Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Power to Shape Your View of the World

The map you see above has been on my office wall for decades. It’s a reminder of so many things about this world we live in: its actual dimensions and proportions, the power of imagery, and in particular, at least to me on this day, the ability of those in power to shape the way we see and understand our world and ourselves.

I say this day in particular because I have just read the obituary of a great American I likely had never heard of before his death at age 87. His name was Lolis Elie [pronounced E-lee], and he was credited with helping to desegregate the public schools of New Orleans following the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court case. Elie was a lawyer, but what most struck me in his obituary was a quote captured in a C-SPAN interview in 2003:

“The world that I inherited was a world that said white people were superior, and people of African descent were all powerless. … What the civil rights movement did was to remove that. It raised our consciousness.”[1]

Mr. Elie’s assessment of one of the often overlooked benefits of the CRM — to be sure, a benefit not uniformly shared, inadequately reinforced, and continuously under relentless assault [there are no permanent victories in matters of human behavior] — juxtaposes neatly with the recent news that Boston's public schools have adopted a new, more accurate world map, i.e. the Gall-Peters projection map shown above.


That district’s leaders based their decision to introduce a new map into their curriculum because the Mercator map that most of us are familiar with — it was developed in 1569 — has been heavily criticized for its imperialist distortions: it exaggerates the size of Europe and North America and shrinks Africa and South America. You would never understand from a Mercator map, for instance, that South America is actually twice as large as Europe.


The Gall-Peters map, while correcting for the size distortions, has itself been criticized. An article in Business Insider (disregard the unfortunate headline) presents a few alternative versions that been developed over the past century or so.


That the Mercator maps still dominate American classrooms may be largely due to inertia, but it is also a telling rebuke to those who think America is the best at everything.


It is also a reminder that even amidst huge and continuing demographic shifts in the United States, the ruling class has not evolved much in terms of its constitution, outlook, or sense of privilege.


This has enormous implications for the US on every level. Nationally, Donald Trump won election at least in part on his promise to restore American preeminence, notwithstanding that the post-WW II USA geopolitical dominance was always unsustainable over time (and likely unhealthy in some ways and in many eyes). This of course means that we now have a president with a distorted view of American power, putting us as a nation and a world at great risk.


The consequences of distorted realities play out locally as well, and not just in their effects upon the fragility of those whose egos have always placed them at the center of everything grand and good and powerful.


Mentally if not literally, there are maps at the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the city’s other power centers where University Circle and Downtown are seen as outsized versions of themselves while other neighborhoods and communities — Glenville, Mt. Pleasant, Clark-Fulton, Stockyards, East Cleveland, etc. — are equivalent to Baltic states on a world stage.


From such warped views come decisions that privilege enhancements to play palaces over investment in neighborhoods in need of virtually everything. Funding a mental health unit or a recreation center in Ward 2 or 14 gets the same kind of consideration as those currently atop the State Department would give to a similar facility in Syria: useless foreign aid.


Perhaps certain locked out Cleveland council people should send emissaries over to see Joe Cimperman, their former colleague who now runs Global Cleveland. He may have a better shot at getting the ear of the local puppet masters.




[1] Mr. Elie’s obituary also records the time he was the star witness in a lawsuit against a Louisiana ban on out-of-state criminal lawyers. The distinguished attorney and law professor, Anthony G. Amsterdam, at that time an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund recalls how Mr. Elee gave a two-hour answer on cross-examination that was “easily the finest, most fiery civil-rights speech I have ever heard — in court, in church, or anywhere else.”