Maps Killed My Idealism

9 Aug

My dad bought me my first atlas when I was eleven years old; yeah, I was THAT kid. I love maps and poured over them. I loved looking at places that I had never been and dreamed about going there one day. So imagine my surprise, one day in 1983, the map changed.

This wasn’t the fall of the Soviet Union – this was six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall – this was a name change of a country in West Africa. Of course, I didn’t notice it at first; I couldn’t! The mapmakers only changed the maps years later, once enough nations accepted that the Republic of Upper Volta was now “Burkina Faso.”

This is one of those landlocked countries I find endlessly fascinating–probably because I grew up in a landlocked state. It also has the very-funny-to-English-speakers capital of Ouagadougou. So it grabbed my attention. So when it suddenly shifted names, I wanted to know why. In 1989 (yes, it took that long for the maps to change), we didn’t have the Internet, so I checked the CIA World Factbook. It said, “They changed their name to more accurately reflect the historical and cultural history of their people.” “Oh,” I told myself, “that makes sense,” and moved on to whatever interested me next.

Something can be true and not true at the same time. Yes, they changed their name for that very reason, but the factbook neglected to mention that they overthrew their government and installed the leftist Thomas Sankara as the president. That was part of his plan. By the time I noticed the map change, he had already been thrust out of office and replaced by another man… who ended up being a strong man for two decades.

It did spark an interest in African politics and government shifts, but really, what it taught that 15-year-old me is “don’t trust people’s press releases.” Sankara’s goals sounded really impressive, but considering he only lasted four years, I’m guessing he ticked off the people he was trying to support or the army that put him in power… either way, the name change became obvious that it was a way to grant legitimacy to his overthrow of the government rather than some lofty ideal.

So was it maps that really killed my idealism and taking claims at face value? No, but maps are simply a reflection of other people’s claims anyway, so I’m gonna say it was the trigger for me. The drawing of lines in Africa is the primary reason behind so much of the violence – because when politics is tribal / ethnic, and your line cuts right across tribal land, suddenly you have a majority in one country and a minority in the other and that will never change. The fact Yemen is in a civil war was because the country was split between Western and Soviet factions during the cold war, which just happened to be split on cultural lines. When they unified the country, you had that lovely majority/minority split, and the minority got ticked off enough to revolt.

I’m not going to make this a US comparison, because although the basic concepts are there, actually going out and shooting takes a different level of crazy… and thank God, we’re not there yet. We created tribes when we lost all our other cultural / religious / familial connections and felt isolated. It’s one thing to go on Twitter and say, “Orange man bad!” It’s another to march in the streets when you know the cops won’t shoot you. It’s a completely different level to go out when you know they WILL shoot you. There’s a smaller number the more dedicated you go.

Which is why as an older man don’t trust idealism. It’s easy to go march when it’s a party–I’ve marched myself–but it takes another level of crazy to actually do something about it. I’ve gone off the deep end myself, and in the end, I don’t think it’s worth it.

“When did you lose your grace?” (Sorry, movie quote.) Did you have a transformational movement that made you a cranky old fart like me? Or did you have a epiphany that made you man the barricades? It doesn’t have to be epic like looking at a map. 🙂 Tell me about it in the comments below!

3 Responses to “Maps Killed My Idealism”

  1. SometimesHere August 9, 2020 at 9:33 am #

    To me, maps are like scents, they bring memories of places I visited. I love maps.

  2. Isobel August 12, 2020 at 6:15 am #

    “idealism and taking claims at face value”

    Just want to clarify that these are totally different things. Hoping this sentence doesn’t define idealism as “taking things at face value”. It isn’t.

  3. Jane Tawel September 2, 2020 at 11:09 am #

    This is a profoundly thoughtful essay and the connection you make between your younger self and maps and your older self and idealism and protests, names, risks, etc. and the “reasons of Why” versus often the “realities of why” is brilliant, seering, and convictingly meaningful. Thank you. Jane

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