How the world gets smaller

This weekend, we’re now hearing (the truth) that BP’s latest effort to stop the Gulf oil spill has been mostly a failure. President Obama has been down to visit and to claim that the Gulf Coast “is not alone,” but since our captains of industry and elected officials seem to be powerless to actually stop the gushing oil, I’m afraid that it may signal that the opposite will happen. It’s sad but true: after a certain point, people protect themselves from unmitigatable disaster by ceasing to deal with an area where the disaster has occurred. It gets shunted off to a dark spare corner of their mental world map as a place they don’t choose to ever think about again, like sub-Saharan Africa, Haiti, the countryside surrounding Chernobyl, and (to some extent) New Orleans.

When economic disaster happened to the Rust Belt (in slow motion), the same process took place. Gradually, our region and other neighboring Rust Belt areas and cities, such as Detroit and Buffalo, fell off America’s mental map. The locus of the American imagination is mostly centered around the big coastal metro strips and the South and West. Where New York used to be a big-cheese state culturally and politically, it’s mainly important today to the American story only because of its large and regionally lopsided population. Cities like Syracuse and Rochester have been forgotten, just like the Gulf Coast will be once it’s covered in oil (even though life there will continue, and fish may even continue to get caught).

This means that, over time, our collective knowledge of the “known world” gets smaller – by our own choice. It seems strange that this could happen in a world where every corner has now been explored and is part of a global economy. But as the years go by, these mental blank spots on the map get papered over with generalizations and assumptions instead of actual knowledge of the area. Our modern, progressive minds can only take so much uncertainty, after all. Given a choice between uncertain fears and willful ignorance, ignorance usually wins out.