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Go travel the world, but watch out for poisonous oysters

April 20, 2017

A long time ago, when I was a student, I used to wonder what countries I would not wish to visit because of the policies of their governments. Top of the list was South Africa. In fact, it was more or less the only country on the list, apart from its little brother in white supremacy, Southern Rhodesia. Oh, and maybe Paraguay.

For me, this was a time when the possibility of travel was strictly theoretical. I lived on a student grant, though truth be told I would get through each grant cheque in a month, and rely on my parents to keep me in beer, books and bus fares for the rest of the term.

Some of my peers did travel quite extensively. The hippie trail was just getting started. The way-posts were celebrated in the names given to varieties of cannabis resin: Moroccan, Red Leb(anese), Afghani and Paki(stani) Black. You could get to India via North Africa, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, and perhaps end up in an ashram, where you would study meditation and hope to meet a Beatle. If your tastes were less spiritual, you could moulder away on the beaches of Goa amid clouds of sweet-smelling dope.

You might also head north to Kathmandu, where you could acquire your first taste of Buddhism. Or, if your money wouldn’t stretch that far, you could hang out in Kabul, which in those days was full of young backpackers eager to get hold of one of those smelly, shaggy sheepskin jackets much envied by the hippies back home.

Your parents would worry about you, often for good reason, and lived for the airmail you might send them every few months. They would dread hearing bad news from a local British consulate. A phone call from you would most likely only come because you were in trouble of some kind, though more often because you were broke and starving.

In addition to South Africa, there were many other countries that were off limits for a number of reasons other than political preference. Some, like Vietnam and Cambodia, were war zones. Others didn’t encourage tourists except under strictly controlled circumstances – the communist countries particularly. Then there were those that were far enough away to be inaccessible to all but the well-heeled. And there were countries so remote that those who visited them were usually categorised as explorers. Parts of Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Mongolia for example.

Nowadays many of us in the wealthy west, including relatively impoverished students, can afford to go almost anywhere. So the question arises: if, forty years ago, we had moral qualms only about visiting South Africa, where can we go today with a clear conscience, safe in the knowledge that by visiting and spending our money – or perhaps working – we are not contributing to the continuance of an obnoxious, oppressive or exploitative regime?

In 2017 there are different war zones into which only the foolish would venture. But what of countries whose regimes fall far short of what we might find acceptable in our own countries? If we were born and raised in liberal democracies, do we avoid Russia, China, Belarus and North Korea, all countries that call themselves democracies, yet are to all extents and purposes are one-party, or one-ruler, states? Do we avoid Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, most of which make no pretence of democracy?

Or do we follow our liberal hearts and say to ourselves that governments are not the same as people, and no matter how objectionable we find the social and political regimes, it’s our duty to reach out to their populations because we share a common humanity? And perhaps thereby we can act as ambassadors for the freedoms we treasure in our own countries.

That might be a valid point of view, except that the people living in those countries might not appreciate our messianic zeal. They might say that they’re doing fine as they are, thank you very much, and that they don’t need arrogant westerners spouting orientalist claptrap and trying to upset a status quo that may not be perfect, but at least allows them to live in peace.

What if we’re of an analytic bent, and we try to set criteria that allow us to decide where to travel and where not to? What might those criteria be?

Freedom of speech?

Gender equality?

Absence of racial discrimination?

The rule of law?

Fair elections?

Universal enfranchisement?

A reasonable set of questions to ask about any country, I should have thought. Turning them into benchmarks would be hard, though.

I’ve left out one criterion because it can only be measured by an objective benchmark that would be hard to define and set: the gap between rich and poor. Apply what you might consider a fair measure, and you could be left with very few countries – probably excepting only very poor ones that might fail on a number of the other criteria – that your conscience would allow you to visit. Including, quite possibly, your own.

Let’s say that your moral qualms wouldn’t allow you to visit countries that don’t meet at least five of the six criteria we’ve agreed upon. You therefore rule out those I mentioned earlier. What are you left with? Perhaps fifty percent of the planet’s landmass. Even if you exclude the likes of Russia and China, the liberal democracies would get enough ticks in the boxes, wouldn’t they?

Perhaps we should think again.

The problem is that these criteria are moving targets. Politics and economics are constantly changing the goalposts. There are many countries that are in a fuzzy zone – sliding one way or another up and down the greyscale.

Take Turkey for example. How would it score, post-coup and post-referendum, on freedom of speech, fair elections and the absence of racial discrimination? Do we now refuse to visit Turkey because President Erdogan has acquired powers that move him close to dictatorship? And because so many journalists are languishing in jail, or because the country’s Kurds are treated as a potential enemy within?

And what of countries that we have hitherto seen as shining beacons of liberal democracy?

How would the United States – the ultimate exemplar – now score against the criteria? Racial discrimination may not be a policy of state. And yet under the aegis of state institutions, many Americans would say that police forces actively discriminate against black citizens and politicians racially gerrymander electoral districts. And that’s not to mention the question of whether the 2016 elections were fair, and the extent to which Donald Trump is attempting to erode the rule of law with his immigration policy. Does the US practice gender equality? Not in Silicon Valley, where pay differentials and the glass ceiling are as strong as anywhere.

What of New Zealand, where you might not find many Maoris agreeing that they were on a level playing field – except possibly on the rugby field?

And France, the home of liberté, égalité et fraternité? Do the ethnic Arab populations of the banlieues feel that they are not discriminated against?

And finally, my own country, whose police have been accused of institutional racism, and which recently decided to leave the European Union on the basis of a referendum polluted by lies on all sides of the argument? And where since the referendum acts of violence are increasingly being carried out against foreign nationals, often with impunity?

You might defend the US, New Zealand, France and Britain because they have laws that specifically forbid acts of racism and electoral fraud, and criminalise the infringement of a wide range of individual liberties. But those laws don’t manage the attitudes of society. And the rule of law depends not only on laws being in place, but on the extent to which they are obeyed. If the laws cannot prevent religious, racial and gender discrimination, you could argue that the rule of law – one of our key criteria – is weak.

All of which suggests that the countries at which we point the finger for their various political deficiencies have a right to tell us “judge not, lest you be judged”.

Of course, as we all know, this ain’t how the world works. Most of us don’t solemnly go through a list of countries we might like to visit and cross off those that offend our principles. We get on the aircraft with the intention of seeing for ourselves, because we don’t trust the opinions of others. We might then make our judgements, and regale our friends back home with horror stories of what we encountered at our destinations. What counts is not the morality of our hosts, but our personal experience.

But there’s another factor that makes me at least think twice about visiting a country. It’s rooted in emotion. A sadness that what was once welcoming and outward-looking is no longer so.

Take the United States as an example. I have many friends there, and over the decades I’ve been enriched by its cultural influence. I think of America as an old friend.

But on recent visits I’ve felt as though the old friend has changed. It starts with immigration. Suspicion. Scant attention to the social niceties. An intimidating atmosphere that demands compliance on pain of rejection or arrest. Once in, I’ve sensed a harshness of opinion that tolerates no discussion. It’s almost as though the society – or communities within it – is shutting down free speech even if the constitution continues to guarantee it. Sacred cows roam the streets, and it’s taboo to speak against them – national security being the biggest and ugliest.

All this I noticed before Trump became president. I’ve not visited the country since then, (here’s something I posted last year on this theme) but everything I hear and read – and not just within the liberal echo chamber – suggests that those traits are getting worse.

The old friend is changing, and do I want to renew the acquaintance? I’m not sure. And anyway I might not get the chance, especially after all the critical things I’ve said about its current president.

And then there’s Turkey. I’m not one of those who looks at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid for enhanced power purely through Western eyes. The guy was nearly killed in last year’s coup attempt. He may well see enemies everywhere. Perhaps with good reason, given that his country has felt the flames of the Syrian conflict. But his intemperate remarks about Nazis in Holland makes you wonder whether his narrow escape has destabilised him.

Be that as it may, he has won his referendum, and now – theoretically at least – has as much power as Ataturk. But he would do well to remember that Ataturk’s power came as much from the respect of his people as from the laws he created. One man does not make a nation, although if he has sufficient determination he can divide and destroy it.

I also think of Turkey as an old friend, yet I wonder whether I will ever visit Istanbul or the gorgeous southern coast again. An American friend of a friend expresses the sadness much more eloquently than I ever could. In a blog post published the other day, Margo Catts, novelist and journalist, writes about the dangers of a people reflecting their hopes on a strongman, and on the awkward, often parasitic, relationship between religion and political power:

I’m an American, and have watched my own country struggle with the relationship between government and religion. Religion provides a moral, tribal, unifying code; government provides the structure to uphold it. They should go well together, right? But I have ample support for the opposite conclusion: We could learn a lot from Bergman and Bogart.

For the results that are actually good for us, rather than the fake, rosy, unnatural ones we think we want, government and religion need to play the star-crossed lovers. They can never, never, get together.

And don’t get me wrong—they’re mad hot for each other. Religion is soft and sexy. It has people’s hearts, their better selves, their longings and hopes, the warm embrace of love. But oh, we struggle to be all she wants us to be. Government, on the other hand, has the muscle. It can make things happen, keep people in line, exact penalties for disobedience that actually have some teeth. Complementary personalities with the same objective. They seem made for each other, right?

For much of human history, they have been intertwined, and it doesn’t take a terribly close reading of history to see the disastrous results. Bloodshed and oppression in the name of God; immoral leadership operating under a stamp of religious authority; enforced ignorance, poverty, and enslavement to serve the selfish ends of the few, propping themselves up with certainty about God’s will.

I strongly suggest you read her whole piece, which you can find here.

She, like me, once lived in Saudi Arabia, and like me has frequently visited Turkey. Her worries about Erdogan’s fiefdom are informed by her experience of living in a country whose authoritarian government, full of awkward contradictions derived from need to justify its legitimacy on religious grounds, is what Turkey’s isn’t today, but might become in the future.

That’s what I mean by a moving target. Our last trip away was to one of the world’s few remaining communist states – at least in name. Our next one will be to a nation ruled by a military junta. How therefore can I have qualms about visiting the US or Turkey? Logically, I can’t. But emotions are something else. The pain of seeing a country that has given me so many treasured memories reduced in my estimation might, for now at least, be too great.

That’s just the self-indulgent sentiment of someone who’s been around a bit. To anyone who hasn’t travelled much, I would say go forth and discover the world while you still can. But watch out for poisonous oysters.

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