Saturday, December 13, 2003

Map nerds
I love maps. I have all of the National Geographic maps back to the late forties. I have a box full of gas station road maps even older. I have atlases going back to the 1880s. Whenever I shop for new history books, I check out the maps first. I even have a favorite textbook cartographer (Theodore R. Miller). Naturally, I love anything that promises a new way to view human spatial activities (a fancy way of saying geography). This week was a good week for this map nerd.

The online version of the Massachusetts magazine Commonwealth has a fascinating article by Robert David Sullivan, “Beyond Red and Blue.”
One of the most awful prospects of the next presidential election is the return of…that damn map. Depicting the results of the 2000 election, the reigning graphic of American politics divides the United States into two colors, red for Republican and blue for Democratic. It's also the basis of a lot of simplistic political analysis.
But this primary-color collage resonates only because it turns up the contrast. Given that more than 40 percent of voters in the blue states backed Bush and more than 40 percent of voters in the red states backed Gore, doesn't the red vs. blue model seem, well, a bit black-and-white?

Sullivan divides the country into ten regions based primarily on voting patters (from both state and federal elections), and only secondarily on cultural, economic, and geological considerations. Like a good top ten list, his map is more useful for stimulating discussion than for establishing a meaningful truth.

Anyone who looks at his map and reads the accompanying descriptions of the regions will immediately object that he has failed to understand the subtleties of their home turf (wherever that is). That, of course, is inescapable. Sullivan has rather arbitrarily chosen to divide the country into ten regions of approximately equal population. Before going into any of the detail of his map, the first point of discussion should be to question both of those assumptions: is ten the best number and is it a good idea to force the units to be the same size? (The answers are why not and no.)

As to the number of units, Sullivan points out that he needed to pick a number between two and infinity, so he picked ten. Fair enough. My problem is with insisting that they be the same size. In doing so, Sullivan has allowed himself more subtlety in dividing the more populous areas (including where he lives) and less subtlety in the less populous areas (including where I live). The Boston-Washington megalopolis is divided into three regions, while the rural West includes such diverse areas as California’s central valley, west Texas, and all of Alaska.

His biggest success is essentially one of historical perspective. Sullivan has given us a long needed update of Joel Garreau’s 1981 classic book The Nine Nations of North America. Sullivan is aware that the boundaries of his regions are constantly shifting. Units merge and split. Where Garreau had one unit covering most of the Old South, Sullivan has three. Where Garreau had one unit for the industrial Northeast, Sullivan recognizes the Post-industial Era and divides it into four regions. Sullivan at least attempts to consider Hawaii, while Garreau ignored it completely (not part of North America). On the other hand, Garreau did a better job with Alaska, attaching the southeastern panhandle to the west coast and the rest of the state to the resource producing intermountain West.

I’m lacking the prerequisite number of lubricated student friends to properly discuss this at the moment, so I need all of the rest of you to read the article and report back.

Since the seventies I’ve been watching Quebec. Every couple years, Canada has another Quebec crisis. Quebec threatens to secede and Canada weakens its federal system in response. In about 1978 (I’m working from memory here), Canada had another of these periodic crises and the CIA did some prognostication on the scenario of Quebec really seceding. Their thought was that if Quebec seceded, the Canadian parliament would be unable to work, due to lack of a quorum. Power and constitutional legitimacy would revert to the individual provinces, much as happened in the USSR thirteen years later. For a variety of reasons, the maritime provinces and British Columbia would petition to join the US. The rest of the Anglo provinces would reluctantly follow (Ontario coming last). The US would more than double its territory, quadruple its resources, and increase its population by a quarter. And this would all happen so fast, the rest of the world would be unable to muster a response before it was a fait accompli. When the report became public, the Canadians objected, and the CIA was ordered not to pursue the subject lest anyone suspect that we had helped things along.

Since I read that scenario a quarter century ago, I have often pondered it, especially during the regular Quebec crises. What if it is right? During the Cold War, when I lived in Alaska, my main concern was geopolitical, and I thought Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories needed to be united. After the end of the Cold War, my concerns were more social: would the new states be taken into the US constitutional and legal system on a take-it or-leave-it-basis, would they get a special status, or would they be able to spread some of their own values and institutions to the rest of the states?

Canada’s great paper Globe and Mail had an article Thursday that affected my internal discussion of our northern neighbor (or “the colossus in the South” as I referred to them in Alaska).
Americans from the northern states often have more values in common with their Canadian neighbours than they do with their cousins from southern states, according to a leading U.S. pollster.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, rejected assertions by many of his colleagues that Canada and the United States are on divergent paths leading to a widening values gap.

"When we look deeper into the data, we find the gap between Americans and Canadians is not a national gap, it's a regional one," Mr. Kohut told the Canadian Society of New York this week.

For at least thirty years now, every election, my liberal friends threaten to move to Canada if the other side wins. We never do. The Canadian economy is always awful and it never gets as bad here as we feared it would. Now the Canadian economy is looking pretty good and things are getting as bad as we expected. Some liberals are putting their money where their mouths are and moving.

What if we took our states with us? Though I once expected chunks of Canada to be absorbed into the US, it appears that it might make more sense for chunks of the US to be absorbed into Canada. It makes a weird sense. Seattle has a lot more in common with Vancouver that it does with Boise. Boston has more in common with Halifax that it does Charleston.

Although it is fun to draw the maps and play with the idea of some sort of boreal liberal Ecotopia, its actually a bad idea. Leaving aside the butt kicking that any US secessionist movement would get (Ecotopian, Neo-Confederate, Texan, Hawaiian, Californian, or Alaskan) it would be bad for the US and for the world to withdraw the balancing effect of a couple million liberals and moderates have on the worlds largest military power. Imagine president DeLay with a nuclear arsenal. There’s a thought that will keep any of us from sleeping again.

Both articles ask us to look at the nature of border communities. Ernst Hoenicker, the long-time leader of East Germany, in the last days of his state, made the statement that borders unite as much as they divide. He was struggling to save his job, but he had a point. Border peoples often have more in common with each other than they do with their respective hinterlands. State lines aren’t real borders, but lesson is still apt. The lines we have on our maps are there for certain purposes and for those purposes only.

Sometimes it’s a good exercise to throw the lines out and try some new ones. Look at the US divided into electric power grids, judicial circuits, or air defense regions. Draw new outside edges on your maps. Why should land be in the center of a map with water on the edges? Put a body of water in the center and look at land as edges. Turn the map sideways; why should North always be up? Be a map nerd for a day.

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