‘A Defilement of a Sacred Trust’

I hadn’t planned on posting anything about Trump’s Sharpie-adjusted hurricane forecast map: there was nothing useful for me to add to the discussion, and presumably you’d all heard about it already and didn’t need me to tell you. But it turns out something map-related can, and has, been said about the issue.

Charles Blow was once in charge of the New York Times graphics department, and an art director at National Geographic. His response to Trump’s marked-up map was “visceral”:

Because of this unyielding commitment to accuracy, I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe.

That is precisely what you want the case to be, particularly in natural disasters. This cartography should be devoid of any attempt to deceive. Its only agenda should be to inform and enlighten.

That’s what made Trump’s marked-on map such a blasphemy: It attacked, on a fundamental level, truth, science and public trust. It wasn’t just a defacement of a public document, it was a defilement of a sacred trust.

Blow’s reaction is predicated in the notion that maps can’t lie, or at least don’t, or at least shouldn’t. Enter Mark Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps (reviewed here), who was interviewed by CityLab about this kerfuffle. Even Monmonier, who has no illusions about maps’ claims to accuracy and objectivity, and who literally wrote the book on how hazard mapping can be misleading, seems to be sputtering:

Usually, attempts to falsify tend to happen before maps are published, and don’t try to contradict established scientific facts. You can put a spin on something by influencing the appearance of a map before it’s published. You can put a spin on things by determining what is and is not going to be mapped. Something that might put your administration in an unfavorable view, for example: Those maps won’t be part of the plan. […]

But the Trump map is unusual. I cannot find anything truly comparable. We had a map that was already out there that he actually mutilated, and in a very obvious way. This guy shows absolutely no subtlety at all. And then people try to make excuses for him. I have never seen anything like this.

Trump’s little stunt has revealed something very interesting about how we see maps.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His nonfiction has been published by AE, The New York Review of Science Fiction, the Ottawa Citizen and Tor.com. His sf fanzine, Ecdysis, was a two-time Aurora Award finalist.