Archive | May 2012

On Permanence

My latest fascination related to European history and borders is embodied by this video:

There are a couple things that really strike me here:

1. The fluctuation on the British Isles. Scotland, Ireland, and Wales alternate between independence and being sucked up by England’s imperial gravity over the course of the video.

2. The long fragmentation of ‘Germany’, particularly as other nation-states become larger and seemingly more unified around it.

3. The amazing music choice, somehow making 1000 years of European war and conquest more dramatic than it already is.

But these are just minor observations. What I really want to talk about is the last 20 seconds of the video, the last 70 years it represents, and how we understand the permanence of borders.

So go back and watch the last part, starting after World War II where the purple of Nazi Germany is squeezed off the map. After this there is a minor shake-up, and then, calm. For the three-second period that represents the Cold War,nothing changes. This is astonishing after having watched the European map morph unrecognizably for the last three minutes. At 3:16, the Iron Curtain falls, the Soviet Union collapses, and Eastern Europe gets rearranged, while Western Europe remains still. Overall, this 70-year period from World War II to the present day sees significantly fewer fluctuations of borders and territory than almost any other 70-year period throughout the rest of the video.

In the long view, 70 years is not much time, and the medium of the timelapse illustrates this perfectly, giving equal weight to each year as an impartial observer. My lived history, the German division that gets my heart racing and my fingers reaching for the pause button, the Nazi occupation which looks so terrifying on this screen, are all treated equally, as the format cannot understand or accommodate which events resonate with its viewers, which movement of lines and colors changed lives. It is the combination of this equality inflicted by the medium, and the familiarity of the last 70 years by virtue of the human lifespan, which makes this period stand out and demand special consideration.

Europe has become an ‘easy’ place to travel, a summer destination for college students and retirees alike, comfortable, peaceful, and relatively well-off.

It’s easy to forget that this is a new development for a weary continent.

When we learn geography, it’s too often from the perspective of “this is how things are” not “this is how things are…for now.” My lifetime alone has seen the fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of the European Union, Hong Kong’s transfer of sovereignty, the construction of the Israeli Separation Barrier, South Sudan’s secession, the rise (and fall?) of the economic borders of the Eurozone. And despite this, I still have an overwhelming, gut reaction to regard current borders as the Alpha and Omega of political geography, because stuff like this feels real:

But my fascination with borders comes from the inevitable yet improbable changes they undergo, physically, mentally, geographically, politically. It’s easy to forget that these changes happen at all when you’re standing at the base of a 30-foot wall. But this timelapse of European borders reminds me that these changes happened both 1000 years ago and in my lifetime, and in all likelihood, they will happen again, for better or worse. Changing borders requires daily work, maybe a watershed moment, but also patience to remember the long view and appreciate the passage of time, because stuff like this is real, too:

 

Language is a Border

Last fall, I posted an article on how you can see the Iron Curtain on a map of Facebook friendships. I just stumbled over a map of Tweets by language, so it’s high time for another analysis of borders using social media.

Here’s a link to the original on Flickr.

Curiosities cartographer Frank Jacobs wrote a short blog post on this map last fall in which he made a few major points.

I. French tweets from Quebec are clustered and not as numerous as one might expect.

II. America is dominated by English, with pockets of other languages while the US/Mexico border is highly visible.

III. Europe is weird: Switzerland is German and French, Catalonia makes an appearance, and Austria has a sizable chunk of Italian.

These are all well and good, so I’d like to make a few points of my own, related to my recent travels in the Middle East, Cyprus, and Ireland/Northern Ireland.

This should look familiar, but just for orientation: red is Turkish, yellow is Greek, green is Hebrew, and Purple is Arabic. The freakiest thing about this map is the clearness with which it shows the Cyprus partition. The shape of the colors corresponds perfectly with the waves of the Buffer Zone, and there is little to no penetration by either side, even though its possible (for most) to cross. Language is one of the biggest factors in the ‘walls in the head’ and this map better explains the division than any political map could.

Let’s move to the east and examine Southwest Asia. The purple shape to the north of Israel is Lebanon, and I believe the straightish, multicolored line running south and east of the green clusters represents tourists at Dead Sea resorts. Now for the interesting bit: you can just make out the kidney bean shape of the West Bank in the middle of the green. It’s faint, but slightly darker with purple smatterings and one more prominent dot (Ramallah?). Israel/Palestine is an example of another language border exacerbating a political divide.

Language is a real border. It can cripple your movement and communication just as effectively as walls and barbed wire; it definitely hampered me during my travels. But I think it’s also surmountable with a little study, respect, and patience. Sometimes, just a few words and willing ears are needed to make a connection, and don’t forget that smiles and laughter are universal.

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