“Amazingly, as of tonight,” new host Tucker Carlson declared in hopes to build anticipation for a Twitter broadcast, “there aren’t many platforms left that allow free speech.” While Fox News took Carlson’s show off the airwaves, he promised to return quickly on the social media platform owned by Elon Musk. Having worked for networks across the political spectrum, from CNN to MSNBC to FOX, Tucker Carlson seems to know what he was talking about. But when he called his own de-platforming as a suppression of his right to speak his thoughts or what he called a constitutional liberty of free speech, he was raising the stakes in ways that were designed to appeal to his viewers to a boiling point. Carlson groused on Twitter few platforms allowed free speech anymore, in quite strikingly globalizing terms, even if he meant the United States–Twitter was “the last big one remaining in the world,” he insisted. After being dismissed Fox News where he had aired an increasingly divisive news hour that was one of the highest rated on the air, he aligned himself with “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk’s proclamation that Twitter was the new public town square of democracy. (Far from an ephemeral media, Twitter is a repository of apparent historical weight: Trinity College will feature in Fall, 2023 a co-taught course by Tucker Carlson and Jesse Waters in the writing, rhetoric, and media studies departments, that includes as assigned reading all of Trump’s tweets–as well as the inaugural address of Andrew Jackson and Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.)
While it was hardly new that Carlson acted aggrieved, as if his own rights to free speech had been denied, by recasting his own abusive behavior as a preservation of rights he seemed to tailor a new sense of free speech familiar to his demographic. The “denial” of free speech rights was a relatively recent bête-noire of the alt right. From calls to speak out “against the numerous attempts by college administrators to limit and attack students’ free-speech right” as “free speech zones” that were argued to restrict “a culture of free expression and develop in students a robust ability to reason” began a narrative of repressive left Carlson seemed to parrot. The multiplication of “free speech zones” at political conventions, areas of protest, or during the war on terror made the mapping of areas guaranteeing freedom of expression protected by the first amendment a contested concept of civil rights–isn’t the entire country a free speech zone?–and the emergence of “free speech zones” on universities have created real limitation of public protest and had restricted freedom of speech at over three-quarters of universities–even as judges have questioned the limitation of “free of speech zones” on campus, and legislatures in multiple states passed prohibitions that outlawed the establishment at campuses of “free speech zones” in conservative states suggesting the different natures of “free speech” in a starkly divided partisan map: Kentucky, Missouri, and Virginia became sites championing “free expression” and “individual rights in education” from 2014-17, as claims to “free speech” preventing restrictions on political or hate speech grew in the aftermath college protests of the election of President Trump. Legislatures restrictions on the curtailing of free speech zone polices, as a ballast to academic freedom,–
–in ways that alt right media like Breitbart embraced as a the rewriting of claims to free speech, claiming censorship by universities, as if to protect free political expression–even if such expression embraced incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric–that challenged boundaries of “free speech” in unexpected and unprecedented ways that Carlson seemed to invoke more than the Bill of Rights had ever intended. While he cast his intentions as an echoe of the First Ammendment, Carlson’s own pursuit of polemics pleasing the alt right white supremacists was long known–it seemed he had targeted the demographic in attacking mainstream news–to provide alternative news able to unite an increasingly intolerant partisan political constituency that was as rooted in anti-intellectualism as it fetishized the freedom to hold hateful positions. Free speech was expanded as a megaphone of public address on social media, as the logo of “Campus Reform,” a news organization backed by the funders of Breitbart, dedicated to exposing liberal “bias and abuse” in American universities and colleges to delegitimize higher education around issues of free speech.
As the new terrain of “free speech” expanded from civil liberties to anti-immigrant rhetoric to Black Lives Matter to anti-vaxxers to mask-wearing, it embraced shelter-in-place policies in the COVID-19 pandemic, school closures, and public health responses before election denialism. Ever broader and broadened concepts of “free speech” became a surrogate for perpetuating persistently deep fissures in the body politic, boosted in no small part by Tucker Carlson’s news show on FOX. Tucker Carlson Tonight embraced an algorithm oriented to the distortion of free speech, and created a demographic that distorted free speech from the freedom of parents to protest school curriculum, as learning institutions were attacked as restricting abilities of open inquiry and “debate” by mandating reading lists. “Restore Free Speech Acts” had earlier emerged in local state legislatures to push back against such perceived restrictions. Carlson reached back in his recent relaunch on Twitter–his first appearance on airwaves after leaving or being let go from Fox News–to echo the image of a restrictive environment of free speech by those who sought to push the envelope of foundational freedoms and the Bill of Rights as protecting the open circulation of ideas online, and the end of “free speech zones” at universities that legislators had introduced back in 2017–more than the Bill of Rights that was framed in 1789. The partisan legislatures tied to red states, from Texas to Louisiana to Kentucky, vacated the “free speech zones” on university campuses, long before Donald Trump.
States Where Bills Preventing Campus Restrictions on Free Speech Were Introduced, 2017/Campus Reform
Maps of free speech seem to have broadened to free speech zones in the media, often adopting notions of free speech not based on expression but social media platforms and the fears of a restriction of political speech in a specter of de-platforming. Broadened claims for the protection of free speech was condensed to an electoral map every night on Tucker Carlson’s popular news hour. As Free Speech was rooted in the algorithm that brought his messages to millions and reached the right audiences, invoked against deplatforming, as if his sprinkling of volatile statements designed to open a greater cleave in the electoral divide was rooted in a freedom to collapse complicated and considered political debate into an ongoing strategic battle between two parties and ways of life. To be sure, this was “free speech” as understood in terms of a search for ever-higher ratings, a “free speech” that was in a sense modeled after alt right journalism, coopted by @realDonaldTrump, “liberties” easily seen as shaping a battleground for electoral votes.
The understanding of “fundamental freedoms” that expanded the electoral footprint for partisan ends was a great feature of his Fox Newshour that was embraced by Lachlan Murdoch and Rupert Murdoch, until the Dominion case revealed unethical improprieties. Carlson tried to stake out higher ground. Flattery may get him nowhere, but the post imitated none other than Musk, who cast his social media network at the center of a “battle of civilization” in promoting Twitter-without-monitors as a vanguard of free speech, tweeting out, “if free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead”! As Musk tried to represent or rebrand social media without constraints on hate speech or disinformation as American, issuing the latest iteration of his Messiah complex on his private social media platform, gaslighting the nation has long been Tucker Carlson’s principle trade. Branding of the social media platform as a venue for free speech may have been suggested by Musk in an invitation of Carlson–the most offensive of pundits–to the social media platform. Carlson waxed elegaic on free speech as the rarest commodity, affirming dedication to protecting speech though he lost the platform of Tucker Carlson Tonight, the highest-rated show on Fox, as if his departure his new venue was his free choice, or a changing media landscape, not how his own alienating comments and actions left him damaged goods.
The global scale of Carlson’s claim about Twitter was absolutely self-serving, to be sure, as much as an illustration of Musk’s uniquely deceitful brand of “free speech absolutism.” He sought to flatter Musk, his new platform’s host and sole proprietor, and to offer a powerful dig at Fox News, by upsetting the algorithm in his own favor, as if he were able to wrest it back from the Murdochs by becoming his own media figure, so much as Twitter offered him the chance. He claimed to have thrown his lot the last remaining safe space in media, and turning his back on television in disgust. Carlson was long habituated to rail against the media, and offer the alternative story of the disaffected and aggrieved. But this time, aligning himself with a “free speech absolutist” eager to attack Twitter for “failing to adhere to free speech principles” as a platform before purchasing it, and doing so only to make it a “public town square” of democratic value. Yet he fired all objecting to his corporate policies and politics, if he felt censorship of a social media platform was unethical. The two-faced nature of Musk firing employees he disagreed modeled free speech as a fundamental freedom specific to social media. Long before Carlson’s revisionism of the January 6 Capitol riots, calling “mostly peaceful” the violence begun as President Trump urged crowds “fight like hell” to contest 2020 election results then being tabulated by Congress, Carlson forged the combative nature of “free speech” as a pragmatics of perpetuating hyper-partisan social divisions of a sharply polarized nation in alt right media as the Daily Stormer. He perpetuated divides displayed in a dated electoral map of 2016 as a battlefield map on the new show premiering after Trump’s inauguration in 2017, as a realpolitik of broadcasting. When Kevin McCarthy gave Carlson secret footage of the Capitol Riots to allow viewers “to see the truth” of “exactly what transpired that day” in a “media exclusive,” he perpetuated claims of election fraud he claimed protected by a freedom of speech.
Although he had hosted a news show for six and a half years since Trump’s election, before a map of the fragmented nation polarized by partisan divides; free speech, he suggested, no longer existed on mainstream media. However, he was without the tell-tale map that was a longtime logo for his news show–a news graphic of 2016 that had become the permanent illustration of the status quo he sought to address, and to filter all “current” events, as if in a time warp from the 2016 Presidential election, that showed the country divided, or nation split, into two sharply divided nations, hued red and blue, that formed the perspective to which his commentary was addressed. Immediately after Trump’s inauguration, Carlson was broadcasting live from Washington DC, promising to guide the nation on “a live hour of spirited debate and powerful reporting each night, as America gets set for the administration of President Donald Trump,” while only addressing half the nation. While preparing perspectives on news able to “bring you to every corner of America to hear from you and tackle the issues you care about” engagning “what the other outlets are missing and what the media isn’t telling you,” Carlson’s brand was to supplement the mainstream media by dedicating himself to “calling out the status quo in his signature style,” using his status as founder of The Daily Caller to reach a large 2.8 million since starting to air, and gaining viewers across demographics by speaking to a divided United States electorate by presenting issues through the fierce urgency of now.
Or was this an image, a counter map of the traditional newsman that showed the planet since the studio of Walter Cronkite, a representation of the new limits of the expansiveness of free speech? The visualization of the continental United States–the lower 48, and the continuous heartland at its center–offered an image of belonging that was talismanic for the TV audience, and a powerful image of belonging in an increasingly atomized United States, bowling alone and with few ties in its neighborhoods. Carlson was its prophet and its oracle, and effectively ventriloquized the divides with such success that he had become a channel for Donald Trump himself. Despite his affirmation of the stolen election, and the credence he gave to January 6 protestors, without that map Carlson was suddenly weaker, suddenly punctured by the actual news. Yet his relation to the White House and to the talisman of his news show was far less powerful, even after January 6.
The map of the Lower 48 was a nice means to deny global warming, to ignore weather maps, or international politics, and even the real pressure migrants face. It was an image of the New Isolationism, America First for the twenty-first century, an image without rising temperatures, sea-level rise, or global economic forces beyond Americans’ or America’s control. Yet in a few weeks, Carlson was deemed a social liability by Rupert Murdoch, after winning unprecedented ratings as Lachlan Murdoch’s darling, as the Dominion lawsuit unwound and his own indefensible offensiveness was revealed. In a departing dig at Fox News, as well as an encomium to the social media platform he was about to join. Yet without the map of a permanently divided landscape of politics, promoting a polarized landscape split by partisan hues as a different reality, the values that Carlson was suddenly so desperate to fall back on–the Bill of Rights–as a language of the aggrieved was all too inappropriate and far less credible or effective. A trademark of he tried to remind his most loyal viewers that “Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy”–as if speech were the same for the Founding Fathers as in an age of de-platforming, claiming a right of redress as an aggrieved media pundit, hailing Twitter as a unique preserve of republican liberty. (This much must have come as music to Elon Musk’s ears, who convinced Ron De Santis to declare his own candidacy on the medium–even if that didn’t go so well. But it didn’t break Twitter.)
Tucker Carlson may have had few grounds to claim free speech was violated, but there was of course a clear precedent for claiming such rights of free speech. For this formed the grounds by which Fox News lawyers had quite successfully defended him in a recent defamation case brought by Karen McDougal, who Calrson had treated as a punching bag while at Fox News with something like barely concealed glee. Fox News lawyers had successfully argued Carlson was in his rights to speak derivatively of McDougal, the 2020 verdict of a federal judge agreed, as no “reasonable viewer” could be expected take his show literally–he was, it ruled, “not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and instead only engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.'” The successful dismissal of claims of slander was made on the grounds that “Mr. Carlson’s statements were not statements of fact,” and could not be interpreted as defamatory as such. The indefensible on-air statement that McDougal had “approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money,” as if she were an extortionist. (The court ruled Carlson’s words could not be interpreted as slander, or containing “malice” as but, as FOX lawyers argued, “delivering opinion using hyperbole for effect,” in an odd echo of how Donald Trump advocated “truthful hyperbole” to negotiate good deals in his 1987 Art of the Deal.)
Carlson seems to have accepted the verdict as a sort of license of his defensible rights to issue slanderous broadsides by converting political debates or even personal actions into the crisp colors of a partisan divide, a divide that was embodied as it had never before been by the very electoral map he used as a backdrop if not leitmotif for his show since its 2017 premier on Fox. He had staged a nightly news show to gloss the partisan divisions of a polarized landscape as the new status quo, harping on cultural resentments that divided the nation by district and county, as they existed as his show began, as an electoral landscape he would perpetuate and perhaps expand, and reinstate beyond the divisions of 2017 as a permanent map by which to understand the news–and the place of the nation in the world. Keeping open the sharp divides of a seemingly “continuous” red block and fractured blue in place was the grounds for his daily show, and the work of perpetuating the map had become glossed as a form of free speech.
Having left the highest rated show on cable news for huffing it on his own, he invoked his rights to free speech again, as he attacked mainstream television itself. This time, his status as an outspoken commentator was infringed by his former employer, it appeared. He sought to invite his audience to follow him onto the new Twitter platform, as if it was a preserve of free speech. He had discussed the infringement of rights–from the rioters of January 6, whose peaceful invasion of the Capitol he culled from exclusive footage of the thousands of hours Kevin McCarthy granted of “secret” footage that day, to Donald Trump himself–in recent shows, using free speech as a sacred cow. The protection of freedom of speech that Carlson had conspicuously denied Black Lives Matters protesters–who he disparagingly cast as a mob whose violence that threatened the nation–clothed both January 6 protestors and his own show. Never mind that Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-CAL, who had served as a member of the January 6 Committee, felt that Carlson’s broadcasting of the footage “a road map to people who might want to attack the Capitol again.”
In presenting himself as a champion of Free Speech, Carlson claimed the higher ground, as if his constitutional rights had been infringed, in ways that were not only aggrieved. Of course, his rights to speech were quite from curtailed–he was an evangelist of the right whose outspoken claims made him a darling of liberty at the Turning Point USA’s AmericaFest,–
–and he had become an international figure of jet set global conferencing with national leaders outside the United States, at the first meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee outside of the country. Carlson had delivered speeches at the invitation of right wing anti-immigration strongman Viktor Orbán, whose cry to “take back the institutions in Washington and Brussels” led him to summon Tucker Carlson to Hungary as he sought to remake it as a bastion of conservative Christian values long before 2021, quenching the opposition media and openly urging audiences to stand up against the “rule of the liberal media” as a form of “Conservative resistance to the woke revolution.” Of Orbán dressed outrageous ethnic nationalism as a form of libertarianism, he seemed to have ripped a page from Carlson’s rhetoric, taking him on a helicopter tour of his own “border fence” that led a perhaps mystified Carlson to return the favor by calling Hungary “a little country with a lot of lessons for the rest of us,” terrifyingly gestured to the media monopoly that Orbán created in his illiberal democracy that silenced all opposition in the nation.
Carlson suddenly found himself suddenly an international media star, basking in the attention he won overseas from a man who was an icon of conservative demagoguery. Orbán’s extreme hard-line policy of rejecting asylum- seekers was an outlier of liberal democracies indeed–which Carlson eagerly promoted as a model for American immigration system he calls far too lenient and argues was poised to weaken the power of native-born citizens in ways that aped White Supremacists. Was this a watershed in his defense of what he called free speech, or a new height of self-deception? Carlson’s 2021 visit to Budapest followed a range of anti-LGBTQI laws by the Hungarian parliament, issued to help Orbán cling to power in ways that rested on a profound rewriting of the mediascape of the nation: the refusal of legal recognition of transgender people in Hungary, and enshrining birth sex in Hungarian law, ws normalized transgender discrimination that culminated in bans on any application for change in gender recognition by 2023–legal barriers to gender recognition that became widespread in much of the United States (more alter). When Carlson was forced to participate remotely In the 2022 meeting of CPAC in Budapest, he vouched “I wish I was there in Budapest,” adding in terms that now seem irenic that “If I ever get fired and have some time and can leave, I will be there with you.” (Carlson had found virtues in Hungary’s limited free speech–Orbán has clamped down on media coverage of the Ukraine critical of Russia, as if Trump could end the conflict–“Come back, Mr. President, make America great again, and bring us peace!”–that he blamed on the United States as CPAC imitated Hungary in allowing only alt right journalists to cover the event, rather than the Associated Press.)
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson visits Prime Minister Orbán in 2021/Office of the Hungarian Prime Minister
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’spolicies in Hungary against trans people and gender reassignment has made him a hero on the alt right, a weird affirmation from afar of a charge against “global progressive elites” who promote immigration, transgender and LGBTQ+ rights, bundling them as a “virus” in need of being defeated by a “Christian conservative turn” that offered a model for how right-wing culture might defeated and dispatch “woke” agendas in its defense as a bulwark of Christian democracy, conjuring Hungary’s historical role as a buffer-state of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against Islam. The ban on public depictions of homosexuality in Hungary or any promotion of sex education became a way to for Orbán to emphasize his protection of Christian values: “No Country For Woke Men,” read banners at the CPAC conference he hosted in 2023, proclaiming his nation an “incubator” of “the future of conservative policies” world-wide to energetic applause. (His censorship of the media were elevated as a model for American CPAC leadership who vowed to “go Hungarian,” deciding “who is a journalist and who is not a journalist” for entry to their events, as universities were transferred to being run by Orbán cronies to silence free speech.
To be sure, to cite a recent news maps of the change that has swept across America of Orbán-like doctrine, mental health was thrown to the winds by the broad imposition of restrictions on gender identification, as a slew of “red” states have introduced restrictions on gender-affirming care across the nation, per the Guttmacher Institute, crating a cleft across the nation of the Orbán-esque policy by enacting outright restrictive transgender laws or curtailing care for trans teens in states over the past two years–a new hot-button issues to motivate to intensify political polarization by invasive restrictions on competitive sports, restroom use, and other health care. The adoption by state legislatures of restrictions and protections a new front of divisive polarization of increasingly sharp lines, as a terrifyingly contiguous block of “red state” litmus tests of knee jerk variety now threaten to return critical swing states–Georgia; Florida; Arizona–into a hard conservative fold.
But the national political struggle is perhaps less the point than the harm inflicted upon some thirty thousand kids in Arizona, Florida, and Georgia who may be destined to suffer psychological harm. The laws against transgender identification in America, echoing Carlson’s false charge that transgender people are targeting Christianity–and “the natural enemy” of Christians, arguing that gender-affirming medical treatments are “chemical castration” by 2022 that was protected by the U.S. Constitution, after the White House criticized states’ criminalization of gender-affirming care. Carlson’s statements echoed Orbán, but also pushed the envelop on free speech as medical care for transgender was revealed as a macabre Grand Guignol theater: “Slicing off a child’s sex organs, preventing a 12-year-old from going through puberty, that’s not ghoulish and dangerous and horrifying. No, it’s not. It’s ‘gender affirming health care.’ Indeed, it’s all we’re now calling a best practice.” And after Arkansas banned puberty-blockers in 2021, a potentially life-saving intervention, as endangering children with long-term medical side-effects, encouraging local legislatures to oppose them, giving a platform to anti-trans authors without any medical qualifications or experience, to shape public opinion on gender-affirming medical treatments as reliant on “massive, massive doses” flooding the bodies of young children who become “cash cows” for the medical establishment, but are not seen by doctors–casting trans support as abusive parenting “irreversibly damaging their bodies.” (Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas obligingly took up the charge in a directive declaring gender affirming services provided youth could constitute child abuse as “abusive procedures” in early 2022, echoing bans on gender-affirming surgery in Alabama, Arkansas, and Arizona.)
The map of outright bans on gender-affirming care suggests an echoes of the red state map, to be sure, with the “heartland” of America from the Dakotas to Iowa down to Arkansas and Tennessee and the Deep South constituting a local legislative block against gender reassignment practices, as transgender healthcare coverage by Medicare in America has become a prominent partisan divide, as the call for “protecting” children by preventing transgender treatment have grown in America–
–in ways that stand to place many who identify as transgender at risk, following the bullhorn of Carlson’s openly wrong condemnation of transgender care as a violation of Constitutional Rights.
Yet Tucker Carlson tried his darnedest to cast himself as aggrieved from his Maine studio, defending his ideological ground from an outpost of broadcasting on Twitter. To be sure, Carlson seems to have accepted a legal right to free speech to warn Americans of the dangers of immigration, terrorism, and feminism, in ways that mirrored the redefinition of “free speech” that had bloomed on the internet and among alt right media, and was recently articulated by Fox News lawyers who beat back an earlier charge of defamation brought by Karen McDougal against Tucker Carlson Tonight. The success of Fox News lawyers defending Carlson’s commentary not as truth but as “non-literal commentary,” boosted when federal judges dismissed the defamation suite, accepting the preposterous defense that the 3.2 million viewers his show nightly attracted did not understand them as “statements of fact” or “actual malice,” may have boosted Carlson’s sense of his own free speech. However implausibly, Fox lawyers had successfully argued his words “cannot be understood to have been stating facts, but . . . delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect” that the District Judge Mary Kay Viscocil had affirmed.
The lawyers’ argument recalled Donald Trump’s defense of using “truthful hyperbole,” with a twist. In deeming Carlson’s speech to be “‘loose, figurative, or hyperbolic language’ that does not give rise to a defamation claim,” the judge agreed a reasonable viewer of Tucker Carlson Tonight “‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes,” as if defamation were not the stock trade in the show. In agreeing to the new nature of hyperbolic speech, District Judge Viscocil effectively defended Carlson as a disseminator of defamation and rumor for the growing rumor mill of the Trump Era. But Carlson’s broadcasts had worked to shape dissensus on a scale that echoed how the Roman poet Virgil called Fama “the swiftest traveller of all the ills on earth, thriving on movement, gathering strength as it goes.” Over six and a half years, Carlson had nightly delivered invective that was perhaps “at the start a small and cowardly thing, it soon puffs itself up, and walking upon the ground, buries its head in the cloud base,” or the air-waves, the “swift-footed creature” of rumor escaped judicial sanction as pure hyperbole, as rooted in “exaggeration” as Donald Trump’s own claims, rather than “stating actual facts.” AlthoughTrump had famously counseled “truthful hyperbole” as a form of “innocent exaggeration” in The Art of the Deal (1987), Fox News seems to have expanded the effective business practice to news broadcasting, defending Carlson’s “hyperbolic language” to be protected as free expression, no matter how incendiary or vindictively dismissive it was.
The admission of hate speech and denigration as a form of “free speech” set a new standard in the weaponization of speech against the electoral map in which partisan battle was energetically waged no holds barred, going full Hungarian, to cite CPAC. If such hyperbole was but the stock-in-trade of Tucker Carlson’s on-air fare, Carlson’s partisan commentary had sped hotfoot through the country, intentionally, crying news not rooted in actuality, or anywhere but partisan reality, but in what we had come to expect on Tucker Carlson Tonight. For Carlson had already explained that immigrants made the United States “poorer and dirtier” (December, 2018), as the protests after George Floyd’s killing were “definitely not about black lives” or justice (2020) Yet FOX lawyers cast the dismissal of defamation charges both a “victory for FOX News Media and or all defenders of the First Amendment”–as if they fit the Free Speech protected by the U.S. Constitution. Such lowered standards of speech enabled Fox TV lawyers to suggest that viewers’ expectations for “truth” from Carlson’s brand of commentary had diminished, and one could not expect him to be prosecuted for going overboard–the argument was not, in fact, about free speech, but the lowering of standards on broadcast news that painted Carlson as not speaking the truth at all.
This quite broad interpretation or inflection in historical arguments about free speech was perhaps born online. It was first prominently set by the distortions by which Campus Reform, affiliated with Breitbart, appropriated Free Speech in 2020, litigating that “free speech” zones at university campuses to protect political proselytization–akin to the zones of political protest that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s for protest activities–but now against the restriction of conservative speech. The redrawn “protections” of campus speech mirrored “red” states or states with sizable “red” constituencies, North Carolina to Georgia to Michigan to Wisconsin to New Hampshire to Virginia–
Introduction of Legislation Protecting Free Speech at Campuses in Reaction to Universities’ Restriction of Political Proselytizaiton
–and had created a striking division by using state legislatures to “open” university campuses to conservative ideologues, a mission that escalated after Donald Trump’s election. The dispatching of talking heads from the alt right–Anne Coulter; Milo Yiannopoulos; Ben Goldberg; and other online trolls–raised the bar on ‘free speech’ and adopted it as a logo for conservative causes, in an attempt to staunch an electoral divide.
The citing of free speech as an outcome of Tucker Carlson’s defamation trial was nothing less than a feather in the cap of alt right media. Campus Reform had long sought to “expose the liberal bias on America’s campuses”–of which many universities seemed guilty as charged–to protect conservative speech and learning at college education after Trump’s election, following protests after Trump’s election on college campuses. The rallying cry that “The radical left will stop at nothing to intimidate conservative students on college campuses” animated the movements of protecting Second Amendment clubs in Utah, Free Speech Balls in Mississippi, and other conservative activists interested in sponsoring ideological speakers.
Tucker Carlson accused his past employer of ‘de-platforming’ the voice of conservative America, and limiting his broadcasts–even if the notion that he had crossed a line in the broadcasts was less compelling than the sexist private behavior and a bevy of texts that the new defamation suit uncovered red. Carlson invoked the term ‘free speech’ in the context of broadcasting, to make a point quite different from the definition of free speech in 1789–but far more akin to the earlier defamation suit that viewed his show as “loose, figurative or hyberbolic language.” But the When Carlson recast himself as aggrieved by the mainstream media, he hinted his dismissal reacted to the bravery of his vigorous election denialism. But his liability had grown. Carlson’s new texts reviled Donald Trump in a language not seen on air reveal a level of contempt for a man he characterized as a “good at destroying things” and as “a demonic force, a destroyer,” before whom he needed to stay alive: “But he’s not going to destroy us. I’ve been thinking about this every day for four years.”
Yet Carlson had himself destructively sewn discord to destroy the civil fabric of the nation, however, which became the main currency of his own show. Even as he claimed to be within his “rights,” Carlson pushed the envelope to create a racist, invective-filled shows on cable news, espousing replacement theory as a danger to the character of the United States that aped white supremacism. Before the split map of red and blue counties of the 2016 election, he perpetuated the gap between parties as destiny, reprising themes of the Trump campaign and promulgating new resentment. The map before which he delivered the news became a banner of election denialism. Delivering “news” before a blurred electoral map–a map so iconic among Republicans to not demand detail–the backdrop for rosy-faced invective on Tucker Carlson Tonight. This post unpacks the persistence of this map on Fox News as a backdrop for Carlson’s version of truth-telling in opening monologues broadcast nightly from November 14, 2016, to April 21, 2023–as if it were a static screen to which Carlson sought to orient viewers, freezing the 2016 electoral map in time.
Fox News Channel March 2, 2017, in New York/Richard Drew, AP
While the red swath had grown far less monolithic in the early hours of the tally of the 2020 election, in ways that might have seemed to warrant a challenge to Carlson’s logo, the map of 2016 was an icon for the “news” hour, the logo was so iconic that it had not changed,–even as the recent election suggested an opening in the monolithic division of blue and red states, and a more closely divided vote indeed. But as election denialism continued, Carlson had clung to the 2016 map, which occupied a central place in the ideological bent of his viewing audience, who saw that victory as a new road map for partisan identity–even as the states seemed to break in a different manner. Indeed, the early results on the “magic walls” on interactive news screens quickly reconfigured the logo that Tucker Carlson had used as the back screen of his nightly partisan broadcasts.
Magic Wall on NBC News, Election Night 2020
1. Tucker Carlson seemed more florid and a bit unnerved on Twitter, a bit faded after all those broadcast, a bit less animated, before a framed Bill of Rights, with far harsher lighting. He claimed himself ready to confront what he cast as a moment of media crisis in which he was not involved. Bereft of the logo of the nation as it was fragmented by electoral politics in 2016, split in “blue” and “red” counties as if it contained separate nations, the aggrieved news commentator seemed trying to convey an air of normalcy, hunkered down in a house as if sheltering in place.
Safety, and indeed free speech, had been imperiled by the liberal state. Protection of an imperiled democracy offered a rationale for broadcasting that was indeed akin to January 6, as if an insurrection was being live cast direct from Maine, in what seemed Tucker Carlson’s summer house, a site of safety and white purity, far from the current partisan wars, but also command central for waging them. In granting the possibilities January 6 rioters who entered the Capitol were only exercising free speech and rights of assembly, Carlson reprised a tired charge “liberals” imperil our national security–a big reveal of American conservative news media for some time. The emergence of the constellation of “national security” was forged in the post-World War II period, first linking “security studies” to “international political economy” in ways later made explicit by 1947, when The National Security Act coordinated global risks and federal agencies by a National Security Council created “to advise the President with respect to the integration of domestic, foreign and military policies relating to the national security and internal security.” The postwar triangulation solidified the place of America in a global theater that would redefining American liberalism, framing “national security” by military policy as well as foreign policy liberals long found problematic more than purely pragmatic.
When Carlson blamed liberals for intentionally undermining national security on his show every night–by cutting the military budget, welcoming refugees from war-torn nations, or migrants on the southern border as creating a national security threat, it was as undercutting that global order, as much as undermining a national order. And, most recently, he had delivered an exposé of sorts about the Capitol Riots of January 6–
–even if this meant taking the QAnon Shaman who decorated his face with warpaint as a victim of an American media, as much as a victim of his belief in false freedoms.
In exposing global existential threats, Tucker Carlson had created a script of urgency January 6’ers had almost coopted–an d then reframed the trials of the rioters in the January 6 Insurrection as an issue of freedom. If Carlson’s rants on immigration crafted a uniquely survivalist tone taken up by January 6’ers as charges when they entered the Capitol, creating an alternative narrative and reality about the protests, as well as about the convictions of : “in free countries, governments to do not lie about protest as a pretext to gain more power,” white-washing the event as “mostly peaceful chaos” in ways that offered those being tried for besieging the U.S. Capitol some hope. Carlson cunningly suggested federal forces increased the violence by planting disruptive agents in the January 6 crowd, finding evidence of a “false flag” operation in 46,000 hours of “secret footage” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy provided as an exclusive, as one of his first public acts, because, as Carlson put it, “Americans have the right to know” and have not been told the full story.
Tucker Carlson’s “return” was a form of phoenix-like relaunch, born out of the ashes of the the defamation lawsuit against Fox News, arising to strike against the legal verdicts not of the January 6 rioters, but verdicts finding Donald Trump guilty of battery, defamation, abuse, felony and falsifying business records. Quite soon afer he was released from or asked to leave Fox News, it was predictable Carlson would not allow himself to be pushed around. Promising to continue to speak the unvarnished, unrestrained manner that gave voice to the aggrieved, he found a defender in free speech absolutist Elon Musk. Musk had stated ambitions to make the center of news information in the 2024 election, claiming Twitter might create a major platform of the election, and Carlson almost wanted to lend a helping hand. Granted a newly prominent platform by the free speech absolutist to reinvigorate his own failing business, Carlson perpetuated a true deep fake, reclaiming free speech as the terrain of the alt right, appropriating the early modern liberty as an empowering rallying cry against entitled but entrenched media interests.
The most recent gambit of Carlson to sew board discontent not only recast the former president as an aggrieved victim, but showed himself a victim of powerful interests that seek to de-platform his show–at a close remove from the limiting of liberties that now stood in the rifle sites of the new priorities of the state. The historical decline from America’s Four Freedoms were at threat as the switch he made to Twitter only revealed the threats to freedom of expression that were historically enshrined by the passage of the Bill of Rights sought to protect in an early age of print culture. The streaming and broadcasting of defamatory lies on television provided a qualitative and mode of expression more akin to groupthink than expression, cleverly camouflaged in Carlson’s championing of a right to “free speech.” Presenting himself as the aggrieved party, he became a living symbol the violation of civil rights haunting the country from the January 6 rioters to Derek Chauvin to Donald Trump, all white men targeted by the liberal state, at a time when the union–and not only the Capitol building, but the country that the Capitol represented–was under attack.
The new argument of “legal exceptionalism” deviously undercut justice, if not the trial system, in the false populism of common sense. The dismissal of Tucker Carlson from Fox News may have occurred in the fallout from settlement of the Dominion lawsuit out of court, that revealed him to have sent several quite disparaging texts about Donald Trump amidst the rampant sexist of his newsproom, in a revelation of his off-the-camera behavior. The demand for a greater level of honesty on Twitter might allow was cast as a greater level of purity. In pandering to grievance yet again, he continued the Tucker Carlson narrative of grievance that was hardly new to his show. To be sure, in the light of the remarks made public during the Dominion lawsuit for defamation of the electronic voting systems, he wanted a place to reach the 3.2 million viewers who had nightly tuned into his show. His bracing announcement “We’re back!” quickly topped 100 million views in less than twenty-four hours, winning 21 million watches of a video, even if the number probably magnified individual viewers. This approached the audience of 3.2 million of times past.
Tucker Carlson let his viewers know that after he left the FoxNews network, in the fallout from settlement of the Dominion lawsuit out of court, texts disparaging Donald Trump and revelations of improperly sexist newsroom behavior were less the reason than claiming moral high ground. But Carlson may have been protesting too much: his show had almost intently if not obsessively exploited a politics of grievance to fostered since 2017 the hyper-partisan division of the United States. The recurring topic of the show was stated in the electoral map logo of red expanse and blue readouts that hung in the background of his nightly rants–Carlson’s news commentary fit the slightly blurred map of the electoral division of the nation, now an existential fact and eternal lesson in ways that its content didn’t even demand to be interpreted, glossed or read.
The blurred out map before which he had broadcast since 2017 on Fox News displayed a cleaving of blue and red counties he cheerily perpetuated. His show id his best to preserve if not magnify this map, if not to make it an iconic as a map of the party’s future. The map was a leitmotif of sorts of a struggle that animated all Carlson’s on-air rants: as if patriotism perpetuated the partisan divides, he basked before the warm glow of an electoral divide among blue and red counties that cartographic semantics dictated displayed perhaps less two different nations than two world-views. He didn’t need to explicate this divide that lay at the center of most all nightly broadcasts, but electoral divides placed in question the fate of the nation before the duplicity of Democrats and the national security threats they had enabled–as he invoked narratives of “how nations collapse.” The all but blurred logo had a centrality that didn’t even need to prominently register.
Hardly a “news” map at all, but perhaps a mirror of the country more accurate than the provisional prediction of weather map, or the ephemera generated by the Weather Channel, the 2016 electoral map was more of a flag of secession. Although it is unclear if it was chosen by Carlson or FoxNews, it was a celebration of the America First doctrine of earlier eras, and an illustration of the United States as two different countries, a recognition of two different agendas and two different realities, that informed all of the Tucker Carlson’s clarifications of news stories, and shifted the scale of earlier maps on broadcast news–often global projections or globes–as the electoral division was foregrounded as a prism to read global news in an age of red and blue states.
Unlike other news maps that use global projections, or rotating spherical globes, the electoral map glowed talismically. It shrunk global affairs to a format of clear borders and hard lines, even if it was blurred. The electoral map, in something of a rebuttal to globalization, prompted Carlson to become an international voice, somewhat paradoxically, to the nationalist strongmen who broadcast ethnic intolerance and firm boundary lines, a nationalism of pseudo-liberties from gun ownership to blissful isolation, often behind physical walls to dissuade all immigrants from entering. Tucker gained international renown for praising Putin, winning kudos and lauds from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, being hosted by Hungary’s anti-gypsy and anti-migrant strongman Viktor Orbán, and leading Russian media to find it “essential” to feature clips of his nominally nationalist show. “Russia is only defending its interests and security,” more than acting as an aggressor, Carlson argued, using inverted logic to remap the patriotic American viewer’s relation to the world.
The focus on the electoral map of the 2016, transformed the iconic map former President Trump long celebrated as evidence of a “massive” landslide victory, was an icon of the false populism of the Trump Presidency. Not a measure of the actual turn-out or number of votes, the map was the revelation or “big reveal” that confirmed a tightly contested race to be a landslide, and froze as transformative a victory that never really occurred. What better to display as the icon of Tucker Carlson Tonight as a rallying cry for the FoxNews audience, an ecstatic moment of false populist communion by which the red states were united as one, linking the future of the party and the figure of Donald Trump, and presenting the United States as wracked by competing visions that Tucker Carlson would do his darnedest to explicate and clarify in order to orient his viewers to the complexities of the world.
Carlson’s quick turn from Fox News to a new broadcasting terrain occurred, may have noted, after the Dominion settlement, but also as Donald Trump rejected outright the verdicts of two federal juries on the basis of their compromised geographic location, especially after the “fraudulent” conviction of Donald Trump for having approached women at the elegant if not austere entrance to Bergdorf Goodman, just around the corner from Trump Tower, already open at the very site where Trump had fantasized building since his own childhood, at Fifth Avenue and 56th Street, where he was argued to have approached a newspaper columnist, flattered by his attention, with the odd request to try on potential gifts in the dressing room at the store’s lingerie section. Was Trump a sleazy stalker caught in his poaching ground, a stone’s throw from Trump Tower, cornering women at Bergdorf Goodman’s entrance capturing the reflection of its opulence?
Such an image would have indeed reduced Donald Trump to the dimension of New York, rather than cast him as a defender of national liberties, a dishonorable man trying who gave flattering attention to a popular columnist able to capture her attention outside the opulence of a former Gilded Age residence of a marble facade.
Carlson’s turn to protect free speech may have recuperated a far less stained sense of virtue on a platform free from monitoring disinformation, hate speech, or verbal abuse. Carlson had long clothed such hate speech in the guise of perpetuating the expanse of red states against the crowded redoubts of democrats on the 2016 electoral map. But now hate speech and free expression was being almost openly embraced. As Bergdorf Goodman’s lingerie department gained a place in America’s cultural memory, the video screen map of a blurred electoral map from Carlson’s show was destined for the dustheap of history, in favor of a terrifying platform of free speech absolutism.
The riff in the video was not an uncommon one for Tucker Carlson’s show, which was haunted almost preternaturally by the electoral map of Donald Trump’s victory. This flatscreen blurred image was familiarized to viewers as a new map of the nation–coinciding with the kick-off Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign and the verdicts of federal juries in New York and Washington, DC for criminal charges. Carlson had long championed a brand of defending constitutional rights, from the alleged right to possess a gun of second amendment free speech, to how a self-righteous “cancel culture” threatened to undermine free speech, COVID policies assault freedoms of assembly, or amending the constitution might orient the nation around states’ rights, protecting it from federal agencies and officials. Carlson had sustained that the January 6 rioters were only illustrating their rights to a freedom of assembly. He now argued free speech survived only on a new medium, off the television media where he began his show. Free speech existed only on Twitter, he argued, carving out a new niche by streaming from a wood-paneled room in his Maine home, as if evoking nothing less than a new frontier, demanding a new platform and a new road map for the nation.
Tucker Carlson’s New Twitter Video
And this in a nation that once recognized “Speech is the fundamental prerequisite for democracy.” “Free speech is the main right you have,” Carlson told his audience with a sense of deep grievance, “without it, you have no others.” He was convincing viewers that their fortunes still aligned with his own pivot from broadcast television, to the open marketplace of the twittersphere, whose new owner had predicted it would guarantee his free speech–and continue the “show” as his audience was accustomed. If he had grown in stature under the Presidency of Donald Trump, doing his best to divide the nation along the fissures of the 2016 electoral map that he sought to magnify, by chipping at its edges and growing red states through the activating political hot-button issues from immigration woes to the deceits of voter fraud to the hoaxes of global warming and climate change, growing the cleft of the country, did Carlson have cold feet late in the game? Or was he only saving his brand?
The pundit reappeared on Twitter far from the electric scrim of a 2016 electoral map that boasted the great continuous expanse of red states in the American heartland, a map that had finally reached its due-by date for many, three years into Joe Biden’s administration, but to rev up Trump 2024, in a wood-paneled room of crisp renovation, removed form the studio or video screen, before a replica of the U.S. Constitution, to promote his defense of Free Speech to the world from an improvised studio that seemed to be located in his country house up in Maine as his soundstage. Before a small map of blue and red counties, beneath an ornamental decorative globe perched two his left, Tucker was reborn as a new, warier talking head, ready to defend free speech, as he wanted it to be understood, with the blessing of that self-made free speech absolutist, Elon Musk. Musk, a declared Free Speech absolutist, in what is either a mixed metaphor or very misplaced modifier, retired from restructuring the social media site.
When we see the edges of our world as blue, we do so from an anthropocentric perspective. The pale blue line of the horizon is a product of atmospheric distortion, but is an artifact created from a line of sight. If the horizon privileged as the position of the observer, the construction of clear edges might be questioned by the presence of the prolific Sargassum bloom that stretches across the Atlantic Ocean, bridging continents that reflects the abundance of nitrogen in ocean environments. The floating macroalgae seems to disrupt the idea of a fixed perspective on the sea, and the very construction of clear edges questioned by its presence. For the approach of this brown biomass that now bridges continents antiquates the idea of having one single, fixed perspective on the sea. But while we see the mass of seaweed as an invasion of territorial waters, a problem of coastal management, whose migration outside the ocean currents that bound the Sargasso Sea that spread across the South Atlantic, unlike the constant temperatures of the North Atlantic, the influx of macroaglal migration of this Sargassum seems the detritus not only of ocean warming on a global stage.
We are unsure of the relation to the growing brown-yellow biomass to our national waters, or the lines we draw around them, but are preoccupied that it is entering them. We might ask, however, why we are mapping the sargassum in remote sensing, we are projecting its origin beyond our own lands, and the scale at which we are depositing nitrogen-rich effluent into coastal waters at a terrifyingly high rate. The entry of plumes of nitrogen in the ocean is not defined by a fixed line. Indeed, the fixity of the ocean’s horizon might be a relic of the navigators of a more open ocean of the past. John Updike once parsed the maritime horizon that crisply divided the blue sky from the sea as a border between two worlds–
That line is the horizon line,
The blue above it is divine.
The blue below it is marine,
Sometimes the blue below is green.
–in rhyming couplets whose elegance echoed a divide that seemed quite fixed. Updike has described himself as attending as a graphic artist to blank blue skies, or snowy surfaces, or ocean surfaces, “tracing what I see with a mental finger or pen” while meditating on the limits of his field of vision. Crisp lines and fixed divisions are upset by the appearance of sargassum on the global stage, a blurred brown streak of a mobility that disrupts our categories of state lines and land-locked territoriality. But its appearance is also born of it. If Updike drew clear dividing lines of an almost early modern character in the romantic consciousness of a bored yachtsman off the New England coast, the drawing of crisp dividing lines in our ocean maps is disrupted by the exponential growth of a large biomass of sargasso about to make landfall along Central American shores. The increased coastal anxieties of the exponential growth in of macroalgae seems far away from the New England coast–however much algal blooms and sea-level rise, as well as erosion, threaten the Maine coast–but we might do well to start by mapping the sargassum of the South Atlantic from the perspective of the seaweed, as much a from the shores.
The rise of sargassum approaching the shores of the Caribbean may demand the reaction of national waters, but are in no small part the fruit of ocean pollutants and phosphorus effluents that are offering nutrients to the algae on unprecedented scale. Indeed the growing application of fertilizer to meet “local” demands of the production of food, from West Africa to the Amazon, suggest that the growth of this new abundant flotilla of Sargassum is a product of global trade–as much, perhaps, as the flow of migrants a respond to sharpening economic inequality, that demands to be mapped as such. If the hopes to harvest macroalgae on ocean waters encouraged oceanic clean-up operations as SeaVax to direct ambitions from industrial waste and oil spills to harvest the macro-algae by giant oceanic cleanup operation, in plans for the SeaVax-Sargasso™ or AmphiMax-Sargasso™ to meet the growing blooms of brown seaweed on the high seas from becoming a coastal threat, the aim to prevent the large brown seaweed from approaching national waters hints at how intertwined its biomass is with global economic exchange that this post tries to develop and expand upon.
Atlantic Sargassum, 2023 and Exclusive Economic Zones in Caribbean Waters
As we map the flotilla Sargassum approaching Caribbean shores as a threat to “coastal waters” as it enters countries’ “Exclusive Economic Zone” and “national waters”, we remove the prolific seaweed’s unprecedented abundance from growing increased food from the lands by emending lands with fertilizer, rather than ocean warming. If entrepreneurial operations as SeaVax-Sargasso™ or AmphiMax-Sargasso™ oriented local businesses and governments to the surface of oceans, the global risks of nitrogen plumes in river run-off must be mapped far more deeply than the above satellite map of millions of metric tons of sargassum biomass, more often cast in terms of seasonal migration rather than the engineering of coastal waters.
The absence of clear lines in the Atlantic ocean, where the migration of macroalgae floats across high ocean waters, seems a canary in the coal mine of a warming world. One might see its sudden appearance as the result not of anthropogenic climate change, but an alien monster of global industry. Amidst 269,000 tons of plastic refuse floating on the undulating surface of global oceans, the thirteen tons of biomass floating in the mid-Atlantic may seem slight, but the astounding prolific growth of brown strings of algae in the Atlantic are an oceanic anomaly, moving shoreward, distant from the Sargasso Sea in Sargassum that long sequestered similar strands of seaweed in the mid-Atlantic amidst ocean currents.
Unlike the vitality long tied to the Sargasso Sea–first, a sea of monsters, but then a sea of untold fertility, a disproportionate producer of oxygen and carbon sink akin to a floating rainforest–the expansion of sargassum species has become a deep danger for our coasts and shores. It is as if spun off of the wild vitality of the Sargasso Sea, long an image of terror–the “Sea of Grassy Death,” for Mickey Spillane, littered with lost ships as a “living graveyard,” or “mystical ocean graveyard, hundreds of miles wide, hundreds of fathoms deep”–no longer constrained by ocean currents conjures cascading threats to coastal management in an age of climate change that knows no edges, not because of what lies hidden in its fearful deep–but what sort of algal monsters are approaching the white sands of our vacation shores.
The strands of floating Sargassum were reinterpreted in the ecology movement, due to Rachel Carson’s classic work, as a site that nourished the abundant growth of microorganisms, a feeding grounds for fish and a floating rain forest of intense vitality: but the prolific floating Sargassum that now appears to extend across the Atlantic below the equatorial current is mapped as unwanted migrants, destined to foul the shores and coastal habitats across the Caribbean; the long strands of algal mats drifting on the ocean’s surface loom as the latest global casualty of climate change.
Charles Darwin, abord the HMS Beagle visiting ports on the Atlantic, took seaweed as a critical register of globalism. As he docked at ports in South America, Darwin gathered samples of algae that he collected samples, catalogued for his perusal what he perceived as a register of oceanic life and vitality, in ways that influence Ernst Haeckle and others: he sent weeds to correspondents from the Falklands and elsewhere as keys to the similar if unique habitats that evolved in benthic waters, impressed by the brown-green marcoralgae forests waving at him at the Galapagos, as if blossoming in the shallow, nutrient-rich waters of near coastal environments. The seaweeds were a basic register of biologic of global diversity studies on his travels, able to be sent on letters for future study–
–and of the primitive forms of life that evolved in the near shore rocks, evidence of the biodiversity of Atlantic waters and their vitality. But if Darwin collected Patagonian and other algae with care, the prolific biomass of floating kelp steaming toward Caribbean beaches out of control. Their extraordinary plenty in rafts of foot-long seaweeds are carried by currents destined as they wash ashore to kill coastal habitat and environments.
The abundance of the floating Sargassum, like a return of the repressed, removed from holists in coastal environments, again haunts the oceanic waters in an age of global warming in a monstrous manner, returning to prominence as an anomaly we are unable to catalogue or fit into our maps of ocean waters. Floating in international waters, the macroalgae appear removed from national jurisdiction, but is hardly “natural” in appearance. It has begun to mass over the Atlantic High Seas in recent decades, poised to redraw the margins of our coasts. The growth of inordinate algal biomass of algal strands are poised to swamp the divide between land and sea, as if a liberalization of the greenhouse effect, redrawing the margins of shores and land-sea divide. The growth of such an unprecedented mass of Sargassum, far from the confining currents that bound the Sargasso Sea, have been located across the high seas of the mid-Atlantic, but demand to be studied in relation to how nitrogen is entering our coastal oceans, shifting the ratio of phosphorous and nitrogen in the marine bath in which they float, as much as they deriving warming oceanic temperatures. The man-made nature of the anthropogenic changes in large coastal rivers–the Amazon or the Niger River basin, the Volta, and Mississippi–send greater blooms of nitrogen discharge in the Atlantic, shifting the chemical composition of coastal waters in unprecedented ways.
The blue marine is no longer only sometimes green, but often brown with algae. The blue marine is no longer only sometimes green. Covered with algal bloom, it is red, green, or often brown. As many coastal and lake waters gain industrial hues, unprecedentedly saturated with indelible hues of algal blooms, the rise of the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt in recent years has become the latest evidence of the massive scale or cascading of climate change. We might imagine the bloom, given that it is viewable from space, as a surface mark akin to the storm of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter, but the abundant growth of seaweed, maps as a global disruption, evidence of how much “nature” no longer exists as a category. But if the Giant Red Spot is in fact a huge storm, a vortex swirling for centuries as a supersized cyclone–the largest storm in the solar system, enduring for centuries, far deeper than it appears from the gaseous surface–the undercurrents of the sargassum bloom are elided by remote sensing provides. Oceanographers distinguish ocean bathymetry as holding littoral, pelagic, and abyssal species, the shoreline clustering of seaweeds on rocky coasts are unlike the pelagic algae that seems a new seasonal visitor to our shores.
Coastal and Ocean Distribution of Brown Algae, 2020/published by Global Biodiversity Information Foundation
Anthropogenic influences on ocean waters demand unpacking the remove of an anthropocentric point of view Algal blooms–the massive efflorescence of Sargassum in the Caribbean, offering reminders (as if we needed them) of just how poorly adapted are mental constructs to understand the state of oceans. There may be some historical circularity in the fear with which the impending arrival of thirteen tons of Sargassum on the shores of the Americas and Caribbean islands is described: as the early modern sailors who were terrified of the Sargasso Sea as a point of disorientation, concealing monsters, we are terrified at the accumulation of brown coastal seaweed–macroalgae that floats in large masses, accumulating in the Gulf of Mexico and tropical Atlantic, in a dramatic deviation from the largely coastal settlement of seaweed across the globe. If the Sargasso Sea is as big as America, the belt of Sargassum spread across the Atlantic is as large or larger, if more dispersed.
Unlike the global distribution of brown seaweed on our coasts, the flotilla of brown sargasso whose density has caused such alarm is anything but natural in its copious abundance. The superbloom of brownmacroaglal biomass that seems born by winds into the Caribbean is indeed a cause for alarm. The excessive abundance of this algae is a hyper-event, the latest evidence of the anthropogenic alteration of ocean waters, not directly driven by ocean warming, but the new nature of oceans. The increasing abundance of macroalgae were perhaps dislodged form the Sargasso Sea by the southern-shifted winds, where Sargassum were long confined by currents in the mid-Atlantic; the extravagant growth in global waters however, demands to be mapped. The feared arrival of the biomass that threatens to clot coastlines, basins, estuaries, and inlets this summer is the largest harmful algal bloom on earth. Yet our maps may not capture ho much it is the result of altered by human activity. We do not pause to analyze its appearance, or try to map it, as an anthropogenic effect, viewing the remotely sensed maps of its biomass floating toward our shores as if they migrated from afar, distancing the macroalgae on the high seas from any anthropogenic in origin.
The unprecedented offshore growth of a seaweed that offers precious habitat to life has accelerated in growth in recent years. The seasonal arrival of anthropogenically induced fertilizer has changed the relation of not only land to ocean, but ocean ecology, accelerated by increased rainstorms driving more plumes of nitrogen to ocean waters, including unknown amounts of deforestation-induced runoff excess sediment whose influence on coastal ecology demands to be better mapped.
The arrival of the thirteen tons of floating biomass into the coastal waters of the Americas is a cause for alarm–described as an “invasion” and “creeping threat.” Species of Sargassum have been arriving in Caribbean waters since 2015 in large quantities to pose a threat to coastal ecosystems as well as shoreline management. Large strings of algae of at least two species–and several varieties–have spread beyond the current-bound Sargasso Sea, floating on ocean currents across the Atlantic growing by vegetative growth, perhaps accelerated by warming waters, born by winds in ways that have echoed the cataclysmic metaphors we have been accustomed to describe migration. The appearance of what is cast as a problem of coastal management is newly prominent in global oceans as a problem of climate change: even if Sargassum are ecosystems with long historical roots, the exponential growth in floating seaweed has led to search for metaphors of a climate emergency and alarm bell of an anomalous growth of brown biomass, compromising the Caribbean beaches of countries where summer tourism is such a vital part of the economy.
Yet the exponential growth of Sargassum is perhaps better mapped as yet another fracture in the illusion of prosperity that drives globalization; evidence of the disturbances in the coastal biome of offshore life that has been triggered by the release of plumes of nitrogen from expanding application of fertilizer, from Mexico to Brazil to West Africa, whose discharge into the coastal ocean have set the stage for such a prolific algal super-bloom? We are overly comfortable, perhaps, mapping the “arrival” of the large biomass of kelp from remote satellite sensing, placing the bloom outside of our national waters, and the geographic space of a nation-state. We map the arrival of the astounding macroalgal mass that stretches across the Atlantic measured by remote sensing to grasp its density, by metaphors of migration of brown-skinned kelp as if they were “foreign” to our coastal ecosystem, possessed by economic fears, we adopt a perspective primarily from the coast, or an anthropocentric cartography, driven by feared economic vulnerability by which we map migration more generally, and in which migration often seems increasingly embedded. Perhaps it would be of help to map the arrival from a new sort of “story-map,” however, more tied to globalism and economic engines of globalization, from the perspective of the Sargassum itself.
Fearful of the anomalous expansion of macroalgal biomass that is floating across the Atlantic, heading toward our national waters, we map the arrival of the Great Atlantic Sargasso Belt by cartographic fictions of ‘Exclusive’ Economic Zones (EEZ’s), as if the ocean were a flat space, exploiting the fictional nature of maps to remain in our comfort zones. As much as the solace that was found in the sea, we are frustrated at the absent geometry to orient us to the seaweed floating in the Caribbean about to approach the web of islands at the edge of the open sea. The dark green surroundings of earlier eighteenth-century nautical routes magnified the equatorial islands of the Caribbean that were sources of economic wealth, as if seaweed clung to their coasts, before breaking off to join the dense fields of weeds that were estimated to b about 10 million tons by A. E. Parr to be circulating at the heart of the Atlantic, where Columbus first described seeing as dawn rose, on his first return from America, as being surrounded by “so much grass that it seemed to be the sea curdled with it, and it came from the West [en amaneciendo hallaron tanta yerba que parecía ser la mar cuajada de ella, y venía del Oeste” (Viernes 21 septiembre 1492)” on Friday, September 21, 1492.
If the “Relaciones y Cartas” that Columbus kept from his trip preserve a primal record of contact with the drifting, fragmenting, asexually reproducing, vital region of the Sargasso Sea, whose macro-alga only die if they are picked up by outward flowing currents from its permeable edges, the maps made for Columbus’ voyage were famously made to capture that the earth was not flat. And yet, we pretend the ocean is flat, and with clear edges, we fail to map the changed oceans in an era of climate change, whose cascading effects extend far beyond rising ocean temperatures. As much as it makes sense to see the seaweed blooms as result of rising temperatures, in an era of anthropogenic change. As coastal waters are increasingly defined by discharge of rivers of fertilizer feeding the Gulf of Mexico and the estuary of the Amazon, the river that feeds more freshwater to the ocean than any other, its sediment increasingly filled with phosphorous from its many sediment-laden tributaries, providing a nourishing bath for the Sargassum. The increased flux of phosphorus to the ocean has grown as Amazonia is clearcut, replaced by farmlands, and as increasing flooding from extreme weather, and cyclonic activity, washes organic matter to the ocean, to be released in its coastal ocean, that have long raised question of the phosphorous cycle.
The discharge of rivers that defined the Atlantic reveal the need for new tools of understanding the shift in phosphorus in the Atlantic in an age of globalization. The flux of phosphorous may help to track the explosive growth in the mid-Atlantic of sargassum, whose tangled strands have grown a hundred-fold since 2011, when they first appeared, to the south of the Sargasso Sea where it was long contained by equatorial currents. The irregular expanse of seaweed–thirteen tons of macroalgal biomass, we have no idea how to deposit or dispose, even in an era when Florida produced four times as much solid waste annually, and twenty times as much floating garbage lie in our oceans. In an era when plastic waste annually accumulates in ocean gyres, the stream of living seaweed has become, paradoxically, the latest cause for alarm, an unexpected anthropogenic substrate for bacteria, upsetting existing horizons for the gyres already accumulating in extensive pools of plastic waste across the North Atlantic, filling the seas with floating plastic debris, not to mention the microfibers that fill the deep sea–overlapping if not centered at the Sargasso Sea.
Can we better map the seasonal arrival of sargassum that is now again approaching our coasts in the midst of these changing seas? For those early modern Atlantic sailors, the region of the Sargasso Sea know no clear bounds–even as the early modern ties to South America were defined by creating clear meridians whose bearings were located in London, Paris, or, famously, the Cape Verde islands in the Treaty of Tordesillas. As the mass of tangled seaweed was feared to hide terrifying shoals and monsters, named after the Spanish word for kelp–sargazo–that swished again the prows of caravels, they realized this floating biomass was a new wilderness, sensing its brown-green surface concealed monsters or dangerous shoals against which they might be stranded, feared the Sargasso Sea as a foreign floating mass. Although the euphonious sound of this new marine oceanic body, later re-imagined a site of adventure or final frontier of wilderness by the early twentieth century–when many sailors continued to avoid the floating biomass–the arrival of the new variety of sargassum that is accumulating in long strands we are calling a Belt poses new fears for the modern nation-state since it appeared with surprising prominence in July, 2018–but has dramatically expanded by 2023. While we map the biomass from the perspective of shores, and from the fears it poses to coastal environments, the accumulation of seaweed seems closely tied to the displacement of phosphorous that heavy rainfall events increase by a factor of two- to four-fold. As anthropogenic inputs–and increased nitrogen fertilizer–stand to double phosphate flux to the coastal ocean, further accelerated by multipliers in an age of extreme weather, its entry acts as a biological pump, shifting the ambient waters for which it provides a nursery–
–which a story or narrative of migration seems hardly able to capture. The complex problem of causation driven primarily by ocean circulation and rainfall threatens to remove the human agency at the origin of the massive macroalgal superbloom across the ocean, driven by a change in the ocean waters that the Sargassum species has long lived, but has become prolific across the Caribbean and Central Atlantic, rather than being confined within the rich habitat of the Sargassum Sea. If the delicate ecosystems that floating beds of Sargassum has created in the shoreless “Sargassum Sea” has been protected in international waters, and the contribution of the sea as a massive carbon sink in proportion to global oceans has led it to be called a “floating rainforest,” the robust growth of the pelagic algae demands increasing global attention–if its “migrations” are poorly understood only in reference to ocean shores. The astoundingly prolific volume of Central Atlantic Sargassum has boomed in a manner we cannot only understand by narratives of migration.
The clots of floating marine seaweed in the news–the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt–is running across edges in troubling ways. The pelagic seaweed is suggestive of an upwelling of nutrients off West Africa, but seems arrival of blooms both off the coast of Africa and at the mouth of the Amazon suggest a new anomaly in the ocean, driven by the ocean circulation, unlike the binding of the Sargasso Sea by ocean currents. The GASB, stretching across the Atlantic from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico, is an icon of globalism, one that demands mapping not only as an oceanic phenomenon, however, but a disturbance that seems deeply tied to the illusion of affluence that investment in fertilizer and the application of fertilizer to lands from Africa to South America, in an attempt to boost the agrarian self-sufficiency across the global South.
In contemplating the fixed line of the horizon, Updike, perhaps without ever intending, evokes the eschatology early modern transatlantic voyagers shared navigating high seas by dead reckoning and astrological bearings while they trusted to the divine. If early modern sailors were deeply disoriented by encountering the mid-Atlantic mass of swirling seaweed they knew as the Sargasso Sea–after the tawny tangles of floating kelp that swirl in its transparent waters, using the Spanish for ‘kelp’–saragazo–to describe the separate sea colored brown and gold, that was clearly a place apart, in Rachel Carson’s memorable phrase, “forgotten by the winds, deserted by the strong flow of waters that girdle it as with a river.. Trying to map the seaweed rainforest in their terms, long feared the dangers of hidden shoals or monsters, avoided by early sailors, and mariners through the nineteenth century, has long posed challenges because of its lack of edges. The half-rhymes of John Updike’s couplets of pentameter conceal a deep truth, but also also perpetuate a half-truth of marine edges, more than a deep truth of life at sea. If Carson believed that strands of seaweed were transported from the West Indies’ shores by hurricanes, carried up by the Gulf Stream, carrying marine creatures from coastal banks to the “new world” of the mid-Atlantic ocean, the size alone of the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt–GASB–is a New World of unclear edges, registered by a dedicated Satellite-Based Sargassum Watch System that registered the wind-driven approach of floating Sargassum, whose greater density as they move westward qualify metaphors of migration.
The anomalous size of seaweed strands in the Sargassum Belt are not bound by any edges. Unlike Updike’s horizon, the floating fields of macroalgae brook little boredom in their undulating expanse. As it approaches our shores, nourished not by warming seas–as often imagined–it appears fed by weather of global warming have triggered discharge of more nitrogen in major rivers from Africa to South America, as flooding and torrential rains and extreme weather have channeled more nitrogen fertilizer than ever intended into the Atlantic waters. The anomalous size of seaweed distorts any clearly defined a line of sight. Indeed, if the ocean hardly prepared sailors for encountering the tawny tangles of kelp floating in transparent Caribbean waters in the Sargasso Sea, the surprise and astonishment of the appearance of sargassum that has grown is even greater. The extraordinary hundred-fold multiplication of sargassum that has since 2010 been clotting Caribbean coasts demands mapping not on two dimensions, as it is normally visualized, based on NASA’s satellite maps, but in the ocean’s changing character and indeed chemical composition, as floating and nurtured in an increasingly nitrogen-rich bath.
1. If the floating sargassum we track on the ocean surface does not seem a direct result of ocean warming, an anomaly of climate change, it is the fruit of extreme storms that have washed copious amounts of nitrogen-rich fertilizer that flows from our rivers, far from the agrarian soils they were intended to emend; we hardly track the entrance of nitrogen into the coastal waters of our oceans, beyond the continental shelf, but the new variety of sargassum clotting the coasts of Caribbean waters hold far greater nitrogen than the sargassum weeds floating to the north in the expanse of the Sargasso Sea, stretching from the Bahamas to the Canary Islands. If late nineteenth-century cartographers who perhaps mapped with greater surety than later generations fell back on nervously quivering lines to map, already realizing, it was indeed “a world apart” lying outside conventions of terrestrial or marine mapping.
The tawny gold biomass swirling mid-ocean in the Sargasso Sea is not mapped by clear edges or blue edges: in 1875, cartographers rendered the long trails of sargassum seaweed that provide the Sea its euphonious name by quivering lines, between the North Equatorial Current and the Gulf Stream, two currents that set itself off apart from the mapped expanse as a region apart, perhaps suggesting the rich marine habitat it provided for fish, birds, and pacific pelagics, over a century before laws of ecological protections prevented marine trawling or harvesting of the sargassum in the region. Some of the plants circulating in the sea less defined by currents may have belonged to the gold-brown fields of sargassum that swished the prows of the caravels as Columbus returned to Spain, still circulating afloat in a region girdled by ocean currents–the prows of the boats broke flotillas of floating algae that “appeared suddenly floating a lot of herbs [Apareceiron parcels yerba mocha]” , Columbus wrote in a letter of 1493, far from the shores, soon described as its own sea. If the Sargassum Columbus encountered was feared, an d the fields of the Sargasso Sea avoided lest they entrap the sailing vessels or conceal monsters of a deep that may well have fed there, animated by the mirages of shipwrecked vessels condemned to rotate slowly in listless waters, as the ArcGIS story map “The Saga of Sargassum” suggests, after about 1500, we lack maps to chart the fear of Sargassum in an anthropgenic ocean pollution, we might start by better examining mapping the Sargassum we plot by remote sensing in relation engines of anthropogenic change–lest we allow the “layers” of ArcGIS to remap the ocean’s surface as if it were flat or had clear territorial edges.
Shifting Routes that Columbus Took in his Four Transatlantic Voyages in Relation to the Feared Sargsasso Sea
The mats of floating sargassum we map as arriving to our shores appears a different species than the sea, lying to its south, as a massive algal bloom. The Atlantic Sargassum Belt suggests its own parallel global reach. It colors the near offshore, without by fixed edges, but demands a new story map of sorts. In an age marked by anthropogenic change, our shores are blurred by red tides, blue-green macroalgae, and phosphorous-fed cyan-toxins that generated increased health advisories. As coastal waters across the United States are increasingly mapped by river-born fertilizer, we might well examine the appearance of an unprecedented on the open seas–over twenty million tons of floating sargassum, a blue-green algae, poised to clog shores and pose a real health risk, as fed and nourished by the increasing nitrogen concentrations in the largest rivers’ coastal plumes. To map the sargassum that has begun to fill the Caribbean since 2011, we would do well to explore narrative models beyond that of migration, all too often coded for immigration in national waters, charting the sudden appearance of the mass of macroalgae in the mid-Atlantic.
These are stories not only of living plants torn from their holdfasts in the coastal waters of the West Indies, ripped into the ocean by hurricanes to enter the northern border of the swirling Sargassso Sea, the metaphors of Rachel Carson, who so carefully oriented us to the ocean and the sea as an inadequately mapped area of vitality and life. If the power of her model of writing about the sea provided powerful precedent for how Jean Rhys finished later an alternative version of the literary classic Jane Eyre, of how Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, arrived in England, stripped of her West Indian name, Antoinette, after being torn from the island of Jamaica by Rochester, who took her properties and house as his possession, in a painful act of appropriation, and patriarchal authority, before he married Jane Eyre, embedded in a landscape of poqt-colonialization as much as the English manor. Rochester is described by Rhys as unable to orient himself to Antoinette’s land and life, disoriented and stunned before the blue-green sea of the island on which he never gained his sense of bearings–“‘Everything is too much. . . . Too much blue, too much purple, too much green.” His return to England from Jamaica with his new wife clearly mirrored the painful reverse path of a transatlantic slave trade that formed Jamaican plantations and properties, a model of extractive economies of the islands Rhys used, with the model of the oceanic circulation, as the absent backstory for the woman known only as the “madwoman in the attic,” as a story of colonization and expropriation, that needs to be better integrated into our mapping of the appearance of offshore imbalances that may have encouraged the sargassum superbloom. Antoinette half-conjured from a printed map, “England, rosy pink in the geography book map, but on the page opposite the words were closely crowded, heavy looking. Exports, coal, iron wool. Then Imports and Character of Inhabitants,” trying to grasp the global narrative of the extraction of sugar from plantations enriched men like Rochester to the islands, and its wealth. (Antoinette barely imagines a place “filled with fields of corn like sugar-cane fields, but gold colour and not so tall,” as if trying to ken the global wheels of economy that lead Rochester to so value her estate, and, upon arriving in Rochester’s house, fears she was in fact never brought to this place England, convinced “we lost our way to England” while at sea, as we “changed course and lost our way to England, and that “this cardboard house where I walk at night is not England.”
The narrative of economic extraction of sugar cane and agrarian wealth that Rhys described in 1832, just after the alleged emancipation created a new class of indentured servitude in Jamaica, acknowledges the unequal history of extraction and economic over-production beneath a veneer of plenty that led to the far more recent over-enrichment of the very impoverished lands, emended with fertilizer, that have shifted the coastal waters in an era of extreme weather, flooding, and coastal hurricanes. The sudden appearance of sargassum on our radar occurred as the landings of seaweed into the western tropical Atlantic–the size of landings exploded on Caribbean beaches, tied to extreme climate events of 2009-10, seemingly shifting winds and currents outside the usual confines of sargassum’s range that had confined its growth offshore in the belts of ocean currents. We have come to map sargassum now by local “inundation risk” of landfall, an addition to our coastal ocean placing an increased percentage of shoreline at increased risk, mapping the “risks” of inundation faced by beaches increasingly central to the economy of islands and coastal states, as if it were just suddenly entering our national sphere of influence and economic impact.
We may be tragically purblind to the deeper changes far beneath the flat blue surface of the Atlantic, by which in real-time maps we charge its arrival against swirling arrows of winds and currents, lacking a truly volumetric qualitative map of waters that fostered its rapid growth. If we are alarmed by the arrival of the Atlantic Sargassum Belt that is a new creature of the oceans, something that never encountered in the mid-Atlantic but now prominent from space, might we better map not only a flat ocean surface, but a shifting configuration of land to sea?
As our coastal waters are increasingly filled with accelerated algal growth, we have come to map shores and offshore waters as risk areas, neglecting how the growths are boosted by overabundant nutrients in river discharge from abundant use of industrial fertilizer, far outside the offshore waters to which the untold abundance of tawny sargassum was once primarily confined. As increasing nitrogen fills our coastal ocean, water acquires foreign hues of inkjet printers, as an overabundance of prolific algae clot coasts of the North Atlantic and are feared to wash across our shores. So, one fears, the arrival of the Great Atlantic Sargasum Belt.
The now-seasonal arrival of the macroalgae along Caribbean beaches, crowding out the stories white sands from the Bahamas to Mexico to Brazil, entangles shores, seas, and global ecosystems. If seaweed was an “inexhaustible wealth of wondrous forms” for Ernst Haeckle, whose hand-drawn images of radiolarians based on a thousand-fold magnification in microscopes provided grounds for the appreciation of natural forms–the abundance of seaweed is a problem show proportions we are not sure of how to observe, as it floats across the island, creating what once was seen–and is protected–as rich habitat for fishes, marine pelagics, birds, and microorganisms as yet the latest load of trash demanding disposal, leeching toxic sulfurs soon after it has washed ashore.
Coastal maps that foreground clear edges of shores fail to disentangle, or to blur, the way that the abundant generation of sargassum in our seas demands a new form of coastal mapping. In mapping their entry into national waters, we are often haunted by a metaphor of migration, fearing their impending landfall as a migration from abroad–across the ocean surface from Africa. But the long strands of sargassum that have flourished in our coasts was born in a bath of nutrients from rivers. The thirteen tons of free-floating macroalgae that favors temperate tropical oceans has gained new attention, enough to rouse the world from boredom at ocean swells. The fear of landfall grows as the sargassum bloom, now reproduced over a hundred-fold since appearing in 2011, is both fed by river discharge of the Congo and Amazon. While we map their seasonal arrival on the ocean horizon, as if it moves west to the south of the Sargasso Sea whose swirls are removed from shores, bound by ocean currents, the sargassum seems an invasive species we map as migrating. But in mapping the danger of the Atlantic Sargassum Belt by remote sensing, we are delinquent in failing to integrate its growing expanse to a global setting that has unintentionally saturated coastal oceans by anthropogenic nitrogen plumes, as extreme weather sends more and more manmade fertilizer in river discharge. Would a volumetric mapping help us to escape from the flat geographies by which we see the arrival of these floating mats as arriving on the sea from afar? It is all too easy to compartmentalize the “migration” of sargassum as a global artifact, destined once beached to release methane gases and hydrogen sulfide, a noxious smell toxic not only for respiratory health risks, but a unwanted potential public health risks for pregnant women.
Invasive Sargassum Belts Floating off Caribbean Island of St. Martin/Michel Vela (April 2018)
The half-rhyming couplets of Updike’s pentameter evoked perspective of a yachtsman more accustomed to hugging the shore than to high seas, and the lack of clear edges in the densely populated Sargasso Sea suggests a pool of algae without clear edges, bordered by islands from the Azores and Cape Verde in the east and surrounding Bermuda and the West Indies to the east, in a floating expanse that is hardly blue, even in Caribbean waters: we imagine the floating surface of sargassum, akin to Updike’s yacht, moves on the surface of the ocean, and map a two-dimensional image of it as advancing across the Atlantic Ocean below the equatorial current, but would do well to consider how a volumetric map of the seas might far better describe the huge macroalgal bloom.
Seaweed, Rachel Carson emphasized, inhabit an inter-tidal zone, if their “dark, mysterious forests” often “go down into deep water,” as evident in the giant key that are often cast ashore, if most kelp’s holdfasts are rooted to a rocky shore, and other inhabit the deep waters or polar sea. She believed that the sargassum of the central oceanic regions had entered the area bound by the strong flows of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current from the coasts she loved, imagining that the “brown alga that lives attached to the rocks along the coasts of the West Indies and Floridas” were “torn away by storms, especially during the hurricane season,” to be picked up by the Gulf Stream and head north, bearing “as involuntary passengers . . . innumerable larvae of assorted species of marine creatures.” Although the Sargasso Sea becomes a destination itself of many pacific pelagics and fish, the prime role that she gives to the hurricanes in shaping the sea reveals a keen sense of the impacts of oceanic movement.
If the sargassum that was so feared by sailors in the Sea nurtures creatures attached to the “weedy jungle” to which they cling as a life raft, the lives of the sargassum by which the vast sea is defined as a land apart, inhabited by millions of tons of sargassum, seems a place where they may drift “endlessly, growing, reproducing vegetatively by a process of fragmentation,” outside time, perhaps including the very same weeds once passed by Columbus with fear. We are more reasonably afraid of the sargassum that has multiplied open the open ocean, to the south of the sea and the Great Atlantic Current, the 13.5 million metric tons of sargassum are poised to arrive at are coasts in far more time-sensitive ways. For as the sticky mats of meter-long strands of sargassum leave international waters, the very weeds that were the necessary habitat and spawning grounds for pelagic eels, sea turtle, fish and marine mammals, rather than offer “cover” as a floating island, is a threat to coastal habitat–and to the beaches of the shores where they are destined to make landfall. While we view our Florida beaches as sites for summer vacation, the arrival of seaweed is not only a nuisance, but the scale of the golden brown biomass offshore is a cause for global alarm.
The appearance south of the Sargasso Sea of a flotilla of sargassum of unprecedented biomass may seem a new continent in the ocean, without clear bounds but of global significance worthy of preoccupation. Rather than bearing the creatures and microorganisms they host as distributed over ocean waters, invasive sargassum stands to threaten the reefs as they obscure transparent Caribbean waters as a layer of opacity, clogging the benthic habitat and, as they beach, releasing toxic vapors after two days. The amalgam of macroalgal kelp floats on the ocean’s surface, no longer bounded by currents’ flows, as the Sargasso Sea, but decaying soon after making landfall as it beaches ashore to pose problems of disposal we have no clear answer. Even south of the rich Amazon Reef System, the vital clustering of areas of rich species richness along South American shores that lie just within the continental shelf slope threaten to be covered and clotted by long weeds of sargassum that prevent sunlight from entering the blue caribbean waters of the Atlantic.
The flotilla of over thirteen and a half million tons of seaweed mapped by remote sensing have been cause for global alarm and anxiety as they seem to be entering our national waters in mid-March. The arrival of a long belt of sargassum seaweed, far below the channels that bound the swirling calm of that massive tide pool, demand a deep plumbing of its origins, as hidden as the deep sea that roils beneath the deceptive calm of the marine surface of the Sargasso Sea, with global ties as deep led Jamaican-born Jean Rhys to adopt the poetic figure of seaweed weaving a hidden tapestry across the Atlantic’s surface to span a global narrative from an English novel. Rhys, whose mother was Creole, reacted viscerally to Charlotte Bronte’s characterization of the madness of a creole first wife of her heroine, offering a backstory of the madness that led her to be confined that took its bearings form the plantations we do not see in Jane Eyre, but become a psychological backstory in what might be an early example of Atlantic history. Her title adapted the swirling Sargasso Sea that surrounds Jamaica, that Carson had characterized as spanning the ocean in a world apart, to ready readers for an interior geography that reveals the global reach of the cruelty of enslavement in the Caribbean plantation slavery in a postcolonial world, whose reach after, long emancipation, spans the worlds of Jamaica and the England: Wide Sargasso Sea orients readers to an encompassing toxic masculinity based on poisoned race-relations and intermarriage, almost titled The Creole, spools its story of an unruly web sprun from one side of the Atlantic to the other–from Jamaica and the island plantations–the trans-Atlantic slave trade mirrored in the first marriage of Rochester as a tragic prefiguration for the destiny of Jane Eyre, rather than confining Bertha to the attic as a madwoman who remains unknown but as Rochester’s first wild, creole wife.
The destiny of the first wife who Rhys felt a haunting absence in Jane Eyre stands at the center of the racial tensions the island of Jamaica was infected–moving from the tensions in speech and actions of maroons who had escaped slavery; blacks; mixed race and English. Her own perspective led Rhys to root a global drama of tortured patriarchal relations in plantation life, that circulated transatlantically to England, mimicking the currents of the actual Sargasso Sea. If Bermuda, in the Sargasso Sea, was believed by early moderns as “the Devils’ Island,” inhabited by devils and “feared and avoided by all sea travelers, above any place in the world,” per William Strachey, secretary-elect of Virginia, in the early seventeenth century, Rhys argues the fearsome nature of slavery itself in an Atlantic narrative too often elided by European novels, with origins in transatlantic trade, and the absent British landlords. Reading Rhys as an early critic of colonial globalism, one might find cues to read the biomass, not only against global warming and increasingly violent summer storms that flood regions recently converted to agrarian ends, a complex web that leads annual flooding to stream nitrogen fertilizer in plumes far beyond national waters or exclusive economic zones.
Nitrogen Plumes Released to North Brazil Current (NBC), Guyana Current (GC), and Equatorial Currents, May-June, 2010
Even mores for the flotilla of sargassum mats mapped across the Atlantic. To map the biomass of the Sargassum Belt, we would do well to leave a two-dimensional mapping, and examine the interaction of this new species of floating sargassum that is arriving south and easterly of the swirling Sargasso Sea, but churning in the ambient waters of increased phosphorous as it approaches the America, that expand its reproduction. If the life cycle of the sargassum ends quite quickly when it comes ashore, exiting the nourishing oceanic habitat that led it to flourish, as it is beached ashore, as the tangled agal mass decomposes rapidly after landfall, its sulfur emissions are of a toxicity that cause acute respiratory problems, multiple side effects, especially for pregnant women; it will also, without being sunk, releases methane, a greenhouse gas that we are attempting to reduce–the biomass of over eleven million tons we are warned “is coming to shore” in coming months, as a 5,000 mile long train of macroalgae enters our national waters, stands to clog benthic habitats and coral reefs, and give of an obscuring stench as it fills the white sands of Caribbean beaches, although the economic impact on tourism is perhaps as two-dimensional way of mapping its arrival as seeing the massive belt as floating on the ocean’s surface, as Updike’s yacht.
The arrival of massive rafts of this deep green brown invader of clear waters is not only an opaque layer of seaweed belt, a displaced denizen of the High Seas, floating outside a region where its tangles are habitat and shelter to marine pelagics, from birds to fishes to sea-turtles to snakes to whales. The impending arrival the floating mass of the sargassum belt was mapped by NASA Earth Observer’s remote sensing has caused alarm, but the news growing mass this Spring has seemed to reach American news cycle several years late. While its notable growth was measured already ten years back, the two-dimensional mapping of the seaweed as a brown mass, visible from outer space, has become incorrectly seen by metaphorically cast in terms of migration. To be sure, the arrival of the toxic clotted algae raises questions of the inadequacy of such constructs as territoriality, sovereignty to manage the arrival of the abundant algal bloom washing ashore from international waters. But the multiple dimensions of a map of tis increased reproduction must begin from the anthropogenic waters it is encourages its massive growth, akin to steroids, as extreme storms are pushing more and more fertilizer from topsoil across the Amazon and Central America, creating a bath for its reproductive growth.
Unlike the mats of seaweed in tidal pools, rooted to hard surfaces by holdfasts, that Carson studied, these mats of macroalgae may seem to migrate seasonally to our shores. The news cycle depends on metaphors of migration, driven westward by ocean currents, “heading westward” that anticipate the dangers of its landfall as the rafts of kelp enter our coastal waters, far south of sargassum’s normal range. But the seasonality of their arrival, rather than being driven only by warming waters, or the best known “agent” of climate change, are keyed to river discharge that has fed sargassum both in the Atlantic much of the Atlantic ocean currents.
Sargassum Makes Landfall at Playa del Carmen (July 4, 2021)/Eyepix/Nurphoto/AP
For the Caribbean islands stand again at the center of an entangled web of enriching soils to ease economic imbalances, this post suggests, as plumes of synthetic fertilizers enter the western North Atlantic, sending out nitrogen plumes to the Great Atlantic Current, rather than sargassum whipped by hurricanes from the island shores and coast of Florida to enter the Gulf Stream, as Carson believed, beyond national waters. The origins of Atlantic Sargassum Belt mirrors the new proximity that global warming has brought the seas around to over-fertilized agrarian lands, as tropical cyclones of increasing intensity drive river discharge rich with nitrogen out to sea to promote algal growth.
If the form of seaweed was long known to biologists, and even extolled as a rich offshore habitat, in the past ten to twenty years, the appearance of an entire new population living near the equator is preoccupying many, as a new continent-sized mass stretching from the coast of western Africa’s coast to the Mexican coast to the Caribbean. It threatens to cover the shores of Caribbean islands, if it is not netted offshore. NASA’s Earth Observatory registered a “massive seaweed bloom in the Atlantic” approaching our shores, its biomass dissolved as pixels, poised to enter the American hemisphere and United States’ sphere of influence, America is late in noticing the biomass that has set new records for its seasonal appearance. But the a belt of rapidly reproducing macroalgae has hit the news cycle in anticipation of its landfall on American beaches.
Mapped from the Canaries to the West Indies, against a blank background, we remove the anomaly of its presence from the rich sediment of the coastal ocean that nourishes the Sargasso Sea, or the phosphorous that now feeds the coastal ocean. If the disturbingly high density of its presence–already thirteen million tons in mid-March–is isolated as the latest whacky disturbance of the Anthropocene, of unprecedented density, just below the currents that bound the Sargasso Sea, this new species of sargassum that seems to have sprung from the deep is fed by the boosted nutrients coursing in coastal oceans, and taken up by Equatorial currents, of nitrogen fertilizers that have altered the ocean waters.
If we map the sudden recent density of the new species of sargassum floating across the central Atlantic into the Gulf of Mexico as a disturbing violation of ocean boundaries that raises questions of the law of seas, its mass suggests a global presence we have trouble to process. If the Sargasso Sea was long cast as a site of mystery, by mariners who feared becoming prisoners of its swirling algae, unable to orient or right their course and becoming removed from solid ground, this blog post invites us to consider how land and sea are bridged not only in the Sargasso Sea itself, but the emergence of the Belt, and how much maps have served us well to comprehend its growth.
Ocean Currents and Sea Ice, US Army (1943), detail
1. Rachel Carson, who has helped orient ourself to the life-filled edges of oceans, found the “Sea” helps us think differently about edges, if not oceanic expanse: the world that it presents is an assemblage, floating in blue transparent waters of the mid-Atlantic. The swirling sea blurs our sense of edges, and extends to the deep sea in a rich ecosystem, asking us to shift attention from edges, to call attention to the curious dynamics of the space. In 1870, a generation after Maury’s map, it was defined by quivering lines, akin to a protoplasm, in an age of increased cartographic objectivity– nervously drawn squiggles in the Atlantic, in the Mercator projection, bounded by the Gulf Stream and North Equatorial Currents, not clear lines. A site of fascination, its place name a different font from any other site, the quivering Sargasso Sea appears a region that shipping routes largely tend to avoid–the active energy of the region seems to be set against a divided globe.
World on Mercator’s Projection, 1879 (detail of Sargasso Sea, magnified below)
Tons of sargassum–now some ten to twenty million tons of algal weed–floating outside the famous Sea have been likened to a floating continent in the mid-Atlantic, not swirling in the Atlantic around the outer islands of the Caribbean, but stretching from African coast.
The floating belt of sargassum algae now floating westward across the Atlantic is distinct from the Sea. If the Sargasso Sea was a site of nourishment and habitat, the weeds have merited attention of the news not only as a poor omen for summer beaches, but as an ocean we no longer know how to manage, and indeed a biome we are managing in increasingly poor ways. We map the floating algae as the latest unwanted assemblage born of climate change even though the seaweed’s growth would be curtailed by warming ocean water. But as ever increasing storms produce greater runoff fed the ocean with a bath of nitrogen-rich agrarian runoff, the increasing seasonal expansions of the belt below the Gulf Stream suggests a mystery of the Anthropocene.
Fears arrival of a mass of seaweed–visible from space, and mapped by remote sensing in all its biomorphic bulk of a boom of over twenty million tons–by some estimated to be above twenty-four million tons–seems less a bonanza than a symptom of the oceans’ poor health, and the latest source of anxiety. The roiling weeds seem a floating continent that is about to make landfall in America, a waiting time bomb for the release of all that seaweed’s waste and methane gas after it arrives on American shores. Mexican marines had removed some of the twenty million tons of brown sargassum since 2018, as its rapidly increasing biomass was linked to the growth of riverborn nitrogen both from fertilizer and carbon emissions in the coastal oceans linked by the mid-Atlantic Sargassum Belt, seaweed that emits a toxic sulfates soon after it is beached. The massive seasonal growth each spring and summer poses problems of the emission of smelly, toxic gasses, irritating the respiratory system and the eyes–evident in satellite imagery as the largest harmful algal bloom on the planet–that will live long in the ocean, but dies after two days on land, releasing toxic gas. Its increasing global presence is yet another nightmare of the Anthropocene.
–that will decline only in the fall and winter months, when less sunlight arrives to encourage its marine growth.
In sharp contrast, Carson followed Thoreau in searching for the “tonic of wilderness” in the Sargasso Sea–as Thoreau found an antidote of sorts for civilization in the wild just outside of Concord, on the shores of Walden Pond, Carson meditated on the shoreless sea as a site of organic vitality, shifting American readers’ eyes from cities in ways that challenges us to move beyond a anthropocentric perspective or line of sight. It was hard to imagine how the curious Sargasso saw itself, or would position itself, seemingly diffused across space, as much as a bounded region, isolated apart from the syntax of maps of nation-states. In Matthew Fontaine Maury’s 1855 Physical Geography of the Sea, it is a grassy patch of seaweed, between the Canary Islands and Bermuda, in a gyre; in later ocean atlases it was a curious patch of green dots.
Matthew Fontaine Maury 1855), detail of “Gulf Stream and Drifts”
Sargasso Sea (1873, rep 1886)
Long seen as treacherous to sailors, the Sargasso Sea was long difficult to map because it was outside of our fundamental mapped categories of land masses, a floating surface. Perhaps because of its intriguing algal network without any clear bounds of land, the sea attracted the attention of Rachel Carson, who taught us much about the permeable edges of marine life, as “different from any other place on earth,” a place apart on the high seas, a sea with no shore. How did all these weeds arise in the mid-Atlantic? Were they born by winds that tore them from the shore?
The rich floating habitation marks a new space in the open ocean, its surface covered by ten million tones of tan sargassum as far as the eye can see. Carson called attention to the immense habitat of its large biomass–imagining a compounding of seaweed torn from the nearby shores, swirling within the protective bounds of ocean currents that nestled its flow. If seaweed is currently being re-conceived as a potential carbon sink, able to suck a disproportionate share of carbon from the rest of the ocean, the mats of seaweed and macro-algae that make up the Sargassum Belt may have been stimulated by the latest entry of -the seaweed that grew in the ocean was encouraged by the rich river sediment from the Amazon and other shores, sucked up into its gyre, as much as seaweed torn from its shores, that has allowed the protected algal mass to thrive. Shown by quivering lines in an age of increased cartographic objectivity, as a vital site, a place that was not only “apart” but preserved a wild that stood in contradistinction to the “depressing record of destruction” man has waged “against the earth he inhabits” that, she feared, diminished us all as humans. The relatively recent expansion of the GASB, however, seems an addition to that record–no longer sequestered in the ocean currents, but stranding on shores from the Caribbean to West Africa, where they threaten coastal ecosystems and biodiversity.
The whirling tawny golden of kelp that grew across the sea is truly a marvel and a place apart. The Sargasso Sea offered the illusion to sailors of a dangerous trap to Columbus, and many sailors mistakenly took its size as a pernicious danger for ships navigating the high seas–believing the fields of swirling algal fields were indications of reefs below on which their ships would risk running ashoal before their arrival at their destination, or were indeed just good omens land was nearby. The tawny mass is neither blue or blue-green, nor anything in between. The Sea was a marine wilderness that is largely unknown: Carson fancied that visitors to the Sea might see the same sea-plants that were seen by Columbus and his crew, as if the weeds were a surviving state of nature in the offshore. (Fifty years before she wrote, the Sea was a site of romance for adventure stories of the open ocean as an unknown edge of the earth.) Of a size that was indeed about as big as America itself, and vitality that demanded to be known, akin to an unknown floating continent. For the biodiversity that differs from any other ecological niche as grounds for spawning and foraging, a habitat that is also a destination for endangered pelagics.
Distinct from most mapped regions for lacking any boundary or shoreline, it is not defined by blue edges, by bound by oceanic gyres not able to be seen from sea. Outside the any government body, or Exclusive Economic Zone, it has limited legal protections. If the Sargasso Sea eludes national bias of mapping, outside international bounds, its fragile overlapping floating ecosystems were only recently protected due to a joint governmental accord–a conveyance that might be called the fruit of globalization–between the Bahamas, Bermuda, Dominican Republic, the Azores, British Virgin Islands, Principality of Monaco, United States, and United Kingdom, protecting the High Seas span across two million sq nautical miles recognized as complex locus of oceanographic migration. Often compared to a “golden rainforest,” in ways the mirror of the rainforest of Amazonia, its canopy stretches across the high seas, and extends deep into marine depths below 4500 meters, as challenging to map as it is to models of management for marine sanctuaries.
Perhaps because she was impressed by the poetic powers of Carson’s 1950 disentangling of the copious ecosystem of the Sargasso Sea, novelist Jean Rhys retitled the novel she was working set in the Caribbean that describes the first Mrs. Rochester, a revision of Jane Eyre, in a post-colonial optic, set just after the abolition of slavery in the sugar plantations of the English Empire. While the title replaced the more racially explicit The Creole, or, after a Caribbean spiritual, Gold Sargasso Sea–a plantation song–Wide Sargasso Sea captured a broad encompass of a tangled lineage, after the tangled seaweed, in the modernist masterpiece that expanded race, Caribbean history, and forced social marriages echoing the tangled violence sugar plantation, Coulibiri, across the Atlantic world. The Wide Sargasso Sea is a truly wild sea, marked by upwellings of rich minerals and churning up of long suppressed genealogies of the Atlantic slave trade, absent from Charlotte Brönte’s 1847 novel, Jane Eyre, set just after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834 nominally liberated enslaved at plantations as Jamaica,–“No more slavery! She had to laugh.”–that is told in the optic of patriarchal domination. The “dark space” of the plantation and its un-English environment maps a backstory of the “Madwoman in the Attic” as a tortured space of female subjectivity spooling forth from a place where “Desire, Hatred, Life, Death came very close in the darkness. Better not know how close.”
The plantation life of removed landlords in the West Indies islands form the previously unwritten background of the first Mrs. Rochester. And from the moment she overhears estate workers wonder at the impending plans of her stepfather–“‘a wealthy man who could take his pick of all the girls in the West Indies, and many in England too‘”–to remarry her mother, and gain wealth and an island estate in the Bahamas, the transaction of a removed landlord echoes a plantation economy built on the slave trade. The voiced fears about the marriage are a premonition of her abusive marriage to Rochester and indeed that of Jane Eyre–if Jane Eyre and Antoinette, the future Bertha Rochester, never meet in the world of the novel, the parallels in their lives take their spins form the global diaspora in which Rhys placed the novel’s layered dramatic tension. After nominal emancipation, the West Indies plantation remained a nexus of the sugar trade that defined wealth in the British Empire–as they did earlier of France–and were measured as lands of enrichment distant from the Paris or Greenwich meridians, diasporic settings of extraction on the edges of empire. If slavery had been abolished just before Rhys set her interior work, the absence of a clear land reform or legal structure not only left calypso a compelling form of social resistance and redress, in popular song and performance, as a running social commentary on the backstory of Jane Eyre, rooted in a quite often subversive Afrocentric orality, that offers a moral center to the tragic prehistory, akin to how an Afrocentric spirituality argued to offer Rhys’ heroines an “alternative epistemology”–if not an alternative spatiality to plot the colonial relations to the islands of the West Indies, viewed not only as a site to generate domestic wealth–as in Jane Austen’s 1812 Mansfield Park, but a sense of agency and moral redress against a stifling patriarchal silencing, echoing the derision of English institutions vocalized in transgressive song. Is it a surprise that the title took the name of a calypso that Rhys had penned herself with her cousin, in the French patois of the working class, also known to many of the colored mulatto élite? The revolt of slaves in the area of Suriname and Guyana had been romanticized as a trade in women by William Blake who illustrated the early printed history of John Gabriel Steadman–Narrative of the Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolt of Negroes of Suriname, in Guiana,
–setting the cruelty of enslavement against an exotic landscape was a stock trope.
The drive for extraction wealth from West Indies plantation demanded reorientation, and reorientation to the generation of imperial wealth in Jane Eyre, which silences Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, or Mansfield Park (1812), itself haunted by revolutions on overseas plantations, vaguely described “concerns of West Indian property” without faces. Rhys illuminated a critical backstory of domestic patriarchy, and logic of extraction that echoed in current attempts to resolve problems of dire poverty and promote an image or veneer of prosperity, in this case by the quick fix of emending new farmland by fertilizer to engineer agrarian self-sufficiency and a veneer of economic prosperity to the southern hemisphere. The arrival of fertilizer in West Africa, the clearcut lands of the Amazonia, and Mexico proceeded in the past decades under to offer food security to growing populations. As if to echo howJamaica, Antigua, and Barbados enriched European Atlantic empires, by extraction, investment in agribusiness that has transformed rainforest to fertilized plains has provided less of the positive effects it promised with increased amounts of nitrogen-rich fertilizer flushed in plumes out to sea, returning in a bounty of stranded Sargassum onto the shores that are providing the prime basis for economic security to many of the islands sugarcane was farmed.
J. Bellin, Petit Atlas Maritime (1764)
In our own maps of the arrival of sargassum belt, we must separate ourself from the perspective of removed landlords, reentering the Sargasso Belt seen as arriving from international waters, but examining it as a tortured product of over-fertilized land. Rhys revealed a rich patios the novel often neglected, in the English novel, mapping the exchange of brides as a wide sea of tangled webs across the Atlantic, familial and imperial, in a emotionally quite tangled racial origins of a heroine and English wealth from plantations that, as a gyre, spread its global web across the Atlantic, in ways that may have been informed by Rachel Carson’s earlier work on the Sargasso Sea as a hidden habitat situated between two continents, the exuberant growth of seaweed belts in recent years demand better mapping. The Sargasso Sea offered little or no safety form some swimmers off Jamaica, where sargassum makes its waters dangerous to many, and the arrival of sargassum in the mid-Atlantic is indeed a serious public health threat. If Rhys played with numbers of titles to capture the geography of the plantation and its extraction of wealth, including both That Wild Sea of Weeds where I was Wrecked (the voice of Antoinette, perhaps, or Rochester himself, whose voice is also in the novel) and That Wild Sea of Weeds where They Were Wrecked–gesturing to the geographic centrality of the Sargassum Sea that was imagined as a derelict space of swirling seaweed and ruins of old ships; the lonely plantation song that Rhys’ cousin from Dominica called a “Creole Song,” “Across the Gold Sargasso Sea, I watch my heart come back to me,” led her to consider Gold Sargasso Sea as a title, but the region where the trade winds grew and the cruel transatlantic slave trade spun out came to embody the social network her novel came to describe. Can we map the economic inequities that have, as much as the storms of global warming, created the latest marine anomaly?
It is as if the expansive proliferation of floating seaweed may be the unintended consequence of expanding investment in fertilized Caribbean soils, under the mantra of self-sufficient agriculture. While advanced by the World Bank as a quick fix for agricultural expansion, the global oceans are bearing the brunt of the region are investment of nitrogen excess in an era of severe weather, as the very same islands stand to bear the unintended brunt of a destabilized coastal ocean. If the world of global fertilizer has boosted crop production, the increased availability of nitrogen across the Atlantic basin has spread to the High Seas on both sides of the Sargasso Sea–increasingly under attack not only from plastics and ships that trawl for fish or cut across its kelp mats. Invertebrates, ocean upwelling, and transforming a “nursery habitat” for fishes into a site for massive harmful algal blooms. The abundant foliage of plants Charles Darwin had studied intensively by the samples he had captures in his 1835 voyages to Caribbean ports, the chain of life that he sought to decipher from the weeds suggested a stable balance of life that the abundance of Sargassum seemed to reveal to be radically and profoundly upset, if not destabilized and out of the possibility of management. If the new taxa of tropical plants held a stable place in Darwin’s herbarium, the placement of Sargassum seemed a disturbing displacement of the high seas to Caribbean waters.
Yet the scope of the global problem of abundant seaweed moving , if tied to World Bank subsidies for farming, suggests that since 2010, the availability of new nitrogen-rich nutrient sources provided a fertile bath for brown macroalgae across the Atlantic due to Spring river discharge with increasing quantities of nitrogen from agrarian runoff, unlike the historic upwelling of ocean floor sediment–evident, per LaPointe et al., in the presence of nitrogen after 2010 in new clustering of rafts of sargassum in the Gulf of Mexico or off Florida, unlike the sargassum in the Sargasso Sea.
The flotilla of sargassum mats are a substrate of a global economic inequalities, as much as climate change. It is a reflection of subsidized investment in agriculture that in recent storms brought increased runoff in the coastal oceans from increased fertilization with nitrogen, in an attempt to emend soil nutrients for food production–an over investment designed to foster to end economic inequality in the southern hemisphere, from West Africa to South America, begun in the development projects from the 1990s, before unforeseen extreme weather of downpours and hurricanes spilled the nitrogen into the pristine blue seas. We cannot remove it from the nutrients that not only entering the Caribbean in the form of agrarian run-off but the stirring up of deep water by cyclonic winds and hurricanes, creating levels of nitrogen in sargassum plants a third higher than average–35%, to be exact, by La Pointe’s measurements–at the same time as the rise of nitrogen:phosphorous ration in coastal waters has grown by 111%, with little collective attention. Ever since the topical storms of 2008 created more cyclonic activity than the Carribbean ever experienced–including Bertha, the largest tropical cyclone ever experienced in the North Atlantic–
–the damage costs of tropical cyclones that had grown to some $50B have only expanded since, leaving it increasingly irresponsible to invest in fertilizing topsoil to boost agrarian productivity.
We can point to the increased billions of investment in the production of expansive farmlands–an extractive model of industry, even in the name of economic self-sufficiency and food security. Annual delivery of millions of tons of nitrogen-rich fertilizer to unregulated private-sector fertilizer plants–FERTIMEX, private from 1991; Potassio do Brazil, which encouraged local mining of potash from the rain forest from indigenous lands, to blend with nitrogen and phosphorus–pollute coastal oceans with gypsum, phosphoric acid and sulfur dioxide as a result of enriching the agrarian lands with nitrogen fertilizer to enhance land productivity. Augmenting fertilizer use in the name of food security fed fertile use from Dominican Republic to Guatemala to Honduras leeches plumes of phosphorus in Caribbean waters–and may be increasingly irresponsible in an era of extreme storms. Are not the offshore rafts of rust-gold kelp a reminder of the poor return on investment in self-sufficient farming, and a wake-up call? Local strategic mining of fertilizer created ripples not only in fertilizer markets but disturbed the ambient composition of the ocean biome; continued soil emendation fed millions of tons of nitrogen in ocean currents, driving anomalous seaweed blooms.
Application of Nitrogen-Based Fertilizer in Global Harvested Crops (2011)
The extensive fields of olive-yellow to golden-brown floes are awesome in their majesty, and akin to a transatlantic economy of its own. We are apt to view the Belt of Sargasso as growing in the course of its arrival, but does the small stream bloom as it approaches nitrogen-enhanced water? If the nitrogen-rich plumes leaving the Amazon have been argued to enhance carbon sequestration in the North Atlantic sinking carbon into the deep sea, N2 fixation accelerates the reproduction of sargassum in more macroaglal mats than we are able to process ashore.
The so-called Sargasso Belt may be a massive breeding-ground for macroalgae acting as a counterweight to the historical function of the Sargasso Sea, and is creating an unforeseen “boom” in a bumper crop of macroalgae that led the Mexican Navy to send a flotilla of boats to harvest the weed as it arrived in national waters, removing by 2021 some 10,000 tons of sargassum from the ocean surface and farming more from the beaches of the Yucatán from 2011. The “counter-weight” to the increasing fertility of croplands suggests an extension of anthropogenic alteration of the environment far beyond the continental shelf, and expanded borders of nation-states we are accustomed to map as Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that regulate exclusive economic use of ocean waters some two hundred kilometers out to sea.
If there will be a demand for both Mexico and the United States to “manage” the influx of biomass of the Sargassum Belt as they approach the continental shelf, broad changes in weather–often grouped as “climate change”–go unaddressed, and the reaction of extreme weather to enriching the land by nitrogen-boosting continue. Are the models of sovereignty and territoriality by which we understand relations to the ocean booby-trapped models that fail to capture the inter-relations between land and sea in an era of large-scale fertilization?
The “sea” is of loose borders, enclosed in the North Atlantic gyre, a slow-moving gyre bound by the Gulf Stream, Antilles and North Equatorial Current, out to the Canaries. Composed of weed of varied species, the “sea” is set off from tropical blue waters, but increasingly threatened both by seaweed harvesting and climate change. The drifting plants that multiply as they drift, a tangled covering of the high seas, move across the surface of the ocean, covering an extensive deep underwater community dependent on its webs. The subject of this post is the problem of mapping the magnitude of the weed, and interpreting those large belts of sargassum remote sensing have revealed floating westward to the Caribbean and Florida, whose size caused considerable alarm as the arrival of tons stinking piles on beaches to disrupt the summer tourist economy, rather than the disturbance of the ocean and dangers of artificially expanding nitrogen runoff entering the sea.
2. I’ll turn to the delicate nature of the feeding grounds and floating ecosystem of the Sargasso Sea itself, long bound by currents as a world apart, but which faces unique preservationist challenges. Mind-boggling in breadth and width, the tangled tawny mass of weed of many varieties was long thought pulled from shores of the islands of the Caribbean–Jamaica, Hispaniola, the Bahamas, or Florida–as much as an autonomous floating island. It is so hard to map in its complexity as an ecologic assemblage, let alone one of considerable volumetric depth; hard to map that perhaps because of this, few would imagine it able to be accorded the legal rights recognized for the Whanganui River in 2017, if it is the size of a nation, a sea as large as the United States. The recognition of the legal rights of that river protect the ecological integrity of the New Zealand river flowing into the Tasman Sea, both relied on for foods and as a travel route by Maori who live on its banks. Might it be possible to define the Sea as a biological entity, as much as an area of the open ocean, given the contribution that it makes to not only ocean health and habitat, but the oxygen generated by photosynthesis?
If the Whanganui River is protected as a site of longstanding indigenous settlement, the floating biomass of weed sequesters a disproportionate share of carbon of the world’s oceans, just off the North American continental shelf. Might it soon demand mapping to define its legal rights? The prospect is complicated as it lies in international waters. Yet the shift in legal thought by which the Whanganui River can bring suit for abusive pollution–or, indeed, be sued itself–is a landmark of environmental thought: the notion of its personhood inspired legal rights to be gained by the Ganges and Yamuna in Indian courts, if only temporarily. Is the forum of international courts may well provide a forum for the independence of the sargassum’s rights, in a global context, as much as the humans who have long failed to map its centrality in global climate adequately? A vital habitat swirling above abyssal plains and a rich mineral floor of metallic deposits, fed by mineral waters, the sea demands protection as an ecosystem.
Live Tracking of Shipping Routes in Northern Atlantic Ocean
The difficulty of mapping the integrity of the tangled mass is one issue. Or is the boggling growth of sargassum belts proceeding too quickly to try to start imagining its rights? The Sargasso “sea” is avoided by most routes. Distinguished by windless calms, ships’ captains long followed Columbus in mapping nautical routes around its mass until the maps were discovered by 1940 to be aggregations of plants, rafts reproducing far from land masses as a floating, edgeless mass, not only containing some of the same algae that was present in Columbus’ day, but preserving the same water in a the current’s effective enclosure or envelope.
But the mass is often still avoided by most trans-Atlantic ocean traffic, as of 2010–if this compilation of self-reported oceanic itineraries is far from comprehensive.
Voluntary Observing Ship (VOS) Program Data of 4500 Vessels in 2010/Roberts 2011
The absence of attention from this floating mass in open ocean waters, extending halfway into the Atlantic, the loosely bounded sea gained its name from millions of tons of floating sargassum, a rich and curious assemblage of animal life it fosters, challenging our abilities to map. It stands apart from the flow of any freshwater stream or demarcated edges and fixed bounds or shores; hardly a single polygon, the floating surface of brown algae are borne, the argued, by the Gulf Stream, that offers homes to crabs, shrimp, small fishes, sea slugs, edible roofs for sea turtles, or feeding grounds for laying larvae or webs or for flying fish and sea snakes to hide their eggs.
Like a new world lying in the middle of an ocean, a “weedy jungle” as Carson put it, a mobile “life raft” for others, it is a shelter for many to forage for food far below, and challenges our notion of surface, edge, or indeed ecological niche. The sargassum fields were either torn apart from the shore of Florida, or Caribbean land masses, or merely float rootlessly in open sea, fragmenting and enduring for up to centuries until they drift into less warmer or propitious areas of ocean, a tangled web of seaweed that lives off the land, a superfeeder site of marine habitat.
Mapped something like the fertile inverse of the Great Pacific Garbage patch that is perhaps the prime surface-evidence of the Anthropocene, in the Sargasso Sea, an estimated ten million tons of seaweed floats unrooted, as if accumulated from distant coasts, far off of coastal waters, pulled in by oceanic currents, is hard to capture as a polygon. The site of the adventure stories of William Hope Hodgson, of vessels trapped in the sea’s flowing mass, a “cemetery of oceans,” prefiguring the Bermuda Triangle, where ships are attacked by underwater creatures, fearing the “thing in the weeds” in the “tideless sea”, its vitality reimagined as a site of danger, hiding marine monsters and sea demons within its weeds as the site of the last unknown, in pre-war adventure stories with a bit of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, conjuring canny myths monsters emerging from its deeps.
And, although once avoided by ships, there seems evidence that despite some loose protection of the sargassum rafts in international laws of sea, the propellers of large transatlantic ships slicing the algal mats with increased regularity, with little protection accorded to the sea as a space to avoid, threatening to degrade the integrity of this delicate floating tan raft. The once-continuous floating rain forest is increasingly exposed to anthropogenic underwater noise from shipping traffic, difficult to quantify or map, but considered deeply disruptive to marine life.
As the Sargasso Sea has become a concentration of pollutants and plastics, sargassum has recently grown so dense since 2011 that images of abundance and fertility are replaced by fears of harmful algal blooms, from which marine life in the coastal oceans have increasingly suffered. The flow of plastics into the seas suggest an incursion of particulate matter difficult to map in detail, but raises the prospect of trying to disentangle the line, brittle pellets, already of some 3500 pieces per sq km, in the western Sargasso Sea, back in 1972, regularly ingested by fishes and microorganisms from radiolarians to diatoms, as well as pelagics, that as they depolymerize have made the algae pioneers of a plastisphere, that new marine entity of the Anthropocene, lying just within the Gulf Stream.
Density of Plastic per sq km in Atlantic Ocean/2010
3. The abundant feeding grounds at a remove from coastal oceans have converted, in the remotely sensed mapsworthy of globalization and climate change, to a brown opacity charting the unwanted arrival of malodorous seaweed to clot the pristine sandy shorelines of the tropical Atlantic. Fears of over-accumulation and decomposition of rank sargassum along the coasts seems akin to the garbage of global warming, anthropogenic only by extension from living in a warming ocean. Its mass has become a nuisance and a danger to human health, if not ecosystems of the coastal ocean. The danger of these unwanted algae on our shores is something that Floridians are increasingly wrestling, feeling more than ever inconvenienced by international law that forbids the extermination of this broad edgeless mass.
The bloating of the sargassum belt to some 13 tones of floating kelp is larger this March than in any previous year on record. If the sargassum belt had already grown some 1,000% in size from 2011 by 2018, the bulk of its biomass has continued to grow each subsequent year, as it grew as long as the coastline of Brazil. Satellite registrations have tracked the sequential yearly growth of the belt’s floating mass, not as a feature of hidden fertility, but a massive seaweed bloom whose “load” is greater than in recent memory, even as it ominously threatens to arrive on our coastal shores. NASA’s tracks by remote sensing tools track the density of sargassum as it floats in a Great Atlantic Belt form earth observations of MODIS via satellite, as if unwanted visitors approaching the Americas, fed by the isequilibria of warming ocean temperature —
–and tracks its abundant density as a dark brown opacity, rather than a form of life. We may find ourselves frustrated by the inability given international conventions against capturing or culling the seaweed/algae as it approaches on open seas; the floating rain forest is protected as a habitat for endangered species, from sea turtles to multiple species of Atlantic eels who regularly return to its nourishing labyrinths, and its arrival in international waters–as if it was the latest casualty of globalization, unable to be stopped at our territorial waters!
Why so much loosely floating seaweed is carried by the oceanic currents seems in part to do with oceanic warming, the very warming that has multiplied the blooms of toxic coastal algal blooms. This is not a new manifestation of the “wide Sargasso Sea” long seen as a site of marvel, and enduring ecosystem, if the Sargasso Sea is hardly protected in international waters, its surface cut by the marine traffic that, unlike caravels, rent as the intensity and the speed of ships increased markedly in the post-war era from the 1950s to 1970s, feeding a global market of trade, before the arrival of micro plastics and anthropogenic detritus–and a disturbing accumulation of a plastisphereacross much of the more pristine waters of the Atlantic.
The intermingling of sargassum with plastics compromised its sensitive habitat, if not the wealth of nourishment and shelter that the marine sea forest has historically offered fishes, pelagics and other creatures. Carson speculated that the status of the Sargasso Sea may have been ripped by marine currents from shores, but what if Carson had it wrong? What if the swirling sea were fed by minerals that entered the rich coastal ocean, carried by the gyres into the mid-Atlantic, and feeding a swirling biomass? Have we been unintentionally injecting not only plastics into the Sargasso Sea, but fertilizer (phosphorous and nitrogen) into the coastal ocean, providing an overly nutrient-rich solution for the microalgae?
While Carson imagined the seaweed to have collected in the gyre, having departed the coastal environments she knew so well, the peculiar agglomeration of floating weeds, a gyre offering needed nourishment for beings from bacteria to pelagic eels and whales. But the gyre was itself nourished by waves of sediment, deposited from rivers as the Amazon into an offshore habitat.
The belt of sargassum floating across the Atlantic are unlike the Sea, nestled between the Gulf Stream and Equatorial Current, and lying safely offshore. Recent concern has grown around the question of whether the Sargasso Sea has been itself violated, ripped apart as coherent mats of habitat to a floating biomass of less fertile spawning or feeding ground, nestled between the recirculation of the Gulf Stream. Larger mats of sargassum appeared across the Atlantic ocean, spanning from West Africa to the Caribbean, as a “belt” from 2011, fed by nutrient-rich agrarian runoff, as much as warming waters, in the manner of those harmful algal blooms we have heard about ten years ago, as they showed up in remotely sensed maps and on our shores. For all the hullabaloo about the impending arrival of sargassum in the Great Pacific Belt, the appearance of blooms has become so common a public health risk of our coasts the EPA runs a dedicated line to report HAB’s in many state. In our new age of increased environmental anxiety, HAB’s are feared to harm water–not to mention how to protect your dogs from the toxic waters–in a health risk, and the health risk of Sargassum is indeed all too familiar, if of far greater proportions and biomass.
Is this not due to the change of the mineral-rich waters, now supersaturated by fertilizer pumped into the ground in a hope to increase agrarian productivity both on the Amazon and in Amazonia–now being converted into a deforested grazing field–and West African countries that have become hubs of processing fertilizer for independent farmers, in a bid for economic independence sponsored by such international entities as the World Bank? Driven by the hopes for economic investment and boosting productivity of “small farms” in the hope of economic self-sufficiency of the global south, the multiplication of fertilizer plants in hopes to feed a growing population has led to the greatest application of nitrogen-based fertilizer globally, and an increasing use of fertilizer based on nitrogen in Brazil, that doubled 2010-20, per Our World in Data, and is off the charts. The imbalances of oceans risk feeding macroalgae across the Atlantic at far greater scale than algae ever experienced, creating an unwanted bumper crop of algae on the oceans’ surface as we boost global agriculture, with pronounced blinders at risks of accelerating global ecological change in an era of extreme storms.
4. Fears of algal blooms led to remote tracking of sargassum as it leaves international waters. Recent satellite tracking of sargassum set a new standard of measurement for mapping of the algae’s biomass that among that now threatens to dump some 13 million tons of clumps of the brown tan ashore as it makes landfall. But do we have a sense of how generated the Sargassum making landfall has been generated in its new habitat? How large is the bloom off of West Africa that seems to have set the transatlantic voyage into motion, and how abundantly is it growing in the offshore waters? (International Law about sargassum is oriented to the Sargasso Sea’s protection; an apparent obstacle in harvesting the weed as it floats in international waters. The apparent frustration of legal protections that prevent the algae from being harvested on the high seas before it arrives, despite its increased density and size, make it hard to map the growth of its biomass over time, as a truly volumetric map might help provide.) Hopes to prevent the five-mile belt of sargassum from beaching have led some to propose environmentally-friendly solutions to avert off-gassing, by sinking the floating weed in deep waters.
Multiple theories have been proposed for its sudden appearance and growth outside the frame of currents: the outflow of industrial fertilizer from the Amazon river–the conversion of Amazonia, and destruction of a rainforest that historically has absorbed carbon dioxide to agricultural lands by large-scale deforestation–add unseen nutrients to the coastal waters of the Atlantic, increasing the levels of nitrogen in Caribbean waters to offer propitious conditions for expansion of a belt below the Antilles and North Equatorial current. In sharp contrast to these anthropogenic growth of a rise in the ration of nitrogen to phosphorus, driven by sewage and farm runoff, fears of ocean upwelling of minerals off the coast of west Africa may be a cause of the emergence of a flotilla of new sargassum–or arrival of sands from decertifying lands in the Sahara, spread the skeletons of ancient algae as far as the Caribbean, combined with smoke and ash, into coastal waters. While perhaps partly driven by the huge sandstorms of the Sahara that blew minerals of a Saharan Sand Layer as far as the Caribbean waters, rich in marine nutrients, in the midst of the pandemic in 2020, significantly after the first appearance of the sargassum belt ten years previous.
–the Saharan dust clouds that reached Caribbean waters June 15-25, 2020, while they long helped to fertilize the Amazon, form part of a multi-factorial shift in the sediment richness of global waters. Th feeding of phosphorous to ocean waters of the Atlantic basin contribute to the richness of the Sargasso Sea, no doubt, but the abundance that floated westward in 2020 are not able to describe the marked growth in density of the Sargassum Belt observed 2014-18, as it became a part of the Caribbean that raised particular alarm for the ocean anomalies of warming waters, particularly intense in the Gulf of Mexico, where much of the weed reproduced floating in the Yucatan Current.
This may be another way of mapping the Sargassum Belt as a global event. Did arrival of African dust that spewed across the Atlantic during the global pandemic another world-event spread across the very areas that soon stimulate algal blooms appear of such unprecedented intensity of growth? While the dust storm was a huge meteorological event itself closely tied to planetary warming, it overlapped with the seasonal discharge of nutrients to bring stimulate unprecedented algal growth.
Godzilla Dust Storm over Atlantic, June 2-23, 2020 Aerosol Optical Thickness/ NASA Earth Observing System
If seeded with more intensity, perhaps, by the dust storms from the Sahara, the Godzilla Dust Storm able to be seen from outer space was yet another example about how land and sea are interrelated, in ways that our focus on a sense of the clear edges of land and sea fail to capture, to the extent that the flow of currents are no longer a fully self-contained system or circuit, bearing algae along the South Equatorial Current westward, in the manner we can map by clear vectors.
The challenged to mapping the size and the reasons for the appearance in consecutive seasons of the large biomass seems tied to the increase rainfall of that led to a huge increase in global surface-temperature from the pre-industrial era, and magnified the chance of massive rainfall by multiples of four or five in the Bahamas, and threefold in the Dominican Republic. Despite increased drought across South America, rainfall in Latin America grew as did intense rainfall driven by hurricanes and cyclones in wintertime, sending much fertilizer, poorly integrated in dry lands, to the coastal ocean. The belt of kelp runs below the Sea appeared as a new entity at the same time. If the macroalgae of the Sargasso Sea was once thought torn from the coastal waters of the West Indies and Florida, the size of this train of the Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is a new strain of sargassum that threatens to wreck havoc on Floridian and Mexican shores, and throughout the Caribbean.
The evocation of an emergency has been long in coming. Only five years ago, it had astoundingly grown from earliest measurements to eleven million tons of floating kelp–the estimated size of the tangled weeds that comprise the Sea, now stretched across the Atlantic. Over some twenty years, the arrival of westward moving sargassum floats have been arriving in the Caribbean, unwanted global visitors impacted by ocean warming. While the upwelling in Africa has pointed to natural causes for newly sargassum, might one be mistakenly confusing Africa as a site of nature, not engineering? Has the dominant emergence of a focus on food security not increased the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous from subsidized agriculture not also contributed to flows of nitrogen and phosphorous, perhaps in combination with the emergence of sargassum species from the upwelling of ocean waters?
Fertilizer was subsidized by Presidential Initiatives in Nigeria since 2015, reaching the fields of some five million farmers by 2020, as other initiatives promising economic growth of agricultural sectors in led to importation of synthetic fertilizer across West Africa, leading to hopes to emend soil nutrients to expand productivity by World Bank initiatives, importing fertilizer to Dakar, Lagos, Abidjan, Port Harcourt, Lomé, and San Pedro, or in Senegal, Guinea, Côte d’Ivor, and Ghana; Côte d’Ivoire imported 525,000 metric tons from 2015, and West Africa importing and blending one and a half million MT annually by 2021, per Fertilizer Focus, creating a new addition to ocean ecosystems as an added bonus of sorts, whose impacts we may be charting as a resurgence of offshore macroalgae.
How much are the offshore nitrogen leaching into the coastal ocean the sources of the nourishment of such abundant sargassum yields? Whatever the mechanics, we are mapping an untold aggregation of floating mats of sargassum, dislodged from the gyre in which the Sea once lay, of a new species and vitality. The absence of clear edges–even the fuzzy bounds of Sargasso Sea–are cause for alarm, precisely because of their inability to be controlled in any offshore national space–as, for example, an oil leak–and the difficulty to combine ecological efforts across borders. The mats of sargassum poised to return to its beaches in future years, and to moor on Atlantic shores, stand to emit a noxious “sea” of offensive smells as they rapidly decay in the days after they reach the shore, releasing unhealthy sulfurs that not only mar the shores we like to imagine as pristine.
What else may have magnified the arrival of this belt? We must look for comparison–and points of needed orientation–to our own coastal oceans, and inland lakes, where algal blooms–and harmful algal blooms–have predictable been in recent news in quite alarming ways. If the increasing flow of sargassum across the ocean may be fed by the nitrogen runoff that leaves the Mississippi from farming regions that saturate coastal oceans–overloading them with nutrients to create more algal blooms. The growth of this new variety of sargassum–not present in the historic Sargasso Sea–may have, argued other oceanologists, respond to the change in oceanic currents themselves, and the deep mixing that led new nutrients to be rise from global ocean beds, feeding the migration of kelp: or did a new floating population of kelp arise, outside of the once loosely defined sector of the floating sea, floating seasonal algal blooms?
Do we need to try to map this global fear in more globally rooted terms, even as we map it as an oceanic anomaly revealed by remote sensing?
5. The possible environmental explanations for the Sargassum Belt are hard to reconcile with the immediate encounter with the prolific algal belt from 2018. The encounter of an oceanographer who studies the extent to which kelp’s intensive photosynthesis might be used to draw carbon dioxide from the air, was shocked at the meeting the large biomass. If he had conducted South Atlantic expeditions for a quarter of a century, he had never seen anything like the sudden shock of disorientation sailing into the Sargassum Belt: “one moment we were moving in the blue sea, then–BAM! It was all around the ship for tens, hundreds of meters.” remote sensing, but on the water. The algal bloom interrupted the ocean waters of unprecedented scale, as if it were indeed the Sargasso Sea being encountered for the first time, that the oceanographer only later discovered was a huge sargassum bloom monitored in satellite imagery since 2011 but has continued to explode in size.
The MODIS imagery may be, in short, as good an icon of globalization as any, from the rising runoff that has been encouraged in the name of greater agricultural productivity by the artificial enrichment of nutrients in new farmlands from West Africa to Amazonia, creating an immense biomass as a new Frankenstein in the middle of a new, warming world, where increased runoff defines the composition of coastal oceans. the acceleration from 2014 of the Sargassum Belt, while already detected in 2012, to be sure, of increasing tropical hurricanes and flooding, record levels of warming of ocean waters in the mid-Atlantic waters, and land temperatures far warmer than normal in South America and western Africa–multiplying events of extreme weather, closely tied to the increased rains brought by rising temperatures across the equatorial belt. The flash floods of 2023, and recent history of severe flooding in the Brazilian Amazon, destroying crop lands at the same time as the region is afflicted by severe drought that reduced overall river runoff, have produced increasing torrential rains and terrifying mudslides, after record rains that were the highest in Brazil’s history. Yet the essentially two-dimensional imaginary in which we map the apparent “approach” of a broadening belt of macroalgae to the shores of North and South America are perhaps less than helpful in incommensurable with our spaces of territorial governance.
The incommensurability of our concepts of territoriality with the confluence of extreme weather events, nitrogen flows to the coastal ocean, and warming waters have frustrated existing attempts to manage such hyperbolic algal growth as the Sargassum Belt. The isolation of sargassum density by remote sensing models helps to capture the intensity of blooms, facilitated by an unprecedented expansion of marine nutrients from both runoff and severe weather. The frustration we feel before the visualizations of time-lapse maps that suggest a cumulative growth of algae–mapped from 2012-18 in ways that cannot but recall the “flat” spatialities by which migration is imagined, a model of territoriality haunted by the actual building in the same year of the border wall–have infected the manner in which we map, visualize, and understand the approach as an escalation one which we are spectators, and have no control or impact.
The prime analogue for managing macro alga is the hyperbolic algal growth in the notorious dead zones of the Gulf of Mexico. The warming waters of this bioregion, endemic with algal blooms, is not driven by accumulation of arriving sargassum. But it mirrors the nourishment the Gulf Stream offers in ambient waters of that the sargassum encounters, that allows its tangled biomass to grow dense, as oceanic and atmospheric temperatures dramatically affect the marine ecosystem. If the dimensions of these extreme elements, foreign to our actual mapping systems–the accumulation of nitrogens in agricultural runoff from attempts to emend soil in the Amazonia; torrential rains that send more synthetic nutrients into the seas; toxic blooms of rapidly reproducing floating algae–can be mapped in microcosm in our own national waters, driven by warming waters. If warming waters can retard the sargassum’s growth in part, the floods that have driven plumes of nitrogen out to sea for hundreds of kilometers–far beyond the benthic environments of the continental shelf each Spring, due both to fertilization of land and replacement of rainforest with cattle ranching. Can the oceans suffer the increased boost of nitrogen plumes into the a warming Gulf Stream?
Sea Surface Temperatures of Gulf Stream/January, 2009
Warmer sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf Stream are not a false flag for the sudden blooms of macroaglae, but a context for understanding the state of the world’s largest holopelagic seaweed that we are still mapping primarily as a problem of coastal management–as if the ecological pollution derived from the seaweed arriving on our shores. We are late to map the arrival of this biomass with undue alarm, at the same time as hurricanes
To be sure, the sequestration of carbon sequestration in which plays such a disproportionate role in the global ocean; the Sea is fed by both upwelling of nutrients and warm water trapped in the North Atlantic Gyre, whose surface temperatures have been steadily rising. The floating Sargassum Belt is not rooted in the Gulf Stream or bound by it, but the path of its own transatlantic migration seems rooted in the highest sea-surface temperatures that causes its tangled webs to multiply.
The new sargassum flourishes in regions of high sea surface temperatures, but seems fed by surface nutrients, rising to the ocean’s surface that accelerate their growth. The Atlantic Belt is an amalgam of hypermodernity, superficial floating set of plants, unlike the broad Sea that descends in a constellation of habitat some 4500 meters, offering shelter throughout its expanse to marine mammals.
The belt is far less friendly. Its arrival seems an unwanted invasion of global scale, and threatens to pollute the purity of dry, sandy beaches, that massive infertile absent ecosystem of our American shores, promoted by beach restoration, sand emendation, a site of pleasure. The sands of these beaches are often imported from islands in the Atlantic, as so many ecological engineering offering little habitat of any kind. Indeed, the absence of habitat that the belt provides–it is not being consumed, so much as reproducing in warm sunlight–is an unwanted result of experiment gone wrong: as much as a nuisance on pristine shores, the methane that will offgas from these tons of beached sargassum, removed from their oceanic habitat, will add yet another accelerator to global warming and climate change.
Clumps of Beached Sargassum on Crane Beach, Barbados/Clump via Creative Commons
The arrival of the stream of kelp that is ominously moving across the Atlantic is not only a threat to beach lands, but to the environment. The over-abundant kelp seems one of the many aspects of overabundance global warming has produced, but which we have studied more in the home-grown variety.
6. The growth of offshore coastal seaweeds is not the same species as Sargassum, but we are all too familiar in recent years with algal blooms. The runoff of sediment and growing nitrogen load of rivers in estuaries of our largest coastal rivers–the Mississippi, the Potomac, the Columbia River–have delivered a larger nitrogen load in their discharge in recent years, delivering seasonal discharge from coastal rivers that has changed our sense of the offshore and nearshore in ways we are only beginning to map–but are increasingly present on the ground.
The Gulf of Mexico’s massive hypoxia zone has been measured as a consequence of freshwater runoff, from the Mississippi watershed, the river discharge that nourishes algae to extract almost all the oxygen from coastal waters hypoxic zone extending nearly 6,5000 sq miles, weed nourished not only by riverborn nutrients but growing sea surface temperatures.
We are inclined to map increased coastal temperatures onto global warming, but are increasingly called upon to map chart the consequences of algal blooms as a danger of deoxygenated near coastal environments–altering near coastal ecosystems on which so many shore-dwellers depend–
But if we are much more ready to map the near-coastal in alarmist terms, perhaps this is because the national waters in which they lie have been mapped with far sensitivity, due to their proximity and integration with our economy, leading to news graphics that justly pronounce upon their danger as a sort of end of life for both fish and marine life in the nearshore coastal waters–
–and imagine the dangers of all that decomposing sargassum on the beaches, marring the deliveries of emendations of sand that try to prop up beaches as sites of economic vitality, which stand to be marred this summer by a smelly sort of return of the repressed, littering the shores with an unwanted abundance of decaying algal mats.
Before it arrives before our eyes, we have started to map its course, perhaps to try to ken the origins of all that stinky mess we have to sweep up and dispose. We’d do better to map the arrival tons of seaweed from a more global perspective, more oriented to global oceans and less guided by the landlubber’s beach shores. We would do well to do so through a truly global perspective, one encompassing Atlantic flows of kelp, even broader and wider than the truly expansive Sargasso Sea.
As he waited rather glumly for “the Feds” to arrive at his home, as his stepfather predicted, Airman First Class Jack Douglas Teixiera may have pondered why he had posted classified maps of heated battle fronts in the Ukraine War to Discord was aware he was speaking to a much larger audience of interested readers than he ever considered. Teixeira’s friends defensively stuck with him, explaining the enlisted airman was a peaceful anti-war man, who “just wanted to inform some of his friends about what’s going on” as if the global battlefield was seamless with video games. Many in his largely male circle even had buddies who were actually fighting in Ukraine. He felt for them. The appearance of a mass-drop of top secret government documents must make us wonder not only about the restrictions on secret military information–and the security of detailed surveillance maps–but of the remove of the interest in the maps as cool images from the war they describe.
Texeira, who has been described as not a leaker like Edward Snowdon, but just a normal guy, had a preternatural passion for scoping out the battle-plans of Ukraine, profiting from the security clearance to “Top Secret” files he gained just two years after joining the National Guard. From his perch in Cape Cod, Teixeira had the sort of a privileged perch to read intelligence–and a gamer’s keen eye for detail of a war scenario–that you have to wonder what sort of division he sensed between the video games he enjoyed matching wits in post-apocalyptic scenario and the sense that he knew many who had shipped off to fight abroad, as he might soon, and the eager attention of a family who were proud of the uniform he wore to report to duty at the 102nd Intelligence Wing of Otis Air National Guard Base to manage and troubleshoot critical communication systems. As more information flows about global battlefields are routed and monitored from decommissioned Air Force stations in bases no longer charged with flying missions, the expanded intelligence-gathering function of drones leaves many watching large flat-screen monitors, removed from battlefields–or the battlefield terrain–
–participating not in airplanes, but in new tasks of surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance that provide the basis for information-gathering that are deemed adequate for global war–“robust, multi-intelligence processing, exploitation and dissemination (PED) activities” that reflect the new architecture of the distributed networks of what global war. As Reaper drones fly above the Black Sea–over “international waters” outside the exclusive economic zones nation-states claim as part their national waters–even as Russia has from 2016 sought to transform the Black Sea’s waters, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, “into a Russian lake.” Russia has annexed the continental shelf entitlements national waters of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea–shelf entitlements once belonging to Ukraine–for gas and sand mining guarded by air defense systems of its Black Sea fleet, the Russian navy has obstructed up to a quarter of the Black Sea–
Black Sea Regions Russian Navy Shut off from July, 2019
–laying effective and actual claim to its territory, American Reaper drones have maintained regular flights to monitor the battlefield, gathering intelligence about the Ukraine War from 50,000 feet, and increased their surveillance flights over the region from 2022. The new mission of gathering ‘sensitive intelligence” depends on flying over what America still considers international waters–
–although the dispute of how close the aptly named Reaper drones or Global Hawks might fly to the coast of the former is contested, and every nautical mile from Ukraine’s coast and the Crimean airspace compromises the amount of military intelligence that they can gather–and U.S. military intelligence was increasingly eager to expand drone flights to Russian-held territory in March 2023. The latest intervention in this ever-expanding theater of distributed war was, improbably, in Cape Cod. What has been called a “casual theft” of Top Secret intelligence of battlefield maps were sites of endless curiosity to the American Airmen who seems to have used their access to the monitors to take photographs of the maps over a few months, posting them to a gaming network. Jack Teixeira snapped shots on his iPhone of hundreds of maps of military scenarios, foreign land and air defenses, systems designed to deter Russian missile attacks “to defend [Ukraine] against Russian aerial attacks from all latitudes, and other documents from top secret spy satellites, signal intelligence, and infrared sensors. He included, for added interest, detail about mounting troop losses on both sides over time, with unclear appreciation of their actual geopolitical significance.
Rather than “stealing” the intelligence for a spy network or secretly embedded moles, the map that dropped on social media suggest the hidden vulnerabilities of expanding distributed intelligence from increasing drone flights across such distributed intelligence networks. Even as Ukraine insisted that these were outdated information about “constantly changing positions” in an entrenched territorial war, where positions shift in a war of attrition, the projections of the depletion of air defenses by mid-April or early May suggested a dwindling of resources that coincided with the debates on providing long-sought surface-to-air missile systems and a Patriot Missile System just arrived in Ukraine to defend Ukraine’s borders. Borders were, of course, in flux and up for debate as the intelligence collection of MQ-9 reaper drones, as the one that Russian
Airman Teixiera and other gamers liked to kick back by imagining a survivalist scenarios in the past. Part of this online sociability was boasting of his ability to share early info about the coming invasion of Ukraine, noting the intel on casualties on both sides during the war to his best buds on the internet, life-time non-disclosure agreement signed or not. As well as describing Russian boots on the ground and predicting plans for invading Ukraine, his circle enjoyed using their skill navigating the undead that populated the post-apocalyptic landscape of a future Kentucky, in a zombie apocalypse: legions of zombies where death is not only inevitable, anthropophagy all too real a threat for its players. The game seeks to capture a palpable thrill of death in the immediacy of its fictional topography, levels of risk distinguished by the revelation of hidden appearance of the undead meant players have to face the sudden possibility profuse bleeding lies just behind a door or around the corner as they navigate zombies invaders in a rural America of a not distant future. Weren’t the maps of Ukraine’s forces a similar rush of navigating a tight spot for the gamer group known as #War-Posting? Approaching real war with truly vertiginous proximity, the military slides suggest a terrifying landscape of death, with real time troop fatalities on display.
This is in fact not far from the actual daily scenario soldiers regularly face in many outposts of the Ukraine War, as Ukrainian soldiers hunker down in hopes of defending actual bombed-out cities like Bakhmut and other war-torn landscapes. But the daily tallies of war dead in Ukraine seemed to be rising so quickly in Teixeira’s daily posts on Ukraine battlefields from NSA and CIA records, dating back to February 2022 or over a year ago, that Ukraine must have almost replaced Zomboid for its cool factor, before he shifted to the Discord platform in December. The photos of paper maps of military groups of the Russian forces, Wagner forces, and Ukrainians provided a game-like view of war.
The leaked slides showing actual battlefields–“Here, have some leaked documents!”; “I have more than [merely] open source info–Perks of being in a USAF intel unit!”–fed our collective interest in geopolitics in ways that made them appear quite eerily much more seamless with imagining oneself amidst an apocalypse. They circulated mostly among gamer groups who liked to visualize themselves to, by some sort of futuristic time-travel, and one can imagine them teleporting themselves instantly from a war-torn rural Kentucky in which deadly zombies threatened their lives, hidden in dark corners and around doors, to Ukraine, from the pseudo-military landscape of omnipresent threats to actual war. The internet became a source not of leaking, but sort of platform designed cyber transport systems specialist, processing top secret military intelligence briefings from his base outside Boston, in Cape Cod, uploading hundreds of slides of real-time intelligence on a global scale arriving from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Security Agency, and CIA, beyond intel collected from drones, to many friends.
The early maps that showed the expansive battlefield of Ukraine, so removed from his station in Massachusetts, shared a board-game like image of the war that had a real-life frisson. To be sure, Teixeira did condemn the military as run by “the elite politicians,” but loved war games. If the earliest maps leaked anticipated Russian military advances into Ukraine, rather than trying to leak military strategy, or suggest an interest in geopolitics, Teixeira seems to have been fascinated by toting up the daily tally of war dead on the battle field of Ukraine, sitting in his base, posted fatalities of Russian and Ukrainian troops–some argue that he diminished the losses of Russians, or augmented the number of Ukrainian military fatalities–as the military conflict maps became an inside running narrative of the war. This was not Daniel Ellsberg or Edward Snowden: there was no horror about war, but rather a sort of vertiginous fascination with the scale of death of one practiced in war games, ready to appropriate battlefield intel to encounter the frisson of true Thanatos, without much Eros available to the eye or mind.
Paper Map from Group Shared by Airman Teixeira on Social Media from January 2023/BBC
The enumeration of the tally military dead on paper maps to which he had clearance and privileged access–by all accounts sensitive information–became a glorified killing fields in which Teixeira seems to have realized his friends would delight more than Zomboid, with an eye to the cool factor of classified information. In the ecosystem of attention, the highly classified maps of the Ukraine War have been reposted and reshaped, occurred with little sense that their audience was with real-world interests, or that the scenarios they described were real. “This guy was a Christian, anti-war, [who] just wanted to inform some of his friends about what was going on” on the other side of the world, even if it was in the daily news, said a friend from the online community, defensively arguing that some of his fellow-gamers were even in Ukraine, and they were thinking primarily of their personal ties to them.
Did the gamers just want to inhabit the landscape of combat that was even more “real” than existing gaming situations, zeroing in on the fatalities and deaths in the fight for control over real terrain in Eastern Ukraine–
–at the same time as everyone in the world was trying to use the best geospatial intelligence to assess the fight over contested terrain, watching daily updated maps of the battle over the last year, in hopes to follow the gains of Russian forces around critical combat points like Bakhmut, that so sharply contrasted to the rapid gains Russian forces had made in the military offensive in Luhansk.
As the lines of military combat were contested, and media footage was posted of military advances into social media networks and messaging channels, the attacks of Russian advance moved slowly, being able only to capture small slivers of terrain in weeks of fighting Ukrainian defensive positions, often raising questions of why they were less able to exploit battlefield geometry and Ukrainian defenders relied on their effective degrading of offensive positions in a war of attrition. After months of very marginal territorial gains against Ukrainian forces, fundamental limitations of on gaining substantial grounds had begun to appear, adding a new dramatic quality to the war. In short, this made compelling stuff, difficult to fully track in words, clearly part of a global war dynamic more interesting to navigate than the zombie wars back in the alternative future of rural Kentucky. Thumbing his nose at military authorities, Teixeira used the pipeline of classified maps he had access even to compromise military theaters globally, using his phone to shoot secret information about Canada, China, Israel, South Korea, the Indo-Pacific military theater and the Middle East.
Teicheira, in a sense, was acting in ways akin to Edward Snowden, his head burst from processing reams of geospatial information that were impossible to fully get one’s mind around, even if Teixeira’s actual reaction to the challenge were of a very different ethical stamp. For this spate of over-sharing of slides was not really only about Ukraine. It rather offered a sort of ecoysystem that existed at an angle to the world: “We like fighting games, we like war games,” and the more real, presumably, the better. And the maps of real population centers, front lines of operation, and key assets–a vocabulary and graphic syntax that was troublingly–or maybe not so troublingly?–akin to a game board or a board game, even if it was labeled “SECRET//NOFORN.”
It must have seemed pretty cool when it was making the rounds on Discord online in early March, and then eventually migrated onto 4chan by April 5, 2023. By then, the widening online circulation of the maps created such an international kerfuffle to compel U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin to try to explain the commitment of the United States government to prioritize “safeguarding intelligence” even as the carefully sourced lightly encoded battlefield assessments of air defenses and discussions of military capacities of each side globally spread, and the Discord group known as #War-Posting improbably intersected with a real war, and Thug Shaker Central shook down from the trees some seriously large fruit. It was perhaps not any surprise that Jack became promoted as a poster boy for the MAGA crowd by @RepMTG, the MAGA megaphone, quick to defend the “white, male, christian and antiwar” man who promoted the man-child they recast as “an enemy to the Biden regime.”
And the Airman who violated his life-long nondisclosure agreement with the US government became a “kid,” a renegade American speaking truth to power, as he was praised for having finally “told the truth about [American] troops being on the ground in Ukraine, and a [whole] lot more,” on FOX, warned Tucker Carlson. Carlson’s media megaphone liked to circle back to Ukraine, and he hardly hesitate praising Teixeira as an American hero of real principles–unlike the American administration that has committed to defend Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Indeed, he cast Teixeira’s arrest for criminal activity as a form of telling truth to power–making a poster child of the Airman’s leaking beneath a menacing image of the actual Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin, seemingly designed as if a mug shot to make his shiftiness appear all the more suspect to entrust American troops.
Carlson claimed far deeper interest in geopolitics than the Airman ever expressed. From his Fox News platform, Carlson praised Teixeira for a principled stance, while overlooking the illegality of posting classified military information on open servers. For critics of American military involvement in Ukraine, as Carlson, the feds were moving to “destroy him,” targeting the “kid” whose release of top secret maps was red meat to Republicans already eager to cut American ties to Ukraine. Carlson couldn’t know that this was within his final weeks as a Fox anchor.
He asked his audience to overlook who is the criminal, describing the maps as revealing a board-game of Ukraine War as the battle-ground of a proxy war between American and Russian troops America had accepted, as Carlson described them as revealing what j the “war machine” of the national news media ignored but the slides “reveal that this is very much America’s war,”–that the Ukraine War is really between the two prime nuclear super-powers on earth, together with the Biden administration encouraging war crimes with aid of the mainstream media.
Domestic politics seemed to trump international relations; the leaker was championing of this leaker by both Tucker Carlson and Taylor Greene–who sits on the Homeland Security Committee in the U.S. Congress. Was Taylor Greene illustrating she might not be the best person to trust with national security information of any kind? Her readiness to tweet out secret maps monitoring troop positions and deliveries of military materiel, estimates of military capacity on the ground and more, if irresponsible from a national security standpoint, set a new standard for amplifying actual leaks. As if to deflect media attention from Russia’s behavior on the battlefield, the leaked maps served to deflect attention from the stakes of the Ukraine War, a chance to unmask an extensive cover-up by the Biden administration.
Teixeira’s leaked slides raised a specter of “mission creep”–an escalation of involvement far beyond stated goals, an echo of Vietnam or Afghanistan, a military expansion far beyond arms transfers, long threatened as a domestic risk for America, a “blank check” or irresponsible statecraft–Carlson promoted the problems with the presence of “much larger presence of CIA and US Special Operations personnel” than acknowledged, as the Airman revealed–and became emblematic of–a secret expansion of a hidden war in which the Biden administration had involved the United States that “Ukraine is actually loosing,” Carlson told his viewers. This “leaker” was a hero. Teixeira–“the kid”–has become cast by the White House and its cronies as a “criminal” who needed to be apprehended by federal forces, but who had taken their own eyes away from real questions of national security in sending forces after “the kid” who is a patriotic American.
We all know that Carlson was among the more vocal critics of American military assistance to Ukraine in any form. He happily spread anti-Ukraine propaganda on Fox, when he confessed he “secretly root[ed]” for Russia in 2019 as if he were the spectator to a conflict he had no stake in–“Why do I care what is is going on in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia? Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which by the way I am.”–and America had no reason to “care” about, but in which “we should probably take the side of Russia if we have to choose between Russia and Ukraine.” Teixeira’s gambit became enlisted as a reason to shift American viewers’ attention from the extremely brutal war crimes that Russia had performed against civilians, converting the actual war in Ukraine to a set of leaked maps that proved the endangering of America’s global interests.
Tucker Carlson Tonight, April 13, 2023
Why was this unprecedented leakage of top secret maps seized on by the MAGA media to decry American involvement? If so, why was the twenty-one year old Teixeira styling himself by online avatars like TexKilledYou, popular on military focussed social media platforms primarily for his survival games, as if he was enjoying being a marketer of a more real survivalist death gave of his own design? Was being a leaker a sort of IRL survival game, in some bizarro way?
Carlson spun it eagerly as a question of deep patriotism. Carlson used the story of “the kid” as if to magnify Americans’ fear of military escalation in Ukraine, as it offered evidence, even if Vladimir Putin dialed down nuclear threats, of the threat that “the United States is a direct combatant with Russia” and “American soldiers are fighting Russian soldiers”–even though, as Greene affirmed, when she shared her own copies of the removed maps, “Russia poses no threat to the United States.” The proxy war was hard to read in the maps, but the legibility of the maps was not really the question, after all. The level of detail on military operations that American forces were witnessing offered enough–military monitoring and intelligence assessments of troop locations and battle plans–to suggest a proxy war that might escalate into a nuclear exchange.
The detailed monitoring by American forces of intelligence projections resonated with Putin’s charges that the United States seeks to undermine Russia’s sovereignty–and seemed to obscure that it was the invasion Putin staged and organized that was explicitly aiming to end Ukraine’s existence as a sovereign country. The social media drop to the gaming group Thug Shake Central was neither partisan or ideological. The document drop was primarily shared for its coolness included a reveal of future plans for a buildup of Ukrainian forces–a subject that dominated global media sphere–and maps that project a range of eye-opening”wild- card scenarios” stunning as they imagine a range of potential escalations of the theater of war–as well as a negotiated end to the conflict–including a Ukrainian strike on the Kremlin itself and the death of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, a scenario of a level of violence that was not ever openly described. To be sure, there were many things that were not in the maps, that we might do well to focus upon, instead: the six million internally displaced residents of Ukraine since the invasion began, and the eight million that have fled the nation.
Neither do we see the status of Ukraine’s invasion as a potentially pivotal place in global theater of war–or the fact, all too often elided in maps on the ground, that whatever scenario occurs, Russian possesses the greatest nuclear arsenal in the world. For Tucker Carlson on FOX, “the slides show that this is in fact not Ukraine’s war, it’s our war,” Tucker Carlson affirmed, arguing that it showed that “this is not a regional conflict in Eastern Europe, but this is a ‘hot’ war between the two primary nuclear superpowers on Earth,” suggesting that the Biden administration was concealing the global stakes of Russia’s quite openly imperial stance to an expanded “sphere of influence” on a truly global scale–including Armenia, Syria, the Middle East, and Africa, or the global nature of the over 10,000 sanctions that were imposed on Russia after its invasion. The permanence of Russia’s claims can hardly be called out as not regional–if one looks at the maps that Russian forces have plastered themselves in cities like Kherson, claiming to be “here forever”–
“Russia is Here Forever,” Kherson January 2023/(c) Anastasia Magazova
–or the maps of the sanctions that forty six countries have placed on Russia, aware of the danger of the expansive military claims Russia is unprecedentedly staking in a zone where Ukraine stands at the epicenter of a global crisis in democracy where Russia has tried to impose its will on a nation.
February 20, 2023
There was little interest in revealing the presence of American forces abroad. Wasn’t the strategic mapping of military forces in the slides, however, not the reason for the interest in posting the images to a group of serious gamers on Discord in the first place? While the slides bracket the question of whether the invasion of Ukraine was not a global crisis in democracy, this would be bracketed in the sort of strategic maps that Zomboid fans might like to focus, finding the cool factor in the on-the-ground strategic questions of life and death, where no real values exist save questions of brute survival, more than the real threat of unfolding a war of stabilized conflict that is the entry point of a new Cold War, and growing battlefields which have only victims. The Biden administration, one might almost sense, had been waging their own war games in Ukraine against Russia–never mind that they were the active aggressors–that the American architects of the war sought to keep hidden from the American people.
The military maps leaked demand some attention, however, in themselves. Was the increased realism gamers have come to demand from combat games like War Thunder–where several secrete military documents appeared in January–including the diagrams and system manuals for military aircraft not yet in production–spread to reddit, meriting wrist-slapping from moderators made about leaking “export restricted or classified documents” in internet arguments escalate to federal crimes, an example of the increased confusion of gaming intensity and the ethics of public communication? The whole episode reminds us just how much maps are about gaming, or gambits, as much as mirrors of the situation on the ground: the escalation of a steady flow of intel maps that the airman approved for full security clearance had spread on Discord from January to March before they ended up on the Minecraft Earth map server suggests not only how private unmoderated platforms migrated to a broader community, by a twenty-one year old who had gained Top Secret security clearance to “sensitive compartmentalized access” since 2021, and was familiar–if not curious–as an Airman to read maps projecting aerial strikes and interpreting aerial combat maps.
Jack Teixeira may not have intended to post the intelligence documents marked “Top Secret” about the Ukraine War in specific. He posted them to a channel of video gamers. To be sure, he’d tried to process the documents he had access, describing them as best he could as detailed summaries that he hoped would be exciting for his fellow-gamers–even if some of the analyses of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and include images of the hotspots of war in Kharkiv and Bakhmut, some of the most intensive areas of combat, Ukrainian air assets in the region, as well as timetables of weapons delivery to Ukraine. Acting as if he was loosed in a house of secrets he wanted to process all around the globe reflect how much the Pentagon has become a clearing house of global knowledge. While both Ukrainians thought this was Russian propaganda cautioned they were western propaganda, and embarrassed Americans cast doubt on their official origins, the leaked intel gained international attention as they appeared on pro-Russian Telegram channels, including tabulations of Ukrainian and Russian war dead.
As many became skeptical of the authenticity of written descriptions of military engagements that Jack Teixeira had posted to his tightly knit social media circle of gamers, he tried to convince them as he began to post the images of documents from Ukraine War that were clearly marked “TOP SECRET”–as if to demonstrate their authenticity to his friends to assure them of the access he had to authentic records, soon bringing caches of what added up to hundreds of maps home to his dining rom table from January that he photographed on his mobile device, beside hunting magazines and sights for his guns. He was cumulatively releasing a hundred and then two hundred more of documents that would slowly began to make rounds on different sites with limited attention. The release of the cache of maps by Teixeira of the plans and projections for war was the latest evidence of the surrogate war that was being waged between nations and international alliances in Ukraine in a scorched earth fashion, but it was evidence of the scale and nature of a global war, waged on information networks and on the ground, based on intelligence as well as arms, the substrate filtered from global intelligence networks that was destined for few eyes–although when they appeared on a Minecraft Discord server beyond the far smaller American group they had first circulated, they quickly spread on 4chan, Twitter, and Telegram servers that entered the global media sphere in ways Teixeira seems never to have anticipated. Teixeira seemed shocked by the global intrigue–real discord!–the revelations spawned; an avalanche arrived four months after he began posting to friends, and in his final email messages as he quietly closed out accounts said farewell in a rather valedictory way, as if not yet registering the chances for his imprisonment.
The rather surprising auspicious kinship of his name to elegant cartographers of the early modern period was probably beyond Teixeira’s knowledge. Unlike maps of Japan celebrated early modern Jesuit cartographer Luis Tesiéra sent to Abraham Ortelius of Japan, from Spain, leading Ortelius to craft the first accurate European map of the island even if neither man set foot there, to be sure, Jack Teixeira had never set foot in these territories, but had perceived these theaters of war only from afar in news media, and seems to have tried to reveal a more real sense of proximity to the battle sights through the Top Secret maps. Jack Teixeira posted inside intelligence compilations onto Discord because they seemed real cool, or real and cool. The hand-painted planisphere credited to the Portuguese cartographer Abraham Teixeira of 1573 revealed the world amidst a chain of secrets of another sort–global spice routes–had a cool factor as well, to be sure, but far more tied to the globalism of another era, if in its detail and cutting edge for its day.
Domingos Teixeira, 1573 (Biliothèque nationale de France)
The global reach of these early modern nautical maps promised a new global coverage of sea routes. No one could assess the damage that Airman Jack Teixiera’s eager oversharing had caused, or its effects on the war, but the human geography of combat intersected with the geographic imagination of gamers in more explicit ways than we had been accustomed to admit. If the demographic of peace-loving military service who relaxed by enjoying war-games they imagined cordoned off from the real world is unknown, it is far greater than we would like to admit. It’s hard to imagine the intensity with which his gaming led him to remove, photograph, share, and repost the maps and other intel, as if he was reaching out to folks by entrusting them with Top Secret information on a medium that he must of known had global reach. Was the game of courting public revelation of his own breaking protocol by revealing state secrets part of the game?
Maps and secrecy are, of course, in the news in other areas this week, including that a map of sensitive intelligence information–this one we haven’t yet seen–was kept by Donald Trump from the White House, and after being taken to Mar-a-Lago perhaps displayed or shared, perhaps including military intelligence. Trump’s lawyer Christopher Kise questioned the imbalance in national security questions in the Biden administration by focussing on “some outdated map” Trump took to his resort in violation of national security protocols, but allowing “real wartime intelligence data is flying out of the door”–or at least being shared on social media outlets–trying to distract from how Trump took a classified map of “sensitive intelligence information” out of the actual White House door to keep it in his private possession among classified records he regarded as memorabilia or bargaining chips. Is the game of secrecy waged about the secrets in maps always as important as their contents?
The quandary of our own abundant if not inexhaustible repertoire of mapping abilities and skills of visualization are tried by the spread of COVID-19. As dashboards, news agencies, and media offered new maps and staked new skills of mapping, maps of the pandemic’s spread–from the panicked first maps of ‘cases’ to the maps of mortality, hospitalization, or comorbidity that ensued as we tried to process the pandemic, rightly fed concerns about the viral spread we risked unable to control, and rightly so. Attention to tracking maps of infections–never predictive, and approximate–gave way to a skepticism to accept the government policies to contain the virus as its spread seemed unable to control. Opposition to public health policies of vaccination, masking, and limiting exposure to public places became cast as a power grab, an invasion of liberties and freedoms that are increasingly tied to the individual body, rather than a collective one.
But the spread of protests against vaccination escalated in Canada quite dramatically in the months after the mandate for vaccination to cross the US-Canada border, on January 15, 2022, as if the issue finally hit home, and the rage that many felt about the pandemic and its ongoing spread became suddenly concretized in the mandate to vaccinate before crossing the border.
And the inescapable introduction of politics to policies of masking created a dangerous undermining of the social contract, to be sure, as decisions and declarations of masks as sufficient protection–even if cloth!–or as impositions played out as decisions about civil society in deeply distorting ways. And the notion of a nation with mask-free rules, if not the secession of the unmasked, proved to rehabilitate a scary undercurrent granting validity to secessionism in the aftermath of January 6, 2021. But the protest that led drivers to turn the Transcanada Highway into a protest route obstructing travel to the commercial US was an odd reflexive assertion of “independence” in an era when COVID affirms our global interconnections. The protests that were cast as a resurgence of the “right to roam” on paved highways, by a group of disgruntled sector of truckers and anti-federalist agitators, clustered on the public spaces of the roads, as if cast as true spaces of open space, demanding to be protected and not policed for public health.
It may be the product of an era which has both feet firmly planted in an era of non-representational mapping, apparent both from disease maps, epidemiological maps, maps of viral lineages, and indeed from weather maps to maps of forest fires, combustability, and drought, that the non-representational nature of these maps led to a reflexive search for a new map of political embodiment of the resistance to vaccination and public health policies. It is partly exhaustion with the pandemic-inspired health measures or restrictions–from mask-wearing to congregating indoors–that has lead many to refuse social distancing, but to deep skepticism of mandated COVID vaccinations as government overreach. But it was also in the increasingly smooth surface of the globalized world that neoliberals long promoted, where capital’s free transit across borders benefitted all, that redrawing a cross-border map of “Diagalon” as a mythic New Green World grew in the guise of a revolt from below, free from government oversight. The failure of January 6 in the United States led to a resurgence of “patriotic” protests against measures of public health.
Was this a “republic,” in any way, or just a cry for help? Framed in terms of a direct democracy taking charge of the pandemic, the urgency of Diagalon seemed to concretize a broad salon des refusés, outside of and beyond politics as usual. The resistance was incarnated in a light green overlay designed to define a region without any common political or representative bodies by its collective refusal of a vaccine mandate, and refusal to accept either American or Canadian government oversight, a utopic collection of provinces and seceding states defending of liberties, in defiance of public health codes. The emergence of pseudo-republic of #Diagalon or #Diagolon as a suddenly trending as a meme on social media, an “accelerationist” extremist group, bent on destabilizing the state by overturning an order they sought to discredit as illegitimate.
The guileless simplicity self-made “map” of overlays was fictional, but an immediate redesign of sovereignty fro emotional ends. It was less a proposal than a polemic about the conventionality of all nations, supporting a free-trade North America able to be capacious of the Keystone XL Pipeline that the American government had put on hold, presenting secession as a resolution to the burning questions of economics and freedoms of conscience that cast the actual state as due for discrediting. Filled with a healthy dollop of Manichaeism, the assertion of an alternate republic–something akin to a breakaway republic in North America–benefitted from the unfair interlacing of public health policies with politics to secede from a status quo with an energy that was very gung ho, as it assumed the status of a combat flag for angrily rallying against the status quo. The map is the result or residue of the odd discursive realignment of ideology and pandemic preparedness in the United States. The self-styled “Freedom Convoys” animated a new sense of liberties “on the road,” taking liberties to stream across the highways and even urban roads, freely honking horns and sounding air horns, soliciting resistance to government oversight on health mandates, urgently representing themselves as a solution to the pandemic’s panic.
As if in response to the images of an unruly “Caravan” that approached the United States to destabilize security, the motorcades sought to convey the strength of secessionists on wheels. With some odd dissonance, the light green shade of the overlay suggested not a project of “greening” but a freeing of wealth against an allegedly hegemonic state. There was a deep sense of a need for collective embodiment and a restoration of a lost era of liberties that the map stimulated and seemed to incarnate, as an emblem of a fragmenting of public health policies in the guise of a populist revolt. But this was hardly a populist movement, if it sought the trappings of one. The rag-tag collection of extremist groups and secessionists began as a meme that sought to unite opposition to the government around resistance to the vaccine mandate, but cast themselves in stark oppositional terms of Manichaean origins, rehashed for an age of globalization against the heresy of government oversight.
For rather than really debating or even discussing the policies for confronting COVID-19, the protestors seem to have responded to the fetishization of masking as a sign of containing the pandemic–and indeed the unfortunate politicization of health regulation, that has filled in for serious debate about managing the virus. The unprecedented politicization of health regulation from the early days of the pandemic gained only greater steam with vaccination and a mandate for vaccinating or mask-wearing. If the serious reservations some felt about The embrace of strident opposition to either policy as a way to voice increased skepticism about government guidelines fostered an unexpected false populist outcry against both, confusing the pandemic with politics and intertwining ideology and public health policy in deeply unhelpful ways. The “Freedom Convoy” that seemed organic in how they appeared as if spontaneously on paved arteries to protest government overreach arrived in neighborhoods across the nation as carnivalesque uprisings.
But a somber seriousness was on the verge of comedy. The distinction was existential as much as of citizenship, defining themselves in a new lingo as Diagolonians, Diags or just Dags, who, in some reflection of their anti-globalist credo, opposing themselves to “Circulonians” –the lapdogs of globalism in the rest of North America. Vaccination mandates became a placeholder for communism, or other globalist agents, the new nativist map affected a Utopian identity in an overlay of green, using as their flag a banner of a harsh black and white diagonal stripe, a defense of liberties of deep transhistorical origins, with a dissident national anthem, roots in white supremacy revealed in their embrace of the old American confederacy, defined by a “diagonal unity” of Canadian provinces that linked Alaska to Florida, a new promised land of traditional Republican values bound by the motto, “Nations come and go, but Diagolon never dies“–an eternal longing for direct democracy of the vox populi.
The imperative of this new “territory” was not with its own DMZ, but suggested the fervent belief in a militarized imaginary rejecting COVID-19 vaccines on both sides of the border. The disturbing emergence of this imaginary territory was a purely virtual entity, but was disturbing all the more for the intensity of convictions released by the crude contrivance of a GIS overlay. A counter-map of sorts to a detailed data map or a helpful visualization of reported rates of infection or of vaccination rates, the polemic nature of the map lay in its bluntly drawn straight edges, themselves a rebuttal of the detailed map of viral infection and mortality rates that had dominated the news for the past two years. Any association of planimetric projection with rationality is challenged by the lack of logos in using a simple cartographic overlay promotes “Diagolon” as a call to arms and secession. The Trans-Canada Highway is really only the ‘only’ place that links the east and west of the country in some places, and the power of rewriting the map won the day as a trending proclamation of sovereignty.
The sharply defined contours of the green overlay suggests an uncompromising rigidity and militancy akin to ethno-nationalism: either you are for or against us. Facing a pervasive sense of disempowerment that resulted from the pandemic has opened the doors to the appeal of a clean-cut map of clear edges and belonging–an image of belonging that is at odds with the reality of a global pandemic. While drawing authority from open data of USGS as if to lend authority to this new fantasia of seceded land, a diagonal swatch across the continent whose imagined coherence seems far cruder than the idealized Masonic fetishization of geometric forms: a simple diagonal line, drawn from the Arctic Ocean or Beaufort Sea over Alberta runs down from the prairies into Idaho and Montana, drops to encompass an expanded Confederacy from Texas to Florida. After two years of the pandemic, and a deep sense of isolation, the call to end pandemic mandates not only energetically affirmed a collective commitment but an exuberant demonstration of joy.
In contrast to the disempowering maps tracking COVID’s spread, the single polygon of linked states and provinces rising in resistance to COVID health policies mandating vaccination seemed to incarnate the rise of a new form of politics and political expression of firm resistance to mandates. And the new polygon that was imposed on North America in this odd meme bragged of a rights to secede from national COVID vaccination mandates that suggested a polemic of sorts of an unprecedented level of entitlement of unprecedented nature, effectively appropriating national mapping agencies’ geodata to create a new imaginary state, or if not a state at least a space removed from government-sponsored health mandates and a state of mind.
To be sure, the polygon was not only an overlay, but evoked its own sense of spatial logic that was abundantly familiar above the 49th parallel that often separates the United States and Canada: bridging the border, the green overlay of “Diagalon” was a populist cartography, the GIS derived emblem of an extremist right-wing group of separatists. Drawing some reflexive accolades on Twitter, the apparent “peaceable kingdom” of green was a neofascist emblem of resistance to public health mandates, complete with its own “De-Militarized Zone” (DMZ) in the only hint of its militancy. To be sure, but also a faux populist cartography, rich with its own cartographic connotations as much as serving as a slap in the face for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose imposition of a mandated vaccine for cross-border travel it opposed. A new logic of secessionism, the northwestern provinces of Canada would bring their wealth of petroleum deposits, by this logic, to link themselves to “brethren” of the old Confederate South, now expanded to Idaho, Colorado, and Texas, but what may not seem much of a stretch of the imagination, to resist the latest demonization of “big government” disguising itself as pandemic response. Never mind that this is a global pandemic; the liberating logic of the “Diagalon” meme promised freedom from government oversight from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico.
The map was an unlikely icon of an attack on a strategic federal role for defining national health policies and health readiness seemed implicitly important as vaccination rates needed to be encouraged and preparedness for variants of the virus whose spread in new lineages threatened to grow, as the virus mutated in ways more rapid than influenza, and had spread worldwide. Even in a country of universal health insurance coverage, it suggests more than a dangerous distraction as funds dry out worldwide for “emergency” funding for testing, vaccination, and indeed COVID care. Mapping a non-nation affirmed like-minded resistance to COVID vaccination across borders, but also expanded the staging of a massive blockade of cross-border traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway; the revolt against the mandate of vaccination for all truckers carrying goods across the border. It sought to contrast the “reality” of those living by ferrying goods across the border who would be hampered by the government over-reach of a vaccine mandate; the open space of the highway was contrasted to alleged over-reach of a government seeking to oversee public health, transforming the Trans-Canada Highway and associated arteries of trade to a protest zone of global scale.
The truckers’ obstruction of the major routes for commercial vehicle traffic across the Ambassador Bridge leading to Detroit, the largest volume commercial crossing of 8,000 trucks daily, which was blockaded even after a court order urged them to disband and leave, was effectively a gun to the head of the government, fenders draped in the Maple Leaf banner, as if to recuperate the nation, shutting down the greatest single point of trade in the name of lifting COVID restrictions, casting COVID restrictions as a “fight” between truckers and government, where “truckers” flouted the criminal offense of blocking commercial traffic on the bridge, demanding “freedom” to cross the border without being vaccinated. The disruption of traffic between auto plants on both sides of the border ended upwards of a quarter of trade between Canada and the US, in a disruption seeking to trigger broader protests as it took aim at workers’ shifts, production lines, and paychecks, in an odd inversion of the image of a National Strike, winning support from FOX TV, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz, as if to incite a revolution from below to oppose the “mandate” for vaccination for cross-border traffic.
The crude icon of populist cartography was odd, indeed, coming in a nation distinguished by considerably greater cartographic literacy than the United States–geography is more universally taught in Canadian schools. But the polygon of Diagalon was a briskly drawn fantasy of a land free from health mandates. The connotation of the map of a region of resistance to government oversight blurred existing borders by championing of free market trade, free from government oversight or health mandates, recalled a recent great free market dreams of the century. For the republic of Diagalon recouped a diagonal cross-border petroleum pipelines only placed on hold recently, but still dear to those who had long imagined a unified North American petrostate.
The closely aligned and deeply interested memory of cross-border transit on which considerable local capital was staked was a free trade icon, not always mapped in positive terms by opponents–but similarly naturalized as a horizontal line bisecting the border, running from Tar Sands Development to the Gulf of Mexico, and providing an axis of wealth, economic promises, and autarky that seemed to lie at the basis for the fantasy of an independent Diagolon: the shipping of gas worldwide was indeed a negative vision of globalization, enriching the companies of Alberta and the northwest, that had, indeed, been resisted by what many argued was executive over-reach of the deepest sort, constraining what was imagined as a life-line of cross-border trade and the exploitation of claims to mineral wealth that provided mercantilist riches to boost the Canadian economy located in the Tar Sands that many argue are the right of Calgary-based integrated energy companies to exploit and extract.
The. vision of the “free market” is, of course, not only the engine of a Canadian economic boom on a global scale of mineral extraction, promoted as a “right” of Canadian companies to dominate the global marketplace for fossil fuels. It is, as well, a tacit and unspoken response to the rights of indigenous inhabitants of the same lands, whose title is effectively denied by the mercantilist logic of a fossil fuel market dominated by a handful of highly concentrated actors, generating revenues for some twenty-five owners–some based in America–from Exxon Mobil, BlackRock, the Royal Bank of Canada, T-D Bank, Royal Dutch Shell, FMR–a constellation of energy firms, investment Funds, Limited Liability Companies, and private trusts, as the Desmarais Family Trust.
Is it a coincidence that many of these stakeholders lie located in the green area of Diagalon, ready to furnish coffers for ongoing protests to assert their claims to import oil to a global marketplace for fossil feuls? The largest single stake-holder in the Tar Sands of ExxonMobil–some 6.57% from 2010-15–is not only foreign corporate, but the largest share of fossil-fuel revenues are foreign-owned. If anything, the claims for ownership are however staked against a sense of indigenous ownership, and has fanned the flames of cross-border white supremacist separatists whose attack on federal policies mirrors federal interests in adjudicating and recognizing indigenous “native” land claims–the prospect of mapping which this blogger has discussed in a previous post, claims that were first mapped online on a new platform, unsurprisingly, parallel to the staking of energy claims and extractive rights to articulate specific claims to ancestral lands. Indeed, the obliteration of ancestral land claims to usufruct or mineral wealth motivates the opening up of borders for an energy market far beyond North America, and hoping to reach a global marketplace: the most wealthy protagonists in economics of globalization of energy markets not only stand to profit but may be standing behind the false populism of Diagalon’s militant “separatist” claims.
The land claims that Native Lands has rendered in pastels as a vibrant palimpsest suggesting the scope of compromised territories that were made to fit into the provincial system surveyed in the nineteenth and even eighteenth centuries were cleverly erased, of course, by the new collective, which concealed the density of mineral deposits located in the protected boreal forest in lands “ceded” by historical treaties of the past. What was not rendered opaque, the overlay affirmed an egenda to “go it alone” by evoking an energy independence rooted in the seizure of indigenous land claims but blinded to its own history, cartographically smoothing local land claims to reify avenues of trans-border shipment of extracted mineral wealth.
The rather ingenious cartographic sleight of hand able to recoup plans for a now-cancelled Keystone XL or Transcanada pipeline by encouraging a new “nativist” claim to the autonomy of the very region in which most underground mineral deposits are located, boosting a “nativist” declaration of rights to export energy in Diagalonian lands by unvaccinated truckers.
Did not the vision of the highway, or of the pipeline, condense the economic benefits imposition of government mandates would prevent? While Diagalon as a geographic conceit of Diagalon is perhaps best seen in rhetorical terms as an anti-federal fillip, the territory’s coherence, if it exists, seems to stem from the deep desire of Alberta and Calgary to rethink the border that the tar sands oil might be able to cross. The assertion of a commonality to which the federal government was blind asserted a deep gulf of distance between the liberal state and the people, as if health mandates only undermined the “true” interests of Canadians in the very manner that the shutting down of the Keystone pipeline that was planned to move petroleum deposits from the tar sands globally was shut down.
If one could push oneself to imagine economic integrity for the imaginary land, that arrives on social media rather complete with its own miniature Border Wall, running north of Vancouver, a precedent for such territorial unity would be longstanding antagonism to foiling the Keystone XL pipeline. The ostensibly populist movement of which Diagalon was both motivational meme and emblem was based in Calgary and Alberta if excluding metropolitan BC, was a mirror areas that the petroleum industry is strongest as a political lobby has championed free trade agreements, and as the largest provincial producer of oil, recently had uncoincidentally filed a trade challenge to recover the C$1.3 billion it had invested in the Keystone pipeline. The provincial amalgam the overlay embraced and unified as a block of alleged resistance to “government over-reach” was inhabited bythe ghost of the planned XL pipeline diagonally reaching into the United States.
The secessionist imaginary of Diagolon–often “Diagalon” on Twitter, but never “Diagonolia,” despite its poetic capaciousness–by which the Truckers’ Convoy became known staked a provincial collective whose inhabitants reached down to embrace the “red” state imaginary–skirting Michigan and northern states east of the Mississippi, incorporating the old Confederacy in white supremacist largesse–by affirming the logic of the free market and cross-border trade to the very states on the Gulf of Mexico where the tar sands pumped from Alberta would arrive. The coincidence of that overlay was not much noticed, perhaps as the political imaginary was so obvious: or because the overlay was aptly opaque. It was a masked the validity of native land claims, and suggested a reification of the claims of an energy industry to deny the validity of any historical claims of precedence or the past. One might imagine the shock of COVID-19 put debate on hold for title to send bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands and Saskatchewan straight through to the Gulf of Mexico, asserting claims to extracting oil for the deferred pipeline in the face of the government, as if demanding the restoration of oil flow to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The blind geography of Diagalon was not only a mask, but a reification, if not a “reified consciousness” making concrete claims to energy, flattening the past, exploiting the opacity of an overlay as a historical banner to rally against the state.
Yet, as this blogpost will suggest, it may well explain how readiness for large contributions to vaccine protests that flowed north via crowdfunding, or funneled north on GoFundMe, promoted to large online followings, by alt right figures from Glenn Beck to Mike Huckabee to Erik Trump to the tele-evangelist Franklin Graham? As much as sticking a finger in Joe Biden’s eye by nourishing antivaxx sentiment and dissensus, the ghost of the pipeline may lie behind Americans who declined boosters but boosted disruptive protests, “standing for FREEDOM” despite increasing convictions of those who provoked, participated in or actively encouraged the events of January 6. Indeed, the prayers that were said for the convoys that moved across America and from the overpasses of highways treated the consciousness as a representation of local interests, obscured in the bloated big government that had created a policy of vaccine mandates, turning funds over to testing, vaccination, and masking and entrusting authority to health policies that threatened to undermine economics as usual.
There was more at stake than a consolation prize here. The uniformity of the polygon, so unlike the point-based maps that have been used to track COVID-19 mortality and infections, was a map of small government. Unlike the big data of multispectral global or national maps that have haunted the spatial global imaginary for several years, it was a logic that seemed cut and dry. Rather than asking viewers to try to parse every thing from hot-spots, health vulnerability, hospital beds, and health care services in day glow colors, or peer into the x-rays of deep divisions in the nation’s health care system and health care readiness, the green continuous block that incarnates “Diagalon” on the North American continent is akin to dumbed-down geodata, of an almost fascist sort. Its clean geometric overlay charts and embodies an allegedly more organic resistance to technogovernance, in an illustration of the growing distance and lack of proximity of government to nation in the age of COVID-19.
And coming as it does almost at the very same time as we ready for a new COVID surges, it seems to start to disarm the state of all preparation for pandemic readiness. For the protests ostensibly animated by truckers on the Transcanada Highway disrupted public health policy, in a moment that was seeking to go global in its resistance to government mandates or public health policy governments in the US and Canada were seeking more funds and structural policies to enact. If not the Omicron variant or BA.2, which did not affect infections as in Hong Kong in all the countries it emerged, we are not only less prepared for the danger of a new surge in hospital admissions, but are left to wonder how weakened immunity after vaccination could affect the virulence of a future wave, as the advantage of immune defenses simply wanes. Even as former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden doesn’t doubt that the next COVID wave may be on its way, even if our levels of vaccination protect us against a rise in mortality rates so that so terribly escalated with little ability to contain its spread. With the virus multiplying in variants with considerable rapidity, the sanctioning of new vaccines was not simple or foolproof.
The reliance of funds for free rapid testing, vaccinations and COVID care are contingent on the emergency status of the pandemic, dependence on emergency status of health care funding imperils its continuity or clear guidelines for pandemic readiness. Fears of underfunding primary health care and public health that the pandemic exposed was countered by the emergency prioritizing of critical health defenses even as fears of a surge rise–and threaten to undermine emergency preparedness, some experts fear, largely as federal funding is increasingly debated in Washington, and the funds for testing, vaccination and treating the uninsured may be in danger of drying up. The very stadiums once sites of vaccination are readying to resume their normal functions as they reopen for entertainment and sporting events as states are scaling back and winding down programs for free testing and vaccination, even as new variants are emerging.
If sparked by the mandate for COVID vaccination of those driving cross-border shipments, the protests were a welling up of anti-government resentment over multiple years. Despite relative public health success of containing the virus in Canada, north of the border, the public health policies took a clear toll. While the vaccine was mandated by the US for cross-border travel as well, the resentment against the principle of a government-issued mandate drove some truckers to disrupt cross-border transit for all, by occupying the Ambassador Bridge against which a large share of commercial vehicles travel, constituting a quarter of goods, at a time when global supply chains are already threatened or slowed.
The false freedom of free trade was elevated by the Freedom Convoy as they congregated in the capitol of Ottawa challenged what it claimed was an unwanted government-sponsored health mandate, disrupting one stable link in the international supply chain as if this was the consequence of the imposition of a mandate presented as government public health policy. The closure of the border to commercial traffic interrupted a major trade artery, recalling how the same government had needlessly failed to prioritize free trade in issuing obstructions to the Keystone pipeline, and in introducing obstructions that led Ford, General Motors, and Toyota to slow lines of production, in hopes to forge a link between the vaccination mandate and an end of free trade.
The memes of the secession of sectors of the United States and Canada from public health mandates will make the prioritization of health defenses all the more difficult. And in a sea of virus, the disruptive declaration of resistance to the vaccination, as if health care were an assault on freedom, creates a false opposition between seeing freedom as a government hands-off in its relations to the public as can be and public health. The lateral organization of the Convoy’s cells gave the appearance of an organic uprising, without clear leaders, but an expression of popular will; organizers were not clearly identified by name, but populist flags of sovereignty, as on January 6, held high–as well as, at times, the Diagalon flag.
So entangled has have public health funding public health directives with attacks on government overreach that the infrastructure to respond to COVID-19 risks being endangered–even as the government may have also worried about the unnecessary disruption of US-Canada trade ties.
And while the frustration at masking or vaccination may be considerable as we approach Spring, the precedents, if marginal, of seceding from public health policies or indeed by rejecting the mandates that tried to increased vaccination and the health emergency that has secured funds for health care threaten a coherent response. Before expanding to British Columbia, Diagalon constellation was a sandwiching of Canada’s northwest provinces between the right-wing affinity groups of neofascist inclination from Alaska to Texas, if rooted in the dreams from a NAFTA-sized Confederacy, that seemed dedicated to resisting any coherent national health policy. But it amassed an anti-federalist resentment of extremism, with the distinct aura of January 6–and the latest of stress-tests, albeit of a bizarre and caricatured nature, that liberal democracy and government faces after the events of 1/6/21.
Canadian truckers became a link in a global anti-government protest in what seemed the waning days of COVID-19 pandemic. If globalization links the local to the world, the small concentrations of groups of truckers who drove down the TransCanada Highway–their number far below the 227,000 truckers operating in Canada, where trucking is an even more common occupation of Canadian men–was rather strikingly able to globalize from a protest at the mandated vaccine for crossing the US-Canada border to assorted grievances able to garner global media attention. (If roughly a third of Canadian truckers are recent immigrants, immigrant origins were conspicuously absent from the protest; those present hewed to the stereotype set by Truckers for Trump, perhaps sharing the conceit a mogul represented the interests of the working class–an ever growing share of America’s trucking industry also relies on immigrant labor.)
As if in polemic response to the difficulty of processing our deluge of data visualizations of coronavirus infections, the simple slash of the self-made map affirmed an area of resistance to the vaccination mandates imposed by liberal governments in North America: a bottom-up refusal to accept the infringements the state imposed, allegedly for public benefit, the flag advanced a refusal to admit federal policies and science. We had heard about “fake facts” as a casualty of toxic political discourse. But the current migration of “fake news” and “fake facts” to levels of contagion questions the very techno-politics of healthcare rooted in vaccination and pandemic techno-governance, by conjuring the common sense false populism of the figure of a “trucker” in the crystal clear volleys of air horns that both contest and protest current health mandates–and even contest the technopolitics of health care as a masking of free expression and individual liberties.
Before a barrage of bombs began to fall on Ukrainian cities from Kyiv to Kharkiv, newspapers of record predicted that “Days of whiplash developments made unmistakable the volatility of a crisis that American officials fear could lead to an assault by one of the world’s most powerful militaries against Ukraine, Europe’s second-biggest country,” as artillery exchanges grew in the Eastern provinces. Fears of Russia staging a unilateral invasion of the nation grew as “a development that Europeans never thought they would see,” alerted the New York Times, challenging if not undermining Europe’s–and NATO’s–expansion of geo-strategic alliances in recent years. But the nominal accusations of an expansion of NATO has blurred, to be sure, with the accusations of the persecution of ethnically Russian populations in eastern Ukraine in the current charges of waging a war of “de-Nazification.” They nationalistic cry rallied faith in a Russian homeland that seem to be a reaction to the processes of globalization against which Putin’s right wing allies–from LePen to Donald Trump–have recently railed against.
If rooted in fears of preserving a lost Russian empire, an ethno-state eroded by the breaking away of Soviets, the recasting of Donetsk and Luhansk as “People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine hearkens back to the soviet history in which Putin and Co. were molded, a reaction to by military formations in the ear of the Trump Presidency, as pincers around eastern Ukraine, long before the current invasion of Ukraine began–a show of force of tanks, artillery, and rocket systems poised to illustrate the porous nature of any nominal borders when it came to the old Soviet Union. For as if in refusal to let the post-1989 territory emerge as a liberal state–or a separate state–the resurgent ethno-nationalism of “preserving” or “protecting” Russian speakers from allegations of Genocide offered an Orwellian Newspeak by a totalitarian state George Orwell saw as critical tools to rationalize ongoing war, death, and cast as “subversive” the very concept of free will.
The dramatic massing of Russian soldiers on Ukraine’s border in the Spring of 2022 seems to have been engineered to question that border’s status as a guarantee of sovereignty. As if to mirror but were unlike the erosion of borders in globalism, however, the massing of troops was a display of Great Powers doctrine on the part of Moscow, echoing the emphasis on the expanded range of supersonic bombs that Vladimir Putin had foregrounded in his announcement of the range of nuclear bombs in 2018 when he announced to the world a new arsenal of “invincible” nuclear weapons before a video graphic that imagined warheads hitting the United States. The trumpeting of the apparent invincibility of Russian armaments that Putin suggested in a dramatic tableaux of Russian military dominance–
The bombast was reprised in reduced form at a local level as Russian troops massed an unprecedented show of force on Ukraine’s border in the postwar period. Their congregation seemed to firm up Russian power after Putin had dismayingly, misleadingly and perhaps self-servingly asserted was an existential threat to Russia more than an expansion of a defensive alliance. And if Putin later, after the invasion began, argued with duplicity “What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy–they just didn’t leave us a choice. There was no choice“–the invasion that sought to reunify the old soviet that had become a breeding ground for liberal reforms was not really about the expansion of NATO, but the consecration of the boundaries of the old USSR, and the absence of “true boundaries” for Russia in the old Soviet bloc.
The border was already being denied in the massive show of force that massed in the Republic of Belarus, that old Soviet, in the larges mobilization of troops in postwar Europe. As 90,000 troop joined an assembly of 100,000, equipped with tanks, anti-aircraft guns, fighter jets, and armor on the area where the borders of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, the show of force seemed to erase any sovereign border or notion of independent sovereignty. The apparent focus of Ukraine’s forces in the west, was oddly paired with the positioning of Russian troops in the vey same positions they used to confront potential defensive strikes against NATO, as if the missile launchers and military planes by Ukraine’s borders were posed to move against a nation that had been hoping to join NATO, if with some American encouragement, and the readiness to gloss that idea as a tactical aggression that merited an immediate military strike. The fears of a move outside of Russian military and geopolitical influence fed a specter of mobilizing these troops again. This map, from almost a decade ago, suggests the long-standing tenuousness of these borders, and the readiness Moscow had long felt to remove their pretense.
March 1, 2014
The robust show of force that established its theater of influence and refused to be hemmed in by borders of sovereignty. Whether they reflected Vladimir Putin’s beliefs, or, far more likely, offered an excuse for military mobilization of such unprecedented scale against a country with few natural or geostrategic defenses, global media disinformation were filled, at the same time, with the fake news, amplified on Russian news and RT, calling NATO and Ukraine as threats to Russian sovereignty, even as Ukraine’s sovereignty was effectively bracketed and taken off the table, a pretext for Russian escalation whose size recalls imperial wars of the nineteenth century. The refusal of Viktor Orbán of Hungary to let military aid flow to Ukraine through Hungary, a reflection of his nation’s considerable dependence on Russian natural gas, and Budapest’s invitation of for the Moscow-based International Investment Bank, or IIB, whose founding ten member states of 1970 reflected the political geography of the Cold War–was relocated to Budapest in 2019, was long a conduit for Russian intelligence, and is led by the son of a KGB official formerly stationed in Budapest. As Central European states from the Czech Republic to Romania accelerated their exits from in response to the invasion of Ukraine, Orbán threatened Russia’s aggression would overflow far beyond Ukraine and charged opponents had designs to “drag Hungary into this war” and “make Hungary a military target” to his political advantage in a recent electoral campaign.
The vivid reassertion of a Cold War political geography haunts Central Europe today. Aggressive military moves one-upped the seizure of the Crimean peninsula and eastern Ukraine, but the massing of military presence outside Ukraine’s borders ramped up the abilities for invasions that would create a potential impromptu blitzkrieg that would leave, Russia hoped, a stunning memory of Ukraine’s limited sovereignty. Indeed, the clarity with which Volodymyr Zelensky has urgently asked the world to recognize Russia’s hopes to “break our nationhood” is evident in the way Putin’s ally, Belarusian President Lukashenko, addressed the Parliament as a schoolteacher, informing them of the splitting of Ukraine into four theaters of operational command, and several arrows that showed the planned movement of troops into Ukraine,–
as if the nation that borders Belarus were not really secure, and the plans to use Belarus as a platform for staging an invasion was indeed already underway. The map used as a basis to lecture Parialiament displayed on state television was a “misunderstanding,” authorities claimed, but the pink arrows that staked out the routes by which Russian troops would invade Ukraine already affirmed the absence of Ukraine’s defensible borders; the pointer he used as a school-teacher to describe the impending display of Russian power as if to replace the actual Belarus President-elect, since 2020, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the former English teacher in Minsk who replaced her husband, Serghey, leader of an opposition Lukashenko had jailed. While Tsikahanouskaya has long left Vilnius, but resists the Russian-based orthography “Svetlana Tikhanovskaya” and Lukhashenko and his security forces relied on Putin for power, Tsikahnouskaya is a government-in-exile who long pinned her hopes to Joe Biden’s victory.
The threat of a cross-border movement of military troops were part of a theater of power and destabilization that had been central to Russian hopes to consolidate an old bloc. Beyond its hopes to affirm its presence in Crimea and around eastern Ukraine, now used as launching pads for an invasion in the above map, beyond countering an expansion of NATO, the hope was to drive fear into the old bloc and gain support from nominally democratically elected allies, from Viktor Orban in Hungary . Russian air force had flown nuclear bombers with missiles of expanded range over Poland’s borders, in November 2021, and in the airspace of Belarus, contesting the ability of NATO forces to move to the east and protecting what it saw as its crucial sovereignty over energy transport to central European states from Hungary to Poland, once part of the old “Soviet bloc.”
As Orbán posed with Hungarian generals and tarred his opposition with trying to drag the nation into war with Russia, Russian television news by March, 2022 remapped a nation in Cyrillic whose eastern half seemed to have collapsed, after Russia taken control of the airspace, with cruise missile strikes on airfields, fuel depots and infrastructure, even if the capitol had not fallen–hoping Ukraine’s inhabitants might decide to accept Russian suzerainty rather than continue war. Perhaps the capture of “territory” in the Russian imaginary that extends through the Dnieper River would provide the symbolic imaginary that Putin seeks to hold, although the ability to “hold” the lands that Russian forces have terrorized and flattened will be steep, even in the steppe lands of Ukraine’s Trans-Dniepr where about a dozen brigades–some 60,000 men–of Ukraine’s best troops are located. The image of Russian control of the Trans-Dnieper symbolically “restored” to Russian suzerainty ethnic Russians, promoting the illiberal logic of an ethno-state reducing Ukraine to a rump and cast Kiev as a border town, wiping Ukraine’s old border off the map.
The result would be to reduce the sovereignty of any Ukrainian “state” to a permeable polygon.
The initial mobilization of increased materiel that the Russian government had invested from hypersonic missiles to potential nuclear torpedos, eager to be installed in the Black sea and stationed in increased proximity to much of Europe, whose energy independence was already steeply compromised by their acquisition of and dependence on Russian oil and gas.
Ukraine became a “red line” to which Russia wanted to gesture, and indeed prominently fix on the map, as visibly as the US-Mexico Border Wall, as the Kremlin repeatedly warned the “red lines” on its maps could not be ignored by any “broadening NATO of infrastructure on Ukrainian territory”–as if the defensive alliance were intended to provide a challenge to Russian sovereign authority.
To be sure, the challenge of Ukraine’s hopes for its own sovereignty were already unprecedentedly threatened by massing from 2020 of military to the east within Russia–
–far, far beyond the occupation forces that were already located in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine, and which completed a possible pincer operation simultaneously invading Ukraine from multiple borders and sides, as it tacitly pointed fingers at Washington, D.C. for encouraging Ukraine as an upstart by a growing escalation of force.
If Moscow shifted troops to Ukraine’s border to prevent Ukraine from becoming European, or, more accurately, to prevent its development as a democratic liberal state, the demonization of an imagined “expansion” of NATO eastward was imagined as an invasive virus, and a threat to an imagined Great Power status not of Russia, but the Soviet Union, and indeed Russian empire. Yet one can only understand the violence of the massive attacks that were to be unleashed against Ukraine as a last gasp of empire, an in a late imperial rationality of defending the imagined sovereignty across borders, boundaries, and ethnic identity, at a time when Ukraine was a part of the USSR, as much as a satellite states, and “satellite states” were not mapped by GPS satellites but rigid lines and shades of red, whose borders were more nominal than meaningful.
We risk presenting the struggle for Ukrainian independence in the narrative of great powers, however, overlooking the deep threats of the denial of Ukraine’s architecture as a nation-state. The great-power narrative unhelpfully Vladimir Putin as a chess grandmaster whose strategic planning were not thuggish and indecorous land-grabs of illegality. By annexing Crimea, provoking uprisings in the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donbas–Donetsk and Luzhansk, or carving out a “confederation” made of breakaway “republics” of the evocative name Novorossiya, Putin had made Ukraine less a state than a mythic geography, conjuring it as part of a Greater Russia of Romantic cast. If WInston Churchill suggested with despair that Russia so opaque to be was a riddle, wrapped in mystery, wrapped in an enigma, a belittling metaphor of evoking the Beriozka doll, the alleged anger at Ukraine joining NATO mapped by an imperial imaginary of Russia tied to Ukraine, and to the seat of the historical Kievan Rus’, long sacred to the Orthodox church, wrapped in the historical Warsaw Pact, wrapped in the hopes for a future petrostate, but haunted by the fear of any recognition for a neighboring liberal state and its political autonomy
Putin seemed to have abandoned Novorossiya as a stillborn project by 214, but continued to meet with cronies in Gazprom over maps. We cast Ukraine as a chessboard, not a nation, but the Russian hostility to the NATO membership of Ukraine openly ignores the fear of recognizing Ukraine as an independent state. Ukraine’s reduction to an ethnic battleground in a Cold War geopolitical landscape led the imagined “Union of People’s Republics” to force Ukraine back into a new rebirth of the old USSR where Vladimir Putin was a lieutenant colonel, the “New Russia” foreign to any maps returns Ukraine to a Russian “sphere of influence” more nostalgic than actual, but with its own secure lines of transporting natural gas into the old Eastern bloc, and deep ancestral ties to the old empire whose imaginary remains stubbornly slow to fade. While Russian negotiators told Americans that they didn’t plan to invade Ukraine at all–“There is no reason to fear some sort of escalatory scenario” rebuffed Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister in early January–demands not to allow Ukraine into NATO were an apparent denial of its sovereign status, long before bombs rained indiscriminately on civilians, including hospitals where doctors were forced to heal wounded Russian soldiers at gun point.
Despite notoriously low participation in the Crimea’s “referendum” on rejoining Russia–a vote estimated by Russian President’s Human Rights Council, per a leaked report, at a measly 30%–the annexation of the region was accepted, rather than risking open conflict, despite military presence of Russian soldiers in the Crimean peninsula. The deep danger for viewing Russian aims in Ukraine in a “Great Powers” lens grows almost a decade later, imagining the division of Ukraine into sectors that resonate with a Cold War paradigm, is that it ignores the largest fear of a liberal state on Russia’s borders.
Ukraine was compromised as a nation-state, long before its borders were threatened with troops. Divided not by a Civil War so much as by Russia militarily occupying Crimea and significant parts of its east where Russian language remained dominant. The Russian government had recently fast-tracked nearly 800,000 passports, as part of a policy of “passport proliferation” that seemed to have aimed to restore a reduced Warsaw Pact by issuing a slew of some five to ten million passports to the diaspora of Russians from Georgia’s South Ossetia, Moldava’s Transnistria, and Ukraine’s Crimea and Donbas–a sort of “buffer” of peoples that Russia decided it would decree to expand the boundaries of state security, and even military intervention–both to address a growing demographic crisis by 2019, and to cement an ethno-linguistic identity as a regional foreign policy for annexing Crimea and Donbas by 2014–
effectively exploiting the division between “Russian” and Ukrainian language to undermine the hopes of a nation-state. While the intense violence since directed to Ukraine may have no logic, its undermining of Ukraine’s borders is an undermining of a project of sovereign status in favor of the idea of a “Russky Mir,” or a “Russian World” that reassembled a mythic Russian collective that denies the existence of Ukraine as a nation unable to be wracked by civil war.
As the government of Russia has responded to the threat of the expansion of NATO by a policy of increasingly ‘passporting’ former subjects of formerly Soviet territories, time past was folded into time present and the future, and time future projected as present in time past, and all of time eternally present in the invasion of Ukraine, in a historical pastiche of postmodern proportions. T.S. Eliot references aside, the burning of Kyiv and many wonder if Russia’s end was not lying in its historical beginnings, as the fixation on the political identity of Ukraine suggests Putin’s plans to affirm his historical legacy as reversing the dissolution of the Soviet spheres of influence by recuperation of the mythic imaginary of the historically Russian areas of the Kievan Rus’ beyond the early restructuring of Crimea. And if Putin had already commissioned a new global atlas of the world that will adjust the possibly problematic names of cities from Ukrainian to Russian toponymy, so that the resulting product will better rerlect “historical and geographic truth” by ensuring, as he quite aspirationally told the Geographical Society of Russia, and “preserve Russia’s contribution to the study of the sciences and the planet, lest they vanish from the map from the South Pole to Crimea, pushing back on how some nine hundred Ukrainian cities and towns shed previously imposed commemorative place-names since 1990, once honoring Marx, Engles, Lenin, or the leader of Russian Secret Police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, under auspices of Ukraine’s Institute for National Memory, a Gorbachev-era forum dedicated to “decommunization” and reckoning with the Soviet past: 946 towns and cities were slotted for renaming by 2016.
Yet if such linguistic maps are argued to be an explanation of civil strife or sovereign combustability of Ukraine, in ways that justify the intervention of Russia in Ukrainian territory on ethnic grounds, the ethno-national logic of Putin’s justification of meddling in Ukraine’s bounds and sovereignty rests on the deep commitment to “moral values rooted in Christianity and other world religions” that Putin has argued the “Euro-Atlantic states have taken the way which they deny or reject,” linking the Russian Orthodox church to Russian government and moral values, extolling the icon in early modern ways. Even as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church metropolitan Epiphanius I has likened Putin to the Anti-Christ or that the “spirit of the Anti-Christ operates in the leader of Russia,” the invocation of orthodoxy as a basis to justify Russian expansion plays on ethno-nationalist grounds akin to the proliferation of passports to discredit the West in Eastern Europe in ways that have only grown since the possibility of NATO’s expansion eastward: if only in 2018 did the Ukrainian Orthodox Church split from the Patriarchate of Moscow, to which it had remained subservient since 1686, the religious split reveals deep tensions in redrawing the map.
While the European Union had offered the possibility of membership to Ukraine and Georgia back in what seems the other world of 2008, dangling the prospect of “Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO” of both states as an opportunity that was on the table. The promise presumed eastward expansion of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization beyond Poland and Hungary, to Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, as well as Slovakia and Romania able to pick up the peaces of the disbanded Warsaw Pact. Russian reaction to Ukraine the affirmation “these countries will become members of NATO,” was perhaps far less a “whiplash” than the culmination of Putin’s immediate warning of “most serious consequences of European security” would provoked an unprecedented “direct threat” of almost existential terms, that would make Ukraine not a “border” of Russia–it gained its name as a “borderland” of the Kievan Rus’–but, in ways by which Putin seems to have become increasingly haunted, with its own identity as a nation-state.
The concerns of processing the presence of some twenty Russian or Russian-allied military forces around the nation’s border forced us to try to an intractable geographical impasse of Ukraine’s place in Europe, or, as Russia insists, the periphery of Russian sovereignty–if not the sovereignty of the borders of Ukraine. As Ukraine tried to shift its status as a borderland in Cold War maps of old, and the new security structure of a European Union, the world confronted the emergence of a New Cold War, haunted by the division of separate spheres of dominance.
1. The public perception of an “inflection point” of the eastward expansion of NATO resuscitated a Cold War geography: yet can the fixity of these old spheres of influence fully explain the massing of troops on Ukraine’s borders? To be sure, right-wing American commentariat, obsessed over the dangers of NATO expansion and eager to see American disentanglement from Europe, openly argued that NATO expansion was the precipitating reason for broad military invasion that would kill civilians and destroy hospitals, schools, monasteries, and villages. But the illegality of the invasion that only led Russian state news to recycle Tucker Carlson’s buoyant defense that the Russian invasion is “only protecting its interest and security,” was as popular among Russian government as his asking viewers “how would the United States behave if such a situation [of placing military bases] developed in neighboring Mexico and Canada?”, evoking a Cuban missile crisis playbook of the past. Carlson’s isolationist pro-Putin rhetoric imitates Russian government in subsuming “Ukraine” as a nation in the long memory of spheres of national influence, in which eastward expansion of NATO boded a redrawing of a global map–and ignored the range of missiles, radar systems, and missile interceptors that have already been deployed in the European theater by an expanded NATO since 2019–all exclusively purchased from American contractors and weapons systems manufacturers, long imagined as a “missile shield” over Europe.
The demand for “security guarantees” Russia had demanded from Western powers as NATO and the United States since before December has lead, however, to the placement of the Ukraine conflict in a Great Power narrative, as if this were at all informative. Yet the expansion of military defense systems across Central Europe belies the continued finger-wagging of right-wing political scientists like John Mearsheimer long wagged their fingers at NATO expansion in the face of a great power geography.
The Times found Russia’s unprecedented massing of troops along the northern border of Ukraine risked “Reigniting the Cold War Despite its Risks” (January 20, 2022), describing a global power struggle as as if Ukraine’s independent sovereignty was not a crucial puzzle piece in the dilemma. The headline trumpets fears of a new Cold War in Europe, over thirty years after the original Cold War had ceased as the primary lens for geopolitical security, triggered fears of a familiar tinderbox on the borders of Russia, as its leader invoked a narrative of border security and national vulnerability to invade a separate sovereign country. Indeed, the possible rejoining of a Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which the United States abandoned in 2019, accusing Russia of long violating the terms of a treaty signed thirty years ago, in the Cold War world. If these missiles were long seen as a basis for European security, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, missile deployment is a smokescreen for deep fears of an open democracy.
Even if Ukraine, once in the Warsaw Pact, shares a border of over 2,000 km–about the span of the United States’ frontier with Canada on the 49th parallel from Washington to Minnesota, or, alternatively from New York to Chicago. But the border was less the point, or even its length, than the pipelines that allow the petroleum state to reach other members of the old Warsaw Pact, leaving them dependent on Russia for gas.
As much as the expansion of NATO, however, the possible of claiming Ukrainian sovereignty of its borders was denied by the troops clustered along Ukraine’s borders who menace crossing into its territory on world view. The massive stationing of Russian and pro-Russian troops on the border seemed something of a performance piece, and something of a threat to end Ukrainian’s European aspirations.
Global conflicts along borders have long been dominating the national news, but all of sudden the edges of borders are up for debate as a debate that contrasts national identity to spheres of influence inherited from the Cold War. The presence of some 190,000 assorted troops of the Russian Federation on or near to Ukraine’s borders is a power play, committed to wrench the region from NATO, if by asserting, as Vladimir Putin has claimed, Ukraine is not in fact a state. Fears of the destabilization of a Cold War geography seem to lie far more deeply rooted in the calculus of Vladimir Putin, who had entered politics after over a decade as a Cold War spook, two years before the declaration.
The characterization of Putin the intellectual image of the “chess player” looking at long-term national strategy seemed less in evidence than attachment to the borders of the Cold War bent against the formation of a liberal state. Putin’s preposterous claim that Ukraine was only born as a state as a geostrategic part of the USSR is not only preposterous, but deeply haunted, one might speculate, by a lost geography of the Kievan Rus’, and a sense of preserving the former Soviet Union from the autonomy that its individual states, or soviets, were allowed–and indeed the danger of according such privileges to regions as Georgia and Ukraine, each of which had been offered a partial promise back in 2008 by NATO that they might join the security organization, after Putin had already refused to allow Ukraine to gain such a degree of independence or sovereignty as a state.
The survival of that promise by December 2021 was deeply troubling to Putin as he began to open dialogue with Joe Biden about the military architecture of Europe, and feared the increased unity of Europe and NATO as an alliance. As NATO secretary stressed these plans had not changed, Putin dismissed the “right of every nation to chose its path [and] . . . what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of” by denying the rights of Ukraine as a nation. And as he claimed Ukraine to be a creation of the USSR, as if it were its property, “entirely created by Russia,” he denied any sovereignty as a state, as if a new Cold War might begin by reassembling the Russian diaspora from an earlier, mythic imaginary, not rooted in a map of nation-states, alliances among states, or national security but indulging a deeper ethnic identity.
Perhaps, in this sense, any paradigm of earlier treaties are not the point, from the Cold War to the Warsaw Pact, even if Putin saw the prospect of NATO membership as an aggressive act that ignored his ultimatum. There may be much in Fiona Hill’s fearsome observation that the maps that Putin is reasoning from are not at all from the Cold War–“I also worry about it in all seriousness,” she confessed, that in the pandemic, as we pondered global biorisks, “Putin’s been down in the archives of the Kremlin during Covid looking through old maps and treaties and all the different borders that Russia has had over the centuries,” obsessing with how the borders of Russia and Europe have changed and how Russia might be reconstituted in Europe, and magnifying the consequences of Russians in Ukraine joining NATO. More than believing Putin intends to wipe Ukraine from the map, it was as a state that “it doesn’t belong on his map of the ‘Russian world'” and its borders or the borders of Europe were provisory on all maps: if NATO seems to think that it can dignify the state’s place in a security structure, Hill sees Putin as denying its sovereignty to affirm the notion of “Novorossiya”–a ‘new Russia’–that in 2014 he imagined as a republic from Odessa to Karkhiv, whose own borders interrupted Ukraine from a map; if the hypothetical confederacy was abandoned by the republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, following high level meetings of the United States and Russia, it had gained an independent flag and conceptual momentum bolstered by the decision of Russia and Bielorussia to withdraw from the International Criminal Court as it considered the criminality of actions of annexing Crimea–as it recognized the “armed conflict between Russia and Crimea” as claiming nearly 10,000 lives since men in military uniforms siezed control of the Crimean parliament, appointed a new prime minister who was a shadowy businessman nicknamed “the Goblin,” as the police-men who have been placed puppet leaders in Donetsk and Luhansk, with less practiced in politics than policing.
And as the emergence of Donetsk and Luhansk agains as “break-away” republics conjure a map of Russian transnational sovereignty that trumps Ukraine’s sovereign independence is often cast by Moscow as engaged in a “Civil War,” the proposed partitioned gained little traction or public support–and indeed invited such opposition to be classified as terrorist organizations: the mythic republic condemned for undermining any sense of self-determination were again recognized as states by Moscow in February, 2022, precipitating the invasion of Ukraine.
Can we believe anything from the office of Governor Ron DeSantis? It was the height of irresponsibility, but one that should make Jack Dorsey breathe a sigh of relief that at last he is no longer responsible for Twitter: the Florida Secretary of State used bad data about the rates of COVID infection around the nation to trumpet the peninsula as a vacation land as a safe space in the pandemic, using an utter absence of ethics to promote disinformation about viral spread in the peninsula that almost echoed the denialism Governor DeSantis long promoted in bashing vaccines, masking, or market constraints as a way of combatting viral spread, even if his assertion ran against established ideas of contagious disease and viral transmission. Florida is facing numerous existential threats, from sea-level rise to saltwater flooding of coastal areas, but promotion of the state as a site of safety from the global pandemic was the height of duplicity.
Exercising the prerogative DeSantis long claimed to guard the health practices of Florida, apart from the nation, his office and press secretary must have been thrilled at the latest pre-Thanksgiving COVID data vis that the issued by the CDC, that showed Florida as lying apart form the nation in a bucolic preserve of blue of low coronavirus transmission rates. The announcement by Florida’s Dept. of Public Health on June 8, 2020 of the first twelve deaths due to COVID-19 in the state of Florida 0, when just over 63,000 were testing positive in the state, led the DoH to promise to “provide more comprehensive data,” releasing daily reports on COVID-19 cases in Florida on the DOH COVID-19 dashboard is also providing updates once per day for every Florida county, “available here,” of new positive cases, that state residents and the nation watched rise. If folks had become habituated to dashboards as a way of accessing up-to-date data on viral transmission and public health, the tweeting out of a map that integrated outdated data on infections in Florida with shifting national picture as even as the arrival in the United States of an Omicron variant put a chill on national travel over the Thanksgiving weekend, but year-end travel was predicted to see a rise in air-travel that would approach pre-pandemic days.
The Age of COVID has encouraged an amplification of graphic story-telling about the hot spots and safe spots of viral transmission or local virulence. And the infographic appearing to label Florida, the nation’s storied vacationland, as featuring far lower community transmission seemed ripe for a retweet. Caroline Pushaw, Florida Governor’s social media savvy press secretary, seems to have issued it as an invitation to the state’s winter beaches, as if Florida policies had, despite anti-vaccination campaigns and few masking mandates, gone beyond other states in reversing the high rates of COVID-19 mortality that once afflicted the state per public dashboards of years past.
Gov. DeSantis was a huge denier of the infectious nature of the virus, even resisting Trump’s own calls for Americans to stay at home when possible to contain virtual spread, arguing that imposing any “lockdown” and “shutting down the country” was an excessive response. DeSantis’ prominent place in Trump’s inner circle of response to the pandemic increased his profile in the COVID response, and inflated his own sense of national responsibility, as well as causing his pro-business policies to shift in March 2020 by closing Florida schools in the end.
The national map of community transmission rates attempted to bolster Gov. DeSantis’ national credibility. The arrival of the Omicron variant, boasting over three times as many mutations as the delta variant, became an opportunity to boost perceptions of Gov. DeSantis’ public health creds. Despite the Governor’s vaccine denialism and diminishment of public health risks–and utter lack of interest in vaccine equity–low rates of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity to promote the governor on the national news, from FOX to OANN, as if to suggest that “as winter approaches,” Florida was doing something right–as if in an invitation to the nation to make travel plans to consider visiting the sunshine state.
It must have been clear quite immediately to DeSantis’ press secretary, who tweeted it to her 22,000 Twitter followers as evidence of an ethically dubious ethical invitation to the Sunshine State for future travelers–per what seemed currently reported transmission levels. Strikingly, low levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, although not the bulk of the nation, colored red for high levels of transmission that merited masking in the all counties colored red for high levels for which the CDC recommended masking in public to contain potentially very dangerous COVID-19 transmission in the form of new variants.
But the map “lacked” a legend and was in many ways cherry-picked–or based on cherry-picked data, as the statistics for infections in Florida were decisively from an earlier date than the rest of the country, artificially rendering its community transmission rates low. It seemed as if the apparently real-time picture was evidence of a stark change of events that talking heads debated as if it were proof and evidence of DeSantis’ underestimated smarts in pushing back against national health policy. Yet the story is far more complicated–and far more Machiavellian–as the pristine blue image of the state–a blue aquamarine that handily recalled those beaches and sun’n’fun for which Florida was long celebrated in the national imaginary-was based on counts from a different time than the dates of cases in all other states, conveying the appearance of salubrity when that was not the case.
Did the state’s office really fudge the public data on its case rates, which it had long ceased releasing daily, using outdated numbers to showcase an apparent contrast sharply evident on state lines? The meaningful legend that might be juxtaposed with the “snapshot” that the delayed reporting of statistics of coronavirus transmission in Florida shaped might be the way that the state had in fact earlier been rocked by successive waves of coronavirus infections, a roller coaster of infections of which the state Governor, who had only recently unveiled a new image for the separate task force of the state that showcased its unique health policies, seemed oblivious, but whose bursts of new cases of infection seemed the bête noir against which DeSantis was forced to tilt in the public eye.
For in taking the emblem of an alligator fiercely guarding its territory, must have loved the data visualization that “mapped”–if deceptively–the improbable case his unique health policies not only separated Florida from national guidelines, as a paradise free from mask-wearing and vaccine mandates. It was a perfect case of how maps lie, which removed him–or his press secretary–from any liabilities, as the map gained a robust afterlife on social media, free from the constraints of real public health data or true comparison of COVID case counts.
Modeled after the Gadsden flag, the image radiated a stubborn sense of obstinacy as the omicron variant lead to renewed fears of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, worry that found an odd counterpoint in the map the press secretary took comfort in tweeting out. Yet by Christmas, the gift of the CDC data vis seemed not the gift that keeps on giving at all, as Omicron infections had hit the Sunshine state, proving that its barriers were hardly fixed frontiers.
Although most all Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break. As the omicron variant leading to rising fear of a new spike of coronavirus in Florida, DeSantis’s press secretary took comfort in an opportune recently issued CDC map to suggest that, low and behold, things had changed, and current COVID visualizations showed “low transmission rates distinguished the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something right all along.
The crisp borders of low community transmission that seemed to define Florida seemed to be a tip-off, even if the image that was tweeted out was picked up on FOX-TV and other “sources” of right wing or alt right news. The image of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, as a sign of local resilience before fears of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags.
The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis ventriloquized for the state, showcasing his mastery of boosting public health with the bona fides of a newly minted pro-business eecutive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain,” with little care for vaccine mandates: In Florida, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.”
When Christmas did come, it didn’t seem that the state of Florida was particularly bad off in relation to the rest of the nation–but the rising death rates related to COVID-19 dramatically grew across the peninsula in truly terrifying ways, drenching the peninsula pink, and belying those low transmission rates about which Gov. DeSantis’ office was so eager to tweet out.
The level of disinformation is rather without precedent, but speaks in many ways to the hyper-reality of maps of COVID-19 infection that were based on rather dubious and incomplete data providing a rudder in an age of uncertainty. DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out the CDC map to bate the anti-vaccine commentariat. Arriving pre-Thanksgiving, it seemingly celebrated the arrival of a new state of salubrity: the boundary lines of Florida popped bright blue of unearthly nature not because of what Florida was doing right, but was based on data of community transmission rates at days behind the rest of the nation: state data days out of synch with the national norm created the impression of statistically low transmission rates in the state, and south of the Mason-Dixon line, affirming how things were always better in Dixie.
DeSantis had been comparing the low rates of per capita COVID mortality in Florida, despite its large share of elderly, from March, 2021, claiming higher mortality rates for seniors in forty other states had offered evidence that his policies were indeed far more effective than those states that mandated lockdowns and suspended schools, insisting on the benefits of helping businesses and keeping local commerce flow. As FOX news commentators spun the CDC map of community transmission rates as evidence of nothing wrong with fighting masking mandates, or vaccinations.
Yet by mid-December, 2021, reality had reared its ugly head. Skyrocketing rates of infection from the Omicron variant proved the folly of asserting any containment of the coronavirus that any policy of one state might so easily fix, as the high rates of infection shifted the panorama of the pandemic, with the fifty millionth case of COVID-19 recorded, and deaths due to the virus across the country topping 800,000–far more than the deaths of the US Civil War, by recent estimates, and more than the current population of Seattle. And if Florida was increasingly as red as the nation, the rise of COVID death rates by the month’s end had effectively eroded all of DeSantis’ suggestion of the benefits of adhering to alternative models of public health care.
If the arrival of the Delta variant had led to the growth of mortality by another 100,000 in two and a half months, the advance of the more transmittable Omicron would stain the whole map red, bridging boundaries and state divides, as thirty three states hosted large infections, with little clear relation to their health policies–save perhaps low population rates and density. By Christmas 2021, national dashboards of infection rates made it clear that Omicron infections advanced not only through the northeast but along the sandy beaches of the Sunshine state.
Yet that single CDC map in the header to this post suggested low COVID transmission rates in Florida was suspiciously more than opportune. For it suggested, lo and behold, starkly lower transmission rates across the panhandle and peninsula, as if the state public health policies had in fact, contrary to recent pandemic history, been doing something very right all along, as DeSantis continued to fence with Joseph Biden’s attempts to devise mandates of mask-wearing and vaccines, all but defining himself as a sort of shadow-government in opposition to the White House, in the manner, say, that now-disgraced Governor Andrew Cuomo and California’s own Gavin Newsom played to Donald Trump, as if voices of stability in the time of need. DeSantis had provided an alter-reality of risk-free no masking or vaccines, freedoms at work and at school, refusing to limit the social interaction and tourism that Florida needs–even accepting cruise lines and offering to provide shipping ports–arguing that reopening was indeed in everyone’s interest, variants be damned: could it be that the CDC was offering a map validating that his policies were working well after all?
Florida boasted low transmission rates, putting the past history of the pandemic in the past, and effectively inaugurating a new news cycle that made this the map to count on and trust–the one dated that very day!–and putting lack of COVID vaccination out of folks’ minds as they booked their family travel plans for late 2021-2. Florida regained its storied status as a site for healthiness and well-being, unlike, it looked at that moment, like the rest of the nation, leading FOX commentators to spin new stories about the long-term success of DeSantis’ absence of clear public health plans.
For although Gov. DeSantis had pulled the plug in June, 2021 on a public-facing COVID-19 dashboard tracking daily updates on cases, deaths, and open hospital beds across the state, inviting those glued to their computers to take two giant steps back from the spate of emergency preparedness that seized the nation from March 2020, the CDC data vis plotted handily outdated data, skewed from rising rates of Omicron that were spooking the nation. As there was no public source of infection rates in the state that was available anymore, the disturbing orange dots that crowded the Florida beaches on the COVID dashboard of the past seemed like it was dispensed with, and the seas calm and skies rosy in a bright blue of low transmission levels–despite DeSantis’ longstanding opposition to vaccine mandates or even public masking across the state.
Instead, the spokeswoman of the DeSantis regime tossed to right-wing news sources a rosy picture of the calm waters of Florida–he must have loved the blue azure that the state was tinted to proclaim low community transmission rates over the Thanksgiving weekend, as if it was a sea of tranquility in a nation that was revving up as word of Omicron spread. (“I hope you make it through Omicron,” the man behind me in Whole Foods said as if a neighborhood sage, finger of the pulse of the rising national pandemic anxiety that had recently seemed safely in the rear-view mirror.)
The CDC image of transmission offered a useful icon of peninsular identity for DeSantis’ media savvy press secretary, who tweeted it out to her almost 22,000 Twitter followers as a dubious ethical claim of the health that the Sunshine State held for all future travelers, according to the current community transmission levels. Indeed, as this detail of the data vis shows, the lower than substantial levels of community transmission in most counties south of the Mason Dixon line would obviate the need for mask-wearing even in public after the arrival of new variants, that the CDC had advised for all counties colored red for high level of transmission.
The striking if deceptive visualization that Ron DeSantis’ press secretary tweeted out on Thanksgiving morning had the benefit of depicting the desired “low community transmission” rates that seemed to confirm DeSantis’ attempts to bolster confidence in his public health policies, even if his longtime war on vaccination was not the success story that the map showing the state as an island of relative salubrity was based on an outdated tally of infection rates in the state whose public health policies seemed a concerted effort to sew fears of vaccine safety. DeSantis’ press secretary, who has cultivated a broad presence on twitter since gaining the job, aimed to promote public perceptions of the success of the Governor’s bellicose strategy of vaccine denialism and scoffing diminishment of public health risks.
The data vis was important to tweet out at 6:30 am to hit the national news outlets, because it helped begin or frame a narrative that Christina Pushaw, who had long questioned the value of a “piece of cloth” and long defended the Governors’ criticism of mask mandates. The low transmission rates that cast the peninsula as an island of salubrity amidst national rising fears distinguished Florida as a rare area in which the CDC was not returning to recommend mask-wearing even among those vaccinated–at least per appearances, or a superficial reading, endorsing the exemplary nature of its public health protocol. Unlike most all counties in the nation, prominently colored high-risk red to indicate the return of high transmission rates, Florida (a “red” state) was bright blue as a safety of haven as it had, conservative media argued, weathered out the storm of masking hysteria. All of Florida had been colored red for much of the summer–amidst concern for the Delta variant, and for “breakthrough” infections–and the new tracker map seemed a lucky break.
But the data was off, way off. In fact, the data vis used cherry picked numbers of a previous days that concealed the hight rates of transmission that existed for southern Georgia and all of Florida–as an updated vis of community transmission for the very next day revealed. The shifting image of transmission rates suggested the lag in data that the state was providing the CDC, as well as the greater risk for variants the nation now faces as a whole. But the data vis, entered into the media cycle of the nation, threw many off ground, in its apparent objectivity. Perhaps that was the job of a press secretary: to distribute any image that provided cover for the Governor who had faced criticism for his handling of COVID-19 by fashioning a new media cycle.
So intertwined is travel with the identity and economy of the state, that it was no surprise that the Florida beaches already made it grounds for public health concerns, and the measures during Spring Break, 2021, gave rise to a spike of COVID cases from new variants. In Spring, 2020, infections in Florida had just begun as its beaches filled, and rose again in the summer; but this Spring seemed the textbook case of exactly “what a lot of public health folks have been afraid of.” Increased partying brought rates of infection of a magnitude six times greater, with up to five variants, in the second spike of infections in the state.
The Governor came under fire for his resistance to mask-wearing, social distancing, and toleration of partly open restaurants and beaches, as the coronavirus literally ate into his popularity, and he became something of a “mini-Trump” as Trump’s popularity slid, and many questioned if his positions reflected political expediency and short-term gain, rather than Florida’s interest. But by May he was proclaiming “landmark legislation” banning “vaccine passports” in the state, boasting that the state had, unlike others “avoided protracted lockdowns and school closures in Florida because I have refused to take the same approach as other lockdown Governors,” boasting that the legislation forbade the danger of arbitrary school closures or shutterings, and that “In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected.” A year after school closures rocked the nation, calling for a rededication of state funds to pay parents for home schooling on FOX, the economic nightmare of state over-reach replaced fears of infection.
DeSantis’ sense of himself as a savior grew in public statements and edicts denying any government overreach, his national ambitions were evident. Arguing that while many other states were just beginning to re-open, Florida was responsibly opening up. He cast the new COVID surge as but a summertime blip, as he embraced “freedom” as a choice of parents by keeping schools open, refusing policies of masking in public, and questioning the wisdom of masking or vaccines, even threatening to not pay county officials who enforce mask mandates, trusting the survival of FLorida’s tourism industry would consolidate his status. Governor DeSantis stood his ground as an ardent supporter of his anti-masking policies and a Trump legacy. He attracted admiration and interest of the communications professional, Christina Pushaw, whose admiration of how DeSantis stood up to “persuasive . . . false narratives” begun in the public press. Pushaw all but publicly identified herself as a new press secretary for the beleaguered governor, whose admiration of his public heath policies, landed her a job but helped to transform the press secretary to an alternative news source, to remap the risk of COVID-19 by a new public health narrative–a narrative that, until recently, had only lacked the right data maps to treat her office’s social media as a new news source.
The rise of infections in Florida echoed the first opening up Florida to tourism in early May, 2020 that continued through June. The recent promotion on social media of the low transmission rates in the state suggest difficulties in balancing a parallel calendar of tourism on which Florida has long relied to the accurate tally of community transmission–a tension that may go back, for Governor Ron DeSantis, to his office’s extended tussles with the GIS analyst at the Florida Dept. of Health who first constructed the dashboard of daily and cumulative infections in the state.
While the Governor had claimed that he would “follow the data” in his opening plans, there were deep concerns that the data was not transparent. When Pushaw wrote a set of attack pieces on the GIS analyst who felt that figures of infection rates were being manipulated, massaged or suppressed infection rates, DeSantis’ Lieutenant Governor promoted it as evidence of “one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.” DeSantis soon gained a new press secretary, who had essentially applied for the job by praising the skill with which the Florida governor had resisted public masking and vaccines, working to combat the “devastation caused by socialism . . . happening in our country,” and assailed the “big lie” about corruption that a GIS analyst had charged the state. The woman who had worked as an attache in Georgia for Mikheil Saakashvili, now working in Ukraine, might not be a common itinerary to Florida’s Governor’s office, but Pushaw wrote, “If there are any openings on the governor’s comms team, I would love to throw my hat in the ring.” Having assailed the GIS architect of the Dept. of Health COVID dashboard, she offered her services to Florida’s embattled governor to shift attention from COVID-19 infection rates.
After taking the post, Pushaw cultivated a broad social media presence by tweeting some 3,800 times in her first month on the job,–including one arguing watching one’s weight was more protection against COVID-19 than “a piece of cloth” or mask, and promoting the state’s organization for Florida residents of free “antibody infusion treatments” across the state.
While the map of “state-run treatment sites” seemed to counter the data visualizations of local infection, it tried to set a counter-map to images of level infection or mortality. The notoriety of COVID-19 cases in Florida must have encouraged De Santis’ press secretary to retweet a CDC map dated November 25 that appeared to document low transmission rates in almost all state counties–offering evidence of the healthiness for Christmas visitors. Notwithstanding its Governor’s longstanding resistance to masking and infrequent masking in public spacearding one of the biggest media fails during the pandemic.”. The map retweeted early morning on Thanksgiving Day a shout-out for shifting public perception of the state, as it paints the state as the being sole site of “low” community transmission in the nation, and followed the calls for more praise for DeSantis’ brave strategy of handling the pandemic, since Pushaw became press secretary, both from the Wall Street Journal (Media Ignore Florida COVID Recovery,” October 31, 2021) and Fox News, on which DeSantis echoed Pushaw’s points as he claimed poor media coverage in relation to COVID-19 “deadly” in mid-November, after a rough summer in which 60,000 deaths related to COVID-19 afflicted the state. In early November, One America News Network promoted a special report from this summer (“America’s Governor and Florida’s Grit”) about DeSantis’ guaranteeing of increasing access across Florida of “a life-saving COVID-19 drug” that reduced severe illness.
It was hardly surprising with such lead-up of an alternative narrative on Conservative news that Pushaw seemed to seek to boost the narratives that were launched in conservative media when she retweeted a new data map of COVID community transmission news on 6:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning as if to target Christmas travel plans to be discussed at the harvest feast that rather highlighted the far lower transmission of COVID-19 relative to the rest of the country as fears of COVID variants multiplied nationwide. The map with national imprimatur showed a drop of community transmission levels in Florida alone, and seemed to offer some back-of-the-envelope evidence that the spikes of previous years in the southern states and in Florida had created local resistance to the coronavirus and its new variants.
The bifurcated image of the nation that showed Florida as, essentially, the sole site of low COVID transmission, would be sure to attract attention and conversation, political ethics be damned. Flying in the face of the longstanding resistance of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to curtail out-of-state tourism that encouraged him to keep the state open to travel, DeSantis’ new press secretary used the map to show Florida open for tourism, after having weathered three waves of spiking coronavirus infections. Perhaps the state’s poor planning for public health in the past by lifting guidances ofr mask mandates might, DeSantis ventured, create safety in the beaches of the Sunshine State in a winter of variants, as the ‘conservative’ media–Wall Street Journal and FOX–had hinted might be the case.
DeSantis’ groundless claims of safety found somewhat predictable support from FOX commentators in sustaining “natural resistance” to COVID-19 from past exposure, a “natural” immunity better than vaccination, was a data-based strategy, although what sort of data they were using is unclear. (The CDC finds those who had recovered from COVID-19 but were not vaccinated were five times more likely to contract it again than the fully vaccinated.) The conflicts DeSantis’ office seemed to manage between a state economy dependent on tourism and the calendar of increased community transmission suggests a lack of transparency, but also a duplicity based on improvised off-the-cuff diagnoses of a dangerous disease.
The lack of COVID-19 transparency that had been a continuing issue in the state since 2020 had reared its ugly head again, and just in time for post-Thanksgiving Christmas planning. Indeed, the absence of transparency was particularly troubling as we increasingly depend on dashboards, tracing, and positivity rates in grappling with the virus and its ongoing mutations. As the self-declared attack dog of the GOP, Governor Ron DeSantis was by 2021 boosting the dubious concept of “natural immunity against COVID-19” as the forefront of a fight against mandating vaccines for large businesses, exempting from vaccination all recovered from Covid; with full vaccination rates in Florida about 60%, around the national average, Florida ranked twenty-first among states providing at least a single shot to residents. Those already vaccinated in Florida were mostly elderly–a demographic on which DeSantis had dutifully concentrated to provide the vaccine. But many residents in the state, liberated from mask-mandates, were partying, barhopping, hitting the beaches, as masking was unenforced at schools, kept open five days a week, or on cruises–DeSantis promised cruise ship companies that in Florida, they wouldn’t need “vaccine passports.” Bahamas Paradise Princess Cruise Company promised that “safety, fun, and vaccines” were all priorities as it docked in Palm Beach on June 25, having suspended per CDC regulations on March 14, 202, and the fireworks festivies cancelled the previous July 4 due to COVID restrictions were planned again, now with a Cuban reggaeton as a featured guest for the festivities, voluntary masking, as Florida as a state checked out from updating its COVID-19 dashboard, tracking updated cases and deaths across the state.
Governor DeSantis, amidst COVID spikes, emerged as a Trumpian cheerleader standing steadfast in against a “biomedical security state” as COVID infections spiked yet again: “Florida, we’re a free state–people are going to be free to chose to make their own decisions.”
At the same time, a DeSantis spokesperson and press secretary retweeted a rather striking map with CDC imprimatur made rounds on Twitter: the striking data visualization suggested that rates of community transmission plummeted in comparison to the lower forty-eight. While the image depended on the outdated data Florida provided the CDC, a symbolically powerful image as rising alarm about rising rates of transmission injected fear in holiday plans.
DeSantis’ energetic and telegenic press secretary, Christina Pushaw, whose Twitter profile shows her pushing her hair over her head with a smile as if seeking to embody Florida cool, seemed all but to channel a vacation advertisement in her retweet. In promoting the alleged decline in COVID-19 cases from it appeared that Florida had been granted a reprieve as folks were finalizing winter vacation plans in the face of worries about increased infection rates. Pushaw’s tweets had been flagged for vacuuming up right-wing media–a constituency to which she had belong–and had already been suspended once from Twitter in the past. But she retweeted a CDC data vis to promote the apparent decline in rates as evidence that the state provided the secure vacation spot to soak in sunshine this winter after a stressful year.
The bright blue expansed that so conspicuously appeared to isolate the peninsula in a sea of high rates of community transmission of COVID cases appeared to promise Florida offered some sense of shelter from the storm. Yet in spite of all its apparent objectivity, the CDC data vis Pushaw tweeted out on social media didn’t really prove the assertion of Keesman Koury of the Florida Department of Health that low cases of community transmission the data vis registered reflected the “result of our innovative and strategic COVID-19 response that focuses on prevention and treatment,” as if that included no mask mandates or social distancing. As if providing evidence of how much the global pandemic was fed by local bad messaging and toxicity, Pushaw boasted of its safety as if promoting a healthy vacation site in the tradition of the State Tourist Board: “Florida still has the lowest case rate per 100,000 in the entire country and this continues to decrease,” as if the data vis provided cutting edge news, sufficient to rethink the state’s ham-handed response to preventing the virus’ spread.
The tweet amounted to outright disinformation–and showed sense of the media savvy of a National Interest journalist turned DeSantis spokesperson known for offensive and off-topic tweets of scurrilous content. Few out-of-staters may have known that she had been accused of stalking the Florida Dept. of Health geographer and data analyst Rebekah Jones, the geographer responsible for having publishing and curating data of COVID-19 infections daily tracking infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to infection across the state–having built the COVID-19 dashboard to track cases and deaths. Jones had been terminated by Florida’s Department of Health for “extensive, unauthorized, communication” about the dashboard–where she was in charge of answering public questions–and unceremoniously fired May 18, 2020, after raising questions about changes in the publication of data and functionality from May 5, including the combination of tallies of total negative COVID tests and positives, perhaps to lower the calculation of COVID positivity on the dashboard she designed, and the re-tallying of deaths certified as due to coronavirus infections.
As the beaches of South Florida were readying to re-open, Jones, fearing the state fudged public health data irresponsibly, unethically adding negative tests in a false aggregate–even if conducted for the same person–to diminish the ranking of positivity, even as DeSantis proclaimed he was “following the data” in re-opening. Months earlier, Jones had created the dashboard and apologized for the lowering of mortality rates announced per Florida’s Dept. of Health, in the course of reclassifying many coronavirus-related deaths, as the Dept. and adding fewer deaths despite rising mortality rates in Florida to deaths verified as related to COVID-19. The state argued it would “continue to provide the most up-to-date information to arm Floridians with the tools and knowledge necessary to flatten the curve,” but seems to have shifted the nature of its total counts of deaths or indeed of positive cases of infection. But, unlike the state dashboard, Jones showed the density of confirmed COVID infections and the few Florida counties which, by her count, ready to reopen.
1. The data aggregated on Jones’ alternative dashboard suggested that rather than the curve flattened, only two of sixty-seven counties in Florida met the state’s established criteria for re-opening. She complained Florida’s Dept. of Health had wanted her to delete the report card of infections per county, as it showed “that no counties, pretty much, were ready for reopening;” FDOH didn’t want that visible on the dashboard in ways that would “draw attention” to an inconvenient truth, she said in mid-June. (At the same time, the state had witheld data on deaths certifiably related to COVID-19 at nursing homes and assisted living facilities, unlike other states, to keep figures low.)
As the data guru in charge of publishing the data, Jones would be expected to be central to any public health work that was based on the data. But she alleged her refusal to lower the state’s positivity rating to allow it to meet its target for reopening led her to be dismissed: as the state became an epicenter for infection in March 2020, the state faced increasing pressure to meet goals to be “ready to open” for the summer.
Despite noting the “dramatic changes” on the data portal of concern back in May, 2020, Jones, whose dashboard had long been trusted as a source, seemed to feel it had swung beyond her control: she would only say in early May, “I helped them get it back running a few times but I have no knowledge about their plans, what data they are now restricting, what data will be added and when, or any of that.”
The long familiar site which Florida residents had used to orient themselves to daily updates of county-by-county breakdowns of new and total positive cases of COVID infections, virulence, hospitalizations, and deaths had shifted,–about a month before infections would peak–
–and infections in the state broke previous records, adding nearly 9,000 new cases in a new daily record by June 22, 2020, before the arrival of the Delta variant.
The numbers of positive cases for state residents grew, as hospitalizations, during that very summer, when they ballooned, and multiple counties in the state grew deep blue.
As if in response to what she contended was an unmerited ouster from Florida’s Dept. of Health for failing to fix datasets, Jones quickly founded her own alternative “rogue” informative COVID-19 dashboard, Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard.
2. While DeSantis had outlined, under the approving eyes of then President Trump, plans to re-open the state by placing “public health-driven data at the forefront” along fixed “benchmarks,” his data guru insisted her refusal to be part of promoting “misleading and politically driven narrative that ignored the data;” she constructed an alternative dashboard showing only one of the sixty-seven counties in the state revealed sufficiently low positivity to warrant reopening or easing restrictions on social distancing. The exclusion of positive antibody tests on the Dept. Health website was clarified on the new site, which aimed to be far updated daily and far more user-friendly when it appeared in June, 2020, and tracked the rise of positive cases that summer, adding increasing features of legibility and of tracking change over time.
The new site foregrounded total “COVID Positive People” detected in both PCR and Antigen tests in running tallies, listing new positives from the previous day, running counts of recoveries, and available hospital beds beside a county-by-county breakdown, the dashboard offered a far more synthetic fine-grained map of the COVID-19 ground-game of public health to grow public trust. The rival dashboard that debuted in mid-June aimed to show accurate geodata of “what’s going on in a straightforward, nonpolitical way,” FloridaCOVIDAction.com synthesized publicly available open data, mined from state reports but not reported straightforwardly on state-run websites.
As it became clear that the data for which Jones and a group of epidemiologists had been never incorporated in DeSantis’ vaunted plans to rely on the data in plans for re-opening the state; reopening brought a five-fold surge in COVID infections by mid-July. The expansion surpassed the rate and number of Covid-19 infections than any other state in the pandemic, breaking records for the highest number reported in a single day–15,300–or in New York in early April, during the worst outbreak in the city. The wave, which might well have been prevented, strained hospital and treatment by antivirals. It called into question the logic of DeSantis’ reopening plans, or how much he had relied as promised on health-driven data, but a blind adherence to the sense of “best practices” that could allow the economy to be open, beaches and restaurants stay open with adequate distancing, and schools not be closed–meeting short term demands and needs for the summer economy, but sewing skepticism.
The state in fact seemed to lack even sufficient testing to measure the scale of the outbreak, even as he reopened the state at a far faster clip than New York or California, re-opening all gyms, bars, indoor dining at restaurants, schools, pools and salons and ending stay-at-home orders but a month after they went into effect, to welcome tourists to the state from Memorial Day, increasing the risks to the state’s older residents greatly, before closing the bars in late June. By November, after an other rise in COVID cases ran through the state, Jones’ public message to the Florida Dept. of Public Health to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead” as the dashboard stood at 17,460 COVID-related deaths in the state, law enforcement served a search warrant at Jones’ home, guns drawn, seize the laptops from which the former GIS manager of the Division of Disease Control and Health Protection ran the alt dashboard–“all my hardware and tech”–seven months after her firing from the Dept. of Public Health.
The dashboard of rising COVID infections released on an ArcGIS platforms was a bombshell that placed her in the public eye–and was regularly updated. The alternative website seems to have led to her attack as a discontent “rogue” rather than a whistleblower in the national news. Its release lead to subsequent national media slamming of Jones in conservative media as a serial social media abuser, as outlets tagged the former public health official as a “super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation,” to defuse her own charges of community transmission. Jones was charged of being guilty of having openly invented lies “about Ron DeSantis’ Press Secretary” using social media to pedal pandemic falsehoods. @GeoRebekah temporarily de-platformed on Twitter, Pushaw crowed that her suspension revealed Jones’ untrustworthiness and abuse of the medium, calling it “long overdue.” No doubt infuriated and flustered by DeSantis’ own consistently relax and dangerously reckless policies on keeping schools open and removing COVID protection policies, Pushaw must have been not only frustrated, but a target of DeSantis’ ire.
Pushaw went further by attacking the GIS systems manager as nothing less than “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation,” echoing the bombast of the DeSantis regime. DeSantis and his office dutifully applauded Jones’ temporary suspension as evidence for her duplicity, as guilty of “defamatory” statements and a “COVID super-spreader,” happy to see her public profile reduced. Comparing the systems manager to an Irish-born cook whose asymptomatic infection spread to her employers what was known as Salmonella oddly served to demonize her as an immigrant carrier of disease, echoing Trump’s obsession with “foreign” origins of COVID-19; it shifted attention from dangerous mortality levels in the state, and gestured to an era when the pathogenic transmission of salmonella was not understood, more than inadequate responses of the Governor’s office to three waves of COVID-19 in the state. A leader who had and would repeatedly cultivate “strongman tactics” in a dangerous time, as Ruth Ben Ghiat recently noted as this blog was first written, DeSantis performed a version and vision of leadership that seemed to establish himself as an autocratic leader of Florida, with a proposed a new Florida State Guard to assist the National Guard in public emergencies, that he would oversee as a state militia, that could act “not encumbered by the federal government” or federal regulations, from federal masking policy to vaccination mandates, and banned vaccine mandates or masking in public as unsafe and unscientific.
DeSantis chose another official to be an attack dog to step up vaccine disinformation. The campaign of disinformation continued DeSantis had appointed a surrogate “State Surgeon General” who stood beside vaccine skeptics who encouraged misinformation from claiming the vaccine altered your genetic RNA to a lack of scientific consensus in its value. Surgeon General Ladopo spread dangerous COVID denialism, instructing the public “to stick with their intuition and their sensibilities,” demeaning the public health value of the vaccine a misguided “religion” and emphasizing the monoclonal antibodies treatments DeSantis has vigorously promoted in the place of vaccines–and indeed as an alternative public health policy. In so doing, he mimicking the public health maps like Alabama’s “COVID-19 Dashboard Map” that foregrounded Monoclonal Antibody Therapy (mAb) therapy as a counterpart to Vaccine Distribution in an ESRI Story Map; Alabama’s Dept. of Health boasted a 60-70% success rate at “preventing high-risk patients” from being hospitalized–a strategy of off-loading any public health care policy or plan.
If we are approaching a time in the history of COVID-19 when our fears of catching the disease may soon be replaced by an acceptance that we may become infected, and will manage that infection, the hope to navigate infections that would be more severe among the unvaccinated populations suggest a tinderbox that will require an armed guard of the sort DeSantis has imagined as running when he announced in Pensacola his plans for a military unit with uniforms tagged “FLORIDA” rather than “U.S. ARMY” from a podium bearing the sign “Let Us Alone” that echoed the “Don’t Tread on Florida” sign displayed at a special October session of the state legislature to counter federal COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The curious unveiling of a “civilian volunteer force that will have the ability to assist the national guard in state-specific emergencies” seemed design either in case of another surge, or to support DeSantis’ distinctive public health policies. The banner “Let US Alone” first displayed in the 1841 inauguration of Florida’s first Governor, William Moseley, was a cause for celebrating the independent health policies in the state, which had by then reached the third-highest number of infections in the nation–3,730,395.–and the third-highest number of deaths, 52,647.
The image shard of a combative alligator defending its territoriality, Florida’s own Gadsden flag was unveiled at a press conference speaking out against vaccine as the new logo of the state: the alligator with gaping jaws, ready to attack or defend its ground, was tweeted out on October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis as a sign of resilience and power in the face of the fear of rising rates of infection and hospitalization, and is now available at PatriotFlags. The image of defending a swamp fit DeSantis’ promotion the ports of the Sunshine state as the logjams in ports on the east coast and west coast created problems for transportation hubs in California, Washington state, and New York. “We’re also seeing increased costs, inflation, and higher food prices,” he added. “We in Florida,” DeSantis showcased the pro-business benefits of his health politics with the confidence of a newly minted executive, “have the ability to help alleviate these logjams and help to ease the problems with the supply chain.” In Florida, unlike Biden’s America, DeSantis proclaimed as a rallying call, “At the end of the day, you shouldn’t be discriminated against based on your health decisions.”
The Gadsden Flag, beloved by separatists–and displayed at the door of a neighbor of mine in Berkeley with the slightly menacing words “Don’t know what it is? Look it up!”–has of course become a treasured emblem of the right, and Patriot groups, as well as militias, and was flown on the U.S. Capitol briefly on the morning of January 6, 2021.
3. Pushaw and Jones had a long history of entanglement. The ways that their fraught relations determined the battles over the local messaging on the pandemic remind us of how its global spread was brewed in the toxic channels of local miscommunications about public health. Governor DeSantis had only hired Pushaw as a press secretary, per WaPo, after realizing public messaging on COVID-19 crucial to his public image. The Florida Governor seems to have been especially keen on Pushaw’s exposé of Jones’ “big lie” about DeSantis’ reticence in releasing total counts of positives, long before he restricted state dashboards to weekly updates of limited information by June, 2021, as total cases of infection surpassed 1,7783,720, creating a crisis in calm as the state faced a second spike. By then, Florida ceased reporting deaths or infections daily to the CDC, making them hard to tally with regularity, and shifted the format to weekly tallies of vaccination and infections, as the “surveillance dashboard” radioed staying away from the beaches around Daytona Beach or from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Beach, even as new cases seemed to decline, and hospitalizations grew, as the daily tabulations of resident deaths and COVID positive suddenly ceased.
The articles Pushaw had written attacking Jones’s whistleblower status may have encouraged a long-running conflict that led her to be charged with “computer crimes”; Jones’ charged the press secretary with having stalked the GSI analyst obsessively and aggressively, slurring her reputation after she was fired, allegedly for insubordination for refusing to undercount infections and magnify the number of people tested. The vindictive attacks on the data analyst obscured the problems of reduced clarity of replacing the daily updates on which viewers had relied with weekly tallies.
The Surveillance Dashboard offered a comprehensive running count and cumulative tally that Jones was charged with having crashed before her dismissal from the Dept. of Health, six months before the police entered her house in December, 2020, weapons drawn, to seize her computers as the novel coronavirus was spreading widely across the state.
Despite the value of allowing state residents to orient themselves to the spread of COVID-19, Jones disturbingly suggested the state was playing fast and loose by manipulating data of infection rates by slimming counts of positives by omitting almost 10,000 antibody tests from its tally. Yet by June 22, 2020, twice broke records for single-day infections in a week: the state dashboard of daily data announced a new record of nearly 8,000 infections and 13.5% positivity rate–a critical number just over the early baseline for re-opening of 10% positivity–even if the WHO baseline for reopening was set in May, 2020, in preparation for summer, at 5% or lower for two weeks. Playing fast and loose with time-stamped data in troubling ways, DeSantis assured the public in mid-June as positivity grew that journalists should realize the past was more important than the present in his allegedly data-driven response, rather than the policies he had adopted: “the main thing is just for folks to look, in May, if you remember end of April, May all the way through, you know coronavirus was relatively quiet in Florida. You had manageable cases. Our positivity rate was 4 or 5 percent consistently.”
Only in late June, 2020, was a Public Health Advisory issued that back-tracked on Governor DeSantis’ longstanding objections to preventive measures like public mask-wearing, social distancing, and caution. In fact, some 20 million cloth masks distributed statewide that “all individuals in Florida should wear . . . in any setting where social distancing is not possible” and social interactions limited for all over age sixty-five. The cautionary tone was not alarmist, keeping bars and restaurants open in the sixty-four counties it defined as in “Phase 2,” and allowing all retail businesses and gyms to operate at full capacity, entrusting their clientele to practice social distancing from one another, as part of a “plan on public recovery.
Yet the Governor, in his wisdom and care for his pubic perception , issued an Executive Order Affirming Freedom to Choose emulating the then-President, by June 2021, after school boards considered adopting mask-wearing mandates for their students, as a part of schools being “open for instruction” since the summer of 2020, noting how “masking may lead to negative health” and the CDC “guidance . . . lacks a well-grounded scientific justification.”
By August, as the weekly counts of new infections surpassed 110,000, according to CDC data the most in any state of the country, Floridians missed getting daily updates on the counts of infections per county. The old regularly updated dashboard has became a focus of public attention in what seemed a laboratory case of an unfolding public health disaster–DeSantis had phased out county-by-county daily breakdowns as he issue weekly tallies, having argued that the state had rounded the bend, and removed the regular daily updating of dashboards on which Floridians had long relied on to orient themselves. Age breakdowns and a geographic distribution by county–features of the old dashboard–were no longer available, even as schools were reopening, parents deciding on vaccination and masking, and public trust frayed.
Since the escalating records of early summer cases in 2020, the state dashboard had provided a familiar breakdown of infections, offering real time information based on age in a county-by-county breakdown that all of a sudden wasn’t there as a guidepost for local decision at a critical time, once it had been removed.
More crucially to this post, the constraints over how much information of COVID transmission was publicized–and how accurately it was compiled–suggested that DeSantis’ office commitment to ensuring the calendar on which the state’s economy for tourism depended had displaced the monitoring of a calendar for community transmission. By June, 2020, the Florida Dept. of Health substituted weekly COVID tallies in place of the daily breakdown and count that Jones had worked, explaining that the state wanted to streamline information and reported daily case data to the CDC. The new weekly dashboard failed to orient users to a geographic distribution of COVID-19 or what counties infections had occurred, so prominent in the old dashboard; it provided little data that could be drilled down into, by abandoning a county-by-county distribution and dropping the stark visualization of state counties as a “third wave” of COIVID-19 infections hit in 2021, and DeSantis mused that the county-by-county breakdown might be useful to some.
DeSantis proclaimed the state had turned the bend. But as Florida led the country in newly confirmed cases in early August, 2021, folks wondered why the daily dashboard of old was no longer readily available as a tool of visualization, worrying that the daily updates were pulled by the Governor’s office prematurely in June, as the pandemic led to more hospitalizations in the state than ever before, but the Governor’s office, rather than offering public health data to state residents, asked for patience “in returning to normalcy”–even after twenty-four days with over 1,000 new cases discovered daily. And in tweeting a map of low transmission rates in the post-Thanksgiving days, claiming COVID cases had begun to “bottom out in Florida,” while they started to peak nationwide, Pushaw seemed to seek to clean up Florida’s public image, by directing attention on social media to an alternative reality that may have benefitted a map that rendered rates of community transmission taken, albeit a map that had benefitted from the new timeline at which Florida was releasing data to the CDC. Indeed, the release of figures of community transmission at different times from the country seemed to offer evidence of how clear-headed policies had kept local transmission rates low, even if the data ws comparing apples and oranges.
The tweet seemed to seek to erase memory of those dashboards of the recent past, that might well have kept tourists away from Florida, due to high positivity rates. The apparently credible picture showing low risks of viral transmission statewide was a retrospective reprieve of sorts for the inexcusably poor public health policies of the past. Although the CDC had updated data on community transmission for the nation, the state received a rather convenient break: for local data had ceased to be updated with much regularity for Florida, compared to the rest of the union, rendering its counties an almost continuous bright blue. Pushaw’s early a.m. tweet was the perfect graphic for her smiling Twitter profile, which recalled the vacation ads of old that promoted the salubrity of the state’s sunny beaches.
The imaginary fault-line that seemed to isolate the panhandle and peninsula as a sight of purity and safety was itself a creation of the lag in the reporting of state data, rather than reflecting a break in community virulence or the “bottoming out” of COVID cases. But the implication that Florida had suddenly become an area of low community transmission reflected cherry-picked data crafting a false comparison between apples and oranges, so to speak, since the state’s data had stopped updating as the rest of the country suffered from rising rates of COVID-19. Was the absence of inclusion of available data on the national COVID data tracker a mistake, or a convenient untruth of deeply unethical nature?
The maps of cases, infection levels, and fatalities, had been if only six states have mask-wearing mandates for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, whereas in 2020, forty-three states had adopted them, the low levels of transmission seemed to promote an image of azure seas across the peninsula that was oddly akin to the images promoting the Vacation Land U.S.A state from the mid-1950s, presided by a beneficent smiling sun, whose rays boded health for all–where the sun was able to be drunk to good health daily in the state’s unofficial elixir, fresh orange juice. Concerns about the continued popularity of winter beach destinations during the rise of the new Omicron variant may have been leading many to rethink their vacations, but the data vis was dropped at a strategic time to plug the beaches’ open space as a space for rejuvenation, a ready get-away for those seeking escape from COVID stress.
The couple romping through the surf promised escape in a “lovely peninsula, with its 30,000 lakes and 1,400 miles of mainland coastlines, which is continuously cooled by refreshing [ocean] breezes” is removed from the fears of coastal erosion that recently reared its heads in the collapse of the Seaside FL towers. But the coast beckoned as a site of sociability, for many who had been spooked by the rise of COVID-19, the beach offered an image of health in ways that rehabilitated the classic cinematic myth of the sunshine state of ocean fun.
The past imaginary was one of all carefree abandon, promising a year-round vacationland, outside of the normal flow of time or the seasonal change–as the 1954 advertisement put it, “WARM in Winter–COOL in Summer!“–that would produce “a fabulous state of well-being.”
The “extra special” nature of Florida as “one of the world’s greatest concentrations of fun facilities” was tied to its beaches, but stretched “border to border,” mapping a vacationland free from worry. Was Republicans’ not readiness of to nix the federal budget over mask mandates, and resist previous mandates on vaccination that would buck the federal advisory that folks “resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing” in areas of high or significant transmission risks, mandates for the unvaccinated only existed in reliably “blue” states–California, Connecticut, and New York–where they did not face legislative pushback, and the mask mandate for all only applied to those island territories with uncertain public health infrastructure–Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands–where an outbreak could be devastating, and where Democrats acknowledged the public costs as critical, from Hawaii to New Mexico to Nevada to Illinois, where the COVID scare remained fresh in memory.
Florida was long an outlier of mask-wearing, especially on its beaches, per this classic Mapbox data visualization of the likelihood of meeting masked friends in public from mid-July 2021, that reflected the split sort of realities with which the nation had been confronting COVIDThe rarity of spotting mask-wearing in midsummer 2021 was super spotty in the Sunshine State, especially on its beaches, in a state seemingly torn by parallel realities.
The stark local divisions of adopting masks in public space won world-wide attention early in the pandemic. No masking regulations on beachfronts were a sort of albatross for the state governor DeSantis, famous for issuing a forceful Executive Order later in the month, resisting school boards trumpeted the absence of “well-grounded scientific justification” that mask-wearing reduced transmission and finding an absence of sufficient evidence masking could reduce community transmission in the state schools, had openly run against national opinion and allowed “all all parents have the right to make health care decisions for their minor children” affirmed patients’ “rights under Florida law” and vowed to protect all Floridians’ constitutional freedoms. By the time that the new CDC visualization dropped, anxiety was growing the rebound of COVID-19 both in Delta and omicron variants would kill the tourism industry for Christmas Vacation 2021, and DeSantis’ spokesperson must have been primed.
The flimsily persuasive nature of the cherry-picked data of the data vis can be handily spot checked on the CDC website itself, by stepping back just one day for a better view of the risk levels of putting caution aside and heading to the beach. For the lag of a few days of renewing data reminds us of how important the daily release of accurate data is, and how easily it can skew a national image of community transmission that seems to provide a “snapshot” of national levels. Florida’s rates of infection didn’t remain an island from the nation, so much as a lag in reporting failed to show comparable rates of infection to the rest of the nation. The differences were not so pronounced: indeed, the previous day–November 24–mapped the state as being a site of moderate and substantial transmission that could not have suddenly shifted in but one day, so much as the new visualization fit the “narrative” about DeSantis and COVID-19, more than the situation that Floridians experienced on the ground.
And flipping back just a few days previous, the stark divides of low rates of transmission and the substantial to high rates in other states offered little grounds for off the cuff collective diagnoses of the greater hardiness that exposure to COVID due no mask mandates offered a benefit to the state’s population, or might in fact be considered a viable public health policy: a month earlier, transmission seems roughly equivalent on the Florida or Texas coast, and relied on uniform assessment and tallies–but we may have reason to suspect Florida of undercounting to keep its numbers low.
The lay of the land was basically not at all that clear-cut. One can only hope that few made travel plans after seeing that bright blue peninsula on social media: a better bet, it seems, would be Puerto Rico, if the mask-wearing mandate could be tolerated by visitors. In fact, the very areas that visitors might be hoping to travel–from Daytona Beach to Cocoa Beach, or the area around Miami and South Beach, down near the peninsula’s tip–suggested areas of substantial and even high risk, save for the area lying in the Everglades.
Indeed, a Moderate Risk seemed the fate of much of the state, if the tracker were looked at with regularly updated data sets. And this is relying on the numbers that the Department of Health provided–numbers that might be well scrutinized, given the complaints their former data guru had raised. All said and done, the “narrative” was not one of the power of a Governor to imagine his ability to purge COVID infections from the state, so much as a burst of virulence that demanded to be mapped and tracked in better detail.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!