Tag Archives: Donald Trump

To Levitate an Elephant

The red elephant unveiled as an emblem of the Republican Party during the 2020 Republican Convention marked a new sense the party was now Trump as if Trump embodied the party. For the representation of red states that enshrined an image of Republican identity demanded a redesign of its logo identified with the interests of red states with grandeur. And in an era in which we have a President able to channel his inner P.T. Barnum more openly than his predecessors, Trump mined a rich iconographic mine in speaking before a redesigned symbol of the party. If this was the “second coming” of Trump, in a newly Trumpified party, what new beast was slouching toward Washington, D.C. was hard to determine by the red- trunked elephant Ising above the speaker’s podium as if leaping into space. If cartoonists had recently cast the old guard of the Party as in fear of the new rogue Republican President, the 2020 Republican Convention seemed to remake a platform-free party proudly in an elephant of his own mold.

The leaping elephant was no doubt shopped around in committee and reviewed by experts for a Convention whose design loosely planned as a live event, before the shift to television that led the President to reach out to a former producer of Celebrity Apprentice, former producers of his Reality TV show, hired by the GOP over $130,000 at Trump’s personal insistance to oversee video production with White House staff for the four nights of the convention from August 24-28 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Trump realized that the stakes were greater than he had previously imagined, as messaging faltered in the coronavirus pandemic even as it struggled to remain smooth. Hope stars would again align to create a red-state electoral map stretching from Arizona to Maine, reaching down to Florida, may be subliminally encoded in the imaginary constellation of five stars embedded in the bright red elephant designed for the 2020 Republican Convention to celebrate the rebrand the GOP as a Party of Trump. But the deeply racist origins of the party symbol, long purged by the mainstreaming of the pachyderm as a partisan icon, seem to reveal its racist lineage in a strategy based on rooting the red elephant of the Republican Party in the heart of the Old South.

And the very ancient Neo-imperial emblem of the elephant seemed to be prematurely announcing the victory of the Republican Party, the elephant seemed especially oblivious of the freighted associations of what was long a quite openly racist icon of the Grand Old Party since it was adopted in 1884, at the height of Reconstruction after the U.S. Civil War.

The roots of the party mascot as a circus elephant was proverbially linked to the political circus, but tapped again for a forum o political entertainment in Charlotte, NC when it was introduced, as a spectacle that would distract from the rising toll on Americans of COVID-19. The coronavirus pandemic remained the proverbial “elephant in the room” during the convention, not addressing a topic of potential controversy for a President dependent on staging rallies around the nation.

It remained almost ever-present at the 2020 Convention, as if the pachyderm presented a forward-facing emblem that confirmed the party’s identity. Its presence masked the recognition of the transformation of the iconic tricolor elephant to a party to red hue, anticipating the ‘red’ nation that the party’s victory would represent: a red monolith, showing signs of vitality, distanced from any actual elephant, but staging the elephant as a made-for-TV image, unlike, say, the “Victory Elephant” at Cleveland in 2016, which seemed indeed a different political animal of red, white and blue.

Dominick Reuter/AFP

The monocular elephant expressed the promotion of “red state” interests at the convention, in place of a party platform, and appeared onstage above the American flag, not resembling an actual elephant, but iconic symbol of onward advancement, in a hybrid between its circus origins and military charge, behind each speaker from Donald J. Trump to Don Jr, to Charlie Kirk, to select prime-time speakers to appeal to his constituency, not anticipating an acceptance speech to represent the party, but absorb adulation for his idea of the party as defending rights to gun ownership, a narrative of American progress, unlike the “darkest and angriest convention in American history” in a form that seemed to accept his destiny as the “bodyguard of American civilization.” Was the elephant not reborn as a totem for the strong sort of leadership Kirk assured Trump would provide, willing to fight and to advance toward combat with the other party.

The elephant was far from the associations of the elephant with a pacific beast, but an icon that communicated the personal strength of the nominee, rather than a collective party policy, and newly glistening nature of the icon was oddly absent from this most stage-managed of conventions. Trump had hired associates of Mark Burnett to coordinate with White House staff to make the Convention 2020 the sort of “gripping TV show” they had created for fifteen seasons of The Apprentice, through artful combination of pre-taped and live speeches featuring mostly non-political figures–and although Burnett denied speculation that he was involved. Burnett’s associates were heavily compensated for ensuring the seamlessness of the scale-backed convention for as broad an audience as possible. Burnett himself had distanced himself from Trump recently, but Trump revered him for his ability to “impose retrospective logic on the chaos” of the boardroom sections of Trump’s successful TV Show, as James Poniewozik wrote–shaping the format of The Apprentice from 2011. Was his presence felt in what was billed as “the people’s convention,” in a Reality TV air, through the new sort of convention that his associates helped stage?

The prominent product placement of the revised Republican mascot of an elephant was less widely remarked, but provided a subliminal message of the sort that had no doubt been honed and debated before it was unveiled. The updated symbol for the convention was on prominent display on the Convention marquis in a mascot redesigned to serve the Party of Trump. While the new emblem seemed a break from the past, however, the history of the elephant as a strongly radicalized creature that as P.T. Barnum had expanded transatlantic importation of range of new elephants from Africa and Burma as a popular entertainment, seemed channeled in ways more apt than Trump’s stage managers may have realized in the leaping elephant that reached its red trunk to the heavens, bedecked by stars.

It was, perhaps, no surprise that cartoonists like Graeme Mackay picked up on the Thomas Nast famously branded a pachyderm with the letters “GOP” in 1874 at a time when newsprint was the prime vehicle of public opinion. In a political world dominated by Democrats, many of whom were suspected corrupt, Nast intended an emblem of significant dignity; but the exultant elephant unveiled before Charlotte’s crown seemed close to tap an outdated symbol of royalty and to address an audience by a middle-brow entertainment more than assume public gravitas: the newly nominated candidate speaking before the new RNC emblem partisan animal emblazoned with five stars in a “W”as if a premature declaration of victory insisted the “best is yet to come,” as he accepted the nomination, “proud of the incredible progress we have made over the last four years, brimming with confidence about the bright future we will built for America over the next four years” in the face of the expanding cases of COVID-19, animated by the brisk step of the elephant that subliminally affirmed the party’s future progress. It seemed a surprise to many that Cancel Culture, violent crime, and gun rights seemed had a far greater place in the Convention than anything related to COVID-19.

The puzzling new identity of the elephant seemed a landshift in the party’s coherence as a collective, and the triumphal procession of an elephant was, for McKay, a change in the spirit of the dour, conservative animal to an animated beast with the head of the sitting President–a different political animal to be sure.

The animating of the old pachyderm unveiled for the Charlotte convention was an exulting circus animal. The convention’s length was cut short short by COVID-19, but the new icon of the party so proudly unveiled in anticipation of its reinvigorating function was presented by Ronna McDaniel and Marcia Lee Kelley, robed in red, emblazoned with five stars.

D.T. Foster/Charlotte Observer

What better way than the redesign of a red logo to make the point that the commitment of the party to red-state values, replaced the capaciousness of the party and the place of values and dignity that Thomas Nast, an ardent Republican and the father of American cartooning, saw the beast incarnating values able to transcend intra-party dispute, than for a former television star to tweak the Republican logo for a convention that replaced a platform with the scripting of a television event by the directors of Donald Trump’s Reality TV show, that placed him as central to the party’s identity, rather than values, and asserted red state values of a party as proof of ideological purity? The new elephant suggests the transformation of the Presidency to a Reality-TV show not rooted in governing or dignity but preening, and self-promotion.

Were cartoonist like MacKay sensitive to the cartooning legacy to which the icon of Unlike the Democratic donkey, a braying jackass poking fun of its vocal cries and low status, its dissonance less dignified than the eagle and pure pretension: while the animal logo was hardly adopted by the party, and the pictorial warfare seemed stacked in favor of the dignified pachyderm, the reborn elephant makes us recall how much epidermal pigmentation was central to the elephant adopted by 1877 in the Presidential election, and overdetermined as an image of partisan strength. By enlisting a startlingly monochrome elephant of entirely red skin, all but leaping off the ground, the beast raising its sleek trunk in celebration or benediction mirrored the role Trump adopted in sanctioning the party’s collective identity by the illusion of advancing forward in space with dignity as the champion of “red states”: a rearing elephant served as a surrogate for replicating the electoral alliance of 2016, now rearing above Trump’s head, and the the eagle on the podium with a Presidential seal:

President Donald Trump arrives to speak at Republican National Committee convention, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020, in Charlotte. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Wall Street Journal

For it seemed, during the convention, that other interests were not in need of being representation than the cities of the Deep South, the fans of football player Hershel Walker, who as a surrogate to denounce Black Lives Matter ran defense for a President accused of being racist, attacking it as in fact organized by “trained Marxists,” and a subversive to the nation. The former running back ran defense as spokesperson in South Carolina and Georgia to testify to his character, mocking social justice protests as a slur on Trump’s character, using pro football metaphors and slogans of patriotism, he echoed how the pachyderm emblem erased racial divisions of the nation in many of the endorsements featured at the 2020 Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. While the convention lacked any platform–the nominal reason for meeting to nominate a President from the turn of the century, exemplified in the New Deal in 1932 or inclusion of civil rights in the Democratic Party’s platform from 1948, and the War on Poverty of 1965–the absence of a platform concealed the trust in a red map, as the Democrat Joe Biden threatened to “stretch the map” by curtailing the continuity of red states in the Presidential election–as Pennsylvania seemed desired to become the lynchpin of the Presidency.

In the hot summer of ostensible racial unrest and social justice protest and a reclaiming of public space, after police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery convulsed the nation by evidence of persistent racial disparities of race before law enforcement, the Republican Convention was determined to defer divisions by race, assembling beneath the advancing red elephant, star-studded and before a crown, a months in a sign of purity and fealty that was echoed attempts to weed out anti-Trump Republicans by grooming the convention as a weeklong infomercial featuring attestations to Donald Trump’s absence of racism oddly before a red elephant, echoing the circus animals brought on ships from Africa to perform in circuses from the eighteenth century, and later by P.T. Barnum.

RNC committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and RNC President Marcia Lee Kelley
Unveil Logo of 2020 Republican Convention/Melissa Key
David Foster III

It was ironic the the red elephant before which he had thundered about American greatness was as embedded in the determining role race played in the emergence of the elephant as an emblem of the party, long before it was cast as pure “red.” For Nast first employed an elephant as able to outlast the divisions of the party in Reconstruction, in ways that tacitly addressed the popular fascination with the stability of skin-color as a key to racial identity, and a way of questioning the continuity of black-white dichotomies as an indicator of race. The purity of the “Sacred Elephant” of white skin color that P.T. Barnum displayed in 1884 led the image of the pachyderm, already used in Nast’s prolific cartooning on occasions but with limited public embrace by a party or currency, with the purity of white elephants ostensibly more docile and civilized that circuses juxtaposed to African ones for audiences to feed fascination with race. The “white” skinned elephants not from Africa, but Burma, stood in the popular press as a dignified an icon of partisan purity distanced from political corruption, able to sustain the new electoral maps of 1880 in an image of concensus.

Thomas Nast, “The Republican Animal Will Carry It” (1879)

The elephant was here a sturdy party beast, able to sustain the fragile union of “our country” as it tried to heal from the divisions of slavery and Civil War. But the roots of the elephant as a popular circus performer were not far beneath the tough skin of the emblem of the party, and, by 1881, the role of the political performer in balancing on the back of the elephant seemed for Nast openly akin to a circus performance, with a national jester, as the performance of the political who mounted the party pachyderm had to balance votes of endorsements as with the growing scale of debts the he hoped would not break the party’s back.

But the circus elephant popular in the popular press was a bid to tweak party dignity against partisan corruption during the turbulence of post-Reconstruction politics. Although later purged of the racial connotations with which the beast was freighted by the postwar period, the pure red elephant whose uniform color defined a new form of belonging,–much as the President had himself–may have unconsciously recuperated the connotations of the purity of the white elephant as a the bedrock of dignified values on which Nast in 1884 insisted the party was based, when he included himself in a popular cartoon to indicate the sacred values that he believed would carry the candidate who mounted its regal chair to the White House–using the newly exhibited beast as a model incarnating the values the nominee might adopt, with the calm and upright demeanor of the newly poplar image of a “white” elephant. Nast, a promoter of the new image who showed himself as if Barnum, advertising the virtues of the party that was bound by a commitment to Civil Service and Probity, used the whiteness of the circus animal as a testament to the party’s commitment to honesty that it would do well to follow to win the coming election.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant” (Harpers, 1884)

The signification of the skin color was muted in the Harpers cartoon, but reflected the fascination of a new elephant, unlike the African elephants shipped the United States by circus men from Africa, whose new demeanor suggested nothing less than a new race of animal–understood and so appreciated by eager circus-goers as a new animal, extending the categories of racial difference into the animal kingdom that provided odd if welcome confirmation for the purity of races as distinct species, with different patterns of sociability, different habitats, and distinct customs–

The purity of the White Elephant was by 1884, at the end of Reconstruction, an image of continuity and virtue as racial barriers of segregation rose, a reminder of the traditions of the Party and its values that tacitly addressed race as central to party. The iconic elephant endured as an icon of the party, linked to a promised prosperity of the extension of “westward empire” in America, enduring to the twentieth century in the public imagination, scarcely removed from the circus animal.

The preservation of values was recalled by tacit prominence of race for the pure-red pachyderm of 2020. Although the red skin color of the pachyderm was not natural, it may as well have masked attention to race–long submerged in the party logo–if many political positions seemed to be exhumed in the new red beast of burden, whose hue reflected the championing of President Trump as “the most pro-life President ever,” and defender of White America. The heightened redness of the elephant reflected an increasing national polarization of hot button issues across this Presidential race, which has introduced the distinction between “Republican” and “Democrat” judges, in ways that suggest an openly partisan divide of the nation and its courts. nd when the Susan B. Anthony List championed the pure-red loyalty Trump gained in the office of President, apart from his personal failings, “red” values served to galvanize support and demonize Democrats, cast as the “Party of Death” as if their platform was a disruption of values and law: t he pure-red President, in other words, gained the pure-red logo he demanded, in a new episode of the complex genealogy of political iconography.

If the unity of the Republican Party was emphasized by the purity of red, race remained close to the surface, threatening to disrupt order, if not the tacit subtext the stage-managed 2020 Convention, that seemed to subsume the very memory of racial discord among the many flags across its stage as Trump spoke and accepted the nomination, as if convinced he would ride this red elephant back to White House once more.

@MikePence/Twitter

For Trump boasted his personal reconfiguration of the Republican Party after the social justice protests that occurred across the country in the summer of 2020, which were cast as a disruptive event that ran against his calls for law and order that was promoted at the Convention by the invitation both of dark warnings about the ominous future of the nation overseen by Joe Biden, and featuring Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the St. Louis couple charged with felonies for drawing their guns in a threatening manner against non-violent Black Lives Matters protestors who marked past their home in New Orleans. A month before the Convention, Trump championed a “Garden of Heroes” and prosecution of those who vandalized public statues: the Garden that placed nineteenth century abolitionists beside Republican Presidents, army generals, and astronauts and pioneers glorified a homogenized image of the past.

But a month later, Trump foregrounded his commitment to history as a battle for the nation’s conscience, in a racially divisive event that exploited the National Archives to stage a “White House Conference of American History” to enshrine a vision of the “most exceptional nation in the history of the world” refusing to engage in the deeply racist past that he called an assault on the “nobility of America’s character,” as if only African Americans bore what Langston Hughes called “slavery’s scar”–even thought the often omitted third stanza of the national anthem, the “Star-Spangled Banner,” celebrated how “No refuge could be save the hireling or slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave” for the former slaves fighting with the British in 1812, beneath the star-spangled banner waving o’er the land of the free and home of the brave. Trump described race as a distorting lens to view American’s freedom, calling critical race theory an “ideological poison that threatened the very civic bonds that unite us together” failing to promote America’s exceptionalism, lest students confront the the role of enslavement in the shaping the nation. If Trump famously watched the recent musical about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, in a rare White House screening, the role of Barnum’s exhibition of elephants in the emergence of the emblem of Republicans offers a perfect instance of the broad discursive role of race and racial identity in America, after Reconstruction. Did a selective amnesia not underpin the unveiling of this streamline red elephant, now died in the wool red, removed from any ideological or racial divide, and the remove of the elephant from its African origins? If Trump has quite condescendingly addressed black Americans in his 2016 campaign, asking them “What have you got to lose?” by giving him their support, the platitudes of black entertainers and athletes who endorsed Trump at the Convention or Mar a Lago who never held a political position may indeed suggest the remove at which saw race from the nation.

The unveiling of a new icon of party may have been, consciously or unconsciously, a revision of the history of the Party that erased its own fetishizing of the elephant, alternatively cast as a formidable memory or a respectable party. In replacing an elephant logo that was inclusively red-white-and-blue, the 2020 Convention offered a new icon of partisan unity for 2020 nominee, unlike the red, white and blue tricolor elephant of the GOP of years past, strikingly monochrome of a pure red hue,–

–the new icon seemed semantically indeterminate, if not quite hackneyed and stiffly generic and stripped of all sense of its history, but seemed a purified red elephant, unlike the earlier icon of once-stolid conservative values, that double as a patriotic icon of party and capacious container for states’ rights as well as a custodian of tradition.

For a pure-red elephant seemed to be demanded by candidate who identified himself with “red” states alone, rewriting the patriotic coloration of the once-stolid conservatism the quadruped had embodied–

–less tolerant or capacious but exulting in the identity of its pure red skin. If purged of any racial connotations with which it was historically freighted, this elephant promised a sense of belonging to the party responded to departure of many from a party recast as “Party of Trump” –and increasingly even branded as such to make the point, leading to the broad reinvention of the party’s symbol and its iconography with the odd choice of five white stars that seemed an astrological sign of victory.

The departure of some older Republicans, less content with this redirection, may have bode badly for the election.

Washington Post

But the rearing quadruped unveiled at the Republican 2020 Convention reanimated as an icon of national unity, even as the nation struggled against the weight of COVID-19 that was sinking the nation, and increased social inequalities made evident in economic insecurity and compromised health care. In the midst of a convention that became a political circus of all things Trump, filled with affidavits and testimonials of the President’s magnanimity more than an actual platform, it seemed important to remember that the iconography of the elephant of the Republican Party derived from the first arrival of captured African elephants that arrived in American circuses, and the theatrical amusements that they offered at a time America struggled with racial divides, and the elephant became a curiosity for a nation that was beginning to solidify segregation as a dividing line of race, in a precursor to modern racial divides.

When Trump was channeling his inner Barnum in promoting his party at the Convention, he may have not known that the adoption of an elephant as a partisan symbol was consolidated by the cartoonist Thomas Nast, soon after the heralded arrival of the first Burmese elephant, Toung Taloung, bought from a dealer by P.T. Barnum was paraded through the streets of New York in a white costume at the institution of widespread segregation, by a circus promoter who sought to attract audiences by extending a color line into the animal kingdom, among different breeds of elephants: the curiosity of the Burmese elephant P.T. Barnum successfully promoted as a “white elephant” was intended to be exhibited beside the African elephants already in Barnum’s circus, long captured from the wild to be exhibited to crowds for popular entertainment–in a global trade only banned in 2019, if the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey circus only ended a hundred and forty-five “family tradition” of the ferrying elephants to be exhibited across the country in 2016, when the transport of the quadrupeds ceased.

The memory of the exhibition of elephants, long tokens that demonstrated the Greatest Show on Earth indeed warranted its name, often exhibiting elephants as sights of terror or fascination, if developing handling methods that were more humane, their public exhibition, older than baseball or Coca Cola, as a popular entertainment rooted firmly in an American grain.

And if the 2020 Convention was an opportunity to map Trump’s party as a unity of “red” states, and to embody it around nationalist values, the oddly undressed elephant in the chambers of the convention went unaddressed, in ways that seemed to echo how racial divides were suppressed in the original selection of the elephant as party emblem. Did the new emblem seek to demonstrate the American nature of the new Grand Old Party, as unrecognizable as it had become as the Party of Trump, striving to offer evidence of its continued American-ness, even as its ties to white supremacy and racial divides were increasingly painfully evident?

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Filed under American Politics, electoral maps, Red states v. Blue States, Republican Convention, television

Cartographies of COVID-19: Our Unclear Path Forward

A pandemic is by its nature both local and global by definition–and begins from a local outbreak. But if the only way to gain orientation to a pandemic is by accurate local counts, the problem of balancing–or toggling between–the local and global has become staggeringly pronounced in the case of COVID-19, as if the point-based cartography that we use to track the disease has the better of us, and upper hand, with the absence of accurate local counts. The lack of clear data that came from Wuhan in the days that followed the outbreak of the virus revealed worrisome problems of transparency. The difficulty that the Chinese government had in getting a clear bearing on the zoonotic virus raised problems of even trying to map its rise, to which all data visualizations since seem to respond: as local officials were loathe to shoulder responsibility, the tally of infected in Hubei Province jumped, astoundingly, forcing the government to recognize the ease of its transmission among humans, was far more virulent than believed. But at this point, looking back in the mirror provides little sense of orientation to the multiplication of dispersed local outbreaks of coronavirus that we are increasingly challenged to map in relation to ourselves.

The sudden uptick of cases reveals a reticence in tallying the infected out of fears of reprisals for apparent incompetence, an institutional blame-shifting triggering mechanisms of concealment that has led American meat-packing plants to hide numbers of infected workers, and numbers of tests for infection to be far lower than official records suggest: the absence of ability to control the spread of SARS-CoV-2 led us to proliferate maps in hopes to grasp its rapid doubling, uncomfortable at the world they began to show, apprehensive at how to come to terms with the rapidity of local outbreaks of confirmed cases with sufficient granularity, and enough continuities, hoping to track contagion as hopes of containment were beginning to fade in the new aggregates that were increasingly evident.

New York Times

The warning of the virus’ spread was raised by Li Wenliang on December 30 from Wuhan, inter-agency shifting of blame and responsibility in Wuhan– a reflexive institutional blame-shifting by “throwing woks”–abruptly ceased with summons of Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong, he who lured Elon Musk to Shanghai, to restore order: as a new hospital was built, tallies of new cases of coronavirus in Hubei astronomically grew by nine from 1,638 to 14,840, shocking the world–a figure was in keeping with the nearly 1,400 people dead in the country, but suggesting a viral load of unprecedented proportions. Americans apprehensively watched the disease afflicting passengers of cruise liners as if it would arrive ashore, its virulence was in fact already of pandemic proportions: yet American disinformation here took over, as we were told to stick our heads in the sand, ostrich-like, as fears were overblown, and tried to keep calm. And then, the tables were turned, as the United States President described, or suggested, a national policy of intentional undercounts, and limited testing, lest the counts discovered tank his popularity–the stock market value of Trump, International, or, rather, Trump-in-Office, Trump-as-Chief-Executive, whose new season might be canceled due to low ratings. And although the virus began in China, how the United States increasingly came to be the outlier in the numbers of infection confirmed weekly suggested a national story of mismanagement, as the narrative we told ourselves of American exceptionalism before illness seemed to have boomeranged, with the three-day averages of confirmed infections skyrocketing, and setting us apart from the very nations we compare ourselves to, but whose health-care policy we increasingly realize we are distinct from.

Americans were soothed by deceptive common-sense talk. But the results of a lack of investment in public health are all too evident, if our maps are . Robert Redfield, a virologist who served as the public spokesperson of reassurance who had long sustained false theories about retroviruses causing HIV and AIDS, argued that even if the fourteen confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus were monitored and traced, “the virus more exploded . . beyond public health capacity,” he seemed to forget he had not developed that capacity. Virology is of course Dr. Redfield’s area of expertise, but he won his political post in no small part by being practiced in massaging truth statements for political ends. During AIDS outbreak, the last major plague in the United States, he had advocated unproven drugs billed as HIV vaccines and encouraged quarantine, abstinence, and stripping the medical licenses of HIV-infected medical workers, more than accelerating cures; Redfield took time to blame the Obama administration for implementing clinical tests, to please his patron. Bt he obscured the level of infections that in truth were not known, blinding the nation to a cartography of COVID by not advancing adequate levels of testing, that returned us to the simple equation of the dog days of AIDS, only able to make us yell, yet again, this time with Larry Kramer, stalwart resistor of the silencing of AIDS by the failure to use on-trial medicine–

–at the utter deception with which we met the pandemic. Dr. Redfield must have met his commission to radiate calm by assuring Americans in late February. As he assured us only fourteen cases had been diagnosed in the United States, the number meant little, as any virologist should kmow; while hindsight is a benefit that obscures us from the need to life life forwards, we suspect urban hotspots were already laden with infected individuals by March 1, a silent ticking bomb of urban outbreaks already infecting 28,000 as it spread broadly its “hotspots”–New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston and Chicago–all of massively different density, without tests being able to affirm the scale of its spread.

There was no map. And then, all of a sudden, the globalization of coronavirus hit home; any place in the world could be related to any other place, as rates of infection bloomed globally in geographically disjointed hotspots, spatially removed from one another, even as a standard for uniform testing lacked. And there was no sense of an art of dying, as the amazingly rapid contraction and worsening of illnesses left many without a script, and many more silent before a dizzying multiplication of statistics of mortality in the face of COVID-19, several weeks later.

Every other map of COVID-19’s spread seems an attempt to persuade the viewer of its accuracy and totality, in retrospect, even as we have no clear sense of the total figures of infection-or even of the paths infection takes. We are mystified by the geography and spatial dynamics of the virus’ travel, but realize the severe communicability of a virus whose load is stored in the naso-laryngeal passages, and can be communicated by airborne drops. Is distancing the best way we can constrain the geographic spread of infection? Can statistics demonstrate the success of curtailing its spread?

It was a hidden agenda in the maps of news agencies and to register the accurate levels of infection, promising the sorts of transparency that had been clouded in much of January. And while we watch the progress of the pandemic on screens, there is a sense of truth-telling, as a result, of revealing the scope of the virus’ actual spread that compensates for the lack of clarity we once had. But it is also increasingly difficult to orient ourselves to the GPS-enabled scales of its spread, for we still are looking at pretty limited and almost superficial data, in the sense we have trouble plotting it in a narrative context, or find a reaction more than shock. The virus is easy in ways to personify as a threat–it wants us outside; it comes from afar; it pervades public spaces and hospital grounds; it demands vigilant hand-washing and sanitizing–but the very numbest are elusive. While we try to track reported cases, hoping that these limited datasets will provide orientation, we have been lumping numbers of tests that might be apples and oranges, and have not found a consistent manner of testing. Deaths are difficult to attribute, for some, since there are different sites where the virus might settle in our bodies.

Even while not really following the pathways of its transmission, and the microscopic scale of the progress of the pathogen in bodies. And if we rely on or expect data visualizations will present information in readily graspable terms, we rarely come to question the logics that underly them, and the logics are limited given the poor levels of global testing for COVID-19. It is frustrating that our GPS maps, which we seem able to map the world, can map numbers of surrogates for viral spread, but we have yet to find a way to read the numbers in a clear narrative, but are floored by the apparently miasmatic spread of such a highly contagious disease that makes us feel, as historian of science Lorraine Daston put it, that we are in “ground zero of empiricism,” as if we are now all in the seventeenth century, not only in being vulnerable to a disease far less dangerous or deadly than Yersina pestis, but without explanatory and diagnostic tools.

This was, to be sure, a past plague come to life, requiring new garb of masks, face-shields, and protective gear for health workers–

–as the cloaks, leather gloves, staffs and masks that made up early modern protective gear returned to fashion, as if in a time warp, in new form.

We find a leveling between folk remedies and modern medicine, as we live collectively in what she calls a “ground-zero moment of empiricism”–if one in which we are deluged by data, but short in knowing what is data, as we are lacking in explanatory models. This is a bit unfair, as we still can profit from autopsies, and have been able to contain spread by hand-washing–but the images of a single magic bullet, or antiviral cure, are far, far away in time. But there is no longer any familiarity with an art of dying, although we found we encountered death with an unforeseen and unpleasant rapidity: we moved from hopes for awaiting immunity or antivirals to a basic need for some consolation of our mortality. There was no possibility of transcendence in a crisis of mortality of dimensions and scope that seem outside the modern era.

And it is ironic that distancing is the best mode to prevent infection–and many deaths may have been enabled by quicker decisions to adopt practices of distancing that could manage viral spread, Trump seemed not to notice that the very globalization he had resisted, and swung against with all his force to win votes, had facilitated the spread of a viral agent whose arrival was denied even as SARS-CoV-2 had already begun to flood the United States, in ways we only mapped in retrospect, as a global village that by March 1 had already grown satellites of viral loads in South Korea, the Middle East, Iran (Teheran), Europe (Milan; Gotheborg), South East Asia, and Hong Kong, as we anticipated its arrival with no health policy in place and no strategy for containing what was already on our shores. The global crossroads defied any choropleth, but we had only mapped the virus for some time in choropleths, as if believing by doing so we could not only map it by national boundaries to keep the virus at bay.

New York Times

But if we lacked a model of infection and communication of COVID-19, we lacked a sense of the geography by which to understand its spread–and to map it–and also, deeply problematically, an inter-agency coordination to assess and respond to the virus’ spread as we sought to contain it: and in the United States, the absence of any coordinating public health agency has left the country in something like free-fall, a cluelessness emblematic by a map cautioning American travelers to take enhanced protections while traveling in Italy or Japan, two major destinations of travel, and avoid all nonessential travel to China, but refrained from ceasing travel plans.

1. The most compelling language of the novel coronavirus is “false positives” and “false negatives,” that seem to betray the unsure nature of standards; the most haunting is the multiple sites COVID-19 can appear in the sites of the body we use to map most disease. While we associate the virus with our respiratory tracts, the virus can do damage to multiple organ systems, as well as create blotchiness of “covid toes” due to burst peripheral blood vessels; it can damage multiple organ systems simultaneously, including the kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and linger in our intestinal tract where it can flourish and proliferate; the virus can reduce the ability of our blood to form clots, or disable our ability to form clots.  The ACE-2 receptor protein, a launching pad for viral infections, lies in our lungs and respiratory tract but in stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, and brain. Increased sensitivities among those suffering from high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and diabetes reflect the nosological difficulties of classifying the virus as a cause of death or to grasp it as an illness, let alone to read data about the disease. If the virus lodges in the most delicate structures of the alveoli, which it causes to collapse as it infects their lining, it can take multiple pathways in the body, and as its pathway of infection may be multiple, medical response must be improvised with no playbook for clinical care.

All we know is that our medical staff desperately need protective gear. On top of that, it hardly helps that we are without a clear national policy, and find that the United States government has engaged in far less transparency that one could have ever expected.

We can only say its spread is accelerated dramatically by structures of globalization, and it stands to disrupt them. utterly Even as we map what seem total global knowledge of the disease, analogous to what we have come to expect from Global Positioning System, the multiple holes in our picture of the spread of the disease provide little sense of mastery over the pathways of communication, contraction, and infection we have come to expect from maps. These maps may even be especially disorienting in a world where expertise is often dismissed in the United States–not only by the U.S. President, but out of frustration at the inability to distance, diagnose, track or supervise the disease that is increasingly threatens to get the better hand. Have our visualizations been something of a losing battle, or a war of atrophy we will not win? Or do we even know what sorts of data to look at–indeed, what is information that can help us process a sense of what might be the geography of the contraction or the transmutability of the virus? Is the virus eluding our maps, as we try to make them? These sort of questions of making sense may be the process of science, but they trace, suddenly, a far steepder learning curve than we are used.

A dismissed biomedical researcher who ran efforts to develop a vaccine cautioned that we still lack that the failure a trusted, standard, and centralized plan for testing strategies must play a part in the coordinated plan “to take this nation through this response.” Dr. Bright, who was abruptly removed last month from his position as head of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, bemoaned the limited statistics, alas, in large part as fear of providing too many tests–or fanning the flames of insecurity that testing might promote in the general public and in our financial markets, seem to have created the most dangerously deceptive scenario in which the United States seems to be committed to projecting confidence, even if it is the global epicenter of the pandemic.

Have we developed a language to orient ourselves to the scale of emergency in the spread of COVID-19? While we turn to images of natural disasters in describing the “epicenter” of the outbreak in Wuhan, this hardly conjures the species jump and under-the-radar communication of the virus that was not tracked for months before it emerged as a global threat. In tracking COVID-19 globally, or over a broad expanse of nations or states, we often ignored the pathways by which the novel coronavirus is spread in crowded spaces, where the single strand of RNA may hang in droplets that linger in the air, and are looking at the small scale maps to track a microscopic pathogen. But we are increasingly aware the spread of these strands, of the virus SARS-CoV-2, that infect populations along increasingly unequal fault lines that divide our cities, nations, health care systems, and crowding, or access to open space, are all poorly mapped in the choropleths into which we continue to smooth the datasets of infections and hospitalizations. While the problems are posed for national health services in each region, the devastation and danger of overloading public health systems and hospitals outweighs are local manifestations of a global crisis of the likes we have not confronted.

2. And the crowding of such numbers beyond the buffers that began with lead to a visual crowding by which we continue to be overwhelmed–and will have been overwhelmed for some time.

April, COIVID-19Iinfections Globally by Country/Clustrmaps May 12, 20202020

For although the global pandemic will clearly be with us for a long time, spatial narratives might be more likely to emerge in networks and in forms of vulnerability, in ways that might reveal a more pronounced set of narratives for how we can respond to a virus than the deep blues of even the limited and constrained datasets that we have, as we struggle against the blindness we have in containment and mitigation, and the frustration of the lack of anything like a vaccine. (This pandemic is almost a metastasis of the anti-vaxxers: confirmation that a vaccine cannot check a disease, it gives rise to concerns that vaccinations might have left us immunologically more vulnerable to its spread . . .and a sense that the hope of eradicating COVID-19 by the availability of a vaccination in four to five years will be widely resisted by anti-vaxxers and their acolytes, to whom the pandemic has given so much new steam. Yet as the virus interacts with the viral posting of anti-vaxxers resisting social distancing or collective policies of response, the stresses that exist in our society will only be amplified.) And if as late as February 24, only three laboratories in the United States did test for COVID-19–artificially lowering public numbers–even confirmed numbers through March and April were as a result tragically low. Could maps even help to track the disease without a testing apparatus in place?

Global Covid Infections/Datascraped by Avi Schiffman, May 11, 2020

The prestige of the data visualization has been a basis for reopening the nation. Yet if less than a tenth of the world’s population has yet to be exposed to the disease–and perhaps only 5% of the American population, in one estimate, if not lower–the virus is bound to be endemic to the global landscape for quite a considerable length of time. At the same time, one must wonder if the many fault lines that have created such peaks and valleys in the virus’ spread, if confirming its highly infectious nature, to be sure, are not removed from us in some degree by the smooth surfaces of the screens on which we watch and monitor, breath bated, with some terror, its spread, unsure of the accuracy or completeness of the data on which they are based but attentive to whatever they reveal. In many ways, these maps have created an even more precarious relation to the screen, and to the hopes that we find some sign of hope within their spread, or hope to grasp the ungraspable nature of COVID-19.

These datamaps suggest a purchase on a disease we don’t understand, and we don’t even have good numbers on contraction. Yet we are discussing “reopening” the United States, while we do not have anything approaching a vaccine, let alone the multiple vaccines that medical authorities desire before resuming social contact at pre-pandemic levels. How to process the data that we have, and how to view the maps not only by hovering, zooming in, or distancing the growing rates of infection, but tracking the virus in spaces, mapping levels of infection against adequacy of testing, mortalities against comorbidities, against with the chronic nature of the virus must be understood, as well as levels of hospitalization levels; and distinctions or mutations of the virus and against age ranges of afflicted–by, in other words, drilling beneath the datasets to make our maps’ smooth surfaces more legible, as horrifying as they are?

Can we use what we have to pose problems about the new nature of this contagion we don’t fully understand, but has been mapped in ways that seek to staunch fears of a decline in the stock market, as much as an emergency of public health, with up to one third of the population at risk of infection? The instinctive reaction of the Trump Health and Human Services to create public-private “community testing sites” for drive-thru or drive-up testing at Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, Kroger and other pharmacies seems reflexive for a government wanting to minimize federal overhead, but a far less exact means, and a far less intuitively sensible basis to attract potentially infected individuals to sites of public congregation. The hope of Verily–a subsidiary of Alphabet, whose Project Baseline boasts the slogan, “We’ve Mapped the World, Now Let’s Map Human Health,” in a bizarrely boosterish rhetoric, aggregates medical for medical screening in California–

Select States for Project Baseline Testing/Verily

–and select states–was the primary response that Trump had promised of a network of drive-up testing sites that has never materialized, even as it expanded to a hundred sites in thirty states. After Walmart opened two sites, and Walmart 40, the difficult accuracy of creating multiple testing sites was prohibitive, the testing sites that were rolled out with the assistance of private entrepreneurs that Jared Kushner enlisted, that filled the absence of any coherent public health response–perhaps, terrifyingly, in concert with his brother’s health care company, Oscar, which also partnered with CVS and some of the same pharmaceutical services, focussing on drive-thru sites more than sustained medical care, focussing largely on calming retailers who feared the arrival of infected patients on their parking lots, more than on the efficacy of testing, which they didn’t understand. If only 40% of promised test kits were made available, the absence of providing staffers or selling, as in Massachusetts, self-testing kits–and failing to provide many in large cities like New Orleans, as if to keep the final tally of infected artificially low. Even if the Center for Disease Controls had never done clinical tests on hydrochloroquine, whose dangers on humans were not studied, and despite some benefits of the antiviral on cell cultures, none appeared in mice, the drug was promoted widely on social media as late as April, although its mention on Twitter grew, even as the government delayed any roll-out of testing sites.

The demand to calm the nation, a position dangerously close to concealment, delayed action on a wave of infection that President Trump had long sought to deny, claim to be overblown, or call Fake News. The lack of a public testing initiative, and rejection of the tests of other nations, forced the United States to adopt a disorganized go-it-aloneist approach, akin to isolationism, not benefiting from the potential ties to Chinese doctors’ response, or the testing kits that would have been available that the World Health Organization (WHO) had suspected since January, and made test kits for poorer countries that might be replicated in the United States–which chose to make its own tests to ensure the highest quality. When WHO had urged countries “test, test, test” for the coronavirus to contain its spread, the global health organization provided 1.5 million tests to 120 countries who lacked the ability to test by March 16; the United States went without the diagnostic tests developed in Berlin by la Charité, implemented in Germany. If the United States had submitted a test to WHO as well, the German test the health organization adopted was never used or ordered–and by mid-March processed a sixth the specimens as in Italy, with found over six times as many cases, and an eleventh as in South Korea, which found double the cases.

By April, the picture had improved, but not much.

COVID Tracking Project (Data)

And based on later data of the virus that spread to other American cities, the virus that had infected so many in New York seems to have spread to other American metropoles by May, as we were still awaiting broad testing.

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Filed under data visualization, disease maps, infectious diseases, public health, US Politics

Get Me Out of Here, Fast: Escape from D.C.?

The forced monotone of Donald Trump’s public address to the nation on March 12 was a striking contrast from his most recent State of the Union address. He sought to calm the nation as it faced the pandemic of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 in what was perhaps his most important public address. On the verge of breaking beneath the gravity of circumstances that spun far out of his control, however, rather than show his customary confidence, Trump seemed a President scrambling and in panic mode trying to rehearse stale tropes, but immobilized by events.

President Trump tried to look as presidential as possible, re-inhabiting a role of authority that he had long disdained, as he was forced to address a nation whose well-being he was not in control. The national narrative, as it was begun by WHO’s declaration of a pandemic, was perhaps seen as a narrative which seemed to spin out of his control, below his eyes, as he tried to calm markets by addressing the nation in what he must have imagined to have been as reassuring tones as he could summon. 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, wrestling with the increasing urgency that his aides demanded he address the outbreak of the virus in the United States that he had long tried to deny. Serial flag-waving continued to fuel President Trump’s attacks on China and the World Health Organization, as if trying to toe the line of adherence to America First policies of nationalism before a global catastrophe, that did not compute. If America First as a doctrine allows little room for empathy, affirming national greatness and the importance of a logic of border closures was all he could offer, and would be predictably lacking reassurance or empathy as he attempted to create a connection at a defining moment of his Presidency, but looked particularly pained.

March 11, 2020

If Trump rarely trusted himself to make hand gestures as he plighted through the speech, thumbs flickering, hands clasped, he every so often seemed distinctly out of synch with his austere surroundings, gold curtains drawn to reveal two flags, barely aware, perhaps, that the eyes of the world were very much on his performance in this new sound studio to which he was not fully accustomed, trying to explain that he had undertaken measures that had made us safe, even if he must have been worrying that the lack of worry he had been projecting and urging in previous weeks had risen across the nation, and his performance was not calming them at all. He was tasked with describing the vulnerability of the nation to the novel coronavirus whose effects he had downplayed repeatedly, but was no longer able to dismiss, and no longer able to concede posed a far greater threat to the American economy than the danger of “illegal” migrants he had so often pointed to as a cause of national decline: the virus that had already crossed our borders repeatedly, since the first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in San Jose and Seattle, would potentially bring down his presidency, and he lacked any ability to explain the scale of the effects of the virus that he had effectively helped release by ignoring warning signs.

Oval Office address of Wednesday, March, 11, 2020. Doug Mills / The New York Times)

The link of America to the world defined in his America First candidacy–even made the very identification of a pandemic difficult to process. And he did so in the starkest national backdrop possible, vaunting his closing of borders, suspension of “flights” from China, and ties to Europe–even as he encouraged Americans to return from abroad, and had allowed unmonitored entrance of Europeans and world travelers into New York that would make it the site of the entrance of the disease to the majority of American cities where the viral load arrived, with over 900 people entering America through New York daily for months after China suspended travel from Wuhan on January 23–after China called the outbreak “controllable” on New Year’s Eve. The declaration that echoed the concerns of the World Health Organization may have been buried in global celebrations, even as Trump blamed it for starting a sense of false complacence before undeniably “real” news that he feared would come to define his Presidency.

Trump was unable to accept declarations of the World Health Organization had just called the coronavirus outbreak–an outbreak which, we now know, he had in fact been hearing alerts from American intelligence as early as November 17, about the outbreak of cases of the novel coronavirus in Hubei province, rather than January, when initial infections in the United States were reported. As much as Trump found it difficult to admit the vulnerability of the United States to a global pandemic–or to the recommendations issued by WHO–who set the caduceus that symbolized medical ethics authority over the North American continent–at which he bristled at the notion of a global scope of edicts across boundaries, as if a map where national divides were erased as if it compromised national authority for a disease the President has been uncannily persistent in localizing in China, even before an increasing preponderance of evidence of its global circulation and transmission over a series of months.

Fabric Coffrini, AFP

As cascading fears grew in markets across the world, Trump was perhaps forced to realize his new relation to the world, even as the German stock exchanges plummeted as the measures he announced seem either difficult to process, or failing to address the importance of maintaining trade ties–or of taking adequately prudent steps of public health.

Slumping in his seat at the Resolute Desk, perhaps contemplating how no predecessor had ever delivered on air unprepared remarks from the desk, and visibly discomfited in doing so. He must have hoped to make up for his televised performance by sending surrogates scrambling to social media, issuing clarifications for misstatements–as the exemption offered U.S. citizens to return from China, or the exemption of Ireland, as well as England, and an assurance that trade would “in no way be affected” by the ban, as markets had reacted poorly to his performance. While it seemed that Trump was cognitively unable to process the possibility of a crumbling American economy–and a decline of America’s place in a global economy–under his watch, a prospect faced since he had met with airline executives with whom he discussed the effects of stopping flights of foreign nationals from China in a March 4 meeting, offering them a bailout that limited the impact economic effects of heightened travel advisories, is it possible he had no sense of the massive fallout on the national economy?

March 11 Address/Ralph Orlowski/Reuters

As Trump spoke, global markets not only failed to register confidence–but plummeted, as he revealed no clear plans to to call for social distancing to contain the spread of the virus, and revealed that lack of national preparation for confronting an infectious disease that had no vaccine. He may have remembered that he had outright fired a former cabinet member, barely remembered in the rogue’s gallery of administration, Tom Bossert, who had demanded preparedness “against pandemics” and a “comprehensive biodefence strategy” of the sort the previous administration of Pres. Barack Obama had tried to institute, or that a simulation of a pandemic that could devastate the American economy and kill up to half a million revealed in October 2019 “just how underfunded, underprepared and uncoordinated the federal government would be for a life-or-death battle with a virus for which no treatment existed.”

It seems likely he was rather trying to conceal the massive scale of lying to the nation about the effects of an economic downturn unprecedented in scale, but which the increased lines at Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital the previous November had already indicated had a problem of infectious diseases on their hands that would have a potentially global consequence. Trump tried to spin the consequences as purely local, in an unprecedented wishful thinking whose scale of deception far exceeded the pathological deceits he had long taken to perpetrate on investors, business partners, and even on family members–from hiding his older brother’s treasured trucks that were a Christmas gift and then admonishing him not to cry, or he would destroy them before his eyes. Even as satellite imagery showed a clear rush to hospital emergency rooms in Wuhan in November, as clusters of cars marked in red crowded the emergency rooms that revealed “a steep increase in volume starting in August 2019 and culminating in a peak in December 2019,” when China began epidemiological investigations that led to identifying and sequence of the novel coronavirus by January 12, ten days before the city went on lockdown to contain its spread.

Annotated Satellite Photographs of Wuhan’s Tianyou Hospital in September 2019

While Trump registered no alarm at the arrival of the very pandemic whose global impact American simulations feared would cripple the national economy, he tried to offer spin on having closed borders to the virus, as if it were not already diffused within the country, in a mind over matter sort of exercise that suggested limits purchase on reality, as if he was able to recognize the risk earlier administrations had identified as a national priority.

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Colossus on the Hudson: Monuments of Global Kitsch

Effigies of stability are, at times, the closest that one can hope for the manufacture of a sense of stability in the nation. When Donald J. Trump used the White House as a backdrop from which to accept the Reupublican Party’s nomination as presidential candidate in 2020, he noted that the seat of executive power “has been the home of larger-than-life figures like Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, who rallied Americans to bold visions of a bigger and brighter future,” in ways that reveal his own aspirations to monumentality, and their proximity to his decision to enter political life.

The appeal to these larger than life figures create a new discourse on monumentality across the nation, as if hoped to bridge national and partisan divides, that seemed an attempt to elevate the loss of statues with the dismantling of many icons of the Civil War, posing a threat to the increased nationalization of white supremacy during the Trump Era. Even as images of Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis were removed–with statues of Christopher Colombus–to question their speaking for America, the need for a new monumentality was felt acutely by Donald Trump, as if in search for his won monument.

To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create his own statuary garden, a “National Garden of American Heroes” featuring an array of past Presidents and explorers deemed a “truly incredible group” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments of the “greatest Americans who ever lived”–including Christopher Columbus and Junipero Serra, as if blurring church and state. The absence of any Asian Americans or south asians proclaimed an image of the nation in a manner not only divisive, but more eloquently divisive than in the past. And one could not forget that Trump had, shortly before he first hinted at a Presidential run, proclaimed plans to erect a statue of the very same fifteenth century navigator whose place in the nation’s memory is increasingly queried, as a pantheon by which he wanted the nation to be understood: plans for such a statuary garden revealed the stakes of the Presidential election, as they proclaimed the vision of the nation a second term would provide the basis to complete, when the National Garden would be opened in 2024.

Donald Trump on Juily 3, 2020, near Keystone, S.D. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Calling for heroic monuments in an era divided by racial tensions used the faces of four white Presidents to call for honoring authority, promoting new monument of the national identity, as the nation’s identity was being questioned, contested, and faced pressure to be defined. Mt. Rushmore–four faces that are the primary national shrine of white, male authority–became the place to do so, as if adding, beneath those impassive faces hewn into granite on Black Elk Peak whose steadfast gazes communicate timelessness, the odd compliment of his own somewhat stilted smile of brash over-confidence. Trump took delight in the speech before a site of national memory where he admitted to having long had the “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”—a dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum crammed four visages, whose friable rock could not accommodate another.

Perhaps Trump measured the office of the Presidency by monumentality, and hoped shortly after being sworn in to hope for a fitting monument, ignorant of the structural problems whose sculptor had been forced to alter plans and shift Thomas Jefferson from Washington’s trusty wing man, until finding the granite face unable to accommodate it–

Mt. Rushmore Memorial in fieri
Borglum’s Model for Mt. Rushmore Memorial: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Noem presented Trump a version, four feet tall. Noem sought to accommodate Trump in ways Rushmore could not, hoping the model fit for display the Oval Office. But the concrete embodiment of his megalomania was projected on the idea of a Garden of Heroes, as if the scenic park might eventually accommodate a figure of himself, beside his heroes General McArthur, Antonin Scalia, and Daniel Boone. While entertaining the crowd assembled July 3, 2020, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor–who has continued to refused to depart from refusing to issue a mandate for mask-wearing as COVID cases surged in the state–early decreed that social distancing was not a need for South Dakotans during the pandemic.

Trump profited from Noem’s lack of precautions to stage a public occasion to suggest a new set of patriotic statues, updating Mt Rushmore’s national heroes. Trump expanded a sense of the deeply transactional nature of politics long before he was a politician, evidenced in how he had in 1990 promoted plans to a erect a monumental bronze Columbus near New York Harbor more impressive in height than the Statue of Liberty. The deeply transactional nature of Trump’s understanding of the Presidency, for what it is worth, is nowhere more illustrated than in planning the place in the Garden of Heroes of the figure of Antonin Scalia, whose death may have helped usher in the radical obstructionism whose logic prepared for a Trump presidency and energized his base, and whose juridical ideals he understood as the mission of his Presidency to enshrine both in the news, in the American courts, and “among the greatest Americans to ever live” in his faux Stalinist Garden of Heroes, an echo of the national celebration in Russia of Heroes of the Fatherland or “Heroes of the Battle of Stalingrad.”

Antonin Scalia, November 6, 2014/Kevin Wolf, AP

The posthumous elevation of Scalia in such a Garden of Heroes was an apotheosis akin to Lenin himself at Red Square, or the triumphalism of Budapest’s Heroes’ Square in planing a collection of the “greatest Americans who ever lived” as a new legacy of his Presidency to rival Mt. Rushmore, in which he imagined that he might indeed be placed, if never included on the face of Mt. Rushmore, due to constraints of space on the rock’s face. Was it a coincidence that the very search for a monumentality Trump regarded as inseparable from his own Presidency–the personal project of the construction of a Border Wall, or “new Great Wall” projected in 2015–was eclipsed at the same time that statues of the heroes of the Confederate States of America, that long-lasting alternative America preserved in monuments, was also threatened? The need to affirm these monuments of the Confederacy, whose destruction he criminalized as a federal crime, and assault on national memory, would be composed of an “incredible group” of figures without Native Americans, Hispanic or Latino, or Asian-Americans, even if the figures he mentioned were but “a few of the people” considered in the group of statues of those whose “great names are going to be up there and they’re never, ever coming down.”

Trump’s fantasy memorial is not far from his own initial aspirations to engage in international discussions that placed him on an international stage and an unexpected level of political prestige at the end of the Cold War era, as money was exiting Russian Federation on which he wanted in. A new search for monumental building was indeed in the grain of Trump’s presidency and his hopes. The setting of Trump’s announcement made no mention of COVID-19. Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, even if the plans for such a massive celebration would, we could reasonably expect, set the stage for terrifying escalations of new cases of COVID-19, a continued tragic spiking of weekly averages of ne infections, after the eclipse of social distancing tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally–

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

–before South Dakota seemed a site to flout social distancing before the founding fathers.

The need for such a spectacle had eclipsed public safety needs or the obligation of the President to ensure national health by a “Salute for America” that used Independence Day as the occasion to promise a Garden including not civil rights figures, or legist, but Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Billy Graham, Douglas MacArthur, and Orville and Wilbur Wright, a pantheon of childhood books, perhaps, embarrassingly dated in origin. The spectacle by allowing fireworks for the July 4 address without social distancing guardrails to advance a corrupt vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump First.

The plans affirmed Trump’s cognitive inability to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good. Trump viewed Governor Kristi Noem was complicit in the promotion of monumentality to ingratiate herself in a Grand Old Party now a Party of Trump, in a run-through for the coronation of the 2020 Convention: Noem had bonded with Trump in presenting the President with the Mt Rushmore replica adjusted to include his face among past Presidents as he finished his speech, hoping it might be displayed in the Oval Office. Perhaps the speech was difficult to perform without expecting his own face somehow be included in its triumphal display that he saw as the correct reward for his performance of the office of Presidency, and long fantasized his visage might be placed.

Mt. Rushmore Memorial

Trump described the need to honor past heroes excluding indigenous, which in itself was a desecrated sacred space. Borghlum had planned the spectacular construction promoted in the early twentieth century include pioneer figures–Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–according to plans of the klansman and anti-indigenous sculptor, who sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, as emerging from the sacred rock, in a national monument that met the new articulation of patriotism and westward expansion, by effacing the sacred space of indigenous tribes with a new vision that enshrined the expropriation of national lands.

Where better than a place of the erasure of memory to propose a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park? The patronizing nature of promoting a garden of monuments that honors civil rights leaders, abolitionists, past presidents, astronauts and the heroes of the frontier set a strikingly segregated tenor whose racist undertones suggest a vision of the nation defined by racial divides, reflecting the racial identities of the Presidents it selects to commemorate, rather than that of the nation. The garden of heroic statuary “of Americans” would include no indigenous, Asian Americans, or Latino, but include Columbus and Junipero Serra, men whose memorialization has been contested and their statues taken down. Trump’s announcement channeled the erasure of memory in Borghlum’s project, but if Borghlum sought to emulate the exhibit of native icons as if they were symbols of patriotism, and to include Sacegaewea beside Buffalo Bill gave way to a pantheon of white men, in a boosterish tourist attraction to the frontier, promoting cowboys and glamorize a western experience, Trump channeled grandiosity alone in promoting the value of the backdrop to celebrate achievements of new “giants in full flesh and blood” of “great, great men” who “will never be forgotten.” The figures, over two-thirds male, if several blacks, reflected the partisan turn of our political landscape. Trump expatiated in the air about an array of Republican Presidents, free spirits like Wild Bill Hickok, Antonin Scalia, Billy Graham, and Ronald Reagan, beside Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas–African Americans beside southern separatist Henry Clay, whose presence might occur with the erasure of their ideals. Although Trump deferred federal funding of this Garden to a task force, he allowed that although “none have lived perfect lives, all will be worth honoring, remembering, and studying.”

In enforcing the timelessness of this vision of America he addressed the tragedy of “the toppling of statues” of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson. If these monuments were removed as symbols, as we questioned the place of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, after they were revealed as dear to white supremacists, and of dubious commemorative value. While Trump’s Executive Order stipulates some non-Americans could be included among those who contributed to America’s public life, including among them two figures whose statues of non-americans who had been defaced given their prominence in the colonization of the New World and seizure of indigenous lands: Christoforo de Colon, tied to the father of colonization, who dreamed two days after he made landfall in the western hemisphere that the entire population of the island be enslaved, and Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary from Spain who established a skein of missions in Alta California by christianizing indigenous inhabitants of Spanish colonial possessions in the eighteenth century–founding San Diego’s mission and choosing the site for San Francisco–the prominent placement of both of whose statues had been contested, denounced, and questioned in recent years.

The place of Columbus in curious by placing him in such a broad company. But the insistence on Columbus’ inclusion in a garden of statues to inculcate patriotism is not surprising. It also echoes Trump’s plans to erect a monumental statue of Columbus on the Hudson, an immense bronze comically anachronistic in its inclusion of a rotary wheel. The fantasia of a Garden of Monuments reveals a deep attachment of all monuments to erasing a past. The transactional nature of monuments accompanies its shaping of a world view, illustrated in Trump’s pursuit of his hopes to erect on the Hudson’s banks. The unbuilt statue of Columbus had ben presented by two past Presidents by Russian leaders, but Donald Trump was selected to promote in New York, perhaps given his taste for monument-building, in 1997 that prefigure his emergence in politics by practices of public commemoration in 1997 of puzzlingly transactional nature to place himself on a global stage by erecting a new 6,000 ton bronze monument of Columbus in New York. The statue had been long intended to celebrate post-Soviet friendship, and coming after the end of the Soviet era would rival the French gift of the Statue of Liberty, rising in the Hudson’s estuary, to promote his own properties on the Hudson River’s edge. Trump elevated the White Navigator as a founding father, in the midst of his courtship by Russian governments to negotiate a deal for a Trump Tower Moscow.

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Filed under Christopher Columbus, commemoration, Donald J. Trump, globalization, monuments

Monuments in New Worlds: Mapping Columbus in America

Christopher Columbus’ transatlantic voyages assume problematic status as part of a “discourse of discovery.” For rather than markers of the fifteenth century narratives, they serve to frame a range of narratives of discovery that promote the fifteenth-century navigator as an icon of nationhood that were foreign to the fifteenth century. In making claims for the foundational role that the navigator’s transatlantic voyage, they create a new narrative of nation, particularly powerful for its ability to occlude and obscure other narratives, and indeed the presence of local inhabitants in a region, so that they assume the deracinating violence of a map: as claims of possession, and indeed mastery over space, they dislodge nativist presence in a region, much as Columbus did as a royal agent, and glorify the acts of renaming, and taking possession of, the new world, in ways that ally the viewers with the heroism of the Genoese navigator.

The questioning of continued Columbian commemoration within national identity has led to the questioning of commemorative Colombian statutary, that have proliferated across the United States, from Columbus, Ohio to San Francisco to Kenosha, WI, to Miami, as they have been dislodged from an Italian-American community–as many once were in New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia as well as New York City–or a frame for a narrative of nation that needs to be told, or wants to be told. And attracted by a remarkable burst of creative iconoclastic energy, San Francisco’s City Arts Commission recently preemptively monument to Columbus somewhat preposterously overlooking the Pacific to be removed from its monumental pedestal–a statue long defaced in recent years–before it was defaced. The deposition of the 4,000 pound statue, with a violence that would repeat and channel the rejection of the figure of Columbus whose monuments were already deposed in Boston, St. Paul, Minnesota; Camden, NJ; Richmond, VA, and other cities in New York state, one of which was beheaded–if long after the statue to the navigator was ceremoniously pushed into the ocean in 1986, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, with a placard “Foreigners out of Haiti!”

Owen Thomas, San Francisco Chronicle

Indeed, the San Francisco’s 4,000 pound commemorative statue of Columbus, often defaced as a symbol of enslavement and subjugation in recent years, was removed by a crane and as a call to dump it into the Bay was circulating, on Thursday, June 18, removing it from a scenic site by the Pacific beside Coit Tower, leaving an empty pedestal, perhaps to reduce the need to clean up a statue that had been repeatedly defaced in recent weeks but also to show consensus about lack of interest in defending a symbol of oppression, enslavement, and colonial violence, and public outbreaks around the call to depose the statue off Pier 31, not as a symbol of colonial resistance, but an expunging of the navigator from national history.

It was as if the spontaneous prominence across the nation of memorials to George Floyd, proliferating on street walls in full color, and in haunting offset likenesses, provoked introspection demanded introspection of what sort of memorials we identified with and wanted to see the nation, placing on the front burner of all the question of commemoration in terms that had long been glossed over and tacitly accepted. The commemoration of Floyd’s murder was a rebuke of police violence, throwing into relief discriminatory monuments that left the few defenders of the monument to ask us to consider Columbus more broadly in history, rather than focus on “some of his acts, which nobody would support,” without addressing the framing of the logic of “discovery'” in imperial narratives. For the navigator embodied an imperial relation to space and terrestrial expanse, discounting the inhabitants of regions, and affirming the abstract authority of sovereign claims and sovereign expanse, however improbably early maps placed the islands in the Caribbean–later called Hispaniola–based on his conviction that the Atlantic Ocean was able to be traversed, enabling transatlantic voyages for which Spain was well poised to expand commerce far beyond the coast of Africa and the Mediterranean for economic ends in an “Enterprise of the Indies” that Columbus proposed to John II of Portugal, before he set out to claim the new lands for Ferdinand and Isabella. The longstanding embedded nature of Columbus in a discourse of claiming land–a discourse from which he was not only inseparable, but embedded maps in claims of the administration and supervision of lands far removed from seats of terrestrial power, a map-trick that has been celebrated since as a form of inscribing territorial claims on a piece of paper or globe.

And if Columbus had no actual idea of the form of North America, the persuasiveness of fictive reimagining of his mastery over space–a mastery cast almost uniformly in intellectual terms, rather than in military terms of disenfranchisement or enslavement–provided a logic that is aestheticized in the monument as a mode for the possession and persuasion of possession over terrestrial space.

The origins of these reframing are perhaps obscure, but lionizing Columbus was always about rewriting the American narrative, and distancing one race of immigrants–the Italian migrant–from the very native inhabitants that the story of Columbus displaced. The navigator was promoted actively as a figure of national unity in the post-Civil War centenary of 1892, in which Columbus assumed new currency as a national figure, a map on silver able to enter broad circulation as a memory for how a three-masted caravel mastered terrestrial expanse, resting above a hemispheric map of global oceanic expanse. The anachronistic map suggests as much a modern triumph of hemispheric cartography–the coastline of the United States was surveyed by geodetic terms and that established the role of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey in producing maps of uniform toponymy and hydrographic accuracy had only recently set standards of coastal surveying that unified triangulation, physical geodesy, leveling, and magnetic of authority within the US Navy to produce coastal maps of the nation extended from the Gulf of Mexico to the Alaskan shoreline.

The imperious gaze of the limp-haired navigator seems the first self-made man as he gazes with gruff determination on the coin’s face, almost entirely filing the surface of the first American coin bearing human likeness. Columbus was an icon it identified with how the hemispheric map took charge over a continent, and gave a sense of predestination to the recently settled question of continental integrity–and a territorial bounds that new no frontier up to Alaska, whose coast had been recently surveyed, and much of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Its design for the Chicago Word Exposition suggest a hemispheric dominance reflecting the growth of Rand McNally in Chicago, a map-publisher for America, as well as the self-assertion the United States as a hemispheric power, as much as the Genoese navigator about whom so many meanings have encrusted.

The striking hemispheric map of global navigability on the obverse of the coin circulated in Chicago’s World Exposition was global, but would also mimic the claims of hemispheric dominance that the hemispheric projection recalled, prefigured the Pan Am logo, in its global in reach.

In 1893, the point was made as replicas of the Nino, Pinto, and Santa Maria sailed in Lake Michigan during the Centennary, for which the U.S. Congress approved the printing of the first commemorative coin of an individual, beer flowed on tap at what was celebrated as a “blueprint of America’s future,” foregrounding the technological supremacy of the West and America. Ehe figure of Columbus was assimilated to the new technologies of transportation and conquest in a new center commerce where railroads open onto the west, in a condensation of a national celebration that cast Columbus as a figure of the destiny of western expansion, indulging in an American hyperbole of incandescent lighting, the championing of new technologies, in which the replicas of the Pino, Nina, and Santa Maria that had sailed from Spain were again sailing on a landlocked Lake Michigan were exhibited to foreground, Gokstad Viking ships sailed the flooded Midway, beside the mock-Venetian crafts of gondoliers.

Such global mariners provided a flourish within a World Exposition whose stage sets and soundstages, P.T. Barnum like, celebrated transit, transport, and mobility to astound visitors and silence all questions of not presuming to celebrate four centuries of progress; the neoclassical facades of buildings as the Administrative Building, Palace of Fine Arts, Agricultural Building, and Court of Honor, were iterations of the Crystal Palace that were precursors to Las Vegas, proclaimed the birth of a “White City” at the World Exposition that promoted the figure of Columbus and was under-written by the federal government and corporate America, recasting the shady city of vice as the “White City.”

Chicago Tribune

The claiming of Columbus as a national figure in the rebranding of the World’s Exposition set in neoclassical buildings as the site to celebrate Columbus recreated the l’Enfant architecture of the District of Columbia, and elevated the city as “white” in some of the very issues that make the continued celebration of Columbus Day so fraught in a pluralistic society: Peter van Der Krogt has surveyed in striking detail some four hundred monuments to Columbus that were erected after what was called the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in 1892-3, a century after the first monument to Columbus was built in Baltimore, in 1792, what it meant to identify Columbus as American, if not name the nation “Columbia”–the popularity of these monuments in New Jersey (32), Connecticut (15), and New York (24) suggests the clear lack of uniformity of enthusiasm of celebrating the navigator’s equivalence with the nation.

Peter van der Krogt

The fraught question of celebrating the Genoese navigator became a hot-button topic for Donald Trump to rally red state voters–“to me, it will always be Columbus Day!”–and to serve as clickbait as part of the new, perpetually churning culture wars. In an October state meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Trump was pleased to note that while “some people don’t like” the continued commemoration of Columbus’ transatlantic voyage, “I do”, as if that should be sufficient for the nation. Prime MinisterMattarella’s state visit became an occasion to espouse public disdain for the renaming of the national holiday as Indigenous Peoples Day, if not Native Americans Day, in over 130 cities across 34 states. For President Trump, doing so seemed designed not to impress Mattarella, but define a wedge in a deeper cultural urban-rural divide– a yawning divide of economic opportunities, the knowledge economy, and the shifting horizons of economic expectations, more than political belief. The nature of this poorly mapped landscape, the thin substrate of uneven economies and cultural disjunctions and divides, that passes as a political in a datamap of the district-by-district voting preferences that rips a red continuity all but from its bordering blue frame.

Mark Neumann/Red State-Blue State Divide

The national discontinuities reveal an impoverished geographic sense of meaning, one that makes all but ironical the prestige placed on the legibility of the map by the legendary figure of Columbus, who never set foot in the continental landmass now known as the United States, but was, in an era of increased hemispheric dominance of the quatrocentennary nearly engraved map–a reflection of the prominent role Rand McNally played in the organization of the Exposition of 1892, promoting the prominent place that the mapmaking company had gained in the design, dissemination and marketing of instructional printed maps in the later nineteenth century, just a decade after the Chicago-based printshop primarily producing train time-tables expanded its role in a growing educational market for globes and printed wall maps, using its engraving methods emblematized in its dramatic bird’s-eye view of the exposition.

And although it did not design the commemorative silver half dollar that included a caravel of the Santa Maria moving on creating ocean waves above the very anachronistic map that suggests the continental expanse of North and South America–as if Columbus’ guidance of the historic transnational voyage in three caravels he captained was based on a mastery of modern cartographic knowledge. The clear-sightedness of the navigator below the legend “United States of America” linked fearless scrutiny of the global expanse to the foundation of a nation, as the coin designed by the U.S. Mint sough to give circulate a discourse of national unity in the first coin printed in the United States to include the likeness of an actual individual, after hopes to copy a Renaissance portrait by Lorenzo Lotto were replaced by an austere profile suggesting intellectual grasp of space to be sold as souvenirs to visitors of the national fair. Yet the notion of hemispheric dominance was not far off: the explosion of the American naval frigate in the port of Havana led to charges to attack Spain in the press to exercise dominance ridiculed in the Spanish press–

The hint at hemispheric dominance in these maps mirror a push in the 1890s against how “the self-imposed isolation in the matter of markets . . . coincided singularly with an actual remoteness of this continent from the life of the rest of the world,” as a shift in global governance and prominence; the earlier celebration of the continental expansion of the United States to an area “equal to the entire circumference of the earth, and with a domain within these lines far wider than those of the Romans in the proudest days of their conquest and renown.”

Casting nationalism in such cartographic terms mirrored the embedding of Columbus in legacies of nationalism and colonization,–the coin that gave the navigator currency, if it silenced the recognition of the other, presenting Columbus as emblematic of a conquest of space. At a time when Italians were regarded as of different status from other whites, the figure of the Genoese navigator became a lens to project the “white” essence of the territorial United States in quadricentennial celebrations of 1892, recasting the navigator as an unlikely and implausible hero of the white race at the culmination of claiming native lands within the bloody landscape of Indian Wars–roughly, from 1860 to 1877–and to erase the violence of the seizure of these lands to crate the new map of the West, remapping the western lands “as” legible Anglophone and American, and the province of the White Man. Was Columbus the improbable hero of such whiteness and the claims of whiteness in the quadricentennary celebrations that led the nation to celebrate a “white” Italian, as a figure of the whiteness of the nation?

If we are realizing the loaded nature of the erasure of earlier inhabitants in the celebration of arrival in ‘America’ as a prefiguration of the nation, the condensation of this genealogy in the coin of the quadricentennial was a celebration of the witness of the national nd legibility of the new continental map map.

For as ethnicity was understood in sectorial and distinct terms of labor in the late nineteenth century–erased by the notion of an “end of ethnicity” and melting pot of the late twentieth century–the image of Columbus as a “white” hero, the image of the discoverer was purified of his own ethnic origins, at a time when negroes and Italians were excluded from social orders, and lived in Chicago sequestered in enclaves like Little Sicily, or Five Points in New York City, President Benjamin Harrison in 1892 promoted Columbus Day as a “one-time national celebration” to quell international tensions after lynching of Italian-Americans in New Orleans’ Little Palermo between Italy and the United States: the image on the commemorative coin of a pacified globe of continental unity as if it were included in Columbus’ fashioning of his own prophetic identity affirmed Columbus’ whiteness, as it erased the identity of indigenous subjects and silenced the other.

Columbus was promoted eagerly to claim whiteness for Italian-Americans, as well as to define a non-indigenous figure of the nation and national pride. Long before Italian-Americans adopted the festivities of Columbus Day as a regular celebration to incorporate their centrality in a civic record of national identity, as New York Times editorialist Brent Staples has put it, purged of racial connotations that continued in the popular press, only after the celebration of Columbus Day opened a pathway to integration in the face of racialist slurs. As those Sicilians who segregated in their dwellings in New Orleans were seen as targets of racial persecution, and as northern newspapers used stereotypes continued to magnify charges of poor hygiene and linguistic differences, casting Italians as vermin unfit for public schooling, Columbus provided a figure to flee from dispersion as a “Dago”: as immigration from Italy faced official restrictions by 1920, and Italian immigrants were subject to at the start of the first great Age of Mass Migration, as Calvin Coolidge barred “dysgenic” Italian-Americans from entering the country.

In the very years wen immigrants were both sectorized and accorded new status as “whites” who were eugenically suspect, and rates of immigration were slowed under the banner of eugenics, the figure of Columbus proved an able image to launch a powerful agenda of alternative immigration reform: in the very regions where the share of population of Italian origin was most pronounced by 1920, in those very counties the erection of Columbus monuments grew. They appeared in interesting fasion from the eastern seaboard inland to the Great Lakes, into the Chicago area on Lake Michigan, to the Texas and Lousiana seaboards, and San Francisco area in northern California: the dispersion of Columbus monuments across the nation below lacks dates,–

Statues and Monuments to Columbus/Peter van der Krogt

–it is a striking reflection of what U.S. Census records reveal about the relative proportional concentration of Americans of Italian parentage in the United States in 1920, when the Census tabulated those identifying as of Italian parentage as a category.

The increased transatlantic migration that occurred around the 1920s could recast the topos of overseas arrival as embodied by Columbus. The figure of Columbus as an intellectual, a civil servant, and of the statue as a monument of civic pride all encouraged the appearance of the navigator in public monuments. Of course, they recuperate the image of the placement of the flag of authority overseas, as much as vanquishing native one of the first global maps, planting the flag of authority overseas.

The question of such exportation of royal claims was a truly cartographic problem: the spatial migration of Portuguese royal authority was seen in Martin Waldseemüller’s 1514 printed global map as a pair to the discovery of a Spice Route around by Vasco da Gama. overlooking and surveying coastal toponymy in a statuesque manner, bearing the figure of the flag and cross as an ambassador of the most Christian regal monarch.

The oceanic voyages of Vasco da Gama, as of Columbus, were seen as those of an emissary of royal authority, whose travels recuperated tropes of imperial migration that derived from early church history, and were given new lease in the Holy Roman Empire by imperial chroniclers and pre-Colomban universal histories, as a spatial migration of imperial authority: in maps, the Christian migration of royal authority over space, along rhumb lines and nautical travels born by sea monsters who embodied the oceans, was a repeated topos of cartographic tradition not initiated by Waldseemüller,–the cartographer who named the continent after the Florentine navigator and mapmaker Amerigo Vespucci–

Waldseemüller world map, 1515
https:/Tabula Nova partis Africae, in Lorenze Fries’ reduced woodcut of Waldseemuller, (1541)

–and would echo the prophetic cast Columbus had assumed in his letters, and would give as he cast his exploratory voyage in terms of one of renaming, conquest, and discovery, rather than exploration, as he cast himself as acting as of an emissary of and invested with authority by the monarchs of Spain, and a delegate of royal sovereignty who had himself moved across the map to lay claim to unknown islands that he named after his royal patrons.

The naming that was cast as emblematic of civility and civilization of new lands, and of the new naming of the Land. Indeed, the privileging of the effects of cartographic literacy were felt in the Waldsemüller map. by its foregrounding of the cartographic prominence of the insularity of the lands of discovery, greatly magnified in Waldseemüller’s map to reveal the prominence they held in the European imagination as a revision of Ptolemaic geography, the islands alone doubling the territoriality of the Spanish monarchy–by expanding it to a transatlantic set of islands that were cartographically inflated in size, and not only to accommodate the toponym “Spagnuola” but magnify the scale of the discovery. If the band East of Eden sing, in Mercator Projected, declare over the strong guitar strums, “It’s in the Western Hemisphere/that’s where the nicest things appear,” Mercator effectively magnified the very same hemisphere as the cartographic expansion that doubled the demesne of Spanish kings, cleansed of all of its indigenous inhabitants.

The discovery of course altered the scope of Spanish sovereignty, as much as the cosmography Ptolemy set forth based on the astrolabe he proudly held in the upper right of this twelve-sheet wall map. In this fractured world of multiplying insular fragments, where the entire of the modern South America, here island-like, if immense, labeled “America” and below the island of Hispaniola, was “discovered by the command of the King of Castille”–island-like as Waldseemüller most likely was forced to add the to the pre-1491 global maps that perhaps remained his source–dotted with even greater abundance of islands, all acting as if beckons to potential sites of untold wealth. The figure of Columbus may be absent from the map, but the caravel identified as sent by the European monarch seems to provide the basis for information in the 1507 global map–where it seems as if the emblem of Columbus–

I found myself recently standing in New York City’s Columbus Circle, a towering column constructed shortly after the erection of the Liberty statue in New York harbor, it was hard to imagine how the towering figure of the navigator once stood above the circle.

The prominence this late nineteenth-century Columbus claims atop a pedestal before a shop of corsets is a bit comical. The 1892 statue must have been a reply to the lady who stood as a welcome sign to recent waves of immigrants; funded by the Italian language newspaper that had begun publication only a decade earlier in 1880, the monument to the Italian navigator’s discovery served as a proclamation of civic dedication as well as rected; the encounter was monumentalized as an auspicious arrival of a man who seems to proclaim the New World’s settlement before a group of shrinking natives, who retreat behind foliage.

The statuary made in Rome during the centenary of 1892, seemed intended as a moment of immigrant pride, and indeed identify the navigator as an Italian navigator, unlike the native inhabitants who seemed unclothed and barbarous. The statue of Columbus Circle stood facing to the south of Manhattan island, as if in rejoinder to the midwestern Columban exposition that celebrated the expansion of Chicago and the opening of an American West. The contest between the monuments aspiring to announce the New World back to Europe demands to be teased out, but played out over the next century.

The icon has defined the southwestern corner of Central Park, and as a monument of triumphalism has, even if it has been dwarfed by the nearby Trump International and, since 2003, the Time Warner building, the once soot-covered statuary had a prominent civic function of rehabilitating one immigrant group, if perhaps at the costs of denigrating others and promoting a dated form of patriotism. The reduced place of the smaller Trump property may now seem in the shadow of the far more monumental Time Warner complex, but Trump had already aspired to displace the tower of Christopher Columbus as he wanted to put his own imprint on the New York skyline before 1992, and readily adopted the Columbus centennary as a pretext to demote the Columbus Square column at the same time as he promoted his vision of a Trump City by the Hudson River banks, for which Columbus became a pretext as much as a backdrop of sorts.

But is it a surprise that as a New York realtor eager to dodge financial ruin in the late 1980s, Donald Trump boasted of plans to erect an immense statue of Christopher Columbus in 1992 by a Russian sculptor, Zurab Tseretelli, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, from a massive $40 million of bronze. The statuary framed as a gift from Moscow’s mayor to the New York mayor, Rudy Giuliani, to rival that of Columbus Circle must have been a massive tax write-off of the sort Trump had specialized. And grotesquely, the statue revealed, far from patriotism, the deeply transactional legacy of linking Trump’s developments to the nation, whose grandiosity of re-monumentalizing Columbus–Trump boasted the head made by the Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli from $40 million of bronze was already in America–“It would be my honor if we could work it out with the City of New York. I am absolutely favorably disposed toward it. Zurab is a very unusual guy. This man is major and legit.”

The grandiose claim is classic Trump, designed to feign disinterest and patriotism but searching for fame. Zurab, a prominent member of the Russian Academy, mighthave been quite legit, but building the massive bronze statuary was also a huge tax dodge to be built on Trump acreage, whose immensity only made it more valuable as a dodge and gift to the city of the sort one could write off but was also an investment inflating the real estate’s value: which Trump presented as a done deal accepted by then-mayor Giuliani as a “gift” from the Mayor of Moscow, mediated by the patriotic developer who had secured the landfill as realty he sought to boost before he built. The statue reveals early interest of the transactional nature of exchange and inflation of value, which long animated the Trump brand.

Site of Proposed ‘Trump Cityin Manhattan

The quite hideous statue, whose head had arrived in New York, was rejected for reasons unknown. The rejection was perhaps not aesthetic alone, but as the immense complex of figure and naval vessels, eventually recast as The Birth of a New World when the complex was finally installed on the coast of Arecibo in Puerto Rico, weighing in at 6,500 tons, in 2016, was hardly designed to be sustained by landfill: what piles into the Hudson’s banks would sustain all that bronze? The dedication of the statue at the year of Trump’s victory in the Presidential election was not planned, but is oddly telling. The gaudy if not hideous monument was rejected flatly first by New York, and then by Miami; Columbus, OH; Baltimore; Ft Lauderdale; and lastly Cantaño, Puerto Rico, where it faced intense local opposition, from the United Confederation of Taino People given their conviction “Colombus was a symbol of genocide, not a hero to be celebrated” by monumental statuary in the nation’s public memory.”

The collective reaction of the grotesque figural complex may have arisen because of effects on the community, but the body of the statue was recycled as it was transformed by Tseretelli, rumor has it, with a new head as Peter the Great, for Moscow, that celebrated the tsar for founding–yes–the Russian Navy. The monument that was the world’s eighth largest piece of global statuary at 93 meters voted was voted the world’s tenth ugliest buidling. The this 81 meter animated statue beside an oddly raised arm of greeting evidence that it was indeed remade in an attempt to match the massive body of bronze that remained in Moscow in 1992, or was the mismatch due to a new fashioning a body for the head returned to Tseretelli’s studio the became a monstrous monument of eery import? T eh odd disconnect of head and body seems not an illusion of perspective (witness those huge shoulders), but seems evidence of some sort of switcheroo in statuary that Tseretelli or his assistants bungled.

Zurab Tsereteli, The Birth of a New World (2016)

The image that we can entertain of Donald Trump transactionally pedaling Columbus from shore to shore tragically concludes the triumphalit Columban statuary–who better to pedal dated triumphalism? How did the Columbus statue ever arrive at this port? If removed from a discourse of discovery, the notion of “birth” is perhaps more odious.

Trump identifies himself–sons of immigrants of Scottish and German stock, allegedly, but must have wanted to bask in the idea of endowing monumentalism of Columbus statue for New York, beside Trump’s new monumentalization of his name in West Side Yards, the landfill expansion of the old yard of New York’s Central Railroad, that Trump had long sought to expand as the site of 20-30,000 residences, massive residential expansions of the city alternately hoped to be rezoned as residences and promoted to be renamed as “Lincoln West,” “Television City” and “Trump City,” all of which faced fierce community opposition, even if they were planned to feature the world’s tallest building. Would the 1992 statue be a $40 Million investment to lend prestige to the projects Trump imagined for a site he long promoted as both”positioned to get rezoning and government financing,” in 1979, and “the greatest piece of land in urban America” in 1992, housing 20,000 in 8,000 apartments and almost 10,000 parking places for the midtown area.

The “new Columbus” was as a conceit never achieved; but was it also a sense of the arrival of Trump in America, and the conquest of New York City? The statue planned to be erected on landfill was rejected for the fifth centenary and then promised to at least six other cities may speak to Trump’s disconnect from the world, and how poorly the notion of a purely triumphal celebration has aged. The grandiosity of statuary and buildings–perhaps also ugliness–was a perverse trademark of Trump, and was promoted a grotesque nationalism long dear to the developer. And it paralleled the growing public resistance to Columbus statuary that occurred in 1992 across so much of the increasingly diverse United States, as citizens questioned what was to celebrate in a figure long idealized in heroic monuments.

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Filed under American history, Columbus, commemoration, Voyage of Discovery, whiteness

Specters along the Interstates: Mass Incarceration and the Geography of Fear

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–

 

 

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–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.

 

Cesar's bombs map USA

 

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.

 

EastCoastRapist.com

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.

 

TX for beto?

 

 

 

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.

 

EastCoastRapist.com

 

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