The Bizarre World of Thomas L. Friedman

FriedmanMapThe February 26th print edition of the New York Times featured an intriguing opinion piece by columnist Thomas L. Friedman entitled “Don’t Just Do Something. Sit There.” Here Friedman invokes a scheme of global geopolitical division that he evidently developed with his former co-author Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins. This three-fold scheme, designed to replace the Cold War vision, is based primarily on the attitudes of ruling elites. Quoting Mandelbaum, Friedman maintains that, “The biggest geopolitical divide in the world today ‘is between those countries who want their states to be powerful and those countries who want their people to be prosperous.’” Friedman does not flesh out a comprehensive division of the world here, as he only places only a select group of countries in each category. Still, what he does mention is both interesting and bizarre.

Friedman’s first category includes Russia, Iran, and North Korea, as well as, presumably, a number of unspecified countries. What they have in common, he claims, is “leaders [who] are focused on building their authority, dignity and influence through powerful states” and their ability to “defy the global system and survive, if not thrive — all while playing an old, traditional game of power politics to dominate their respective regions.” Although these three countries are all authoritarian (to varying degrees), Friedman’s larger argument is highly exaggerated. North Korea is certainly a deeply repressive state that seeks to intimidate its opponents, but is it realistic to claim that it is seeking to “dominate [its] respective region,” which includes China and Japan? Is that really the “game” (Friedman’s term) that its government is playing?

It is Friedman’s second category, however, that is the real problem. Here one finds countries that are supposedly

focused on building their dignity and influence through prosperous people … These countries understand that the biggest trend in the world today is not a new Cold War but the merger of globalization and the information technology revolution. They are focused on putting in place the right schools, infrastructure, bandwidth, trade regimes, investment openings and economic management so more of their people can thrive in a world in which every middle-class job will require more skill and the ability to constantly innovate will determine their standard of living. (The true source of sustainable power.)

That is an impressive list of attributes, and I would certainly cheer on any country so devoted to enhancing the skills and living standards of its citizens – but I am not sure if any exist. Certainly some states do a better job on these issues than others, and I would not object to placing, say, South Korea, the Netherlands, and Finland in such a category. I find Friedman’s list, however, downright delusional.

Here is how Friedman defines his second category: “all the countries in Nafta, the European Union, and the Mercosur trade bloc in Latin America and Asean in Asia.” All the countries of the EU? That seems a bit of a stretch. Can one really argue that the governments of Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria (to name just a few) have been “focused” on building mass prosperity in such a manner over the past decade? If so, they have hardly been successful. Including all of the ASEAN states of Southeast Asia is more problematic still. Burma has recently made some real and important reforms, but it has hardly transformed itself into a mega-Singapore, the only Southeast Asian country that really fits Friedman’s description—and which itself suffers a rather serious democracy deficit. But it is the placement of Mercosur in the same group that really boggles my mind. Argentina and Paraguay are troublesome enough, but to claim that Venezuela is focused on enhancing the prosperity of its people is beyond bizarre. Either Friedman has no idea of what has been happening in Venezuela over the past decade or he has no idea what Mercosur is. Either way, I must question his ability to serve as a columnist for the New York Times, supposedly the “newspaper of record” of the United States.

Friedman’s third category, composed of countries that “can’t project power or build prosperity,” makes more sense, although the question is not so much whether they can “project power” as whether they can maintain internal order—which they can’t. This “world of disorder” includes Syria, Libya, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, D.R. Congo and “other hot spots.” But why is Afghanistan not mentioned? And what exactly are the world’s “other hot spots.” Could they include violence-torn Mindanao in the Philippines or the Kachin area of northern Burma? No, they can’t, as these regions have already been placed in the happy world of development and responsible leadership.

Finally, Friedman places Ukraine in a category of its own, claiming that it “actually straddles all three of these trends.” Actually, it does not. Ukraine is not trying to dominate its region; it just tries to avoid being dominated by Russia. Ukraine has not been “focused” on “building dignity and influence through prosperous people,” particularly when it comes to women. And finally, Ukraine is not a “world of disorder,” although unfortunately it might become one.

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State-Level Secession Movements in the United States: Northern Colorado and Jefferson

State of Northern Colorado MapThe intense political polarization of the United States is most clearly reflected by the dysfunctional nature of the federal government. At a more local scale, it is seen as well in the growing movement to create new states by splitting existing ones. Most of these cases involve the desire of people in rural, conservative counties to secede from the more liberal states in which they are currently located. A front-page story in the October 7 edition of the New York Times, for example, highlights a drive to devise a new state of “Northern Colorado.” Eleven Colorado counties will vote on a secession measure this November. As the Times article specifies, the move for separation was prompted by gun-control measures passed with support from the more metropolitan parts of the state. Other issues also play a role, as local voters are reportedly disturbed by “marijuana shops, green energy policies and steps to embrace gay marriage and illegal immigrants.”

A number of geopolitical challenges, however, stand in the way of the movement to create new US states, and it is not clear if secession is a realistic possibility even if local voters strongly endorse it. Although the U.S. Constitution allows the formation of new states, territory cannot be taken from an existing state without the consent of both the federal government and the state in question. Such approval would be difficult to obtain, as any new state would automatically send two new senators to Washington D.C., upsetting the country’s political balance. Not surprisingly, no actual instance of state division has occurred since the pro-union counties of Virginia split off to form West Virginia at the height of the Civil War.

51st State  Initiative MapThe would-be state of Northern Colorado has its own particular problems as well. As the New York Times map indicates, the eleven counties voting on the measure this November are not contiguous, which would make any state that they would form a clumsy, two-part polity. With a population of only around 376,000, this new state would also be the least populous member of the union by a wide margin, with 200,000 fewer residents than 50th-place Wyoming. Most of this meager population, moreover, is concentrated in Weld Country, home to some 263,000 persons. Although Weld is the leader of the secession movement, it is also the most liberal of the disgruntled Colorado counties, having given Barack Obama 42 percent of its votes in 2012. (Intriguingly, Weld County’s main city, Greeley, played a minor role in the growth of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood by virtue of its liberality; Sayyid Qutb, the Brotherhood’s leading intellectual founder, considered Greeley’s church-sponsored dances in 1949 to be such “hotbeds of debauchery” that he turned passionately to the “Shade of the Quran” [the title of one of his main works]).

Although the eleven Colorado counties that are voting on secession this November would make a sparsely settled, discontiguous state, the movement’s backers have more ambitious plans. As the map taken from their website (“The 51st State Initiative”) shows, they also hope that a number of additional counties will join the cause. At its maximum extent, “Northern Colorado” would actually be more accurately described as “Peripheral Colorado,” excluding only the greater Denver metropolitan area along with a few sparsely populated Rocky Mountain counties noted for their ski resorts and affluent populations. Some of the counties marked for potential inclusion, however, make little political sense; heavily Hispanic Costilla County, for example, gave a higher proportion of its votes (73%) to Barack Obama in 2012 than did Boulder County (70%), the left-leaning home of the University of Colorado. The would-be state would also potentially reach into western Kansas and Nebraska; here the desire for secession is less clear, as both states are relatively rural and reliably conservative on most hot-button issues. For the core secessionist counties, other options are also being considered if the formation of a new state proves impossible, such as union with neighboring Wyoming.

State of Jefferson Population MapA more long-standing secession drive seeks to create the new state of Jefferson, to be carved out of far northern California and southern Oregon. The Jefferson movement got off to a strong start in 1942 when “a group of young men gained national media attention when, brandishing hunting rifles for dramatic effect, they stopped traffic on U.S Route 99 south of Yreka, and handed out copies of a Proclamation of Independence, stating that the state of Jefferson was in ‘patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon’” (as noted in the Wikipedia article on the topic).  The start of World War II cut the movement short, but it has continued to periodically resurface. In early September of this year, the Board of Supervisors of Siskiyou County voted 4-1 to “pursue seceding from California,” a move prompted by “a lack of representation in Sacramento for the Republican-majority county, [and] issues pertaining to water rights and the rural fire prevention fee.” Several weeks later, the Board of Supervisors in neighboring Modoc County voted 4-0 to join the movement. Similar proposals are being considered in other northern California counties, including Butte, Shasta and Lassen. “California is essentially ungovernable in its present size,” claims Mark Baird, a spokesperson for the Jefferson Declaration Committee.

The original Jefferson proposal included only a handful of counties, seven in the main version (three in California and four Oregon), and five in another (four in California and one in Oregon). More recent proposals are more ambitious; the State of Jefferson Project website features a map of the new state that would encompass nineteen counties. In all of these proposals, the modest town of Yreka (population 7,800) in Siskiyou County would serve as the capital. Regardless of which specific version is considered, Jefferson would have a fairly small population. The seven-county scheme would have only some 458,000 residents, over 80 percent of whom currently live in Oregon, while the nineteen-county version would have a population of roughly 1,416,000, a majority of whom currently live in California.

The Jefferson proposal, like most other state division ideas, is rooted primarily in population density and voting patterns. As the map posted to the left shows, far northern California and southern Oregon forms a low population zone sandwiched between the much more densely populated regions of greater Portland in northwestern Oregon and the San Francisco and Sacramento metropolitan areas of California. It is also a reliably conservative, Republican-voting region, again in sharp contrast to the urban and suburban areas of both states. Although Oregon may appear to be a Republican-leaning state on the electoral map, the concentration of its population in the Portland metro area ensures its general support for candidates from the Democratic Party. In California, the electoral imbalance is even more pronounced, preventing the Republican Party from acting in a competitive manner in statewide elections.

State of Jefferson Politics MapA close analysis of electoral and population maps, however, shows that the proposed state of Jefferson encounters political problems of its own. In the seven-county version, the demographic core of the would-be state, containing almost half of its population, is Jackson County, Oregon. But Jackson is a “purple” or swing county that has been trending leftward over the past several decades. Although George W. Bush won it handily in 2000, with 54 percent of the vote, Jackson narrowly supported Barack Obama in 2008. As increasing numbers of people are moving from California’s Bay Area to Jackson’s cultured town of Ashland, site of Southern Oregon University and the noted Oregon Shakespeare Festival, it may well move further to the left in future elections. As a result, staunchly conservative Jefferson advocates may be advised to drop Jackson Country from their design.

The proposal for a larger state of Jefferson encounters similar problems. Two of its counties, Humboldt and Mendocino, are Democratic-voting—Mendocino strongly so—and two others, Butte* and Trinity, are now electoral toss-ups. Although the Jefferson website includes a plea for secession from Humboldt County based on the dire condition of the local logging industry, marijuana cultivation is a vastly more profitable business, and local cannabis growers and those who rely on their patronage would not in general be inclined to support membership in a conservative state. State of Jefferson advocates would find more backing if they were to focus their outreach efforts on the interior rather than the coastal counties of northern California.

*Butte is a relatively liberal county largely because of the presence of California State University, Chico, which has more than 16,000 students.


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Explaining the Rapid Rise of the Xenophobic Right in Contemporary Europe

Copyright James Mayfield

The last three decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties across much of Europe.[1] Whereas thirty years ago most xenophobic parties failed to even pass the 5% minimum voter threshold that is typically required to enter government, it can be argued that they now constitute as much as ~28% of the parliament in countries like Austria, and arguably have reached the ~70% level in Hungary.[2] By 1999, the Austrians—who traditionally tout themselves as the “first victims” of the Third Reich—had elected the prominent nationalist and accused Holocaust denier[3] Jörg Haider as the governor of Carinthia and given his Freedom Party more than 26% of the vote in the national elections. Haider proceeded to personally help dismantle multilingual street signs that were erected for the local Slovene minority.[4] The Golden Dawn party, which now has more than ~7% of the national vote in Greece, often marches in the streets of Athens with Rune-emblazoned flags and jackboots that easily remind the older generations of the German occupation of 1941-45. Most recently, the Golden Dawn has distributed free meals to the racially “authentic” Greek public.[5] At the same time, prominent members of Hungary’s powerful Jobbik party have even called for the government to prepare lists of Jews who might “[pose a] threat to Hungarian national security.”[6]

Hoping to understand these surprising changes in the European political climate, this post will briefly analyze the characteristics of the xenophobic right as of 2013, underscore the diversity of xenophobic parties, and try to explain some of the patterns encountered when the far-right takes hold, as well as their exceptions. The rough percentages listed next to the parties refer to their approximate share of national parliaments according to the most recent elections, and are corroborated with each country’s respective government websites. It will become apparent that it is very difficult to locate common patterns that might explain when and why the far-right takes hold in Europe.

The shift across Europe towards the right is perhaps as surprising as it is alarming, considering that the specters of World War II and totalitarianism are still ripe in the historical memory of virtually all European societies. Even more surprising, the xenophobic right has enjoyed some of its greatest successes in countries that are usually associated with liberalism and multiculturalism, including Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Even in supposedly tolerant Switzerland, the powerful Swiss People’s Party (~26%) has restricted the construction of mosques and minarets and has even campaigned with an ad that depicted three white sheep kicking a black one out of the country.[7] Far-right, racist parties like Vlaams Blok in Belgium were gaining in popularity until they were banned for extremism in 2004. In the 2003 elections, the Vlaams Blok won almost 12% of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Observers in the West have especially struggled to comprehend how quickly the extreme right has emerged in Greece, the supposed birthplace of democracy. The growing popularity of the right across the continent is a source of great concern for human rights groups in Brussels, which routinely encourage national courts to ban xenophobic parties on the grounds that they breach international protections against racism.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map charting the spread of elected xenophobic parties in Europe as of 2013. When viewed on a map, the growth of the far-right is striking. Green refers to countries were a xenophobic party is in government, which gray means none is in power. Copyright James Mayfield/GeoCurrents.

However, it is critical to understand that “the right” cannot be homogenized or reduced to the typical imagery of fascism, neo-Nazism, racism, or dictatorship that might emerge in our minds when we think of the right in European history. Xenophobic parties have garnered increasing support from voters of diverse political ideologies, primarily because of growing disaffection with the status quo. As the vulnerabilities of the European Union become more apparent, increasing numbers are calling for reform of pan-European economics, integration, open border immigration, and multiculturalism—principles that have shaped the development of Europe since World War II. With skyrocketing unemployment across most of the continent, massive immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans into Western Europe, and what many feel to be a broken economic and political structure of the European Union, voters of various backgrounds seem to be choosing radically different solutions to the ongoing crises in Europe.

With this in mind, it is important to recognize that political movements of the xenophobic right are just as varied as social democratic and far-left parties. They include traditionalists, pro-Europeanists, Euroskeptics, democrats, nationalists, racialists, neo-Nazis, and even Greens. The vast majority of xenophobic parties calling for restricted immigration are obdurately democratic. Most advocate a traditional, conservative, or even moderate approach to resolving Europe’s problems within the democratic process. These relatively moderate nationalists include the True Finns of Finland (~19%), the Sweden Democrats (~6%), the Danish People’s Party (~12%), and the People’s Party of Portugal (~11%). Even the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary (~53%) advocates a conservative platform rather than a militant or autocratic agenda, despite being castigated by Western media as far-right or even dictatorial after it amended the constitution to strengthen executive powers.[8] In some countries, such as Serbia and France, far-right parties have little parliamentary strength but still boast very popular public figures. The Front National of France has only two seats in the National Assembly out of 577, but Marine Le Pen came in third in the 2012 presidential election with almost 18% of the vote. The extremist, racialist Serbian Radical Party is not even in the national government, but its former leader Tomislav Nikolić was elected president of Serbia in 2012. In short, we should be wary about placing all xenophobic movements in the same category. They vary as much in regard to their popular support as they do in regard to their ideology, and not all of them embrace anti-democratic, fascist, or authoritarian agendas.

Although all of these parties have their share of supporters who take a more violent approach to tackling immigration, most parties on “the far-right” are better described as conservative and xenophobic. The majority advocate a multi-party democratic system and do not call for any future constitutional changes that might repudiate democratic checks and balances. Most call for a non-violent solution to Europe’s economic and immigration issues. Even such nationalist parties as the New Flemish Alliance (~17%) and the Vlaams Belang (~8%) of Belgium are staunchly ethnic nationalist, but their ideology springs just as much from a desire to strengthen the rights of the Flemish population as it does from their plans to target immigrants. The same tendency applies to the rather moderate National Alliance of Latvia (~14%) and the Order & Justice Party of Lithuania (~13%), which are most concerned with offsetting the historically disproportionate influence of Russian minorities who settled in these states during the Soviet era.

The only major elected parties that take an aggressive, racialist, militant stance are the Jobbik Party of Hungary (~17%), Svoboda of Ukraine (~11%), the Golden Dawn of Greece (~7%), and “Attack!” of Bulgaria (~10%). For example, whereas most Greek parties are at least to some extent cultural nationalists (including the PASOK socialists) who allow immigrants like Albanians to assimilate into Greek culture, only the Golden Dawn often sees “Greek” as an exclusive racial category. The Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian far-right often makes similar exclusions. By contrast, “moderate nationalists” like the Sweden Democrats are more interested in curbing unrestricted immigration than they are in racial issues. Quite different are more militant parties like Jobbik, which is often accused of having links to the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a quasi-paramilitary organization that has been compared to the brownshirts of the German SA.[9] While Bulgarian nationalists, the Golden Dawn, and Svoboda do not have equivalent organizations, their supporters have been widely linked to vandalism and assaults against immigrants, mosques, and synagogues in Athens, Sofia, and Kiev.[10] It is also widely assumed that the Athens police either cooperates with Golden Dawn or at least looks the other way during the frequent assaults on Albanian, Turkish, and Muslim immigrants in the capital.[11]

Although the economic weaknesses that have swept the EU since 2008 have become increasingly obvious, the chief reason behind the rise of the xenophobic right is not the economic alternatives it offers, but rather its hostility towards unrestricted immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans. But here too, each country and party is very distinct. Xenophobic parties in Europe range from simply wanting tighter border controls, to calling for a “whites-only” immigration policy, to demanding the wholesale deportation of minorities. Although virtually all xenophobic parties are at least “soft Euroskeptic,” some merely call for greater national autonomy within the EU, whereas other are petitioning to quit the EU altogether, primarily in order to resolve the supposed immigration crisis.

Although xenophobic parties challenge immigration policies as a whole, most of their hostility is focused on Muslim immigrants, especially Moroccans, Indonesians, Arabs, Somalis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, as well as African blacks. Importantly, xenophobia is often equally harsh against other European or “white” immigrants, particularly Albanians, Bosniaks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Balts, Romanians, and Russians. In Italy, the center-right Lega Nord is more xenophobic towards Southern Italians than towards Muslims. The Golden Dawn of Greece is viciously hostile towards Albanians. In Switzerland, xenophobia is mostly directed against immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Whereas most major xenophobic parties are not overtly Anti-Semitic, Hungary’s Jobbik is widely seen as not just Anti-Zionist but anti-Jewish, and deeply anti-Ziganist (anti-Gypsy) as well. Austrian right-wing parties are usually focused against Slavs and Turks, while in the Netherlands the noted provocateur Geert Wilders and his Dutch Party of Freedom (~10%) are particularly hostile towards Muslims, especially Indonesians and Somalis. The militant Svoboda party of Ukraine (~11%) directs most of its xenophobia against ethnic Russians, Jews, Tatars, and Roma, while the aptly named “Attack!” party of Bulgaria (~10%) is vociferously anti-Ziganist, anti-Romanian, and anti-Turkish. The popular Bulgarian nationalist Volen Siderov has gone so far as to claim that Bulgaria still has yet to be liberated from “Turkish [i.e. Ottoman] rule” as long as Turks and other Muslims (presumably the Slavic-speaking Pomaks) “occupy” the country. The various “targets” of xenophobic parties demonstrates that the far-right is often successful in countries with large immigrant populations and where hostility towards newcommers is strongest. So too, the diversity of these targets remind us that we cannot generalize far-right movements as if they share the same enemies, agendas, solutions, or even political principles.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map showing the proportion of Muslim populations in Europe today (including indigenous and immigrant populations). Also included are the ethnic groups that often become the focus of the hostility of xenophobic parties. Stats from government websites and the CIA World Factbook.

It is thus difficult to locate patterns that might explain why and where the far-right has achieved electoral success. Many examples lead to contradictory and surprising results. It is suggestive that this trend is occurring during a time of great economic hardship—just as the far-right gained sway in Europe during the post-WWI slump in the early 1920s. and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s Considering the historical link between economic instability and the rise of the far-right, it is thus surprising that such countries as Spain and Cyprus have very weak far-right movements despite having suffered skyrocketing unemployment and crippling public debt. Instead, leftist parties such as the Eurocommunist Progressive Party of Cyprus and the left-leaning ethnic separatists of Catalonia have enjoyed remarkable success in the last several years.

As another possible explanation, one might expect immigrant “transit” countries that have recently experienced a surge of immigration, such as Malta, Italy, and Cyprus, to turn towards the right. But this is not generally the case. Indeed, Malta’s powerful Nationalist Party is deeply conservative and pro-Maltese, while Italy has several small neo-fascist parties, such as that of Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra. However, extreme xenophobic parties like Imperu Ewropew of Malta and Forza Nuova of Italy have had very little success. Neither is even in the national government.

Other cases also make it difficult to find consistent patterns behind the rise of the xenophobic right. We might expect ethnically diverse countries with large immigrant populations like the United Kingdom to have strong right-wing movements. However, the British National Party has consistently failed to meet the 5% threshold. (The burgeoning U.K. Independence Party is certainly conservative and EU-skeptical, but it is not truly xenophobic.) However, diverse and immigrant-rich France has seen the rise of powerful xenophobic figures like Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen before her. If ethnic diversity itself does not automatically trigger the rise of the far-right, one might conclude that ethnic homogeneity provides a more fertile ground for xenophobia. This is certainly the case in regard to Hungary, which has by far the largest right-wing movement in Europe in terms of its electoral results. So too, relatively homogenous Finland offers substantial support to xenophobic nationalist parties like the True Finns (~19%). However, other relatively homogenous states, like Poland and Norway, have weak xenophobic parties.

We might also be inclined to look for basic cultural characteristics that might explain the rise of the far-right. It is perhaps intriguing that Hungary seems to be the first country to drift towards the far-right, having been the first to pass anti-Jewish legislation in the 1930s when Miklos Horthy installed a right-wing dictatorship . However, cultural xenophobia alone does not seem to lend electoral success to far-right parties. A prime example here is Romania. Although Romanian culture is often described as deeply xenophobic and often viciously racist (particularly against Roma and Jews, and even Hungarian to some extent), the Romanian parliament is almost completely social democratic and socialist. The same might be said about Poland, Serbia, and Croatia. Even countries with genocidal pasts such as Slovakia, Germany, Croatia, and Serbia, lack strong right-wing parties. Another key example is Russia. Although Russia has what many sources consider to be the most virulent subculture of skinheads and neo-Nazis fomenting violence against migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia—marked by such horrors as the filmed beheading of a Tajik boy—extreme right parties like Great Russia and the Russian All-People’s Union have very little electoral success.[12] In short, there does not seem to be anything inherent in European national cultures that puts xenophobic parties in power.

One final explanation adds both perspective and contradiction. We might expect countries facing a difficult, traumatic, or confusing phase of transition to move towards extremist movements. Studies have shown that neo-Nazism, nationalism, and the National Democratic Party are far stronger in the former East Germany than in the rest of the country since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So too, this concept of transition may explain why Bulgarians and Ukrainians tend to support the far-right as they move away from their communist past. However, this explanation falls flat when we look at other former socialist states like Romania, Poland, Russia, and the Czech Republic, where the far-right is rather weak. Transition and cultural insecurity alone do not provide an explanation.

Two final examples are perhaps the most surprising when trying to explain the rise of the far-right: Norway and Sweden. Right-wing parties have never had much success in either country. Norway’s powerful Progressive Party (~22%) is only mildly xenophobic and is better described as conservative nationalist. The Sweden Democrats are much more virulently xenophobic, but have only recently broken the 5% minimum threshold necessary to enter government. However, throughout the 1990s and even today, Norway and Sweden saw some of the most brutal waves of anti-immigrant violence in Europe. While theses attitudes are by no means widespread in Scandinavia, this seeming contradiction might reinforce our conclusion that cultural xenophobia does not mean xenophobic parties will get elected. In Norway and Sweden, the extreme “black metal” music-oriented subculture that emerged in 1992 perpetrated numerous brutal attacks on immigrants.[13] Over a hundred churches were burned in Norway and Sweden, often with the intent to purge Scandinavia of Christian influences that the arsonists interpreted as an immigrant “Middle Eastern plague” that had to be replaced by the ancient Nordic racial religion.[14] Norway’s supposed immigration problem was met with uncompromising xenophobia and racism by members of this subculture. As late as 2008, prominent black metal musicians like Gaahl insisted that Norwegians had a duty to “remove every trace [of] what…the Semitic roots have to offer this world.”[15] He captured the opinion of much of the growing subculture by asserting that Norway is no place for immigrant “niggers” and “mulattos.”[16] The popular Norwegian drummer Jan Axel Blomberg repeated similarly that “we don’t like black people here.”[17] The Norwegian case tells us that homogenous cultures facing a very difficult adjustment to immigration and diversity often generate extreme reactions, but that such reactions do not necessarily translate into electoral success.

As this post has demonstrated, the xenophobic right has become more pervasive than most observers may have realized. Perhaps this is disconcerting. At the same time as many Europeans are calling for greater integration and cooperation in order to fix Europe’s problems, increasing numbers of people are moving in the opposite direction by advocating greater nationalism, homogeneity, and xenophobia. However, the common gut reaction to interpret this trend as a rebirth of fascism, Nazism, racialism, or dictatorship is as sensationalist as it is oversimplified. The xenophobic right advocates radically different economic, political, and cultural platforms in response to the supposed immigration crisis. So too, as the above cases demonstrate, we cannot explain when and why the far-right takes hold by pointing to any common cultural, demographic, or economic patterns. When we consider the aforementioned conflicting and contradictory cases in Europe, it remains to be found what exactly causes far-right parties to become popular so quickly. Each xenophobic movement must be observed—with understandable trepidation and concern—on a country-by-country basis.

James Mayfield is a historian, researcher, and translator from Stanford University with two Masters Degrees in History. He specializes in genocide, nationalism, post-colonial identity, and cultural traumas. He currently has two books soon to be released, one on the expulsion of 10,000,000 ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe (Memoria del Olvido) and one on an ethnic Slovene survivor of both German and Italian concentration camps during World War II (Peter Starič, My Life under Totalitarianism). Contact him here: mayfent@stanford.edu.

[1] In this article, “xenophobia” refers to any political platform that calls for the strict limitation of immigration, strengthened border controls, the reform or abolition of the Schengen Zone, or even the expulsion of minorities.

[2] This number refers to the combination of the Austrian Freedom Party (roughly 17% of the Nationalrat) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (~11%). For Hungary, this number refers to Fidesz (~53%) and Jobbik (~17%).

[3] Anat Shalev, “Foreign Ministry ‘concerned’ over Austria elections,” Yedioth Ahronoth Newspaper, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3603718,00.html.

[4] “Haider zagrozil Korineku zaradi odločbe ustavnega sodišča,” Dnevnik, http://www.dnevnik.si/svet/158543.

[5] BBC, “Athens police stop food handout by Greek far right,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22379744.

[6] Marton Dunai, “Anger as Hungary far-right leader demands lists of Jews,” Reuters, www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/27/us-hungary-antisemitism-idUSBRE8AQ0L920121127.

[7] Elaine Sciolino, “Immigration, Black Sheep, and Swiss Rage,” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/world/europe/08swiss.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all&.

[8] Hungary has even been threatened with suspension or punishment by some European Union MEPs. See Pablo Gorondi, “Hungarian PM Orban rejects criticism of constitutional change, says democracy not threatened,” Fox News, www.foxnews.com/world/2013/03/14/hungarian-pm-orban-rejects-criticism-constitutional-changes-says-democracy-not.

[9] Balazs Penz and Alex Kuli, “Brown shirts march in Budapest as Gyurcsany condemns ‘Fascists,” Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=avNDeYNJqkUo&refer=europe.

[10] Maria Vidali, “News from Greece: Anti-Jewish attacks,” Central Europe Review, http://www.ce-review.org/00/22/greecenews22.html.

[11] Paul Mason, “Alarm at Greek police ‘collusion’ with far-right Golden Dawn,” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19976841.

[12] Dan Harris and Karin Weinberg, “Violence ‘in the name of the nation,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/storynew?id=3718255&page=1.

[13] See Michael Moynihan, Lords of Chaos: Satanischer Metal: Der blutige Aufstief aus dem Untergrund (Index Verlag, 2004).

[14] See Bård Eithun Faust in Aaron Aites, “Until the Light Takes Us,” Artists Public Domain/Field Pictures, 2009.

[15] Jessica Joy Wise and Sam Dunn, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” Seville Pictures/Warner, 2005.

[16] See Tomasz Krajewski’s interview with Gorgoroth, scan available here: http://s355.photobucket.com/user/WD37/media/755fc749.jpg.html.

[17] Moynihan, Lords of Chaos, 305.

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Regional and Ethnic Patterns in the 2013 Iranian Presidential Election

Iran 2013 Election MapThe recent Iranian presidential election revealed some interesting geographical patterns. The election itself seems to have been reasonably free, although it was undermined by the previous disqualification of reformist candidates. Hassan Rouhani, widely viewed as the most moderate and pragmatic of the six candidates, won election handily. As can be seen in the Wikipedia map posted here, Rouhani took a majority or plurality of votes in all but three provinces, all located in the southwest. Elsewhere in the country, he triumphed in all but a handful of districts; the few that he lost are clustered in the northeast and southeast. Rouhani did particularly well in the northern and northwestern peripheries, winning substantial majorities in Kurdish-, Azeri-, and other non-Farsi-speaking parts of these regions. He also triumphed handily in the Baluchi-speaking far southeast.

Iran 2013 Election Rouhani Map(One central Iranian province, Markazi, presents an enigma in regard to these results. The Wikipedia map shows Rouhani as having won the province by a relatively narrow margin, yet the provincial data in the same article show a much wider spread. The same situation obtains in the Electoral Politics 2.0 website; here the map gives Rouhani a fairly narrow win in Markazi, but the accompanying table indicates that he took more than 70 percent of the province’s vote. The GeoCurrents maps posted here are based on the data table found in Electoral Politics 2.0, and therefore show a commanding Rouhani win in Markazi—but with a question mark.)

Iran 2013 Election Rezaee MapThe only candidate besides Rouhani to win any provinces was Mohsen Rezaee, who won a plurality of votes in Khuzestan, Chaharmahal & Bakhtiar, and Kohgiluyeh & Boyer-Ahmad provinces, all located in the southwest. Rezaee also did relatively well in the Azeri-speaking northwest, but elsewhere his votes were few, and as a result he finished in fourth place. A former chief commander of the Revolutionary Guards from Khuzestan Province in the southwest, Rezaee stressed ethnic inclusion, decentralization, and privatization. This message evidently sold better in his native region than in other parts of the country.

The ethnic pattern shown by the Rezaee vote is more complicated than it might seem at first glance. Khuzestan is an oil-rich but restive province whose densely settled rural southwest is dominated by Arabic-speakers. Rezaee, however, did not do particularly well in the Arab core, as can be seen on the detailed Wikipedia map. His base of support was rather in the Luri-speaking uplands of eastern Khuzestan, Chaharmahal & Bakhtiar, and Kohgiluyeh & Boyer-Ahmad. But Rezaee did not do equally well in all Luri-speaking areas; in Lorestan Province itself, he received only 28 percent of the vote against Rouhani’s 48 percent. Such a discrepancy, however, is not particularly surprising, as Luri speakers do not form a tightly integrated ethnic group. The Luri language forms a continuum, closely related to Persian, and one of its dialects, Bakhtiari, is often regarded as separate language.

The Bakhtiari people form the core group of Rezaee supporters. (Although I have not found specific information on Rezaee’s ethnic affiliation, IranTracker notes that he was born in a “Bakhtiari tribal area.”) A traditionally nomadic tribal confederation now some three to five million strong, the Bakhtiari once played a major role in Iranian politics. The Constitutional Revolution of 1905–1907 that led to the downfall of the Qajar Dynasty gained its strength from Bakhtiari tribal levies. Later Iranian leaders feared Bakhtiari power and tried to curtail it.  As the Wikipedia explains:

Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925-1941) would be amongst the first modern Shahs who made destruction of the Bakhtiari influence, his mission. The existence of oil on Bakhtiari territory further motivated the Pahlavi monarch to undermine the autonomy of the tribe and force its population to adhere to the commands of the central government. Reza Shah Pahlavi would eventually execute few noteworthy tribal leaders as to crush Bakhtiari autonomy and maintain control over the tribe.

Despite such efforts at crushing, the Rezaee vote would indicate that the Bakhtiari people maintain a strong sense of political cohesion.

Iran 2013 Election Jalili MapThe geographical patterns evident in the vote for the third-place candidate, Saeed Jalili, are not nearly so pronounced. Jalili, Secretary of the National Security Council, was widely regarded as the most conservative candidate, reputed to have been favored by the Supreme Leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei. As such, his 11.3 percent take was no doubt a disappointment to the regime. Jalili gained his largest percentage of the vote in his native Khorasan region (although he did better in South Khorasan than in his own homeland of Razavi Khorasan) and in Qom, Iran’s religious center. He did particularly poorly in non-Farsi-speaking areas of western and northern Iran.

Iran 2013 Election Ghalibaf MapThe second-place candidate, with 16.6 percent of the vote, was Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the mayor of Tehran. Also from Razavi Khorasan, Ghalibaf has a Ph.D in political geography and was the former chief of Iranian police. He has a reputation for “getting things done.” Ghalibaf ran well in Tehran and neighboring provinces, and did especially well in his native Khorasan. Although not apparent on the province-level map, Ghalibafran also gained large numbers of votes in certain parts of the southeast (although not in Sistan & Baluchestan), coming in first place in several districts in eastern Hormozgan and southern Kerman. As can be seen on the Wikipedia map, Jalili did very well in this same general area. I have not been able to find anything that would indicate why this area would have such aberrant voting patterns, and I would welcome any information or speculation from readers.

Iran Wikipedia Language MapA forthcoming post will examine Iranian voting patterns in previous elections. Another post will take on Iran’s linguistic geography, as different maps show very different patterns. I suspect that many maps, and especially the Wikipedia map posted here, unreasonably reduce the area of Persian/Farsi speech.

Regional and Ethnic Patterns in the 2013 Iranian Presidential Election Read More »

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation?

(Note: As can be seen, GeoCurrents has a new, more streamlined appearance. The “GeoNotes” feature has been replaced by section that highlights “featured posts,” as we found it increasingly difficult to differentiate regular posts from “notes.” We also hope that the new format will make it easier for readers to access older posts.

To initiate the new format, today’s post is longer and more map-intensive than most. It also deviates from the norm in another important aspect. In general, GeoCurrents avoids making policy recommendations: this post, however, breaks the rule.)


World Fertility Rate MapAs Stanford University, like many others, is advocating interactive approaches to teaching, I have been experimenting with a software system (Top Hat Monocle) that lets me quiz students as I lecture. In so doing, I can assess levels of knowledge and adjust my lectures accordingly. Overall, the experiment has proved useful, revealing that some issues are already understood, whereas others most definitely are not.

India TFR GraphThe one question that stymied almost all of my students concerned India’s birthrate. As their in-class answers revealed, most believed that India’s total fertility rate (TFR) was roughly twice that of the United States, imagining that the average Indian woman could be expected to bear at least four children. Informal queries among colleagues and friends produced similar results. Most well-educated Americans, it would appear, are under the impression that India is still characterized by high fertility.

In actuality, India’s TFR is only 2.5—and falling steadily. This figure barely exceeds that of the United States. In 2011, the US fertility rate was estimated at 2.1, essentially the replacement level; a more recent study now pegs it at 1.93. Still, from a global perspective, India and the US fall in the same general fertility category, as can be seen in the map posted here.

TFR Selected Gountries GraphIn today’s world, high fertility rates are increasingly confined to tropical Africa. Birth rates in most so-called Third World countries have dropped precipitously, and some are now well below the replacement rate. Chile (1.85), Brazil (1.81), and Thailand (1.56) now have lower birth rates than France (2.0), Norway (1.95), and Sweden (1.98). To be sure, moderately elevated fertility is still a problem in several densely populated countries of Asia and Latin America, such as the Philippines (3.1) and Guatemala (3.92). But as the Google Public Data chart posted here shows, even the Philippines has been experiencing a steady fall in TFR. The same is true of Afghanistan, the most fecund country outside of Africa, at least for the past 15 years. As can also be seen, TFR declines have been much more modest in such African countries as Niger and Tanzania. It must be acknowledged, however, that reductions in fertility are not necessarily permanent. As the New York Times recently reported, the decline of family planning services has already ticked up the birthrate in Egypt, threatening that country’s already tight demographic squeeze.

TFR African Countries GraphI find it extraordinary that the massive global drop in human fertility has been so little noticed by the media, escaping the attention of even highly educated Americans. The outdated idea that Mexico has a crushingly high birthrate continues to inform many discussions of immigration reform in the United States, even though Mexico’s TFR (2.32 in 2010) is only slightly above that of the United States. It almost seems as though we have collectively decided to ignore this momentous transformation of human behavior. Scholars and journalists alike continue to warn that global population is spiraling out of control. A recent LiveScience article, for example, quotes a co-author of an April 2013 Science report who argues that “the poorest nations are caught in a downward spiral that will deplete resources and cause a population explosion.” The article goes on to argue that “with the world population slated to hit 9 billion by the year 2050, many scientists and others worry that unchecked population growth and increasing consumption of natural resources will cause dire problems in the future.” Although the LiveScience article notes that the original report focused on sub-Saharan Africa, it does not mention the fact that high birth rates are in fact increasingly confined to that part of the world, or that fertility rates are persistently declining in almost every country in Africa, albeit slowly. Many African states, moreover, are still sparsely settled and can accommodate significantly larger populations. The Central African Republic, for example, has a population of less than 4.5 million in an area almost the size of France.

India is an instructive place for investigating fertility decline. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich* began his pivotal 1968 book The Population Bomb with a vignette of teeming New Delhi and the disasters it portended. Warning that overpopulation would soon spread massive famines across continents, Ehrlich advocated coercion: the “sterilization of all Indian males with three or more children” (Ehrlich, 1971 edition, p. 151). Responding in part to such dire prophesies and advice, India enacted a population campaign in the 1970s tilted toward forced sterilization. This widely despised program was quickly dismantled with little appreciable effect on India’s TFR, which continued along its steady downward path.

India Fertility MapIt can be deceptive, however, to view India as an undivided whole. As shown on the map posted here, fertility figures for half of India are actually below replacement level. Were it not for the Hindi-speaking heartland, India would already be looking at population stabilization and even decline. All the states of southern India post TFR figures below 1.9. A number of states in the far north and the northeast boast similarly low fertility levels, including West Bengal, noted for its swarming metropolis of Calcutta (Kolkata).

India’s geographical birthrate disparities, coupled with the country’s admirable ability to collect socio-economic data, allow us to carefully examine ideas about fertility decline. The remainder of this post will do so through cartography, comparing the Indian fertility-rate map with maps of other social and economic indicators. Where spatial correlations are strong, underlying causes may be indicated. Such a technique is admittedly suggestive rather than conclusive, and it does not take into account institutional variables, such as family planning efforts. Still, some of the implications are intriguing.

India fertility literacy MapSeveral scholars have linked birthrate decline to female education. Educated women, they reason, generally prefer smaller families, allowing them to pursue their own interests while investing more resources and time in each child. As it turns out, the map of female literacy in India does exhibit striking similarities with the map of fertility. States with educated women, such as Kerala and Goa, have smaller families than those with widespread female illiteracy, such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But this correlation, although strong, is of limited explanatory power, since Kerala and Goa rank high on every social indicator, just as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh rank low. A number of exceptions, moreover, are evident. Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, for example, combine low female literacy with low fertility, whereas in Meghalaya and Nagaland the pattern is reversed. Thus while the education of women is no doubt significant in reducing fertility levels, it is not the only factor at play.

India Fertility GDP MapGeneral levels of economic development, as reflected in per capita GDP, also fail to fully explain India’s fertility patterns. Again, map comparisons reveal congruences in some places but deviations in others. Low-fertility Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal are not, by Indian terms, prosperous states. Gujarat in western India is well ahead of them economically, yet its fertility rate remains higher, slightly above the replacement level.


India Urbanization Fertility MapUrbanization often correlates with reduced fertility, and the rapid growth of India’s cities is probably linked to its declining birthrate. India as a whole, however, remains a predominantly rural country, so urbanization itself cannot be the answer. Note also that low-fertility Kerala and especially Himachal Pradesh have low urbanization levels, whereas in Mizoram the opposite situation prevails.


India HDI Fertility MapThe general level of social development makes another interesting comparison. The somewhat dated Human Development index map, from the Wikipedia, again deviates from the fertility map, especially in regard to low-HDI-ranking Andhra Pradesh and Odisha (Orissa), and high-ranking Nagaland and Manipur. The mapping of life expectancy, a major social indicator, again reveals both common features and anomalies. States with high life expectancies tend to have low India Longevity Fertility Mapbirthrates (Kerala, yet again), whereas those with low life expectancies tend to have high birthrates (Madhya Pradesh, especially). Yet while Odisha lags behind even Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in terms of longevity, its TFR (2.2) is close to replacement, lower even than that of Gujarat.


India Fertility Electrification MapTechnological modernization is also worth examining. Here we use electrification as a proxy. The extent of electricity use varies tremendously across the country. All of southern and far northern India are now almost fully electrified, whereas in impoverished Bihar fewer than 20 percent of households have electric lights. Overall, the general pattern holds here as on the other maps, with interesting exceptions. Nagaland and Chhattisgarh, for example, have relatively high levels of electrification, yet are marked by elevated birthrates.

Some scholars have argued that recent fertility decreases in India and elsewhere in the Third World are more specifically linked to one technological innovation: television. The TV hypothesis is well-known in the field, discussed, for example, in the LiveScience article on the African population explosion mentioned above. In regard to India, Robert Jensen and Emily Oster argue persuasively that television works this magic mostly by enhancing the social position of women. As they state in their abstract:

This paper explores the effect of the introduction of cable television on women’s status in rural India. Using a three-year, individual-level panel dataset, we find that the introduction of cable television is associated with significant decreases in the reported acceptability of domestic violence towards women and son preference, as well as increases in women’s autonomy and decreases in fertility. We also find suggestive evidence that exposure to cable increases school enrollment for younger children, perhaps through increased participation of women in household decision-making. We argue that the results are not driven by pre-existing differential trends.

India Fertility TV Ownership MapAs it turns out, the map of television ownership in India does bear a particularly close resemblance to the fertility map. Two anomalously low-fertility states with low levels of female education, Andhra Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir, score relatively high on TV penetration, as does West Bengal, which lags on several other important socio-economic indicators. The correlation is far from perfect: Mizoram ranks higher on the TV chart than its fertility figures would indicate, whereas Odisha and Assam rank lower. Odisha and Assam turn out to be a bit less exceptional in a related but broader and more gender-focused metric, that of “female exposure to media.” These figures, which include a television component, seem to provide the best overall correlation with the spatial patterns of Indian fertility.

India Fertility Media MapI suspect that the rapid drop in fertility in such countries as India and Brazil, as well as its association with television, has been missed in mainstream US commentary in part because it flies in the face of deeply ingrained expectations. That television viewing would help generate demographic stabilization would have come as a shock to those who warned of the ticking global population bomb in the 1960s. Many of these same critics regarded television as inauthentic, mind-numbing, and thought-controlling, and feared that by inculcating consumerism it would hasten environmental destruction. Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, was widely embraced by the green movement, and is still approvingly cited in such places as the “primitivist” blog Challenging Civilization. Mander argued not only that television singularly lacks democratic potential, but that it functions to enhance autocratic control.

Mander currently sits on the board of directors of the San Francisco-based International Forum on Globalization alongside Vandana Shiva, India’s most prominent environmental activist. Shiva, best known for her campaigns against genetically modified crops, is deeply opposed to most aspects of modernity, calling for a return not just to organic farming but to a broadly traditional way of life, albeit without patriarchy and class (and caste) oppression. She gained global attention earlier this year when she responded to a prominent environmentalist advocating genetic engineering with the following tweet: “Mark Lynas saying farmers shd be free to grow GMOs which can contaminate organic farms is like saying rapists shd have freedom to rape.”

Despite Vandana Shiva’s insistence to the contrary, most experts doubt that India could feed itself through non-modern farming. The “progressive contrarian” blogger Bernie Mooney concludes that Shiva is nothing less than “an elitist, anti-progress menace” whose program, if enacted, would not “help the poor of the world, [but would] only keep them at a subsistence level and more importantly, in their place.” Although Mooney’s assessment is harsh, it does seem likely that a return to traditional lifestyles would bring back high fertility levels, resulting in truly unsustainable population growth.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the transition to a low fertility regime, deemed necessary by almost all environmentalists, requires substantial modernization, particularly in the socio-cultural realm. Television depresses fertility because many of its offerings provide a model of middle-class families successfully grappling with the transition from tradition to modernity, helped by the fact that they have few children to support. In a study of declining fertility and television in Brazil, Eliana La Ferrara, Alberto Chong, and Suzanne Duryea point in particular to the role of soap operas (telenovelas):

We focus on fertility choices in Brazil, a country where soap operas (novelas) portray families that are much smaller than in reality. We exploit differences in the timing of entry into different markets of Rede Globo, the network that has an effective monopoly on novelas production in this country. Using Census data for the period 1970-1991, we find that women living in areas covered by the Globo signal have significantly lower fertility. The effect is strongest for women of lower socioeconomic status and for women in the central and late phases of their fertility cycle, consistent with stopping behavior.  … Finally, we provide suggestive evidence that novelas, and not just television, affected individual choices.

If it is true that soap operas have played a critical role in Brazil’s spectacular fertility decline—its TFR dropped from 6.25 in 1960 to 1.81 in 2011—the policy implications are momentous. But it will take a fundamental change in the way we talk about technology, population, and environment for this point to come across. As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (2007, page 130) argue, old-school environmentalists typically prefer to “wrap the latest scientific research about an ecological calamity in a tragic narrative that conjures nostalgia for Nature while prophesying even worse disasters to come unless human societies repent for their sins against Nature and work for a return to a harmonious relationship with the natural world.” The data presented here confirm that it is time for a new mode of environmental rhetoric.

To return to our first map, fertility rates remain stubbornly high across tropical Africa. The analysis presented here would suggest that the best way to bring them down would be a three-pronged effort: female education, broad-based economic and social development, and mass electrification followed by the dissemination of soap-opera-heavy television. As it is, Africa’s television market is growing rapidly, but much of the programming so far has been heavily oriented toward sports. One can only hope that Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) and other African entertainment centers can provide the women-focused, locally appealing telenovelas that have been so strongly associated elsewhere with fertility reduction.

*Ehrlich is also one of the co-authors of the Science article referred to above.

Paul Ehrlich. 1968 (revised edition 1971). The Population Bomb. Sierra Club/Ballantine.

Jerry Mander. 1978. Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. HarperCollins.

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. 2007. Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Houghton Miflin.

India’s Plummeting Birthrate: A Television-Induced Transformation? Read More »

New Maps of India—and of the Indian Economy

States of India MapNew political maps of India are now needed, as the state of Orissa has officially changed the English spelling of its name to “Odisha.” The new name, however, does not imply a change in pronunciation. As the Wikipedia notes, “… the name Orissa is closer to the actual Oriya pronunciation of the name, whereas Odisha is an intentionally archaising transcription.”

Although the change became official in November 2011, few maps of India show the now-official spelling. I have therefore made a new map of Indian states to reflect this change, which is posted here. As with many other GeoCurrents maps, it was constructed in Keynote (the Apple version of PowerPoint), and thus can easily be manipulated. Sometime next month, GeoCurrents will make this map, and a number of others, freely available in both Keynote and PowerPoint formats. Users can then easily change the color schemes, the place names, and so on, for all such maps. These maps can also be used for a variety of teaching exercises. In the second map posted here, for example, I have simply left the state names in place while scattering the state shapes; in Keynote, one can reassemble this map by dragging the shapes back to their proper places. Such a “jig-saw puzzle” approach to cartography can be an effective way for students to learn basic geography.

Indian States Scattered mapAfter making the political map of India, I decided that I might as well use it to illustrate recent socio-economic indicators for the country, up-dating an earlier (2010) GeoCurrents Atlas of Indian Development based on data readily available in Wikipedia. Today’s post includes two new maps of basic economic patterns; more maps will be forthcoming later in the week.

India per capita GDP by state 2005 mapIn the first map, the same “developmental divide” discussed in the 2010 GeoCurrents Atlas is still readily apparent. The north-central zone, including the Hindi-speaking heartland, still lags behind the rest of the country, and Bihar still stands in the bottom slot. India’s west and the south, meanwhile, still tend to score above the national average. This map does differ in several regards, however, from earlier depictions of Indian per capita GDP by state. Punjab, for example, is now only moderately above the national average (74,606 rupees per person in Punjab, versus 61,564 for India as a whole); when I first began teaching world geography in the late 1980s, Punjab was well above the national average. Punjab’s lagging position is probably related to the fact that its economy is still heavily agricultural. Substantial economic gains, on the other hand, have been made in such states as Tamil Nadu in the far Indian States by Per Capita GDP 2011 Mapsouth and Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast. As we shall see in later posts, Tamil Nadu’s advances in social development have been even more striking. The relatively high levels of economic output in the Himalayan states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarkhand are also noteworthy, as these states are similar in many regard to neighboring Nepal, which is noted for its extremely low level of economic output. (The CIA World Factbook pegs Nepal’s per capita GDP at US $1,300, as opposed to US $3,900 for India as a whole.)

The patterns seen on the next map, which shows the expansion of state-level Gross Domestic Product from 2005 to 2011, are less familiar. Here we can see that deeply impoverished Bihar has actually been experiencing rapid growth in recent years, easily besting neighboring poor states and even out-performing the southern states that contain most of India’s major high-tech centers. Whether Bihar’s remarkable turn-around can be sustained, of course, remains to be seen. Certainly the state’s continued low ranking in regard to social indicators (to be examined later in the week) does not inspire much confidence.

As can also be seen on this map, western India’s industrial states of Gujarat and Maharashtra continue to forge ahead. This pattern may even be intensifying; preliminary reports for 2011 show Gujarat as having achieved a remarkable 20.79 percent rate of economic growth for the year (2011 figures for Maharashtra are not yet available). Gujarat’s rapid economic growth has political significance at the national level, as the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, is now seeking higher office. Modi first gained national attention as an arch Hindu-nationalist accused of complicity in deadly anti-Muslim rioting in 2002. In recent years, he has toned down his Hindutva rhetoric, and is instead basing his campaign on economic issues. By all accounts, Modi is utterly devoted to enhancing his state’s economic growth. Critics contend, however, that Gujarat has not exhibited the same level of progress on the social front.

Indian states by GDP growth 2005-2010 MapIndia’s most rapid economic growth in recent years, however, has occurred in several of its small, mountainous states of the far north. Some of the economic figures for these areas stagger the imagination. Sikkim, for example, supposedly saw a 48.21 percent expansion of its GDP in 2010 alone. Is such a rate of growth even possible? The Wikipedia article on the state credits tourism development, particularly that related to casinos and other forms of gambling, although it also mentions road-building, specifically the opening of Nathu La pass in July 2006, which connects India to Tibet. I suspect, however, that dam-building and electricity export to the rest on India are also major factors. Certainly Arunachal Pradesh in the far northeast, which China claims under the name “South Tibet,” has seen an explosion of hydroelectricity development in recent years. Many more dams are also slated for constructing here and elsewhere in the mountainous parts of India. Environmental opposition, however, is mounting, and some significant dam projects have recently been cancelled. In 2012, for example, Sikkim announced that it was scrapping plans for four new hydropower projects on the Teesta River. Considering India’s growing thirst for power, and the fact that it is burning ever-larger quantities of coal, such hydro projects are perhaps best viewed as environmentally ambiguous.


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Mappery and the Problems with “True” and “Real” Maps

"Real" Map of PakistanThe useful website Mappery “was created for map enthusiasts to find, explore, and discuss great maps. Anyone can contribute maps, comments, and ratings to the site.” The site contains numerous maps, and is certainly worth exploring. Thankfully, users seldom exploit the site for propagandistic purposes. Mappery does contain, however, a few problematic political maps, such as the “Real Map of South Asia” posted here. This map not only appends all of Kashmir to Pakistan, a common and understandable maneuver, but also includes other parts of India in a future enlarged Pakistan.

Maps of "greater Pakistan"Such mapping is part of an established “greater Pakistan” cartographic genre, a few examples of which are included in the second illustration posted here. Some of these maps entail merely the hoped-for annexation of India’s portion of Kashmir, whereas others call for the addition of part or all of Afghanistan, as well as part or all of India and even Sri Lanka. Fantasy knows few bounds when it comes to nationalistic mapping. Such maps can be found on anti-Pakistan as well as pro-Pakistan webpages, as they are sometimes used in India to incite fears about Pakistani expansionism.

"True" Map of AzerbaijanNot all maps that purport to show “real” or “true” geopolitical conditions, however, necessarily fall into the propaganda category.  Mappery’s  “True Map of Azerbaijan,” for example, shows the area that Azerbaijan does actually control, rather than the area that its government, and the internationally community, regards as its legitimate territory. Still, it is impossible to avoid controversy here. Note that the map regards Nagorno-Karabakh as simply part of Armenia, whereas the Wikipedia describes it is “a de facto independent but unrecognized state.” The “true” situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, however, is actually highly ambiguous, and hence cannot nagorno-karabakh_occupation_mapeasily be captured in any mapping scheme.



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The New York Times’ Flubbed China Cartograms

NY Times China Population CartogramAn interesting story in today’s (April 9) New York Times—“Hello, Cambodia: Wary of Events in China, Foreign Investors Head to the South”—is illustrated in the print edition with two striking cartograms of eastern Asia, one of which shows population and the other economic output. The cartogram legends claims that “countries and Chinese provinces are sized according to population” and, respectively to “economic output.” Actually, they are not. On the population cartogram, for example, compare the sizes of Hong Kong and Taiwan with that of Thailand. Is Thailand shown as almost ten times larger than Hong Kong and almost three times the size of Taiwan, as an accurate depiction would have it? Hardly.


NY Times China Economic CartogramThe real problem with the maps, however, is the claim that Chinese provinces are also sized according to these metrics. In actuality, it appears that no efforts were made to depict China’s first-order internal divisions (which include autonomous regions and direct-controlled municipalities in addition to standard provinces) in the manner of a cartogram. If this had been done, China would not retain its familiar shape, as can immediately be seen on an actual population cartogram of the country, produced by Worldmapper. On an economic cartogram, the shape distortion would be even more pronounced, as production is concentrated in the coastal provinces. As the Economist map shows, the GDP of the Tibetan Autonomous Region is roughly equivalent to that of Malta.

WorldMapperChinaPopulationCartogramThe New York Times cartograms also seemingly imply that Hong Kong is an independent country, rather than a “special administrative region” of China.




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Mapping the Cell Phone Revolution

Mobile Telephone Subscriptions World MapIt is often noted that inexpensive cellular telephones have revolutionized communications across much of the world, especially in poor countries that lack landlines. Confirmation of this development is found in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report, which features detailed data tables for 140 countries. According to the report, 80 countries have more mobile telephone subscriptions than people. The United States, Canada, and France are not among them. Over most of the world, levels of economic development correlate poorly with cell phone subscription levels.

I have mapped the mobile telephone data to make the geographical patterns immediately evident. As can be seen, high subscription rates are found across much of the former Soviet Union and in the Arabian Peninsula, and more generally in Central and Eastern Europe and in South America. Hong Kong, however, has the highest figure (214.7), followed by Saudi Arabia, Panama, Montenegro, Russia, and Suriname. Such extremely high subscription rates are likely linked to the widespread use of inexpensive disposable phones. In Russia, moreover, people often keep different phones or, more commonly,  different SIM (subscriber identity module) cards, for personal and business purposes, and many purchase local phones when traveling.

Cell phone subscription levels are lower than average across much of Asia and Africa. Yet even in countries as poor as Mali and Zimbabwe, the figures are still relatively high, at 68 and 72 subscriptions per 100 people respectively. In only two countries, Burundi and Ethiopia, is the figure below 25 percent, although several unmapped countries, such as DR Congo and Central African Republic, could well have lower rates.

Mobile Boradband Subscriptions World MapThe situation is quite different in regard to mobile broadband subscriptions, as can be seen in the second map. Here subscription rates range from negligible (fewer than 0.1 per 100 people) across most of Africa and South Asia to a high of 114 in Singapore. South Korea and Japan also boast more broadband mobile subscriptions than people. It is significant that Germany, France, and Italy lag behind Poland, the Czech Republic, and Russia in this regard. The high figure for Ghana is also noteworthy.

Mapping the Cell Phone Revolution Read More »

Ideological Agendas and Indo-European Origins: Master Race, Bloodthirsty Kurgans, or Proto-Hippies?

This final contribution to the Indo-European series turns once again to the potential ideological agendas lurking behind theories of IE origin and expansion. As was noted previously, no other issue in human prehistory has been so ideologically fraught; the original IE speakers have been recruited to serve a variety of fantasies, ranging in temper from naively benign to unimaginably vile. For Nazis and their ilk, the original Indo-Europeans constituted the Aryan super-race whose descendants were destined to rule the world. Followers of a certain feminist school of prehistory, in turn, have turned the “Aryan thesis” on its head, portraying the same people as the bloodthirsty “Kurgans” overrunning the peaceful, matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe” and ushering in a global age of violence and male domination. As was argued in the earlier post, it is understandable that some scholars would want to discredit all such overreaching interpretations based on the crushing might of the horse-empowered original Indo-Europeans. If it could be demonstrated that the IE languages were actually spread by Neolithic farmers slowly pushing into new areas as their numbers increased, all such troublesome theories would be effectively undermined.

Yet it is one thing to hope for such a paradigm switch and another to push it along by a purposeful manipulation of data and analysis. Doing so would be a blatantly ideological act, and hence a betrayal of science and reason. Assessing scholarly motivations, however, is a hopeless task, and we have no way of knowing whether Bouckaert et al. have intentionally selected their data and skewed their model in order to support the Anatolian thesis of IE origins. We do think that it is possible, however, that they have unconsciously let their own ideological commitments guide their research program. Our evidence here comes from two sources. First, as we have demonstrated over the past two months, both the data selection and the model construction are warped to consistently favor the Anatolian hypothesis, most egregiously by ignoring all ancient IE language spoken in the steppe zone and by ruling out advection as a mechanism of language spread. Second, it seems likely from the comments posted on this website that distaste for the idea of violent incursions, often viewed as a necessary feature of the “steppe hypothesis,” colors the authors’ perspective. Quentin Atkinson, the article’s corresponding author, quotes Larry Trask to make this point:

Nevertheless, the vision of fierce IE warriors, riding horses and driving chariots, sweeping down on their neighbours brandishing bloody swords, has proven to be an enduring one, and scholars have found it difficult to dislodge from the popular consciousness the idea of the PIE-speakers as warlike conquerors in chariots.

Although the desire to wish away the “bloody swords” of the human past is understandable, it is also naïve, as violence unfortunately pervades our history. One does not have to embrace the vision of Thomas Hobbes, recently updated and re-theorized by Steven Pinker in his tome, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, to accept that this is indeed the case. I suspect that Pinker exaggerates the bloodiness of hunting-gathering societies, a charge made most forcefully by Christopher Ryan, co-author of the intriguing and controversial Sex at Dawn, yet I also suspect that Ryan descends into hyperbole of his own in emphasizing the peacefulness and sexual license of our Paleolithic ancestors. But when it comes to pre-modern agricultural societies, the evidence is overwhelming: enveloping violence was the norm almost everywhere. If one wants to rule out the possibility of bloody swords and other weapons, one would be advised to examine something other than human history.

But even if armed struggle has been pervasive for most of the past 10,000 years, it does not follow that all non-foraging societies have been equally bloody. As is always the case, different groups vary considerably on this score. If one searches the ethnographic literature, one can find a few documented tribal farming societies that shunned warfare and all of its trappings. Yet the unfortunate truth is that such groups were usually victimized by their more aggressive neighbors, and hence were seldom successful in maintaining their numbers and territories.

One of the most interesting groups of historically peaceful peoples is the Hanunó’o of the Philippines, whose social formation was described by the great American anthropologist Harold Conklin roughly a half century ago. The Hanunó’o constitute a small group (roughly 14,000) of tribal cultivators living in the southern interior portion of the lightly populated island of Mindoro. An encyclopedic treatment of Philippine ethnic groups* frames their peaceable inclinations in concise terms: “Warfare, either actual or traditional, is absent.” But Hanunó’o were able to maintain their irenic way of life only by retreating to rugged and inaccessible areas, and even so they were periodically targeted for centuries by slave raiders from the Sulu Archipelago. Intriguingly, the Hanunó’o seem to be a remnant of what was once a much larger and more sophisticated society, evident by the fact that they have long enjoyed widespread literacy in their own script, an essentially unprecedented phenomenon in a small-scale, tribal society. Conflicts between Spain and the Muslim naval powers of the southern Philippines (the so-called Moros) evidently destroyed the formerly prosperous mercantile centers of Mindoro, after which remnant groups fled the bloody swords of both the Spaniards and the Moros into the inaccessible uplands. There they maintained a generally peaceful way of life, although at a fairly significant cost.

But with the exceptions of some hunter-gatherer bands and a few societies of tribal cultivators, nearly continual violence was the common lot of humanity before the contemporary era. Thus even if Indo-European languages spread into Europe and South Asia through the gradual influx of Neolithic farmers, as Bouckaert et al. argue, the process would have almost certainly been marked by generalized conflict and extensive bloodshed as the Mesolithic indigenes were dispossessed of their lands. By the same token, had the IE languages been spread by horse-riders advancing into the lands of the Neolithic farmers, as most versions of the “steppe hypothesis” contend, violence would also have accompanied the process. But would such a scenario have necessarily entailed substantially greater levels of bloodshed than the majority of such cultural “encounters” experienced over thousands of years across the globe? Equestrian warriors would certainly have had profound military advantages over horseless peoples, but that does not necessarily mean that they would have been any more savage than the human norm. It is also quite possible that IE languages spread mostly through gradual incursions supported in large part by economic or other non-military advantages. Anthropological blogger Al West, for example, surmises that the early Indo-European speakers gained power by selling horses and other goods (see below) to other peoples. Certainly the massive non-IE linguistic substrates found in such IE branches as Greek, Germanic, and Indo-Aryan indicate deep levels of cultural exchange with the indigenous inhabitants of the regions into which the early Indo-European speakers moved.

Portraying the early Indo-Europeans as a uniquely fierce or malevolent people, as some of Marija Gimbitas’s followers were inclined to do, involves more ideological projection as sound appraisal. One can certainly stress the violent nature of their social interactions, but one can just as easily place the emphasis elsewhere. In fact, one can even turn the Gimbutas thesis on its head and portray the steppe-dwelling early Indo-Europeans as gender-egalitarian precursors to the hippies of the late 20th century. Although such a portrayal strays again into the realm of fantasy, it is no less reasonable than either the Herrenvolk (“master race”) or the “demonic Kurgan” theses. As such an inversion of the conventional framing of the original Indo-Europeans makes an interesting thought experiment, and I would ask my readers to indulge me here for a few paragraphs.

The prime evidence for “gender egalitarianism” among early Indo-Europeans derives, ironically, from the realm of war. As was mentioned in an earlier post, the Scythians, an Iranian-speaking group who maintained a largely pastoral way of life in the hypothesized IE steppe homeland, were noted for their female warriors. Herodotus famously wrote of the Amazon fighting women of the region, an observation partially conformed by recent archeological finds; as David Anthony reports, twenty percent of the Scythian/Sarmatian “warrior graves” of the lower Don and Volga river valleys include female remains that had been dressed for battle in identical fashion to the males whose skeletons were found in the same graves. The mere presence of women warriors does not, of course, imply actual gender egalitarianism, nor does it say anything about the social relations of the actual proto-Indo-European speakers, who lived in earlier times. It does, however, indicate a significant extent of female empowerment in an important IE group that maintained an equestrian mode of life on the Pontic Steppes.

Imagining the early Indo-Europeans as proto-hippies is made possible by the group’s close association with marijuana and perhaps other psychoactive plants. Building on the works of archeologists Andrew Sherratt and David Anthony, Al West argues that, “it’s possible that proto-Indo-European speakers became rich and powerful through selling … intoxicants,” further claiming that “Indo-European-speaking people traded THC-laden hemp from the steppes all the way down into the Near Eastern cities, which were naturally a major centre for trade from all over Eurasia. … If this scenario is right, then to the people of Babylon the arrival of Indo-European speakers must have seemed like one crazy dream.”

Although West is probably off-track in suggesting that proto-Indo-European speakers were responsible for the spread of cannabis as a recreational or spiritual drug, such an association is reasonably made for the progenitors of one the main branches of the IE family, the proto-Indo-Iranians. Evidence again comes from both Herodotus, who famously wrote of cannabis ingestion among the Scythians, and from archeological digs; Sherratt discovered charred cannabis residue in a Kurgan site dating back some 3,500 years BCE. Linguistic evidence also plays a role. The hemp plant, which produces valuable fibers and seeds in addition to its mind-altering resin, had been known across much of Eurasia for millennia, and thus had undoubtedly been referred to by many different local names. Cognates linked to the word “cannabis,” however, spread across and beyond the Indo-European-speaking realm in the third millennium BCE, which is believe by some experts to indicate that a new pharmaceutical use for the plant had been discovered and was itself expanding. Although the lines of linguistic descent are not clear, the new term for the plant, which eventually gave rise to the Latin word Cannabis, seems to have been associated with proto-Indo-Iranian steppe dwellers (see the discussions here, here, and here).

Cannabis was probably not the only mind-altering substance used by these people. Perhaps the largest mystery in the history of pharmacology is the identification of soma, the ritual intoxicant of the Rigveda, known as haoma in the Avesta (the sacred text of Zoroastrianism). More than a hundred Vedic hymns extol the unknown substance. Linguistic evidence indicates that soma/haoma was probably not cannabis, although it has been speculated that they were often consumed together. Numerous plants and fungi have been proposed as soma candidates, as spelled out in a detailed Wikipedia article. The primary division in the scholarly literature is between those who think that it was a hallucinogenic substance (such as the mushroom Amanita muscaria) and those who think that it was a stimulant, such as ephedra (also known as má huáng or “Mormon tea”). Recent research seems to be inclining in the direction of ephedra.

Regardless of its true identity, “soma” was ensconced in the Western public imagination by the publication of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in 1932, in which a drug called soma is used as mechanism of social control. More recently, the name has been embraced by the hippie community of northern California. The Wikipedia includes a “soma” article dedicated to a marijuana breeder of that name; the article itself notes that this particular Soma is “internationally known as a ‘Ganja Guru’ after developing award-winning cannabis strains.” I doubt very much, however, that ancient Indo-Iranian folk pharmacologists would have recognized this Soma as a kindred spirit.

The point of this excursion is not to argue that such a deeply anachronistic “proto-hippie thesis” has any merit. It is rather merely to show that making such an argument is possible. All human cultures are complex assemblages of ideas and practices, any number of which can be selected for emphasis. Especially when it comes to poorly understood cultures of the ancient past, we should be wary of any thesis that is based on any kinds of essential traits.

*Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Volume 2: Philippines and Formosa. Edited by Frank M. LeBar. 1975. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files Press. Page 76.


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Mapping Your World Travels – Personalized World Traveler Map Giveaway

GeoCurrents is giving away one of these beautiful traveler’s maps, framed in mahogany and personalized with a brass plaque. They are made by MapYourTravels.com.
Travel is unquestionably one of the best ways to learn geography. Over my 25 years of college teaching, I have no doubt surprised many of my students—and distressed more than a few of their parents—by advising them to travel around the world, or at least to wander aimlessly for a spell in some distant destination, before heading off to graduate school or signing up for a job. Few actually do, but many, I suspect, eventually come to regret that decision. Later in life, obligations build up and schedules fill in, making the kind of leisurely, exploratory travel that pays the highest educational dividends a greater challenge. I have certainly never doubted my own decision to spend six months between college and graduate school traveling widely, without an itinerary, through Southeast Asia. I may have had the worst of times during that period, but I also had the best of times—-and I learned innumerable invaluable lessons about peoples, places, and life in general. As a result, I am disappointed that so few of my students opt for prolonged travel on a shoestring budget. In northern and much of central Europe, the wanderjahr is a much more firmly established tradition, and I think that the Germans and others who partake of such adventures benefit enormously from their experiences. But if travel is to yield its full potential geographical benefits, it should be thoroughly mapped. Aimless wandering can be wonderful, but it is always best to know where you are and to seek to understand how the different places that you visit or pass through fit together. Otherwise, specific locales often tend to blur together over time, reducing the educational benefits. I thus advise any would-be world travelers to always journey with a map in hand, and to retrace their steps on return, ideally by literally marking them out on a map of the appropriate scale. Such a marked map can prove very handy when one reminisces about one’s trips, reexamines old photographs, or even reads the news from the places visited. Plotting out past travels can also be highly useful for planning further adventures; if you can immediately see where you have been, it is easier to figure out where you should go next. Although rough-and-ready maps of past travels can be made on an ad hoc basis, there is much to be said for using products specifically designed for this purpose, especially if such maps are to be exhibited on a wall for all to see. As I also never tire of telling my students, a well-designed map should both convey information and provide aesthetic satisfaction. For those of us enthralled by geography, a good map is a thing of beauty as much as it is a mere depiction of data. One firm, MapYourTravels.com, specializes precisely in providing such handsome and markable maps suitable for hanging on any wall. MapYourTravels has devised its own system for recording where you have been, where you are planning to go, and where you dream of visiting. GeoCurrents is therefore pleased to begin running banners for the company on our website, which you will now see adorning the sidebar. In conjunction with the new banners, we are also happy to announce a contest for our readers, one that will allow the winner to receive a free world traveler wall map from MapYourTravels, complete with a personalized brass plaque that adorns the lower left corner. In so doing, we hope to raise awareness on the internet of both GeoCurrents and MapYourTravels, in addition to encouraging the more general practice of geographically aware travel and exploration.

How To Enter

Interested readers can earn up to 18 entries into the contest by interacting in various ways with the GeoCurrents website and social media outlets, and by sharing this contest with others. To get started, simply sign in to the contest widget below via your email (only used to notify you if you win) or through Facebook. Then click the “Do It” buttons on the tasks you would like to perform to earn their corresponding number of entries. When the contest ends at midnight of August 31st UTC−05:00, we will draw the winner from amongst the recorded entries, announce the winner here on GeoCurrents, and then award our winner with the Personalized World Traveler Map! Winner’s Tip: “Tweet about the Giveaway” is the only entry option that can be done once per day. Rack up the most entries by returning each day to tweet about the contest again. a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Where Is the Caucasus?

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus

Geopolitical Map of the Caucasus For the next two weeks or so, GeoCurrents will examine the Caucasus. This unusually long focus on a particular place derives from several reasons. The Caucasus is one of the most culturally complex and linguistically diverse parts of the world, noted as well for its geopolitical intricacy and intractable conflicts. The region contains three internationally recognized sovereign states (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), three mostly unrecognized self-declared states (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh), and seven internal Russian republics (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia-Alania, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Adygea); in addition, Islamist insurgent have declared a virtual “Northern Caucasus Emirate” in the Russian-controlled part of the region. Struggles in the Caucasus have global ramifications, as was made evident in the summer of 2008 when the Russian military triumphed over the U.S-backed government of Georgia. In world historical terms as well, the Caucasus is surprisingly significant. Several Caucasian ethnic groups—particularly the Ossetians, the Circassians, and the Armenians—have played major roles on a vastly wider stage.

Despite the importance of the Caucasus, the region is often overlooked in the international media. When noticed, it is often portrayed as a remote and violence-plagued place, a jumble of mountains situated at the periphery of some other region: the Russian extreme south, the Middle Eastern extreme north, or the European extreme southeast. The region is also often misconstrued. Confusion can be generated by something as simple as replicated place names. As was recently explored in GeoCurrents, the country of Georgia and the U.S. state of Georgia are often mixed-up in web-searches, while the historical Caucasian kingdoms of Iberia and Albania are sometimes taken for the European peninsula and country of the same names. Befuddlement even attaches to the term “Caucasian,” which in some circumstances refers to the peoples and features of the region, yet in others denotes a supposed biological race more generally associated with Europe.

Satellite Image of the Caucasus The peripheralization of the Caucasus, however, is an artifact of conventional ways of dividing the world, not a reflection of the region’s intrinsic position. By changing the frame of reference, the Caucasus is revealed as a key place, one that historically linked the Black Sea and Caspian Sea basins, and, more broadly, the greater Mediterranean world with the Central Asian realm of the Silk Roads. The region may have formidable mountain barriers, but it also contains a broad swath of lower lands sandwiched between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges, which long formed an important trade corridor and is now a major oil-pipeline route. And if one steps back a little further to examine all of Western Eurasia—the zone from Europe to India—the Caucasus appears as a central place. The direct line, or great circle route, from London to Mumbai passes directly through the lowlands of Georgia and Azerbaijan.

Map of the Larger Caucasus Eco-RegionDefinitions of the Caucasus vary, although most regionalization schemes encompass the same general area. A maximal Caucasus, visible in the map posted here, stretches from the Kuma–Manych Depression in the north to northeastern Turkey and northwestern Iran in the south. A more common definition excludes much of the northern plains as well as the southern highlands in Turkey and Iran, essentially covering the area bracketed by the Greater and Lesser Caucasus ranges along with their adjacent lowlands. The Caucasus as a whole is commonly split into two sub-regions: the Ciscaucasus, which encompasses the Russian-controlled area to the north of the main mountain crest, and the Transcaucasus, which takes in the area to the south (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, essentially). Such terminology, however, is rejected by some for perpetuating a Russian imperial perspective, since the Latin word “cis” means “this side of” where “trans” refers to “the other side of.”

Map of Religion in the CaucasisThe Caucasus does not fit comfortably into any of the basic units of global geography. In the conventional continental scheme, the division between Europe and Asia runs along the crest of the Great Caucasus Range, putting the Ciscaucasus in Europe and the Transcaucasus in Asia. Georgians and Armenians, however, often take offense at this definition, preferring a European over an Asian designation for their homelands.* This continental distinction, some argue, inaptly places the region’s mostly Christian southwest in Asia and its mostly Muslim north in Europe. Yet in practice, the standard Europe/Asia divide means little these days, and few people even realize that the European “continent” officially terminates at the crest of the Great Caucasus. Southwestern Asia, moreover, has gradually been written out of Asia and instead placed in the quasi-continent of the Middle East—but the Middle East rarely includes the Caucasian countries.

Where then does one place the Caucasus, if it does not fit into Europe, Asia, or the Middle East? The default option is to group it with Russia.** Spanning the supposed continental divide, Russia is commonly conceptualized as the core of its own world region, one that also includes Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan as well as a few other former Soviet states. This scheme makes a certain amount of sense. The Caucasus was dominated by Russia from the early 1800s to the late 1900s, and its northern swath is still part of the Russian Federation. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Armenians and especially Georgians began to seek regional reassignment, wanting clear differentiation from the Russian realm.

Most Georgians and Armenians would prefer to have their countries grouped with Europe. Although Europe as a supposed continent does not include the Transcaucasus, there is no reason why all or part of the region cannot be slotted into a politically or economically defined Europe. In fact, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan already belong to the Council of Europe. All three are also officially tied to the European Union through its Eastern Partnership (EaP), along with Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. Evidently, leaders of some EU states see the Eastern Partnership as a stepping-stone for actual membership, whereas others hope to avoid such a possibility. Public opinion polling shows that a substantial majority of Armenians want their country to eventually join the European Union, while key politicians in Georgia have expressed a more immediate desire for membership.

The question of where the Caucasian countries should be regionally classified cannot be clearly answered: it is simply not feasible to divide all parts of the world into ideally demarcated, non-overlapping regions. As far as I am concerned, Georgia can simultaneously be regarded as part of Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and a Russian-focused region. Certain regional frameworks work better than others for certain issues. But it is also true that some parts of the world do not fit well into any of our standard regions, the Caucasus among them. As a result, it is often best to regard the entire area as forming its own distinctive world region. Doing so helps place the Caucasus on the map of the world, positioning it not as an interstitial zone “between” Europe and Asia or Russia and the Middle East, but rather as an important and fascinating place in its own right.

* See the comments in this About.com geography page, which takes on the question: “Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in Asia or Europe?”

** Five of the six leading college-level world regional geography textbooks in the United States, for example, place Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the following regions: Russia, the Russian Realm, Russia and the Post-Soviet States, Russia and Its Neighboring Countries, and Russia and the Near Abroad. The sixth text, my own co-authored Diversity Amid Globalization, takes a different strategy, putting Azerbaijan in Central Asia while slotting Armenia and Georgia into a Russian-based region. I have never been happy with this expedient, which divides the Caucasus and tends to offend Armenians and Georgians.


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Afterword to Terranova: The Black Petaltail; Imagining an Alternative World

Terranova The Black Petaltail by Martin Lewis

(Note: Regular GeoCurrents posts will begin again on Wednesday, January 11.)

Terranova The Black Petaltail by Martin W LewisNote:  The full text of my science fiction novel Terranova: The Black Petaltail can now be downloaded here, and will remain freely available on this website. This long post is designed as an afterword to the novel, explaining the manner in which I have constructed an alternative world and crafted a story based both on that planet and on our own future world.)

Alternative-world fiction often seems to work best when imaginary planets are structured much like Earth yet are marked with a few key variations. I attempted to do precisely this in my own novel, mainly by making “Terranova” a slightly better version of our own world. “Better,” of course, entails a problematic value judgment, but the resulting tension (I hope!) forms grist for novelistic development. At any rate, my imaginary world is slightly more temperate, somewhat more ecologically productive, and—most importantly—a bit more evolutionarily advanced than Earth. On our world, most mammalian lineages have exhibited slowly expanding cranial capacities over the past sixty million years or so; most mammals have, in other words, been gaining basic intelligence, or at least enhanced neural capabilities. On Terranova, such evolutionary processes were allowed to continue to run their course for a few tens of millions of additional years before Homo sapiens made its radical appearance.

Mao of the Western Land From Terranova: The Black PetaltailNovan warm-blooded animals, although still dumb, are thus depicted as noticeably more intelligent than their terrestrial counterparts. What would be entailed, I ask, if the average extraterrestrial dog had greater mental capacities than the smartest dogs on Earth?—which, we now know, can possess vocabularies of over 1,000 words. As it is, I suspect that dogs played a greater role in humankinds’ rise to global ecological dominance than is commonly credited. On Terranova, that role would have been greater still. Several dogs thus form minor characters in the resulting novel.

Crows also play an important role in the novel. Corvids, especially the tool-using New Caledonian Crow, exhibit pronounced mental acuity. I imagine that on a different planet a somewhat more advanced variety of crow might have been tamed and trained to work with dogs for hunting, herding, and conducting war. Such a scenario may be a bit of a stretch; crows have never been domesticated on Earth, in part, no doubt, because their flesh is highly unappetizing. But as working animals, I do think they have potential, owing both to their native intelligence and their social instincts.

Not just the animals of Terranova are depicted as more intelligent than those of Earth; so too are its human inhabitants. Again, the differences are not overwhelming. I have not tried to create super-people, but rather a version of Homo sapiens that is just a little more advanced than our own kind. One goal in imagining such improvement was to allow a “realistic” depiction of a relatively prosperous non-industrial society. Although we often imagine our own past in such terms, the resulting vision is not warranted; before the industrial transition, most agrarian societies were deeply impoverished, disease-ridden, and violence-plagued. By the same token, a slightly more advanced version of our own species allows sophisticated yet realistic dialogue. Few novels or plays represent human conversation as it is actually carried out; almost all eliminate the false starts, gaps, and restatements that characterize actual human speech (to make someone sound like an idiot, all one generally has to do is transcribe verbatim statements). More evolved humans, I reason, would be more articulate than we are, speaking more as we imagine ourselves speaking.

A story based on a more advanced version of humankind that nonetheless remains locked in a pre-industrial economy faces a seeming contradiction. Would not a somewhat smarter human species have advanced more quickly than we did into a technologically driven economy? Actually, I am not so sure. Many blockages to technical advance have emerged over the course of human history, convincing many scholars that the industrial breakthrough was by no means inevitable, regardless of our species’ native intelligence. A steam engine, after all, had been built in antiquity by Heron of Alexandria, yet it was never considered anything but a toy. At the dawn of the modern era, China was in most regards significantly more advanced than Western Europe, yet it exhibited little of the latter region’s dynamism, a phenomenon that historian Mark Elvin has attributed in part to China’s “high level equilibrium trap.” I reason that such “high level traps” could be even more pronounced on a planet inhabited by somewhat more advanced human beings.

Map of the European Empire of Charles VBlockages to development in a pre-industrial society can be enhanced by political unification at the continental or sub-continental scale, as was perhaps the case with imperial China. Here I follow the arguments of a number of historians who contend that Europe’s rise to technological domination was related to its instability; the region’s multitude of competing, warring states allowed sanctuaries for innovation yet helped propel the rapid diffusion of beneficial new social arrangements and technical developments. Had the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V succeeded in unifying the sub-continent under a conservative Roman Catholic monarchy in the 1500s, would Europe have experienced its wrenching transition to modernity several centuries later? I am not so sure.

The constrained historical development of Terranova thus hinges on stability and political unification. Here a massive empire is envisaged as blanketing the largest continent and maintaining links to the rest of its world through an expansive merchant network. Together, the imperial and mercantile orders generated a prolonged period of stasis. But the story unfolds as the tightly constructed Novan world system begins to collapse, undermined by flaws inherent in its structure. The ultimate message, I suppose, is that the dynamism of human progress can be thwarted but not so easily eliminated.

The societies of Terranova are based loosely on historical Earth analogues, although certain salient features are enhanced and elaborated. But as Novan humans are imagined as a bit more evolved than us, and as their planet itself is depicted as a little more ecologically productive and less disease-ridden that our world, systematic differences are encountered here as well. In particular, games are more important on this world than on our own, based on the idea that behavioral neoteny—neoteny being the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood— might be linked to evolutionary advancement. Novan societies are also portrayed as more sexually egalitarian than ours were at a similar stage of technological development. Typical gender distinctions of humankind, however, are retained, although they vary significantly from one part of the planet to another. The most female-empowered society in the novel (based loosely on the Nairs of southwestern India and the Minangkabau of western Sumatra) is by no means depicted as an androgynous, gender-neutral utopia. It is instead envisaged more as a society in which women use their “erotic capital,” as recently spelled out by Catherine Hakim, to maintain sway over men. Whether such portrayals seem credible is obviously for readers to decide.

Although my imaginative efforts long focused on the development of an alternative world, the novel takes places as much on Earth as on Terranova. The name of the imaginary planet tells one as much: “Terranova”—or “new land”— makes sense only from the perspective of our world. As I imagined this planet over the course of many years, I came to picture it as being observed from afar by people from an unspecified time in Earth’s future. When I began writing the novel, I decided to play up this angle for all that it was worth. As I was depicting Terranova at the time of a planetary crisis, I figured that it would heighten the tension to throw Earthling observers into the mix. How would the people of our planet respond, I ask, when witnessing traumatic events being experienced by the human inhabitants of another world? The uncanny similarities of the two planets also encourage philosophical exploration. How would the existence of a human-inhabited alter-world, I inquire, influence cosmological speculations on Earth?

Adding a terrestrial component greatly increased the complexity of the resulting novel. Not only did I have to construct a future Earth, but I also had to link the two planets in a manner that would allow instantaneous observation but not interplanetary travel. In doing so, of course, I had to violate the laws of physics; information, like everything else, cannot travel faster than the speed of light. But while demanding the suspension of disbelief on this issue, I still sought to construct a seemingly realistic mode of indirect interplanetary exploration, extrapolating from emerging technologies. Whether the attempt works is again for readers to decide, but in one sense, the maneuver was perhaps ill advised. After finishing the story, I was unable to convince a literary agent or a publisher even to glance at the manuscript. After a number of form-letter rejections, I finally received something of substance. Based on my two-page prospectus, one agent kindly told me that in an age in which almost everyone carries a smart-phone and habitually surfs the internet, no one is interested any longer in technologically mediated science fiction. This objection seemed absurd at the time, both because Terranova is not really technologically driven, and because I saw little evidence that audiences were rejecting futuristic science fiction. New additions to the Star Trek corpus continue to appeal, and even James Cameron’s blockbuster film Avatar links a future Earth to another world through highly technical means. But convinced that such arguments would get me nowhere, I abandoned the effort to publish the book conventionally.

In retrospect, however, I suspect that the agent’s comment was not entirely off base. Backward-looking fantasy seems to be much more popular these days than forward looking-science fiction. And even in regard to science fiction per se, Terranova may be out of keeping with the temper of the times, not so much because it employs advanced technology, but rather because it embraces it. The novel forwards a basically optimistic view of Earth’s future, whereas many if not most works in the genre foresee decline and doom, with relentless technical advance undermining the human spirit and destroying the global ecosystem. In much speculative fiction, non-industrial societies, whether on Earth or elsewhere, tend to be depicted as harmoniously whole, retaining the social integrity and environmental balance that we have sacrificed to modernity. Cameron’s Avatar typifies this trope, with its marauding moderns assaulting a primordial paradise. This storyline is of long-standing, but was elaborated most insistently by eco-romantics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. More recent scholarship, however, shows that on Earth “primordial peoples” were sometimes environmentally destructive and were usually plagued by incessant violence (Steven Pinker’s recent The Better Angels of Our Nature offers a compelling if perhaps exaggerated exposition of this thesis). But as Cameron shows so well, one can easily retain the “noble savage” narrative by transposing paradise from our own past to some other planet’s future.

I have no objection to portraying non-technological societies as retaining certain wholesome relationships that we have generally lost; indeed, I do much the same in Terranova. I also do not oppose dystopian depictions of our own future. We do have the capacity to destroy our world, and it can be salutary to wrestle with that possibility through fiction. But I have long since tired of the genre; every other science fiction film these days seems to be set in a stock post-apocalyptic world. I am more generally sated with bleak visions, and have thus come to long for depictions of the future that are a little more hopeful.

Although modern audience seem to have an endless appetite for stories of technological Armageddon, I see relatively little actual pining for a return to the pre-industrial past—certainly much less than at the time when I began imagining an alternative world. In many respects, we live in a profoundly technophilic age, one in which high-tech entrepreneurs can become virtual folk heroes. Why then do we tend to shun positive portrayals of a yet more technologically intense future society? Are we too saturated with technology as it is, and thus seek escape into timeless fantasy landscapes where magic takes its place? Or is it due to the fact that we tend to repress our own misgivings about modernity, and thus resonate subconsciously with dystopian expressions? Regardless of the underlying cause, I cannot shake the impression that we have unduly denigrated optimism in this domain, viewing it somehow as vacuous and simpleminded. Serious literature, many seem to think, must discern only a wasteland when either surveying the present or imagining the future.

Any imagining of an improved future runs the risk of descending into utopianism. Yet I fervently reject the utopian imagination. To begin with, those who have actually pushed utopian agendas have tended to generate dystopian outcomes. More broadly, utopianism does not adequately take into account human nature. No matter how healthy, safe, and prosperous our society becomes, we will still fall prey to envy, greed, jealousy and every other human failing, creating our own private hells with abandon. We also quickly habituate to any improvements, soon taking them for granted and finding only exasperation when they malfunction—a phenomenon brilliantly satirized by comedian Louis C. K. in his routine, “Everything Is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” In the future, everything could be even more amazing, but most people would probably be just as miserable as they are now.

The future depicted in Terranova thus derives from what might be called a sub-utopian or “ameliorationist” imagination. I depict improvements in our own society, as well as a somewhat “better” world located some light-years away, but neither is envisaged as ideal in any sense. In the end, I would hope that such a guardedly optimistic viewpoint might have some small beneficial effect. By reveling in doom and gloom, I fear that we risk restricting our own capabilities for effecting positive change.

As a warning to any would-be reader, I would note that the narrative structure of Terranova is rather complicated. The action not only shifts back and forth between the two planets, but the perspective also moves among multiple characters on each world. If the book is read over a prolonged period of time, such shifts might prove confusing. Also significant is the fact that the book is envisioned as the first volume of a trilogy. The main lines of action in The Black Petaltail are wrapped up in the end, but the overarching story is left hanging. Finally, it is important to note that the manuscript offered here is slightly different from the original book. Chapter Three, in particular, has been significantly edited.

Visit this page to download a free copy of Terranova: The Black Petaltail.

Afterword to Terranova: The Black Petaltail; Imagining an Alternative World Read More »

Speculative Fiction, Imagined Geographies, and Social Alternatives

Map of the Imagined Planet Terranova, by M.W. Lewis

People are drawn to history and geography for various reasons. For myself, the major appeals have always been variety and complexity. I find variations in physical environments, social organizations, and belief systems intrinsically interesting. Obscure cultures, places, and times have particular appeal, as they help break the spell of the commonplace. It is all too easy to assume that one’s own cultural milieu is natural, with others deviating from the norm. By the same token, it is easy to regard familiar climates and landscapes as better than non-familiar ones. Such a blinkered imagination is conspicuous in the history of geographical thought, where environmental determinists have almost always located the ideal climate and landscape in or near their own homelands.

Geographical and historical study offers a potentially powerful antidote to such parochial thinking. In different places, one learns, people do things differently, and often do them quite well. And the past is very much, in this sense, a foreign country. The more widely one surveys, the less inevitable the beliefs and arrangements of one’s homeland seem. The same is true in regard to language; the monolingual person often views the grammar of his or her mother tongue as inevitable, and many are shocked to find that other languages do not just use different words, but encode information in fundamentally differently ways. But whereas some are shocked and delighted, others are shocked and horrified; more than a few native English-speakers find noun cases almost diabolical. In the same manner, exposure to foreign ways only solidifies some people’s sense of their own superiority. But at least for those who enjoy travel and reading about other places, the encounter with difference usually has a positive effect.

Science fiction and fantasy literature allows one take the “defamiliarization” of vicarious travel several steps farther. One can imagine arrangements distinct from any found on Earth, whether at present or in the past. An imagination sufficiently disciplined can convey an air of reality to such make-believe, expanding the realm of the seemingly possible. The master of this form of art, to my mind, is Ursula K. Le Guin, author of a several influential and astute science fiction novels. I doubt that it is coincidental that Le Guin’s mother was a noted writer and her father one of the founders of American anthropology (Theodora and Alfred Kroeber). She was evidently well schooled in the human sciences, lending her works a degree of believability despite their imaginative departures from reality as we know it.

As can probably be deduced from the preceding paragraphs and posts, I was once an avid consumer of science fiction and fantasy. I was never obsessive about it, as history and geography always came first; to my mind, descriptions of real places and peoples provide basic sustenance, while imaginative fiction serves best as a dessert course. Yet as I grew older and my education deepened, I found such works growing less delectable. As often as not, novels in the genre failed to convey an aura of believability, based as they were on impossible geographical circumstances. In consuming speculative fiction, of course, one does have to suspend disbelief; impossible things—such as faster than light-speed travel—are often necessarily depicted as routine. But while I had no problem suspending disbelief for the few crucial phenomena necessary for the framework to hold and the story to unfold, I could no longer suspend it across the board. I could not simply pass over unintentionally absurd constructions, those derived more from ignorance than artifice.

My response to this crisis of the imagination was to focus more on my own alter-world. After thrilling to Tolkien as an adolescent, I resolved to build an alternative to Middle-earth, a place where my imagination could run as openly as his. For several years, the land that I eventually dubbed Terranova was a magic-filled but rather formless place, suitable mostly for juvenile play. But as the years went on, magic dropped away as geo-historical elaboration proceeded. I found diversion in imagining a realistic Earthlike planet, providing it with a narrative of historical development and an internally consistent set of social structures and cultural practices. Although I committed nothing to paper for decades, I did build a variegated planet of the imagination. My desire was to make it as complex as that of Tolkien, but otherwise to depart from Middle-earth as much as possible.

In developing an imaginative world, I faced what I came to think of as the paradox of verisimilitude. To serve as a believable home for human (or human-like) beings, such a planet must be much like Earth. But if it is too Earthlike, the exercise becomes pointless: why build another world just like the one that we inhabit? The best solution, it seemed to me, was to restrict the differences to a few crucial variations. That would allow one to explore the ways in which select distinctions might influence historical development. In such a manner, a planet of the imaginative might even become a locus for thought experiments in world history.

The particular differentiating features of Terranova will be the subject of the next GeoCurrents post, the final one in this series.

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The Elaborate and Curious Geographies of Frank Herbert and J. R. R. Tolkien

Bird's Map of Middle-earth Transposed on Europe According to most sources, the best-selling science fiction novel of all time is Frank Herbert’s Dune. When it comes to fantasy literature, nothing compares with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Both works build intricate worlds, giving obsessive attention to detail. Such elaboration proves compelling to many readers, providing what seem to be fully realized alternatives to Earth. Yet in terms of their basic geography, Herbert’s Arrakis and Tolkien’s Middle-earth fail to cohere as real worlds.

Arrakis of Dune, like most Star Wars worlds, is a single-environment planet. It is entirely and absolutely desertic, experiencing no rainfall. Unlike the desert orbs of Star Wars, Arrakis is fleshed out as a complex ecological system. As a result, Herbert was lauded as planet-building pioneer and an ecological visionary. As the New York Times book review noted, “So completely did Mr. Herbert work out the interactions of man and beast and geography and climate that Dune became the standard for a new sub-genre of ‘ecological’ science fiction.” The Wikipedia article on the author goes to note that, “As popularity of Dune rose, Herbert embarked on a lecture tour of college campuses, explaining how the environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants were analogous to our own.”

In actuality, the “environmental concerns of Dune’s inhabitants” were nothing at all like our own, largely because the imagined ecology of their planet was impossible, violating the tenets of biology at every turn. Arrakis is supposed to support some of the same desert vegetation as Earth (date palms, saguaro cactus, and so on), yet it gets no rain and has no standing water. In earlier epochs, we learn, Arrakis had been a humid planet, but its oceans were sucked dry by an introduced species that “encysted” virtually all water in “living cisterns” deep below the surface. Other similarly wild eco-fantasies follow, but recounting them seems pointless. Suffice it to say that Herbert’s alternative world is carefully constructed, wildly imaginative, and largely illogical, typifying the romantic sensibilities of the 1960s counter-culture.

The counter-culture of the 1960s also embraced the work of Tolkien, although the Lord of the Rings derives from a different sensibility, that of anti-modernist Christianity. Like Herbert, Tolkien was an extraordinarily inventive, detail-obsessed author who created his own intricate alternative universe, only glimpses of which are revealed in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Yet in terms of its basic geography, Tolkien’s world-making endeavor was not adequate to the task.

It is perhaps unfair to take on Tolkien for the failure of his world-construction program. Tolkien’s imagination, after all, was mythological thwarting the development of realistic geography. He depicted his imagined world, for example, as having originally been a flat disc orbited by the sun, moon, and other celestial objects. Here mountains were raised not by gradual geological processes but by the precipitous actions of demiurges: “Melkor raised the Misty Mountains to impede the progress of the Vala Orome as he hunted Melkor’s beasts during the period of darkness prior to the awakening of the Elves.” Tolkien also gave short shrift to basic planetary description. Although his mytho-historical back-story covers eons of time and fills heavy volumes, he never bothered to “finalize the geography for the entire world associated with [his novels],” according specialized “Lord of the Rings Wiki.”

Assessing Tolkien’s depiction of an alternative world is further challenged by the fact that that it was not actually a different planet. His stories take place on Earth itself, as visualized in a different period of time—or more precisely, a different period of the imagination. All action plays out in northwestern “Middle-earth,” a continent that would eventually be transformed into Eurasia. In Tolkien’s elaborate para-cosmology, the intertwined planets of the solar system are deemed Arda, and Earth itself is called Ambar (or Imbar). Tolkien’s cosmology is pre-Copernican and non-scientific, embedding elements of ancient European mythology within a deeply Christian moral framework.

The general equation of Middle-earth with western Eurasia has led to the search for more specific correspondences. Tolkien always located the Shire in England, but otherwise remained vague on this score. A map by Peter Bird, however, depicts specific linkages. (Bird is a geology and geophysics professor at UCLA; his map was posted by Frank Jacobs on Strange Maps, and is reposted here.) According to Bird’s interpretation, the evil land of Mordor is located in Transylvania, yet again demonizing a perfectly normal place. (I prefer to think of Transylvania as the birthplace not of Dracula, but rather of Unitarianism.)

Considering his pre-modern, anti-scientific sensibility, Tolkien can hardly be expected to have constructed a rigorous geographical foundation for his para-world. But he certainly thought of Middle-earth as a physical place, inhabited by organic beings, including humans. Such beings have physical needs, and if the story is to have the ring of believability, such needs must be met. Yet repeatedly in Lord of the Rings, major agglomerations of various species of “people” live in areas where they could not possibly have provisioned themselves, given their economies. Consider the vast underground cities—indeed, kingdoms—of the “dwarves,” beings who produced no food, trading minerals and craft objects to humans to obtain sustenance. Although a small caste of specialized miners would have been perfectly reasonable, an entire species in the same niche and building gargantuan subterranean cities is precluded by basic demographic considerations.

Whenever I raise such objections with my children, their response is simple: “magic: the same reason why Legolas’s quiver is always full.” This reliance on magic (if that is indeed the case) to resolve such mundane contradictions strikes me as a cop-out. Tolkien, after all, devoted extraordinary effort to building the history, mythology, and languages of Middle-earth. Here, his obsessive scholarly attention gives his alter-world a level of complexity unsurpassed by any other, surely one of the major reasons for its unparalleled success. But Tolkien was a philologist, not a geographer or historian, and his attention wavered when it came to the more commonplace aspects of actual existence.

Academic criticisms of Tolkien have tended to focus on his racism, whether explicit or implicit. Evidence for and against such accusations is discussed at length in a Tolkien Gateway article, and thus needs no rehashing here; suffice it to say that although troublesome racial imagery pervades his work, Tolkien’s letters show that he was by no means a hard-core racist, at least by the standards of his time. But his basic worldview was profoundly paleoconservative. Such a stance is evident in his rejection of science in favor of mythos, his association of technological progress with evil*, his male-dominated and sexuality-shunning social depictions, and especially his celebration of the political legitimacy of bloodlines. The notion of a “true king,” whose rightful position of power derives from direct descent from a storied monarch of old, was reactionary long before Tolkien’s birth.

As a mythology creator, of Tolkien is unmatched. His characters are compelling, his stories are gripping, and his creation of languages is staggeringly impressive. His work proved powerful enough to essentially create a genre. Yet as much as I am drawn to Tolkien, I find his alter-world a grim and often repellent place that makes less sense the more it is scrutinized. It also strikes me as odd indeed that modern democracy-embracing audiences do not seem bothered by his retrograde depiction of an idealized human society.

*Rejection of technology has been generally associated with the far left since the 1960s, but it is historically associated much more with the far right, and is certainly highly “conservative” in the original sense of the term.


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