I’m still stuck on Sharpie-gate. Sorry. But, so is Donald Trump.
On Sunday, Sept. 1, as Hurricane Dorian approached, Trump tweeted:
“In addition to Florida — South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.”
He repeated the erroneous assertion during a FEMA briefing that day, saying: “And, I will say, the states — and it may get a little piece of a great place: It’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be.”
The problem: Alabama as a target had been eliminated days earlier as scientists refined their models and projections with more up-to-date information.
The president had either made an honest mistake (that happens) or he hadn’t kept track of more current briefings (that shouldn’t happen) or both. But, whatever the case, it was easy to fix by simply admitting the error.
Admitting error isn’t the Trumpian way. In Trump’s word view, admitting fault, no matter how small, exposes a frailty. In all things, one must deny, deny, deny, and do so strongly.
But correcting the error was not beyond the National Weather Service’s Birmingham, Ala., office, indeed it was their duty. They tweeted that day: “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east. #alwx”
This was prudent. People make very real decisions about how to keep families safe, whether to keep businesses open and whether to keep government agencies running, based on storm predictions. Trump’s error, in the abstract, could have been small, but failure to correct it could have had far-reaching implications, costly ones and possibly even deadly ones.
This set up a familiar fight for Trump: Him, his ego and his fallacies on one side, and truth, science and proper processes on the other.
Trump doesn’t see the truth as rigid, absolute and unassailable. For Trump, truth is like Play-Doh: You can shape it however you want, squash it, or ignore it all together. It is a thing to be toyed with.
So, he sought to reshape it, turning what may well have been an honest mistake into an absolute lie. He sought to make his Alabama hurricane predictions real.
In a bit of farcical head-scratchery, he presented a map in the Oval Office, on which the track of the hurricane had been altered to include Alabama. It appeared that the additional line had been drawn on the map with a Sharpie.
In another stunning development, not only did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration contradict the Birmingham office and support Trump’s erroneous claim, on Saturday The Washington Post reported that “a top NOAA official warned its staff against contradicting the president.”
The mutilated map, for me, was just too much. I had a deep, visceral reaction to the map, one born of a career worth of experience. Before I was a writer, I was in charge of the graphics department at The New York Times, and I was the art director of National Geographic magazine.
Both roles put me in charge of each institution’s cartography divisions, the one at the Times being one of the most important mapping units in all of journalism, and the one at National Geographic being one of the most important in the world.
Not being a trained cartographer myself, I learned quite a bit from those who were. Perhaps most importantly was how seriously they took their craft. There was a near-religious devotion to its accuracy and precision.
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.
Also, if you’re going to alter the map, is it too much to ask you to show some effort? But, I guess slapdash and tacky is the brand. I rescind the question.
The next time river waters rise, or wildfires rage, or hurricanes menace, will there be a kernel of doubt in some people’s heads, a seed sown by the president himself?
This is what becomes of a society governed by a man who has no regard for truth: The truth doesn’t survive without injury. And what price society will pay for conservatives watching in snide amusement as common truth is decimated is yet to be known.
They are too busy reveling in the fact that liberals find Trump’s behavior maddening, a fact that they find titillating.
This should be partisan. Maps shouldn’t be made to lie, not even for a president.
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