Across the Divide: Traveling in an Increasingly Closed World

This summer, I arrived at my parents’ house in July to find a hardcopy of Madeleine Albright’s Fascism: A Warning resting on our living room coffee table. My mom had borrowed it from the Albany Public Library on a 14 day loan, and, on a whim, I decided to read it. I had missed Secretary Albright’s speech at the LBJ School last fall, although I am no stranger to her message. Albright, a self-described “optimist who worries a lot”, speaks on the subject of fascism regularly where she decries the perils of tyranny and laments the decline of liberal internationalism. After reading her book, this message carried even more weight and left me with two important takeaways.

Fascism a WarningFirst, Albright chronicles a comprehensive history of fascist movements in order to define Fascism’s key traits. The term, like Nazi or “stable genius”, is tossed around with such abandon that it is applied to meter maids as often as U.S. Presidents. Albright aims to rectify this ambiguity by pinning down its most commonplace features. These include: membership to a certain group and the discrimination of those outside of that group; the incitement of violence among followers; fascism’s blossoming in periods of widespread turmoil; a disregard for democratic institutions; and the use of propaganda and public demonization of enemies. In short, it points to a citizenry that embraces the mantra of “you’re either with us or against us.”

Second, Albright deconstructs the fascist psyche and illustrates the banality of its allure to the everyday person. “In hindsight, it is tempting to dismiss every Fascist of this era as a thoroughly bad guy or a lunatic, but that is too easy, also dangerous,” she writes. “Fascism is not an exception to humanity, but part of it.” There is no doubt that our contemporary moment is unpredictable and uncertain. In its midst, many of us crave stability and a strong leader to free us from this sense of chaos. We desire simplicity rather than complexity, prefer lies over the truth, and embrace exclusionary tribalism instead of inclusive community.

In reading Albright’s book, I was reminded of Eric Hoffer’s classic True Believer. Written in 1951, Hoffer set out to profile the individual drawn towards fanaticism and examine how mass movements attract their acolytes. Hoffer wrote “It is the true believer’s ability to ‘shut his eyes and stop his ears’ to facts that do not deserve to be either seen or heard which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacle not baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.”    

Like Hoffer sixty-five years ago, Albright has hit on something important today: across the globe, freedom is in retreat. Despite the predictions of optimists like Francis Fukuyama and Michael Doyle, the death knell of communism has not meant the end of autocracy. If anything, the last decade has proven the opposite.

Across the globe, civic spaces are shrinking, news outlets are under attack, and leaders are consolidating power in the name of security and sovereignty. But in some ways, these developments have been most prominent at home. Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center regularly report the increase in hate crimes while the Economist Intelligence Unit downgraded the United States to a “Flawed Democracy” for the first time in its history. The report attributed this lower ranking to the precipitous decline in public trust in U.S. institutions. The Pew Research Fact Tank has also reported that diminished trust may be widening the partisan policy gap, with an average 34 point gap between Republicans and Democrats in 2017, compared to 15 in 1994.  

And no moment of democratic crisis is complete without the demonization of the media. Reporters Without Borders publishes its annual Press Freedom Index, which provides “a snapshot of the media freedom situation based on an evaluation of pluralism, independence of the media, quality of legislative framework and safety of journalists in each country.” The 2018 Press Freedom Index ranked the United States 45th out of 180 countries, compared to 41st in 2016. Long a bastion of progressive liberalism, Europe witnessed the largest regional decline in its press freedom.

Partisan divide, media suspicions, and institutional erosion all speak to the broader Screen Shot 2018-08-21 at 12.03.18 AMchallenges of maintaining open and vibrant civic spaces. CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations and activists dedicated to strengthening civic action, identifies challenges and opportunities in its annual State of Civil Society Report. The report paints a bleak picture of shrinking civic spaces in more than half the world, including the United States. CIVICUS notes that “in conditions of poor civic space, civil society is repressed through practices that include legislative and regulatory restrictions, the forced suspension or closure of CSOs, judicial harassment, public vilification, detentions, violence and killings.”

But how does travel fit into this picture? How can the conscious traveler complement or enrich civil society? And how do I, in my travels to Turkey, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, and the Philippines, navigate these increasingly closed spaces?

Throughout my past experiences, I have found travel to be a riveting exercise in maneuvering civic spaces and connecting with people when you least expect it. Conversations about Julius Malema while sandboarding in South Africa, a discussion about Chinese aid to Malawi on a bus, an invitation to a community radio station while staying in Caracas. In Dan Cardinali’s recent SSIR article “The Adaptive Challenge of Restoring Trust in Civil Society“, he affirms that “research tells us that connection, community, purpose, and agency are all powerful predictors of wellbeing, while alienation, isolation, and powerlessness negatively correlate.”

When we travel, we actively choose locations that not only have a rich history and culture but also select places that feel genuine and unique. Part of this authenticity stems from a community’s vibrancy and agency, which denotes a sense of wellbeing. Closed, totalitarian societies tend to produce superficial and carefully curated experiences for foreign visitors which contrast with the messy and hectic realities found in navigating free and open societies. We see this play out in the United States when Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, and the #MeToo movements actually comprise the most authentic expressions of American society and the freedom it encompasses. Ultimately, how we choose our destinations and traverse these foreign spaces will impact those countries’ civil societies.

For that reason, civic space and travel is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals. In its 2017 report on Tourism for Development, the United Nations’ World Travel Organization developed five pillars for 2017 as its International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Those pillars included Sustainable economic growth; Social inclusiveness, employment and poverty reduction; Resource efficiency, environmental protection and climate change; Cultural values, diversity and heritage; and Mutual understanding, peace and security. Many of these core values are foundational to civic engagement. To travel in an era of resurgent right wing populism and shrinking civic space is to recognize that social inclusiveness and mutual understanding will not be encouraged but dismissed in authoritarian societies.  

And alas, my own itinerary is no democracy tour. According to CIVICUS’ Monitor: Tracking Civic Space, Turkey, Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma are considered repressed countries, while Vietnam is categorized as closed. The interactive platform also underscores increased attacks against Gulenist journalists in Turkey, ongoing protests against unjust imprisonment of human rights defenders in Cambodia, and the uneven application of new association laws in Burma. These realities have implications for me as both the backpacking traveler and the informed policy graduate.  

Finding George Orwell in BurmaAs a result, you can expect a different sort of blog post from me. During my last six weeks of travel planning, in addition to booking hostels, exploring visa requirements, and perusing guidebooks, I have also read about the historical politics of the places I will be visiting. I began with First They Killed My Father, learning about the dark history of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the brutal repression of civic life. Shortly after, I read Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma. Larkin’s book, a courageous journey through Burma in the early 2000s, seeks to comprehend how Burma’s authoritarian military dictatorship mirrors the dystopian settings of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm. Her narrative is woven through countless interactions at the fringes of Burmese Civil society, where she skirts authority to see the everyday struggles of its people.

So, as I prepare to depart John F. Kennedy International Airport en route to Istanbul, Turkey, I feel extremely excited. Of course, I am eager to visit the Hagia Sophia, gaze upon the Blue Mosque, roam through Istanbul’s famous markets, and cruise up the Bosphorus. But I also am excited to speak with people that work in Turkish civil society and comprehend the landscape of openness in their country. I want to speak to the nonprofit workers, the university professors, and the everyday people that will undoubtedly have opinions about their country. Will they feel at ease with the consolidation of power and find comfort in the stability of authority? Or will they see their country slipping away and supplanted by a fascist agenda? There’s only one way to find out.


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