Narratives, Agency, & Electoral Maps

The entry of the data visualizations into the pitched narrative of the Presidential election is not new. If thought to begin in the collective unfolding of the election-night drama on television screens, as the casting of ballots long understood as a collective action of union has prompted a narrative of division, CNN offers a new model to personally intervene on one’s iPhone or android, as if to offer the means to ramp up agency on social media, inviting users to tap on one’s personal screen to build-your-own electoral map, perhaps to assuage one’s heightened anxiety, granting the illusion to allow yourself for entering your own alternative future. Echoing the algorithmic thinking of tallying “pathways to victory” we’d been following to exist the Trump Era with increased desperation, courtesy FiveThirtyEight and others, we imagined scenarios of the electoral constellation that might prepare for the dawning of something like a new age.

We’ve rarely had so divisive a President as Donald Trump, who has sought to divide the country by race, region, religion, and income, and the hopes for emerging with a new vision of the union are slim–making the amount of weight and meaning that rests on the map appear greater than ever. How it would spin out was unclear, but the red block that Trump had pulled to the considerable surprise of all political pundits was promised to be able to be chipped away at in multiple ways, sketched by so many algorithmic story maps as “paths to victory.” The array of paths each candidate faced–though we focussed on Biden’s range of options and winced at those of Trump–could be organized in what seems a rehearsal for the glossing of possible eventualities, as multiple data visualizations that led to alternative futures like so many forking roads out of a dark, dark wood.

The hope to find coherence in the map seems even greater than ever, as if it might finally purge the divides of the last four to six years. There was a grim sense of being defeated by the electoral map during the 2016 and 2020 election, with the skewing of electoral votes to low-density rural states–skewed further by the increasing distance at which those local problems appear from Washington, DC. The configuration of the electors, as the configuration of the federal representative government, are compromised by giving more pull to residents of many rural states and creating a red block that one can only hope to chip away at in the age of coronavirus either by online donations, phone-banking, or, at this late stage, by imagining alternative futures, and playing around with the map to see how the post-election endgame will play.

This election, sequestered behind our walls, often having already cast our ballot, the parlor game of playing with the CNN interactive graphics may come as a relief offering an interactive model for adjusting and tweaking the electoral map, playing out alternative scenarios whose conclusion and potential endgames we can indulge ourselves and to an extent confront our fears in this most anxiety-producing of elections by imagining alternative scenarios playing out, using a tentative set of color choices, more familiar from polls than television, to suggest the possible outcomes of the elections as we try to assemble the final tabulations of the vote, and the disputes that may arrive in each locality about margins of victory this time round, hoping to heal the abrupt chromatic divide still huring from 2016, using polls’ take on “battleground” states to game outcomes of potential electoral maps.

Polls and Potential Electoral Distribution of 2020, CNN

The above (imagined) electoral map would be the narrowest of Democratic victories, but affirm some deep divides across the nation from 2016, but might be arrived at only after recounts and disputes. The fantasy map suggests not only the open-ended nature of the vote this year, where the large number of absentee ballots tabulated during the pandemic poses problem of tabulation exacerbated by local restrictions on when the tally of votes is able to begin.

But cognitively trained as we were over the previous months–conditioned?–to entertain multiple contingencies of electoral paths “to victory” in the ecosystem of data visualizations, schooled by the acumen of considering “paths to victory” entertained by Nate Silver, the CNN maps offered not only a parlor game, but a rehearsal for glossing electoral configurations based that might emerge on November 3, 2020, should we be forced to entertain multiple “pathways to victory” that might emerge–or, as it happened, remain–as the evening proceeded. They cued possible narrative scripts.

In retrospect, of course, we could barely imagine an electoral map that was so delicately balanced on tenterhooks. The dramatic unfolding of multiple “roads to 270” suggested a possibility to reclaim the dominant metaphors from sports, pace Silver, to a narrative of democracy. Although some petulantly suggested that the mail-in ballot was more than a bummer but a trap, presenting more possibilities of limiting votes and discarding ballots, by making us more dependent on mail delivery and USPS, the expectations for vote-counting that were a byproducts of the COVID era may well have furthered democratic discourse, and the focus of the voting drive, as well as affirming the democratic centrality of the mail: as much as provide a route for the current joyless hack of a Postmaster General to intervene in the expression public will, the narrative of tabulating every vote and creating a true paper record was an unexpected reform of the tally of votes and voting process, as tabulation foregrounded political participation as a schooling in votes nowhere more evident than in the unexpected drama of the slowing down of the tabulation of votes and arrival of data into the electoral map provided an unexpected lesson of democracy.

Electoral Map as Ballots Tallied in Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania

We expected little conclusiveness in the electoral map on election night, even into the wee hours, unlike the intense drama of earlier years. The election will continue even after the counts are finalized in each state, as it is bound to be contested in perhaps ongoing and painful ways, if it proceeds not only to polling places but up through the federal courts, as new complaints about the validity of votes are posed by the Republican Party. The hope to restrict the franchise in any way possible plays to fears not only of aliens who are exercising a vote, but a new array of restrictions on the franchise.

2020 Electoral Projection of Nate Silver, Election Day 2020

And we could fear an endgame destined to subvert the narrative drama once located only on the electoral map, its narrative unhinged from the map, pursued in cases that debate the ways votes were tallied, compiled, tabulated beyond November 3. Nate Silver’s map as not purely prognostic. If it reinforces the deeply divided nation fractured on broad-based faults of terrifyingly portentous contiguity, it suggests a painful endgame narrative, as court cases were pressed, recounts demanded, and charges of illegal voting launched in the face of attempts to aggregate votes from mail-in ballots in states predicted to “go blue.” The possibility of such “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” was not at all appealing.

Even if static, the alternative electoral maps staged a sort of drama of hypotheticals that anticipated the dangers of deep dissatisfaction across the nation. There is a deep fear that if no souther state “flip blue,” even a truly “tenuous win” might be almost pyrrhic. The narrative is grim, if its end result may have positive elements. Is its biggest impact not in delivering a President–the outcome of the electoral system–but, this year, it is also a map of the painful endgame of litigating the vote, even if the nation is haunted by a Mason-Dixon latitudinal divide among electors which most of the nation valiantly hoped we somehow might soon put behind us.

The narrative is displaced from the election. While Nate Silver notoriously went wrong in prognosticating 2016, he reminds us, in case we forgot, “Trump didn’t win the last election by that much.” This year the true terrifying story may well be the aftermath, and the difficulty to call the election, and what this means for the nation–which is a narrative that one may only gloss from the map, which threatens not to materialize in any trustworthy way until all the votes are counted–and all legal battles around their tabulation are hopefully resolved. But the most despicable sort of battles about VOTER ID, and the deeply divisive questions of the legitimacy of who could cast a ballot, were immersed in the heady waters of debates about immigration, seemed game for inclusion, as eighteen states now require VOTER ID, in ways that pose broad risks for disenfranchisement that local administration of elections threaten to perpetuate, after the refusal to amend the historic Voting Rights Act whose teeth were removed.

As other nations puzzle over the arcane methods for employing an electoral college that dilutes the actual popular vote that is distributed among apparently aristocratic holdovers of electors, but is in fact far closer to an ideal model citizenry of those honorable to place nation first over sectarian interests, the passionate intensity of division made such ideals seem destined for planned obsolescence, for reasons maybe not far removed from media technologies.

The liberating nature we find in designing our own DIY electoral maps on our peripherals offer more than a fun exercise in alternative realities in a national compact; playing with the maps are far more effective and engaged than most other forms of narcotics for assuaging anxiety, and do lower blood pressure. There was some pleasant chutpah to seeing Phillipe Reines put out his own prediction of an overwhelming Biden electoral victory that kept Trump below 200 electors, on November 2 2020, with a prescience reveals that the narrative was indeed there to be unpacked.

https://twitter.com/PhilippeReines/status/1323473321107857408

There was a sense of liberation in the ability to easily enter alternate futures, thanks to CNN graphics team and your smart phone, of greater national harmony–if the possibility of harmony seems in many places pretty illusory or lost, across the red dust bowl of arid lands Great Plains, echoing John Wesley Powell’s “lands of the arid region,” now only starting to be imagined to be rendered other than red, and Appalachia. This alienated “forgotten” American persists even in the DYI electoral map that not based on tabulations of votes. But such a map seems telling: tapping states to flip their votes invest a sense of agency in our ability to make possible predictions, even more important than the vote: we have ingested so many polls in news maps, there is something liberating in playing with the electoral map ourselves, gaming multiple scenarios, fidgeting with the map as an outlet for nervous energy as we wonder how those polls will translate to an electoral map,–

Fantasy Electoral Map, Built on CNN

–and how those states will add up to produce the only numeric legend the will really in the end count.

If we once relied on television pundits to explain the translation of the “raw” popular vote and the possibility of a win of electoral victory without a popular vote victory–then a deeply doubted as an eventuality–in describing the contest for “the percentage of the republican vote” as an obscure statistical construct. When even in the 1980 election, pundits bemoaned this “long electoral season,” the “magic map”

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Filed under 2020 election, data visualization, electoral maps, interactive maps, Red States/Blue States

Local Air Quality this Fire Season in California

The tracking of local air quality is a contemporaneous way to track the effects of the fire seige that initiated clusters of fires across the western seaboard to be ignited at the end of a long, dry summer from August 25. We were not really struck unawares by the dry lightning, but had left forests languishing, not beneath electricity lines–as last year, around this time–but under a hot sun, and high temperatures that we hardly registered as changing the ecosystem and forest floor. This year, the sun turning red like a traffic light in the middle of the afternoon, we were forced to assess the air quality as the blue sky was filled with black carbon plumes from nearby fires that at times left a grittiness in our eyes.

October 1, 2020

Confronted with a red sun through pyrocumulus haze, we followed real-time surveys of air quality with renewed attentiveness as an orange pyrocumulus clouds blanketed usually blue skies of the Bay Area, obscuring the sun’s light, suffusing the atmosphere with a weirdly apocalyptic muted light, that were hardly only incidental casualties of the raging fires that destroyed houses, property, and natural habitat–for they revealed the lack of sustainability of our warming global environment.

EPA/World Air Quality Index/New York Times September 15, 2020

The soot and fog that permeated “clean cities” like Portland and San Francisco came as a sudden spike in relation to the black carbon loads that rose in plumes from the fires, as if the payload of the first bombs set by climate change. The shifting demand for information that evolved as we sought better bearings in the new maps of fires that had become a clearly undeniably part of our landscape was reflected in the skill with which the sites of incidence of dry lighting strikes that hit dried out brush and forest floors, the growing perimiters of fires and evacuation zones across the west coast, and the plumes of atmospheric smoke of black carbon that would leave a permanent trace upon the land, liked to the after-effects of holocausts created by atom bombs by Mike Davis. The measurement of wind carrying airborne smoke emerged as a layer of meaning we were beginning to grasp, a ghostly after-effects of the fields of flams that began from sites of lightning hitting the earth in a Mapbox wildfire map of fields of fire across the states, radiating resonant waves akin to earthquake aftershocks, a lamination on hex bins of the fires that seemed a new aspect indicating their presence in the anthropocene.

The suitably charcoal grey base-map of the state integrates approximate origins of fires, fire spread and greatest intensity of hotspots from satellite imagery courtesy Descartes Labs and NOAA, and air pollution data integrates the fires’ spread across our picture of the state. While human reviewed and sourced, the satellite data embodies the ravages of fire across the state in ways echoed by its black charcoal base map, and reflects the need to develop new visual tools to process their devastation.

Mapbox Wildfire Maps/CalFire Data/OpenStreetMap/Los Angeles Times Sept 28, 2020

While we began to measure air quality to meet new needs to track ground-level ozone, acid rain, air toxins, and ozone depletion at an atmospheric level, the increased tracking of more common air pollutants since 1990 included airborne particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), and ozone (O3), we track the effects of wildfire smoke by hourly levels of each at local points, parlaying sensors into newsfeeds as wildfires rage. If stocked with labels of each chromatic layer, are these real-time updates lacking not only legends–but the temporal graph that would clarify the shifting data feeds that lead us to give them the illusion of purchase on the lay of the land we are trying to acknowledge this fire season?

Berekeley, CA October 1, 2020/Clara Brownstein

Watching slightly more long-term shifts in quality of air that we breath in the Bay Area, we can see striking spikes of a maximum just after the lighting siege began on August 19, 2020 across much of the state, as air quality decisively entered into a hazardous zone, tracking PPM2.5 concentrations, but entering the worst fifteen air days since registration four times since 1999, when Bay Area Air Quality Management District began reporting the levels of fire smoke in inhabited areas.

Particulate Matter (PM 2.5) Concentrations in Bay Area, August 15-Septmeber 13, 2020/
Bay Area Air Quality Management District

We measure fires by acreage, but the sudden spikes of air quality, while not exceeding the smoke that funneled into the Bay Area during the North Bay Fires in 2017, when the Tubbs and Atlas Fires devastated much of the Wine Country, created a run of high-smoke days, were followed by a set of sudden spikes of the atmospheric presence of particulate matter that we tried to track by isochomes, based on real-time sensor reading, but that emerge in better clarity only in retrospect.

It is true that while the AQI maps that offer snapshots of crisp clarity of unhealthy air might serve as an alarm to close windows, remain indoors, and call off school–

AirNow AQI map in Bay Area after Lightning Fires, August 22, 2020

–as particulate matter spread across the region’s atmosphere. We are used to weather maps and microclimates in the Bay Area, but the real-time map of particulate matter, we immediately feared, did not only describe a condition that would quickly change but marked the start of a fire season.

Not only in recent days did the sustained levels of bad air suggest an apocalyptic layer that blanketed out the sun and sky, that made one feel like one was indeed living on another planet where the sun was masked–a sense heightened by the red suns, piercing through grey smoke-cover that had seamlessly combined with fog. Although the new landscapes of these AQI maps generate immediate existential panic, we should be more panicked that while we call these fires wild, they release unprecedented levels of toxins once imagined to be detected as industrial pollutants. The seemingly sudden ways that black carbon soot blanketed the Bay Area, resting on our car hoods, porches, windowsills and garbage bins were not only an instant record of climate emergency, but the recoil of overly dry woods, parched forests and lands as overdue payback for a far drier than normal winter, months and a contracted rainy season that had long ago pushed the entire state into record territory. The lack of soil moisture has brought a huge increase of wildfire risk, not easily following the maps of previous fire history, and persistence of “abnormally dry” conditions across a third of California, focussed in the Sierra and Central Valley–the areas whose forests’ fuel loads arrive carbonized in particulate form.

Local monitors of air quality suggest the uneven nature of these actual isochromes as maps–they are reconstructions of what can only be sensed locally, and does not exist in any tangible way we can perceive–but presented what we needed to see in a tiler that made differences popped, highlighting what mattered, in ways that left cities fall into the bottom of the new colors that blanketed the state, in which local sensors somehow revealed what really mattered on August 20: if the “map” is only a snapshot of one moment, it showed the state awash in ozone and PPM.

AirNow/August 20, 2020
Air Quality Index

We were in a sort of existential unfolding in relation to these maps, even if we could also read them as reminders of what might be called “deep history”: deep history was introduced by Annalistes to trace climatic shifts, the deep “undersea” shifts of time, on which events lie as flotsam, moved by their deep currents that ripple across the economy in agrarian societies, suggesting changes from which modern society is in some sense free. “Deep History” has to some extent been reborn via neurosciences, as a history of the evolution of the mind, and of cognition, in a sort of master-narrative of the changes of human cognition and perception that makes much else seem epiphenomenal. If the below real-time map was time-stamped, it suggested a deep history of climate of a more specific variety: it was a map of one moment, but was perched atop a year of parched forests, lack of groundwater, and increased surface temperatures across the west: Sacramento had not received rain since February in an extremely dry winter; its inter was 46% drier than normal, and the winder in Fresno was 45% dryer in February. They are, in other words, both real-time and deep maps, and demand that we toggle between these maps as the true “layers” of ecological map on which we might gain purchase.

The levels of dessication of course didn’t follow clear boundaries we trace on maps. But at some existential level, these flows of particulate matter were not only snapshots but presented the culmination and confirmation of deep trends. We have to grasp these trends, to position ourselves in an adequate relation to their content. For the deep picture was grim: most of California had enjoyed barely half of usual precipitation levels after a very dry winter: Sacramento has had barely half of usual rainfall as of August 20 (51%); the Bay Area. 51%; parts of the Sierra, just 24%. And wen we measure smoke, we see the consequences of persistent aridity.

August 28, 2020/AirNow
Air Quality Index

These are the layers, however, that the maps should make visible, And while these shifts of particulate matter that arrived in the Bay Area were invisible to most, they were not imperceivable; however, the waves of smoke that arrived with a local visibility that almost blanketed out the sun. Perhaps there was greater tolerance earlier, tantamount to an ecclipse. Perhaps that seemed almost a breaking point.

For almost a month after the first fires broke, following a sequence of bad air days and spare-the-air alerts marked our collective entrance to a new era of climate and fire seasons, fine soot blanketed the state at hazardous levels, leaving the sense there was nowhere left to go to escape.

September 13, 2020
Air Quality Index

We had of course entered the “Very Unhealthy” zone. If real-time maps condense an immense amount of information, the snapshot like fashion in which they synthesized local readings are somewhat hard to process, unless one reads them with something like a circumscribed objective historical perspective that the levels of PPM5 provides. In maps that are data maps, and not land maps, we need a new legend, as it were, an explanation of the data that is being tracked, lest it be overwhelmed in colors, and muddy the issues, and also a table that will put information on the table, lest the map layers be reduced to eye candy of shock value, and we are left to struggle with the inability to process the new scale of fires, so unprecedented and so different from the past, as we try to gain bearings on our relation to them.

Of course, the real-time manner that we consume the “news” today

militates against that, with feeds dominating over context, and fire maps resembling increasingly weather maps, as if to suggest we all have the skills to read them and they present the most pressing reality of the moment. But while weather maps suggest a record of the present, these are not only of the current moment that they register. Looking at them with regularity, one feels the loss of a lack of incorporating the data trends they depict, and that are really the basis of the point-based maps that we are processed for us to meet the demand for information at the moment, we are stunned at the images’ commanding power of attention to make us look at their fluid bounds, but leave us at sea in regards to our relation to what is traced by the contour lines of those isochrones.

Bay Area Air Quality Management, PM2.5 Concentrations, August 15-September 13, 2020

We can, in the Bay Area, finally breathe. But the larger point re: data visualizations is, perhaps, a symptom of our inflow of newsfeeds, and lies in those very tracking maps–and apps–that focus on foregrounding trends, and does so to the exclusion of deeper trends that underly them, and that–despite all our knowledge otherwise–threatens to take our eyes off of them. When the FOX newscaster Tucker Carlson cunningly elided the spread of wild fires ties to macro-process of climate change, calling them “liberal talking points,” separate from climate change, resonating with recent calls for social justice movements to end systematic racism in the country: although “you can’t see it, but rest assured, its everywhere, it’s deadly. . . . and it’s your fault,” in which climate change morphed to but a “partisan talking point” as akin to “systematic racism in the sky.”

While the deep nature of the underlying mechanics by which climate change has prepared for a drier and more combustable terrain in California is hard to map onto to the spread of fires on satellite maps, When climate denialism is twinned with calls for reparations of social injustice or gun control as self-serving narratives to pursue agendas of greater governmental controls to circumscribe liberties, befitting a rant of nationalist rage: the explanations on “our” lifestyles and increased carbon emissions, only pretenses to restrict choices we are entitled to make, Carlson was right about the depths at which both climate change and systematic racism offer liberal “lies”–especially if we squint at tracking maps at a remove from deep histories, and cast them as concealing sinister political interests and agendas, the truly dark forces of the sinister aims of governmental over-reach in local affairs.

“Structural racism” is indeed akin to the deep structure of climate change if the cunning analogy Tucker Carlson powerfully crafted for viewers did not capture the extent of their similarities. For if both manifest deep casualties created by our society, both depart from normalcy and both stand to hurt the very whites who see them as most offensive. The extent of inequalities of systematic racism as present in our day-to-day life as is the drying out landscape. And the scope of climate change is able to be most clearly registered by the evident in trends of diminished precipitation, groundwater reserves or temperature change that create environmental inequalities, too often obscured by the events of local air quality or maps of social protests that respond to deep lying trends.

To be sure, the tracking of environmental pollutants underlay the national Pollution Prevention Act of 1990, and led to a number of executive orders that were aimed to set standards for environmental justice among minority communities who long bore the brunt of industrial pollutants, from lead paint to polluted waters to hazardous waste incinerators. And, as we are surrounded by racial inequalities that are visible in systematic inequalities before the law, and have lowered life expectancies of non-whites in America by 3.5 years, increasing rates of hypertension, cancer, and systematic disenfranchisement of blacks–these extensive inequalities hurt whites, and hurt society. As Ibrahim X. Kendi perceptively noted, White Supremacists affirm the very policies that benefit racist policies even when they undercut interests of White people; they “claim to be pro-White but refuse to acknowledge that climate change is having a disastrous impact on the earth White people inhabit.” Is there a degree of self-hatred that among Carlson’s viewers that informs Carlson’s frontal attack on climate change and structural racism as myths, more content to blame non-Whites for structural inequalities.

But these inequalities are evident in the differences in air quality that climate change creates. For if the AQI maps tell us anything, it is the absence of any preparedness for the interconnections of fire, smoke, and large dry stretches of a long story of low precipitation that have created abnormally dry conditions–indeed, drought–across the state.

California Drought Monitor, Sept. 17, 2020/Brad Rippey, U.S. Department of Agriculture

The intensity of severe drought across the conifer-dense range Sierras raises pressing questions of federal management of lands: the moderate to severe drought of forested lands intersect with the USDA Forest Service manage and the over 15 million acres of public lands managed by the federal government manages or serves as a steward.

–that crosses many of the dried out wildland and rangeland forested with conifers and dense brush, a majority of which are managed by federal agencies–19 million acres, or 57%– but with climate change are increasingly drier and drier, which only 9 million are privately owned.

Ownerships of California Forests and Rangeland
USDA Forest Service Management (Purple), National Parks (Lavender), Bureau of Land Management (Orange)

Yet the reduction of Wildland Fire management by 43.98% from FY2020 to FY2021 in President Trump’s budget continued the systematic erosion of funding for the United States Forest Services. As California weathered longer and longer fire seasons under Donald Trump’s watch, Trump made budget cuts $948 million to the Forest Service for fiscal year 2020, after defunding of US Forest Services by reducing mitigating fire risk by $300 million from FY 2017 to FY2019, cutting $20.7 minion from wildlife habitat management, and $18 million from vegetation management–a rampage beginning with cutting USFS research funding by 10% and Wildland Fire Management by 12% in FY 2018! While blaming states for not clearing brush in forests, sustained hampering of managing federal lands rendered the West far less prepared for climate change. As the costs of containing wildfires rise, the reduction of the Forest Service budget has provoked panic by zeroing out funding for Land and Water conservation–alleged goals of the Trump Presidency–and cuts grants to state wildfire plans by a sixth as fire suppression looms ever larger.

By defunding of forest management, rangeland research, and habitat management, such budgetary measures pose pressing questions of our preparedness for the growing fire seasons of future years; stars that denote public land management might be targets for future dry lightning.

Ecosystems of California (2016)

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Filed under Climate Change, climate monitoring, climate sciences, data visualization, fires

To Levitate an Elephant

The Republican Party unveiled a sleek red elephant in preparation for the 2020 Republican Convention that seemed a strange recuperation of the circus origins of the once-sturdy quadruped. The rejuvenation of the vitality of the old elephant staged a rebirth of the party at a time when its ties to the nation had been increasingly tenuous, and seemed to mask the deep fragmentation that the politics of divisive opposition had been stoked by the shock jock tactics of a President over his first term. The classic abstracted pachyderm was no longer an iconic mascot of the past–it had not been the weighty icon of the past, laden with memories for years–but the division of the party was threatening, as was the division of the nation, by the time the Republican Party had assembled and decided not to adopt any platform in 2020, but to accept disruption and assurances of law and order as an identity the old red-white-and-blue mascot would no longer do to express.

As nation-wide movements promoting the sovereign secession of red states advanced online in virtual space of social media, embraced by the party as a basis for generating turnout and votes, Republicans seemed so assured of an approaching electoral landslide as something like destiny that the electoral map of victory became something of a mirror, finding their identity in red states alone in ways that were unveiled in the newly monochrome anthropomorphic icon of a red pachyderm as the aspirational emblem of the GOP would be reborn with newfound unity and vitality and with an apparent spring in its step.

If the first appearance of the “symbolic pachyderm” occurred in Harpers weekly as a stolid party poised at the brink of an open pit of chaos which was only slightly covered by the false support flimsy campaign platforms afforded its bulk, the image of the stolid beast of the party that was slandered in the 1874 election as newspapers accused the party of corruption, that may have led the mighty elephant to trip into the abyss of chaos. If the boastful Democratic donkey that saw itself as Caesar terrified forest beasts, and led Minerva’s owl to drop her tablet, the imposing party struggled not to fall into the abyss of chaos on platforms that could hardly sustain it from the fNew York press’s charges of corruption, let the party somehow loose the stability of Republican voters.

Thomas Nast, “Third Term Panic” (Harpers Weekly, 1874)

The newly designed Republican elephant of 2020 unveiled in Charlotte, North Carolina, attempted to invest strengthened unity for a party that had changed its identity, in ways that threatened its resilience. The proverbial four blind men who came to describe an elephant might not detect the chromatic shift, but the seismic shift in partisan identity was huge in a party whose sense of identity was being strong-armed by the . The prime political parties of American politics were defined since the late nineteenth century were symbolized by animals in ways that reveal the dominance of the popular press and editorial cartooning of Harpers magazine, where cartoonist Thomas Nast elevated the elephant to a symbol of party, embodying the collective vote in less that laudatory ways, have become potent signifiers their partisans invested with positive qualities to define their affinities, invested in tricolor mascots imbued with patriotism, the elephant associated with memory, probity, and intelligence bearing three stars, and the donkey, populist, dedicated, and stubborn in holding its ground, emblazoned with four. 

The elephant had by the 1970s and 1980s retained its stability in abstract form, but seemed an unassailable image of the party’s security, its sleek form a clear contrast to the far more fluid, and perhaps mutable, Democratic donkey–and, when the streamlined icon emerged int he late 1970s, to assert its modernity.

Democratic donkey and Republican elephant

The new “red elephant” was not only a logo unveiled at the 2020 Republican Convention, of course, but an emblem that had arisen on social media, akin to the new emblems of patriotic devotion that were first engraved by the U.S. Mint on national currency to offer evidence of the piety of the after the Civil War, when Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase received letters from ministers beseeching him to include adequate “ recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins,” and imploring him “What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?,” leading Chase to impress upon the Director of the Philadelphia Mint the need of a device able to depict “the trust of our people in God . . . on our national coins” by a device and motto proclaiming national recognization of God, reasoning that it was evident that “no nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense.” Facebook groups Red Elephant media launched March 5, 2017 or The Red Elephant–a FB group and twitter handle, @redelephantt–founded April 9, 2018–suggested the new hue of the populist party of Donald J. Trump , an aggregator and amplifier of tweets by folks like Rep. Jim Jordan, Rep. Matt Gaetz, Gov. Ron De Santis and Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new republican Party that issued the post-inaugural proclamation to be back in other form.

The immensity of a far more animated elephant was a symbol primarily of hulking power, when it was first employed as a symbol of the Union; at the start of the U.S. Civil War, an anti-secessionist Republican party was imagined in an early lithography to render the anthropomorphic elephant an image of power and fire-arms, imagining, in an early New York lithograph, the contest between North and South in terms of a stoic beast, of little naturalism, whose dignity was backed up by fire-arms and the American flag, while a Democratic donkey seemed to squint at the imposing stature of the elephant who symbolizing order, Constitution in his pocket, and sword in his hand, wearing the patriotic stockings before his effete counterpart, “Jeff”–Jefferson Davies, who barely noticed his rural forces are far outnumbered by fire-power and canon, as he scrutinizes him warily through his eyepiece.

“Jeff Sees the Elephant,” E. B. & E. C. Kellogg/lithography by George Whiting, 1861-62
Jeff Sees the Elephant, 1861-2

The recognition scene between a patriotic elephant, donning both a patriotic hat band, stockings and slippers of red and white stripes and stars on a blue field, the American flag behind him, seems to register a divide of Civil War: the elephant armed with bursting guns coolly stares down the scrawny foppish Democrat donkey who lifts a monocle to better apprehend his foe. The future emblem mapped the cleavage between the union and confederates, where an elephant presumed to articulate the union and the donkey the intrepid resilience of the individualistic Democrat. During midterm elections of Republican Abraham Lincoln’s first term in office, when Jefferson Davies was the nominal “President” of seceded confederate states, was the precedent on which the great cartoonist Thomas Nast drew, but was designed long before the deadly violence of Civil War. The crisis of staking out political conditions out of which the animals emerged was pressing, if the dandy Davies seemed to barely orient himself by lifting his monocle to assess the scale of union munitions suggested that the elephant was an icon that was worth noticing.

The elephant long attracted circus-goers in America, but the entrance of elephants in political discourse and iconography demand being placed on a global map. If Lincoln adopted the elephant was a powerful symbol of union, and an announcement of the route of southern armies, which became a mascot of the Republican party, the impressive image of inclusion and monumentality was less evident in the new red elephant, lifting its trunks as if to smell the air, unveiled at the Republican Convention of 2020, when the wonder of the elephants that Siam’s King Mongkut hoped to introduce into “the forests of America” in 1861 had receded into history. The attributes of the animal mascot had over the years become fluid, long before the new elephant’s sleek form recaptured its circus origins, reclaiming its status as a circus animal, far from the upright animal who held his sword as a dignified cane. Lincoln judiciously had turned down the offer of a pair of elephants from his royal stock to propagate in American forests, but despite his respectful demurral that “our political jurisdiction . . . does not reach a latitude so low as to favour the multiplication of the elephant,” he readily adopted the iconography of the elephant as an emblem of the union by 1864: in the campaign, he used the slogan “the Elephant is Coming!” to promise the benefits of union as a partisan symbol.

The divide between a munitioned north that held the constitution in its pocket was drafted after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure toward the abolishing of enslavement, defending the field of stars and stripes before the propertied southern landowners symbolized by the Kentucky planter and slave-holder who was President of the Confederate States of America, an office and entity the United States never recognized–here mocked as a foolish gentleman leading farmers into battle. By 2020, the Grand Old Party had been internally wrestling with groups promoting the idea that red states might gain an independent sovereign status. While the notion of such a secession was an intellectual siloing, ignoring that the the economic productivity of “blue states” allowed fiscal solvency and social services across many poorer regions of the nation, the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, SC was an attempt to create a sense of coherence in a party that had been animated mostly by its fear of Trump’s twitterfeed over four years, and hoped to find a possible reconciliation in which the party might in fact be best embodied by Donald Trump, even if a large part of his appeal as a Presidential candidate was his status as a political outsider. Was Trump now to be celebrated as an elephant limned by a border of gold, but also reclaiming its popular origins?

1. The new mascot was unveiled for the GOP, sleeker and redder, recalling the imperial grandeur; the party would be energized as if to disguise its new status as Party of Trump, by a new mascot rearing its trunk. And although the President boasted of his abilities to correctly identify the image of a pachyderm in the routine Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test in late July, the elephant even became a sign of Trump’s own mental acuity and recall, after he was administered a test for Parkinson’s or dementia he boasted he’d actually “aced.”

Was it a coincidence that, about a month before the 2020 Republican convention, Donald Trump measured his success at a routinely administered test to FOX’s Chris Wallace, by describing having “aced” the Montreal Cognitive Assessment by his adeptness identifying an elephant? Wallace almost scoffed spontaneously he’d undergone the test himself, and knew it well–“”It’s not the hardest test–they have a picture and it says, ‘What’s that?” and it’s an elephant‘” Trump claimed identifying the pachyderm was a sense of extraordinary acuity, as he took the opportunity to taunt his opponent, Joe Biden, who he challenged to take the cognitive test as well.

Montreal Cognitive Assessment Test Administered at Walter Reed

This was not a great moment in American politics. Was it not a delicious irony that the test focussed on the elephant, that image of Republican unity that featured in MoCA test his physicians administered had indeed been revised, for 2020, as a rightward facing red beast, raising its trunk as if to rear, in an attempt to promote party unity?

Perhaps it was karma that the httMoCA test that the VA was administering to test the President’s cognitive condition included the emblem of the republican party where he ha emerged as candidate of choice, and the koanic haiku “man-woman-person-camera-tv” was included, as well, per POTUS, as the memory words–a selection that was not on most versions of the test itself, but seem a softball question for Walter Reed physicians to pitch to the former TV personality, whereas standard fare word lists are non-associative and without clear reference or oppositions–“hand, nylon, park, carrot, yellow”; “face-velvet-church-daisy-red.”

Facing the VOX crew, and wishing that he was being interviewed by a woman, “man-woman-person-camera-TV” suggested Trump was riffing on his actual setting, in real time, more than describing the Walter Reed test. But the centrality of the elephant to this test of President Trump’s personal memory received less attention than the fanciful word chain that became a knowing meme: the place of the emblem of the party in the MoCA Test at Walter Reed may have been randomly selected, but was a bit of a reflection on the transformed nature of the Republican party that had emerged with Trump at the helm, and the unveiling by August 1, 2020 of a star-studded (or encrusted) pachyderm before a blue crown as the new “convention logo reflects both the energy of this vibrant city and traditions of the Republican Party,” as well as the one-ring circus direction that the party was headed by the very nominee once worried to tarnish the Party’s reputation permanently.

The one-week infomercial of a convention was entering full gear in its planning stages when Mike Wallace was interviewing Trump in the Rose Garden; President Trump was probably taking a break from reviewing its program and imagining how his improbable leadership of the party whose leaders had only recently feared the deep damage The Donald might inflict on the party’s image, urging him at length to “tone down” his pleasure to bait his base by anti-immigrant rhetoric, as Trump dismissed apologies–“I have nothing to apologize for”–and assured “I’ll win the Latino vote”–and pooh-poohed that he was a novelty candidate, even if he was clearly a different political animal. When he advanced to being the standard-bearer for the GOP, as assurances his candidacy would implode melted, his anti-immigrant comments were repressed, elided, or rolled into the media sensation Trump knew he was.

At PGA meeting at Trump International Golf Course at Rancho Palos Verde, CA, July 6, 2020/Nick Ut/AP

The collective memory of the party was at stake in the new convention–where the basis for forming a party of red states alone seemed to be being tested, the resistance to even pretend to frame a platform in at the Charlotte NC convention suggested, in programming that seemed to foreground both that Donald Trump was not a racist and that he would keep America save from Black Lives Matter social justice protests, that the very logo of the party–a white elephant that dated from Reconstruction–had preserved quite racially encoded memories of its own, that might haunt the party Trump had reshaped, long identified since Thomas Nast bequeathed two anthropomorphic beasts to both parties, in the years after the U.S. Civil War.

There was a logical difficulty in hoping a pure red state republic that some of the planners of the 2020 Republican Convention must have been aware: if the Trump base could be counted upon, red states remained dependent on federal transfer payments or support for food stamps, temporary assistance for needy families, subsidized insurance, and Medicaid, and were far poorer states, reliant on effective subsidies to pay troops, the fund infrastructural projects and disaster relief, many of which were increasing due to human-caused climate change. The party was dependent on a good showing in more than red states, and the polls,, as much as they were discredited and discounted by the sitting President, looked bad. But the proximity of the party to The Donald meant that the elephant had to be redesigned to buoy the party’s hopes–putting on the front burner the problem of how to assimilate Donald Trump to a party of long term memory.

Christopher Weyant, Boston Globe

The representation of red states as a base demanded an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur, that might meld the strongly separatist rhetoric in which the image of a Sovereign States of America might exist–without echoing the Confederate secession, even if the image of a Confederate States of America was dear symbolism to Trump’s base. The new elegant if streamline elephant, now emblazoned with five stars that seemed to forecast the “W” of victory, seemed to embrace a “big tent” politics in its size, but was for the first time incarnated in red alone.

And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, he sought to unite the party in his increasingly capacious body, by mining a rich tradition of political iconography speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party that perhaps tapped Nast’s icon in recalling a circus–and in recalling the curiosity “white elephant’ that Barnum had imported from Burma, where it was revered as a symbol of purity and power, and whose display to circus audiences implicitly promoted it as a purer version than its African cousin who was a popular component of American circuses, whose appearance was often the culmination and final act of the spectacular form of popular entertainment.

2. If the circus elephants Barnum displaced were such Americanized images as popular behemoths and visual attractions that cartoonists in the Civil War had already adopted the elephant as a sing of the Union, and of the Republican party that defended the union. If Lincoln was said to adore the elephant as an image of the Union’s robustness, the currency of the elephant as a trick in the trade of circus exhibitions may have appropriated the curiosity of the mammoth-sized beast because of its size and to show the marvel of its domestication: if elephants had been taught to dance in the Jardin des Plants, in costume, exhibition of a stuffed elephant at London’s 1851 Crystal Palace by the East India Company bearing a royal carriage that increased its exotic dignity and elevated its ceremonial role as transit vehicle, if the taxidermied skin was a source more of fascination than vivacity, prefigured Barnum’s spectacular display of elephants to popular crowds: the popularity of the museified pachyderm prefigured exhibition of a giant African Grey at London’s Zoological Gardens, and Barnum eagerly bought what was then the largest elephant in captivity to hawk to American audiences in his traveling show, over public objection and anger of London zoogoers who felt they were swindled to lose the locally treasured beast that was a source of cultural fascination and pride:

Walter Goodall, Crystal Palace, 1855 (London)

If the stuffed elephant at the Crystal Palace exhibited in “native” costume as an elegant conveyance, anidst the Pavilion the East India Company populated with material goods, jeweled costumes, and elephant saddles, was far from the way Barnum later displayed elephants in his traveling company with fewer costumes than later adopted for circus elephants as forms of kitsch–Barnum promised contact with the vivacity of enormous beasts’ feats as a popular entertainment, in a tradition of American circus men, probably independently from Lincoln’s near fetishization of the tusked animal to emblematize the unity of the Union he promised in his Presidential campaign. But the connotations of elephant and party that paralleled the popular display of elephants Barnum dramatically pioneered grew as the costumed resumed for the Burmese White Barnum had added to his menagerie by 1884, amidst heated racial politics of Reconstruction, adopting the Burmese beast to provoke debates on the purity of racial descent and skin pigmentation in post-Civil War America, as they were confronted, processed and intensely debated outside southern states, rather decisively increased the adoption and attention to the elephant as a mascot of the Republican Party, as the “white elephant” Toung Taloung arrived in New York City as a fascinating new feature of Barnum’s public display.

The prized white elephant Barnum exhibited was a revered beast, whose purity of stock, evident in the pigmentation of its skin, he argued was more civilized and considerate elephant than the African greys standard in American circuses; the spectacle in Reconstruction was a symbol of racial purity, and the calculation of percentages of racial descent among Americans in the census. Nast adopted the white elephant to suggest the probity the Republican party would do well to adopt in 1880, to regain the White House–the “sacred elephant,” as the Burmese “white elephant” he had purchased was known, not a resident of forests, but a member of the royal court, serenaded and costumed with eastern luxuries. If the venerated white elephant, here shown in the sort of costume he wore in Barnum’s circus, offered a model of comportment Nast argued might lead back to the White House in 1880, the unconscious echo of the circus elephant in the new logo of 2020 seemed to suggest a pure red party would retain power. Is it any surprise that this circus animal was siezed on again and rehabilitated, in the three-ring circus of the Trump Presidency?

Thomas Nast, “the Sacred Elephant,” 1884

The new logo of an elephant rearing his trunk, and advancing, marked the “second coming” of Trump, and destined advance of a newly Trumpified party, although what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant. Rising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space, sporting five stars that seemed to summon a sense of astrological destiny, the proud adoption of a new elephant seemed to suggest an abandon to the race-baiting oratory Trump reintroduced in American politics.

Rather than evoking probity, the elephant suggested the reborn party that rose from a geography of red states where it was now rooted. Cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the President, but the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold, in what would be perhaps his last hurrah before the Convention Committee in late August, as the nation was reverberating with the potent echoes of George Floyd’s killing by overzealous racist police. Trump, newly affirmed by his cognitive assessment, and energized by the demonization of Black Lives Matter, staged a complex affirmation of a unified party, largely rooted in an appeal to a party overwhelmingly white: few would have remembered how George Orwell as a Burmese policeman associated with conscription into the “dirty work of Empire” when, as an assistant superintendent of Imperial police, 1922-27, he felt conscripted into service of empire when tasked with shooting the venerated elephant with a shotgun. George Orwell struggled with wearing a “mask” of imperialist as he claimed to perpetrate the murder of the unruly disruptive elephant, sensing that where the “white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys.” But the image of tyranny and domination was one that was almost embraced in the Republican party in the prominence of white faces and speakers that it featured and the ideal of restoring order they proclaimed.

If George Orwell lamented being the target of local hatred to empire and his own disquiet with his role as imperial enforcer, Trump cultivated the image of an enforcer at the Republican Convention, accepting the endorsement of the national association of Police Organization for the “most pro-law enforcement president we ever had” as he affirmed that the “violence and bloodshed we are seeing” in the summer of 2020 was only “the direct result of refusing to allow law enforcement to protect our communities.” Trump had exploited support of the Customs and Border Patrol in 2016 to promise a 2,000 mile border wall, and he promoted an endorsement from the national police organization–a collection of 1,000 unions–by promising to hire more police before cries to curb police violence, and “give law enforcement, our police, back their power.” The endorsement responded to Trump’s promised to “actively prosecute” all who attacked law enforcement amidst racial tensions, thundering “I will ALWAYS back the men and women in blue, and never let you down. LAW AND ORDER WILL PREVAIL!”

The power with which he spoke, raising his right hand to make his point, echoed the upwardly raised trunk of the invigorated partisan symbol of Republicans, lifting its trunk as if to communicate its power.

President Donald Trump speaks at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Was anyone aware of the racial connotations of purity by which the emblem of the elephant was claimed by Republicans in Reconstruction America? The preening insatiability of the red elephant communicated a sense of the eagerness of Republicans to map their candidate onto the body politic, a lumbering but advancing red behemoth, testifying to the electoral majority that the party would assemble in semaphore, in ways that the earlier tricolor icons of pachydermal stolidity had refused to capture as incarnations of a body politic. If the party’s stolidity seemed to convey a sense of order and conservatism in its earlier iterations, adding far more sobriety to an animal once figured by American cartoonists as a circus animal, from the time of the venerable Thomas Nast, master cartoonist of the late nineteenth century, the transmission of this partisan logo seemed to be less and less of a mascot of the party, than a symbol of purity. And if the elephant had become almost a glyph, robbed of semantic value–

–the unveiling of the rearing all-red elephant for a convention that was in a sense the kick-off of Trump 2020, a campaign that team Trump had been planning since 2017, seemed to recast the body politic as a unity of red states alone, without even pandering to the rest of the nation.

3. It is hard not to read the adoption of a new red elephant as party mascot as a unification not of the union–as Lincoln had intended and his party seems to have eagerly accepted–than the sufficiency of the unity of red states in the Trump Presidency, or Republican Party that was now stage-managed as Trump. The “red elephant” that was the descendent proclaimed and adopted descended from the “white elephant” of the 1880 campaign, but as the product of miscegenation of the new tribal currency of the “red states” as not only a base of the Republican Party, but a new identity as a “true” America which defined itself by its patriotic intensity, and their opposition to the representatives of “blue states,” and indeed the purity of Republican identity as a creed and dogma: if the prominence of anti-miscegenation laws in may states in the South long after the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation extended voting rights officially to African Americans–and were only removed long after the war’s end in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, South Carolina and Alabama–the very construction of “racial purity” and its fetishization increased the popular attraction of a “white elephant,” and expectation a “white elephant” might adhere to a different metric of civility than its African grey counterpart, and be treated and exhibited in the circus as, by analogy, distinct by its “race.” Red states were invested in the Trump era as a different beast than the states defined as “blue,” to the extent that preposterous claims of electoral fraudulence were entertained in the red states not only as a way of retaining political power, but as Michigan, Georgia, and Arizona–perhaps especially that state that lay in proximity to the border and border wall–were seen as “Republican” territory and recognized as red.

As soon as the new logo was unveiled, it was difficult not to see the attention to this pure-red beast as a reminder of the sufficiency to hold together the unity of the “sea of red” or of red states that Trump had long gloated over as a confirmation of a long over-exaggerated scale of his political victory in 2016 as a “landslide” and a confirmation of the intensity of his relation to the nation that he argued he would protect. It was hard not to remember the intensity with the the Trump family had baited the news media and their base by images of a map of a “sea of red” emblazoned with the taunting challenge “Try to impeach this” as a rather vainglorious boast on the even of the first impeachment of President Donald Trump, and which had only intensified in the 2020 Campaign that was increasingly fought and waged in openly oppositional if not Manichaean terms of political dualism, and later cast as combat tot he death that might itself prefigure Civil War if Trump did not emerge as the victor. Never mind that the map distorted population distribution or that “blue” voters who had supported the Democratic candidate had, indeed, outnumbered those who voted “red” for Donald Trump. This retweeted graphic where Trump received the majority of votes was an emblem of collective unity for candidate Trump in 2020, that led to the use of collective nouns with abundance that seemed to shrink the distance between him and his followers, and elevate the nature of one color in openly tribal terms of political contestation, rather than government, and understood that redmap as a direct tie to the President Trump, rather than to a party or an ideology debated or articulated as a political platform. Indeed, Representatives and Senators in the Republican party were increasingly seen as beholden not to their constituents, or the rule of law, or Constitution but to the appeal Trump exercised over their constituents.

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County-by-County Presidential Vote, 2016

The fetishization of the electoral divide became a mantra and promise for the Trump’s candidacy, as what he saw as an electoral acclamation–even if by concealing his loss of the popular vote–became an affirmation of his political inevitability and identity, and preaching to the “base” that was identified by red states came to conceal the lack of anything like a political platform by 2020: the continuity of red made the political terrain seem something like a mirror–a direct presentation of the nation of which it was the imposing incarnation.

2016 Electoral Map, by County
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Filed under American Politics, Donald J. Trump, political geography, political iconography, Republican Convention

Earth, Wind, and Fire

We think of earth, wind and fire as elements. Or we used to. For the possibility of separating them is called into question in the Bay Area, as wind sweeps the smoke of five to seven fires, or fire complexes, across the skies, we are increasingly likely to see them as layers, which interact in a puzzle we have trouble figuring out. Indeed, the weirdly haunting daily and hourly maps of air quality map the atmospheric presence of particulate matter by isochrones brought late summer blues to the Bay Area. Blue skies of the Bay Area were colored grey, burnt orange, and grey again as cartoon plumes of soot flooded the skies in a new sort of pyrocumulus clouds that turned the sun red, offering a disembodied traffic sign telling us to stop.

Clara Brownstein/October 1, 2020

Fire season began by remapping the town in terrifying red that registered “unhealthful,” but almost verging on the “hazardous” level of brown, based on local sensors monitoring of ozone, but is also registering a deeper history defined by an absence of rain, the lack of groundwater, the hotter temperatures of the region and the dry air. The map is both existential, and ephemeral, but also the substrate of deep climate trends.

AQI Chart on Saturday, August 22, 2020/AirNow (EPA)

Is fire an element we had never before tracked so attentively in maps? We did not think it could travel, or had feet. But wildfire smoke had blanketed the region, in ways that were not nearly as visible as it would be, but that the real-time map registers at the sort of pace we have become accustomed in real-time fire maps that we consult with regularity to track the containment and perimeters of fires that are now spreading faster and faster than they ever have in previous years. And soon after we worried increasingly about risks of airborne transmission of COVID-19, this fire season the intensity of particulate pollutants in the atmosphere contributed intense panic to the tangibility of mapping the pyrocumulus plumes that made their way over the Bay Area in late August. As the danger of droplets four micrometers in diameter remaining airborne seemed a factor of large-scale clusters, the waves of black carbon mapped in the Bay Area became a second sort of airborne pathogen made acutely material in layers of real-time Air Quality charts.

The boundaries of fire risk charts and indeed fire perimeters seemed suddenly far more fluid than we had been accustomed. When we make our fire maps with clear edges, however, it is striking that almost we stop registering the built environment, or inhabited world. As if by the magic of cartographical selectivity, we bracket the city–the sprawling agglomeration of the Bay Area–from the maps tracking the destructiveness and progress we call advancing wildfires, and from the isochronal variations of air quality that we can watch reflecting wind patterns and air movements in accelerated animated maps, showing the bad air that migrates and pool over the area I life. The even more ephemeral nature of these maps–they record but one instant, but are outdated as they are produced, in ways that fit the ecoystem of the Internet if also the extremes of the new ecosystem of global warming–the isochrones seem somewhat fatalistic, as they are both removed from human agency–as we found out in the weeks after the Lightning Siege of 2020 that seemed a spectacle of the natural world that rivaled the art of Walter de Maria in their grandiosity of time-lapse photography–

Shmuel Thaler, CZU Lightning Strikes
Walter de Maria, Lightning Field, 1977
Shmuel Thaler, CZU Complex (2020), detail

–the horizontal line of artificial light from Santa Cruz, unlike the images that De Maria created from The Lighting Field, remind us of the overlap between inhabited spaces where conflagrations in the dry wildlands that spread as the fires struck, and in way far less difficult to aestheticize than The Lightning Field set in a desert removed from human population, but was built as an isolated field for time-stop photography.

The CZU complex brought widespread devastation across areas of extra urban expansion in the Santa Cruz Mountains was almost a map that registered the expansion of residences to the very borders of forests. We haven’t ever faced the problem of maintaining and clearing in weather this dry, even if we have mapped the clustering of fires in the wild land-urban interface: but the strikes ignited underbrush lain like kindling, on the boundaries of the raging fire complexes. If the burning of underbrush by fire mitigation squads seeks to create fire lines in the mountainous landscape to create new perimeters to forestall the advance of major fires, working along a new fire line even as what is still called wildfier smoke travels across the nation, far beyond the Bay Area.

While watching the movement of fires that them in inhabited areas like shifting jigsaw pieces that destroy the landscape across which they move. These marked the start of megafires, that spread across state boundaries and counties, but tried to be parsed by state authorities and jurisdictions, even if, as Jay Inslee noted, this is a multi-state crisis of climate change that has rendered the forests as fuel by 2017–for combined drought and higher temperatures set “bombs, waiting to go off” in our forests, in ways unable to be measured by fire risk that continues to be assessed in pointillist terms by “fuel load” and past history of fires known as the “fire rotation frequency.” When these bombs go off, it is hard to say what state boundary lines mean.

Fire Threat Risk Assessment Map, 2007

If San Francisco famously lies close to natural beauty, the Bay Area, where I live, lies amidst of a high risk zone, where daily updates on fire risk is displayed prominent and with regularity in all regional parks. These maps made over a decade ago setfire standards for building construction in a time of massive extra-urban expansion. But risk has recently been something we struggled to calculate as we followed the real-time updates of the spread of fires, smoke, and ash on tenterhooks and with readiness and high sense of contingency, anxiety already elevated by rates of coronaviurs that depended on good numbers: fire risk was seen as an objective calculation fifteen years ago, but was now not easy to determine or two rank so crisply by three different shades.

Fire Risk Map, 2007

When thunderstorms from mid-August brought the meteorological curiosity of nearly 12,000 dry lightening dry strikes from mid to late August 2020, they hit desiccated forests with a shock. The strikes became as siege as they set over three hundred and fifty-seven fires across the state, that rapidly were communicated into expansive “complexes” of brush fires.

We map these fires by state jurisdictions, and have cast them as such in policy, by borders or the perimeters we hope to contain barely grasp the consequences of how three quarters of a million acres burned up suddenly, and smoke from the cluster of fires rose in columns that spread across state boundary lines as far as Nebraska, and how fire complexes that spread across three million acres that would soon create a layer of soot across the west, eerily materialized in layers of GIS ESRI maps of environmental pollutants, while toxic particulate mater released in plumes of black carbon by the fires cover the state, rendering the sun opaque where I live, in the Bay Area, now Pompeii by the Bay as smoke at toxic levels blanketed much of the state.

They even more serious map, to be sure, was of fire spread: but the maps of air quality set the entire western seaboard apart from the nation, as if threatening to have it fall into the ocean and split off from the United States,–even if the burning of its open lands was more of a portent of things to come, they were a historical anomaly, lying outside the record of fire burns or air quality, if the poor air quality traced the origin of black carbon columns of smoke that would rise into the nation’s atmosphere.

Wilfire Today, AQI Map/Sept-15, 2020
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Filed under Active Fire Mapping, American West, Climate Change, data visualization, fires

President of Some?

Donald Trump has presented a new notion of the Presidency to the United States: the open claim to be President of only some of the nation, and to have that model of Presidential rule become the standard for political decisions. This policy was not Trump’s own decision: the retreat from any interest in bipartisan governance that had been the basis for American politics for two hundred years began in the pitched nature of pointed acrimony in the U.S. Senate that erased the decorum and respect among different interests in a model of collective action for over two centuries.

Already by 2011, the nation divided into spectral schema suggesting slight chance of local bipartisan governance, disguising often narrow margins of political victory, despite eighteen states where Republicans controlled both the legislature and governor’s mansion in 2011, some eighteen were split.

Republican States, 2011

While the pitched fervor of some of our national divisions bears the imprint of faith-based movements, they are replicated in the pointillistic logic of the electoral plans of REDMAP–a concerted attempt of regional redistricting. For the reconfiguration of electoral districts has staked out a problem of governance as a strategy of victory that would erode the project of governance, by privileging “states” as an amassing of electoral votes,– rather than positing the coherence of the interests of the nation as a whole. The concept of governance seems fragmented, bolstered by regionalism, states rights discourse, and the cruel new isolationism of go-it-aloneism. In ways recast in the 2020 election as a choice between “darkness” and “light” of truly terrifyingly Manichean proportions, evoking near-apocalyptic scenarios to recast public debate as issues of identitarian self-interest. The divide of states on the 2000 electoral map, which didn’t change much over eight years, enshrined a blue versus red state logic, dovetailing with a deeper plan of retaining electoral control. This was the map was parsed in the seventh season of The West Wing, in 2006, at a time when the television newscasters needed to remind their audience states shaded blue sent electors to vote for Democrat Matt Santos (modeled in 2004 on then-Illinois State Senator Barack Obama, who just delivered the nominating speech at another convention), red ones for his Republic opponent, Arnie Vinick–as Campaign Director colored a dry erase board red and blue as results were announced.

The West Wing, “Election Night” (April 2006)

Obama provided a model for Santos as a candidate not defined by race, pivoting from race to underlying unity among red and blue states, but the restate-blue state divide was militarized. And when Barack Obama was re-elected in 2012, the Republican state legislators in Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ohio adopted the idea of ensuring Republican victories by rigging the Electoral College according to the congressional districts that they had redesigned, rather than in bulk, in the hopes to skew the distribution of electors by the congressional districts they had guaranteed would be firmly red, having designed districts that even in what were considered “blue” states had “red” legislatures. m so that districts would be assured that they would not be “outvoted” by urban metro areas would dictate a future.

This gave rise to the logic that asserted the “rural” non-metro regions should reclaim a place at the table by recrafting representational politics to give new meaning to those who increasingly feared–or felt–that their vote just didn’t count but felt that their futures on the line. By redrawing districts, legislatures magnify rural interests outside large metro areas, offering a logic magnifying their political representation through congressional districts as power bases and political divides: not by blue and red states, but by a red republic, in need of its voice. The plan to separate electoral votes from the popular vote can only work by recasting electoral districts on party-skewed lines, independent of any geographic shape save benefitting one party, at the expense of another, at violence to the republic. It was echoed in a tactic of political obstructionism that provided the logic for “red” areas to be increasingly opposed to current governmental policy in the Obama administration.

Republican-Majority Electoral Districts of America, 2013

The reduction of debate between parties may have begun on a local level, but metastasized nationally in legislative maps. The rationale of legislative bodies has shifted on local levels from a representational logic of governance to a pitched battle–as only one party wields legislative power in all but one state in the union.

The Current Partisan Power Play (2019)

The disorienting nature of an overdetermined power play means that there is not much discussion or debate in the local states, or legislative bodies, but a sectarian consolidation of demographic identity as destiny.

The division of parties cast “red” and “blue” as forms of governance that essentialize the color-choices made in news maps as almost existential terms. Indeed, the increased casting of the 2020 Presidential election as a battle between “light” and “dark” was gained distinctly pocalyptic undertones fit for the age of the Coronavirus, mapping the current elections as a referendum of the “future of American democracy” or, for President Trump, a “bright future” and “dark future” whose oppositional terms echo a religious eschatology. Was it any coincidence that the separatist blood-stained banner of the Confederacy reappeared at Trump campaign rallies in 2016, jumping the logic of a chromatic divide into opposing visions that could be understood as a nation divided in war?

Brandon Partin, of Deland, Fla., at 2016 Trump rally in Kissimmee, Fla. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As candidates proclaim themselves to constituents as an “ally of light, not darkness,” the choice of the election has turned on the complexion of the nation’s political future in ways that concretize the removal of maps of support of political parties as an existential struggle for the nation’s soul, removed from questions of political representation. The eery blocks of political division were apparent in the long led-up to the election, as the fracture lines in the nation were only less apparent because of increasing tension as to which way the highly colored states in play would slide, and how the electoral prism would mediate the popular vote.

The notion that a specter of socialism haunts America, to be promoted by the Democratic Party, is the conclusion to a logic of deeply sectarian politics of belonging.

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Sneak Attacks?

The anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima gives one pause as it marks the emergence of a world of remote military strikes conducted by GPS, or on a UTM grid that cast agency at a distance from ethics or ethical choice. One thinks not only of the global cartoons of global expanse that seemed to unroll geopolitical spaces for their American readers, but of the new ethics of point-based precision. For the point-based maps created vertiginously elevated the subjectivity of their readers across the 40,000 maps produced between 1941-45 by the U.S. Army Map Service so as to remove them from a shared ethical framework of humanity. The framing of military invasion as a game of geospatial dominance discounted the massive incalculable loss of human life in campaigns of prolonged fire-bombing and atomic holocaust.

Indeed, the narrative this cartoon bears traces of how this new spherical global space suggested suggested a territorial dominance across the new spaces of air travel: the cartoon that appeared after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6, 1945 are particularly striking as it appears to remove any sense of the agency of atomic holocaust; it cast the explosive logic of the atom bomb as a delayed quid pro quo response to the “Jap Sneak Attack” of 1941; it asked readers to consider not the effects or impact of the atom bomb, but, rather evasively, who really was “the Fellow who Lighted the Fuse,” as if he were to blame: before any images of the destruction of both cities was described, the Chicago Tribune included testimony of Enola Gay crew members, hailing from Chicago, as an exclusive, with a discussion of the physics of atomic bombs and a reminder that a number of B-29 bombers were posed for further destructive missions. The front-page color cartoon hid the explosion of the Atom Bomb over Hiroshima, offering an occluded view on a spherical globe: in colorful Hearst style, the cartoon map was the sole visual documentation of the bomb’s effects, masking the devastation of its impact by the geopolitical logic that led to dropping an atom bomb.

Carey Orr, “the Fellow Who Lighted the Fuse,” American Newpaper Repository

Who, indeed, was making the sneak attack? If the yellow and orange hued pyrocumulous clouds caused by atomic blasts suggested the fireball of a nuclear or atomic explosion, the cartoon clearly referenced not only the explosion that left 200,000 estimated dead in its immediate aftermath, but the fireball of the atomic explosion as a sunset of the Japanese Empire. The first dropping of an atomic bomb on civilian population by the United States–

–was sunset of the Japanese empire, seen from the empyrean perspective of the navigation of aeronautical space that allowed its delivery at precise global coordinates.

To be sure Hearst Newspapers had long promoted the Pacific as a theater of national jingoism in which the Hawai’ian islands were exaggerated as a potential site of struggle, frequently distorted as of defensible American interests; Hearst Newspapers Sunday Section of comics portrayed the contest in cartoons of racist tenor, as an antiquated samurai in full ceremonial armor confronted a spry Uncle Sam.

Windsor McKay, 1913

But the explicit use of a spherical projection to accentuate the aerial targeting of sites of bombing in Japan–and indeed of Japanese civilian populations–was both an assertion of the mastery of the maps that aviators followed in releasing Little Boy and Fat Boy, and a sense of the logic of the spherical projection as the conclusion of World War II. Early in the Pacific theater’s military expansion, to be sure, the Japanese Empire had carefully mapped the island in the paper maps that the imperial army drafted for all its soldiers to hold in fold-out versions in elegant form to foreground specific aerial and marine routes to the islands historically inhabited Japanese famers–

–the mountainous outcropping of islands righted by oceanic waters were remapped as the target of aerial bombers attack in 1941 in ways that the atomic bomb was imagined to respond as an analogous incursion into territorial rights. The results were far more terribly destructive, but seen as cementing the territorial retreat of Japanese empire across the Pacific. To be sure, the attack on the United States Naval Base had killed 2,300 Americans in 1941, when Japanese planes attacked the Mighty Seventh Fleet, sinking twelve ships and destroying the U.S.S. Arizona completely destroyed and capsizing the U.S.S. Oklahoma. But the logic of the global map creates a terrifyingly false equality of quid pro quo, or an eye for an eye, in spatial terms, linking the continuity of the spherical projection that enabled the American bombers to target Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a commensurate response to the 1941 Air Raid on Pearl Harbor External in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii: the logic of the globe seems to smooth over the unprecedented destruction of the atomic bomb’s payload for American newspaper readers.

Yet in ways that are perhaps impossible to map, or to take stock of in its full consequences, the atomic fireball left massive human fatalities and injuries in its immediate radius, far beyond the devastation at the site of impact where buildings were flattened, leaving third degree radiation burns far beyond its alleged target, striking civilians both more violently and more deeper within the logic of war than was ever imagined. As if treating the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona and capsizing of the U.S.S. Oklahoma as attacks on the actual landlocked states in the territorial United States, the treacherous logic of the continuity of the map’s surface created a false equivalence for cartoon readers that recast the dropping of an atomic bomb as a glorious imperial gesture.

The popular newpaper cartoon for the Hearst Sunday daily provided a rationalization of the explosion in maps that provide a continued basis for reflection on the scope of aerial bombardment, departing from the maps of worldly retreat of Japanese Empire on which American newspapers had focussed and were created by late August 1945 by the U.S. Army Information Branch, as if to justify the impact of one devastating attack.

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Filed under atomic age, geopolitics, globalism, Hiroshima, World War II