Geography in the Media

The Political Regions of Europe and the Fallacy of Environmental Determinism

Europe Political Orientation MapGeoCurrents reader Rafael Ferrero-Aprato recently brought to my attention an interesting map of political divisions in Europe made by the Dutch electoral geographer Josse de Voogd and reproduced by The Economist in 2014. Josse de Voogd notes the difficulties and limitations in making a map of this sort: “Some countries [are covered] in much greater detail than others and there are lots of political parties that are difficult to place ideologically. The information comes from a wide range of resources over a long time-span.” In general terms, the map seems reasonably accurate. But at the more local scale, the situation often gets too complex to be easily captured in a map of this sort. As Rafael Ferrero-Aprato notes in regard to his own country, Portugal:

Speaking for Portugal though, the red corresponds to the strongly leftists regions of Alentejo/South Ribatejo (because of the latifundium agricultural system) and Setúbal Peninsula (an industrial region). It includes also the moderately leftist areas of the north Algarve, lower Beira Interior and Lisbon. So far, so good.

But after giving it more attention, the borders are not perfect: they include south Algarve (moderately right-wing) and the city of Porto, despite it being considered right-wing. Some leftist “enclaves” are missing too, such as the peninsula of Peniche (industrial fishing) and the city of Marinha Grande (industrial).

The Alentejo, Setúbal Peninsula, Peniche and Marinha Grande were also areas of strong influence of the Portuguese Communist Party during the 1926-74 dictatorships, the only force that remained organized in the face of strong repression by the regime. As such, these regions saw numerous revolts during that time.

Germany Electoral Maps 1The only country that seems to be misconstrued on the map—at least for recent elections—is Germany. As the set of maps from Electoral Geography 2.0 indicates, German elections have recently been structured largely Germany Electoral Maps 2around a north/south division, especially those of 1998, 2002, and 2005. The 1994 and 1987 (West Germany only) maps fit better with de Voogd’s depiction, although it does seem that he unduly minimizes the left-wing Ruhr industrial area.

European right-wing populism mapUnfortunately, the interpretation of de Voogd’s cartography by The Economist is not particularly enlightening. Much of the attention here focuses on environmental determinism, referring both to the map discussed above and to another map made by de Voogd, posted here to the left. As the noted in The Economist article:

Flat areas are more right wing The flat pains of southern Sweden, East Anglia, north-eastern France, Flanders and Padania vote for right-wing populists. Hilly regions like Cumbria, south-west France and most of the Alps tend to stick with the mainstream parties. This observation is not as facetious as it may seem. According to Garry Tregidga, an historian at Exeter University, hilly pastoral areas are generally characterised by left-leaning politics. One debatable explanation is that flat crop-growing areas benefit most from economies of scale, so fathers traditionally passed on their land to the first born, reinforcing differences in wealth and creating a more hierarchical political culture. In hilly, pastoral areas inheritances were more commonly split equally, which over the generations created a more egalitarian social structure and political tradition. Another (equally debatable) explanation is that arable farms need cheap vegetable-pickers and that the consequent foreign immigration into otherwise homogeneous rural areas stokes right-wing sentiment.

Europe physical mapThe Economist author simply gets the physical geography of Europe wrong. Upper Saxony in Germany and Provence in France are correctly depicted as right-wing populist strongholds, yet they are hardly flat areas. And as the “dominant political force” map indicates, many “flat” areas generally vote for the left. Examples here include southwestern France (Aquitaine is not “hilly,” despite what The Economist claims), the lowlands of Scotland, the Brandenburg region of Germany, the plains of Andalucía, and the lower Danube Valley. And what of upland area such as the Alps, the Carpathians, the Pindus, and the Cantabrian Mountains that are accurately depicted as more “rightist” in their voting patterns? As a comparison of de Voogd’s basic political map with a physical map of Europe shows, there is simply no pan-European correlation between topography and political viewpoints.

Like most geographers, I am often perplexed by the hold that environmental determinism retains on the public imagination. Actual evidence is rarely able to dislodge such fallacies. Evidently there is something deep comfortable about the idea that landforms and climate determine how we think.

NPR’s Incomplete Story on “Trimmigants” in the California Marijuana Industry

Emerald Triangle MapOn December 4, 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) ran an interesting story on a severely underreported matter: international seasonal labor migration to the “Golden Triangle” of marijuana cultivation in northwestern California. This report—“With Harvest Season, ‘Trimmigrants’ Flock To California’s Pot Capital”*—captured many of the more intriguing and important aspects of the phenomenon. But it also missed some significant things and made a few doubtful assertions. This post seeks to provide a more comprehensive picture.

Before proceeding, it is necessary to outline my own sources of information. Although the evidence in most GeoCurrents posts derives from a variety of published materials and on-line sources, this one relies entirely on oral interviews. Since my earliest years, I have spent a considerable amount of time recreating in Mendocino County, arguably California’s cannabis core (neighboring Humboldt County, however, would contest that claim). After a close friend moved to the county, I began to meet his neighbors and attend local events. I have been to road-association meetings, informal community gatherings, and even assemblies devoted to dealing with troublesome neighbors. The last-mentioned gathering led to a particularly riveting experience: an afternoon in a Mendocino County courtroom considering requests for restraining orders. As the case that I was interested in came last, I got to witness six compelling micro-dramas, several of which involved marijuana cultivation in one way or another. The tragedy, pathos, and unintended comedy of the proceedings surpassed anything that I have seen on film or in television shows.

I have devoted time to exploring Mendocino County because I find it an environmentally gorgeous and culturally captivating place. Eventually, although probably not until retirement, I plan to write a historical geography of the county, focusing on the history of land-use. I have not yet dipped into the local archives, but I have been informally gathering oral histories from talkative residents for some time.

After listening to the NPR story mentioned above, I arranged to meet first with a few marijuana growers and then with a group of itinerant workers to discuss the issues faced by “trimmigrants.” The growers interviewed all run small-scale operations that are as legal as possible. They cultivate under medical license, remain within the county’s 25-plant limit, and sell their product to official medical dispensaries. All of them found the NPR report to be insightful but incomplete and somewhat exaggerated. But my sample of growers, it is necessary to note, is both highly limited and confined to one small area. As a result, this post should not necessarily be taken as representative of the larger enterprise.

According to the NPR story, European trimmers are favored by most growers over American youths, who are often disparaged as “hippie kids.” The reporter interviewed a young man named Fermin who had been unsuccessfully seeking work for a month and was forced to “dumpster dive” for food. My sources were not surprised by Fermin’s plight, but they nonetheless expressed doubt that American trimmers per se face discrimination. In their operations, local youths are the first to be hired and the last to be let off. Partly this is due to basic community ties, but it is also a matter of these youngsters’ deep experience with a demanding job. One local girl joked about “being born with a pair of scissors in my hand,” and others told of not being allowed to watch television or listen to music as children until their daily allotments had been trimmed. But people like Fermin, scruffy outsiders with Pit Bull Terriers, would only be hired in a case of desperation.

Fermin’s problems extend beyond his appearance, choice of pet, and lack of local contacts to encompass his gender. Men, everyone agreed, are disfavored when it comes to the delicate job of trimming. Although they agreed that they were being “politically incorrect,” the growers insisted that women have, on average, much better fine-motor skills than men, as well as more patience with a grindingly monotonous task that often goes on for more than twelve hours a day. Trimmers are usually paid by the pound, as noted by NPR, and as a result the slower-working men make much less money than the generally faster women. But quality also factors in, as buds must be carefully manicured but not trimmed down so much as to cut into the weight, and workers must remain vigilant in searching for mold, the growers’ worst nightmare. Relatively few men, I was informed, can pass the test of the more demanding artisanal cannabis cultivators. When young men do find work, it is more often in harvesting, hanging buds, and covering unharvested plants with plastic sheeting before rain events. There is much less demand, however, for this kind of labor than there is for trimming.

Of the seasonal workers I interviewed, four were locals (three female, one male) and four were Spaniards (all female). Three of the Spaniards came from the same part of Spain, an area well known for both its high-end tourism and countercultural flair. Some of them have been coming to the Emerald Triangle for years, but one was on her first trip, having been tearfully forced to leave a 14-year-old daughter at home. They all talked about the difficulty of finding employment in Spain, and all maintained that a two-month stint in California could allow them to subsist for the rest of the year back home. Getting work for the full two months, however, did not always prove easy, as small-scale growers only hire trimming crews for a week or two. As a result, they had all traveled back and forth among different “grows” in Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties. In finding such work, all were indebted to another person hailing from the same region of Spain. This woman’s outsized personality and immense knowledge of cannabis processing, gained in Morocco and India as well as in Spain and the United States, allows her to serve as a kind of informal, international go-between. When issues arose among the workers and between the workers and their employers, she would be called, in Spain, for consultation.

Other aspects of the NPR story generated skepticism among the growers. They scoffed at the assertion of one cultivator who claims to harvest eight pounds per plant, and then laughed when he said that the plants in question are of the OG Kush variety. Eight-pound plants are legendary: everyone has heard of them, but no one has actually seen one. And while OG Kush is indeed the cultivar of the year, in hot demand by the metropolitan cognoscenti, but it is a notoriously poor producer, usually yielding fewer than two pounds per plant. In the end, my sources could not decide whether the grower interviewed by NPR was greatly exaggerating the yield of his plants, or whether they themselves needed to do something to improve their own cultivation.

The NPR story ended, as these things often do, on a doleful note:

But as laws around the country change — making marijuana legal — analysts say the pay scale is bound to go down, making trimming more like any other low-paid farmwork. And, like farmwork across the country, marijuana production is already becoming mechanized — gradually making trimmigrants a thing of the past.

California-top-cash-crops-1024x638These assertions, not surprisingly, generated much discussion. The first elicited general agreement: the prospect of full legalization makes growers nervous. The idea that mechanization is replacing manual trimming, however, evoked only scoffing. Attempts have been made, they told me, but all have failed. One grower even purchased a $14,000 automatic trimmer a few years ago, a machine designed to process hops (Humulus [hops] and Cannabis are very closely related plants). But the buds had to be pre-trimmed before going into the mechanism, as it cannot handle large stems, and then post-trimmed after coming out, as medical-marijuana dispensaries are exacting customers. More problematic, the machine had to be shut down and cleaned several times an hour, as the resinous buds would quickly gum-up the cutting blades. After a few days of operation, the machine was put into storage and has remained there ever since.

But as alluded to above, threats to marijuana cultivation across the Emerald Triangle are very real. Prices are steadily dropping, and some growers are now having a difficult time making ends meet. The real problem is that of competition from indoor cultivation, which is coming to dominate the market. Indoor buds are more uniform than those grown under the sun, generally have less mold, and are usually more potent as well. As a result, they command a steep price premium, and many medical dispensaries are no longer even willing to sell outdoor pot.

The growers that I interviewed are both dumbfounded and heartbroken by this development, as indoor cannabis cultivation is one of the most environmentally destructive forms of agriculture imaginable, whereas their own “sun grown” product is environmentally benign. They cannot understand why the marijuana market, of all things, would disdain organic farming and instead embrace a hyper-technological, eco-hostile form of production. Regional and generational antipathies also come into play. My interviewees are mostly in their 50s and 60s, and they strongly identify with the neo-rural cultural values of the Emerald Triangle; their indoor competitors, in contrast, are mostly in their 20s and 30s, and are largely based in major metropolitan areas. “We invented this business in the 1970s,” my sources argued, “and we did so under extraordinarily adverse conditions, and now these environmentally unconscionable kids, these corporate wannabe LA pot-snobs, are undermining our livelihoods! How can that be?”

Farmers, in my experience, almost always complain, about both the weather and their agricultural markets, whether they grow wheat, corn, or cannabis. But as we shall see in subsequent posts coming next week, the environmental arguments made by Mendocino County pot growers are difficult to deny.

*The text version of this article at the NPR website is abbreviated; listen to the audio version for the full story.

Note that the location for the story has been keyed to Mendocino’s county seat, Ukiah, rather than to the actual places of cultivation and processing alluded to in the post.

The New York Times’ Impressive Collection of Iraq/Syria Maps

Mount Sinjar MapAs long-time readers of GeoCurrents may have noted, I have rather mixed feelings about the New York Times. I am often critical of Times articles and columnists, and I find the newspaper’s coverage of world events too spotty and incomplete to be satisfying. But I also start off every morning with the print edition, and I can’t imagine doing otherwise. Sometimes I find the Times truly impressive. A case in point is a current on-line series of maps, photographs, and satellite images called A Visual Guide to the Crisis in Iraq and Syria. I have reproduced a few of the images here — the rest are worth a look as well.

June Advance on Baghdad mapA few words are in order about why I chose these particular images, even though several of them are out of date. In regard to “A Closer Look at Mt. Sinjar,” the detail is simply astounding: one dot for every vehicle! The Time’s hybrid map-satellite-images, such as “Encroaching on Baghdad,” are innovative, informative, and visually arresting. A somewhat similar map, “U.S. Strikes Militants Near Erbil,” puts the issue in an intriguing spatial perspective. One also gets a good sense of the circular layout of Erbil, including the old walled-city, deemed here the “Historic citadel” but sometimes called Hawler Castle (see below)* Satellite photos on the New York Hawler_CastleTimes’ Iraq-Syria image collection, such as Strikes Near Kobani“Destruction in Kobani,” are also both informative and striking.

Strikes Near Erbil MapIn regard to Kobani itself, I find it interesting that a variant of the city’s Kurdish name has triumphed in the media. When it first came to global attention earlier this year—if my memory serves accurately—the Arabic name `Ayn al-`Arab (“Spring of the Arabs”) was more often used. Evidently, the tendency is to prefer Kurdish names for Kurdish places (The actual Romanized Kurdish spelling of the town, however, is Kobanê rather than Kobani.) But if this tendency were to be carried out to the end, we would have to quit writing about Erbil (or Irbil), the Iraqi Kurdish capital, and instead write of Hewlêr (or Hawler). Perhaps we should, although “Erbil” sounds more evocative to my ear.

Returning to the Times’ Iraq-Syria visual series, it is significant that a number of the maps found here were based on those of Mike Izady, perhaps the world’s most accomplished cultural cartographer. GeoCurrents has examined some of Izady’s maps before, but it is time to revisit them, as he keeps adding to his impressive collection. Posts later this well will examine his recent mapping in more detail.

*According to the Wikipedia, “It has been claimed that the site [the Citadel of Erbil] is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world.” Other towns, however, make the same claim, such as Jericho. As noted in the Wikipedia article entitled List of Cities by Time of Continuous Habitation, “The age claims listed are generally disputed and may indeed be obsolete. Differences in opinion can result from different definitions of “city” as well as “continuously inhabited” and historical evidence is often disputed.”





Can We Map State Instability?

The previous post showed that the Fragile States Index did not capture the fragility of Syria and Libya on the eve of the so-called Arab Spring. The question is then raised about the performance of other indices of state weakness in this this regard. As it turns out, they did little better.

World Bank 2010 Political Stability MapConsider, for example, the World Bank’s 2010 map of political instability (which, unfortunately, simultaneously assesses “absence of violence/terrorism,” a somewhat different issue). On purely cartographic grounds, the map is a disaster: employing an inappropriate Mercator projection, it makes Greenland appear to be the global core of political stability, while its incomplete labeling system is misleading at best. But our concern here is with its categorization scheme, which is also problematic. Note that it placed Libya in the same category of stability as Spain and Brazil, while slotting Syria in the same group as Turkey, China, Russia, and India. What really seems odd, however, is the placement of South Korea, Germany, the UK, and the US in the same category as Mozambique, Benin, and Turkmenistan.

Economist Political Instablity MapThe Economist Intelligence Unit’s Political Instability Index for 2009-2010 was little better. It put Libya in the same “moderate risk” category as France, the Netherlands, and South Korea. It also depicted Syria as more stable than Cambodia, Ecuador, or the Dominican Republic.

In comparing the various political instability indices from 2010, some intriguing discrepancies stand out. Note that the Economist Intelligence Unit depicted Ethiopia as relatively stable, whereas the World Bank placed it in the most unstable category, as did the Fragile States Index (see the previous post). Different criteria are obviously being used to assess instability.

World Bank 2012 Political Instablity MapIn regard to more recent maps, the World Bank’s 2012 assessment (its latest) does a somewhat better job, capturing the extreme instability of Syria and Libya. This map does, however, seem to stumble in other parts of the world; note that it depicts South Sudan as more stable that Iran or Colombia. A related 2012 World World Bank Government Effectiveness MapBank Map, this one purporting to measure “government effectiveness,” is less explicable. It classifies Syria as having a more “effective government” than North Korea. Brutal as the North Korean government is, it does at least govern the entire country, unlike the collapsing Syrian government of 2012.

Maplecroft Political Risk MapMaplecroft’s 2014 Dynamic Political Risk map makes more intuitive sense than most of its competitors. Still, it seems as if a number of countries are rated as more stable then they actually are, including Ukraine, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. Burma (Myanmar), on the other hand, is probably more stable than the map indicates. Maplecroft, a private British “global risk analytics firm,” takes a step beyond most of its competitors by making concrete predictions. As its webpage states:

Maplecroft predicts that the situation in Syria (2nd), Libya (8th) and Egypt (15th) is now so bad that these countries will be mired in exceptionally high levels of dynamic political risk for years to come. This ‘vicious circle’ reflects the self-reinforcing impact of extremely poor governance, conflict, high levels of corruption, persistent regime instability and societal dissent and protest. Illustrating this point, seven of the worst countries for political risk – Somalia (1st), Afghanistan (3rd), Sudan (4th), DR Congo (5th), Central African Republic (6th), South Sudan (9th) and Iraq (10th) – have stayed among the bottom 10 in the Political Risk Atlas for the last six years.

Such predictions seem reasonable. Still, I do wonder if one needs to conduct the detailed and expensive analyses that Maplecroft carries out in order to reach such conclusions.

Wikipedia Dispute Index MapA completely different method of assessing political instability is found in the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map, which, as it name implies, simply measures disputes in regard to Wikipedia articles pertaining to each country. This map derives from a 2011 PLOS article entitled “Content Disputes in Wikipedia Reflect Geopolitical Instability,” by Gordana Apic, Matthew Betts, and Robert B. Russell. The authors contend that the patterns that they uncovered correlate well with other measurement of geopolitical instability. As they contend:

It is remarkable that so simple a metric can agree so well with more complex measures of political and economic stability. We do not mean to suggest that this indicator could replace existing metrics since the issues mentioned above related to sparse data and language currently preclude this possibility. However, this work does demonstrate that information contained within resources like Wikipedia can be used in interesting and useful new ways that can ultimately complement more arduous metrics.

Although the Wikipedia Dispute Index Map is intriguing, as are the methods used to generate it, I have my doubts about its usefulness. Do the many disputes about Wikipedia articles on Saudi Arabia actually indicate that the country is severely unstable? That seems unlikely. On the other hand, I suspect that Saudi Arabia is more fragile in the long run than its depictions on the other maps of global instability would indicate.

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.

Tiny …. Bolivia?

Tiny BoliviaOne of my pet peeves is the journalistic use of the term “tiny” to refer to sizable but generally ignored countries. In my book, to be considered “tiny” a country must be small indeed, something on the order of Malta (316 sq. km or 122 square miles) or perhaps Luxembourg (2,586.4 sq. km or 999 square miles). (For countries smaller still, such as Liechtenstein [160 sq. km, or 62 square miles] or especially Monaco [2.02 sq. km or 0.78 square miles], I would be inclined to use a different term, such as “exiguous.”). Many journalists, however, use the term “tiny” for vastly larger states. On February 16, 2014, I came across the most extreme form of such adjectival stretching that I have ever encountered in a New York Times article entitled, “Turnabout in Bolivia as Economy Rises From Instability.” The offending passage runs as follows:

Tucked away in the shadow of its more populous and more prosperous neighbors, tiny, impoverished Bolivia, once a perennial economic basket case, has suddenly become a different kind of exception — this time in a good way.

Tiny Bolivia? Bolivia, with its 1,098,581 sq. km (424,165 square miles), easily makes the list of the world’s 30 largest countries, with an area roughly three times that of Germany and four times that of the United Kingdom. By any reasonable criteria, Bolivia is a large country.

It might be objected that the New York Times was referring to the population of Bolivia, not its area. But when such size terms as “tiny” are used for geopolitical units, the reference is generally assumed to be area and not population: would anyone, for example, call Alaska a “tiny state” owing to the fact that it has the fourth smallest population (731,000) in the United States, which is roughly one fifteenth that of Bolivia? I very much doubt it. But more to the point, Bolivia’s population, some 10 million strong, can hardly be considered “tiny,” as it outranks those of more than half of the world’s sovereign states. Nor is the population of Bolivia particularly small in contrast to those of its neighbors, excepting Brazil. Chile (16.6 million) is in the same general league, as is smaller Paraguay (6.8 million). In economic terms, moreover, Bolivia and Paraguay also fall into the same general category, with per capita GDP (PPP) figures of $5,000 and $6,100 respectively. (One can also object to the assertion that Bolivia was until recently “a perennial economic basket case,” but that brings up a different issue altogether.)

I suspect that the term “tiny” in this circumstance means something unrelated to size. It refers rather to perceptions of importance. It sometimes seems that in the minds of the journalistic elite, countries with relatively small economies such Bolivia are considered insignificant and hence ignorable so long as they pose no direct threats to the world’s “non-tiny” economic powers. What is more disturbing is the fact that even major events in vastly more economically important countries are often by-passed or downplayed by the mainstream media, as highlighted by an incisive recent post in Caracas Chronicles. As the author concludes,

The level of disengagement on display is deeply shocking. Venezuela’s domestic media blackout is joined by a parallel international blackout, one born not of censorship but of disinterest and inertia. It’s hard to express the sense of helplessness you get looking through these pages and finding nothing. Venezuela burns; nobody cares.

Today’s New York Times does cover the unrest in Venezuela, but it relegates the story to the fourth page.


The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: A Media Failure?

Circassian ProtestWhen lecturing on the Caucasus last fall, I asked my Stanford students if any of them had ever heard of the Circassians. Out of a class of roughly 100 students, two raised their hands. I then told that class that the Circassians had once been an extremely well known if often misunderstood ethnic group, and I predicted that by February 2014 they would again be in the news, owing to the fact that the Sochi Olympics would be held in their ancestral homeland. I trusted Circassian activists to get their story out, and I was reasonably sure that the mainstream media would pick it up, due both to the controversial nature of Russian ethnic policies and especially to the fact that Circassian history is both tragic and absolutely fascinating.

Thus far, I have been disappointed, as it seems that most mainstream media organizations are content to downplay if not ignore the Circassian issue. To be sure, several outlets have posted excellent articles on the topic, including Frankie Martin’s “The Olympics’ Forgotten People” on CNN and Kathrin Hille’s “Sochi Stirs Circassian Nationalism” in the Financial Times. (Of particular note in the latter article is the important but rather understated observation that, “Russia is working on a new set of history textbooks after Mr. Putin demanded they be reworked to present a unified set of evaluations and reflect a more patriotic world view. Circassian hopes to have their full story told could collide with this.”) In an interesting article in Time magazine, Ishaan Tharoor appropriately characterizes the Circassians as “a forgotten community.” (See also this article in The New Republic.)

Most news organizations, however, apparently prefer to ignore or downplay the issue. A Washington Post video entitled “The Sochi Olympics, Explained in Two Minutes,” for example, fails to mention the Circassians. An NBC article on a hacking attack on the Russian media does mention the group, but just barely, claiming that, “the official Twitter feed of Anonymous Caucasus said the action was a protest at the 19th Century deportation of thousands of native Circassians from the region.” The implication that mere “thousands” were merely “deported” is both misleading and insulting: in actuality, hundreds of thousands were brutally expelled, with many dying in the process.

NY Times Caucasis religion mapAn important February 5 article in the New York Times, “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone,” Steven Lee Myers does a reasonable good job of explaining the situation in Chechnya, and we are pleased that his article used a modified GeoCurrents language map in its on-line version. But the article still fails the Circassians, dispensing with their situation as follows: “Many of the ethnic groups in the Caucasus are related to the Circassians, who consider Sochi part of their homeland, conquered by the Russians in the 19th century after what activists today hope to publicize as an act of genocide.” Unfortunately, the characterization is again misleading if not simply inaccurate. The vast majority of the ethnic groups of the Caucasus are not “related” to the Circassians in any sense other than that of living in the same general area, and the Russian conquest of the area came before not “after” the events that most Circassian activists consider genocidal. The religion map that accompanies the article (in the on-line version), moreover, fails to show a Muslim minority in the Russian Republic of Adygea, which forms something of a rump homeland for a mostly Muslim Circassian group. (Adygea is actually only about a quarter Circassian by population, and, according to official statistics, about 13 percent of its population is Muslim.) The New York Times map is based on the comprehensive cartography of M. Izady, but unfortunately Izady’s map does not extent far enough to the northwest to include Adygea.

Caucasius religion mapThe New York Times article in question focuses on Islamist militants in Chechnya and Dagestan, which is understandable at one level, given the security threats that they pose. But Sochi is relatively far from Chechnya and Dagestan, and, as the Times own maps show, the Sochi region has seen few terrorist attacks or insurgent strikes. Historical Circassia, on the other hand, encompasses Sochi and its environs. Equally important is the fact that the Circassian strategy has been, as far as I can tell, completely non-violent, in utter contrast to the situation in Chechnya. Surely that is noteworthy in its own right. If news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: “If you want our attention, kill someone!”

Map-of-all-terrorist-attacks-near-Sochi-since-Russia-awarded-Winter-Olympics-Jun-07-ImgurRegardless of such ethical considerations, the saga of the Circassians is a fascinating story. As outlined in earlier GeoCurrents posts, the Circassians were once famous over in many areas for their supposed physical beauty and regal bearing. They also filled an unexpected but highly significant historical role as elite slaves, both male and female, in the Ottoman Empire and Mamluk Egypt. (It would take a dull mind indeed not to find the topic of “elite slaves” intriguing!) The ability of Circassians to rise to relatively high positions in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan is also of some interest. The current plight of the 40,000 to 130,000 Circassians in Syria, moreover, is grossly under-reported in the global media. Religion among the Circassians is another captivating topic. Although most Circassians are Sunni Muslim, conversion came relatively late and, according to some sources, was somewhat superficial in some areas. Of significance in this regard is Adyghe Khabze (or Xabze) the traditional ethnic “code of conduct,” described on one Circassian website as “the epitomy of Circassian culture and tradition.” Most interpretations view Adyghe Khabze as a secular institution that is not at all incompatible with Islam, but the Wikipedia article on the subject portrays it as a religion in its own right, influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. The same article also claims that an Adyghe Khabze movement is growing rapidly, and that some of its leaders have come under deadly attack from Sunni extremists. A 2010 report by the Jamestown Foundation claims that “some observers detected in the latest killings [of an Adyghe Khabze advocate] in Kabardino-Balkaria an attempt by Moscow to play off Circassian nationalists against the Islamists.”

I would be very interested in readers’ ideas about why the Circassian issue has failed to gain the attention of most major news organizations. I suspect that the one reason is that many reporters and editors feel that the story is simply too complicated, and that as a result they fear that it would unduly burden their readers. The storyline of the Caucasus that the media has embraced focuses on extremism and violence in Chechnya and environs, and thus has little room for anything that would complicate that accepted narrative. Such tunnel vision seems to apply to other parts of the world as well. Thus in Sudan, the media periodically reports on Darfur, but hardly ever mentions the on-going horrors of the conflict in the Nuba Hills (South Kordofan)– despite the fact that George Clooney has struggled to bring it to global attention. And Sudan’s Eastern Front rebellion receives even less attention.

If this interpretation has any merit, the situation is most unfortunate. The reading public deserves more comprehensive information, and the failure of the mainstream media to provide it is perhaps one reason why many established news organizations are declining, while the often-disparaged “blogosphere” continue to rise.


Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East

Robin Wright's Remapped Middle EastI was taken aback this past Sunday (September 29) by Robin Wright’s colorful map of a politically re-divided Middle East in the New York Times, which illustrated her article “Imagining a Remapped Middle East.” The map, entitled “How 5 Could Become 14,” shows a hypothetical future division of Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia into 14 potential new countries along with two additional city-states. I was immediately reminded of Ralph Peters’ troublesome remapping of the same region. As explained in a previous GeoCurrents post, Peters’ intriguing mental exercise in redrawing national boundaries was widely misinterpreted across the Muslim world as indicating a nefarious plot to enhance US power. As a result, the region’s pronounced anti-Americanism was further inflamed.

Ralph Peters' Remapped Middle EastWright’s article, however, shows that her purpose is different from that of Peters. Whereas Peters sought to depict a more rationally constituted political map, Wright rather speculates about a map that might be developing on its own, regardless of her personal preferences, much less her country’s geo-strategic designs. In this regard, the map has much to recommend it. Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq could well be in the process of disintegration, splitting into de facto states or state-like entities that might bear some resemblance to the territories depicted by Wright’s map. The likelihood of Iraq and Syria regaining stability as effective states within their internationally recognized boundaries seems remote, given the viciousness of the conflicts currently being waged. As things already stand, the non-country of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost as much of a state as Iraq itself, and arguable more of a nation. Whether Libya and Yemen can politically reintegrate is also an open matter. Mapping how the Middle East appears today, rather than how the international political community thinks it should be configured, is thus an essential task. Thinking about where such processes might lead is equally important. Wright’s thoughts on the subject are generally insightful, and her map has many pertinent and intriguing features. I commend the New York Times for publishing such a provocative piece.

French Mandate of Syria MapBut that said, I do have a few quibbles, and a couple of serious misgivings, about the manner in which Wright has remapped the region. To take the minor points first, the Jabal al-Druze could not form a realistic city-state simply because it is too large and too rural (under the French mandate of Syria in the 1920s, the semi-autonomous Druze state was roughly the same size as both Lebanon and the semi-autonomous Alawite state). A second minor issue concerns Wright’s division of Yemen into two rather than three states; the Houthi rebellion among the Zaidi (sometimes mistakenly called “Fiver” Shiites) rebels of northwestern Yemen has as much pertinence as the rebellion that that would revive “South Yemen” in the southern and eastern parts of the country. A final quibble concerns Wright’s “Alawitestan,” which would actually be a minority Alawite state, barring the massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Christians.

Saudi Arabia Remapped by Robin WrightMy serious misgivings concern Wright’s  treatment of Saudi Arabia. She realizes that she goes out on a limb here, noting that “The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia…” Unlike the other countries that she remaps, Saudi Arabia is a relatively stable state, with no serious challenges to its territorial integrity. Imagining the division of this country thus does not involve speculating about the possible end-points of processes already in motion, as is the case in the other countries considered. It is not at all clear, moreover, why Wright has divided Saudi Arabia as she has, as her article is largely silent here. Presumably, her division is based on the idea that the non-Wahhabi peripheries of the country could detach themselves from the Wahhabi core, potentially resulting in the emergence of the new states of North Arabia, Eastern Arabia, South Arabia, and Western Arabia.

As a purely mental exercise, there is nothing wrong with imagining the possible division of a relatively stable country such as Saudi Arabia, even if it will—as Wright herself admits—“infuriate Arabs who suspect foreign plots to divide and weaken them…” Saudi Arabia’s stability, moreover, might not be a solid as it appears. The entire country, after all, is something of an anachronism; as the personal domain and namesake of the Al Saud family, its essence is premodern. The lack of a regular system of succession in an absolute monarchy based on the 15,000-strong House of Saud further clouds the country’s future. (Similar problems exist in neighboring Oman, as explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.) Saudi Arabia’s religions minorities, moreover, are sternly repressed and deeply restive in several peripheral areas. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s main Shiite zone along the Gulf is also the site of its main oilfields is an added complication, one that provokes Saudi fear about Iranian power and political-religious design.

The possible future division of Saudi Arabia is thus conceivable if unlikely, but it is a much further stretch to imagine that it would split into the units that Wright has mapped. Detaching the core region of the country, homeland of both the Saud family and the Wahhabi religion establishment, from the peripheries does make a certain amount of sense, but one must wonder whether such a maneuver is based more on rational analysis or wishful thinking. Considering the harsh nature of Wahhabi beliefs and practices, coupled with the fact that Saudi state struggles to spread those beliefs and practices across the Muslim world, it is understandable that an American scholar such as Wright would want to see the territorial reach of the Wahhabi establishment cut down to size. (Note that her map results in a landlocked “Wahhabistan,” unlike that of Peters, which at least gives her hypothetical rump “Saudi Homelands” access to the sea.) But shorn of its oil revenues as well as those stemming from the Hajj, it is highly questionable whether this region could maintain a stable state. Local resources and enterprises would not be nearly large enough to support central Arabia’s current population.

M. Izady's Arabian Religion MapA deeper problem stems from the fact that much of Wright’s Wahhabistan is not actually majority Wahhabi, as can be seen in a comparison of her map with that of M. Izady (who idiosyncratically excludes Wahhabism from Sunni Islam). The key area here is Ha’il province, a historically non-Wahhabi area nonetheless ceded by Wright to Wahhabistan. Not only do most of the people of Ha’il practice a more mainstream version of Sunni Islam than those of Riyadh and Al-Qassim, but their province was the historical center of resistance in central Arabia against both the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics. Ha’il was the seat of the Rashidis, historical enemies of the Saudis, who were noted for their friendly tolerance of Shiites, a branch of Islam despised by the Wahhabis. Ha’il would thus fit much better with Wright’s “North Arabia” than with her “Wahhabistan.” Nor is it clear why Wright divides her North Arabia from her Western Arabia, as both regions are mostly mainstream Sunni in orientation.

Greater Yemen MapWright’s “South Arabia,” composed of four Saudi provinces and small section of a fifth, is also problematic. This region is indeed distinctive from the rest of Saudi Arabia, and is thus occasionally claimed as part of a would-be “Greater Yemen.” Yet little exists that would potentially hold this region together and provide glue for a new national identity. Most of this region is majority Sunni, but important Zaidi Shia communities are found near the border with Yemen (although Izady’s map might exaggerate their extent). Of all the sects of Shiite Islam, Zaidiyya is closest in form and content to Sunni Islam, but it also has a heritage of political autonomy that has nurtured the protracted rebellion across the border in northern Yemen. In Najran Province in the eastern portion of Wright’s South Arabia, however, a different religious community is demographically dominant: Ismaili Islam. This sect is invisible on Izady’s map, as it also falls into the general category of Shiism. But the Ismaili sect is quite distinctive from other varieties of Shiism, noted globally for its cosmopolitanism, devotion to secular education, and relative liberalism and gender egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, Ismailis in Najran have been deeply persecuted by the Saudi establishment. As noted by Human Rights Watch:

The Ismailis, a religious and ethnic minority with historic roots in Najran province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, face increasing threats to their identity as a result of official discrimination.  With the arrival of Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud as the governor of Najran in 1996, tension between local authorities and the Ismaili population increased, culminating in a confrontation between armed Ismaili demonstrators and police and army units outside the Holiday Inn hotel in Najran city in April 2000. The ensuing crackdown continues to reverberate throughout the region to this day.

Official discrimination in Saudi Arabia against Ismailis encompasses government employment, religious practices, and the justice system. Government officials exclude Ismailis from decision making, and publicly disparage their faith. Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.

Misleading Murder and Rape Maps, and the Sweden Rape Puzzle

World Murder Rate MapThe previous post on murder rates in Brazil featured a Wikipedia map of homicide rate by country, based on a 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That map, reproduced here, is less than ideal, as its highest category lumps together countries with hugely different homicide rates, ranging from 20.1 per 100,000 in Kyrgyzstan to 91.6 in Honduras. I therefore remapped the same data in 12 rather than six categories. I also used a two-color scheme, depicting low-murder-rate countries in varying shades of blue and high-murder-rate countries in red. Such a system better captures the huge variation in murder rates, which ranges from 0.3 per 100,000 (Iceland and Singapore) to almost 100 per 100,000 (Honduras).

World Murder Rate Geocurrents MapThe geographical patterns revealed by the map are clear. Murder is much more common in tropical Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia than it is in most of the rest of the world. Homicide is relatively rare in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East & North Africa.

But are such figures reliable? In general, murder data is considered to be one of the more reliable crime statistics, due in part to the mere severity of the offense. But that still does not mean that it is necessarily trustworthy. I am skeptical, for example, of the low homicide rate posted for Somalia (1.5), which is substantially below those of neighboring countries. Much of Somalia is wracked by extreme violence, although it can be difficult to determine whether an individual killing is best considered an act of murder or an incident of war. But more to the point, how could a country as anarchic as Somalia possibly gather dependable murder data?

The low reported murder rate in China has been received with some skepticism, as have official reports that it has been declining sharply in recent years. As The Economist recently reported:

Official figures show that the number of murder cases rose from fewer than 10,000 in 1981 to more than 28,000 in 2000. Since then it has dropped almost every year, to about 12,000 in 2011. China’s statistics bureau does not disclose which crimes are included in its murder data. Chinese scholars say that a single case might include several deaths, and that some killings which occur in the course of other violent crimes such as rape or robbery might be excluded. In a 2006 report, the World Health Organisation estimated that in 2002, when 26,300 murder cases were recorded in China, 38,000 people died from “homicide-related injuries”.

Homicide Data Source mapWhen I mentioned China’s supposedly low murder rate in my seminar on the history and geography of current global events this week, the one Chinese student in the class expressed strong doubt. According to her, murder for gambling debt is common in China but rarely recorded. Although I was unable to find systematic information on this topic, an internet search of “China, murder, gambling” does return a curiously large number of hits.

The authors of the UNODC report are well aware of such data problems, and they worked hard to overcome them. They have considered the discrepancies found among different sources of information for different countries, and they weight the results accordingly. For several parts of the world they have abandoned conventional “criminal justice data” in favor of “public health sources.”  In the process, they have revised murder rates of many African countries sharply upwards.

World Rape Rate MapIf global murder-rate figures are problematic, rape-rate figures appear to be almost worthless. Consider, for example, the Index Mundi rape-rate map posted here, which indicates that Sweden and New Zealand have some of the highest levels of rape in the world, and that Egypt has one of the lowest. Although the map comes with a disclaimer,* it is hardly adequate. Could anyone possibly believe that Sweden has a higher rape rate than Egypt? Egypt is currently suffering a rape epidemic so severe that it is becoming a diplomatic issue. Sweden, meanwhile, consistently rates as one of the most gender egalitarian, nonviolent countries in the world.

Yet it does appear that many people accept such official statistics, and are happy to use them to score ideological points. This occurs on both on the right and left sides of the political spectrum. In a letter to the government of Sweden, leftist filmmaker Michael Moore writes:

Let me say that again: nine out of ten times, when women [in Sweden] report they have been raped, you never even bother to start legal proceedings. No wonder that, according to the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, it is now statistically more likely that someone in Sweden will be sexually assaulted than that they will be robbed. Message to rapists? Sweden loves you! So imagine our surprise when all of a sudden you decided to go after one Julian Assange [of Wikileaks fame] on sexual assault charges.

On the political right, an article in FrontPage also accepts Sweden’s official rape statistics on face value, but places all the blame on Muslim immigrants:

In 2003, Sweden’s rape statistics were higher than average at 9.24, but in 2005 they shot up to 36.8 and by 2008 were up to 53.2. Now they are almost certainly even higher as Muslim immigrants continue forming a larger percentage of the population. With Muslims represented in as many as 77 percent of the rape cases and a major increase in rape cases paralleling a major increase in Muslim immigration, the wages of Muslim immigration are proving to be a sexual assault epidemic by a misogynistic ideology.

Although Muslim immigrants have been responsible for many if not most recent cases of forcible rape in Sweden, the country’s extremely high official rape rate seems to be mostly a result of tabulation strategies. Many acts are counted as rape in Sweden that would not be so counted elsewhere. As explained recently in the BBC:

On the face of it, it would seem Sweden is a much more dangerous place than these other countries. But that is a misconception, according to Klara Selin, a sociologist at the National Council for Crime Prevention in Stockholm. She says you cannot compare countries’ records, because police procedures and legal definitions vary widely. In Sweden there has been this ambition explicitly to record every case of sexual violence separately, to make it visible in the statistics,” she says. “So, for instance, when a woman comes to the police and she says my husband or my fiance raped me almost every day during the last year, the police have to record each of these events, which might be more than 300 events. In many other countries it would just be one record – one victim, one type of crime, one record.”

Barriers to Rape Reporting MapMany countries exhibit the opposite tendency: the systematic under-reporting of rape. Rape cases are not reported for a variety of reasons, both cultural and institutional.

One strategy for determining the actual prevalence of rape is to examine obstacles to reporting the crime. The Woman Stats Project, which has created an intriguing map collection, has done precisely that, mapping the “Strength of Barriers to Reporting Rape.” As can be seen, cultural and legal obstacles are depicted as extreme across South and Southwest Asia, and much of Africa as well. The data source, however, is not specified, and I am skeptical of many of the claim advanced by the map. Are reporting barriers really much more intense in Germany than they are in Austria or Switzerland?  I have more serious misgivings about another map in the same cartographic series, which depicts the prevalence of rape. This map tells us that rape is non-existent in Armenia and Georgia, and that India, Pakistan, and Sudan have a lower prevalence of the crime than Iceland, Finland, and Australia. It also tells us that Brazil—another country currently experiencing a “rape epidemic”—suffers less rape than the Netherlands and at least six times less rape than Montenegro. The huge gaps between neighboring countries in Africa are also highly suspicious.

Prevalence of Rape MapWhen it comes to crime rates, it does seem that statistics—and maps based on those statistics—are often so misleading as to be essentially dishonest.

*The disclaimer reads as follows: “Note though that comparison of crime rates across countries needs to be be taken with a grain of salt, since in some countries the population may be reluctant to report certain types of crimes to the police.”


Changing Geographical Patterns in British Elections?

Britain 2010 Election Wikipedia MapAn interesting article in this week’s Economist examines Britain’s north/south electoral divide. The south, baring London, habitually votes for the Conservative Party, whereas the north generally opts for Labour. The article, quoting John Hobson, traces the division back to the 1800s, when a “southern ‘Consumers England’ of leisurely suburbs” was opposed to “a northern ‘Producers England’ of mills and mines.” The author claims that regional political disparities were reduced from the 1920s to the 1960s, but subsequently strengthened again. As the article notes:

The return of the split reflects the diverging economic experiences of the two halves of the country. Beginning in the 1960s changing industrial fortunes drove a wedge between the manufacturing-oriented north and the services-heavy south.

Over the years the Conservative Party has been expelled from most of the north of England (and almost all of Scotland). Labour has been virtually driven from the south. … The differences between them now go beyond economic circumstance—their cultural and political identities are ever more distinct. This represents a daunting but inescapable political challenge.

Britain 2010 Election Map CartogramOn a conventional electoral map, the north/south division outlined in the Economist article is rather vague. In recent elections, the Conservative Party has indeed carried most of the south, but it has also won many constituencies (as British electoral districts are termed) in northern England, some by strong margins. This pattern is clear on both the Wikipedia map posted above and the Electoral Geography 2.0 map posted here. Note that these figure, like most British electoral maps, use red for the left (Labour Party), blue for the right (Conservative Party), and yellow for the vaguely centrist (left-libertarian? center-left?) Liberal Democrats. On the Electoral Geography 2.0 map, purple indicates the Scottish National Party, and green the Welsh Nationalists (Plaid Cymru). The Green Party, which took one constituency, gets a different shade of green.

The general geographical patterns of the 2010 general election are clear. Labour was victorious in much of metropolitan London, in south Wales, in the industrial cities and mining areas of the Midlands and the north, and in the Scottish lowlands. The Liberal Democrats did well in the Scottish Highlands, in parts of central Wales, and across much of southwestern England, especially Cornwall. The Scottish Nationalist Party took a few areas in northwestern and northeastern Scotland, just as the Welsh nationalists took a few in western Wales. In England as a whole, and especially in the southeast, the blue hue of the Conservative Party dominates.

Britain 2010 Economist Election MapBut as The Economist article explains, such mapping can be misleading, as it does not take into account population disparities:

On ordinary electoral maps the north-south divide is not as plain as it might be. Rural British constituencies are both big and nearly always represented by a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat. Thus swathes of the country will appear blue and yellow come what may. And Northern Ireland is represented by parties not seen elsewhere. If you look just at the mainland, though, and equalise the size of the constituencies, the binary reality becomes obvious (see map). Save for a belt of Tory hills and dales across North Yorkshire and the Lake District, the north is red—as are, barring nationalists, Wales and Scotland. The south is deep blue, strikingly so in the surrounds of London (it gets more Liberal Democrat to the west). Only in London and the Midlands do the parties seem to be in real competition.”

The Economist maps the demographically weighted electoral returns by transforming constituencies into hexagons of equal area. The map is effective,* but it does not fully capture regional demographic disparities, as constituencies vary in population from under 60,000 to over 80,000. The electoral cartogram found in the second figure above, entitled “General Election 2010: The True People’s Vote Map,” is perhaps more effective in this regard. Here it is clear that if one disregards greater London, southern England, and especially the southeast, is Conservative territory.  The few exceptions are not surprising: Luton, a traditional center of automobile manufacturing; Oxford, a University and industrial city; and the central urban areas of Bristol and Southampton. Unlike Oxford, the more high-tech-oriented university city of Cambridge went for the Liberal Democrats

Britan 1955 1966 ection mapsOverall, I am not fully convinced by The Economist’s argument that British regional voting disparities lessened significantly from the 1920s to the 1960s. In examining the maps posted on Electoral Politics 2.0 that go back to 1955, I am rather struck in by the consistency of the pattern, at least in England. (In Scotland, on the other hand, the Conservative vote, once pronounced in the south and north, has indeed collapsed, replaced by votes for the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists.) In England, to be sure, some elections trended in the Conservative direction (1987) and others in that of the Labour (1966), but “blue” constituencies tend to remain blue, just as “red” ones generally remain red. A few exceptions can be found; Merseyside (greater Liverpool) is definitely more Labour-oriented now than it had been in the 1950s. But overall, England shows little variation in electoral geography over this period.

Britain 1979 1987 election mapsIn the 2010 election, the parties that placed fourth and fifth by total votes, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the British Nationalist Party (BNP), did not win any constituencies, and hence are not represented on the map. The fast-growing UKIP, an anti-EU organization usually described as “right-wing populist” or “right-libertarian,” took 3.1 percent of the vote countrywide, while the far-right British National Party took 1.9 percent. Both parties had done much better in the 2009 European Parliament election, when UKIP astoundingly bested not just the Liberal Democrats but Labour as well, scoring 16.5 per cent of the total vote. In the same election, the BNP took 6.2 percent of the vote, while the Green Party gained 8.1 percent. Protest votes were no doubt important in this election.

Britain 1997 2010 election mapsThe geographical patterns of the two anti-EU rightwing parties in the 2009 European Parliamentary election are intriguing. As can be seen in the paired maps posted here, the hard-right BNP won most of its votes in traditional Labor strongholds, doing particularly well in such places as Stoke-On-Trent (“the Potteries,” a ceramic manufacturing district) and in the area immediately east of London. UKIP, on the other hand, did better in traditionally Conservative and Liberal-BNP UKIP 2009 Vote MapDemocratic voting areas, such as those to the west of Birmingham and those in southwestern England. Neither party did well at all in central London, while both did well in the far eastern reaches of the London metropolitan area.

Most opinion polls looking ahead to the 2015 general election put the Labour Party in first place, ahead of the Conservatives by some six to eight percent. Most also put UKIP ahead of the Liberal Democrats, albeit by a narrow margin. In local council races to be held this May, many traditionally Conservative districts are expected to vote instead for UKIP. Conservative party leaders are evidently very concerned about the rise of this new rival to the right.

* The green color used for “other” parties in The Economist map is potentially misleading, as it covers both the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Green Party.  As mentioned above, the Greens took only once constituency—Brighton Pavilion in southeastern England. What then does the green hexagon in the western part of the Yorkshire-Humber region indicate? All other maps that I have examined indicate that the three major parties carried all of the constituencies in this region in 2010.



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.




Preliminary Observations on the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election

Several pundits have claimed that the second major victor in yesterday’s U.S. presidential election was statistician Nate Silver, who correctly picked the winner in every state, thereby seemingly demonstrating the power of Bayesian analysis—when done correctly. In scrutinizing Silver’s final pre-election map, I can find only a few minor instances in which was not fully on-target (Iowa, for example, was not as close as he had depicted it). In a Slate column, however, Daniel Engber claims that the real credit should go to the pollsters who generated the date that Silver used. Engber notes that Silver, unlike most pollsters, missed the Democratic victory in the Montana senatorial contest.

The New York Times website features some excellent cartographic work on the election. One innovative map shows the shift in voting patterns from the 2008 election at the country level. As can be clearly seen, in the majority of U.S. counties, Mitt Romney gained a larger share of the vote than Republican candidate John McCain had received in the previous election. The exceptions to this pattern are intriguing. Across much of the Deep South, overall a Republican stronghold, Barack Obama gained votes in 2012 over his 2008 showing. Many of these “blue-shifted” counties are heavily African-American, which may indicate a greater voter turnout among Blacks in this election; if this is indeed the case, such a change runs counter to most of the predictions made prior to this election. An alternative thesis is that a considerable number of evangelical Whites in these counties declined to vote, not wanting to endorse a Mormon candidate. Yet in most other parts of the country dominated by conservative Protestants, Romney outpolled McCain. Other areas that moved in the Democratic direction include much of New Jersey and New York, which may in part reflect the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Central Ohio, perhaps the most crucial battleground area in this election, also shows a distinct shift in the direction of the Democratic Party.

At the state level, the map of the 2012 election looks very much like that of 2008, with only Indiana and North Carolina switching back to the Republican candidate (provided that Florida stays within the Obama camp). More significant is the fact that this map is also strikingly similar the maps of the 2004 and 2000 elections. The only state-level difference between yesterday’s election and that of 2000 was the movement of a few closely contested swing states from the Republican to the Democratic candidate: Nevada, Colorado, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire. I suspect that migration patterns are pushing a few of these states, especially Colorado and Virginia, into the Democratic camp. But otherwise, the basic electoral geography of the U.S. has shown little change over the past twelve years. Even at the county level, the differences are relatively modest. The coal-mining region of Appalachian has definitely turned to the Republicans Party over this period, as have a number of counties located elsewhere in the Upper South. At the same time, the Democratic Party has solidified its advantage in the coastal West and in the Northeast. In 2000, George W. Bush took thirteen coastal counties on the West, whereas in 2012, Romney won only six. And whereas Bush was the victor in fifteen counties in northern New England, in this election Romney took only four.

Although the geographical changes in U.S. presidential voting since 2000 have been minor, the situation is quite different if we look back to the 1996 election, as well as those preceding it. In 1996, Bill Clinton took the interior states of the Upper South as well as Louisiana. In the early twenty-first century, it would be highly unlikely that such states as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Arkansas would vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. In yesterday’s election, Obama received less than 40 percent of the vote in all three states, and in West Virginia, which was recently a Democratic stronghold, he barely got 35 percent. Obama did significantly better in such Deep South states as South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi, where the African-American population is much larger.

Only two states gave more than 70 percent of their votes to one candidate: Utah, where Romney got roughly 73 percent, and Hawaii, which went for Obama by 70.6 percent. Although the overall trend in U.S. politics is clearly one of increasing regional differentiation, most states are still more “purple” than “red” or “blue.” At the county level, however, it is a different story, as many localities in the Great Plains and the Inter-Mountain West went for Romney by well over 80 percent. In contrast, it is difficult to find any county that gave more than 80 percent of its votes to Obama. Holmes County in Mississippi, however, did go for Obama by 83.9 percent. Holmes County, not surprisingly, is mostly African-American, with only 20 percent of its population classified as White.

Why the Indo-European Debate Matters—And Matters Deeply

As expected, we have received a few complaints from friends, acquaintances, and Facebook-followers in regard to the current Indo-European series. “Why get so exercised over a single article,” some ask, reminding us that science is a self-correcting endeavor that will eventually winnow away the chaff. Others question the entire enterprise, wondering why we would care so much about such an obscure topic.

We agree that science is, in the long run, a self-correcting undertaking, which gives it vast power. But self-correction does not come automatically; it takes work, which we are happy to provide. And in the short-term, counterfeit research can do great harm, as the Lysenko Affair in the Soviet Union so well demonstrated. We also find it deeply troubling that a nonsensical article would not only be accepted for publication in one of the world’s premier scientific journals, but would immediately be trumpeted in the mass media for “solving” one of the key mysteries of human pre-history. The episode uncovers a whiff of corruption in the scientific-journalist establishment that needs a blast of fresh air.

In regard to the second set of complaints, we must reject them outright. The Indo-European issue is not obscure, trivial, or unrelated to pressing issues of our day. In fact, it is difficult to locate a single topic of historical debate that has been more ideologically fraught and politically laden over the past 150 years than that of Indo-European origin and expansion.

Indo-European studies took on a heavy ideological burden in the late 1800s, a development that would indirectly lead to the most hideous examples of genocide and mass-murder that the world has ever witnessed. The supposedly superior “Aryans” of Nazi mythology were none other than the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Nazi propagandists conjured their own wildly off-base theories about I-E origins, but their fantasies had roots in the scholarly endeavors of German philologists. And while Nazism was militarily crushed and its ideological foundations pulverized, the movement refuses to die. Indeed, it seems to be experiencing something of a revival in eastern Germany, Hungary, and—of all places—Russia. On numerous occasions, I have found myself directed by Google to the odious “Stormfront” website while searching for images and ethnographic descriptions of various Eurasian ethnic groups. The Aryan myth also continues to feed racially troubling ideologies outside of Europe, particularly in Iran and northern India.

Even scholars who have sought to undermine the noxious notion of the Aryan Herrenvolk have occasionally generated their own benign but still fantasy-laden counter-narratives. The key figure here is the late Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, noted for placing the I-E homeland in the Pontic Steppes. Gimbutas’s scientific research was solid, and we suspect that she was largely correct in locating the PIE homeland. But in seeking to turn the Nazi view on its head, she went too far—and some of her lay followers went much too far. In the feminist retelling of the tale that she inspired, the Aryans become the Kurgans, a uniquely violent, male-dominated people who destroyed the peaceful, gender-equitable if not matriarchal civilization of “Old Europe.” In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination and mass violence. The work was a bestseller, blurbed by noted anthropologist Ashley Montagu as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.”

Eisler’s global vision failed from the onset: as male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it cannot be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. Recent research has also tended to undermine many of her more specific claims. The Old Europeans were probably not as peaceful and female-centered as they had been portrayed, and the PIE speakers and their immediate descendents were probably not so insistently androcentric. Certainly the early Indo-European speakers were no strangers to violence and domination, but how do we account for the female Scythian skeletons from the Kurgan homeland tricked out in military gear? Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon tribes in the area. More to the point, we now understand that the early Indo-European-speakers could not have simply invaded Old Europe and subjugated its inhabitants, as they lacked the state-level forms of military organization necessary for wide conquests. As Anthony shows so well in The Horse, the Wheel and Language, the process was almost certainly one of gradual incursions, marked by both social predation and mutualism, that allowed the militarily advantaged, semi-pastoral, equestrian I-E speakers to slowly spread their forms of speech. And while their languages did indeed expand over vast areas, they did not simply replace pre-existing tongues. Almost everywhere, older linguistic elements survived. Major non-I-E substrates characterize such I-E subfamilies as Germanic and Greek. A huge problem for both Nazi ideology and the Gimbutas/Eisler thesis is the fact that most of the Germanic root words pertaining to war are non-Indo-European. The mysteries here remain deep.

Considering the misuses to which the issue of I-E origins has been put, it is understandable that some people would want to reject the idea that the original speakers were war-like horse-riders from some remote, northern homeland. All such troublesome interpretations would vanish if I-E expansion could instead be linked to the gradual movement of simple farmers from the Near Eastern agricultural heartland into the sparsely settled lands of Mesolithic Europe. But if the evidence indicates otherwise, as it most assuredly does, the result is merely another myth. Scientific responsibility demands the search for truth, even if the truth leads into uncomfortable areas.

Regardless of the complications introduced by ideological distortions, investigations of I-E origins and expansion have a huge bearing of the study of human prehistory. Indo-European, after all, is by far the world’s largest language family when counted by the number of speakers. Linguistic evidence about the family’s spread tells us much of significance about the historical development of a vast section of the Earth’s surface over many centuries, even millennia. Studies of human prehistory depend crucially on three lines of evidence: those derived from archeological digs; from genetic studies; and from linguistics. Over the past decade, much progress has been made in bridging linguistic and archeological evidence, as demonstrated by David Anthony’s The Horse, the Wheel, and Language. To the extent that the burgeoning genetic investigations of Y- and mitochondrial DNA lineages can be incorporated into this linguistic-archeological nexus, a much richer understanding of the prehistoric human past awaits. For a path-breaking interdisciplinary foray into this territory, see Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present.

Such developments, however, risk being cut short if the field of historical linguistics continues to languish. Further progress will depend not only on linguists carrying out their own research, but also on their passing down of their knowledge and techniques to future generations of students. Such lines of intellectual transmission, however, are threatened by cutbacks in linguistic departments, as well as by the assaults on the field mounted by interlopers who have somehow managed to convince many scientists that linguistic evidence is of little account when it comes to studying the history of languages. To the extent that the Anatolian hypothesis gains ground among archeologists and geneticists on the basis of the recent Science article, our collective knowledge of the past will take a sharp step backwards.

The most troubling aspect of the affair, however, is not the threats that it poses but rather the revelations that it makes about the integrity of the scientific and journalistic establishments. A scholarly journal such as Science is duty-bound to vet any potential contribution through established experts. Yet I have a difficult time imagining that the article in question was subjected to proper peer-review through any qualified specialist in the field in which it sits: Indo-European historical linguistics. Either the article was never sent to a competent linguistics reviewer, or the resulting review was irresponsibly ignored. And yet this is not the first time that a preposterous article on historical linguistics has appeared in Science (and also in Nature), as we shall see in future posts. Have the editors of this august journal decided that the discipline of linguists has somehow failed, and that its field of historical inquiry should therefore be handed over to epidemiologists and computational modelers? If so, on what possible grounds was this decision reached? Unless such questions can be answered, I have a difficult time avoiding the conclusion that the editors of Science have betrayed the basic canons of academic responsibility.

While contemplating these issues, I am continually reminded of the Sokal Hoax, an episode that revealed the vacuity of postmodernist literary theory and “science studies” in the mid-1990s. This affair came to my attention when I was participating in the conference on “The Flight from Science and Reason” organized by the New York Academy of Sciences. A rumor began to circulate among the attendees that a noted physicist and mathematician with solid leftist political credentials was perpetrating a prank that would debunk Social Text, perhaps the leading journal of poststructuralist theory, and in so doing deflate the pretension of those who sought to undermine science in the name of human liberation. Sokal’s article, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” argues that since science is merely a social construct, quantum gravity, especially as interpreted through the new-age lens of “morphogenetic fields,” can have progressive implications for political action. The paper was accepted and duly published, despite the fact that it was, as its author soon admitted, “a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense . . . structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal designed the hoax as a kind of test of the allegations made by Paul Gross and Norman Levitt in their book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels With Science. As he discovered, even the most palpable nonsense imaginable could be published in Social Text so long as it sounded good and flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.”

While the Sokal Affair was a purposive hoax, the members of the Boukaert team evidently believe that their article constitutes a contribution to knowledge. But what the authors think about their own work is of no significance, as the arguments they make must stand on their own. Had Alan Sokal actually believed that the “construction” of quantum gravity could be a politically progressive act, would his article have been any less nonsensical? The current authors have thus perpetrated an unwitting hoax, but the end results should be no less embarrassing for the editors of Science than the Sokal Affair was for those of Social Text. Boukaert et al. begin by improperly framing the problem, and then go on to err at every turn. It is not so much that the article’s conclusions are incorrect, but rather that every assumption it makes, every technique it employs, and virtually every “fact” that it marshals is either incorrect, inappropriate, or misleading. Yet this work was published in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. Something here smells rather fishy.

But if the mere publication of the article in Science raises questions about intellectual integrity, its immediate celebration in the pages of the New York Times points to a deeper mire. Science publishes hundreds of articles each year, a tiny fraction of which are ever mentioned in the New York Times, let alone showcased in the newspaper’s main section. Yet the Times has gone out of its way on more than one occasion to trumpet “contributions” to linguistic history from members of the Bouckaert team, specifically Quentin Atkinson. Evidently, the editors of the supposed newspaper-of-record in the United States have concluded that the work of these scholars constitutes one of the most important scientific stories of the past decade. On what possible basis could such an assessment have been rationally made?

Journalists, like academics, are expected to adhere to certain standards of professional behavior. Unless they are writing for the editorial pages or are explicitly employed in “advocacy journalism,” reporters are expected to remain as objective as possible, not letting their own interests, political predilections, or friendship and kin networks direct their work. Such guidelines are impossible to follow to the letter, and as a result complete objectivity is a mere ideal. But such an ideal is still supposed to influence behavior in self-respecting media outlets, eliminating the excesses of partisanship. In the present case, however, all such ethical fetters seem to have been removed. Nicholas Wade’s reporting on this issue has been non-objective in the extreme. One can only speculate as to why Wade has been determined to act as Quentin Atkinson’s pocket journalist, ever ready to proclaim his latest clumsy foray into linguistics as a scientific breakthrough on par with plate tectonics.

To appreciate the level of corruption revealed by the Bouckaert Affair, imagine that a parallel series of events occurred in a different walk of life, such as business. Imagine, for example, that an established financial firm with a reasonably good reputation decided to apply its mathematical models to an unrelated business, one in which both the leaders and employees of the company had no experience. Being ignorant of their new field, they made a number of naïve and ultimately untenable assumptions about how it operates, and thus when they applied their favored methods, unexpected breakdowns occurred. Soon the firm began to hemorrhage money. But rather than admit to their failure, the managers instead crowed about their success, hiding their mounting losses in misleading accounting sheets and obscurely written reports. But even as the company began to collapse, its reputation strengthened and its stock-market valuation rose. Such gains, it turns out, stemmed from glowing reports on its new venture in the business media, most notably the New York Times. The most substantive Times’ piece on the venture appeared not in the paper’s business pages, but in its main news section, gaining it a particularly wide readership. The fact that it was written by the former editor of its business section, a person widely regarded as one of the country’s leading economic journalists, helped propel the story. For a while, it appeared as if the firm could do no wrong. And then …

In the world of commerce, such a story would end with the quick death of the firm, as well as that of its business model. To the extent that any company making consistent losses will eventually fail, business—like science—is a self-correcting enterprise. Failure in business, however, is generally more pressing than it is in science, as rather more money and power is typically at stake. Intrinsic error can linger in science for decades, as demonstrated by the prolonged resistance of geologists to the ever-mounting evidence for continental drift. In a field as marginal as Indo-European studies, well-funded pseudo-scientific works could withstand invalidation by under-funded scholars for many years. In the popular imagination, moreover, erroneous ideas can escape correction altogether, lodging so firmly as to be all but irremovable by evidence. Examples include the widely known non-facts that the Eskimo languages have a multitude of words for snow, and that Europeans before Columbus thought that the world was flat. The Indo-European Affair, in short, matters, and matters deeply. I find it cause for deep concern, and as a result I will continue to write about it.

But after one more post, the current series on Indo-European origins will go on hiatus for a few weeks. Both Asya and I must travel for a short period, so blogging in general will be light for the next week or so.


Geographical Illiteracy in the New York Times

Today’s New York Times features a major article on labor strife in the Bangladeshi apparel industry. The article itself is interesting and, in general, well reported and well written. The accompanying map, however, is laughable. The map purports to show the location of the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, which it depicts as sprawling over roughly the western third of Bangladesh. A zone of this size would cover roughly 5 million hectares. In actuality, the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone encompasses all of 125 hectares (309 acres). Official documents describe its location as: “Pakshl, Pabna. 3.7 kms from Pakshi Bridge through by pass road, 10.60 kms from Ishwardi Airport.” Through the use of shading, the New York Times depicts the zone as covering not only all of Pabna District, but virtually the entire extent of three Bangladeshi divisions. The line that the map uses to indicate to the zone, moreover, is highly inaccurate as well, pointing to an area well to the south of the actual Ishwardi Export Processing Zone.

If the New York Times wants to maintain its claims to being the country’s newspaper of record, it might want to consider hiring a competent geography editor.


As explained in a recent GeoNote, the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) have now been joined by the GUTS (Germany, United States, Turkey, and South Korea) in another effort to force together a number disparate countries that supposedly share key economic attributes. Add to the list of clever if misleading geo-economic acronyms the CIVETS: Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, and South Africa. Coined in 2009 Robert Ward of the Economist Intelligence Unit and further developed by former HSBC chief executive Michael Geoghegan, the term “CIVETS” refers to countries that are “considered to be very promising because they have reasonably sophisticated financial systems, controlled inflation, and soaring young populations.”

A November 2011 article in The Guardian outlines the CIVETS idea in some detail. The author claims that these countries “share a number of similarities, notably young populations.” Yet  many other states, such as Yemen and Niger, have even younger populations, yet would never be considered for such a list. But the CIVETS “are also perceived to have relatively sophisticated financial systems and to not be overly reliant on any one sector,” attributes that obviously do not apply to Yemen or Niger. Yet they could be said to apply to the Philippines, Panama, Pakistan, and a number of other countries not included among the CIVETS, due to other economic and political problems — and perhaps to the fact that any additions would ruin a cute acronym. In the end, such investment-oriented, geo-economic categories cannot be defined with any precision, and hence should be regarded as idiosyncratic.

I find the inclusion of Egypt on the CIVETS list especially odd, considering the country’s economic and political difficulties, which no doubt are deterring investment. But the CIVETS enthusiasts are evidently unshaken. As The Guardian reported late last year:

 Egypt’s fast-growing ports on the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, joined by the Suez canal, are seen as potentially important trade hubs to connect Europe and Africa. The fund managers at HSBC believe the turmoil of the Arab spring, which tore through Egypt earlier this year, will not have a lasting effect on growth.

Despite HSBC’s confident conclusion, it does not seem warranted to regard Egypt’s “turmoil” as a thing of the past. As a result of such unrest, the Egyptian economy continues to suffer. Its foreign reserves have plummeted, and in early 2012 Standard & Poor’s lowered its credit rating from B+ to B. As a recent report in the Sydney Morning Herald put it,

 GDP growth has fallen from 7.2 per cent in 2008 to a forecast of 1.5 per cent this year. And while official figures indicate 20 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, it is widely believed the real rate is as high as 40 per cent. ”Egypt’s problem is not just one of economic mismanagement but of endemic corruption,” said Elizabeth Iskander, a research fellow in Middle East politics at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg.