A Crisis of Cartographic Proportions

Friday, March 28, 2014


While Russia annexed Crimea with scarcely a shot fired, the crisis has grown heated between cartographers. An editing war broke out on Wikipedia's map of Russia, and National Geographic sparked outrage by suggesting it would map Crimea as Russian territory once the Kremlin made it official. Bob talks with Michael Blanding, author of the forthcoming book The Map Thief, about how map-making by nature is a risky geopolitical game.


Michael Blanding

Hosted by:

Bob Garfield

Comments [6]

Eric Choate

I have a 12-foot-wide world map made by the Department of Defense in 1971, and it shows a few historical cartographical decisions we made at the time.

Over Estonskaya SSR, Latviyskaya SSR, and Litovskaya SSR, it has in small red text, "The United States does not recognize the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union." Also, "Germany" is written across both the West/East Germany, and the east is labeled as "Soviet Zone."

In the Middle East, it shades the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights with red diagonal lines and labels them as "Israeli Occupied Territory."

"Korea" is written down the length of the peninsula across a border, but P'yongyang does not get the star of a national capital. On the other hand, T'ai-Pei does get a star as the capital of "China (Taiwan)."

In India, the former Portuguese territories of Goa, Diu, and Damao (its Portuguese name) are surrounded by dashed national border lines to indicate they are not part of India, but they are not labeled as belong to any other country.

Mar. 30 2014 08:39 PM
Eston Spain Jr from Columbia, MO

Mike, good points and an excellent reference to Mark Monmonier's "How to Lie with Maps. As a map maker, we strive to produce accurate maps. No one wants to make an inaccurate map, however, it's what is made evident within the map and what is not so apparent to the viewer. A great example are the cell phone coverage maps and the symbol that represents cell coverage. If you make the symbol large enough, you can show cell coverage anywhere. Boundaries of countries states and other large areas are created and disseminated by sources considered reliable, such as Rand McNally, but governments can and have moved boundaries to suit their needs or because of disputes. As for the cartographer or Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialist actually creating the map, it is all about accuracy.

Mar. 30 2014 06:51 PM
Jerry Smetzer from Juneau, Alaska

I have a map beef. On most national media outlets - print, digital, and broadcast - Alaska, if it is shown at all, is shown a little south of San Diego, and about the size of Oklahoma. Hawaii is shown as some kind of a northern suburb of Mexico City. These are lies, and if the news media, and the media in general is concerned about the accuracy and truth of things, they need to correct these lies of geography (Does any school even teach geography these days?) Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas, if overlaid on the US it will cover the entire US from Savannah to Duluth to LA; it is the most northern, western, and eastern state of the US, and doesn't even start until one drives about 1000 miles Northwest of Seattle, Washington. The urgency to correct this particular map lie is underscored by Putin's moves to re-annex the Crimea. If he decides to re-annex Alaska (bought from Russia by the US in 1867 for $7,000,000), would your average Joe Blow on the streets of the "lower 48" even know that Alaska is a state - and belongs to the United States of America - let alone where it is located on Planet Earth.

Mar. 30 2014 02:52 PM

To provide some historical perspective, see this map from 1904, "A Humorous Diplomatic Atlas of Europe and Asia" by Kisaburo Ohara, showing Russia as an octopus with a tentacle tightly around Crimea. http://themapsproject.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/kisaburo-ohara-1904-a-humorous-diplomatic-atlas-of-europe-and-asia/

Mar. 30 2014 12:30 PM
Bagel Balzac from China

I live and work in Western China, not all that far from some historically disputed areas long-considered part of the contiguous PRC land empire. During standoff last year between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu islands, I heard a (Western) news report that the PRC rushed to literally "re-draw the map" of their territorial waters and claims, presumably as a measure of legitimization, something to point to: "See? Ours. Says so right here..." When I talk to my students about that, indeed talk to anyone about the issue of Chinese territorial claims, they all have the same justification: History. "Tibet/Xinjiang/Diaoyu had always formerly been part of China. Just look at the maps from this or that dynasty..." And with Tibet and Xinjiang, essentially colonies under martial law for 65 years, the international community recognizes Chinese sovereignty over those places. But what did the world map look like before Mao? I ask because of the hypocrisy apparent in the US's (and UN community) position picking and choosing those nations and which borders whose "territorial integrity and sovereignty" they will support.

In a recent story I heard about Putin's claims to Crimea based on similar pronouncements of restoring the historical motherland, one hears echoes of Hitler's "anschluss" of Austria and " Lebensraum " justification for invading Czechoslovakia- surely those countries never appeared as part of the German landmass on any maps save Hitler's own. The commentator said that while Putin's remarks have a lot of populist traction at home, such justifications are pretty lame on the world stage and unacceptable to the judgment of the international community. I guess the “Yugoslav” wars are another recent analog with the eventual emergence of an independent Kosovo. And South Sudan- the US was all over that cause for independence. So, how/ why does China get a pass on subverting all of the values and principles on which the US was founded and which the president is foresworn to uphold, tacitly condoning non-genocidal forms of ethnic cleaning, essential apartheid states and outright colonization, the likes of which hasn't been tolerated among Western nations since the Algerian “independence”....? Is it nothing else but what Christopher Hitchens would call “moral midgetry” for the sake of high-stakes international trade. I'm not so idealistic, “Say it ain't so, Joe” as I might come off here, but your recent stories- along with Michelle Obama's recent trip here where she went to an ethnic Tibetan village in Sichuan, ostensibly as a “soft power” move to demonstrate American solidarity and support for the plight of the minority dispossessed and oppressed- framed this China hypocrisy in stark context and I wonder if I am missing something...

Mar. 30 2014 07:10 AM
Mike Bell

A very good book from the mid-1990s, How to Lie with Maps, by geographer Mark Monmonier, expands on issues raised in this week's two map-related pieces. By necessity mapmakers have to make choices about what to show and what to exclude, and those choices are often an indication of their values and goals. Just as you would evaluate a piece of writing critically, keeping the objectives of the author in mind, the same goes for maps.

Mar. 29 2014 08:37 PM

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