globally with unprecedented velocity in an age of globalization, it persists in being perceived at purely a local level, suggesting the dangerous nature of the peculiar polarity of regional and global in an age of global pandemic. And despite the existence of clear hotspots of infection that we have been assiduously tracking, as if confident in the data that they aggregate, the real danger and actual threat of outbreaks of COVID-19 occurring anywhere in the country makes it difficult to invoke cultural differences, or even economic divides of predominantly agricultural regions from the urban areas where orders for sheltering in place emerged in mid-March.
Whereas California Governor Gavin Newsom first issued statewide directives to shelter-in-place on March 20, 2020, as an imperative to “meet this moment,” the intransigency to changing relations to place in a top-down manner met with steep resistance from many pockets of the United States by March’s end that create a terrifying sense of disunion in the face of the disease’s still poorly mapped spread.
For Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, “place” was the most human of attachments, a fundamental value of the human experience defined by security, rootedness and grounding. The resistance to a policy of “sheltering in place” has been argued to be un-American in many areas of the expansive space of the south and so-called midwest and southwest. As Yi-Fu Tuan saw human rootedness in “place” as a polar relationship to the expansiveness of “space,” such a transhistorical opposition is almost undermined by the spread of the virus across the globe, and the currently overwhelming nature of amorphous fears, that lead to the popularity of Steven Soderberg’s Contagion as a means to come to terms with the virus by rehearsing the deaths of 26 million, including Gwyneth Paltrow. Or is it the only script by which we were compelled to fall back on, renting the film out of a deep narrative frustration that we feel when confronting the disease?
Resorting to family zoom conferences, diaries of what we cook and eat or how many bread recipes we can perfect, improvised ways of coming to terms with hunkering down before the spread of the coronavirus whose pathways of transmission, period of incubation, or indeed possibility of reinfection we have little sense, as we map the “source” of its transmission from New Year’s parties for the Year of the Rat as the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that had adapted to humans killed 170 victims.
The film must have met a narrative crisis for a global narrative albeit to bridge continents that could describe the rapid global diffusion and spread of an illness through respiratory droplets, shed by folks otherwise asymptomatic, to which we had no clear response save panic. The eery similarity of the advice diffused in the film to what CDC provided–social distancing, washing your hands, avoiding to touch your face, the main vector of the disease’s transmission–were not only eerily familiar, but we watched the impossibility of the nation’s leaders to react to the disease’s spread, as if to familiarize ourselves with the lack of any national strategy to monitor COVID-19’s spread. The “uncanny” nature of the film was surely not coincidence, as the movie’s scriptwriter was struck with the lack of national pandemic preparedness when researching the movie that all the scientists he spoke to had rather alarmingly alerted him.
But it was difficult to assimilate to the maps of our national geography that had been a privileged category of spatial analysis in the Trump administration. The founding book of human geography began from the alert that a geographer trained as a climate sciences asked about how we perceive, structure, and evaluate the natural and man-made environments, and the psychological and cultural relations to the enviroemtn that allowed “topophilia” to bridge human and physical sciences. Yi-Fu Tuan began to consider the bonds between people and place in Berkeley, he composed much of it in in the arid landscape of New Mexico, living with an unprecedented experience of an expanse of space in an environment he almost felt increased the acuity of his senses, increasingly appreciating the arid, open space of the desert, whose low elevations, low rainfall and high summer temperatures he remembered late in life for their austerity of flat horizontality and arid planes that he felt distilled perceptions of space to a new level of acuteness.
Much of the open space in this once barren land has since disappeared–if far less severely in the desert–but its open area in large part remains.
–strikingly distinct by its low development and population density. And the current spread of infections across the state of California, indeed, suggest an eery contrast to the nature of development that is a metric less for crowding, than of the repurposing of land, and the loss of open space.
If the distribution of population across these sparsley populated “red” states–the Republican sort, not the sort characterized by a loss of open lands–suggests a clear basis for the differences in relations to the experience of COVID-19 as it enters our environment and neighborhoods, the lack of clear correlation to the uneven implementation of Shelter-at-Home policies by local authorities and population is striking. Yi-Fu Tuan was sensitive to the rise of attitudes to the security of place for a man who matured as an exile, at home in multiple spaces from Australia to Manila to New Mexico, to Wisconsin, where we briefly met, and I heard him rhapsodize about how climatology had led to recognition of the virtues of its austerities as an unexpected immersion in space; his optimistic study was less interested in the topography of disease and of quarantine, or the new notions of place and space that emerge with fears of contagion.
The shelter-in-place orders suggest a new notion of place that began from the rapid shift in data counts of infection in the Bay Area, however, but have shifted the sense of space across the country. But if they began among six counties, in similarly worded directives, quickly crafted after Trump displayed his lack of readiness for providing an assuring national vision as he addressed the nation on March 11, over the weekend Santa Clara faced a tipping point in the exponential growth in the number of cases that it reported–closing all non-essential businesses.
At the same time, to be fair, the national map offered many variations of closures–schools seemed the basic meeting grounds of potential viral transmission for many, but the stringency of the shuttering of businesses in the Bay Area was still a stand-out on March 17, 2020, and largely as the curve of cases reported was exponential–and the data available to warrant a shut-down on a scale that was unprecedented, following the adoption of working from home policies by some of the largest employers of Silicon Valley–Microsoft, Apple, and others–that set a tone for the region, and morphed into regional stay-at-home orders that continued to be issued as they became our new normal.
Yet from the Bay Area, it was increasingly apparent that most of the nation feared or felt unnecessary at the time, even if none resisted measures of public readiness.
The relation to the environment seems different in different places, however, and orders of “Shelter-in-Place” that seemed the best chance to contain the virus’ spread were far less readily adopted in other sites. Is this another way to register attitudes toward place Yi-Fu Tuan started to excavate so that it might begin to be mapped by a human geographer?
Yet maps shape diseases, and Yi-Fu Tuan was committed to find and discover continuities in the attraction to place, more than the ways mapping a concentration of disease aree so critical in shaping ideas of its contagion. seems to have encountered that polarity between place and space in the study of climatology of the desert this quite cosmopolitan exile who moved as an elite exile from his upper-class Tianjin family with unbounded optimism from Australia, to Manila, to Oxford, to Berkeley to the harsh open spaces of the desert. Late in life, he recalled how he came to appreciate and love the austerity of these unpopulated regions of the state, whose trying austerity of unprecedented unfamiliar barrenness of the semi-arid region of severe winters, freezing streams, low rainfall, was not empty space, if unmarked by place, became a landscape whose flat lines he appreciated and admired.
But as we attempt to adhere to a guideline and etiquette of social distancing, the polarity of space and place less evident than fear of a lack of security. Meanwhile, the President’s daily addresses sketched a different parallel topography of disease, less tied to statistics, more tied to the preservation of safety in an imagined America. Indeed, the durations of emergency orders shifted dramatically across the map, as did the range of news maps explaining their implementation not as measures of safety, but akin to a pandemic panic that had not yet hit Utah, whose governor “want to make sure the economy doesn’t tank either,” raising the hoary totem of the economy as if it were a person that “coronavirus preparation” seemed more accurately shown as “pandemic panic,” with notion that there were some “hardest hit states,” but Utah was just not yet in need, and take-out and drive-in options for eating left “preparation but not panic” the mantra in late March, as stay-at-home orders spread.
The uneasy calm inspired by statistics of unclear accuracy allowed the provision of a number of different figures, without clear consensus from federal agencies, mostly designed to remind us that the death-rate was really not that big, designed as if to put the question of risk in perspective.
“Active emergency declarations” were oddly absent from many states surrounded by others where none existed, despite an uneven availability of data on the infection’s spread, in recent “safety” maps from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration lacked red altogether by late March.
As we await the unfolding of infection maps in the two week incubation period for symptoms to develop for SARS-CoV-2, a drama that starts on the surface proteins of the novel coronavirus, extending to symptoms whose spread we seem condemned to watch expand from a position of inadequate preparation, low testing availability, and often inadequate monitoring for critical signs that would lead to a better understanding for limiting risk of infections. (Initial studies put the incubation period at anything from 2.1 to 11 days, with a median of 5.1.). We were warned in the newsmedia in future simulations that forecast as almost inevitable a mortality rate of almost a million and a half by late April, we looked to an uncertain future as a nation–with April 1 as the critical point when the coastal cities would turn bright red in a model of the lowest surveillance, monitoring, and social distancing; in a model of greater monitoring, infections grew red by April 30 only in coastal cities as New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles.
The good news is that after three weeks of sheltering in place, the local spread of coronavirus confirmed cases in the Bay Area seemed to be slowing–or rather, climbing far less rapidly. The infections reported in the country, and indeed the statewide image of California, present a contrasting picture, in a local map of April 4, 2020, showing a jump in cases in rural areas that is particularly telling, even as cases in California as a whole appeared to decline–but raised questions about the the gaps in state-wide testing, as many of the state’s counties were beset by a lack of swabs and vials for collecting samples, a shortage of kits, and insufficiently rapid processing of tests, which are limited to people with underlying health issues, and may not reflect the actual distribution of the illness at all–especially if, as now seems likely, the Central Valley and all of Southern California are afflicted by far more severe infection rates: we were waiting on April 2 to process 57,400 cases; testing among the state’s large homeless population progresses, but lies far below safety needs, and we have lacked antibody testing practiced in Europe–sero-surveys to detect exposure to the virus in the blood–that CDC began to do so only after the choropleth composed by the San Francisco Chronicle, combining exhaustive counts combining CDC numbers, California public health officials, and independent reporting in a Coronavirus Tracker–
The deep question is whether time-stamped maps tallying confirmed infections are quickly outdated by the changing data sources. As benefits of social distancing was debated across the country, the new landscape of a nation where even counties without any cases of COVID=19 that were able to be confirmed as contracted were likely to be undergoing an epidemic, and that there was no reason to wait for actual evidence of an outbreak, as 94% of the nation’s population has indeed already been exposed to the risk of infection, not only in every states, but almost all counties in many states–Colorado; Arizona; California; Washington; Florida; Louisiana North Carolina; Massachusetts; Vermont; Michigan.
While such chances of infection do not mean illness, pneumonia, and delusions, the more protracted exposure to the novel coronavirus, the more serious the infection seems to be, and perhaps the shorter the incubation period, epidemiologists suggest. There was little sense of sheltering in place in many counties in many states, and the chances of prolonged exposure increased where sheltering in place was not adopted.
The United States did, in late January, seem less present in the nation in a global context. But poor monitoring and no testing played a role. An initial frame of an animated cartogram from Ben Hennig suggests how much the global landscape changes as the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 incubates in bodies: the cartogram, similar to those that Hennig has devised of different themes, resizes nations, as if anamorphically, in balloons that chronically bloat as reported numbers of infected grew as the pandemic works its way to global scope. The animated map of Hennig seemed to be oddly apt to transmission of SARS-CoV-2 to respiratory tracts, as the bloating of China denoting increasing shares of global cases of infection by January’s end. The cartograms lack narrative function, but graphically demonstrate transmission of the contagion by rendering China bloated as an immense inflated blowfish, pausing at the month’s end to exhale droplets bearing infection across the world.
National buckets clearly aren’t the best way to understand COVID-19’s transmission, but they were compelling. Not only is the data counts broken down over nations, but parsing of infections that were detected, even if they reveal an undercount, fit the worldview of those who impose sovereign authority as an instrument to contain its spread.
The “real time” map of “actual cases” of course lags behind the map of diagnosed cases. The maps cannot capture the pathways of invisible viral transmission, and as such is a poor guide to national preparation, masking the incubation times of up to two-week incubation times, that seem to vary according to degree of exposure to the virus, more than age or blood type. If such proxies proved poor guides to prepare for the disease, the ballooning nations animated in the map rely on good counts. And so readiness depends on our abilities to model infections and best practices.
But even a map of national breakdowns of reported infections suggests numbers of missed critical moments of global monitoring in the partial narrative it offers, and the global distortion of infection numbers that make the pandemic global, and reveal the lack of adequate structures for its global management. For January was a true critical moment, a place to alter or watch the course of a disease and to prepare for its spread–a notion of “crisis” used by Hippocrates in the Epidemics and elsewhere, as a moment for the official determination of a disease’s course, but the moment of crisis--κρίςις–that demands clear-sighted judgement of individual diagnosis as well as of public health. For containing COVID-19 depended on the same abilities to manage the course of the disease as it developed in stages–first a loss of smell, a first fever or dry cough, and bodily exhaustion, later progressing to painful coughing up of blood, and exhaustion–that mark stages to monitor in COVID-19’s unpredictable spatial spread. If a difficulty of breathing presents a stealth disease lying in clear lungs, it needs to be anticipated as waiting to present itself in the bodies of all Americans, as COVID-19 is now in your neighborhood wherever you live.
We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.
But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world. The margin of the shoreline that was discovered in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of sensitive shoreline habitat was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time, seeking purchase on a moment few could really grasp.)
The seashore seemed a natural place of reflection. But it was hard to imagine the sensitivity of these littoral lands. While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, in a meeting point of fresh and salt water, the beauty of the coast seemed a perfect refuge in a time of disorientation.
This blog has long discussed the specter of anthropogenic change, but in the panic of COVID-19, it seemed clear that we lack the mode to talk about the scale, continuities, and complexity at which such world-changing processes will occur. The future loss of shores would be quite difficult to imagine, even if one stares at the remote sensing maps that predict the effects of sea-level rise.. So many had voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread. In England and elshwere, many departed from the city, in search of a new environment, by traveling to the coasts–where they were greeted, similarly, by protests by those who saw their arrival as a harbinger of infection. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast–in ways that cut us off from the shore as a place of reflection.
If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy.
Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion. As he reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities, as De Santis issued a state of emergency March 9.
Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, with cases of infection clustering on the shores.
The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.
Geographer Clarence Glacken famously referenced the “traces on the Rhodian shore” that the shipwrecked philosopher took as happy evidence of human habitation on Rhodes’s shores as a leitmotif of his magisterial survey of human agency on the environment and environmental influences on human history. His focus on imagining human impacts on the environment introduced ideas of human modification of the global environment in the powerful image of eroded shores in the NOAA’s Fluid Dynamics Project of earth sensing, and indeed assumes new relevance as a way of coing to terms with the reckoning of global impact from coastal retreat to a global pandemic like SARS-CoV-2. The essentially optimistic panorama Glacken presented in such detail of the human relation to nature has gained new life long after its publication, but seems all but undone by the scope of the rising level of global oceans.
As Glacken’s 1967 magnum opus set a basis for world systems studies, ranging from the pristine environment most suited to human life to human influences over the environment, his historicization of the concept of human modification of the landscape and environment might have extended in its most pessimistic form. For if it is hard to imagine the cascading effects of sea-level covering the shores where the Socratic Aristippus urged shipwrecked companions to “be of good hope, for indeed I see the traces of men!” on recognizing geometric figures in its sands as evidence of its human habitation, projected outlines of coastal retreat are global change foreign from any environmental models or human narrative, much as the spread of COVID-19. The anecdote of Aristippus’ recognition of the traces of geometric figures on Rhodes’ shore was preserved by Vitruvius to illustrate the close kinship of humanity and geometry, the pleasure-loving philosopher appearing in a treatise on architectural sciences, for whom the “geometrical “schemata” evidence human habitation. The ghostly geometries of areas of uninhabitable shores revealed in remote sensing are so unrooted from any philosophical context they seem to abandon them, but illustrate the new configuration of nature and culture foreign to the eighteenth century that concluded Glacken’s historicization of human landscape modification.
Only the possessions able to survive the unjust storms of bad fortune, after a shipwreck, and be carried across the waters in one’s mind, as the precepts of geometry, intangibles that trained architects possess and that can preserve them from unexpected storms. But the images of remote sensing reveal dangers of shorelines’ disappearance as sites of sociability and habitation we will find hard to process; the geometries of shoreline loss traced by remote sensing they project would submerge habitat and all traces of their habitation, in a major reversal of landscape protection, but whose foreignness makes us fall back on the first world systems models–even if it was occurring in Glacken’s life in beaches on the Atlantic coast, if without adequate integration into world systems models.
Far closer to home, for Glacken, who new the changing landscape of northern California well, the reshaping of the South Bay, once fed by streams, creeks, and slough, had been reformed in his own life, so that the coastal meander of the late nineteenth century soon after Glacken was born, and from how it looked when he attended U.C. Berkeley in 1923-4, when he took a survey of human interactions with the natural world whose instructor synthesized history, geology, geography, biology, and demography, and the shore of the South Bay outside Redwood City was not defined by a coastal highway, but as a small railroad town surrounded by crews and sloughs. In an era of landscape modification, when environmental history was not taught, Glacken developed his own determination to struggle against a dominant notion of environmental determinism, setting sites on the project of illuminating the interdependence between human culture and natural environments, that has since gained rewarded scrutiny as the stability of our environment has shifted beyond recognized models of scale and spatial continuity.
The place of humanity in nature that Glacken so energetically and diligently studied and saw as the most inspirational nature of geographic thought, by integrating human agency in a history of environmental change–before environmental history existed as a subject, by something like an archeology of ecological thought. Recent remote sensing projections based on climate modeling would lead to the flooding of shorelines across all continents, make Enlightenment engravings of the geometric figures on Rhode’s shores eery precursors of the new geometries of rising sea-levels across the world. The terms of Glacken’s sustained historical focus–human relation to nature–has fundamentally shifted: geographer Michael Watts remembered Glacken as bending under the stress test of the Vietnam War, serving as department chair, but the prospect of global coastal retreat would accelerate the pessimism of landscape modification Glacken in industrialized society, and stand reconfigure world systems on a scale unable to be conceived by human thought, challenging human culture in unprecedented ways, that Glacken’s work on the relation of man and nature and global ideas of habitability may provide a basis to return.
Glacken’s pioneering history opened assessment of the effects of human life on the environment, however, prompt reconsiderations of the future sea-level rise. The most recent modeling predicting a compromising of global beaches and coasts would be perhaps the deepest impact ever of human life on the inhabited world and earth’s geography—-a comprehensive radically aggressive modification of ecosystems and shoreline experience alike. And if Glacken’s concept for Traces on the Rhodian Shore began from the precedent-setting paper, “Changing Ideas of the Habitable World,” that lays a basis for thought about the anthropocene, in the 1955 conference “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth,” all but introducing study of human beings as modifiers of the environment. Glacken’s atteniotn to the relation of humanity to nature predated the industrial revolution. Sensitive to the absence of integrating an awareness of man’s changing impact on the environment in the history of human societies, it examined how attitudes to the natural world shape human institutions.
Even under a non-drastic scenario–Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5, a so-called “stabilization scenario” that models a control over radical global warming, it is hard to gain orientation on the scale of coastal retreat across the world in the coming century might bring. NOAA’s geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory seeks to predict how levels of greenhouse gas emissions might cumulatively affect the global oceans and planet; the first of the two global futures mapped below, the radical change of the retreat of sandy beaches is striking–and this is something of a base-line or best picture of what we might be lucky enough to attain.
How could we come to terms with the map of the erosion of beaches and coastal retreat than as a new relation to the environment? This conservative reading of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on coastal retreat would reconfigure the global shorelines to an extent we have not fully appreciated, creating a threat to the very sandiness of our shores, as much as to coastal populations. While we have considered coastal vulnerability in relation to human population of the coast, in other words, the broad ecosystems changes that would begin from the erosion of the shores as habitats would either trigger a massive need for adaptation of shore-dwelling species, or cause the complete destruction of the extremely delicate ecosystem of the shores, revealing the vulnerability of the world to coastal retreat on such massive scale.
A far more probable scenario–if only considered so recently–of the scale of coastal retreat by RCP 8.5, still not exaggerated at all, would create massive retreat of our beaches in less than a generation.
Long gone is the time when one ever mapped the future optimistically. But can one really forecast a map of beach loss? The alarming scope of the projected impending contraction of our beaches based on recent satellite data stands to erode one of the most sensitive and productive areas of biodiversity and beauty in the world, at considerable if not unfathomable cost to the globe. While difficult to imagine in a global crisis, the projection transcends the sort of future we can even grasp.
The prospect nags, and is hard to map, let alone by a global projection.
There is almost a primal call to walking on the meander of the edge of the shoreline, just beyond the foam traces often left by waves and the piles of seashells, often oysters or crabs left by birds; perhaps it is as a result that one has a particular attachment to the shore, as a natural course or path, not a line, after all, but a coastal meander. Hugging the coastline, at a margin for the shore, on such a meander as if coasting a contour of the topographic map, one feels an appreciation of place and security.
The sense of the security of the edge derives from the holistic embrace of space along the shoreline was something poet John Betjeman tried to register on the shore at Anglesey, in Whales, watching the near coastal key bands and coloration of the water from the shore as the tide rose. As the tide “slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,” Betjeman surveyed an expansive coastal space, as “The water, enlarging shells and sand,/Grows greener emerald out from the land/And brown over shadowy shelves below/The waving forests of seaweed show” from a coastal edge of “shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass,/Pale blue squalls and yellow rock roses” as he sensed “The thymy, turfy and salty scents/ And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/The sweet susurration of incoming sea.” Betjeman, a bit aloof from experience, failed to mention the insularity of Anglesey, its shore long a site for harvesting sea salt panned on its shores.
But the line of the beaches are difficult to register in maps, despite their deep human expereince, from an Apollonian cartographic view.
Henry David Thoreau expressed a sense of walking a natural line long before. He described the “narrow, meandering walk” along a “line of rubbish marks the higher tides—withered reeds and twigs and cranberries,” in December, 1850 as “to my eyes a very agreeable and significant line which Nature traces.” We may be destined to be removed from such a sense of unity with a line traced by Nature, pried apart from it by the projections of coastal rise; the fear of shoreline erasure and coastal deterioration. The projected threat of episodic beach retreat over hundred year period that was projected, based on alternate scenarios of climate change, RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, alternate scenarios contingent on population, carbon emissions, and reducing carbon re-absorption–an array of considerable complexity and great variability, to be be sure–
–configures wha seem similar scenarios for shoreline loss that seems particularly painful as a loss.
One possible revision of the current global map is colored by variations by country, emphasizing the effective transfiguration of much of Indonesian coastlines, and much of the arctic north, as well as the large antipodal landmasses of Greenland and Australia. Many of these shores is dark blue, denoting a degree of loss of up to twenty meters.
The contraction that the current rates of sea-level rise suggest would provide a basis for imagining that ocean water will cover hundreds of miles of sandy shores. Not only is this painful as a loss of place for future humans, who will have less of a sense of the shoreline as a timeless place, it seems, but as it will mean saline water penetrating lands and rural areas, it will also mean reducing the delicate nature of shores as spaces of particular dynamism providing not only habitat but shelter to multiple species. Since before Rachel Carson, shorelines have been recognized and studied as a crucial site of evolutionary development–and indeed one of the most vibrant living sites in the inhabited world, where more interaction between species–and more sites of nesting, scavenging, sites of rest for pacific pelagics, and a hugely important site for birds feeding on insects, will be asked to migrate or be reduced. Yet we stand to turn our back upon the shores, potentially reducing sandy shores by up to a hundred meters by the current century’s close.
Indeed, the terrifying image of the massive reduction of sandy beaches–scarcely imaginable in earlier eras, the edge-picture that we need to retain would be the best way to examine the project rise in seawater by just under 110 cm–a rate potentially reduced to less than a third–that could leave us with a reduced coastal beaches that would expose not only more densely settled coasts to marine storms as shorelines stand to shrink with coastal retreat over the century. One might imagine the option between losing, say, 40,000 sq km or 66,000 sq km of sandy beaches in eighty years–not at a far off date, but very much within the lives of folks now living, who may remember the beaches of the past.
The unimagined extent of such beach-loss would and shoreline retreat projected would not only expose densely settled coasts to marine storms, but threaten their unique environment. Rachel Carson described shorelines as dynamic sites that “keeps alive the continuing sense of creation and the relentless drive of life,” trying to raise awareness in the shore as a delicate ecotone. If we have built right up to the shores, in much of the coastal United States and elsewhere, not allowing for much of a margin for ocean swellings or rise, the possibility of a contracting shoreline would suggest a redrawing of global continents, as an advancing edge of the ocean rises beyond where we have seen it, creating extreme land erosion that will probably not create further sands, but more jagged edges of what was a gentle sloping of beach terrain.
Sand is a subtle medium, but sandy shorelines are defining aspects of most of the world’s coasts at different latitudes, densest at a perfect spot removed from the equator, but defining much of the coastal perimeter–shown, in this map’s legend, against the latitudinal distribution of sands off of continental shelves in the classic 1967 study of Miles O. Hayes–adding a pronounced sandiness, for example, to the beaches of Mexico and Baha, or the sandiness of South China, Vietnam, and Jamaica, or Saudi Arabia and the Person Gulf. This data “map” or visualization of the quantity of beach loss is scary–Africa’s sands stand to be reduced by half, and the beaches of the United States and Australia by a third each, no doubt with variations, but in the manner of a data vis purify the shores in isolation from the ocean, their coherence evident only as datapoint, really, in an oversimplification that the charismatic meaning of data allows, separating them from the environmental role of the beach as a site of shelter or in relation to coastal oceans that are such sites of life.
But the shoreline, as we have long known, is an ecotone, rich not only for its role in evolutionary development, but the very living environments that they provide.
The danger of curtailing the combined beauty and dynamism of the shore, and the shore as an environment of dynamic productivity, suggests more than a curtailment of coastlines on which more than half the world’s populations live within thirty-seven miles of the sea: it would bode a real reduction of the environmental global imagination. If islands effective remove of islands from the shorelines has led space to contract, the reduction of beaches in shorelines would be a massive change in human geography of far greater scope.
Can we imagine the scale of such a cartography of loss, as the sands that settle on shores as sediment move underwater and offshore?
There was a relatively recent return to the shores, indeed, as the shoreline was valued as a distinct area of place, in the Northeast of the United States, as many of the very areas whose former coastal inhabitants as fisherman and farmers moved inland, driven by economic change, in the 1930s and 1940s, abandoned their homes to many city-dwellers who flocked to the shores to enjoy them; as fishermen moved inland, shore frontage became prized areas of vacation homes. Historian John Gillis noted that the rootlessness of the nineteenth century, increasingly endemic in urban life on the mainland in the United States, led to a search for a sense of place lacking “in the vast, featureless landscapes of urban industrial society,” as shorelines promised ways of “being at home in the world, as much a mental as a physical endeavor,” locating states of minds on the shores that may have been a call to return to an almost primeval space of rest.
Repose was broadly identified with shores as sights of remove from over-inhabited space, as it became a space for reflection: in the early industrial era, as many ships and smaller crafts withdrew form the oceans around New York harbor, Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick, described how even in urban Manhattan, a metropolis “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs,” “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries,” on weekends, seated on pier heads or leaning against spiles, looking to sea. Ishmael described the almost natural longing for the sea at the start of his own whaling romance; the shore provided such “water gazers” a liminal space to the unknown, still foreign undomesticated, and a vantage point on its wild. But the open beaches on the shore became far more as a space for walking on, and in traversing, in ways, domesticating and making the ocean known.
Those same shores that were the focus of evolutionary investigation and valued as sites of mental relaxation as well as dynamic sites of natural history may themselves vanish or unimaginably contract. We may be, potentially, at risk of losing these states to soil erosion, under different models of climate change, based on carbon-concentration in the atmosphere, in what some scientists argue may in fact under-estimate future atmospheric concentrations of carbon, in ways we have little sense of how to prepare, even though the restoration of wetlands, bogs, and swamps goes some way to reabsorb the rise of waters, whose rate of rise will not be sudden, but could create such massive problems of erosion in only eighty years to test the abilities of global governance and local economies, as much as disorient global inhabitants in troublesome ways.
This frontier of anthropogenic change was not supposed to happen, as the sense of the shore as a primeval space seemed a point of access to the past–the future was rarely thought to include also their disappearance. Geographer Carl Sauer hence extolled the shore as the most attractive site or setting as ‘primitive home’ for man, as he saw the “tidal shore” as providing the “best opportunity to eat, settle, increase and learn” in its diversity and abundance of provisions, its very unique ecological niche especially “congenial” for the development of human culture. For Sauer’s image of the shore was, for Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, a true global itinerant, the oldest evidence of the attachment to place that he sw as distinguishing humanity in Topophilia, his foundational work on human geography. Nothing not only the ability for humans to move in water, Sauer saw shorelines as the primeval first homes providing food or exchange that the return to the coast reflect. Sauer’s grand and commanding environmental historical scope led him to predict that “when all the lands will be filled with people and machines, perhaps the last need and and observance of man will still be, as it was at his beginning, to come down to experience the sea,” not conceiving the possibility the future shore could change.
But if these projections are correct, as they seem, shorelines stand to be eclipsed, as the coastal retreat from 2010 levels recede into the past, and the connection to those shores that were long colonized by built out residents stand to disintegrate–with signifiant losses appearing along the shores of South and Central America, much of the Eastern United States, the Indian Ocean and Eastern Africa, as well as most the entire perimeter of Australia and Indonesia, where land erosion stands to reconfigure human geography, given the greater scale of impending shoreline change.
How can one respond to the data visualization of so many strikingly broad swaths of thick, red shore lines, marking a two hundred meter loss, deeply unsettling as an entry in an ecosystem balance book? The impending loss has not been helped, to be sure, by a quite intentional understanding of the shore as if it were only a fixed line, or an edge out to which one can build, and not a site of flux, and indeterminacy, whose motion occurs not only with the tides, but over time–if such an extent of movement and loss are foreign from most of our minds.
Mapping loss is hard to conceive, as materializing such projections. We do not usually make prognostications of nostalgia, or of the future absence of a site. But the shorelines pose a particularly poignant sense of nostalgia, a genre of describing the return of the hero traveling home by the seas–νόστος–even overcoming, as Odysseus, struggles on his way to gain the bearings needed for his return and arrival home, except that here, rather than arriving home, there seems the sense that the sea voyage will not be complete, is not undertaken by an individual, but is a voyage of the shores apart from the land–a story, so much as it can be mapped, of erosion, underwater lands, and lost places that will not come back. And perhaps it is all wrong to even suggest this mapping might be conceived in relation to an observer: who is to say there will be a human observer to watch it, even as the erasure of the biological niches of the shores will be most acutely felt by the crustaceans, birds, and migratory species that dwell there, from the endangered pelagics as sea turtles to sea lions.
How best to embody this sense of loss, and of absence, is perhaps best left on the front burner of future cartographers of climate change. It may be, of course, that populations cease to rise at projected rates globally, though that seems doubtful, or that in fact emissions levels to decline–as shown in graphic terms, for the first time in recent memory, if only as the Chinese economy has ground to a standstill, in what may be a predictor of one alternative global future not considered in climate modeling, as carbon emissions were reduced in China by as much as 100 million tons over just two weeks, NO2 releases dropping by almost 40% over the same period, from February 3 to February 16, and CO2 declined by a quarter. Indeed, the massive reduction in tropospheric NO2 density has so shrunk over China alone over a month due to factory closures, a ban on driving, the NASA researcher Fei Liu, who specialized in air quality researcher expressed shock at its dramatic contraction: “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”
The echoing of the scenarios gamers indulging in such post-apocalyptic computer games as Plague Inc. may be best equipped to calibrate and process the seamlessness with which what is happening in such visualizations of the spread of COVID-19 and the fall-off of NO2 tropospheric demissions since Hubei province when on lockdown on Chinese New Year, and local governments advised folks stay at home for the start of what seemed the spread of a new Black Death in the Year of the Rat.
The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the theater of his most recent State of the Nation. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, Trump seemed to have been forced to address a nation whose well-being he knew by now that he was not in charge of the narrative, which seemed to spin out of his control.
Only four days after the President of the United States assured the nation that “The risk is low for the average American,” separating the nation from the world, as the Dow tumbled over 2,000 points in a day, Trump did a real 360 to assume a sense of gravity as the lack of preparation of the American health system for the outbreak of a novel Coronavirus for which no course of action existed. He had earlier accused Democrats of having self-servingly fabricated “far beyond what the facts would warrant,” but the explanation of the state of events no longer held on a global stage. It seemed poll-tested. Democrats were far more concerned than the Republicans, and we wondered if COVID-19 was to emerge as yet another fault line to divide the United States, more than an object of national concern–cringing at its consequences. Although the most recent polls of mid-March showed a dangerous convergence and narrowing of a gap, Trump immediately relished the public spectatorship the crisis placed him in, as he summoned strength to maintain composure hand clenched, his gravity punctuated as his thumbs jumped with some insecurity at assuming a role of such gravitas, as he assumed a deep gravelly baritone of persistence, unlike his usual taste for animated gestures.
Trump assured viewers with no basis that the crisis was merely “a moment in time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world,” as he began to “speak with you about our nation’s unprecedented response to the coronavirus outbreak that started in China and is now spreading throughout the world” in solemnity. To get over it, he offered the usual cocktail that mounted to bread and circuses, and another securing of dangers by firming up our own protective boundary lines: Trump ensured the nation of low-interest loans and deferred tax payments in the offing, as he boasted of having quickly closed borders to all but essential travel–as if he headed off a crisis potentially far worse.
Trump insist there was no financial crisis, repeating the mantra of sealed borders as if they would secure the markets, even as supply global chains were interrupted in unprecedented ways–the disruption of supply chains, Chinese production, and the possibilities of global resilience seemed to depend on the United States’ continued abilities to gain loans. While worries about shipping shortages voiced in February seemed to recede into the past, we were in danger of retreating into further isolationism in response to a global pandemic, unclear how to navigate it, as the manufacturing superpower of China was seemingly all but paralyzed, but telling America that it should rest assured as secured.
Seated in the Oval Office behind the Resolute Desk, Trump mustered calm to argue that the pandemic was being fully addressed in national terms and would wash through, two days after the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic. The President did not look that confident as he addressed the nation, however, despite the assembled accoutrements of authority at the resolute desk for the public address, almost out of place–offering little security to the nation or the world–
–as if he were having difficulty to control his delivery during an actual emergency that was not in his control, and he had let spin out of control, as industry production of technologies crucial to Silicon Valley for smart watches, notebooks, as well as httpantibiotics, hand sanitizer, and vitamins were endangered–but as we turned attention to national health.
As tried to calm growing panic from his padded seat, as all that was clear was that, during a multiple lies, half-truths and disconnects of his address, Trump sought to assert his ability to dominate the national news, clenching his hands as if to conceal some undoubtedly sweaty palms.
In casting the coronavirus’ spread in national terms, Trump seems oddly keen to offer disinformation to the nation by falsely mapping its contagious spread, parsing a global pandemic as a national triumph even as we can map confirmed cases of its spread across all fifty states, and the numbers where the coronavirus was incubating were untold factors more. Indeed, the chlorpoleths were misleading, suggesting dots of concentration, for cases dispersed over space–but resembled a rubella rash of pink or red spots, presenting themselves as a national annoyance. Not to mention that the numbers of confirmed cases were undercounts, and “reported deaths” surely were only a taste for how American populations were woefully underprepared to react to the infection.
By heralding victories, even as no proven treatment for the new coronavirus existed, he conveyed an illusion of progress–or tried to do so–by tired promises. He stumbled clumsily across multi-syllabic drugs an ever-ready teleprompter, as if were a magic bullet that would soon be in peoples’ hands, sustaining the fiction of “exciting” nature of cures “I’ve heard even better about,” from antimalarials like choloroquine, often used as an anti-anxiety or the experimental antiviral Remdesivir, first developed as a treatment for Ebola, hocking remedies of questionable efficacy. The drugs produced by American biotech companies might have been attempts to get their stock to spike, more than to help the nation. Trump rather comically stumbled over their syllables from a teleprompter.
Both clinically untested drugs he prized as potential game changers late in the game were soon hoarded–forcing companies to halt distribution or more responsible folk plead people not to hoard a crucial component of flu medicines and retrovirals, lest panicked desperation lead to hoarding an effective drug, and his own ability to cut red tape that would deliver “anti-viral therapies” that did not exist. Some of believers in the utility of the chloroquine drug ingested enough of the non-pharmaceutical form of the antimalarial intended for aquariums to die. Much of the nation was turinng to Wikipedia to get a handle on COVID-19, on which a good share of Americans already rely to diagnose their illness–over a third, or 35%–it was not surprising that Wikipedia page views boomed, with the English article receiving 1.1 million views, a jump of 30% from the previous day, and Trump offered no clearer guidance, save that his restrictions on travel to and from China demand recognition as a “life-saving move.”
In short, the nation should understand it was lucky. But here was already a deepening sense that our circumstances had all changed, but our President’s seems as if it hadn’t. The nation’s relation to the virus was destabilized, but Trump fell back on mapping coronavirus in terrifyingly familiar terms as a national plot. He persisted to call the Coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” as if to keep it at bay, confusing a global pandemic with a foreign country. As he did so, President Trump lied outright as he promised the nations that remedies soon available, before any clinical testing was begun, vaunting the “boldest step of all” in closing the national border to some travel from China. This narrative of border-closure was long familiar, and scarily similar to how he has boasted of having solved other national “crises” by a magic bullet of border closure.
But there were no approved antivirals on offer, if testing by the National Institute of health recently began on Remdevisir, the drug used in Ebola, MERS and SARS, caused by related coronaviruse, of unproven efficacy for COVID-19, with results to be known only in April, with treatments made available as treatments by the end of the summer. Would these drugs, none tested and none ready to be marketed, make up for the dire lack of medical supplies in the national warehouses, where he must have already known few respirators, masks, and –which Vladimir Putin, no less, weeks later would assure Trump he could ferry by cargo transport to offer an odd lifeline “following phone talk between Presidents #Putin and @realDonaldTrump,” as the Russian foreign ministry tweeted. As Trump spoke, he had tasked his son-in-law Jared Kushner with enlisting private industry to secure needed ventilators, N95 masks and medical suppliesf or the nation, that probably led to Russia’s enlistment as a donor in a time of national need.
As Trump addressed the nation in mid-March, attempting to boost confidence, the contagion’s scope would have spread so far, based on the predictions of the Imperial War College COVID-19 Response Team, who predicted an estimated 510,000 deaths in England and 2.2 million in the United States infections would kill up to two million Americans, without pharmaceutical intervetion–a number that would peak later in the United States and affecting a far broader number, four times as large.
Trump was quite canny at rebranding, long before becoming President, but irresponsibly and sloppily rebranded the deadly coronavirus as “kung flu”–“I wonder who said that [first] . . . they would probably agree that it came from China”–he has masked the greater deaths and cases of infection that lie far outside Chinese territory and blithely normalized lack of health leadership in the United States. “It comes from China,” and will stay that way “as long as I’m president,” insisting on the truth-value of weaponizing rhetoric as if welcoming us to his latest, deadliest Reality TV show, as misleading choropleths aggregated cases to portray the national body in the earliest stages of complete infection, to late for any cure, and already incubating for twelve days before further infections would soon be manifested on future maps in better, if far more terrifying, detail. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” he announced, offering to adjust restrictions, as if the nation had been kept safe.
He soon corrected many of his slew of misstatements–on Twitter–but expanded a promise for free testing to free full treatment, and the tests have still not arrived. (Pence was clearly complicit with this disinformation; neither admitted that no treatments for the disease exist.). But the huge popularity of his regular Prime-Time news conferences suggest that despite his inaccuracies, Trump has become able to coast on a 90% appeal among Republican viewers, who seem to detect no disconnect between his distortions and trust, while a mere 14.2% of Democrats seem ready to sustain acceptance of the almost daily addresses that continued on CNN, Fox, MSNBC and streaming on ABC, CBS, and NBC, even expanding the primetime spots that Fox had given for all of Trump’s rallies during the 2016 election, despite the inaccuracies, distortions, and falsehoods that continue to be diffused daily. Hannity offered Trump airtime to question the mortality rates for the SARS-CoV-2 of 3.4% as just a “false number,” given his “hunch” COVID-19 has a far lower death rate bast on “a lot of conversations with a lot of people,” and security that there are “thousands or hundreds of thousands of people that get better, just by, you know, sitting around and even going to work,” insisting on an artificial overcount of cases of infection that have in fact been undercount.
National news agencies already suggested that we were at a potential medical crisis not in the sense of a break-down, but in a potential turning point in the disease’s progress–the ancient Hippocratic sense that is still retained for a turning point in a fever or acute disease, a point of κρίςις where the expert physician would recognize “the determination of the disease as it were by a judicial verdict” that would lead to recovery, partial recovery, or death (Affections VIII), or when morbid residues of humoral imbalance remaining in the body could be eliminated, or fail to be eliminated, but the progress of the disease as it works its way in the body must be monitored with care, to judge the nature and acuteness of the disease’s course.
We were most overwhelmed as a nation by an acute imbalance in our relation to the world. Never mind the fact that China had alerted the World Health Organization about an unknown new virus with pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory–as if they judged WHO a shadowy, global organization. Chinese scientists quickly realized the danger of the virus ravaging Wuhan and the surrounding rural areas around Wuhan the unknown pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory, jumping species as it evolved into forms that can be infectious to humans. But was hard to buy for groups who questioned evolution, and doubted the data given the WHO–as if anything originating at WHO to be tainted at its root. Trump persisted, as if trying out a new persona for the occasion, to reassure the nation that the problem would “wash through” and we would be stronger for it.
Addressing the union solemnly in unemotive, grave tones, his thumbs shooting up in a weird pantomime of tweeting, perhaps stimulated by Aderol or other medications, as if flames flickering beneath his calm, as flames must have been flickering beneath his plush leather seat, his corpulence unable to conceal cresting COVID-19 cases over a thousand, in a terrifying asymptotic rise, conforming it as unable to be contained–while Trump seemed to treat it as nationally under control, the world be damned, the global nature of the pandemic only evident for those outside the nation and assuring the nation they would have “the best healthcare and health insurance of anywhere on the planet.” He had recently placed Vice President Pence, stalwart implacable opponent of the Affordable Care Act, who crowed before audiences of conservatives, “Obamacare must go” as “we’re going to make the best healthcare system in the world even better” in rural corners of Indiana, without having any other model.
As “best healthcare system in the world” becamea meme, if not a macro, crowed by President Trump and his surrogates, he tried to upstage the WHO declaration of a global pandemic by national boosterism for a bit. He promised incorrectly that the insurance industry would “waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments,” to an audience of many without health insurance, echoing a mantra Trump long promoted of “better healthcare.” But the current, almost sadistic, refusal to reopen Obamacare markets–as if allowing access to health care for the many furloughed, laid off, and summarily fired workers was a capitulation. Was healthcare.gov able to be opened to provide low-cost insurance for unemployed-to-be as confirmed COVID-19 cases escalated–an undercount to be sure!–was swatted down by “administration officials,” as much of the country worried about how to address health costs in a pandemic.
Meanwhile, the deadline for applying for coverage in the state health insurance exchange, Covered California, the extension of whose deadline in the face of the pandemic by mid-February sought to ensured as many had a health plan or path to coverage as possible. Applications jumped 41% above the previous year to over 418,000, as the state calculated in mid-March health costs for 170 million Americans related to COVID-19 in the open market would range from $34 billion to $251 billion or more in the pandemic’s first year. Known knowns already terrified in mid-March.
Trump combined assurances of calm with a disheartening abdication of responsibility, as the President left the nation hanging by repeating tired macros of tax cuts and travel bans, cure-alls predictably invoked, as if the virus were not our problem. Would the Make America Great Again agenda survive in an age of global pandemic? Ever more than in the past, this seemed so much snake oil. The teaser of the special sign-up window was not mentioned in the Presidential address, even if it could have extended the possibility for millions of uninsured Americans to gain coverage–as a record surge of unemployment–not due to a financial crisis but an economic interruption that is a health care crisis–but in an economy where most live from paycheck to paycheck, the health care crisis reveals the absence of our economic security. Indeed, the Trump administration seemed poise to take the pandemic as an opportunity to gut coverage for 20 million Americans who were covered by Healthcare.gov by striking down the Affordable Care Act altogether.
The stage props of the resolute desk, American flag, closed binder, flag pin, and those clenched, flickering thumbs, seemed to suggest that he was in control, as control was slipping from his, and everyone’s, hands. He seemed suddenly very small, as the words from his mouth seems to have little bearing on the anxieties that gripped the nation. Did the binder even contain anything?
Trump may well have begun to reflect on his own prospects of infection before addressing the nation. But his address–if concerning the state of the nation more than most of his State of the Nation addresses–veered little from his recent pooh-poohing of concern for the domestic spread of the coronavirus as just yet another meme of the latest Fake News and Democratic Party he had to swat. Dismissing social distancing as a tactic to deprive him of his beloved rallies, Trump had truly seemed stunned by the event’s dominance of the national news that he could not direct or massage in his direction.
Perhaps only after a number ofRepublican lawmakers tested positive for the virus after being exposed to it a conservative networking conference, and other with whom he had partied with Bolsonaro at his private resort Mar-a-Lago began to self-quarantine, festive partying with the entourage of Brazil’s right wing Prime Minister Javier Bolsonaro, sporting caps emblazoned “Make Brazil Great Again” as party favors assumed tones of rosy memories as news of their self-quarantining were processed.
Trump insisted he “did nothing unusual [but] sat next to each other for a period of time,’ as if it was a Sexually Transmitted Disease. But in his address he suddenly seemed forced to recalibrate. Whether on not the exclusive club was a Petri dish by which the virus jumped continents to infect his inner circle, several celebrants tested positive the day before Trump’s address. The cognitive dissonance was astounding for a President whose public statement was to congratulate his friend Xi, in late January, for “working very hard” for the nation’s benefit, adopting a lens of national identity for a global crisis.
The sense of emulating a top-down policy with similar “transparency” seems designed in retrospect to conceal the critical lack of transparency in Trump’s response to the health care crisis, which seemed terrifyingly to be another chapter of disaster capitalism of the sort Naomi Klein described, Perhaps members of Trump’s cabinet–from Vice President Mike Pence, poster boy for allowing the oligarchy to capitalize off of crisis, instead of public aid, to Steve Mnuchin, foreclosure king–took time to school President Trump in its doctrine: to ignore those living in poverty, the uninsured, or homeless, but bolster the national economy.
Trump’s assumption of removed gravitas in the Oval Office, if forced by circumstances, broke from character, but served to keep his Presidency and US markets afloat. After pooh-poohing coronavirus concerns as the latest partisan plot to tank his Presidency, Trump sat rigidly before the teleprompter, channeling a military demeanor or just immobilized by events, clasped hands only parted once in ten minutes to assuring national viewers–and markets–trying with as much confidence as he could to plead his audience beleive that “The virus will not have a chance against us.” If this was a modulation of the assurance on January 22 that “We have it totally under control,” the passive assertion a month later of a conviction that “It will disappear” seemed not to hold much water, and he intensified the self-congratulatory backslapping of March 6 that “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down” or the boastof a “perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan for keeping it under control.”
Exactly who was “us” was never made more clear in the short address, but he seemed to be pleading that this was really not a big deal in providing the most statesman like address he attempted in memory, summoning the accouterments of his office to speak from behind the Resolute Desk to conceal the evidence of his mismanagement of a true national emergency, after the manufacturing of several false ones. Sounding grave, he tried to spin as best possible, but looked particularly pained in telling us that this, too, would pass, or “wash through,” as he put it, suggesting an awareness of its rootedness in the GI tract, but using a disturbing image he professed not to see why folks disliked to express how we’d be all the better for having had it in the first place.
Trump tried his best to sustain that the average American was not at risk,– although the different demeanor with which he addressed the nation disconcerted at the virus’ rapid spread beyond China. He continued to stoke more than quell anxiety–not giving any advice that was reassuring or accurate as a guide to stave off the virus’ spread, and celebrating “our nation’s unprecedented response to the . . . outbreak that started in China, and is now spreading across the world,” but from which we would be kept safe–even if it was a global pandemic after all. Was Trump stalling as the new model of disaster capitalism that would take advantage of the Coronavirus spread in the most rapacious manner were being perfected?
Reminding Americans that his best decisions originated in his gut, Trump later bragged to the media that long before the declaration form the World Health Organization whose declaration had prompted his speech, “I felt it was a pandemic,”–he expressed confidence for our nation, for whom “our top government health professionals” were working to protect America, without the need for any outside help–continuing the narrative of America going it alone in a global crisis, without realizing the deep dangers of further eruptions, inflammations, and morbid residues that would spread across the national body, oblivious to the executive, even as that global spread was being mapped in terrifying real time. Trump’s responses privileged travel restrictions, selective screening for national reentry, tax deferrals, and small- change economic “stimuli,” but ommited change in the status quo save an advisory to “ignore non-essential travel.” But what was essential was left unclear, even as the NBA announced its season suspended. We were encouraged not to be concerned about an economic downturn, rather than given a plan to deal with public health emergency for which the nation was unprepared and had no intention to change its essential infrastructure of health care.
Perhaps the illusion of a choropleth’s buckets suggested only one red dot in the United States existed of less than five hundred confirmed COVID-19 cases showed the panic was overly elevated, and lay outside our borders.
The gravity of address appeared designed to mask the folly of declaring an obstruction of all travel from continental Europe, or more specifically the Schengen area of the European Union, in a unilateral manner. After having self-contentedly patted himself on the back for having suspended travel from China, as if to stave off the spread of Coronavirus to the United States, he touted a logic of national exclusion, the one size fits all remedy, least suited to a global pandemic.
Unlike earlier alleged national emergencies, as building the wall, he was less belligerent. This time, his voice was more monotone, sounding as if he had been forced to give a statement. Even if we had watched the number of cases of COVID-19 grow across the nation, from March 2-9 over the previous week, Trump fell back on inveighing to his audience about staunching the danger at ports of entry to the nation, as if we had not all be watching infographics prepared by statistics offered by government agencies, even as he knew that he had been sitting on evidence of the virus’ spread since December.
And it seemed that the transmission of the pandemic across borders, and of two-week incubation. was evidence of the rise of a new way Coronavirus inhabited global space, and indeed a new kind of globalism, akin to those that Bill Rankin analyzed in global grided maps as new ways of experiencing geographic space that President Trump was unable to process. Even as the curve of Coronavirus cases had finally flattened far more in China than elsewhere, the continued assurances that “we” were fine, in good medical care, and had nothing to panic about were made as if under strain. Declaring his fourth national emergency the following day, the goal was, similarly, to free up funds for disaster response, but now he wanted to insist that we were all ok, even if we knew that we weren’t, and publicly available data clearly showed otherwise.
Although not indulging rhetorical demonization the virus after a locality outside the nation–“the Wuhan virus” seemed perhaps too scary as it evoked the “Spanish flu”–in describing a “foreign virus” he suggested travel policies could provide protection, inviting us to be ostriches and immerse our heads in the cold, reassuring sands. Given the level of disconcertedness of his audience, the address’s utter absence of empathy was not so much surprising as disconcertingly unreal, given the difficulty of demonizing anyone in a health crisis and pandemic was so visibly globally expanding on unprecedentedly rapid scale.
The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases outside of China, despite the small relative number of attributable deaths, was unreal. This was a scenario quite different from anything we had encountered before; it was hard to map the graphs onto displayed Trump’s alarming unbalance as he tried to explain a set of statistics we grasped, it seems, more fully than he had: as he had tried to tell us to keep things in perspective, equating the still- incomplete data of deaths because of influenza and COVID-19, suggesting the transient nature of the panic of world health organizations in declaring a global pandemic, and assure us that this too would pass, he seemed more willfully out of touch than we were accustomed to see him.
Was this speech an entry to a recognition of the behind the scenes reality, a place we were not usually allowed to go as observers? It was surging how President Trump seemed to balk or blanch at the very word “global”–as if it were a sure sign something was wrong, rigged, and exaggerated. The plateauing of Chinese cases seemed trotted out as if this were somehow meant to suggest that the national emergency had been contained, rather than was about to expand. Even as he told the nation that the the United States was the “most prepared” nation when it came to Coronavirus policies, he seems to have revealed little interest or awareness of how it spread, or of the health concerns of the American people, as they looked to the rise of COVID-19 cases abroad, and heard of the blossoming of increased but still improperly tallied cases in the United States, and seemed unconcerned about the need to tally them–as if this was not the bare minimum of preparation.
As Trump continued to offer empty assurances, thumbs flickering as if to undercut his monotone, he seemed to think there was still a chance to blanket out the maps of dots of infection of the body politic, at multiple sites, as if there was still a chance that the uninfected as of yet heartland would listen, and be reassured if he could transcend the moment and trasnsfix the nation for ten minutes–
And it soon became clear, as we were making and watching these maps, that they were incomplete in their data counts: the poor data of positive testing that was being compiled by the CDC will perhaps provide a further tragedy within the mapping of COVID-19 and the absence of public education, as the Trump administration seems to persist in desiring an absence of open data, understanding the spread in the optic of power, and in terms of his ability to impose controls–but has revealed far less interest in getting data to the nation in ways that might be helpful, in ways that were already clear in his address on March 12, 20200, but only became clearer as the terrible risks of a lag in the release of valuable public information and the scope of official undercounts was revealed in the comparison between the independent data counts harvested by the Covid Tracking Project (see previous link!) and CDC data on public tests for the virus revealed a week after Trump’s duplicitous national address–an undercount that revealed the asymptotic rise of tests administered since the project began in March, and tests were first broadly offered.
The hope is to rectify huge undercounts of people tested, positive results of infection, negative results, and cases still pending based on aggregating public statements of local health authorities, local trusted tabulations or counts, official websites with double controls, tabulating distributed data with regular timestamps, otherwise unavailable from CDC. Often, the rules of testing are so tied to manifestations of physical signs of illness or exposure, and the paucity of promised test kits. Many states where CDC counts are low because of the absence of infection tallies in many stats, and low counts in others.
The problem is in large part about a massive failure of tabulation and of transparency. Due to budget cuts in the Trump Era, the CDC seems in itself no longer able to engage in the regular tabulation of tests given or confirmed, and has withdrawn any hope to provide accurate data, relying on local undercounts, resulting in a huge abdication of its responsibility of ensuring public health. Despite an eventual concentration of those afflicted in the United States, the huge under testing relative to other nations where the virus spread terrifies. And promises before Trump’s address of administering “roughly 1.5 million tests” never materialized, despite past success in distribution of H1N1 kits in the other world of 2009. With CDC counts being potentially wildly inaccurate, policies of testing diverge in states and lag far behind abilities to react to viral transmission that is often unclear until the incubation period passes–and fail to be tested for treatment even if they are carrying COVID-19.
The limited preventive measures that would be placed into effect would prevent the entrance of the virus that had already broadly spread for months–the absurd allowance flights to and from Britain would not be affected served to register his pleasure in Brexit, perhaps, while wreaking revenge at the European Union he has long disdained for not pulling its share of weight –as far back as 1995, when first voicing his public political pronouncements began–acting’s if the viral outbreaks that were Eruope’s problems were not the world’s, but in fact came from the Schengen group, but had still not arrived here, as if transmission could be contained by sideswiping allies to disrupt the possibility of coordinated response.
To be sure, Trump may have been watching data visualizations and charts that gave him a poor sense of the disease–Maggie Haberman left it open whether his COVID-19 policy reflected his dependence on FOX as his prime information source–as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson played down the danger, and Carlson described a “mysterious illness” spreading in China, playing down the local urgency of a public reaction to a disease that seemed to “have jumped from bats and snakes–which are commonly eaten in the part of China–to people,” pushing the coronvirus outside our borders and our concern even as it claimed lives. For in the United States, FOX billed it as the most recent iteration of the “Left’s . . . smear campaign,” using metaphors of vitality to describe undue attempts to stalk panic, akin to crying wolf, and disrupt confidence in government.
The maps of infections of Europe were concentrated as choropleths, but many have a disproportionate relation of map to bubble that make it seem as if the entire continent was infected, without letting us know what percentage of the population of each nation–but building buffers that count “total cases”–which only mean total reported cases. The irresponsibility of such a use of GIS has been discussed by Kenneth Field in his to-the-point blog, but the cat seems out of the bag, for many who prefer to “consume” information by charts. The total “cases” provide a poor sense of actual levels of concentration, but could profit from resizing map symbols, or a reduced geographic scope–or being sized to cases per millions, or dot density plot of greater sophistication, rather than rely on a choropleth that is a case study for poor visualization practices, showing little sense of geographic distribution, of population differences, normalization by time of identifying cases of the coronovirus, or numbers of test given over space that would make the sheer numbers legible, rather than merely waving what is effectively a red flag.
As Trump spoke in the Oval Office, atavistic echoes of his past history of outraged pronouncements seemed to still echo in his head in the hope of resurrecting rallying cries that fell suddenly on increasingly unreceptive ears. The language of crisis was however muted, but cast in a national optic that strained credulity. at last, given the national lenses in which he viewed what it was hard to deny was a global problem, beyond the confines of state territory. This was the problem of being forced to think globally when the American President had not only deep reluctance but a deeply tragic cognitive impossibility to do so. He had been elected President in some part by virtue of this appeal of this very inability.
Trump seemed to be shoring up these figments, in falling back on a language of opposition; the basic syntax of Make America Great Again, imbued with the hard edges of local insularity, jarringly incommensurate with a global pandemic that we still map by jurisdictions and frontiers of territorial administration, even as its spread clearly renders these notions of territory obsolete. But the point of the lecture seemed to be to contain the fears by which the President seemed possessed of the distance for the ballooning infection rates abroad as if similar asymptotic expansions of illness could be forestalled, as if by an act of willed imaginary, and fear staved off that a certified global pandemic was indeed truly global. Trump espoused a comparative tally among nations, showing little or no concern with the problem of preparation for something that was undeniably “really big.”
No injections on quarantine seemed of need, indeed, for Trump claimed himself able to excise the roots of the evil with a comic level of surgical precision by declaring an outright travel ban from the European Union, which left the world wondering if this was only economic retribution.
Global seemed bracketed in the speech as if it were a bad word. President Trump seemed oddly unawares that he did so on a global stage–more than a national one–by playing to a national audience, in ways that seemed to sadly abdicate the responsibility of public health to authoritarian regimes as China and North Korea who had far more effectively contained the virus’ virulent spread, while we were made to suffer the pablum of pronouncements of continued public safety that seemed an invitation to denial. What was the future seemed unclear, as the idea of how to prepare for the coming illness seemed anyone’s best guess, totally up in the air, and something we could not imagine the federal government had a sense of how to implement further tests, secure hospital beds, or coordinate a medical strategy.
We were all guinea pigs. Markets swung, reacted positively later to assurances of available testing, although whether these would materialize in an efficient manner remains unclear, as what was a China story became a global story that couldn’t be parsed in national terms, even as infections were tracked in national buckets, constrained by local abilities to provide accurate testing to local populations.
For it hardly made sense to try to convince the nation of its continued security in an emergency that was broadly recognized as global, and was almost impossible to understand in other terms: he seemed all of a sudden a messenger of the past, arrived by time-travel from an obsolescent world of national security and the homeland, a category truly incommensurate with current events. The disconnect was grave.
Other than the world falling apart, the outlook seemed good, Trump insisted. Perhaps the role of processes of globalization that are so clearly revealed by the trajectory of the epidemic stick in the throat or mind of Donald Trump. This is a deep cognitive problem, that would mean, that we cannot expect the President to process, as he continues to believe we can draw lines around the transmission of disease before the American people; but his mindset only echoes how we map by the misleading if not false buckets of jurisdictions and borders–although these are the closest we have to a health authorities, to be sure–and must rely on the datasets that nations release, with little global accords for transparency. The reverse has become true, as news media are frustrated in getting access to local numbers, and the danger grows that manny vital local news organizations simply won’t make it through the economic crisis that the health crisis has provoked.
How did it become so bad? The continued charisma of data led us to trust the best maps we can draw by the data that is available and on hand, even if we know it may not present a picture of viral transmission, carriers, or even deaths. We are left, as the best new source we might rely on, to plot the virulence of the spread of the coronavirus in ways that affirm its global proportions and scale, although we leave off the map those areas where no public health records are available–Mexico; much of Africa; Afghanistan and Turkmenistan–for which there is no data, and imagine South Africa as if it was a hotspot of the African continent, even if this is a distortion of datasets. But the designation of Europe as a central site of the virus’ spread, as China’s outbreak appeared contained, after drastic measures were taken, seemed to call for taking drastic, unilateral measures of our own, without even needing to consult other nations.
We were left to stare at the asymptotic curves of numbers of infections that had grown over three months in our interconnected globe the knows no real borders, moving from the exponential rise in cases of infection to the map and ask if any tie to a map made real sense, save, at this point, to grasp the very global nature of the viral outbreak, and the problem of whether we were only days or weeks before the uptick, facing an inevitably rising curve we as individuals might only hope to contain–as more people were infected outside China than within it by late February.
The charisma of statistics already painted a grim picture that seemed as if it could not be understood outside the logic of globalization that Trump had long resisted and tilted against. He must not be able to stomach it. Luckily, marijuana legalization might get us through things, though the disconnect seemed so grave that the speech of what was a true state of the union was a disruption of proportions we could barely wrap our heads around, and were inevitably diminished by or faced to deny.
The truly pained President, seeming to struggle to get his mind around anything of global scope, but hoping he was able to stave off a massive selling off of stocks as equity futures declined without finding any vision of economic stimulus–as if the terms that President Obama had tried to champion as a means for securing a national recover might never be spoken from the resolute desk during his Presidency–led him only to assure the nation of paid sick leave for hourly workers, who must have only been wondering about their medical bills. While he may have been tempted to argue that luckily, global warming provided a sense of safety as the warming atmosphere would free the world from Coronavirus, he never went there, thankfully, but limited himself to paltry payroll tax exemptions, as if having the IRS take less out of paychecks was what the nation most of all wanted, as they saw the scope of their medical bills only rise–and not only for their elders–as we lacked any narrative or story map for the spread of infections on such terrifying asymptotic rise.
The poor practice of plotting raw data, without trying to craft anything like a story or narrative, even within the CDC, acting as if to defuse any epidemiological meaning in the below choropleth, converting CDC data into a visualization plot, without offering a handle to process total cases.
Yet the pace of the identification of confirmed cases over time seemed most crucial in many ways, as, even if we have no sense of incubation periods, choropleths provide poor senses of grasping the spread of the disease in ways that might help grasp the importance of social distancing, rather than shoveling sheer data at us that reflects the morass in which governments find themselves and project it onto the general public in quite disorienting ways.
Trump tried, by the force of what seemed medication, to summon the needed gravitas to assuage worries. But the mental gears seems not to work before a pandemic that World Health Officials had declared global, of which his own health officials declared we had not yet seen the worst. All left to do was state in an unemotive–if not robotic–monotone displaying a lack of empathy or understanding. He seemed as if he was perhaps paralyzed by his own fears, that everything was under control and that we had the best doctors possible. We would get through this, he intoned, together, as we always did, turning to preaching a gospel of social solidarity curiously foreign to the Trump era; hardly believing the assertion he hoped would get him through the long night ahead, he spoke stonily as stock markets plummeted in Frankfurt as he said markets “are going to be just fine” as if repeating an incantation that seemed suddenly meaningless in a logic of magical thinking or forced optimism, while the virus spread more quickly outside China than within it.
And with American workers without paid sick leave or health coverage, the virus’ virulence would perhaps threaten the domestic economy more than China’s in our far denser cities, and the blow to our leisure economy, long nourished by our so-called “creative class.” But unemployment insurance was not to be touched, even as millions were quickly out of work, and the stimulus package produced in Congress got rid of the need for employers to retain workers and provide them with health care at large companies–Amazon; Walmart; Target; Walgreen–as millions were laid off without resources to care for themselves or receive medical care.
The prospect of no test kits, no cure, no therapeutic procedures, no basic tools to address the situation or sense of how to prevent communication of a virus that had already gotten out of the bag globally left it unclear what a President could do–especially one who trafficked exclusively in tired tropes of national boundaries. After all, after decades of repeating that things weren’t fine, and reciting a narrative that we were going to hell in a hand basket, the doom whose imminence he had been predicting to mass approval seems to have arrived. Indeed, the sense of an utter emergency that Trump had been decrying as imminent seemed to have arrived, only it wasn’t in national terms that it was best managed or even understood–and being ripped off wasn’t the issue; being inadequately protected was suddenly evident.
It might be the case that if one could stop time the night that he spoke, and sought to address the nation to calm the markets that incredibly seemed to be a more important audience than the health of the nation’s inhabitants, the spread was not that significant in a current visualization–if one discounted that these confirmed cases didn’t include any of those within whose body the virus was incubating, in whom symptoms of coughing, chills, and exhaustion had not yet presented themselves, even if they were already infected.
But if that was the situation in late January 2020, when the United States seemed far removed from the disproportionate numbers of confirmed sufferers of the coronavirus on a global scale, the notion that we could isolate and preserve ourselves from a virulent infection that had already arrived by closing borders was clearly preposterous, even if one had little expertise in epidemiology.
And even if the general numbers seemed distant, nothing lies overseas in a globe today that lacks edges, and whose networks were already delivering the virus not only to Italy, a chronically swollen boot in this cartogram by the master of the genre, Benjamin Hennig, based on WHO Coronavirus infections form COVID-19, but the global ballooning of infections was clearly impending, as all who have the heart to watch Hennig’s map animation of reported confirmed cases can attest.
For all of Trump’s aim to sound decisive, he was posturing by announcing immediate suspension of flights from or to Europe. The sudden and totally unexpected announcement revealed utter inexperience at governing, made even more terrifying by the fact that he seemed to take pleasure in spurring a panicked booking of return flights in massive numbers, creating an onrush of returning passengers that airports had little preparation to process: the unclear nature of travel suspension policy declared to be immediate created panic among Americans who returned to face crowded lines for eight hours flooded cavernous airports from O’Hare to Dallas Ft. Worth, without plans or training to process their re-entry, a level of crowding that was the reverse of social distancing experts advised–without a clear protocol for containing the virus’ spread.
If Trump liked national emergencies as a constitutional workaround, the logic of us v. them wasn’t so compelling before Coronavirus, even if it was billed as a “foreign virus,” as if viruses also possessed nationalities. Would the disjuncture between the economy and his assertions prove problematic, or would concern with the absence of the arrival of something “better” than Obamacare that had not yet materialized? National emergencies recast the global pandemic in border-based terms, in keeping with an authoritarian tendencies familiar from the Trump Presidency. We wished we had the emergency on the scale of that he had declared as a workaround to accelerate construction of a border wall.
There was a sticky dissonance in looking at the stock market as a totem and god, whose health was equivalent to that of the nation–rather than the health of the nation’s residents. As stock futures and financial markets plunged globally, Trump rather preposterously suggested travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, with additional payroll tax cuts, he failed to address the lack of the availability of tests of infection by the Coronavirus that he had promised as forthcoming to anyone desiring them, just the previous Friday at his visit to the CDC, urging calm as stocks tried to absorb a global plunge he tried to forestall or block out by sticking to the teleprompter.
Traders overseas who watched Trump talk as the market was functioning saw the address create a sudden plunge in international markets. The scene created in Frankfurt was desparate, and the disappointment in the absence of any clear measures profound. Perhaps the only question was really whether in the face of such massive unpreparedness to coordinate a global effort, the markets would suck the global economy under, and if global markets would soon flatline, as Goldman Sachs had already warned as the virus spread to fifty countries in late February, based on examining the decline of economic productivity in China–with the virus having claimed 2,800 lives, but the virus had begun spreading more quickly outside China than within it.
Even if we all knew, for the most part, that the limited statistics of infection and death in the United States on offer in the national maps of Coronavirus incidence were themselves undercounts as it was only based on positive tests administered by the CDC, whose downsizing both delayed and fail to accelerate enough testing to contain the virus. He tried to assure us that things were fine, as if to replace the image of these maps seared into our minds, by the gravitas of the monotone of his voice, perhaps; patience cracked at the very absurdity of his pronouncements as financial markets plunged globally as he preposterously suggested that travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, as well as more tax cuts, and injections of the sort he had never made before, in common memory, to keep calm–as if that was possible.
There was a problem in central casting before the inescapable fear of a great equalizer of something more close to biblical proportions than anything a nation-state could respond. But as images involuntarily returned of the Athenian plague, Black Death, or film scenarios of Bong Joon-ho that were not yet produced, the scope of the pandemic seems to push Trump off the stage. A suddenly miscast President tried to assure the markets, ham-fistedly, by projecting calm, so oddly unlike than emotive engagement and energy honed on Reality TV, as if to be jarringly dissonant, he seemed to seek to assume the adulthood for the nation he had long delayed to a late age, sitting behind a teleprompter. This was Nixon telling the country he was not a crook,–after all warnings of Nixonian comportment in Trump’s disdain of Congress aired in the Impeachment Hearings were ridiculed.
The pathos of the Trump moment seemed, however, far worse, and filled with tragedy. Bluster wasn’t appropriate here, and made no sense–gravitas was lacking, and he seemed tragically unable to sound reassuring as much as he spoke. And his jumping fingers seemed to know it, suggesting a seismograph that was underlying the empty injunctions of his words that had no bearing at all on the actuality of the unpreparedness of public hospitals, ventilators, or even isolation chambers, and the far off nature of hopes for any vaccine to arrive. The lack of availability of testing seemed incredible. The only possibilities of their provision by select businesses as if these constituted the only functioning parts of the nation suggested a return to local fiefdoms, as Amazon and the Gates Foundation stepped in in Seattle, given the utter lack of national coordination of a health policy, and Google later offered a functional health website to be pioneered in the Bay Area. But the costs of treatment for those with this coronavirus in the United States is estimated for someone with employer insurance—and are from any complications–as just under $10,000, and for those with complications could find that their bills more than double to $20,292. (Having a heart or lung disease, diabetes, or a suppressed immune system would create health care costs far more dangerous and prohibitive.)
And so the questions on everyone’s mind seemed pressing as they sought to protect themselves from the coronavirus’s spread.
We were all looking for feudal lords for protection, as the government wasn’t there. The disconnect between datasets and vectors of Coronavirus transmission, or between the growth of verifiably confirmed COVID-19 casts and geography, exposed the problems of a lack of leadership deeper than providing health care, if fundamental to doing so, as we were told the national health crisis had not yet reached its peak, as it would over time.
And the nation–and world–clearly knew it, even if there are no animated maps of the future. Trump’s laboriously read and oddly detached call for calm stood at odds with the disruption of global travel that he seemed to think himself entitled: the declaration was issued on prime time, to a global audience, looking for leadership, with assurances of the availability of tests for all who wanted them, when all knew that there were none on available or on offer at local hospitals, and had taken to hoard groceries, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and even toilet paper, as they got ready to hunker down for The Big One that seemed to have arrived. The lack of response–no discussion of the production of ventilators; no sense of publicly accessible stations of diagnosis; no sense of a timeline for expanding hospital facilities–was made more evident by the recourse to policing national frontiers as we all new Coronavirus had arrived and was undercounted.
Was this the voice of death, or the death of Trump, or the final end of a national health policy, from the top down? Only the distortions of the Mercator Projection allowed us to imagine areas of the world that were free from confirmed COVID-19 cases by late March, as the confirmed cases had in fact spread globally, and multiple popup ads reminded us to reconsider the immediate reaction of taking our IRA portfolios out of the stock market.
We could only see the abiding fiction of the overly frayed relation of government to nation, a relation at which Trump had assiduously hacked at for years with abandon, now suddenly seemed like something that we missed desparately and wondered where it had gone. Afraid to mention restrictive actions or quarantines to his base, he merely implored the nation to follow local authorities, knowing that there was no way that a reduced hamstrung government and public heath agency could confront a viral outbreak of this scale, occasioning numerous administration officials qualify and correct the policies that he had announced soon after he had finished speaking, trying to remap, or better shoehorn, the global pandemic into purely local terms, by asking his audience to listen to local authorities–presumably because there was no longer a national one.
What was most striking in the address to the nation was what wasn’t present in it, rather than what was–an emphasis on traveling less; social distancing; immediate travel bans; washing hands; self-quarantining; and a healthy does of grim steadfast resolve. There was no mention or explanation of the critical national shortage of coronavirus test kits, the homeless communities without medical care, all taboo topics for a President desperate to be seen as a leader, with little appetite for planning policy. It felIt taboo to mention health insurance, health facilities, or cautionary statements about false rumors on twitter–a topic of sensitivity!–or the coming changes to our imagined abundance, its lid already being ripped off by frenzied mass-purchases of food and household supplies, or the inevitable stresses on local water systems as a result of requisite repeated hand washing, and an overload of capacities for storing waste.
We were left with dizzying anxiety at the utter inability to conceive of what the future might bring, and little sense of guidelines to move ahead with calm save from being directed to dismiss our concerns. President Trump may have aspire to calm, but he was challenged in trying to occupy a stage persona he had never really inhabited or valued. While he became U.S. President by reveling based on his gut over more than seven years, it became evident that there was no ship of state, as we were all passengers, strapped in on the same pilotless rudderless voyage he was, into entirely unknown water, without any necessary resources to cope. His imperial declaration of a restoration of peace in the face of the virus seemed preposterous, an echo of social media declarations of the need to insulate the United States from Ebola, on Twitter, in ways that led to his apoplectic abundance of all caps–“STOP THE FLIGHTS!” in 2014–to unseat President Obama’s public authority as if to unsteady Obama’s projection of calm and resolve–
–his habitual recourse to alarmism tinged with indignation to conceal minimal knowledge of infectious disease beyond his own deep sense of fears. Even if the so many more Americans were already infected with Coronavirus than Ebola, its viral transmission was entirely different, and, despite assuring Americans that the folks at the CDC were amazed how quickly he “got it” by his preternaturally precocious adeptness at statistics and epidemiology, his twitter fingers could assure the nation and get the markets to once more rise.
The vain hope seems to be repeated, in increasingly abacadabric fashion, before the graph of economic-freefall on a truly terrifying scale that he had never imagined was even possible, but which China, his economic competitor, had succumbed, in ways that planted clear doubts in anyone who tried to argue that the virus was willed or manufactured but he Chinese government to inflict global chaos on America: this chart was our future, not only as a spillover, or a shift in markets and production, but as a blow to household wealth and economy o fthe sort that would put his own continued residency in the Oval Office into question–perhaps the only thing that Trump really cares about, anyways.
Was he just having a hard time containing his fear? Was that why the hands were grasped so tightly, the voice seemed reduced to a drugged somnolence? The backstory was one of clear cause and effect. Having relentlessly cut the CDC budget, dismantled the pandemic task force assembled by his nemesis, his predecessor Barack Obama, he wanted to demonstrate that it was, in fact, useless, and all we need is common sense–not experts! It was truly unclear who the declaration of ceasing flights from Europe was aimed at, especially as no control over visiting European travelers had been at all in place for months, save perhaps taking temperatures of some arrivals at JFK. Echoing the bans on travel that he had enacted in the names of national safety–using nations as the basis to parse non-national groups of terror, as if this made sense–
As if he reacted to being informed told that “Europe” had displaced China as the site of the contagion’s transmission, he had addressed the nation by introducing the very sort of cordon sanitaire of the sort that he imagined would inspire assurance. Restricting airplane flights out of Europe, as if this was the same situation as restricting flights from Africa to protect the nation against Ebola, seemed sufficient to restore balance and tranquility ended the grim task of delivering a pubic address before he got back to bed or to twitter–as he soon did, issuing a set of delayed corrections–or whatever it is he does, or maybe just wash his hands and get ready to hunker down, after checking on his personal supply of hand sanitizer that is being probably stockaded in the White House basement in bulk.
How did he even gain his bearings? Was he bemoaning the fact that he had gutted the CDC and the staff he needs to ascertain the scale of the virus’ impact and presence, or did he just want to affirm that he could control it all, single handedly? As there is no Chief Data Officer or Data Scientist any more in the United States, able to help coordinate the Precision Medical Initiative, since Obama’s team of cybersecurity advisors resigned en masse; Donald Trump has shown an easier way to guide the nation, more akin to building a wall, rooted in the nerve endings in his gut, free from being laden by claims to expertise, even this time it was with our allies, and was performed without advance notice.
By running the gamut on inaccuracies, mistakes, and deceptive statements that bordered on lies–“we have been in frequent contact with our allies” while foreign leaders were so cut off guard that they expressed disapproval at a move Trump took so “unilaterally and without consultation.” To be sure, we saw a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases in Europe, but isn’t the problem containing its spread at home?
Trump’s address looked over the utter absence of any infrastructure or preparation that would facilitate ending of international flights, and stocks cratered as most all health officials noted that banning flights was not only useless but the worst possible response at at time when attention should focus on testing and making tests available throughout the nation, and ensuring their distribution to vulnerable populations, even as we returned to mantras of social distancing that appeal to self-preservation and individual survival, even if they are cast as a collective need.
The address buried endemic suspicion of funding pandemic preparedeness among Republicans legislators for infectious diseases like the Swine Flu or SARS, given the pressing fears of pandemic infections. National readiness for epidemics was long reduced and in critical ways. In cutting pandemic funding by almost a billion and calling it “pork” just before the H1N1 outbreak, Republicans effectively hamstrung national response–even as Canadian Health authorities sensibly created a reserve of 55 million N95 masks, at little cost, in a bid for preparedness, while the United States faces a worrisome shortage of masks, ventilators, or medical readiness. If H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans, and 150,000 worldwide, the declaration of that global pandemic for which few had immunity posed questions of vaccine distribution and preparation, creating a basis for coordinating national responses to viral outbreaks of global scale as international emergencies, demanding that all nations heighten readiness and surveillance for influenza-like viral outbreaks never before observed in human subjects, and to which resistance is weak.
Much as we have learned that Britain concealed its failure of a major test of pandemic readiness that the government ran three years ago, in worries of hindsight of H1N1 that the National Health Services faced, whose results were kept secret, the concealment of longstanding opposition to preparation for pandemic resources was near systematic. Although WHO had sought to map national focal points in a web of viral transmission crossing national borders, Trump reverted to affirming the power of national authority to secure the country. The stunning absence of any update on epidemiological investigation of transmission, human to human or human to surface, and indeed periods of incubation, and best practices, was as dizzyingly disorienting as the lack of a coordinated response to the virus, as the sense it was commensurate only with authoritarian measures of closing borders, eliminating pathways, and dangers was clouded in an absence of a more medically expert briefing.
Not only was access to asylum immediately suspended, but refugees detained as they seek asylum without clean soap and water or masks, let alone hand sanitizer or facilities for hand washing, in the pandemic; to the contrary, conditions for the virus’ spread were encouraged by crowded conditions that hinder social distancing. Poor sanitary conditions seem to have prepared for a disaster waiting to happen–all too similarly to the crowded conditions among incarcerated populations–as notifications from the CDC war removed from migrant facilities, before Trump’s address, and.calls to release those incarcerated most at risk, migrants in detention who were identifiably at risk were ignored. The impossibility of social distancing has led to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the staff and among detained in migrant centers, where no clear advice or policy to deal with outbreaks of infection exists save isolation. Are such sites constructed as possible Petri dishes of future viral contraction and communication, waiting for infection to explode?
If these are the sites where infections grow concentrated, the very sites of confinement will pose real dangers to the nation and general public far greater than Mexican migrants ever posed, and a far more substantive threat than the dangers that Donald Trump associated throughout his political career with “illegal” migrants crossing the southwestern border. Trump’s did not speak to incarcerated populations; he seemed to remap the spread of disease by magical thinking. His rhetoric of border building and national safety had only escalated, shifting from the migrant to th e pandemic, seeking to pivot campaign promises “to protect Americans and protect this country,” as the former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement put it, to shutter the southern border and suspend asylum. Even as the number of reported cases of infection crested above a thousand, confirming the home-grown nature what he sought to externalize the “Chinese virus” already had planted local seeds.
The global nature of the pandemic was impossible to process through border-drawing, but the limited repertoire of responses and logic seem to have led Trump to redraw borders repeatedly. By only revealing the extent to which Trump has consistently intimidated his own advisors from ever speaking to him, and refused obstinately to process their advice, we had a clear sense that the image of stern-faced gravity was worse than an Emperor Has No Clothes moment; as it showed him a Chief Executive more out of touch than ever imagined, cut off from the world behind walls of his own making behind which he had long lived. Trump urged us to create still more protective barriers to staunch the floodgates, even as COVID-19 was in all of our neighborhoods–as we were forced to await the requisite period for contraction and incubation to realize the uptick in the number of cases of the virus being already contracted. Did Trump’s cabinet suppress or forgo the possibility to create better national monitoring, allocation of resources, and local preparation to limit the virus’ spread.
Newspapers tried to act responsibly, by reminding readers that we were at a critical stage in the course of the virus’ spread, in a truly Hippocratic manner, by suggesting the possible scenarios for the novel coronavirus’ outbreak and potential spread; the contrast between the nation among leaving the outbreak to spread across the nation, introducing some social distancing as a control measure, and instituting nation-wide curbs on social contact was eloquently offered as three roads in a wood in a front-page data vis, as the chief executive itched markets to reopen by Easter, as if adhering to an unchanged calendar of religious celebration to normalize a calendar demanding to be viewed purely in pandemic time.
The alternative images for the social controls enacted by national policies suggest the crucial points of coronavirus infection as a national problem.
The declaration that Sunday would be a National Day of Prayer seemed the best that we could hope for, as Trump seemed to regain his stride, or his sense of his true audience, in beseeching Americans to continue, to look, as we have “throughout our history . . . to God for protection and strength in times like these . . . . to turn towards prayer in an act of faith,” in the belief that “Together, we will easily PREVAIL!” The call that cast Trump as the head of a mass church occurred as worship at churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques were went online, or, for parishioners near my house, found them to be simply closed.
At the same time, among the evangelical community, online talk grew among Baptists, Pentecostsals, and evangelicals hoping to not have to defer Easter services–as if the religious calendar could trump the infectious disease. One paster even planned a massive outdoors Easter celebration, to “gather and lift up Jesus Christ” outdoors, in a “blowout service,” rather than going online: public safety be damned.
But securitization was the dominant rhetorical model to react to the coronavirus among authoritarians, who rehabilitated models of national readiness and securitization. Schengen, for what that call to unity was worth, was hardly Schengen anymore, borders closed to non-residents for thirty days in hopes to stop the virus’ spread, ending the border-free status of the twenty-nine countries, by March 17 save essential travel. The temporary reintroduction of border control grew after Austria and Hungary had closed their borders; Austria closed its border to Italy on March 11 and Hungary followed by closing borders to Austria and Slovenia on March 12, as a domino effect cascaded to the Czech Republic, Lithuania (March 14), and Poland (March 15) after which Schengen was no longer Schengen at all. Trump invoked the southern border to all asylum seekers–even at the risk of turning the closure of the southern border for nonessential travel in his address as if it was a remedy–turning away people without clean living conditions, healthcare, or shelter. The most vulnerable set the coronavirus into global circulation, increasing transmission risks–while blaming them for its spread.
Such an authoritarian militarization of a national response to the virus rests a misguided policy of “voluntary return” to shoot displaced into transborder limbo to nominally forestall viral communication, boasting of plans for “invoking a certain provision that will allow us great latitude as to what we do,” in blocking communicable disease to enter the borders of the United States, as if the domestic emergency was due to needy migrants. The emergency decision to close immigration courts across the nation as the coronavirus spread by executive order leaves than a million cases in limbo, and place them in greater jeopardy of infection.
Travel bans became a way to process the global pandemic by containing the national units, and introducing the very national borders that had weakened considerably over time that came back with a vengeance–even if the analogy to a military response was less than clear.
Collective practices of social distancing were literalized as bulwarks against fears of the coronavirus crossing borders, as governments tried to enact policies to assuage growing fears by suspending land, sea, and air travel, as fears of the virus migrating spread globally, even as clear data of rates of infection, periods of incubation, and health policies were not understood.
But border closures created security–and a sense of progress, as if to compensate for an absence of data, or good health policy, if the logical reaction of fear based on the ballooning rates of confirmed infections–even if Trump seemed, almost pathologically, to not want statistics to be revealed, less the sacred cow of the markets be disturbed, and the need to expand unemployment insurance and health care in this emergency be apparent. Warned by big corporations that any government outlay would be disastrous fo the nation’s markets, we seemed to have entered an acute grotesque schizoid phase of reaction, where the nation’s inhabitants were being asked to take a hit for the sake of the economy, and the agility of the free market was trumpeted as the best reaction to a global health crisis.
The call to prevail provided little sense of guidance, again, as Trump would instruct governors to fend for their own in locating ventilators, ramping up hospital beds, or guaranteeing health care, as he insisted this was not his responsibility, local counties turned to their own policies of “shelter-in-place” orders, to remedy growing fears of the absence of any vision for a national health policy–a state of siege that recalls the construction of the first fallout shelters that sprouted in American cities in the early 1960s seamless with Cold War fears, fully equipped by FEMA with bottles of water, Civil Defense crackers, and radiation meters.
We seem to be told such border closures will help, even as the global spread advances internally in most countries, but borders are focussed on as if to mask needed medical resources and anti-contagion policies.
By ordering folks to remain at home and shuttering all businesses, California public health administrators in Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, and Contra Costa counties, the instruction to do our part to keep everyone healthy expanded the sort of work-from-home policies that Silicon Valley–those policies, which began in tech, with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, may well have encouraged Washington state policies, and surely set a sensible model in place for collective containment of coronavirus’ spread.
By the time that Jay Inslee ordered a two-week shut down of restaurants, entertainment, and recreation, numerous states had, to be sure, in response to the danger of overwhelming public health systems and undersupplied hospitals, as states and localities issued different orders to shelter-at-home and self-quarantine, in preparation for a trying time for public trust.
Some states–as Florida, where a preponderance of COVID-19 Cases were reported–resisted declaring statewide Stay-at-Home orders through the very end of the month, at which time the state had clearly become a hot national spot to an extent that endangered its many elder residents–even as Louisiana had issued a stay-at-home order on March 25, following the relatively quick declaration in the city of New Orleans. (Governor Ron DeSantis explained that the White House Task Force told him it wasn’t a good idea to do so–as if he had to be told! Watching works right Watching works right enter hello this is Dennis hello this is Dennis oh it’s coming along comes call oh it’s coming along comes call that what did you know it’s just that I want to sleep what did you know it’s just that I want to sleep
What can explain this obdurate resistance? There was a clear echo of the regional resistance of the Western Climate Initiative, a collective of states electing to self-regulate carbon emissions as Trump rolled back Obama-era regulations and the U.S. Climate Alliance, going it on their own way with a carbon-pricing network. Indeed, the nucleus of that very group seemed to be the basis for statewide orders, with the addition of the northeastern and midwest states where public services stood to come under increased stress.
As infections are communicated, such policies may be band-aids–or depend on regional affiliations to make up for the absence of a unified national policy, turning states into effective “petri dishes” for the coronavirus, depending or relying on local alerts along all media possible, even as our leader issued continued demands and considerations on social media that seemed to not be looking at the map.
Plans to erect a quite cartoonish rendering of fifteen-century navigator Christopher Columbus on the banks of the Hudson River not only stripped the Genoese credited with “discovering” America of historical context: it deployed the royal emissary who discovered the continent beside a development constructed by Donald Trump, the property developer who would become United States President. The monumental Columbus–projected to be far larger than any statue in the Western Hemisphere–was less of an image of contact, than a heroic image of the appropriation of the New World, an odd switch in signification from the statue rising in New York harbor, holding a torch celebrating enlightenment by the global advance of Republicanism the French government in 1893, and even upstaging it with an icon of appropriation.
This Columbus, towering and monumental in relation to Manhattan, seemed almost able to assimilate the entire continent to his supremacy. The statue, never built next to Manhattan, but eventually erected on an island where Columbus set foot, appears an invitation to an exercise in masochism in the idiom of kitsch. The navigator seems far less situated in a credible historical context, than assimilated to a new mass culture of spectacle of colonization that compresses space in global space in its claims to global authority. The statue confirms the illusion of an independent actor in space, removed from any network of royal funding, international finance, the recycled image cast in Moscow dramatizes the hoary historical myth of imposing control over space single handedly–as if erasing all acknowledgement of human dignity or a colonial context.
The supremacism of Columbus’ gesture as he steers a ship on an historic rotary wheel with aplomb by one hand is an amalgam of global authority and the aesthetics of kitsch that begs for more detailed examination than it has received. Standing now at the edges of American territoriality in Puerto Rico, the monumental statue designed for the quincentenary of Columbus’ first voyage is a marginalized but potent marker of transatlantic exchange, reduced to a totem of global power and destiny.
The promised hope of placing the statue on Trump’s planned properties must have appealed to the magnate for its apparent absorption of the entire continent by a figure, gargantuan and larger than life as he sought more impressive buildings that would cement his status on an imaginary global stage. The real estate promoter, who seems to have taken it as a calling card for his own sense of personal majesty, a made-to-order monument that had, in fact, been shopped around already to American Presidents, would be welcomed onto the reclaimed land he had convinced the mayor to rezone as residential, over the objections of then-Assemblyman Jerry Nadler, not on a column, as the World’s Fair monument built to Columbus in Barcelona in 1888 of 60 meters, or the image of pillar on which Columbus stands in New York, cast in Rome for the Italian American community, hands on hip, seventy feet above the city looking to New York Harbor of 1892 where immigrant streams were arriving, but a monument that would be imposed on the far west side of Manhattan, towering above the Hudson River, hailing the land of which he assumed mastery by virtue of royal authority, an apparently freestanding statue imposing absolute mastery of space on observers, gesturing with magisterial obliviousness to his surroundings.
Of course, he looked as if he had stepped out of a comic strip, as much as a , in keeping with the cartoon-like statues of the Georgian sculptor Zurab Tseretelli, who had already accompanied Boris Yeltsin to Washington, DC to present the statue in miniature to President Bill Clinton, before Trump seems to have been offered this image that must have pleased him much as a monumental compliment on his sense of his own grandeur as a builder, a monument that he imagined might be identified with his name in the future as it dominated the skyline unlike any of the buildings he constructed or enhanced by lending his name, including Trump Tower, as a figure that, in Trump fashion, both transgressed the law and asserted it.
This Columbus was, after all, not only a kitsch figure but a father figure of the nation that Trump was being invited to assimilate to his development. As much as the notion of discovery and world-making was a Renaissance trope and trick in trade, staking claims for the Spanish King within previously uncharted territory, deploying a “Doctrine of Discovery” to justify setting foot in new worlds, the statue announces the victory of a new globalism financier by underwater financial currents, laundered funds, and foreign backers that aspired to total authrity. Its position materialized how the historical Columbus claimed, on October 16, 1492, that indigenous subjects would make good servants as subjects of the throne of Castile, appropriating their identity as a way o taking possession of the island of Haiti where he first disembarked, proclaiming its possession to an audience of few, “by proclamation and with the royal standard unfurled.” In stock phrases that vividly cemented unfurling a royal standard to the act of taking possession five renamed five islands–San Salvador, Santa María de Concepción, Ferdinanda and Isabella–as an act of discovery, the statue raising one hand like Augustus over a different island seems a transnational salutation of confident appropriation, unlike any other global monument to Columbus, and far greater in size. The pedestal held a cartoonish map unscrolled at its base, atop which travel miniature ships, in an odd hybrid of the windrogse of a portolan chart, graticule of a Mercator map, and GPS screen in its current home.
What sort of map underlay its presentation to Donald J. Trump on behalf of the Russian people in 1997, in ways that unexpectedly would make the realtor a new figure on a global stage not only of real estate, but the new global networks of appropriating funds by money laundering, offshore tax evasion, as a cover for the escalation of widespread illegality in Russia of bribery, criminality, poaching, and organized crime. A decade after Trump’s first attempts to develop real estate in Moscow, and a decade before Trump began to depend on Russian and former Soviet Union financing for real estate projects in Canada and the United States, by potential money laundering, the kitschy monument Columbus offered a masquerade to grant global legitimacy to Trump and post-Soviet Russian oligarchs on a new global stage, that we can only fully appreciate today. A decade before Donald Trump, Jr. confirmed to investors in Moscow that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of our assets” in 2008, the statue was to arrive as Trump returned from Moscow having announced plans underway to replicate Trump Tower in Moscow, licensing his name to the renovation of the Moskva and Rossiya hotels.
Much of these transactions will long remain shadowy. But the arrival of this ostenttious monument announced Trump’s intension to expand his properties from Manhattan to a global stage, and elevate his new development as a showpiece of a global corporation.
If it is long before the Border Wall, the monument whose delivery Trump obtained quite similarly erases the experience of America’s indigenous inhabitants; its very grandiosity and spectacularity that seemed emulate Trump, if it had been made for him, rather than was, as seems to be the case, a totem that post-Soviet Russia presented to American President George H.W. Bush. Rather than suggest a voyage, or a laborious journey, the massive bronze statuary is distinguished by its immobility, rather than mobility–Columbus was a navigator, after all, and his statuary commemorates this voyage–but cast the fifteenth-century navigator in the form of a triumphal neoclassical icon of authority, on a diminished sort of ship. This imaginary Columbus, in neoclassical robes akin to the Statue of Liberty on nearby federally owned Bedloes Island, but was far removed from the romance and excitement of the voyage imagined by the American illustrator N.C. Wyeth, of adventure of the sea, if the ships were somewhat similar–
–but rather than mastering the open seas and moving beyond charted seas, is reduced to a statement of flashy and large-limbed grandiosity, less of an adventurer than a standing figure announcing “I am here” in not a belligerent but an almost confrontational triumphal cryptic gesture.
Standing atop a pedestal that would include the map he allegedly followed, rather than mastering the elements, the figure reaches deep into a mixed bag of mythistory to declare it on the shores of the Hudson River in a place where Columbus did not, of course, ever stand, where it would have stood before setting suns, on the shores of Manhattan island. If Wyeth’s majestic illustration was made as a framable print for the National Geographic Society to sell to its members, the exclusive nature of the statue Trump believed its Georgian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, wanted installed on his newest New York development, in 1997 primarily marked his status as a developer, and ability to make a good deal with Moscow. The monument made for the presentation for the quincentennial of the “discovery” of America seemed a precedent that proclaimed the victory of the arrival of a unilineal development of a transnational economic development of real estate values, removed from any bearing on global geography, as if to celebrate a triumphal arrival of local capital.erasing all sense of cultural relativism by affirming an image of global triumph that echoed Francis Fukuyama far more than George Washington or Karl Marx. The removed kitsch of this figure of alleged patriotism provided an image of pacification of native peoples, not including any group outside of a global economy of which Trump had then. seemed emblematic.
The statuary was indeed installed in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and island that Columbus had visited, its impoverished residents of that fishing village on the outer edges of United States territoriality did not have much of a chance to resist and protest its placement, in the manner of residents of San Juan, as those of Miami Beach, Baltimore, Columbus, OH, and Ft. Lauderdale, undoubtedly taken aback by its monstrosity. Two presidents of the United States were justifiably lukewarm in accepting the gift from Moscow; the monument’s ostentatious heroism was a flat-footed poor fit with national traditions of commemorations, portraying the colonizer as a victor. But approaching Trump, during his early trips to develop Moscow properties in the mid-1990s, mirrored Trump’s attraction to both global politics and global properties in fascinating ways. A mirror for his own monumental self-esteem, the massive statue seemed to publicize the development he had planned for the Hudson River lots, a signal of his welcome of an influx of Russian funds, expanded in sales of apartments and condominiums in Trump hotels and developments from New York to Florida, if not a self-styled image of his own international goals.
This improbably towering Colossus on the Hudson, a true monument of global kitsch, would seem a Las Vegas style recycling of Augustus, an imperial gesturing to the nation as if selling an imagined vision of probity, security, and assurance, if it did not also double as a vision of globalism–one less rooted in nation, than transnatinoality, pumped up by foreign funds, rather than steering to the New World: the robed figure that Trump was keen on as taller than the Statue of Liberty would have saluted Manhattan island, in a way the actual Columbus of course never had, but revamped the austere figure of the navigator as a savior, royal emissary from afar, as a New Man for a new era, perhaps recycling Russian images of idealism as much as recuperating American ones. The rotary wheel was not only anachronistic, it suggested a smoothness of travel that is absurd, a mash-up of a yacht owner and a Roman hero who seeks little from his audience by adoring adulation.
The monument that was intended as an inauguration of sorts of transatlantic commerce with Russia would have marked the involvement of Trump in a corrupt network of real estate and an expansion of money laundering and international finance that have raised considerable suspicions about President Trump’s representation of national interests. And while the story of the “failed monument” which curiously traveled the world over its two decades of its apparent homelessness, before being erected in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico, shortly before Trump’s inauguration. Offshore of Puerto Rico, in a nearly deserted fishing village, where it has become a source of pride, the statue of Columbus curiously joins an also smaller Statue of Liberty, or a replica of the original, erected in 1918, in mysterious circumstances, that stands downtown. The majesty of the costly project seems to have not diminished after it circulated, seeking homes along the Eastern seaboard before an abandoned Bacardi factory, before running aground in Puerto Rico, where Columbus did set foot in November 19, 1493, on a shore filled with farmlands, and few spectators to admire it, far from San Juan, but near the statue that seems its twin.
As if a competitor to the 1884 gift of the French Republic, in considerably rescued form in her 1918 Arecibo version, the Russian sculpture of nearly 300 feet seems to dominate the space of the lady of law: and if its itinerary that might well be mapped; its symbolics existed in a language of spectacle between Moscow, Manhattan, and The Donald.
If the story leading up to the mooring of Columbus in Puerto Rico in 2016 has been told, the resourcefulness of plans to move the monument across seas, after it was cast in Russian foundries, seems to have a shadow history in remapping global power relations. The strikingly parallel histories of the massive Columbus and the fortunes of the realtor demand to be examined as a history of aesthetics, finance, and the magnification of Trump’s unexpected political career. The aspiration to erect a monumental heroic bronze of the fifteenth-century navigator occurred two years before Trump celebrated his status in the polls for U.S. President for the Reform Party then headed by Jesse Ventura on “Larry King Live!“–announcing polls to champion his possible candidacy with false modesty. “Well, I guess the polls started it. The polls came out, and they said if I ran, I’d do very well,” Trump said as if he wanted to conceal his ambitions or present his election as foregone; “I don’t know, I just don’t even know. I mean, they put people’s name — they put various celebrities’ names in, and I did very well in polls, and, all of a sudden, people started calling . . .”
The turn to embrace his status as a public figure that Trump expressed as a happenstance reflection of the popular will that polls embodied–rather than a sense of public consensus or vote–is an eery aftermath to the ominous predictions that Trump had taken to forecast of impending disasters of the poorly led ship of state, no longer sufficiently respected by allies, or abroad, that had led Trump to style himself as an alternate vision of a politician, “young, dynamic, successful,” as a Democratic sponsor of his hosting of a Congressional dinner in 1987, who was, as John Kerry had praised him, “independent.”
The businessman was calling for reducing the deficit, accelerating nuclear disarmament, and expanding the financial burdens of military allies, leading him to be avidly courted by Republicans and Democrats alike by 1997 and to only surprise some by declaring “I believe that if I run for President, I’d win”–if few knew what party Trump belonged. Yet the specter of his candidacy already haunted the nation.
The roll-out of this non-political beast, understood primarily through the lens of his own magnificence, was aptly echoed in the grandiosity of a statue of the fifteenth-century navigator who was about to be squirreled into the United States territory as a sign of his own vainglory. Promotion of Columbus promised a point of entrance for the realtor to an image of national identity, uncannily similar in nature to what he later declared in 2015, as an eagerness to defend American interests in a global market. It certainly was, promoted as the largest statue in the western hemisphere, larger not only that the iconic Statue of Liberty, given by the French government in a gesture of solidarity of Republicanism, but a monumental language perhaps both made in Moscow and pure Trump.
Did Trump’s apparent bravado, independence, and daring fit the bill for which Democrats searched as they sought someone “young and who would be good at politics but had never been especially involved in politics before,” as political parties searched for compelling figures to espouse the messages that they believed they delivered, but could be good at messaging. The search for a new image of political leadership seemed to fit Trump by 1990–even if he was presented over fifteen to twenty years later as still coming from outside politics–and made him a likely target of whose identification of himself with Columbus might be imagined, as he tried on new opportunities for self-identification as a politician that seemed, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before the candidacy of Bill Clinton, to be regularly arriving at his door.
In this context, the cast image of a monumental Columbus arrived. Questions rose during the Colombian quincentennial about whether the fifteenth-century navigator represented the nation of the United States. The statue designed in Moscow was not designed for Mr. Trump, but was strikingly ahistorical in its triumphal celebration of the “discovery” of the continent not only as an image of national identity, but demanding consent to an image of public authority far removed from American monuments or a tradition of political monumentality. The historical Columbus was of course with little sense to have “discovered” a new world with such a sense of recognition that the statue seems to assert; Columbus lacked this sense, either when he set of from Spain without any clear sense of what lay on the horizon, or even a clear sense of where he was, by the time he had championed the wonders of the Indies, which he believed lay in Asia, even returning from his first transatlantic voyage.
By casting the monument as a confirmation of the navigator’s role as a national figure who arrived, his right arm raised in acclamation, as if swearing fealty or in classical salutation, before the coast of the New World. The form of greeting worthy of Augustus belied that Columbus had not in fact travelled. Rather than being site specific or historic, the massive sculpture seemed a token and symbol–if not an idol–to an ideal of economic openness to international trade, a declaration of monarchical supremacy foreign to America political traditions. The multi-piece monument was a totem of economic grandeur and unbridled expenditure on funds, whose lavishness as a documentation of grandeur might obscure its role in a geopolitical chess board of global finances, that by then hinged on New York City’s financial markets. For the massive statue marked possibilities of money laundering, and foreign expropriation of wealth to offshore destinations, revealing terrifyingly modern global tentacles more than a language or intent of discovery.
The double entendre of the massive statue’s name, Birth of the New World, was inherited, but appealed, no doubt to Trump, who readily accepted the idea of promoting the monument on properties where he planned to build in 1997. He felt entitled to accept the gifted work to be erected in land he owned on the Hudson River, bought at low cost and converted to residential zoning, as an extension of his development scheme, announcing the imminent arrival of a colossal bronze Columbus, right arm raised in salutation as if hailing the New World he saw for the first time, from the Russian people.
The image of the fifteenth century navigator had been planned for the prevention to commemorate the quincentenary of the first transatlantic voyage of the fifteenth century navigator, a conceit that Zurab Tsereteli had worked on in models that he had presented to Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He had earlier given models to of the navigator in heroic form, and a statue of a standing Columbus he had presented to forty five meters tall, emerging in classical robes from an egg of bronze, displaying triumphantly an unscrolled map of the voyages of the three ships of his first voyage–Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria–as if to herald his nautical accomplishment referenced the legend of Columbus’ demonstration of the sphericity of the earth, “Birth of the New Man” (1995), which Tseretelli also designed, ever resourceful in the needs of exportable public statuary, to be presented to Mayagüez on the occasion of the XXI Central American and Caribbean Games. (Russia also gave a copy of this statue to Spain, installed in the park of San Jeronimo, Seville, used to smuggle soft high-grade raw soft copper from Ukraine of industrial value, evading export taxes. What, this leads us to ask, did this massive tube of a hollow statue actually contain?). Financial evasion of taxes may hint at the intention of the grander statue of Columbus offered Trump, saluting the island of Manhattan as if for the first time, of which the statue of Columbus unfurling a chart seems but the first draft.
If the Seville image of Columbus emerging from an egg seemed to hold a map on which the three caravels slid to the New World, opening up its lattice of ship ropes cast in the form of an egg doubled as a Beryozka doll bearing high-grade copper evading export tax, what concealed agendas and private interests were within the taller, if strikingly similar, he vehicle of goods concealed within it bronze shell, like a Beryozka doll, of this Russian connection planted on the properties of real estate but mark a startling growth of laundered funds through international banking.
If the storied if apocryphal notion that Columbus had argued for the ease of the opening of an international trade route by taking an egg and breaking its end to balance it during dinner-time debate for skeptics who challenged his conviction that the cosmographic knowledge needed for his transatlantic voyage was an act of daring diminished by all who “had wondered at it as an impossibility” before he flattened one end of the eg to make it stand on its tip, as the sixteenth-century Milanese traveler Girolamo Benzoni had first recounted in 1565, revealing his ingenuity before a fictitious dinner party before Spanish nobility, the egg shaped cage recalled the cosmographic invention of Columbus as an act of daring, invention, and bravura–that recycled a solution Giorgio Vasari described in 1550 of how the engineer Filippo Brunelleschi in 1418 solved the problem to build a dome of Florence’s cathedral, S. Maria del Fiore, astonishing and besting the “most ingenious craftsmen of design.”
The global traffic in bronze statues of Columbus sought to announce the opening of Russia for trade during the post-Soviet period fit a trade in the kitschy recycling legends, myths, and folk tales that Tsereteli pioneered. The Seville statue recalled the challenge of design celebrated as underlying the logic of transatlantic discovery was repeatedly staged in statues as an individual bravura act.
Trump boasted rather fulsomely, as is his won’t, about the “gift” of a statue was taller–by six feet!–than New York’s Statue of Liberty,–as if, by happenstance, to suggest its transcendence of New York’s skyline and cement his legacy as a builder beyond Trump Tower itself. The statue’s fitting size seemed specific to the New York monument, to be the largest in the western hemisphere, was not serendipitous; it seemed to match Trump’s tastes and global appetite. Over the wreckage of the rail yards, would the heralded statue boasted to Mark Singer, in a remarkably unfiltered manner, Trump argued the three hundred and eleven foot statue to development where he remained a minor partner would be on its way soon, its head already in the United States, and the body, if it remained in Moscow, where it was forged, would arrive, he claimed in deadpan, as he was “working toward that end,” “favorably disposed toward” what he described as the “huge personal honor” of erecting the monument on his private land where he wanted to sell condominiums.
The story of the “failed monument” has been told, but the gift that post-Soviet oligarchs long planned to offer as a gift to the United States, was cast by Trump as a final achievement, as if threading a needle, to the promotion of his own properties on a global scale greater than New Yorkers were accustomed to associate his brand. As the brash boy from Queens who had made good, the figure of Columbus, the scrappy sailor who had been dignified beside Trump International in Columbus Circle, which dwarfed the iconic image of Columbus since 1994. He may have even sought a new image of Columbus in 1997 to provide a model for the new symbol of his own internationalism, and international ambitions, and to mark the arrival of a new burst of financial energy to the empire of Trump Properties, and birth of Trump International–not backed by Spanish sovereigns whose emblem was on the bronze sails behind his back, but a faux national icon that concealed its own Russian backing.
Could the planned arrival of a generic piece of faux patriotic statuary also chart Trump’s persistent conflicts of interest as his first political ambitions emerged? The statue he described only as a “gift” from the Russian people to the United States that he had in 1997 boasted he had orchestrate in pursuit of real estate abroad, arrived from the very financiers of the post-soviet real estate market, and Moscow-based firm, who lured him to visit the city to attract funds to Moscow’s redevelopment. Re-imagined as a fifteenth-century navigator preposterously sailing into New York Harbor, or up the Hudson, mighty far from Columbus’ actual transatlantic route, against what any elementary school student might know of the voyages of discovery, if the statue demoted the place of the map was demoted to its base, the brazen rewriting of history was an act of kitsch few New Yorkers wanted to see: it seemed a means of simultaneously both attracting and repelling attention of observers in the gaudy monumentality in which Donald Trump had seemed to specialize.
The gifts of massive statuary designed by Zurab Konstantinovich Tsereteli, a Georgian sculptor with an active trading of public sculptures in Moscow, had become a sort of stock trade in monuments as gifts of state in the post-Soviet era. Highly generic in form, vaguely stripped of history, and persistently monumental, the monuments Tseretelli crafted were somehow a search for a new level of kitsch to respond to the kitsch of Soviet monumentalism, stripping figures from historical context and monumentalizing their grader. The gifting of monuments of Columbus to Mayagüez, Seville and–it was hoped–New York provided a celebration of a spirit discovery that were anonymously funded, but launched in a spree of international trading as Russia sought to open corridors of foreign trade, and Trump’s investment of Donald Trump in Moscow.
Trump announced the arrival of the hundred and ten meter bronze statue, including base as the result of his close ties to Russian elites–less as an image of American patriotism, than a means to dignify in the most opulent manner possible his most recent Manhattan property development. Did he intent it to replace the The iconic statue outside Time-Life–or Gulf + Western building seems to have been prized by Donald Trump that it became a target of his desires. Just in October, 1996, New York’s City Planning Department rejected the proposal to emblazon the orbital globe with “Trump International” on the orbital globe as a way to brand his new venture–but the developer took the shiny orbital globe, silhouetting the world’s continents on a thirty-foot wide globe, modeled after the Unisphere built for a 1964-65 World’s Fair, as fair game to brand his ambitions, as it lay on property he now owned, and even if the words “TRUMP INTERNATIONAL” were not emblazoned on it to reveal his new global ambitions, the shiny sphere was replicated, in Sunny Isles, as an icon of the global scope of Trump Properties.
The provision of Trump with a new image of Columbus on his own Hudson Yards development would be, perhaps, an alternate glorification of hi self-fashioning and marketing as a truly international developer. Was the discussion of the arrival of Tsereteli’s monumental figure of the navigator meant to hold an image of the orbital globe that Trump saw as an emblem of his new expansive network of global real estate properties beyond New York City–as if to brand the statue that was located on his properties as an icon of its aspirations to an actual globalism, and as if a statue could bolster its claims to internationality by virtue of a monumental map.
Was the figure of the fifteenth century navigator consisting of over 2,500 pieces of steel and bronze were more of a token or a pawn in a global Ponzi scheme of money laundering, cancelled debt–even as Trump accepted it eagerly to promote his buoyant reemergence on a global stage, having cleverly disburdened himself of abundant financial debt? Or would it conceal the greater debts that his involvement with Russian backers, canny on playing the fulsome developer for all he was worth, would itself conceal? The inflation of this “gift” of bronze that was in itself valued–or Trump boasted it was valued–as containing $40 million of raw bronze alone would be evidence of his success at the mythic “art of the deal,” if the construction of deal–and the deal that it meant for American tax payers, or for the tax board–have been rarely scrutinized. If the statue given to Seville was found to be a way of smuggling high-grade copper out of the country tax-free, was the image of Columbus something of a Trojan horse, as much as the boondoggle it is usually portrayed to be.
The idea of the arrival of the massive statuary that seemed a big win-win certainly left Trump in the mood for levity. At a time when he was ready to open his own private Club, the renamed and rebranded Mar-a-Lago, the figure of Columbus seemed a new validation of his global esteem, and gave him a sense of legitimacy, after the failure of his Atlantic City casinos, built for $1.2 billion, as a gaudily orientalist “Eight Wonder of the World” in 1990, whose “opulence” and “size” of its three casinos he boasted would make it “the most successful hotel anywhere in the world” went underwater after it failed to generate the needed $1.3 million daily to break even in overhead costs.
The addition of a statue of Columbus would seem not only emulate one of the lost seven wonders of the world, erected in Rhodes as the tallest statue of the ancient world, but would be the tallest in the Western Hemisphere. Would the figure of Columbus moreover offer the developer, in a true win-win, the desired logo for branding Trump International. It might have rebranded Trump in American politics, with Russian sponsorship, at a cost with which the nation has been saddled.
The ties of the realtor who had been interested in shifting his game from Atlantic City, after the failure of a large Casino, the Trump Taj Mahal, went under, led him to set sights on more majestic and still more mythic goals of worldly grandeur, and why would not Columbus fit the bill? The authoritarian statue certainly suggests a newfound proximity to post-soviet Russian funders, as the global financial game that Trump orchestrated seem to grow in its disconnect from America, and its concentration on the fabrication of an ideal America, with little correspondence to the actual nation and its interests. Although Trump asserts never to have had or sought or even want assistance from Russia in his Presidential campaign in increasingly strident tones, the attempt to persuade New York City to relocate a monumental bronze glorifying the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus suggests otherwise.
Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery,” but also the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage has assumed in a search for national identity. If Columbus the Genoese navigator was hit upon as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centennary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.
The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.
The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach.
In 1893, the point was made as replicas of the Nino, Pinto, and Santa Maria sailed in Lake Michigan during the Centennary, for which the U.S. Congress approved the printing of the first commemorative coin of an individual, beer flowed on tap at what was celebrated as a “blueprint of America’s future,” foregrounding the technological supremacy of the West and America. Ehe figure of Columbus was assimilated to the new technologies of transportation and conquest in a new center commerce where railroads open onto the west, in a condensation of a national celebration that cast Columbus as a figure of the destiny of western expansion, indulging in an American hyperbole of incandescent lighting, the championing of new technologies, in which the replicas of the Pino, Nina, and Santa Maria that had sailed from Spain were again sailing on a landlocked Lake Michigan were exhibited to foreground, Gokstad Viking ships sailed the flooded Midway, beside the mock-Venetian crafts of gondoliers.
Such global mariners provided a flourish within a World Exposition whose stage sets and soundstages, P.T. Barnum like, celebrated transit, transport, and mobility to astound visitors and silence all questions of not presuming to celebrate four centuries of progress; the neoclassical facades of buildings as the Administrative Building, Palace of Fine Arts, Agricultural Building, and Court of Honor, were iterations of the Crystal Palace that were precursors to Las Vegas, proclaimed the birth of a “White City” at the World Exposition that promoted the figure of Columbus and was under-written by the federal government and corporate America, recasting the shady city of vice as the “White City.”
The claiming of Columbus as a national figure in the rebranding of the World’s Exposition set in neoclassical buildings as the site to celebrate Columbus recreated the l’Enfant architecture of the District of Columbia, and elevated the city as “white” in some of the very issues that make the continued celebration of Columbus Day so fraught in a pluralistic society: Peter van Der Krogt has surveyed in striking detail some four hundred monuments to Columbus that were erected after what was called the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1892-3, a century after the first monument to Columbus was built in Baltimore, in 1792, what it meant to identify Columbus as American, if not name the nation “Columbia”–the popularity of these monuments in New Jersey (32), Connecticut (15), and New York (24) suggests the clear lack of uniformity of enthusiasm of celebrating the navigator’s equivalence with the nation.
The fraught question of celebrating the Genoese navigator became a hot-button topic for Donald Trump to rally red state voters–“to me, it will always be Columbus Day!”–and to serve as clickbait as part of the new, perpetually churning culture wars. In an October state meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Trump was pleased to note that while “some people don’t like” the continued commemoration of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage, “I do”, as if that should be sufficient for the nation. Prime MinisterMattarella’s state visit became an occasion to espouse public disdain for the renaming of the national holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day, if not Native Americans Day, in over 130 cities across 34 states. For President Trump, doing so seemed designed not to impress Mattarella, but define a wedge in a deeper cultural urban-rural divide– a yawning divide of economic opportunities, the knowledge economy, and the shifting horizons of economic expectations, more than political belief. The nature of this poorly mapped landscape, the thin substrate of uneven economies and cultural disjunctions and divides, that passes as a political in a datamap of the district-by-district voting preferences that rips a red continuity all but from its bordering blue frame.
The national discontinuities reveal an impoverished geographic sense of meaning, one that makes all but ironical the prestige placed on the legibility of the map by the legendary figure of Columbus, who never set foot in the continental landmass now known as the United States, but was, in an era of increased hemispheric dominance of the quatrocentennary nearly engraved map–a reflection of the prominent role Rand McNally played in the organization of the Exposition of 1892, promoting the prominent place that the mapmaking company had gained in the design, dissemination and marketing of instructional printed maps in the later nineteenth century, just a decade after the Chicago-based printshop primarily producing train time-tables expanded its role in a growing educational market for globes and printed wall maps, using its engraving methods emblematized in its dramatic bird’s-eye view of the exposition.
And although it did not design the commemorative silver half dollar that included a caravel of the Santa Maria moving on creating ocean waves above the very anachronistic map that suggests the continental expanse of North and South America–as if Columbus’ guidance of the historic transnational voyage in three caravels he captained was based on a mastery of modern cartographic knowledge. The clear-sightedness of the navigator below the legend “United States of America” linked fearless scrutiny of the global expanse to the foundation of a nation, as the coin designed by the U.S. Mint sough to give circulate a discourse of national unity in the first coin printed in the United States to include the likeness of an actual individual, after hopes to copy a Renaissance portrait by Lorenzo Lotto were replaced by an austere profile suggesting intellectual grasp of space to be sold as souvenirs to visitors of the national fair. Yet the notion of hemispheric dominance was not far off: the explosion of the American naval frigate in the port of Havana led to charges to attack Spain in the press to exercise dominance ridiculed in the Spanish press–
The hint at hemispheric dominance in these maps mirror a push in the 1890s against how “the self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets . . . coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world,” as a shift in global governance and prominence; the earlier celebration of the continental expansion of the United States to an area “equal to the entire circumference of the earth, and with a domain within these lines far wider than those of the Romans in the proudest days of their conquest and renown.”
Casting nationalism in such cartographic terms mirrored the embedding of Columbus in legacies of nationalism and colonization,–the coin that gave the navigator currency, if it silenced the recognition of the other, presenting Columbus as emblematic of a conquest of space. At a time when Italians were regarded as of different status from other whites, the figure of the Genoese navigator became a lens to project the “white” essence of the territorial United States in quadricentennial celebrations of 1892, recasting the navigator as an unlikely and implausible hero of the white race at the culmination of claiming native lands within the bloody landscape of Indian Wars–roughly, from 1860 to 1877–and to erase the violence of the seizure of these lands to crate the new map of the West, remapping the western lands “as” legible Anglophone and American, and the province of the White Man. Was Columbus the improbable hero of such whiteness and the claims of whiteness in the quadricentennary celebrations that led the nation to celebrate a “white” Italian, as a figure of the whiteness of the nation?
If we are realizing the loaded nature of the erasure of earlier inhabitants in the celebration of arrival in ‘America’ as a prefiguration of the nation, the condensation of this genealogy in the coin of the quadricentennial was a celebration of the witness of the national nd legibility of the new continental map map.
For as ethnicity was understood in sectorial and distinct terms of labor in the late nineteenth century–erased by the notion of an “end of ethnicity” and melting pot of the late twentieth century–the image of Columbus as a “white” hero, the image of the discoverer was purified of his own ethnic origins, at a time when negroes and Italians were excluded from social orders, and lived in Chicago sequestered in enclaves like Little Sicily, or Five Points in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 promoted Columbus Day as a “one-time national celebration” to quell international tensions after lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans’ Little Palermo between Italy and the United States: the image on the commemorative coin of a pacified globe of continental unity as if it were included in Columbus’ fashioning of his own prophetic identity affirmed Columbus’ whiteness, as it erased the identity of indigenous subjects and silenced the other.
Columbus was promoted eagerly to claim whiteness for Italian-Americans, as well as to define a non-indigenous figure of the nation and national pride. Long before Italian-Americans adopted the festivities of Columbus Day as a regular celebration to incorporate their centrality in a civic record of national identity, as New York Times editorialist Brent Staples has put it, purged of racial connotations that continued in the popular press, only after the celebration of Columbus Day opened a pathway to integration in the face of racialist slurs. As those Sicilians who segregated in their dwellings in New Orleans were seen as targets of racial persecution, and as northern newspapers used stereotypes continued to magnify charges of poor hygiene and linguistic differences, casting Italians as vermin unfit for public schooling, Columbus provided a figure to flee from dispersion as a “Dago”: as immigration from Italy faced official restrictions by 1920, and Italian immigrants were subject to at the start of the first great Age of Mass Migration, as Calvin Coolidge barred “dysgenic” Italian-Americans from entering the country.
In the very years wen immigrants were both sectorized and accorded new status as “whites” who were eugenically suspect, and rates of immigration were slowed under the banner of eugenics, the figure of Columbus proved an able image to launch a powerful agenda of alternative immigration reform: in the very regions where the share of population of Italian origin was most pronounced by 1920, in those very counties the erection of Columbus monuments grew. They appeared in interesting fasion from the eastern seaboard inland to the Great Lakes, into the Chicago area on Lake Michigan, to the Texas and Lousiana seaboards, and San Francisco area in northern California: the dispersion of Columbus monuments across the nation below lacks dates,–
The increased transatlantic migration that occurred around the 1920s could recast the topos of overseas arrival as embodied by Columbus. The figure of Columbus as an intellectual, a civil servant, and of the statue as a monument of civic pride all encouraged the appearance of the navigator in public monuments. Of course, they recuperate the image of the placement of the flag of authority overseas, as much as vanquishing native one of the first global maps, planting the flag of authority overseas.
The question of such exportation of royal claims was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority was seen in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1514 printed global map as a pair to the discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. overlooking and surveying coastal toponymy in a statuesque manner, bearing the figure of the flag and cross as an ambassador of the most Christian regal monarch.
The oceanic voyages of Vasco da Gama, as of Columbus, were seen as those of an emissary of royal authority, whose travels recuperated tropes of imperial migration that derived from early church history, and were given new lease in the Holy Roman Empire by imperial chroniclers and pre-Colomban universal histories, as a spatial migration of imperial authority: in maps, the Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels born by sea monsters who embodied the oceans, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition not initiated by Waldseemüller,–the cartographer who named the continent after the Florentine navigator and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci–
–and would echo the prophetic cast Columbus had assumed in his letters, and would give as he cast his exploratory voyage in terms of one of renaming, conquest, and discovery, rather than exploration, as he cast himself as acting as of an emissary of and invested with authority by the monarchs of Spain, and a delegate of royal sovereignty who had himself moved across the map to lay claim to unknown islands that he named after his royal patrons.
The naming that was cast as emblematic of civility and civilization of new lands, and of the new naming of the Land. Indeed, the privileging of the effects of cartographic literacy were felt in the Waldsemüller map. by its foregrounding of the cartographic prominence of the insularity of the lands of discovery, greatly magnified in Waldseemüller’s map to reveal the prominence they held in the European imagination as a revision of Ptolemaic geography, the islands alone doubling the territoriality of the Spanish monarchy–by expanding it to a transatlantic set of islands that were cartographically inflated in size, and not only to accommodate the toponym “Spagnuola” but magnify the scale of the discovery. If the band East of Eden sing, in Mercator Projected, declare over the strong guitar strums, “It’s in the Western Hemisphere/that’s where the nicest things appear,” Mercator effectively magnified the very same hemisphere as the cartographic expansion that doubled the demesne of Spanish kings, cleansed of all of its indigenous inhabitants.
The discovery of course altered the scope of Spanish sovereignty, as much as the cosmography Ptolemy set forth based on the astrolabe he proudly held in the upper right of this twelve-sheet wall map. In this fractured world of multiplying insular fragments, where the entire of the modern South America, here island-like, if immense, labeled “America” and below the island of Hispaniola, was “discovered by the command of the King of Castille”–island-like as Waldseemüller most likely was forced to add the to the pre-1491 global maps that perhaps remained his source–dotted with even greater abundance of islands, all acting as if beckons to potential sites of untold wealth. The figure of Columbus may be absent from the map, but the caravel identified as sent by the European monarch seems to provide the basis for information in the 1507 global map–where it seems as if the emblem of Columbus–
I found myself recently standing in New York City’s Columbus Circle, a towering column constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor, it was hard to imagine how the towering figure of the navigator once stood above the circle.
The prominence this late nineteenth-century Columbus claims atop a pedestal before a shop of corsets is a bit comical. The 1892 statue must have been a reply to the lady who stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants; funded by the Italian language newspaper that had begun publication only a decade earlier in 1880, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery served as a proclamation of civic dedication as well as rected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage.
The statuary made in Rome during the centenary of 1892, seemed intended as a moment of immigrant pride, and indeed identify the navigator as an Italian navigator, unlike the native inhabitants who seemed unclothed and barbarous. The statue of Columbus Circle stood facing to the south of Manhattan island, as if in rejoinder to the midwestern Columban exposition that celebrated the expansion of Chicago and the opening of an American West. The contest between the monuments aspiring to announce the New World back to Europe demands to be teased out, but played out over the next century.
The icon has defined the southwestern corner of Central Park, and as a monument of triumphalism has, even if it has been dwarfed by the nearby Trump International and, since 2003, the Time Warner building, the once soot-covered statuary had a prominent civic function of rehabilitating one immigrant group, if perhaps at the costs of denigrating others and promoting a dated form of patriotism. The reduced place of the smaller Trump property may now seem in the shadow of the far more monumental Time Warner complex, but Trump had already aspired to displace the tower of Christopher Columbus as he wanted to put his own imprint on the New York skyline before 1992, and readily adopted the Columbus centennary as a pretext to demote the Columbus Square column at the same time as he promoted his vision of a Trump City by the Hudson River banks, for which Columbus became a pretext as much as a backdrop of sorts.
But is it a surprise that as a New York realtor eager to dodge financial ruin in the late 1980s, Donald Trump boasted of plans to erect an immense statue of Christopher Columbus in 1992 by a Russian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, from a massive $40 million of bronze. The statuary framed as a gift from Moscow’s mayor to the New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to rival that of Columbus Circle must have been a massive tax write-off of the sort Trump had specialized. And grotesquely, the statue revealed, far from patriotism, the deeply transactional legacy of linking Trump’s developments to the nation, whose grandiosity of re-monumentalizing Columbus–Trump boasted the head made by the Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli from $40 million of bronze was already in America–“It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”
The grandiose claim is classic Trump, designed to feign disinterest and patriotism but searching for fame. Zurab, a prominent member of the Russian Academy, mighthave been quite legit, but building the massive bronze statuary was also a huge tax dodge to be built on Trump acreage, whose immensity only made it more valuable as a dodge and gift to the city of the sort one could write off but was also an investment inflating the real estate’s value: which Trump presented as a done deal accepted by then-mayor Giuliani as a “gift” from the Mayor of Moscow, mediated by the patriotic developer who had secured the landfill as realty he sought to boost before he built. The statue reveals early interest of the transactional nature of exchange and inflation of value, which long animated the Trump brand.
The quite hideous statue, whose head had arrived in New York, was rejected for reasons unknown. The rejection was perhaps not aesthetic alone, but as the immense complex of figure and naval vessels, eventually recast as The Birth of a New World when the complex was finally installed on the coast of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, weighing in at 6,500 tons, in 2016, was hardly designed to be sustained by landfill: what piles into the Hudson’s banks would sustain all that bronze? The dedication of the statue at the year of Trump’s victory in the Presidential election was not planned, but is oddly telling. The gaudy if not hideous monument was rejected flatly first by New York, and then by Miami; Columbus, OH; Baltimore; Ft Lauderdale; and lastly Cantaño, Puerto Rico, where it faced intense local opposition, from the United Confederation of Taino People given their conviction “Colombus was a symbol of genocide, not a hero to be celebrated” by monumental statuary in the nation’s public memory.”
The collective reaction of the grotesque figural complex may have arisen because of effects on the community, but the body of the statue was recycled as it was transformed by Tseretelli, rumor has it, with a new head as Peter the Great, for Moscow, that celebrated the tsar for founding–yes–the Russian Navy. The monument that was the world’s eighth largest piece of global statuary at 93 meters voted was voted the world’s tenth ugliest buidling. The this 81 meter animated statue beside an oddly raised arm of greeting evidence that it was indeed remade in an attempt to match the massive body of bronze that remained in Moscow in 1992, or was the mismatch due to a new fashioning a body for the head returned to Tseretelli’s studio the became a monstrous monument of eery import? T eh odd disconnect of head and body seems not an illusion of perspective (witness those huge shoulders), but seems evidence of some sort of switcheroo in statuary that Tseretelli or his assistants bungled.
The image that we can entertain of Donald Trump transactionally pedaling Columbus from shore to shore tragically concludes the triumphalit Columban statuary–who better to pedal dated triumphalism? How did the Columbus statue ever arrive at this port? If removed from a discourse of discovery, the notion of “birth” is perhaps more odious.
Trump identifies himself–sons of immigrants of Scottish and German stock, allegedly, but must have wanted to bask in the idea of endowing monumentalism of Columbus statue for New York, beside Trump’s new monumentalization of his name in West Side Yards, the landfill expansion of the old yard of New York’s Central Railroad, that Trump had long sought to expand as the site of 20-30,000 residences, massive residential expansions of the city alternately hoped to be rezoned as residences and promoted to be renamed as “Lincoln West,” “Television City” and “Trump City,” all of which faced fierce community opposition, even if they were planned to feature the world’s tallest building. Would the 1992 statue be a $40 Million investment to lend prestige to the projects Trump imagined for a site he long promoted as both”positioned to get rezoning and government financing,” in 1979, and “the greatest piece of land in urban America” in 1992, housing 20,000 in 8,000 apartments and almost 10,000 parking places for the midtown area.
The “new Columbus” was as a conceit never achieved; but was it also a sense of the arrival of Trump in America, and the conquest of New York City? The statue planned to be erected on landfill was rejected for the fifth centenary and then promised to at least six other cities may speak to Trump’s disconnect from the world, and how poorly the notion of a purely triumphal celebration has aged. The grandiosity of statuary and buildings–perhaps also ugliness–was a perverse trademark of Trump, and was promoted a grotesque nationalism long dear to the developer. And it paralleled the growing public resistance to Columbus statuary that occurred in 1992 across so much of the increasingly diverse United States, as citizens questioned what was to celebrate in a figure long idealized in heroic monuments.
The announcement in California of the arrival of random power shut-offs this fire season sent everyone scrambling to maps. In order to stop fires spread of fires, the impending public safety power shut-offs crashed websites as folks scrambled to get updates in real time, frustrated by the relative opacity of maps in a hub of high tech mapping and public data, as the impending possibility of power shut-offs wreaked neurological chaos on peoples’ bearings. From mapping fires, we transitioned to the uncertainty of mapping regions where consumers would lose power in an attempt to prevent fires from spreading due to strikes on live wires of broken limbs, branches, or failed transmission structures whose immanent collapse were feared to trigger apocalyptic fires of the scale of those witnessed last fires season, as the largest fire in California history raged for days, destroying property and flattening towns, burning victims who followed GPS lacking real-time information about fires’ spread.
In an eery mirroring of looking to maps to monitor the real-time spread of fires, which we sensed in much of California by smoke’s acrid air, the expectancies to which we had been habituated to consult real-time updates was transferred to the availability of electricity, in a sort of mirror image unsurprising as the outages were intended to stop fires’ spread. The decision to continue public power safety shut-offs as a part of the new landscape of controlling fires’ spread in future years–perhaps needs to be accepted for up to a decade, although this was walked back to but five years in recent years.
Expanded power shut-offs justified by needs for public safety suggest how much climate change has changed the expanded nature of fire risk. But in an era when the vast majority of televised segments that aired on network television– ABC, CBS, and NBC combined–despite an abundance of powerful image and video footage the 243 segments on destructive wildfires raging across northern and southern California, a type of public disinformation seems to have been practiced by most news outlets that served only to disorient viewers from gaining any purchase on the fires, colored by the shifting validity of climate change denial as a position among their viewing public: only eight of the news media mentions of the fires, or 3.3%, mentioned climate change as a factor in the fires’s spread, from October 21 to November 1, as the spread of fires in northern California grew that precipitated public power shut-offs. If new cycles shy away from citing climate change as a factor on the spread of fires, most of the mentions came from specific weather reporters, from NBC’s Al Roker to CBS’ Jeff Berardelli, extending the range of fire seasons and area of burn, the silo-ization of such explanations were rarely digested in mainline reporting. And if FOX ran 179 segments on the fires, more than other cable networks, climate change was mentioned in 1.7%, with most segments mocking the contribution of climate change.
If we are poorly served by the news media in reporting the fires and downplaying climate change–or indeed criticizing California for poorly maintaining its forests’ safety, as President Trump, the eery landscapes provided by PG&E raise questions about the messages they communicate.
But the electric green maps of a startlingly unnatural aquamarine, yellow, and orange suggested a strange distantiation of the landscape in the age of Climate Change. The electrified hues of the maps, which monitored the possibility of customers loosing electricity in many districts, reveals a level of poor management and lack of any coherent strategy for climate change as much as the huge area that is served by PG&E, and the man-made infrastructure of electricity and transmission towers, which courts have rightly decided the privately-owned power agency that serves state residents is responsible for.
While we follow the news, even among the most die-hard news addicts, the prospect of “public safety” power shut-offs seemed unannounced and irresponsible, and a premonition of a new landscape of risk. For the shut-offs that were announced as impending by PG&E reflect a deep insecurity of fires, climate change and perhaps what we feared was a collective unpreparedness to deal with a new set of implications of climate crisis we have not even been able to acknowledge or even fully recognize, but which seemed spinning out of control–even in the nature of maps that were made of it–and to betray a lack of imagination, creativity, and foresight, abandoning the long-term view.
The sense of emergency electrifies a landscape whose woodland-urban interface is electrified by aging power structures and transmission lines, carrying increased current to extra-urban areas. And there is a fear that the long-term view is lacking, as we continue to turn to maps, even months after the first shut-offs were announced to forestall fears of a raging fire season. As we map the expanding sense of risk to respond to both demand for currently updated real-time maps for fires, and the calamitous images of apocalyptic fires raging that dominate the news cycle and make us fear the near future, or have a sense of living with a deferred sense of emergency at our doorsteps. And so when we received a text message of impending loss of electricity, we turned en masse to maps to learn about outages at risk, alerted to the need to ready ourselves as best we could by our local government-
Extreme fire prevention funding, precarious in the Trump Era, stands to be abolished as the Dept. of Interior retreats from federal fire programs: the Wildland Fire Office, funded at $13 million in 2012, if slated to be abolished in the Trump era, in an agenda denying climate change, lacks funding, undermining close scientific examination of a new topography of fires, even as climate change has increased the costliness of fires and the ferocity of their spreads. If the costs of the Camp Fire of 2018 grow beyond $10 billion–or over six times as much as the Oakland Firestorm of 1991–those costs and the cost of insurance liabilities only stand to grow. As we confront poor planning of climate readiness, as we lack real images of extinguishing fires’ spread–and imagine the temporary shut offs can intervene as a deus ex machine to prevent fires’ spreads all we have to forestall the fears of spreading flames and intense firestorms or whirls.
In the Bay Area, where I live, the danger of the new firescape is so pressing, and so impossible to process, that we can only digest it as a danger that is ever-present, akin to living in an active seismic area, but we cannot process in a static or dynamic map.
But this is an area of risk that we are living cheek-by-jowl beside in ways that are truly unfathomable. As the power shut-off zones have been expanded in clearer detail by PG&E in response to the growing gustiness of winds that threaten to compromise the safety of residents as well as the aging electric infrastructure of the state, we are oddly haunted by past promises to maintain or upgrade our national infrastructure–the promise to rebuild national infrastructure was itself an energizing call of the Trump campaign–only to be demoted by being assigned, with improved veteran care, the opioid addiction, workforce retraining, and the Middle East peace to Jared Kushner, in ways tantamount to moving it to the way back burner, soon after being mentioned in the State of the Union as a non-partisan issue in January, 2018.
And yet, the spread of fires with increased rapidity, across landscapes that remain highly flammable, has created terrifying imagers of a highly combustible landscapes, where the recent growth of fires–in this case, the Kincade Fire that did began only long after the shut-off policies began–chart the spread of fires across terrain multiple times larger than cities, moving across the landscape rapidly, driven by unprecedentedly strong offshore winds: the passing overhead of satellites charts its expansion, making us fear the expansion of the next pass overhead as realtime images of the durations of fires only grows.
Sure, the current landscape had long seemed to be burning up at a rate we had not begun to adequately acknowledge–as Peter Aldhous promptly reminded any of us who needed reminding in Buzzfeed, providing a GIF of CalFire’s data of areas of California that had burned since the 1950s, decade by decade, in an animation of red bursts of flames atop a black map, that seemed to eerily illuminate the state by the 2000s, and hit much of the north by the 2010s, as they close,–illuminating fires as a state-localized crisis–
but the scope of human-caused fires that have consumed land, property, and habitat are a truly endemic crisis in California, he showed, in ways that he suggested reflect a parched landscape and the uptick of human-generated fires that are a direct consequence of climate change, especially in a region of increased residential construction. This sense of illumination places a huge onus on PG&E for its corporate responsibility, and the very notion of distributing electricity and power as we once did,–and illuminates the imperative to think about a new form of energy grid.
Indeed, the parsing of “human-caused fires” as a bucket suggests the real need to expand the classification of wildfires. Whereas most earlier fires were caused by lightening strikes in the western states, the expansion of housing and electricity into areas suffering from massive drought–as if in an eery reflection of the spread of “slash fires” across the midwest during the expansion of railroads that caused a rage if firestorms coinciding with World War I–press against the category of fires as wild. The deeper question that these maps provoke–as do the data of Cal Fire–is whether the term wildfires is appropriate to discuss the hugely increased risk of fires that damage or destroy property and land.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!