Justice and Place

In this forum and with this audience I doubt that it will be at all controversial to state that justice and place are intimately connected. After all, geographers are typically quite aware of such relationships. Or at least one hopes that they are typically quite aware of this. The dynamics between geography and justice is readily apparent in a wide array of situations, from the segregation policies of the old American South to the occupation policies of Israel vis-à-vis Palestine to the variance in death penalty laws among the various states in America. What is amazing, though, is how often issues of justice and place appear in the news as well as in cultural products and how just as often they are not recognized as such by the majority of people or, perhaps, even by the majority of geographers. My best supposition of why this is so is that geographical connections become obscure and opaque as readers and viewers pay attention to what may seem like more immediate factors, such as the glaring inequities of injustice or the seemingly random enactment and enforcement of laws. However, a simple analysis of a small sample of items will demonstrate that the link between geography and justice is extremely dynamic and must be taken into account for even a superficial understanding of most events.

For example, if we open up the New York Times of December 19 2014 to page 20, we will find three separate stories that show completely different yet equally taut relationships between geography and justice. The first story is titled “2 Neighbors of Colorado Sue over Marijuana Laws.” Upon perusing this article, we discover that the States of Nebraska and Oklahoma are suing the State of Colorado, which recently passed a law legalizing marijuana. Nebraska and Oklahoma are basing their cases on a worry that the pestilence of pot will spill over their borders and cause havoc in their territories. Here, we obviously have an issue with a geographical turn to it, for if there were no states and no borders between them, then this would not be an issue at all and, thus, not a story. But it seems to me that most readers will go through this story without realizing that the connection between geography and justice is the prime element in this article, as that link is so obvious that it is masked, hiding in plain sight, as it were.

The second story is titled “Contesting Traffic Fines, Missouri Sues 13 Suburbs.” Here, we have the attorney general of the State of Missouri suing thirteen St. Louis suburbs for allegedly profiteering off of minorities and the poor by overzealous enforcement of parking fines and traffic violations. So instead of co-equal entities such as states going to battle, as in the first story, we have here a state turning its jurisdictional focus on smaller entities, municipalities within that state. Again, a clear geographical focus is paramount in this case, as it is only through the organization of the states and municipalities and their court systems along geographical lines that such a suit could even be filed. But, once again, geography as such is lost here as attention is shifted to the alleged injustices which the governments of the various St. Louis municipalities perpetrated upon their citizens.

The final story on page 20 of the December 19 edition of the New York Times, “Shooting Spurs Debates Over Race and Guns In a Gingerbread Town,” concerns a Muslim woman, Mary Araim, who had been sworn in as a U.S. citizen just days before she was shot and killed in the German-themed tourist town of Helen in White County, Georgia, by one Glenn Lampien. Here the geographical locus is a bit more complicated. First, we have a Georgia town which , for touristic purposes, presents itself as a simulacrum of a German village replete with such establishments as the Hansel & Gretel Candy Kitchen, Lindenhaus Imports, and the Old Bavarian Inn. Ms. Araim, a native of Iraq, where she had been a teacher and an assistant principal, had moved to the United States and settled in Houston. She was in Georgia to visit relatives in nearby Lawrenceville and was wearing a headscarf when she was walking down the streets of Helen where she was killed. Lampien of Jasper, Georgia, was in Helen seemingly to become intoxicated. He had been drinking in a local bar, King Ludwig’s Biergarten, before he ducked out on the bill and then allegedly shot and killed Ms. Araim. According to the article, Lampien contends that he shot his gun accidentally and that in no way did he target Ms. Araim because she was Muslim and wearing a headscarf. So perhaps here we could draw lines of destiny and fate between Iraq, Texas, and Georgia to delineate the lineaments of geography in this case. The extra factor of the German touristic layer adds a surreal plane to the mix, giving the tragic death of Ms. Araim a bizarre quality. We could also add in the fact that Ms. Araim was more liable to be shot in the United States than in almost any other country, including perhaps even Iraq, given our penchant for weapons and our lax laws regarding the purchase of ammunition and guns, and especially in states such as Georgia, which passed a law in March allowing gun owners to carry their weapons in bars, restaurants, churches, schools, and restaurants.

A quick look at a selection of classic plays and movies also yields a sampling of cultural documents reflecting a tight connection between geography and ethics. For instance, Shakespeare’s King Lear hinges on the division of Lear’s kingdom into three equal parts which he bequeaths to his three daughters. The geographical backdrop of the play is quite explicit as in Act One, Scene One, Lear declaims to his children:

Give me the map there. Know we have divided
In three our kingdom; and `tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age,
Conferring them on younger strengths while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.

Obviously geographical in nature, this passage even refers to the paramount technical instrument of geography, a map. The consequences of Lear’s recklessly fateful decision ends up casting Lear and his youngest daughter, Cordelia, against his other two children, Goneril and Regan, in a pitched battle over territory, authority, and familial devotion or the lack thereof. Yet here as well, the salience of geographical concerns gets lost amidst what seem to be more significant psychological and metaphysical issues. Lear tips towards madness and plumbs the depths of the geography of the Inferno: “Beneath is all the fiends. There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit; burning, scalding, stench, consumption. Fie, fie fie! pah, pah!” But the linchpin and the catalyst of the tragedy is that geographical parsing out of his kingdom to his daughters, the division of territory leading to all that ensues in Shakespeare’s drama.

One of Hollywood’s most celebrated classics, A Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra, is also centered on quite obvious geographical concerns. In this rather smaltzy yet still powerful drama, George Bailey, played by the always earnest James Stewart, struggles to keep his hometown of Bedford Falls and his housing development from falling into the evils clutches of Henry Potter, played by a very creepy Lionel Barrymore. The story is all geography through and through, with opposite versions of the town, Bailey’s idyllic Bedford Hills versus Potter’s satanic Pottersville, set against one another, the former a blissful vision of an almost communal-like Americana suburb, the latter reeking with every form of degeneracy and sin. Of course, this being a Hollywood picture, Bailey wins out in the end but not before receiving a copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer from his guardian angel, Clarence, thus tying Bailey into the great mother of American rivers and therefore connecting the film to a geography (and a history) of a more expansive kind.

These examples of the importance of geography in cultural products are not singular: there are scores of others which could just as easily prove the point. For instance, Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard concerns the estate of a family of aristocrats turned over to member of the noveau riche, while Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People focuses on the polluted waters of a spa. Or consider the Oscar winners for best picture in the last two years. In 2013, the Oscar for best picture went to 12 Years A Slave while in 2012 Argo received the nod. Both movies are framed by a strong geographical context, with the former set in the South when the mode of production of slavery was dividing the United States in two and the latter having much to do with borders, nation-states, and attempts to transcend those borders through subterfuge and cunning.

My point here, though, is not to insert geography into various things, as if draping our discipline about the necks of this or that entity, but to demonstrate that geography is pervasive, especially in terms of the realms of justice and ethics. Where you are makes a great difference, in fact as well as in fiction. That we as geographers should be especially aware of this seems to be the least we can demand of ourselves.

—Rob Sullivan