A “love of travel” is not an achievement. It’s barely a hobby, argues one US pop academic.
As the travel season was starting in the northern hemisphere, philosopher Agnes Callard ruffled the wings of many with her essay “The Case Against Travel”.
“Travel turns us into the worst version of ourselves while convincing us that we’re at our best,” was the conclusion.
The red-hot 2500-word polemic was printed in The New Yorker just as the summer holidays were heating up. In it she takes turns to bash hospitality, Abu Dhabi, the Grand Canyon and the Louvre.
Even the Mona Lisa doesn’t escape unscathed.
Having been seen over half a million times on Twitter, since the piece was published online, it has caused an existential crisis for erudite travellers.
The essay inspired responses from the New York Times to the Newcastle Herald. Even travel writer Rick “Travelogue” Steves tweeted a response defending his trade, encouraging people to see the world.
It has also sparked outrage. Particularly those working in the tourism industry. Or anyone in an office that espouses phrases, like “the only thing you buy that makes you richer”.
The anger was prompted because, possibly, some of what she says is true.
Although some dismissed it as “elitist”, an oddball take attacking something brings most people pleasure, it was effective at getting people to give pause to travel and think.
It does something Great Thunberg and the climate change movement have been struggling to do for years. Illustrate how self-obsessed travellers are ruining the world for everybody - but not in the way you might think.
(Callard never does mention climate change or aviation emissions once during her “case against travel”. This is a navel-gazing exercise.)
In her essay the academic describes pondering around Paris, trying desperately to assess the essence of Frenchness.
“During my Paris wanderings, I would stare at people, intently inspecting their clothing, their demeanor, their interactions. I was trying to see the Frenchness in the French people around me. This is not a way to make friends.”
Professor Callard sounds like a nightmare traveller. I certainly wouldn’t want her on my tour bus, espousing phenomenology. Her biggest case against travel might be because she is doing it wrong.
Callard’s heroes never travelled. Kant and Socrates, safe in their Ivory towers, never left the town where they were born.
Her main foible is with travel’s obsession with the “authentic” experience. This is what she calls the “travel delusion”.
“Whether an experience is authentically X is precisely what you, as a non-X, cannot judge.”
As a fish out of water, still wet behind the gills, how can a tourist ever know “authenticity?”
How is a traveller to judge an experience, while viewing the world through the “rose-tinted” glasses of a paid vacation, with your loved ones. The philosopher thinks we might get a more accurate, or authentic, impression of a place through the sober, undistracted gaze of Epistemological observation.
Or perhaps from the pages of a book?
“Only extreme poverty of the imagination justifies having to move around to feel,” she says, quoting Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa.
Having absorbed all there is to know about Venice from the guidebook, what’s the point of actually going?
Whereas, the more I hear about a place, the more inspiration I have to see it for myself, Callard argues that “like a boomerang” a vacation will pick you up and deposit you back where you began, with no new transformative knowledge you couldn’t source from a Google search. This is the real travel delusion.
For a philosopher, she seems remarkably un-curious.
At worst, she describes travel as a distraction, something frivolous and unrewarding. Associate professors at the University of Chicago don’t go on holiday. They attend symposiums in the UAE.
Ultimately the professor’s “case against travel” is that it distracts us from thinking about death. Something I would say is a good thing.
If history was described by the automotive thinker Henry Ford as “just one bloody thing, followed by another”, Callard describes travel as what links those bloody things and the grave.
“Travel splits this expanse of time into the chunk that happens before the trip, and the chunk that happens after it, obscuring from view the certainty of annihilation.”
Post hoc ergo propter hoc…etc.
One gets the impression Prof. Callard didn’t enjoy her trip to Abu Dhabi.