I wrote for Foreign Policy about how consumer drones are much better at terrifying people than they are at killing them – and why it is important that we recognize this.Read it here.
“The camera shook with the sound of an explosion and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro looked up, confused. Guards swiftly surrounded him with protective shields; soldiers in the military parade he was addressing scattered for cover. So did everyone else around him, reacting to the sound of a nearby explosion from the sky. Maduro and the Venezuelan government say—and video evidence seems to confirm—that someone tried to attack him with an explosives-laden consumer drone, likely made by Chinese drone manufacturer DJI. Open-source reporting organization Bellingcat and other investigative outlets agree that the attack involved drones, despite early reports claiming otherwise.
There have been fears for years that commercial drones would be turned into deadly weapons. But was this their coming-out party, the incident where death-by-drone moves from the military into the hands of terrorists and assassins? I don’t think so. Neither does European Council on Foreign Relations policy fellow Ulrike Franke, who told me: “To put it bluntly, I don’t think that this was the event that changes the view of smaller commercial drones from good to bad.”
I drove around Sicily back in October. I had a business trip in Rome, and I had this general impression that I should go somewhere. Somewhere warm, because I live in Boston and Boston winters are a cruel meteorological joke, and October is when I start wondering if this winter will be the one that sees me wander into the snow out of sheer desperation to die. Sicily, I was aware, is warm, reasonably sized, and has very good food. I had also never seen Greek ruins and I figured seeing Greek ruins is something a person should do if they’re lucky enough to have the opportunity. Someone told me it was surprisingly inexpensive. So, I went, drove around the island for a week, and became one of those annoying people who tells everyone they should go to Sicily. Hey, you should go to Sicily!
I describe my itinerary below: the main thing to remember is I started from Palermo and drove clockwise around the island. I’d like to spend more time in the interior of the island next time, particularly to see the Roman mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale. Here are some general thoughts on these places.
Taormina: Taormina is a town that is somehow Superglued/cemented/mysteriously affixed to a cliff near Mt. Etna. It is spectacularly gorgeous and is absolutely horrifying to drive in. It had the most tourist presence of anywhere I went in Sicily, but that does make sense what with the Greek theatre and the incredible views. It’s a good place to take long walks at night. There is a beautiful park built by an English heiress who married a local royal, and there’s also the San Domenico Palace Hotel, which has hosted a lot of famous writer and historical figure types. I am not fucking kidding about the terrors of driving here, or the fact that Google will egregiously lie to you about this. It is worth it. I also drove up Mt Etna during one of the days I stayed here, which was fantastic.
Siracusa: Siracusa is just Syracuse, which should sound familiar if you’ve retained any Greek history. It’s the hometown of Archimedes, which they actually don’t play up as much as you’d think (I didn’t see a single offensive Archimedes t-shirt). It’s a quiet, small Mediterranean city with a lot of the tourist attractions and activity confined to the ancient fortress island of Ortygia. The remains of the Greek theatre and Roman amphitheater outside of town are large and impressive, with wind rustling through cedar trees and lemon groves and not a lot of people around, at least in the fall. You can walk into the maybe natural or maybe man-made NONE CAN SAY “ Ear of Dionysius” cave, which the eponymous tyrant supposedly used to spy on particularly stupid Athenian prisoners. You can also drive out to the Plemmirio natural reserve and walk along the cliffs by the ocean: you will pass by Greek tombs cut out of the rock in the backyard’s of people’s villas.
Agrigento: I didn’t actually visit Agrigento proper: everyone comes here for the Valley of the Temples, an enormous UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains some of the planet’s best-preserved Greek ruins. The ancient Greek city of Akragas. which dates back to the sixth century B.C.,was built on a ridge with a strategic view of the ocean: it is drier now than it was back then, I think, and the desolate desert landscape is gloriously juxtaposed with the enormous white marble temples, many of which are improbably still standing. (One was preserve by being converted into a Christian church). The temples that have collapses are overgrown by olive trees and gigantic bulbous prickly pears. There are also many mysterious and slightly creepy Paleo-Christian necropolises carved into the ridge, some of which you can go into with special tours. There’s the Edenic garden of Kolymbetra, which was originally an enormous Greek-built artificial lake built out of an aqueduct. The Moors realized that the spot would make a great garden, and cut irrigation channels from the original pool to water it: it was spruced up not long ago and is now a gorgeous and nice-smelling botanical garden.
Palermo: Palermo is one of those places that I had no prior mental image of whatsoever, which meant that it was a really pleasant surprise when I arrived. Arab-Norman, Baroque, and rococo architectural styles meld here into something particularly weird and fantastic (which may permeate your dreams). It’s a great walking city, where you’ve got interesting things going on and people roaming the streets late at night and lots of street food. I wandered into the Vucciria market, which I’m sure every tiresome Instagrammer does, but it really is a wonderful thing: it reminded me a lot of the markets I’ve been to in Southeast Asia and India, including the creative arrangement of animal innards and the rhythmic shouting. I only spent a day in Palermo but I would like to spend more.
I have a few general suggestions for seeing Sicily.
I rented a car. This is what you should do if you go to Sicily. I’ve read you can use public transit to get around the island and I have no reason to doubt this, but it also sounds like a much clunkier affair than getting in a car and driving places. A lot of the interesting stuff in Sicily does not appear to be easily accessible by railway. Also, Sicily is one of those places that really rewards one of my favorite travel activities: very long drives through gorgeously intimidating landscapes that allow you to think a lot. Surprisingly enough, I was even able to rent an automatic car – I am still learning to drive manual – and the markup wasn’t that terrible.
When you say you’re going to be driving in Sicily, people will look horrified and say things like “but they’re such horrible drivers there, aren’t you afraid?” I had no great retort to this, beyond pointing out that I’ve ridden motorcycles in Cambodia and am still alive. I can now confidently say that drivers in Sicily are probably better than drivers in Boston, and are also quite a bit more polite. If you can drive in Boston, you can drive in Sicily. There are a few weird little quirks of Sicilian driving, sure. People are a little less slavishly attached to staying in their lanes than American drivers, which leads to some haphazard merging in cities, but this actually is pretty logical if you sort of mind-meld yourself with what’s going on (imagine you are a sardine, in an immense school!) and everything will be fine. Probably.
The most annoying thing about driving in Sicily is actually not intimidating, thick men in suits in Ferrari’s off to go commit crimes rumbling by you at 100KM an hour. It is very elderly small people in very elderly small cars putting along the highway at 15 kms an hour, unbothered and uninterested in the youthful bullshit of the people whooshing past them. Sometimes you will get stuck behind one of these Sicilian grandparents for thirty minutes or more on two-lane roads, and you will wonder if they are doing this on purpose, if they are asserting their dominance over callous youth by forcing you to crawl, slug-like, behind them through the Sicilian countryside. There is nothing you can do about this. Accept it.
There are lots of these tunnels on the eastern side of Sicily. You have to drive through them: I guess that’s a function of building a civilization on a small rocky island, and then adding highways at a later date. They are poorly lit and slightly terrifying. Some of them drip and are covered in vines. You should also become accustomed to this.
Order the thing on the menu that is least familiar to you. It will probably be really great and will taste different from any other sort of Italian food. Sicilian food combines North African and Mediterranean flavors in really marvelous and unusual ways, which is sort of what you get when your island has been occupied by the Greeks, by the Romans, by the Normans, by the Moors, by the Spanish, and by the French at one point or another. Eat anything that involves: sardines, swordfish, pistachios, sea urchin. Most things involve one of these ingredients so you’re probably going to do OK. People don’t eat before 7:30 at the very earliest, so don’t be some gauche American asshole by entering a restaurant at 7:00 sharp and staring blankly at the servers until they do something about it.
People in Sicily, in my massively limited experience, are very friendly and helpful. Such as the two guys who helped me navigate my car out of one of those stupid treacherous alley-ways in Taormina (remember, it is built onto the side of a mountain and affixed there by some sort of weird black magic Superglue, it’s like a nightmare Habitrail for cars). It is a very easy place to travel for this reason. Even if you are being intensely stupid people will probably help you out of a sense of basic human decency. I speak OK Spanish, which for some reason means that my brain actively repels Italian words: they always just come out as Spanish but with more strangled “i” sounds at the end of words, which makes me sound even worse than I’d sound if I just spoke English. I cannot make up the difference with hand gestures. Sicilians still managed to tolerate this. Please be nice to them in return. (They are also, like most people in Italy, really fashionable in a very distinct “tight jeans and elegant designer athletic shoes” way).
Sicily is very safe. You are highly unlikely to find yourself in the middle of a shooting Mafia war over an ancient and long-contested stand of orange trees or whatever pops into your mind when you consider the topic. Shooting wars between the Mafia are not a thing you are going to somehow stumble into while you are looking for a poorly sign-posted winery on the slopes of Mt. Etna. Far as I can tell, Sicily is significantly lower-crime than pretty much any urban area in the United States. Insofar as I can determine the main dangers of Sicily are prickly-pear cactus spines, aggressive sunburn, and driving the wrong way down little teeny tiny roads (which may empty out over a sea-cliff). Organized crime or any crime at all is not in the equation of fear is what I’m trying to say. I spent many happy hours wandering around at night in Sicily and felt completely unthreatened. Probably don’t wander about with your wallet and iPhone dangling out of the buttpocket of your jeans, but 1. You shouldn’t do that anywhere and 2. Come on, why are you displaying expensive consumer goods on your butt? Who does that? Weird.
Sicily is a good place to stay at little bed and breakfasts. I did not use Air BnB: I just used TripAdvisor and Hotels.com to identify places that looked decent, then tried to book directly at the property through their website. I stayed at a succession of little hotels that were really inexpensive and really pleasant. You get some great bang for your buck for your hotel dollar in Sicily. Hotels will pretty much always offer some kind of breakfast as well, although this ranges from “eh” to “fresh home-made cannoli.”
See lots of Greek ruins. Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples were incredible. I loved wandering around the pines and into the caves at Siracusa. The lonely Greek ruins at Selinunte, right by the sea cliffs – which I pretty much had to myself – will be an indelible memory forever. You should also check out the regional museums whenever you can, as they seem to contain ridiculous quantities of amazing stuff, the sort of stuff that would be marquee pieces at US museums and here are just “oh, ugh, that old thing.” You’ll be wandering around ruins and see some incredible Roman mosaic that is just sort of sitting there in plain sight unbothered and unguarded.You could probably go up and lick it if you wanted to.
It gets fucking cold on the summit of Mt. Etna. I was aware of this before I left, but somehow managed to not factor this into my packing and did not bring along my good hiking boots. Or pants. It was going to get into the thirties (F) on the summit, and I decided not to be that person who pays € 63 to go up to the summit (including the cable car and a jeep trip) and then ends up getting hypothermia. I plan to return wth appropriate clothing to hike up to the summit. The main point is that you cannot get away with flip-flops and shorts on Mt Etna, and while they will rent you cold weather gear, do you really want to rent cold weather gear? Other people’s dubious hiking boots? No, surely you do not.
I’ll put up some individual posts about the places I went in Sicily as I get to them.
I find the Weather Channel soothing, on a primordial level. It turns out that I’m not alone in this among my generational cohort, among those nasty millenials.
So. I went to search for some pleasingly jazzy Weather Channel music and quickly found an entire online subculture of people in their twenties and thirties who remember the antediluvian days of the early First Weather Network, memories usually associated with home and childhood and amorphous feelings of comfort. See:
“My dad would always fall asleep on the couch because his snoring would wake up my mom, and i remember being like 9 and walking out, and there would be like 1 dim light on and just music like this from the weather channel,” commented “Oddsie” on the S L O W WE A T H E R J A M Z YouTube video.
“When I was a kid and would be visiting my grandparents, I would sometimes wake up at like 4 AM and find my grandpa eating ice cream and watching the weather channel,” observed someone who calls themselves “cam the cam man cam.”
The Weather Channel music has wedged its way into our brains, imprinted itself from an early age. So many of us now associate that particular genre of inoffensive smooth jazz with feelings of home, the 1990s variety: home where you had little soaps in the shape of sea-shells, homes where you had aggressively wood-accented kitchens with lots of white appliances and everyone had very brightly colored windbreakers in various shades of teal and purple. The Weather Channel is stability. It was a time before we knew fear.
I have my own comforting memories of the Weather Channel, all linked to my grandparent’s house in Tampa: I’d walk in the door to start a visit and the big brown-sided TV – very fancy for the mid-nineties – would be playing either muted golf or the muted Weather Channel, which no one would actually be watching. The background sounds of golf would be hushed, reverent speech and occasional bursts of clapping (like wind rustling in the pines), but the commentary was too distracting. Far better was the Weather Channel, which played little bursts of Kenny G and interpreted ragtime piano at gentle volumes over changing, animated images of suns, clouds, and moons. “Your Local on the 8s.” Little intro scenes to the local forecast featuring people in Southern magnolia-infested suburbia walking golden retrievers. Forecasts from men with incredible moustaches and women with very vertical hair. The quiet, consistent recitation of the weather and thus your future, at least for a week.
The Weather Channel was almost always a placid delivery mechanism for smooth jazz and temperature forecasts, but sometimes, just sometimes, you’d hear that BZZAAP sound. That meant an actual weather warning – a tornado, a hurricane, impending derechos or whatever other fell thing – and you’d rush over to see what the Weather Channel had to say about it. The Weather Channel in these moments recited not just innocuous weather forecasts but your honest-to-God fate: was your house doomed to be gathered up in a howling tornado and splintered to pieces? Would you be found clinging to your roof and videotaped in your underpants from a helicopter? Only the Weather Channel could tell you, and this was especially true in the confused and groping era before smartphones.
A few videos explain that they made the recording to capture a particularly interesting weather event (one man filmed his TV screen with a camcorder to capture an unusual Derecho). Most do not: they simply exist as the video equivalent of time capsules, a small and mundane capture of life in 1996 or 1993 or 2002. (The 2001 video features pre-ad bumps with an animated American Flag textured over it, a reminder of the brief mainstreaming of mandated patriotism after 9/11).
The progression of the Weather Channel over time is slow, gentle, likely intended to avoid angering the sort of person who actively records an hour of the evening forecast. The animations improve a little, and the bumpers change a little, and music is occasionally updated. But the people, the people still are angry about the Weather Channel changing. “This will always be MY WEATHER CHANNEL,” someone comments on a YouTube video, which invites the obvious conclusion that today’s Weather Channel is NOT HIS and he would reject it if anyone claimed it was. Bear no false Weather Channel witness.
Weather Channel music is beloved by the sort of inoffensively weird people who make vaporwave. Vaporwave is a genre of remixed and mashed-up music that draws heavily from the commercial music of the late 80s and 1990s: the idea is to take chipper Coca-Cola jingles and speedy electronic anthems from un-loved car movies of the era and weird them up a little, modulate and twist them into something new.
Listening to vaporwave is like listening to a dream-memory of 1990s television, and of course, that is also why the Weather Channel appeals. There is an entire, excellent album of vaporwave music produced from the raw material of Weather Channel smooth jazz, and listening to it gives you the ability to feel cool and intensely nostalgic for the homey things of childhood at the exact same time, which is usually impossible. Some people in my unpopular age bracket also love vaporwave because it is the exact realization of that Calvin and Hobbes strip, the one where Calvin notes that the best way to annoy his rock-loving elders was to play muzak *quietly.*
Intense nostalgia for Weather Channel music baffles many of our elders on a deep, essential level. i supppose this is because they spent their youths being told and telling others that they should reject corporate bullshit, but also (many of them) produced corporate bullshit, which is what one does when you have children and a home. There would be no inoffensive 90s corporate music and no Weather Channel jazz without the people of our parents generation, who now react with deep bafflement when they come across us listening to remixed versions of music they barely noticed when it was new and young.
There is a entire genre of meme-y YouTube videos featuring Hank Hill listening to Bobby’s vaporwave music on a Walkman: Hank is taken on a brief pyschedelic journey (3D-animated dolphins, fragmented and color-shifted old ads, poorly Photoshopped joints) and rips the headphones off in indignation. “That music…that’s all just toilet sounds!” he cries. Precisely.
The Weather Channel is very self-aware about all this. They’ve realized their own albums: Selections from the Weather Channel, featuring the sort of placid, human-free landscape imagery that’s used on the networks, with tracks that one assumes the companies powers-that-be find particularly representative of their aesthetic. The Weather Channel and parent company The Weather Company has worked to create its own fandom: ads on the website will request that particularly avid users contribute their weather photos and accounts to “WeLoveWeather,” the Weather Company’s social network site. How many people use it for dating? How many people use it to find romantic partners who also are weirdly into viewing unusual types of lightning? As one man commented: ” I pray and hope that The Weather Channel stays on the air for another fifty years (at least). I have graciously watched TWC since I was born thirty years ago. “
In the sort of meta-irony that exemplifies our age, the Weather Channel appears to be using vaporwave music for its Local on the 8s forecasts now. I hope someone is awake at 4:00 AM and filming large chunks of Today Weather Channel with an iPhone, so we can look upon it and be comforted in twenty years.
“The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.
I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.”
Sometimes I still travel write! Special bonus offer – this Flickr album has all the photos I took while I visited Meixin Foreigner’s Street.
“You don’t care about the Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria, but you do care about Charlie Hebdo,” some pissed-off Twitter user says. “All this anger over attacks in Paris, but none over children freezing to death in Syria!” another rages.
It’s a familiar pattern, one that bubbles to the surface whenever a terrible event hits the international news and dominates the social media conversation: why do you care about this, but not that? Why is the media intent on promoting one story, and not another? Why do Westerners seem to care so much more when an attack strikes Paris, or London, or NYC, than they care about the Boko Haram slaughter of thousands (or hundreds, or…) in Nigeria’s northeast?
These comments are both utterly predictable and almost entirely useless. However well intentioned they may be, they are fighting a very elemental part of human nature: our biases, our fondness for that which is close to us, easy for us to understand. We crave novelty. We are naturally subjective, tribal beings. We only have so much capacity to care, lest we suffer from the modern ailment of “compassion fatigue.” What’s more, they are grounded in some ignorance of the historical context of the request for More Compassion Over Here Please, and perhaps too, of the privileged state of the complainer to begin with.
The media of every free nation in the world covers the death of a countryman overseas with more concentrated interest than the deaths of those local to the country – and usually extends the favor to foreigners with racial and cultural ties to themselves. This tendency was lampooned in a 1970 Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit in which a serious-looking Michael Palin notes, “No parrots were involved in an accident on the M-1 today…. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.”
It’s satire in the finest British tradition, but the “Python” riff on the tribal nature of parrots is also a clear-eyed observation about human nature: if something bad happens to someone who is more like us, we are programmed to be much more concerned about it. For those of us who live comfortable lives in comfortable places, it is far easier to imagine ourselves being shot in the head in our office downtown or blown to pieces on a subway than it is for us to imagine being kidnapped by rebels in a Nigerian forest or succumbing to Ebola in the slums of Liberia.
Nor does this particular brand of parochialism suggest we care equally about all such deaths of those we consider our own. When was the last time the death of an American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan made international headlines, warranted a segment on the evening news, or trended enormously on Twitter? US soldiers killed in battle in some lonely Central Asian outpost rarely seem to warrant more than a mention in their hometown paper or, at most, a poignant but impersonal wire photo of a flag-draped coffin at a funeral, evoked in service of some larger point about some aspect of the war. If this is the blasé reaction that even our supposedly beloved and venerated soldiers get when they die in battle in pursuit of our agreed-upon, national interests, then something more than mere nativism is going on.
To understand why, we must consider the power of novelty, which even the most woefully stupid marketing or media executive is intimately acquainted with. Tragic as it is, a dramatic and bloody terrorist attack on the refined streets of Paris is more exciting, more unexpected, and even more entertaining than the steady and interminable drumbeat of children dying in the streets of Aleppo or Baghdad. The stage-managed for media death of a Western journalist at the hands of ISIS is more interesting to an American audience – perhaps only dimly aware of the ongoing conflict in Syria and Iraq in the first place – than the brutal death of yet another Syrian cameraman.
Beyond just novelty, to truly garner attention in both the traditional media and on social media, a death or disaster usually must also have a connection to a larger societal concern, especially if it happens overseas. A resurgent ISIS, feeding anxiety over homegrown jihadists, has brought the issue of Islamic terrorism to the forefront of the American consciousness once again. Likewise, freedom of speech rights are seen as under attack by both all sides of the political spectrum: cultural critics such as David Brooks fret over campus activism and micro-aggressions, while the supporters of Edward Snowden worry about the chilling effects of NSA surveillance. We evaluate terrible events overseas through the prism of our own anxieties: are the victims like us and could this terrible thing happen here?
As a kind of calculated equation, with a final value of how much we end up caring for something, these elements: novelty, relatability, and a story’s relationship to our broader cultural milieu seem crass and cruel. Perhaps in a moral and unbiased world, we would be spending just as much time being enraged about Syria, kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, Ukraine, and the continuing Ebola crisis as we have all been this week about Charlie Hebdo. But what is the alternative to our current imperfect system of choosing what to pay attention to? Not everything can be covered equally, certainly not in an era where foreign correspondents are roughly as endangered as the white rhinoceros. How then do we decide what warrants conversation and coverage, and what doesn’t – beyond dictating just how much time the media must give to any story, which is very much the crux of the Charlie Hebdo argument?
International conflicts and problems are often terrifyingly complex. While raising awareness and drumming up compassion for the suffering can accomplish good things, awareness and compassion by themselves are not nearly enough to solve problems. Going around on Twitter demanding that people care more about some things than other things is yet another form of armchair activism: it makes us feel good and righteous, like we’re doing something, but it rarely actually accomplishes anything concrete.
The Kony 2012 campaign captured the attention of the social media world, but accomplished nothing at all with regards to ending the abuse of child slaves by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, and wasted a lot of well-intentioned money on splashy adverts and stickers in the process. What do we hope to accomplish if we get people to divert some of their attention from the dead of Charlie Hebdo, and towards the plight of Syria, or Boko Haram? Is there a concrete benefit for that starving Syrian child if a college student on Twitter whose avatar is a picture of his dog decides to give Syria’s plight a hashtag and a pithy little quote?
Complaints about why people in America seem to care more about one international tragedy than another also evince a certain ignorance of history, of just what that request means. In our media saturated and interconnected world, it is easy to forget the demand that people in America or India or Cambodia care deeply about the plight of people in Syria or France or Somalia is a profoundly new one.
The widespread and swift dissemination of international news and tragedy dates only to the mid-nineteenth century with the proliferation of international telegraph communication. Previously, news from overseas had taken months to travel from Asia to Europe and vice versa. When these far-away tragedies finally did hit the news, they were atomized, already out of date. People may have cared about starving millions far away, but it was a very abstract thing, and even the educated elite probably did not feel pressured to make public displays of feeling bad about it. On the whole, most people only worried themselves about distant tragedy when it had some kind of economic impact on them.
Technology has since made prodigious new demands on our reserves of compassion and time. The rise of instantaneous international news 24-hour cable networks, and most recently, social media, has prompted many people to develop empathy for exponentially more humans than they were ever asked to do before, at any time in human history. It has also produced the expectation that a good and educated person should be aware of all the world’s suffering, and be vocal about that awareness and empathy. We are not only bombarded with dozens of new and horrifying stories every day: there is considerable pressure to make it clear that we are aware, we care, and we’re not going to take it sitting down (whatever that may mean).
On the whole, we do a surprisingly good job of this newfound demand for both total awareness and total compassion. But, no, we do not do a perfect job. How could we? Susan D. Moeller’s “Compassion Fatigue” described the issue very well back in 1999, and her discussion of how 24-hour television news coverage of international events contributed to the public’s exhaustion of empathy seems absolutely quaint in the Twitter era. We in the international spectator class may have developed considerable new powers of empathy for people who do not resemble us, but we have yet to figure out how to develop inexhaustible stores of empathy.
Those of us who care about things like Charlie Hebdo versus Boko Haram, those of us who with time enough to read an article like this, constitute a particular and privileged segment of humanity. We who spend our free time and energy shouting at each other on Twitter about how much (or how little) we care about things should also remember that we are among the blessed of the earth for being able to get into Internet fights to begin with.
Susan Sontag, in her “Regarding the Pain of Others,” put it well: “To speak of reality becoming a spectacle is a breathtaking provincialism. It universalizes the viewing habits of a small, educated population living in the rich part of the world, where news has been converted into entertainment… It assumes that everyone is a spectator.”
And not everyone is, of course, and this is easy to forget if you live in a urbanized place in a wealthy city and have friends who spend their time glued to social media and to current events. Many people, even those in our wealthy Western countries, have neither the time, the energy, nor the inclination to spend their free time spectating and worrying about misery in foreign countries. Many other people lack any access to an open media and to public forums at all. If you are going to reprimand someone for not adequately caring about something in a certain part of the world, the object of your ire has got to be on Twitter or Facebook or the Internet and somewhat interested in your opinion in the first place – to forget this is to run the risk of dangerously universalizing our comfortable online echo chambers.
So if you’re angry about people on Twitter caring more about Charlie and less about Boko Haram: I understand, but stop and think about what you’re asking. The problem is bigger than merely telling people to give a damn: it is hardwired into our basic psychology. Not only that, the problem of biased compassion about one disaster or killing is a historically new one – and a problem that today, many people around the world still lack the tools to even engage with in the first place.
Someday we might solve or mitigate it. Perhaps we can find a way to direct our compassion in effective ways, and spread it around more evenly. But shouting at people on Twitter for inadequately caring about whatever story has caught your attention is unlikely to be the answer.
I am regularly asked by acquaintances and friends why I hate backpackers. They are used to seeing my anti-backpacker screeds on Twitter or when they meet me at the bar, ready with my latest story about those horrible people who wear elephant-patterned pants and talk incessantly about spirituality. They conclude the obvious: I loathe backpackers and if I do not wish harm upon them, I do at least wish acute bedbugs.
Allow me to be honest: I don’t really HATE backpackers. Hate is a strong and meaningful word, a phrase that should properly be reserved for things that warrant it – such as, say, ISIS, neo-Nazis, and people who walk a bit too slowly on sidewalks. I would rescue a drowning backpacker. I would save a backpacker from feral dogs. I might give a backpacker marginally accurate driving directions. (I would not lend a backpacker money).
While I do not actually hate them, per-say, I do find them obnoxious, and that is really the root of all the effort I exert on mocking them, and why most expats I associate with share the same low opinion of their ilk.
For, picture this common scenario: you are over the age of 22 and a person of moderate aesthetic expectations residing in Southeast Asia. You spend time and money journeying to a supposedly bucolic island in the middle of nowhere, and on that glorious white sand, you find a pack of American frat-boys drinking Smirnoff Ice and hooting at one another. You are displeased. You thought you left this behind.
Someone proceeds to mock you for asking them to turn down the repetitive dubstep music. They are all doing shrooms and making out with each other and they are not even sharing their beer. Your displeasure turns to raw, vicious hatred.
The list of grievances – beyond this oft-repeated scenario – goes on. Backpackers show up at bars with acoustic guitars in the angelic hope of being scouted for “talent.” Backpackers will occasionally grow emotional for no particularly good reason and read you their poetry, which is inevitably heavily inspired by both Bukowski and that Kings of Leon song that really touched their hearts back in high school. Backpackers noisily demand that they be able to enjoy the trappings of home, from Family Guy reruns to chilled Snickers bars, wherever they noisily alight – cackling and domineering, like a flock of shitting starlings. Backpackers smell funny. Backpackers have better iPhones than you.
I could continue in this fashion, but it wouldn’t be very interesting. So, I thought I would explain with the assistance of some illustrations why I think backpackers blow, and maybe even offer some explanations for why I – and so many other expats – feel this way. (Hint: it comes down to self-loathing, kind of).
BACKPACKERS ARE THE WORLD’S LEAST OPPRESSED PEOPLE
Backpackers make for convenient targets because they are roughly the exact opposite of an oppressed group, the antipode of the world’s wretched, starving, and afraid. This makes them convenient: it’s true that making fun of disabled people, impoverished women, or the gravely mentally ill is cruel sport that is justifiably condemned by everyone with a conscience.
But backpackers are by definition among the planet’s most fortunate people. Unlike most everyone else, they are able to spend a good portion of the most productive and physically fit bits of their lives knocking around the world and doing inordinate quantities of shrooms.
Most are either attending a nice university or will soon head off to do so after gaining “life experience.” Most have nice families who care about them and wish they would get on Skype more often. Most will walk into decent jobs that appreciate how “worldly” they are after they finish contracting skin cancer in Sri Lanka.
All this makes them delightfully guilt-free targets — the Diet Coke and rice cakes of cruel humor. Mocking a backpacker does not harm them beyond the occasional bad feeling, but brings great pleasure to bitter expats undergoing existential crisis. Further, most backpackers are completely disinterested in the opinion of weird expats wearing business clothes in the first place.
Everyone (kind of) wins.
BACKPACKERS ARE HAVING WAY MORE FUN THAN US
Backpackers exist at an absolutely infuriating distance from real life, a division that often manages to annoy the piss out of locals and expatriates alike. Locals are often merely scraping by in their native country, subject to the whims of corrupt governments and poorly-planned economies. Expats usually are at least making a good faith effort at sustaining themselves in their new country (with varying degrees of success), and are subject to the usual concerns of paying their rent and soliciting paying work.
Into this situation, then, the backpacker saunters onto the stage with savings, a trust fund, or seriously poorly-advised credit decisions, and then proceeds to do nothing whatsoever but chill and eat marijuana-infused pizza.
At the same time, everyone else is selling fruit, closing real-estate deals, teaching English, driving tuk tuks, or analyzing political affairs — all pursuits a lot less fun than doing body shots off of mysterious but sexy Australians.
This can do nothing but breed a certain amount of resentment among people who are incapable of fucking off for two months to cover themselves in glow paint and drink buckets full of questionable liquor. Angry muttering ensures.
Backpackers, it’s true, do have their uses, as anyone who runs a business that caters to the drunk and stupid backpacker market will tell you. Purveyors of fine happy truffles or pizza, ladies who sell cans of Coca-Cola at Angkor Wat, the guy who does thousands of “tribal” tattoos each week: they acknowledge the economic usefulness of backpackers, but they’re probably not overwhelmed with love for them, either.
Expats aren’t often economically dependent on the backpacker market but will usually (under duress) cede one use for backpackers and their obnoxiously free-spirited ways: they are convenient if you find yourself lonely and questioning your existence at the dance club at two in the morning. And they don’t know any of your friends.
BACKPACKERS ARE CHEAP BASTARDS
Despite their obviously blessed position in life, backpackers are cheap bastards. Young Breeze may reside in a mansion in Malibu during her summer holidays, but while vacationing in Vietnam, she turns into a merciless penny-pincher – arguing virulently with aged women attempting to mark up cans of Coca-Cola by 50 cents in front of tourist attractions. They will always take the cheapest bus, even it has been known for decades that said bus is run by a professional thievery cartel and occasionally plummets off of cliffs. Hotel rooms filled with cockroaches, festooned with poorly-concealed blood stains, and set directly over a low-end strip club? No problem – it cost $3 less than the other place.
Backpackers are regularly seen savagely chiseling people over tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and things that have very visible price tags stuck to them. Some will even attempt to bargain with the wait staff at restaurants, apparently unaware that that is not actually a thing that happens. They will occasionally attempt to whittle down the price of a $5 souvenir t-shirt while at the same time texting on their latest-model iPhone.
Backpackers are also known for walking out on hotel tabs, absconding with random items in guesthouses and restaurants, stealing the toilet paper, and attempting to “borrow” $20 from you because they just haven’t quite been able to to get their mothers to Western Union them spending money yet. (Do not lend them $20. It is a trap).
They find their cheapness to be a point of pride, and will express both awe and derision if you mention spending more than $6 on basically anything. It usually goes like this: “You spent $12 on a three-course French meal, with wine? Ugh, are you insane? I just eat canned tuna for every meal, man.”
Despite their relentless bargaining, backpackers are more than willing to spend the average annual salary of a Cambodian farmer on liquor during their adventures through Southeast Asia. Pointing out this logical inconsistency only annoys and occasionally enrages them.
Backpackers are founts of bullshit spiritualism, a habit most likely directly resulted to the fact that they’re not actually worrying about making a living and thus are filled with a sense of serenity and happiness. This curious, opiate-effect of word travel is well known: many young people in Asia have informed all their friends on Facebook and thus the world that they are traveling to the Mysterious Orient to Find Themselves.
That’s fine to a point, I suppose, but the problem comes when you’re just trying to have a casual chat at the bar and someone wants to rave at you about how awesome Jack Kerouac is, or how that time they did pyschedelic drugs on the beach with roughly 15,000 students at Leeds University really saved their life man, or how they’re totally going to become a Buddhist monk next month, really. (I also believe that the movie “Into the Wild” – the point of which everyone seems to miss – ought to be banned with extreme prejudice).
This fondness for silly manifestations of spirituality is often wildly inflicted on the locals, who are dubbed “deep” and “so beautiful” by moon-bat travelers — who seem unable to appreciate that the locals are actually just fellow human beings trying to live their lives like anyone else, instead of exotic zoo animals with funny accents.
This grows especially ridiculous in Cambodia with its attendant Khmer Rouge history, where backpackers seem to feel the need to wax lyrical about how Khmer people “smile all the time, despite all the loss they’ve suffered.”
You are expected to nod and agree with the profound depth of this statement, as you are expected to smile and nod at all statements made by a backpacker with the faintest whiff of spiritual depth. Claiming you in fact think these observations about the solemn oneness of the universe (or whatever) are hilariously stupid will be greeted with mute incomprehension.
OH JUST A LITTLE SELF LOATHING
I freely admit that my public emissions of hatred towards backpackers are deeply rooted in self-loathing. I suspect this is not uncommon, and is part of the reason why backpackers are treated with such keen hatred by the expat community in most places.
The fact is that I often find it hard to figure out what differentiates me from them.
I mean, look: the below illustration is a typical backpacker.
And this is me definitely NOT being a backpacker. Somehow.
I think I’m not alone in my near-biweekly identity crisis. Most expats with functioning consciences are keenly aware of being interlopers in a foreign land, and we are also aware that in terms of both our appearance and our bank accounts, we are often rather hard to tell apart from the backpacking brethren.
Local people add to this sense of insecurity, scrutinizing us with amusement and saying “Oh, you LIVE here!” when you say something halting in the local language or express some vague knowledge of local geography.
I am often very afraid that someone in Cambodia will insist that I do NOT live here – and indeed, it has been a while since I really have. If I do not live there, where exactly do I live? Does that mean I’m just a backpacker who regularly showers and on very rare occasions collects a paycheck?
I take out this insecurity and lack of confidence in my social position on a convenient target: backpackers. Sure, I might be inept and suck at the language, but I’m not wandering around monasteries with my be-furred nipples hanging out of an Angkor Beer shirt. Nor am I haggling with an old woman over 50 cents.
I have fallen, perhaps, but they have fallen so much farther and don’t even *know* about it.
I’m reading Orwell’s Essays, pretty much on a total impulse: there they were in swiftly bootlegged format (the Penguin edition) on the shelves of a bookshop in a Cambodian river town. And I needed something to read.
I harbor the intelligent child’s usual vague fondness for Orwell (or Eric Blair, of course), crafted from close readings of Animal Farm and 1984 in 6th grade. On the wall of my alternative middle school, my young homeroom teacher had gone so far as to write out Orwell’s six rules for writing in marker in large letters and hang them on the wall.
“Never use a big word when a small one will do,” I read on the day that he put it up – and became instantly suspicious, as it had been a running joke in my extended family for some time that we in fact would use a big one over a small one at any given opportunity. There, for a time, my relationship with Orwell ended.
When I moved to Cambodia, I quite expectedly obtained a copy of Burmese Days, which struck me largely by its profound animosity for all of the characters. Just as Orwell observes in his essays that he was shocked in childhood by D.H. Lawrence’s seeming equality of feeling for each of his characters, so too was I pleasantly surprised by how awful Orwell seemed to think all of his were. The sniveling, impotent main character of John Flory, the obnoxiously pure Elizabeth Lackersteen who he falls in love with, the terrible young soldier on the white horse and the Burmese merchant — they are all viciously drawn creatures.
What has Orwell got to offer me as a somewhat steady-minded adult — and, might I add, the type who likes progressive politics and identifies with feminism and gay rights and Christ knows what else?
Much. There is much to offer.
Yes, he did not demonstrate the modern politics to which I adhere to, and occasionally had nasty things to say about women, homosexuality, contraception, and race. Such is the burden of reading great men who died generations ago, if you do not happen to be white and male. I find it incredibly foolish to simply chuck out great writers whose opinions do not align well with our modern ones – as if we expect them to be not just brilliant but, curiously, able to accurately predict the future.
Primarily: it is a sense of both pleasant clarity and great camaraderie, as if he was writing things specially calculated to not comfort me in our pleasant political times but at least to give me a sense that at least someone else gets the point. Orwell wrote from the 20th centuries most bleak and grotesque eras, and from the perspective of someone born into the comfort and petty wealth of the early 1900s who was summarily confronted with World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of Communism.
It is hard to imagine how someone of his generation could view the general thrust of history as anything other than a swift descent into madness — a technological, smoking horror that could quite easily wipe out everything on the planet. Post-2010, we have seen big budget movie after big budget movie that display an Existential Threat to All Humanity. We find these fantasies entertainingly escapist, while Orwell, occasionally dodging bombs in London, actually lived them.
This essay will become grotesquely long if I sat down and wrote out every single thing in this reasonably large collection of essays that I found enjoyable, but I will address his non-too-sunny thoughts on the prospect of writing here, for I find them remarkably prescient. Orwell, of course, imagined that the death of writing and the death of the writing craft would be linked to totalitarian governments and the suppression of free thought and free ideas.
This stance, from where Orwell was standing, made sense. I imagine he would be surprised to find that writing as a professional craft is on its way out, but not for the reasons he had imagined.
Orwell, as he makes very clear in “The Lion and the Unicorn,” was by the 1940s pretty much convinced that capitalism as he knew it had been dealt a vicious death blow: humanity would not abide by these systems. People would either tend towards socialism, where the state owned the means of production and regulated incomes, or they would be pushed towards the tender embrace of the totalitarian.
This has not come to pass: around the world, the capitalist system is nearly ubiquitous, and while many nations do try to suppress free speech, it is very easy to argue that the Internet has made their job far harder than Orwell ever imagined in “1984.” (Yes, I know about the NSA. I do not feel it has dampened free speech).
It is ironic that the Internet, this same weapon against the control of thought, also seems likely to put the professional writer and thinker completely out of a job: they are not needed by the market, or so the common argument goes, and thus must either be phased out or pursue their slightly socially deleterious hobby in private, if they have got any time after pulling a couple of shifts at Target.
I would like to know what Orwell would think about how capitalism and market forces are killing writing quite effectively in countries with perfectly adequate free-speech controls, without the assistance of the iron boot, the storm-trooper, or the lurking thought police. Our increasingly profound trust in the market and the West’s increasingly vocal disdain for useless and lazy writers and artists is doing it for us.
Of course, it is also likely no one would ever know what Orwell had to say about the death of writing if he had lived today — because he would be working at some dreary big-box store (in an effort to pay back his college loans) and would have lacked the time to form much of an opinion.
There is another point, perhaps quite logically following the one about writing: Orwell’s assertions, as expressed in “Looking Back on the Spanish War” and elsewhere, about the English optimism, its prevalent sense that everything will (eventually) come out all right in the end. Here is the segment in question:
“But is it perhaps childish or morbid to terrify oneself with visions of a totalitarian future? Before writing off the totalitarian world as a nightmare that can’t come true, just remember that in 1925 the world of today would have seemed a nightmare that couldn’t come true. Against that shifting phantasmagoric world in which black may be white tomorrow and yesterday’s weather can be changed by decree, there are in reality only two safeguards. One is that however much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back, and you consequently can’t violate it in ways that impair military efficiency. The other is that so long as some parts of the earth remain unconquered, the liberal tradition can be kept alive. Let Fascism, or possibly even a combination of several Fascisms, conquer the whole world, and those two conditions no longer exist. We in England underrate the danger of this kind of thing, because our traditions and our past security have given us a sentimental belief that it all comes right in the end and the thing you most fear never really happens. Nourished for hundreds of years on a literature in which Right invariably triumphs in the last chapter, we believe half-instinctively that evil always defeats itself in the long run. Pacifism, for instance, is founded largely on this belief. Don’t resist evil, and it will somehow destroy itself. But why should it? What evidence is there that it does? And what instance is there of a modern industrialized state collapsing unless conquered from the outside by military force?”
It is bleak stuff, but it is also an argument I find myself making regularly – in fact, I believe I have recently made it to my own mother. I do not find it entirely depressing but instead more galvanizing. If we sit on our hands and convince ourselves that things will be all right if we go about our business and stop worrying, we will be caught shocked and impotent to act if we really do fall downwards into the slope.
It is best – so Orwell, I reckon, would argue, although I may be putting my own thoughts into his head — to anticipate the descent into hell and be wrong, rather then being genuinely shocked when it does happen.
Jon Krakauer recently wrote in “Embrace the Misery” about this growing sense among many intellectual-types that the world is sinking into some terrible dark age. Krakauer went to Camus for some small measure of comfort, and his famous assertion that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Me? I will, at least for a while, employ Orwell as my therapist.