The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Southern Secession across the United States (Part I)

2.  Only by reading beneath its surface, and uncovering the transmission of those divides, can they be both excavated and unpacked.  By providing an intensive reading of a map that begs for a surface reading–and that presents itself as a transparent sign of divides within the country that seem disenfranchising, to say the least, or unjust, this post seeks to take the “divide” of tax levels as something of a commentary on the deep divides that have haunted the nation, and that continue to preoccupy those who, like the Supervisor of the US Census Henry Gannett, who famously mapped the divisions of the electorate in the post-Civil War election of 1876, when Southerners joined in a Democratic block, search for a convincing embodiment of national unity.  L.P. Hartley rightly warned the “past is a foreign country:  they do things differently there.”  But the after-images of secession replayed a deeply set collective memory, even as maps sought to contain the different ideas about the nation–and national governance.

Latitude in Gannet's Map

Library of Congress

At the time of the 1880 election, continued presence of the federal government in ensuring universal voting rights in Southern states, whose advocacy by the Republican made the election a sort of referendum which most all the Southern states would reject.  If the map embodies an image of the nation, the sharp split in the early statistical map that Gannett elegantly designed after the presidential election reveal a divide that eerily mirrors what seems a possible broad rejection of the Democratic party, which fell so sharply and strikingly along the historical break of political consensus along the dividing parallel 36°30’N strikingly recurs in mapping lower gasoline taxes across the United States.

One might do well to read the gas-tax division less as a self-contained statement, than yet another layer of lamination that is placed above the deep discrepancies in economic mobility that are evident across the country, in a recent 2010 census, and then go deeper to excavate the historical significance of that divide, in another deep divide striking as a stark reminder of the coexistence of multiple national economies.


New York Times

While the demographic category has ben not mentioned so far, a prominent element to this picture of national division is race, and the undeniable echo–far more difficult to trace or visualize–of what race continues to signify in different populations that inhabit areas of the land:

Black non-Hispanic 2010 census

3.  The convenient conceit of the national map is to mask faults in the coherence of a sovereign territory.  But the ethics of infographics that are designed to expose fault-lines have not been conceived, and nor have what these infographics encourage us to notice and to ignore.  The spread of our current electoral maps, or their GIS variant geographic distribution of voting habits, reveal surprisingly stark divides that undermine or challenge the nation’s unity and how the technology of mapping suggest a different manner for imagining national unity and noticing national divides.  The habituation to dividing the nation into distinct blocks of a data-driven landscape oddly omits deeper understandings of the regions, even if they are organized around somewhat selective samplings of information, even as they erase the historical context or situations that motivated these divides.

If these are artifacts of the infographics that flood the airwaves and even more the internet, such on-demand maps provide readily orchestrated images that all too often prey on our sense of a historical divide, for all their almost intolerable historical thin-ness.  The GIS-derived maps work by defining imagined boundary lines through preferences that embody new regions of coherence, creating coherent of blocks of voters and regions that seem definitively removed from one another, and almost removed from time, focussing on the present and short-term decisions about politics of apparently diminished historical perspective.  Infographics such as that depicted in the header unwittingly challenge the notion that the state can still perform a symbolization of the nation–or will ever be able to do so effectively–by challenging their readers’ relations to the symbolization of space.

The United States seems to fracture once again on parallel 36°30′, slightly below the line of Vitamin D insufficiency.  The latitudinal line is less rooted in reaction to a historical moment like the 1861 secession, however–the event which began the US Civil War–but to the region’s numinous mythistory.  The mythos of image of regional independence, if stripped of a clear political ideology, is recast as a symbolic frontier of lower gasoline taxes.  But the line gains its symbolic purchase in no small part for its historical resonance of an actual past historical divide–even if it makes no reference or gesture to note it.  The line mirrors not only those states once-seceding from the union, but a map of where the institution of slavery was most prevalent in 1860.  This is the same map, in other words, where the sociologists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen posited a longstanding divide shaped in no small part by the existence of incentives for reinforcing racist institutions even after slavery was nominally abolished; the map oddly recalls, in a tacit sense, albeit one submerged in our cultural memory, the distinct institutions and political attitudes legitimized institutional discrimination as strategic means of containing or resisting Reconstruction, which today inform, they argued, opposition to affirmative action.  It is striking that the division of the nation into two halves was encoded in graphic form when the Superintendant of the US Census, Mr. Henry Gannett, used electoral statistical to distribute the popular in the Presidential election of 1880, for the Scribners’ Historical Atlas of 1883, to explain how the nation, in the face of deep Southern resistance, elected the Republican James Garfield to the White House.

In Gannet’s map, one encounters an afterimage of the Civil War and moment of secession in the continued coherence of anti-Republicanism that seems embodied by the South.  If Acharya and colleagues suggested that the “cataclysmic event” of Emancipation threatened to undermine the longstanding dynamic of economic and political power, Gannett’s selective shading in his color map charted the distribution of the popular vote into red-dyed regions of anti-Republican sentiment that express the rejection of of observers to ensure Emancipation was achieved, and the echo of fiercely anti-Republican sentiment, that give an eerily similarly quality to the shifting physiognomy of the nation in a single statistical map. But the historical referent of the receding past of Secession and of slavery suggest a far more accurate reading of the national pulse than the demagoguery of the infographic of the Gas Tax Latitudinal Divide.

1880 popular vote for HG

Library of Congress

Gannett’s map embraces a land of two colors, but its divide between political parties evidences the two standards of toleration of slavery that had been effectively  sanctioned in the Missouri Compromise.  Denis Wood observed that all maps “perform the act of statehood.”  This function may be doubly true of maps of electoral results.  The divides that re-emerge within such infographics offer a technology for parsing the nation, however:  and it is no surprise that the resurgence of political polarization of the nation along an issue framed as nation, casting local debates and allegiances as congruent with nation concerns, has brought the efflorescence of infographics that cannot only be tied to GIS, so much as the materialization of dissensus in a vision of the nation.   To be sure, the widespread defection of a generation Southern Democrats after the 2010 Obama election set in motion a divide, that encouraged a latitudinal divide to materialize in maps in ways that shifted the national landscape and the image of the nation that maps create.

Longstanding resistance to accepting the imposition of federal taxes at the pump was not only a residue from a century and a half about federal presence in the south, but the “inequalities” it illustrates reveals disrupted what Wood called the “performance of statehood” along a startlingly similar–and deeply resonant–geographic dividing lines.  The recent remapping of historical divides in gasoline taxes are not in themselves bids to rewrite the coherence of territorial unity, but clearly gesture to threats to the coherence of the sovereign status of the country that  maps of Southern Secession try to process, and which haunted the first statistical mappers of the nation in the period following the Civil War.  The Gas-Tax Map is of course ostensibly focussed only on the present, and far more dominated by the short-term than the historical, but offers something like an afterimage of this divided vision of the nation.  The addition of historical perspective on how infographics work in figuring and forging an image of the nation may be a needed counterpart to the declarative insistence of discrepancies of unequal taxation that it seems to suggest.

The transformation of the map into differently-hued blocks illustrates the mental jujitsu somewhat specific to the medium of infographics, which replace the symbolic coherence of the nation with a fragmented version, upending the performative power of a symbolic unity.  One often can’t help looking at the above data visualization, or the images that render the mid-term elections in clear divides, as a reflection of deep divisions that haunt the local political landscape.  This is especially true of the “Gas Tax” divide posted some months earlier in the Exxon-Mobil blog, which now seems almost a premonition of the more recent electoral divide. For despite the premium on the short-term in such data visualizations, which act as if they were transcriptions of the nation’s temperature or public opinion polls, in apparent ignorance among those who craft such visualizations of historical national divides, the symbolic divide cannot help but reference the traumatic divide that split the nation in ways that seem difficult to bridge.

2.  The Gasoline-Tax Divide eerily resurrects a divide between northern and southern states around slave-holding.  Indeed, a sit is rendered, the return of the repressed gains a new immediacy that threaten to replace or overwhelm reality, given the persuasive format of the division in the nation they insidiously perpetuate.


If such a division seems emphasized by the medium of the infographic, the status of infographics in collapsing or synthesizing a large range of data in a readily consumed image demands to be examined for the facility with which it creates national divides.  Although the infographic may only be about the present-day, it places a historical burden on the national divide it resurrects, in gesturing to the current divide as if the entire nation was at stake.  GIS data visualizations, for all their focus on the present and the short-term, tend to challenge the coherence of the nation, by evoking images of the traumatic divides that have rent the country, including the historical divide of southern Secession which had seemed to have receded in collective memory.  But this divide seems to haunt the country during the Obama presidency, seems to haunt the response to riots after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO or the debates about the Voting Rights Act.  The point isn’t that, as Rand Paul argued in Time magazine, that the “something is wrong with criminal justice in America,” but that the south, where Paul resides, where the owner of Celebrity Foods Restaurant in Ferguson can ask, “If you have a commander-in-chief, in a high position like that, facing racial profiling and slander on a daily basis, what do you think it is like for simple, every day, law-abiding African Americans?” is still haunted by a divide.

4.  The recycling of this still-traumatic divide is examined in another post on the persistence of Southern Separatism in the Gas Tax map, which also offers the pretext for this over-lengthy rant on the disturbing images that continue haunt the visualization of  current national divides, and the danger that we face in their compulsive naturalization.  The cognitive quickness with infographics as the above or of the midterm elections of 2014 write off a large area of the South was not only written off as a block of red states but a separate part of the nation in many recent data visualizations, in ways that which, for all their recording of the present, seem haunted by the image of regional secession–and most especially by the very divides that undermined the coherence of the nation from 1861, when the continuity of territorial mapping was overcome, as it were, by the separation of South Carolina and then other slave-holding states south of the parallel 36°30’N that enshrined a scarring divide across the nation by affirming the rights to own in the Missouri Compromise.   Recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect the same line, as if its fracture line were still evident.


Wikipedia Commons

The historical occurrence of the divide however appears to intentionally evoke the very trauma of the breakage of the nation along a known fracture line.  The very format of defining blue and red blocks within the country are imitated in how we remember the unfolding of the Secession of Southern States, here shown on Wikipedia in the Missouri Compromise along the parallel 36°30’N:  if the fault line in the nation around the institution of slavery seems to haunt the divides television maps create of the nation’s voting, which form an odd alchemy by coloring the map to mirror how we have come to color national political divides, they are in turn haunted by the fault-lines of secession, or as by the notion of two republics.  This was the line below which the rights of former slaves were not fully protected by presidents after Lincoln, who were sensitive to the strong Democratic redoubts across the south, as Rutherford B. Hayes feared loosing the south, which, if in 1870 he had won some seats in, in later elections it had gone almost uniformly democratic, as an island in search of protecting its own relative liberties.

5.  Such early data visualizations attempt to describe the historical past in a single map, and struggled valiantly with the limits of the narrative content of a data visualization of two- or three-color blocks.  For the above image is almost blissfully mute about the historical experience what happened on the ground, presenting deep divides whose coloration cannot offer perspectives on or how the institution of enslavement was actually lived.  How could such an experience  be contained by a latitudinal parallel, one might ask, across a divide that has apparently effectively created two separate polities, and how could such a line survive even as socioeconomic relations have shifted in the national terrain?

While old maps can afflict us with nostalgia, it’s impossible to wax nostalgic as we view the divided landscape that this “Compromise” sanctioned and the human costs that it created.  While the dividing line between slave-holding states and a north where the institution of human ownership and chattel was curtailed undoubtedly was informed by practices long existed on the ground, it was perpetuated in the map in odd form, as if naturalized to part of the national terrain.  The contemporary use of primary colors to delineate the divide drawn around and west of Missouri oddly echo contemporary electoral maps both in raising questions about the unity that exists between such a chromatically divided country and the possibility of the future unity with such a fracture-line so prominent.   It is striking that a map in Wikipedia Commons, printed below, also adopts the identical chromatic split to render the Missouri Compromise, as if to naturalize a longstanding national divide:  the historical “Compromise” allowed the institution of slave-holding to survive permit slavery in that state, but set a barrier to its expansion north or across the plains, effectively marginalizing the institution in the country to a lower latitude envisioned as constituting a sharp delineation of red states from blue states in ways that the most recent projections of political elections eerily and somewhat inexplicably still reflect.  The way that this division intentionally or unintentionally haunts the division of space within the map makes the pointed if blunt rhetoric of the infographic so troublingly compelling.


Such symbolic divides seem to haunt maps, as if scars were inscribed upon them, seem “afterimages” of  the historical moments that and experiences that earlier maps encode.  The concept of mapping an after-image is rarely the focus of a strictly cartographical pursuit, but emerges rather with the distribution of the dataset that give style suggestion of making the land speak, or attributing a voice to map signs.  The line of the gasoline-tax divide offers something close to an after-image that continue to haunt its political landscape.  Exploiting our addiction to the data visualization to allow us to look at spatial divides in new ways, the image promises the apparent immediacy and credibility and unmediated access to our representational democracy–from the prevalence of execution of imprisoned men across the Southern states, and the response of mass incarceration mapped in an earlier post, as both political parties responded to the deep anxieties by quintupling our prison populations from 1972, when it stood at 300,000, to over two million today, independently from crime.

Can such afterimages of the institution of slavery be traced in these maps, despite their apparent denial of the past?  The impact of slavery’s institution–and the reluctance to relinquish such divides of difference or to redirect taxes for a public good–may have been all the more indelible in proportion to the institutional forms of promoting racist sentiments and resistance to cultural and institutional changes that promoted changes in the economic status of blacks in the south.   For the authority of both images are deeply informed by the extreme descriptive thin-ness that are endemic to all data visualizations of the country.  The sheen of two-, three-, or four-tone data visualizations which promise to orient us to a polarization of political beliefs that invite us to divine tea leaves in the divides between monochrome color blocks.  But they do so without even stating the local interests or political debates at stake, reducing the “informational” value that tan image that reveals in its county-by-county distribution a clear latitudinal divide.

The use infographics to process information with limited demands on the reader, grabbing visual attention in an over-saturated news market.  But since they provide such compelling pictures and predictions of national debate, even to occupy a prominent place in the political discourse, they demand to be examined in the context of the expanding archive of data visualizations foregrounding divides.  Even without offering local variations to the viewer, each trumpets its own actuality, as if they mapped the country with an apparently definitive objectivity not previously accessible with such immediacy.

Indeed, the alleged objectivity in the medium of infographics might seem to lie in the ease with which they are created.  But it is even more striking how such infographics have resurrected the claims of objectivity, long debunked, in the political map.  Such opaque flatness is exemplified by the alleged inequities illustrated in the Gasoline Tax Map in this posts’ header, about which this post offers meditations–and might be read selectively by scrolling through its images.The data visualization, if based on a selective sampling of few data points, orients viewers to the country by discrepancies in levels of gasoline taxation as disrupting continuity among states, as if to trumpet the purported inequities of the tax burden that result.  Devised by Exxon-Mobil blogger in order to make apparent the case against tax inequality, the map not-so-tacitly echoes the divide of the Civil War of which it seems to constitute an after-image–if not the Missouri Compromise that legislated the distribution of slavery in the United States.  On the one hand, it seems to use the haunting imagery of secession effectively to suggest a breakaway republic-in-a-republic of lower taxes, where big government’s role has been diminished, in a Land of Cockaigne where gas flows free from the pump, unencumbered by government oversight.  On the other, the two-tone tan graphic of course evokes a break-away republic:  for it registers a prominent political divide that still seems to haunt our country’s coherence in ways far more seriously than folks at the American Petroleum Institute who released the map or the Exxon-Mobil blog may in fact realize:  the break of secession, and its aftermath created a traumatic divide in the nation that the gas-tax differential is haunted.

The muteness with which it charts a break between northern and southern states–and alleged transparency of unequal tax burden drivers face–suggests the limited information endemic to selective data visualizations, if not the irresponsiveness with which the data-modeling of national elections’ results pose as evidence of national division.  This post attempts to excavate such images, by considering such images in deeper historical relief.  By opening a history the associations of a divided country that such an info-graphic so pronouncedly reveals by its evocation of a national map, this post examines the way that such visualizations exploit a historical rent in the fabric of the nation, by is tacit invocation of the secession of the southern states.  The traumatic break that was the aftermath of secession and reconstruction is not only evoked in the map, but the info graphic seems to belong to a series of images that replay the divides between north and south along a latitudinal line.

Indeed, the chunky data visualization provokes a reflection for this blogger on the role of maps in the performance of national unity, from the first statistical maps of population devised by Francis Amasa Walker based on the ninth U.S. Census, give viewers a comprehensive picture of the nation, to the political maps of his successor, Henry Gannett, who confronted the problem of visualizing how voters behaved at the polls, to our own attempts to evoke or come to terms with nation divides.  Walker’s maps of racial, immigrant, and economic distributions not only characterized the nation but provided ways to understand the divides of its composition.  Walker’s map of the distribution of “colored population” in the states revealed in its focus on the  presence of African Americans across much of the country according to the 1870 Census–a map revolutionary, to some extent, in including all inhabitants of the United States within the nation’s population, even if its instructions reveal a preoccupation with those of “African blood.”

Colored Population 1872
Color 1870 census

Walker’s map of Walker contrasted to the map engraved by the Liberal German immigrant engraver Edwin Hegesheimer in a visually striking choropleth map of the distribution of slavery across the south quickly provided a strongly pro-Union image, convincingly rooting the economy of the southern states in the institution of slavery to which many wanted to direct attention:

1861 slave population map

While Hergesheimer’s choropleth map created a strong otherness of the southern states economy, and foregrounded the isolation of slavery shortly after ten states had seceded from the nation, when it was sold to support the war effort, the distribution of the electoral vote of 1880 sought to reveal the containment of Southern opposition to the Republican platform.  Does the Gas-Tax map tacitly echo of this earlier divide?  A modern reproduction of the same graphic of the concentration of blacks in the South in 1860 has been argued to reflect a modern map of sociocultural disparities of economic opportunity.


Filed under Confederate States of America, data visualizations, infographics, Red states v. Blue States, statistical maps

2 responses to “The New Separatism and the Gas-Tax Latitudinal Divide: Tracking the After-Images of Southern Secession across the United States (Part I)

  1. Ferguson, MO, not Fergusson, MI. Thanks.

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