George Demko, U.S. Geographer, Keeps a Watchful Eye on States That Border on the Absurd
updated 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/30/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT
As America's highest authority on the world's real and ephemeral states, Demko spends most of his time at his State Department office in Washington, D.C., providing the government with charts, maps and reports on every corner of the globe. In his four years as U.S. Geographer, he and his staff of 15 have charted famines in Africa, the spread of AIDS in America and the location of satellites in outer space. He also maps itineraries for presidential trips and sees to it that Secretary of State George Shultz has an updated, Demko-created map pinpointing terrorist incidents around the world. "A lot of people think geography is knowing the capital of South Dakota," says Demko, for 20 years a professor of geography and Slavic studies at Ohio State University. "But that's like saying mathematicians know how to add one and one."
When he's not tracking wars, famines, locust plagues or refugee movements, Demko enjoys the lighter side of geography. In his case, that means fielding, and ultimately squashing, the claims of small, defenseless, self-proclaimed countries. Take, for example, the Federal District of El-East-moor, a landlocked nation whose boundaries look suspiciously like those of Opa-Locka, Fla. The El-East-moorans complained that Florida wouldn't acknowledge their sovereignty. Demko chose not to acknowledge their complaint. The department's "mythical kingdom" files, which go back decades, also trace the proud rise and ultimate demise of the Principality of Outer Baldonia, a tiny island nation off Nova Scotia founded by a group of bourbon-soused fishermen in 1948. Their declaration of independence gave citizens the right to drink, cuss, gamble and lie about the fish they caught. The government was required to set the value of currency every day at cocktail hour. The Outer Baldonians finally disbanded in the '70s—after declaring war on the Soviet Union over fishing rights—and the principality became a bird sanctuary.
Demko's office, of course, does not make foreign policy. His job is to provide information on new-nation claims, leaving government agencies to officially turn down requests for recognition. Occasionally, however, his department will tell a homemade ruler to take a hike. After the Hutt River kingdom in Western Australia was created by Len (Prince Leonard) Casley in 1970, an Office of the Geographer employee sent Hutt River's ambassador, who lived in Cleveland, a rejection notice. Bent but unbowed, the kingdom continued to sell T-shirts and tea towels to tourists. "Defining space," Demko says, "has always been a basic, primal need. But these people want recognition for their private Shangri-las. To me, they're either nuts, funnies or charlatans."
If you want to be a country, says Demko, you've got to have five things: space, population, economic activity, government structure and recognition from other countries. Six new nations have met those criteria since 1980—Zimbabwe, Vanuatu, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, St. Christopher and Nevis, and Brunei—bringing the total of U.S.-recognized sovereign states to 171. The closest a dreamer has come to official recognition, says Demko, was in 1964, when Leicester Hemingway, younger brother of Ernest, received a thank-you note from Lyndon Johnson after founding a nation that issued stamps in the President's honor. Leicester's New Atlantis—a bamboo platform anchored by a railroad axle and an old Ford engine block six miles off the Jamaican coast—fell victim to a storm while still in the prime of its young nationhood.
Demko says he himself escapes by sailing his Hobie Cat on a pond near his Reston, Va., town house, where he lives with his wife, Jeanette, 53, a preschool teacher. Though he travels often, the Czechoslovak-émigrés' son who once dreamed of seeing the world admits his favorite getaway is in his mind. "It's a piece of space which has no name but where serenity is the prevailing psychology," Demko says. "I've always felt the greatest way to escape is to imagine I was somewhere else."
—By Ron Arias, with Michael J. Weiss in Washington