The Dystopia of Diagolon: Irrational Cartographies of Secession

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.

But it was hard to predict how quickly these maps–not predictive, but mostly tracking maps–gave way to a skepticism to accept the government policies to contain the virus whose devastating effects we long feared we were 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. 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.

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 New Green World grew in the guise of a revolt from below.

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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.

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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.

TheVoiceofReason-AKA Untermensch 2nd class Nigga on Twitter: "@LideFranks  @colin_korol @PollardLaw Yeah it's called #Diagalon  https://t.co/lXJKjf6RiI" / Twitter
“Republic of Diagalon” Meme

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.

Trans-Canada Highway | Map & Construction | Britannica
Trans-Canada Highway

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.

Protesters at the bridge on Friday
Reuters

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.

Planned Petroleum Pipeline of the Keystone XL from Alberta to Gulf Coast

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.

Claims Stked to Mineral and Petroleum Deposits n North America against Modern and Historical Treaties

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.

Proposed Keystone XL Pipeline/Transcanada Pipeline

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 More Contagious Omicron Subvariant BA.2 Now Dominant in the US: CDC
CDC Map of Lineages of Contagious Viral Omicron Sub-Variants, March 2022

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.

Displaying CDC COVID Data Tracker Variant Proportions.png
CDC Data Tracker of Proportional Presence of Viral Variants

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.

Line of tractor-trailer trucks on freeway in Detroit
Ryan Garza/Detroit Free Press

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.

Hundreds of truck drivers and their supporters block the streets of downtown Ottawa in February 2022 as part of a convoy of protesters against COVID-19 restrictions in Canada.
Truckers Convoy Parked in Downtown Ottawa to Protest COVID-19 Restrictions/Spencer Platt

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.

Landon Dobrohoczki on Twitter: "Republic of Diagolon \  https://t.co/4kAXlKzHL8" / Twitter

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.

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Eastward Expansions

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,” rallying national interests for 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.

July, 2020/Ukrinform

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 apparent invincibility of Russian armaments that Putin suggested in a dramatic tableaux of Russian military dominance–

–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 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,–

Belarusian State Radio

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–

Ukrinform, July, 2020

–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.

Russian Presence in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts by 1st (Donetsk) and 2nd (Luhansk) Army Corps (AC) 

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.

Soviet Satellite States | Schoolshistory.org.uk
Soviet Satellite States

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.

And despite

Putin Alexei Miller
Putin and REUTERS/Aleksey Nikoskyi/RIA Novosti/POOL
Lugansk and Donetsk
“Novorossiya,” c. 2014

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.

Vladimir Putin Is Redrawing the Map of the World to Reflect How Russia Sees  It
Putin Studied Map of Crimea, 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.

r/MapPorn - NATO members (blue) and warsaw pact members (red) in cold war era
Separate Spheres of Dominance in Cold War Global Map

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.

NATO-Ballistic-Missile-Defense - Silk Road Briefing
NATO Ballistic Missile Defense System

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.

Germany to send additional troops to Lithuania | News | DW | 07.02.2022
NATO Battlergroups in Eastern and Central Europe, 2022

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.

Image
Brian Taylor

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.

NATO: Why Russia has a problem with its eastward expansion | Europe | News  and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 23.02.2022

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.

INTERACTIVE Ukraine Donbas region Feb
Putin’s Puppet “Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk

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.

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Florida Tweets

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.

COVID-19 RIsk Rate/Harvard Global Public Health/Talus Analytics
July 2020

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.

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity
October 21, 2021 by @GovRonDeSantis

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.

covid-map-us
CDC Dashboard, December 2, 2021

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.

National COVID Infections/Mapbox
December 20, 2021

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.

David Schultz/Orlando Sun Sentinel from US Center for Disease Control Data

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.

These maps show the levels of COVID community transmission in Florida's counties on Nov. 30, when data for the state was missing from the CDC's portal, and Dec. 1 after the state's data was updated. (Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control)

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.

Lindsey Burke: Coronavirus school closings should prompt states to pay  parents to educate kids in other ways | Fox News

March, 2020

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.

A screen grab of a tweet written by Ron DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw.

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.

Image
State-Run Monoclonal Clinics for COVID-19/@GovRonDeSantis, August 28, 2021

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.”

Daily Cases of COVID-19 Reported in Florida by State and Local Health Agencies/New York Times

Days after DeSantis challenged Biden’s authority by declaring “We’re respecting people’s individual freedom in this state,” and banning businesses from adopting vaccine mandates–even though the state’s sizable elderly population was demonstrated to be at risk for co-morbidity.

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.

@ChristinaPushaw

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.

Rebekah Jones in her office at the Florida Department of Health.
Rebekah Jones at Florida Dept. of Public Health/Photo Courtesy Rebekah Jones

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–

Woman who built Florida's COVID-19 dashboard removed from project | wtsp.com
April 22,2020

–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.

New COVID-19 cases for Friday, June 26 - IMAGE VIA FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Screengrab via Florida Dept of Health, for Friday, June 26 2020

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.

SCREENGRAB VIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

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.

Florida's Coronavirus Dashboards
Florida’s Community Coronavirus Dashboard, June 2020

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.

April 23, 2020/Drew Angerer

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.

Monoclonal antibody therapy
Alabama COVID-19 Dashboard;Non-Hospital Providers of Monoclonal Antibody Therapy

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.” 

DON'T TREAD ON FLORIDA': Ron DeSantis Promotes 'Pro-Freedom' Flag | Sean  Hannity

Gadsden flag - Wikipedia
Gadsden Flag

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.

COVID dashboard 020821
June 4, 2021

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.

Florida Covid-19 Dashboard and Surveillance Dashboard
Florida's Rising COVID-19 Numbers: What Do They Mean? : Coronavirus Updates  : NPR
June 24, 2020/Florida Dept. of Health Public Dashboard

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.

Coronavirus Rising in Florida, Arizona, California and Texas: What We Know  - The New York Times
June 24, 2020

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.

June 22, 2020, via Florida Dept. of Health (screengrab)

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.

July-August “Third Wave” of COVID-19 infections in 2021 in Florida/New York TImes

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.

“Come on Down to Fabulous Florida,”
State of Florida Tourism advertisement placed in National Geographic, 1952

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.”

1954 State Travel Advertisement, “Fabulous Florida . . . WARM in Winter-COOL in Summer!

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.

Wat is the Likelihood of Encountering Groups of Five People Following Mask-Wearing Mandate in the United States? New York Times/July 17 2020

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.

Community Transmission by County in the United States, November 26-December 3,
CDC Covid-19 Data Tracker by County

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.

CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker, November 26-December 2 2021

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Filed under COVID-19, data visualizations, Florida, public health, social media

Blurred Boundaries and Indigenous Lands

Geodesy has long increased the number of claims by extractive industries through remote sensing, and especially over indigenous lands. Yet crowd-sourced tools of geolocation have also enabled a range of counter-maps of indigenous native land claims that have pushed back on how industries that have increased access to the resources buried beneath the very lands to which indigenous groups have ancestral claims. Indeed, inovative webmaps like NativeLands.com provide not only a new standard for cartographic literary, but offer an ethical redress of the lost of lands indigenous have roundly suffered from the uninvited Anglo settlers of North America.

For although the maps of Anglo settlers–attracted by the shifting global markets for goods, from cotton, to gold, to petroleum, all claimed without consent from their longtime inhabitants–erased or omitted local claims to land by those seen as nomadic, and of an earlier historical developmental stage, with a cutting logic of relegating their very presence to the past, the reframing of collective memories to inhabiting lands and regions offers a plastic and particularly valuable cartographic resource for remediating the future. The problem of a project of decolonization of course was greater than a map could achieve–but the relentless colonization of indigenous spaces and places needed a public document or touchstone to return. The presence of native tribes was never in question during the colonization of the continent–if one can only ponder the notion of the Library of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, who commemorated the approach of European and native cultures as so culturally fruitful for American culture, rather than one of loss. But how to take stock of the scale of loss? Northern California has been recently a site of active indigenous resistance to a legacy of colonization, the cartographic unearthing of land claims offers a new appreciation of increasing pluralistic possibilities of occupying the land.

Webmaps offer the possibility of stripping away existing boundaries, in cartographically creative ways, by interrogating the occupation of what was always indigenously occupied in new ways. Henry David Thoreau was plaintive as he voyaged down the Concord River, realizing how native lands had been not only usurped by the introduction of European grasses and trees, not only leading the apple tree to bloom beside the Juniper, but brought with them the bee that stung its original settlers; pushing downriver and “yearning toward all wilderness,” he asked readers, “Penacooks and Mowhawks! Ubique gentium sunt?” The signs of longstanding presence are not erased, but present on the map. And although lack of fixed boundaries on native lands have long provided an excuse to stake claims that exclude inhabitants who are seen as nomadic, or not settled in one place, and laying claim or title to it, and “without maps,” the blurred boundaries of NativeLands re-places longtime residents on the map, wrestling with the long-term absence of indigenous on the map. There is a sense, in the crowd-sourced optimism that recalls the early days of OpenStreetMap and HOT OSM, of the rewriting of maps and the opening of often erased land claims that crashed like so many ruins that accumulate like a catastrophe as wreckage that has piled at the feat of an Angel of History who is violently propelled by the winds to the future, so she is unable to ever make the multiple claims and counter-claims in the wreckage at her feet whole, and the pile of ruins constituted our sense of the progress of the present, even as it grows toward the sky.

NativeLands.ca

The website was the direct reaction to the active search for possibilities of extracting underground petrochemical reserves on indigenous lands in Canada. The growth of the website north of the border however has resonated globally, underscoring the deep cultural difficulties of recognizing title to lands that was long occupied by earlier settlers. If many of the claims to petroleum and mineral extraction in indigenous land is cast as economic–and for the greatest good–the petrochemical claims are rooted in an aggressive military invasion, and are remembered on NativeLands as the result of abrogated treaties and land cessions that must be acknowledged as outright theft.

The history of a legacy of removing land claims and seizing lands where Anglos found value has led many to realize the tortured legacy–and the unsteady grounds on which to stand to address the remapping of native lands. General Wesley Clark, Jr. acknowledged at Standing Rock, asking forgiveness in 2016, almost searching for words–“Many of us are from the units that have hurt you over the many years. We came. We fought you. We took your land. We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills. We blasted the faces of our presidents onto your sacred mountain. . . . We didn’t respect you, we polluted your Earth, we’ve hurt you in so many ways, but we’ve come to say that we are sorry.” Crowd-sourced maps of claims on NativeLands offer an attempt at remediation, although a remediation that might echo, as Chief Leonard Crow Dog responded at Standing Rock, “we do not own the land–the land owns us.”

Oceti Sakowin (Sacred Stone) camp near the Standing Rock Reservation, Cannon Ball, North Dakota, United States on December 6, 2016.

The sacred lands that had long reserved sacred lands in ancestral territory to indigenous tribes were indeed themselves contested at Standing Rock in 2015-6, when the 1868 Treaty of Ft. Laramie that assigned Sioux territory east of the Missouri River and including the water that runs through these ancestral lands as including the water, but the protection of these waters as within ancestral lands was not only challenged but denied by the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline, even if the water runs through Sioux territory, as it long had, leading the Sioux Nation to bring suit against the US Army Corps of Engineers for having planned the pipeline through their ancestral lands, and attracting support of military veterans who objected to the continued use of Army Engineers to route the pipeline through historical and cultural sites of the Upper Sioux that ran against the lands reserved fort he Sioux nation.

Indian Claims Classification Determination of Sioux Territory across Missouri River

The challenge or undermining of ancestral claims to land by the DAPL offered a basis for accounting or tallying of the respect of previous treaties and land claims. In the rise of the webmaps Native Lands, a new and unexpected use was made of the very cartographic tools that facilitate international petrochemical corporations–and indeed military forces–to target lands valued for mineral production with unprecedented precision have helped to stake a claims for the land’s value that undercut local claims to sovereignty. The website offers a way to preserve claims that were never staked earlier so clearly, and to do so in dialogue with broken treaties as a counter-map taking stock of the extent of indigenous lands. It is as if, within the specters of extractive industries’ deep desire to possess the targeted energy reserves, and at the end of a history of dispossession and destruction, the indigenous that were systematically killed and removed from their lands over the nineteenth century, at whose close 90-99% were killed, in a massive and unprecedented theft of land, forcing them from migratory habits to receive religious instruction and live on bound lands to which they were confined. (In Canada, where NativeLands was first based, such displacement began from the clearing herds of bison herds from Prairies to begin construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the principle commercial artery to the West, that had by 1869 shifted indigenous resources to rations that rarely arrived, to be replaced by cattle on lands settled by European famrers and style of agriculture. As Plenty Coups, facing the extinction of a way of life on Crow lands, as their nation was abolished, “when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift hem up again: after this, nothing happened.”

Time stopped because the imposition of new modes of agrarian regime recast native lands as terra nullius to be settled by Anglo and European farmers, a surrender of land title from 1871-1921 that nullified local land claims. The cartographer and framer of the U.S. Census, newly appointed to what would be the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Francis Amasa Walker conducted the first review of 300,000 Native American in the United States of 1874, trying to sort out the theft of land over four hundred treaties. Walker’s agency was not clear, but if he bemoaned theft of ancestral lands fertile and rich with game, confined in land that could not support them and dependent on rations, there is some sort of redress in how the NativeLands maps invites us to retrace the sessions of lands that undermined these tribal claims, and erased these nations, not deemed fit to have place or stake belonging in American made maps that Walker helped to codify, placing the loss of land that Plenty Coups did so much to try to protect and retain, against all odds, in making trips to Washington DC to allow Crow claims to survive in this new White Man’s world. Even if the claims that he preserved were less than they ahd been originally allotted–just 80%–he forestalled desires to claim land for gold prospecting and mineral extraction that are effectively on the cutting block once again today.

By 1892, the Territories of the five civilized “Indian” tribes, west of the Mississippi, confined in fixed frontiers after the forced migration in a process of Indian Removal of indigenous east of the Mississippi, later forced to resettle in the early 1820s into the area adjoining modern Oklahoma, where indigenous already lived, renamed “Indian Territory” but within newly fixed bounds. What was a rich area of hunting and without permanent settlement was long understood as their own lands, but were absent from maps until the relocation of “civilized tribes” into the boundaries of Indian Territory, imposing a new notion of territoriality on Indian Lands that delegitimized nomadic presence in earlier native lands–tribes whose presence was “civilized” as they had gained governments and legal traditions modeled on America.

Map of the Indian and Oklahoma Territories (1893)/Library of Congress

While we see these maps as pinpointing mineral claims with precision that might allow extraction of underground reserves, it would be better to learn to regard the map of claims as akin to an ecological haunting of North America, disrupting not only settled modern treaties with indigenous peoples in Canada, but disrupting the longstanding claims of historical inhabitation of lands by those who long conserved them, a conflict of two geographies that, globally, is steaming to a head in the twentieth century, as global claims risk obscuring the local claims of the custody and preservation of historic claims: an entanglement of overturned treaties, renegotiated sites of mining and mineral extraction, and actively negotiated land claims, the map is not a record of spatial knowledge, but also something of a historically determined palimpsest, if urgency of locating energy reserves for collective good risk flattening the rich historical record in the search for petrodollars–the dominant global currency of the day to which ancestral lands are compelled to accommodate.

This post seeks to address ongoing questions of land use decisions that are of increasing importance in an era of shifting ecological niches and ecosystems by pollution. While the lines of indigenous territory were long discounted and seen as less easily translated into terms of territoriality–the roaming or spatial dispersion of households of indigenous bands over a vast area were seen as not having a fixed perimeter, or a “map-like representation” of territory and a communitarian notion of land-use–whose “use” of a territory was foreign to concepts of a nation, or able to be compared to the bounded territoriality settler communities understood their own worlds., or territorial demarcations and partitioning, and foreign to “true land ownership”–their maps did not indicate lines of property ownership.

Before such a map of the recent land claims that seem to grasp smattered mineral deposits for extractive possibilities, it seems counterintuitive that the modern tools of geolocation have provided a new basis to affirm indigenous claims to the land–as if the two maps are departing from one another, red splotches revalued and excised from established treaties.

Mineral Claims in Land Claims Currently under Negotiation in Canada

The abrogation of treaties is nothing new to the history of indigenous claims from the nineteenth century to ancestral lands, but the heightening of debates in recent years accompanies the expanded scale of destruction of mining and the logic of geolocation of mineral deposits from remote sensing, leading to a growing number of claims removed from treaties that were intended to preserve a site–see the range of claims eagerly made on land in Bears Ears!–in a mad scramble to unlock mineral resources buried under the land.

But if the patchwork of red dots denoting mineral claims seem located with a terrible certainty in historical and modern settled treatises, tools of mapping have opened indigenous perspective on land claims as a form of private property and ancestral lands that descend from the Enlightenment defense of how states secure private property rights John Locke most clearly articulated as the right taking into possession of the lands of indigenous who had failed to cultivate or farm lands, or, in modern terms, extract their resources. While Locke developed ideas of property while working for the Secretary for the Royal Council on Trade and Plantations in the Carolinas, eager to settle areas of “New World” to benefit Atlantic trade, crafting a constitution for the Carolinas, based on the cultivation of those lands that indigenous “failed” to cultivate, the export of the current underground resources lying in land claims currently being renegotiated is based on a terrifyingly similar logic.

It is in the context of the proliferation of mineral claims that the creation of new online maps of ancestral lands have been developed, as a counter-mapping of land claims that have long been insufficiently preserved in treaties or recognized. They seek to pose questions of the long unresolved questions of possessions, raising deep ethical questions of the limits of ownership, and artfully articulate the need to formulate forms of acknowledgment of the expropriation of indigenous rights. The collective nature of the crowd-sourced response to the erosion fixed lines of property long posed to indigenous lands, forested or unploughed, offers a provocative cartographic riposte to the toxic multiplication of claims of mineral resources that upset modern treaties, swept aside with historical treaties that seem to fall as if at the feet of the Angel of History, blown backwards by time, as if so many ruins of the past.

As we try to calculate the depth of historical obligations of nations to native peoples and indigenous land claims, the crisis of extraction may provide more than healthy starting point. While the probability of gas reserves may be more difficult to pinpoint above the Arctic Circle, as exploratory studies are less rarely authorized, and since their discovery in 2008 were newly classified as “potentially recoverable”–although as arctic ice sheets melt, that story is potentially beginning to change: but if the chromatic variation in geolocated gas reserves north of the Arctic Circle seem suitably drained of color, the apparent absence of any land claims on the map seems almost strategic. Is the absence of any indication of ancestral lands in the circumpolar stereographic projection not privileging advantageous opportunities for oil extraction, rather than recognizing longstanding land rights, or sites of residence?

Land Claims for Mineral Reserves (Red); Federally Recognized Indigenous Possessions (Black); Historical and Modern Treaties (Green and Tan Overlays)

Yet the naming of the land, or its recoloration by the likelihood of extracting mineral profit, irrespective of the environment, is a dramatic remapping of value in the land, in ways not seen by its inhabitants, and a triangulation of human relations to the land, and the demand for oil, as much as a reorientation of objective record of geographic space.

Maps presented something like vestiges of the indigenous past of places past–“Ye say that they all have pass’d away/That noble race and brave;/That their light canoes have vanish’d,/From off the crested wave/ . . .But their name is on your water,/Ye may not wash it out,” wrote Lydia Sigourney in Indian Names; Whitman described “the strange charm of aboriginal names” that “all fit” the places, rivers, coasts and islands that they describe as adequately as onomatopoeia–“Mississippi!-the word winds with chutes–it rolls a stream three thousand miles long,” yet most names of “Indian” origin, if avoided by early settlers, to be absorbed y American tongues as they grew emptied of indigenous title. Yet the removal or blanching of indigenous geographies suggests a new relation to extracted spaces, under the ground, unanimated and sensed, remotely, for a commodity value cast as objective in its blueness, as if to convert space to a calculus of market values that exists less objectively than as a grounds for its extraction and universal needs of energy consumption, as if the probability of access to products provides the universal index of meaning indicated by shades of blue.

This relation to space, if akin to John Locke’s classic description of the value of cultivated and enclosed land that Anglo settlers are able to create in “America”, gaining value by cultivation that they would otherwise lack among indigenous, is a classic move of appropriation by means of revaluation, stated as so self-evident that it seems not an act of revaluation, but recognition of opening the “fruited soil” or “petroleum reserves” to global markets–whether markets of a global Atlantic trade for sugar, cotton, and that reveal their intrinsic value in ways not apparent to their previous occupants, by a re-designation that will elevate the land’s value of lands as the demand and need for products washes over them, to benefit “all” mankind.

A similar logic haunted how Henry David Thoreau described the benefits of displacing indigenous inhabitants, in 1861, as a historical logic that might be found in the land. For Thoreau transitioned from how “the civilized nations–Greece, Rome, England–have been sustained by the primitive forests, which anciently rooted where they stand” reasoning that it was evident that such nations “survive as long as the soil is not exhausted,” and as nations are “compelled to make manure of the bones of its fathers,” prevailing wisdom agrees “It is said to be the task of the American ‘to work the virgin soil,’ and that ‘agriculture here already assumes proportions unknown everywhere else” in its exorbitant wealth.

The American story is a dialectic process of agricultural transformation of landscape by which “the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural” as fields were transformed by plough, hoe, and spade. And while we often see these claims as “modern” in their reliance of using maps to claim lands for a global energy market–if it is only the latest commodity to secure unchallenged status as a public good of global consensus. The reservations on which most indigenous were confined as deemed less valuable or desired land, in a process of geographic displacement and forced migration that began after the Gold Rush in California but could be traced to the arrival of planters in the southeast coast of the colonies, but was suddenly creating a run on property claims in the Sierra foothills to which the world’s eyes seemed to turn, as emigration to the Gold Country set a new standard for mapping the global ties to the Gold Country long before the accurate geodetic determination for extracting a universally acknowledge good.

Important Directions to Persons Emigrating to California

The periplus-like legend that was paired with the composite hemispheric and regional map of Upper or New California offered guides for enterprising travelers to set eyes on the newly mapped western state, the accompanying legend acknowledging the lodestone, as “gold mines of California . . . known to have existed in the sixteenth century, for as early as 1578, about the time Sir Francis Drake made voyage to the coast,” Jesuits had gained possession of “certain tracts which they knew of more than ordinary value,” whose value they depreciated by false reports: but now the map delivered this valuable insider knowledge that never commanded attention of the Spanish court, but was now safely in the hands of whoever owned the map to allow global emigration to the “fertile and picturesque dependent country, [distinguished by the] mildness and salubrity of its climate” that is with a “latitudinal position that of Lisbon” whose global geographic position makes it one of the most desirable “point of commerce, in this or any continent,. . . destined to be one of the greatest disbursing depots in the world.”

The global circulation of goods were spectacularly invoked to displace native land claims in wyas that didn’t even require geodesists, as a spectacular conjuncture of capital displacing land claims. For the 1879 mapping of global routes to the Gold country, the year that the coutnry adopted the Gold standard, oriented audiences ready to get rich quick the necessary “important directions” for orienting themselves to claims in the Gold Country of California–the same years at which “Indian” reservations were effectively marginalized outside the state, when Francis Amasa Walker remapped the western states to cast white populations in mauve apart from the indigenous hunting grounds or reservations set off in bright orange in official maps drafted as Commissioner for Indian Affairs, modeled on the maps on rainfall and natural resources he had compiled for inclusion within the decennial U.S. Census of 1870.

from Francis Amasa Walker, The Indian Question” (1874)

If these rigorusly bound reservations and hunting grounds followed clear lines of jurisdiction determined by latitude and longitude, preserving many of the tribal names situated in a clearly demarcated “Indian Territory,” the surveyed bounds confirmed a broad displacement of indigenous across western states.

The map placed the Gold Country in national if not global visibility, before GPS, or geodesy, centered on placing the valued commodity of the day in easy reach. The topically colored region–tinted in ways that hinted the riches bound to be seen underground–was suddenly in access of all, advertised as able to be reached by boat via Panama or Cape Horn or the midwest, invoking an early globalization to erase and displace local land claims. The “gold regions” were in fact long inhabited Indian lands. The map shows the region as if mapped anew, soon after the first massacres of indigenous in a spate of “Gold Country” maps confirmed the voiding of all title tribes might have had, with little trace or reminder the historic presence of the peoples who once lived in the region save by the historic resonance of evocative place names, Longfellow style. It was shown ready for resettlement–or “settlement”–in growth small towns as Sacramento, later the state capital, without reminder of the migrant tribes resettled on confined inland land, far from the coast or the fertile Central Valley. One can only sense a whiff in almost mythical regions (as Yuba and Yola) or the aptly named “El Dorado” attracted eyes to rolling hills where riches were to be made: regions today best known not for gold but fires, the over-settled Wildlands-Urban Interface.

The currency gold gained as a universal standard in the first years of the gold standard adopted that very year treated gold as a universal logic of land claims for areas effectively prepared to be rendered as open to settlement, having been purged of inhabitants, and erased from the maps that were sold of “the mining district” in increasing numbers, that can be cast as a growing cartographic literacy purging California as a multi-ethnic state.

Wiilliam A. Jackson, Map Of The Mining District of California 1851
from Jackson’s Map Of The Mining Districts Of California 1851

Courtesy David Rumsey Map Library, Stanford University

The relatively rapid shift in title to the land from 1848 that would be all but accomplished within thirty years, as by 1879, the American Genocide all but completed some years earlier, two decades after Anglo newspapers opened an unofficial “war of extermination . . . until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed” to take the gold-rich lands as their own, and gold the national standard invested it with global currency and a logic of land seizure.

Lands opened for prospecting were not marked as being cleared by permanent displacement, a massive resettlement effort that prefigured the displacements of the twentieth century, but focussed on the lustrous gold arrowhead hand-tinted in an 1879 map as a destination promising the bounty of extractable wealth from its rivers, mountains, and valleys ready for the taking by all able to pay costs of passage as a near-universal “right” of access to this map that shows California as if island, shown at larger scale in an odd frame situated in the Pacific, as a new land where new rules applied, but where all could access by shipping channels from other continents, drawn to this one site by the lure of the glowing gold ready to be pried from being lodged in the region of California inland from the coast. west off the Great Interior Basin, as the world must have been suddenly heading and focussing attention on the mecca of the newly affirmed universal standard of financial currency in a globally contracted world.

Gold Regions in Calfornia, Showing the routes via Chagres and Panama, Cape Horne, & c
Ensigns & Thayer. New York: 1849, courtesy Donald Rumsey Map Center, Stanford University Library

The long tradition in such maps was to exclude an indigenous perspective. But what might it be like to map from the other side, as it were, less in terms of land claims of property than inviting a greater negotiation of the land use with the longstanding use of land that indigenous communities have often long used?

This question, long pressing but rarely recognized as pressing to address, was subsumed by the logic of capital and the demands for extraction, either in the maps of oil extraction in the header to this post, or the Gold Country maps, placing less emphasis on boundaries than the ability to target, access, and export to a market whose demand trumps the local customs of the inhabitants of the place–far from the Far Utah Indians living far inland, or “Utah Indians,” but offering a separate plot that immediately attracts the viewer’s eye to rest on this region of “Upper or New California” newly open to all who sought all that glitters, as if it were a land of luxury, an island generating huge wealth for the taking, even if it wasn’t an island at all.

But California wasn’t at all an island for practices of forced displacement or territorial claims,–more like a workshop or staging zone for practices of extermination and land seizure of the twenty and twenty-first century. That maps might preserve the memory in which indigenous not only live, but long inhabited, could recast the lands as part and parcel of a sense of self, long obliterated or erased from earlier maps, whose content we would do well to interrogate and examine in terms of the erasure of the very idea of the existence or collective memory of earlier land claims.

And as Thanksgiving comes as an opportune time to seek deeper truths than are evident in the map of acknowledged tribal lands, or the violence of the longstanding aims of eliminating the presence of indigenous from the map, this post took a deep dive, as it were, in musing about the possibly preserving native claims in maps. For many indigenous in North America, indeed, Thanksgiving is better known in indigenous communities as a National Day of Mourning, the displacement of indigenous land claims from the current maps of nations has offered little space to negotiate land rights.

The new opportunity to map a persuasive representation of past land use has provided a new cartography akin to a pharmakon, remedying the erasure of indigenous presence in crowd-sourced remapping platforms, whose overlapping boundaries of tribal space may derive part of its compelling power and increased impetus from the erosion of “boundaries” in the mapping of the nation state,–if not of the integrity of the nation state as a semantic unit of clear bounds. Might the platform that promotes a sense of the blurred nature of indigenous space on TribalLand.ca be more than a purely virtual representation of an affective relation to the lost title to lands, but eventually be effective in giving rise to something new in the shifting structure of the nation state, where the place and space of indigenous inhabitation deserves increased prominence than it has long had? Such are the questions posed as the longstanding inequities of dispossession of lands, heightened perhaps by recognition of the failures of custodianship of environmental health, but providing increasingly undeniable dilemmas not only of the naming of place, but the ghosts in the closet of our civil society.

As the nation wrestles with its troubled pasts, and the ethics as well as objectivity of mapping space, as well as the danger of environmental devastation on several fronts, the resource of NativeLands opens new questions of how we understand our relation to the land, and the place of engaging indigenous inhabitants in collective decisions of land use, from the leasing of mineral rights to the potential devastation of oil pipelines and energy transport, or underground fracking and petroleum prospecting. It might be a way of using the very tools of geodetic mapping that extractive energy has profited so much to create a new forum for interrogating land use, and empowering indigenous communities as stake-holders to questions of property from which they were long excluded.

Western North America/Native-Land

The attempts to crowd source a layer of the boundaries of indigenous land claims on TribalLands.com, noteworthy as suggesting a new ethics of mapping, both with a clear historical online apparatus that serves as a dynamic legend, and the refreshing colors of a distinct cartographic palette of light lavender, green, violent, and yellow that broadens the divides of territorial claims sharply-edged cartography of the past. The oddly open space in these maps are not legally binding–or rooted in law–but offer a poignant and indeed healing cartographic pharmakon of ghost-like claims we are currently learning to negotiate with the lines of jurisdiction or sovereignty inherited from the past. While the web map is finally turned to only in §8-14 of this post–perhaps a section that deserves to be its own post!–the time-laden nature of obscuring native or indigenous claims are examined as a cognitive problem and historical project in earlier sections, turning to the complex place of indigenous in California’s formation as a state, before the Native Land maps are examined as a productive undoing of the historical violence worked by the marginalization of native land claims–effectively a cartographic distortion and omission that has deep logic and cunning roots.

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Filed under American genocide, California, data visualizations, native lands, thanksgiving

Drone Warfare, Carpet Bombing, Righteous Strikes

This problem seemed to come from Hell. The “righteous strike” of a drone-fired Hellfire Missile killed Afghan aid worker Zemari Ahmadi, his nieces and nephews was America’s military doing what it did best–a targeted precision strike. As much as targeting a human target who was instantaneously dismembered as his car shifted into park, the “Over the Horizon” strike cell commander who fired the missile from the drone was firing at a coordinate, and trusting in its authority. United States Dept. of Defense spokesperson John F. Kirby vowed “to study the degree to which any policies, procedures or targeting mechanisms may need to be altered going forward,” to be reviewed by former senior staff officer s who served in Afghanistan, assigning it high priority–but insisting that the strike was only green lighted after the American General at Central Command, or CENTCOM, who remained apprised of surveillance found “a reasonable certainty of the imminent threat that this vehicle posed.”

The CENTCOM Commander himself apologized, saying “we thought [we had] a good lead,” the balance between “certainty” and “threat” was not so clearly mapped as the pinpoint targeting of the vehicle, watched for over eight hours. As if in a surplus expenditure of energy at the conclusion to the war, or a final moment of fireworks, the huge discrepancy of wealth and technology between two sides was made manifest in the explosion that took the aid worker Zemari’s life with his nine family members, a final salvo of the Forever Wars. -But the striking of the vehicle containing Ahamdi, and which his nieces and nephews surrounded, were perhaps the fault less of a human error–if that was involved–than of a desire for a new method of war conducted in alarmingly disembodied terms,, in which “it is exceedingly important to shoot the missile, not at the target, but in such a way that missile and target can come together in space,” as Norbert Weiner wrote in 1948, in a classic work of communication networks in animal and machine, in which human judgement become part of feedback loops, but not ever making anything like what we might classify as ethical calls: the transmission of information in this model is based on the clear transmission of alternatives, and reduction of ethics to so much background noise, based on the probability of how much accurate information was available or at hand.

Moreover, and perhaps most crucially, at a time when ISIS had effectively internalized the danger of a sense of western besiegement, and the United States had almost amplified its power to suggest that waves of besiegement were utterly insurmountable and impossible to defend against, the arrival of a final Over-the-Horizon strike of a Hellfire missile seemed a parting strike of particular cruelty, by accident effectively perpetuating the inevitability of a continued narrative of besiegement for the world; as the escalated pummeling of ISIS presence in the hills of Peshwar and Afghan provinces had provided ample evidence of besiegement attempting at exhausting the “enemy,” in record numbers, over a decade of intense bombardment focussed firepower one final time on a residential courtyard in Kabul.

American Drone Strikes, 2004-2014, The Economist

There are problems of balancing an awesome strike ability of a Hellfire missile, a missile conjuring the eternal fire faced by the dammed with a “righteous strike,” and the scale of local damage it can cause: the death sentence that the missile passed as a remotely tracked technology of obliteration was invested with curiously religious terms, the fire of damnation a sentence of divine wrath, sending the fire of hell to the courtyard of a Kabul family residence to shatter the life of the wrong man who had been tracked for eight hours by Over-the-Horizon Strike Cell dedicated to disrupt the Islamic State Khorasan. But this time the Over-the-Horizon strike in Kabul was, if precise, focussed on the wrong white sedan, as the intelligence about the car that was being tracked for over four hours was terrifyingly incorrect. The poor debut of “Over-the-Horizon” strikes was a bad omen of the value of geospatial precision.

Afghan Neighbors Ponder the Courtyard of the Zemari Ahmadi’s Home in Kabul, Afghanistan
Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Were the mechanisms for firing the laser-guided missiles encoded in the authority of the mapping tools that sent the laser-guided Hellfire missile to Kabul, as much as in faulty intelligence, and the limited guidance on targeting individuals? In what was almost a bravura use of force, American military drones fired Hellfire missiles as the airlift continued, on the eve of the United States departure, pointing to the appearance of secondary explosions as fireballs to indicate presence of explosives inside vehicles that ISIS operatives might drive into the airport for a second suicide attack. But if the strike was “deliberated” and the information military had collected “all added up,” the rules of engagement of airstrikes, as much as the human intelligence, implied deep ethical problems of trusting in the logic of maps to sift through evidence with greater accountability, especially as we seem to be approaching a threshold of increased engagement without men on the ground in Afghanistan, in developing an “over-the-horizon” strategy for the immediate future, as President Biden pursues his commitment to fight ISIS-K without actually increasing civilian deaths.

An Afghan man who lost family due to US drone strikes weeps.
Ajmal Ahmadi, Mourns Members of His Family Killed byu Hellfire Missile in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. 
Marcus Yam/Getty Images

The mechanics of the decision-making process that led to fire a drone that later killed Ahmadi and his children, nephews, and cousins is under review, but the verbal and epistemic confusion between what was first described as a “righteous strike” of vengeance, evoking the theory of “just war” that was invoked by President Barack Obama in invoking “just war theory” to rationalize the use of the military force not as a wanton or needless display of power and with the hope of saving lives to prevent the loss of lives, required, in his hope a “near-certainty of no collateral damage.” And while this was of course collateral damage of the most extensive time, the coverage of the extent of mis-targeting of believed terrorists reveal a terrifying cheapness of life, undoubtedly only able to be researched in detail for the jaw-dropping mistake of targeting of innocent civilians by a laser-guided missile due to the density of journalistic coverage of this particular strike, and journalistic presence documented the costs of erroneous strikes and the scope of civilian casualties as horrific as carpet bombing–if far more surgical–as if this were a far more humanitarian form of war whose precision could be labeled just. We were able to see the Taliban checkpoint that let in suicide bombers to Kabul’s airport, causing almost a hundred and fifty deaths, we became convinced of the ability of targeting precision strikes of the perpetrators of similar crimes, and amped up the intelligence networks to scour the city for signs of any activity appearing that it demanded to be targeted, and snuffed out.

Planet Labs Inc., image of Taliban checkpoint blocking access to Kabul’s international airport Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021
(Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Precise targeting, unlike bombing raids of the past, provided this certainty, or was supposed to offer surety of not being needless. But if such near-certainty depended on a map, it rests not on the accuracy of mapping. The strike that killed Zemerai Ahmadi — and ten of his family members–was mistakenly categorized as a “righteous strike,” killing an innocent aid worker and his family members. While it occurred in the heady atmosphere of retaliatory strikes for attempt to sabotage the withdrawal from Kabul’s airport attempted to be just, the slippage between the logic of targeted bombing and justice became apparent. It was a lurch to affirm global strength, more than justice, in using a technology of geolocation that had evolved to coordinate hand in glove with surveillance from Reaper drones. The ability to pinpoint track the progress of one car tagged as an imminent danger.

U.S. Central Command maps movement across Kabul of white Toyota Corolla on Aug. 29, 2021. CENTCOM/via Military Times

The mistaken of surveilling and targeting a young Afghan civilian in a Toyota Corolla was terrifyingly akin to the senseless bombing campaigns of South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and Laos, or more terrifying. Surveillance of Kabul and its airport were much better than Vietnam, by remote satellite and drone photography, the ability of such targeting–and the rush of such precision killing–seemed to follow the logic of the map, as much as people on the ground.

1. The maps used to conduct action at a great distance in Vietnam were not as transparent or evident, but they were for the time. In the 1960s and 1970s, they offered grounds to pose the eerily analogous question of the extent and expanse of the globalist claims of American power. The trust in the accuracy of maps provided an eery precedent for the confidence in strikes an old theater of empire, a theater once defined by imperial maps. The surety of the strikes that the UTM and LORAN B offered to American pilots existed in two theaters–the arena of the map that determined the strikes and the geographical space to which it corresponded, and old imaginaries of imperial and colonial power. The British empire was driven from Kabul in 1842 and 1843, and the French hold on Indochina had led them to withdraw; as the mapping techniques of post-war Europe led the United States to inherit Southeast Asia, global technologies of mapping opened the possibility of launching strikes that would offer lasting reminders as America withdrew from the Forever Wars in Afghanistan, leaving as the English did from both Kabul and Kandahar, but, in an attempt not to be forgotten, leaving a lasting imprint of the power of long-distance bombing. If combatants of most all wars fight with different maps, often reflecting differences in military intelligence, both these post-colonial wars were defined by the drastic dissonance of radically different maps of geospatial intelligence, one from the air and one on the ground, and the pursuit of a stubborn logic of air maps as if they offered both superior exactitude and geospatial intelligence, modernizing the struggle for control by defining a logic of modern military operations by which to understand and to shape the “sharp edge” of war.

Carpet Bombing in Vietnam by B-52 American USAF Planes

The beginning of the end of American Empire has been recently pegged to 1972, a year that marked and took stock of the the end of a huge expenditure of sustained bombing drives with little apparent enduring accomplishment. The geospatial logic that drove such earlier long-distance aerial bombing campaigns in Vietnam were driven by perhaps misplaced confidence in how maps enabled and facilitated military action at a distance: maps offered a logic, if there was one, for conducting the over six hundred sorties and operations over eight and a half thousand miles away. There is an eery analogy that we have the most complete and exact database for bombing raids of the American military in Vietnam, coordinates that were painstakingly compiled by Americans, so analogous to the geodata of thousands of drone strikes in Northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan, from 2004-2018, that the New American Foundation asserts the vast majority–over 80%–of those killed, were militants, though the Brookings Institution counters that drone strikes killed “10 or so civilians” for every militant who died,; Pakistan’s Interior Minister complained vigorously that a preponderance of the killed with civilians–especially in habitual follow-up strikes, targeting those responding to victims of the first hit, targeting of funeral processions, or mourners, or simply less surgical strikes. In an attempt to respond to these attacks from above, the Taliban’s weapon of choice was improvised explosive devices–literally, IEDs, placed on roads and activated by radio signal, mobile phones, or triggered by victims who step on them.

Paul Scruton, The Guardian

The warscape that developed 2004-9 of explosive shells, made often from diesel or fertilizer, along the major Afghan highway by the border with Pakistan where the Taliban was geographically contained–an increased density of which was tracked by Paul Scruton in the screen shot maps to the right of the map. The first attachment of a Hellfire missile to a drone followed the sighting of Osama bin Laden by one of the Predator Drone of the sort that flew across Afghanistan from September 7-25, 2000, in search of the terrorist who was wanted from 1998 suicide bombings in two U.S. embassies, his first strike at American territory; the unarmed CIA Predator was able to laster-illuminate and geolocate him so that it tracked him fro almost four and a half hours, but he could be hit by a Tomahawk missiles, but the time-lag for firing Tomahawk missiles failed to guarantee a similar sort of accuracy; as the new tool of the CIA and US Air Force were mounted with Hellfire missiles, they sighted and shot at Mullah Omar in 2001, but missed him, destroying only his car.

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2009, he tweaked George Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan by rehabilitating the “just war” theory, of medieval origin, formulated by Christian and protestant thinkers. Obama chose to rely on the accuracy and surgical nature of precision strikes as surgical means of not striking civilians, or focussing on enemy combatants, although the berth of such distinctions lay in the military or CIA: ifAfghanistan became the terrain for “the future of our military,” where Predators defined the mobile “edge” of warfare waged overhead and across borders. Targeted assassinations by CIA and USAF targeted the Waziristan region, mapping the region with pin-point in the notion of a “just-war” theory, rehabilitating an ancient doctrine of right conduct in war–“jus in bello” doctrine of Christian thinkers–by modern tools of geolocation, leading to the escalation of pin-point targeting by drone-fired missiles. In the face of global opposition to the use of missile enhanced drones as tools of targeting objectives in war in the mountainous areas of Pakistan province where the Taliban had fled by 2011,–

Escalating Drone Strikes Targeting Taliban in Remote Mountainous Region of Waziristan

–and, from 2012, the CIA went out of its way to try to design alternate missiles to “shred” vehicles and their inhabitants, but without blasts, to attempt to minimize “collateral damage” or killings.

Secret U.S. Missile Aims to Kill Only Terrorists, Not Nearby Civilians - WSJ
 Hellfire Modified to Limit Damage of Bystanders, Used from 2012

By the time the final American forces were set to ferry the final civilians from Kabul, however, the logic of drone strikes shifted to the home front of Kabul, set motion by the terrifying suicide bomber who struck Kabul’s airport, killing 143 Afghans and 13 American servicemen. In what was either the last gap or new frontier of geolocated killing, drones targeted Hellfire missiles in pinpoint strikes across Afghanistan, in “just” retribution of the fear of further K-ISIS suicide attacks on the ground during the last days of American presence in Afghan territory focussed on flights departing Kabul, revealing an ability of surveilling, targeting and striking far into the country as American forces departed the ground, as if to alert the Taliban of the continued proximity of CENTCOM bases in Qatar.

However celebratory the drone strike seemed, hellfire missled that killed Ahmadi suggested the haunting return of a lack of justice on August 29, as twenty pounds of explosive struck the car of the breadwinner of an extended Afghan family, with seven children who depended on his work. The children who had rushed out to greet him as he pulled his own white Toyota Corolla into the driveway of his personal home were not seen by the man who fired the drone missile, who felt secure no civilians were nearby. As we examined footage to detect the alleged secondary explosion, we found a weird echo of the airstrikes of an earlier war removed from our continent. While much comparison between the messy tactics and poor planning American withdrawals from Vietnam and Kabul spun, the incomplete coverage of the “collateral deaths” of civilians from the strike led to the military’s eventual backpedalling of its story of striking ISIS-K as an act of counterterrorism or “righteous strike.”

It was only due to careful investigation on the ground that the horrendous mistake was discovered. Reporters used footage from security cameras to follow the forty-one year old aid worker before he was driver targeted by the Hellfire missile suggested the poor intelligence which operators of “strike cel commander” who had been operating the drone in Kabul. Even as we await analysis of the decision-making mechanisms, we wonder a the high degree of certainty in public statements, even as questions circulated from the start of accurate video analysis of an after-blast confirming, as was claimed, that the Toyota Corolla was carrying a payload of ISIS-K bombs, and the lack of a mechanism of review before the drone strike. The accuracy of targeting the car was questioned by journalists as Spencer Ackerman all too familiar from the targeting of civilians that had escalated in previous years. Although announced as compensatory for the deadly suicide bombing outside Kabul’s airport, killing Afghans and thirteen U.S. military, as a second drone strike on ISIS-K leaders in Nangarhar Province of an “Islamic State planner” in retaliation for the deadly suicide bombing–and entranced the world with the surgical take-out of the very operatives who allegedly planned the airport attack that killed thirteen American service men and 146 Afghans, as they rode a three-wheeled truck near the Pakistani border from 7,350 miles away in the Nevada desert, injuring an associate but killing the two men immediately. There was a perfect symmetry in the image of men who were riding in a tuk-tuk being obliterated by a strike that left a crater four feet deep.

While removed in time, the bombing campaigns in Vietnam have left precise geodata for bombing raids so comprehensive to be able to map cumulative raids over time. The result privileges strikes over deaths, in the eerily lifeless and quite terrifying record of Bombing Target Maps,–charting sustained campaigns of bombing at a distance waged in maps. This blog considered human costs of aerial perspectives both as a result of the acceleration of bombing campaigns in World War II and how maps jusfitied and normalized the Atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. As the longest and least accomplished use of maps to sustained military engagement at a distance, is impossible not to consider the retrospective view it offers and reveals on the logic of the role of drones in Forever Wars. Systematic carpet bombing of Southeast Asia was pursued 1965-1973 as if by a logic of mapping, escalating by 1972 in a failing attempt to illustrate global dominance. The increased exactitude of the map becam a rationale for the power to wage war from afar, both to compensate for a lack of information on the ground, and to compensate for more irreducible problems of distance: mapping tools promised a logic of the ability to operate smoothly across frontiers. The unprecedented global coverage of GPS coordinates was administered and run by the United States for Vietnam through 1975, long after the war concluded. But the role of maps in waging war early emerged. If the United States in 1959 had blocked adoption of new standards of global projection, perhaps linking knowledge to power, the Army Service had recalculated surveys of Southeast Asia–Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam from the global projection that became a basis to collate new geodata–the Army relied on for staging helicopter raids in Vietnam, and, later, for long-range bombing campaigns.

Tet Offensive, 1968

Not that this was always smooth. Despite troubling distortions inherent in the UTM along South Vietnam’s north-south axis and border with Cambodia, coordinates provided a basis for conducting war at an unprecedented distance, even if they would necessitate revamped geodetic networks to minimize built-in distortions.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Aerial strikes offered a sense of security, notwithstanding, and aerial sorties that continued to exercise claims to global power even in an unfamiliar theater of combat, evident in the dark lines of ordnance dropped along fairly fixed flight paths on what were deemed strategic locations in North Vietnam, and dense napalm dropped in the Thura Thiên region, where the saturation with napalm provided a carpet bombing of unprecedented scale, with limited sense of the effects on the local ecosystems. The planes’ almost indiscriminate blanketing of the strategic Thừa Thiên province and mountainous border with Cambodia where Việt Cộng hid were blanketed with ordnance and herbicides including Agent Origin, creating a massive deforestation there and on the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

Serial Aerial Bombing by United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1975
Hatfield Consultants, Ltd; Ordinance Data Prepared by Federal Resources Corporation

Despite the bracketing of huge ethical questions and costs, the authority of maps assumed huge costs as they were were able to conceal huge liabilities, changing the nature of the battle line at which we were now, as a nation, waging war, and its ethical costs: for we were bombing locations, not people, and the people were faceless who the bombs were targeting, othered, and in the national imaginary all but erased. It would take a force of consciousness, indeed, to place them on the map–on the ground photography remained relatively rare. And it is the ability to erase people by dots that provided, this post argues, a similar logic for the expansion of drone raids and drone-delivered bombs.

As bombing raids hit the the Seventeenth Parallel, the war was fought on a map: as much as Võ Nguyên Giáp revealed his military tactical genius as military commander of the Việt Minh, who had developed with stunning success the principle of Sun Tzu in successfully applying minimum military force to maximum effect in deploying light infantry in the First Indochina War, and in engineering of the network of roads known as the Hồ Chí Minh Trail, whose targeting continued in the war, even as its north-south course were distorted in UTM projections. The uncertainty is almost registered by Americans turning for solace to sing Toby Hughes’s “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” a wartime blues to the tune of “Billy the Kid,” as a blues of airspace: “When you fly on the Trail through the dark and the haze/It’s a think you’ll remember the rest of your days./A nightmare of vertigo, mountain, and flak,/And the cold wind of Death breathing soft at your back“? “Uncle Sam needs your help again,” is the mock-resolute start of another of the many songs that tried to process distance and space during the war, “He’s got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Viet Nam,” as was no better evident than in targeting the elusive Hồ Chí Minh Trail.

File:Ho Chi Minh Trail network map.jpg
Hồ Chí Minh Trail Netork (1990)
Week of September 27 | Vietnam War Commemoration

Americans administrators plagued by lack of knowledge about Southeast Asia or South Vietnam’s leadership relied on maps crippled by distortions. If the blues developed on the plantation, the wartime blues was a lament popular with American pilots as a new folksong of a technological divide pilots sung for psychic stability seemed to balance the demands they shouldered and fears–“the trucks must be stopped, and it’s all up to you,/ So you fly here each night to this grim rendez-vous”–as each sortie tempted fates in contested military space above the Trail; they watched from above “trucks roll on through darkness not stopping to rest,” consigned to their fate nervously navigating airspace by charts, “our whole world confined to the light of the flare,/And you fight for your life just to stay in the air./For there’s many a man who there met his fate,/On the dark roads of Hell, where the grim reaper waits.”

Carpet bombing was hardly comfortable, but was filled with fear. And one is filled by an eery apprehension at the ease with which geolocated records of bomb strikes in North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia translate across time into a Google Maps platform, and the translation of the coordinates to a geospatial grid that we all have come to adopt to navigate space. UTM grid zones in Southeast Asia, as Bill Rankin noted, split in inconvenient ways in Southeast Asia, and although bombers were relying on them in raids that spanned over five years, As the provisional line of demarcation between North and South Vietnam, the so called “DMZ” of the Seventeenth Parallel Mendès France negotiated in 1954 was pounded twenty years later with all the firepower America could muster, trying to secure its border by a crazy huge show of power at a distance.

The result of these compound offensives was to riddle the countries with some 2.7 tonnes of explosives, as we were asked to keep our eyes on a static maps on television screens. This was described poetically as “carpet bombing” or continuous bombardment, first used only in 1944, in response to destructive V-1 and V-2 bombs, to mark a shift from the largely targeted bombing of industrial sites in the war. The sense of a lack of restraints or targets dramatically grew in the Vietnam War, as a no holds barred method, long before Ted Cruz vowed to recommit American to the carpet bombing of the Middle East to “utterly destroy ISIS,” asserting, as if in a perverse science experiment, that while he didn’t “know if sand can glow in the dark,” he would ensure American planes bomb ISIS positions until the sand glowed, in 2015,–intimating a carpet bombing of nuclear proportions. Donald Trump amped up Cruz on the campaign trail in Iowa, by promising not only to “bomb the shit out of ’em,” and “bomb the pipes, bomb the refineries, and blow up every single inch” of refineries to prepare for several months of rebuilding of pipelines by Exxon to “take the oil.” Since the debut of smart bombs in global video during the 1991 Gulf War, the sense of carpet bombing seems to have been consigned into the past, with the trust in the security of drone-fired bombs from 2003 promising to strike targets in a far more humanitarian way.

As the Vietnam War intensified, the long year of March 18, 1969-May 28, 1970 brought daily bombing of Cambodia, all but omitted from the entry of troops into Cambodia we watched on a static map on black and white televisions. Even as the escalation of disproportionate bombing campaigns that only ended on August 15, 1973 grew, they set a standard of sorts for the elegance of airborne strikes from afar.

Tet Offensive Bombing Campaign, 1968

Is it only a coincidence that after serving the nation as Special Assistant to the Undersecretary for Policy in George W. Bush’s Dept. of Defense that the right-wing columnist who has romanticized Gen. Custer devoted time to dispelling the “flawed Tet mythology still shaping perceptions of American military conflicts against unconventional enemies and haunting our troops,” completing This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive (2012), winning praise from Henry A. Kissinger, who agreed that “the self-perpetuating myth that the Tet Offensive ended in a defeat for America continues to do us harm,” while endorsing Jerome S. Robbins’ re-examination of the bombing offensive “through the lens of terrorism, war crimes, intelligence failures, troop surges, leadership breakdown, and media bias”–as if to champion the very losing strategy that informed bombing raids in Afghanistan.

2. The limits of local intelligence recalled the opaque maps before which an earlier Commandeer-in-Chief who, convinced of the logic of military strikes, attempted to project assurance at having directed American troops to enter Cambodia in April, 1970, as bombing grew. Just two years before the continued expenditure on aerial bombing campaign seven thousand miles away revealed a failure to reach military objectives announced a start of the decline of the American empire, the drone strike at the old colonial city of Kabul CentCom ordered revealed a continued commitment to the logic of military engagement by drone that animated the logic of war under an inauspicious promise to Maker America Great Again: the conducting of increased bombing strikes eight and a half thousand miles away would grow in intensity from 1970, but the argument Richard Nixon made was not apparent, as it rested on a geospatial map, but used the crude maps of boundaries of states few Americans were familiar–Laos, Cambodia; South Vietnam; North Vietnam–that hardly reflected why such intense bombing would be occurring around the seventeenth parallel, or mapped a clear vision of strategy.

American Troops Enter Cambodia, April 30, 1970

Even as we knew enough to be skeptical of his map of crude cut-outs, remembering Dresden Hiroshima, and My Lai aggression against civilians, but knowing we had heard stories from reporters on the ground about its intensity. And so we watched the maps of new offensives, distrusting escalated air bombing in times of war–if we knew not to trust them, we took to the streets in protests because we remembered, and because the official news maps of selective hits in one offensive was a partial story–and the danger of what was being targeted by a carpet of explosive bombs dropped.

B-52 Carpet Bombing of Vietnam

–hardly mapped the increased intensity of air strikes of carpet bombing, the new illustration of force that blanketed the nation with strikes to cover borders between north and south Vietnam and the coast, as Air Force data reveals, releasing over two and a half million tons of bombs on over 115,000 sites in Cambodia, from 1969-72, of which over 11,738 were indiscriminate–with the blatantly false assurance from the military commander in South Vietnam, who requested the sites be targeted in a neutral country, that Cambodians did not live in them, in the wave of secret bombings ordered in violation of international law, and quickly developed by Nixon’s National Security Advisor Kissinger–

The unprecedented concerted orchestration of carpet bombing campaigns by air sorties attempted to wipe out all VietCong bases in eastern Cambodia, vaunted precision in dropping 7.5 million tons of bombs across Laos, Vietnam , and Cambodia, between 1965-75, from Operation Rolling Thunder (1965-68) and Operation Steel Tiger (1965-68), to the extended campaigns in Laos of Operation Barrel Roll (1964-1973) to Cambodia, before Operation Menu (1969-70), blanketing the nation and creating untold civilian deaths and injury in a show of force.

The latter raids covering the country in toto, but to target Khmer Rouge ranged widely across borders of Cambodia and Laos, which was facing a communist insurgency in its borders, and the nation Vietnam had invaded became central to the Domino Theory that rationalized an expansion of boming across borders, before returning with intensity to the seventeenth parallel from 1971-2, trying to hit precise coordinates, and effectively carpeting the old DMZ with bombs. There was something weird, as from a nation of the crossers of borders, we flew bombs across borders, carpeting regions with devastation, from the shorelines of Southeast Asia, to the interior, to the shore again, this time with even greater intensity and around what was then Saigon.

The intensity of carpet bombing was astounding in Cambodia and Vietnam, literally coloring huge swaths of the country red, in these maps that use red dots for cumulative tallies of bombing strikes.

Taylor Owen, University of British Columbia’s Liu Institute for Global Issues
U.S. Secret Bombing of Cambodia | rabble.ca
Aerial Bombardment by US Air Force of Cambodia, 1965-1973

The danger of those bombing strikes on civilians were rarely described, or even comprehended, at a distance. But visualizing the faces of the civiliians whose towns and life were disrupted so violently became a basis for protesting the war–and a crystallizing factor in antiwar protests as the bombing campaigns grew–as the ends of carpet bombing as a targeting of civilians nonetheless grew all too painfully clear, as the very intensity of such carpet bombing created a new architecture of destruction in an already profoundly unethical war.

Anti-War Protest Button, 1972

3. Precision strikes seemed more humane than carpet bombs. But the precision bombs of the Forever Wars were, perhaps haunted by those images of civilians with targets on their crudely drawn heads, trying to advertise themselves less as a global over-reach of the targeting of precise strikes in another hemisphere, a campaign that in fact began, back in the response to the apparent hubris of 9/11, in the battery of B-52’s brought out from retirement, before the Defense Department hit on the new idea of acquiring drones and investing in drone technologies, a budget that has risen to above $7 billion by 2021, whose use is severely restricted in American airspace, but seems the perfect medium for fighting forever wars, on which the United States has come to rely since at least 2005. Fighting the Forever Wars and for counterterrorism programs, a new logic of military engagement, although the program that was first used in 2003 to strike targets developed in secrecy as a way of blurring the “sharp edge of battle,” described by British military historian John Keegan as incomplete or elided in most military histories. Now the “sharp edge” is both everywhere, blurred, and intentionally difficult to see.

The airspace for operating for the 11,000 drones or “Unmanned Aircraft Systems” in the United States that the U.S. Department of Defense currently owns and operates in American airspace are far from civilian centers in the United States–but the logic of pinpointing strikes 7,000 miles away provided a precision bombing that replaced or antiquated carpet bombing, billed in a new humanitarian guise.

Department of Defense Special Use Airspace, 2006

–but the rest of the world is, as the Kabul airstrike reveals, an open surgical target. And the increasingly intentionally reduced transparency of an increased national commitment to military drones in the Trump administration has created a new logic for the use of military force, via armed drones, and the unprecedented mobility of military theaters, under the cover of the advancement of either military or national security objectives. The bulk of the drone programs run by the CIA are shrouded in entire secrecy, although the commitment to reducing any sense of transparency and accountability–a main operating strategy or modus operandi of the recent Commander-in-Chief–has left a stamp on the U.S. Drone Program that will be difficult to erase, and a new sense of the secret maps by which war is waged.

As military operators of drones gained far greater air-strike-decision ability and independence, both in the military and the CIA’s separate drone strike operations, a new level of security was increasingly embedded in the logic of the map. There was, moreover, not even a requirement for registering enemy or civilian casualties, even if they might embrace deaths, since Trump issued Executive Order 13732, exempting both the US Army or for the CIA for any such responsibility for strikes outside combat zones; strike-enabled drones were granted greater operating grounds with less scrutiny or oversight. At the same time, oversight of sales of U.S. drones waned, and the Department of State gained the ability of direct commercial sales without oversight or special export conditions. Drones, in short, became the new currency of the war, and the means by which anything like a familiar battle line vanished. Removing strikes of pin-point precision from a system of military review so localized the “sharp of edge of battle” that it might migrate, given the ease of mapping, to a civilian garage.

Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 30, 2021. Marcus Yam / MCT

The drone strike seems emblematic not of a hasty withdrawal from Kabul, but of the confusion of military and civilian space in the war that readily relocated anywhere on the geospatial grid. In targeting the driver’s side of the white Toyota with incredible precision, we can see something of a history lesson in how mapping tools offer terrifyingly increased precision strikes. Although the Pentagon assured us that the existence of “significant secondary explosions” occurred, indicating a “significant explosive load” in the car with “minimum collateral damage,” and “reasonable certainty” of no nearby civilians, the lack of any grounds for certainty of explosives or an absence of civilians suggest not only the fallibility of human intelligence, but the Hellfire warhead that ruptured the tank while targeting the driver’s seat was a disproportionate show of force of awesome precision led its operators to trusted was trusted with “reasonable certainty” to pose “imminent threat.”

Drone strikes were not particularly effective against Taliban forces, and rarely contained them. But the act of power of pummeling Afghan locations that seemed worrisome with credible degrees of “reasonable certainty” was a release. It led to an escalation unprecedented in airstrikes against the nation as a show of power–until the end of DOD releasing of air strike data during negotiations with the Taliban; if airstrikes stopped, the shipment and stockading of increased armaments funneled to the Afghan army’s American-built bases in an attempt to overpower the nation that created its own dynamic of awesome war all but erasing the sharp edge of battle. The escalation of strikes as Trump assumed office had only recently grown to unprecedented heights.

More seriously, without any public release of the principles and procedures guiding the U.S. drone program, secrecy shrouds the legitimacy of the use of drones or the notion of the responsible use of drone strikes of increasingly powerful capacity, undermining the accountability of the military’s actions. It is perhaps ironic that this is being revealed on the eve of the departure from Afghanistan, and twentieth anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, which were such a shocking violation of territoriality: the expansion of no oversight on drone strikes risks undermining legitimate military goals, and even undermining national security interests, in finally attaining the capacity to act as a rogue state.

4. Although the possibility of retributive payments for these lives have not been publicly raised, although America has discussed “considering ex gratia or reparations,” the demands for some sort of compensation for those who were killed outright by what U.S. Cent Com admits as a “mistake.” If the walking back from early qualifications that rather than being a direct hit in retribution for the airport strike against U.S. military, the strike was “unlikely . . . those who died [jn the drone strike] were associated with ISIS-K,” or a “righteous strike” foiling a strike, the admission of guilt by the “strike cell commander” located in Kabul raises questions of the logic of military engagement in an era of drone war. The increased trust in the mapping systems–rather than on-the-ground intelligence or a need for confirmation–had brought the war on rural Afghanis to the nation’s capitol, leaving looming questions of why the country was not so concerned to use arms left by Americans to repel the Taliban, and how the logic of drone warfare expanded in the Forever Wars as a logic of surgical strikes that had boasted to not involve or affect civilian populations.

This time, the on the ground tracing of the Toyota Corolla’s movement in downtown Kabul led it to be targeted based on faulty information, and faulty flagging of suspicions in Ahmadi’s white Corolla, or the proximity with which it was parked or had stopped near an ISIS-K compound. The tracking of the car as it moved along city blocks and well-known streets led to the capture of surveillance footage of Ahamadi filling his car with water bottles, and dropping off coworkers, while he returned to his family, but it is unclear how a review of policies and procedures of targeting mechanisms will alter the logic of the drone strike as a surgical tool of war; just after the admission of mistakes in mapping and targeting of an Afghan civilian, CENTCOM followed up with announcement of the drone strike of a “senior al-Qaida leader” in Syria, in which “we struck the individual we were aiming for, and there are no indications of civilian casualties as a result of the strike,” as if to demonstrate how the smoothly the logic of drone strike technology could continue to work.

Yet, as journalists were increasingly present in Vietnam to film, witness and provide testimony of the devastation of bombing raids, with increased secrecy around drone strike programs, we have to wonder whether the mapping of civilian casualties will be something that would be in the government interests to continue, or if it is the case that the sharp edge of war has been definitively blurred. There was, by chance, due to the intense on the ground presence of journalists, an attempt to review the way that we set up what was almost a “home front” in Afghanistan; the victims of strikes were captured on closed circuit television, and could be tracked through the city of Kabul. Unlike for most drone strikes, we have faces, making it all the more possible to grieve their deaths and need to figure out how best to mourn their needless deaths, if not to take them as emblematic of the 71,000 civilian deaths from military campaign in Afghanistan we are told will come to an end. Though this time, we know their names–and can say them–the children of Mr. Ahmadi, Zamir, 20; Faisal, 16; Farzad (10); the children of his cousin Naser, Arwin, 7; Benyamin, 6; Hayat, 2, Malika, 2, and Somaya, 3, as well as a former Afghan officer who worked with the US military, Ahmad Naser–and we know how to say their names, that basic, elemental form of mourning that we never had access to in the past–let alone the series of smiling head shots.

More to the point, our actions are effectively setting international standards for drone strike accountability and for the limits of drone use, running counter to global security, and how drone strikes in the future wars that may be, eventually, used against us, as well.

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Filed under Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, bombing raids, military maps, military weapons

The Undue Burdens of Heartbeats on Health Care

We are rightly alarmed. Indeed, red seems the only color to use to map the shrinking territory where women who are pregnant have an option of access to abortion. As abortion has been demonized as if it, too, were poised to join mass-culture society, and Supreme Court justices resurrect the specter of a society collectively endorsing “abortion on demand” as an apocalypse more apocalyptic than climate change or environmental degradation, the fate of life seems to have been projected to the unborn, even as maternal mortality rates remain staggeringly high across the nation–and seem especially high in those places where the strongest opposition to abortion seems to have arisen on a local level, as a new rebellion in which a substantial, and unable to be ignored, part of America is persistently dedicated to worrying about the fate of the unborn, aggrieved this demographic had been failed to be considered in earlier judicial reasoning about abortion rights.

We have, at the same time, changed how we map access to abortion, now part of our civil society, and also a part that would be wrenching to have invalidated as a individual right. Or is abortion poised to become a civil rights issue, more than a medical one, as it is understood through what this post understands is, rather terrifyingly, a theological context, as it is uprooted and removed from a scientific or medical one?

The color spectrum of these charts flip, but the human impact of how we remap abortion access–or have come to remap it in the United States–indeed seems to bears attention, as it can help us map the situation on the ground. If the header to this post suggests the radical contraction of abortion access in the manner of a geographic warper, similar to the distorted global maps of the prolifically virtuosic Ben Hennig, whose Views of the World are worth perusing to orient oneself to a changing world–but far more dramatically shifting the landscape of access to abortion, in ways that would make maps as important for finding legal access to abortion–suddenly made as complicated a question as migrant routes for asylum.

Indeed, even as the landscape of access to abortion had been creepily and rather creepingly changing by 2014, as a spate of local Targeted Restrictions on Abortion Providers–TRAP Laws–were enacted across much of what came to be called the “heartland” of the nation, the sense of “abortion havens” was mapped already by Business Insider, reflecting how imposition of commercial restrictions on abortion providers had forced many to close–as the introduction on a county and state level of specifics from the width of their corridors, the size and equipment of procedure rooms, and admission privileges at local hospitals, if rarely necessary, imposed costs that compelled many clinics to silently close, even as the “rights” to abortion access were nominally intact–and as no clear “burden” was detected in the partisan decisions and policy moves of state legislatures. The divide between “red” and “blue” states is rarely reduced to abortion, but the notions of family planning, women’s control over their bodies, and the privacy of a woman’s relation to her doctor–if all cast in terms of “cultural” differences among regions of this great nation–are now turned to be resolved, the deck having been fully stacked, to the august institution of the U.S. Supreme Court, having been entrusted with multiple landmark cases in the past to move us to a more perfect union.

Yet it doesn’t seem as if that union’s perfection is on the horizon. The rifts portrayed by Business Insider India in terms of havens in the midst of the hopes to expand health care grew in the United States, but debates about that expansion raged on right-wing television, and among evangelists, was shifting toward the terrifying tones of alarming reds in which we seem compelled to map abortion access as a good that is not only scarce but shrinking at an amazingly unfamiliar and unforseeable rate, as our oceans warm, and fill with more bacteria, and rise, as the polar ice caps melt. It is alarming, because the courts do not seem able to resolve this issue, as the opinions issued on a local level seem incapable of being resolved–and belong do differently framed logics and differently dated discursive fields. One cannot have a rupture, perhaps, but there seem parallel realities that the country is yet again either in danger of entering or existing, which any federal legal resolution by Supreme Court justices seems improbable to provide.

In recent years, judicial opinions have gained a unique status in the headlines of national news. As the courts have gained new status as a battleground where judicial positions rehearse divides in our body politic, the new status of abortion rights as a strategically posed issue has distanced debate from public health–or access to better health care–but a return to “first precepts,” to guiding freedoms, to understand the role of the court on maternal health care practices relate to abortion. Mapping the rapidly shifting nature of this medical landscape as a concerted partisan strategy is only part of the point. For the redefinition of maternal health is nothing less than a deep effort of misinformation, recasting the termination of pregnancy as early as six weeks as a criminal act in the community’s–and state’s–interest to protect, even if the actual “topography” of where abortions occurs has become increasingly uneven.

The prospect of the outright banning of abortion in twenty-six states in the nation demands you to read the current statistics of aborted pregnancies not only as a new “culture” of abortion in the northeast, California, and Florida, but a register of the need that these states meet and provide: if there are “sharp edges” to where abortion is accessed, they reflect population density, poverty, and increased stresses on family planing and growth.

For that map, a poor proxy that shows the steep divides across the nation, many sharply drawn in states–perhaps most unevenly in Texas, with its complex palette of light greens, dark green, and pockets of red giving it a sense hardly of a backwater, but state where, even more than North Carolina, Mississippi, and Georgia, sharp dissonances in the availability of medical care for maternity give it a complexion that seems almost as divided as the nation, and unlike the several states–Alaska and Louisiana among them, but also Colorado and the Dakotas, as well as Florida, New York, and California, of far, far greater homogeneity. Compare this county-by-county map to the prospect of “trigger laws” banning abortion in twenty-six states of the nation, local legislatures have staged a bit of a trap for the vast majority of women nationwide, whose legal access to abortion should the constitutional protections of a right for women to access abortion facilities in their pregnancy fail to sustain a local challenge.

The result is nothing less than a crisis in national health care policies, marking red those states either certain or likely to ban abortion, and those likely–Florida, Indiana, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming–arrayed in an unmistakable echo of the familiar breakdown of our electoral maps, reminding us of the partisan origins of such a challenge–a challenge that has been reframed not in terms of the rights of women, but the rights of the unborn, as if this new demographic and constituency had been discovered by legal sleuths in recent years.

 States Certain or Likely to Ban Abortion Should Supreme Court Weaken or Overturn Roe v. Wade
Guttmacher Institute

Unlike the county-level map of aborted pregnancies, this future map is a prognostication. It dramatically and monitory but maps a landscape of sharp and stark divides, suggesting the remove of women across a sea of continuous states who stand to be placed at a geographic removed from abortion providers without moving themselves. The legislative strategy of rolling back rights that have been presumed for two generations is akin to storming the U.S. Capitol, but reflects a long lain groundwork to secure the state’s compelling interest in protecting the lives of the unborn.

An even starker version of the map by the Guttmacher Institute of amplified monitory value is an image of a brave, new world, with far greater respect for such creatures in it unborn. This landscape, enforced by local legal challenges more arcane assert a compelling interst that the state has in protecting of the unborn, is far more prescriptive than any seen in the twentieth century. It is something of the ground-plan of a strategy that seeks to nail the nation, and its body of laws, to a cross: the red expanse is a sagging net for maternal health care , tracing an opening salvo in a battleground for states’ rights or, more accurately, for the conscription of the unborn fetus in what is cast as a heightened “culture” wars about health care–

–in which the mute protagonist of the unborn fetus is persuasively made a compelling interest of the state. to use its laws to protect, the health or well-being of mothers put aside from any compelling interest that the state might be able to entertain. Unlike the county-level map of clinical practice, which shows variations, the impositions of cookie-cutter prescriptive laws is an intentional an alteration of the terrain, lacking justification or reasoning behind a shift so dramatic, or sense of its implications on the ground in peoples’ lives, out of a deep belief that the previous decision is a pestilence across the land that needs to be contained. But it is also a strategy of promoting the lives of unborn, or of using that line to foster deep social divides.

The seemingly scientific justification of reducing the threshold to permit abortion not only removes the practice from the context of maternal health, but suggests “rights” of the unborn that are removed from the subjectivity of the mother, as soon as they are seen–and “mapped”– within the womb. By overturning the notion that the state had a compelling interest in reproductive health, constitutional liberties, or bodily health, attempts to preserve fetal personhood that lacks medical logic has been increasingly dressed in pseudo-scientific garb, by exporting the visual logic of ultrasound to grow a shifting “legal” landscape entertains the rights of the unborn–rather than the burden on women, the health care system, or the law. And if pregnant women were once forced, in the past landscape of the pre-Roe world, to travel outside the nation for abortions–heading to Mexico or Sweden from the east coast and to Japan or Mexico from the west, many states are bracing for an efflux or overflow of women seeking abortion arriving from Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi–including Florida, already emerging as the go-to sanctuary for female reproductive care, given difficulties of border-crossing, with California, Illinois and to some extent New Mexico more costly alternatives.

The current attempts of states to devise local workarounds that evade the constitutional right of access to abortion–and guarantee of access as a binding precedent of the court–has come up against loggerheads with the concept of the freedom of “unborn children” posing pressing questions of what is a “compelling interest” of the state in a fetus before life can be sustained outside of the womb. The recent focus of on the heartbeat, or rather the appearance or perception of the heartbeat, as an index or sign of value–if without basis in medical science–has become a new basis to increase the burdens on women in most states to access maternal health. For the designation of cardiac contractions as evidence of a “person” or a soul that in the interest to the state to protected is, in fact, a terrifying smokescreen for the radical contraction of a pregnant women’s rights.

Cardiac Activity in a Fetus of Eight Weeks

In ways that have framed the question of access to abortion in the nation in terms of how they are addressed in the U.S. Constitution–reticent or silent of any issue of women’s health–the question of what the role of courts is in preserving states’ rights to restrict access to abortion and health care, or to defend the access of women to be able to terminate a pregnancy, has placed undue stress on the place of legal reasoning in determining access to maternal health care. The current drive to regulate abortion, itself a pronounced response to the expansion of the health care markets from 2008, have become a national divide of striking proportions, so much that they are cast–wrongly, for this blogger–as a cultural divide.

But the storied cultural divide of abortion is a deeply geographic one, as we have long been habituated to preserve access to abortion since reproductive rights first came under attack before Casey, in the 1990s, as preserved by cities as the National Institute for Reproductive Health shifted their ground game to ensuring that cities–not necessarily where abortions were most in demand, but where voters and elected officials were far more sympathetic–lived. As if the riots of January 6, 2021 attempting to stop the end of Trump’s Presidency by a show of force in Washington DC, the latte-drinking liberal city-dwellers before their laptops–a tired political cliché we all love–is also apt. For it is among urban audiences of a certain age that a political precipice seems to have suddenly reached, as constitutional grounds for health care shifted beneath their feet.

John Cole/Scranton Times Tribune, PA

The protection of “abortion rights” by local safeguards in cities emerged in dialogue with, to be sure, the expansion of local restrictions on access to abortion from 2010-2016, and the cumulative weight of three hundred and thirty measures to restrict abortion, and a logic of shoring up rights in a deeply divided polity where rights of migrants, unhoused, and poor were feared to be evanescent or at risk, and the law no longer a stable fabric. Urban preserves where women’s rights to access maternal health care were predominantly coastal, and often, far removed oases from the sites lacking sanctuaries of legal protection, revealing the shifting palette of access to “freedoms” protected in the constitution by standing legal opinion. From 2016, at the end of the Obama era, as battle-lines over Obamacare concealed fights about abortion, reproductive freedom was a mixed bag across the country, reflecting in terrifying ways the 2016 electoral map of a broad continuity of red states as a mythical “heartland.”

The new ground-game of shifting the threshold of permitting abortion–imagined as enacted by local legislatures–suggests an endgame of a territorial fragmentation of once-universal rights to access abortion would shift the clock back five decades overnight. The ground-game is swift, and demands to be drilled into, both in Texas, and in other states, as it may well be poised to be recognized as law of the land, setting off tremors of health care and desperate searches for access to clinics–or potentially unsafe, if used as a last resort, abortion pills designed to simulate miscarriages–across the land, placing pregnant women at only greater risk.

The swift pace of shuttering abortion clinics in Texas by local legislation–magenta dots marking the actual closures of clinics offering abortion in Texas due to local laws, chipping away at or decreasing the actual liberty of access that is ostensibly the law of the land some years ago.

Abortion Clinics Forced to Close by Local Legislation in Texas, 2012-15/ Bloomberg Business Week

The map can be drilled down into far more deeply to describe the distance at which local laws have “placed” women of child-bearing age from clinics–creating a skewed topography in which, by 2014 data, women were compelled to travel nearly two hundred miles, at their own expense, to obtain abortion services, curtailing health services that were available to women and the abortion “deserts” that were quickly–and intentionally–created across the state.

Distances Women Forced to Travel for Abortion, 2014/The Lancet Public Health

The burden of such restricted access to clinics that can offer abortion in a substantial area of the state where women would be demanded to travel upward of 100 miles to a clinic has created exactly such a burden, but has emerged as a state’s right, by expanding the “compelling interest” of state counties to ban abortion not by the yardstick of the trimester of pregnancy–a standard in Roe v. Wade or fetal viability, measured by twenty-three to twenty-four weeks after conception, permitting the procedure up to that non-arbitrary date. Yet the unequal remove of women from abortion providers seems a burden as undue as an other, especially on women without the economic option for extensive travel to locate a provider within the state’s bounds–or, as seems poised to become the need, outside of them.

Should Roe v. Wade fall, and the constitutional right of women enjoy to access abortion as a form of maternal health care vanish overnight, “tigger laws’ already on the books would prompt an immediate jump of average distances of women to abortion clinics from 36 to 280 miles, as 41% of women in the United States would find the nearest abortion clinic closing overnight, no preparatory window or period of adjustment–or alternative–in place. The ground-game, rooted in the election of local Republican officials of a pro-life strip on city councils and state legislative chambers, is an open attempt to erode the affirmation of rights that cut against the , creating something akin to “cities of God” that follow outdated norms of the protection of unborn lives by using the odd index of the sonograph as a proxy for what medieval theologians called “ensoulment,” adopting Aristotelian science to gloss scriptures, in a proscriptive model that has little relation to medical science or health care, or the freedoms to privacy and self-determination that were once protected by the Constitution.

It was another helpful service to American webizens, the Decolonial Atlas, your place to go for go to remedies on the web, posted a travel map of routes to abortion providers in southern states, collating affordable transit routes to clinics that would provide abortion services–services that were still technically “legal” but out of the range of many, and prohibitively expensive for most in need of them. The bus routes women might take to reproductive health service centers in many states–Illinois; Missouri; North Carolina; West Virginia; Tennessee; Florida; South Carolina–would be open, but prompted questions of economics and opportunity. The further question of the fear of undocumented being stopped by a zealous Border Patrol, should they move across and be stopped at checkpoints en route, would be wary to avoid. The feature lending prominence to the “border zone”–an inheritance of the over-policed border of the Trump Presidency–was kept from an earlier map that had gone live September 4, 2021, setting a six-week window for abortions as state law overnight, panicking women across the state who had suddenly lost access to a crucial piece of their health care.

Already, the mobility of women seeking abortion had seemed a steep threat to many in Texas, where an undocumented woman seeking an abortion might risk deportation for traveling from Laredo or Corpus Christi to Health Care Centers in New Orleans or Jackson, or even on her return from Austin.

nTo be sure, the heightened mobility of women seeking abortion is a new iteration of the regular plans that, before Roe, the Society for Humane Abortion offered those with sufficient means to travel to doctors outside of the United States’ borders–from the west coast, Japan was a destination of choice from the late 1940s, if not Mexico, helping some 12,000 with their passage to clinics outside American territoriality. These burdens of travel, indeed, were no small part of the logic for revisiting the placement of “substantial obstacle[s] in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus,” a tricky problem that seemed a necessary point of consensus in the modern world of birth defects, often due to other medications. Yet the image of increased out-of-state travel and the burden that this would place in the paths of women was not clearly addressed by the Court, nor does it seem to have since. The rather terrifying image of freedom to access abortion being curtailed or removed due to the orthodoxy of a majority of justices recalls the pamphlet of the same organization protesting the right to “breath unpregnant,” wom the Society for Humane Abortion would happily send forth to another shore, her rights and liberties curtailed in the United States.

Society for Humane Abortion, September 1968

While Roe resulted in the reasoning that voided “the purpose or effect of creating a substantial obstacle in the path of a woman seeking an abortion of a non-viable fetus” as placing “undue burden” reflected a standard that a burdensome restriction of constitutional rights could not be imposed by states, a finding of the late nineteenth century. The unconstitutionality of imposing an burden by any state in the union from the late nineteenth century: the standard applied in 1992 preserved women’s right to terminate pregnancy before viability does not relate to counties, only recognizing rights to ban abortion after the “viability” of a fetus outside the womb, save when the pregnancy endangered the mother’s health, and not using the rhetoric of personhood to describe the unborn. Definition of a burden as “undue” “either because [it] is too severe or because it lacks a legitimate, rational justification,” posits protection of rights of mothers, but are argued to deny the rights of “unborn.” But the shifting global limits on abortion are practically unique in multiple standards that are on the books in the United States, with some states holding no gestational limits, and some shifting them to a window as small as a month and a half, producing a forced mobility for obtaining abortions in the horizon. Perhaps this is all to familiar in a nation that experiences multiple realities and opportunities–and now liberties– for different levels of wealth.

Spectrum of Different Global Policies of Legality of Abortion, 2021/Wikimedia

Put another way, equal access to abortion is no longer the law of the land. And the drilling into the data of the multiple laws that have been locally proposed in states reveals not only a partisan strategy, but a deeply unworkable system of different tiers of maternal care. Since 2011, these rights have been attempted to be defined nowhere more prohibitively than in Texas. In the nation, over half of the closure of clinics that offer abortion services to women have closed by local legislation, in a concerted partisan push unfairly argued to reflect “local cultures.” The partisan nature of closures has been a template for “red state” policies from Iowa to Ohio to Louisiana, changing the on-the-ground landscape of access to abortion by forcing many closures due to safety violations, difficult work environments, and business decisions,–already a bleak landscape for maternity care for over the past decade, in eery contemporaneity to a public health option that would provide more maternal health options.

The opposition to abortion that focuses on the “unborn”–and the humanization of the heartbeat of the unborn, rather than the fetus–has become one of the more striking defenses of pseudo-freedoms. These are freedoms not ever articulated in Enlightenment thought, and foreign to it, from freedoms of belief, to freedoms of owning automatic rifles and military-style arms in one’s home, that extend to the protection of freedoms of the unborn. Such freedoms are resonant with full-throated opposition to mandates for mask-wearing, hand-washing, social distancing, or vaccines. The spread of challenges to the access to abortion and abortion pills across the nation deny the life-changing role of pregnancy on all women, and the greater dangers that childbirth–hardly a risk-free event!–imposes on women, let alone the dark topography of sharply disproportionate and increasing rates of maternal mortality in many of the states that have restricted access to abortion.

Maternal Mortality Rates per 100,000 births (2015)
Changes in Maternal Mortality in United States of America 1997-2012/BMC Health

The freedom to restrict abortion is similarly anti-scientific, and theocratic, strategically removed from the undue onus that state laws against abortion would have on women–especially if a good share of the clinics providing abortion to clients–sites marked below in orange and black–cease providing clinical care to women. Although it is argued that this will shift demand to mail-order abortifacients, safely used only in the first ten weeks of a woman’s pregnancy but providing subject to local and state provider restrictions, 99.6% successful if used at nine weeks from conception or less, and require in-person–consultation with a physician to be prescribed in fourteen states that have enacted restrictive abortion laws–including Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina–of thirty-three states permitting only physicians to provide mifepristone, creating divides to access “self-managed” that are poised to sharply grow along clear fault-lines, and perhaps creating a undue underground economy for abortifacients of unseen proportion; states limit abortion pills to being dispensed by physicians, despite that they are as effectively dispensed by nurse practitioners or midwives, create compromised access to health care in thirty-three states.

–and five states that have ban telemedicine for medication abortions, including Louisiana and Arkansas.

The result is a terrifyingly unequal deep, dark landscape distant from abortion facilities, whose loss is indicated by dense orange colored dots, suggests the severe restriction of health options for pregnant women that would result from overturning Roe v. Wade. Twenty-two states have adopted laws that the overturning would ban abortion within their borders.

Distances to Clinics ShouldTrigger Bans on Abortion Go into Effect /Axios

The undue burden on women who unable to provide the option to terminate their pregnancy before viability would grow in such ‘abortion deserts’ and impose a significant burden on states that affirm abortion on their edges, whose surviving centers would face ethical problems of facing a greater demand–if women travel to them, the states are potentially now exposed to the legal suits for violating laws restricting women’s access to terminate a pregnancy they do not want. Concerns that overturning Roe would increase travel to California to seek an abortion by almost 3000% is born out by the map below–restrictive laws in other state long increased out-of-state clients in California; increased demand for access to abortion from women residing in state laws restricting access to abortion would expose California to legal action for violating their laws.

The urgency to address the demographic of the “unborn” recuperates a category from the thirteenth century that enjoying a recent resurgence with the legal parsing of personhood. But while one spoke of the “fetus” in the 1970s, when Roe v. Wade was decided by the Supreme Court, the shift to “fetal personhood” expressed by 2018 in Iowa, then the state with the most restrictive abortion laws yet, which made abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected, skipped over the question of a woman’s right to abortion, but expanded the ability of states to “regulate access to abortion” to the extreme, by permitting a ban on abortion earlier than most women would be likely to know they are pregnant, putting Iowa in the range of states with court-imposed restriction to abortion, contraception and reproductive services. While not framed as about sexual freedom, anxiety about women’s sexual freedom in 2017 and moral arguments led many central, southern, and midwestern states to adopt court-ordered restrictions parallel to the expansion of health care that included access to abortion–

-and must be seen as a resistance to it that set the basis for the “red states” which emerged as a united front in 2016 and the pro-life candidacy of Donald Trump.

The majority of states in the union adopted restrictions without any basis in scientific evidence at all, or clear roots in jurisprudence. The restrictive laws that were predominantly of proscriptive cast, betraying a terrifyingly theocratic origin in identifying the origins of “life” as a focus of judicial inquiry in a neo-medieval cast. Is establishment of any “heartbeat” law not in itself an undue burden on women, inviting the undue burden of placing a ban on abortion before fetal viability, that would demand to be struck down as such? While placing burdens on women throughout a large number of states, the local laws create new concepts of strict scrutiny around heartbeats, arbitrary weeks since conception, or the detection of reflexive movements in ultrasounds, all of which are coercive controls that serve to undo the undue burden concept.

1. Abortion was historically challenged by the medical profession as a way to restrict the role of women healers–and female agency–in the nineteenth century. But the search for legal obstacles to abortion is wrongly treated as a return to first principles but a shift in freedoms of access to health care. But the question of fetal “personhood”–or indeed of personhood of the unborn–dispensed with the very logic of potentiality that Roe left in the law by reserving for the state an “important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life from the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy,” dissolving that interest in favor of shifting the question from “potentiality” or a “Golden Rule” that grew out of attention on the fetus as a focus of protection; the expansion, due to stem cells, in vitro fertilization, and fetal tissue transplants on the moral status of the embryo as a subject in place of the woman’s right to access abortion or abortion providers.

While Aristotle was primarily concerned with the emergence of a rational soul, a concern that was adopted by twelfth century theologians who embraced his notion of the formation of the soul in the developing human embryo—the vegetal soul, the animal soul the intellective or human soul–the notion of personhood dispensed with the epigenetic stages of ensoulment, but focussed on vital signs located in the heart as a sign of life, independent from science, but reflecting the technologization of birth. The adoption of policies hostile to abortion rights in 6 states and of laws extremely hostile to abortion rights in 23 states) to abortion rights, and the hostility expanding to Iowa and West Virginia for the first time, created not only a new map of abortion rights, but mapped the origins of personhood in the womb. The result, according to the Guttmacher institute, placed the majority of American women able to bear children in states hostile or extremely hostile to abortion–without rooting their arguments in science.

Policy Trends in the States, 2017 | Guttmacher Institute

The defense of the “unborn person” flew in the face of science, beyond questions of cultural difference, from “mandated ultrasounds” to regulations on abortion clinics, including removing clinics from Medicaid, to, in Alabama, a state-wide ballot initiative to agree that personhood began at conception, the Human Life Protection Act, signed into state law in 2019, that “defines all unborn children as humans”–and allowing no exceptions for rape or incest. The bill was adopted only to encourage the Supreme Court to revisit Roe v. Wade around the question, in the word’s of its sponsor of whether “the baby in the womb is a person.”

For by redefining the fetus as a “life,” with freedoms and liberties attached and pursuant, Iowa’s legislature abandoned the standard of viability outside of the womb, asserting that the unborn is a person, and abortion tantamount to killing a life, as if “the burdens of carrying a child to term [could] justify the killing of a child,” per the lawyer representing the state of Iowa in 2018. It takes arguments of the potentiality of the unborn to the extreme, not discussing the Thomistic idea of potentiality of human life recently promoted by Catholic theologians as a middle ground, but mapping the heart of the matter–the heartbeat–the visual evidence of personhood. Fueled by the affective relations of ultrasounds that offer the “science” that seems to sever the personhood of the “unborn child” from the standard of viability that had set the threshold for up to what point the protection of a woman’s access to abortion was permitted by constitutional law. The rise of proscribed ultrasounds across multiple states reflect the new focus on personhood and heartbeats, whose mandated display and discussion provided a preventive basis for persuading those seeking abortion to forego the procedure.

Prespcriptive Ultrasounds as a Form of Clinical Counseling about Abortion
States Mandating Women View Ultrasounds if Taken or Ultrasounds Mandated by Law (2015)

Cast as a “Right to Know” legislation that was introduced in Pennsylvania in 2012 mandating all women who are seeking abortions to view the ultrasound designed to determine the gestational age of the unborn fetus–a means of placing the abortion in a window of viability–offered all women seeking an abortion the “right” see the image, and to hear the heartbeat, offering a new way to map life and epigenetic questions of ensoulment around the “beating” of the heart, although no ultrasound was mandated in states protecting abortion rights.

0206righttoknow

The states that have pushed back on this definition for one more consensus hardly appears scientific, gives a scholastic sense of ensoulment first articulated in the thirteenth century contemporary relevance, mapping the unborn on an ontogenic continuity of personhood that reduced the concept of viability that the court once embraced to a relic as quaintly outdated as Plessy v. Ferguson’s ruling that segregation did not violate the fourteenth amendment. The insistence of a Justice on the highest national court that the compelling interests of the “unborn” has become grounds to review the liberty of women to access abortion prior to the line of fetal viability outside the womb. Defining personhood from conception has pushed back these freedoms to the unborn in ways without legal precedent or, championing the court’s role to represent the interest of the unborn, preventing violence against those being carried to term, handing down a sentence against all women asked to carry a child to term.

The imaging tools of the ultrasound after all transformed the fetus to a “baby’s head” and “baby’s heart” able to be recognized on the screen, and indeed labeled for identification, in ways that seemed to deliver a deeper truth, in an age when we have difficulty distinguishing representation and reality, expanding the case in the courtrooms that the presence of a fetal heartbeat offered incontrovertible evidence in a court of law that a “a human child with a heartbeat is a living child,” even if few judges in Iowa were ready to hear the argument, if the state’s lawyer refused to accept that the fetus with a heartbeat was a “potential life”

An ultrasound is performed at Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines.

Although Roe v. Wade has been discussed as precedent for decades, occasioning only recently clear skepticism about reducing women’s right to abortion by restricting the window of “viability” of the unborn to twenty weeks, in North Carolina, one to two months less than the usual 24-28 weeks, but currently nineteen states take the date as the cut-off for access to abortion, in ways that have made the former standard of viability to seem virtually arbitrary, rather than grounded in embryology. The emptying of any embryological standard–or indeed medical expertise–has come to be cast as a “cultural divide,” out of the court’s sphere of decision making or competence, with seven states on board to limit abortion to the greatest extent possible to twenty weeks: Kansas; Kentucky; Arkansas; Louisiana; Missouri; North Dakota; and Ohio. The critical curtailing of this access in Iowa, the site of the first primary to select the United States President, suggests an undue prominence of an ambivalence to abortion in our national politics.

the latest you can get an abortion in every state map

The effective reframing of rights to access abortion as a question of “states rights,” rather than public health, and of local “liberties,” makes Texas the perfect site at which a national debate about abortion access can be balanced, however, as the current debates on similar local laws in Mississippi–reducing the window to fifteen weeks–it almost even left Chief Justice Roberts flummoxed to ask if the window would always be effectively arbitrary, as if the number of weeks were divorced from a woman’s body or a woman’s womb. The voiding of any constitutional right to abortion in four states of the deep south–Alabama; Louisiana; Tennessee; West Virginia–already pushed the debate away from constitutional rights. Yet the result of shifting the “burden” pregnancy places on women from the nation’s courts suggests a seeming time warp for much of the country, maybe not to the the 1200s, but at least to the years before 1972 at the stroke of a pen–or a verdict of 5-4.

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