Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Idle Curiosity

When we Brits observe a mob like the one that stormed the US Capitol last week, the question 'how many of these people have passports?' springs readily to mind.

Of course many of these patriots might have been abroad as part of the US’s bloated armed forces. What we really mean is how many have travelled beyond the borders of their nation out of sheer idle curiosity. Yet this is essentially a very British anxiety.

It was us who seemingly invented travel undertaken for the purpose of secular self-improvement, more for the mind than the soul, and modern tourism essentially began as an offshoot of our empire.

Sometimes, as was the case with Egypt, we sent our tourists (along with Thomas Cook and his infrastructure, travellers cheques etc.) before even the gunboats.

For citizens of the self-styled ‘greatest nation on Earth’ it is hard to get around the fact that the most self-improving thing any human being is supposed to be able to do is travel to the USA and simply remain there.

It's supposed to be enough. The entire culture is based around approximating a degree of satisfaction which could never be fully transcended by any experience of otherness. And a fairly large proportion of that small proportion of Americans with passports apparently prefer to travel to places which reproduce as much of their familiar home environment and concomitant consumer satisfactions as is feasible for mere foreigners.

A society so relentlessly dedicated to chasing satisfaction will of course experience phases of renunciation. Many Americans and other westerners of the boomer generation took to the world’s then lesser-trodden trails in the latter stages of the twentieth century in a quest for the authentic that significantly contributed to the elimination of anything worthy of the name from the surface of the Earth.

And for most of the last century there was a steady flow of more educated and affluent Americans towards European cities like Paris and Florence in an echo of the eighteenth century Grand Tour — though for the most part missing out on some of the more earthy fun (and risk) formative English gentlemen had experienced in places like Venice a couple of centuries earlier.

Today, much much of modern travel seems to have become self-improving in a sadly more limited sense — that of improving the image that others have of one’s self. Such experiences are undertaken not so much for themselves, as for their value as fodder for visual presentation on social media.

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