Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Shibboleths and Hobby Horses of the Left

The other day I was thinking of an old Leftist friend of mine whom I haven't seen now in many, many years. I was thinking of the good old days when you could always identify a Sandinista sympathizer, because he pronounced the name of the country as "Neekarrrrrahgua," instead of "Nicker-rogwa."

In fact, my old Leftist friend used to insist on pronouncing Moscow as "Moskva" (accent on the last syllable), and Paris as "Paree"; and he would argue at length that the only reason any English speaker ever pronounced these names otherwise, was out of hatred of the Frenchies and the Commies.

It was fruitless to suggest to him that the real reason might be that historically, speakers of English had had more to do with Moscow than with, say, Birobidzhan. I mean, familiarity breeds nicknames, and not necessarily contempt. No, no, no, quoth he: it is never anything but hatred that motivates any speaker of English to refer to any other city or country by anything other than the native pronunciation of its name.

By this time my eyes would be glazing over, as he would drift on to explain to me that the obscure Peters Projection was the only acceptable map of the world, and that the well-known and widespread Mercator projection encoded in its geometry a hatred of Third Worlders, because notice how much smaller the equatorial region is on a Mercator map... It was fruitless to suggest to him (is this starting to sound familiar?) that the real reason might be that historically, the Mercator projection was the only map on which ships could plot their projected course as a straight line. No, no, no, quoth he: it is never anything but hatred that motivates any map user to use the Mercator projection, instead of the Lefty's favorite, the Peters Projection...

Yes, my Leftist friend was in the grip of monomania. He insisted that the Peters projection was the only acceptable world map. When I suggested that this depended on one's purposes, and that some map projections might be better for one purpose, others better for another purpose... No, no, no, quoth he, it is always only the Peters projection!

I told my friend about the world map that used to hang at the front of my fourth grade classroom... It was that projection that looks like an orange peel, isn't it the Mollweide projection? No, no, no, quoth he, grade school classrooms never use anything but the Mercator projection; when you get into the upper grades they may briefly expose you to a few non-Mercator maps before putting them back in the locked map drawer, but otherwise it's never anything but the Mercator projection...

(I know by now you may think I'm making this up, but believe me, I'm telling it like it was. This conversation took place, over a couple of meals at a pizza joint, back around 1985. My jaw was hanging nearly as badly as yours, to hear this line of "argument.")

I went home and paged through the dogeared atlas which I kept in a magazine rack alongside the Throne of Excremeditation. It contained I believe 209 maps, maybe three or four of them Mercator, the other 200+ being other assorted projections. When next we met for pizza, I relayed these figures to my friend, who flatly refused to believe them, on the grounds that the eeeeevil Mercator projection is everywhere.

He related as proof of the righteousness of the Peters projection the fact that he had introduced the Peters projection in the adult Sunday school class he taught, and one man objected, "No, wait, that map doesn't look right!" Proof positive that my friend was right— since, à la cocktail party Freudianism, whenever you object to the approved party line, you're merely demonstrating your own hangups. I replied to him that of course there's a certain shock value to the unfamiliar, just as someone might have a feeling that something "doesn't look right" about the much less familiar 49 star U.S. flag, as contrasted with a 48 or 50 star flag. But that in evolutionary terms, there's a survival value to having that tingling "spider sense" when you encounter the unfamiliar.

Ah, the flag! Bad example to use in an argument with a Leftist, who felt that people damn well ought to feel that something "doesn't look right" about the American flag! I eventually managed to drag him back off that tangent, and observed that any map projection will have advantages and shortcomings, since any 2D map is inherently an imperfect representation of a 3D globe.

No, no, no, quoth he, why then do the racist colonialists of the world always have the globe with the Northern Hemisphere pointing upward? Is it not merely out of nothing but hatred for the oppressed people of the Southern Hemisphere? Is not the globe too nothing but a tool of Yanqui colonialist exploitation?!

I dryly suggested he buy one of those globes which you can rotate any which way in its mounting.

Once again, I know this may sound incredible. But I swear, I'm not making it up. This conversation actually did take place, pretty much as recounted. I could point out the Pizza Hut out by the highway, if it's still there today.

But that was back in the days when I was a callow youth, and I did not yet fully understand that monomania is monomania is monomania, look out! Or as it has been more poetically put, Cast not your pearls before swine...



Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Uh, no, the world map in my fourth grade classroom was not the Mollweide projection after all. It was most likely the Goode homolosine projection.

Thursday, May 10, 2007 12:47:00 PM  

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