Monday, September 16, 2013

Place in Time (Part I)

The following is the first of a series of post on regionalism in U.S. history.

Maps, like movies, tell such wonderfully true lies. That’s “true lies” in the sense of certifiable falsehood as opposed to a half-truth or statement that can’t be proven, like “drinking alcohol will kill you,” (yes, under some circumstances) or “Michael Jordan is the best basketball player to ever play the game” (what’s the definition of “best,” and how do you measure it?) The assertion that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on the eve of the U.S. invasion of 2003: that’s truly a lie, one uttered repeatedly by officials in the Bush administration to mislead the American people to support a war against Iraq.

“True lies” can also refer to statements that are not factually correct but reveal a larger truth.  It is untrue – a true falsehood, as it were – to say that the character of Ilsa Lund ever utters the words “Play it again, Sam” to the piano player in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca, even though generations of film lovers have associated the line with the movie. But this fictive line, which refers to a song called “As Time Goes By,” that Ilsa really does want Sam to play, is the only real way – which is to say a way rooted in history – that she can express her now-secret attachment to Rick Blaine. At the end of that movie, Blaine will lie to Ilsa’s husband Victor Laszlo about his relationship with her as an act of kindness and as a way of honoring his true self. (If you don’t know what I mean you must see this movie!) In the world of Casablanca, which in some respects remains the world in which we live, facts don’t get in the way of truth, and on those occasions when they threaten it, as when a gambler asks Karl, an employee at Rick’s café, if its casino is honest, Karl answers by saying “as honest as the day is long.” That, truly, is a non-lie.

Maps are never as clever as Hollywood movies, however. They can’t afford to be – their existence is premised on an unwritten assertion of accuracy, of describing the boundaries of the world as it is, and no one will pay any attention to them unless they’re perceived as trustworthy. They do this often enough that we take their accuracy for granted. But maps also conceal, distort, and omit all kinds of things – in a way, that’s the essence of what a map is, i.e. a simplification of the world that helps people get their bearings. And yet even the most scrupulous maps get dated, even falsified, as facts on the ground change.

The maps that I’ve tended to find the most fascinating are political maps – maps that mark the boundaries cities, regions, and states. These of course are lies in some sense because in real life such boundaries are almost always invisible, at best marked by posted signs that signal you’re crossing lines you wouldn’t otherwise know exist. No flora or fauna change when you move between New York City and Westchester County, for example. Even when maps denote actual physical features on a landscape, it’s hard to say with any certainty where they begin and end.  What spot marks the rise of the Andes Mountains? The beginning of the Sahara Desert? Where is the mouth of the Nile River? (If you assume there are actually answers to these questions – there are more than one, depending on which direction from which you approach them – they’re subject to changes in climate and topography.) At best, maps are approximations, like so much else in our daily lives.

The other kind of maps I’ve tended intriguing are – surprise, surprise – historical ones, especially those that depict dramatic shifts in boundaries, like battlefield maps or those that mark the rise and fall of empires. Such maps are masterpieces of compression. Even those that illustrate changes that take place over a relatively short period of time (like, say, the conquests of Alexander the Great between 334 and 323 BC) convey years of action into a glance that can be absorbed in seconds. And yet, paradoxically, a small shape on a few inches of paper can capture the conquest of a vast continent or more.

Such maps have a way of leading me to suspend my usual ideological or political beliefs. I don’t really believe it would have been good for Europe as a whole for Napoleon to retain the territory his armies overran in the first dozen years of the nineteenth century, but I find myself oddly rooting for him when looking at maps that reconstruct his surge into Russia in 1812. More bizarre – and troubling – is the way I marvel over the comparable terrain engulfed by the German army in World War II. It doesn’t take long for even a novice map reader to appreciate how hard it is for any military force to dominate a continental stretch on the face of the earth, and to feel a thrill at the scale of conquest by a Genghis Khan or Tamerlane. Are these maps revealing lies I tell myself about who I really am and where my loyalties are? I wouldn’t think so. But maybe I am a little imperialist at heart.

In the space of a simple diagram, maps seem capture the fates of millions. But again, such pictures can be misleading at best. How accurate is it, really, is it to designate this or that sliver of central Asia as part of the Mongolian empire, given the vast distances, limited communication, and the avowedly hands-off approach of Mongolian civil administration that was one of the keys to its success? Were there any challenges, implicit or explicit, to such authority? Can it tell us anything meaningful about the lives of the people who lived in a fragment that’s shaded this way or that? Who makes these maps, anyway? And by whose authority have they ended up in our hands?

  These questions become more pressing when we get closer to home – if we pause to think about them. Which, often, we don’t. There are so many maps in our lives that we take for granted. Those of our hometowns, for example. Or our home states. And those of the United States. None of the boundaries in these maps are arbitrary. Sometimes they’re geographic, in the sense that a river, coast, or mountain range determines them. Kansas, for example, would be a neat rectangle, except that it gets nicked in the corner by the Missouri River, which determines is northeastern boundary. But the significance of that river in the shaping of Kansas was a decision that somebody made – there are plenty of rivers that run right through the middle of cities, for example – after a battle or some kind of meeting (or a meeting that was some kind of battle). We may not know or care about those meetings or battles, which as likely as not took long ago. But they nevertheless determine the taxes we pay, the kind of commute we have to work or school, or why we live in one place and not another. 

Next: Mapping American history