Quote of The Week

“The human mind is programmed for survival, not for truth.”

Philosopher John Gray


A Postmodern Christmas

At this time of year many of us travel thousands of miles to be, however briefly, with our families. My mother’s generation did Christmas the old fashioned way – the way Charles Dickens made famous, a kind of all-in wrestling with food. Everyone had to be there. No excuses for absence were tolerated.

En route to one such extravaganza we stayed at The Penta Hotel at Heathrow airport: a comfortable cosmopolitan limbo between one life and the next. The airport hotel is a reminder of how many people in the world care nothing for our parochial little festivities. The hotel is full of Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and atheists, and probably Confucians and practitioners of voodoo and witchcraft into the bargain. They stroll through the lobby and glance at the decorations with mild amazement, and pass on to other airports and other cultures where Santa Claus would not dare to tread.

That’s not surprising, although it does put Christmas hysteria in proper perspective. The hotel brochure was surprising. It announced “The Festive Season at Heathrow,” not for travelling witches but for British people, Londoners, who felt the need to celebrate Christmas in the middle of the world’s busiest airport.

The airport hotel program included festive disco parties, festive lunches and dinners and a grand all-day Christmas celebration with lunch and dinner and entertainments. Just in case you are tempted, like Bob Crachitt, to go back to your miserable home, the hotel has rooms at a special low price for Christmas Eve and Christmas night.

I was curious enough, or rude enough, to ask the hotel marketing manager why on earth any sane person would come deliberately to Heathrow airport of all places to celebrate this religious and family festival. She was naturally puzzled by my question.

“It never struck me until you said it,” she responded, doubtfully. It’s not an obvious place to choose for your Christmas Day, is it? But we’ve got brilliant views of the runways; so if you’re interested in plane watching, this is the place to be.”

Yes, they do have brilliant views of the runways, and perhaps this is our clue. An airport is a symbol of escape. It’s a space on the edge of the world, like a beach. Just being there suggests the possibility of being somewhere else completely different. The planes take off outside the window, one every minute, and you can watch them break contact with the earth and fly free. The airport is the ultimate non-sacred place: religion itself can’t make any claims on you here. You are safe from time and place and connections – everything.

While we’re at the airport we inhabit the ideal version of the postmodern world. Postmodern: it’s a nasty word, but somebody has to say it, especially now when we’re all trying to sink back into the traditional past for a few days. There are hundreds of books with as many definitions of postmodernism: don’t waste your time. I can tell you what postmodernism means: chaos. We are rushing ahead to a new world which is not traditional or modern, where everything is like an airport with people and ideas and values constantly in transit and nobody really belonging anywhere.

But “We’re all connected,” so the telephone company sings. And what a comfort it is to reach out and touch those buttons this festive season. We’re all connected with fiber optic lines and satellites and e-mail and smart phones – we can all communicate. But communication and connection, perhaps, are two different things. Sigmund Freud once lamented that every new invention, such as the steam train and the telephone, gave his family an excuse to live further away: and he should know about families.

So here’s my Christmas thought from the Heathrow airport Hotel. In spite of all our communications technologies and our busy chatter over the FM bands, and the great planes that fly us magically from place to place – in spite of all these and maybe because of them – whatever the telephone company may have told you, in this hyper-mobile postmodern world, we’re all dis-connected.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Contracted Out

I was trying and failing to cross a suburban street when I had an epiphany of sorts. If I’d been in my car I would have missed it. But when you walk around here you see the world in a whole new light.

The junction where I was standing was at a point where streets leading out of two expensive suburban areas came together, funneling traffic towards the main highway. It was the middle of the day, and I couldn’t get across because of the stream of contractors’ vehicles, mostly white vans and black trucks, that came roaring out one behind the other, heading (I presume) for the delis and fast food emporiums a mile or two away. An occasional SUV was sandwiched in the truck convoy, but essentially the road belonged to the contractors at that moment.

After a while it became obvious that nobody was going to slow down for a mere pedestrian, and I amused myself by identifying the various trades and services represented in this high-speed procession. These guys could rebuild Iraq in a week. Electricians, plumbers, builders, and lawn services accounted for about half the traffic. The other half covered the whole range of domestic needs and desires: satellite and cable TV companies, carpet professionals, window and glass repair, heating and air conditioning, landscaping, roofing, pool services, tree services, and nameless trucks to perform nameless services. Perhaps these last belong to those semi-mythical “handymen” who can fix anything, and who therefore need to keep their identities secret. The convoy seemed never-ending. These were well-established suburbs, not new developments, but they obviously need a lot of work.

What a lot of maintenance we suburban dwellers seem to need, and how helpless we have become in practical matters. We’re a long way from colonial self-sufficiency. My father, and probably yours too, could handle most domestic repairs and maintenance while holding a full-time job. Now it seems that we can’t do anything, or perhaps simply that we don’t want to. Wealthy Victorians might employ a dozen servants to maintain a family of four. Modern families are smaller but houses are much bigger, and we need an army of contractors to keep them running.

I’m not claiming the moral high ground here. I’ve learned to be as incompetent as the next househusband. When the electrical system crashes I instantly call Andrew the electrician, which is all too easy because he lives just across the street. Joe the plumber has been with us so long he’s almost one of the family. But this learned helplessness is getting out of hand. When we bought some new curtains – or “window treatments” as they insisted on calling them – the store tried to sell us an incredibly expensive “installation service.” Hanging curtains is job that even I can accomplish with the help of a small drill, a yardstick, and some bad language. We haven’t quite got around to installation services for light bulbs, but it will happen.

Back in the paranoid 1950s Levittown became the first real Long Island suburb and its founder, William Levitt, said: “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist; he has too much to do.” Half a century later, it seems that a lot of men have all but abandoned their domestic maintenance duties. What are they doing instead? The National Security Agency should look into this.

Copyright: David Bouchier

More Things to be Thankful for

We have plenty to be thankful for, more than our ancestors ever did. We should be thankful for our incredibly safe and comfortable lives compared to ninety per cent of the other people on the planet – thankful we’re not in Iraq or Afghanistan, or Somalia, or just about anywhere really. We don’t know who exactly to thank for this good luck. So, at Thanksgiving, we express our appreciation in a general way, rather like sending out a message on on the Internet, in the hope that it reaches the right destination.

It’s a pity that Thanksgiving is such hard work. First there’s the nightmare of travel. At least thirty million Americans will be on the highways this week, and about five million will pack into the airports to fly towards their families. Travel is no fun anymore, if it ever was.

Then there’s the anxiety of spending time with remote and complicated families, who may be almost like strangers. It’s no longer a simple case of “Over the River and Through the Woods to Grandmother’s House we Go.” The fashion for multiple marriages often means that we have a choice of grandmothers and mothers to visit at this time of year. Sometimes there’s even a choice of fathers, assuming that they left a forwarding address. It’s not Norman Rockwell’s family any more.

But the really challenging thing about Thanksgiving is the food. Not only does the traditional menu contradict every known principle of diet and health, but also there is the inescapable fact that somebody has to cook it, and almost nobody remembers how to cook any more.

The baby boom moms and their daughters are doing most of the Thanksgiving work these days. One thing we know about modern women is that their lives are too busy for cooking. They never got into the habit eating of home-cooked family meals around the table. The fast food industry was created by them and for them. The papers now are full of neat recipes for delightful little Thanksgiving extras like roasted cauliflower, raisins, and anchovy vinaigrette or spiced sweet potato pudding. The New York Times offers a food preparation timetable that runs for five full days. Who has time for this? The harassed modern woman can only spare an hour or two away from her corporate desk to buy a packet or vitamin-enriched turkey-flavored artificial food product and zap it in the microwave, while talking to the Tokyo office on her cellular phone. The prospect of cooking a multi-course meal with six vegetables and dessert for a whole house full of people is her worst nightmare. It’s like trying to pilot a Boeing 777 when your only flying training has been with a kite.

Millions of single people head for Miami or Marrakech to avoid the danger of food poisoning, and the family nostalgia show. More families each year spend the holiday in hotels, or have Thanksgiving catered. Our local deli will deliver the whole gastronomic tsunami to your home for a very modest price. Health insurance is not included.

It’s probably best this way. The old kitchen skills have faded, but also the old kitchen slavery. I remember my mother in law working incredibly hard to cook a huge dinner for fifteen at Thanksgiving, which may be easy for a trained restaurant chef in a professional kitchen, but not for an average domestic cook in a kitchen the size of a closet. Progress and the catering industry have liberated us from all that. We can enjoy the sociable part of the holiday, and not worry about the food. That’s yet another thing to be thankful for.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The World We Have Lost

In 1965 I was newly married and had just moved from London to Cambridge, where I worked in a rather grand bookstore. New books poured in every day, and one morning, the delivery included a dozen copies of The World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett, who was a fellow of one of the Cambridge Colleges. The book looked a bit too serious and academic for my taste, but I was intrigued by the title and took a copy home.

I still have that original copy, scuffed and slightly dirty from many moves from house to house and country to country, and with my original penciled comments in the margins. One of the advantages of working in a bookstore was an unlimited supply of new books to borrow. One of the disadvantages was that, the moment you thoughtlessly made a marginal note, you were obliged to buy it.

This was one of those unlikely literary encounters, the right book at exactly the right time. I was a city boy, born and bred in London, with virtually no sense of country life or any history before 1939. When I was a child we had occasionally visited some elderly aunts who had a real Thatched cottage in an Essex village. I was fascinated and horrified by this glimpse into the past: no running water, electricity or flushing toilets, and chickens wandering into the living room. I couldn’t wait to get back to our conventional suburban house. In 1965, for the first time in my life I was living in a rural setting – a village about eleven miles outside the city, in the great flat expanse of the Fenlands.

The villagers, all three hundred of whom seemed to be related, treated us with great suspicion. Silence fell when we walked into the pub. Cities are not friendly places, but I had never felt quite so much the outsider as I did in this rural community. Nor had I ever seen such a community in action. It was more like a large family than anything else. They had a lively system of barter and mutual aid, as well as feuds and grudges going back for generations. We had no place in it.

The World We Have Lost was just the book I needed at that moment, indeed it was a revelation. Laslett’s theme is the lives of ordinary English working people before and after the industrial revolution. The book begins with a portrait of a bakery in 1619. Thirteen or fourteen people worked there, all of them clothed, housed, fed and educated by the master baker. “The only word used at that time to describe such a group was ‘family’…not an institution, a staff, an office, or a firm.”

England was a nation of “families” in this sense. The largest that Laslett was able to trace consisted of thirty-seven people, but most were much smaller. It was certainly no paradise of freedom, but Laslett argues convincingly that it gave each family member a stable life and an emotionally satisfying role. Everything was on the human scale. There were no factories, no giant corporations, and no Facebook friends. To put it very simply, people knew each other, for better or for worse, and lived close. “The journey to work, the lonely lodger paying his rent out of a factory wage, are the distinguishing marks of our society, not of theirs.”

Peter Laslett was no sentimentalist. He was an exceptionally clear-eyed historian who tested our favorite pastoral myths and nostalgic images of the past with interviews, historical documents, and statistics to He shows that, contrary to popular belief, child marriages and multi-generational ‘extended’ families were rare, and the romantic notion that old people were cared for by the community was simply wrong. They were not. In spite of the shortness of life and scarcity of resources there were institutions that maintained a kind of continuity: the local aristocracy and the church maintained a tenuous authority from generation to generation and the pub or alehouse, then as now, was the center of village life. Urban life was in the pre-industrial world was relatively marginal – the nation’s life was in its villages, which were to a large extent self-sufficient and self-governed. There are revealing chapters on marriage and courtship customs, self-discipline, authority and the class system, and the shattering impact of the industrial revolution on the old ways of life.

I was not given to sentimentalism or nostalgia at the time, although I have suffered from both in later life. But I could feel the truth of in that Cambridgeshire village where nothing much seemed to have changed in two hundred years. Survival meant sticking together and working together, and keeping the outsiders out. It sent me back to equally revealing but less academic books like Laurie Lee’s charming Cider with Rosie, and all the way back to William Cobbet’s Rural Rides (1830). When Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield appeared and became a sensation in the late sixties, it helped to solidify a new and much more complicated vision of the old life and the old ways.

We still have a vivid but false image or rural life in modern England. A decade later I lived in a Suffolk village so relentlessly picturesque that coach tours drove past my cottage, and people peered in at the windows. But not a trace remained of the world that Laslett wrote about. The cottages were full of wealthy retirees or London commuters, while the few remaining farm workers lived in a huddle of council houses on the outskirts. Socially it was just like a suburb, with scarcely a trace of a community life apart from the annual village fete.

In more recent years, traveling and living in rural France, I can still see the faint shadow of Laslett’s world we have lost in some of the smaller villages. The French divide rural villages colloquially into those that are “open” and those that are “closed.” We spend part of each year in a happily open village in Languedoc, which feels and works more like a small town. But some friends made the choice to settle in a closed village because it was exceptionally picturesque, and are beginning to feel that they will never be accepted in a community so defined by its tight boundaries, inwardness, fear of poverty, suspicion of outsiders, and fiercely restrictive family ties. The one book I have found that really brings alive the grim history of rural France is The Discovery of France by Graham Robb (2008). But while Laslett based his findings on statistics and interviews, Robb simply travelled the back roads for months on a bicycle, getting very close to the land and its people. In the end, both portraits of the past are remarkably similar.

It’s not a past that we can or would want to go back to. But knowing it was there, and real, and in some sense made us who we are, was truly enlightening for me. Laslett strongly believed that we could understand ourselves only by understanding our past, and reflecting on the contrasts between our lives and theirs -for example the contrast between the discipline of family and community and the discipline of the factory and the office. Laslett shows all too clearly that we can’t have one without the other: the closeness and stability of community without being suffocated by it, or the freedom of modern society without being lost in it.

Peter Laslett died 2001. He was a great believer in the liberating power of knowledge, and helped to found the Open University (at which I later taught) and the University of the Third Age. But, unlike most academic historians, he wrote beautifully and with feeling.

“The word alienation is part of the cant of the mid-twentieth century and it began as an attempt to describe the separation of the worker from his world of work. We need to accept all that this expression has come to convey in order to recognize that it does point to something vital to us all in relation to our past. Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.”

Copyright: David Bouchier

In Praise of Witches

The best thing about Halloween is that it gives equal opportunity to witches. I have a soft spot for witches, and I’ve known a few. We scarcely even think about witches the rest of the year, and we certainly don’t give them the respect they deserve. But during the last days of October, we can scarcely think about anything else. Even the latest musical mega-celebrity can’t hope to keep our attention, unless she sails into the headlines on a broomstick.

This annual descent into the dark ages has its unfortunate aspects, including the plague of plastic pumpkins, dime store ghosts, and all trick or treaters over the age of five. But at least it reminds us that witches, like angels, are everywhere.

Witchcraft or “Wicca” is a perfectly respectable neo-pagan, woman-oriented religion which goes back all the way to the Stone Age, or to 1939 depending on which authority you believe. It’s unfortunate that our present-day image of witches comes almost entirely from The Wizard of Oz. The two wicked witches in that movie gave the whole profession a bad name with their silly costumes, anti-social attitudes, and outrageous overacting. At Halloween, the fake witches on sale in the stores always have the same black robes, the same pointed hats, and faces that are always yellow or green – suggesting either serious liver problems or motion sickness brought on by the unsteady flight patterns of their broomsticks.

At this particular juncture in American history, we might learn more about real witches by going back to the seventeenth century Massachusetts witch trials. I’ve been re-reading a book called A Delusion of Satan by an old friend of mine, Frances Hill (a lovely woman, possibly a witch). The book shows that Puritans back then were almost as sexually neurotic as Puritans now. Their fears and fantasies focused on women they felt were dangerous, women who were in some way different: unmarried, solitary, argumentative, or eccentric.

The more I read about these persecuted women, the more I realized that they were exactly the kinds of women I have always liked – strong, independent, unorthodox to the point of being weird, active, rebellious, articulate, and smart – all the things a woman was not supposed to be in the dark ages before 1968. In Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, all the women I have ever admired would have gone up in smoke – after due legal process, of course.

Women have always scared men simply because they know so many arcane things that men don’t know. It’s all too tempting to put these strange skills down to witchcraft. Women also upset men by giving them unwanted advice, like the three witches in Macbeth, who (if you read the play without prejudice) seem quite a jolly bunch of ladies, and rather more helpful than sinister.

In spite of all our talk about individualism, we don’t value unconventional or eccentric women any more than they did in the 1600s. Modern young women aspire to be arch-conformists, usually lawyers. But they don’t aspire to be witches, and this may be a mistake. Witchcraft is much safer than it used to be, and it could be the deal career for an independent woman. Casting spells must be a lot more fun, and probably more effective, than serving writs. The pay and benefits are not great, but a witch can always compensate for the lack of medical coverage by brewing up her own prescriptions. And, as a witch, she will attract all the most interesting men, and women.

The world would be a better place with fewer witch hunters, and more witches. If we are determined to go back to the dark ages, let’s do it right and go back all the way.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Plato has a Suggestion

Democracy is a glorious idea. The notion of free citizens governing themselves by electing the best and the brightest people among them as representatives is one of the best notions that the human race has ever produced. It’s a pity that the results are so often disappointing – especially that the chosen representatives so seldom appear to be the best and the brightest, let alone the most noble and honest citizens. We can hardly blame anyone else for this. We do it to ourselves.

Plato always comes into this argument, even though he died two and a half thousand years ago He argued that democracy gives us so many choices and so much freedom that the system inevitably drifts towards mediocrity, instability, paralysis, decadence and chaos. He called it the “Rule by the appetites.”

Some modern theorists argue that Plato was completely wrong, and that we have far too little freedom in our democracy, being oppressed by millions of laws and regulations, taxes and government bureaucracies. But if we are living in Plato’s last stage of democracy, the age of appetites, there is some good news. Plato believed that this is would be the most enjoyable time to be alive, simply because we can essentially return to childhood and do and believe whatever we like. The main thing is to save the political system from moving on to the next stage of Plato’s cycle, which is the age of tyranny.

Of course Plato was an ancient Greek with authoritarian instincts who lived in the very first age of democracy, which didn’t last long. In terms of his own chaotic era and the Athenian political system, he was proved to be absolutely right. The Athenians proved incapable of governing themselves. They were too greedy and selfish, and not very smart, and they choose representatives just like themselves. So (said Plato) the only answer was for a few superior people to take on the difficult task of ruling over the rest, wise philosopher kings who would govern for the common good.

The idea of philosopher kings makes us smile now. Imagine a society run by the philosophy department at your local university and you might want to laugh out loud. But forget the antique language and think about the central idea: those who govern should be the most intelligent and the most honest people who can be found. It’s a pure Platonic fantasy, of course. But consider that every responsible profession except politics demands rigorous training, an examination of competence, and a code of ethics. Politicians need no qualifications: they get into power simply by making themselves popular with the mass of people, and that was Plato’s whole complaint about democracy.

But tweak the system just a little, and the problem might vanish. We should require a few appropriate qualifications for political office. Surely, at the very minimum, those who govern a society of three hundred million people, with global power, should have enough intelligence and training to understand the economic and social sciences, to know at least something about the physical sciences, and (perhaps most important) to understand history. They should also be acquainted with at least a couple of foreign languages. It’s a complicated world out there.
This would reduce the field of candidates by about ninety-nine per-cent, and it should be further refined by a few basic psychological tests to measure aptitudes like teamwork, honesty, psychological stability, and commitment to higher goals of the institution (in this case The Constitution).

Frankly I think this is a brilliant idea, worthy of Plato himself. All we have to do is persuade the next democratically elected Congress to pass it into law.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Happy Hours at the Airport

Air travel is an authentic miracle of the modern age. Popular holiday destinations like London, Paris, Baghdad and Kabul are only hours away; although, if you count the trip to Kennedy airport and the delays at check-in, even the shortest flight can take longer than the original voyage of Columbus.

Personally I prefer to fly out of regional airports like our local one on Long Island. You can park right there at the terminal instead five miles away, and there’s only one small terminal, so you can’t get lost. A few years ago this airport was even smaller, a museum of the early days of commercial aviation. The shorter flights boarded right off the tarmac, so you could take an invigorating walk through the rain and have a good look at your plane, study the various fluids leaking from the engine, kick the tires, and get a glimpse of the captain through the windshield of the flight deck, often fast asleep or reading anxiously in his flight manual. This was much more reassuring than being herded down a tunnel into the bowels of an invisible aircraft.

The old, circular terminal has now sprouted two big extensions, and offers many more flights. But although the 1930s ambience is gone, it is still convenient and quick for those of us who live in the area. There is a price to pay for convenience. Flights from local airports invariably stop somewhere else first. These layovers come in two types, which I call the Nostalgic and the Olympic. The Nostalgic layover is an antidote to the rush and hurry of modern life. It strands you for several hours in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, or Chicago, and allows you to experience the same slow, relaxed travel timetable that our ancestors enjoyed on an ocean liner or the Oregon Trail.

The Olympic layover is much more of a challenge. The airline drops you at some intermediate point, like Detroit or Minneapolis, with six minutes to make a connection half a mile away across an unfamiliar terminal. Here you can really appreciate the marvelous co-ordination the airlines are capable of. Your incoming flight is always late, while your outgoing flight is invariably on time. In the central control room of the terminal, ground traffic controllers crouch over their screens tracking the rush of passengers trying to find their onward flights. As each sweating group of victims gets within twenty feet of the gate, they radio the pilot “GO, GO” and sit around laughing until it’s time for the next flight. Your baggage, meanwhile, has made the onward flight (another miracle of organization) and is on its way to Boston or Birmingham, never to be seen again.

An overseas flight is not so easy. A few weeks ago we took the long slow ride to Kennedy Airport, with the limo driver from hell flipping the AM stations in search of right wing talk shows or anything about sex. After a few pleasant hours on the Belt Parkway, we were decanted into the gigantic cavern of Terminal One, where nothing makes any sense.

We need airport security these days, if only as a public relations exercise. But I wish it was more convincing. On this particular trip I was stopped at the gate, x-rayed, checked for explosives, and thoroughly searched. While this was going on, two young men walked straight through who could have been twin doubles of Saddam Hussein. The security people actually looked the other way, dreading any accusation of bias. Numerous travelers of unimpeachable character, such as arthritic old ladies, small children, and chief executives of big accounting companies, also get stopped and searched. This doesn’t make me feel any safer. Until the political correctness police get over their horror of “profiling” these security checks are a bad joke. Recent reports suggest that air travelers have a good chance of getting an AK47 or a rocket launcher through airport security, unless they happen to be little old ladies or small children.
But security, however unrealistic, is easy to endure compared to the ordeal of the departure lounge. On our recent flight to London, which was delayed by eight hours because the airline apparently lost the plane, we had time to enjoy everything that Terminal One had to offer.

Airport departure lounges all seem to be designed by the same architect, who is suffering from severe depression and wants everyone else to share his pain. The idea seems to be to reproduce the old Christian idea of purgatory – a place of waiting with very little hope. Once upon a time, there was a certain elegance about an airport departure lounge because people dressed up to travel. Now democracy has done its work, and the style is more Disneyland or Muppet show. Perhaps airlines should enforce some minimum standard.There are some very peculiar shops in the departure lounge. Who buys those duty free scarves, ties, perfumes, pens watches. If they are gifts of guilt, the fact is so obvious that it’s scarcely worth the expense.

But the real torture of the departure lounge, what makes it truly like purgatory, is the endless stream of announcements. They all seem to be bad news, they always start off just as you are drifting to sleep in one of their torture chairs. In this hi-tech setting, you might imagine that it would be the simplest thing in the world to make announcements audible. In Terminal One, they are a kind of hearing test, because they run several announcements at the same time. At one point 1. Security announcement 2. Olympic Airlines announcement 3. Gate closing call for another flight in French/ All this plus CNN news, beeps, screaming children, people yelling into cellphones. There are constant calls for missing passengers: “Will Mr Lo Bum come to gate 9 gate closing for flight to Absurdistan – this is repeated every five minutes. Where do these people GO?? There is nowhere to go in terminal one.

The promised delay will get longer and longer as the night wears on, extended half an hour at a time like some exquisite form of torture, even while you know and they know that your plane is still on the ground in Kuala Lumpur or Copenhagen. Most flights are overbooked flights, which creates its own genre of announcements. Then the airline will begin to offer incentives for passengers to quit the flight. They start modestly: a one-way free ticket to Cleveland; then a round trip; and eventually an all-expenses paid vacation in Hawaii. Nobody will buy any of this.

But nobody wants to stay on the ground any more. Even those of us who suffer from vertigo and deep misgivings about heavier-than-air flight still keep buying those convenient tickets to everywhere. Nothing can persuade us to give up the flying habit. How odd it is that we have taken the lesson of the Titanic so thoroughly to heart, while the lesson of Icarus is one we prefer to forget.

Copyright: David Bouchier

World on the Move

As a result of the refugee crisis the citizens of Western Europe have acquired a lot of new neighbors in the past few years – several millions of them. The crisis is by no means over, and the number of people who need or want to move is potentially almost unlimited. The prospect of welcoming more than a hundred million impoverished immigrants has made the citizens of countries like Germany, France and Britain understandably anxious. They’re afraid that their economies will be sunk without trace by these hordes of people looking for a better life. In American terms it would be like throwing the southern border wide open and inviting everybody to come right in.

Historically the greatest movement of peoples has been from east to west, perhaps because the planet revolves in the opposite direction so it’s just easier to go that way, like walking on a treadmill. Australians are spreading westwards across their own continent. Even my nonagenarian mother moved a few miles west to the next town. The instinct to go west is deep. So the poor masses of Eastern Europe will end up in Western Europe, and eventually in California where the rainbow ends. It’s a pity that the economic outlook in California is so bad. They may have nowhere to go but back east, and nobody ever looks for a better life in the east. That means taking the next big westward jump to China, and starting the whole cycle over again.

There are exceptions, including the perverse north to south migration of American seniors. But the general rule is westwards, ever westwards. It seems that migration is a force of nature, as unchangeable as the west wind. But what makes the west so irresistible is not nature, but culture. Western television shows and movies dominate the global market. They show a life of infinite wealth and leisure, huge homes full of gleaming appliances which nobody ever seems to clean or use, big cars, perfect weather, and a population of beautiful, well-dressed people who spend their lives involved in personal problems of stunning triviality, and who never seem to work.

Migration is a desperate measure. Nobody really wants to leave their home country, their culture and their language to start all over again. In an ideal world everyone would have a good life in his or her home place. But they don’t, and that’s why America exists. Millions of immigrants came here on a long shot, hoping that their lives would be better in this earthly paradise.

Now we tantalize the poor people of the world every day with images of a fantastical place that doesn’t exist anymore than the land of Oz exists. If we set out deliberately to create dissatisfaction and unrealistic expectations over the entire planet we couldn’t do better. No wonder so many people want to come here. No wonder they don’t try to change things at home. Why bother, when a ready-made earthly paradise is just over the western horizon? Immigration is the sincerest form of flattery, but it is always flattery based on an illusion.

Filmmakers could (but they won’t) do an international public service by bringing their products just a little closer to the reality. Small things would make a difference: for example showing western people doing real work and commuting, failing to get health care, sinking under their credit card debts, harassed by insecurity, anxiety and paranoia (including paranoia about immigration). In other words, they could simply make the west appear more like it is. We need more programs like “The Sopranos.” Who would want to live within thousand miles of them?

We don’t need to go overboard with this, and make everyday life in America or France look like everyday life in Somalia or Afghanistan. Nobody would believe the propaganda,. But a few gestures in the direction of reality would slow down the migration process, and save a great deal of disappointment.

America is blessed with vast empty spaces where any number of immigrants could be absorbed without even being noticed, just as they were in the nineteenth century. Unfortunately they don’t head for the great open spaces of Nebraska or Wyoming. They all come to Queens and Brooklyn, where they are more visible. Europe doesn’t have the same luxury of space: every place is like Queens and Brooklyn.

Such a modest dose of realism wouldn’t stop people from migrating, of course – migration is about dreams. But the creators of dreams should take some responsibility for their consequences. In the nineteenth century millions of Europeans were lured to America by the railway companies, promising another kind of utopia out west. Now their descendants find themselves stuck in places like Kansas or Nebraska, when they could be back home in Germany or Norway. Was that fair? Was that nice? A little truth in advertising now would save a great deal of disenchantment later.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Tourist Tide

The end of the summer tourist season brings one of the biggest and strangest human migrations in this restless world. Millions of travelers return wearily to their homes, from places as exotic as Bangkok or as comfortably familiar as Boston. They carry the normal tourist freight of overpriced “duty-free” goods, hastily chosen souvenirs made in Taiwan, shaky videos, and interesting intestinal conditions. As the tide ebbs, the main centers of global tourism are left stunned and exhausted. They make a lot of money from their visitors, but they must be glad when it’s over for another year.

Unless you have lived in a popular tourist destination, it’s hard to imagine just how traumatic the annual invasion can be. I spent years in Cambridge, England, which (along with Stratford on Avon) is a compulsory stop on the British tourist trail. For half of the year, it was a delightful place to be – peaceful, civilized and beautiful. During the tourist season it became unbearable. It was impossible to move or breathe in the streets, the museums, restaurants and pubs were intolerably crowded, and the ancient colleges looked and felt more like amusement parks.

As a mere local resident, I was bumped off the sidewalks by groups of bustling Germans, harassed in a dozen incomprehensible languages for directions to the nearest restroom, and photographed by Japanese who seemed to mistake me for some eccentric Cambridge character. Even my bicycle was photographed. It was an unusually dilapidated example of the type known as a Cambridge Boneshaker – one gear, no brakes, and held together by rust and pieces of twisted wire. It was the best bike I ever had, but tourists would stop and stare as if it was some kind of mobile sculpture.

It’s hard to be treated like a Disneyland character in your own town, especially if you’re not making any money out of it. But it helped me to appreciate what the inhabitants of any tourist Mecca must suffer. I got my revenge during a brief stint as a taxi driver, when I would pick up unsuspecting pilgrims at the railroad station and take them on my special guided tour of the ancient city. Coached by older and more creative taxi drivers, I developed a script for this tour that bore almost no relation to the real world. I switched the names and dates of all but the most famous colleges, created completely imaginary histories for them, and added whatever colorful anecdotes I had invented before the beginning of my shift. All the Cambridge taxi drivers did the same thing, and none of us was ever challenged by a tourist. They probably had no clear idea where they were at all, because tourism is about going there rather than being there. “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive,” said Robert Louis Stevenson, anticipating the modern tourist industry by a hundred years.

When I’m being a tourist myself, I always remember that Cambridge experience and wonder what devious tricks the locals are playing on me. Sometimes I can figure it out, but more often it’s just an uneasy suspicion. I just know they’re doing something, because that’s how they console themselves for being on the sharp end of the tourist invasion.

Tourism is said to be the world’s biggest industry, with a value of some $5 trillion. It seems that we all want to get away from home. Six hundred million people travel abroad every year. It’s just unfortunate that we all choose to go to the same places at the same time. As tourism continues to expand, there’s no relief in sight for Cambridge, or Paris, or Florence, or Yellowstone National Park, or San Francisco, or Athens or the Great Wall of China.

This has to change. It’s not fair to the few places that get all the tourists, and even less fair to those large areas of the planet that are insufficiently appreciated as fun destinations – Somalia and Afghanistan, for example. Justice requires that those of us who like to travel should spread our patronage more widely. Why not try Mogadishu next year, instead of Monte Carlo?

But people hate to change their travel habits, and this may be a case where, in the end, a little forceful persuasion will be necessary – perhaps a United Nations resolution, or a benevolent conspiracy of all the world’s travel agents. A tourist lottery, that’s the answer, “Scratch and Go.” All the destinations in the world will be put into a computer, the hopeful voyager will pay his or her money and get whatever surprise ticket the machine produces. And if you happen to get Islip, Long Island – well at least you won’t have to worry about jet lag, and next year it could be anywhere.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Labor Day

It’s a paradox that Labor Day is devoted to fun and idleness because, after all, it’s the one-day in the year when we are supposed to celebrate work. Work has a very special status in America. Most foreigners consider work to be a curse and a nuisance. But here it is generally considered to be a good and even a noble thing. If the statistics are to be believed, which perhaps they should not be, Americans work harder than any other nation on earth.

It’s a source of astonishment to Europeans that Americans take so little vacation time. The average worker gets a tiny 8.1 days’ vacation after a year in the job, and 19.2 days after three years – if they’re lucky. One out of ten companies gives no paid vacation at all, and in some states it’s as low as one out of five.

How did American vacations get so short? The Germans enjoy thirty days of paid leisure time each year, and the wicked French have five weeks. The Italians have six weeks. What’s more, Europeans actually take their vacations. They leave work, and leave town, and don’t come back until the last possible minute. Here, many people we know don’t even take the short vacations they are entitled to. The only person in this country who takes it easy in the European style is the President, who vanishes off to the golf course or to one of his resorts at every opportunity. We continue to pay his salary during these relaxing breaks.

An earlier President, William Howard Taft, proposed in 1910 that all American workers should be entitled to a two to three month vacation. In 1939 the Department of Labor also recommended mandatory paid vacations for everybody. It never happened, and in fact vacations have been getting shorter and shorter since 1945.

One explanation of American work habits is that we love our work so much that we can’t bear to be away from it. The statistics on job satisfaction do not bear this out. Another traditional answer, proposed by the sociologist Max Weber in 1904, is that America inherited a “Protestant work ethic.” Hard work is pleasing to God, and idleness is next to sin – a belief that Benjamin Franklin incarnated back in the eighteenth century. But it’s hard to credit that this historic Protestant neurosis still motivates American workers of all faiths today.

Our hard work should pay off in superior productivity. But those lazy Europeans are actually more productive. This makes no sense at all and I can think of only two plausible reasons.

One theory is that Americans are only pretending to work long hours. You may have noticed how few people seem to be actually at work at any given moment. You can spend all day calling people who should be in their offices and getting nothing but voice mail. During working hours the highways and malls of Long Island are packed with people who seem to be of working age and who are not obviously driving taxis or trucks. (I know this because I am often out there myself, driving around as pointlessly as the rest of them.)

Some of these unoccupied folks are retired, of course, some may be working night shifts, and still others may have won the lottery so they don’t need to work at all – but so many? Can these daytime drivers and shoppers be just goofing off, wasting time and gasoline and contributing nothing to the national economy?

The other explanation of the productivity paradox is the one I like better. Americans are just tired. We need a longer break each summer. William Howard Taft – a progressive Republican who liked to take it easy – had it right the first time. If we’d just had a two-month vacation it would be a positive pleasure to go back to work tomorrow.

Copyright: David Bouchier