Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A couple of weeks ago I went to Easter Island. The southeastern tentpole of the massive portion of the Pacific Ocean that is Polynesia, Easter Island is as removed from other landmasses as it looms large in the popular imagination. In fact it is over 2,000 miles away from the country of which it is legally a part, Chile. But the local language is similar to Maori in New Zealand, where I grew up, giving the island an unexpected feeling of familiarity.
In 1893, a 32-year-old historian, later of Harvard, presented a paper at a meeting of the American Historical Association in Chicago. His name was Frederick Jackson Turner, and the paper was called “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” The essay turned out to be a seminal one. The “Frontier Thesis,” in which American society is thought to have been shaped by the existence of, and its confrontation with, the frontier became a key concept in the study of American history.
In 2017, the Frontier Thesis is once again full of implications.
On the one hand, Turner’s formulation of the concept of the American frontier is nothing short of racist: “the frontier is the outer edge of the wave—the meeting point between savagery and civilization.” The crude dichotomy of US and THEM no doubt captured the thinking of many 19th settlers uneasy about native nations just beyond the frontier. And today it seems to capture the thinking of just as high a proportion of Americans with respect to the outside world.
For some months now, a phrase from Confucian philosophy has recurred to me like an ear worm: “neither obsequious nor arrogant.” (不卑不亢.) Then I realized why I kept thinking about this phrase — it’s a perfect lesson for today’s Americans.
The specific formulation dates back to the early 17th century: “The sages had their middle way, being neither obsequious nor arrogant....” But in substance it reaches all the way back to the time of Confucius and forms a part of Confucian ethics, which concerns itself with the question of how to be a junzi (君子), loosely translated as “gentleman.” I say loosely because the Western concept of “gentleman” devotes more energy to social manners than the Confucian concept, which is mostly about how to live as a good and complete person in a world full of knaves and villains. And although admittedly the Confucian term was gendered for usage in a patriarchal society, the moral concept is applicable to both sexes equally.
Much of America’s present difficulties would disappear if Americans would take this Confucian lesson to heart. The old culture war and racial animosities brought to the point of the astonishing act of self-immolation that took place in November would end.
I shall complete the tetralogy on my time with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia soon enough. But because tomorrow is Inauguration Day, a.k.a. America-Becomes-a-Vassal-State Day, I interrupt the regularly scheduled programming and suggest — however tentatively as though in a late-night college dorm room discussion — new analogies for U.S.-Russian relations and for Mr. Trump.
During the Cold War a favorite comparison of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. was to Athens and Sparta during the Peloponnesian War — on the one hand, a raucous democracy prone to hubris, and on the other, a militaristic authoritarian regime. The analogy seemed so appropriate that the American service academies started teaching Thucydides to officers and cadets.
Another celebrated strain of thought (for example, in George F. Kennan’s Sources of Soviet Conduct) was to see the contest through the lens of Alexis de Tocqueville. Back in the early 19th century, in Democracy in America, de Tocqueville had declared that America and Russia “each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world,” so that they were headed toward inevitable contest. And in that contest, America “has freedom as the principal means of action,” while Russia “has servitude.” Kennan extended and revised de Tocqueville’s remarks, concluding that to prevail in the Cold War, all that the United States had to do was to “measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.”
Standing in the snow in Pripyat, the abandoned township across from the nuclear reactors in Chernobyl, I kept thinking about how apocalypses are alien to the American historical experience.
Perhaps that means Americans have less instinct for how to behave in such a scenario. And presumably this has much to do with American pop culture’s inclination to imagine destruction, whether through zombies or aliens or, representative of a different type of apocalypse, the collapse of a sociopolitical order thought to be stable, through Nazi conquest (The Man in the High Castle), which all of a sudden doesn’t seem altogether fictional.
In the last few days I have had to consider, more deeply than I ever thought necessary, the utility and meaning of travel writing. What's it all good for anyway? Hopefully not just armchair tourism. Because if that's all it is, then in these troubled times, we may as well all pack up and go home.
Then I remembered Robert Byron, the founding father of modern travel writing. Travel writers until his time, including his contemporary Peter Fleming (brother of Ian, the creator of James Bond), had written in a serious and imperial tone. After all, many earlier travelers such as Alexander Burnes literally traveled while on Her Majesty’s secret service, for the good and the sake of the British Empire.
Last year I left the United States to travel. Two months ago I started this little blog. I said it would not exactly be a travel blog. Instead it would highlight all that I found interesting in this world, with an emphasis on exchanges between cultures. And because I’m a nerd, the subject matters have been quaint and obscure. The influence of Greek art on Buddhist sculptures; ancient figures from Roman and Chinese history; essays by Francis Bacon and Voltaire; archaeology in Afghanistan.
So in light of the election on Tuesday, I started thinking that I might as well stop blogging. It all seems so, well, quaint and obscure. Who cares about Buddhist art when a Fascist, racist, and sociopathic conman now has nuclear launch codes? Who still reads Bacon or Voltaire in this apparent age of anti-intellectualism?
But then a couple of thoughts occurred to me and made me decide that the one thing I couldn’t do was to stop writing.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."