Tag Archives: national security

Mega-Projects without Maps

President Donald Trump made the mega-project of a border wall the basis of his candidacy. The proposed innovation of a “wall” — a “great, great” border wall blocking the specter of cross-border transit–has offered a powerful image by which to pole-vault into Presidential politics whose power has left the nation arrested in shock. To promote the “wall” as a mega-project the nation, Trump has regularly invoked the notion of an invasion from the southwestern border, conjuring the image of a nation in dire need of protection–using this talking point not only to enter the 2016 Presidential election and on the campaign trail, but to hold his first news conference from the Oval office, and as grounds for a thirty-five day government shutdown to gain a $5 billion in public funding for the project. The ratcheting of collective attention to the imperative of the border wall has peaked as it became grounds to declare a National Emergency.

The inflation of the border wall at the cost of all other projects of infrastructure increasingly reveal both a personal fixation and public obstruction to national growth. From something like a virus, meme generator, and a battle cry, the wall that provides the latest punchy slogan for the 2020 re-election campaign–the oddly motivating cry, “Complete the Wall,” as if such a wall has been begun to be built–

–has given currency to the fiction of a “Trump wall” as a project whose urgency only masquerades its deep illegality. The absence of the wall may lead it to be fetishized as “beautiful” and “being designed right now,” Trump assures, as if to involve the nation in a fantasy, but is never mapped.

The fetishizing of such a misguided promise masks that the project, perhaps funded by stolen funds, including civil forfeiture conducted by Customs and Border Patrol at the border that offer $600 million, would mandate reprogramming billions, but fails to address the problem of massive migration and displacement. But in dignifying the border plans by discussing a border “wall,” the image helps magnify the mega-project Trump has recently elevated to the status of a National Emergency to secure funding of $3.6 billion, even its cost estimates haven’t been defined, but lie at least $15-25 billion without costs for land acquisition and future maintenance. And as if to avoid the misery of migrants who arrive in the Caravan from Central America, the wall is elevated as a mythical, beautiful construction, and played against violent scenes of sex trafficking, threats of the violence of criminal migrants, or stories of the cruelty of cross-border transit. The mega-project of the border “wall” deflects all of these, and seems a solution to the tide of migration that haunts a globalized world.

The state of state-funded mega-projects is a battleground for defining the future of the nation in both metaphorical and real terms, and it was bound to be opposed to projects of actually investing in national infrastructure. Trump has long attacked the mega-project of building High Speed Rail along California’s central valley. The project that symbolizes many of the visions of responsibility he has disavowed, and indeed the vision of building “new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways all across our land” by destabilizing the role of public funding in infrastructural improvements, but using local and state funds with private capital. While the High Speed Rail was based on promises of lowering emissions and government funding of infrastructural projects that were the fruit of public stimulus projects, it has come to symbolize public investment he seeks to shun, and a vision of the future that seemed destined to collide with the alternative mega-project of guarding the nation against the danger of outsiders outside its borders. Indeed, longtime anti-HSR Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a ‘Build the Wall, Enforce the Law” Act to ensure the project–slated at $23.4 billion–as reflecting the popular desire “the American people want” to fulfill an alleged governmental responsibility of “maintaining strong borders” that “For too long, America has failed.” Yet despite the geographic fiction of this imperative, it lacks any map.

The project claimed to bring economic benefits and jobs become a target of Trump’s anger, leading him to announce on social media “We want that money now!” in a clear attempt to shift its past and future funding to his own designs on completing a massive border wall between US and Mexico, long promised as the guiding project of the Trump Presidency–even if the wall has not, in fact, begun to be built, “Complete the Wall” the likely slogan for Trump’s re-election bid in 2020. The disdain that California Governor Gavin Newsom showed in dismissing the so-called “border ’emergency'” as manufactured political theater, in which California’s National Guard wouldn’t participate only rose the

Trump is particularly eager to allocate further funds for the construction of the long-promised border “wall” that will be insurmountable by refugees or criminals. To achieve its building, he declared an actual national emergency, in hopes to free funds for its construction that the US Congress denied. He almost acted as if the funds were ready to be reassigned, and the funds to be returned diverted to his own mega-project of border construction–and to glorify the actually uncertain technology of such a “wall,” in contrast to the “boondoggle” of a state-of the art infrastructural project of High Speed Rail, long supported by his predecessor, but which has become something of an avatar of the Green New Deal, as an opportunity to promote his construction of a border “wall.”

In a few days, Trump tweeted out a counter-image of time-accelerated wall construction from his social media megaphone, accompanied by a triumphal score as form of alternate news. High speed video of the replacement of twenty miles of bollard fencing were scored as a triumphal achievement, as if a ready-to-assemble pieces on cleared terrain was only IKEA-style assembly–showing a picture of segments that replaced existing fencing as a project completed “ahead of schedule” unlike the damning time delays and overruns on the High-Speed Rail Project that stands uncompleted.

“We have just built this powerful Wall in New Mexico. Completed on January 30, 2019 – 47 days ahead of schedule! Many miles more now under construction!” (February 20, 2019)

The two mega-projects are quite distinct in functional and in the futures they promise to create. But both suggest the degree to which political problems are both increasingly interconnected with considerable complexity–weaving problems of globalization, from climate change to immigration to economic inequality–responded to by a “simple” solution of a truly monumental solution. The GIF of workmen posed on the side of the new border fencing promoted the momentum to a mega-project of utmost national need. The project is one marked by a stunning lack of national vision, but its simplicity has proved sufficient to substitute for one. Whereas the project of High-Speed Rail or a “Bullet Train” promised to create needed pathways for economic mobility, the super-project of connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles–essentially an urban plan, moving across the Central Valley, and promising to reduce carbon emissions in coming years–was both a target embodying all that Trump denied and degraded (needed emissions reductions; public transit; global warming) but a source for needed funds.

The difficulty of these mega-projects–which oddly unintentionally echo the fascist projects of the past, while claiming different visions of modernization–both turn on the use of public investments. The allocation of huge sums to infrastructural improvement are promised to assuage the political sense of insecurity that plague the world, and the promised resolution of global specters that they promise to allieve and the futures that they promise to secure. If the High-Speed Rail Project connecting San Francisco and Los Angeles provide a broad link within the state from the hub of a new Transit Center in downtown San Francisco to the world, from Sacramento to Los Angeles, the border “wall” is a barrier to protect America’s place in the world. The claims that the rail project was indeed “dead” that were made by Republican Kevin McCarthy–a long supporter of the President–to interpret Gov. Gavin Newsom’s very first State of the State speech in Sacramento incorrectly as a declaration of death of a project that he has long opposed. The notorious pro-MAGA Congressman from Bakersfield who has long enjoyed aggressively contentious sparring on social media–“We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election! Get out and vote Republican November 6th. #MAGA”–and to make the securing of $25b for the US-Mexico “border wall” a national priority to burnish his pro-Trump credentials. His claims as “GOP Leader”–he refuses to be a Minority Leader–on the fundamental place of “a protected border” to a nation led him to promote bills funding the “wall” and support the National Emergency, delighted in tweeting gleefully the “Train to nowhere is finally stopped”–as if the plans for completion had been postponed.

McCarthy seemed to pounce on Newsom’s address with misplaced glee as he relished the prospect of ending a project to which he’s long been opposed, and is the model of public investment in economic infrastructure that Trump on which Trump seeks to shut the book, by privileging public-private partnerships and streamlining with less accountability or review, and the promise of revenue-making public works–while funds earmarked for disaster relief and stimulus seem redirected to a costly “border wall” claimed to be prioritized as a response to current national security crisis. The antipathy that McCarthy–long tied to oil money in Bakersfield, just outside Los Angeles, through whose district the rail would run–has framed his oppotiion to the high-speed rail project led him to try to frame it as a matter of national politics, as he styled himself as a “Republic Leader”–rather than “Minority Leader,” pronounced the Bullet Train “dead” with a finality that he must have trusted Trump would notice.

The collision between the needs for funds for the border wall–an apparatus of state that is needed, Trump insists, to preserve the policy he enacted of “zero-tolerance” immigration policy on the border, but that would serve to protect the nation from proliferating specters that haunt the nation. Collision with the projected High-Speed Rail Project first planned in 2016 by voter referendum, back in 2008, in the days of the arrival of promised Stimulus Package, seem almost the exact mirror image of mega-plan, designed to bundle inter-related problems (air pollution; congested freeways; climate change; petroleum dependence; economic inequality) at a single stroke, if from an almost diametric position. But as the right accuses the “far-left government” of California, suspiciously as if it were a Socialist state in Latin America, of pushing the rail project, and President Donald Trump grips to the conceit of a border wall, the individual faces of men and women recede to the background of each.

While touching on a range of political issues, the project that declared itself free of ideology became something of a political target to Trump as he machinated to find new resources for the “wall” that the U.S. Congress denied funds. The slightest hint that California’s new governor, Gavin Newsom, Jerry Brown’s successor, would scale back or re-dimension Brown’s own pet project because it “would cost too much” prompted Trump to reclaim federal funds as “California has been forced to cancel the massive bullet train project”–code for an unneeded public expenditure–even as Trump tried to remap the southwestern border by a barrier constituents could rally around, as if designing a new aesthetics of our national space to bracketed a record 68.5 million of globally displaced people driven from their homes, according to UNHCR, at a rate of almost 45 million a day, including 25.4 million refugees.

AnCalifornia’s Attorney General–with those of fifteen other states–quickly sued Trump for declaring a National Emergency to secure needed funds for the “Border Wall.” Not missing a beat, Trump attacked the state for the right to do so after “the state . . . has wasted billions of dollars on their out of control Fast Train, with no hope of completion,” and whose “cost overruns are becoming world record setting.” Trump’s gleeful tweets about a “Failed Fast Train Project” may conceal what is really at stake–

–but the needed funds were surely in the front of Trump’s mind.

For as Trump seems to be “weighing every possible option” to build the wall’s so junk technology at the border, so that the “wall” has become an icon of “illegal immigration” and the danger of “entry” into the United States’ “open borders,” as if the President is able to exercise complete executive authority by closing the border at any time, the state audit revealing that construction delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns were due to budgetary mismanagement has been blamed on being a project of personal investment for ex-Gov. Jerry Brown, who spent public funds on an unbuilt system long promised to link San Francisco and Anaheim, and failing to link the state in the sort of mega-network Brown had proposed, and a true break of public trust. (If Ponytail suggested that a solution would be to build a “wall” in detachable sections that, post-Trump, might be submerged in the Atlantic and Pacific sea floor to offer anchor sites or artificial reefs for marine life to flourish where it doesn’t exist, the potential proliferation of mega-projects and maxi-projects as border walls world wide–

AFP/2015

–have created a terrifying normalization of the border wall in a shockingly brief time, as a mega-project promising security at a time when global security is hard to come by, as if they were tools of normal governance.)

Can the projects and their costs even be compared? If the costs of the High Speed Rail project have ballooned–as the costs of the “Wall” seem constantly underestimated and bound to rise in cost overruns we have not even begun to predict–the notion that these are comparable construction projects, or analogous infrastructural improvements. Both mega-projects–however dissimilar in nature–don’t address political problems, but constellations of issues, from infrastructural needs, climate change, and fuel consumption to immigration, criminality, and drugs, promoting projects of mass appeal in different ways, that suggest targeted projects addressing constituencies, promising to address deep infrastuctural problems to very limited degrees–their purported boldness hindered by limited funds, and facing limited support to be enacted on the scale that their promoters celebrate.

While it’s uncertain that either could ever be completed in a realistic schedule that has been announced, the projects from opposite sides of the political spectrum seem something like mirror-images, ostensibly designed as investments but suggesting almost opposed ideas of government or the idea of investing in the public good. Bound to collide with one another, both advance promised changes in landscapes, projecting solutions to mega-problems they cannot fully address, and invite fantasies of the further promises they might meet. The rise of such mega-projects seem a sign both of the increased complexity of pressing problems of powerfully political origin, but their bundling of networks of pressing political problems in a single project claiming to resolve complex problems at a single stroke, is combined in quite toxic ways with oversimplification–by both promoters and their critics who attack them–in ways that threaten to remove them from the very complex networks of problems they attempted to address. The changed status of “mega-projects” in our political discourse make them a sort of pandering rooted in slogans and ultimatums, and removed from complex problems we deserve better to map.

Hot on the heels of Trump’s fuming at Congress that “with the wall, they want to be stingy,” matched by the veiled threat that “we have options that most people don’t really understand,” Trump found the time ripe to chasten California’s governor for “wasting billions of dollars”–and charge that the state in fact “owed” the federal government $3.5 billion. The handy figure could increase the $1.375 billion allocated in budget negotiations for fencing on the Rio Grande, and in a budgetary shuffle increase desired funding for Trump’s mega-project, to reach the robust sum of $4.875 billion–almost close to that original demand for $5b, a magic number of sorts, that could be itself arrived at by allocating emergency funds from the Department of Defense–or the declaration of a national emergency as if this were an actual crisis. (The addition of $3.6 billion from other military construction projects among the $6.1 billion from the Defense Department budget that he argued wasn’t going to be used for anything “too important”–and was officially discretionary, if earmarked for construction, repairs, and counter-narcotics programs–rationalized as the mega-project would block “illegal” drugs.) The result would double allocated funds–and create a mega-project worthy of the name, for which no clear map exists, although many have been offered. But a mega-project of this size perhaps, paradoxically, itself resists mapping . . .

Racing to ensure the possibility of declaring the national emergency to get his way on Thursday, the suggestion on television that Gov. Gavin Newsom could curtail a project of high speed rail in the state just the day previous came with a search to secure more than the $1.375b in border fencing as a victory, or exit the terms of the bill he had to sign to avoid extending a government shutdown, as he met contractors to discuss the design of the wall, and sums of money able to be tapped after he declared a national emergency, and use it as a basis to claim he remained an outsider, still not bound by Congress, still not polluted by deals cut in Washington, even after he’d occupied the Oval Office for over two years–even if he didn’t really have a believable map of how to build it? Or did the Commander-in-Chief, feeling cornered by Congress, see Newsom’s seeming concession as the chance to secure billions by budgetary re-allocation? The high-speed rail system was given the fearsome price-tag of $10b; repossessing $3.5 billion of funds from a cancelled project raised dizzying possibility of an under-the-table reallocation of federal funds no one knew were there.

Trump delights in playing fast and free with numbers that seem designed to disorient his audience. In truth, the costs of a border “wall”–whatever it might look like–remain far higher than we can calculate or imagine. Trump boasts he can build the “wall” for but $12b, yet that is a figure at which most scoff. Internal reports from the Office of Homeland Security place the figure at more like over $21.6 billion over three years, The most recent plan to secure another $6.5b by some sort of emergency funding seemed less of a reaction to stinginess than a charade of creative accounting,–a dizzying juggling of vast amounts of money that become meaningless before his own hyperbolic claims of “an invasion of our country,”–the new mantra used to justify its construction–“with drugs, with human traffickers, with all types of criminals and gangs.”

In the process of pulling out all the stops in his request for emergency funding and indulging his worst impulses, the moneys slated for California’s train suddenly seemed an attractive target for federal re-appropriation. High-speed rail seemed a project whose funds were easy to hijack and redirect to the border barrier Trump was scrambling with budget analysts and contractors to fund. And when California’s governor appeared to diminish the size of his project, Trump not only pounced, but to terminate the funds of just under a billion for the rail project–a $929 million federal grant–and to demand the return of $2.5b in past stimulus matching grants, arguing they were neither properly used or matched by the state, by “actively exploring every legal option” to take the funds, no doubt in order to add them to the President’s discretionary funds during the declared National Emergency, which seems more and more a pretext for building a wall for which the land has not been secured, let alone panels designed.

Staging a “state of emergency” is a classic form of justification advance by political theorist Karl Schmitt, a promoter of executive power and extra-legal articulation of a state’s power. The demand for the funds would not necessarily allow the completion of a “Border Wall,” but would compromise a project that is important to the state’s economy. The crisis he has manufactured has led Dan Richard, chairman of the High Speed Rail project or “bullet train” to resign, as a damning letter arrived from the very transportation agency which sent grants for the High-Speed Rail Project in 2009 and 2010 called California state out of compliance with the grant agreement and promised date of completion by 2022. As chairman, Richard, former PG&E executive and pioneer in extending public transit the BART transit in San Francisco, was an unpaid member but was involved in the project’s operational planning and oversaw the extension of almost one hundred and twenty miles. But his work came under heavy criticism after the state audit for having assigned contracts in haste that precipitated lawsuits–mostly from the improvident failure of securing land for building track. (Perhaps Newsom suggested a reduction of the scope of the project–“Let’s be real”–to bring the state in line with a Central Valley Project from Merced to Bakersfield, and a cornerstone for a future route from San Francisco to Los Angeles.) But the call “let’s level” about the elevated platforms built for the current project whose platforms are already built across much of the Central Valley–

–was heard by opponents as a cry of concession, consequent to the finding that an L.A.-San Francisco line could cost over $13 billion estimates that were expected.

But was the comparison between such mega-projects creating a false sense of similarity in the role of the state to redesign the future of the nation at a single stroke, impressing an executive desire on the landscape? The false geographies that each project create demand themselves to be better mapped. The aspirations for the High-Speed Rail Project were considerably easier to map, similar questions of a lack of state-owned lands on which to build and lack of agreement on the projects form created obstacles that a single executive not deeply familiar with the site or its inhabitants couldn’t have hoped to resolve.

The rail project was savagely satirized in the juxtaposition of newsmaps claiming to reveal hidden interests for property owners–as if to suggest its hidden agenda–by linking High-Speed Rail to the raging California wildfires, as if such a small-scale map could reveal the foolhardiness of the rail project. The manipulation of news maps as information was a teased that the fires would prompt landowners who wouldn’t sell land to the state to do so–

–but was presented as an excuse not to dig deeper into the project’s benefits. For real problems of congestion, a lack of public transit, and a need to create better infrastructure for jobs are all replaced by evils specters of other hidden interests, all rendered opaque by likening the geography of fires’ spread to the state’s problem in securing necessary lands on which to build the tracks, and raise the specter of special interests driving High-Speed Rail, in ways that might deeply damage the state as we know it.

1. Both mega-projects have been sold as worth their cost, and both–though one falsely–as “paying for themselves.” The border “wall” is so massive it has no clear price–conservatively, $70b (and an extra $150 million a year to maintain it), or anywhere from $27b to $40b, while Trump asserts only $12b. Where the funds will come from is anyone’s guess, as the promise is something of a conceit, and as Trump never produced a clear schema of costs, the whole question has been maddeningly and dizzyingly opaque. The train may cost as much–although the benefits are more tangible–though a possible $100 billion price-tag has raised many eyebrows. But the high-speed rail was long billed as a basis for modernization, which the border wall can hardly be claimed to be. Price-tags provide a poor basis for understanding the benefits and goals of both mega-projects–$21.6 billion for a wall and $10 billion are sums which we can barely imagine for organizations that symbolize ultimatums–protection and safety or economic modernization–that reduce the complexity of inter-related problems to a monumental solution, all too often removed from or reduced to a map.

The funding for High-Speed Rail was planned to be funded largely by the cap-and-trade program designed to lower California’s carbon emissions. Cap-and- trade was written off, at first, but has caught on as a practice of resistance in the Trump era–although it is rejected by the White House. The High Speed Rail project would stands as an alternative infrastructure to fight climate change. This made it all the easier to the seen as a sacrifice of federal funds, at a time when any budgetary expenditures were being scrutinized for potential pillaging. The vertiginous bombast that Trump summoned to seek to justify the declaration of a national emergency–the image of an invasion is pretty powerful, and for some hard to resist, and the threshold of evidence has been substantially lowered–allowed for the by now all too familiar juxtaposition of scale, numbers, and proportions that seemed guaranteed to confuse his audiences so that they got behind his argument. The very breadth of the high-speed rail project seemed a perfect target–its many maps suggesting a future that gave Trump special pleasure to deflate, no doubt, in ways that one can’t see as tied to a perverse pleasure in seeing infrastructural projects seem to crumble into thin air, felled by executive fiat.

Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times

Leave a comment

Filed under American Politics, border policy, border wall, infrastructure, US Politics

The False Imperative of the Border Wall

Donald Trump’s most astounding victory–predating and perhaps enabling his astounding electoral victory as President–was to remap the mental imagination of Americans, and reconfigure proximity of the United States to its southwestern border in the public imaginary.  The goal of this insistence is no less than a remapping of civil liberties, based on his insistence of the need for border security and constructing a Border Wall, and preferably doing so in all caps.  

 

Build the Wall--Add Your Name.png

 

Condemning “obstructionist Democrats” are the party of “open borders,” and obstructing the work of law and order agencies such as ICE–the Immigration and Customs Enforcement–agents or his beloved Border Patrol, and for filling the national need for border security, and the project of building “the wall,” a super-border structure that would both prevent cross-border migration deemed ‘illegal.’  The construction of border psychosis is evident in the large number of Republican governors of states that have been elected two years into the Trump Presidency–

 

Governors?.png

 

–as the question of “governing” states most all the southwestern border–save California–has created a new “block of red” that has been generalized to much of the nation, rallying behind the America First cry to defend borders, build prisons for immigrants deemed illegal, and work with federal agencies to apprehend such immigrants, denying their lawful place or rights to work in the United States.  For much of this map of governors, now that the Republican party is increasingly the Party of Trump, reveal the uncertain terrain of the undocumented immigrant, and the massive circumscription or reduction of human and civil rights, as well as a fear of failure to manage immigration.  Although current findings of sixty-nine competitive districts in the 2018 election include many border states–sixty-three districts of the total are held by Republicans before the election, a considerable number of the “battleground states” lying near or adjacent to the planned Border Wall, according to a Washington Post-Schar School survey

 

Sixty Nine Competitive Congressional district.pngWashington Post

 

–where calls for wall-building originated.  The magnification of the border in the electorate’s collective consciousness was a gambit of electoral politics and staple of the Trump campaign for the Presidency, and it conjured the unprecedented idea that a single President–or any office-holder–might be able to shift the borders of the nation, or guarantee their impermeability to foreign entrance.  The striking appeal of the border was not seen as a question of border protection but rather the construction of a wall, evident in the expansion quasi-tribal collective rhythmic changes at rallies, now repeated as if in a non-stop campaign.  Although the focus of most buildup of the border has been to update existing fencing, the calls for fix-it-all border protection plans gained sufficient appeal to suggest a potential shift in the nation’s political terrain.  Even though Donald J. Trump was, for practical purposes, a quite parochial perspective based in New York and Manhattan, and perhaps because Trump’s own expertise in national building projects was as limited as with working within the law, the project was first floated by the candidate as if from the sidelines of national politics, treating the project as akin to protecting a two-mile southbound side of the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan, beside his pet real estate project, Trump Place, at 220 Riverside Drive, through an Adopt-A-Highway Project, and that the border wall was essentially the same need of securing .  (Although the prominent sign was itself quickly vandalized to read “STOP TRUMP”  as Trump won the Presidency, needing to be replaced, the return of the defaced sign promising the riverfront side’s maintenance was far less an act of good citizenship than a vanity act.)

 

Jon Comulada/Upworthy

 

New York City limits the Adopt-a-Highway program to individuals, companies or organizations, rather than to political candidates and campaigns seeking publicity, but since the Trump Organization maintained the section since 2007 or earlier, it gained an exemption–and a tax write-off for its contributions to maintenance.  And when he spoke to residents of the territory currently known as “America,” Trump seems to have treated the proposed Border Wall as an almost similar project of beautification, and a project of protecting what was his, in a proprietorial way that seemed to conflate his own identity and person with the country, as the current sign conflates his name with the Trump Organization, as his recommendations have contained as little familiarity with the site, scope of the project, or terrain, as many have noted, treating the construction of a continuous border wall as a detail designed to beautify the country, even though the border includes 1,288 miles currently without any pedestrian or vehicular fencing, gate or protection.

 

Reveal

 

It almost seems that the proposed border wall had not been “mapped” per se, so much as it was a rhetorical promise for the sort of project Trump would like a President to do–and a project whose magnitude appealed to his sense of personal vanity.  He praised the benefits of the construction of the wall as a need to “get it done” and imperative that responds to a state of emergency–a national emergency that sanctioned the suspension of existing laws.  The emergency, as Trump saw it, was created by crime, gang violence by MS-13 members, who he has called “animals,” and a source for a loss of low-wage jobs.  The acknowledgment of the need for the wall is virtually a form of patriotism in itself; recognition of the need for the country has become a way to participate in a new nationalism of strong borders–a nationalist sense of belonging that was opposed to the agenda of those unnamed Liberals without clear purchase on the geopolitical dangers and a failure to put America First.  President Trump has argued that the “larger context of border security” necessitates the wall.  Trump has come to repeatedly proclaims in his continued rallying cry stake out a new vision and map of American sovereignty, and indeed of territorial administration.  Evoking a new tribalism in openly partisan terms, Trump even promoted with impunity the false belief that Democrats have united behind an “Open Borders Bill,” written by Dianne Feinstein–distorting the #EndFamilyDetemtion protests and “open borders movement” with an actual legislative bill.  More to the point, perhaps,

The very crude geography and mental mapping that animates this argument is repeatedly a staple of Trumpian rhetoric.  As if  thick red ruled line could be drawn atop a map, Donald J. Trump has become the outsider political voice able, as a builder of vain monuments, to claim the ability to build a new structure able to replace existing border fences, and provide a continuous monument at endless concealed costs, without any acknowledgement of the people who have long moved across the border on the ground.   The transposition of this tribalism of border separation into a partisan dichotomy has promoted and provoked an apparently Manichean opposition between political parties around the defense of the US-Mexico border, and the building of a Border Wall, in an attempt to define the differences between Democrats and Republicans around the issue of the defense of national safety.

 

Bier3a

 

President Trump has not only made immigration into a platform for his campaign and for his party:  the stubbornly intransigent logic of Trump’s oppositional rhetoric has not only remapped the nation in mind-numbing ways.  The fixation on the fixity of the border as a means to “Make America Great Again” erases the historical instability of borderlands in the United States, in its place projecting the image of fixed boundaries:  the exact shift in the image of national territoriality seems a not only shift on the border, but a decisive replacement of an inclusive state.  And even as Trump’s recent rallies are–as of September–still interrupted by “Build that wall!” tribal chants, leaving Trump to lie openly by claiming “The wall is under construction,” he reminds us of his need to evoke an inexistent barrier for which such intense desire has developed among his supporters that it is indeed a talisman by which America will, indeed, be able to be Made Great Again.

Continually crying about the urgent need for “building the wall,” even if it would be in violation of international law, is cast as a state of emergency which would reduce crime, the illegal presence of gangs, and existential dangers, and a promise made without acknowledgement of any who live outside America’s national borders, or any foundation in civil law.  The promise to finish “building the wall” is cast as a simple question of volition, in almost pleading tones, that can be addressed to the entire nation as an ability to cathect and commune with the nation in simple concrete terms, no matter the distance at which they live to the actual border.  It is an exercise in the geographic imaginary, in short, and a nearly ritualized deceit which Trump labors to sustain–as if a Border Wall could be conjured into existence as a leap of faith.

 

 

 

Identifying the dangers to the nation as lying external to it, the discourse of the wall have created a subtle remapping of sovereignty, on an almost emotional level.  It focusses on the border, as an imagined line, rather than on people who move across it, laws or citizenship–placing demonized dangers as lying beyond the border and outside of the nation-state.  The disproportionate focus that has been directed to the border–a distortion of attention that is epitomized and focussed on the desire for a continuous “border wall”–functions as a deeply dehumanizing way of remaking the nation, and remapping national priorities, around a fiction and a distinctly new discourse on nationhood, that is mapped by vigilance to the border, rather than to the course of law or to individual rights and liberties.

If maps provided tools for defining and symbolizing nationality, the conceit of the need for a border wall symbolized and also creates a notion of nationhood based less on ties of belonging than on boundaries of sovereignty that exclusion people from the state.  Mapping is long based on ties of exclusion.  But the focus of intense attention on stopping border-crossing and transborder permeability as replaced a logic of maintaining protections on equality or access to the law in the interior, shifting the attention of the nation of spectators by a deeply cruel trick of remapping the nation’s priorities.  For the political rhetoric of creating a fixed border has effectively magnified the borderlands, through the terribly exaggerated violent pen-stroke of an Executive Order casting the border as a vital key to national security, and increase the proximity of the nation to the southwestern border in the political spatial imaginary.  

Is it any coincidence that the same government to elevate the symbolic mapping of a wall on the southwestern boundary of the United States has reduced the number of refugees that it agrees to admit from war-torn lands, already reduced by half through executive orders from the number of refugees accepted in 2016, a limit of 45,000, to a new ceiling of “up to 30,000 refugees” beyond “processing more than 280,000 asylum seekers,” in line with the current 2018 count of barely over 20,900 by mid-September, but now for the first time less than the number accepted by other nations.  Turning a cold shoulder to the crisis in global refugees is ostensibly rooted in a responsibility to guard its own borders, and “responsibility to vet applicants [for citizenship] to prevent the entry of those who might do harm to our country” and reducing grounds for asylum–even as the numbers of global refugees dramatically escalate dramatically world-wide–as if intentionally setting up obstacles for travel, and setting policy to openly prosecute any cross-border travel that was not previously authorized, and actively separating many asylum seekers from their families to deter them from pursuing asylum.

 

refugee_flow_map-africa

New York Times

 

Such false magnification of problems of “border management” has defined a disturbing and false relation to a deeply distorted image of globalism, of fuzzy borders, and not only apparent but intentional distortion–

 

image.pngAFP/Getty Images

 

–predicated on a false sense of national vulnerability, the urgency of greater border security, and the definition and elevation of national interests above global needs.

The rejection of refugees and closing of borders in the United States in the Age of Trump seems endemic:  if the country resettled some three million people since 1980, when modern refugee policy began, this year, the United States for the first time fewer resettled refugees than the rest of the world–less than half as many as the rest of the world.  The shuttering of borders is echoed in some 800,000 cases for asylum awaiting review, revealing a distorted view of the global situation that is mirrored by the blurred map behind Mike Pompeo’s head, and may suggest a global irresponsibility and deliberate disentanglement from world affairs.  But it also suggests a deep remapping of the place of the nation in the world, not limited to the State Department or Mike Pompeo, of imagining the greater proximity of the borderline to the mental imaginary, and a privileging of so-called sovereign rights over pathways of human flow.

The promised wall planned for the border of unscalable height is a bit of a blank canvas designed to project fears of apprehension onto those who would confront it, a barrier to prevent motion across the border by unilaterally asserting the lack of agency or ability to cross a line that was long far more fluid, in a sort of sacred earth policy of protecting the nation’s territory along its frontiers–and refusing the extend rights or recognition to those who remain on its other side.  Trump’s signing of grandiose Executive Orders as statements of sovereignty stand to reverberate endlessly in our spatial imaginary of the nation–while hardly warranted as a form of national defense, the border wall serves as a phatic act of sovereignty that redefines the function of national bounds.  Indeed, in a country whose history was defined by the negotiation of borderlands, the assertion of the long unstable border as an impermeable barrier seems a form of willed historical amnesia, as well as the fabrication of a non-existent threat.  The repeated indication of the southwestern border seems to seek to restore it to prominence in our national consciousness–and to see its security as being linked to the health of our nation–as if to make the current project of re-bordering an improvement of our national security–a process of re-bordering that is a performance of sovereignty, simultaneously symbolic, functional, and geopolitical in nature.  

The symbolic of sovereignty is far more insistent than the functional, and the symbolic register is the heart of its political meaning, if the structural need is promoted as a response to geopolitical actuality.  

 

gty-donald-trump-order-cf-170127_12x5_1600

170125134602-01-trump-executive-order-immigration-0125-medium-plus-169

 

For the Trump train, the wall is a “smart” redefinition of the nation, rooted less in the accordance of civil rights or guaranteeing of human rights, than the subsuming of law to protection of a nation that we imagine as under assault.  If globalization has been understood as a process of “re-bordering,” where the lines between countries are neither so fixed or so relevant to political action on the ground, the border wall maps a defense against globalization in its rejection of open borders.  The proposed construction sets a precedent as an act of unilateral border-drawing, or willful resistance to re-bordering, by asserting a new geographical reality to anyone who listens, and by cutting off the voices of those powerless to confront it.  The deeply dehumanizing conceit of the border wall that was modeled in several prototypes deny the possibility of writing on their surface.

In ways that mirror the inflation of the executive over reality or the rule of law, the border wall serves to reinstate an opposition over a reality of cross-border migration.   And Trump seems particularly well-suited and most at home at this notion of reordering, which he has made his own as a construction project of sorts, where he gets to perform the role of the chief executive as a builder, as much as a politician or leader of a state, and where he gets to fashion a sense of sovereign linked to building and construction, to a degree that the builder turned political seems to be intensely personally invested and tied.  Although Trump has been keen to treat the notion of a border wall as a form of statecraft, the proposed border wall is all too aptly described as a an archaic solution to a twenty-first century problem–for it projects an antiquated notion of boundary drawing on a globalized world in terrifyingly retrograde ways.  For while the construction of the border wall between Mexico and the United States was mistakenly accepted as a piece of statecraft that would restore national integrity and define the project and promise of the Trump presidency to restore American ‘greatness’ rooted in an illusory idea of privilege, but focusses on the privilege of entering the sovereign bounds of the nation alone.  

The proposed wall maps a dramatic expansion of the state and the executive that continues the unchecked growth of monitoring our boundaries to foster insecurity, but creates a dangerously uneven legal topography for all inhabitants of the United States.  For Trump and the members of his administration have worked hard to craft a deeply misleading sense of crisis on the border that created a stage for ht border wall, and given it a semantic value as a need for an immigration “crack-down” and “zero tolerance policy” that seem equivalent in their heavy-handedness to a ban, but have gained a new site and soundstage that seems to justify their performance.  

While it is cast as a form of statecraft, the only promise of the proposed border wall is to exclude the stateless from entering the supposedly United States, and to create legal grounds for elevating the specter of deportation over the country.   For the author of the Art of the Deal used his aura to of pressing negotiations to unprecedentedly increase the imagined proximity of the entire nation to the border–by emphasizing its transactional nature in bizarrely in appropriate ways.  The result has undermined distorted our geographical and political imaginary, with the ends of curtailing equal access to due process, legal assistance, and individual freedoms.  Acceptance of the deeply transactional nature of the promise of a border wall during the 2016 Presidential election as a tribalist cry of collectivism–“Build the Wall!”–as an abstract imperative, removed from any logic argument, but rooted in a defense of the land.  The purely phatic statement of national identity was removed form principles of law, but offered what seemed a meaningful demand of collective action that transcended the law, either civil law, to affirm an imaginary collectivity of Americans without immigrants–and an image of a White America.  

The imperative exhortations that animated Trumpism, as it gave rise to multiple other inarticulate cries repeated on Twitter and at rallies, based on lies and false promises or premises–“Lock her up!”; “America First!”–fulfilled a need for membership and belonging at the expense of others, in ways that subtracted popular opinion–and a false populism of the Trump campaign–from the law.  By isolating the artifact of the wall as a sort of grail and site of redemption and religion of the nation, the tribalist cry “Build the Wall!” offered a false imperative that replaces reasoned discourse.   Trump sees fit to treat as a basis for shutting down the government, accordingly, and indeed as a logic for a brand of governing that doesn’t follow the “terrible laws” of his predecessors.  If the budgeting of a border was was earlier taken as a grounds to actually shutter the government, in 2017, the rehearsal of the threat to willfully “‘shut down’ government if the Democrats do not give us the votes [for] the Wall” once more unnecessarily equated the need for the border wall as a basis and rationale for government.  The Manichean vision of politics of a pro- and anti-border party has been determining in creating a vision of the United States where sovereignty is defined at the border, irrespective of responsibility for the stewardship of the country:  we built walls, impose tariffs, and end treaties, rather than acting in a statesmanslike fashion, and evacuate the promise of the state.  

Much as Trump earlier called for “a good border shutdown” in the Spring of 2017 cast the wall as a part of his notion of governance, the new threat treats the as a bargaining chip able to equate with an act of governance–even if the wall as it is described seems less about governance at all.  Trump rails against the passing of spending bills that do not foreground or grant a prominent place to the proposed border wall that he sees as a point of orientation needed for his constituents and that he still cherishes and his own introduction into national debate:  attacking legislative packages about spending bills that don’t include special stipulations for border security or the construction of a border wall, threatening on Twitter to suspend governmental functions altogether without knowing “where the is the money for Border Security and the WALL in this reicidulous Spending Billaon the eve of the arrival of an apporopriations bill to the White House in the Fall of 2018, as his executive functions seem as imperilled as his grasp on the Executive Branch,  of government: but the border wall retains centrality as the central promise he has made to the nation.

For the unwarranted and ungrounded promise to prevent the imagined threats of organized criminals, gangs, rapists, and drug dealers from entering the country–not that we lack many who are home-grown–through the border wall is a governance of exclusion, racial defamation, and promotion, which has little to do with governing at all.  The apt characterization of the border wall as being an inefficient and irrational fourteenth century solution to a twenty-first century problem by Texas U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar-D of San Antonio–riffing on the suggestion of U.S. Representative Will Hurd-R of San Antonio as a third century solution to a twenty-first century problem ineffective to secure cross-border migration, and gesturing to the new tribalism that the project affirms.  The imperative of the border wall is an insistence of tribalism over civil society, and a reflection of the increased tribalism we feel and see, but mostly feel and fear.  Indeed, it allows these fears to be mapped against cross-border traffic.

The imperative distorted and magnified what a border is and should be that shows little understanding of effective governance, and reclaims an old idea of the border–a fantasy, at root–that rejects the permeable nature of borders in an era of globalism, by rather affirming an imagined collectivity from which dangers–unspecified, but ranging from gangs to drugs to child trafficking–must be kept out.  Although an underlying problem is POTUS’ spectacular lack of understanding of how government works, or of the law, which he has spent most of his life reinterpreting, it reveals his conviction construction contains crisis in essentially fascistic terms, building a structure that has little contextual meaning, but seems to impress, as a negative monument to the the state that is located in a borderland of apparent statelessness, but which Trump seems more and more frustrated at his actual inability to change what still looks more like a rusting twelve-foot tall Richard Serra sculpture than the imposing frontier promised America–

 

imageRichard Serra, Tilted Arc (New York City, Federal Plaza, 1981-89)

 

–but whose offensiveness disturbs, upsets and angers the viewer in a truly visceral way. Resting on the edges of our own borders as the basis for a larger “border complex” that seems to steadily expand, the border complex is not only a unilateral dictation of border policies, but a relinquishing of any responsibility of governance of the inhabitants of the nation, treating the definition of citizen/non-citizen as a primary duality never explicitly adopted as central in American politics and history, but assigning this division a centrality rarely so clearly geographically expressed as a question of national territory.  

Even though the wall is a practical separation between territories, and an assertion of exclusive territorial identity, the imperative of the border wall that is repeatedly cast in urgent, existential terms, has presented itself in discursive terms both as a promise to the nation, in terms analogous to the Contract with America, that separated Americans from others, but which promised to strengthen Americans’ relation to the rest of the world.  The increased proximity of the nation’s inhabitants to the border and border wall was asserted in the Trump campaign:   the transactional status of the wall grew as a means to prevent multiple forces from endangering “our communities’ safety” as the border wall became a narrative plug-in for something like a promise of redemption from higher wages, untold economic dreams, and an acceptance of police security, as if a border can radically change the status quo of the American economy and local family safety.   The proposal of the border wall continues to exist in a deeply transactional sense for Americans, as geographic relations to the actual border has been erased so thoroughly for the border, under the guise of “immigration,” to become a national platform of a political party, and a new model to define and remap America’s relation to the world.

 

1.  The growth of global insecurity echoes profound anxiety at the realization that the lines of control of states cannot be so legibly or clearly mapped in the present moment, an anxiety it reflects by proposing to inscribe the border onto the landscape to make it visible to all and permanently fixed.  The false promise of the border wall has been able to gain meaning on an individual level, allowing each to invest it with meaning and feel proximity to, independent of their own actual geographic proximity–even if the result is to silence the violence that the proposition of such a border wall does to the rule of law.  If the long and energetic tradition of public mural painting that had origins in the Mexico of the 1930s provided a movement of energetic and energized monumental painting on open air surfaces in projects of humanity and considerable color.  But the elevation of their pictorial formal power moreover asserted a new public identity of the nation for observers.  In contrast, the artlessness of the empty screen of the border wall is an evacuation and denial of subjectivity:  the defining characteristic as a concrete surface of the proposed border wall is itss inexpressive surface, its denial of common humanity, and its assault on the collective narratives that were the subject celebrated in muralism.

The wall stands as a sort of rebuttal to a muralist tradition of inclusiveness–embracing varied styles from Rivera to Siquieros to Orozco–through the assertions of a new artistic idiom by which to involve viewers in a revitalized broad civic life.  The border wall is less an illustration of human will, than an image of the assertion of the reason of the state, understood less by legal principles than a tortured logic of exclusion.  For while the extant border was a site of recuperation of muralist public art, the new border wall serves to impose the fixity of the border as a site that offers no place to the individual refugee, migrant, or legal immigrant, but a blank canvas that symbolizes the absence of individual autonomy or subjectivity to cross the transborder space.  Indeed, rather than a collectivist statement of unity, whose monumental forms suggest a human struggle of collective identity and work, the construction of the wall is presented as a testimony of the need for an obstruction of the passage across the border to protect the nation, based on the knowledge and experiences of border communities, presented as a need to ensure and defend safety, national integrity, and economic power.  Like the symbolic language of muralism offered a replacement for the common iconography of sacred art, in its assertion of public identity, the border wall presents itself as nothing less than a new religion of the state.  While the comparison of the proposed border wall to the public panting of collective art muralism intended as an call to collective national consciousness and unity in post-revolutionary Mexico is a provocative comparison to the elevation of sovereign authority over the border by building a wall, the magnification of the border by the project and prospect of building a border wall has served to elevate a perilous image of nationhood, based less on ties of commonality, collective identity, or a rich historical legacy of individual involvement that muralists proposed than an unhealthy focus on the border as a site of danger, a frontier needed to be vigilantly guarded, and a threshold whose guarding substitutes for the defense of civil laws.

For in claiming to protect and secure the nation, the border wall becomes a performative exercise of the religion of the state, as much as it serves as a defense of political sovereignty.  The authority of the US-Mexico border wall, in unintentionally, seems to stand as an open rebuke and rebuttal to the hopeful ideals and huge figures in images of dynamic abundance such as the monumental Allegory of California (1931) by which Diego Rivera depicted the rich bestowal of gifts on of a heroic mother earth figure of California, in San Francisco, whose monumentalism addressed individual viewers by an almost tangible allegory of local abundance —

 

photo-2_rivera

 

–which set a basis, in one of the first large projects of the painter in the United States, set a basis for a new tradition of public moralism in western states.  The interchange between active labor, earth, and a united countryside, if not a united narrative of nation, offered an optimistic personification of a monumental Gaia-like state, who, her resources liberated by workers, grants “gold and fruit and grain for all” of its residents, the revolutionary art of Siqueiros that heroized his country, or the twined histories of the Americas that José Clemente Orozco organized of tragic but truly epic historical scope of the Ancient Migration and the Migration of the Human Spirit, extending the collectivist spirit of revolutionary nation.  Affirming a discourse of white privilege, indeed, rather than inclusion, the border wall is an imperative of religion of the nation that girds the border as a sight of defense, mapping the other as outsider in relation to the needs of the state, rather than celebrate the human subject as a force that is part of nature or culture. Rather, the proposed border wall seems to exist outside culture or nature, as an imperative to an endangered and threatened civility of the status quo.

The border wall erases the spirit of the migrant as it prevents migration, alleging compelling reasons of state and the new logic of the religion of the nation that replaces the law and any appeal to the law in its urgency.   Rather than portray a giving sense of the heroism of migration, indeed, the wall interrupts any freedom of migration and transborder or transnational citizenship, reducing citizenship to a notion of territoriality and land, by bounding the terrain of citizenship and affirming a new ordering of space, and a political theology about the boundaries of the state, and the subtraction of citizenship or rights from the “enforcement zone,” “border zone” or denial of the rights of political representation or legal status for all transnational migrants in the “dead zone” of the borderlands.   The absence in this zone of rights of the subject–the refugee, migrant, or itinerant subject–is paramountly defined by their statelessness and inability to fit between strict categories of sovereignty, rather than motion across states being celebrated as a point of access to the bounty of the land, or of the migration of the spirit as a celebration of the recuperation of a modern individual political identity.  By demonizing the practice of migratory mobility, as if by a principle of “earth-first” binding of the nation, the border inverts the celebration of the human spirit

 

panel1

panel21Jose Orozco, Migration of the Modern Spirit (panels 1 and 21) (Dartmouth University)

 

There was a resurgence of the discursive practice of the political messages contained in  muralism as a form of public art in the resistance to decorating the border with monitory signs.  Is the Border Wall not only a map, but also a rebuttal to this tradition, and indeed to the painting of public rebuttals to the wall through paintings and commemorations in the past?  The absolute absence of any affect or visual address within the intentionally blank, sterile and almost industrial character of the wall seems in hidden dialogue or rebuke of an aesthetic of direct involvement of the viewer through its mute surface and corresponding evacuation or denial of individual human rights.  

 

1.  The triumph of industry, of rich historical cultures, or even of cultural conquest and revolutionary violence is compellingly replaced by the absence of any trace of human making or creation–or individual subjectivity–within the surface of the proposed border wall, which rather stands to deny individual liberty:  in place of an aesthetics of broad political involvement, the denial of the presence of those on the other side of the border wall stand as a vicious act of disenfranchisement, and even a denial of human subjectivity.  Indeed, if the heroic or epic narratives of monumental figures engage viewers in a pedagogic manner in muralist traditions by illustrating a narrative of nation, the proposed wall suggests a blunt lack of any national narrative, save the denial of the subjectivity of those on the other side.

 

 

 

The talismanic nature of these “prototypes”–mock ups slightly removed  the border–was meant to evoke the prominent place of the border wall, and to restore or reinforce  in the psychological and mental imaginary of our new national space.  Repeated throughout the Presidential campaign as if a mantra, evocation of “the promised wall on the southwestern border” has redefined a relation to the nation–and indeed been presented as a form of love for the nation–by the master builder who would be US President.  And although the request for a “solid, Concrete Border Wall” in March, 2017–described as the President’s building medium of choice–became a secret state project, as “too sensitive” to be released by a Freedom of Information Act, by the Department of Homeland Security, designed to meet demands to be impossible to tunnel under, and impenetrable to sledgehammers or other battery-operated electric tools for at least an hour, seem something of a simulacrum of the state that is both all too obstructive for actual migrants and cherished by many Americans, and prevents the transformation of previous parts of the border wall to public sites of commemoration–remembering the suffering of those who attempted safe passage, or indeed of mural-art that has attempted to assert the fluidity of cross-border transit.

 

CrossesAguaPrieta--Dec08

gettyimages-632717318.jpgSandy Huffaker/Getty Images/Palm Beach Post

 

–or that try to imagine the perspective that the future of the border wall will create for the migrant subject who is excluded from hopes of cross-border transit.

 

Trump Vows To Build Border Wall Between Mexico And The U.S.

Trump Vows To Build Border Wall Between Mexico And The U.S.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

Even as the proposed US-Mexico border wall is presented as girding the nation against multiple dangers, the new bounding of the nation that prevents any intervention or artistic transformation of the wall, by stating its own absolute authority as a re-writing of the nation.  The permanence of the models of the wall seem not so tacitly or subliminally suggested by the physics form of one of the mock-ups, which references the form of a flag, as if to suggest its similar permanence as can image and record of the nation, and proof of the nation’s continued existence, as if the nation could not exist without it:  indeed, the flag-like proportions in mock-ups suggests a new flag for the nation.  As the promise of the border wall has allowed such a range of audiences to cathect to the national boundary–a sense that was perhaps predicted in the repainting of a section of the existing border wall of welded metal and steel near San Diego–the very site where a caravan of Central American migrants would arrive where they were taken by President Trump as an illustration of the fear of the dangers of cross-border immigration–the wall suggested a sort of surrogate for the purification of the country, restoration of the economy, and an elevation of the minimum wage, wrapped into a poisoned promise of poured concrete.

It was no surprise that a group of Mexican-American veterans chose to paint a segment of the older wall near Tijuana in 2013 as if a mural that mirrored the use of the inverted flag to stage a signal of distress to the nation:  indeed, the deported former navy who chose the wall as a site for a cry of emergency and national belonging:  teerily prescient of the flag-like nature of the mock-ups, sections of which uncannily resemble a vertically hoisted flag, the wall sections painted by disabled veteran Amos Gregory, a resident San Francisco resident, who completed the painting with twenty deported veterans, recuperated the tradition of moralism to create a new story of the wall, where crosses of dead migrants replaced the stars of the stars and stripes, as if to appropriate the wall to a public narrative of nationhood.

 

image.png

 

The inverted flag that a group of U.S to paint the flag, but expressed shocked at charges of using an iconography “hostile toward the United States of America,” and chose the inverted flag as a distress signal–to show honor to the flag, and to “mean no disrespect” to the nation, but to raise alarm at its  policies.  His dismay when asked to remove the mural by US Border Patrol sent a message of censorship as an attack on freedom of expression; Gregory incorporated crosses to commemorate on the wall the migrants who died seeking to enter the United States for better lives and livelihoods,  undermining the ideals of freedom he cherished.  By placing their memory on the wall, he sough not to dishonor the flag, but to use it as a symbol of extreme gravity that respects its ideals–and the etiquette of flag display, in the manner  future protests at the marginalization of migrants seeking asylum as they enter the United States at its border zone.

 

distress at Ptotest

 

The current mock-ups suggest, if unconsciously, an actual evacuation of patriotic ideals.  The MAGA President might have been conscious of how several of the so-called prototypes suggested a flag turned on its end, as if in a new emblem of national strength–

 

image.png

 

–as if to offer them a new symbol of the nationalism of a new nation.  The segment of this prototype recalls the flag suspended vertically, as on a wall or over a door, above the border that has become a prominent character in the current President’s Twitter feed, and evokes the ties between terrorism and immigration that Trump has long proposed the government recognize and acknowledge, despite having few proofs of these connections, acting as an assertion of the implied criminality of all immigrants who do not cross border check points by legal protocol, no matter their actual offense.

 

1. The compact about the construction of the border wall has, against all probability, become the latest in faux populist promises since the Contract with America to pose fictive contracts of illusionary responsibility and reciprocity to the democratic process, and have provided new tools of assent.  At the deepest level, the wall exists in this discourse of urgency not as a proposition, but as an actuality that need only be built, and cannot–or need not–be mapped, less the practicalities of consequences of its construction by acknowledged.  The border wall, viewed in its prototypes, is somehow an expression of the unmappability and existential quality of the border wall that Trump wants; alien from its surroundings, and existing as an obstacle to entrance, it is a redefinition of the border from a site of passage to an obstruction.  The affirmation of the border as a “real border”–which Trump repeatedly ties to the status of the United States as a “real country”–seems to mean an impassible border, which lacks any negotiation, but is recognized as an element of the nation that needs to spatial location but acts to strip all outsiders of their their rights.  All attempts to map the border as a spatially situated place  seem to stand as a challenge to undo the imperative of the wall’s construction.

The faux consensual ties with the electorate perpetuate a fiction that a democracy runs on the contractual obligations between a government and populace, but have early been so focussed on geographically specific terms.  But in an age of anti-government sentiment, the icon of the wall has become an effective icon of describing the ineffectiveness of prior administrations, and an iconology embodying the new role of the executive in the age of Trump:  in an age of global mapping that seems to disrespect and ignore borders, we imagine migrants moving across them with the aid of GPS, or Google Maps, empowered by the location of border check-points on their cross-border transit,–

 

Google maps borderGoogle Maps

In a rejoinder to these fears, the proposed border wall would map a continuity among the stations in different sectors administered by the US Border Patrol, already strikingly dense, and apparently easy to connect by a solid wall–

Border Checkpoints

 

Leave a comment

Filed under border wall, globalization, human rights, immigration, US-Mexico Border

National Security and Personal Bests

Was it only a coincidence that on the eve President Donald Trump boasted in his State of the Union address of an era “we no longer tell our enemies our plans” that the release of a live global heatmap pinpointed the location of U.S. military installations?  The release by Strava Labs of a spectacular heatmap that celebrated the routes where folks exercise worldwide suggested the flows of itineraries of physical exercise by running, biking, or skiing in stunning lines to reflect increased intensity, that appeared as if engraved on a dark OSM base map.  Indeed, the open nature of the data on military positions offered to any viewer of the heatmap seems as pernicious as culling of internet use long engaged in by the NSA, but for the state–as well as for the safety of soldiers who share their location, or fail to use security settings, as they exercise while completing military service abroad. Is this approaching a new level not only of broadcasting plans to an enemy, but failing to protect military positions in internationally sensitive zones?

While the map had been around for several years, its detailed update was so much more comprehensive than the 2015 version included–and was released in a time when internet observers scrutinize data visualizations.  The updated heatmap was a big deal for how it illuminated the world in a ways that few had seen, both in its own architecture of a spectacular network of athletes that reflected its expanded use, and the huge data included in aggregated routes for training, but illuminating clear divides between its users; but it gained even more attention foregrounding the presence of isolated groups of athletic performance abroad with an eery precision and legibility that quickly raised concerns reminiscent of the scale of unwanted intruding or monitoring of physical actives, even in an app that based its appeal in the data density of tracking it provided.  While promising individual privacy or anonymity, the benefits promised by the fitness app seemed almost a runaround of the appeal of PGP, Tor, and Privacy Badger that promised a degree of privacy by encrypting data from online trackers and privacy self-defense; rather than ensure the anonymization of the internet connections, however, the platform posted patterns of use whose legibility did not violate individual privacy, so much as state secrets.  Indeed, the surprising effects of how the Strava app made individuals suddenly legible so that they popped out of darker regions was perhaps the most striking finding of the global heatmap, as it illuminated stark discontinuities.

The newly and vastly amplified dataset included zoom functions of much greater specificity:  so richly detailed Strava was charged with betraying once secret locations of U.S. military worldwide, even if unknowingly, and creating a data vulnerability for the nation the would have global effects.  The heatmap made stunningly visible rasterized images of the aggregate activity of those sharing their locations that it gained unwanted degree of publicity months after it went live in November, 2017, for revealing the actual location and global military presence of American soldiers tracking their exercise and sharing geodata–including American and European soldiers stationed in the Middle East and Africa, and even in South Korea.  Although the California-based fitness app rendered space that seemed to celebrate the extent and intensity of physical exercise in encomiastic ways, as if the app succeeded in motivating invigorating exploration of space, and tracking one’s activity that guaranteed anonymity by blending data of its users in brightly lit zones, as for the Bay Area–

 

Bay Area.png

 

–the image that had clear implications of announcing its near-global adoption registered in the more isolated circumstances that many members of the American military increasingly find themselves.  The data set that Strava celebrated in November, 2017 as “beautiful data” on the athletic playgrounds of the world took an unexpected turn within months, as Strava came to remind all military users to opt out of sharing their geodata on the zoomable global heatmap, that aggregated shared geodata, lest secret locations of a global American military presence that extended to the Middle East and Africa be inadvertently revealed.  Whereas the California fitness app wanted to celebrate its global presence, the map revealed the spread of secret bases of the U.S. military in a globalized world.  The map of all users sharing geodata with the app were not intended to be personalized, but the global heatmap showed bright spots of soldiers stationed in several war zones.

The narrative in which the map was seen changed, in other words, as it became not a data dump of athletic performance across the world, that was able to measure and celebrated individual endurance,  but a narrative of hidden military and intelligence locations, tagging CIA operatives and overseas advisors by indelibly illuminating their exercise routes in a field of war in ways that seemed to foretell the end of military secrets in a world of widespread data-sharing. And Strava Labs for their part probably didn’t exactly help the problem when they took time to assure the public that they indeed “take the safety of our community seriously and are committed to work with military and governmental authorities to correct any sensitive areas that appear” in the web-maps,” as if to assure audiences they privileged the public interest and public safety of their users.  (But as much as addressing public safety in terms of operational security, Strava’s public statements were limited to caring for the community of users of the app, more than actual states.  The disjunction reveals very much:  when Strava labs saw their “users” or customers as the prime audience to which they were faithful, they indeed suggested that they held an obligation to users outside of loyalty to any nation-state, and indeed celebrated the geographical distribution of their own community across national frontiers.)  Indeed, the app’s heatmap disrespected national frontiers, by suggesting an alternate space of exercise that was believed and treated as it had nothing political in it.

In contrast, the landscape that American President Donald Trump presented in his first chest-thumping first State of the Union returned to the restoration of American security seemed incredibly to deny the consequences of recent availability of military geodata and indeed military base locations, in announcing that in his watch, we “no longer tell .  our enemies our plans.  For whereas President Trump boasted the return to an era of national security and guarded military secrets, the app broadcast a pinpoint record of the global dispersion of American troops, military consultants, and CIA “black” sites and annexes.  Indeed, for all the vaunted expansion of the U.S. military budget, the increased vulnerability of special operations forces has been something that the United States has poorly prepared for, although the release of the heat map prompted Gen. Jim Mattis to undertake a review of all use of social media devices within the military, so shocked was the news of the ability to plot geographical location by the exercise app. If the activities tracked and monitored in the hugely popular fitness app suggested a world taking better care for their patterns of exercise, it revealed scary patterns as a proxy to chart American presence that map the recent global expansion of the United States military in the beauty of its global picture across incandescently illuminated streams–

 

merlin_133062485_46769171-6f83-4438-945b-58567a1220c4-master768

 

–as when one zoomed down to those running in Kabul, and geolocated the movement in ways that betrayed military footprint from intelligence personnel to foreign operatives to contractors overseas.  The data harvested on its platform appears to endanger American national security–and offers new ways to combine with information culled from social media–as it seems to pinpoint the bases around which military take their daily runs.

 

Strava sites?Strava heatmap, Kabul

 

The recognition of the scale of personal tracking by soldiers sharing data on exercise apps grew as one exploited the heatmap’s scalability, and examined areas in which few locals were using it–or had access to the First World problem of registering how many miles one ran.  While the data was not only sourced from Americans, the anonymity of the aggregate map–which can be viewed in multiple shades–provided an image of ghostly presence that seemed particularly apt to describe concerns of security and suggest an aura of revealing secret knowledge.  The cool factor of the Strava map lit up the hidden knowledge that echoed the longstanding surveillance of the communication records of Americans in the bulk data collection that the Patriot Act allowed, although now the dragnet on data use was being done by private enterprise, suggesting an odd public-private sharing of technology, as what had been viewed as a domestic market suddenly gained new uses on an international front.  The poor data security of U.S. forces abroad reminded us that we are by no means the only actor collecting bulk data, but also the scale of digital dust that we all create as we entrust information about our geographical locations to companies even when they promote the value of doing so to be salutary.

Multiple accusatory narratives quickly spun about whether the release of the new global heatmap by Strava Labs constituted a breach in national security.  The soundbite from the State of the Union proclaiming a “new era” described changed conditions by referencing Gen. Michael Flynn’s charge, first raised during the 2016 Presidential campaign on national television news,  that the United States had sadly become “the best enemies in the world” during the Obama years, as he attacked the government of which he had been part for being itself complicit in how “our enemies love when we telegraph what we’re doing” by not maintaining secrecy in our military plans.  Flynn’s assertion became something of a meme in the campaign trail.  And President Trump sought to reference the fear of such changes of a past undermining national authority abroad when he claimed to bring closure to lax security, choosing to message that the loopholes that existed were now closed, and respect had been achieved.  The fictionalized imaginary landscape seemed to distract America from danger or unemployment in celebrating its arrival in a better economic place.  The message seemed as imaginary as the landscape of an employed America, which had arrived in a better economic and place.

General Flynn’s metaphor of telegraphing was even then quaintly outdated, as if from a different media world.  But the allegation that had become a meme on alt right social media during the campaign to discredit military competence, gaining new traction as data security became increasingly a subject of national and international news.  Since President, despite having quickly issued one of executive orders that he has been so fond of signing on cybersecurity, Trump has in fact been openly criticized for a lack of vision or of leadership in addressing  national vulnerabilities in cybersecurity.  As President, Trump has preferred to pay lip service in the executive order, by far his preferred medium of public communication, to the growing frustration of a number of cybersecurity advisors who resigned before clarifying best practices of grid security.   Broad sharing of geodata by military and intelligence raised red flags of security compromises; it would, perhaps, be better raise a clarion call about our unending readiness to aggregate and be aggregated, and the unforeseen risks of sharing data.

The patterns of tracking exercise–biking, running, swimming, windsurfing–created striking pictures in aggregate, reflecting the collective comparisons of routes and itineraries, and showing a terrain vibrant with activity.  But while the app did not specialize in tracking individual performance or local movements, the new context of many apps transformed foreign counties where military travelled to sites where their data sharing stood out.  The sense of accessing the platform was so second nature to American soldiers moved across space, in fact, ignorant of the platform on which it was aggregated and its effects–or the audiences before who it was broadcast and displayed.  The ability to detect bright spots of athletic engagement around American bases, military camps, and CIA outposts suggested an unwanted form of data-sharing, RT television newscasters proclaimed with undisguised pleasure at the ease with which soldiers could be observed in different locations across the Middle East, from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and crowed that Americans are so unwary about being surveilled so as to provide evidence willingly of their own global footprint’s size.

 

strava-map_wide-4720f2504724cf08515aa5302bb39b6e2dedea46-s1600-c85

 

It’s striking that government secrecy has become a public hallmark of the Trump administration.  But if Trump wanted to inaugurate the start of a fictional landscape of securing state secrets in his first State of the Union address, his words were pronounced with no acknowledgement of the release of the heatmap and the concerns of leaking security operations.  The map that Strava labs designed to celebrate the global extension of a triumphal image of the expansion of exercise in a triumphal image appeared in new guise as the latest example of breached military security secrets–suddenly made apparent at high resolution when one zoomed in at greater scale to Syria, Somalia, Niger, or Afghanistan, and even seem to be able to track the local movement of troops in active areas of war, and not only identify those bases, airfields, and secret annexes, but map their outlines that corresponded to the laps that soldiers seem to have run regularly around their perimeter while sharing their geodata publicly, or with the app.  While the app was designed to broadcast one’s personal best, as well as log one’s heart rate, sleep patterns, and performance (personal data which remained private), it collated in aggregate the patterns of activity across national borders.

For its part, Strava had only boasted it could “create the ultimate map of athlete playgrounds” by rendering “Strava’s global network of athletes” in a stunning heatmap from directly uploaded data.  If there was a sense that the “visualization of Strava’s global network of athletes” described a self-selected community, the beauty of the data set created from 13 trillion data points provided a new sense of exercise space, as if it sketched a record in aggregate of individual endurance, or a collective rendering of folks achieving personal bests.  But the illuminated “maps” of the global network of those exercising and the distribution of US military bases and sites of secret involvement raises complex issues of data-sharing, and the shock at the intersection of leisure space and military secrets–somewhat akin to the stern warning military commanders issued to years ago about using Pokemon Go! in restricted areas of military bases, mapping a comprehensive global map of military over-extension is an odd artifact of globalization.  And it was odd to see RT seize on this issue, as a way of describing the presence of the actors they id’d as “Uncle Sam” to suggest how zooming in on the global map revealed the reach of the United States in Afghanistan or Syria, as if playing a computerized game to see where clusters of forces might be illuminated, as if to exploit fears of revealing military secrets through geolocated data.

The story was pitched on RT suggested a market-driven surveillance network of which the Americans were themselves the dupes.  In its own spin on the story, RT reported of the leaks with glee, for rather than arriving from hackers, or Russian-sponsored hacking groups, military security was compromised by the very tracking devices, it was argued, that soldiers, military intelligence, and CIA officers wore.

 

 

 

 

 

By imposing outlines of national maps on the dynamic rasters of the web map that Strava released, the position of military forces or advisors indeed seemed able to be roughly revealed as military secrets by zooming into locations, much as RT announcers asserted, as if the “bracelets” of fitbits provided tools to geolocate soldiers as if they were manacles, reminiscent of the ankle bracelets given to many parolees, sex offenders, or prisoners, by using a GPS tracking system to monitor released inmates all the better to monitor their acitivities, in a practice that has only grown in response to overcrowding conditions in many federal and state prisons–GPS tracking systems were billed as able to save prisons up to $9,500 per inmate, or up to $25 a day; but rather than provide tools to surveil non-violent offenders, the effective monitoring of military bases and what seem CIA field stations provided a multiple security vulnerabilities of unprecedented scale.

But the real story may have been how so much data was available not only for state eyes, but for a broader public:  in an age where surveillance by the state is extending farther than ever before, and when we need, in the words of Laura Poitras, “a practical and metaphorical road map for navigating the post-9/11 landscape,” the maps of Strava have shifted the landscape of surveillance far from the state, and deflected it onto the internet.  For the far greater geographical precision and detail of a diverse user group may prefigure the future of data sharing–and the increased vulnerabilities that it creates.  The live data map broadcast not only an image of global divides, but of the striking patterns of the aggregation of geodata that reminded us of  the pressing problem of data vulnerability in the military’s extended network of secret military bases and dark sites.  Indeed, when a student at the Australian National University in Canberra, Nathan Russer, first noted that the Strata search engine created an Op-Sec catastrophe for leaking locations of US military patrols and bases, his observations unleashed a storm of pattern analysis and fears of compromised national security.  It indeed seems that the vaunted agility that allowed American forces to deploy in much of the world could now be readily observed, as we zoom into specific sites of potential military involvement to uncover the presence of Americans and assess the degree of involvement in different sites, as well as the motion through individual sites of conflict.  The spectral map that results suggests something quite close to surveillance–at time, one can scrape the place of individual users form the app’s web map–but that is dislodged from the state.

The notion of a private outsourcing of data surveillance to the public sphere is hardly new.  One can think, immediately, of Facebook’s algorithms or personal data-harvesting or those of search engines.  Although the U.S. Department of Defense has urged all active military abroad to limit their active presence in online social media, no matter where they are stationed, the news reminded us yet again of an increased intersection between political space and social media, even if this time the intersection seems more shaped like a Moebius strip.  The divisions within a global geographic visualization of Strava’s users reminded one of a usage landscape that suggested a striking degree of continuity with the Cold War–with an expanded iron curtain, save in scattered metropoles–whose stark spatial division reminded us of the different sort of lifestyles that public posts of athletic performance reveals.  As much as showing a greater openness, the heat map suggests a far greater willingness of posting on social media use:  the intersection suggests a different familiarity with space, and a proprietary value to the internet.’

 

strava1Strava Labs

 

Indeed, in only a few months to notice how American soldiers’ presence in coalition military sites suddenly popped out in the darker spaces of the Syrian Civil War, where different theaters of action of coalition forces that include American soldiers are revealed, and panning back to other theaters can indeed revealed the global presence of U.S. military and intelligence.  Against a dark field, the erasure of any sense of national frontiers in the Strata labs data map suggests the permeability of much of the world not only by interactive technologies but by the isolated groups of soldiers who deal with the stress of deployment by bike rides and runs while they are stationed in Afghanistan.

 

 

Runing In Kabul

 

Although the fitness app saw its aggregation as registering geodata in the relatively apolitical space of physical exercise, fears of political and national security repercussions ran pretty high.  Indeed, the tracking of running laps, cycling, and daily exercise routines revealed U.S. military bases in Syria so clearly that it proved a basis to locate and orient oneself to an archipelago of U.S. military activity abroad in the global heat map, and lit up American presence in Mosul, Tanff, north of Bagdad and around Raqqa, providing a historical map able to pinpoint airfields, outposts, and secret stations in the war against the Islamic State.  Security analysts like Tobias Schneider argued they helped track the movements and locations of troops and even extract information on individual soldiers.  In place of an image of the global contagion of tracking exercise, the patterns of performance provided a way to look at the micro-climates of exercise on a scaling that were not otherwise evident in the arcs of the impressive global heatmap.

Sissela Bok classically noted the ways that secrecy and privacy overlap and are linked in some collective groups, as the military, but the absence of privacy or secrecy on much of the Strava Labs heatmap raised questions of the increasing difficulties to maintain a sense of secrecy or privacy in an age of geographically growing war.  In an age when more and more are living under surveillance, and indeed when the surveillance of subjects has only begun to gain attention as a fact of life, the fear of broadcasting an effective surveillance of exercising soldiers seems particularly ironic–or careless.  The practices of secrecy were more than lax.  For the United States military has in fact, quite vigorously promoted Fitbit flex trackers among pilot programs at U.S. bases to lose calories, and provided devices that measure steps walked, calories burned, and health sleep as part of its Performance Triad;  Fitbit trackers were provided as part of a pilot fitness program from 2013 with few issues raised about security, and placing restrictions on American soldiers’ use of mobile phones, peripherals, or wearable technologies would limit military volunteers.  (The Pentagon has in all distributed 2,500 Fitbits as part of its anti-obesity program, in more flexible wearable form, without thinking of the information that they broadcast.)  Yet soon after the map appeared, folks noted on Twitter with irony that “Someone forgot to turn off their Fitbit,” and it became a refrain on social media by late January, as the image that tracked American military outposts not only in Kabul, but in the Sahel, Somalia, Syria and Niger all popped out of a global map–embodying the very outlines of the camps around which military run.  ‘

Although the U.S. National Counterintelligence and Security Center informed the intelligence community of dangers of being tagged by “social media postings,” the imagined privacy of exercising soldiers is far less closely monitored than should be the case–resulting in a lack of clear vigilance about publishing Strava data.

 

Runing In Kabul.pngKabul, Afghanistan, in Strava Labs global heatmap

 

The heat map so strongly lluminated itineraries users ran, biked, or skied, tracked in incandescently illuminated streams, and even zoom in on specific locations, where they stand out from considerably darker zones of low use of the app, that some national security officials wanted the app to take time to take the maps offline so that they could be scrubbed; worries grew that one could even to scrape the itineraries of individual soldiers who exercise on military service in the heatmaps.

But the two fold ways of reading of the map’s surface suggest that their contents were difficult to free.  The same map celebrating the app’s global use revealed deep discrepancies between the brightly illuminated areas of high-use and data input and its dark zones.  Data mapped on Strava’s website also seems to enable one to id the soldiers using the Strava app with far greater certainty than foreign governments or non-state actors had before, in ways that would create multiple potentially embarrassing problems of delicate foreign relations.  While in part the fear may have derived from the hugeness of the dataset, the fear of being compromised by data raised an increased sense of emergency of a security being risked, and fears of national vulnerability.  Partly this was because of the huge scale of geospatial data.  The updated version of the heatmap issued by Strava Labs illuminated the world in a way that few had seen, and not only because of its greater specificity:  Strava had doubled its resolution, rasterizing all activity and data directly uploaded, and optimizing rasters to ensure a far richer and more beautiful visualization, along glowing lines to reflect intensity of use that looked as if they were in fact vectors.  It made its data points quite beautiful, stretching them into bright lines, eliminating noise and static to create a super smooth image that almost seems to update the Jane Jacobs’ notions of public space and its common access–and the definition of spaces for exercise.

To some extent, the highlighting that the app did of common routes of exercise seem to mirrored the metric of walkability, the measurement of active transportation forms like walking and biking and stood as a surrogate for environmental quality.  The fitness map improved on the walkscore or its cosmopolitan variants, by involving its users to create a new map of exercising space.  The abilities to foreground individual and collective athletic performance in a readily accessible map provided what must be admitted is a pretty privileged view of the world; but the self-mapped community it revealed gained a new context just two months after it went live, as the map drew attention to the patterns it revealed of using an app to track one’s activities, as much as register work-out trails.

 

San Fran Strava dataset  San Francisco in Strava Labs Heatmap

 

The new map attracted attention not only for the fitness crowd, a self-selecting demographic, in short, but as an interesting extension of the beauty and the huge amount of datasets it uploaded and digested in a highly legible form:  indeed the legibility of the data that was able to be regularly updated online suggested a new form of consensual surveillance.  The data-rich expansion of what was the first update to the global heat map of users that Strava Labs issued since 2015 encoded over six time more data, and promised a degree of precision that was never even imagined before, notably including correction for GPS distortions and possibilities of new privacy settings, in ways that amplified its ability to be seen as a tracking device most notably in those areas where the aggregate of Strava users was not so dense, first of all those military sites where American military and operatives were stationed and perhaps secretly engaged, but gave little thought to the day sharing app installed on their Fitbits or iPhones, and may even have seen the data-sharing function as a source of comfort of belonging to a larger exercise community.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under data aggregation, data maps, data visualization, information economy, state secrets