Crossing borders

Somewhat to my surprise, in the last couple of years I have lost the urge to travel, particularly over long distances. Is my caravan grinding to a halt? Commuting to and from Copenhagen isn’t a very profound and enlightening experience, but it seems to satisfy my desire for mobility and offers a daily opportunity to contrast a city and the countryside. The prospect of being packed into yet another Airbus or Boeing for long cramped hours of bad air and noise en route to the other ends of the earth fills me with dread and weariness.

My last memorable long flight was at the end of April 2016, returning from La Paz in Bolivia via Bogota and Frankfurt; a 24 hour trip… During it I watched the latest film version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth full of howling scenes on windswept Scottish moorlands and sat back in my seat reflecting on collapse and madness! Then the Airbus pilot had to abandon the landing in Frankfurt at the last minute due to crosswinds and circled the airport for 20 minutes before making a second attempt to put the wheels on the ground.

Maybe I’ve just lost my nerve. Anyway I seem to be crossing some borders. But borders are becoming more and more difficult to cross. As social and economic inequalities become increasingly explosive, as governments seek to prevent migration and as fences and walls are built to protect us from them, I find the world is less and less welcoming. Somewhere I read that despite the incredible scope and reach of mass and social media, many people are retreating into narrow ”virtual worlds” and communicate only with like-minded tribesmen, such that their exposure to any diverging or uncomfortable ideas or opinions is limited. The borders are not just geographical, but also emotional and intellectual.

In this context a dangerous political space has emerged where nationalist and populist movements with simplistic messages (tweets…) are defining new limits, suppressing dissent and undermining human rights. The most recent example is the demand by the Saudi and UAE governments that the rulers of Qatar close down the Al Jazeera broadcasting network. But there are countless other attempts to silence critical voices in many countries: Turkey under President Erdogan seems to be retreating rapidly from the democratic sphere as the prisons fill up with activists, while the ruling cliques in China, Iran, Viet Nam and elsewhere continue to police the channels of expression in their efforts to keep the people on the narrow road to conformity and to prevent ”unrest.” One of the great ironies of recent years is that Edward Snowden – who would be locked up in the United States for betraying official secrets, state surveillance of internet users – has been given asylum in Russia, where dissent is risky and almost any form of protest is met with intimidation and violence.

What happened to the promotion of our common future on this shared planet? Freedom of movement as well as expression seem to be reserved for a minority, a thin strata of the richest citizens for whom international travel has become part and parcel of daily life. The booming tourist industry bears witness to the possibilities, while student exchange programmes and global research networks are keeping the dreams of cross-fertilisation and innovation alive. But these ”open societies” are threatened by conservative, mainstream media-driven fears of outsiders bringing disruption and destruction. The contradictions abound, along with the visa application rules and passport controls. For example, while the American government has become obsessed with ”homeland security” and travel restrictions on foreigners, at the same time many highly skilled Chinese and Indians are apparently migrating to the info tech industries in California bringing their creativity and new ideas.[1]

I doubt it will be possible to police and control all these borders, despite the raging of noisy populists, anti-globalists and their kin. The human spirit is restless and seeks to go beyond boundaries. Long live the nomads of the world!

Black and white butterfly, design on cloth by Abdoulaye Konaté (Malian artist)

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[1] Some inspiration for these thoughts came from the Economist, challenging received wisdom in an article called ”If borders were open” (15.07.17), which notes that although such a move would be disruptive, the potential (economic) gains are so vast that objectors could be bribed to let it happen! Maybe it is a false impression, but California – visited briefly in 2013 – seems to be a magnet for “libres penseurs” and inventors (not to mention musicians and film makers…). I wonder if the proximity of forests, mountains and deserts along the Pacific coastline has got something to do with encouraging the spirit of exploration. In San Francisco I liked finding street signs in Chinese, English and Spanish and I note that numerous social and natural science discoveries are ascribed to researchers at the universities around the Bay Area…

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