So last night a response I began to a one line email turned into a thousand word essay touching on the Falklands War, the Monroe Doctrine, South American fascism, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Chaco War, Argentina’s make believe empire, Great Britain’s real empire and how the U.S. dismembered it through post-war monetary policy, and the map I used to stare at while in line at the Argentine consulate down on Wilshire Blvd. I just re-read my essay today, a little embarrassed at how off topic I’d gotten. I do get carried away at times. But it got me to thinking again about that map in the Argentine consulate. It ran from Paraguay to the South Pole and halfway across the Atlantic, all a brilliant Argentine orange. The clerks there were rude and superior, like they knew something we didn’t. Like they knew Argentina stretched all the way to the South Pole, and we only went to Texas.
I wonder what the rest of the world’s maps look like? What other fantasy empires show up in bright colors, stretching across locations and free of inconvenient reality? There is something dream-like about maps. Not local maps, road maps, or Thomas Guides, but big sweeping maps, National Geographic maps, and big leather-bound atlases full of continents and oceans and great sweeping deserts. Sometimes entire civilizations are laid out, pyramids and all, only to disappear on the next page in another time. It doesn’t take much to create a whole other reality on a map. A world empire, or world peace, a just a few pieces here and there lost in a war long ago and rightfully yours, you think. You insist. You dream. Sometimes dreams are turned into reality and states come to, really come to, with capitols and everything. You can see that on a world map today. All these countries where the Soviet Union used to be, Ukraine (which hadn’t been a country in centuries) and Belorussia (which had never been a country), the Baltic states who had a fleeting couple decades there between the wars, all those countries in the Caucasus and others dreaming of being countries with their own maps. Then there’s all those ‘Stans, little ones and huge ones like Kazakhstan that used to have a nuclear arsenal and might still have a hockey team. My favorite former Soviet country is Moldova. It’s just a sliver, really, and poor and corrupt and was never a country ever. I think everyone–maybe even Moldovans (who used to be Moldovians)–were surprised as hell to find Moldavia was suddenly a country with a map and everything. Last I heard, though, there were two maps. Seems part of Moldova has seceded or something. That map had them either their own country with its own map or attached to Romania, though I don’t know if Romanian maps show it. There are probably maps all over Europe with countries we never heard of, or may have even–a unified Ireland, an independent Basque homeland, a separate Catalonia, or an independent Corsica or Sardinia or a map of Belgium sliced in two, one half Walloon, the other Flemish.
And that’s just Europe. Give me another hour and I could rattle off probably dozens more and still never leave Europe. Ones you or I or almost nobody has ever heard of. The Balkans must be a warren of overlapping maps, and every once in a while people get massacred because of them.
That’s the thing, the massacres, the wars, the terrorism and inexplicable madnesses that seize people, often perfectly normal people, who look too long at these fantasy maps. Show me a car bomb and I’ll show you a map with borders you won’t recognize. Sometimes they reflect borders that used to be. Sometimes borders that never were, but have been sought forever. Think the Kurds. Sometimes they follow linguistic maps (a whole different sort of map I’d rather not go into here), sometimes religious, sometimes who knows. Sometimes they follow lines that colonial empires laid out from thousands of miles away. Africa’s been fighting over those since then, sometimes with horrible slaughter, sometimes just with occasional words.
There are fantasy maps that don’t really hurt anybody…no one explodes car bombs over Atlantis, no one massacres anyone for Lemuria (or is that Mu?) People who spend too much time staring at maps of Middle-Earth are harmless. Then there are fantasy maps that are just weird and annoying but also a little spooky, like those crazed Glenn Beck things that have everything all wrong. Someone should collect those Glenn Beck maps in an atlas. Though once they did, the maps would suddenly have a permanence they don’t have now and somebody would wind up blowing up somebody. Osama Bin Laden’s maps turned out to be not so funny after all. I saw a fringey Israeli map that went all the way to Turkey, a fringier US map that included Canada and Mexico, a map of California divided in three, a neo-Confederate map that included more states that the Confederacy ever dreamed of, a map of Aztlan that included most of the American southwest and a chunk of Central America besides. The Nazis had some amazing maps that went all the way to India, the English had some amazing maps that went all the way around the world…and they really did. Then. Now Englishmen stare at them and sigh. The French stare at old maps and sigh too, and so do the Portuguese, the Japanese, the Dutch, even Belgians who now dream of maps of Belgium sliced in two. The Spanish must look a maps three centuries old and can’t even imagine. Can the Iranians, who used to be Persians? The Greeks can, and their arch enemies the Turks have maps that include everyone around them that speaks anything vaguely Turkish, though those people beg to differ. China, big as it is now, used to be even bigger, and doubtless there are Chinese who stare at old maps and sigh too. Do Mongols do the same? I hope not. They nearly conquered the world. So did Rome once, too, a good chunk of it…it certainly inspired Mussolini to seize Ethiopia. The Ethiopians have their maps too, with no country called Eritrea on them, and there are Eritreans who have maps that don’t include themselves as part of Ethiopia. Even the US and the Philippines and Cuba used to be the same blue color for a spell (and I’ve seen maps of the US diced into pieces and who knows that might happen too.). I bet there are Paraguayan maps that include all the Chaco and there are definitely Bolivian borders that run all the way to the sea. Armenian maps include parts of Azerbaijan that are still Azerbaijani. I’ve seen them on the walls of little businesses in Glendale. I never ask about them.
I never asked about that map of Argentina either. It had only been a few years since the Falkland Islands War, and I thought it would be impolite.
(And here’s some cool links full of maps.)