Saturated Southeastern Texas

Weather maps are among the most widely consulted visualizations in our over-mediated world.  They provide not only sources of fascination, however, but are among the most confounding media to orient viewers to the world’s changing climate.  Even as we are  still trying to calculate the intensity of damages in Puerto Rico–where electricity is slowly returning to the bulk of the islands–and the cost of fires in southern California, hoping to piece together evidence of extensive collateral damage of global warming, we’ve yet to come to terms with the intensity of rainstorms that hit southeastern Texas–the hurricane deluged the city with rainfall surpassing the standard meteorological chromatic scale.  For the rapidity with which rain challenged ground cover permeability provides both a challenge for mapping as a symptom of global warming and landscape modification:   the mapping of “natural” levels of rainfall blurs the pressing problem of how shifting landcover has created an impermeability to heightened rains, and indeed how the new patterns of habitation challenge the ability of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico to absorb the prospect of increased rain in the face of decreasing ground cover permeability.

Real estate demand and over-paving have unfortunately intersected with extreme weather in southeastern Texas in ways which dat visualizations have had trouble exposing, but which raise a curtain on the coming crises of a failure of ability to accommodate increased levels of rainfall  If the lack of precedent for the intense rainfall in Galveston Bay generated debate about introducing a new color that went beyond the rainbow scale employed in weather charts, what seemed a problem of the cartographic color-spectrum suggested a problem of governability and indeed government response to extreme weather conditions.  How to register the dangers of rainfall that goes of the scale or standards of measurement?   What is the best way to orient viewers to the intensity of consequent flooding, and to considering its consequences and better prepare ourselves for the arrival of deluging rains without falling back on the over-freighted metaphor of rains of biblical scope?  How many more hurricanes of increasing intensity can continue to pound the shores, by whipping precipitation from increasingly warming waters and humid air?  The cumulative pounding of tropical cyclones in the Gulf stands to create a significantly larger proportion of lands lying underwater–temporarily submerged lands–with radically reduced possibilities of drainage, as hurricanes carry increased amounts of evaporated water from the humid air of the warming gulf across its increasingly overbuilt shores.

 

For many of the maps that chart the arrival and impact of hurricanes seem a form of climate denial, as much as they account for climate change.  Long after the hurricane season ended, the damage for hurricanes caused have hardly been assessed in what has been one of the most costly and greatest storm damage since 1980 in the United States,–including the year of Hurricane Katrina–we have only begun to sense the damage of extreme weather stands to bring to the national infrastructure.  The comparison to the costs of storm damage in previous years were not even close.  But distracted by the immediacy of data visualizations, and impressed by the urgency of the immediate, we risk being increasingly unable to synthesize the broader patterns of increased sea surface temperatures and hurricane generations, or the relations between extremely destructive weather events, overwhelmed by the excessive destruction of each, and distracted from raising questions about the extremely poor preparation of most overbuilt regions for their arrival, and indeed the extent to which regional over-building that did not take the possibility of extreme weather into account–paving large areas without adequate drainage structures or any areas of arable land–left inhabitants more vulnerable to intense rains.  For in expanding the image of the city without bounds, elasticity, or margins for sea-level rise, the increasingly brittle cityscapes of Galveston and much of the southeastern Texas shoreline were left incredibly unprepared for the arrival of hurricanes or intense rains.  Despite the buzz of an increased density of hurricanes to have hit the region,

 

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the questions of how to absorb hurricanes of the future, and to absorb the increased probability of rainfall from hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and its shores, suggests questions of risk, danger, and preparation that we have no ability to map.

To characterize or bracket these phenomena as “natural” is to overlook complex interaction between extreme weather patterns and our increasingly overbuilt environments.  To be sure, any discussion of the Gulf of Mexico must begin from the increasingly unclear nature of much of our infrastructure across land and sea, evident in the range of pipelines of gas and oil that snake along a once more clearly defined shore charted by ProPublica in 2012–

 

pipeline_line_mapProPublica, Pipeline Safety Tracker/Hazardous liquid pipelines are noted in red; gas in blue

 

-and whose tangle of oil pipelines that extend from the very site of Galveston to the Louisiana coast is almost unable to be defined as “offshore,” so much as an extension of the land, and a redefinition of the shore.

 

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Despite the dangers that such an extensive network of hazardous liquid lines along the Gulf of Mexico, the confusion between mapping a defined line between land and water, and visualizing relations of extreme weather disturbances as hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and local infrastructure haunts the extremely thin nature of the sort of data visualizations that are generated about the dangers of hurricanes and their landfall in the region.  For all too often, they presume a stable land/sea divide, removed from the experience of inhabitants of the region and how we have remade the shore.

 

1. How can we do better by going beneath the data visualizations of record-breaking rainfall, to map the human impact of such storms?  How could we do better to chart the infrastructural stresses and the extent to which we are ill-prepared for such extreme weather systems whose impact multiplies because of the increased impermeability of the land, unable to absorb excessive rainfall, and beds of lakes and reservoirs that cannot accommodate increased accumulation of rainfall that  stand to become the new normal?  The current spate of news maps that provoke panic by visualizing the extremes of individual cases may only inspire a sort of data vis-induced ADD, distracting from infrastructural inadequacies to the effects of global warming–and leaving us at a loss to guarantee the best structures of governability and environmental readiness.

Indeed, the absence of accurately mapping the impact and relation between landcover, storm intensity, rainfall, flooding, and drainage abilities increases the dangers of lack of good governance.  There need not be any need for a reminder of how quickly inadequate mapping of coastal disasters turns into an emblem of bad governance.  There is the danger that, overwhelmed by the existential relation to each storm, we fail to put them together with one another; compelled to follow patterns of extreme weather, we risk being distracted from not only the costs but the human-generated nature of such shifts in seasons between extremes of hot and cold.  For as we focus on each event, we fail to integrate a more persuasive image of how rising temperatures stand to create an ever-shifting relation between water and land.  Provoked by the rhetoric of emergency, we may need to learn to distance ourselves better from the aerial views that synthesize intense precipitation, tally hurricane impacts, or snowfall levels, and view them less as individual “strikes” or events and better orient ourselves to a broader picture which put us in a less existential relation to extreme weather.

 

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We surely need to establish distance to process syntheses of data in staggering aerial views on cloud swirl, intense precipitation, and snowfall, and work to peel back their striking colors and bright shades of rainbow spectra, to force ourselves to focus not only on their human costs, or their costs of human life, but their relation to a warming planet, and the role of extreme of weather in a rapidly changing global climate, as much as track the “direct strikes” of hurricanes of individual names, as if they were marauders of our shores:  their creation is as much tied to the changing nature of our shores and warming sea-surface temperatures, and in trying to create a striking visualization, we deprive ourselves from detecting broader patterns offering better purchase on weather changes.

 

direct-strikes

 

If the patterns of weather maps from Accuweather forecast and projections suggest an exhilaratingly Apollonian view on global and regional weather patterns, they threaten to shift attention form a broader human perspective in quite deeply pernicious ways.  Such maps provided the only format for grasping the impact of what happened as the hurricane made landfall, but provided little sense of the scale of inundations that shifted, blurred and threatened the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  They provide a format for viewing floods that are disjoined from victims, and seem to naturalize the quite unnatural occurrence of extreme weather systems.  Given the huge interest in grasping the transformation of Hurricane Harvey from a tropical storm to a Category Four hurricane, and the huge impact a spate of Category Four hurricanes have created in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s no surprise that the adequacy of the maps of Hurricane Harvey have been interrogated as hieroglyphs or runes of a huge weather change:  we sift through them for a human story which often left opaque behind bright neon overlays, whose intensity offer only an inkling of a personal perspective of the space or scale of their destruction on the ground:  while data maps provide a snapshot of the intensity of rain-levels or wind strength at specific sites, it is difficult if important to remember that their concentration on sites provide a limited picture of causation or complexity.

All too often, such maps fail to offer an adequately coherent image of disasters and their consequences, and indeed to parse the human contributions to their occurrence.  This post might be defined into multiple subsections.  The first actions suggest the problems of mapping hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico in relation to flooding in data visualizations of the weather and the overbuilt region; the middle of the post turns to an earlier poetic model for considering the relation between land and sea that visualizations all too easily obscure, and the meaning that the poet Elizabeth Bishop found in viewing relations between land and sea in a printed map of the Atlantic; after returning to the question of the overbuilt shore compounds problems of visualizing the Texas coast, the final section, perhaps its most provocative, returns to Bishop’s reading of a map of the Atlantic coast.

What such new weather maps would look like is a huge concern.  Indeed, as we depend on weather maps to orient us to place ourselves in the inter-relations of climate change, sea-level, surface temperatures, and rain, whether maps cease to orient us to place, but when best constructed help to describe the changing texture of weather patterns in ways that can help familiarize us not only to weather conditions, but needed responses to climate change.  For  three months after the hurricanes of the Gulf of Mexico caused such destruction and panic on the ground, it is striking not only that few funds have arrived to cover costs of rebuilding or insurance claims, but the judgement or understanding of the chances for future flooding have almost left our radar–perhaps pushed rightly aside by the firestorms of northern and southern California, but in ways that troublingly seem to forget to assess or fail to assess the extent of floods and groundwater impermeability  along the Texas and Louisiana coast.  The problems that preparation for future coastal hurricanes off the Gulf of Mexico raise problems of hurricane control and disaster response that seem linked to problems of mapping their arrival–amd framing the response to the increasing rains that are dumped along the entire Gulf Coast.

 

 

Indeed, the chromatic foregrounding of place in such rainbow color ramps based on GPS obscure other maps.   Satellite data of rainfall are removed from local conditions, and serve to help erase complex relations between land and water or the experience of flooding on the ground–by suggesting a clear border between land and sea, and indeed mapping the Gulf of Mexico as a surface as if it were unrelated to the increased flooding around Houston, in maps prepared from satellite imagery, despite the uneasy echoes of anthropogenic causes for the arrival of ten hurricanes in ten weeks, in ways that suggest how warming waters contributed to the extreme inundation of the Gulf Coast.  Despite NOAA  predictions of a 45% likelihood of ‘above-normal’ activity for the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, with, a 70% likelihood of storms that could transform into hurricanes, the images of inundated lands seem both apocalyptic and carefully removed from the anthropogenic changes either to the ocean or land that intensified their occurrence so dramatically on the ground.

 

Dartmouth Flood Observatory Flooding Harvey Dartmouth Flood Observatory

 

Harvey flooding_0.jpgwiDartmouth Flood Observatory/August 29, 2017

 

Is it possible to recuperate the loss of individual experience in such data maps, or at least acknowledge their limitations as records of the complexity of a changing climate and the consequences of more frequent storm surges and such inundations of rainfall?  As we seek better to understand the disaster relief efforts through real-time maps of effects of Hurricane Harvey as it moved inland from the Gulf of Mexico, shifting from Category 4 Hurricane from a tropical storm, we tried to grasp levels of rainfall that spun out of 115-mile-an-hour winds across southeastern Texas that damaged crops, flooded fields, ruined houses, and submerged cars, we scan stories in hope of clues to assess our position in relation to increasingly dangerous weather systems whose occurrence they may well forebode.  At a time of increased attention to extreme weather has long developed, the gross negligence of climate change denial is increasingly evident:  it recalls the earlier denial of any relation between hurricanes and climate change, when increased hurricanes were cast as “the cycle of nature,” rather than as consequences whose effects have in fact been broadly intensified by human activity.

Current attempts to map the toll of record-smashing hurricanes focused almost exclusively on point-based data view rainstorms largely as land-based records; even as they intend to monitor the effects of Harvey’s landfall by microwave censors, they risk seeming to isolate real-time rainfall levels from the mechanics warmer air and sea-surface temperatures which result from human-caused global warming, not relating increased storm surges or inundations to achanges in coastal environments or climate change.  To render such changes as natural–or only land-based–is irresponsible in an age of reckless levels of climate denial.

 

2.  Indeed, faced by the proliferation of data visualizations, part of the journalistic difficulty or quandary is to integrate humanistic or individual perspectives on the arrival of storms, rendered in stark colors in the increasingly curtailed ecosystems of newsrooms which seek simplified visualizations of satellite data on the disaster, which fail to note the human contributions to the travails that are often reserved for photographs, which increasingly afford opportunities of disaster tourism in the news, emphasizing the spectator’s position before disasters, by images that underscore the difficulties in processing or interpreting the proliferation of data from MODIS satellite feeds:  we can show the ability to measure the arrival of torrential rains, but in offering few legends, save the date and scale, but offering few keys o interpret the scale of the disaster.

The looming portent of human-made climate change, however, underlies the poor predictions that NOAA offered of perhaps 2-4 major hurricanes this Spring, and the lack of a new director for NOAA–on which local and state agencies depend to monitor the nations shores and fisheries–suggested the, from June to September, which left states on their own to make decisions and plan for disaster mitigation programs and better flood maps.  (The danger of appointing a newly nominated director, Barry Myers, who is a strong supporter of the privitization of weather maps and an executive at the private Accuweather mapping service, suggests the difficulty of determining the public-private divide in an era of neoliberalism, and a free market of weather maps that were once seen as central to national security and standards of safety.)   There are two hidden scales on which we read these opaque maps of global warming and globalization and local inundation are triply frustrating.   For all the precision and data richness of such point-maps of largely land-based rainfall, local temperature, or flooding, the biases of such instantaneous measurements seem to fit our current governing atmosphere of climate change denial, and dangerous in erasing how such storms are informed by long-term consequences of man-made climate change.  (As the mapping tools of coastal weather seem destined to change, what sort of change in direction for NOAA coastal maps do we want:  the appointment suggests the terrifying possibility of a return to the Bush-era proposal nominee Myers supported that prohibiting the agency from producing any maps already available in the private sector then threatened federal weather lines to go dark–lest they literally compete with ad-supported websites private providers–and shift federal information offline?)

For making moves toward the future readability of weather maps may well be at stake in critically important ways.  The 2005 proposal that Myers backed would have eliminated the National Weather Service, even while exempting those forecasts needed to preserve “life and property,” would in essence have returned the weather services to a pre-internet era, even as the most active hurricane season including a record breaking fifteen hurricanes and twenty-eight storms began in the gulf coast, including the infamous hurricane Katrina.  The proposed bill would have prevented NOAA from posting open data, and not only readily available to researchers and policymakers, in ad-free formats, free of popup screens, but allow them to make their own maps on the fly–ending good practices of posting climate data would work quite dangersously to prevent development of tools of data visualization outside commercial models of rendering storms and hurricanes as if environmentally isolated.

 

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direct-strikes

 

A deeper problem of providing such limited weather maps of tropical storms may be the subtexts about the relation of human causes to weather they convey, and the absence of a greater narrative of the transformation of a global ecology or of the ecology of the Gulf Coast.  The curtailed images of “nature” they present by symbolizing rains, winds, floods, or submerged regions in appealing hues as natural–raise questions of the odd simplicity of the absent storylines:  cheery colors erase or bracket complex questions of climate change, the human contribution to extreme weather events, or the human experience of suffering on the ground:  Rita, Cindy, Katrina, Dennis, and Wilma seem not part of the environment, epiphenomenal interlopers moving across a static deep blue sea, in an apparent dumbing down of the mechanics of hurricane or storm formation in a rainbow spectrum removed from a human-made environment.

Visualizations of the rainfall of Hurricane Harvey similarly compress a massive amount of data into elegant chromatic images, but focus attention on the levels of inundation that overwhelmed the gulf coast in ways that the land could not absorb, drain, or adequately process, they ignore critical pieces of the picture of Harvey’s landfall, from the unprecedented ocean heat just days before Harvey made landfall near Galveston–

 

Ocean Heat Harvey Gulf of Mexico 8-24-17Weather Underground/RAMMB @ CSU/CIRA

 

–to the surprisingly warm patches of the Gulf of Mexico across which Harvey crossed as it rapidly grew in size–

 

Harvey Course over Very Warm Water--UW 24 Aug 2017University of Wisconsin-Madison-CIMSS Satellite Blog

 

–as we treat the ferocity of southeastern Texas’ inundation by rainfall as an isolated question of the extreme amount of rain that arrived on land and sea by mapping the amount of rainfall we can register at a place in isolation from a broader picture, rather than contextualizing the intensity of rainfall within the causation of the Category Four hurricane, or mapping the failure to accommodate such extraordinary levels of rainfall, which have been argued to justify to create a need for seawalls or dikes to preserve the cartographical division between land and sea, to prevent the danger of surge flooding, rather than the new weather patterns that this hurricane season has inaugurated.

 

Gulf of Mexico Heat content Oct 2017.pngOcean heat content in western Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico on October 6 (U Miami)/WaPo

 

We are perhaps conditioned to be mesmerized by readily generated weather maps that convert satellite observations of rainfall to reveal unprecedented weather patterns–but are slow to take stock of the mechanics of the dramatically changing nature of a hurricane season in which Category Four hurricanes are making landfall in the United States that in any other, even as their occurrence challenges scales of measurement and putting new stresses on disaster preparedness.  The busiest recored season of hurricanes and the simplicity of the ways that we map their transformation and landfall raises compelling questions of how to best map weather maps and coastal surges in an era of climate change–and how to represent the increasingly destructive potential of tropical storms, cyclones, or hurricanes without succumbing to climate denial.  Whereas point-based visualizations suggest the ability to track rainfall, wind velocity, or the path of hurricanes over time, their limits must be acknowledged as presenting a sufficiently dynamic or situated picture of the increased sensitivity of populated coasts to extreme weather, to better grasp the intensified acceleration, or accumulated cyclone energy, which for 2017 is already, in mid-October, twice the average of previous seasons, as warming waters generate more intense storms–but are omitted from their landfall, as if we desire to curtail the abilities we have to better map.  While the current NOAA nominee insisted quite adamantly that “we don’t have enough data [yet]” to attribute these changes to climate change, noting the potential influence of other cyclical changes in water temperature, and a northward retreat of Atlantic high pressure systems, yet the probability for hurricane increase across the board with higher water temperature and an expansion of warm waters–increasing the humidity of the storms–that it is the ethical responsibility of the cartographer to capture, even if it is blanched from MODIS data or most visualizations that render the “sites” of hurricane landfall in isolation.

It may be that the time-sensitive nature of the rich data in weather maps focus attention on the present moment with such immediacy to makes it increasingly difficult to move from such real-time records to devote attention to evaluating deeper long-term changes in weather systems–or indeed consider weather patterns as natural, and removed from man-made changes in coastal environments or carbon emissions.

 

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The question of how we are best able to read and process the proliferating maps of hurricanes and rainfall extends beyond tracking any single weather system, to the stories maps tell about hurricanes and their landfall, and the new age of weather that they may both announce and exemplify.  Do the color saturated data visualizations that have burned Harvey in our collective retinas and memories herald a new age of weather maps, as much as the actual record-setting levels of rainfall Harvey brought?  The complex cognitive relation to the these maps may be part of the problem, as is the levels of meaning that we try to read into them, not only in the rainbow-spectrum images of rainfall levels, but the difficulty of assembling a coherent picture of them.  We need to more clearly relate that picture to a landscape mark by human intervention and to man-made climate change–moving from datasets mediating select points in space, to an ability to assemble their coherence or better appreciate their specific context and the scope of the natural disaster.  Despite clear limitations inherent in point-based data visualizations, we need to peel away the constraints of overlays to better discern the hidden mechanics of storm surges and their consequences.

For where their sense of continuity lies is as opaque of the sort of causality we might be able to be attached to them:  they place us in an existential relation to datasets, and erase human subjects.  Although rich with information, the proliferation of weather maps of literally off-the-charts rainfall levels raised eyebrows far outside the communities of limnologists, hurricane experts, and meteorologists, as the constant production of datamaps for the micro-economy of newsrooms seemed particularly disjunctive with a coherent narrative, and hinted at more apocalyptic visions by not clearly mapping onto experience and all but erased humans by creating a narrative about extreme weather, if not of nature out of whack.  Even as Hurricane Harvey was three miles south of Corpus Christi, it was feared to be a Category Three hurricane–bringing three feet of rainfall!–as it shifted from a tropical storm to a Hurricane long before it reached Houston.

 

Harvey Arival Transformation.png

 

But to read such instantaneous maps as a model for coastal stewardship or disaster response, we need to attend to how the city’s man-made landscape has changed, sinking due to long-term soil subsidence with increased water withdrawal created sinkholes increasingly deformed the surface of the low-lying city that would themselves soon flood, their extreme subsidence acting as a multiplier a multiplier of the intensity of flooding around the greater Houston area that was not recorded in rainfall charts, but that was in large part determined by the impermeability of the landcover, from the concrete banks of bayou to the absence of wetlands by the bay.

 

deformation2LIDAR Hillshade map of Houston/Dr. Shuhab Khan, 2012

 

Houston Subsidence. pngSubsidence since 1920.USGS

–at the same time as much local and regional landcover alike dramatically lost absorptive qualities, especially in proximity to the shore, as well as map the consequences of changes in ocean and air temperature to the acceleration of hurricanes.

 

SMAP Saturating Houston 8:25-26

 

3.  The cognitive disconnect of these maps that impressed viewers by their intense colors, but seemed The maps elicit fears that they eerily prefigure a landscape marked and shaped by the regular escalation of hurricanes growing rapidly before landfall that go on to drop unprecedented rains–and raise questions of whether new weather systems can be meaningfully measured against gauge-readings of rainfall or stream flow from earlier times.  Indeed, the potential of a tipping point in the extent of coastal hurricanes is suggested by the multiplier effects of global warming on the peaking of the intensity of Gulf Coast weather.  To be accurate, instead of continuing to map the separateness of the land from the sea–and anxieties of the relation of land to the sea in an era of climate change–we may be better off mapping the impermeability of local surfaces, the erosion of coastal offshore islands that buffered storms, the presence of clouds of ozone, and the consequences of the rising surface water temperature of the Gulf of Mexico.

The information relayed in these images overwhelmingly privilege point data–rather than communicate a continuous landscape of assistance in environmental governance or a policy of monitoring coastal protection over the long-term.  They pose questions for the management of the shoreline, as a result, not even taking into account the many chemical plants and refiners that are crowded along the Trinity Bay, Galveston Bay, and Port Arthur, whose spillage poses increased risk during flood that governments would not be able to manage or coordinate with the intensity they deserve:  the problem of not mapping such contextual information lies in the deeply superficial information contained in the rainfall maps calculated by government services and relayed to news rooms where they pass as news, replacing ruined crops, flooded residences, and toxic waste flows by a rainbow.

 

 

emissions near to Galveston TX

 

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The Terror of Climate Change: Uncorking Bombs of Streaming Snow

The buzz about the “bomb cyclone”–known also as a “weather bomb,” but the emphasis on the first word seems far more apt–seemed something of a collective reorientation about the weather, and at weather systems that seemed decisively out of whack.  The term itself, if standard meteorological fare, and quite precise, triggered shock, even in an era when we are hardly surprised by extreme weather, from mud slides to apocalyptic out of control fires to hurricanes.  But it seemed to register shock by its new scale and magnitude, and the sense that we were unable to control the cascading effects from a kink in the Gulf Stream waters that spun the eye of the winter hurricane suddenly rising along the east coast, spinning a web of snowfall whose mesmerizing rainbow colors flooded the entire eastern seaboard with freezing rains and high-pitched howling winds.

 

Bomb Cyclone BIG

 

Unlike the other disasters, we seemed to be able to map it in one place–or at least its eye–but see it spin out of control over our winter landscape, touching sites along the entire coast from frozen iguanas falling off trees in Florida to unprecedented waves crashing into the coast to flooded downtowns to strings of cars left on highways, to snarled commutes of precipitously where whiteouts caused decreasing visibility–

 

4CF3E6F7-EC8E-4D79-9905-091E3E9C6C32_w1023_r1_sGarden State Parkway in whiteout conditions of January 4, 2018 snowstorm i

 

–and that left the sight of cars abandoned on freeways, as motorists fled freezing engines, or hazardous road conditions, or abandoned cars stranded in icy waters.

 

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Barely able to keep track of the individual news stories of the day, they summed up to a sense of impotence in the face of global warming, which seemed to register a deeper level of shock, unable to be clearly processed by a map, but all the more in need of one.  There was, to be sure, a deep sense of dislocation in the arrival of arctic air that spread across the east coast, sending an onslaught of waves against coastal communities and a dense wind-driven rain of snow of irregular intensity across a huge range of land:  frozen precipitation, and chilling waters,  unleashed and spewed out of the offshore eye of the bomb cyclone, flooding shorelines and blanketing entire states, in what became the coldest holiday on record, and flooded local news stories across the national news, as intense levels of snowfall dumped up to a foot of snow by early morning across the coast, in ways that made us understand and assess the eastern coast quite differently.

 

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The offshore presence of the bomb cyclone focussed attention along the eastern seaboard, but raised questions about what was creating it at sea.

 

But the inability to add individual stories suggested a deep disorientation in the face of climate change, bizarrely juxtaposed with the eagerness of leasing lands in the offshore federal waters that surround the nation for future oil and gas prospecting, in response to the presence of more intensive expenditures on lobbying efforts from the petroleum and gas industry than since 2012, a wave of lobbying from the very sectors–the American Petroleum Institute, natural gas, coal, and pharmaceutical companies that funded a big chunk of the unexpected inauguration of The Donald by donating over a million apiece, followed up by a board meeting the oil industry American Petroleum Institute held with Interior Secretary Ryan Zincke at Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC March 23, 2018, to Zinke’s meeting with coal executives of the National Mining Association at Trump’s DC Hotel, or an invitational the U.S. Chamber of Commerce held at Trump National Doral in Miami, managed by Eric Trump, with firms from the National Mining Association to Chevron.  The meetings that set the stage for rejecting protections on offshore “federal lands”–now termed “tax-payer owned”–seemed a fait accompli, and was followed by Zinke praising President Trump for “bold and decisive action to end the War on Coal and put us on track for American Energy Independence,”  by reviewing the moratorium that existed on leased coal mines on federal lands and rules on oil and gas prospecting on both federal and private lands in the Outer Continental Shelf, whose leasing now conjures up the image of out of control. All of a sudden what had seemed so far-off, beyond the three-mile periphery of state-owned submerged lands, seemed all the more nearby–and, not uncoincidentally, unleashed massive resistance to the proposal to else offshore submerged lands in the OCS among coastal communities.

 

2017-2022-DPP-oil-and-gas-map

 20151125_Atlantic_drilling

 

 

While the meteorological effects of the fall in air pressure cascaded across the entire east coast, we depended on individual stories–flooded downtowns and storm-driven waves; traffic accidents and snarls; frozen pipes; abandoned cars on highways–a map seemed scarcely able to comprehend their scope.   The extent of our unpreparedness for its arrival seemed to mock the obliviousness of the president to global warming in relation to weather changes.  President Trump had marveled as if with utter obliviousness that New Year’s Eve 2018 seemed “the coldest on record”–COULD BE!–in his preferred all caps, as if in a mockery of the all-caps National Weather Services bulletins of old, but a few days previous.  Trump took time out from governing to hope for a “bit of that good old Global Warming,” a mocking tweeting that seemed to reminisce about an old friend, urging the nation on December 28 to “bundle up!” without offering much other help.

Trump’s tweet suggested his deep dislocation from our own extreme weather.  If he had been spending a huge amount of his presidency at Mar a Lago, he unconsciously reminded the public to take care of themselves, as if leaving unspoken they should not expect help from his own pro-extractive industry agenda that had already mapped the offshore for future prospecting.  The blitheness of Trump’s comments reveal less clever camaraderie than willful ignorance of relations between weather and climate, or extreme temperatures and global warming.  Trump’s ill-timed tweet became only more disorienting over time as the bomb cyclone arrived; it would remind the nation, yet gain, of the consequences of his refusal to foot a larger bill for a nation that released the most greenhouse gasses, as snows filled  an east coast extending to Indianapolis; its obstinacy recalled decisions of Trump’s team to curtail measurement and collation of global warming and sea-level rise in the Department of the Interior–if not a new relation to the interior of the United States last October, but expanded the wars The Donald wages against the public record, in attempts to fabricate his own sense of grandeur in a mission to make America great again,–or at least try to think of it so, even if much of the nation lay frozen under a blanket of snow.

For the precipitous drop in air pressure that occurred before the bomb cyclone dropped as cold weather moved up the United States’ eastern seaboard reminded us of just how volatile are temperatures–and how hard it is to tell a clear story about them–in an age of increasingly high sea surface temperatures.  As the polar vortex uncorked record low temperatures across the east, the bomb cyclone spat out waves of precipitation, exploding over the eastern seaboard spewed snow by a spate of howling winds–even if the seas remained oddly tranquil in an interpolated visualization of “observed snowfall.”

 

snowfall

 

–in what was one of the most intense coastal storms to appear in mid-winter, whose hurricane-force winds were driven by the most extreme weather event created off the eastern seaboard in winter. FOX, predictably perhaps, came up with a slightly different graphic based on the same data, making the intensity of snowfall seem so many delicate wintery flurries– but also showed the seas as being fairly tranquil, less a “white-out” than a wintry scene worthy of Hallmark.

 

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The violence of the gale-driven snowfall was an effect of increased sea-surface warming of even just a few degrees, magnified by the fall in pressure systems that sent frigid winds whistling across the continent that one could no longer map into blue and red states, so overwhelmed was the nation, effectively, by warming ocean temperatures, and so helpless we would be to watch the arrival of arctic temperatures over the Atlantic, with high winds in a winter weather phenomena expected only to grow over time.

 

Air Pressure Deviation from 1981-2010 Climatological Record

 

 

Air Pressure Drop in Relation to 1979-2009 Climatological Record off Eastern Seaboard

 

The irregular air pressure drop created a cascade of precipitation, which spun across the east coast to fill the air with snow.   The new contours of snowfall from January 2 to January 5 announced the start of 2018 at a new level of intensity with huge amounts of snow moving in from the sea, as if to end distinctions between north and south, leading our supposed President to renew his 2012 winter call from New York City that “we need global warming,” as if there were an adjustable thermostat that early November over which humans were in charge.  The arrival of future winter hurricanes intersect precisely with the areas of prospective future offshore-leasing for oil and gas prospecting and fracturing that stand to create increased stresses on rigs that they are not adequately able to deal, especially after the deregulation of protections intended to prevent accidents as those caused in the Deepwater Horizon rig, where an equipment malfunction led to a multi-day oil plume the was unable to be capped with particularly disastrous environmental consequences.

 

 

 

1.  The legibility of these fast-arriving snowstorms was not quite clear, but generated a spate of maps.  The story of such a sudden shift in weather didn’t follow a clear narrative, but unpacking its occurrence begins from refusing to deny its relation to climate change:  the blizzards unleashed by the bomb cyclone that emerged off the east coast dropped less as an unexpected bomb than a culmination of deep changes in sea-surface temperature.   The description of the winter hurricane–soon named Grayson, but clear on maps before it even had a name–may have evoked fears of a strike launched not by terrorist attack, for which it was mocked by newscasters, incredulous at the objectivity of meteorologists’ identification of the sudden pressure drop, but by warm sea-surface temperatures that created an extreme weather event that seemed to punctuate time and paralyze infrastructure.

The effects of rising temperatures in the Gulf Stream quickly cascaded across the entire east coast, sending snows to blanket much of the near lying states and waves to crash against the shores.  The bomb cyclone, far from an anomaly than a symptom of global warming, invited us  to show on the shifting relations of coastal weather to global warming, but of place to expanse, examining the spread of snowstorms on weather charts, and to scramble to learn the lexicon of meteorology to process the effects of climate change.  The already cold temperatures of the winter suddenly plummeted with the disruption of weather systems across the coast that were hard to map save as a shift in weather systems, leaving streets flooded in storm waters and snowplows shoveling more white stuff than they had seen in recent months in a blizzard that started with cold weather in southern states, but grew with dropping air pressures over the Gulf Stream around an eye off the coast that sent howling winds of arctic air plunging below zero and sending snows as far west as Chicago and Knoxville as well as Birmingham, quickly plunging much of the east into subzero freezing temperatures with unearthly rapidity, captured by NOAA’s newly launched GOES-16—the most advanced weather satellite NOAA ever launched—which locked into position only this past December, making it a sort of test case observation for the changing character of winter storms over ever warming oceans, able to trigger storms able to send larger and denser snowfalls when meeting cold air, sent by hurricane-force winds across coastal regions.

 

Screen_Shot_2018_01_04_at_11.15.17_AM.1515082270.png

 

 

The irregularly warm oceans generate huge pressure changes once they meet cold air.  Hence, even if 2017 was the second warmest years on record–even if the only “warm” year without El Niño to bear responsibility or shoulder the blame for increasingly warm ocean temperatures–

 

DT1ccLyX4AM9pfm.jpg

 

–an already cold winter was extended by the gusts of wind released by a kink in the meander of the warming Gulf Stream, running against cooling air to generate a sudden “bomb cyclone” able to blanket the coastal regions with snow and pound the near-shore area with unprecedented force.  Perhaps distracted by the driving winds that streamed snow and freezing rain across the east coast, we barely mapped the turbulent Atlantic whipped by hurricane gales creating increasingly rough seas in a future of intense winter storms.

 

 

2. The shift in weather systems eerily foregrounded how Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke took it upon himself to direct the nation’s attention to as “our” submerged territories in the Outer Continental Shelf, or OCS, just days before.  President Obama had sought, if, to be sure, in a somewhat last-minute move, to affirm offshore areas off-limits to oil speculation; but Trump’s fairly recent executive orders have called for a review of geological and geophysical exploration of the Atlantic coast created something of a new grounds for speculation in the OCS, dramatically opening up seismic permit areas in the offshore submerged territories in ways that would make the federal government the lessor of five-year plots for energy exploration up and down the Atlantic coast and in all “federal waters” outside of a three-mile margin of shores.

If released plans suggest a steep alienation from maritime economies, and an over-eager idealism with which new “maritime boundaries” are carved to lease submerged territories for geological exploration suggests willed ignorance of the extreme weather of warming seas, when bomb cyclones are likely to recur with even more dangerous consequences, perhaps upsetting not only our energy infrastructure, but introducing an unprecedented level of risk that still demands to be mapped onto the leasing of offshore lands. The disquieting sense of continuity with our shores, however, suggest an area open to federal leasing and of allegedly untold underwater mineral wealth, as if such submerged lands were ready primed for claiming and extraction.

 

seismic-apps.pngCumulative Leased Areas in Federal Offshore Lands

 

For mapping of risk is slated to expand dramatically in the expansion of offshore drilling in ways that the peaceful pastels by which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management–a nice acronym that incorporates a wave into its logo that seems to have no sense of how extreme waves would challenge the proposals for gas and oil drilling in the Atlantic.  Indeed, close ties between Trump and energy industry lobbyists who have long sought  to make the Outer Continental Shelf available for exploration reveal, in disconcerting pastels, an idealized offshore of geologic plays carved out in the offshore seabed on radiotelemetry maps of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, whose placid colors hide the unruly oceans likely to be a regular feature of future winters.

 

Geologic Plays in Atlantic

Geological Plays in Gulf of MexicoDraft of 2019-24 National OCS Offshore Leasing Program/BOEM

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Ink-Jet Wonders and Other Printed Curiosities

The appeal of a “globular map” that situated the new continent of “America” in the western hemisphere was not only located in its rarity.  The map gores slated to go to auction this past mid-December provided a geometric organization of global continuity that shortly followed discovery of the western hemisphere, using Amerigo Vespucci’s description of the New World to translate knowledge of the earth’s newly discovered hemisphere to indices the viewer could readily process and digest and naming its continents after the Italian navigator.  The astronomical price set above $1.2 million by a prestigious auction house for the map on a single sheet of paper remains hard to grasp.  While identified as a “birth certificate” of the New World–albeit quite anachronistically misapplying a term only identified within the nation  in the early twentieth century as a public registration of identity in 1902, which later gained currency as a public document –the prestige of the map echoed the larger projection of navigational discoveries that Waldseemüller signed, which was popularized as a “brith certificate” after 2003, when the Library of Congress sought to justify purchasing for $10 million the sole surviving 1507 wall-map showing America, mapped beneath iconic portraits of Claudius Ptolemy and the navigator America Vespucci.  When the Library of Congress had arranged to purchase the massive twelve-sheet engraved wall-map from Prince Waldburg-Wolfegg of Baden-Württenberg through the House Appropriations Committee, the high price tag was justified as joining a premier collection of maps, and claiming the “birth certificate” as the property of the state, investing a legal value derived from Waldseemüller’s 1507 reasoning that the continents “discovered by Christopher Columbus, captain of the King of Castile, and by America Vespucci, man of great an excellent ingenuity,” no objections might be raised to name it after the navigator Vespucci, whose popular letters on the New World he believed justified their naming.

What better to confirm the act of naming than on a map?

The legibility of the Waldseemüller projection gained almost mythic status as the cosmographer described his own aims to describe the world map “both as a globe and as a projection” in a treatise on cosmography he printed in 1507, which assigned the name to the new continent.   The authority of this historical claim imparted considerable value to locating the map with the cosmographer who had noted his writings the existence of a “newly discovered region” that he could “see no reason why anyone could justly object to naming” after the navigator who he identified as its “discoverer.”  The wall-map seemed to concretize the poetics of discovery of the Renaissance, for the first time rendering “America” legible as such on a map, in ways that the smaller gores–which also foreground the new continent’s name–form something of a poorer cousin, and was already located in the James Ford Bell Library at the collections of the University of Minnesota.  The previously unknown copy of global gores, though unsigned, served to proclaim the name of the new continent to its viewers, even if it was the third copy of the gores destined for a small globe of 11 cm diameter, was destined to start a bidding war.

Adopting a mathematical formulations figuring global geography as a globe devised by Peter Apian, the image is as an emblem of the mappability of terrestrial coverage, and the triumph of cartographical skills to locate the sickle-shaped continent, if only partly and schematically shown.  The manifesto of the use of geometric techniques of map projection to orient viewers to the discovery of the New World by naming it “America,” and suggesting the geometrical tools to ensure its legibility to readers both on a graticule and as a term–literally placing it in view, as if for ready consultation, transforming the new continent–“a land beyond the stars,” for Vespucci–so as to allow the viewer to perform the itinerary Vespucci had described as “long, straight shorelines and . . . filled with countless inhabitants” as “not an island, but a continent,” in his 1504 Mundus novus, and had claimed to provide his patron, Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, with records, both in the form of a chart and a globe of spherical form, in 1500, in language that Waldseemüller emulated in promising two maps in an Introduction to Cosmography (1507) of both on a globe and a flat surface, in ways that have led both the maps to be associated with the Renaissance cosmographer’s treatise, and the new gores to be presented as an unknown and recently discovered version of an extremely rare map.

 

Scanned Gores?

5b4250-20070928-globeMap as Announced for Auction above reproduction in University of Minnesota Libraries

 

The power of this early image of globalism was sure to create an intense bidding war, as a tenuous contact to the cosmographic knowledge that Vespucci claimed to allow him to judge where he lay on the oceans in his travels to the New World, based on cosmographic knowledge not apparent on sea charts alone.   The claims for cosmographic expertise as a basis to map America was distilled by Waldseemüller, who praised the cosmographical abilities that led Vespucci to ascertain the size and location of the New World, and led auction house estimate Christie’s released to appear justified.  Yet the set of global gores which appeared to be the first mapping of the new world were faked,–and were soon showed to be derivative of a printed map located since 1954 in an American university library, and which, after it was displayed online since 2005, gained considerable renown outside of the walls of the library itself.   If the appearance of these maps of quite unclear provenance had raised eyebrows immediately for connoisseur was revealed before the auction hammer sounded:  comparisons to the high res interactive gores displayed at the James Ford Bell Collection‘s website suggested that the newly surfaced “map” derived from the digitized image, rather than being a sixteenth-cnetury imprint that it had been identified by the auction house to be.  Rather quick comparisons of online images had strongly suggested that opportunistic forgers had exploited open access to scam a growing antiquarian market by manufacturing a slightly differently sized “edition” of the gores, by using image capture to sell a download scan of the original map:  traces of a digitized version of this specific engraved image betrayed the theft of what was a treasured property that the James Ford Bell Collection of the University of Minnesota Libraries had long displayed online as a high resolution TIFF.

The manufactured appeal that of the image as an engraving situating the discovery of the New World on a globe might have set a record for rare maps had it reached auction.  And was, as it turns out, not the only such “new edition” of  the same gores that had been sold at a price greater than a million dollars, raising some fears of a history of falsifying Renaissance maps from digitized photo reproductions.  The triumphal early modern statement of the principles for mapping the New World assumed specific value as a rare map.  While the auction price was not addressed to map dealers, those practiced to read such early engravings had suspicions from the very announcement of its sale,–suspicions based and not since Christie’s had previously offered similar, if differently cut, editions of the same set of gores that reconciled late fifteenth-century nautical discoveries with a picture of terrestrial unity.  Map-dealer Alex Clausen of David Ruderman Maps determined after comparing online images that “the [allegedly] printed image was either quite heavy or missing all together” from the sheet of paper–even if it was being sold for approximately the price of a sheet of gold leaf of comparable size, and claimed its value as a unique surviving map of the school of Martin Waldseemüller which had first mapped the nautical discoveries in the New World on a map of Ptolemaic precepts of terrestrial projection.

The modern fear of the detachment of the map from the piece of paper was, in fact, a correct apprehension of the state of play, in a world where are surrounded by constant proximity to online images with which we increasingly interact.  Did the website help the forgers transform the material surface of the map to an amazingly detailed high-quality image downloadable at several sizes and resolutions, passed off as an “authentic” discovery of an unknown edition of the map?  Although the map has been described in terms of an opposition between a “fake” and “authentic” historical record, and the historical value of the map gores is considerable, the surfacing of the map suggest the coexistence of two quite specific visual cultures–the mathematical determination of terrestrial position and totality to create a disembodied view and the proliferation of mediated images online, two cultures and ways of seeing that in this case rather catastrophically if somewhat comically overlapped, reminding of how much we rely on a digital support structure for looking at maps–even early modern engraved maps from the sixteenth century that themselves processed the first Age of Discoveries.

The sixteenth-century sectional global gores bracketed an expansive terrestrial expanse by thick, black lines in a mathematical declaration of the totality of global coverage on twelve interrupted ellipsoids  segments the world into thirty degree sections; the map used a new form of projection to depict the earth’s expanded surface along geometric principles of transferring an abstract sense of space, with no cities at all.  The projection offered what may be the first prominent placement of America in the ecumene, or inhabited world, in an expansive western ocean, or Pacific, which all but invite viewers to rotate the surface of a small globe, fashioned of just 11 cm in diameter, in an emblem of the power and promise of cartographical tools–and a cosmographical purification of the fascination and wonder of the recent nautical discoveries that perpetuated the early modern fantasy of scanning a disembodied view of the terrestrial planisphere.

 

wald.jpgJames Ford Bell Collections/University of Minnesota Libraries

 

For the mathematically trained school of cosmography at St. Dié, where the cosmographer Martin Waldseemüller advanced mathematical precepts of projecting terrestrial continuity, the map offered a new architecture of global space–and an icon of modernity, offering an early modern exercise of the disembodied view, for those entranced by the geometric elegance of transferring the earth’s surface to curved lines of latitude and longitude.  For the forger, the map was rather a grabbed screen image; if he executed the copy while overlooking the traces of the digitized version of an engraving, his version was so poorly forged from a scan that the discovery of the forgery did not in fact take long.  Did the map gain a new value as a memory of a time when the world could be transposed to a single sheet of paper, as much as for naming the new continent?

The price set by the auction house was less easy to grasp –the proclamation of cartographical modernity surely distinguished the intellectual prowess preserved of early modern cartographic tools  Presented as something of an art object, the price was inflated independent from the art of cartography, or the accuracy of the map, but its historical value:   the apparent woodcut was valued for its rarity, and its declarative construction, in a way increasingly historically removed, of orienting oneself to a bounded world on a single sheet of paper.  If the original set of gores was gouged in wooden plates, the now clear origin of the global gores on auction in a digitized image raises questions not only about forgery, but about continuity–and indeed about the value of maps–in a visual culture increasingly oriented around online imagery rather than paper maps, and the relation to the mapped past.

Is the arrival of this map at auction, and the quick questions that it provoked in on online information ecosystem, a sign of our own distance from engraved and printed maps?   The antiquated image of a crisply divided world of terrestrial continuity perhaps gained innate appeal in an age of remapping for its material solidity and certainty.  Divided by intervals every thirty degrees, it helped orient viewers to the first reports of the New World Amerigo Vespucci described in 1504.  The map’s unique form of projection, designed by mathematician Peter Appian and the astronomer Johannes Schöner, was perhaps not for assembling an actual globe, but as proposing the legibility of a terrestrial surface ruled by parallels and meridians, and to allow readers to place the New World on its surface:  apparently planned by humanist Martin Waldseemüller, it presented a new proposal for remapping the world on a Ptolemaic system.  But it was priced as if it were a piece of intellectual property, performing the cartographic trick of naming that Waldseemüller had himself assigned the region, adopting a new poetics of discovery, reasoning that “as both Europe and Asia received their names from women, I see no reason why anyone should justly object to my calling this region Amerige, or the land of Amerigo, or America, after its discoverer” [my italics].  The apparent assigning of the name in the map–even if Waldseemüller made his claim in a treatise on cosmography–has given each of the maps their value.

To be sure, Waldseemüller seems to have asserted his intellectual property of the map in his Introduction to Cosmography (1507), an early primer of global mapping.  The gores foreground prominently the cartographer’s innovative inscription of “America” lying in the western hemisphere, below the Indies where Columbus landed and beside Japan, bestowing Amerigo Vespucci’s name on the New World for the first time.  But the value placed in the new proposal of terrestrial space, orienting viewers to a crescent-like blank “America” in a version of the Ptolemaic projection, as if inviting one to read the new place-name in the western ocean.  The cartographer proudly inscribed the blank region with the name of the navigator who first described its coasts in detail.

If long valued for first locating “America” on the map, the astronomical valuation of the new sheet raised eyebrows.  If the projection might have assembled a small globe that would be an object of constant curiosity and discussion–showing the Pacific ocean for the first time, based on recent navigational discoveries, in ways that might create a globe of just 11 cm in diameter to sit on a bookshelf, desk or in a library, with easily consulted indexicality, its value today seemed to exist as a curiosity and collectible of the symbolic claims its engraved surface staked–even if the gores were themselves unsigned, and the format of projection was not necessarily the first–the humanist Waldseemüller’s map may even derive from other small globes, of the same size, even if he invested the curious mathematical projection with clear pedagogical intent, and is assigned the paternity of the map projection by posterity–and indeed the paternity of the project of the global geographic map.

 

Minnesota Public Radio/Minnesota University Libraries

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Clipping Bears Ears

The tenuous status of public lands was evident in the back seat of a mandate of protection after intense lobbying of the American Petroleum Institute and other players in the energy industry to reduce the limits of National Monuments across the United States, in ways that stand to redefined American West.  The removal of all regulations that the reduction of national monuments would mean fails to understand the monument as an ecosystem of environmental integrity, and indeed the historical value of the lands as sites:  it is almost as if the difficulty of defining the valce in a society which uses GPS to map on a UTM projection provides sites of mineral deposits and potential petroleum drilling, but erases the holistic image of a vanishing landscape that has long been so central a part of our national patrimony.  As parcels of that landscape increasingly stand to be leased to extractive industries, despite the fragmentation of open lands across western states.  Indeed, the encroaching the interests of the American Petroleum Institute on what was once understood as preserved wilderness has become a way to rewrite the state’s relation to federal lands, and indeed the patriotism of the protection of public lands of longstanding historical value.

The gains of that lobby in asserting their claims and rights to access mineral deposits and veins stands to emerge as one of the largest land grabs in American history, reshaping the notion of the protection of public lands and access allowed to drilling, pipelines, and mines on federal lands, as if definitively abandoning any concept of the value in their preservation for posterity.  Indeed, only by recasting the role of government as securing lands worthy of protection as a case of undue restraint on business can the dire effects of  the plans for expanding private leases on public lands be failed to be recognized as a shifting the preservation of historical legacies to permit widespread industrial leases on federal lands in ways that abandon and relinquish a clear long-term view of their value.  When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke questioned whether a third of Interior employees were “loyal to the flag” before the National Petroleum Council, a petroleum industry group–and desired to reduce the “physical footprint” of the Interior Department by reducing the civil service employees who he sees as obstacles to opening up the permitting process for oil-drilling, logging, uranium mining, and energy development he sees as President Trump as having a legal mandate to accelerate, Zinke seems to make an end-run around the public custody or preservation of increasingly fragile lands of sacred resonance to many of the residents who most prize its integrity.

 

Bears Ears Buttes Big expanseGeorgy Frey, Getty Images/National Geographic

 

Valley of Gods, in Bears Ears National Monument 

 

Indeed, the agressively regressive attacks that the Trump administration has made on environmental regulations or responsible custodianship of public lands–leading states to file suit against the Environmental Protection Agency and EPA administrator Scott Pruitt for rolling back agency policies of designating areas of dangerously high ground-level ozone in unprecedented ways–is mirrored in the attack on protecting public lands, on which the Interior Secretary seems to have no endgame save leasing them to industry.  The agressiveness with which Zinke has taken aim at the government’s custodial role over wilderness and public lands–some of the few places where undisturbed ecologies exist–suggest a widespread attack on the notion of wilderness.  Is it possible that the Trump administration is preparing to excavate any mandate to protect historic lands?

When Zinke complains “I can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” he suggests a broad disbanding of regulations accumulated over time with local groups after consideration of public impact that he wants to cast as obstructionists and arbitrary bureaucrats.  Yet when Zinke suggested that “Fracking is proof that God’s got a good sense of humor and he loves us,” he conjures a terrifying hybridization of manifest destiny and unrestrained corporate greed.  Zinke’s initial review of a full twenty-one National Monuments on federal land stand to change the landscape of the American west.  For in removing acreage of interest to private industry from federal protection, in a particularly short-sighted move under the quixotic banner of energy independence, the Trump administration seems bent on allowing the very federal lands protected by government for posterity to be treated as lots able to be leased for private development, without appreciation of their historical, cultural, or sacred value.  The map of National Monuments under “review” suggest a euphemism analogous to downsizing, and a shift in the conception of the custody of national lands–including the Grand Canyon–that seems to prepare for the excavation of what were the most protected federal lands.

 

 

Reduced Monuments

 

The expansion of national monuments currently designated “under review”–which has led to the recent declaration shrinking Bears Ears and renaming two protected areas that constitute but a rump of the once National Monument he Obama administration named after substantive negotiation with local stake-holders, reveal the dangerously unconsidered course by which protected public lands stand to be declassified in order to meet the demands of private industries, many of whom have already mapped mineral deposits or previously leased mines in their ground.  Zinke tweeted images of how he rode to his first day as Secretary on Interior on a horse named Tonto, in a ten gallon hat, flanked by the US Park Police, as a coded gesture to fulfill the demands of farmers and outdoorsmen:  the self-designated cowboy of Trump’s cabinet was on his way to eliminate protected status of federal lands, poised to remap the west’s most delicate open areas for extractive industries and the environmentally toxic mining and drilling of fossil fuels, in the name of energy independence:  if intended to evoke Theodore Roosevelt’s commitment to the outdoors, the dark garb and black hat suggested apt funereal garb to preside over the dismemberment of the American West.  But the usurpation of an identity as a cowboy outdoorsman in which Zinke has cultivated seems an apt metaphor, if unintentional, for the disenfranchisement of native inhabitants of a land that has been hold sacred for generations, and is a priceless repository for cultural artifacts and prehistoric ruins, as well as a priceless fossil record of dinosaur bones.

 

Zinke Goes to Work.png

 

Zinke’s image as a faux cowboy outdoorsman who loves western open lands exemplifies a dangerous sort of double-dealing, running rampant over public interests.

For in presenting a public face of affection for the outdoors concealing the agenda of energy industries to shift the landscape of the American West, the re-dimensioning of public lands and National Monuments opens them to coal industries and petroleum and uranium mining.  The redrawing of Bears Ears is isolated, but foretells a terrible vision of the curtailment of federal lands by future leasing, drilling, and mining–at the same time as curtailing access to parks by substantially raising their entrance fees nationwide.  Nowhere are the fears of opening lands to drilling more feared than in the Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.   Yet under the quixotic directive of ensuring “American energy dominance” the koan of the Trump administration, and the meaningless slogan “Energy Is Good,” the charge to remove regulations on coal, drilling, and oil pipelines are cast as a means to confirm our prosperity and energy independence as a nation, in deeply misguided ways that are based only on doublespeak, but epitomized by the withdrawal of any sense of custody for the increased scarcity of undisturbed open lands.

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Is Health Care a Democratic Right?

The bulbous, bloated cartogram meant to render the prospective withdrawal of insurers from individual health-care exchanges under the Affordable Care Act in its deepest colors foregrounded the concentration of a reduced insurance market in rural areas.  The image of a nation seething over, and the ground boiling over as if with discontent, cartogram, distorted “red” and “blue” states alike, but seemed evidence of the ways that the Affordable Care Act warped the even playing field in the United States–as if that ever existed, and could be expected to exist today.  But it might be taken as an emblem of the deep anger and resentment that many areas of the United States felt toward what was labeled “Obamacare,” and the regional markets left with but one insurer–and an inevitable feared rise in their insurance premiums–in the health insurance markets that the Affordable Care Act would create.

The designers of the cartogram warped to counties’ population almost aptly if inevitably rendered the country as boiling over with anger:  it seemed to render a powerful emblem to justify if not inspire broad indignancy about the apparently uneven consequences of mandated insurance exchanges which it argued the less populated–and poorer–areas of the country would be stuck with, as a distillation of social injustice.  For the cartogram captured what its designers argued was the distorted market for health insurance which people on the coasts had designed as destined to shut out large areas of the country shaded in lighter colors–and prevalently light pink.  But the prediction of a contraction of providers that undergirds this ominous scenario, as we now know, didn’t come about at all,–even if the strong passions provoked by the fight over health care did leave the country boiling over with anger and indignancy widely felt to be objectively justified.

 

map2_20170725Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves

It can be quite forcefully argued that health care deserves to be regarded as a  democratic right–democratic with a “small ‘d,'” in the sense of an egalitarian right, even though debates about access to health insurance are increasingly cast in politically partisan terms.  Although access to insurance exchanges are increasingly treated as a question less of a right than the reflection of a political position, the proposition of guaranteeing health coverage is rejected by champions of the marketplace and its benefits, who argue that its falsity undermines a free market.  As a result, in part, health-care exchanges are increasingly mapped in terms that might well be mistaken for political partisan divisions within the fabric of the nation.  Indeed, the sharp, flat blues, reds, and deep carmine of different regions suggest the hopes and difficulties of providing a uniform insurance plan for a nation of radically different numbers of insured, facing the hope to provide more with coverage in a way that may seem to tilt against the open nature of the marketplace.

 

Us Marketplaces.png

 

But democratic rights include not only political participation but due rights to certain benefits that accord undeniable liberties.  And although liberties which were not defined as including health care in the eighteenth century, leading many strict constructionists to view health insurance as an excessive presence of the state in individual lives, the range of liberties have expanded to-liberties to education, or to health, or protect against race-based, ethnic, or sex-based discrimination–revealing the broadening scope of understanding liberties, and might be  mapped into the fabric of the nation as an individual rights, and a basis for ensuring greater egalitarianism–and social equality–as a right.

 

Obama-healthcareBlack Enterprise

 

Back in 2013, of course, the institution of health-care exchanges set up a new landscape of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act–the Affordable Care Act or simply ACA–allowing most Americans to buy insurance on  government-run exchanges (or marketplaces) to have access to health care that they were often lacking in all fifty states, creating the reign of designing data vis of Obamacare exchanges often subsidized by the government for those eligible, to make it available to all, in ways that created some thirty-six exchanges run with the federal government, as states ran the others alone–creating the odd scenario that more enrollees came from red states, where they were run largely by the federal government.

 

state-health-insurance-exchange-landscape

 

But this was not widely accepted, and the rejection of the promise of what is now widely labeled Obamacare reflect the deep divides that its opponents argue the government mandate for buying insurance policies will impose on the nation.  The online popularity of recent projections of a constriction of health insurance options for most counties of the nation that were proposed as recently as the spring of 2017 seemed to reveal the deep dishonesty in the proposals of the Affordable Care Act to level the playing field.  And although the capital of health care as a good to the nation demands to be mapped, the difficulty of parsing the ACA independently of the name of Barack Obama reflect the unfortunate polemic level of debate about seeing adequate health insurance as a right of all–even as fear of losing health insurance dramatically rose across the nation, and the fears of rising premiums posed by its mandates were widely stoked by data visualizations suggesting widespread abandonment of insurance exchanges.

 

Changes in Providers.pngUS Health Policy Gateway

 

The data visualization–which almost amounts to a tool of outright propaganda–uses flat carmine to blanket the real improvements in numbers of the uninsured.  The presentation of an apparent distortion of the market is confirmed by declining insurance policies available on Obamacare exchanges, as its accompanying text assures readers that the real people to benefit from “marketplace enrollment” was the “private health insurance industry” who gained $90 billion in premiums, greatly profiting “publicly traded insurance companies”–distorting meanings of “public” and “private” as if to imply the dystopian nature of health exchanges that benefit coastal states alone.  The map of possible changes in rates of premiums were even more striking, and was presented as evidence of poor policy planning, as well as signs of a grim “slow motion death spiral”–a strategic choice of term suggesting the poor level of health-care it provided, and organically faulty nature of its establishment, but alienating the numbers of premium growth from individuals covered.

 

obamacare-premium-map.png

465213670_wide-c790535ce6a6b088fa700075b6c1de652f014904-s1600-c85.jpg

 

The familiar series of sequential images forecasting the mass exit of insurers from exchanges over a period of four years of the adoption of Obamacare stand at odds with the fears of losing health care and the defense of health care as a right, as well as a national system of insurance.  And despite an onslaught of maps  ostensibly demonstrating the ever-narrowing options for individuals as available insurers in state-based exchanges  dry up; they convey an imaginary future in which few counties with “active markets” of four or more alternatives–apparently compromising the rights of many Americans.

 

nssustaniable decline

Bloomberg Graphics/2017 Health Insurer Exits (projected)

 

Indeed, the image of rapidly dwindling options faced by Americans that such data visualizations claim to be based on data from HealthCare.gov. seem to suggest a focus on individuals.  But the broad brush strokes leave little to the imagination and present an ominous emptying of choice that seems designed to induce panic.  The images are executed with great dramatic effect, but little sense of cartographic skill–they presented a dire picture in which four options would be only available to residents of eight to ten states by 2017, calling into question the ability of much of rural America to remain insured.  The images of rural abandonment by health care exchanges were particularly powerful,  so absolute in their predictions as if to afford little room for interpretation

Yet the projections, for all their power, stand at variance with reality.  There will be, we now know, in fact no Obamacare marketplaces that remain at risk of being without insurers in 2018, as of August 24, 2017–

 

w:o insurers in echange

–and but a smattering of counties that were at risk for being without any insurers:

 

at risk of no insurer

Kaiser Family Foundation Interactive Version/Open Street Maps:  Counties at Risk of Having No Insurer on the Marketplace in 2018 as of August 24, 2017

 

In short, the disruption of the narrative of a dwindling of insurance options has been, after the failure to repeal the ACA, dramatically disrupted.  Even while acknowledging that there was a record low of uninsured in America after the American Care Act was adopted in “Obamacare marketplaces”–a coded term if there ever was one, loaded with disparagement–data visualization were crafted to predict deteriorating coverage options deteriorated in the months ahead in many rural states of apparent objectivity; hastily created maps, at an odd angle to reality, suggested that as much as over a fifth of all federally run marketplaces–predominantly in rural areas–were with only one insurer.

The alleged “bolting” of insurers from such marketplaces were predicted to leave areas like eastern Tennessee without any insurers, like, perhaps, southern Georgia, much of Colorado, almost all of Iowa, many counties in Ohio,  and large numbers of Virginians, as Aetna, Wellmark, and Anthem were predicted to “bolt” from the exchanges, leaving those Obamacare “customers” high and dry.  The argument of the abandonment of rural America was particularly grim.  But as the projections of the “bolting” of insurers fail to acknowledge the sparsely populated nature of many rural areas, the story that they tell of magnifies the poorly managed nature of the marketplace, obscuring the benefits or rights to health care–and the reduction of the number of uninsured across America– that the ACA has managed to create.  By privileging the size of largely unihabited regions of the midwest, maps of uninsured counties presented a decidedly skewed picture of enrollment, where the square miles covered by insurers projected to participate in health exchanges  seemed to outweigh those where insurers participated, irrespective of the sizes of inhabitants.  It is perhaps no surprise that support for Trump’s candidacy did not correlate with support for the ACA–

 

ACA-support-HaystaqDNA-score-by-county

 

 

We focus on individuals to measure popularity for the support for health care reforms across the country.  Although many have recently entertained sustained interactive levels of introspection about where Americans supported  the Affordable Care Act in the months that preceded the election, pouring over the support for the ACA through county-by-county lenses that made sense pretty much only in how they might translate into votes.

While moving toward the acknowledgement of health care as a right is independent from such measurement of support for the ACA, the  low support for the act in sparsely populated areas intensifies as one moved to less populated areas, by and large, to suggest poor penetration of exchanges into much of the nation–and the distance of health care from what seemed in square miles a quite considerable geographic area.  Resistance to the ACA however reflects a rejection of the broad classification of health care as a right–or to even start to affirm it as one nation.   The division of the country, while reflecting the red state/blue state map in many ways, suggest pockets of counties with strong support for the ACA in a surprising range of the south, southwest, and other regions–across the divide between red states and blue.  Haystack’s micro targeting models estimated just under 98,943,000 ACA supporters nationwide–wondering how the electorate would parse on such a push-button issue.  And, indeed, the Senate Republicans were quick to issue a somber grey data visualization that affirmed a clearcut divide suggestive of the status of yellow- or red-alert in areas “abandoned” by Obamacare– in an openly partisan moment, undoubtedly funded by tax dollars.

Senate Republican Party flawed policies 2018U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee

 

If over a third of the nation, colored an arresting yellow, seem to flounder in facing monopolies of insurance in the image that the Republican Policy Committee in the United States Senate designed for public consumption, who seem to have sought to raise a yellow- or red-alert for subscribers of Obamacare being abandoned, the map foreground  a divide in deeply partisan ways, failing to note persistently steep inequalities among  uninsured across the states, and the difficulties to attract insurers to markets in equal numbers, particularly in regions where up to a fifth remained uninsured in 2001-3.

 

% Uninsured 2002-3.png

 

 

Despite some questions of whether Republicans would be “alienating their own voters” didn’t affect the results of 2016 congressional elections.  But the power of the continued threat of a coming “implosion” of exchanges that upset the level playing field as an inevitable occurrence was successfully manufactured in projections of insurance markets that peddled groundless prognostications as if they were objective fact:  they successfully mobilized fears of the ability to avoid or precipitate a coming crisis by making it concretely manifest for viewers, pushing many to question the benefits that the extension of the ACA would actually bring–and to see it as a promise that would not be able to guarantee continued coverage or familiar premiums, and indeed to be engineered by the coastal elites and insurance companies that so much of the country has already come to distrust.   For the data visualizations that projected the uneven playing field that exchanges would create cast a divided commonwealth as a result of the limited choices restrictive options of health insurance many Americans would face.  These visualizations raised significant alarms bout the fate of Obamacare–and the specter of its undemocratic nature raised questions of what it provided to the country, or what future it might bright–that were deployed in particularly effective ways.

Flat colors of a data visualization communicate as many falsehoods about its actual relation to people as Trump’s favored declamation of Obamacare “very, very bad insurance.”  They obscure satisfaction ratse of over 75% among those enrolled in plans, and of almost 90% in public Medicaid programs for the poor.  Rather, the picture of an implosion of insurance markets garnered ungrounded trust, and became demonized as but “a first step” toward what he presented as the apocalyptic scenario in which the “government basically rules everything”–a fear of the implosion of a free market–ignoring that the American Care Act is premised on encouraging competition among medical insurers.  Yet the image of such an implosion or collapse perpetuated in data visualizations of crude colors was something that was manufactured in projections that masqueraded as objectively designed maps.  In charting decreasing insurer participation in exchanges as actualities, data visualizations seem designed to stoke uncertainty about the future viability of health insurance markets in America.  Yet the uninhabited nature of this landscape of counties–a metric that makes sense only really as a convention of electoral politics, rather than health care or even of individuals residing in different parts of the country, is starkly removed from health care save in terms of how it might translate into a political choice.

The rhetoric of these “maps” uses projections cover the individuals who benefit from medical care.  They encourage voters to feel slighted in new medical marketplaces, and ask them to chose a future–without considering metrics of coverage or the relative quality of medical care.  They serve to map a landscape of fear, encouraging fears of growing premiums and less choice among voters in what is painted as a compromised medical marketplace.

 

1.  Construing health-care as part of a democratic system has been understood in surprisingly partisan terms.  Some would restrict liberties to participation a marketplace, by adopting and privileging the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society:  the success of such a distinction has lead to a broad and striking demonization of its mandate, rather than the policies of the health care law signed in 2010–the Affordable Care Act–which as a law has consistently received far less opposition than the change in health insurance provision that mentions President Obama’s name.  The divide in perceptions seems to have been broadened considerably by recent visualizations that project the future market for health care, or project the numbers of insurance carriers available in exchanges, the colors of the availability of carriers overwhelms the presence of individuals, and reveal the new markets that the Affordable Care Act (or ACA) created as if it were an uneven playing field for all Americans.

Indeed, as recently as June 2017 and during the Trump-Clinton campaign, media outlets and websites trumpeted “maps” or “a map” as evidence of the uneven playing fields that the ACA would bring in the country and the restrictive options that were increasingly identified with “Obamacare,” as if it were something different from the health policies that increasing numbers of Americans had enrolled in, but rather a specter of higher premiums, fewer rights, and new restrictions on providers if not health policies that could not be trusted, in ways that continued a drumbeat of visualizations predicting coming imbalances for those enrolled in Obamacare to insurance carriers or to a competitive marketplace–if not rob them of access to insurers–concretizing what Donald Trump cannily called “the broken promise” of Obamacare, as some 2.4 million “customers of Obamacare” would be with but one insurer to select in the coming year.   Health officials in the Trump administration issued a “new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018” as if to provide confirmation of the poor deal that was offered the nation; the data vis produced by the folks at the Heritage Foundation was accompanied by an announcement that, in case any one missed the point, insurance exchanges in 2017 would feature ” a major decrease in competition and choice” (italics added) that exposed the deep failure of the ACA to promote competition as promised:

\

IB-exchange-competition-2017-map-1-825.gifHeritage Foundation (January 30, 2017)

 

The absence of competition left some state, the not unsubtle point was made, that were neglected by the insurance companies that had promoted the ACA:

 

ACA Header?.png

 

The stark contrasts of the data visualization were a rallying cry for a public campaign for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, designed to activate the red states that were shown to be the largest losers of the insurance exchanges Obamacare created.  The map released shortly after the inauguration in a push to confirm the repeal of Obamacare, showed almost all counties in the southern United States with but one insurer–as almost a third of the counties in the nation–but not the population by any means.  In the rhetoric of an earlier map that described how “large of swaths of yellow cover a number of Southern and Midwestern states, all of Alaska, and elsewhere indicating counties . . .  are projected as of now to have just one insurer selling individual plans next year,” the images of a restriction of opportunities to buy health insurance was alerted, with areas with but one insurer appropriately colored red, as if to convey danger.

The slightly different visualization from June that accompanied this projected danger suggested that some counties–colored red again–would strip residents enrolled in Obamacare from any insurer for those enrolled in Obamacare–this time in “a new map showing in full color how many counties in the United States could have zero or just one insurer selling Obamacare health plans in 2018“:

 

Conties Analysis ObamacareMSNBC (June 13, 2017)

 

The fear that such maps stoked of an imbalance that cut into the insurance options of many as far as health goes suggested a lack of care and a lack of coverage that suggested a deep disinterest of almost a third of the nation, but did so with little actual grounds.  Those sparsely populated regions loose out in the new marketplace that Obamacare seemed to threaten to impose–even if the Affordable Care Act was created to extend health insurance across the nation:

 

Obamacare 2016_0

McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform (August 26, 2017)

 

Such deep divides within the United States that cut against equal access to health insurance was of course what Obamacare was introduced to prevent, but the exchanges in the less populated states were indeed slow to attract insurers.  However, the terrifying fear of a subtraction of any guarantees of well-being and a level playing field that these projections promote–they are hardly really data visualizations, if they resemble maps–seem as good a definition and a metaphor of undemocratic policies, and a metaphor for the restricted roles people are given a crucial say in the policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  Although the sentiments for including health care as a right has become to a deep divide in the nation, the disadvantages that the initial introduction of the exchanges were cautioned to bring to peoples’ lives and policies were immediately striking.

And the recent success of mapping the actual resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims.  Indeed, as recently as June, 2017, media sources presented “a map” or a set of maps as evidence of the imbalances that the previous administration had failed to foresee, or willfully imposed on the nation.

 

1.  The negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident:  healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA)-, as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of initial convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to return to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges–and that now-President Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.

As soon as the future markets for insurance were mapped and the maps were released, the revelation of apparent gaps and “dwindling in surname choices” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations seemed to show up the falsity of past promises.  The maps gained a polemic authority of their own, confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, and providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of the exchanges that emerged in different states and counties.  For they seemed to reveal an apparent abandonment of the majority of the country by the coastal elites of California Massachusetts, New York, Chicago and Washington D.C.:  indeed, it triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites.  The very story that was told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in many circles were being repeated in the Presidential campaign were used to lace increasing suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.

 

Graphic-of-Insurance-Providers-number.jpg

County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)

 

The deep brown nature of the map didn’t reveal the restrictive choices of insurers, but muddied the picture of the nation, as if throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.  The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” appeared so evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

The mapping of these projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, which data visualizations like the above seemed to expose–while dying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet the residents of all counties in the United States but one will be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect a new acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.

Just a mere two months ago, it was predicted that forty-seven counties would have absolutely no insurers by 2018, and that residents of greater than a thousand counties–and up to 1,200– would be left “bare”–hight and dry–with access to but one insurer in their exchanges.  The alleged analysis of the impending “collapse” of insurer participation nationwide showed an image of “projected insurer participation” as if they described an actuality of declining participation that had effectively fractured the nation–lending currency to pronouncements that struck fear into many voters.

 

County by County analysis.pngExchnage Carrier.pngCNBC, June 13, 2017

 

Despite the manipulative nature of these data visualizations, the recent resilience of markets after election, and specifically the failure to repeal Obamacare, has responded in ways that stand to change.

 

2.  But the picture was indelible when it was framed, forged in the sharp colors of data visualizations which arrived with regularity at the same time as maps of projections of the Presidential election dominated social media and the press.  They created a terrifying image of a divided nation, destroyed by the all but inevitable impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as revealed in “stunning maps” released in the late summer during the Presidential election, as if they were the hidden understory of national divisions that some candidates just didn’t get.  These visualizations allegedly revealed divisions of the nation in ways that must have spooked many, weren’t being addressed by the White House or health care officials, and seemed to signal an era’s end–touting “Higher Costs and Fewer Choices for Obamacare Customers in 2017.”  The below-the-radar war of data visualization for national attention suggested nothing less than the erosion of the union that was tied to the encouragement of insurance exchanges.

Such data visualization worked their magic, triggering narratives of abandonment and appearing to reveal an isolation of several of the poorer parts of the nation that set of alarms about the increased division of a nation and an uneven playing field that the Affordable Care Act–now demonized by the name “Obamacare” to distance itself from the actual legislation–that revealed the apparent absence of competition in “stunning” ways.  For by depicting the “epic collapse” of a system that in fact seemed to be give greater stability to a projection and make it manifest as reality.  The magic of the data visualization was that they purported to reveal an actuality the Obama administration seemed to deny as if it were an actuality that denied options to many Americans.   And although the spread of the one-carrier-ounties across much of the “heartland” seemed confirmation, for many Republicans, of an abandonment of the mythic heartland of Trump voters, which pulled from Iowa to New Mexico to West Virginia for Appalachia for Trump–the complexion of where insurance is available.

The alleged objectivity of the visualization left many with breath held, as “stunning maps” released during the heat of the Presidential election in late summer prophesied an impending “collapse of Obamacare ‘coverage’ in 2017” as an all but inevitable reality.

 

Obamacare 2016_0McKinsey Center for U.S. Health System Reform

 

Data visualizations of jarring color selections suggest the discontinuity in a system of health care, using the not necessarily clear metric of the existence of a range of carriers.  The notion of the medical marketplace that such competition was supposed to create however realized clear gaps with the counties in violet, whose disarming continuities suggested pockets of the nation that were unfairly left behind, and others in pink that seemed to be similarly compromised in the notion of options or choice their inhabitants were offered.  But the alarmist cartographies were extremely effective in tellign of a story of those regions that were left out–not only Kansas, but Wyoming, West Virginia, and stretches of North Carolina, South Dakota  and Michigan. The maps spoke to many.

The deeper debate about health care as a right demand to be examined in far greater detail than the polemic nature of such visualizations allowed.  And the recent resurgence of insurers in almost all counties of the nation provides a good occasion to do so.   It’s not a secret that the difficulty of construing health-care as a democratic right has also been rejected by many,–who would  restrict liberties to participation a marketplace.  In doing so, they adopt the market as a primary metaphor if not end of civil society–and view any tampering with the health care market as undue governmental meddling.  Yet the guarantees of well-being and a level playing field seem as good a definition of what is democratic as any, as it affords a needed means to allow people to have greater say in policies and decisions that most affect their lives.  And sentiments for including health care as a right has however come to be one of the deeper divides in the nation.  And the recent success of mapping the real resurgence of insurers’ involvement in many exchanges in counties nationwide reminds us of–and asks us to reconsider–the deceptive nature of their claims about the narrative of the impending collapse of Obamacare that many data visualizations of the nation relentlessly advanced, with minimal questioning or interrogation, and the how the image of the nation they suggest may explain public understandings of health care as a democratic right.

But since the negative benefits to all of health-care being a restrictive good are pretty clearly evident, healthcare should not be seen as a commodity alone, existing on an open marketplace alone.  Given the clear negative pressures of lowering access to health care to society, the gleeful prediction by President Trump that Obamacare–as Trump calls the Affordable Care Act (ACA), as if it were just not American to promise health care to all–would be implode because of e lack of plans available on exchanges in much of the country thankfully seems untrue.  Indeed, the failure to repeal the ACA by the United States Senate–a failure that seems to have sent a shudder of poor guidance and convulsions within the Trump administration, and within Donald J. Trump’s sense of his hold on the Presidency, has led insurers to <em>return</em> to the many counties where they had in previous months left, provided all but one of the counties that seemed to have no clear options in the Obamacare exchanges have gained them.

 

3.  Trump’s declarations of Obamacare’s demise were indeed quite premature.  Although the graphics of health insurance providers that were available to residents in local exchanges under the Affordable Care Act seemed truly badly served in much of the nation by early 2017–when many of the counties not on the coasts or in coastal states seemed to suffer from a gap in available options, as was true even shortly before the 2016 Presidential election in surprisingly effective ways.  The sentiment of a curtailing of options–and of choice, that elusive and so malleable term–became something of a battle-cry against the ACA, which redefined how it was portrayed and cast as an imposition that failed to meet health needs, but whose premiums were substantially more.

If one might say, with poet Elizabeth Bishop, that “more delicate than the historians’ are the mapmaker’s colors,” unlike the color-choices by which cartographers define land and sea as areas viewers can inhabit and read, the stark colors of the data visualization suggest clearcut differences and decisive results–too often just to stark to be lent the credibility that they seek.  Bishop linked the art and science of the cartographer and the art of poetry, in her first published poem, written when staring at a framed map of the North Atlantic that lay under glass as she was ill.  In tracing the mapped waters, and the land that lies beneath the water in maps, shadowed in green, she admired the transformative nature of the cartographer’s art and the expressive license of defining land and sea, and the edges of sandy shelves, as allowing the cartographer to create an aesthetic object able to engage the viewer’s fantasy, through the delicacy of color choices:  the stark, flat tones of the above data visualization–whose colors are all too strict and edges overly severe–work best to create oppositions and manufacture absolutes that offer little distance on the world, or clear purchase on it.

The colors chosen by the cartographer, if at odds with the actuality of the ordering of the land, cannot compare to how the translation of the edges of insured and uninsured are erased in the clear contrasts that compress the actual contours of health care.  If Bishop contrasted the reality claims of the historian to the artifice of the map-maker, whose creations appear arbitrary, but reveal actual complexities, as allowing possibilities for the contemplation of the world.  But rather than presenting an authoritative version of the world, the human measure of a carefully made map, and the invention it offered as an angle at which to examine the world absent from many visualizations, which privilege a single actuality as sufficiently authoritative to orient viewers to the world along a single narrative–and not preserving a human scale to do so.  The deceptive nature with which data visualizations foretold collapsing insurance choices in the Affordable Care Act presented a false reality. about health insurance exchanges, in short, by creating alarming contrasts between sharp colors in maps that offered no opening for interpretation. In contrast, maps of the actual numbers of those without health insurance reveals a landscape of much more complex edges and shadows, as well as deep divides, demanding to be moused over in detail for their interactive experience, if only to come to terms with the changed life experiences of those in many states, as from 2013-16, as the constantly shrinking number of uninsured grew nation wide in ways that attest to the increasing health of the nation–if with considerable numbers of uninsured remaining in may exchanges:

 

shrinkin uninsured.png

 

percentage uninsured.png

New York Times

 

In contrast, the almost uninhabited landscapes bereft of insurers that data visualizations depict to suggest a narrowing marketplaces and dwindling options of Americans offers an image less about “health”–our about our health as a nation–than the problems of creating continuity among the insurance exchanges that underwrite the insurance marketplace.  The lack of perspective that they offer on the residents of each county and of our country–and the forced viewing of “health” in terms of insurance companies which participate in exchanges, suggest what more contemporary poet, Claudia Rankine, called the particularly contentious meaning of “health” today in the United States:  at a time when “Affordable Care Act” is seen as something different from “Obamacare” by most Americans, who want the affordability of health care but suspect the inequality of “Obamacare”–whose repeal Trump declared his first order of business as President.  “We heard health care and we thought public option/we thought reaching across the street across the lines,/ across the aisle was the manifestation of not a red state/ not a blue state but these united states we thought,” Rankine wrote with assurance of a new landscape of health insurance, “we could be sure of ourselves in this one way sure/of our human element our basic decency.”

But the increased decency of providing more Americans with adequate health care, “a kind of human kind of union we were ready to check-up,” as Rankine wrote, in the belief that “in this one way we were ready/to care for each other we were ready to see/our range of possibilities as a precious commodity,” was distorted in a map that focussed on the marketplaces of insurance options that Obamacare–the Affordable Care Act–sought to create.  If in this nation “despite being founded on genocide and sustained by slavery/in God’s country we thought we were ready/to see sanity inside the humanity,” the humanity of health care seems sadly obscured in the exclusive focus of data visualizations that focus on providers absent from the marketplace.

 

4.  It is rather terrifying that the alleged objectivity and authority of such data visualizations were arrogated to make a point that disguised their nature as projections and roles as arguments.  While doing so is tantamount to disinformation, claiming predictive value as declarative statements which has since proved to be without any merit.  For not only did they distort the question of coverage by ignoring that the areas where three or more carriers would be options were most populated–where the best job had been done informing patients of their options to enroll in policies, and also where far better medical coverage existed for Americans in previous years–but the alarms that they sounded were ungrounded, although the image of two coasts and a well-off midwest that suddenly left large parts of the nation in the lurch effectively tapped into deep suspicions and uncertainty.

Rankine persuasively hypothesized–and elsewhere actively protested–the deeply ingrained racism that motivated a nation ready to distinguish between “Obamacare” and the “Affordable Care Act”–valuing the affordability of health insurance, but suspicious of the insurance labeled by the name of Trump’s predecessor.  The motivations for suspicions about “Obamacare” as a tampering with the free market of health providers is unclear, but it undermines the interest in our understanding of the preciousness of health care as a right.  Yet the humanity of health care seems sadly forgotten by the shift from a topography of individuals insured to a topography of the marketplace.  Although Trump seemed to think he had fired Obamacare from the country by declaring it “dead,” and just destined to implode, the markets revealed themselves to have been set up with considerable resilience, despite deeply troubling glitches in its roll out; if more than eighty counties earlier risked offering no options to enrollees, insurers returned overwhelmingly, where they were able, especially when already strongly present in the marketplaces, despite the threat from President Trump to pull federal subsidies.

The presence of mapping future markets for insurance were released with claims to show of apparent gaps, “dwindling insurance choices,” and egregious absences in covering the nation’s populations.  They seemed to show up the past promises of the President to preserve choices for Americans to adopt a health plan that suit them best, and portray them as undue impositions on the marketplace.  The projections acquired a polemic authority, as if confirming lingering suspicions about the poor fit of “Obamacare” to the nation, by providing fodder for raising alarms about the inequitable nature of exchanges in different counties and even in different states.  They seemed to confirm a feared narrative of the abandonment of the much of the country:  indeed, many popular data visualizations triggered a sense of the abandonment of the nation by coastal elites in New York, California, and Washington DC, in particular in Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, Missouri and the Deep South, as well as parts of Michigan.  They confirmed the very story told about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats repeated in the Presidential campaign as if to lace suspicion about the emergence of fair marketplaces in future years.

 

Graphic-of-Insurance-Providers-number

County-Level Data on Insurance Providers under ACA/AP  (October, 2016)

The particularly grim picture that they offered came in for little criticism or rebuttal.  But the data visualizations describe landscapes that are curiously depopulated, even as they present a sobering picture to suggest the withdrawal of insurers from medical exchanges.   The map implies an absence of interest in much of America by the very insurers who claimed to have sponsored the new marketplaces–but had only concentrated on the most profitable regions.  Its implications one of the abandonment of many of the rural areas of the country–the less densely populated–although the greatest success of such exchanges in densely populated urban areas that were liberal-leaning is no secret, they imply an absence of interest in less populated areas of the nation.  The implicit message that little attention was paid to the rural areas was underlined through the strategic colors of the data visualization, which seems to suggest a relief map of areas that would suffer higher premiums:   audiences in much of the country were convinced that they just had it worse in the projections all too often portrayed as eventualities that the nation would stand to suffer.  The tan colors that suggest diminished choices of medical insurance muddied the picture of the nation, throwing into relief a plurality of counties that existed on a higher plateaux of health care, and left behind the rest.

The visualization suggests that a sombre picture of health-care had emerged before the Senate failed to dismantle Obamacare, light tans suggesting the greatest gaps in low-lying lands of few insurance options, and markets where sufficient variability would not bring lower costs.  In those regions, the widespread “lack of choice” that appeared evident in dismaying gaps across the nation, where the departure of insurers from a market seemed that had been seen to rise in 2015 and 2016 had started to fall precipitously, raising the fears of rising premiums.  Several entire states–deep red states, as it happens, like Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Wyoming–had only one participating insurer across the entire state, suggesting gaps in the health plan that claimed to be engineered to offer choice.

Such premature projections seemed to make manifest the deepest fears of inequality and an unloved playing field, and invested themselves with an objective authority of exposing an uneven system that was indeed rigged–denying the projected nature of its claim that insurers’ “departure” had already occurred.  Yet residents of all counties in the United States but one will in fact be able to purchase an Obamacare plan in the coming year in actuality–the fifth year and enrollment cycle of Obamacare insurance markets, has brought successful expansion, with increasing coverage is provided by insurers across the United States may be even effect acceptance of health care as a right.  For despite widely stoked fears of drying out health insurance markets projected in deceptive data visualizations with such particularly alarming effects.

 

2.  To better grapple with the readiness of insurers to fill the health-care marketplace, the stunning maps of the presence of insurers who have made health-care policies available demands to be examined through a red state-blue state optic.  For eve if the aversion of Republican-leaning regions in the United States to providing alternatives to health care insurers creates a deep divide concentrated in much of the south, prairie, and southwest, where only 1-2 insurers exist, and despite uneven nature of conditions conducive to access to health services that guarantee well-being–and presumably happiness–the markets have grown.

 

HEalth Care Insureres:Red v Blue Govs.png

 

 

If the divide looks harsh anyway for many rural areas, the red/blue divides cannot reflect the actual availability of health providers to Americans.  Since the notion of the division of the distribution of insurance markets by counties seemed suspect anyway, given the sparser population of many of these states, a more accurate picture of national coverage is offered by a simple proportional warping of the odd division of the electorate by the “county”–an outdated geographical unit if there ever was one.  The mapped that warped counties by their relative populations reveals  an even sharper picture of the actually improving state of availability of insurers–the fewer residents of many of the just-one-insurer regions of the south and indeed midwest shrink, to confirm the growing success of the selection of insurance providers by the ACA, despite some obviously problematic and important to address gaps in coverage.

 

Warped Map on Insurers Red v Blue Goves.png

 

It is striking that these very gaps mirror with a terrifyingly clear correlation both dial-up speeds and broadband technology, as well as intractable bottom-line problems like gaps in the availability of health-care services in rural areas.

 

FQHCs.png

 

federally-qualified-health-centers

Rural Health Information Hub, December 2016

 

 

5.  Abandoning the red/blue divisions, which are taken by the elected governor, we see an even healthier division of the nation, at least in terms of the regions that provide their residents with something like a reasonable variety of possible health care insurers, with large areas of the most populated areas having three potential insurers, rather than insurance markets imploding at all, despite the clear gaps that it reveals in what seem more underpopulated areas–and, quite strikingly, the absence of broadband that would make it easier to enroll for insurance online.

 

5995cec01400001f002c3494Harold Pollack and Todd Stubble

 

Broadband 2014.pngNational Broadband Map, June 2014 (not updated since)

 

These gaps reveal a division of much of America into two regions–no doubt conducive between two expectations of health care or medical provision.  Most southern states indeed had far fewer insurers–left “bare” with but one provider, despite the low populations of such rural regions being just less conducive to insurance markets, and revealing an uneven playing field long preceding the passage of the Affordable Care Act–

 

SOUTHERN states health care insurers 2017-18Harold Pollack/HealthInsurance.org

 

One Provider South Rural.pngHarold Pollack and Todd Schuble

 

The area is not only medically underserved, but suggests a “Southern Problem” having far less to do with Obamacare than with the disproportionate topography of medicine and indeed of those without health-care, but creating many counties including large stretches of chronic undeserved populations.

 

RAC 2014

 

 

Such maps and data visualizations only suggest a need to appreciate and fathom the deeply compromised liberties in areas with few health insurance providers, where insurers haven’t reached clear markets, that not only overlap with many of the more chronically uninsured areas and populations, but with areas of the a terrifying number of uninsured–folks who have decided or been forced to do without health insurance, and where going without health insurance becomes an accepted acceptable alternative, unlike in many regions of the country,

 

 

us-health-insurance-coverage-map

 

which often echoed the very regions of greatest vulnerability in the nation–counties that to be sure often reached out to Trump as a savior for their deep discontent.

 

Rural Assistance Center Underserved.png

 

RAC 2014.png

 

 

2.  The increasing variety of insurance options for much of the nation raises questions about the persistence of a deep inequality–undemocratic for many–in those pockets coinciding with denser votes for Trump, in a normalized choropleth, and more hospitable to an argument of revising current options of health care–and viewing the Affordable Care Act as an imposition of the federal government.

 

Trump votes normalized choropleth

 

There are interesting overlaps on those areas where Trump out-performed previous Republican candidates, notably in Florida’s panhandle and less densely populous counties in the deep south; southern Texas; and Appalachia.

 

trump-increases-republican-votes

 

 

The odd reluctance of these areas to attract anything like a range of possible insurers in lower income areas of low-density where Republicans have recently performed well.

 

counties-1

New York Times

 

trumpland-2.png

They reflect the difficult problem of distinct notions of liberty and rights in the country, corresponding to areas where the civilian population was long underinsured, often by upwards of 15%, and where shortages of health-providers–even if not as readily available in county-level data–are strikingly revealed in a state-by-state survey:  states like Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas remained significantly below the national average for primary care physicians in 2012, suggesting regions where there were less developed expectations for attaining health care coverage.

 

maptitude-healthcare-providers-by-state-map.jpg

 

 

Increased numbers of uninsured exist in many of the same states are, to recap, unsurprisingly located in some of the same regions–which are less likely to vote for representatives who advocate the belief in health care as a right, and perhaps seeing it as able to be outweighed in importance by an argument of states’ “rights,” even if this discourse is designed to deny health insurance.

 

us-health-insurance-coverage-map.jpg

 

It seems a cruel irony in an era of globalization that the majority of those doctors or members of the healthcare force serving areas of the United States that were most in need, and who see some 14 millions patients every year, were from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen–citizens of countries included in Trump’s Muslim Ban.  (In other words, these immigrant doctors are filling the increasingly pronounced gap that exists among medical providers in the United States–and getting the job done.)  If medically underserved areas occur in almost every state in the country, the preponderance of medically underserved populations concentrated in less populated areas–as the southwest, southern states, and parts of the Midwest seems to have attracted foreign doctors–and had already led bills to be sponsored to allow Medicare to reimburse pharmacists directly in those communities, to acknowledge the absence of medical services needed by Medicare beneficiaries, to allow clinical pharmacists to work in medical care settings as a health provider.

 

Doctors from coutnries in Muslim Ban.pngSee interactive version of this map here, at the Immigrant Doctors Project

 

The map has some striking overlaps with those regions of rural America that are losing population, although it should be kept tin mind that the above map, which used data from Doximity to suggest the commenting zones for the number of doctors in the United States may distort by expanding the zones of providing services beyond that which physicians actually serve most actively:

:

map-loss.pngRural Communities Losing Populations, United States of America

 

The elevation of the pharmacist to a medical provider may raise ethical questions.  But the existence of hight concentrations of medical physicians from the very countries that were targeted by the so-called “Muslim Ban” that Trump championed had the effect of allowing a crucial degree of medical assistance to reach Americans–although the apparent intent of Trump’s legislation would have been to restrict their abilities to return home freely to visit their families, and compromise the proportion of doctors on call in the cities where they are most concentrated–in Toledo, Cleveland, and Dayton, Ohio as well as Detroit MI.

 

Medical Assistance.pngImmigrant Doctors Project

 

Such pronounced concentrations of physicians which were mapped online in readily seaarchable formats by the Immigrant Doctors Project provide powerful tools to view how the markets for physicians’ skills meets the needs of a marketplace, to be sure, if one recalls the huge numbers of medically underserved counties.  But this is not a marketplace that would be easily filled by our current medical system, or the health-care industries that service more rural or poorer areas.

 

RAC 2014.png

 

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Mapping Armageddon Again?

The rush to make a graphic point by mistakenly overlaying concentric circles atop a Web Mercator projection helps to render increasing fears of the range of North Korea’s powerful ballistic missiles.  As much as suggest the global import of the confrontation about North Korean missiles through their violent potential to target overseas lands, the effect is to abstract the peculiar stand-ff of a divided country that is a remnant disfigured by the Cold War as if it can be isolated from the division of the peninsula, and viewed as a focus of global attention.  But is the isolation of North Korea that they effectively underscore in such cartographically dramatic terms also not a cause for concern?  How can the intentions of the opaque government of Pyongyang even be understood save in a close focus on the local dynamics of the Korean peninsula?  If North Korea is increasingly effectively a proxy of China–cast as an enabler of the North Korean state, together with Russia–the country is shown, isolated, as if the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea, DPRK, were the last remaining  theater for conducting the cold war in a post-Cold War world.  A familiar geography of generals suddenly migrated to the media as the confrontation with North Korea was begun to be processed in maps.

The current migration of this mapping of a global vision of generals to the media presents a problem of the survival of a mental imaginary, able to compromise the pragmatics of a real problem of international relations in dangerous ways.  For by magnifying the isolation and marginality of the DPRK in relation to the globe, the maps urge us to focus on the risks that the development of intercontinental missiles pose to world peace.  To be sure, they also risk reflecting the very barbed rhetoric of triumphalism and destruction of Pyongyang–a regime that has expressed its eagerness to deliver prophesies of “a merciless sledgehammer blow to U.S. imperialists.”   The threats of Kim Jong-un are especially embodied by the creation and possession of his country, for the first time, of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, and seems to create a narrative less motivated by actual actors, but a drama of atomic, nuclear, or ICBM strikes that is driven by disembodied geopolitical exigencies in a political theater that we don’t know where it will end, but ramps up an all too familiar cartography of fear.

These maps resurrect and resonate with the invocation of previous threats of war during the Cold War–when the fear of atomic attack was widely diffused by the U.S. Government as a basis to justify an arms race.  Indeed, by rehabilitating a Cold War imaginary of impending conflict able to escalate into nuclear war, maps seem to activate a similar mental imaginary of polarity–albeit disproportionate one, between North Korea and the United States–that reflect one of the few areas in the world where that rhetoric is still alive of identifying the role of the state in promoting nuclear war–leading Kim to praise the “thermonuclear weapon with super explosive power” as made entirely “”by our own efforts and technology and designed to exceed the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima.  In this context,  the fear of a “global threat” can be rehabilitated as destabilizing global balances of power.

The first scenario of an attack on the United States–cast in fearful and unresolved terms–was diffused in terrifying detail shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, as if in a surge of guilt, by the emigre Hungarian graphic artist Aleksander Leydenfrost, in a bifold spread that appeared in the extremely popular Life magazine, perhaps asking readers to feel a sense of guilt at the destruction caused by dropping two powerful atomic bombs in the Pacific theater of war, that illustrated a memorandum that the commander of the Air Force in the Pacific Theater, Harold “Hap” Arnold, in a “Report to the Army” he wrote in the late summer of 1945.  Arnold cautioned against the next war as an episode that would last but thirty-six hours, and for which the United States military must begin to prepare itself, if not to confront the unprecedented scale of destruction that the United States landscape–which war had of course not touched, thankfully–must now take time to prepare itself to face.  And the sustained campaign of firebombing Japanese cities after the massive destruction of the second atomic bomb, Fat Man, that was roapped on the port city of Nagasaki unleashed a level of violence that had followed the instant incineration in that city alone of 70,000 had created a landscape of destruction that Leydenfrost’s somber image led Americans to imagine as inflicted on the major cities of the United States, not by the delivery of airborne bombs but the arrival of intercontinental ballistic missiles–what we now call ICBM’s–launched without pilots, akin to German V-2 rockets, but able to reach across the Atlantic, in ways that would redefine what we know as a “theater of war” in globalized terms for the first time.  The nightmare of unmanned missiles, viewed from the empyrean heights above the Pacific, seemed to seek o terrify viewers to suggest how quickly and silently an attack could arrive.

 

 

Atom Bombs Descend on US LIFE 1945

 

The resurrection of what might be called a map designed by generals such as Harold “Hap” Arnold filled a new need to map the power of destruction that the atom bomb unleashed, and represented both a sort of spin as well as a notion of the stewardship of public debate.  Arnold wrote in a context where seemingly responsible “scientific men” were entrusted by the US government to explain to the public the scope of the horrific new power that the atomic bomb unleashed, and to rationalize the devastation of the total destruction of a city destroyed to devastating effects unprecedented in their violence as a decision of the nation, men like James Conant or Vannevar Bush, trusted to create consensus about the use of atomic bombs and the pragmatic basis for atomic policy in a postwar world, at the same time as the popular press quickly predicted the conduct of future wars which minimized all human agency, and perhaps responsibility, by pilotless “robot planes” able to span transoceanic distances and increase the vulnerability of all American cities and industry in the very manner of Japan from a “hail of atomic charges” in 1945.

Leydenfrost’s image, designed for a public announcement of Arnold’s letter, captured this anxiety.   It reveals, in a futuristic manner akin to H.G. Wells or recent science fiction, how close to the surface it was as an image of future destruction, able to be harnessed for clear ends as a narrative of imminent fear, even if one that lacked any clear narrative finality as a story which we could ever see as having clear winners.  The  “revolution in warfare” Conant detected after the destruction of Hiroshima and obliteration of many of the buildings of Nagasaki brought strategies of management of threats in a new global imaginary.  Conant quickly acknowledged that there was no real possibility of defense against such a “surprise attack by atomic bombs,” as he dryly put it.  Yet the government tried to reorient attention to the immediate problem of survival of the fearful eventuality of an atomic attack.  “We are living in a very different world since the explosion of the A-bomb,” Conant began, addressing the problem of what could be done in the event “much of our present civilization” was threatened with extinction.   Conant pondered with incredible detachment pondered how “much of our present civilization” was threatened after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nd to contemplate ways to save the achievements of the United States against such imminent destruction by buried repositories of microfilm,–as if such a parallel responsibility were adequate to the development of the atom bomb.  In contrast, Arnold’s “Report to the Army” emphasized the need of responding to a remote atomic strike in ways that created an image of vulnerability to missile strikes that quickly burned into our collective unconscious.  Its inheritance might well be reexamined in the light of the fears of global threat of strike from North Korea that has emerged in the very first months of the Presidential administration of Donald J. Trump.

The power of the ICBM warheads that North Korea has developed have, rather eerily, just achieved the level of power of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, enabling exactly the sort of scenario Aleksander Leydenfrost, no doubt with editorial help, was able to so concretely map from a position over the Pacific, which oddly renders North America as an island-like target, as if it could echoe the many flights of United States bombers over Japan.  These unmanned rockets, shot from an unspecified country in Africa where the rocket launchers of a nemesis were placed, described the phantasm of the or mental image of the next stage in warfare, rather than an actual map.  But the concreteness of the map allowed readers to envision the proximity of a potential strike in particularly powerful ways.  And they have been triggered again in the azimuthal equidistant projections that project North Korea at their center, and map the ability of powerful missiles to strike the more populated cities of the United States.

Bull's Eye Range

1. Although graphics that render the potentiality of newly powerful missiles developed by Pyongyang  work to grab viewers’ attention, they draw attention to the danger of North Korea as if from a general’s point of view.  The rush to map the striking range of North Korean missiles, as in the header to this post, often were created by overlays so quickly to perpetuate a sense of a flat earth–particularly embarrassing in an age of web-based maps and spatial tracking.  The egregious mis-mapping of a nuclear threat occasioned a volley of objections to the distortions of maps that foreground their danger, and the innocent position of many who are endangered by their missiles, while mismapping their true range.  In order to come to terms with the global  import of Korea’s generation of ballistic missiles’ of ever greater striking range, web Mercator may irresponsibly effectively shrink the distances missiles travel, with geopolitical consequences, but the mapping of the range of missiles privileges a narrative of overweening nuclear ambitions and aggressive acts that runs the risk of magnifying the military threat posed by Pyongyang, and giving an opportunity for Kim Jong-un to magnify his own sense of grandiosity on a global stage, even in ways that seek to justify the need for a pre-emptive military strike against a North Korean threat.  The focus on the hypothetical expansion of missile range and the eagerness to trumpet the new status of North Korean military as able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear strike–long desired by Pyongyang as a sort of metric of global respectability and renown–is a danger but one that repeated exaggerated mipmapping can only magnify.

For in suggesting the blameless nature of other nations before this threat, they direct focus on the aberrant nature of North Korea and its leaders as needing to be contained, and many indeed justify the importance of a “preventive” pre-emptive nuclear strike.  The maps open a possibility of alternative narratives, some particularly deadly and undesirable in the extreme, of an immediate launch of warheads not only at American military stationed in South Korea, Japan (especially in Okinawa) or Guam but at the United States as as never before.  Indeed, the public statements and postures that Kim Jong-un is “begging for war” seems to map the need for a nuclear confrontation, filled with the frustrated saber-rattling that while “war is never something the United States wants” the “outrageous” testing of a hydrogen bomb only tests its “limited” patience, as North Korea vows its ability to perform a “surprise launch of an ICBM in any place and region at any time,” seeking to prove that “the whole US mainland is within the firing range of DPRK missiles,” as the national news agency KCNA has affirmed.

The recent explosion of a bomb with the explosive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima by North Korea on the eve its independence celebration provides an illustration of Kim Jong-un’s leadership, even if it is doubted that what seems a thermonuclear device would be able to be attached to a ballistic missile with any reliability.  But the expansion of maps of intercontinental range in the global press seems to magnify the threat of immanent attack or aggression from North Korea, as if in a presence to justify what would be an utterly irresponsible decision to launch a military exercise of any limited sort.  All too widely reproduced images of the growing range of North Korean missile strikes create an all too real cartography of fear that seem to escalate the danger of a threat and the need for an aggressive military response.

As the actions of Pyongyang have been repeatedly cast as a “global threat” by the Trump administration, from Steven Miller to  Rex Tillerson, provoking not so veiled threats of the need to respond with a “precision strike” missiles into nearby waters off the east coast of the peninsula or to strike at the missile test sites, maps of the n this game shifting estimates of the outermost reaches of NK missile strikes by the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea have provided something of a basis to reveal exactly what the states of that provocation would be and proof of the global threat that North Korea’s missile pose over the unsuspecting and innocent inhabitants of multiple continents.  Although the outermost reach of the radius of missile firing is openly acknowledged in the BBC graphic below to be not operational, the claims to have created an ICBM able of intercontinental strikes would place North Korean arms far closer to the United States citizens–as well as to United sates troops stationed in South Korea or Guam–in ways that have been a long aspiration of North Korean governments.

 

 

 

The new justifications of nuclear attack in the aftermath of the apparent explosion of a hydrogen bomb by Pyongyang–and the unrestrained bullying of the North Koreans that “they only understand one thing!”–have pushed the problem of military confrontation to the front pages, with Trump warning of the possibility of a “massive military response” and suggesting if not indeed mapping a targeted nuclear strike of North Korea’s nuclear and missiles sites, as if their destruction could occur without any harm to the world.  The threat that Kim Jong-un poses is being cast as a potentially aggressive act–needing to be met with immediate and massive force–even without mapping what his intentions or strategy–as the explosion of a fusion bomb of comparable size to that dropped on Hiroshima is increasingly mapped as a potentially aggressive strike on American cities.  The appearance of these charts in the global media no doubt give huge satisfaction to Kim Jong-un, whose dream of seeing his nation as a global power has been realized, as his country suddenly occupies the position of a major threat that the Soviet Union, no less, had occupied in the Cold War.

Indeed, as President Trump responds to questions of his military intentions with North Korea with a shrug intended to be menacing–“We’ll see!”–in a particularly troubling lack of restraint, he seems to be inviting audiences to map the danger signs emanating from North Korea, rather than to establish the security of his own political restraint, by perpetuating myths of the aggressive nature of North Korea.  As headlines such as “North Korea Raises the Stakes” have repeated since early July, if not from the first announcement of improving missile technology to complete the construction of an actual ICBM–intercontinental missile–of the sort it has long sought, as if to escape its isolated status, even as South Korea cautioned a proclivity for overstatement of achievement of re-entry technologies, the tenor of recent claims that North Korea raises the stakes may have shifted the metaphor of this test of wills from over thought moves in a game of chess to a contest of truth or dare or to a global game of Russian roulette.

 

2.  Although the maps raise red alarms as they show long-range missiles able to strike the United States, the rush to use a tool plagued with distortions on a global scale is bound to create distortions or suggest the persistence to flat-earth thinking, rather than warp the striking range to acknowledge the spatial distortions of the earth’s surface within theMercator projection.  But the readiness to map the ranges of newly tested missiles–and even missiles in development–suggest a rush to affirm a “direct threat to the United States”–as former CIA analyst Bruce Klingner puts it–that threaten to extend the missile range of missiles in development to beyond 13,000 km, which would place the entire United States within its striking range and endanger all who live in the expanded radius.  In facing such often unsourced if impressive figures deriving from Japanese news outlets or South Korea, the interests of the maps that derive from such figures demand critical review; ties alleged between military contractors and agencies that create such maps not only terrify, but trigger a powerful memory theater of rapid strikes of an increasingly broad array of long-range missiles, reminiscent of a cartography of fear tracking missiles’ arrival in United States territory from the  Cold War.

As North Korea continues to profess  commitment to a nuclear deterrent in the face of American bases in South Korea and Guam, charging “persistent moves to launch a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula,” and indeed the precareity of North Korea to American strikes, many visualizations of the growth based on fired missiles public South Korean statements provide a basis to foreground global tensions with an alleged objectivity that invest missiles’ striking range with an unprecedented of accuracy.  They may lack such accuracy–despite their imminent danger–but the cartography of fear that they create surely seems to escalate their threat and the rapidity of their possible arrival–even if they may well exaggerate the likelihood of their striking range, without noting how operational even the most recent Hwasong-12 medium long-range missile is.

 

 

4911e8e09afe2d26cf64865bae00f322-2.png

April 26, 2017

 

 

3.  But in mapping the extent of such “striking range” to cover most–or indeed almost all–of the United States, such graphics manufacture an all too real danger by cartographic artifice alone, given the range of missile strikes a reality that they may well not be able to achieve in terms of either atmospheric re-entry or precision targeting, although this is an objection which we surely don’t want to have to test to find out.

The implied danger of provoking such a strike–or allowing such a strike not to be defended against–has in fact undoubtedly interested the Heritage Foundation, a conservative educational institution once prominent in setting the agenda for the nation in the Reagan administration, and now eager to bill itself again as an institution able to “transform America” by being at the forefront of conservative thinking, from the curtailing of “excessive” environmental regulations, to the use of tax reform to “grow” the economy, to the end of universal health insurance, to the distribution of military gear to local police.  The interest of increasing the military budget in the Trump years is promoted through the mapping of an impending and immanent nuclear threat from North Korea–

 

HeritageNorthKorea.pngFebruary 11 and 16, 2016; December 2, 2016

 

–that is abstracted from the military presence of the United States in the Korean peninsula, or indeed the political dynamics of the peninsula itself and the region, in particularly dangerous and short-sighted ways.  The notions of a nuclear terror that such images accentuate–ignoring the question of whenter such missiles are perpetuate all too familiar  narratives of the victimhood of those whose lives are endangered by the growing reach of bombs are particularly canny in their use of the objective rhetoric of cartography to make an unsubtle point, and suggest a sense of inevitability in the expanding ranges that North Korean missiles are able to target cities.  The sense of such strikes–and the narratives of inevitability and a needed response that they trigger–have a long history, even if they are meant to describe actualities.  For they have worked to help rationalize such a pre-emptive nuclear strike, as FOX experts speculated if “it may be time for a preemptive strike” if America should “risk Los Angeles,” imagining the waves of regret if a missile approaching the United States should a missile interceptors located at US bases not work in the thirty minutes before it arrives, in a landscape we have seen evoked before.

It did not, in fact, take long at all from the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the General leading the American Air Force to imagine the new landscape of mutually assured destruction that defined the landscape of fear of the Cold War.   Even though intercontinental ballistic missiles did not yet exist, save as imagined threats, or on the drawing board, the vision of strike from atom bombs arriving from overseas was presented an immediate fear to Americans, and enlisted as a compelling basis for justifying the expansion of the post-war military budget–and even equipping the nation with underground silos for storing and firing missiles able to respond to impending missile attacks.  Within months after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the ICBM’s that haunt the current global landscape–Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles–did not actually exist, save as imagined threats, the powerful images of destruction in what was assured to be a coming “Thirty-Six Hour War” begun by atomic bombs descending on the United States engraved a fearsome image of the danger of the first unprovoked first strike of the atomic age.

The mapping of an atomic threat to the United States invited Americans to envision the possibility of attack.  A similar spatial imaginary seems, indeed, resurgent in the nuclear standoff with North Korea, cannot help but recall the imminent arrival of those arcs of already fired atomic warheads or bombs, which smoothly move toward American cities through the night sky to target an unsuspecting population lying in bed at night, even if the projections of missile ranges of the missiles being tested by the North Korean army and their leader, Kim Jong-un, do not arc so elegantly over a landscape.  The same landscape haunts both images.  If the escalation of tensions between North Korea–N.K.–and the U.S. is mapped to process the threat of the increasing power of rockets carrying nuclear warheads, the maps advance threats of a nuclear strike on the United States in the header to this post that mirror those designed to instill panic and escalate defenses shortly after World War II, and are an odd throwback to the Cold War imaginary.  But it seems to have reignited a Cold War imagery of threatened attacks on cities of North America, all too reminiscent of Cold War maps of missile range strikes.

 

 

While it is terrifying to not know the intentions of Pyongyang, or the ever-smiling Kim Jong-un, the image of a Cold War spatial imaginary seems to mediate Donald Trump’s geopolitics, and the increased fear that Trump may not disavow a nuclear first strike, not so long ago condemned by Republicans as revealing liberal naiveté on issues of national defense–even if agreement against first-use of nuclear arms has been broad world-wide and recently won broad endorsement as a needed means of controlling nuclear weapons.  It is important to note that the map of impending missile strikes far more conditioned the United States than the North Korean government’s response.  But the spatial imaginary of missile threats has helped enable a rhetoric of confrontation and saber-rattling that Donald Trump has enjoyed effectively conjuring the threat of an immanent nuclear conflict more than Pyongyang, although the sense that an over-sensitive North Korea was only saber rattling may have been overestimated.  The odd symbolic form used for mapping of the range of NK missiles as a target centered on Pyongyang in public media sources, however, keyed o the Nodong, Taepodong-1, Musudan, and Taepodong-2 missiles, suggests the two-fold message of such maps, even more than the maps from Graphiq, which similarly placed Alaska in rapid striking range.

Bull's Eye Range

Although these maps tend to fail to distinguish clearly between missiles that have been observed or are in development–as most of the ICBM’s capable of striking the United States were believed to be–the range of US military bases within striking distance of NK missiles are both increasingly aggressive, and seem almost desperate attempts to come to terms with the rapid growth of their rockets’ power.   Images that hypothesize the expanded ranges of rockets register the shock of North Korea’s creation of intercontinental missiles and process fears of impending missile strikes from its expanded nuclear arsenal.  Such fears were of course foregrounded in North Korean media’s showcasing of Kim Jong-un’s apparent delight in the use of maps to suggest the range of those missiles he has developed at considerable sacrifices for his country–

 

kim-jong-un-north-korea-missile-nuclear-icbm-planet-satelliteKim Jong-un studying the flight of the Hwasong-12, which reached an altitude of 1,312 feet Reuters/KCNA  (May 14, 2017)

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The Earth of Nvogorod

“Nvogorod [is] the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus,” clarified Jared Kushner in the eight page of his 11-page testimony to the United States Senate, seeming to intend to reference Novgorod, but not following the best lesson in Belarusian geography or Kushner family history.  In describing an ancient Russian city somewhat near Moscow but long part of Lithuania that was the residence of many Jews, Kushner seems to have revealed his hazy purchase on a site dear to his father Charles, whose parents had once been members of the city’s large Jewish community.  Kushner’s admission to receiving a ceremonial “bag of dirt” from Russian banker Sergey Gorkov not only played down its ceremonial status quite adroitly–“he gave me two gifts–one was a piece of art from Nvgorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus, and the other was a bag of dirt from that same village”–but seemed to obscure whatever significance it might have by underscoring its incidental nature for a public audience.

Kushner’s orthodox religion is well known.  But he cloaked whatever significance his family might have assigned the dirt–and whatever Gorkov thought he was doing carrying the earth to New York City–a bit too smoothly.  Kushner’s grandparents had fled the walled ghetto of Novogrudok in 1941, as the German troops arrived in the city near Minsk, to join a Jewish partisan squad in the Belarus–escaping the ghetto via a tunnel of over two hundred yards dug over weeks by his brave grandmother Rae, then seventeen, with her brother Chonom, below electric fencing surrounding the ghetto, a conduit through which some 350 Jewish men and women fled the ghetto to nearby forests.  The path of her flight from Novogrudok in the underground tunnel she dug commemorated by an overground path and in the Museum of Jewish Resistance situated in the tunnel which the Kushner family has long helped to support with its deep pockets.  Rae arrived in Czechoslovakia, months after clawing her way through the tunnel with her brother, using hand-made instruments to tunnel to escape Novogrudok’s ghetto, and she probably had little attachment to her place of birth or its non-Jewish residents.

Jared conflated the name as Nvogorod in somewhat surprising ways.  For Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, preserved the memory of Rae’s escape on family journeys there with his sons as they reached adulthood, presumably before their Bar Mitzvah; somewhat predictably, given these ties, most Belarusian media openly crowed over the arrival of Kushner, given his ties to Belarus, in the Trump White House.   And so it made some sense for the head of Russia’s state bank, the Vnesheconombank, to arrive to meet Jared Kushner in New York before the inauguration bearing a bag of dirt from the town that the Kushner’s had maintained a close tie, but which Jared seems to have misidentified.  Perhaps for Jared, the memory just didn’t stick, partly due to the differences between the Belarusian place-name from that transmitted in Jewish memory and the Russian toponym:  Kushner’s testimony to Congress described his family as hailing from the authentic-sounding but imagined hybridized non-place of Nvgorod, notwithstanding Charles’ best intentions, rather than Navahrudak,–a city is in fact much closer to Minsk, Belarus’ capital, than Moscow, and pronounced quite differently.

 

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Donald Trump’s candidacy was fed by Russian media, although it remained unpopular in the Baltic states and Ukraine, nonetheless developed a considerable Belarus following partly based on the appeal of Trump’s populism.  When Trump unexpectedly won the Presidential election, the President of Belarus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka, a survivor from the Soviet era, warmly congratulated him–assuring Trump “You shook up American society and returned it to a real democracy,” even as he warned Russians against taking too much pleasure for Trump’s victory.  Lukashenka, a wily politician, demonstrating political acuity by summoning with a sense of sageness to observe “Trump wants to make America great again–but where does that put Russia?”  He has already concluded to his nation that “American society is not yet ready to elect a female president, even one as experienced as Hillary,” but more attention derived from the ties to Navahrudak.   “Of course I am very proud that there is someone from Navahrudak in the White House,” said the fifty-seven year old businessman Boris Semyonov when approached what Navahrudak (the city’s Belarusian name) felt for the prominent post a Kushner would hold in a Trump White House:  “I am waiting for him to visit us.”

Eager for how Trump has been portrayed in Russian media that is widely consumed there, even while noting the clear similarities between local strongman Lukashenka and the prominence of faux populist themes in Trump’s Presidential candidacy, the notion that “Of course, Trump is closer to Russia–and hence to us,” even if little trade between Belarus and the United States seems likely to emerge.  Rae, of course, understood her own town as in north Poland in a community of 6,000 integrated but religious Jews, possessing an independent yeshiva, hospitals and strong cultural life, and were often schooled in Cracow; her hat-maker father shared a particular antipathy to Poles, who treated the family badly.  Rae intensity in digging that tunnel to safety and survival from the Novgrugok ghetto that may reveal the intensity and tenacity of the Kushners.  But Jared’s geographical vagueness ended up trying to place this “village” in a major Russian city, probably as the intent of the gifts was basically to suggest his ostensibly Russian roots.  While Jared Kushner tried to cast the arrival of a bag of soil from Belarus as “the normal course of events in a unique campaign,” it fit into a plan to encourage US-American friendship, although it was cast by the not-so-quick-on-the-symbolism Kushner as “a bag of dirt,” which he probably threw somewhere on the White House lawn.

Novgrudok was in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, although the region between Pinsk and Minsk was to change hands a few times, being subsumed into Russian empire before reverting to Poland in the 1920s, before it was absorbed into the U.S.S.R.–but was a clear site, carefully and precisely evoked by Rae in her life, though it remained a “village” that was probably pretty unspecific to Jared.  (There has been an absence of public reactions to the transportation of Belarus’ sovereign soil out of the country from Lukashenka, which may have come from a nearby Russian military base Russia runs in Baranavichy, but also wouldn’t have helped his relations to Trump, Kushner, or Putin.  But it seemed very Putin-esque to play on an old spatial imaginary of the Russian Empire and of the USSR at a time when he is seeking to redefine his country’s geopolitical status.)

 

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Mare Balthicum-Seraphico.pngGeorge Matthius Seutter, Polonio seraphico observans (Poland and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), 1753 

 

The imperial imaginary that the trans-Atlantic transportation and presentation of soil from Mother Russia must have had some meaning for Gorkov or his compatriot Kislyak didn’t have much truck with Kushner, for whom Gorkov remained but a “banker” and Moscow existed as a Trump-friendly place, rather than ever having been an empire.

What all the symbolism of the soil might have meant to Kushner is most unclear:  if someone in Moscow must have taken the classy banker, with western tastes, as best able to display a sense of kinship to Trump’s son-in-law, who had so tried to cast himself as a cosmopolite from New York, the Kushner’s much-vaunted orthodoxy is perhaps the best known thing about him save his problematic relation to the New York Observer.

Kushner’s orthodoxy is well-known.   He regularly takes a day of rest on the Sabbath as Special Advisor to the President, and during the Trump campaign took the time to make a widely publicized pilgrimage to the Lubavitcher shrine of the grave of the late Rebbe Menachem Scheerson or “Ohel” with Ivanka–at the same time that an alleged attempt on The Donald’s life was averted in Reno, leading to much speculation that the visit brought divine intervention forestalling the threat on his life due to Schneerson’s intervention as election day approached:  “Ivanka Prays – The Donald Saved! As Ivanka Was At Ohel Of Rebbe, Secret Service Rushed Him Off Stage,” exulted an ultra-orthodox website on November 5, playing with notions of salvation and the efficacy of prayer to the Rebbe; Trump returned triumphantly to the stage from which he had been whisked by Secret Service to pronounce “Nobody said it would be easy for us.  But we will never be stopped.  Never ever be stopped,” thanking law enforcement and his protection before vowing solemnly to the audience of believers to “Make America Great Again.”

 

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While Trump’s cultivation of the legend of the “assassination attempt” seemed a media ploy, and appeared conveniently timed, it seems to have been interpreted in some circles as a benefit of a back-channel Jared had opened by gaining the blessing of the immortal Rebbe, whose favor for the Father-in-Law was evident in his life-saving intervention.

 

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The sense of intercession perhaps provided some sign that the orthodox Kushner would appreciate receiving a bag of Belarusian earth later brought to him from Belarus by Sergei Gorkov, chairman of the Russian VEB, or state-owned Vnesheconombank, or ‘Bank for Development and Foreign Economic Affairs,’ still under United States sanctions for its involvement in Ukraine–whose cash flow has recently turned negative, as it holds increasing state debt.  When Gorkov arrived at the meeting bearing gifts of particular significance, as Kushner innocently recalled, as if he did not recognize the care that Gorkov hoped to communicate by selecting such items as a sign of his interest in the boy prince:  “a piece of art from Nvogorod, the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus” and, curiously, “a bag of dirt from the same village.”   If only mentioned in passing to show their lack of any suggestion of collusion, the specificity of these gifts the revealed the research and sense of familiarity Gorkov took care to communicate to young Jared, suggested the message’s importance, though what it said hasn’t been clear.

Vnesheconombank has long focussed on Russian exports, and it was perhaps recalling this function that Gorkov, deeply tied to the Russian FSB and apparently having cut a deal with them, in December, 2016, brought a bag of Belarusian earth to the orthodox Kushner as a highly symbolic–and oddly personal–note from a man Kushner would only saw was important to meet since he was “someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration” at the time Kushner sought to set up a “back-channel” to Moscow.   In a December 12 meeting with Kushner’s assistant, the promise of meeting with Sergey Gorkov–who Kushner described as just “a banker and someone with a direct line to the Russian President who could give insight into how Putin was viewing the new administration and best ways to work together,” rather than a state agent with complicated ties to the Kremlin and head of Russia’s largest economic stimulus agency, funded directly by the state budget and a tool go national leadership–with a branch in Nizhniy Novgorod, not Vileky Novgorod, but raising questions of whether Jared might have mis-recognized the city from which his family hailed with this branch location.

 

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But VEB is not just a bank of the sort that Trump or the Kushners are both used to taking loans and borrowing billions, but something far closer to an office of state, able to disburse funds in circumstances deemed necessary.  Locations round the Russian periphery and near its eastern border suggest its status as a sort of para-state operation to pump funds into local economies; a broader range of covert government activities are suggested by charges against Vnecheconombank’s New York City employees recruiting foreign spies. Putin appoints and is in lose contact with its director, and the bank has been tied to the state despite its recently declining fortunes and net income–

 

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Jared Kushner’s sense of innocence is not only an odd contrast to Gorkov’s tenacity.  He seems to have been played with through the promise of ties to Moscow for the incoming administration, and his ambitions for a Russian Reset through his own backchannel.  Kushner felt “Ambassador [Kislyak] has been so insistent” that he meet Gorkov “because Mr. Gorkov was only in New York for a few days.”  But it’s hard to believe Kushner didn’t Google Gorkov before their half-hour meeting; Gorkov seems an attempt at an evocation of kinship if the presentation of a bag of Belarusian earth wasn’t recognized as a carefully planned sign, as well as a talisman by which Gorkov must have believed the diaspora Jew would be affected as a signal of his respect and recognition of Kushner’s tie to the city–although most Jews in Belarus’ ghettoes dreamt only of Eretz Israel in 1941–in ways that Gorkov may have believed analogous to the treasured earth from the Mount of Olives kept for scattering over burial sites in the diaspora, but remained a powerful symbolic tie for Jews before the war.

 

 

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Jerusalem, c. 1920-30/Earth from Burial Ground in Mt. of Olives, Jewish Museum in Prague

 

The bag of soil from the land of Kusher’s forefathers was rich with a symbolism that didn’t grab Kushner’s attention or his sympathy nearly as strongly as Gorkov and his circle had hoped.  Of course, Belarus is not in Russia, but in the former empire; even if Gorkov would claim clear access to the city in the former Soviet, even if it was “close to Moscow” and militarily tied to Russia, their bonds aren’t clear.  Did the “gift” of a bag of soil from the former imperial territory of Mother Russia which Kushner received in mid-December in New York City a proposal that the new administration in which he was to playa prominent role recognize Russia’s relation to the nearby city, and, by analogy, to Ukraine?  Putin’s hopes to regain old imperial lands within the new Russian Federation is rarely openly stated or so prominently mapped, the presentation of the token of soil from outside of Russian bounds but in the old imperial territory recalls the hopes to recover a notion of nationhood rooted firmly in the nineteenth century–long predating the USSR.  Reclaiming land outside of current state boundaries is closely tied to the mission statement of the VEB and to the  “blood and iron” image of Russian Empire in which Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Latvia are central as part of the Baltic States.  The presentation of this earth was part of a geopolitical vision, as well as providing an oddly off-beat appeal to the Jewish origins of Trump’s most trusted Presidential advisor.

 

 

 

Whatever the answer, the Special Assistant to the U.S. President only remembered the considered gift as a “bag of dirt”–without attaching symbolic or spiritual significance to its presentation.  But the gift seems to have been carefully selected by Kushner’s visitor, probably with high-level approval, and the consideration about transporting a bag of earth from a region from where his family hailed seems intended as an attempted tie of affection.  It also might reveal a bizarre post-Cold War political geography, seeking to create dialogue with the faith of the orthodox Jewish son of a real estate magnate in New Jersey in ways that carried messages about Russia’s newly expansive claims over areas of central Europe once part of the Russian Empire.

The centrality of Belarus to the Eurasian Economic Union has become increasingly clear, although Belarus is not eager to accept Russian annexation of Crimea.  Why the head of the VEB decided to carry a bag of dirt from the former imperial territories, if not in the hopes to end the sanctions that had hurt his country, as well as to establish Russia’s prominent place in the EEU?  VEB described the meeting as part of its ‘development strategy,’ rather than an innocuous encounter.  Gorkov seems to have been sent to meet Kushner as something of an analog–a modern businessman–who Kushner would recognize, as not brash if owning two Porsches and a Mercedes Benz, both more worldly, down-to-earth and western than most oligarchs, and closely tied to IT, as well as being a tough deal-maker able to close agreements.  The VEB presents a unique view of the Russian Federation, as well, mirroring geopolitical ambitions, closely tied to the Eurasian Economic Union.

 

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The survival of the sanctions would have surely been on his mind when he met with Trump’s son-in-law, on the eve of the inauguration of the new United States President, with an open agenda.  The issues of sanctions and Belarus are closely tied:  not only has Putin been attempting, ever since the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, to control the independence that Belorus has shown since that year, when Lukashenko fears the possibility of a simultaneous invasion or Russian military operation inside Belarus–but the greater proximity of Belarus to Europe–but Belarus has grown militarily close to China, as a joint missile system was developed between Minsk and Beijing, and trade with the EU declined significantly.   “Not everything always goes smoothly in our relations with brotherly Russia,” Lukashenko observed on Belarus’ July 1 Independence Day, as he compared Belarusian-Russian political strains with its positive economic and military ties with China, amazed at Belarus’ “luck that we have established such friendly relations with this great empire . . . practically at the level of our relations with Russia.”

The relations between the countries were not easy, and long fraught, as Belarus sought to position itself with new alliances.  Russia’s Sputnik railed against Belarus; in a July 9 article entitled ‘The EU’s “Eastern Partnership” Threatens to Turn Belarus Into a “Second Ukraine,‘” published by Russia’s government-affiliated Sputnik in English, to struggle against the transformation of “Minsk, following Kiev, into an instrument of anti-Russian forces” by the ‘siren call’ of the “forces of globalism and modern-day fascism,” embodied by the EU’s ambitious Eastern Partnership.  Gorkov would have been familiar with the same sentiments in December, and was irked by the annoyance of Belarusian neutrality.

 

easternpartnership-mzv-czMinistry of Foreign Affairs, Czech Republic

 

The earth from Belarus was, in other words, highly charged for Gorkov–both as a sign of his investigation of the Kushner family and Jared’s family values, and as a message about the geopolitics of Europe and the possible future relation of the incoming United States administration to the expansion of the European Union and the place in it of Belarus.  (Lukashenko was very quick to refuse to recognize Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,  while allowing joint military exercises and making public displays of affability with his former compatriot.)

 

 

gjseyoa7yrrfhs0fkkspxvheaiihebmx.jpegPutin with Lukashenko, reviewing troops in Belarus in 2013

 

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But Lukashenko may not have much choice, even if he is one of the world’s few remaining dictators.  Did Kushner?  Kushner may have professed to have not known what the meeting was “about,” but the longstanding fears of secret Russian involvement in the spread of ultra-nationalist parties in Belarus, apparently to destabilize the government of nationalist strongman Lukashenko by fomenting non-violent governmental change, revealed Putin’s attempt to influence the former Soviet republic  run by the former leader of a Soviet, who cannily maintained his power while affirming independence from Putin’s Russia.   Belarus is treading a fine line of independence, foreign economic cooperation with the Eurasian Economic Union is something the European Union is far more interested to pursue than, say, VEB; Russia would also very much like to see the EU sanctions lifted on trade.  Lukashenko’s nationalist proclamations, and rejection of Russian as a state language and use of Belarusian–“We are not Russian — we are Belarusians“–heightened tensions around trade disputes on energy pipelines, prices, and transit of gas to Poland and the European Union.

The question is not whether bright eyed Jared Kushner colluded–a term without definite legal meaning, but how he failed to pick up on an invitation for colluding, and why he missed it.  Unless the mention of “Nvogorod” was more than a slip, and a signal of some sort of rejection of a proposal that didn’t seem worth the attention Gorkov had hoped.  But Gorkov and his superiors clearly had some other level of collusion in mind by inviting a tacit recognition of a proximity akin to kinship over a month before the inauguration, and seem to have been looking forward to a newly proximate sort of relation to the thirty-six year old advisor to the incoming President:  Kushner’s title as Senior Advisor was made official on January 9, reportedly without salary, before being named to head an Office of Innovation, although the Russian government seemed to anticipate his unexpected role as a sort of “Shadow Secretary of State” far more powerful in the administration than a Special Assistant.   Despite insistence of no “improper contacts,” the propriety of the bag of Belarusian soil might be questioned beyond its clear symbolic value.  For a President who had promised  “improved relations with Russia” and committed to “make a deal that’s great” not only for “America, but also good for Russia,” the stakes were probably pretty high, and Gorkov’s mission on December 13 would have been delicate, probably involving the immediate loosening of sanctions.

The absence of any actual meaning in criminal law of a term like “collusion” suggests that his denial was a way of dancing around the issue, or just of keeping the conspiracy vague.  Kushner is quite well-connected to Russians, and particularly Russian Jews with ties to Chabad, and perhaps over-eager for an Orthodox Jew to lump Russians and Jews:  he is closely tied financially to a real estate money launderer of Russian heritage and birth, Lev Leviev, a colorful Uzbeki who allegedly transferred the skills of his father, a mohel, to diamond cutting, to which he dedicated himself after leaving a Yeshiva two months after he began his studies in Israel, who helped Kushner out with some massive loans and real estate transfers–including the purchase of the former New York Times building–and was until recently involved in construction projects in the West Bank and East Jerusalem:  Leviev, known as the “King of Diamonds,” amassed an empire around the importing, cutting and polishing diamonds from Angola, Russia, and Namibia in Israel and Russia, raising many questions about the labor practices in his mines:  despite trepidation returning to the former Soviets and Russia, Leviev did so after the intervention of none other than the Lubavitcher Rebbe Schneerson, who earnestly encouraged him not to forget his fellow Jews,–perhaps a banality that assumed some significance in his career.  Leviev not only continues to be tied to both Putin and Chabad, and is a partner of the Russian Prevezon Holdings, who recently settled a money laundering case in the United States on light terms and was under investigation for some time by the office of Preet Bharara.

The weird geography of international finance overlaps in odd ways with Rae Kushner’s heroic escape through a tunnel she dug through Belarusian earth underneath the walls of the ghetto of Novogrudok to escape from the ghetto has been improbably linked to the playing out of a conspiratorial drama of international proportions, in which a bit of Belarusian soil was brought, some seventy seven years later, to New York City, maybe as a carry-on item of the chairman of VEB, to be presented as a “gift” to Rae’s grandson.  This wasn’t a simple gift, and was carefully selected.  But if the bag of soil somehow procured from Belarus–and specifically from “the village where my grandparents were from in Belarus”–before being brought to an off-the-record meeting with the trusted adviser who was already central to Trump’s transition team as VEB feared facing the continued imposition of sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Crimea.  The desire to lift such sanctions immediately raises questions of the propriety the “gift.”  “He told me a little about his bank,” Kushner testified to the Senate while not under oath, “and made some statements about the Russian economy.”  Was the discussion not apt to range to topics closely related to the issues on the table for the bank, and did the oddly misplaced attempts to tug at Kushner’s heart strings not suggest a tone-deaf “restart” button?  The anthropological oddity of the offering of earth, as much as a considered gift, not only fell on deaf ears but seems to have misread the ties to Novogrudok as a family residence.

Much as the activities of VEB are not those of a regular bank, or even a bank, the relationship they sought to cultivate with Jared Kushner had little propriety at any event.  We’ll probably never know about whatever statements Gorkov made as he presented the bag of Belarusian soil which later became a “bag of dirt.”  The new descriptor diminishes its symbolic significance, and paints Jared as having made time in a busy schedule for an amicable meeting.  But it’s hard to believe that the symbolism was not lost, or that Jared could even consider placing the Belarusian earth atop Rae’s grave.  Despite the deep paradoxes of Rae’s grandson placing earth reminiscent of the very earth through which she had clawed out of the ghetto over her final resting place in New Jersey–wouldn’t Rae have scolded him with some incredulity?–whatever the hopes of the higher-ups of VEB, they seem to have escaped Kushner.  The late Rae Kushner had quite vividly recalled–and which she must have described in terms Jared must have often heard her retell–the blood-soaked earth of the shooting of the Novogrudok suburb where many of the 30,000 men and women brought from a ten mile radius around the city–after soldiers executed Jewish doctors, teachers, and lawyers in 1941 in a public square in a suburb of the city, staining its paving stones with blood as an orchestra played, Rae was brutally ordered to wash the stones in preparation for a public ball in the city.  While an articulate woman, she would probably have scolded Jared wordlessly for accepting the bag of earth as if it were a friendship offering.

The location of the earth was very significant to the Russian Federation higher ups, if its significance or sybmolism may have passed Jared by.  As Russia seeks to expand its imperial past, presenting the gift of a bag of earth from the old empire seems more of a demand to recognize the new geopolitics they intend to pursue.  Such are the perils of having advisers without experience in international politics.  Such is also the bizarrely shifting map of a post-post-Cold War world, where VEB hopes to forge ties to a new American administration by offering something close to a caricature of nourishing a spiritual attachment to a place of origin in the service of expansionist ends–as if transmuting Kushner familial pietas to affirm an expanding Russian military presence in what was once Eastern Europe grater than since the Soviet Union collapsed.  The notion of appealing to Kushner’s alleged Belarusian roots seems a poorly judged symbol, but it was a potent one for a Russian Federation eager to remap broader European influence.  Gorkov’s presentation of this bag of dirt might not have been recognized as a statement of geopolitics, but suggests one:  it paralleled the long-planned military exercises of Russian military presence in Belarus and along the NATO border–a zone of influence on the western front of the Russian Federation–or “Zapad”–defended with increasing aggressiveness from 2014 with surface-to-air and anti-ship missiles, from around the same time that Putin directed increasing attention to destabilizing the European Union. The planned 2017 military exercises of 60,000-100,000 air and naval units to be held from September 14-20, around the Baltic and North Sea, is widely seen as a test of NATO’s interest in protecting its member-states of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland–and Donald Trump’s interest in endorsing Article 5 promising NATO’s collective defense.  The Zapad exercises of staging a staging a military invasion of the Baltic without allowing any outside observation of the same 800 tanks involved in the exercises that appears a clear show of force in the very region from which Kushner’s family hails.

 

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DGJerf_WsAAy5gzRussian tank exercise in 2013 outside Grodno, Belarus/Alexey Druginyn

 

The longstanding exercises of the Russian military in the “Russian West” have acquired increasingly offensive tones.  Recent “Zapad” exercises of the Russian military in 2017 that are based in Belarus–and although the joint exercises Russia and Belarus will conduct to simulate a NATO invasion will pack in an unknown number of troops and although Belarus is not eager to accept many more permanent Russian troops, Zapad 2013 involved an uncertain number of troops–Russians declared “12,000” or perhaps “12,500,” but reports indicating the presence of up to 75,000 boots on the ground, as Belarus became something of a military staging ground for Russian strength–if not in actual preparation for the invasion of Crimea that occurred shortly afterwards.

 

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–will include the greatest number of military troops to be involved in a military exercise without the observation of international observers, in ways NATO observers increasingly see as a hostile threat–if not, as Chatham House speculates, leaving a permanent military contingent in Belarus.   While the stationing of troops might not occur, the threat to destabilize the European Union, a pet-project of Putin from 2015, the expansion of military presence seems an open reclamation of Russian earth.

 

170802-zapad-mc-13-02_2b6542e454c21b579f8fa8e21fe5f79d.nbcnews-ux-2880-1000Vladimir Putin watching Zapad exercises in Grodny, Belarus, in 2013 (RIA Novosti/Reuters)

 

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