This election cycle has stoked American xenophobia. Building walls, keeping foreigners out, and monitoring our own immigrant populations are presented as viable security procedures. Barricading our country is not only bigoted and benighted, but also dangerous. Excluding visitors from “suspect” countries will damage our security by preventing those who would have spoken best of us from finding out what there is to admire here. This is not to say that a proliferation of student visas issued at the behest of Iowa State or UCLA will solve the world’s problems, but only that it’s hard to love a place you’ve never visited.
Travel is not merely a luxury or an educational strategy, but a moral imperative for those who have the means for it. As the economy globalizes, and uprooted populations introduce unanticipated diversity to previously insular societies, we need to know what it means to live and think differently. The craven language of scarcity that seeks to guide our aggression and constrict our immigration policies — the voice of both Donald Trump in America and the Brexit in Britain — can be defused only when we understand that there are different priorities here than there. People’s suspicions are whipped up into terror not only of those who would terrorize them, but also of vast unfamiliar yet generally benign populations. We think fear must be played out in fight, via military intervention, or in flight, via isolationism — but we are not hunted game, and those are not the only options. There is also the possibility of acceptance, with its corollary of understanding and its ultimate manifestation in embracing what is alien. Travel is a corrective lens that helps focus the earth’s blurred reality.
I’ve reported from troubled places: Moscow during the failed coup that ended the Soviet Union, South Africa at the end of apartheid, Afghanistan during the Western invasion in early 2002, Myanmar in the lead-up to the first free elections last year. I’ve gone to investigate the complex psychology of places steeped in recent trauma: Cambodia following the Khmer Rouge, Rwanda 10 years after the genocide. I have witnessed despair, of course, but also hope, because hope is tied to moments of change. Some of those transitions have worked out better than others. Shifts that seem to be for the better often backfire, while great advancement sometimes goes hand in hand with tragedy. Nonetheless, the feeling of newness and rebirth is significant even when it dawns in a society muddled in perennial uncertainties. Furthermore, change is often the product not of gradual erosion but of burgeoning false starts; transformation arrives only when two or three or 10 failed inceptions accumulate into a breakthrough. A crushed hope is suffused with nobility that mere hopelessness can never know.
What is obvious to us is bewildering to others, and it’s impossible to comprehend that fully until we’ve been bewildered by what is obvious to them. Chinese democracy advocates told me, post-Tiananmen Square, why they did not actually want democracy in China. Women in Pakistan spoke of the liberation they had found in the hijab. Russians who had deplored communism spoke of their burning nostalgia for the preglasnost period. “These contradictions are not troubling for us,” a Chinese activist explained. “They are only troubling for Western people.” What we suppose was repression sometimes has a retrospective tinge of liberalism; what we have presumed to be emancipation has sometimes felt to others like a new enslavement. Naive concepts of liberation have resulted in tragedy in Iraq and Libya, but, even where things haven’t gone so wrong, there can be a great deal of confusion, a failed translation that poisons the relationships among nations. Military and economic engagement are not sufficient without citizen-to-citizen conversations.
Other places are both a window and a mirror; they reveal themselves and also position you more clearly within your own culture. If every young adult in the world were required to spend two weeks in another country, half of the world’s diplomatic tensions would be resolved. It wouldn’t matter what countries they visited or what they did during their stays. They would simply need to see that people live differently elsewhere — that some phenomena are universal and others, culturally particular. Alexander von Humboldt said, “The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” That problem has reached dizzying new heights during these elections, when foreign policy proposals increasingly come from people with very little exposure to the world abroad.
Freedom comes in short bursts at times of enormous change. One of its constituents is optimism, the belief that what is about to happen may be better than what is happening now. Change is often heady; change often goes wrong; change often electrifies only to evanesce, unrealized. The Burmese author and activist Dr. Ma Thida said she was shattered to realize that not only did the government need to change — which could happen quickly — but so did the minds of people conditioned by oppression, which could take an entire generation. In witnessing how people break forth into freedom, we see how glorious and hard the shift can be. Of course, after you win your freedom, you must, in Toni Morrison’s phrase, “claim a freed self.” Many Westerners presume that democracy is the human default state, and that it will simply emerge when obstructions are eliminated. The evidence does not support this projection. No nation can achieve dignity except by granting it to others, just as no person can achieve dignity except by extending it to others.