Is voluntourism worthwhile?

Is it worth it to volunteer where there isn’t a sustainable social, political, or environmental impact? I think of those stories of Habitat for Humanity where volunteers think they build a house during the day only to have their crappy work torn down and redone later.

Sincerely,
Wants To Fix The World

Thank you, so much, WTFTW, for giving my first one-word answer to a question of the week:

Nope.

Okay, now to go into a bit more detail: The voluntourism impulse is an awesome one. It means that people don’t just want to take from the places they visit, but to give back as well. It’s akin to helping with the dishes when you’ve eaten dinner at a friend’s house. It’s all that’s right about humankind.

Which is why it’s really depressing that it’s usually a waste of time.

The story I believe you’re referring to is from this excellent article by Pippa Biddle, which is worth giving a read. She talks about a voluntourism trip she took in high school to Tanzania, which cost $3000 a pop:

“Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.”

What Biddle concludes is that the problem wasn’t that a library wasn’t needed, it was that she simply wasn’t the one to do it. This is the case with many voluntourism trips: they exist more to give the volunteers the endorphin rush humans get when doing something nice for someone else than they do to actually help. The presence of unskilled volunteers may, in some cases, actually be more of a hindrance than a help.

But sometimes voluntourism is more insidious. The popularity of supporting Cambodian orphanages among western tourists has actually fueled a market for orphans. There are the reports of voluntourists actually taking jobs from better-qualified locals. And for many locals, voluntourism looks more like an expiation of colonial guilt than a good-hearted act of service. In his book Travel as a Political Act, travel industry titan Rick Steves points out the name that Salvadorans have for Americans who come to visit and express solidarity, only to return home a few days later feeling self-satisfied: “round-trip revolutionaries.”

Just this week, Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, founder of Latina Rebels, made an extremely strong case against voluntourism. Rodriguez was born in poverty in Nicaragua, and vividly remembers the many visiting westerners. She remembers them as good people, but:

They really wanted us to like them, because they loved us — indiscriminately. It was the sort of love where they did not get our mailing addresses or phone numbers, because it was not about becoming lifelong friends. They loved being around me, it was something about my poverty, brownness, and how they felt like they were saving me. They loved that feeling.

She continues:

I do not have fond memories of the Beckys and Chads who came to my country and took pictures with me so that they could hang the photos in their dorm rooms and go on with their lives.

Those same Beckys did not stand up against Trump’s xenophobic agenda. The Chads stayed silent during that Cinco de Mayo party that their roommates hosted, perpetuating problematic stereotypes about ALL Latinxs. The Beckys know that NAFTA and CAFTA rulings keep kids like me in poverty, but still shop at stores known for using slave labor and sweatshops.

Those Chads and Beckys have never done anything for me.

As a white person from America, this can sound harsh. (It may also paint white voluntourists with too broad a brush — I have no doubt that some Chads and Beckys have spoken out against Trump, NAFTA, and CAFTA, but that’s kind of beside the point — the statement is, as the philosopher Ken Wilber says, “true but partial,” and the truth deserves as much attention as the nuance it misses.) But it’s worth noting that, especially in Central and South American countries, our country has played a pretty significant role in supporting horrible, genocidal dictatorships in the name of protecting “American business interests.” These dictatorships have frequently taken the place of legitimate left-leaning democracies.

It doesn’t matter if you agree with this assessment of the history of US colonialism in the western hemisphere or not: it’s a fairly widely-held perception in the rest of the Americas (and in parts of the Middle East as well). And in that view of the world, an American paying thousands of dollars to come down for a weekend so he can build a library, feel good about himself, and then return to his affluence, seems like an inadequate form of repentance.

So… should you participate in voluntourism at all?

My suggestion is a gentle no, with a set of clarifications:

  1. If you have a set of skills that could be effectively utilized in your destination, absolutely go. Have a medical degree? Join Doctors Without Borders and go do some good. Can you do some consulting work with local NGOs, or provide training that may be desperately needed? Please, go.

  2. “Voluntourism” and “volunteering” are not the same thing. If you’re really committing to a project — and not just rolling a pre-packaged project into a vacation — then what I’m saying doesn’t apply. Looking at you, JETs, TEFLs, and Peace Corpsers.

Personally, I think the better thing to do when going abroad is to simply listen to the stories, the history, and the culture of the people that you’re visiting. You should not assume to have answers to a society’s problems after a weekend visit. You don’t. Instead, listen, read, and learn. If you want to help as efficiently and effectively as possible, donate money to people who are already in place to help, and then work on making yoursociety a better place. A more humane America would help make a more humane world.

Still want to try voluntourism?

If you do want to participate in voluntourism, my Matador colleague Richard Stupart put together an excellent guide to finding the most ethical voluntourism projects possible (and, I should note, there are good projects. It’s not all cynicism and neocolonialism). Feel free to add other good ethical voluntourism resources in the comments.

5 books you should read for Earth Day

TOMORROW IS EARTH DAY. So why not pick up a good book, head outside, and find a nice tree to read under? Here are a few suggestions.

The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

James Lovelock is the inventor of the Gaia Theory, a scientific framework that sees the earth as a self-regulating system that's somewhat akin to an actual living being. For a long time, it was dismissed as a hokey, New Age-y theory, but it is slowly becoming more accepted.

His 2006 book about climate change is almost apocalyptically scary. It makes the argument that we may still be able to stop the worst of climate change, but that it will take immediate and decisive action. It's particularly frightening to read now, 11 years on, and to know that climate change denial is still a major problem. If you need a book to light a fire under your ass, this is it.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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As a thought experiment in 2005, journalist Alan Weisman asked the question, "What would happen to our civilization if every human being disappeared all at once?" In 2007, he published this book, breaking it down in fascinating detail. Our pets would become feral, our homes would quickly become reclaimed by nature, and our cities would collapse in on our sewer systems. Some of it would happen blindingly fast -- some of it would last for eons.

It's easy to imagine that the world revolves around us. But life on this planet may well outlive humanity. And Weisman's beautifully written book gives us a glimpse into what that would look like.

Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

"Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person." The narrator of Daniel Quinn's 1992 book Ishmael answers the ad and finds that the teacher is, in fact, a telepathic gorilla. The gorilla takes him on as a student and forces him to answer the question: what if humans aren't the pinnacle of evolution? What if humans aren't "above" any other form of life?

What follows is one of the most intensely interesting philosophical books ever written. It will make you reexamine your entire relationship with the natural world, and question the very basis of modern civilization.

Saga of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore

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Alan Moore's breakthrough run as the writer of the Swamp Thing horror comic is truly spellbinding. In it, he tackles the problem of good and evil, plant morality, the dangers of industrialization, the fight against the apocalypse, and even the sex lives of swamp creatures. It is exciting and thoughtful and it has this incredible lesson which straight up blew my mind when I read it:

"If you wish to understand evil, you must understand the bank, the roots, the worms of the Earth. Aphid eats leaf. Ladybug eats aphid. Soil absorbs dead ladybug. Plant feeds upon soil… is aphid evil? Is ladybug evil? Is soil evil? Where is evil, in all the wood? ... perhaps evil is the humus formed by virtue’s decay and perhaps, perhaps it is from that dark, sinister loam that virtue grows strongest."

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey is the environmentalist movement's angry uncle. The anarchist and pacifist worked for a couple of years as a National Parks ranger at Arches in Utah. During this time, he wrote his masterpiece, Desert Solitaire, which is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing about the natural world that you will ever read. If, on this Earth Day, all you really want is to get in touch with the world around you, this is the book to pick up.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo by Steven Guzzardi

Should I give to beggars while traveling?

We in the United States — especially those of us who live in cities — are to some extent comfortable with the existence of homelessness and beggars. We see them every day, and we either do our best to consciously ignore them, or we give them a token dollar or two. We may feel sad when we see them, we may feel impotent, we may think of them as drug addicts or as mentally ill, and we may shake a psychic fist at “the system” that allows them to slip through the cracks, but we don’t usually lose much sleep over their existence.

That gets a lot harder when you go abroad. For one thing, while there are certainly plenty of mentally ill and drug-addled beggars in the rest of the world, they find themselves among more people who are transparently not mentally ill or drug-addled. Mothers with children. Young kids. People who are just openly hungry.

I remember the first time I came into contact with this type of poverty. It wiped me out. It was jarring, and it was deeply upsetting. On one occasion, a tiny girl in Chennai came up to me was hugging my leg, begging me for something in a language I couldn’t understand. I assumed she wanted money, so I ignored her. What she wanted, it turned out, was the bottle of clean water in my hand. As we drove away, I saw kids drinking water out of what appeared to be a raw sewage pit. You have trouble thinking of yourself as a good person after an experience like that.

But begging is tricky. So let’s break down the conventional wisdom and look at whether or not you should give to beggars.

Whom are you helping?

It’s worth noting a few things about giving. First, the person that you’re helping most may be you yourself. studies by the National Institute of Health have shown that we experience more pleasure when we give our money away than we do by spending it on ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s worth noting that there may be a selfish motive to altruism. The results of giving money directly away are less unequivocally good for the beggar you are giving money to.

An article in the Atlantic put it this way:

“The homeless often need something more than money. They need money and direction. For most homeless people, direction means a job and a roof. A 1999 study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most: 42% said help finding a job; 38% said finding housing; 30% said paying rent or utilities; 13% said training or medical care.” [their emphasis]

The same article notes that, because beggars make very little money begging (so-called “career panhandlers” can make between $600 and $1500 a month, but it’s worth noting this is still not much money), they are often pressed to spend the money they earn immediately, which means they might not be spending it particularly well. So what will they spend it on? Food, probably. But here’s what you’re most worried about:

Is your money being spent on alcohol or drugs?

It could be. You should be aware that, whenever you give cash to someone in the street, you’re doing it unconditionally. You could be giving a drug addict the money they need to buy the hit that kills them. Or you could be giving them money to spend on booze instead of on their kids.

But this risk is usually overstated. One survey found that 94% of panhandlers use money to buy food, while only 44% of them use the money to buy drugs. HUD (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) has found that six out of ten homeless people admit to problems with alcohol or drugs. That number might sound high — and there’s a possibility for respondents to lie on that survey — but it does leave plenty of room for homeless people who don’t have drug or alcohol problems, who may have found themselves in a bad situation through no fault of their own, and whom you may be mentally painting as a drug addict regardless.

It’s safe to say, then, that you don’t know the whole backstory of the beggar you’re talking to. You don’t know what their life is like, or what they’ve gone through. But it’s also safe to say that your money may not go very far, and that it may do more harm than good.

But what about while I’m abroad?

It’s worth mentioning that all of the stats I’ve given so far have only been for the United States. It might be tempting to think of our homeless as people who aren’t deserving — this is the land of opportunity, after all — and that the poor abroad maybe have done less to deserve their poverty.

No one deserves poverty, but let’s look a little deeper into that impulse: should you give to, say, kids or mothers who are begging in poorer countries?

Unfortunately, no.

The reason is “organized begging,” which is particularly bad in India, but can be found virtually everywhere, including in Europe. Organized begging is an endeavor usually run by criminal syndicates or local mafias that frequently dips its toes into human trafficking. Thugs kidnap or forcibly recruit kids, send them to touristy or rich places to beg, and then take all of their money. Deformed kids make more money, so the thugs will often physically harm, scar, or even amputate the limbs of the children to elicit more sympathy from the givers. The thugs will also get kids addicted to drugs to keep them from running away, or will starve them to make them more gaunt.

This is what you risk supporting if you give money to child beggars abroad, especially in extremely poor countries. A possible way to circumvent this problem may seem to be to give children food, water, or other physical objects besides money. Food and water may be a little more justifiable, but the Consortium of Street Children found that children who were given milk powder while begging in Brazil then traded that powder for crack. This is an extreme example, of course, but keep in mind when you’re giving that most poor countries have a much stronger barter economy than the west, and that whatever you give can be traded.

It’s worth noting that not every beggar will be part of a criminal organization, but you do run the risk of contributing to that criminal organization when you give to beggars. There are definitely better ways of helping.

Should you give money at all?

Giving money to panhandlers, beggars, or the homeless is never a clearcut thing, but your impulse to give is still a good one. Here are some alternatives.

I personally subscribe to a theory of philanthropy called “effective altruism.” It’s a movement led by people like utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer who argue that, if we believe all lives are of equal value, then when we make decisions about giving, the decisions should be geared towards helping as many people as we possibly can. This means that, instead of giving money to say, for example, the Harvard Endowment (which is incredibly rich already and truly doesn’t need your money), you should give money to the most needy, and to the people who you can help most cheaply. 

This means, for example, that if you can easily help 10 people in Kenya, or help one person who lives down the street, you should choose the 10 people in Kenya, because you’re making the same difference with an equal amount of money. It’s like a terrible, real-life trolley problem. Effective altruism is most effective when it’s targeting the extreme poor.

(I should mention that there’s one really solid argument against effective altruism: that it doesn’t change the structures of injustice, but merely addresses the symptoms. That’s an argument against the entirety of philanthropy, though, and I personally adopt a strategy of donating equally to political and philanthropic causes. Yes, we may be able to end injustice in the future through political change, but that shouldn’t prevent us from making the world just a slightly nicer place today.

I wrote yesterday (at the Matador Network) about an excellent effective charity fighting extreme poverty called GiveDirectly. What they’ve found is that one of the best ways of getting people out of poverty is to just give them money directly and unconditionally. People generally have a better idea of how to spend their money than aid organizations that have no insight into their lives. And GiveDirectly is pretty efficient in terms of getting the money you donate to the extreme poor: 85%-91% of your money ends in the hands of donors.

That money that doesn’t end in their hands goes towards the selection process, which confirms that the recipients are indeed needy, that they aren’t scamming the system, and also towards studies examining the after-effects of these direct cash transfers. Begging is a self-selecting game: people who choose to beg will do so for different reasons, and may not actually be the neediest people of all. This more evidence-based approach means you’re more likely to get your giving into the right hands.

So my advice is this:

Don’t give money to beggars.

Instead:

Give it to a charity that helps the extreme poor.

If GiveDirectly is not your thing, there are plenty of other organizations you can give to, including charities that will actually work to serve the homeless and the extreme poor. To help the poor abroad, check out these organizations:

To fight homelessness and poverty in the US, try some of these organizations:

A final note

As I always need to add at the end of these articles, the most effective solution is a permanent, systemic one. Many Americans are fed up with politics, but the fact remains that the most sustainable solutions are usually political ones. If we have systems in place that don’t perpetuate homelessness and extreme poverty, then we’re going to have a lot less of it. Giving to charities is worthwhile, because it does help people in need. But we should also take the long view and work to end the systems that allow homelessness and extreme poverty to exist. Get involved in the fight against poverty, the fight against economic injustice, the fight against the drug war, and the fight against the gutting of public health institutions, and we may see and end to this in our lifetimes or the in the lives of our children.

Featured Photo: John Christian Fjellestad

How much of the local language should you learn when you travel?

How much of the language of a destination do you think is important to have to not be a dick?

Sincerely,
Can’t Afford a Russian Dictionary

That’s a good question, CARD. My instinct is to just apply the Golden Rule here, and say, “Learn as much of the language as you’d like a visitor to your country to learn!” but I don’t think that would result in any sort of universal standard: I personally do not care for a minute if someone comes to our country not knowing a word of the language. It makes life trickier for them, but I’m not offended when I hear someone speaking German or French or Mandarin, and if they ask me for directions in the middle of the street, I have the opportunity to play a game of public charades.

But I know plenty of people who would prefer visitors speak to them in the local tongue.

And while I find that attitude irritating, I can’t say it’s totally unfair. When you enter someone else’s home, you implicitly agree to follow their household rules. This may mean participating in a prayer you personally don’t believe in, or this may mean taking off your shoes when you walk in the door. Language is a similar local norm: if you’re visiting, it’s only fair that you communicate on their terms using their language. Trying to speak the local language is, I think, a sign of deference and respect to the culture you’re visiting, and it’s never bad to make that effort. Again, my personal standard is low here: I think the effort alone is enough of a sign of respect to make you “not a dick.” But we can still go a bit further than that.

The obvious things that you should always learn are “Hello,” “goodbye,” “please,” and “thank you.” I think that can work as the lower limit. But I’ve had a number of experiences where that has been insufficient. Now, in the service of lowering your dick quotient, CARD, I shall publicly embarrass myself.

An incredibly embarrassing example

I was traveling with my friends in Paris. We’d taken the chunnel from London the night before, and I’d spent the entire train ride making trips to the commode, as I’d eaten a tainted burrito in London (Important life lesson: Don’t eat "ethnic" foods in a city that contains no one of that ethnicity). When we got to Paris, we settled into our hostel and I set out to find a pharmacist in Montmartre.

I quickly found one, stormed in, and said to the girl behind the counter, “Um, hi! I have… uh…” And then I proceeded to mime my affliction by putting my hands down near my posterior, making wiggly “splatter” motions with my fingers, while making flatulent sounds.

The pharmacist sighed, and said in perfect English, “So you have diarrhea?”

For this reason, I am adding, “Do you speak English?” to the de-dickifying phrases one must learn while traveling.

A less embarrassing example

I’m on the streets of Vienna during the same trip. I’m standing confusedly at the corner of Einbahnstrasse and Einbahnstrasse, trying desperately to find Einbahnstrasse on the map. I’d been walking 30 minutes, had turned dozens of times, and had never left Einbahnstrasse.

“Excuse me,” I said to a friendly-looking old man passing by, “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Where is Herrengasse?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to find it for quite some time, and I can’t.”

“You are on Herrengasse,” he said.

I looked at the street sign above me. “Isn’t this Einbahnstrasse?”

“Einbahnstrasse means one way street,” he said.

It is also worth your time to learn a little bit of the language used to give and receive directions, especially if you think you’ll be putting yourself in a situation where you might get lost and need to ask for help. If you’re going to expect someone to help you, it’s at least courteous to make it easy for them to do so. At the very least, you should be able to coherently tell a cab driver where you’re staying, in case of an emergency.

Other guidelines

Other guidelines are dependent on your personal needs when you go on the trip. Are you vegetarian, or have diet restrictions of some sort? Learn how to say so in the local language. If you follow the “point at something in the hopes it’s good” method on foreign menus, you are very likely to be surprised, at some point, with food you are not okay with eating (In two separate incidences in Iceland and China, I found out after the fact that I’d eaten whale and dog, respectively. I was not okay with either). If you have allergies or health issues that could potentially put your life into someone else’s hands during your travels, learn how to explain it so that you don’t put them in a terrible position.

Finally, take some time to learn about etiquette before you show up somewhere new. Most people will be quick to forgive a faux pas but why let it happen in the first place? Learn the proper greetings in the country you’re visiting. Learn when to shake hands and when to bow and when to give a kiss on one cheek or give a kiss on two cheeks (there’s a short, basic guide that here. Learn which hand gestures are offensive (I’ve included a handy infographic on that below).

Failing to fully educate yourself before you go does not make you a dick, and some miscommunication is inevitable (and is usually harmless). But you can find out ahead of time what types of miscommunication are likely to be harmful or awkward, and you can prepare yourself accordingly.

Infographic by  JustTheFlight.co.uk

Infographic by JustTheFlight.co.uk

Featured photo: David Goehring

When should I boycott a country?

WHEN I WAS A SOPHOMORE in college, I went on Semester at Sea. It was a 4-month study abroad program that sailed around the world. Shortly after I was accepted into the program, I was sent an email with two pretty big surprises in it: first, Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu would be sailing with us for the entire voyage. Second, as a precondition of Tutu joining us, we would now be skipping our planned stop in Burma and would be going to Malaysia instead.

Tutu had insisted on this change because his friend, Burmese leader (and fellow Nobel Peace Laureate) Aung San Suu Kyi had called for a tourism boycott to Burma. Tutu had cut his teeth in the South African anti-apartheid movement, which conducted a similar international boycott over the course of several decades. The international solidarity, Tutu claimed, was essential for bringing apartheid to an end.

This led to a huge debate on the ship: a lot of people really wanted to go to Burma, and argued that the cultural exchange was valuable and worthwhile. They also argued that we could visit Burma in a way that wouldn’t be supportive of the oppressive military regime that Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy were fighting against. We could, they argued, make sure our money would go to the right places.

In the end, we didn’t go to Burma. Several years later, Suu Kyi and her NLD lifted their call for a tourism boycott as the country started to transition towards democracy. But since then, I’ve heard a lot of calls for tourism boycotts to certain countries. It’s a question worth examining: when is it right to boycott a country? When is it wrong? When is it just pointless?

When are boycotts pointless?

During the Bush years, I heard conservative friends and family members say more than once, “I’ll never visit France after how they bailed on us in Iraq.” It was usually uttered by people who were using patriotic fervor as an excuse to skip a country they were never planning on going to in the first place, but sometimes, conservatives who might otherwise have enjoyed a trip to Paris decided that they needed to make a moral stand. No France for them. That’d teach France to bail on America, “and after we did so much for them in World War II.”

The correct response to this type of crap is “ugh,” but lefties and liberals shouldn’t get too smug: I’ve heard plenty of my activist friends suggest they were boycotting a country as well, whether it was of Japan (because of their treatment of dolphins and whales), of Thailand (because of their Tiger Temple), or of Russia (because of the Russian government’s oppression of journalists).

Boycotts can be well-meaning and still be useless. The one case in which they are always useless is in the case of the personal boycott. If you are boycotting a country for moral reasons, that’s just fine, but don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re making any sort of difference. Boycotts are an expression of political (and sometimes economic) power. By saying, “I refuse to engage with you,” you are basically saying you don’t think that country is legitimate, and that it does not deserve your support.

The truth is that, unless you are a very high-profile person, a single person boycott of a country is meaningless. It’s just not a large enough expression of power to make a noticeable difference and to affect any change. Had Rosa Parks been the only person to boycott the Montgomery, Alabama bus system, the gesture would have been noble but totally futile. It was when hundreds of people (including high-profile leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.) joined that the boycott really did what it was meant to do. A boycott, to be done effectively, must be done collectively.

When is a travel boycott effective?

I’ve developed three tentative rules to when you should consider a travel boycott.

1. You must have power over whomever you’re boycotting.

You can’t boycott something you don’t have any power over. This is why, for instance, it would be impossible for Americans to arrange a travel boycott of North Korea: we simply don’t go there enough for the withdrawal of our tourist dollars to make any difference (and Americans shouldn't travel to North Korea anyway: they frequently charge American visitors with barely-supported crimes and then hold them as bargaining chips.). It’s only countries that we have a healthy relationship that we can effectively boycott.

A boycott is effectively saying is, “You’re not playing by rules that we accept, so we refuse to play with you.” You can’t threaten to walk off when you weren’t playing in the first place.

2. Money isn’t enough: You must have the ear of the media.

The economic results of boycotts are tough to gauge. The Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement against Israel has been going for over 10 years, but hasn’t necessarily resulted any tangible economic loss for Israel (BDS, incidentally, has not targeted travel in their boycott. They’ve focused more broadly on academic boycotts, culture boycotts, divestment, and the boycotting of certain Israeli businesses. I mention them here because it’s the highest-profile active boycott movement). The boycott of South Africa, on the other hand, is widely considered to have been a success in economic terms.

But ultimately, whether the BDS movement or the cultural boycott of South Africa had any real economic effect isn’t the point. The point is in getting enough media coverage to draw attention to the injustice and, presumably, to shame the perpetrators. As I write, this is happening in North Carolina, where a recent anti-LGBTQ law has resulted in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo boycotting travel to the state on official business, in Paypal pulling jobs from the state economy, and in rocker Bruce Springsteen canceling a NC concert (which, for me personally, is literally the worst punishment I could imagine).

Yes, these moves may cost North Carolina money here and there, but more importantly, they build a political and social momentum behind the movements they support. It was not, in the end, economics that ended apartheid. It was external pressure worldwide (pressure which had to come from the grassroots, as leaders like Ronald Reagan supported apartheid), and volatile internal politics which brought about the end of that regime. Boycotts can be a powerful symbol that raise awareness of an issue and turn public opinion. If they succeed in this regard, whether or not they’re effective economically is beside the point.

3. Boycotts have to have an internal element.

Boycotts have more moral clout when they’re done in solidarity with people from within the place you’re boycotting. In other words, if local people say, “don’t boycott us,” then don’t (and it's worth pointing out that the voices of "the people" in any given country are never unanimous -- you must decide who to side with internally). So when the ANC and leaders like Desmond Tutu called for the rest of the world to boycott South Africa, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Aung San Suu Kyi called for tourists to not visit Burma, it gave the boycott legitimacy. When Palestinians or liberal Israelis support the BDS movement, it gives the movement legitimacy.

Boycotts that are done entirely externally — as in you and your friends unilaterally deciding to boycott France because reasons — aren’t effective, and can be perceived as bullying, because you’re attempting to impose your morality on another country. If you don’t agree with someone’s morals, it’s usually better to talk to them and try and find common ground than it is to simply shut them out. But if you and your allies within that country are within agreement, and your allies think a boycott’s a good idea, then it may be worth giving a try.

So should I participate in travel boycotts?

The answer to this, I’m sorry to say, is annoyingly ambivalent: Sure. If you want. In some rare cases. Boycotts just too rarely achieve that rare combination of effectiveness and legitimacy to be worthwhile. Some excellent ethical travel sites like Responsible Travel don’t advocate travel boycotts except in rare exceptions like Burma. Philosopher Peter Singer told Traveller.com.au of travel boycotts:

“A boycott may be one way of getting some leverage on [political issues] when nothing else seems to work. But I don’t think that there is a general obligation to boycott all countries that are doing something unethical.”

The reason, he said, is because boycotts are only really effective when they’re accompanied by a public campaign. And it’s worth noting that there’s no such thing as a totally ethical country. You should definitely notboycott a country that there’s not already an organized boycott against unless you want to undertake the gigantic effort of organizing the boycott yourself. And in all honesty, there may well be much better ways of pushing your agenda politically than through a boycott: frequently, you may be able to push your government to act instead.

Boycotts really only make sense when they’re an attempt to undermine your government’s action: in South Africa and Israel, the US Government has acted in response to perceived geopolitical interests rather than in response to human rights standards, so those places make sense to organize boycotts around. In North Carolina, Indiana, and other states that have enacted anti-LGBT laws, the boycotts are in response to actions by the government itself. In these cases, participating in boycotts may be the just and right thing to do.

That said, there are totally legitimate arguments for not participating in boycotts, from supporting locals who may be unfairly harmed by a boycott, to simply pursuing other forms of protest and resistance that you believe would be more effective. Paul Simon’s breach of the UN-approved cultural boycott of South Africa during the making of his album Gracelandwas extremely controversial, but in the end, he used the breach to give an international platform to black South African musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Miriam Makeba. While it may not personally have been my choice — and indeed was not the choice of many activist musicians, from Springsteen to Bono to Queen — it is conceivably justifiable.

It’s worth noting, though, that Paul Simon’s breach was at least thought-out and intentional. He didn’t simply ignore the cultural boycott for personal profit: he attempted to make things better for South African musicians. So if there’s a movement that you find yourself aligned with, and they are calling for a travel boycott to a country you want to visit, you certainly may decide to go anyway, but going will only really be justified if you engage in some other political act.

In the end, the only real sin, if you believe something wrong is being done, is silence. If you feel your voice is best heard through a boycott, go for it. If you feel you can speak out in a better way, feel free to do that instead. Just don’t do nothing.

Featured Photo: Pierre (Rennes)

How do I balance being a feminist with respecting other cultures?

Q: When visiting a country that has a culture that represses women, how far do you go in respecting their culture when visiting? Covering my head and shoulders seems okay. But I have a friend whose husband called out a waiter in India for asking him what she wanted to order when she was perfectly capable of answering for herself. That seems awesome to me but may have been offensive to them. Where’s the line?

Sincerely,
Yes Always to Solidarity with Kickass Women in Eastern & Extremist Nations

That’s a really great question, YASKWEEN. I have opinions, but I am also a dude, and as such, am at risk of mansplaining. So it seems worthwhile to ask a few women who either travel or live in more patriarchal cultures what they think before offering up my own dudepinion.

On cultures that repress women:

When we think of the most oppressive society towards women, we probably think of a country like Saudi Arabia. Sydney Meredith, the travel blogger behind Passports & Prose, currently lives in Saudi Arabia told me she doesn’t love equating “repressing women” with “covering your head and shoulders,” as many Muslim women consider it a personal religious choice to wear the hijab, and not something that’s imposed upon them by men. In regards to wearing it as a traveler, she says:

“I remember visiting historic churches in Spain and France during a trip in high school and the women were asked to cover their shoulders. Do I consider Spain and France ‘repressive?’ No. I was just respecting someone’s wishes.”

She also warns against developing a sense of superiority:

“I mean, aren’t women repressed everywhere? …The US is among only 2 other countries in the world who do not pay pregnant women who take time off from work.  We were only allowed to vote just a 100 years ago.”

On “calling people out”:

Traveler Sarah Lewis says it usually comes down to reading the situation, and points out there may be alternatives to “calling out” someone that are more effective.

“I feel like in that one specific situation, I would try not to be rude about it, especially at first, because the waiter was just doing what he considers to be polite in his particular culture in his line of work. As a server in the US, I’ve seen men order for women, so for some people that type of thing is still traditional, even in less conservative countries. If he addressed a man I was with rather than myself, I would probably just answer the questions and not necessarily “correct” him per se. (Similar to how in Japan, the server always talks to the Asian-looking person. You correct them not by calling them out, but by just responding in Japanese, and eventually they realize they can talk to you.)”

What’s important, then, is trying to gauge intent. She adds:

“However, if he continued or was being obviously rude to me, that would be another thing entirely, and I think that’s where the ‘line’ sort of starts. If a person is doing something that, even in his culture, would be rude (such as catcalling or harassment), that would not be tolerated.”

On the balancing idealism with safety and comfort:

My friend Nandika Kumari is an Indian human rights activist, and she says this regarding the clothes issue:

“The class divide in India often means that urban girls/women from the upper classes will usually dress like any other American twenty year old. However, this is a very small number of people. Most women in India will dress as per their cultural traditions (which are often conservative)… The one rule I’ve always followed is to be 100% comfortable with myself. This also means that in a place where I am likely to get stares if I wear shorts, I will make the functional decision to wear something more conservative so I don’t have to get into arguments with creepy men every 10 steps.”

In regards to the what visitors should do, she adds:

“If someone is just on holiday it probably makes sense to dress close to the way most women in the area are dressed simply to reduce chances of harassment (I know how that sounds). A dress code is only likely to be enforced in religious places. Everywhere else, you are free to dress the way you like. If a woman feels comfortable wearing a dress in an Indian market, then please go ahead and do it. The culture of trying to control women’s behaviour doesn’t need encouragement. Seeing a western woman in different clothing may actually do some good.”

She also noted, “This is India, where you won’t get a death threat for pushing cultural boundaries.” This doesn’t hold true for every country, however, and there are other places where pushing the envelope may be a much more dangerous thing to do. Sarah Lewis adds:

“If something isn’t exactly rude in their culture, but I feel uncomfortable with it, I would probably say something, although again, depending on my level of comfort, I would probably in varying degrees attempt to be sensitive to the culture and not aim to immediately embarrass the person (unless I was really in danger or in a bad situation).”

And, of course, some mansplaining.

Okay, so this isn’t technically mansplaining: I don’t really know what it’s like to travel as a woman, and I won’t pretend to. But I have come across similar situations where something happens in a culture I’m visiting that clashes with my own personal values. A quick story:

When I was working a journalism internship at an English-languge newspaper in China, I really wanted our editors to cover issues like human rights. My bosses had to worry about government censors, so they weren’t really on board with taking editorial advice from an uppity 22-year-old foreigner. I pushed them on it, and all it did was alienate me from my bosses, to the point where I wasn’t being given any work. Towards the end of the internship, I was grabbing drinks with a British journalist who’d worked in China for years. I bitched to him about the Chinese journalists, calling them cowards.

“That’s not been my experience of Chinese journalists,” he said. “I’ve found them to be quite brave.”

I asked how. He said, “You’ve been here what, two months? You need to get to know the system better before you can attack it. These journalists are quite subversive, but they have to be more subtle in their attacks than a British or American could be. They don’t seek to topple anything, just to chip away. Keep in mind very few western journalists are actually risking their necks when they go to work every day.”

He went on to tell me how Chinese journalists would frequently undermine government-mandated stories through the subtle use of puns. For example, when the government wanted to show off their expensive new language-teaching program (which was incredible ineffective), the paper’s editors titled the piece, “GOVERNMENT CREATES ARMY OF CUNNING LINGUISTS.” This effective pun-usage has become so pervasive among Chinese dissidents that censors in China have actually banned the use of puns and idioms.

The lesson of that internship for me was that while the causes I was fighting for were just the world over, the tools for fighting for them changed from place to place depending on the context. It’s easy to fall prey to the whole “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail” trap, and for a lot of Westerners, becoming confrontational over small or large injustices is our hammer.

Your impulse to resist misogyny is always a good one, YASKWEEN, but you may simply not have the localized knowledge to resist it effectively. Which is fine. It creates an opportunity to learn and listen. The best thing you can do if you want to support feminists in the area you’re visiting is to ask them how you can best support them. Some may say money. Some may say political support from your government. Some may say “call out the waiter when he ignores you to talk to your husband.” Some may say, “definitely don’t call out the waiter.” The response will change based on the place you’re in and even on whom you’re talking to.

That said, respect cuts both ways. If you are trying to treat another culture with respect, you’re allowed to insist they treat you with respect as well.

Writer’s note: could we all  take a second to appreciate how far I came in a single week with my anonymous questioner acronyms? Last week, I dubbed my questioner “TUTBFTS.” This week, I pulled off motherfucking YASKWEEN. At this exponential rate of improvement, I’ll be a billionaire in a goddamn MONTH.

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Featured image by David Sorich.

A basic guide to low carbon emissions travel

THE BIGGEST ETHICAL CONCERN confronting today’s traveler is how to still see the world without leaving environmental destruction in your wake. This is, to be totally honest, a pretty impossible task — to get to most places on a normal schedule, you have to use some sort of carbon-emitting means of locomotion, and that in itself is contributing to man-made climate change. Presumably, you’ve already thought about this, and have decided that the benefit of traveling outweighs the negative impact of the emissions. It’s cool, I’ve done the same thing a bunch of times, and am in no place to judge.

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve decided you want to travel somewhere, and want to get there as green as you can. Congrats! The fact that you didn’t just go blundering out into the world with no consideration of the environment around you means you’re already less of a dick than most people. Here are the basics.

Zero-Emissions Travel

Photo:  Peter

Photo: Peter

This may seem blindingly obvious, but it’s worth noting that the best way to get from Point A to Point B in terms of low carbon emissions is by going the non-motorized route. There’s no such thing, incidentally, as zero-emissions travel, because you’re a carbon-emitting organism, and as such, nothing you do is zero-emissions. Presumably, you also fart, and farts contain methane, which is also a greenhouse gas. So the best thing you could do for the environment is to… well, not exist. But let’s assume you’ve rejected that option, and want to keep the emissions as close to zero as possible.

Your options tend to be slow, labor-intensive, expensive, or some mix of the three, and they’re fairly obvious — in the no-vehicle camp you’ve got walking or running, in the very-small vehicle camp you’ve got cross-country skiing, skating, and skateboarding, and in the larger vehicle camp you have bicycles, recumbent bicycles, tricycles, rickshaw cycles, and velomobiles. You also have water-based and sky-based forms of transportation, such as kayaks, canoes and sailboats for the former, and pedal-powered airplanes and helicopters for the latter.

The drawbacks for these forms of travel are obvious — the quicker ones tend to be pretty expensive, and the slower ones are, well, super slow, and limit your options significantly. There is a movement for this type of travel, though. It’s called slow travel. Slow travel is its own philosophy: not only does it focus on low emissions, but it also aims to reduce the element of rush from the travel experience, while emphasizing enjoyment and connection to locals and patronage of small local hotels and businesses.

Even if you don’t have a lot of time for, say, a slow travel trip around Europe, taking a walk or a bike ride is a pretty great way of seeing the area immediately around you. On top of that, walking has been proven to be good not only for your physical health, but for your emotional and mental health and for spurring creativity. So if you have the time — or have something particularly cool within walking or biking distance — this is absolutely a cool and legit way to travel.

Motorized travel

Okay. You’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided not to walk. What are your best options for low-emissions? Fortunately, the Union of Concerned Scientists has done some research in this field, and has found that the greenest mode of travel is…

Drum roll…

Photo:  joshr0ckx

Photo: joshr0ckx

Motorcoaches. Yup. Taking a Megabus, Greyhound or BoltBus is the most eco-friendly (and usually the cheapest) way of getting from Point A to Point B.

You might have been expecting something along the lines of a motorcycle or a small car to be the answer here, but the UCS’s reason for saying motorcoaches have the lowest carbon emissions is simple: busses split their emissions among a lot of people. So yes, a bus with 30 people on it will emit a lot more than a car, but it will emit a hell of a lot less than 30 cars.

The best of the rest

After motorcoaches, your options vary depending on how many people you’re traveling with, how far you’re traveling, and what type of vehicle you’re traveling in. Taking a train is usually the best form of travel otherwise, especially if the train is powered by electricity (which is common in some parts of the world, but not in the US outside of the Northeast Corridor).

When you’re driving by car, you cut your emissions every time you add a new person into the vehicle with you. So doing a one man (or woman) road trip is going to have about four times higher emissions than traveling with three other people. Buddy road trips are better anyway. It also helps to plan your trips so that you’re not going to be spending much time in traffic. Idling in traffic is a great way to pump poison in the atmosphere while not getting anywhere.

For cars, it also matters what type of car you use. Obviously, fuel-efficient cars, hybrids, and electric cars are the best, and obviously, gas guzzlers are the worst. Gas guzzlers, however, are not the most fuel-inefficient form of travel in every circumstance. That honor belongs to the first-class flight. The rationale behind this is that first class seats take up space that may otherwise have fit two or three other people. Flights aren’t eco-friendly regardless, but by taking up space that another person could have sat in, you’re effectively doubling your personal emissions.

The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a tremendously useful little chart breaking down what the most efficient mode of travel is based on your circumstances (specifically, based on the distance you are going and the number of people you are traveling with).

This graphic was made by the  UCSUSA .

This graphic was made by the UCSUSA.

You can check out the full report here.

What about motorcycles?

Photo:  Phlubdr

Photo: Phlubdr

UCS didn’t include motorcycles in their analysis because they are a ridiculous way to travel, especially if you have more luggage than a Camelbak1. Your instinct may be that, because motorcycles have more fuel efficiency, that they’re a really great way to get around. While it’s true that they’re more fuel-efficient, Mythbusters proved that they’re not particularly better than cars because they tend to release a lot of other harmful particulates, like the ones that cause smog, hydrocarbons, and carbon monoxide. Mythbuster Adam Savage says: “At best, it’s a wash. Motorcycles are just as bad for the environment as cars. At worst, they’re far worse.”

I personally don’t recommend riding motorcycles because a) they are wildly impractical for hauling luggage, and b) they’re suicide machines. I mean, have you seen the highways lately? They’re totally jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.

Tips for air travel

Flight isn’t ever the best way to get around, but it’s also not always the worst. Flying economy is, if you’re going long distances by yourself, a better choice than taking a car. And on top of this, there are ways to lower your emissions as much as possible. The UCS suggests doing the following to keep your flight emissions down:

  1. Fly economy. If you have to fly, just suck it up and fly cramped. Your discomfort is good for the environment. If you want to get really serious about it, some airlines offer more economy seats than others on the same type of plane. Use these airlines when you can. Southwest and JetBlue both offer economy-only flights, and these are better to take from an environmental perspective2.

  2. Fly non-stop. You’re adding to your total emissions by zig-zagging. If you have to connect, try and make it as straight a line as possible. Don’t, in other words, go Chicago-Atlanta-New York when you can go Chicago-Cleveland-New York.

  3. Fly at airports that aren’t super congested. Much like driving in traffic, busy airports mean more airlines taxi-ing on the tarmac, which means more idling emissions. Go to less-used airports to limit the congestion.

How about offsets?

No, this is not an offset. Photo:  Ekke

No, this is not an offset. Photo: Ekke

Okay, so you’ve decided to go somewhere, and you’ve decided to go by plane. Is there a way you can maybe counteract some of those carbon emissions?

The short answer is yes: Carbon offsets are basically programs you can invest in that absorb carbon or other greenhouse gases in some way shape or form. Some of the programs are geared towards capturing cow farts. I’m not kidding about that. Others simply plant trees, while others still are basically simple investments in renewable energy (wind and solar) companies. 

The longer answer is more complicated. Lots of environmentalist sites don’t advocate the use of carbon offsets because they see them as a kind of half-assed attempt to make ourselves feel better about our excessive carbon emissions. The truth likely lies somewhere in between: we should try to lower our carbon emissions on an individual and collective level, but carbon offsets are also worthy of our investment.

If you’re looking to offset your flights with a carbon offset, you need to shop around. Not all carbon offsets are created equal. But respected Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki recommends the Gold Standard as having the highest standards for offset quality. Suzuki also put together a guide for buying offsets which is worth checking out.

I also personally like Stand for Trees. They focus on conserving forests and communities that might other be clearcut or destroyed, thus depriving the world of a very natural way of absorbing carbon. They’re also spectacularly easy to use, and are pretty affordable as well.

In order to figure out how much carbon you’re dumping into the atmosphere by traveling, visit this travel carbon calculator, enter in your info, and it will give you a number. You can then buy carbon offsets that are equal or greater to that number and your damage has (theoretically) been offset.

Other solutions

On an individual level, the best thing you can do to lower your total travel emissions is to quite simply travel less, and to only travel by plane when totally necessary. Here are a couple more ideas:

  1. If you own a small business, or have the say over these types of things, try and do videoconferencing instead of actual conferences as much as you possibly can. If you don’t have control over this type of thing, then maybe lobby your bosses for it. Business travel is becoming less essential in the age of the internet, and if you can make cuts, you should make cuts.

  2. Set aside a year or two and spend zero time on a plane. Treat your hometown and the area around it as a tourist destination. Bike around one weekend. Try local restaurants and bars. Visit the touristy things you’ve never visited before. Learn about the history. Treat your home like it’s Paris. Mercifully, for most of the world, air travel is still a luxury, which means that this is something that you, as a flying member of the privileged few, have an opportunity to make a big impact in. You can fly less while traveling the same amount.

It’s worth noting, however, that while individual efforts to lower carbon emissions are worth making, they are ultimately insufficient to adequately address the problem of climate change. The solution to climate change is going to have to be a collective one. If you want to fight climate change, here are some really solid non-profits you can support:

On top of that, if you really care about this issue, get involved! Go protest something! Travel and environmentalism go hand in hand: if you love seeing the world, you should fight to keep it from being destroyed.

Featured  Photo: Everett Taasevigen

What are the best resources for ethical travelers?

Q: Besides your column and asking people who live where you are traveling, what is your favorite source of information about how to avoid travel dickishness?

Sincerely,
Trying to Undermine This Blog From The Start

Seriously, TUTBFTS? Simultaneously sending my brand new readers away from me immediately and demonstrating my incompetence at inventing clever name acronyms? Yeesh. I promise I’ll get better at the acronyms. I was trying to come up with something clever, but I liked the sound of TUTBFTS (which I’m saying in my head as “Tutbuftees”), so I’m rolling with it.

Okay, that’s a fair question, Tutbuftees, and it’s a good one for me to start this column off with. A large part of the reason I’m writing Don’t be a Dick is because there isn’t a really solid one-stop shop for ethical travelers. There are a lot of really great resources and websites, but most of them focus on really specific niches, or are overly academic, or are insanely broad and cover millions of things other than ethical travel, or are just booking sites. So hopefully, the answer to your question will very shortly be, “ME. I’M THE BEST.”

But this is my first column, so this site isn’t really fleshed out yet, and as such, I have no problem giving you a few good resources in your quest against dickishness that will lead you away from me.

The best site

My favorite anti-dick travel website is Ethical Traveler. They are a small NGO based out of California that organizes small group tours and, on a yearly basis, releases the 10 most ethical destinations in the world. They calculate these locations by examining all of the world’s developing countries, and by ranking them in four categories: environmental protection, social welfare, human rights, and animal welfare. This report is designed to use the economic power of the tourism industry to encourage good behavior. Check it out. The other thing they offer that’s neat is this simple article, 13 tips for the accidental ambassador, which in a few hundred words renders my entire website moot. Read it before going anywhere.

The best of the rest

After that, I have either very little or far too much to offer… as it is, there are thousands of sites that sell or promote ethical, eco-friendly tours, and there are a few blogs like this one that sit abandoned on the internet like horrifying ghosts of website future.

Academic research on ethical and sustainable travel has (justifiably) focused more on governments, businesses, and systems than on the ethics of the individual traveler. This means it’s easy enough to find sites that book environmentally-friendly tours, or that target travel industry experts who want to encourage and promote more sustainable forms of travel. But, while there’s plenty of writing geared towards the ethical choices of the individual traveler, those articles tend to be spread out over publications, and aren’t necessarily to be found in a single place. That said, I’ll give two more sites that are worth looking at:

  1. The king of traveler-geared ethical travel sites is Ron Mader, who runs the genuinely old-school travel site Planeta. There’s a lot of really cool stuff there, but the site is literally old enough to drink, and it can be jarring for the modern web user to navigate.

  2. Much of the best ethical travel info is found on social media. My favorite is the Responsible Travel & Tourism Collective. They run a solid site, but the highlight of the project is their weekly Twitter chat (Wednesdays at 6 p.m. GMT using #RTTC), which takes on different issues facing the responsible travel community, and always features a pretty interesting conversation from pretty interesting people on how not to be a terrible dick while traveling.

The best method

Most ethical/responsible travel sites are geared towards environmentalism and ecotourism. Which is fair: this is the biggest issue facing the travel world (and, you know, humanity) today. But there are smaller questions of etiquette and cultural sensitivity that aren’t covered on these sites, and which you have to find by simply doing your research. Before going on a trip, just read up on the stuff you plan on doing.

For example: holding a baby tiger at a Thailand “Tiger Temple,” sounds insanely cute, right? Right. But also, the temples are absolutely terrible for the tigers. That’s literally the first article that comes up when you type “Tiger Temple Thailand” into Google. Point being, you can find the information if you take the time to look for it.

Of course, Tutbuftees, you also totally showed me up in my first column by suggesting what is literally the best option before I could suggest it myself: asking people who live where you are traveling. Damn you for undermining me. Communication is key, and the truth is, you’re not always going to know what’s going to be offensive when you enter a new culture. My advice is, when in doubt, ask, and when not in doubt, maybe consider giving doubt a try.

Simply and obviously put, just don’t be a dick. All you can do is be thoughtful, respectful, and curious. Sometimes you will accidentally do something that’s not cool*. What makes you a dick or not is if you get defensive, mean, shitty, or refuse to learn from your mistake. Travel is a learning process. Learning, by necessity, means failing from time to time.

Fortunately, there’s a world of information out there for the thoughtful traveler. I, your humble writer, plan on compiling the best of that information here on this site3. I hope that you’ll find it both engaging and entertaining. Becoming a better person is fun, and becoming a better person through travel is just the best.

Featured photo: JFXie

*Case in point: While in Iceland, I accidentally ate whale. This is not something that’s particularly okay, or that I’m particularly okay with. I didn’t know it was whale until after I ate it, I felt like a bit of an asshole, and then I decided to maybe ask for a translation of unfamiliar words next time, rather than just pointing at something that looked tasty and then unthinkingly sliding it down my dumb gullet while wondering why this steak tasted so fishy.

I'm not ashamed of my "pointless" degree or my student loan debt

The first time I caught shit because of my master's degree was two months before I'd even started it. I'd taken the opportunity before going to school to quit my job early and travel for about a month. I'd taken trains from Cincinnati to Seattle, and decided to go visit my buddy in Vancouver before continuing on to California. On the way back into the country, a border guard stopped me.

"Occupation," he asked, leafing through my passport and not looking at me.

"Student," I said.

"Where?"

"The London School of Economics." He looked up at me at this point.

"You studying economics?"

"No, human rights."

He smirked. "Is that even a thing?"

"Human rights? Yeah. It's a thing." 

At the time, I felt a vague sense of shame — human rights are a particularly bleeding heart thing to be studying, and I suspected that it was not the best use of my time or money (I also didn’t totally grasp, at the time, the border patrol’s 95 year history of being thuggish white supremacist dirtbags). So when I caught shade about it for most of the next year, I shrugged as if to say, "Yeah, you're right. It's ridiculous."

"Pointless degrees"

Since graduating in 2009, many of my friends have expressed regret at their choice of degree. Philosophy, English, History, Women's studies -- all liberal arts degrees that did not translate directly into specific career skills, all "useless" when it came to entering the job market post-college. It was made worse by the economy we found ourselves in. Most of us had to take on crap jobs and live at home, and it's easy during those nights of self-loathing in your childhood bedroom to blame your luck on a dumb choice of major.

I had even less of an excuse than that, because I graduated into a terrible economy, but without any student debt. My parents had helped me with undergrad. But then I went to grad school and racked up $70 grand in student loan debt in the worst economy in nearly a century to get a degree in Human Rights.

The move, most would agree, was a dumb one. At the time, I would've done about anything to get myself out of Cincinnati, so it's safe to say that the degree was a shot in the dark. But I do not regret it. Why?

Most careers don't give a shit about your education anyway.

I graduated undergrad with a career-oriented degree in Journalism. It was my bad luck that the industry was collapsing at the exact time I graduated, but it was not a degree most would've thought of as "silly." It taught me a code of professional ethics, tactics and techniques, and a set of basic skills that I could apply to a very specific career. It also helped me foster a set of connections with both professors, peers, and potential future employers. There was nothing in my degree that wasn't useful.

I have since learned that I did not really need a degree to go into journalism. Yes -- the jobs weren't there for even seasoned professionals in 2009. But had I graduated 10 years earlier, I could have just as easily gone to my hometown newspaper with some writing samples and gotten a shit job as a copywriter for the obituaries page. I could've used the four years I spent in college instead learning the trade. I could've worked my way up in the ranks of my local paper. Further down the road, I could've leveraged that into work at a national paper.

The end result wouldn't have been much different. 

When I did finally graduate college, I learned that my degree was more often a tick mark in my favor than it was a deciding factor in getting me a job. What got me every job I've had since graduation was a) my past experience, and b) the work I presented to the employer.

There are obviously exceptions to this rule -- degrees are not optional for doctors, lawyers, educators. But for a lot of us -- myself included -- they aren't essential. And it may have even been better to forego college and to get a foot in the door before the economy tanked. So the question becomes this: Why seek out an education if you can get to the same place without spending the money?

Education is for your sake, not for the economy’s.

The cliche about liberal arts training is that it teaches you not what to think, but how to think. In my journalism degree, the things I learned were mostly hard and fast rules -- sets of professional ethics, rules of grammar and style, etc. It was a degree that consisted more of job training exercises rather than serious engagement with a field of thought. It was, ironically, primarily in my nonessential electives that I actually had my ways of thinking challenged.

In my Human Rights degree, however, I was brought in on an academic conversation. Our professor started our degree by writing "What are human rights?" on the board, and by the end of the class, had managed to dismantle our conceptions of what counted as a "human," and what counted as "rights."

What followed was basically a year of undermining our arguments about the fundamental dignity of being a human. It was a pretty emotionally exhausting thing to be studying. But by subjecting us to this ringer, it made us evaluate what we believed, shore up those beliefs, and learn how to argue them. Of the people who were in my program, two now work for the UN High Commission on Refugees, one is a fiery and eloquent Palestinian journalist, one is a fiery and eloquent American journalist, one worked in the Obama White House, one is a Human Rights lawyer in Pakistan, and a number of others have started their own businesses or non-profits. 

Of the people I knew in my journalism degree, relatively few are still working in the field -- most are still nibbling at its fringes by working as bloggers, advertisers, or "social media gurus," (which, 90% of the time, means they were hired by people who don't know how to use Facebook).

What's more is that I got an immense amount of personal satisfaction out of my human rights degree. I had to become smarter to keep up with my classmates. I had to become more compassionate. I had to develop my sense of humor to survive some of the bleak conversations we had to discuss on a daily basis. But when I graduated, I leveraged my thesis into a non-profit job. It opened up a world that I had simply never even thought about prior to my degree. And hey, look! I met my wife.

Contrary to everyone else’s experience, my “practical” degree ended up serving me just as well as my friends’ history and philosophy degrees served them in that it got me zero jobs. My “useless” master’s has put me on an actual career trajectory.

And it left me with a lot of debt. That, I'm told, is bad. About that:

Student debt sucks. It is not a good reason to feel ashamed.

When my parents graduated college in the early 80's, they were able to pay their tuition by working summer jobs. If your parents couldn't pay for your college back then, you could probably make up the difference with scholarships by working on campus. If you really, really had to you could take out student loans.

When I went into college in 2005, it was a different world. There were some in-state schools that I could get for under $10,000 per year, but I wanted pretty desperately to get out of Ohio -- that would've cost me a minimum of $15,000 per year. Some colleges were up in the $30,000's. This was seen as ridiculous. 

Now, 12 years later, the tuition (with room and board) at a high-end school like Harvard is $63,000. Ohio State (which would've been in-state for me) is $25,000. Out-of-state it would be $44,000. My alma mater, Penn State, is now $45,000.

This is not affordable for most people. I lucked out in having parents that could cover me, but if I'd been 10 years younger, even if they'd saved in the same way, they would've been able to cover a much lower percentage of my schooling. If you are willing to accept that some kids want to get the fuck out of their home state (with good reason), and if you don't accept that, just because a kid has poor parents, that they shouldn't be able to go to the school of their choice, then you see the obvious problem here. A student loan is basically a bet on your future, and while it's appalling that it's a bet that has to be made, it's understandable that any young kid would take that bet.

Now: my student loan is different. I chose this "useless" degree after the fact. It was not because my parents were poor. Should I feel ashamed?

Still no. 

The reason is simple. Our economy in the United States has failed to care for its students. It has failed to provide affordable opportunities for them. It has failed to provide affordable education to its young people. That is the real reason for shame here -- instead of investing in its future, our country has instead chosen to stack the deck in the favor of the already-rich and already-old. Our government is like the opposite of Robin Hood. 

In his excellent book, Debt: The First 5000 Years, radical anthropologist David Graeber wrote:

For me, this is exactly what’s so pernicious about the morality of debt: the way that financial imperatives constantly try to reduce us all, despite ourselves, to the equivalent of pillagers, eyeing the world simply for what can be turned into money — and then tell us that it’s only those who are willing to see the world as pillagers who deserve access to the resources required to pursue anything in life other than money. It introduces moral perversions on almost every level. (“Cancel all student loan debt? But that would be unfair to all those people who struggled for years to pay back their student loans!” Let me assure the reader that, as someone who struggled for years to pay back his student loans and finally did so, this argument makes about as much sense as saying it would be “unfair” to a mugging victim not to mug their neighbors too.)
— David Graeber

I knew what I was doing when I took out my loan, and I will accept the financial consequences that comes with having a lot of student loan debt. Unless I want to cripple my ability to have any fun at all for 10 years, this means paying an Income-Based Rate for 25 years. After 25 years, the balance will be forgiven, assuming the government keeps to its word, which… yeah, fingers crossed. By the time it’s paid off, my daughter will be going to college. And, since I won’t have been saving an additional $200-500 a month for the past 25 years, I will likely take out a loan in my name for her to go to school. And when that time is up, I will likely be dead.

Unless I suddenly make a lot of money, this is what's going to happen. It's going to suck. But my only alternative is to not live the life I want to live, to not give my daughter the life she wants to live. And I refuse to feel like a leech or a failure for choosing myself and my family over capitulating to a failed system.

Our economy does not reflect our values at all. 

A society that views the study of the basic dignity of humanity as "pointless" is a society that doesn't have its values in order. It's the same society that pays my sister -- a social worker who is genuinely saving lives -- kinda crap wages, while paying people with meaningless positions that contribute basically nothing to the world (like the entire fields of advertising and marketing) insane amounts of money. 

This is not a new state of things. In John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, Cannery Row, the character Doc says:

“It has always seemed strange to me,” said Doc. “The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
— John Steinbeck

This state of things has extended to the seat of the Presidency -- who would want to spend time around someone like Donald Trump? What moments of happiness or human warmth could you possibly derive from his company? And yet those traits that make him a repellent person are what's seen as "success" in the eyes of many Americans. 

I do not particularly want to buy into that definition of success. If that is what success looks like, let me be a failure. And if the system is designed to take the boot off his coattails and place it firmly on my throat, so be it — I can be a realist. I can deal with it. But do not expect me to feel shame at having the boot at my throat. I will not look at the violence being inflicted on myself and my generation and search for how it is that I am to blame. 

Featured Photo by Rafael Gonzalez. This article was originally published in 2017, and has been updated slightly in January of 2019.

How my search for Irish ancestors led to Jack the Ripper

Mary Jane Kelly was born in Limerick around 1863 and died in London's East End in 1888. Everything in between is vague. What little we know about her comes from police interviews with the people who knew her -- she'd told men she lived with that she was born in Limerick, then she moved to Wales, then she became a prostitute in London's ritzier West End, then she briefly lived in France with a man, then she ended up in Victorian London's much scarier East End.

On November 8th, she went out for the night, got drunk, and eventually retired to her tiny room in Miller's Court, on "the worst street in London." This final night of her life has been dissected a million different ways by professionals and amateurs. What we know is this: at 10:45 in the morning on November 9th, Kelly's landlord knocked on her door to collect rent. She didn't answer, so he went in, and found her body, literally ripped apart.

Mary Jane Kelly was the final and most gruesome victim of the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Her mutilated corpse became the subject of the first-ever crime scene photograph. She became far more famous in her brutal death than she possibly could have in life.

Irish refugees

My Irish ancestors came to the US in spurts -- the first of them came during the potato famine in the 1840s, when the choice was to either catch a boat to America or starve. The rest of them trickled in over the next 60 years. Almost all of them ended up in New York and New Jersey. My grandfather was born poor in Newark. His father died of a heart attack when he was only 14, and then shortly afterwards, his older brother was killed in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

My Grandpa was a rags-to-riches story. He worked his way up from janitor to an executive at General Electric. He met my grandmother and took her on dates to the Jersey Shore. When his work transferred him to Cincinnati, Ohio, he settled there, where his daughter, my mom, met my dad.

Heritage was not an emphasis in my family. We were told we were Americans, and since both of my grandfathers were self-made men, our history was that of the American dream. Our story started when our ancestors set foot on America's shores. But this wasn't a history that was particularly deep -- the stories only went back a couple of generations, and they were all tales of success and triumph. I was an awkward, lazy, and angry teenager -- I couldn't relate to tales of hard work and success. These people who'd conquered life did not feel like ancestors of mine.

There were moments when my grandfather would seem to show a deeper nostalgia, and it was when he was singing. He had a beautiful bass voice, and on St. Patrick's Day, he would drink Guinness and sing "Galway Bay" and jokey Irish folk songs. His voice was slow, soft, and melancholy. He had jowls, and they would flap comfortingly when he shook his head with each note. The sound came from some place deeper and sadder. I was hooked on this grandfather -- he was so much more human than the one who'd conquered poverty and had risen above.

Living on the Ripper's turf

In 2011, I moved to London to go to grad school. When selecting housing, I more or less flipped a coin, and ended up in Lilian Knowles Student Housing in London's East End. I knew a bit about the East End from one of my favorite books, Alan Moore's From Hell, a comic book about the Jack the Ripper murders, and I was delighted to see that I was smack dab in the middle of Jack's territory. I'd read about pubs like the Ten Bells, and the church right around the corner had featured heavily in the book.

My kitchen at Lilian Knowles was situated directly over the street, and every day, tour groups would walk by while I was cooking my dinner. The guides would always be wearing heavy top hats and holding lanterns. They'd park outside my window and start talking:

"THIS, my friends, was once 'the most dangerous street in London.' Right here we have what used to be known as 'The Providence Row Night Refuge,' which was once a place for the destitute women and children of Whitechapel to stay. Mary Jane Kelly herself lived here briefly while working for the nuns. The Refuge served the community until 1999, when it was converted to housing for a different class of poor people: students."

This was a laugh line. The tourists would inevitably look up at me, in my shabby clothes, as they laughed.

Lilian Knowles, formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge. My kitchen was the window directly under the “Women” sign. Photo by  Jim Linwood

Lilian Knowles, formerly the Providence Row Night Refuge. My kitchen was the window directly under the “Women” sign. Photo by Jim Linwood

“If you turn around,” the guide would continue, “you will see a fenced off alley way. This, my dear friends, is no longer open to tourists. This alley leads to what was once Miller’s Court, where Mary Jane Kelly would meet her grisly end.”

I was shocked the first time I heard this. That? That was a boring alley next to a car park. I walked over later and craned my neck, trying to see some old remnant of Miller’s Court, but there wasn’t much to look at. So I moved on.

MARY JANE KELLY AND ME.

While I was living in London, I decided to do some family research. A few years before, my grandfather told me that he’d never found out where his brother was buried. So I went online and found it almost immediately: he was buried in Luxembourg. By the time I’d made it to London, I knew my grandpa wasn’t going to ever get to the tomb of his brother, so I caught a train to Luxembourg and visited it myself.

At my uncle's tomb.

At my uncle's tomb.

When I got home, I showed some pictures to my grandfather, who started telling me more about his family — how his brother had been a troublemaker, had gotten into trouble with the law, and the judge had told him the choice was enlisting in the Army or going to jail.

After that, loops started closing, and I couldn’t stop learning about my family. I didn’t even have to look — it fell right into my lap. First, at my housing in London, in the place where Mary Jane Kelly once lived, I met and fell in love with a girl from New Jersey. She’d grown up blocks away from the place where my grandparents went on their first date on the Jersey Shore.

We eventually moved back and got married. My wife, who works in politics, got focused on healthcare in New Jersey. My grandmother told me that my great-great aunt Rose had been one of the first female doctors in the state of New Jersey, and had worked on Ellis Island. She told me that her family had long been active in the state’s Democratic party, and that there was the odd political radical in my lineage. I opened an Ancestry account and started piecing together my old family tree. I talked to my Grandpa, shortly before he died, and he named as many relatives as he could remember. I tried to take the history back centuries, but it was not particularly easy, as Irish people tended to name their kids the same five things. I gave up the hope that I’d discover that I was the great-great-great-great grandson of George Washington, but I was miffed to discover that I wasn’t related to anyone famous at all.

With one possible exception — Grandpa had been related, a couple generations back, to a family by the name of Kelly. Every third person in Ireland, at the time, seemed to be named Kelly, so tracing them was next to impossible, but as far as I could tell, the Kelly’s had left Ireland in the late 1860’s, early 1870’s for either Britain or the US. The ones that came to the US would end up as my direct descendants. The ones that went to the UK — who knows where they ended up? But they did have a daughter, born in 1862, who went off Ancestry’s record books in the 1870’s. Her name was Mary J. Kelly.

THE VIOLENCE THAT BROUGHT US TO AMERICA

The Irish people I’ve met don’t recognize the American version of St. Patty’s Day. They’ve called me out for even calling it St. Patty’s Day. And it’s fair — There are 33 million Irish-Americans. There are only 6 million people on the island of Ireland. Most American Irish are so disconnected from their homeland that they know little more about their culture than Catholicism and Guinness.

Most of the fourth or fifth generation immigrants I know have their own American rags-to-riches stories. But as I reached into the past, I found that our immigrant stories were far uglier, far more complex, and far more human than the Gilded Age glitziness I’d been shown in my childhood. The Irish were driven here by poverty and violence, and often met the same even once they’d reached our shores. They starved in Irish famines and fought in American wars.

Mary Jane Kelly is probably not a direct relative of mine. My genealogy skills just aren’t that good, and there were a lot of Mary Kelly’s in 1860’s Ireland. But thousands of my ancestors were just like her. They struggled just as hard, they lived and died in oblivion. Not everyone gets tied to the world’s most famous serial killer. It’s about the last way, I think, any of us would want to achieve immortality.

Most of my family history will be forever hidden. But when my grandpa sang, I could still hear Ireland in his voice. It was older than he was, and in it, there was darkness. It felt like a place I’d been. It felt like home.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Featured photo by Kevin Burkett

Travel changed these 4 people. Then they changed the world.

WHEN I WAS A KID I saw travel as an opportunity for adventure and hedonism. It was a chance to try new things, to learn a bit about the world, to absorb a bit more life. But I did not travel with anything resembling a conscience. Travel was something that was earned through hard work -- it was a reward, it was something the world owed me.

Then, when I was a senior in high school, I went to El Salvador and saw poverty for the first time. Shortly after that, I traveled to Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. I saw shanty towns and starving children. I saw horrors that had been hidden from me in the suburban United States. And I met people in all of these places who were still kind to me. I started questioning things I'd always taken for granted -- the idea that poor people were poor because they were lazy, the idea that people living in poverty were somehow fundamentally different from me -- and my life started to change.

My experience isn't remotely unusual -- it's extremely common for travelers to leave one person and come back another. And a lot of the time, the people that come back end up changing the world. Here are four of them.

George Orwell

Photo:  Monsterspade

Eric Blair was a middle class kid in turn-of-the-century England when his family decided he ought to go serve the Empire in Burma. Blair had an innate sense of fairness, and he began to chafe against the injustices of the imperial system. So he quit and became a writer. From there, he moved back and forth from London to Paris, living in abject squalor in order to better understand poverty. He wrote two influential books describing the life of the poor under the pen name George Orwell -- Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

When Blair went to Spain to cover the Civil War, he put down his pen and picked up a gun. A lifelong socialist, Blair was appalled at the brutality and the propaganda of both the fascists and the Stalinists. This would influence his two greatest known works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. His became the best known voice to speak out against totalitarianism in the 20th century, and his name is basically a catchphrase for anti-totalitarianism today. Who knows what we would have lost if he'd stayed at home?

Che Guevara

Photo:  Vurter

Photo: Vurter

Ernesto Guevara was born into a relatively well-off family in the Argentine city of Rosario. He'd grown up in a left-leaning family, but he himself said that the period in which he became a revolutionary was when he and his friend Alberto Granado took a year to ride a motorcycle through South America. Along the way, he met the continent's outcasts, poor, and indigenous, and he came out of the journey totally changed.

Guevara wrote about his experiences in the seminal travel book The Motorcycle Diaries. He became a leftist revolutionary, and eventually joined a group of anti-imperialist Cuban's led by Fidel Castro. "Che," as he became known (after a popular Argentinian word), would become Castro's right hand man, and would be a major force in converting the nationalist Cuban leader into a full-blown Marxist. Guevara's legacy is checkered at best -- his tactics were brutal, and he became a full-blown executioner when the revolutionaries took Havana. But his face became the face of 20th century rebellion, and the fact that he changed the world is unquestionable.

Siddhartha Gautama

Photo:  Lidealista

Photo: Lidealista

Siddhartha Gautama's early life is the stuff of myth -- he was born around 2600 years ago into a life of luxury. He was a prince, and his father made sure that he was given every luxury imaginable, and was sheltered from even seeing any suffering. But when Siddhartha began traveling beyond the walls of the palace, he began to see suffering -- aging, disease, poverty, and death -- and he became convinced that material wealth wasn't the key to life.

He renounced his birthright as king and he became a wandering monk. One day, while traveling, he sat down underneath a Bodhi tree and meditated until he became enlightened. After that, he was known as the Buddha -- "the Enlightened One." The religion founded around his teaching, Buddhism, is now the world's fourth largest faith.

Malcolm X

Malcolm Little was born into a poor family. His father was murdered by white supremacists when he was young, and Little was shifted around foster homes until he fell into a life of drugs and crime. After being arrested for a robbery, he was sent to jail, where he began to educate himself. He converted to the Nation of Islam, rejected his last name and replaced it with an X, and quickly became the most influential voice for black power in America.

Malcolm X’s early teachings were controversial to say the least. He was a black nationalist, and did not believe in integration or cooperation between the races. He was an unflinching critic of white supremacy, and was often (with some good cause) accused of being a bigot towards white people himself.

It wasn’t until he left the Nation of Islam and went on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, that Malcolm X began to change. On the hajj, he saw people of all races cooperating and treating each other with dignity and respect. And he began to temper some of the anti-white rhetoric (while still furiously denouncing American racism). We unfortunately did not get to see enough of the man he would’ve become after this change — he was murdered by members of the Nation of Islam in 1965.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

How to deal with Trump whiplash

If you're like a lot of Americans, you woke up to the news this morning that last night President Donald Trump delivered his first address to a joint session of congress and managed to sound like someone who was not an enraged, unhinged real-life-version-of-if-Jake-Gyllenhaal's-character-from-Nightcrawler-was-a-successful-landlord. For many news organizations, and indeed, for many every day Americans, Trump tends to be graded on curve. When your ordinary classroom behavior is to tip over all the desks and try to stab the teacher with scissors, managing to simply sit quietly and do some light vandalism to your desk with a pocket knife is a massive improvement, after all. So it is with Trump, who delivered a speech last night, that while very light on substance, was by all accounts more subdued, lighter in tone, and less free associating and off-script jabbing than any speech he's made in the past.

Politics are a fickle thing because people can be fickle, and I have no doubt that there are quite a few party line Republicans out there who have just been begging for this guy to give them a reason to not feel embarrassed to support him. For those people, last night was the confirmation they needed that the ship was on the right course, and I have no doubt we'll see Trump's approval rating climb back up to the mid-to-high 40's soon. That said, if you've been fervently anti-Trump, you've been riding a very powerful wave of support for your resistance from more or less all corners except Trump's most die-hard base up until now. Seeing the tide stem a bit as a few mainstream Republicans get off the worry train and slide back into line with their fellow conservatives could be jarring, so we at Enough 2 Be Dangerous thought it might be useful to remind you that lipstick on a pig, despite being a beautiful shade of patriotic red, is still just lipstick on a pig. Here are a few of the best takes out there this morning:

So, while there's no denying that last night's speech was a massive improvement from a rhetorical standpoint, from the standpoint of content, policy leadership, and actual substantive change, this is still the same ol' Trump who reportedly echoed David Duke in saying that the recent wave of anti-Semitic attacks including the desecration of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia, may have just been "false flag" operations of Jews terrorizing themselves for sympathy. Wow. A cure for Trump whiplash is always a tweet away.

Featured photo by Matt A.J.

How I got over my squeamishness and started eating bugs

"WHAT'D YOU DO YESTERDAY?"

"Went to the Night Market," my roommate, replied.

"Ah," I said, "I keep meaning to do that." Our summer internship in Beijing was coming to an end, and the Donghuamen Night Market was a sort of tourist's rite of passage. "You try anything?" I asked.

"I ate a scorpion on a stick," she said. "Decided to skip the spiders and maggots, though."

"Maggots?"

"Yeah. Some of them were still alive."

"Nope. Nope nope nope." And that was it. I didn't get to the Donghuamen that summer. I just never woke up and thought, "I'm gonna eat some maggots today." I'll never make it there on any trip back -- it shut down last year, apparently when tourists finally realized that actual Beijingers don't eat bugs. The Market existed solely for visitors who wanted to dare each other to eat weird shit.

But I always regretted not seeing if I could do it. So I told Kae Lani Kennedy, our social media editor here at Matador, that I wanted to eat bugs on camera, and she said, "Okay."

Why Americans don't eat bugs

What made me finally decide to go for it was this video:

Humans, it turns out, have been eating bugs for as long as we've been eating anything else. They're everywhere, they're relatively easy to catch, and they're high in protein. It wasn't until the agricultural revolution that we stopped seeing bugs as food and started seeing them as pests that would destroy our crops. The humans who moved out of the tropics became even more separated from them -- nature was harsher in the colder parts of the earth, so it had to be kept out of our shelter and homes. Bugs were nature's way of trespassing into our safe, sterile, human-only zones.

People in the tropics, though, never stopped eating bugs. An estimated 80 percent of the global population eats bugs as a regular part of their diet. Westerners like to think of this as a cultural quirk, like the natives in the less civilized parts of the world are eating weird junk to freak us out, a la chilled monkey brain soup in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the culture behaving irrationally is ours.

As the TED video that turned me into a bug-eater points out, we eat plenty of weird stuff already. Lobsters are basically sea insects. They look as weird or weirder than your everyday cricket. We also eat oysters -- slimy, amorphous blobs of goo that we shoot straight out of their salt-and-grime-encrusted shells.

There's no good reason why we should be squeamish about bugs, but not lobsters or oysters. It's merely a matter of getting over the "ick" factor and normalizing bug-eating. And as it turns out, there are a lot of great reasons to eat bugs.

Bug-eating is the future

The reason, of course, is climate change. Raising livestock contributes a lot to greenhouse gases (cow farts contain a lot of methane, which is even worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide), and it also takes up a lot of arable land which could be used for more efficient foods. This, along with a growing animal rights movement, is part of the reason so many people are becoming vegans or vegetarians.

Bugs, it turns out, are a great replacement. They are high in protein, they are lower in fat than meat, they are don't produce much in the way of emissions, they are super cheap and easy to raise in comparison to livestock, and they can feed on our food waste -- making them little edible recyclers.

The only real reason we won't eat bugs is because of a fairly irrational taboo. But taboos can be beaten -- it used to be considered taboo in the United States to buy life insurance (it still is in places like China -- placing what is basically a bet on human life is understandably considered bad form), but a concerted advertising campaign ended that in the 1840's.

I eat bugs

Kae Lani did some research and found a place in Manayunk, a neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia that would serve us bugs. It's called Taqueria Feliz, and Chef Tim Spinner told us we could film him cooking up the bugs.

Most Mexican joints in the US don't serve chapulines, a fairly common dish from the state of Oaxaca. Chapulines are crispy grasshoppers, and are usually seasoned with some mixture of salt, lime, garlic, and chili powder. Once they're grilled up, they basically taste like your typical bar snack -- salty and crunchy.

Spinner allowed us into the kitchen to watch him cook. The grasshoppers were not prepared in a way that made them look like something other than grasshoppers. He just threw them onto a hot skillet, drizzled lime juice on them, and let them get nice and toasty. He said that most of the people who order the chapulines do so on a dare, and usually after a few drinks. He served us ours on a taco. It was -- much to my surprise -- pretty damn good. We filmed the experience live on Facebook (we had some problems with sound quality, but we eat the bugs at about 10 minutes in).

Once you get over the hyper-awareness that you're eating bugs, it is not significantly different from anything else we eat. Spinner gave us a bunch of sauces to put on our tacos -- habanero, chipotle, salsa verde -- and served the tacos with a guacamole puree. It made the difference: if they hadn't been well-prepared, I wouldn't have been as jazzed about them as I was when I left the restaurant.

We're a long way from being a culture that regularly eats bugs. But the hurdles aren't as big as they might seem. Bugs -- like literally every other food on the planet -- are downright tasty if prepared right, and we might just save our planet if we eat a bit more of them.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

Downloading this one app while you travel can help you save people from sex trafficking

IT’S REPULSIVE TO EVEN think of, but sex traffickers need to advertise, just like everyone else. And to do so, they will often take pictures of the children they are abusing, and will post these pictures to the darker corners of the internet. Oftentimes, the place sex traffickers will set up shop is in hotel rooms, so that’s frequently where the pictures end up being taken.

An app called TraffickCam has been set up to help catch these modern-day slavers in the act. How it works is simple:

  • Download the app or go to the website.

  • Take pictures of your hotel room when you arrive at your destination.

  • Submit the pictures to the app.

  • The app puts them into a massive database, which law enforcement can then compare to the photos that the sex traffickers use as advertisements.

  • If there’s a match, law enforcement officials may well be able to track down the sex trafficker, and save their victims.

The app has suggestions for how to take the pictures, which you release under a creative commons license to them. As of November 2016, over 1.6 million photos had been uploaded to the database. The group that runs the app, the Exchange Initiative, says that while the app is only currently operating in the US, where they are working with law enforcement, but they hope to eventually go worldwide.

Travelers are often the front lines against sex trafficking.

The ugly truth a lot of sex trafficking occurs in close proximity to the travel industry. Hotels in particular are havens for this type of illegal activity, as the hospitality industry puts high value on discretion and relative anonymity. Pimps and sex traffickers exploit this environment, and use hotels as safe havens.

Recently, hotels have started training their staff for how to recognize sex traffickers — red flags like guests paying in cash, or large groups of children, or kids made up to look older than they are, or the lack of luggage, or the presence of drugs or alcohol around children, or the sneaking in of women and girls through side doors — all of these together may point towards sex trafficking, and hotel managers have to make a judgment call as to whether they should involve the police.

Likewise, airlines are starting to train their staffs to spot sex trafficking as well, and it’s already saving lives: one flight attendant noticed something wrong between an older man and a young, teenaged girl he was traveling with. She tried to engage the man, but he became defensive, so the attendant left a note for the girl in the bathroom, who wrote back asking for help. The attendant informed the captain, and the police were waiting at the gate when they landed.

Training programs are being supported by the UN’s Be a Responsible Travelerprogram, which helps provides materials to tourist organizations that may be able to stop trafficking.

Public awareness is hugely important.

“Raising awareness” gets sneered at a lot of the time (sometimes justifiably so), but in the case of sex trafficking, a big part of the problem is that travelers in the United States assume it just doesn’t happen here, so they aren’t on the lookout for warning signs. As a result, a lot of trafficking slips under the radar.

The TraffickCam app is still in its relatively early stages, but its creators already believe the program is a success solely on the basis of raising awareness. It’s an “if you see something, say something,” type of fight, and with more people on the lookout, we have a better chance of getting these kids out of the hellish trafficking rings they’re trapped in, and back into their childhoods.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Nope: Protesting someone doesn’t make you anti-free speech or a politically correct snowflake.

There’s an interesting debate going on right now about Milo Yiannopoulis, the far right skeez-ball troll whose speaking engagement was recently canceled at UC-Berkeley after violent riots broke out. There were some reports that he’d planned,to publicly name undocumented students on campus, which he denied (he’d previously outed trans students in the past, so it’s conceivable he would’ve been that much of a douche).

Naturally, people are claiming that his free speech rights were violated. People like the President of the United States, who threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley. And this raises an interesting debate — is protesting repellent speakers inconsistent with a belief in free speech?

The short, easy answer is “no.” I’ll let xkcd’s Randall Munro explain.

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The longer answer is just a more extended “no,” but I think I can give a bit more context. Basically, though, you can be done with reading this article, because comics are a much better medium of communication than blogging, and I clearly picked the wrong profession.

Free speech doesn’t mean “everyone gets a megaphone.”

In 2007, my junior year at Penn State, Ann Coulter came to give a speech. I was President of the school’s chapter of Amnesty International at the time, and we, along with a number of other progressive groups, decided to protest her speech.

The speech was heavily attended — both by the college’s many conservatives, and by a lot of locals living in the surrounding rural area. And as they walked into the speech, they saw us. And they were annoyed.

“What a bunch of whiners,” they said. “This is America! Take your PC bullshit to China!”

I am not particularly aware of a political correctness movement in China, but the rebuke to our protest was broadly the same from everyone who engaged with us: “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!”

It was a strange argument to make against us, as it was precisely the reason we were protesting — and it also totally missed the point of the protest.

The reason we were protesting Ann Coulter was not because we thought she did not have a right to speak at Penn State. It was because the school was paying her a lot of money to speak, and the money they were using came from a fund that was partially filled by the student’s tuition. I forget what the exact number was, but I believe it was around $10,000.

Our argument was that, if the school wanted to pay political commentators, then they should. But Ann Coulter is not the type of conservative who has very much of value to say. She’s a demagogue and a bigot and a troll. Penn State’s not exactly a small-time school, and there was no reason to think that, if they’d wanted to, they could’ve gotten a slightly more thoughtful conservative commentator. There’s no shortage of right-wingers who aren’t dumbasses.

Had Ann Coulter wanted to exercise her right to free speech, no one would’ve stopped her — the school had designated “free speech zones,” one of which happened to be the patch of pavement in front of the HUB, which is where she was speaking, and thus was the place we chose for her protest.

She could’ve gone to one of those spots — for free! — and said whatever she wanted. We would’ve argued with her, but we wouldn’t have questioned her right to talk.

But no one sat long enough for us to explain this — in their eyes, we were crybabies who hated freedom of speech.

Tools to shut down a conversation

Phrases like “Free speech” and “Political Correctness” are really good at shutting down what might have otherwise been productive conversations. They’re both misleading. Freedom of speech, as Munro points out, is not freedom from criticism or backlash — it is merely freedom from the government interfering with your right to say what you want.

People with platforms — news outlets, universities, churches, etc. — all have to play a role as the gatekeeper to their platform. With some exceptions (the equal time rule, for example, which only applies to political candidates during elections), they are allowed to give time to whomever they choose. Universities position themselves as a place where ideas can be exchanged, but the universities get to choose which ideas are worth exchanging.

Geologists, for example, would not invite a flat-earther to lecture their students in most cases. Acting programs wouldn’t be questioned for inviting Daniel Day-Lewis to speak instead of Pauly Shore. One of these people is clearly better at what they do than the other, with more to say.

There’s nothing wrong with setting rules of engagement.

Likewise, the matter of “political correctness” often glosses over a major point: every arena of debate has its own rules of engagement, and what is often dismissed as “political correctness” is more often an attempt to better define those rules of debate. Let me provide an example.

When I have disagreements with my wife, we have an understanding that we’re not going to say or do certain things. I used to roll my eyes when I was frustrated — she called it out as arrogant and condescending, and I don’t do it anymore. She would occasionally tease me about certain things that hit a really soft spot — I asked her not to, and now she doesn’t.

We still haven’t totally worked out the exact rules of engagement, nearly five years into our relationship, but we have the understanding that it’s a work in progress, and we know that it’s important that we a) communicate and b) do so respectfully. Otherwise, we’ll spend our time attacking each other rather than working together to get the things we both want.

This is basically what’s happening with what many people are calling “political correctness.” Certain groups of people are saying, “Hey, we’d like you to maybe speak to us in this way — it feels kinda disrespectful, otherwise.” You might feel defensive or embarrassed when they say this: I was mortified when my wife pointed out the eye-rolling thing, so naturally I got angry at her because that was easier than admitting I was being an asshole. But you have to understand that they’re totally allowed to ask for certain things in order to feel respected.

That’s what respect is — it’s treating someone with the dignity that they ask for. And if you’ve ever asked someone not to call you a certain name — a racist, an idiot, a butthead, a moron, a bigot, a douchebag, a fuckstick, a wankstain, a jerkyjerkjerkface, etc. — then you’ve engaged in this exact same behavior.

A new America

The reason we’re having these fiery conversations about what we can and can’t say is because more people are taking part in the conversations now. The academic and political conversation in the US was created by rich, white males, and has been dominated by them for a long time. They wrote the constitution, they created the government, and they populated academia. So they set the rules of engagement. It was understood that threats against their personal safety were not conducive to civil discussion, so threats were taken off the table.

Today, we (fortunately) have more voices in the conversation. This is good — democracy is about getting different people with different interests working together. But now that there are women, LGBT people, and people of color in the conversation, and they’re saying, “Hey, can we go back and discuss these rules of engagement so they take my unique experience into consideration?”

Most people who believe in democracy believe that its lifeblood is civil conversation. If you can talk about an issue civilly, without resorting to ad hominemattacks and cheap rhetorical tricks, then you’re likely to come to some form of agreement or compromise. But for a democracy to work, all parties have to have input on the rules of that conversation. There will never be a perfect agreement, and sometimes people’s feelings will get hurt. But that doesn’t mean that the rules of engagement aren’t worth discussing.

Featured photo by mpancha

Broaden your horizons: Read books by people who are nothing like you

A FEW YEARS AGO, I wrote an article for Matador about the best travel books to read while traveling. I was super proud of it, and then, of course, a friend commented: "Kind of a lot of white dudes on that list, huh?"

My initial reaction was to be supremely annoyed. "Oh, just… goddammit," I thought. "Can it not be about that just this once?" But I opened the piece back up and read through it -- every single one of my ten authors was a white male. I felt a little uncomfortable, so I went onto my Goodreads account, where I keep a categorized list of every book I've ever read, and I checked.

Nope. With zero exceptions, every single travel book I'd ever read was written by a white man. Which got me thinking -- why? I've read comparatively few books by women in my life, but there's no good reason for it. They certainly haven't been of lower quality. I don't think there's anything about white men that makes them inherently better at writing than women or people of color.

So why had I never picked up, for example, Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost? Or Cheryl Strayed's instant classic Wild? Hell, even Eat, Pray, Love would've broken my shameful no-ladies streak.

Your reading choices influence you in subconscious ways.

When it got down to it, my two favorite travel writers, Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, were very much like me. Both were raised in the same general area as me (I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, Thompson was born a short drive away in Louisville, and Hemingway's from Illinois), both trained as journalists like me, and both were wounded idealists.

In short, they didn't take me at all outside my comfort zone. Everything I read of theirs electrified me by how right it all felt. And that helped me gloss over some of their less likable features. Hemingway was a drunk and a misogynist and a bit of a brute. Thompson blew his talent by taking WAY too many drugs. Both were plagued by depression and eventually killed themselves. As I started to slide into a mild depression myself, I started to worry. I loved their writing and wanted to write like them, but I did not love their end.

What we choose to read affects the way we see the world. A recent study found that children who read Harry Potter were more likely to be empathetic and kind towards groups that they did not belong to. This shouldn't be too surprising: Potter writer J.K. Rowling used to work for Amnesty International, and is a tireless opponent of racism and classism. Indeed, anti-discrimination and kindess is the main theme of the entire seven-book series. The books we read shape us in often unseen ways.

Women, people of color, and foreigners

After the "no women" incident, I decided to make a concerted effort to get more women into the rotation. I still have a pretty dismal record -- of the books I've read, only 9.5% were written by women. That's up from around 6%, though.

Then, after the 2016 election, I realized that there was still a staggering lack of people of color on my list. Aside from a few obvious, big-name writers -- Salman Rushdie, Junot Diaz, and Martin Luther King, Jr. -- the list was basically a string of pasty white.

Finally, just this week, my colleague Morgane Croissant told me something that shocked me: In the English-speaking world, about 2 to 3 percent of what publishers put out are translations. In France, the number is 27%. In Spain, it's 28%. We English speakers, it seems, just aren't that interested in reading books from other cultures.

There were more foreigners on my reading list than women or people of color. But I realized, as I read through them, that the foreigners were responsible for a disproportionate amount of my favorite books. Swedish writer John Ajvide Lindqvist's classic vampire story, Let the Right One In, Russian Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Chinese writer Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Danish writer Carsten Jensen's swashbuckling epic, We, the Drowned, Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges' unbelievable Labyrinths collection… the foreign-language books I'd read were almost uniformly amazing.

The reason why seemed obvious -- if you're reading a book in another language, it's probably one of the best books in the other language. It has to be, to be one of the miniscule number of books that are translated to English.

Studies suggest that, to your brain, reading a book can be more or less indistinguishable from transporting you into the body of another person. As George R.R. Martin put it, "A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies… The man who never reads lives only one."

There are, no doubt, a lot of great white male writers. But why live a thousand lives entirely like your own? Why not live a thousand different lives?

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

Travel is a form of resistance

YOU CANNOT LOOK AT something from another perspective unless you move. This is not some grand statement about the importance of travel, but a simple fact of optics. In order to get a different view of the bookshelf that sits across from my desk, I must move my head a little bit, or perhaps go sit in my easy chair. Actually, that sounds really comfortable. I'm going to do that.

Okay. Back to the point. It must be hard, getting perspective, as a tree. Rooted to that same spot for a hundred or even a thousand years, changes only coming slowly and imperceptibly with your growth and the change of the environment around you. Even if trees had mouths and large cerebral cortices, we'd have trouble debating them. "Look at it from my point of view," we'd say, and they'd respond with "I can change my point of view about as much as you can drink water through your toes."

Humans, on the other hand, are movers. All animals are, but humans especially so. Crawdads scuttle from the bottom of one rock to another, and gila monsters may lumber to a neighboring stone with better sun, but none of them move as radically as humans. Even the birds and fish and bugs that make great, massive migrations don't travel to as diverse and strange places as we do. They may move from tundra to jungle, but they don't move from the stratosphere to the depths of the Marianas. And they certainly don't leave their kind behind in search of a new and different life.

The sedentary life.

"For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy. Unfulfilled," Carl Sagan once said. "Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven't forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood."

"We invest far-off places with a certain romance. The appeal, I suspect, has been meticulously crafted by natural selection, as an essential element in our survival. Long summers, mild winters, rich harvests, plentiful game… none of them last forever. Your own life, or your bands, or even your species might be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds."

In times like our own, the command from above is to be like a tree, to stay in one place, and to accept what can only be seen from your own spot. It is comfortable being a tree, no doubt, with little change or upheaval, and with the satisfaction of knowing what you see when the sun goes down today is what you'll see when the sun comes up tomorrow.

To be anything other than a tree, to move, to see things from other perspectives, is heresy. A tree does not need anything beyond what's immediately around it. Sunlight, soil, rain, maybe a gentle breeze -- what more could you want than that? Why is all that is necessary not enough?

It is an understandable thought for a tree. For a tree, to move too much is to be killed. We, mercifully, are not trees, and should not imagine that we are. We are humans. We move.

The threat of "They."

I've been told, by trees that I know and trust, that our culture cannot be reconciled with theirs. Today, "They" are usually Muslims, but "They" is title that designates different groups from generation to generation -- it was once communists, it was once Jews, it was once Native Americans, it was once the British. But the attributes of "They" never changes -- "They" aren't to be trusted, "They" are a threat to our way of life, "They" hate us, and thus must be fought or kept out, "They" are all of these things because that's just the way "They" are.

But I have been to visit "They," and I can't entirely distinguish "They" from "Me." Except for the accident of my birth, I expect that I would be exactly like them, and no better or worse for it. Many of them are trees, and are surprised to find out that I look so similar to them, now that I'm up close. I run home and tell the trees that -- well… how to explain it?

You know how when the wind blows really hard, and you bend, and can see just a little further around the corner than you usually can? Okay -- imagine that without falling down, you bent all the way around the corner and down the street. Imagine you bent all the way to the top of that mountain you can see in the distance, and you were looking down on this same spot from up there.

You'd be looking at the same place, right? But it would look really different, right?

This, understandably, is not an easy thing to explain to a tree. It may be better to just say to them, "You are not a tree. You are a human. Now move!"

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

5 things you didn't know about nonviolence

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Mark Kurlansky's book, Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea, and discussed the biggest argument typically used against nonviolence as an ideology: that it never would have worked against Hitler. (Hint: It actually probably could have!)

Over the Martin Luther King weekend, our bloviating piss-receptacle of a President-elect attacked the man who is probably our greatest living practitioner of nonviolent resistance, John Lewis. Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which did the grassroots organizing work that eventually led to the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South.

In his attack, Trump said Lewis was "All talk, talk, talk, no action or results. Sad!" This is a common attack on nonviolent activists -- the idea is that, because they're not beating or killing a problem into submission, they're somehow ineffectual. So it's maybe worth it for us to take a moment to briefly review our world's legacy of nonviolent activism.

1. Early Christianity was one of the very first nonviolent movements.

The Roman Empire was pretty tolerant of religions, as far as repressive empires go. Their basic attitude was that hey, believe what you want, so long as you don't fuck with us. Any Christian will know, though, that the Romans hated the Christians. Crucified them all the time. The reason behind this is simple: Early Christians were political AF.

One of Jesus's primary teachings was nonviolence. He once famously said, "whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." One long-term, more pacifist interpretation of this has been, "Accept the blows life rains down on you." There's another, infinitely more badass explanation, though. Biblical scholar Walter Wink explains:

"You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus' day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other's right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus' audience: "If anyone strikes you." These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, "Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek." (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it's like telling a joke twice; if it didn't work the first time, it simply won't work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling's equality.

This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the cheek, then, the "inferior" is saying: "I'm a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won't take it anymore.""

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Early Christians, then, were forbidden from violence, but not from resistance. And one of the things they did to resist was to convert. And among those they converted were the Roman legions. Roman legions who were now Christians were also forbidden from violence, and could not fight. So the Roman Empire (correctly) saw Christianity as a direct threat to its ability to subdue the masses. Christians weren't put to death for their religion -- they were put to death for their politics.

The Romans only eventually brought the Christians to heel by becoming Christian themselves. Once the Christians were in power, well -- then they decided violence wasn't so bad after all. Power tends to do that.

2. Gandhi preferred violence to pacifism.

Gandhi was intensely political -- he believed that nonviolence (what he called satyagraha) was the best way to fight the British Empire. But he also supported the British in WWI, believing they would be more likely to listen to the Indians if they were seen as Allies. He also believed that if you had to choose between being passive to injustice, or acting out in violence against it, that violence was preferable. Kurlansky writes:

Gandhi was first and foremost a political activist, and he had utter contempt for nonactive pacifism... he regarded such a passive stance as cowardly, calling inaction "rank cowardice and unmanly," and said he would rather see someone incapable of nonviolence resist violently than not resist at all. "Violence is any day preferable to impotence," he wrote. "There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent."

(If you think it's weird that Gandhi is comparing activism to having a penis, then you should maybe research some of his bizarre attitudes on women and sex. Holy shit, the man was a Freudian nightmare.)

Similarly, MLK, Jr. initially thought violence was more likely to result in change than nonviolent resistance. He didn’t change his mind until he became close with nonviolent labor union and civil rights activist A.J. Muste.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered a radical in his time.

Today, Martin Luther King is about as close as you get to an American Saint. But in his day, he was viewed much in the same way that Black Lives Matter activists and protestors like Colin Kaepernick are now — he was seen as “un-American,” and as a rabble-rouser. Indeed, he expressed his frustration with “white moderates” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This radical depiction of him runs counter to the modern tendency to neuter him or paint him as conservative. Towards the end of his life, King believed that defeating racism and poverty wasn’t possible with changing the capitalist system. It’s popular today to try and chastise activists with the specter of a saintly Martin Luther King, who wouldn’t have caused waves. Hell, even this weekend, prominent moron Rob Schneider tweeted the following:

(Just to compare their records: In 1965, John Lewis marched with King at Selma. In 1992, Rob Schneider chased a 10-year-old out of the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel, leaving him to fend for himself while being stalked by criminals and street-people.)

This is common, though — by making a saint out of otherwise radical figures, you’re able to strip them of some of their political edge and assimilate them into the mainstream. The same has been done for Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela. Remember — your heroes were political, and usually were pretty radical. Don’t believe any Deuce Bigalow who says otherwise.

4. The Cold War was ended by nonviolent activism — not by Ronald Reagan.

We in the US like to say that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War by taking a hard line against the Soviet Union. He didn’t. Americans had been taking a hard line against the Soviets for decades, and Ronald Reagan shouting at a wall changed very little.

What really ended the USSR was a decades-long nonviolent resistance movement in the Soviet Bloc countries like the Czech Republic and Poland. These dissidents would hold protests or demonstrations, the Soviets would respond violently, and then they’d lose more and more public support. The names of these activists are well-known: Lech WalesaVaclav HavelAleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and literally thousands more.

It’s important to remember this: Nuclear catastrophe between the world’s two superpowers has ALREADY been prevented by a scrappy band of artists, activists, writers, and labor unionists. When the USSR fell, Reagan took the credit. He doesn’t deserve much of it. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a little to do with pressures coming from the outside, but had much more to do with the pressures from within.

5. Apartheid was brought down through nonviolence.

When the fight against apartheid stalled in the late 50s, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, created an ANC military wing, saying, “As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”

Mandela famously ended up in prison in 1964, and the crackdown on anti-apartheid activists got even more brutal. It was in the 1970’s that nonviolence got a second wind, in part through the personality of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu preached nonviolent resistance, but was also a staunch supporter of economic and cultural boycotts.

Now, the ANC mostly recognizes that it was the nonviolent tactics — specifically the sanctions and boycotts — that made the difference, and not the violence. When Mandela was released, he (along with Tutu, the last apartheid leader de Klerk, and the ANC) kept the transition from apartheid from becoming a bloodbath by emphasizing peace, truth, and reconciliation.

~~~

Nonviolence is a creative force. Violence is dumb and brutal — it is at best a blunt weapon that creates a lot of collateral damage. But nonviolence is creative and ever-changing, and draws less on the meaner side of our nature, and more on our ability to outthink our opponents. In the Trump era, our best defense is our creativity and our intelligence. Lord knows he doesn’t have much of either.

Take heart — life in Soviet Russia, Apartheid South Africa, the Roman Empire, and the 1960’s South was far worse than what we’re facing. There’s already peaceful roadmap to winning these struggles, and we can pull out of this.

Featured photo by CyberMagik.

I went to the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination 2 days after Trump’s election.

THE NIGHT OBAMA WAS ELECTED, my friend, sitting next to me at a Buenos Aires bar, almost got into a fight with an Argentine man, who loudly insisted that the Americans would kill their first black president. My friend and I drunkenly insisted that we wouldn’t -- that the violent, racist America we’d been raised in was drawing to a close, and that the future was bright.

8 years and two days later, I was in Memphis, Tennessee, at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. I stood underneath the balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been murdered. And I walked through the museum with my wife, somber and depressed. We had spent the previous two days sporadically bursting into tears, and being at the site of MLK's assassination brought what had just happened into sharp relief.

The layout of the museum moves historically, taking you from the slave trade to the Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow and the rise of the KKK, from Civil Rights to the election of Barack Obama.

The election of Obama is almost a triumphal endpoint to the museum. It's the end of history, and is placed as a way of saying, "Look how far we've come!" Now, on November 10th, 2016, that progress felt further away, and the legacy of the man who had died here -- right there! Right in the room through that plate glass! -- did not feel as secure as it had back in that Buenos Aires bar in '08.

The Lorraine Motel

The Lorraine Motel in Memphis has a kitschy, 1950's look. The facade of the building still exists, and it looks more like a stop along Route 66 than an assassination site. It's painted a shade of baby blue that hasn't been used since the 1970's, and giant old cars with fins are parked out front. Up on the balcony, there's a wreath, at the exact spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.

Back in the day, the Motel was a popular lodging place for prominent black artists and activists. This was still at the time of segregation, and the building itself was right by Stax Records, so it was a convenient spot. The owner, Walter Bailey, named it after his wife Loree. Hours after King's assassination, Loree suffered a stroke, and she died five days later. Bailey permanently closed room 306, where King died, as a memorial, and later, the building was foreclosed upon. Bailey managed to rally a movement to convert the hotel into a memorial, and now, behind the old motel's facade, is the museum depicting the centuries of oppression against black people in America. Bailey never lived to see the museum completed.

Post-racial America

When Obama was elected, I have to admit to being one of the people who, at first, bought into the idea of a "post-racial" America. Racism had been my parents problem -- my parents, unlike their parents, had shaken off white America's history of bigotry, and had raised us untainted by that ugliness. I was on board with racial justice, but I was not what you would call "woke." Until the rise of birtherism (led, of course, by by President-elect Donald Trump), I was convinced that Obama's election had meant we'd moved on, and that whatever racism remained would simply become more and more marginalized until it eventually vanished. His election -- for the briefest time -- even felt like an expiation of our white guilt.

I knew, deep down, that this was naive, but I justified it, ironically, with the old Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Equality, we told ourselves, was inevitable.

The Obama years did not see equality. There was Trayvon Martin, then there was Eric Garner, then there was Michael Brown and Ferguson. There was Alton Sterling, there was Philando Castile, and there was the Charleston shooting. That is not a remotely comprehensive list, and these names may well end up on the walls of a future exhibit at the Lorraine Motel.

It is totally possible they already are. My wife and I walked out of the motel -- only half of the museum -- and wavered. Across the street, there is the boarding house where James Earl Ray shot King from, and the museum owns that building as well. There were more exhibits, but we couldn't handle it. That morning, my mother had found racist, pro-Trump graffiti on the playground where my nephew plays in Cincinnati. The days after the election had seen a spike in hate crimes, including some in neighborhoods I'd lived in. We walked back to our hotel, through the empty streets of Memphis.

Cincinnati, my hometown, incidentally hosts a similar museum, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Cincinnati was the first northern city, so it was a prominent spot along the Underground Railroad. It, like the Lorraine Motel, should be no more than a memorial. But these are buildings that we are, unfortunately, going to need to keep adding to.

This is the "long" part of the moral arc of the universe.

Over the course of the Obama administration, it slowly became clear to me that I was one of the "white moderates" Martin Luther King spoke of in his 1963 "Letter from a Birmingham Jail":

"First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection."

I began to notice my white friends and family members blanching against Black Lives Matter and Colin Kaepernick, railing against their methods instead of against the violence that made their methods necessary. I heard people I know and love get far angrier at the possibility of their being called racist than they ever got at actual instances of racism. And I knew I was part of the problem.

One of the most striking images at the Lorraine Motel is after a video at the beginning of the main exhibit. It tells the story of civil rights activism in the United States, and it ends with a silhouetted video image of people marching, holding up signs of protest. The speakers play the sound of footsteps walking -- not of chants and protests, but of the sound of feet hitting ground. To get to the next part of the museum, you must march with the shadows.

Martin Luther King's mountaintop seems further away now than it did 8 years ago. The Lorraine Motel no longer feels like a finished museum. It's time to start marching again.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network. Photo by Brad Montgomery.

Is there anything you can do about Syria?

Jesse Steele: I have to be honest with you: as I write this, I have no idea where I’m going with this Syria thing. I know you’ve seen the pictures and heard the reports coming out of Syria lately and going all the way back to 2011, and it’s a crisis. Their leader, Assad, is a soft-spoken psychopathic ophthalmologist who inherited his daddy’s iron throne and legacy of an iron fist, so when the “Arab Spring” reaches Syria and protests break out, he attacks, bombs, and gasses peaceful protesters. Rather than crush the rebellion though, he just lights a spark he cannot put out, which flares up into “civil war” that quickly escalates into complete chaos.

Now Russia is involved somehow in propping this dude up, the US and other allies considered getting involved for a time but ultimately decided it was too risky to do much more than arm a few groups they trusted. Meanwhile, rebel sides range from moderate pro-democracy fighters to ISIS and continue to fracture and trade territory with the government. Civilians are caught in the middle,  and now we’re left with nothing short of a daily horror show.

On top of all of this, it’s not like Syria is even in the only massive global crisis right now. Setting aside terrorist attacks (like in Germany and Turkey) because that’s more than I can handle right now, just off the top of my head we’ve got: violent political conflict in South Sudan, a comic-if-it-weren’t-tragic, actual-self-confessed multiple murderer Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines actively killing and advocating for the killing of anyone who has ever heard of drugs, and a refugee crisis continuing in Europe.

It leaves a person feeling pretty small, helpless, and confused about the state of the world. I will readily admit I have no idea what to do here. It feels like foreign policy is made by far away people in dark, smokey rooms and I don’t know how a person like me can even begin to think about this, let alone do something. You have a degree in human rights. Fix this for us, Matt. Give me like, 2-3 steps to just clean this whole mess right up. We need to sing songs in a circle or something, right? That’s gotta be one of the steps…

Step 1: Go back in time.

Matt Hershberger: Okay, here’s my four step plan:

  1. Go back in time, murder baby Hitler.

  2. Go back in time, murder colonialism and, if possible, the entire concept of hierarchical power.

  3. ?????

  4. World peace.

Not helpful? Okay, let me answer your question as if you asked something totally different. Remember the Haiti earthquake back in 2010? It killed around 160,000 people. What you may not remember is that a month and a half after the Haiti earthquake, there was an earthquake in Chile. This earthquake only killed 525 people. Which is still a lot, but not when you take into account the fact that the Chilean earthquake was the 5th largest ever recorded, way bigger than the Haitian earthquake.

Why the difference?

The answer is, largely, that Chile is a developed Pacific Rim country that experiences earthquakes on the reg. Haiti is an extremely poor country where earthquake-resistant architecture is not really a thing, and which hasn’t been able to develop a disaster-proof infrastructure as a nation thanks to a string of kleptocratic or incompetent leaders, and also thanks to over two centuries of unfavorable trade policies and violent foreign intervention dating back to the successful Haitian slave uprising of the late 1700’s.

The lesson of Haiti and Chile is that disasters, whether natural or man-made, have a historical context that either limits or exacerbates the amount of damage they do. As a result, the best time to prevent disasters is before they happen. Once the disaster has started, all we can do is damage control. But if we do the less sexy, less obvious work ahead of time, we can either prevent the disaster altogether, or limit the scale of the destruction when it comes.

The truth is, we could’ve seen Syria — or something like Syria coming. And we actually contributed to it, with our constant destabilizing interference within the region. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the larger issues in the region — poverty, neocolonialism, totalitarianism, sectarianism — by focusing on terrorism, which is less a cause of these problems, and more a symptom of them.

Part of the reason we spend too much time on the symptom and not enough time on the disease is because of our daily news cycle, which focuses on anecdotes instead of trends. It makes us more responsive than proactive, and it hobbles us from doing the long-term work that we need to do to keep Haitis and Syrias from happening. We can look to the impoverished places, the places more quietly troubled, and start doing the real disaster prevention work now.

What if I don’t have the time?

Jesse: Almost like how an apple a day, when strategically coupled with a national commitment to affordable preventative health care, keeps the emergency room doctor away, right? Are we doing Obamacare jokes here? Is there going to be an Obamacare blog? What avenues can you create for more Obamacare-based humor?

Ok, so I get it: international crises are really tough to do anything about once they really get going, and so if we want to prevent these atrocities from happening, we have to act sooner. Without getting too political here, I think maybe you’re suggesting that a general indifference to massive poverty and inequality are not recipes for a world full of happy healthy societies? Are you further suggesting that a little bit of awareness of world events might help us recognize a bad situation before its a catastrophic situation? And finally, are you suggesting that other people, despite being not in this room with me right now, have their well-being intertwined with mine in this giant interconnected world? I’m dubious, but for the sake of argument, I’ll take these radical suggestions at face value.

Three questions emerge out of this for me, but because you continue to refuse to explain what love is to me, I’ll just ask two:

  1. What does that preventative work look like? I’m busy enough as it is, do I have to be doing homework on the whole world all the time?

  2. Obviously, there’s some big news happening at home which seems to demand most of my time. Like everyone else, I work, I look at cool memes on the internet, I vision board, I eat, pray, and love, etc… to be blunt, like everyone, I only have so many fucks to give. Can you give me any kind of useful way to think about how I can balance paying attention to problems at home with crises and tragedy abroad?

Matt: I’ll accept Obamacare jokes for like, one more week. After that, you’ll have to repeal them and replace them with a more expensive joke that does irreversible harm to poor people.

To answer your questions (the latter two, as I’ve told you a hundred times, you’ll know what love is when you buy your first fleshlight):

First: the world is, as you say, indeed an interconnected place. And while that immense complexity makes it impossible to fully comprehend, it also means that small acts of your own can have huge ripples. So while you, one person, can’t do everything, it’s important to recognize that you can do something, and you can choose what you want to do specifically. My suggestion is to look at the current conflict, and identify what we in the US could’ve done to prevent it:

  1. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003, that wouldn’t have destabilized the region, and that would’ve helped.

  2. If we had done a better job historically of supporting democracy and human rights in the region for all people instead of undermining any leader or country whose economic interests clashed with our own, we would have a) probably a more stable situation in the Middle East right now, and b) more moral clout when it came to working against violence.

  3. Considering climate change has been a factor in both the Syrian and Sudaneseconflicts, it’s safe to say that swifter action on correcting our carbon emissions may have helped lower the possibility of full-on civil war.

Those are by no means all of the factors that contributed to the Syrian civil war, but it gives you three causes right there to support in the future:

  1. Work for peace and oppose war.

  2. Work for democracy and human rights.

  3. Fight climate change.

There are already hundreds of institutions that work for these causes. Take your pick and start donating or volunteering.

To answer your second question, the flip side of interconnectedness is that you are always complicit in injustice. An interconnected world leaves no one pure. So whenever you get the chance to stand up against an injustice, you should. And yes, a part of this is educating yourself. This doesn’t have to be boring, but I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The thing is, citizenship of any kind carries duties as well as perks. And understanding the world you live in so that you can be an optimal citizen is one of those duties. Your time is limited, but you could always listen to news podcasts during your commute, or start your day by reading a newspaper. You don’t need to know everything, but you do have a basic human responsibility to try and learn about the world around you, and to act to make it a better place.

In short: you cannot do everything. But you must do something.

Going beyond “awareness raising”

Jesse: Reminds me very much of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a story of how we all bear responsibility for the part of our world we choose not to see. Also of this wonderful article from Vox, which stresses how important it is to just “bear witness” to what’s happening.

It’s not really the same thing, but I work in a domestic violence organization, and one of the things we fight against all the time is what we call the “culture of silence” around domestic violence. We learn from a young age when we see signs of a bad or scary relationship, we tend to look away, excuse, whisper a quick word of concern, and then move on. This is how domestic violence is allowed to grow: this culture of silence gets normalized, and very soon we can be surrounded by violence (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetimes) but not even realize it. So it seems to be with humanitarian crisis.

As someone who is generally impatient, and who is writing on a blog about how people can take action, I don’t usually hold with “awareness raising”, but it seems to me from what you’re saying that one of the more important things we can do is force ourselves to look: force ourselves to pay attention, even if the images are disturbing and make us feel helpless. It sounds like you’re arguing that at the least, we owe these victims of horrible global tragedy our attention. Maybe if we do that, in some way we acknowledge our share of their pain and our share of their attackers’ culpability. We have to see it, and speak about what we’ve seen, because our global culture of silence cannot continue if we’re going to be proactive in preventing these human rights crises.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but we can only raise so much awareness — there has to be a step where there’s some practical action to be taken, right? What are the practical steps people can take beyond flogging themselves with news reports, Hotel Rwanda, and Holocaust movies?

Matt: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong — awareness raising is a good thing. But it’s predicated on the idea that if you see something terrible happening, you’ll do something about it. The fallacy behind raising awareness is that we assume humans are naturally good, active creatures, and thus will work to stop an injustice if we’re confronted with it. But, as we’ve learned from every Holocaust bystander down to every woke person who has ever let his racist uncle rail against blacks and gays at the Thanksgiving dinner table, humans can be insanely conflict avoidant.

So what I’m saying, that there’s not a ton you can do, isn’t to say you’re excused from doing something. If you follow the Night Vale maxim, “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget,” you’re complicit, to some extent, in what’s going on.

Now, what can you actually do?

  • Find out if there are refugees in your area. Find out who is hosting them, and find out how you can help. How do you do this? Simple!

  • Donate your time or money to an organization helping Syrians on the ground in Syria.

    • The International Red Cross helps people in need pretty much everywhere in the world, including Syria.

    • Doctor’s Without Borders is pretty much always helping out in an emergency, and has been on the ground in Aleppo.

    • The White Helmets are on the ground in Syria helping out people in need. They are literally in harm’s way saving people.

    • Mercy Corps offers direct assistant to refugees.

    • Shelterbox offers supplies and disaster relief wherever they’re needed.

    • UNICEF helps children everywhere, including Syria. And make no mistake — there are a lot of kids being harmed in this fight.

    • Oxfam is another dependably excellent charity that serves people and Syria and elsewhere. Oxfam is doubly excellent because they’re also advocates for anti-poverty global policy.

  • Get political.

    • One concrete way to show support is to call your Senator and ask them to support the Caesar bill, which would allow the US to institute no-fly zones in Syria and sanction the Assad regime.

    • Call your representative and ask them to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US.

  • Also, pray, I guess, but only after you’ve done literally everything else on this list.

This list is obviously incomplete, and we’d welcome any additional suggestions (or quibbles) both in the comments of this page, and in the comments on Facebook. We’ll try to add stuff as we go.

There’s a final point worth making: a lot of the destabilization in Europe and the United States, as well as the rise of right-wing nationalists all over the world, has been fueled by Islamophobia, fear of refugees, fear of terrorism, and the perception (both by western conservatives and Islamic extremists) that we’re undergoing some sort of ridiculous, crusade-like “clash of civilizations.” So it’s not too huge of a stretch to say that Syria’s nightmare has also very much become our nightmare. If you’re the type of person who needs a self-interested reason to do something charitable, then there it is — mass violence in one part of a globalized world means destabilization and upheaval in other parts.

This also means there’s no such thing as an apolitical solution — you can’t divorce charity from the politics that have led to a situation where charity is required. So instead of wringing your hands in despair, just do something.

Featured photo by David Holt — picture shows the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria