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On Staying Put

In the copy of the Dao De Jing I was reading in the early 1990s, next to the lines “He who goes to a distant land / in search of the Truth / Will only distance himself from the Truth” was written, in my then-boyfriend’s cramped handwriting, “Or Disneyland.” I remember this every time I reread those lines and mentally edit the passage:

He who goes to a distant land—or Disneyland—

in search of the Truth

Will only distance himself from the Truth.

A few days ago, a friend of mine wrote a good piece about the class injustice in coronavirus testing, given that the current testing criteria in the United States privilege those who have traveled and ignore those who have encountered the virus through community spread.

So I’ve been thinking about travel. Last month, an age ago, I saw performances of both parts of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, and as the pandemic has become an increasingly urgent concern in the United States, I have remembered the voice of the Angel, transmitting to Prior the angels’ plea that we should “Forsake the Open Road / . . . . / HOBBLE YOURSELVES! / . . . . / STASIS!” In a time of plague, the sensible nurse-practitioner’s advice to Prior, who has AIDS, is the same as the Angel’s mad request: “Keep breathing. Stop moving. STAY PUT.”

But while we are staying home, we should reckon with the role that travel has acquired in the age of social media. Twenty years ago, if you went on a cool vacation and wanted people to see your amazing photos, it took some doing. You would have to meet face to face, and your person would have to sit still and listen to you narrate the story of each photo. Maybe, if you were lucky, you had a screen and a projector and a lot of family and friends who loved you very much and had extremely long attention spans. There were limits on the extent to which travel could be CONSPICUOUS consumption, and it was easier to show off with consumer goods.

Now, not only is travel as easy to show off as consumer goods, it’s more socially acceptable. It might seem crass to post a photo of your new $80,000 car, but travel, even for anti-capitalist leftists, is seen as morally neutral or positive. In the early years of social media, I spent hours upon hours creating photo albums of two big trips, one to Italy in 2011 and one to India and the UK in 2013. I eventually started to feel queasy about social media personae, mine and others. I felt very alone, and very lonely, in the early years of social media, but the persona I projected was “alone but not lonely.” The individual words and photos that I posted were not false, but they were curated, and so the overall persona was false.

But trying to step away from documenting my travel online has been hard sometimes, because travel has risen so much as a marker of status and prestige—if you have to travel for your job, your job must be important. You must be important. If you take amazing vacations, you must be an interesting person. There aren’t many voices exhorting people to travel less . . . or at least there weren’t before two months ago. Last fall, Henry Wismayer wrote a wistful piece on his moral misgivings about being a travel writer in a time of climate emergency. His opening anecdote recounts a visit to Lake Abbe, a soda lake that is vanishing:

I’d gone to the Horn of Africa in search of timeless landscapes, but there was no respite from humanity’s penchant for remaking geography. It was hard to avoid a sense of complicity. After all, I was there to write a travel story, exhorting other English-speakers to visit the region as if all was well with the world. On that excursion, I would clock up 8,000 miles in flights, exceeding the annual carbon footprint per person recommended by the Swiss nonprofit by a factor of four in the space of one long-haul round trip. As I stood where Lake Abbe was surrendering to the Grand Barra desert, the newly exposed ground appeared as a premonition of an uninhabitable Earth. A hot breeze blew eddies of dust around my ankles, scolding me. You shouldn’t have come.

If we remake our relationship to travel in the face of a pandemic, will we then return as quickly as possible to how things used to be as soon as this threat passes? Yascha Mounk summarizes Peter Singer’s famous thought experiment on empathy and proximity with reference to COVID19 as one possible explanation for why so many people are doing such a lousy job of social distancing: until someone near me is sick, I can’t empathize, and I won’t do anything.

But Singer, best known for his philosophical work on animal rights, always wants us to broaden the circle of our compassion and empathy. What is now causing massive cuts to our carbon footprint—as has already happened in China and will increase as people follow Kushner’s nurse’s directive to “STAY PUT”—is concern for human beings, not concern for the planet. When this is all over, whenever that may be—after we will have learned how many people really can do their jobs from home, after the meat-eaters who bought up all the canned beans will have learned how good a vegetarian meal can be, after people will have had some experience with broadening their circle of compassion to people they don’t know—can we on the left try to keep some focus on unnecessary travel as a problem?

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