- 22 Aug 17
Less than 50% of US citizens have passports. But it is important for those that do, a US writer says, to travel in a spirit of open-ness and inquiry. The same, of course, is true for people here in Ireland.
A cautious welcome has been expressed by tourism interests at projections that Dublin’s bed shortage will be met by a range of new hotels by 2019. And yes, it’s probably good news – but at the same time we’re at the point where mass tourism is itself generating problems that need to be faced.
This is especially true in major cultural destinations like Venice, Rome, San Sebastian and Barcelona, where some locals have been expressing anger at the sheer impenetrability of their own cities as hordes of visitors peak in the summer months. The most vociferous complaints have been in ports served by cruise ships. The huge expansion of AirBnB as an engine of tourism is another factor. Anyone’s temper would fray, especially in the summer of Heatwave Lucifer.
Cruise ship hordes have been likened to marching ants, stolidly self-absorbed and secure in their identity and status, and marshalled ever-onwards by their guide-centurions. But why, other than Lucifer, would resentment surface now? Is it that things have suddenly reached a tipping point? Or are wider issues in play? Many cruise clients are American or Chinese: might there be a trace of xenophobia to it? Or is there a Trump factor?
We here on Hog Heights have always felt that any American who uses a passport should be welcome, given that over 50% of American adults don’t even have one. As a result we have had many great, wide-ranging conversations. There may not always have been a meeting of minds, but we could see that these were broadly inquisitive people keen to explore our common world.
There are complexities involved. In a lengthy, and fascinating, article for the Long Read series in The Guardian, for which she adapted her book Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World, the US journalist Suzy Hansen offers a much bleaker view. “Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us,” she writes. “In these years after the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use.”
A QUIET KIND OF FASCISM
She grew up in New Jersey, in a place where they voted for Trump. In her school they didn’t study world maps “because international geography, as a subject, had been phased out of many state curriculums long before.” Accordingly, they had no real sense that the US was one country among many. “The lone Asian kid in our class studied hard and went to Berkeley,” she adds, “the Indian went to Yale. Black people never came to Wall. The world was white, Christian; the world was us.”
She went to the University of Pennsylvania after high school. She recalls now how little the outside world intruded, including wars in Eritrea, Nepal, Afghanistan, Kosovo, East Timor, Kashmir; US embassies being bombed in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam; the hunt for Osama bin Laden…
A chance encounter with the work of African-American writer James Baldwin was the first seismic shock to that world of hers. She was stunned to see herself in his depiction of “white Americans.” She knew she was both white and American, but had never thought of this as her identity. That, for her, was about “gender, personality, religion, education, dreams.” Now she realised that “finding herself” and “becoming herself” was “the most white American thing of all.”
Eight years on, working as a journalist, she successfully applied for a writing fellowship in Turkey. There, she found herself woefully unprepared. She was, she says, “learning about foreign countries... learning about America’s role in the world... and also slowly understanding... (her) own psychology, temperament and prejudices.”
She adds that “American exceptionalism did not only define the US as a special nation among lesser nations; it also demanded that all Americans believe they, too, were somehow superior to others.”
In her essay, she continues to explore this, coming to realise that “We are told it (the US) is the greatest country on earth. The thing is, we will never reconsider that narrative... because to us, that isn’t propaganda, that is truth. And to us, that isn’t nationalism, it’s patriotism.” This, she is told by a Turk, and she agrees, is “a quiet kind of fascism.”
SELFIE STICK HELD HIGH
This conclusion is likely to be contested, as it should be. My interest here is not to do with that, but with (in particular) what her travel contributed to her development. That travel has been immersive and honestly inquisitive. Distance has allowed her, as researchers say, to triangulate her view of her homeland and its culture. That’s a function of travel, not tourism, but the latter is the foundation of the former if well managed and sustainable. (Often, travel for business counts for neither, which is why Donal Trump, for all his airmiles, remains an ignoramus).
All of this begs questions for we Irish. What pictures are painted for incoming tourists, longer-stay visitors such as students and contract workers and for those who come here to live permanently? How do the Irish see the world, their place in it and the nest of relationships that surround them and their homeland?
When they travel, as they do in great numbers, what do they learn? How does it inform and change their perspectives? And what do they bring with them to contribute to where they visit or come to rest? What strange weight do we carry with us?
There is an Irish exceptionalism too, with at least four major narratives. The first is the exploited Irish, whether by British colonialism, foreign banks or indigenous Irish; then there’s the Ireland of great beauty, of craic, creativity, stories, heart and emotion; third, there’s missionary Ireland which has sallied forth to save that which needs saving and to preach and teach and empower; finally, there’s modern, technological, coffee-buzzed digital Ireland.
There are more, of course – all open to the kind of deep inquisition Hansen visits on the United States. One suspects that one or two Irish journalists will read Hansen’s essay and attempt a short-cut version. They should be wary. Such elaboration takes time. And besides, she came to doubt journalism itself.
Everyone should be enquiring as they travel – not just about what they see before them, but also reflecting on what they see behind. You won’t get that, trudging after a centurion guide; nor with a selfie stick held high; nor, indeed, focused on your smart-phone restlessly checking your social media feeds. You get it from traveling with all senses open.