Sunday, September 22, 2013


Maps have always held a fascination for me. Even spelled backwards they are fun. SPAM became one of Monty Python’s greatest routines, Hush, dear, don’t make a fuss. I’ll have your Spam; I luv it.

Early maps tell us much why the Dark Ages were well-named. Cartographers depicted dragons in oceans and distorted certain land-mass to comply with Biblical interpretations. As late as the 13th century a famous map represented Rome as the shape of a lion with Christ on top of the world and his hands spread out in the shape of Eurasia.

In 1492 Columbus was famously sent out by Ferd and Izzy to pick up some Chinese food and came back with a new continent on his plate. His discovery sent map-makers working through the night redrawing new squiggles. Some depicted Brazil as an island others thought it a hunk of Asia but all indigenous people were deemed worthy of having their souls saved….whether they wanted to or not. That was the least Europeans could do for those ungrateful heathens. And besides, the Spanish and Portuguese thought they smelled gold just around the next bush. 

At least they knew which way to turn their sails. Fast forward six centuries and George Dubya wasn’t sure where Europe was on the map but with some help from his friends, unfortunately, he found Iraq. Recent polls now indicate that 85% of Americans can’t find Syria on the map and, even more scary, 56% of those working in the Pentagon couldn’t find it either. One hopes they get their bearings before sending any drones.

300 million years ago, give or take a week, the entire land mass of Earth was bunched together. Geographers call it Pangea. The Americas fit into Africa which was knit into Eurasia just as Australia was linked with India. It was a golden age for fish unless they were swallowed by bigger fish. At least they were not menaced by fishing nets. But maps are organic; they are in flux and perhaps never more so than in this century with coastlines under assault and deserts inching into adjacent territory.

After WWI France and England carved up the Ottoman Empire the way one would carve that other turkey on Thanksgiving. They created new countries heedless of white meat and dark meat, today’s tribal allegiances. They may have been distracted, salivating over that black gravy under the sand.

Britannia ruled the waves for several centuries. All but 22 countries were invaded by the Brits. Except for our current misadventures countries don’t much bother invading anymore. They just let their corporations do the deed. The busiest McDonalds in the world is in Pushkin Square, Moscow, with 27 cash registers. Japan sells Big Macs in over 3,600 outlets. Americans can travel thousands of miles and feel like they’ve never left home particularly if they stay close to their hotel lobby.

There seem to be two opposing forces at work which describe our times. Science and Western-style Enlightenment threaten religious fundamentalism, male chauvinism and tribalism. As multinational brands and global technology are making us less differentiated, radical forces resist commodification and assert their traditions however self-serving they may be. It also diverts attention from the plight of those suffering from the accident of geography. At the same time there is much about our social mores worth resisting.

Can universality respect the Self?  Will future maps look like China, all in one color or more like Africa partitioned into 43 paint chips? Maps register partitions, some topographical, others artificial. Count me as one who doesn’t love a wall.

No comments:

Post a Comment