Tag Archives: Donald Trump

How to Levitate an Elephant

The emblem of the GOP has been rotated a few times in recent years, as the upward-pointing stars that dotted the back of the elephant emblem that had signified robustness of party unity since the post-Civil War era. The flag-like animal, that seemed to embody the national flag in purely partisan terms, had for some time seemed a pacific sort of beast, with four feet stolidly placed upon the ground, if of imposing presence, as if it has no history or valence save robust strength.

What led it to be altered, circa 2000, seemed inexplicable way: the downshifted and inverted stars of a right-facing elephant was suddenly copyrighted as the party emblem, in ways prompting concerns and online speculation on the possibly malevolent intent of the symbol was perpetrated by a sort of secret society symbolism–possibly of diabolical connotations–generating responses disconcerted at the lack stability in the beast at odds with a party that had once prided straight talk.

We had never looked closely at the stars in this abstract logo that seems a sleek embodiment of the American flag, But perhaps the internet made us look more closely at photoshopped details, altering our eyes and suspicions in new ways, as minor stylistic alterations assumed significance. Online conspiracy theories about the stars’ downward rotation smelled a corruption of patriotism, or a cryptic allusion to a pentagrammic symbol of satanism, offensive to a Christian Right–or revealing devious intent–that led the rebranding of the Republican Party after the Clinton years to be scrutinized on an internet awash with rumors of the diabolic nature of the feared influence of the Sigil of Baphomet, trademark of the Church of Satan, merging of black arts and party politics–if not Neo-pagan messages squirreled into the GOP’s message by unknown Democratic operatives, or revealing the rise of a hidden semiotic system that preceded the cult of Q.

If the turning of the stars circa 2000 was tied to everything from satanism to Skull & Bones symbolism mirroring the ascendancy of George W. Bush in the party, the rebranding that followed Bush v. Gore seemed a sharp revision of the combativeness of the elephant, that had regained its tusks–

–as the rightward-advancing pachyderm in the newly trademarked logo was both more animatedly moving, as if the red-white-and-blue elephant was sufficiently capacious for the party, stars shifted or not.

The alteration of the elephant as an emblem of party understandably morphed online. But what genealogy of the elephant was engaged by the new rebranding of the Republican elephant, long an icon of Republican identity and independence, at the 2020 Republican convention, leaping into the air as a swoosh of tusked red? In an era that maps “so called Republicans” who refuse to repeal Obamacare over President Trump’s wishes, as promoted by Trump surrogates in 2016 to condemn all who doubted, the red-suited elephant matched red states’ increasing purity tests for party loyalty, and less the joyous icon of Wendell Wilkie. If Wilkie’s elephant–a memento for donors–was a joyous beast of the party unabashed of its middle-brow origins in a circus ring, extending its trunk in unbounded optimism, the red elephant is far less fun or ebullient.

1. The mutation of the elephant to a politics of triumphalism in the 2020 Republican convention had precedent. But it seemed to map the coherence of the party as an alternate body for the endangered body politic, where racial differences didn’t exist, but we were spectators of a show: was the adopting the animal an eery white-washing of race in America, taking a symbol of a large voting block to a symbol of strength, purifying the elephant of its African origins? While elephants were long associated with triumphalism, as far back as Hannibal, were elephant seemed conducive to promoting the vision of a “law and order” President as if he were crossing the Alps, riding a troop of elephants of Republican voters not to impose peace and harmony on Gaul, but channel fascist talking points on the need for more law and order in American society? Bedecked with five oddly placed stars that recall its circus heritage the advancing elephant unveiled in Charlotte, NC suggested a march of red states across the electoral map, more than a show for partisan unity. The new triumphalism of this royal elephant unveiled at the Republican Convention was now adorned with stars, purged of blue, and seemed more separate than ever from the semiotics of national flag–and animated the long-dormant elephant in a new language of graphic design.

Or what seemed a new image for an old party, injected with new energy. Despite its symbolic degeneration of the elephant as a symbol of party If coded fears underlay and racialized policing were implicit in the “law and order” persona that the President invoked, the origins of the elephant in the cartooning of Thomas Nast in 1870s.

The image of the Republican Party that cartoon editorialist Nast had seized upon with considerable power in 1884, when “The Sacred Elephant” appeared in circus-like regalia the front page of Harper’s Weekly. “The Sacred Elephant,” suggested the stakes of leadership of the party to which Nast belonged at what seemed a juncture of its identity. The cartoon referenced the elephant as an image of probity in the same year that the albino elephant Toung Taloung arrived in New York with much promotion from P.T. Barnum, who was promoted as a more civil and pacific sort of elephant–colored white, unlike the African pachyderm, joining the touring American circus years after the African elephant Jumbo had become the centerpiece of his show.

The term “party animals” has a long history, indeed, immersed in the embedding of four-legged circus performers that responded to national debates about race, and racial identity, that P.T. Barnum had openly courted by promoting the addition of a new elephant in the year that Nast used the four-legged beast as an emblem of the party’s dignity. The circus that would become known as “The Greatest Show on Earth” in the 1920s exploited recent interest in the so-called sacred elephants of Siam, who were viewed as a new variety of animal from the larger African elephants, long prized for their mimicry as circus performers, and the ability to train them to lift people with their. trunk, move in formation, or even stand in pyramids, provided Barnum with what he hoped was a distinct spectacle at the height of the debates about the institution of “Separate but Equal” policies in the United States, as the civil rights of blacks, guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, were questioned, and overturned. The spectacular attraction of the so-called “white elephant,” while an albino variety of a smaller beast, curried public fantasias of race and racial identity, that must have encouraged the circus promoter to seize on the expensive purchase of a “certified white elephant” imported by ship long associated with the remote Kingdom of Siam–

–that might make due on a variety of elephant he promoted as rumored more civilized and sacred than the African species, and to enjoy privileges at the Siamese court. While the arrival was not to be compared with the feats of strength of the African elephant Barnum had shipped stateside, the agents who procured the elephant helped introduce the foreign beast to a party icon designed to provoke barely tacit debate over its “so-called whiteness” and Barnum argued an inescapably racialized descriptor might be judiciously applied to the elephant’s whiteness, although they should visit the show themselves to judge, practiced as he was in exploiting race in spectacles that promoted pseudo-scientific justifications of racial hierarchy to entertain audiences by confirming their superiority–even if the skin of the elephant was long seen as grey.

The Sacred Elephant Phineas Barnum imported from Siam gain increased attraction during sunset of Reconstruction as an icon: as questions of race and the extensive of rights to former slaves were debated in America, audiences came to question the whiteness of the “white elephant” whose “whiteness” was conflated with its sacrality or sacred nature. Barnum affirmed the sacred nature of the beast argued to be venerated in Burma’s court to promote the arrival of a white elephant his agent had bought from King Thibau Min of Burma, Toung Taloung, who was in transit via the Suez Canal to New York. If Nast loved depicting animals, his latest anthropomorphic cartoon shifted the circus animal to a costumed elephant embodying principles sacred to the party, in ways that courted anxieties over racial identity that the circus impresario stirred speculation of the newest elephant he had bought–courting public fascination with the ostensibly edifying spectacle of a “a technical white elephant” by acknowledging “there is no such thing as a really pure white elephant” but encouraging audiences to judge its purity. Already illustrated in Scientific American in March, 1884, Barnum’s new elephant was shown with an attendant of color, tusks intact, as an object of curiosity for a society that was redrawing its own color line.

Drawing of Toung Taloung, after the London Graphic, Scientific American, Supplement
(New York, March 1884)

Nast tapped Barnum’s promoting skills in using a Sacred Elephant as a symbol of party purity. Barnum had peaked curiosity in white elephants, venerated in Siam, stoked wide speculation about its relation to the “black” African variety, inviting white circus audiences to judge Toung Taloung’s whiteness for themselves in a spectacle of popularized racial sciences. For by judging racial differences and the depth of epidermal identity, Barnum invited pubic audiences compare differences between the one venerated in Siam and a member of court society in Siam and its African cousin as a scientific difference echoing skin color, even displaying elephants side by side as a responsible showman, for audiences to classify by themselves. And the appeal that he made to audiences was in the air by the time that Nast used a powerful image of the Sacred Elephant to represent the Republican Party in 1884, when the “separate but equal” policies encouraged by the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws were voided in public space, sanctioning segregation as well as the abridgment of constitutional rights by October 1883, the very year that P.T. Barnum brought a white elephant to display to a paying public so that it might view its difference from the African species.

The conceit that there were two races of elephants was a curious extension of the color line that justified the restriction of civil rights in Reconstruction to the animal kingdom, and world. The voiding of civil rights believed guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment led to a century of institutions of race-based segregation, as the abolition of slavery was re-interpreted removed, as by Occam’s razor. In limiting the prohibition of enslavement from plans to segregate “Inns, public conveyances and places of public amusement,” including circuses of the sort where Toung Taloung was displayed, as the color lines that existed in times of slavery were perpetuated. As in a symbolic rehearsal of the issues at stake in questioning what race-based separations constituted a “badge of slavery or involuntary servitude . . . but at most, infringes rights,” the circumscribed liberties and Jim Crow laws rejected the belief that it was the role of a government “to mete out equal and exact justice to all, of whatever nativity, race, color, or persuasion,” that tabled civil rights in ways currently roiling the nation–a posture of legalizing segregated spaces that perhaps requires reparation, and has deep resonance. For the result was a deep remapping of public spaces across the country, which has been poorly registered in maps, in which Barnum’s choice to promote the exhibition of a Sacred Elephant as a central feature of his show came to occupy something close to center stage if it was only a circus show.

Barnum was a part of Americana that the use of the elephant as a circus animal channeled in 1884, when the promise of the impending arrival of a real “white elephant”–the very Sacred Elephant in question–prized in Burma’s royal court, less as a democratic symbol than a form of purity. When Nash held up Barnum’s white elephant as an image of the probity of his Party, he compared the Republican’s purity to the albino elephant’s whiteness in ways that helped establish the four-legged beast as an icon of the Party. P.T. Barnum’s probity would be under public attack, in the course of 1884, as both historian Sarah Amato has argued and literary scholar Ross Bullen examined, using the characterization of the albino Toung Taloung as “white” to oppose the beast to African elephants in circus shows; the sacred nature of the pacific elephant was distinguished by its Siamese costume to highlighted its distinct skin coloration for crowds. In the wake of mixed reviews the animal shipped from Burma at great expense through the newly opened Suez Canal was exhibited in London’s Zoological Gardens, generated debate, Bullen argued, about its “whiteness” that Barnum used o attract as large an audience as possible in New York, affirming the “true whiteness” of the elephant.

The accuracy of using an adjective that during Reconstruction evoked race turned on Barnum’s willing mistranslation of the “chang puedk,” an it was known, as if he were a “racial imposter,” as the mottled flesh of the elephant Pearl of Siam led Barnum to fend off accusations of fraud and charges of deception. The exhibition of Toung Taloung intersected with fears of racial identity and authenticity in Reconstruction by provoking questions of race and truth that were struggled with daily, as the population was parsed in the official census-takers by percentages of African blood. Whereas many dismissed Barnum for the showmanship of announcing arrival of a “White Elephant” that had been briefly exhibited before being shipped to New York was not as “white” as current racial categories would imply. Were the deep anxieties about the legalization of racial barriers across much of the nation not enacted in what Bullen called the “Elephant Wars” of circus entrepreneurs? it is striking how the monochrome icon that debuted in recent years exploited similar anxieties about race and racial difference.

Barnum promoted the eagerness of audiences to judge for themselves to generate spin for the show that would be the next pachydermal act after “his mammoth predecessor” Jumbo had jointed his troupe. Front page articles heralded the arrival of the “Sacred Beast” for “the Great Moral Show” had led Barnum to rush anxiously from his inner office in Madison Square Garden to examine the elephant in New York harbor, shouting “Call a Cab! Notify the President!” as if this were an affair of state to se the certified sacred elephant “who has never shown the slightest indications of the savageness which is a characteristic of most elephants,” named “Gem of the Sky,” and not only “extremely gentle and docile” but bearing a signed certificate to be a sacred beast from the Second Minister of Royal Elephants that had been presented to the agents “of the Great Wealthy Man Barnum of America”: beside news of a contentious Republican convention, the front page headline “The Sacred Beast Here!” was accompanied by an attestation from Frank Vincent, the former Consul to Siam, that Gem of the Sky was “one of the finest specimens of the sacred white elephant I ever saw in my life.” In India, Vincent, who had a second career as an authority on the beast, had earlier attested in Harper’s, a state’s power grew the more sacred white elephants it owned, the sacred white Barnum imported may have provoked some anxiety as the promoter hadn’t yet seen the beast’s hue.

The “Sacred Elephant” Nast included prominently on the March 1884 predated ToungTaloung’s arrival on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. But it was already an image of the validity of the showman Barnum, who had shipped it via the newly opened Suez Canal to London with fanfare, and it was now on its way: the icon partisan probity appeared some three weeks before the anticipated arrival, but three months after Harper’s ran an article by the author of The Land of the White Elephant, promoting the sacred white elephant “we are told to expect in May” as not white per se, but of a “delicate shade which distinguishes the nose of a white horse” and “with a head the color of cochineal”–even if you would not know it from the cover of Vincent’s own 1882 illustrated book ignited interest.

And when the cartoonist included himself as presenting the sacred four-footed beast above the legend This animal is sure to win, if it is only kept pure and clean, and has not too heavy a load to carry,” the question of the truly sacred nature of the animal to party members affirmed its purity more than its whiteness: if the elephant, as yet unseen by Americans, was rumored to possibly be not pure white, the purity of the elephant was more at issue than its intersection with a racial phenotype, but the issue was probably unavoidably lying just beneath the surface: while religion was separate from politics, perhaps the veneration of white elephants by Buddhists was foreign enough to not be taboo: if the white elephants were guardians of Buddha, and became an emblem of state service and bravery in Thailand, was not the circus animal an apt icon of political probity? Perhaps the costumed circus animal, unlike previous anthropomorphic emblems for political parties, foregrounded the sacred tenets, emblazoned on the belt that dignified the beast as precepts to direct the Party to the gated White House by winning the popular vote.

Thomas Nast, ,”The Sacred Elephant,” Harper’s Weekly (March 8, 1884)

Nast costumed the elephant to question who might lead the Republican Party to the White House in 1884 with fit decorum before the nation. By featured the royally costumed elephant as sacred as the venerated white quadruped arriving in Barnum’s circus, readers would see its costume as befitting probity of the party.

The “father of American cartooning” himself channeled Barnum as a showman displaying the Sacred Elephant to the public as a path the right rider might guide to the White House, and maybe that he might be able to promote in newspapers by his pen. The party’s proper costuming in a fit platform would accord reverence comparable to that Siam’s court and Buddhists population accord the white elephant Barnum had recently promoted in the press. Nast displays the zoological curiosity as the best public face for the Party to raise should it wish to be led to victory.

Detail of Nast as Barnum, holding newspapers, presenting Sacred Elephant
(Harpers Weekly, March, 1884)

The icon of the elephant was immersed in print culture. When the quadruped was adopted as an icon of the Grand Old Party in the 1880s it was less as the the result of Nast’s Aesop’s fables iconography: while he had shown a raging elephant in Third Term Panic (1874), in which the overweening cries of Democratic donkey, dressed in a lion’s skin, sent an elephant charging over cliff at the idea President Grant sought a third term, or a sleeping elephant lying at a dour Lincoln’s feet before 1880, Nast caricatured collective party divisions by non-human animals: but the quadruped transcended Aesop’s animals, by embodying the very moral precepts sacred precepts to the party. Posed as Barnum, Nast promoted the promise to elevate the party’s honesty, as if vouchsafing for the whiteness of the quadruped his circus would publicly exhibit!

The all-American circus animal became a stand-bearer and proud partisan emblem by championing its almost salvific role in public politics: as the circus man transformed the pachyderm distanced from the African elephants Barnum exhibited, such as Jumbo, Barnum’s newly displayed Sacred Elephant suggested a Party that subsumed race, to be ridden by a nominee revering civic values of Civil Service Reform, more than seeking profit from political office or personal gain, to ride to the White House without demeaning the decorum of a Party in danger of not honoring the sacred compact between it and its ideals. The elephant elevated party politics from the drama of corruption sought to dignify party principles beyond intraparty dispute.

But the examination of the spectacle of P.T. Barnum’s elephant seemed a way of promoting difficult debates about racial belonging and indeed the coding of exclusionary practices that the Supreme Court had mandated and that would long divide the nation. Was the theater of the circus a crucial mediator of the figure of the sacred elephant as a signifier of a color line, and the intensity of debates over the silent adoption of separate but equal policies, as much as of the purity of the Republican Party? The slippage was intentional, but the intentionality of the slippage has rarely been noted in the history of how parties became symbolized by quadrupeds, or the investment of meaning in quadrupeds as symbols of the alternatives between parties in public politics: as much as Aesop was invoked in earlier Nast cartoons, the icon of a sacred elephant as an icon of party due veneration openly channeled the circus, in ways the current party seems to channel–and merits far more attention because they were hardly value-free, and intertwined with the working out of racial identity in America in public life, perhaps registering the tension of public life that are so difficult to map collectively or comprehensively.

The circus elephant was an icon openly allegorical of race, as much as race was the shared subtext of the Republican Convention in 2020. As much as resting in legal tradition or th constitution, it seems fit that the convention tapped how P.T. Barnum’s popular performances exploited anxieties of racial difference: without orchestrating racial stereotypes as crudely as Barnum, Nast exploited them in a tongue in cheek manner that should call into question the staying power of the apparently arbitrary choice of the elephant as a party icon, and the redeployment of the elephant in recent years as an image of the party. Although the cartoonist registered horror at violence visited on slaves in the south, the effects of which he portrayed as dissolved by the Emancipation Proclamation in celebratory terms, it is also true he rarely invested agency as a cartoonist in African American subjects, and as a cartoonist did not rethink categories of race, so much as dramatize them. Nast’s drawings in Harper’s had famously celebrated the deliverance brought by emancipation in paternalist terms as an end to southern humiliation that could be shared by the emancipated family: as if an act of emancipation by constitutional amendment liberated all racial inequalities and lifted race lines by promising well-paying jobs. The divide between races, so strong in nineteenth and twentieth century culture, could not be lifted, even if Nast believed–and hoped–that it might be. Indeed, the reduction of the meaning of “emancipation” that the institution of “Separate but Equal” allowed continued a racial polarity that divided America.

The cartoonist seized on the pure-white elephant to embody Republican standards. But he bequeathed a troubled if telling icon of political purity, that the current Republican candidate for President spooky channeled, almost to the point of channeling the elephant, as he recently addressed the Republican Convention before the current “red elephant” in Charlotte, NC–as if promising he would do his best to return to former status quo.

Andrew Harnik/AP

The solemnity of address quickly provoked a spoof parody website of a party “building a country just for us,” by announcing that the party “always stood for white wealth and power,” but “just couldn’t say so out loud” before: the elephant lacked stars, but elevated “Q”‘s cryptic pronouncements to a level of dignity as had Trump’s presidency–and the entrance of the party into a new level of circus entertainment of big-tent conspiracy theories that have leaked off-line to present Trump as an embattled hero of the Truth.

Parody Website

2. The Aesopian menagerie of fabled beasts was also embedded in clear constructions of categories of race and nineteenth-century racial sciences, in which the Sacred Elephant was to be opposed to its African cousin, much as Barnum ad opposed Toung Taloung, the Burmese elephant he acquired with the certificate of Siam’s Elephant Keeper, from the variety of Arican elephants he had exhibited in the past: the history of the elephant as a radicalized emblem of party is often forgotten in the amnesiac Republican Party, whose proponents cast Dixiecrats as the most racist of governors or see Andrew Jackson as a bulwark against Civil War. Yet the white soul of the party that Nast presented to the public embodied purity, principled advocacy of a civil service, and proud American-ness in a white alternative to the elephant that most circuses displayed.

Thomas Nast, “The Sacred Elephant,” Hoper’s Weekly (March 8, 1884)

Nast adopted the middle-brow entertainment of the sacred elephant as a sort of tease, and an invitation from a newspaperman cartoonist–indeed, a viral editorialist!–inviting readers to take the high road, and enter elite culture, a promise that all middle-brow entertainments offer. Nast vouchsafed that the principle of party honesty shifted from the circus arena to a political arena in which his party might save face.

The invitation to find an able mount for the dignified white would hardly be distinguished by its sagging skin, but restore a needed dignity in a time of party corruption, promising a degree of purity eplaced by the current use of a pure-red elephant to suggest a similar sort of purity of party, if of one of openly less principled nature? Barnum had gone to great lengths to emphasize the sacred nature of the quadruped he had bought at Siam’s royal court, where elephants were fed select diets, serenaded to sleep by musicians, and entered the human world as links to the divine. Nast–a life-long Republican–had penned the raging elephant as the Republican Vote in 1874, in ways often cited as an origin of the mascot that would symbolize a large party in American political iconography as a beast. The choice of the sacred animal as able to advance to the White House should the party “keep the animal pure and clean,” consolidated the anthropomorphic image as a symbol of the party with deeper valence than many histories of cartooning or party mascots admit: the Sacred Elephant Barnum had bought and was on its way to be exhibited in the United States when Nast drew it was not only a piece of Americana, but a quadruped whose sacred character the American public would be asked to confirm.

Nast invested the Sacred Elephant with figural significance to the destiny of the Party’s value, dignifying the animal he used to depict the Republican Vote as a standard-bearer of the party’s purity especially compelling for his party to identify with and adopt in future years. The whiteness of the Sacred Elephant, even if it was qualified, would suggest not only the purity and cleanliness that Nast evoked, but the purity of its race. For the Sacred Elephant was also soon to be know for eliding race–a not so fine point implicit in the reverence it was accorded, unlike its African cousin, who seems depicted in the 1874 cartoon. Barnum was prompt to draw the distinction in displaying the new sort of elephant he would be displaying in his spectacle as a different variety of beast, much as Vincent had described the garlanding, serenading, and feeding of sacred elephants in Siam by their keepers. The diademed creature in exotic costumed was public-facing–and, like a circus animal, on view for open scrutiny and examination for evidence of its probity, unlike the deceptions and cunning showmanship P.T. Barnum generated interest in the sacred elephant Toung Taloung to the public–in ways Vincent had begun. Barnum met doubts about his own fraudulent display of Toung Taloung as white on his competitor as the elephant “Light of Asia” that revealed a uniform white on its body as if to make due on the adjective–

–depended on a chemical bleaching, a practice that Barnum’s competitor Forepaugh began with the smaller elephant obtained, pre-bleached, from a London salesman as a competitor to Toung Taloung, a process that had continued as long as he lived and was publicly exhibited as an alternate draw to Barnum’s show. (Forepaugh’s boast of the “Largest Show in the World” countered the menagerie of the “Greatest show on Earth.”)

But rather than being the true article, bleaching or painting of this small elephant killed the beast in November, 1884–Vincent or other “experts” had presumably already questioned, perhaps with Barnum’s own encouragement, by questioning “the genuineness of this elephant” as white: Barnum noted that the toes of the elephant of his Forepaugh were noted by experts to be in fact “very often found in elephants of the ordinary kind, without any pretension whatever to ‘white blood,’” even if photographs the above to document its whiteness suggested otherwise. Barnum contrasted the benefits of his own allegedly edifying popular show as an exhibit of the differences among elephants from different habitats and different “races” as if mediating the globe: he mediated racial differences as rooted in science, the display of a Sacred Elephant appeal to the authentic self-presentation of the party to an electorate. While Barnum & Bailey did not adopt an actual emblem of a globe until after World War I, or 1925, that made good on the promise to be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” it provided a quintessential middle-brow entertainment, long focussed on elephants, including Jumbo, presented as the largest Giant Elephant in the world–an African Bush elephant, born in Sudan, and first exhibited in the Garden des Plantes–that compared the prized elephant Barnum enterprisingly purchased from the London Zoo, to the skeleton of a mastodon unearthed in the American West–

–a spectacle continued, after Jumbo’s tragic death in 1885, when he was killed by a train, to the exhibit of Jumbo’s taxidermies skin and skeleton–

Display of Giant Elephant Jumbo’s Skeleton, with tusks (1888)

–in a theatrical display of popular science of edifying aims, much as the Sacred Elephant polarized racial sciences in ways that its “purity” raised fears of miscegenation that underlay a dogma of barriers of intermixing that barriers in public space, education, and social promotion were supposed to maintain, by being openly mapped onto racial differences.

The plans for Barnum to introduce a White Elephant into the menagerie that he used to entertain audiences rested on a significant financial investment, but occurred at a time when race lines were defined across American states, as the repeal of

3. The attraction of Toung Taloung rested in how the genuine” nature of the beast’s famed whiteness was deployed. The question of racial identity and purity was engaged in Barnum’s show as Toung Taloung was opposed to the African elephants that Barnum usually featured, asking the crowd to judge them to provoke racial anxieties in its evocation of a proud beast, in ways that give new meaning to the “Greatest Show on Earth” in the years after he had merged in 1881 with the Great International Circus run by his competitor, Bailey. The elephant authority Vincent had boasted the sacred elephant was accompanied by a white monkey, with “fur as white as the whitest rabbit,” underling an analogy to racial segregation migrated to the animal kingdom with striking fluidity. It would circulate as smoothly to the circus stage. Toung would be contrasted as a mulatto, to the “decidedly dark elephant,” beside the African elephant, creating the judgement of the racial identity of the mulatto animating the contemporary play, The Octoroon. Nast would know the play, premiered in 1858 to acclaim, the Sacred Elephant he depicted seemed in his mind an image of the purity of the party–although the actual White Elephant had a quite mottled hide.

Even when conceding the lack of a pure parallel to racial difference, Barnum made sure racialized categories were prominent for audiences who were predominantly white. Barnum exploited Vincent’s claim Toung Taloung was “as white as God makes ’em,” without artifice, to increased the fascination of crowds in an elephant only superficially whiter in its “light complexion;” he openly engaged his white audiences’ obsessions with racial parentage by rehearsing racial categories Vincent had staked out, comparing the White Elephant to the whiteness “of a negro’s palm,” deploying racial difference to attract audiences to a show that often amused audiences by deploying racial differences and and hierarchies, even when rehearsed with members of the animal kingdom.

While Nast did not echo performance of global racial differences, his cartoon unavoidably addressed race within the United States by the attraction of the purity of a white elephant as a sign of honesty. The interactive nature of a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t debate on race that Vincent and Barnum began caught on long after Nast’s cartoon of the Sacred Elephant, but did it underlay the Barnum’s competitors did charge him with not keeping his word on “whiteness” nonetheless, that heightened anxieties of racial differences to eat into the audience for his popular show, displaying what was announced as “scientifically verified” if probably painted or dyed whiter elephant, claimed more genuine than the “rank fraud” Barnum bought. Circus-Master Adam Forepaugh, who exhibited elephants in a competing show, featured cycling elephants, pyramidal formations of elephants, elephants in military drill and “elephant seances”–as well as a giant elephant, in his show. Forepaugh expanded a show of twenty-five by “Light of Asia,” a small elephant named Tiny, bought from an overseas English dealer painted with over fifty coats of premium paint, to compete with Barnum by its greater purity of its brilliant painted, bleached or dyed hide.

Arrival of “Light of Asia,” 1884

In response, Barnum fell back on his usually trick of comparison among elephants: he cleverly dyed one of his own elephants for exhibition beside Toung Taloung, by a process celebrated in the New York Times for the ingenious skill of skin coloring for reasons far beyond the circus ring. Barnum’s process of chemical whitening was, the newspaper judged, “of less interest to elephants than another class of our populations,” indeed, mapping the elephant to categories of race among Americans: Barnum’s process would not blacks’ appearance identical with “that of the white man,” echoing the qualifications Barnum made about Toung Taloung, but if might transform the “cleansed Ethiopian . . . of a dazzling whiteness, rivaling snow,” in nothing less than “a complete answer to Job’s question of whitening the Ethiopian” readily “applied without the slightest injury to colored people” to create a new race of “ex-colored men.” (The breadth of discussion generated by the elephant ran from how Terre Haute’s Saturday Evening Mail jested that after the arrival in town of “BARHUM’S new white elephant named Toung Toulong [sic.] the papers are already teeming with jokes about the man who asked his wife why she resembled the white elephant, etc,” suggesting how widely discussion

In an age when race defined lines of exclusion, and many whitened their skin so that they might pass, to navigate racial barriers, display of the fraudulent white elephant garnered attention as a reflection on racial ideologies. The elephant Barnum exhibited came to be known as “The Fraud” enacted the dominant acceptance of a “natural” racial hierarchy in a circus show. When Barnum charged Forepaugh of disguising his own elephants with dishonesty, he provoked latent fears of disrupting a race-based hierarchy by a disguise; the Sacred Elephant was imbricated in ideologies of race long before Barnum brought the beast through the Suez Canal to exhibit, but he magnified these connections by staging a contest of whiteness as theater. Nast did not openly gesture to the emotional intensity of intersections of the white elephant with racial sciences when using the middle-brow entertainment of a sacred elephant to dignify his own party, but in dignifying his party by a sacred elephant whose exhibition was impossible to separate from race to foreground the purity of its values, as much as tying the elephant’s prodigious memory to conservatism, the polysemy of the animal in the circus-stage performed qualities of the elephant seemed perfect for the festive atmosphere of a political convention for much of the twentieth century.

4. The red elephant prominently displayed at the Republican Convention in 2020 was also, of course, an invitation to a membership of a club, and communicated a sense of those in the know. It of course communicated purity and authenticity in its red, quite unlike the probity of the individual candidate entitled to ride the beast as nominee, and the true hue of the candidate able to mount that rearing beast, who had regained tusks since 2000, if it managed to seem far more faniciful, and less of a streamlined not to the past. The party emblem recuperated the almost conscious elision of questions of race, only just below the surface of the circus beast in 1884, when the Sacred Elephant was mapped to its sacred status in Siamese society, now mapped onto red states that less valued social justice or deep inequities of education, voting rights, or health care, and seemed an apt icon to pander to fear.

The purity of the new mascot of the party seemed arbitrary, but was invested with meanings that, perhaps because its color was now pure red, bridged surface and depth as cunningly and effectively as the Sacred Elephant P.T. Barnum had brought to America to display.

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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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Filed under borders, Coronavirus, COVID-19, data visualization, national borders

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. To celebrate the Fourth of July a month previous, President Trump used the visages of Mount Rushmore for announcing his plans to create a “National Garden of American Heroes” with fanfare, beneath massive carved effigies of white Presidents on July 3, converting the tacky and outdated National Monument to a soundstage illustrative of his call for more monuments–in a manner that was more divisive, if more eloquently divisive than in the past.

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.

For a President known to confess it was his “dream to have my face on Mt. Rushmore”–and notorious for blurring personal interests with pubic office–the dream may have seen no obstacles in a lack of space in the granite outcropping in which immigrant sculptor Gurzon Borglum fit four visages, hoping the friable rock of South Dakota accommodate his desire. 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, as he was found the granite would not accommodate it–

–Trump’s attraction to the monument remained so deep that the newly elected Republican governor Kristi Nome presented Trump a version, four feet tall, accommodating Trump in ways Rushmore could not, for display the Oval Office, as a substitute for the man whose megalomania made it difficult to separate his desire from actual constraints. The crowd that he convened on July 4, profiting from the lack of social distancing policy in South Dakota Governor decreed, not only fit his sense of politics as, at root, another medium to promote personal interests. (Indeed, the lack of social distancing in South Dakota, if it created a full audience on July 4, without social distancing or masks, set the stage for the terrifying escalations of reported new cases of COVID-19 across North Dakota, and spiking of weekly averages, although the state governor had promoted social distancing since March–often tied to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.)

North Dakota COVID-19 Count, September 1, 2020

When Gov. Noem facilitated the gravitational pull of monumentality in allowing fireworks for the July 4 address to the nation, she used the lack of guardrails of social distancing to promote a vision of monumentalism that reminds us all that “America First” places Donald Trump first, front, and center, for a man unable to separate politics from public persona, and indeed sacrificed the public good: was she complicit in the promotion of seeing monumentality as the extension of political office by other means: Gov. Nome presented Trump with the replica placing his face among the Presidents on Mt Rushmore when he finished his speech?

Trump pronounced a need to honor past heroes that had itself desecrated a once sacred space for native ancestors. The visages of Mt. Rushmore intended to include effigies of Lewis and Clark, Sacagawea, Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody and Crazy Horse–in an attempt at replace the ancestors of native Americans with a spectacle of the theater of their extinction; the anti-indigenous sculptor, also a klansman, sought to sculpt American Presidents in an American “skyline,” and visages that, by 1941, were shown as emerging from the sacred rock, seemed historically suitable as a site for Trump to proclaim a Garden of Heroes Trump as a new reality park. Boghlum hoped to create a boosterish tourist attraction to promote cowboys and glamorize a western experience, and Trump sensed 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,” in a reality park of those he deemed “historically significant Americans”–over two-thirds male, if several blacks–that reflected the partisan turn of our political landscape, ran against an apparently non-partisan speech. In place of Buffalo Bill Cody and Lewis and Clarke, Trump listed 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, in an indignity echoing including Red Cloud and Sacagawea on Mt. Rushmore.

The monumental timelessness of this vision of America seemed a search for compensation that led him to a toppling statues of Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Presidents as Thomas Jefferson as symbols of enslavement, in hopes to question their continued prominence in our national memories, after toppling statues of Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, dear to white supremacists, and covering Columbus with paint. The deep affection for monuments and indeed the affinity for asserting his hereditary aspirations of politics led Trump to write a doting fan letter to Vladimir Putin, ten years before Trump’s inauguration, after Putin was named Time‘s “Person of the Year,” to recognize the stability he brought Russia after the zig-zags of the Yeltsin years, at an uncertain moment of post-Soviet history: the citation described the demise of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” glossing over Putin’s crushing of the Chechen Rebellion and serial assassinations of political opponents.

Trump pretended to introduce himself to a figure of world politics, although his longstanding involvement with post-Soviet figures led to his first aspirations to erect an unbuilt colossus that one might imagine lay at the root of his theme park for a Garden of Heroes: for Trump hoped to install on the banks of his Hudson River properties of the fifteenth-century navigator Christopher Columbus, then rightly increasingly identified with the colonization of the Americas and start of the slave trade or “slave triangle” of the seventeenth century.

Trump sought to bring the monument from Russia to Hudson River properties he was developing, before the deal went south. But the monument of Columbus led Trump to revel in a telling moment of aspirations to monument-building and totems that did double duty as signs of authority and belonging that conceal their immobility–as if a sign of eternity. Beyond the temporal nature of Trump Tower, the New York realtor hoped to attract global interest to New York City by bringing the largest statue in the Western Hemisphere–and the largest of Christopher Columbus–to tower above the island on the Hudson’s banks, a towering bronze colossus greater in size, whose sails, mast, and pedestal condense the history of the discovery of the Amerias as a triumph far greater in size than the declaration of American principles the Statue of Liberty given by France to the United States in 1884 to celebrate Republican ideals. Rather than Liberty stepping on chains beneath her feet, in an echoing the abolition of enslavement in America as an expression of the deepest principles of equality, the royalist Neo-imperial statue was a monument eliding whiteness, Christianity, and sovereign dominion.

His call for a national exercise in monument building and restoration of national ideals recalled for me the graveyard of the past of Budapest’s Memento Park, opened in 1993 collecting displaced statues of the Communist era, serving as a theater of dictatorship preserving the false future they once sought to create, their forms drained of modern relevance, but providing a receptacle for the statues removed from the city in 1989, removed from the capital city to brick platforms off nondescript highways. By underscoring both the emptiness of their rhetorical gestures and the poetics of the passage of time, the transposition of dictatorial figures to a democratic space doing double duty as an injunction to remember the past as a period–as much as to negate the emptiness of their very assertions of timelessness.

Memento Park, Budapest HU

Seeking to foreclose debates about public memorialization by announcing a Task Force for Building and Rebuilding Monuments to American Heroes a park of “historically significant Americans,” Trump affirmed the relevance of statues as “silent teachers in solid form of stone or metal” as if to create a sense of collective unity as COVID-19 pandemic revealed inequities across the nation, and as the need to contain the virus prevented in-person instruction at schools for the foreseeable future. In asking “gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow-citizens . . . despite their flaws” Trump emphasized the didactic and educational ends of the theme part, not to affirm a direct relation between the spectator of a statue and the state, but that oddly circumscribe agency of many, given who is absent or excluded from the Garden set to open to the public on the 2026 anniversary of Independence Day.

If widely interpreted as a response to the removal of statues of Columbus and the changing of military bases that honored confederate generals, in its call to prevent the overthrow of monuments as an attempt to “desecrate our common inheritance” and common culture–even to “overthrow the American revolution”–the thirst for building monuments reflects Trump’s search for self-memorialization–a taste already hinted at in his discussion of the Border Wall as a monument–and DHS to tweet out with pride a commemorative plaque of Trump’s name on the first completed section of Border Wall in October, 2018.

The call for building more statues responded to those “determined to tear down every statue, symbol, and memory of our national heritage” was an exaggeration, but men like Confederate General Albert Pike, Presidents who owned slaves like Ulysses Grant and Thomas Jefferson, and even the composer Francis Scott Key, or Daughters of the Confederacy was a reckoning of the monumental inheritance of America, as much as a blanket rebuke of the past. But in affirming the need to build more statues, rather than to assess the objections to honoring men who owned slaves, or fought to enslave others, Trump promoted a cult of statuary, criminalizing their vandalism as federal property, as if to resolve a sense of purpose including those who fought to restrict the franchise or were associated with white supremacy he had nourished.

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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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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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