Rarely before have reactions to an infection been able to be mapped so clearly along partisan lines. If elites have long harangued lower classes for continuing behavior that continued to spread disease, interpretation of the spread of illness has rarely divided so strikingly along separate interpretations, as if life or death matters were open to public debate–or how a pandemic was perceived locally. Yet the rigor of this divide, so obstinate in the face of a global pandemic, seems to countermand hopes so cruelly. If the COVID-19 virus can travel globally with unprecedented velocity and totality in an age of globalization, however, it can persist in being perceived at a local level, suggesting the dangerous nature of the peculiar polarity of regional and global in an age of global pandemic.
And even as we await incubation periods of the virus to unfold in a drama that starts on the surface proteins of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and works its way in the course of viral incubation, whose spread we seem condemned to watch unfold from a position of inadequate preparation as if in a rearview mirror of lost opportunities. President Trump, with a huge assist from FOX commentators, early opted to politicize the terms of reacting to the coronavirus, assimilating it to a drama of political partisan divides rather than diagnosis, refusing to self-isolate or advocate such a policy, as surrogates defined it as only the latest “fake news,” a “new hoax” of the elected officials who really were seeking to undermine public trust in the chief executive yet again. Such minimization of the dangers of infection or knowledge of the period of incubation of a “stealth” virus that can be transmitted by folks not presenting any visible signs of illness provided a major difficulty for Americans to develop diagnostic consensus of a health hazard in an age where evolution is demoted to the status of “just a theory” and carbon emissions doubted to exercise atmospheric impacts, as if all data visualizations were massaged to serve other interests, and rigged.
The fears of infection quelled at Trump rallies, with seeds of doubt as to its gravity planted by FOX commentators on health from Dr. Oz to Judge Judy, it is hardly surprising that scientific consensus was undermined, and assimilated to other influenzas, until the United States came to top the charts in coronavirus cases–not a good thing!–and as the National Institute of Health called Americans to diminish all personal interactions dramatically, America fractured yet again in state responses to the disease, as if the distribution of coronavirus cases in late January was a plan of action to prepare to confront the disease that spread with global population flows. (This is but one frame, however, of an animated map, in which different nations dramatically and pronouncedly balloon with growing numbers of reported infections, as the pandemic works its way round the world.)
This was a true critical moment, a place to alter or watch the course of a disease and to prepare for its spread–a notion of “crisis” used by Hippocrates in the Epidemics and elsewhere, as a moment for the official determination of a disease’s course, but the moment of crisis--κρίςις–was here one of public health, if one that depended on the same abilities to manage the course of the disease as it was already was either developing in a loss of smell, a first fever or dry cough, and bodily exhaustion, later progressing to painful coughing up of blood, and exhaustion, that mark COVID-19, or even difficulty of breathing–or, in early days, was latent, a stealth disease lying in clear lungs, but waiting to present itself in the bodies of increasing Americans. The range of symptoms at which COVID-19 passes through the body is less easily mapped than the critical days that marked Hippocratic stages of disease. But the Hippocratic course of the disease was similar to the course by which those infected presented symptoms, yet we were turning a blind eye to the danger viral communication, and the importance of individual isolation, at great cost.
CDC didn’t serve us here, as the states reporting cases–or, rather, confirmed tests for–COVID-19, a variety of virus related to SARS, and perhaps best known not as a new beast, but SARS-CoV-2, were radically and dramatically undercounted by federal agencies who had failed their job in providing the testing needed to ascertain the outbreak of a highly contagious virus that seemed to be concentrated in the far west–Washington State was an early site of outbreak–and by early March we came to realize had been circulating in California, without being registered, from early February, if not January on cruises operated by Carnival Cruises, as we prepared little for respiratory, and the disease that was timestamped by 2019 in its vintage was the disaster of 2020.
The false safety of the map of infected coasts may have suggested the quiescence of public opinion in the broad, red, swath of states Trump had so unconvincingly won to catapult his candidacy to victory.
Incredibly, those identifying as Republicans seemed to vote against concern for coronavirus, making the problem of creating any national consensus about the virus’ spread almost impossible–and seem to show light blue reaction to the Coronavirus outbreak in their midst, based on what they knew, or were told about it. Even if CDC has the facility or ability to provide more than undercounts of test cases–or provide the tests for the virus with the efficiency demanded, rather than outsourcing them to corporations, so that samples were sent cross-country to be analyzed, from New York to California; the low temperature of the hot button issue across the nation was striking, with many red states Republicans seeming agnostic about the pandemic affecting them.
Terrifyingly, national resources were slow in being mobilized, as long after the use of military metaphors to describe the nation “in a state of war,” the President resisted invoking the Defense Production Act to order ventilators or N95 masks, trusting the free market and listening to corporate allies in the face of the global pandemic–before the blaming the private sector for the cost of converting their factory production and hiring needed workers on the head of a dime in national emergency conditions–and the difficulty of global sourcing of needed parts at a time we depend increasingly on international trade and foreign-made parts.
The atmosphere of agnosticism had of course discouraged organization of a quick response. After minimizing any risk to the nation, it was hard to do the 360 that the situation had always demanded, with government institutions as the CDC offering artificially low datasets often of low-quality data, offering undercounts in a time of national emergency. And so we see the troublesome divergence in the urgency of the Coronavirus and public practices of protection against infection.
This was perhaps to be expected. And never before have the words of a “Shelter at home” order have been removed so quickly from context, taken as top-down impositions on Americans who desire free movement, as “we’re Texans and we’re used to our independence and freedom, and I hate taking that away from us”–as the Mayor of Waco regretted his decision to issue an order urging sheltering at home in the city.
The divides of adopting the Shelter-at-Home policy in the nation were dramatic and radical, echoing a blue v. red split, in eery ways, in enacting the implementation of “stay-at-home” orders across the fifty states.
The “incomplete virus shutdown” of the present is not entirely partisan, but a divide as sharply difficult for the nation as it gets; six Republican governors offering “stay at home” directives, compelled by circumstances to take their responsibilities to protect regional health seriously. The threat to “quarantine” New York and New Jersey is pure public theater, or posturing as if there were no shelter-at-home order already in place.
Meanwhile, as if in a parallel universe of sorts, others obstinately tow a line of oblivion. Perhaps the divide cannot be mapped geographically, and is better visualized outside state sovereignty, indeed, as the county-by-county level, the terrifyingly meaningless unit so haunted by the 2016 Presidential election, even though it seems foregone that it is along state lines that we are creating Petri dishes to await impending public health disasters–a fragmenting of the Coronavirus shutdown that is an echo of the divides of the nation, and a chilling image of the nation’s inadequacy in managing the current pandemic’s global spread. And we know that it is perhaps the same landscape, terrifyingly, of a lack of jurisdiction, that the breakdown in health insurance might be said to occur, creating an image of national fragmentation that is
These national “holes” or lacuna are almost waiting to present themselves as real health crises for many who cannot afford long-term hospitalization, overwhelming health care systems and emergency rooms. There has been a strikingly significant decline in enrollment, after the chaotic disturbance of the medical marketplaces in many states for the Affordable Care Act, and the marked decline in insurance marketplaces drills down a bit to reveal even scarier data–and suggest why the imposition of state-at-home policies are so urgent.
That is the current state of the union. And as if to assuage public concerns, and boost confidence by unveiling a “game changer” that would give him a chance to rebound nationally, a woefully unprepared President announced the imminently ready availability of an untested pill of a variety of quinine–chloroquine, to be sure, but closely related to and evocative of the oldest of trusty medical cure-alls, a cure from the bark of the cinchona tree that was prized as a tonic by doctors before it recognized as antimalarial in the1850s, or subsequently enhanced with ample doses of high-fructose corn syrup–
–as the panacea designed to assuage public doubts, desperate for good news in an uncertain age, and boosting a drug that he hoped would offer a source of public inspiration, ensuring it would be “available almost immediately” and “to large groups of people,” circumventing any public health organizations by boosting a crowd-sourced clinical trial to be managed online by Oracle as a “game changer” that circumvented medical expertise. In allowing the federal government to obtain “large quantities” of an unproven drug, Trump sounded more like Big Brother than we have ever seen.
We have long considered man’s impact on the world, but are only starting to be able to chart the vastness of the scope of anthropogenic change. And wen it comes to the contraction of shores and beaches that has been forecast in current climate scenarios, the oldest of human environments, the shoreline and coast, seems in danger of drastic reduction at a scale we have rarely considered. The shifting littoral landscapse of the world have ben long neglected, if they are turned to each Earth Day for coastal cleanups and have been the site of intense preoccupations as a result of sea-level rise, as we have protected much of our national seashore.
But the prospect of an accelerated global erosion of coastal landscapes, and the loss of beaches, have only begun to be processed as triggering cascading consequences from disturbing ecological niches and coastal economies to the human relation to the natural world. The margin of the shoreline that was discovered in the middle of the twentieth century as a privileged site of intense biodiversity risks obliteration as a particularly fragile ecosystem. Yet the shoreline habitat is now a site of unprecedented vulnerability. (The same stretch of delicte shoreline was quickly closed to comply with shelter-at-place directive, given the range of urban residents who drove to flood its trails, beaches, and shoreline as a way to find balance, many standing transfixed before the waves in a particularly stressful time.
While the national seashore at Point Reyes is a unique preserved coastal environment, where eroding cliffs meet sands that run along broad strips of beach whose low grade offers habitat to coastal birds, grasses, and shellfish, and a meeting points of fresh and salt water, the loss of shores would be a difficult to imagine. So many voyaged to the shores as if by instinct during the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in 2020, from Long Island to Marin, to the extent of disturbing many coastal residents, who read searching for break from anxiety by acts of coastal distancing as an unwelcome promotion of the danger of importing viral spread. Many public beaches, concerned about close contact, have outright closed, as coastal communities do their best to dissuade visitors seeking to escape infection in Hawaii, Moab, Alabama, North Carolina or the Gulf Coast.
If undue media attention may be directed to bemoaning college students on Florida Spring Break, we must remember that Florida’s Governor, Ron DeSantis, ostensibly encharged with securing the state’s well-being and public welfare, stubbornly insisted on keeping beaches open in the state the shore until Easter, to allow “students to party” on Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater Beach, and other “hotspots” of pleasure into hot spots of viral infection: DeSantis, never one to stop claiming higher ground, hypocritically or not, only turned his wrath on the partiers after facing a lawsuit from the state Attorney General, and even as communities closed beaches, refused to shutter state beaches to limit the spread of the Coronavirus that were a vital parts of the state’s economy.
Shifting the blame to foreign travelers–and insisting on self-quarantining visitors from New York state or New Jersey–he sought to keep them open for business, by casting them as more vital than viral. DeSantis refused to accept the national scope of the problem, defending an economy that depended on tourism, elevating the economy over national health–and keeping them open a week after the closure of Disney World, after trying to keep a “six feet distance rule” to “stop large crowds from congregating,” as if the crowding was an issue, more than human proximity and contact–and refusing to take leadership on the issue by “deferring” to local government and causing confusion. As he reflected on the large number of elders in the state population, and their potential hindering of his own chances for re-election, it seems, did he alter his stance entirely, and beg the President to declare a national emergency, as the spread of the virus led to thousands of layoffs, with all non-essential businesses closed in coastal communities. Meanwhile the COVID-19 data timeline by mid-March had spread across Central Florida, clustering on the shores.
The abandonment of the closed Miami Beach–one of several citie that refused to keep its beaches open, as infection spread, as they knew what was really best for them–seemed to confirm the shore’s status as a natural site of reflection. The scope of projected reconfiguration of future shorelines would effect a deep change in the human relation to the shoreline, as much as the shoreline as a site of shelter and habitat.
Geographer Clarence Glacken famously referenced the “traces on the Rhodian shore” that offered happy evidence of habitation to the shipwrecked ancient philosopher on Rhodes’s shores, in his magisterial survey of environmental influences on human history and human impact on the environment. Yet if his 1967 magnum opus that set a basis for world systems studies, even its scope of the idea of the pristine nature of the pristine environment most suited to human life could imagine that human influences over the environment might extend to redrawing the shores where the Socratic Aristippus was so cheered at finding geometric figures traced in the sand to exclaim “let us be of good hope, for indeed I see traces of men!” could be traced by remote sensing to reveal dangers of their disappearance. But the new geometries of shoreline loss projected for the coming century may submerge traces of habitation and habitat. Indeed, recent remote sensing projections based on climate modeling would lead to the flooding of shorelines across all continents.
Glacken’s pioneering magisterial history opened assessment of the effects of human life on the environment, however, and might be said to have prompted the growth of sea-level rise. The most recent modeling predicting a compromising of global beaches and coasts would be perhaps the deepest impact ever of human life on the inhabited world and earth’s geography—-a comprehensive radically aggressive modification of ecosystems and shoreline experience alike. And if Glacken’s concept for Traces on the Rhodian Shore began from the precedent-setting paper, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth,” given at a conference on ‘Changing Ideas of the Habitable World’, all but introducing study of human beings as modifiers of the environment.
Even under a non-drastic scenario–Representative Concentration Pathway 4.5, a so-called “stabilization scenario” that models a control over radical global warming, created by NOAA’s geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, to predict how levels of greenhouse gas emissions might cumulatively affect the global oceans and planet, the first of the two global futures mapped below, the radical change of the retreat of sandy beaches is striking–and this is something of a base-line that we might be lucky to attain.
This conservative reading of the effects of greenhouse gas emissions on coastal retreat would reconfigure the global shorelines to an extent we have not fully appreciated, creating a threat to the very sandiness of our shores, as much as to coastal populations. While we have considered coastal vulnerability in relation to human population of the coast, in other words, the broad ecosystems changes that would begin from the erosion of the shores as habitats would either trigger a massive need for adaptation of shore-dwelling species, or cause the complete destruction of the extremely delicate ecosystem of the shores, revealing the vulnerability of the world to coastal retreat on such massive scale.
A far more probable scenario–if only considered so recently–of the scale of coastal retreat by RCP 8.5, still not exaggerated at all, would create massive retreat of our beaches in less than a generation.
Long gone is the time when one ever mapped the future optimistically. But can one really forecast a map of beach loss? The alarming scope of the projected impending contraction of our beaches based on recent satellite data stands to erode one of the most sensitive and productive areas of biodiversity and beauty in the world, at considerable if not unfathomable cost to the globe. While difficult to imagine in a global crisis, the projection transcends the sort of future we can even grasp.
The prospect nags, and is hard to map, let alone by a global projection.
There is almost a primal call to walking on the meander of the edge of the shoreline, just beyond the foam traces often left by waves and the piles of seashells, often oysters or crabs left by birds; perhaps it is as a result that one has a particular attachment to the shore, as a natural course or path, not a line, after all, but a coastal meander. Hugging the coastline, at a margin for the shore, on such a meander as if coasting a contour of the topographic map, one feels an appreciation of place. Watching how the tide “slaps at the rocks the sun has dried,” John Betjeman reflected on the space of “The water, enlarging shells and sand,/Grows greener emerald out from the land/And brown over shadowy shelves below/The waving forests of seaweed show” where from the coastal edge of “shells, dried bladderwrack, broken glass,/Pale blue squalls and yellow rock roses” he absorbed “The thymy, turfy and salty scents/ And filling in, brimming in, sparkling and free/The sweet susurration of incoming sea.”
Thoreau had a sense of walking a natural line one December on a “narrow, meandering walk” along where a “line of rubbish marks the higher tides—withered reeds and twigs and cranberries,” that he judged, in 1850, “to my eyes a very agreeable and significant line which Nature traces.” Perhaps we are destined to be removed from such a sense of unity with a line traced by Nature, pried apart from it by the projections of coastal rise, and the fear of shoreline erasure and coastal deterioration. The projected threat of episodic beach erosion condensed over hundred year period that was projected, based on alternate scenarios of climate change, RCP 4.5 and RCP 8.5, alternate scenarios contingent on population, carbon emissions, and reducing carbon re-absorption–an array of considerable complexity and great variability, to be be sure–
–configures wha seem similar scenarios for shoreline loss that seems particularly painful as a loss.
One possible revision of the current global map is colored by variations by country, emphasizing the effective transfiguration of much of Indonesian coastlines, and much of the arctic north, as well as the large antipodal landmasses of Greenland and Australia. Many of these shores is dark blue, denoting a degree of loss of up to twenty meters.
The contraction that the current rates of sea-level rise suggest would provide a basis for imagining that ocean water will cover hundreds of miles of sandy shores. Not only is this painful as a loss of place for future humans, who will have less of a sense of the shoreline as a timeless place, it seems, but as it will mean saline water penetrating lands and rural areas, it will also mean reducing the delicate nature of shores as spaces of particular dynamism providing not only habitat but shelter to multiple species. Since before Rachel Carson, shorelines have been recognized and studied as a crucial site of evolutionary development–and indeed one of the most vibrant living sites in the inhabited world, where more interaction between species–and more sites of nesting, scavenging, sites of rest for pacific pelagics, and a hugely important site for birds feeding on insects, will be asked to migrate or be reduced. Yet we stand to turn our back upon the shores, potentially reducing sandy shores by up to a hundred meters by the current century’s close.
Indeed, the terrifying image of the massive reduction of sandy beaches–scarcely imaginable in earlier eras, the edge-picture that we need to retain would be the best way to examine the project rise in seawater by just under 110 cm–a rate potentially reduced to less than a third–that could leave us with a reduced coastal beaches that would expose not only more densely settled coasts to marine storms as shorelines stand to shrink with coastal retreat over the century. One might imagine the option between losing, say, 40,000 sq km or 66,000 sq km of sandy beaches in eighty years–not at a far off date, but very much within the lives of folks now living, who may remember the beaches of the past.
The unimagined extent of such beach-loss would and shoreline retreat projected would not only expose densely settled coasts to marine storms, but threaten their unique environment. When Rachel Carson described shorelines as so productive and vital as dynamic sites that “keeps alive the continuing sense of creation and the relentless drive of life,” she tried to raise awareness in the shore as a delicate ecotone. If we have built right up to the shores, in much of the coastal United States and elsewhere, not allowing for much of a margin for ocean swellings or rise, the possibility of a contracting shoreline would suggest a redrawing of global continents, as an advancing edge of the ocean rises beyond where we have seen it, creating extreme land erosion that will probably not create further sands, but more jagged edges of what was a gentle sloping of beach terrain.
Sand is a subtle medium, but sandy shorelines are defining aspects of most of the world’s coasts at different latitudes, densest at a perfect spot removed from the equator, but defining much of the coastal perimeter–shown, in this map’s legend, against the latitudinal distribution of sands off of continental shelves in the classic 1967 study of Miles O. Hayes–adding a pronounced sandiness, for example, to the beaches of Mexico and Baha, or the sandiness of South China, Vietnam, and Jamaica, or Saudi Arabia and the Person Gulf. This data “map” or visualization of the quantity of beach loss is scary–Africa’s sands stand to be reduced by half, and the beaches of the United States and Australia by a third each, no doubt with variations, but in the manner of a data vis purify the shores in isolation from the ocean, their coherence evident only as datapoint, really, in an oversimplification that the charismatic meaning of data allows, separating them from the environmental role of the beach as a site of shelter or in relation to coastal oceans that are such sites of life.
But the shoreline, as we have long known, is an ecotone, rich not only for its role in evolutionary development, but the very living environments that they provide.
The danger of curtailing the combined beauty and dynamism of the shore, and the shore as an environment of dynamic productivity, suggests more than a curtailment of coastlines on which more than half the world’s populations live within thirty-seven miles of the sea: it would bode a real reduction of the environmental global imagination. If islands effective remove of islands from the shorelines has led space to contract, the reduction of beaches in shorelines would be a massive change in human geography of far greater scope.
Can we imagine the scale of such a cartography of loss, as the sands that settle on shores as sediment move underwater and offshore?
There was a relatively recent return to the shores, indeed, as the shoreline was valued as a distinct area of place, in the Northeast of the United States, as many of the very areas whose former coastal inhabitants as fisherman and farmers moved inland, driven by economic change, in the 1930s and 1940s, abandoned their homes to many city-dwellers who flocked to the shores to enjoy them; as fishermen moved inland, shore frontage became prized areas of vacation homes. Historian John Gillis noted that the rootlessness of the nineteenth century, increasingly endemic in urban life on the mainland in the United States, led to a search for a sense of place lacking “in the vast, featureless landscapes of urban industrial society,” as shorelines promised ways of “being at home in the world, as much a mental as a physical endeavor,” locating states of minds on the shores that may have been a call to return to an almost primeval space of rest.
Repose was broadly identified with shores as sights of remove from over-inhabited space, as it became a space for reflection: in the early industrial era, as many ships and smaller crafts withdrew form the oceans around New York harbor, Ishmael, narrator of Moby Dick, described how even in urban Manhattan, a metropolis “belted round by wharves as Indian isles by coral reefs,” “thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries,” on weekends, seated on pier heads or leaning against spiles, looking to sea. Ishmael described the almost natural longing for the sea at the start of his own whaling romance; the shore provided such “water gazers” a liminal space to the unknown, still foreign undomesticated, and a vantage point on its wild. But the open beaches on the shore became far more as a space for walking on, and in traversing, in ways, domesticating and making the ocean known.
Those same shores that were the focus of evolutionary investigation and valued as sites of mental relaxation as well as dynamic sites of natural history may themselves vanish or unimaginably contract. We may be, potentially, at risk of losing these states to soil erosion, under different models of climate change, based on carbon-concentration in the atmosphere, in what some scientists argue may in fact under-estimate future atmospheric concentrations of carbon, in ways we have little sense of how to prepare, even though the restoration of wetlands, bogs, and swamps goes some way to reabsorb the rise of waters, whose rate of rise will not be sudden, but could create such massive problems of erosion in only eighty years to test the abilities of global governance and local economies, as much as disorient global inhabitants in troublesome ways.
This frontier of anthropogenic change was not supposed to happen, as the sense of the shore as a primeval space seemed a point of access to the past–the future was rarely thought to include also their disappearance. Geographer Carl Sauer hence extolled the shore as the ‘primitive home’ of man, detecting an echo of how primitive humans travel to the shorelines for food or exchange to the return to the coast. Sauer’s grand and commanding environmental historical scope led him to predict that “when all the lands will be filled with people and machines, perhaps the last need and and observance of man will still be, as it was at his beginning, to come down to experience the sea,” as if the notion that the shore could change was foreign to his future.
But if these projections are correct, as they seem, shorelines stand to be eclipsed, as the coastal retreat from 2010 levels recede into the past, and the connection to those shores that were long colonized by built out residents stand to disintegrate–with signifiant losses appearing along the shores of South and Central America, much of the Eastern United States, the Indian Ocean and Eastern Africa, as well as most the entire perimeter of Australia and Indonesia, where land erosion stands to reconfigure human geography, given the greater scale of impending shoreline change.
How can one respond to the data visualization of so many strikingly broad swaths of thick, red shore lines, marking a two hundred meter loss, deeply unsettling as an entry in an ecosystem balance book? The impending loss has not been helped, to be sure, by a quite intentional understanding of the shore as if it were only a fixed line, or an edge out to which one can build, and not a site of flux, and indeterminacy, whose motion occurs not only with the tides, but over time–if such an extent of movement and loss are foreign from most of our minds.
Mapping loss is hard to conceive, as materializing such projections. We do not usually make prognostications of nostalgia, or of the future absence of a site. But the shorelines pose a particularly poignant sense of nostalgia, a genre of describing the return of the hero traveling home by the seas–νόστος–even overcoming, as Odysseus, struggles on his way to gain the bearings needed for his return and arrival home, except that here, rather than arriving home, there seems the sense that the sea voyage will not be complete, is not undertaken by an individual, but is a voyage of the shores apart from the land–a story, so much as it can be mapped, of erosion, underwater lands, and lost places that will not come back. And perhaps it is all wrong to even suggest this mapping might be conceived in relation to an observer: who is to say there will be a human observer to watch it, even as the erasure of the biological niches of the shores will be most acutely felt by the crustaceans, birds, and migratory species that dwell there, from the endangered pelagics as sea turtles to sea lions.
How best to embody this sense of loss, and of absence, is perhaps best left on the front burner of future cartographers of climate change. It may be, of course, that populations cease to rise at projected rates globally, though that seems doubtful, or that in fact emissions levels to decline–as shown in graphic terms, for the first time in recent memory, if only as the Chinese economy has ground to a standstill, in what may be a predictor of one alternative global future not considered in climate modeling, as carbon emissions were reduced in China by as much as 100 million tons over just two weeks, NO2 releases dropping by almost 40% over the same period, from February 3 to February 16, and CO2 declined by a quarter. Indeed, the massive reduction in tropospheric NO2 density has so shrunk over China alone over a month due to factory closures, a ban on driving, the NASA researcher Fei Liu, who specialized in air quality researcher expressed shock at its dramatic contraction: “This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.”
The echoing of the scenarios gamers indulging in such post-apocalyptic computer games as Plague Inc. may be best equipped to calibrate and process the seamlessness with which what is happening in such visualizations of the spread of COVID-19 and the fall-off of NO2 tropospheric demissions since Hubei province when on lockdown on Chinese New Year, and local governments advised folks stay at home for the start of what seemed the spread of a new Black Death in the Year of the Rat.
The scary monotone of Donald Trump’s most serious public address to the nation was a striking contrast from the recent State of the Nation. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events. With his hands grasped but thumbs flickering, as if they were a fire under which he sat, as if he were wriggling like a kid strapped in the back seat of a car where he was a passenger to God-knows-where, Trump seemed to have been forced to address a nation of which he knew he was not in charge. Four days after assuring that “The risk is low for the average American,” separating the nation from the world, as the Dow tumbled over 2,000 points in a day, Trump had to do a real 360–to assume a sense of gravity for a situation he earlier accused Democrats of having self-servingly fabricated “far beyond what the facts would warrant.” If it seemed poll-tested that Democrats were far more concerned than the Republicans, perhaps the fault line was yet another to divide the United States, more than an object of national concern–although the most recent polls of mid-March showed a dangerous convergence and narrowing of a gap.
When President assured viewers with no basis that the crisis was merely “a moment in time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world.” And at get over it, he offered a by now regular cocktail that mounted to bread and circuses, and the redrawing of boundary lines: Trump ensured the nation of low-interest loans and deferred tax payments in the offing, as he boasted of having quickly closed borders to all but essential travel, Trump tried to insist there was no financial crisis, as if the borders were now sealed. He argued that the pandemic was being fully addressed in national terms and would wash through, two days after the World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic. The President did not look that confident as he addressed the nation, however, despite the assembled accoutrements of authority at the resolute desk for the public address, almost out of place–offering little security to the nation or the world–
–as if he were having difficulty to control his delivery during an actual emergency that was not in his control, and he had let spin out of control.
As tried to calm growing panic from his padded seat, as all that was clear was that, during a multiple lies, half-truths and disconnects of his address, Trump sought to assert his ability to dominate the national news.
By heralding victories, even as no proven treatment for the new coronavirus existed, he conveyed an illusion of progress–or tried to do so–by tired promises. He stumbled clumsily across multi-syllabic drugs an ever-ready teleprompter, as if were a magic bullet that would soon be in peoples’ hands, sustaining the fiction of “exciting” nature of cures “I’ve heard even better about,” from antimalarials like choloroquine, often used as an anti-anxiety or the experimental antiviral Remdesivir, first developed as a treatment for Ebola, hocking remedies of questionable efficacy. The drugs produced by American biotech companies might have been attempts to get their stock to spike, more than to help the nation. Trump rather comically stumbled over their syllables from a teleprompter. But both clinically untested drugs have been hoarded as game changers late in the game, forcing companies to halt distribution or more responsible folk plead people not to hoard a crucial component of flu medicines and retrovirals, lest panicked desperation lead to hoarding an effective drug, and his own ability to cut red tape that would deliver “anti-viral therapies” that did not exist. Some of believers in the utility of the chloroquine drug ingested enough of the non-pharmaceutical form of the antimalarial intended for aquariums to die. Much of the nation was turinng to Wikipedia to get a handle on COVID-19, on which a good share of Americans already rely to diagnose their illness–over a third, or 35%–it was not surprising that Wikipedia page views boomed, with the English article receiving 1.1 million views, a jump of 30% from the previous day, and Trump offered no clearer guidance, save that his restrictions on travel to and from China demand recognition as a “life-saving move.”
In short, the nation should understand it was lucky. But here was already a deepening sense that our circumstances had all changed, but our President’s seems as if it hadn’t. The nation’s relation to the virus was destabilized, but Trump fell back on mapping coronavirus in terrifyingly familiar terms as a national plot. He persisted to call the Coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” as if to keep it at bay, and promised remedies soon available, before any clinical testing was begun, vaunting the “boldest step of all” in closing the national border to some travel from China. This narrative of border-closure was huantingly familiar, and scarily similar to how he has boasted of having solved other national “crises.”
For in casting the coronavirus’ spread in national terms, Trump seems oddly keen to offer disinformation to the nation by falsely mapping its contagious spread, parsing a global pandemic as a national triumph even as we can map confirmed cases of its spread across all fifty states, and the numbers where the coronavirus was incubating were untold factors more. Indeed, the chlorpoleths like the below were misleading, suggesting dots of concentration, for cases dispersed over space–but resembled a rubella rash of pink or red spots, presenting themselves as a national annoyance. But there were no approved antivirals on offer, if testing by the National Institute of health recently began on Remdevisir, the drug used in Ebola, MERS and SARS, caused by related coronaviruse, of unproven efficacy for COVID-19, with results to be known only in April, with treatments made available as treatments by the end of the summer.
By that point, the contagion’s scope would have spread so far, based on the predictions of the Imperial War College COVID-19 Response Team, who predicted an estimated 510,000 deaths in England and 2.2 million in the United States infections would kill up to two million Americans, without pharmaceutical intervetion–a number that would peak later in the United States and affecting a far broader number, four times as large.
Trump was quite canny at rebranding, long before becoming President, but irresponsibly and sloppily rebranded the deadly coronavirus as “kung flu”–“I wonder who said that [first] . . . they would probably agree that it came from China”–he has masked the greater deaths and cases of infection that lie far outside Chinese territory and blithely normalized lack of health leadership in the United States. “It comes from China,” and will stay that way “as long as I’m president,” insisting on the truth-value of weaponizing rhetoric as if welcoming us to his latest, deadliest Reality TV show, as misleading choropleths aggregated cases to portray the national body in the earliest stages of complete infection, to late for any cure, and already incubating for twelve days before further infections would soon be manifested on future maps in better, if far more terrifying, detail. “To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days,” he announced, offering to adjust restrictions, as if the nation had been kept safe. He corrected many of his slew of misstatements–on Twitter–but expanded a promise for free testing to free full treatment, and the tests have still not arrived. (Pence was clearly complicit with this disinformation; neither admitted that no treatments for the disease exist.)
National news agencies already suggested that we were at a potential medical crisis not in the sense of a break-down, but in a potential turning point in the disease’s progress–the ancient Hippocratic sense that is still retained for a turning point in a fever or acute disease, a point of κρίςις where the expert physician would recognize “the determination of the disease as it were by a judicial verdict” that would lead to recovery, partial recovery, or death (Affections VIII), or when morbid residues of humoral imbalance remaining in the body could be eliminated, or fail to be eliminated, but the progress of the disease as it works its way in the body must be monitored with care, to judge the nature and acuteness of the disease’s course..
We were most overwhelmed as a nation by an acute imbalance in our relation to the world. Never mind the fact that China had alerted the World Health Organization about an unknown new virus with pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory–as if they judged WHO a shadowy, global organization. Chinese scientists quickly realized the danger of the virus ravaging Wuhan and the surrounding rural areas around Wuhan the unknown pneumonia-like symptoms, spreading within its territory, jumping species as it evolved into forms that can be infectious to humans. But was hard to buy for groups who questioned evolution, and doubted the data given the WHO–as if anything originating at WHO to be tainted at its root. Trump persisted, as if trying out a new persona for the occasion, to reassure the nation that the problem would “wash through” and we would be stronger for it.
Addressing the union solemnly in unemotive, grave tones, his thumbs shooting up in a weird pantomime of tweeting, perhaps stimulated by Aderol or other medications, as if flames flickering beneath his calm, as flames must have been flickering beneath his plush leather seat, his corpulence unable to conceal cresting COVID-19 cases over a thousand, in a terrifying asymptotic rise, conforming it as unable to be contained–while Trump seemed to treat it as nationally under control, the world be damned, the global nature of the pandemic only evident for those outside the nation and assuring the nation they would have “the best healthcare and health insurance of anywhere on the planet.” He had recently placed Vice President Pence, stalwart implacable opponent of the Affordable Care Act, who crowed before audiences of conservatives, “Obamacare must go” as “we’re going to make the best healthcare system in the world even better” in rural corners of Indiana, without having any other model.
As “best healthcare system in the world” became something of a meme, if not a macro, of President Trump and his surrogates, and he tried to upstage the WHO declaration of a global pandemic. He promised incorrectly that the insurance industry would “waive all copayments for coronavirus treatments,” to an audience of many without health insurance, echoing a mantra Trump long promoted of “better healthcare.”
Trump combined assurances of calm with a disheartening abdication of responsibility, as the President left the nation hanging by repeating tired macros of tax cuts and travel bans, cure-alls predictably invoked, as if the virus were not our problem. Would the Make America Great Again agenda survive in an age of global pandemic? Ever more than in the past, this seemed so much snake oil.
The stage props of the resolute desk, American flag, closed binder, flag pin, and those clenched, flickering thumbs, seemed to suggest that he was in control, as control was slipping from his, and everyone’s, hands. He seemed suddenly very small, as the words from his mouth seems to have little bearing on the anxieties that gripped the nation. Did the binder even contain anything?
Trump may well have begun to reflect on his own prospects of infection before addressing the nation. But his address–if concerning the state of the nation more than most of his State of the Nation addresses–veered little from his recent pooh-poohing of concern for the domestic spread of the coronavirus as just yet another meme of the latest Fake News and Democratic Party he had to swat. Dismissing social distancing as a tactic to deprive him of his beloved rallies, Trump had truly seemed stunned by the event’s dominance of the national news that he could not direct or massage in his direction.
Perhaps only after a number ofRepublican lawmakers tested positive for the virus after being exposed to it a conservative networking conference, and other with whom he had partied with Bolsonaro at his private resort Mar-a-Lago began to self-quarantine, festive partying with the entourage of Brazil’s right wing Prime Minister Javier Bolsonaro, sporting caps emblazoned “Make Brazil Great Again” as party favors assumed tones of rosy memories as news of their self-quarantining were processed.
Trump insisted he “did nothing unusual [but] sat next to each other for a period of time,’ as if it was a Sexually Transmitted Disease. But in his address he suddenly seemed forced to recalibrate. Whether on not the exclusive club was a Petri dish by which the virus jumped continents to infect his inner circle, several celebrants tested positive the day before Trump’s address. The cognitive dissonance was astounding for a President whose public statement was to congratulate his friend Xi, in late January, for “working very hard” for the nation’s benefit, adopting a lens of national identity for a global crisis.
The sense of emulating a top-down policy with similar “transparency” seems designed in retrospect to conceal the critical lack of transparency in Trump’s response to the health care crisis, which seemed terrifyingly to be another chapter of disaster capitalism of the sort Naomi Klein described, Perhaps members of Trump’s cabinet–from Vice President Mike Pence, poster boy for allowing the oligarchy to capitalize off of crisis, instead of public aid, to Steve Mnuchin, foreclosure king–took time to school President Trump in its doctrine: to ignore those living in poverty, the uninsured, or homeless, but bolster the national economy.
Trump’s assumption of removed gravitas in the Oval Office, if forced by circumstances, broke from character, but served to keep his Presidency and US markets afloat. After pooh-poohing coronavirus concerns as the latest partisan plot to tank his Presidency, Trump sat rigidly before the teleprompter, channeling a military demeanor or just immobilized by events, clasped hands only parted once in ten minutes to assuring national viewers–and markets–trying with as much confidence as he could to plead his audience beleive that “The virus will not have a chance against us.” If this was a modulation of the assurance on January 22 that “We have it totally under control,” the passive assertion a month later of a conviction that “It will disappear” seemed not to hold much water, and he intensified the self-congratulatory backslapping of March 6 that “I think we’re doing a really good job in this country at keeping it down” or the boastof a “perfectly coordinated and fine-tuned plan for keeping it under control.”
Exactly who was “us” was never made more clear in the short address, but he seemed to be pleading that this was really not a big deal in providing the most statesman like address he attempted in memory, summoning the accouterments of his office to speak from behind the Resolute Desk to conceal the evidence of his mismanagement of a true national emergency, after the manufacturing of several false ones. Sounding grave, he tried to spin as best possible, but looked particularly pained in telling us that this, too, would pass, or “wash through,” as he put it, suggesting an awareness of its rootedness in the GI tract, but using a disturbing image he professed not to see why folks disliked to express how we’d be all the better for having had it in the first place.
Trump tried his best to sustain that the average American was not at risk,– although the different demeanor with which he addressed the nation disconcerted at the virus’ rapid spread beyond China. He continued to stoke more than quell anxiety–not giving any advice that was reassuring or accurate as a guide to stave off the virus’ spread, and celebrating “our nation’s unprecedented response to the . . . outbreak that started in China, and is now spreading across the world,” but from which we would be kept safe–even if it was a global pandemic after all. Was Trump stalling as the new model of disaster capitalism that would take advantage of the Coronavirus spread in the most rapacious manner were being perfected?
Reminding Americans that his best decisions originated in his gut, Trump later bragged to the media that long before the declaration form the World Health Organization whose declaration had prompted his speech, “I felt it was a pandemic,”–he expressed confidence for our nation, for whom “our top government health professionals” were working to protect America, without the need for any outside help–continuing the narrative of America going it alone in a global crisis, without realizing the deep dangers of further eruptions, inflammations, and morbid residues that would spread across the national body, oblivious to the executive, even as that global spread was being mapped in terrifying real time. Trump’s responses privileged travel restrictions, selective screening for national reentry, tax deferrals, and small- change economic “stimuli,” but ommited change in the status quo save an advisory to “ignore non-essential travel.” But what was essential was left unclear, even as the NBA announced its season suspended. We were encouraged not to be concerned about an economic downturn, rather than given a plan to deal with public health emergency for which the nation was unprepared and had no intention to change its essential infrastructure of health care.
Perhaps the illusion of a choropleth’s buckets suggested only one red dot in the United States existed of less than five hundred confirmed COVID-19 cases showed the panic was overly elevated, and lay outside our borders.
The gravity of address appeared designed to mask the folly of declaring an obstruction of all travel from continental Europe, or more specifically the Schengen area of the European Union, in a unilateral manner. After having self-contentedly patted himself on the back for having suspended travel from China, as if to stave off the spread of Coronavirus to the United States, he touted a logic of national exclusion, the one size fits all remedy, least suited to a global pandemic.
Unlike earlier alleged national emergencies, as building the wall, he was less belligerent. This time, his voice was more monotone, sounding as if he had been forced to give a statement. Even if we had watched the number of cases of COVID-19 grow across the nation, from March 2-9 over the previous week, Trump fell back on inveighing to his audience about staunching the danger at ports of entry to the nation, as if we had not all be watching infographics prepared by statistics offered by government agencies, even as he knew that he had been sitting on evidence of the virus’ spread since December.
And it seemed that the transmission of the pandemic across borders, and of two-week incubation. was evidence of the rise of a new way Coronavirus inhabited global space, and indeed a new kind of globalism, akin to those that Bill Rankin analyzed in global grided maps as new ways of experiencing geographic space that President Trump was unable to process. Even as the curve of Coronavirus cases had finally flattened far more in China than elsewhere, the continued assurances that “we” were fine, in good medical care, and had nothing to panic about were made as if under strain. Declaring his fourth national emergency the following day, the goal was, similarly, to free up funds for disaster response, but now he wanted to insist that we were all ok, even if we knew that we weren’t, and publicly available data clearly showed otherwise.
Although not indulging rhetorical demonization the virus after a locality outside the nation–“the Wuhan virus” seemed perhaps too scary as it evoked the “Spanish flu”–in describing a “foreign virus” he suggested travel policies could provide protection, inviting us to be ostriches and immerse our heads in the cold, reassuring sands. Given the level of disconcertedness of his audience, the address’s utter absence of empathy was not so much surprising as disconcertingly unreal, given the difficulty of demonizing anyone in a health crisis and pandemic was so visibly globally expanding on unprecedentedly rapid scale.
The exponential growth of COVID-19 cases outside of China, despite the small relative number of attributable deaths, was unreal. This was a scenario quite different from anything we had encountered before; it was hard to map the graphs onto displayed Trump’s alarming unbalance as he tried to explain a set of statistics we grasped, it seems, more fully than he had: as he had tried to tell us to keep things in perspective, equating the still- incomplete data of deaths because of influenza and COVID-19, suggesting the transient nature of the panic of world health organizations in declaring a global pandemic, and assure us that this too would pass, he seemed more willfully out of touch than we were accustomed to see him.
Was this speech an entry to a recognition of the behind the scenes reality, a place we were not usually allowed to go as observers? It was surging how President Trump seemed to balk or blanch at the very word “global”–as if it were a sure sign something was wrong, rigged, and exaggerated. The plateauing of Chinese cases seemed trotted out as if this were somehow meant to suggest that the national emergency had been contained, rather than was about to expand. Even as he told the nation that the the United States was the “most prepared” nation when it came to Coronavirus policies, he seems to have revealed little interest or awareness of how it spread, or of the health concerns of the American people, as they looked to the rise of COVID-19 cases abroad, and heard of the blossoming of increased but still improperly tallied cases in the United States, and seemed unconcerned about the need to tally them–as if this was not the bare minimum of preparation.
As Trump continued to offer empty assurances, thumbs flickering as if to undercut his monotone, he seemed to think there was still a chance to blanket out the maps of dots of infection of the body politic, at multiple sites, as if there was still a chance that the uninfected as of yet heartland would listen, and be reassured if he could transcend the moment and trasnsfix the nation for ten minutes–
And it soon became clear, as we were making and watching these maps, that they were incomplete in their data counts: the poor data of positive testing that was being compiled by the CDC will perhaps provide a further tragedy within the mapping of COVID-19 and the absence of public education, as the Trump administration seems to persist in desiring an absence of open data, understanding the spread in the optic of power, and in terms of his ability to impose controls–but has revealed far less interest in getting data to the nation in ways that might be helpful, in ways that were already clear in his address on March 12, 20200, but only became clearer as the terrible risks of a lag in the release of valuable public information and the scope of official undercounts was revealed in the comparison between the independent data counts harvested by the Covid Tracking Project (see previous link!) and CDC data on public tests for the virus revealed a week after Trump’s duplicitous national address–an undercount that revealed the asymptotic rise of tests administered since the project began in March, and tests were first broadly offered.
The hope is to rectify huge undercounts of people tested, positive results of infection, negative results, and cases still pending based on aggregating public statements of local health authorities, local trusted tabulations or counts, official websites with double controls, tabulating distributed data with regular timestamps, otherwise unavailable from CDC. Often, the rules of testing are so tied to manifestations of physical signs of illness or exposure, and the paucity of promised test kits. Many states where CDC counts are low because of the absence of infection tallies in many stats, and low counts in others.
The problem is in large part about a massive failure of tabulation and of transparency. Due to budget cuts in the Trump Era, the CDC seems in itself no longer able to engage in the regular tabulation of tests given or confirmed, and has withdrawn any hope to provide accurate data, relying on local undercounts, resulting in a huge abdication of its responsibility of ensuring public health. Despite an eventual concentration of those afflicted in the United States, the huge under testing relative to other nations where the virus spread terrifies. And promises before Trump’s address of administering “roughly 1.5 million tests” never materialized, despite past success in distribution of H1N1 kits in the other world of 2009. With CDC counts being potentially wildly inaccurate, policies of testing diverge in states and lag far behind abilities to react to viral transmission that is often unclear until the incubation period passes–and fail to be tested for treatment even if they are carrying COVID-19.
The limited preventive measures that would be placed into effect would prevent the entrance of the virus that had already broadly spread for months–the absurd allowance flights to and from Britain would not be affected served to register his pleasure in Brexit, perhaps, while wreaking revenge at the European Union he has long disdained for not pulling its share of weight –as far back as 1995, when first voicing his public political pronouncements began–acting’s if the viral outbreaks that were Eruope’s problems were not the world’s, but in fact came from the Schengen group, but had still not arrived here, as if transmission could be contained by sideswiping allies to disrupt the possibility of coordinated response.
To be sure, Trump may have been watching data visualizations and charts that gave him a poor sense of the disease–Maggie Haberman left it open whether his COVID-19 policy reflected his dependence on FOX as his prime information source.
The maps of infections of Europe were concentrated as choropleths, but many have a disproportionate relation of map to bubble that make it seem as if the entire continent was infected, without letting us know what percentage of the population of each nation–but building buffers that count “total cases”–which only mean total reported cases. The irresponsibility of such a use of GIS has been discussed by Kenneth Field in his to-the-point blog, but the cat seems out of the bag, for many who prefer to “consume” information by charts. The total “cases” provide a poor sense of actual levels of concentration, but could profit from resizing map symbols, or a reduced geographic scope–or being sized to cases per millions, or dot density plot of greater sophistication, rather than rely on a choropleth that is a case study for poor visualization practices, showing little sense of geographic distribution, of population differences, normalization by time of identifying cases of the coronovirus, or numbers of test given over space that would make the sheer numbers legible, rather than merely waving what is effectively a red flag.
As Trump spoke in the Oval Office, atavistic echoes of his past history of outraged pronouncements seemed to still echo in his head in the hope of resurrecting rallying cries that fell suddenly on increasingly unreceptive ears. The language of crisis was however muted, but cast in a national optic that strained credulity. at last, given the national lenses in which he viewed what it was hard to deny was a global problem, beyond the confines of state territory. This was the problem of being forced to think globally when the American President had not only deep reluctance but a deeply tragic cognitive impossibility to do so. He had been elected President in some part by virtue of this appeal of this very inability.
Trump seemed to be shoring up these figments, in falling back on a language of opposition; the basic syntax of Make America Great Again, imbued with the hard edges of local insularity, jarringly incommensurate with a global pandemic that we still map by jurisdictions and frontiers of territorial administration, even as its spread clearly renders these notions of territory obsolete. But the point of the lecture seemed to be to contain the fears by which the President seemed possessed of the distance for the ballooning infection rates abroad as if similar asymptotic expansions of illness could be forestalled, as if by an act of willed imaginary, and fear staved off that a certified global pandemic was indeed truly global. Trump espoused a comparative tally among nations, showing little or no concern with the problem of preparation for something that was undeniably “really big.”
No injections on quarantine seemed of need, indeed, for Trump claimed himself able to excise the roots of the evil with a comic level of surgical precision by declaring an outright travel ban from the European Union, which left the world wondering if this was only economic retribution.
Global seemed bracketed in the speech as if it were a bad word. President Trump seemed oddly unawares that he did so on a global stage–more than a national one–by playing to a national audience, in ways that seemed to sadly abdicate the responsibility of public health to authoritarian regimes as China and North Korea who had far more effectively contained the virus’ virulent spread, while we were made to suffer the pablum of pronouncements of continued public safety that seemed an invitation to denial. What was the future seemed unclear, as the idea of how to prepare for the coming illness seemed anyone’s best guess, totally up in the air, and something we could not imagine the federal government had a sense of how to implement further tests, secure hospital beds, or coordinate a medical strategy.
We were all guinea pigs. Markets swung, reacted positively later to assurances of available testing, although whether these would materialize in an efficient manner remains unclear, as what was a China story became a global story that couldn’t be parsed in national terms, even as infections were tracked in national buckets, constrained by local abilities to provide accurate testing to local populations.
For it hardly made sense to try to convince the nation of its continued security in an emergency that was broadly recognized as global, and was almost impossible to understand in other terms: he seemed all of a sudden a messenger of the past, arrived by time-travel from an obsolescent world of national security and the homeland, a category truly incommensurate with current events. The disconnect was grave.
Other than the world falling apart, the outlook seemed good, Trump insisted. Perhaps the role of processes of globalization that are so clearly revealed by the trajectory of the epidemic stick in the throat or mind of Donald Trump. This is a deep cognitive problem, that would mean, that we cannot expect the President to process, as he continues to believe we can draw lines around the transmission of disease before the American people; but his mindset only echoes how we map by the misleading if not false buckets of jurisdictions and borders–although these are the closest we have to a health authorities, to be sure–and must rely on the datasets that nations release, with little global accords for transparency. The reverse has become true, as news media are frustrated in getting access to local numbers, and the danger grows that manny vital local news organizations simply won’t make it through the economic crisis that the health crisis has provoked.
How did it become so bad? The continued charisma of data led us to trust the best maps we can draw by the data that is available and on hand, even if we know it may not present a picture of viral transmission, carriers, or even deaths. We are left, as the best new source we might rely on, to plot the virulence of the spread of the coronavirus in ways that affirm its global proportions and scale, although we leave off the map those areas where no public health records are available–Mexico; much of Africa; Afghanistan and Turkmenistan–for which there is no data, and imagine South Africa as if it was a hotspot of the African continent, even if this is a distortion of datasets. But the designation of Europe as a central site of the virus’ spread, as China’s outbreak appeared contained, after drastic measures were taken, seemed to call for taking drastic, unilateral measures of our own, without even needing to consult other nations.
We were left to stare at the asymptotic curves of numbers of infections that had grown over three months in our interconnected globe the knows no real borders, moving from the exponential rise in cases of infection to the map and ask if any tie to a map made real sense, save, at this point, to grasp the very global nature of the viral outbreak, and the problem of whether we were only days or weeks before the uptick, facing an inevitably rising curve we as individuals might only hope to contain–as more people were infected outside China than within it by late February.
The charisma of statistics already painted a grim picture that seemed as if it could not be understood outside the logic of globalization that Trump had long resisted and tilted against. He must not be able to stomach it. Luckily, marijuana legalization might get us through things, though the disconnect seemed so grave that the speech of what was a true state of the union was a disruption of proportions we could barely wrap our heads around, and were inevitably diminished by or faced to deny.
The truly pained President, seeming to struggle to get his mind around anything of global scope, but hoping he was able to stave off a massive selling off of stocks as equity futures declined without finding any vision of economic stimulus–as if the terms that President Obama had tried to champion as a means for securing a national recover might never be spoken from the resolute desk during his Presidency–led him only to assure the nation of paid sick leave for hourly workers, who must have only been wondering about their medical bills. While he may have been tempted to argue that luckily, global warming provided a sense of safety as the warming atmosphere would free the world from Coronavirus, he never went there, thankfully, but limited himself to paltry payroll tax exemptions, as if having the IRS take less out of paychecks was what the nation most of all wanted, as they saw the scope of their medical bills only rise–and not only for their elders–as we lacked any narrative or story map for the spread of infections on such terrifying asymptotic rise.
The poor practice of plotting raw data, without trying to craft anything like a story or narrative, even within the CDC, acting as if to defuse any epidemiological meaning in the below choropleth, converting CDC data into a visualization plot, without offering a handle to process total cases.
Yet the pace of the identification of confirmed cases over time seemed most crucial in many ways, as, even if we have no sense of incubation periods, choropleths provide poor senses of grasping the spread of the disease in ways that might help grasp the importance of social distancing, rather than shoveling sheer data at us that reflects the morass in which governments find themselves and project it onto the general public in quite disorienting ways.
Trump tried, by the force of what seemed medication, to summon the needed gravitas to assuage worries. But the mental gears seems not to work before a pandemic that World Health Officials had declared global, of which his own health officials declared we had not yet seen the worst. All left to do was state in an unemotive–if not robotic–monotone displaying a lack of empathy or understanding. He seemed as if he was perhaps paralyzed by his own fears, that everything was under control and that we had the best doctors possible. We would get through this, he intoned, together, as we always did, turning to preaching a gospel of social solidarity curiously foreign to the Trump era; hardly believing the assertion he hoped would get him through the long night ahead, he spoke stonily as stock markets plummeted in Frankfurt as he said markets “are going to be just fine” as if repeating an incantation that seemed suddenly meaningless in a logic of magical thinking or forced optimism, while the virus spread more quickly outside China than within it.
And with American workers without paid sick leave or health coverage, the virus’ virulence would perhaps threaten the domestic economy more than China’s in our far denser cities, and the blow to our leisure economy, long nourished by our so-called “creative class.” But unemployment insurance was not to be touched, even as millions were quickly out of work, and the stimulus package produced in Congress got rid of the need for employers to retain workers and provide them with health care at large companies–Amazon; Walmart; Target; Walgreen–as millions were laid off without resources to care for themselves or receive medical care.
The prospect of no test kits, no cure, no therapeutic procedures, no basic tools to address the situation or sense of how to prevent communication of a virus that had already gotten out of the bag globally left it unclear what a President could do–especially one who trafficked exclusively in tired tropes of national boundaries. After all, after decades of repeating that things weren’t fine, and reciting a narrative that we were going to hell in a hand basket, the doom whose imminence he had been predicting to mass approval seems to have arrived. Indeed, the sense of an utter emergency that Trump had been decrying as imminent seemed to have arrived, only it wasn’t in national terms that it was best managed or even understood–and being ripped off wasn’t the issue; being inadequately protected was suddenly evident.
It might be the case that if one could stop time the night that he spoke, and sought to address the nation to calm the markets that incredibly seemed to be a more important audience than the health of the nation’s inhabitants, the spread was not that significant in a current visualization–if one discounted that these confirmed cases didn’t include any of those within whose body the virus was incubating, in whom symptoms of coughing, chills, and exhaustion had not yet presented themselves, even if they were already infected.
But if that was the situation in late January 2020, when the United States seemed far removed from the disproportionate numbers of confirmed sufferers of the coronavirus on a global scale, the notion that we could isolate and preserve ourselves from a virulent infection that had already arrived by closing borders was clearly preposterous, even if one had little expertise in epidemiology.
And even if the general numbers seemed distant, nothing lies overseas in a globe today that lacks edges, and whose networks were already delivering the virus not only to Italy, a chronically swollen boot in this cartogram by the master of the genre, Benjamin Hennig, based on WHO Coronavirus infections form COVID-19, but the global ballooning of infections was clearly impending, as all who have the heart to watch Hennig’s map animation of reported confirmed cases can attest.
For all of Trump’s aim to sound decisive, he was posturing by announcing immediate suspension of flights from or to Europe. The sudden and totally unexpected announcement revealed utter inexperience at governing, made even more terrifying by the fact that he seemed to take pleasure in spurring a panicked booking of return flights in massive numbers, creating an onrush of returning passengers that airports had little preparation to process: the unclear nature of travel suspension policy declared to be immediate created panic among Americans who returned to face crowded lines for eight hours flooded cavernous airports from O’Hare to Dallas Ft. Worth, without plans or training to process their re-entry, a level of crowding that was the reverse of social distancing experts advised–without a clear protocol for containing the virus’ spread.
If Trump liked national emergencies as a constitutional workaround, the logic of us v. them wasn’t so compelling before Coronavirus, even if it was billed as a “foreign virus,” as if viruses also possessed nationalities. Would the disjuncture between the economy and his assertions prove problematic, or would concern with the absence of the arrival of something “better” than Obamacare that had not yet materialized? National emergencies recast the global pandemic in border-based terms, in keeping with an authoritarian tendencies familiar from the Trump Presidency. We wished we had the emergency on the scale of that he had declared as a workaround to accelerate construction of a border wall.
There was a sticky dissonance in looking at the stock market as a totem and god, whose health was equivalent to that of the nation–rather than the health of the nation’s residents. As stock futures and financial markets plunged globally, Trump rather preposterously suggested travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, with additional payroll tax cuts, he failed to address the lack of the availability of tests of infection by the Coronavirus that he had promised as forthcoming to anyone desiring them, just the previous Friday at his visit to the CDC, urging calm as stocks tried to absorb a global plunge he tried to forestall or block out by sticking to the teleprompter.
Traders overseas who watched Trump talk as the market was functioning saw the address create a sudden plunge in international markets. The scene created in Frankfurt was desparate, and the disappointment in the absence of any clear measures profound. Perhaps the only question was really whether in the face of such massive unpreparedness to coordinate a global effort, the markets would suck the global economy under, and if global markets would soon flatline, as Goldman Sachs had already warned as the virus spread to fifty countries in late February, based on examining the decline of economic productivity in China–with the virus having claimed 2,800 lives, but the virus had begun spreading more quickly outside China than within it.
Even if we all knew, for the most part, that the limited statistics of infection and death in the United States on offer in the national maps of Coronavirus incidence were themselves undercounts as it was only based on positive tests administered by the CDC, whose downsizing both delayed and fail to accelerate enough testing to contain the virus. He tried to assure us that things were fine, as if to replace the image of these maps seared into our minds, by the gravitas of the monotone of his voice, perhaps; patience cracked at the very absurdity of his pronouncements as financial markets plunged globally as he preposterously suggested that travel restrictions were the primary response that the virus required, as well as more tax cuts, and injections of the sort he had never made before, in common memory, to keep calm–as if that was possible.
There was a problem in central casting before the inescapable fear of a great equalizer of something more close to biblical proportions than anything a nation-state could respond. But as images involuntarily returned of the Athenian plague, Black Death, or film scenarios of Bong Joon-ho that were not yet produced, the scope of the pandemic seems to push Trump off the stage. A suddenly miscast President tried to assure the markets, ham-fistedly, by projecting calm, so oddly unlike than emotive engagement and energy honed on Reality TV, as if to be jarringly dissonant, he seemed to seek to assume the adulthood for the nation he had long delayed to a late age, sitting behind a teleprompter. This was Nixon telling the country he was not a crook,–after all warnings of Nixonian comportment in Trump’s disdain of Congress aired in the Impeachment Hearings were ridiculed.
The pathos of the Trump moment seemed, however, far worse, and filled with tragedy. Bluster wasn’t appropriate here, and made no sense–gravitas was lacking, and he seemed tragically unable to sound reassuring as much as he spoke. And his jumping fingers seemed to know it, suggesting a seismograph that was underlying the empty injunctions of his words that had no bearing at all on the actuality of the unpreparedness of public hospitals, ventilators, or even isolation chambers, and the far off nature of hopes for any vaccine to arrive. The lack of availability of testing seemed incredible. The only possibilities of their provision by select businesses as if these constituted the only functioning parts of the nation suggested a return to local fiefdoms, as Amazon and the Gates Foundation stepped in in Seattle, given the utter lack of national coordination of a health policy, and Google later offered a functional health website to be pioneered in the Bay Area. But the costs of treatment for those with this coronavirus in the United States is estimated for someone with employer insurance—and are from any complications–as just under $10,000, and for those with complications could find that their bills more than double to $20,292. (Having a heart or lung disease, diabetes, or a suppressed immune system would create health care costs far more dangerous and prohibitive.)
And so the questions on everyone’s mind seemed pressing as they sought to protect themselves from the coronavirus’s spread.
We were all looking for feudal lords for protection, as the government wasn’t there. The disconnect between datasets and vectors of Coronavirus transmission, or between the growth of verifiably confirmed COVID-19 casts and geography, exposed the problems of a lack of leadership deeper than providing health care, if fundamental to doing so, as we were told the national health crisis had not yet reached its peak, as it would over time.
And the nation–and world–clearly knew it, even if there are no animated maps of the future. Trump’s laboriously read and oddly detached call for calm stood at odds with the disruption of global travel that he seemed to think himself entitled: the declaration was issued on prime time, to a global audience, looking for leadership, with assurances of the availability of tests for all who wanted them, when all knew that there were none on available or on offer at local hospitals, and had taken to hoard groceries, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, and even toilet paper, as they got ready to hunker down for The Big One that seemed to have arrived. The lack of response–no discussion of the production of ventilators; no sense of publicly accessible stations of diagnosis; no sense of a timeline for expanding hospital facilities–was made more evident by the recourse to policing national frontiers as we all new Coronavirus had arrived and was undercounted.
Was this the voice of death, or the death of Trump, or the final end of a national health policy, from the top down? Only the distortions of the Mercator Projection allowed us to imagine areas of the world that were free from confirmed COVID-19 cases by late March, as the confirmed cases had in fact spread globally, and multiple popup ads reminded us to reconsider the immediate reaction of taking our IRA portfolios out of the stock market.
We could only see the abiding fiction of the overly frayed relation of government to nation, a relation at which Trump had assiduously hacked at for years with abandon, now suddenly seemed like something that we missed desparately and wondered where it had gone. Afraid to mention restrictive actions or quarantines to his base, he merely implored the nation to follow local authorities, knowing that there was no way that a reduced hamstrung government and public heath agency could confront a viral outbreak of this scale, occasioning numerous administration officials qualify and correct the policies that he had announced soon after he had finished speaking, trying to remap, or better shoehorn, the global pandemic into purely local terms, by asking his audience to listen to local authorities–presumably because there was no longer a national one.
What was most striking in the address to the nation was what wasn’t present in it, rather than what was–an emphasis on traveling less; social distancing; immediate travel bans; washing hands; self-quarantining; and a healthy does of grim steadfast resolve. There was no mention or explanation of the critical national shortage of coronavirus test kits, the homeless communities without medical care, all taboo topics for a President desperate to be seen as a leader, with little appetite for planning policy. It felIt taboo to mention health insurance, health facilities, or cautionary statements about false rumors on twitter–a topic of sensitivity!–or the coming changes to our imagined abundance, its lid already being ripped off by frenzied mass-purchases of food and household supplies, or the inevitable stresses on local water systems as a result of requisite repeated hand washing, and an overload of capacities for storing waste.
We were left with dizzying anxiety at the utter inability to conceive of what the future might bring, and little sense of guidelines to move ahead with calm save from being directed to dismiss our concerns. President Trump may have aspire to calm, but he was challenged in trying to occupy a stage persona he had never really inhabited or valued. While he became U.S. President by reveling based on his gut over more than seven years, it became evident that there was no ship of state, as we were all passengers, strapped in on the same pilotless rudderless voyage he was, into entirely unknown water, without any necessary resources to cope. His imperial declaration of a restoration of peace in the face of the virus seemed preposterous, an echo of social media declarations of the need to insulate the United States from Ebola, on Twitter, in ways that led to his apoplectic abundance of all caps–“STOP THE FLIGHTS!” in 2014–to unseat President Obama’s public authority as if to unsteady Obama’s projection of calm and resolve–
–his habitual recourse to alarmism tinged with indignation to conceal minimal knowledge of infectious disease beyond his own deep sense of fears. Even if the so many more Americans were already infected with Coronavirus than Ebola, its viral transmission was entirely different, and, despite assuring Americans that the folks at the CDC were amazed how quickly he “got it” by his preternaturally precocious adeptness at statistics and epidemiology, his twitter fingers could assure the nation and get the markets to once more rise.
The vain hope seems to be repeated, in increasingly abacadabric fashion, before the graph of economic-freefall on a truly terrifying scale that he had never imagined was even possible, but which China, his economic competitor, had succumbed, in ways that planted clear doubts in anyone who tried to argue that the virus was willed or manufactured but he Chinese government to inflict global chaos on America: this chart was our future, not only as a spillover, or a shift in markets and production, but as a blow to household wealth and economy o fthe sort that would put his own continued residency in the Oval Office into question–perhaps the only thing that Trump really cares about, anyways.
Was he just having a hard time containing his fear? Was that why the hands were grasped so tightly, the voice seemed reduced to a drugged somnolence? The backstory was one of clear cause and effect. Having relentlessly cut the CDC budget, dismantled the pandemic task force assembled by his nemesis, his predecessor Barack Obama, he wanted to demonstrate that it was, in fact, useless, and all we need is common sense–not experts! It was truly unclear who the declaration of ceasing flights from Europe was aimed at, especially as no control over visiting European travelers had been at all in place for months, save perhaps taking temperatures of some arrivals at JFK. Echoing the bans on travel that he had enacted in the names of national safety–using nations as the basis to parse non-national groups of terror, as if this made sense–
As if he reacted to being informed told that “Europe” had displaced China as the site of the contagion’s transmission, he had addressed the nation by introducing the very sort of cordon sanitaire of the sort that he imagined would inspire assurance. Restricting airplane flights out of Europe, as if this was the same situation as restricting flights from Africa to protect the nation against Ebola, seemed sufficient to restore balance and tranquility ended the grim task of delivering a pubic address before he got back to bed or to twitter–as he soon did, issuing a set of delayed corrections–or whatever it is he does, or maybe just wash his hands and get ready to hunker down, after checking on his personal supply of hand sanitizer that is being probably stockaded in the White House basement in bulk.
How did he even gain his bearings? Was he bemoaning the fact that he had gutted the CDC and the staff he needs to ascertain the scale of the virus’ impact and presence, or did he just want to affirm that he could control it all, single handedly? As there is no Chief Data Officer or Data Scientist any more in the United States, able to help coordinate the Precision Medical Initiative, since Obama’s team of cybersecurity advisors resigned en masse; Donald Trump has shown an easier way to guide the nation, more akin to building a wall, rooted in the nerve endings in his gut, free from being laden by claims to expertise, even this time it was with our allies, and was performed without advance notice. By running the gamut on inaccuracies, mistakes, and deceptive statements that bordered on lies–“we have been in frequent contact with our allies” while foreign leaders were so cut off guard that they expressed disapproval at a move Trump took so “unilaterally and without consultation.” To be sure, we saw a greater concentration of COVID-19 cases in Europe, but isn’t the problem containing its spread at home?
Trump’s address looked over the utter absence of any infrastructure or preparation that would facilitate ending of international flights, and stocks cratered as most all health officials noted that banning flights was not only useless but the worst possible response at at time when attention should focus on testing and making tests available throughout the nation, and ensuring their distribution to vulnerable populations, even as we returned to mantras of social distancing that appeal to self-preservation and individual survival, even if they are cast as a collective need. It overlooked the long suspicion of funding pandemic preparedeness for infectious diseases like the Swine Flu or SARS, given the pressing fears of pandemic infections. In cutting pandemic funding by almost a billion and calling it “pork” just before the H1N1 outbreak, Republicans effectively hamstrung national response–even as Canadian Health authorities sensibly created a reserve of 55 million N95 masks, at little cost, in a bid for preparedness, while the United States faces a worrisome shortage of masks, ventilators, or medical readiness. If H1N1 killed over 12,000 Americans, and 150,000 worldwide, the declaration of that global pandemic for which few had immunity posed questions of vaccine distribution and preparation, creating a basis for coordinating national responses to viral outbreaks of global scale as international emergencies, demanding that all nations heighten readiness and surveillance for influenza-like viral outbreaks never before observed in human subjects, and to which resistance is weak.
If WHO sought to map national focal points in a web of viral transmission across borders, emphasizing that its design did not imply any confirmation of “the legal status of any country, territory, city, or area of its authorities,” the expression of national authority was the main typos of Trump’s address. The stunning absence of any update on epidemiological investigation of transmission, human to human or human to surface, and indeed periods of incubation, and best practices, was as dizzyingly disorienting as the lack of a coordinated response to the virus, as the sense it was commensurate only with authoritarian measures of closing borders, eliminating pathways, and dangers was clouded in an absence of a more medically expert briefing. It is striking that Washington opened discussion about “secuirng” the longest unmilitarized border between the United States and Canada–hardly an enemy–with troops, to flag folks crossing at unofficial points of entry–to considerable and understandable Canadian consternation.
The rhetoric of border building had escalated, indeed, as the number of reported cases of infection crested above a thousand, confirming the home-grown nature of the “Chinese virus” that had begun to plant local seeds.
By only revealing the extent to which Trump has consistently intimidated his own advisors from ever speaking to him, and refused obstinately to process their advice, we had a clear sense that the image of stern-faced gravity was worse than an Emperor Has No Clothes moment; as it showed him a Chief Executive more out of touch than ever imagined, cut off from the world behind walls of his own making behind which he had long lived. Newspapers tried to act responsibly, by reminding readers that we were at a critical stage in the course of the virus’ spread, in a truly Hippocratic manner, by suggesting the possible scenarionas for the Coronavirus outbreak and spread; the contrast between the nation among leaving the outbreak to spread across the nation, introducing some social distancing as a control measure, and instituting nation-wide curbs on social contact was eloquently offered as three roads in a wood in a front-page data vis, as the chief executive itched markets to reopen by Easter, adhering to an unchanged calendar of religious celebration.
The alternative images for the social controls enacted by national policies suggest the crucial points of coronavirus infection as a national problem.
The declaration that Sunday would be a National Day of Prayer seemed the best that we could hope for, as Trump seemed to regain his stride, or his sense of his true audience, in beseeching Americans to continue, to look, as we have “throughout our history . . . to God for protection and strength in times like these . . . . to turn towards prayer in an act of faith,” in the belief that “Together, we will easily PREVAIL!” The call that cast Trump as the head of a mass church occurred as worship at churches, cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques were went online, or, for parishioners near my house, found them to be simply closed.
Schengen, for what that call to togetherness was worth, was hardly Schengen anymore, closing borders to non-residents for thirty days in hopes to stop the virus’ spread, on March 17, ending the border-free status of the twenty-nine countries, blocking all but essential travel. The moves were a temporary reintroduction of border control, after Austria and Hungary had first closed their borders, as Austria closed its border to Italy on March 11 and Hungary followed by closing borders to Austria and Slovenia on March 12, setting up a domino effect in the Czech Republic, Lithuania (March 14), and Poland (March 15) after which Schengen was no longer Schengen at all–leading Trump to invoke the southern border to all asylum seekers–even at the risk of turning away people without clean living conditions, healthcare, or shelter as if to send the most vulnerable to the coronavirus into global circulation, increasing transmission risks–while blaming them for the virus’ spread.
Such an authoritarian militarization of a national response to the virus rests a misguided policy of “voluntary return” to shoot displaced into transborder limbo to nominally forestall viral communication, boasting of plans for “invoking a certain provision that will allow us great latitude as to what we do,” in blocking communicable disease to enter the borders of the United States, as if the domestic emergency was due to needy migrants. The emergency decision to close immigration courts across the nation as the coronavirus spread by executive order leaves than a million cases in limbo.
Travel bans became a way to process the global pandemic by containing the national units, and introducing the very national borders that had weakened considerably over time that came back with a vengeance–even if the analogy to a military response was less than clear.
Collective practices of social distancing were literalized as bulwarks against fears of the coronavirus crossing borders, as governments tried to enact policies to assuage growing fears by suspending land, sea, and air travel, as fears of the virus migrating spread globally, even as clear data of rates of infection, periods of incubation, and health policies were not understood.
But border closures created security–and a sense of progress, as if to compensate for an absence of data, or good health policy, if the logical reaction of fear based on the ballooning rates of confirmed infections–even if Trump seemed, almost pathologically, to not want statistics to be revealed, less the sacred cow of the markets be disturbed, and the need to expand unemployment insurance and health care in this emergency be apparent. Warned by big corporations that any government outlay would be disastrous fo the nation’s markets, we seemed to have entered an acute grotesque schizoid phase of reaction, where the nation’s inhabitants were being asked to take a hit for the sake of the economy, and the agility of the free market was trumpeted as the best reaction to a global health crisis.
The call to prevail provided little sense of guidance, again, as Trump would instruct governors to fend for their own in locating ventilators, ramping up hospital beds, or guaranteeing health care, as he insisted this was not his responsibility, local counties turned to their own policies of “shelter-in-place” orders, to remedy growing fears of the absence of any vision for a national health policy–a state of siege that recalls the construction of the first fallout shelters that sprouted in American cities in the early 1960s seamless with Cold War fears, fully equipped by FEMA with bottles of water, Civil Defense crackers, and radiation meters.
We seem to be told such border closures will help, even as the global spread advances internally in most countries, but borders are focussed on as if to mask needed medical resources and anti-contagion policies.
By ordering folks to remain at home and shuttering all businesses, California public health administrators in Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Marin, and Contra Costa counties, the instruction to do our part to keep everyone healthy expanded the sort of work-from-home policies that Silicon Valley–those policies, which began in tech, with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, may well have encouraged Washington state policies, and surely set a sensible model in place for collective containment of coronavirus’ spread.
By the time that Jay Inslee ordered a two-week shut down of restaurants, entertainment, and recreation, numerous states had, to be sure, in response to the danger of overwhelming public health systems and undersupplied hospitals, as states and localities issued different orders to shelter-at-home and self-quarantine, in preparation for a trying time for public trust.
There was a clear echo of the regional resistance of the Western Climate Initiative, a collective of states electing to self-regulate carbon emissions as Trump rolled back Obama-era regulations and the U.S. Climate Alliance, going it on their own way with a carbon-pricing network. Indeed, the nucleus of that very group seemed to be the basis for statewide orders, with the addition of the northeastern and midwest states where public services stood to come under increased stress.
As infections are communicated, such policies may be band-aids–or depend on regional affiliations to make up for the absence of a unified national policy, turning states into effective “petri dishes” for the coronavirus, depending or relying on local alerts along all media possible, even as our leader issued continued demands and considerations on social media that seemed to not be looking at the map.
We all map our relation to the world by the tokens of food that we assemble on our dinner plates. But on the carefully prepared meal of Thanksgiving, we face the orchestration of a full harvest plate–sweet potatoes from the earth; turkeys fed over a year from grain; celeriac or Brussels sprouts for something somewhat green–seem a statement of global harmony. The meal is a sign that all is right in the old agrarian world we have long left.
Yet the annual sacrifice of the native bird perpetuates a faded agrarian geography of the nation, is also a false geography: much as the Presidential pardon of the turkey, long promoted by the Poultry and Egg National Board and the National Turkey Federation, who first gave President Truman a bird to pardon, has cast the sacrifice in pointedly national terms–mythically tied to President Lincoln’s supposed clemency of one turkey in the Civil War era at the request of his son, Tad, in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, as if to commute the bird’s sacrifice, is often cast as an event of returning to ethics, and joining the nation. Cemented by the time an enterprising Rhode Island poultry dealer, Horace Vose, boosted his brand by sending several well-fed members of his flock to the White House occupant to promote his stock, the conceit of yearly offerings or pardons served to cement the bounty of a seasonal sacrifice of turkey to national health. It must have been especially striking that outbreak strains of Salmonella have been boldly mapped onto the nation by the Center for Disease Control. The increasingly terrifying visualizations of the spread of fowl-borne infections seem a sad reflection on the nation, transforming what was a native bird into a vector of contagion and disease in over-extended food networks where farms are defined as producers or providers and procedures of laying eggs and raising chicks or slaughtering and butchering meat geographically dispersed on an industrial scale.
The expansion and commodification of a brisk trade in turkey meat goes beyond the holiday season, but the data on breakout cases of food-born Salmonella infections seem to multiply in recent years as turkey consumption grows or is planned to grow each November. And the CDC issued choropleth of recent breakouts invites us to reflect on the changing state of turkey suppliers and distributors, the industrialization of food, and the fate of the bird whose conversion into a product bred for consumption may carry multiple attendant public health risks, concealed by perpetuation of a false geography of Thanksgiving as an occasion of bounty of the harvest, with its image of a season of abundant plenty. Has the continued provision of abundant turkey for Thanksgiving season created a danger of overbreeding, since the icons of the meal in post-World War I America became promoted as an occasion for rendering thanks? How, if so, can we come to reconcile the spread of Salmonella and the nostalgia for consuming a bounteous harvest at an open table duirng the Thanksgiving feast?
The remove of a fictitious scene of purely domestic provision that seems borne after the national disruption of World War I seems further receded, but is increasingly clung to mark time and visit loved ones.
It is little surprise that the feast day that is so closely tied to the nation–and the alleged return to the agrarian calendar in what Philip Roth rhapsodized as that “neutral, de-religionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing,” which was blanched of ethnic associations or even protestations of faith, and provided a sacrament of secularization in America for those who saw it as an event with “nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff–no kugel, no guilt fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people–one colossal turkey feeds all,” has been displaced by the increased presence in our society of the production of turkeys on industrial scale, and the attendant opportunities for microbial infection that have expanded with the parcellization of the life-cycle of turkeys in response to market demand evident in the splitting of numerous “farms” into hatcheries, growing farms, breeder farms, “growing out” farms, slaughterhouses, meat-preparation and distribution sites, which complicates any perpetuation of a national myth focussing solely on the raw and the cooked, or the wild land cultivation of the bird–with little foresight of the far-reaching consequences of the transformation of the bird into an increasingly industrially-farmed product.
There is a tie between the annual sacrifice of a turkey to national citizenship and well-being, tied to the pleasure of tryptophan-induced containment that goes far beyond consumer satisfaction, but seems to get at a sense of well-being. It is as if the fruits of the harvest are shared every Thanksgiving in a recognition of thanks, easily susceptible to its own new age twist. The tainting of that colossal bird that the emergence of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella strains threaten to overturn is deeply symbolic: for the bird is a symbol of plenty, able by extension to affirm not only economic well-being but satisfaction of the nation as a whole–or afflict the nation as a whole, in a time when the spread of cases of Salmonella infection so often associated with undercooked turkey meat that has increasingly appeared in prepared foods if not already arrived in the sanctum of the Thanksgiving table.
It is bizarre that the New World bird of distinctive appearance was already long labeled as an outsider, as if treated as a bit of a refugee. Although it arrived from the New World with chocolate and coffee, if from North America, the naming of the low-status bird that provides an annual image of bounty was rarely granted insider status, and rarely mapped correctly—but was long labeled a foreigner, in European languages: as English linked it obstinately with a Turkish provenance, confusing it with the African guinea-fowl, Spanish and much of central and Eastern Europe identified it as from India by an unrelated nomenclature, rather than the “indies,” nd Celtic northerners seems to have believed it from France, embedding the poor bird in a lexicon of geographic disorientation and almost compulsively attributing it an unclear origin in ways akin to shrugging shoulders, while all Scandinavia seem to have linked the fowl readily to Calcutta. The Armenian image of “sea rooster” most clearly acknowledges its overseas origins but is as unspecific as possible, although the sea-faring Portuguese show some greater interest in naming the foul with geographic precision in calling it a galo do Peru. The onomatopoeic appellations that spread throughout Mediterranean countries seem striking, but the cartographer May have been over-eager in assimilating the truthuhn to a gobble, given possible linguistic migration from other Saxon lands, and assimilation to a sort of hen.
The mystification of the current bird to a vector of infectious disease is far less interesting to ponder on a purely intellectual plane or as a cultural construction, unless we admit our American readiness to assimilate our foodstuffs to a poorly regulated free market.
The current mission of the CDC to tracked and report to the nation outbreaks of Salmonella infections has recurred each Thanksgiving in recent years. The set of infographic of reported infections of antibiotic-resistant outbreak strains of Salmonella registers a deep upsetting of the balance of the holiday season, even if its subject is really ground turkey meat. The appearance of such statistical measurements on the eve of the national feast day seem emblematic of the atrophying of our national well-being and an erosion of bounty; it bodes to mar the release tryptophan-induced soporific sensations, upset stomaches and intestinal afflictions, more than boosting serotonin by a healthy carbohydrate binge: raising the specter of salmonella outbreaks threatens to mar preparations for the “American pastoral par excellence” by ruffling the feathers and increasing fears of most families with images of infectious outbreaks of diarrhea, stomach cramps, and poor sleep.
Even if tied quite explicitly to “raw turkey products”–an increasingly popular item in animal food as well as in turkey burgers–the national scale of such infections on the eve of Thanksgiving seem to have demanded being mapped in a cartographic coloring associated with underdone turkey meat. And WaPo seized upon it, just at the start of Thanksgiving plans, to reveal a national chorography whose color ramp suggests undercooked or raw meat, warning its readers of the danger of raw turkey products at a time when the turkey has increasingly become a product–as much as a sign of the finishing of a harvest. The data vis warns us to consume only the well-cooked, although the distribution of reported cases of infection by multi-drug-resistant strains of Salmonella found in raw turkey says little, in fact, about where the consumed turkey derived from or was first shipped: the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and West Virginia are curiously without reported cases, although each is relatively dense with turkey producers and farms, although such turkey-farming centers as Minnesota and Texas are lit bright pink.
The increased difficulty of confining the spread of salmonella outbreaks among turkeys, and the broad scope of the network of turkey distribution every Thanksgiving casts a frightening pall on the American institution long celebrated as that “neutral, de-religionized ground of Thanksgiving, when everybody gets to eat the same thing,” as Philip Roth once rhapsodically wrote, which saw “nobody sneaking off to eat funny stuff–no kugel, no guilt fish, no bitter herbs, just one colossal turkey for two hundred and fifty million people–one colossal turkey feeds all.”
For fears of the infection are no longer stemming from one colossal bird which we all partake, but the emergence among turkeys bred for eating with antibiotics and hormones of a fear that the consumer will be the one making the sacrifice, as specters of diarrhea, cramps, poor sleep, upset stomachs, and vomiting replace the soporific sensation tiredness from binging on tryptophans in ways akin to an accidental (or intentional) overdose of melatonin, with stuffing, sweet potatoes, and more than enough pumpkin pie on the side in a true glucose binge, which may make many feel like they were sacrificing their stomaches and selves, and forget the forty-six million turkeys sacrificed each Thanksgiving, which we still see fit to balance with the Presidential pardon “or commutation” of one turkey’s life. The turkeys, for their part, have lived packed tightly into two and a half to four square foot spaces, breathing dusty air laced with ammonia and whose oversized frames, developed for breeding for markets, beaks and toes removed from an early age, are fed antibiotics in ways that may encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, as if by a logic of breeding and producing birds for holiday tables–
We cling to the false geography of rural harmony in the assembly of imagined agrarian traditions on the Thanksgiving table seems internalized by the marketing of turkey meat by turkey distributors in the social media posts of Jennie-O distributors of turkey. Despite the falsified geography of independent turkey farmers that Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue perpetuates in his visits to family farms on the eve of Thanksgiving, turkey meat has become one of the most processed meats, and the most redefined “product” of the factory farm complex, as its availability for the Thanksgiving season creates a unique schedule of slaughtering, meat-processing, and poultry-distribution has created numerous possible avenues for bacterial infection. The demand for turkeys for Thanksgiving has led to the creation of single strains of birds–a hybrid white larger and faster growing than wild turkeys–far removed from the environment of wild turkeys. In response to markets, a species bred from artificial insemination and designed for eating has emerged, whose reproduction is engineered to ensure fewer males, more productive hatching, and structured the lives of turkeys to accommodate the annual prominence of the Thanksgiving feast.
Indeed, if the expansion of factory farm meat upended any clear relation between the raising of turkey and the bucolic image of the Thanksgiving table, turkey meat has become favored “products” far from animal husbandry. From the arrival of small poults at growing farms where they grow to 24-30 pounds in weight, and are prepared to be shipped to breeder farms, to produce eggs that provide markets with turkey meat, raised separately from males less they be injured while mating, hens are artificially inseminated once a week, and all eggs are collected to be stored off-site in temperature controlled incubators with thousands of eggs, to be delivered to larger farms less than twelve hours after hatching. The truly Taylorist production schedule on which turkeys are farmed at “grow-out” sites to sizes demanded by market tastes before they are transported to processing plants.
Such sad images of factory farming only remind us of the degree to which the finely-tuned operations of turkey production on which the “life” of turkey stock depend. For the birds’ lives are indeed determined by their conversion to carcasses, unsurprisingly, as they lead lives increasingly dependent on a via dolorosa dependent on cutting up at processing plants and arriving as commercial products, if not at dinner tables. Is it any wonder that an alarming number of pathogens have been regularly detected in turkey meat, creating considerable alarm at the discovery of Salmonella infections in prepared turkey meat?
The preparation of the bird that predates the division between the raw and the cooked, placing the “lives” of the birds in relation to the demands for Thanksgiving. Fears of Salmonella infections suggests not only the blurring of the cooking of turkey meat, and the conversion of the raw to the cooked, but the blurring of birds bread in unhealthy conditions for conversion to cooked turkey.
The false geography of the potlatch of the Thanksgiving table has perverted poultry production in the industry of factory farming around profit-margins of poultry providers and public tastes–for specialized cuts, ground meats, whole carcasses, and birds of different weights–as what once was a celebration of harvest has come to organize a complex timetable and cycle of production of raised turkey meat, whose illusory relation to the harvest and the land is perhaps best revealed by the temperature-controlled indoor sex-segregated contexts in which turkeys are raised, and the limited options of motion that most turkeys have in the course of their lives, compared with the huge distances that their carcasses travel cross country, or the shipments from hatcheries to breeder farms to growing farms to slaughterhouses to processing plants to meat distribution plants, in ways that make us wonder what distribution the “health” function of their iPhones might show if their motion was tracked, and how greatly the distance of their travels would contrast with their actual options for mobility in growing pens.
The increased infectious outbreaks that the arrival of bacterial infections of Salmonella in ground turkey meat seem to have threatened to upset the most American of family meals, however, as the fears of contaminated turkey meat have threatened an alternate imaginary of the nation preserved by the long faded image of family units among an infinite number of holiday tables.
The Thanksgiving plate seems a vestigial reminder of the harmony of the food cycle. While it is enough of a soothing celebration of something with its own complex feng shui to be the background of Jennie-O tweets, the gemütlichkeit of Thanksgiving and myth of the dinner supports a gastronomic reminder of domestic harmony is upset by the increased numbers of infections of turkey in ways that warrant national announcements and concerns from the CDC; each plate on the table is set in perfect order, as an image of the harvest is gathered in a sort of counterpoint on one’s own meal plate. But the harmony of that microcosm was disturbed by seasonal warnings of dangers of infections that this time arrived with increased urgency during the Great Turkey Recall of 2018. Ground turkey continued to be recalled by Jennie-O to the tune of over 164,000 pounds as the salmonella outbreak continued, amidst fears of a government shutdown. And even as fears of troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan raise deep concerns for he nation, the infectious outbreak widened by Christmas, leading producers to assured consumers that the lots of contaminated meat were labeled P-579, to preserve the healthiness of farmed turkey as warnings about Salmonella spread over half the states in the union, and only a small portion of the Salmonella outbreak strains in the nation that had already occurred by 2017, believed to derive from contact with live poultry or uncooked poultry parts in the nation.
Warnings of the safety of turkey meat are regularly issued by the Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, each Thanksgiving in recent years. The state-by-state parsing of outbreak strains to alert the public for consumption warnings, reveal the broad distribution of infected turkey meat, and their limited clustering suggest the wide range of possible vectors of contamination–
–and if the spread of infections from turkey meat from November 2017 had been tracked across twenty-six states given the dangers of handling or consuming poultry and in the dangers of the butchery, preparation and distribution turkey-meat, as much as its preparation in kitchens across America.
The persistence of the numbers of hospitalizations and infections that were traced to turkey meat suggests less of a clear map of the spread of infected meat–if it documents the incidence of reported cases of Salmonella–than the remove of turkey from local agrarian geography. In an era when the vast majority of poultry is farmed, and the seasonal consumption of turkey meat drives turkey production in ways that put increasing pressures on the production of a large number of turkeys in a small temporal window sufficient to accommodate the arrival of some fifty million birds in time for Thanksgiving, the existing network of slaughtering, refrigeration, and shipment of turkey meat may not allow for adequate meat safety. The annual production cycle of batches of designated fresh and frozen poultry designed to arrive in time for the holiday season has created multiple stresses on turkey meat’s distribution, and indeed on the handling of turkey parts, as well as the multiple way of packaging, seasoning, and flavoring turkey meats to meet consumer demand, as Philllip Clauer has noted in his helpful description of the “modern turkey industry,” as the packaging of turkey products in ways designed to meet a large choice for consumers, both by processing turkeys for individual parts–
–and offering seasoned varieties of ground turkey, which greatly expand the number of individuals handling turkey meat, by seasoning, marinating, and flavoring what is sold as a “healthy” choice of “all-natural” lean meat for consumers.
The initial warnings of Salmonella poisoning of “all-natural” turkey meat gave alarming immediacy on the eve of Thanksgiving, when turkeys would be arriving in refrigerators nationwide, on their way to ovens, kitchen counters, sinks, and eventually reach their destination on household tables. As infections spread to thirty-five states, the constellation of states which saw over seven infections–New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and California–provided testimony to the threat of actual infection of the nation, that spread from turkey processing plants often located at a distance from factor farms where most farmed turkeys are raised in crowded conditions.
The national feedback loops let processing plants calibrate the demand for whole turkey for each Thanksgiving Day and through Christmas. But it has raised alarms that the arrival of turkey meat is less safe than usual. Even as producers assured the public on social media that the outbreak strain was limited to ground turkey, and not whole animals–“Rest assured the recall does not include whole turkeys or products currently in stores”–as if this would inspire calm in the poultry markets, graphics of expanding numbers hospitalized across the nation has raised continued fears–only partly restrained by assurances that Jennie-O distributed with promotional coupons, and assurances about eating turkey “when properly cooked”–and that contaminated ground turkey had been labeled lot “P579” produced in Minnesota in the week October 21-2.
While such warnings narrowed the source of the contamination that had by now spread nation-wide, the extent of the national distribution of ground meats from specific sites confirmed the industrial scale of the production and distribution of turkey meat.
The CDC is right to exercise a degree of vigilance over reported cases of Salmonella infections and their strains, and WaPo was right to publicize just how many states have been struck by multiple reported cases of contaminated bacteria-bearing turkey meat–even if the mapping of a “spread of infection” is hardly able to be deciphered even by the best epidemiologist’s sleuthing, and suggested subliminal cautions about consuming any sort of undercooked meat, one possible clear culprit.
Mapped across multiple states, and derived from antibiotic resistant strains of the foodborne virus, the product recall of ground turkey was so disturbing to receive in mid-November offered a reminder of dangerous disequilibria in our food production and distribution complex among some of the largest distributors of factory farmed turkey meat on which the nation has come to rely for creating the appearance of culinary harmony.
Although we carefully compartmentalize away from the recipes or preparation of the annual feast, a division between the live animal and its carcass, the origins of disease are increasingly tracked with one hundred and sixty four taken sick. The possibility of a bacterial infection being “widespread in the turkey industry” created fears of a broad outbreak–reprising the terrifying antibiotic-resistant outbreak of Salmonella of 2011 in both turkey and beef, which were also focussed on Salmonella Hadar in Jenny-O turkeys–a subsidiary of Hormel–and Salmonella Heidelberg in Cargill Meats.
Indeed, the image of Thanksgiving celebrating fruits of the harvest is upended in the current industrial scale production of turkey in our nation: the industry around Thanksgiving orients the hatching and raising in large indoor cages of millions of birds for November arrival in supermarkets and shops stands at such remove from the seasonal harvest and old agrarian calendar to make us realize the tensions between the current landscape of factory farms with the image of the provision of wealth focussed on the bird arriving well-cooked at one’s holiday table–as the specter of birds infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria at some or several points in the process of farming or producing birds designed for our dining room tables. If the production of turkeys in America–densely concentrated in parts of Minnesota, Iowa, Arkansas, Omaha and Texas, in more extreme geographic concentration than other varieties of poultry, when assessed by value–
–in ways that contrast sharply with the actual broad distribution of wild turkey across regions of the United States–
–or the actual broad number of local farms where poultry is raised.
The concentration of the farmed turkeys that arrive at Thanksgiving tables, and in American markets, arrive from a far more restricted area. The result of this concentration poses possibilities of introducing infections, within the distribution of turkey meat. Although the agrarian illusion of Thanksgiving as a bucolic, authentic, and rural event is removed from large cities and sites of urban pollution and grit, the clusterings of mega-farms in fact stands as something like the crooked spine of a nation.
The striking density of such farms suggests the degree to which turkey farmers are increasingly bent by the market tyrants from Butterball, Hormel, Cargill, who determine the interface between the national demand for turkeys and the condition and welfare of their supply. The calculus of Turkey production pivots, unsurprisingly, on Thanksgiving, where the demand for the birds seasonally peaks. Such concentration of poultry production reflects its reliance on the production of readily available grain, and especially soybeans, that constitute the bulk of turkey feed.
With three of the folks who were taken ill with Salmonella working or tied to someone who worked in facilities that either farm or process birds for eating, or raising turkey meat–raising questions about the exposure of those who work on farms to antibiotic-resistant bacteria–or from raw turkey that was intended as pet food. The outbreaks of bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics, from ampicillin to tetracyclines to streptomycin, may be tied to prophylactic antibiotics adopted in industrial-scale factory farms. Despite the proposal to introduce an outright ban on using tetracycline at sub therapeutic levels, the failure to adopt such restrictions has created the situation where three quarters of all antibiotics used in the United States are used on livestock: back in the late 1980s, the rates of administering antibiotics to humans and animals had been roughly equal. And the introduction of a diet of antibiotics in an expansive industry of turkey production.
The mis-use of antibiotics to increase the size of raised birds–a danger to which turkeys are particularly vulnerable, as they are prized and valued for their size and the rapidity of growing birds to a large size–even if the FDA discourages using antibiotics to promote growth, the absence of any regulatory enforcement as to what amounts constitute proper prevention has opened a large loophole in American farming: Norbest, Jennie-O, Cargill and Foster Farms prohibit using antibiotics for promoting growth, but not for disease prevention, creating a broad opening top the use of antibiotics, as Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) found in 2015, when it survived the feed additives that major United States producers of turkeys–including Cartill, Tyson, Jennie-O, and Perdue–and the beta agonist Ractopamine, which has been banned in the European Union, but remains legal in the United States.
The production of turkeys in this agrarian-industrial complex runs like clockwork. Fertilized turkey eggs are incubated for a month before hatching, resting to grow for three to four months in farms, and are shipped to a slaughterhouse or processing plants for predation for markets in time for Thanksgiving celebrations, as if inexorably attracted by the annual calendar of consumption generates a production schedule that is something of a dialectic, exerting undue pressures of production on factory farms to produce turkeys of increased size (who wants small birds? few did until recently) who are best produced through extra antibiotics, in a sort of “dosing” of the sacrificial bird before its ritual sacrifice. Rather than sacrificed for the harvest in a natural way, farms have perfected a strategy to produce sufficient birds of needed size that constitutes a production schedule mirroring the harvest, but introducing a few mechanical tweaks hinging upon transport, distribution, and demand: of the turkeys hatched each spring, slaughtered birds are refrigerated to temperatures below 40 degrees Farenheit, but above 26 degrees, in time to arrive in something like the fresh frozen state by late October or early November for the preparation of the Thanksgiving table.
The prominence of Thanksgiving in the lives of the farmed turkeys as the fulcrum along which raising birds turns is not oriented to the farm, or the seasons, in other words, but the elastic market that determines how fifty million birds can be supplied to those wanting to repeat the national ritual of Thanksgiving feasts. If technology was recognized as the subject of the contemporary historical tragedy in the technicians of production, the mechanics and techniques of turkey raising may post part of the problem. For the production schedule offers multiple opportunities for bacterial infection that must make them particularly sensitive to carrying food-borne disease. The slaughtered fowl shipped out to retailers respond to the levels of demand marketers find, allowing them to shift some carcasses designated for lunch meats, individual breasts and legs sold in packages, or ground turkey back into the processing of whole birds, suggesting the actual fluidity between ground turkey meat and the birds arriving at Thanksgiving table.
The extent of these fears were readily tapped by recent maps of the feared outbreaks of Salmonella infections from tainted supplies of turkey, transmitted in undercooked meats, that seems poised to threaten to frustrate the harmony of the social potlatch of harvest foods, as warnings of the danger of infectious disease have spread, with Thanksgiving only weeks away, across thirty-five states–in a reprisal of fears the previous year of the first reports of cases of a bacterial strain distinguished by its resistantancn to antibiotics. The discovery and identification of the strain of antibiotic-resistant Salmonella Reading prompted fears for a Thanksgiving outbreak of infections, which rather than mapped with the level of detail that would reflect the detection of the outbreak in sampled raw turkey products from some twenty-two individual slaughterhouses and seven meat-processing plants, were described only in a state-by-state distribution of total reported infections rather than the actual vectors of infectious disease: the Washington Post designed the below infographic to alert its readers to the worries of a spread of tainted turkey meat, coloring states with the greater number of reported infections as if in more underdone shades of meat, but their removal form any sense of the sits of distributors or slaughterhouses concealed rather than clarified.
The color ramp on this infographic derived from public records released by the CDC. If its immediate message was to remind viewers of the dangers of serving underdone turkey meat, the deep understory may have been a lack of full transparency how the government agency hid the identities of the turkey suppliers identified and suspected of slaughtering, distributing, and selling the compromised meat. The watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has noted in the past the danger of agencies protecting the suppliers with considerable vested interests in keeping the turkey-industrial complex that carries millions of birds to American holiday tables on time for this national feast. The fears of such a relinquishing of responsibilities of good government is perhaps not surprising in the current pro-business atmosphere of Trump’s Washington, with Georgia chicken family magnate Sonny Perdue the nation’s thirty-first secretary of the USDA; Purdue somewhat generically retweeted the public cautionary food safety warning to handling bird carcasses,but without mention of the outbreak–inspiring the quick response that the “best” defense was in fact to “only eat veg” over the holiday feast.
And if “talking turkey”as an expression of speaking frankly has been argued to have originated in the open spirit of the holiday–if also possible in “talking cold turkey” as a way of discussing actual facts may have arisen within the context of the holiday–less about contact with native Americans than the recreation of bonhomie and openness at the holiday table–the alternatives of pleasant conversation and frank discussion both stand at odds with the current concealment of an actually accurate map of food safety. For the distribution of toxic turkeys and their origin in the supply chain or in factory farms seems concealed for know of left unclear in maps that register the arrival –evident in recent identification of sources of tainted meat suppliers as Tolleson, the source of many of the contaminated turkeys, to beef products sold and distributed by sources tentatively identified for the public as including Kroger, Laura’s Lean and JBS Tolleson generic. The uncertain landscape of bacteria in fresh, processed, and frozen meat raises fears of food-born diseases as something like a self-made dirty bomb.
From the perspective of the USDA,”food safety” is described less in terms of the conditions in which birds are raised for sale, than to the kitchen practices of preparing and cooking the bird, a familiar ritual of cleaning and defrosting the meat, as a set of four”best practices” of delivering the safest bird to the holiday table–
–rather than addressing the questions of how such a strain was introduced, or the steps that should be taken in bagging, buying, and storing potentially infected turkey or chicken carcasses, as if to shift the onus to the consumer and the preparer of the holiday meal, rather than the question of how the breakout diseases correlated to the increasing dependence of turkey distribution on factory farms and large meat-processing plants.
Tracing down the origins of the bacterial presence of different Salmonella strains seems to have been far from the minds of the officials who issued assurances confined to food preparation, in hopes to assuage public fears, and dampen suspicions that infections were endemic to the turkey-industrial complex. USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue–scion of a firm of Turkey suppliers–and not exactly a disinterested source, but more of a representative of the industrial farming of poultry meat that presents itself as “fit & easy’ and “fresh”–and “changing the way we treat chickens” and with a commmitment to animal care–
Perude may have been profesionally distracted on social media, to be sure, between attention to tampering down alarms of the damage caused by Hurricane Michael across the Florida panhandle and the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire in California, which unleashed alarms about forestry, agriculture, and water infrastructure. But the deceptive moves to pin the epidemic of wildfires on inadequate or lacking “forest management”–rather than climate change seem to be mirrored in his direction of public attention to the cultivation of best practices of poultry preparation to the exclusion of any acknowledgement of the widespread discovery of antibiotic-resistant bacteria within the very sorts of turkey meat that his family business has long prepared. Even if he tweeted on November 22 to followers to enjoin them to be conscious that “if you are preparing a meal, please remember we have American farmers to thank for the bounty,” erasing the industrial-scale structures of poultry farming –even as Perdue presided over the deregulation of the poultry industry, undoing powers that earlier administrations gave to small farmers who raise antibiotic-free fowl or work on contract for meat industry players–Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill, and Farbest Foods–to bring charges against them for abusive distributive practices, introduced under the Obama administration to provide better guarantees to control meat production, in hopes to “control frivolous litigation,” that would and prevent agribusiness meat processing companies from setting terms to family farms–continuing the USDA’s existing regulations for meat packers and stockyards would only serve, poultry lobbyists argue, to “open the floodgates to frivolous and costly litigation,” but leaves distributors and agribusiness to dictate the terms of turkey sales, production, and livestock conditions.
But the alarms about the quality of the birds raised by our nation’s largest suppliers of turkeys should not be lost in the instability of the spread of fires in high-population areas and increased damages from natural disasters. Perhaps the only acknowledgement of the fears of contaminated poultry bearing antibiotic-resistant bacteria were present in the public promise that Purdue would share oversight of culturing food livestock and poultry cell-lines with the FDA, prospectively producing a new regime of food safety for the future. The infographic from WaPo couldn’t not respond, in the meantime, to growing suspicions that the birds that would soon lie on our tables derived from tainted meat, and that the holiday stood to increase our vulnerability across the nation to uncomfortable intestinal disquiet. However, it makes sense to ask whether the deregulation of farm conditions and livestock conditions would not act–as President Barack Obama predicted of Citizens United decision allowing the deregulation of funding of political campaigns stood to “open the floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections,” by removing any restrictions for livestock raising.
It remained striking that among Perdue’s extensive visits to family farms, @SecretarySonny was notably silent about the concerns for the spread of infected meat within the Turkey-industrial complex of United States farms and poultry distributors. Perdue preferred to tweet out openly promotional images of Secretary Sonny visiting favorite small-scale suppliers of Thanksgiving birds to his followers, a farm producing but 30,000 birds a year–unlike the factory farms from which most of the fifty million birds arrive at American Thanksgiving tables–within other promotional images of the Secretary visiting family farms that seem to be carefully curated to suggest his ties to the family farm, and to a bucolic image of where our healthiest turkeys are bred–overlooking the dominance of four firms– Butterball, Jennie-O, Cargill, and Farbest Foods–in the distribution and slaughtering of turkeys, and the dominance that larger firms will continue to have over family farms, driven by the demand to produce larger birds more quickly to fill a growing market for turkey meat.
If Perdue’s tours of family farms and promotion of American farmers on twitter suggests an agrarian paradise dedicated to prosperous family-based animal husbandry, the active social media feed provokes a picture of wholesome husbandry far from the range that occupies such a prominent place in the American imaginary that is regularly reactivated every Thanksgiving, sharply dissonant with the American farmscape, or the distribution networks that dominate how farmed turkey meat arrives at our tables, as the Secretary of Agriculture does his part in sustaining the illusion of a rich agrarian landscape blended harmoniously with a farmscape where the bounty of the land still exist in a “great outdoors” rather than in a market for processed meat–promoting the idea that Minnosota, the capital of farmed-raised turkeys, raises those turkeys outdoors, rather than in large, indoor hangars.
–or in the pre-packaged sales of farm-raised turkey meat.
The current distribution of infections from antibiotic-resistant strains of Salmonella in turkey meat run against the bucolic vision of the harvest holiday, and suggest the danger of dependence on a constellation of factory farms and large farms serving distributors of cut, ground, and whole birds. The discovery of vectors of infectious disease haven’t been traced within the food supply cycle with any fine grace, but suggest the national level of disquietude and unease at the possibility of a breakout virus in the birds soon to arrive at our tables.
The data viz seems designed to trigger unease at breaches between the categories of holiday tables and the factory farms that are so often sequestered in discrete categories, and indeed upset the vision of a smooth circulation of turkeys from farm to table. By breaching the domestic and the large-scale distribution of meat in the nation, categories usually kept neatly separate, fears of communicating bacterial infections through undercooked turkey meat seemed materialized in the data visualization authoritatively provided by the CDC, whose newly tweaked palette revealed the dangers of the divide. For despite the clustering of an immense amount of wealth in poultry products in areas where canola grains, a staple in bred turkey diets, are cheap, able to convert low-cost grains to valued poultry products–often removed from their most common sites of slaughter for the bulk of the American market.
The divide between the clustering of distribution centers for American poultry markets seemed removed from the ones which arrived in our refrigerators to be basted in ovens, in annual idylls of domesticity. The creation of a USGS Breeding Bird Survey suggests the increased density of such “turkey capitals” that are in three cases named “Turkey,” as if they are the modern remnants of old factory towns, where talking turkey presumably means serious business and a way of life.
The concentration of that the wealth of poultry overlaps with the current states where bred turkeys remain concentrated in quite disproportionate ways, let alone disturbingly unclean living conditions, and where they lay in waiting en route to slaughterhouses before arriving at distribution networks, including two Wisconsin towns that announce themselves as the “turkey capital” of their state; the belt of turkey heads across the middle of the nation–or from Minnesota to Iowa to Missouri to Arkansas–
The dramatic geographical concentration of inventories of turkey farms in the United States six years ago already raised questions about the health consequences of such intense overcrowding of poultry farms–even if we don’t seem to measure the concentration of farmed turkey that have grown increasingly concentrated, placing literally millions and millions of farm-bred birds, many raised for the Thanksgiving table, in dense concentrations at factory farms with little sense of the growing worries of public health that such concentrations might cause or provoke, as the demand for the bird long limited to holiday feasting has grown as a “healthy” option and an alternative choice for fresh pet food.
While that may not seem to have much to do with the turkeys that arrive, fully cooked, at our tables–
And even if we forwent eating turkey this Thanksgiving for reasons of taste and expedience, as well as a smaller table, the topical findings of an antibiotic resistant Salmonella strain set off broad alarms about food preparation.
For the detection of multi-drug resistant Salmonella strains in a “multi-state outbreak” tied to raw turkey raises specters of a national infection, and raises some very current questions about the anthropology of meat. As if Salmonella were threatening the nation by crossing the borders of our Thanksgiving tables, rather than born in the fabric of our factory, the tallying of cases of poisoning and hospitalization couldn’t help but be read as cautionary of a public health disaster, warning us to fully cook our traditional Thanksgiving meats to contain the danger of contracting diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever, through severe and possibly fatal foodborne bacterial infections. The map’s color ramp adopts a normal Color Brewer ramp, using it to render the range of reported cases of Salmonella infections by a shade of increased undercooking of turkey meat, in a barely subliminal message–
–designed to recall the shades of uncooked meat that offer the clearest subliminal message of the vectors of infection, all of a sudden giving it an immediate narrative of local poisoning–even if the “map” is far from geographically or epidemiologically specific in its state-by-state breakdown of the “breakout” of the disease–and seems a teaser to imagine the potential future epidemic of the consumption of a spate of undercooked holiday turkey.
We’ll be cooking far fewer than the two hundred and fifty million turkeys raised in a year. And if free-range birds are popular, increasing numbers of turkeys are also clustered in smaller spaces and in far fewer states in overcrowded factory farms makes the infographic showing recent cases of Salmonella tied to the consumption of turkey meat disconcerting on the eve of Thanksgiving, and almost a reflection on the state of the nation’s food safety.
The color spectrum of underdone meat triggers perennial fears haunting America’s day of thanks, alerts all viewers to the dangers of under-cooking the bird or failing to wash hands, under the surface lies the conditions in which living turkeys are kept while raised for a holiday repast, among ammonia-laced air, in crowded conditions, and with poultry litter rarely kept clean or pristine. Even if the outbreak was in turkey products, such perennial concerns about the transmission of bacteria in the cleaning, stuffing and cooking of the holiday bird are all condensed in that infographic, and its ramp to correspond rather creepily to the guidelines for preparing turkey flesh as the vector for future outbreaks after Thanksgiving meals, even if the large bulk of reported cases seem to have derived from ground turkey meat.
What seemed a terrible corrosion of public discourse before the mid-term elections is difficult to attribute to any single cause, person or a single election cycle. The ominous staccato of alarms at the arrival of improvised pipe bombs sent by mail to prominent Democratic party figures and Trump critics were readily visualized across the nation as a disruption, the degree to which the man who had sent them, Cesar Sayoc, existed in a hermetic world of Trump slogans made the map of destinations less relevant in comparison to their relation to the toxic tweets our nation’s President has directed to immigration as a threat to the national security.
Raising the specter of criminals and aliens–and profiling all refugees as criminals for crossing the border illegally–as an invasion of our territory, even if no members of the Caravan had approached the border, the Commander-in-Chief allowed it was not ‘conceivable’ the Caravan did not terrorists from the Middle East among their midst–and exposed the nation to a disconcerting word salad of apparent free associations in which “caravan after caravan” would be invited to enter the nation should Democrats gain majorities in mid-term elections, foretelling “a blue wave will equal a crime wave” in late October in clear attempts to disconcert and disorient in a haze of heightened paranoia in time for Halloween, not protect our national security. But the specters that he provoked and elicited are not only empty charges, but permeate our society, fears of subjects that are often perhaps not cast in such openly political terms of oppositions between parties–“a blue wave will equal a crime wave; and a red wave will equal law and safety,” but exist in our landscape.
They exist in the huge diffusion of mug shots and Most Wanted images that jump outside of the confines of Reality TV as something like click bait–online images that have migrate to billboards or into the separate sections of small print newspapers–and instill a fear of the violence of those operating outside of the law, and are mirrored in how the us v. them categories existed in growing numbers of imprisoned within our borders, and the fears of fugitives stoked in billboards, and indeed in the growing epidemic of incarceration that feeds the idea of the criminal, and indeed of an expansive category of criminality, that has haunted the United States, and is perhaps magnified as an interactive spectacle both in the growth of Reality TV shows as “America’s Most Wanted” and the digitized billboards promoting the apprehension of fugitives along the interstates–and the fears that Donald Trump promotes of “murderers and rapists” at our borders, now with terrorists as well in the mix.
The repeated invocation of national security concerns, to argue those seeking asylum constitute threats to the nation, stand to change the United States from a place to seek sanctuary, ordering 5,000 troops–and perhaps up to 15,000–to the border with Mexico to bolster Border Patrol forces, and add more concertina wire, as he tweeted to refugees the “you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process” and called their approach in no uncertain terms “an invasion of our Country” for which “our Military is waiting,” before Halloween, sending more troops to the borders than as are stationed in Syria and Iraq combined. This military mobilization set the national atmosphere on edge on October 31, 2018, focussing our military presence on the border in a way no Commander-in-Chief has ever done. The alarm that we should all feel at the bulking up of a military presence in a zone that lacks any actual combatants suggests a sick hollowing out of the value of military missions globally, not to mention military morale.
United States Troop Deployments on US-Mexico Border (expected) and in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq on October 31, 2018; other numbers from June 30
The civil disruptions that had occurred within the country were taking up most of the media, but were hard to map, even though they were bound up so tightly in delusions and fears that spun from the border. Cesar Sayoc was accused of mailing poorly improvised DIY pipe-bombs that were thankfully badly improvised, and found before they arrived in the hands of their destinations or exploded; but fears spurred by their arrival at multiple sites across the nation echoed maps of “sprees” of terrorizing pipe bombs in the past. This time, they revealed the terrifyingly captivating nature of alt-right discourse even as they seemed destabilize the nation by attacking individuals. Even if they didn’t explode, the sequence of bombs revealed tears in our political and civil space–and of a politics of demonization, targeted at how Trump had designated dangers to the state, and of fear more than hope or civic involvement as we knew it.
The rash of violence that we couldn’t help but map to try to make sense of it, and it was viewed as a national wake-up call and emergency that it was–
–unfolding over a series of days in one week, either because of the vagaries of the U.S. Postal Service, or the actual intention of their maker–which seems beside the point–as the impression that they created of a plague of violence, tapping into the repeatedly foiled plots of terrorist attacks, ranging from teenage with contact to Al Qaeda to the twenty-one year old accused of planting twenty-four pipe bombs which would form, connecting their dots, a smiley face that would stare back at the viewer, whose smile was to arc from Colorado to North Texas to Tennessee. If the latter used a map to plant pipe bombs in mailboxes that would create a giant “smiley face” so that the map would stare back at the nation, the map stared back as a staccato punctuation of the civil fabric, even if they did not explode or injure anyone.
Their progress raised alarms and confusion as to the uncertainty about what was to come, and if the illusion of civil peace could be sustained. The planned set of attacks that seemed to destabilize public discourse was born out of Donald Trump’s head–who else links George Soros and Tom Steyer with Cory Booker, Eric Holder, Jr., Bill and Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Jr., Maxine Waters, Michael Moore, Kamala Harris and Robert DeNiro?–even as they seemed to tip an already uneasy nation over a brink of whatever decorum remained. They seemed to threaten to rend the very fabric of the nation, on the eve of the midterm elections, as the arrival of sent pipe-bombs planted alarmist messages and reminded us of the increased escalation of oppositional rhetoric in United States politics, as these anonymous acts of terror created a terrifying instability of our civic space.
There was twinned let-down of tensions and a terrifying realization as the man who sent them, holed up in a white van in Florida so covered with Trump-Pence stickers aptly characerized as a MAGAmobile–whose inhabitant seemed to have spent the last two years in the virtual world of an online campaign, drawing sustenance from the ideological slogans of Trump’s campaign. Sayoc made bombs that failed to explode, probably from downloaded instructions, in a van with windows were so fully covered in garish divisive slogans they had effectively obscured any relation to a real world. The pipe-bombs spun from the frenetic identity of an online discourse, allegedly used in the subsequent massacre of Jews, a mass-murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue, driven by fears of immigrants and the promotion of immigration as if both were dangers in danger of “suspected terrorists” destabilizing the state. Trump has erased all integrity when with recognizable narcissism he described how both both of these tragic events served to “stop a certain momentum” going into the elections, as the acts of “two maniacs” he energetically disowned, as if they had shifted attention from the impact of GOP theatrics when they only shone a light on the dangers of Trumpets rhetoric and re-examination of his tweets in relation to the nation’s psychological health.
1. The bombs’ destinations may be a bit revealing, even if maps couldn’t capture the tragedy, or reach the violence Trump’s oppositional rhetoric plants in our civic space. The pipe bombs were sent where media hubs of its coastal states, which President Trump has indulgently attacked as “elitist,” in an attack on cosmopolitanism and coastal elites–and the mapping of such regions to members of the Democratic party seen as especially dangerous to the nation. The geography of the bombs was less striking than their destination for the coasts–the eastern seaboard, but also the western in California–coastal sites in “blue states” that Trumpists have distanced from the heartland, sewing divisions in the nation. The sequence of a week of pipe bombs was terrifyingly followed by a terribly violent attack killing and maiming members of a Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue before Shabbat services, allegedly after crying “All Jews must die,” as if mainstreaming the need to defend the ‘nation’ against immigrants seen as terrorists. Joseph Bowers’ social media post on his intentionally unmonitored Gab–“I can’t sit by and watch my people getting slaughtered”–used its alleged protection of “free speech” to ready himself to open fire upon innocent congregants. The killings mapped the distortion of reason on a platform that wanted ideals of free speech, promising to “promote raw, rational, open, and authentic discourse online,” and would defend the best response to hate speech as more speech. Even though the two men had never met–and didn’t know of one another–they were triggered and animated, as Noah Berlatsky notes, by a common manufactured fears of migrants, and an antisemitic attribution of assistance for immigration and animosity to globalist Jews, and left the a good part of the nation mourning or in shock.
Memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed. Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Unmonitored platforms may create alternate worlds, but cannot radicalize, even though no platform for attention of such heinous attacks should exist. No space should allow calling for violent acts or promote the fostering of violence. And as I traveled outside Berkeley, CA, where the absence of civility in the nation is at times hard to map–I was struck by the proliferation on the side of freeways of strikingly analogous oppositional rhetoric is evident in the proliferation of specters of fugitives, frozen in mug shots placed in digitized billboards, as a broad expansion of our notions of criminality: by advocating a public sort of retributive violence, the specters that increasingly haunt the interstate in such digitized billboards allow drivers to enter versions of “America’s Most Wanted,” the old television show FOX created and endured so long on air, while behind the wheel. The direct engagement of such an oppositional rhetoric of danger seemed outside the political world–it was from a federal law enforcement agency, after all, but triggered a deep sense of unease that is echoed in the fear of outsiders and rampant criminality at our gates: as Vice President Pence intoned quite surreally and without any proof that it was all but certain terrorists were among the Caravan of central American refugees and migrants approaching to seek asylum in racially charged terms–“It is inconceivable that there are not people of Middle Eastern descent” who would “not be in this large throng” approaching the border, in defense of Trump’s outrageous claim“Middle Eastern” people will emerge among the migrant caravan if you “look with cameras” and his instructions to the press to “take your cameras, go into the middle of the Caravan, and search” for MS-15 gang members, Middle Easterners. In these ungrounded assertions, the danger of refugees was linked to those who the President, as Rebecca Solnit wrote, had pushed the nation, but also Bowers and Peyoc to focus on.
Driving to an airport in Newark, NJ, I couldn’t but think of the new means of civic involvement–based on fear–that has spread in the nation, as the face of a glassy-eyed fugitive from the law jumped out from other surrounding signage, as if the digital billboards of wanted criminals drew attention to targets of public wrath and danger,–their identities were obscured by their felonies, as the terror of their crimes seemed a means of striking fear into my heart, as it suddenly seemed as if the space through which I was driving outside Newark was considerably more dangerous than that of Manhattan, and that I had to escalate my guard as I had entered a new space. I was struck by the prominence of such haunting billboards of haunted men and women shortly before the spate of bombings prompted reflections on how such a corrosive political discourses began,–or could be blamed for the rise of such horrific acts of violence in public life–and the odd relation they created to criminality and to the law, or the project of federal law enforcement and the role of the state. The billboards stake out a notion of civic involvement and participation by identifying and apprehending federal criminals that eerily echoed the demonization of dangers to the nation–the deepest “we” and the broadest “collective”–that the arrival of criminals, whether they be concealed in groups of refugees, or among those who sought asylum, or were those guilty of crossing the border “illegally” and were hence felons as a result–indeed, true national threats–that has been the logic of sending troops to the border, and protecting our frontiers. But these posters invited citizens to search for similar dangerous faces in their memories, and to direct attention to the fearful presence of fugitives among us, and indeed likely to be seen in their own states, perhaps lurking right off of that very interstate.
The rhetoric of civic engagement was terrifying as the elevation of a new notion of national security. Can one look at an origin point in the direction of a redefinition of criminality, outside the court of law, in the register of Reality TV as much as in reality. The mug shots of most wanted and images haunt not only the freeways, but the mug shots that come to constitute entire sections of newspapers, as if to grab attention of audiences against their online competitors? The emergence of set the scene for arrival of Donald J. Trump and the intensity of his almost baseless baiting by his personalized taunts about immigrants, ICE, and deportations, and the threats of gang violence, rapes, murders, human trafficking, and terrorism that have haunted his demonization of immigrants, refugees, and the approaching Caravan. For the images of fugitives that haunt the freeways seemed an invitation to participate in an ongoing form of Reality TV, as much as to invite citizen participation in law enforcement, expanding an elastic category of criminality as a sort of place-holder for all to see.
It is comforting that it was at the borders, however, that we saw borders broke for Beto in Texas, even if he narrowly lost the state, and that the candidates spewing anti-immigrant pro-border platforms in Arizona failed to capture the sort of attention we had feared.
But the prominence of the haunting images of faces of fugitives posted on the freeways, and the image of clear and present dangers that they personify and promote, seemed to create an eery reality at a remove from reality–a dram of Reality TV, in which the designer of a President who spent many years of thought dedicated to Reality TV ratings as a way he could better compete, seemed to haunt his own discourse of opposition, and his irrational obsessions with the dangers of criminality that needy hopeful immigrants in the Caravan are contaminated by, and indeed by the fears of contamination of the nation that Trump has so willfully sought to promote, as if to over-ride and obscure the choices that were at stake in the impending mid-term elections.
Like a patient rising from bed to look in the mirror for superficial signs of illness or searching for visual evidence of clouded thoughts after a hangover, we compulsively turn to data visualizations for bearings on our body politic, preoccupied by its bruised appearance and searching for visual distillations that tell the story of its apparent fracturing into red and blue. Anyone reading this blog is compelled by the search for a rendering in iconic form of this sharp chromatic divide by which we seem beset, as if to mute its edges and suggest that a possible contexts of such stark political divides. But how one can provide an account of the map–or map the meaning of these divides–has created a cottage industry of visualizations, images that serve both as glosses and counter-documents, against which to gainsay the meaning of the impasse of the most current electoral divide of 2016.
We seem to search for a sign of meaning in our body politic, if not in our representational institutions, and to understand political divides less as signs that all isn’t *quite* all right, and the coherence can be found in how the democratic process balances local interest. But most importantly, we seem to try to process deep concerns that the electoral map lied: for if the electoral map is in some sense a powerful measure of our coherence as a community, it seems important to affirm where that coherence lies, if it does indeed still exist–and can be detected in a map.
And in the long aftermath of the 2016 Presidential election, it is not surprising, somehow, that we are still eager to understand or imagine what that “new America” is or what a new map might reveal. Uncertain in our ability to question our representational institutions, we are pressed to ask how our electoral predictions “lied,” and whether the electoral map itself “lied” by serving to magnify the political voice and agency of a demographically diminishing region. At a distance of two and a half years from Donald Trump’s surprising election as U.S. President, we continue to seek more refined district-by-distict distributions to pore over the stark chromatic divides, reading them as tea leaves for some sign of what will happen with the 2018 midterms, or as entrails to divine what to look for in our nation’s future. And then we try to reframe the issue, and see what we can salvage about our actual divisions.
Skilled at reading maps, and at detecting their distortions, we also seek to recuperate a sense that maps do not lie. We pore over data vis to restore a sense of unity in an era when it seems we’re saliently divided by race, class, and religion, but are compelled to locate a sense of home in those divide, and seek a sense of balance and objectivity that can distill the intense rhetoric of deep-lying divisions. For rather than suggesting or asking how an electoral map may lie in ways that balanced a widespread sense of shock with a skepticism that that was our map.
And the continued skepticism and uncertainty in the meaning of the divisions of the electoral map lead us to try to dissect and parse their meaning, filtering and sifting their data within other data vis to illuminate, by new granularity and spectra, a broader spread of variables, in hopes to unlock the questions and overcome the challenges that our representational system pose. We peek deeper into its red heart, as if in hopes to find the coherence or possibility for change in its red center, as if in a form of national introspection performed on the most superficial of registers, whose “truth” cannot even be gainsaid, hoping that it lies there, perhaps in the heightened distortion of electoral votes that distilled from district maps.
Detail of above
Do electoral maps lie more than other maps? Any is something less like a reflection of actuality, than a puzzle, in which we can uncover not only telling traces among electoral divides But the new configuration of space that the 2016 election bode, as well as the greater sensitivity that we like to think we’ve gained at measuring spatial configurations in meaningful terms. The attractiveness of remapping the voter distribution may be a bit of a red herring and distraction from the magnification of divides elaborated in internet chatrooms from 4chan to 8chan, as much as above ground, but the searching for new signs in the entrails of the voter maps–a post-mortem on the body politic–carries as much sense as the foreboding that the representational institutions of states, counties, and other traditional geographic units might make less sense as a basis for structuring a truly representational democracy.
Seeking to stabilize current fears of a crisis of our democracy, we keep on returning to maps, insistently and repeatedly, as if out of trust for grasping how politics is shaped by deep-seated divides by finding a new way space is configured–as if that would help us understand the appearance of our divides. And so, in hopes to digest the dilemma of representational democracy in we look for cartographical terms, to provide it with some grounding or objectivity, that offer some sense of purchase, other than by affirming the intensity of our divisions and to see that the institutions of political representation we’ve long trusted might make sense with the migration of populations to urbanized areas or the recasting of politics discourse in dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Perhaps, convinced of our increasing savviness to read the display of information in a colored sheet, we try to grasp the distributions of data as a configuration of space by which to grasp what happened in the 2016 election, What is shown to lie in the deep splintering–does this take many by surprise?–across a body politic and economy afflicted by a politics of intense opposition seems suddenly normalized and explained by maps that normalize our divisions, and set them before our eyes. But we have been poring over maps of the nation for years–or at least multiple election cycles–to be able to better process the tensions between regionalism and federalism in ways we might be able to come to terms with or effectively digest as presenting–and representing–an actual record of the status quo that is not so fragile.
The representational system is oddly sidestepped, of course, by placing the divisions of a fractured electoral map in terms that see it as a lay of the land. The questioning of the fifty-state primary system–or whether our version of representational democracy best accommodates local interests in a fifty-state system–are not seen as being able to be adjusted to balance regional interests or economic needs better, but reflect a lay of the land. So much is suggested in by the growth of tribal senses of belonging that provide affective ties that lack in the state or even region, and span space in ways that online groups and news sharing seem to have filled an increasingly pronounced need for meaningful political involvement, in ways television once afforded a social glue. The deep uncertainty and sense of social dislocation that defined the 2016 Presidential Election in the United States, manifested in the mistakenly salvific power of social media memes seem to have gained as a substitute for other forms of belonging, seems to find a resolution in the power of maps.
Of course, this was the third election cycle that we were divided by maps, and electoral projections, a division that Trump–and his allies, whoever they may be–only sought to exploit and reflect, or unleash with greater intensity by playing them for whatever they were worth in broad circulation. Maps provided a form to counter that dislocation. The rage for maps to comprehend an icon of the spatial promise of a United States has led, empowered by GIS, to an intense search for a more meaningful system of maps than that of counties, states, or congressional districts that the economic realty of the metropolis can no longer afford. The role of GIS here is less instrumental than a sense at grasping for straws to identify the meaningful regions on the map, puzzling the potential for future unity in a terrain whose political processes and practices map poorly onto its divisions.
We were compelled just not to make sense in a fundamental way of the coherence of the political map, if it existed, but to process what it means for a rearrangement of political constituencies. If any map presents a puzzle that can be read for its argument, we compulsively returned to the past-time of glossing the electoral map as a way to find resolution. We returned to data visualizations, especially if paradoxically, as a trusted form of post-traumatic healing, and continue to look to them to try to embody and diagnose our deepest divides, if not overcome those seemingly salient divisions. Faced by a feeling of fragmentation we turn to maps to better grasp where these divides lie and to try to bridge their fractures. We turn to maps, to prevent a sense of loss, or prevent the foreboding of a lost unity, and deep-seated fragmentation.
Whether maps can do so much reparative work is open to question, as is the power of maps to explain the deep discomfort at our social divides. Since they are so salient, and oppressive, the thought goes, they must be able to be mapped. The relatively recent re-imagining of the nature by which the United States are united led, during the heat of the last election, to a proposal of ordering districts around the metropoles that were foreign to if linked with them–Seattle, San Francisco/Bay Area, and Los Angeles and San Diego were his in this cartography of mega-regions where urban corridors defined the map’s meaning, as much as the regions in which they were nestled or situated, emphasising a metro-cartography of political identity keeping with the times.
Dissatisfied with the state as a parsing or unit that was forward-looking, we accepted new geographical units as “megalopolis” to designate the sites that have superseded the city in this cosmopolite model of America, reflecting hubs where the large bulk of the GDP is located, and economic interests increasingly located, although this may neglect the extent to which GDP is linked not only to abstract able figures of income generated, but urban snarls, pollution, garbage production, and greenhouse gases and other forms of waste, using a variation on a five-color map to suggest the units of productive regional planning that might be able to better connect localities–or local needs and economic interests–with a federal government perceived as distant and removed.
1. The notion of using the map to reaffirm a connectivity and continuity that seemed lacking provided a new way to ramp up our 2-D cartographical concerns less to foreground fractures than meaningful commonalities which could be acted upon as the borders between states seemed far less meaningful to suggest economic connectedness, and indeed national borders seem less profitable fictions to provide possibilities for future economic growth–and indeed the state university structure provided a far less practical basis for public education, despite its value, as public universities seem more removed from educational opportunities or research funds, and others are somewhat vengefully recast as public employees, teaching mission be damned.
The map affords a prospect of tangibility and coherence, particularly compelling in its abandonment of the “state” or “county” as a unit of the polity, and appealing in its potential encouragement of a new sense of infrastructure–a term that provided such an appealing keyword way back in the midst of the 2016 American Presidential election–even if the New Map for America was presented for the lower forty-eight as a sort of forward-looking economic blueprint before the General Election, as if to orient us to a vision of the pastels of a future less brash than the red vs. blue electoral map, its regions far more recognizable, and decisively upbeat, from Cascade through the Great Lakes and Texas Triangle to the Southeast Manufacturing Belt. The hope is to respond to a sense of dislocation by more meaningful economic units, and indeed an agenda to move forward advanced in Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization, a hopeful manifesto to shift debate from territorial units and semantics to a vigorous statement of economic power.
The shifting of attention to the divides in our electoral map to a the sorts of channels of connectedness Parag Khanna proposed were not to be–or aren’t yet, so strong was the localist and isolationist tide against them. The cartographical intervention was a view of globalization that was sunny–and with an emphasis on affirming possibilities of connectivity, as opposed to the terrifying sense of an exposure of unraveling and intransigence that the formation of a Trump Train–rather than the sort of proposed High Speed Rail lines–were proposed to create as a new economic infrastructure for a nation that seems increasingly unsettled, and seems increasingly unsettled, and might be hoped to be healed by a remapping of its economic interconnectivity, rather than its divides–an image of interconnectivity that the election erased.
To be sure, the use of the map to affirm needed connectivity (and continuity beyond proximity) among states was long realized to lie in the potential of the map to create further connective lines of communication and economic development. The promotion of surveying projects, from the railroad lines by Abraham Lincoln through areas of Appalachia in Kentucky and Tennessee, where the President realized the possible vitality of an economy not rooted or based on enslavement of populations provided a basis to encourage unionism. Walt Whitman saw, in 1860, the nation as a great nation “of many nations,” and Lincoln argued to survey the region to increase its connection, and offer a new basis to integrate the economic complexities of a union divided on an apparently intractable political debate. The notion of mega-regions and economic corridors is not, in this sense, so new at all; fostering economic interests has long been tied to the need to try to envision future possibilities in maps–a need that the 2016 Presidential election has undoubtedly necessitated, although the Trump administration seems dedicated to obscure that need.
2. But if the model was conceived in the midst of a tense primary season that saw political splintering and a large fear of depression in a search for a politics of meaning, the fears of a distance from Washington, DC became the victors of the 2016 Presidential election, as we saw a new and apparently heightened red-blue division imposed on the nation that we have been still trying to wrestle or digest and place in political or historical context, and to parse meaning from a map that seems all too neatly clean-cut after all–unless the fracture lines were indeed that strong that the nation might once again divide, as if reporting on the electoral results were a sort of performance art.
The fissures of red and blue reappeared again as what seemed a safe bet of a Clinton majority victory repeated, although newscasters and talking heads found it hard to say anything interesting about it, just three days from the 2016 Presidential election. But the confidence of these electoral projections that seemed to give a fragile if solid coherence to a Clinton electoral victory, if one that would hardly unify the nation–
–but contain its increasingly evidence divides, rather abruptly ceded to a sea of red, where alternate projections failed to alter the depths of a geographic solidity of those voting for Trump, even if a majority of them seemed resigned that the election would not make a substantive difference. As multiple electoral night watch parties disbanded with disillusionment, we were resigned to accept these divides, not knowing whether the geographical cleavages had either surfaced or crystallized in the actual electoral map, but suggested a somewhat surprising rejection of the status quo, and an eery sense of a red state continuity, as though we were divided regional blocks after all–
–and so we pored over visualizations of the nation’s new voting patterns that were increasingly and perhaps over-generously provided to stunned media viewers with a sense of collective trauma, to be processed only by reviewing endless cartographical parsings of the deep reds of the adjusted choropleth of 2016 revealed the coasts could hardly understand the intensity of the interior, seeming to reveal a convincing record of a deep-set urban-rural divide in a map of county-by-county voting trends.
The map of electoral votes was just as widely championed by Trump himself, of course, who not only seemed to have installed it in the White House, but to present his candidacy as victory over the interests that he proclaimed had “rigged” the election, as if it provided a demonstration that the process not so rigged. (For Trump followers, the championed results, in which the President “elect” exulted, might have in the “Fake News” of predictions of his electoral defeat, and the false predictions of their marginalization from the country.) In an election when “rigged” seemed to have defined the 2016 Presidential election as it was used to invest emotions by different candidates, Trump had exulted in what applied equally to the economy, political process, and judicial inquiry as if applied to a “system” that he seemed to disdain, if only to recognize that the “hot term” he used became a basis to showcase his alleged outsider status. But the electoral map provided, for all its distortion of population, an argument that the “rigged” nature of the vote and “system” was undermined by the electoral system–the same system that he may have called “rigged” at one time. Trump’s claims for having “introduced the term”–“I’m the one that brought that word up!’–was in fact suggested to him by Roger Stone, who argued within two months after Trump descended his escalator to announce his candidacy, and recommend he base his candidacy on claims ‘the system is rigged against the citizens’ and that he is the lone candidate–did this offer any ideas to Bernie Sanders?–‘who cannot be bought.’” Trump didn’t immediately adopt the term, but by the Spring of 2016, the term became used to insert himself into a corrupt system of which he could be the savior.
Trump ran so insistently and deftly with the idea to make it his own, treating it as a term to cathecting with his rallies. He soon began to inveigh against the whole “rigged, disgusting, dirty [political] system” as being rigged, first the Republican primary and then the Democratic, discrediting the electoral process as a “rigged, crooked system that’s designed so the bosses can pick whoever they want” that revealed itself to be during the primaries to be “totally rigged to keep incumbents in power.” Arguing that the word was his intellectual property, as he had used it before Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton adopted the term he claimed to merit authorship for having introduced into the election, it cemented new constituencies in an age of increased income inequality, playing very well to an anti-establishment crowd as a new language of empowerment–so that the electoral map seemed to some a populist victory.
After insisting and bemoaning the extent to which the voting process was “rigged” during the primaries and into the general election by parties and elites, openly fostering distrust in the political process, the narrative suddenly switched when the electoral map–that map that so shocked the nation–was presented as a true victory that rather preposterously confirmed the success with which Trump had presented himself as not beholden to outside interests to a specific audience, as if it was a record of reality. Enamored of the map of electoral votes’ distribution, Trump presented the electoral map as confirming a populist victory that occurred against all odds., at the same time as his skill at gaming a system of electoral votes. He wanted the Washington Post to display the map on its front page, as if to announce it as a new reality, a hundred days into his administration, in a bizzarro illustration of his desires to run the press, asking reporters Aren’t you impressed by this map?¨–and regaling reporters with copies of the map as a testimony of reaching a broad audience of voters, as a source of pride and a deeply personal accomplishment of which he was the author, as well as a form of evidence he wanted the entire nation to be entranced–whose stark divisions he even had framed for the White House, as a confirmation of the extent of his appeal outside of coastal media elites.
The electoral map showed a defeat of the so-called “elites” on both coasts. The majority of voters’ opinion mattered less than how divided we had become, over the next year and a half. It was hardly a surprise to find these divisions, but their salience seemed a strong shift in political decorum. As Trump’s Presidency continued, we mapped rise of hate crimes inspired by Trump, as if to conjure the sense his Presidency and rhetoric had changed the nation, and suggested a new meaning of the term “red state” based not on majority voting but confirming a sense of deep-seated anger against an “other” embraced by a good share of the nation, as if tolerance for violence not acceptable elsewhere.
The crisis in belonging seemed, in this red-hued preoccupation, almost about blood, and innate differences, and an anger that had been unleashed either on the campaign trail or its social media spin-offs and detritus, where suddenly the most marginal of voices, rarely recognized in print, began to circulate, and reached a large and strikingly contiguous electorate, from which “we” were actually removed.
3. Which brings us to the deeper crisis of understanding how much of the nation seemed to rally around the idea of a need to garrison and fortify a southwestern border long left intentionally open, as if this would somehow Make American Great Again, and affirm its aging economy, persuaded they had been huckstered by international trade accords, as protection of the border gained greater reality than the civil liberties and rights of due process by which the nation was, for an actual strict constructionist, long defined.
The demand to think “beyond states”–plus ultra!–has been conceived not as a possibility of growing connectivity, but as resigning ourselves to deep divisions as if they were embedded in the territory in the revival of what were argued somewhat misleadingly to be “southern interests” or heritages, and accommodate and instantiate in a map that Colin Woodward has long argued reflects the dynamics of their original settlement–rather than economic development and local political cultures–as if to accommodate the “local cultures” of politics, such as they are, as fundamentally distinct economic patterns that transcend the division of states or economic development.
Possibilities of new sorts of economic interconnectedness be damned, Woodward would have us recognize the long shadows attitudes toward work and not toward race, education, gender, or religion cast across the political fracturing of the once United States, as if to suggest that the notion of being united was itself a bit of a big fraud, or a pretense needed to unite what were long fundamentally different regions, in a new fracturing that reflects eighteenth-century precedents as if to trace the differentiation of ethnic or racial stock in ways that he claims effectively map on our own political divides, and offer new tools to help us understand different points of view that even a Continental Congress was foolhardy to pretend they could ever adequately reconcile, so steeply do they haunt the current polity.
The oracle of Freeport, ME reminds us that “regional cultures” have existed since the era of the continent’s first colonization in ways that command attention, despite the burning issue of apparently recent hot-button concerns from terrorism or immigration, despite their salience in the political debate and their prominence in motivating sectarian hostility. In a sense, the map may consolingly remind us that Trump has not appealed to “Make America Great Again,” but festered its deepest historical divisions and divides; its commanding division into colors of distinct hues a refutation of the idea that we are living in an era without intersectionality, where divisions deriving from historical priority trump any of the effects of economic inequalities and disparities of income. It indeed seems to naturalize race relations that have gained ugly prominence in recent years as being a world that must be accepted as “modeled after the slave societies of the ancient world,” where “democracy is the privilege of the few,” as if this were a tenable cultural position but demands to be appreciated as such. Rather than describe racism, or race relations, Woodward lets us know that “black people confronted” dominant cultural norms, a formulation that strips them of much agency indeed–or denies it altogether, more accurately.
The quite flat five-color schema of 2013 was recycled in the news, perhaps, because of how it seems to erase the far more finely grained visualizations of the election that appeared in late July 2018 in the newspaper of record, five days previous, as if the precinct-by-precinct map of Ryne Rhola could be made to disappear beneath the far flatter overlays of Colin Woodward’s breakdown.
For Woodward’s map viewed the United States not as a composite of populated blue islands in a sea of chromatic shades of red that slid to scarlet expanse, but rather crisp lines whose constitution was defined in the eighteenth century, and perpetuated in the self-sorting machine that the United States has become, arguing that the affinities of each place attract their own political brand–a notion that Woodward emphasized in the new iteration of this map that adheres more closely to the national boundaries of the lower forty-eight.
Forget any preconceived ideas of geographical mobility or migration, Woodward enjoins: the map suggests the computational shape-sorter that the deep circuits of the United States’ history has defined.
That such divisions inform the breaking lines of the new “partisan landscape” hardly require a five-color map. But Although meant to displace a divide between urban and rural, they may remind us that we are in fact living in an age that might be as easily cast–and we’ll return to this–as a trumping of the local, where states have faded away with the accentuation of local interests. In ways that are filtered and refracted though the relative homogeneity of media markets and the traditions of certain areas of the nation where immigrants are indeed less openly welcomed or accepted may tend to the slogans of America First championed by Trump, and lines of gender are differently drawn. Such regions might be less likely to be sympathetic in a deep way with a woman who reminded them, rightly or wrongly, of coastal elites, and accepting of the very caricatures of coastal elites that Trump, in a canny exercise of deflection and personal rebranding, managed to project on her–palling with Goldman Sachs; attending as Secretary of State to foreign relations and not the American worker–that the more removed regions would accept.
The divisions in the “partisan landscape” of the nation that Woodward presented are considerable and are economic–
–but curiously suggest the deep red remove of the very region of Appalachia that President Lincoln once sought to integrate better both economically and infrastructurally in the United States, but has sadly lagged further behind, and felt further removed from Washington.
And not only from Washington, DC, but from the complex of the news that is so demonized by President Trump as being an “enemy of the people” today. For though it is never made precise who this collective is–“the people”–it is not the folks who read newspapers or watch the nightly news, but those who feel far less represented in them, and by them, and less familiar with them to less present to them–for the known density of reporters and correspondents appears an odd echo of the parsing of the lower forty-eight into “Yankeedom,” “Tidewater,” “Greater Appalachia,” “Far West.” and “Left Coast,” as not only different media markets, and different areas that are represented in the news–
–but that feel alienated from its constitution of reality, because that stands at a remove from their lives and regions. The existence of pronounced “news deserts” in areas as Appalachia suggest a fragmentation of our news economy that weakens local solidarity and opinion, and creates large voting blocks that are terrifyingly coincident with the paucity of local news sources, as Chisolm’s below burnt red interactive Carto data vis rather scarily reveals, as it invites and allows one to explore in even more fine-grained from over the lower forty eight. The blanked-out regions of lightly hued regions reflect areas aggrieved areas by the absence of a diversity of local newspapers–institutions long identified with reflection on local political institutions and practices. They are, in other words, afflicted with the absence of a plurality of avenues for the shaping of public opinion and political debate, and bound to rely one less active political debate.
The striking thinning out in many regions of Appalachia as well as the south of so-called “news deserts” is not a longstanding historical divide–the death of the local newspaper is
–in which limited investigative reporting on local issues, discussion generated by print, and indeed informed local political decisions and checks on local power seems to create a vacuum into which rushes a new tribalism of largely symbolic issues.
The difference between these regions is not necessarily so continuous, or suggestive of nations, despite the startling continuity in “news deserts” and areas of the low level of occupational employment of journalists or correspondents that is its correlate. Deep divides of terrifying continuity are at basis economically driven, and seem impossible to reduce only to cultural divides–or reduced to existing historical divides, so much as an erosion of local institutions designed to foster reflection on political institutions and discourse.
The increasing gaps in sites where only one newspaper–or no local news–exists will be made up for in new ways, but the growth of News Deserts from 2016 marks a change in the information economy, and a change in which the role of newspapers in constituting and encouraging the community long existed. The rise of digital news outlets that have taken up the nourishing role traditionally and long played by journalism is promising, but the attack on the few remaining news sources that exist and on which folks rely stands as a new challenge, with the number of reporters covering local news having dropped in half since 2004, and some 1,800 newspapers–many venerable institutions in communities that helped make new communities–having folded in the same time, leaving all the tanned out regions with one newspaper, and the burnt siena dots counties with no local newspaper at all–areas reliant on other news sources and online information, according to Penelope Muse Abernathy of UNC’s Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media, which points more deeply at the need for a new business model for local news, but also the increasing vulnerability of many counties–and many individuals–to the older, less educated, and poorer, farther from metropolitan areas in parts of Texas, the Dakotas, Alabama, Florida and Georgia, where our democracy may fracture.
The problems of an engaged citizenship through newspapers is not, of course, the only line of fracturing in the social body.
The increased divergence of the age at which women have a first child in different regions of the United States suggests a huge difference in life-perspective–or “life style”–which is clearly identified with those areas of denser presence of reporters, correspondents, and news reporting, suggesting a huge difference–and deep divergence–among the priorities, and negotiation of labor markets. Although the different preferences for childbirth in the United States’ regions are not a big surprise for many women, the strikingly different age of women at birth maps onto the “regionalism” and regions of the United States in striking ways, unsurprising in an era when birth control and abortion are seen as the “issues” that define political divides–both around appointments to the Supreme Court and around what makes up privacy, personhood, and rights. The pronounced oscillation around the age of a mother at her first birth is striking, not only in its divergence but the large span of the nation where birth is defined at twenty-four years of age, and what this mans for families and women’s work–and of female experience at the same time as the first female candidate became nominated by a major party–and the huge gaps this created.
Does the puzzle fit together better now, looking at the relative number of reporters and correspondents employed and stationed in areas of the United States, and the remove of many regions–either apparent or real–from the media markets that exist, and the sense of alienation and remove of those areas from actualities reported in the “news”?
Woodward’s “map”–updating or revisiting the divisions he had in fact foretold in 2013, just after President Obama’s second election as President, reprised for readers always hungry for a good data vis, that distilled confusion to stark lines of a 2-D paper map, called less “nations” (as he previously had) than “regions” which transmitted through the ages the spirits of their respective colonizers, in a complete revision of the image of the nation as a melting pot, economic integration and disparities of wealth be damned.
Rather than a melting pot having ever existed, the oracle of Freeport has it, distinctions between a Puritan legacy with assimilates others by championing a common good, the multicultural materialism of Dutch founders, the manorial society of the British gentry, quakers and pluralistic protestants of the midlands, and rigorous independence of the Scots Appalachians abut slave-holding southerners from the Barbados and Spanish-American periphery, shaping the nation’s fractured political present: aside from some limited intersection of these realms, the melting pot not only never existed, but “deep cultural” values provided an optic that refracted every political event of the twentieth and twenty-first century, as if a deep memory of the mind that we will not escape. The rigorous and purposive historical flatness of Woodward’s “map” seems a point of pride.
The schematic map recalls a study sheet for high school U.S. history, claiming to reveal a landscape that lets scales fall from its viewers’ eyes. Such radical essentialism–or deeply conservatory if not reactionary cartography–reminds us with considerable offhand pluck that we’re in fact far less mobile than we would like to think. Rather than dig into the data in any depth, the map “shows” that we remain dominated by almost essential cultures that have been perpetuated by local institutions for all our championing of free will; we are, yes, really cultures, but cultures that no person can actually make. Indeed, Woodward had originally cast the divides as separate “nations” that were both in evidence “today,” but revealed a deep geography of eleven nations in a 2013 map first published in the fall of 2013 as a guide to the “deep differences” into who he argued people in the nation sort themselves, as if into political preferences. If a degree of self-determination surely remains, geography has the commanding upper hand, Woodward seeks to let us know, but his argument verges on an environmental conditioning by which the continent’s settlement runs against the idea of any easy arrival at consensus: indeed, “to understand violence or practically any other divisive issue, you need to understand historical settlement patterns” that defined the matrix.
Woodward responded to the stark fragmentation of the electoral map in 2012, to be sure, but has reprised his divisions again to explain the Trump phenomenon, and effectively raise questions about the midterm elections as if to suggest that no real deviation from a foretold story will occur. And it is no surprise that the area of Greater Appalachia he has mapped, colored bright red in the image of 2013, which consciously riffed on the red state/blue state divide, without mentioning it. Indeed, those “eleven nations” break into what look like voting blocks,–even if they are meant to remind readers that “lasting cultural fissures” were established by “Euro-American cultures [that] developed in isolation from one another,” reflecting how “the American colonies were [first] settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles” who we shouldn’t confuse. Woodward presented his map as evidence of deep roots for the sectarianism we think of as modern, and “there has never been an America, but rather several Americas,” even if we all share one legal code. Deadlock is natural on gun control or other issues,–but to appreciate that you “need to understand history” that political debate cannot alter.
When Woodward revived the twelve nations as divides as tools to explain a sense of regional divides to replace the truism of thinking about America in a rural/urban dichotomy, he wanted to go deeper than the big data of a district-by-district map and its information overload. But leaving aside that his geographic divisions handily capture some of the largest cities and urban areas in the “Left Coast” and “New Netherland” region, the map seems deeply flawed in its use of voting preferences in an era when voter turnout is notoriously low–voter turn-out was not substantially lower than in other years, but hovered about 58%–and the areas where Trump surprisingly outperformed the previous Republican Presidential candidate in a majority of states–
The divisions map most precisely on regions that perceived their economic remove from the coastal elites with whom the Democrats have been wrongly identified. Indeed, it is not surprising that the Greater Appalachia region that Woodward’s original 2013 map cast as bright red assumes a pretty monochrome hue when chopped out of the elegant Mapbox visualization, suggesting that that region played a large outsized role in the last election, or as much as Purple America, and occupies the heart of the area where Trump outperformed Romney in the 2016 election, reconfiguring the red-blue divide. The deep crimson area, with scattered islands of blue to the east and north, where Greater Appalachia ends, suggests less a new nation than a remoteness,
Area roughly corresponding to Greater Appalachia/Mapbox/New York Times
not only removed from broadband or access to health care, but relative per capita income rates in relation to the United States average, completion of high school, ethnic diversity, and women in the workforce and unemployment among young men–in short, a nation apart from the nation, less exposed to racial diversity and who the federal government had let down in its priorities.
The trap of thinking in states may distort the above map, but the increased number of votes seem rooted in “Yankeedom,” as well as “Greater Appalachia” and “Midlands,” than the logic of Woodard’s map would have us believe. Of course, Woodward’s map might be more convincingly read not as a divide between rural and urban, but a heightening of the local, and a collapse of cross-regional collectives that once animated our politics and were known as parties, or groups that bargained for collective interests as unions.
For it surely takes into account the deep crisis in our democracy of a disconnect that many feel compelled to seek affective ties that are deeper than the remove they feel from Washington, and hard to find in a map. It is saying something that even a year and a half from Trump’s inauguration as President, we continue to return, as if to find more information, to even more detailed parsings of the political map that might allow us to explore and, more importantly, come to terms with the extent of fracturing in our political landscape, where urban “voter islands” in Denver, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, Miami, Houston, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and New York are so strikingly pronounced–and try to understand what that heightened insularity can mean.
Ryne Rhola/Mapbox (2018)
We are asked to use the map to avoid being in a “political bubble,” and to explore the area that you “know”–no doubt where you reside, where everyone first turns in a map–as if to measure what you expected that you knew against the “extremely detailed map” of our political divisions, courtesy of Mapbox, where even the divisions in a reliably “blue state”–as where I live, California–can be parsed in greater detail, as if to gain intelligence of the political lay of the land, in time for the mid-terms, and to learn what districts you might to go to canvas or contribute to a political campaign, as possible on many partisan apps,
Ryne Rhola/Mapbox (2018), 2016 US Presidential Election
The divisions in political or electoral preference seems hardly surprising, but the divides show up as stubbornly sharp in the Bay Area, whose insularity is long supposed and often championed, but where the directive to “explore” an area you “know” to see if you live in a political bubble seems all too apt.
For the “areas you know” still seem ones that you can’t quite get your head around, too much like bubbles than regions, where fault lines of political opposition are located a bit more inland, but seem sadly inscribed on the land.
The maps remind us that, rather than live in nations, we seem to live in tribes.
We read more maps than ever before, and rely on maps to process and embody information that seems increasingly intangible by nature. But we define coherence in maps all too readily, without the skepticism that might be offered by an ethics of reading maps that we all to readily consult and devour. Paradoxically, the map, which long established a centering means to understand geographical information, has become regarded uncritically. As we rely on maps to organize our changing relation to space, do we need to be more conscious of how they preset information? While it is meant to be entertaining, this blog examines the construction of map as an argument, and proposition, to explore what the ethics of mapping might be. It's a labor of love; any support readers can offer is appreciated!