Apparently the comments function is broke; thanks to those of you who informed me, and my apologies to those who have attempted to leave comments anyway. I've informed Blogger and am trying a few things; hopefully it'll be fixed soon.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Monday, February 21, 2005
It was President's Day today, and given my obsessions with both civic life and holidays, it's probably not surprising that I find myself a little disappointed. No parades, only crummy furniture sales. Well, you can't have everything. But perhaps I can honor the day by putting down some thoughts which emerged in the context of a productive discussion in my human rights seminar a few weeks ago. (Yes, it's lecture time, but bear with me; Washington and Lincoln show up in the end.)
We were discussing notions of individual and group rights, and how defending the rights of the former can involving infringing upon the reigning conceptions of the latter. But where does that leave the group out from which the rights-bearing individual emerged in the first place? (The specific context of the discussion was Iraq, and whether one can coherently speak of fighting against some portion of the population of a state in the name of providing "rights" to another, in some ways indistinguishable portion of the population.) With a little bit of guidance from Rousseau, we gradually came to talking about the political problem of beginnings. Figuring out how to legitimately initiate a political project is a central, perhaps the central, preoccupation of political theorists, and takes us far beyond Iraq; it haunts Locke's theory of property rights, is echoed in the fears of ancient Roman republican thinkers, and animates the argument in Plato's Republic, the touchstone of all philosophical literature in the West. The crux is always the same: as Juvenal (and then Alan Moore) put it, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who watches the watchmen? Or, more relevantly, who makes the rules for the rule-makers?
Ruling and rule-making wouldn't be much of an issue if we didn't connect legitimacy to the existence of a people capable of determining such for themselves. This isn't a democratic point; the idea of a government being legitimate, of truly serving or reflecting or at the very least merely belonging to, a particular people long predates the idea that such a people could directly or indirectly govern themselves. (Bernard Yack associates the emergence of this kind of pre-political sensibility to the modern democratic era, but the distinct notion of a people forming a specific, bounded body is much older than that.) To ignore the fact of peoples when talking about legitimacy, peoples who exist in particular places and thus can be distinguished from peoples in other places....that reduces "legitimacy" to a question of who or what has the brute power to draw a line and make everyone on one side of it submit to his sword or her gun. It's not politics, not even Hobbesian politics, because there's no polity, no incipient city or group or commonwealth to which matters of rule-making could be posed. Looking at the question this way, of course, suggests that "politics" remained the exception rather than the rule in too many places around the globe for many millennia, and remains the exception throughout much of the world today. I think that's right; "people-making" (or imagining, or articulating, depending on whether you prefer a more or less constructivist or essentialist approach to the question of peoplehood) precedes politics; the emergence of some sort of common, bounded consciousness--whether conceived on the part of the people as a whole demos (which would lead to some kind of popular sovereignty) or as a "public thing," a res publica, comprehended and tended to by some small, relatively elite group (a classical republic, in other words)--is a prerequisite to legitimate politics; outside of which, as Aristotle said, there are only monsters and gods.
Hence, we have to begin with a people. But how does that "beginning" begin? If we could convince ourselves (or reconvince ourselves, depending on how you read the last several centuries of intellectual history) that any given people definitely shared some common quality--a moral sense, a human nature, a basic rationality--that lent itself to political theorizing, then we could postulate a legitimate founding at the moment when this quality is put into play or addressed. In short, the social contract: whether driven by an empirically demonstrable fear of others (Hobbes) or a personal desire to secure our property (Locke) or by the force of Enlightenment itself (Kant), we could all agree to constitute a government in accordance with the requirements of that commonality which we all share. Of course, we won't all like all of the results all of the time, but having come together on common ground, we can call the resulting grouping "legitimate," since no one was left out.
The reason Rousseau is the most important of all modern political thinkers is that he forces us to deal with the history of inequality, unevenness, and dependency that characterizes the development of civilization, with its unavoidable consequence of always leaving someone out. Even if one accepts the existence of some universal quality shared equally by all those who potentially enter into the contract, there remains the problem that the prior constitution of "those who enter into the contract"--the act of people-making itself--was no doubt a bloody and exploitive affair, involving the imposition of unequal conventions on a natural world. Even basic rules of order are subject to this challenge. The principle of majority rule? Was that decided upon unanimously at some point, Rousseau pointedly asks, or was it also a forced decision which followed hard upon the emergence of decided unequal (in power, position, and wealth) majorities and minorities? I frequently quote in class one scholar's assessment of Rousseau as the "prophet of history who despaired of history," and his refusal to allow any "universal" characteristic of the world to excuse us from a consideration of how our groups and peoples historically got to be what and where they are puts his critique of social contract thinking front and central in this debate. It can be gotten around, of course (there was Locke's famous suggestion that the original, and very unequal, distribution of property rights could be considered legitimate as long as one acknowledged that there was "enough and as good" property left around afterwards), but not easily, and not without leaving tensions and fissures in any founded group that could explode it all apart at some later date. Rousseau's alternative was to abandon any hope for a universal quality or capability entirely, and content ourselves with contracting on the basis of some general act of will--a general will, that is. But wouldn't the content of that general will be suspect, being--as it must be--the product of local history as well? It would be, except that Rousseau does not believe the content of the contract arises from within the people. It comes from outside, from the legislator.
In all likelihood, if you've read this far you already know how this all adds up: Rousseau's quasi-divine lawgiver comes down from the mountain like Moses, hands over a law that fits the cultural requirements of the existing people and which they can therefore embrace in an act of general, perfectly equal willing, then departs (just as Moses couldn't enter the promised land). That last part is important: if the legislator sticks around, he or she becomes a part of the now founded people, bringing whatever particularity may or may not have lain behind the legislator's articulation of the law along with him or her, and thus compromising the general, unanimous willing. (The people will think: hey, that sneaky Moses, he left the best part of Israel for himself!) It's a wonderful myth of founding, but can we take it seriously? Of course not. And yet....employing Rousseau's analysis throws into sharp relief some of the contentious matters which face any political beginning. In Iraq today--its boundaries and inhabitants themselves a haphazardly drawn and ahistorical, post-colonial creation--there are Shiites and Sunni and Kurds, each with their own ugly histories and resentments. What kind of education in politics (or science or philosophy) will be sufficient for these groups to perceive in one another a common element upon which they can declare themselves all "Iraqis" and thus commonly obligated to whatever government emerges from "Iraqi" elections and receives consent under an "Iraqi" constitution? As I suggested in another blog entry a while ago, a much larger one that I think we or anyone else is capable of delivering in the short term, I'm afraid. So what's the alternative? How about President George W. Bush, legislator? Smashing the existing social structure, eliminating the history of oppression, American forces swoop in, grant a new law to the acclaim of the people, and then depart! Make sense? Well, no, not even on Rousseau's own terms: the people of Iraq are probably too poor, too divided, too numerous, and definitely too devastated, at least if the requirements listed in Rousseau's Social Contract are to be believed, for any lawgiver to play midwife to a constitutional order that doesn't have all sorts of bloody fingerprints all over it. (And then, of course, there's the fact that it is by no means clear that the "presence" of Bush the legislator will evaporate once the founding work is done.) So no, Rousseau's arguments do not provide a justification for American forces to credit themselves with creating the conditions for a legitimate founding in Iraq. But Rousseau's thought does force us to acknowledge both the rarity and necessity of such conditions, and puts other foundings which American lawgivers oversaw in a different, usefully comparative light. (Japan under Douglas Macarthur, for example.)
And so, this being President's Day, one's thoughts turn to George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, how they might fit into this model, and to a reflection upon how frequently we Americans hopefully talk about discerning "founding fathers" in whatever country we examine (or invade). Rousseau would likely have had as little respect for America's founding as he would for the one being attempted in Iraq today: the 13 American states had a population of over 2.5 million by the 1780s, stretched from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, and had been built upon a century and a half of economic expansion, regional suspicion, and slavery. And yet....there's Washington, the noble planter, called to war by the Continental Congress. He fights, he wins, he retires. Then he is called to service by the Constitutional Convention, after which follows eight difficult years in power, after which he hands over the reins and steps back into private life (unlike, it must be said, Cromwell and Napoleon and practically every other military man turned ruler in human history). He was like some sort of Roman myth come to life--and it is a myth, of course. Historians can and have long since given life and shades of gray and context and self-consciousness to all these hagiographic stories about Washington. But all that good history (and if you're going to read about the historical Washington, do read James Thomas Flexner's biography of the man: 4 volumes, and every page a treasure) still can't undermine the basic fact: here is a man who from a very early age imbibed the ideology of republicanism, loved its more popular literary incarnations (like in the play Cato), and devoted himself to living its virtues and enacting its formal conceits. And the result was a man whose public identity so completely fulfilled the people's trust that he could....well, be a lawgiver. Take charge, take office, lay down the strategy, lay down the basic rules and expectations, and then depart, confident that all else would follow as it should. Which it did, more or less. He was not a philosopher, but he understood that in order to make lasting a people who had cut themselves off from their own source of identity, and had only words and deeds and local histories (but not a national one) to support their necessary self-conceptions, great dignity and care needed to be employed to cut for us a path. We were already here, but in an important way, he founded us; we would, very likely, have been lost without him, split apart into mini-states subject to constant replays of Shay's Rebellion. Would that every people could be blessed with a man like him.
Of course, there were nonetheless plenty of tensions in what Washington, riding upon and in some sense embodying the work and inspiration and sacrifice of so many others, enacted for all Americans, slavery being the most prominent. Our feelings about Lincoln are more passionate than those about Washington, and hence more divided; the "new birth of freedom" which we associate (correctly in general, though far from accurately in particular details) with Lincoln and the Civil War utterly burned away whatever tensions Washington's founding pulled us through, and left with a host of other, deeper scars. As I think the very best book about Lincoln's achievement, Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg, makes clear, Lincoln's re-founding was more romantic and aspirational than the one which had taken place 80-odd years previously; Lincoln himself, as is well known, had little desire to see a fully and freely multiracial society emerge in the United States, but he did proposed that the content of that group of people called Americans be something altogether distinct from race or locality. That last one grates on more than a few philosophical conservatives: a people without a place, indeed! Equality (or any other principle) arises from placed habits and history; it cannot be realized through some top-down intellectual intervention, even one backed up by force of arms, no matter how persuasive Jefferson may have such seem. Maybe Lincoln himself didn't believe that either (though I think he did; Jefferson's language was like scripture to Lincoln). But in any case Lincoln, the true father of America's civic religion, freed our attachment to such ideals from the republican, institutional embodiment they'd previously enjoyed in America--he out Rousseau-ed Rousseau, if you will, not so much drawing a general will out from the people as pointing us toward one: a people oriented towards the future, finding themselves in a "proposition." And then he was killed, leaving us alone, re-founded, and with the profound sense that anything which fails Lincoln's prophetic call cannot be called legitimate at all.
Sounds nice, doesn't it? Founding a people through acts of republican or romantic will alone, so long as the appropriate legislator can be found to make it all legitimately general. I don't particularly believe it; unlike David Brooks and all the other American exceptionalists out there, I don't think this country gets a uniquely Rousseauian pass towards legitimacy and away from history. Language still matters, culture still matters, and no amount of forward-thinking aspiration can clear one's politics of those. (Herder was more right than Rousseau.) That doesn't mean I'm a Lincoln-basher, much less a Washington one (on the contrary, I've a painting of the latter on my office wall that I've kept for years). It just means that, also like Rousseau (who was a wonderfully, frustratingly double-minded thinker), I believe politics will probably never escape history, no matter how excellent or willful the founding which gives the polity it's start. Tragedy rules all free states. But in the meantime, I'd rather be forced to recognize these hard historical realities, and the rare (and dangerous) ways to elide them, then to accept a doctrine of simple universals which will result in me being thrown for a loop every time (probably daily, like clockwork) it's revealed that a people need more than just a rational process to consent to. Maybe there's a Washington waiting somewhere in the backstreets of Baghdad; we should all hope there is, because President Bush, I'm afraid, is unlikely to play Moses. Of course, even if there does turn out to be such a person (or persons), and even if an Iraq with Rousseauian legitimacy can be founded out of the midst of conflict, that would still just be the first step. But first steps are worth holidays, at least.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 6:06 PM
Sunday, February 13, 2005
Wampum posted the results yesterday, but only just noticed it (I was away over the weekend on a job interview): this blog made it into the final ten for the 2004 Koufax Award for Blog Most Deserving of Wider Recognition. Thanks to everyone who voted before. If you'd care to vote again, I certainly wouldn't object.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 1:10 PM
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
While in Hawai'i, Melissa and I also caught a showing of House of Flying Daggers. A good, but not a great flick; definitely better than Hero, I think. I was glad we saw it in the theater; I've been a fan of the films of mainland Chinese director Zhang Yimou for years. When I was an undergraduate, Raise the Red Lantern played at our campus's International Cinema, and it was huge with those of us who had spent some time in Asia. I thought it--as did practically everyone else who saw it--a beautiful, wrenching, powerful film. I didn't become a serious fanatic for Zhang's work, however, until I caught his earlier film Ju Dou--which I think is about as earthy, sexy, and emotionally rough a movie as I've ever seen, while also being gloriously heavy with luscious, vibrant colors and visuals. Since then, I've seen just about every movie of his that has made it to the states, whether on the big screen or video, and that includes his aforementioned recent big splashes. And I'm here to tell you: his earlier stuff was better.
I've no interest in dumping on Hero and House; both are fun movies, and interesting experiments with the wuxia genre, which is a kind of classic martial arts-chivalry storytelling tradition. Zhang's skill in framing his characters, building around them scenes of brilliant light, shadow and sound, remains top-notch, and the wire-work and choreography in both films is spectacular. I don't think that fact that Zhang played around with some scenes for their own sake, rather than fitting them into a larger symbolic cinematic language designed especially for the movie, is necessarily a criticism, as Adam Graham-Silverman alleged in a recent TNR essay; as Albert Gilbert pointed in a letter in response, there's nothing wrong with making a movie "pretty": aesthetic reactions are their own justification. Still, it wouldn't surprise me to find that a great many people go into these movies, lured by critical comparisons to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, a truly superlative movie, and come out disappointed. Not because of the violence (or lack thereof--House is the more intense movie, whereas Hero, superficially a much more violent film, blunts the impact of much of the killing by the tight control Zhang maintains over the emotions his actors display), and not because their political or ethical messages are confused (more about which below), but because I just don't think Zhang is able to make these wuxia movies flow. They feel far more pushed by Zhang's determination to make them than anything organic to the plot or the sensibilities of the main characters. In short, they ring artificial, something I never would have said about a Zhang Yimou movie before.
One point which Graham-Silverman gets right in his criticism of Hero and House is that they can be productively compared to musicals. People do not break out into song and dance while going through their everyday lives; the conceit of post-Oklahoma musicals is that, if done right, singing and dancing out a story needn't be reserved for Gilbert and Sullivan-style comedies and fantasies; the music and choreography can actually enhance the "realism" of the tale, putting the excess to use. In wuxia, the fighting is the excess; it is what brings the emotional terrain of the story into gritty, realistic focus by paradoxically making the characters themselves larger than life. Let's stick with Crouching Tiger, since that's a film many are acquainted with. There you saw profoundly different fighting styles, tailored and choreographed to fit into, or conversely be exposed against, disparate tableaux, each in their own way underlining an thematic point: the regal and minimalist combat of Chow Yun-Fat, sweeping through a bamboo forest; the hard-won control of Michelle Yeoh, bit by exhausting bit taking down her adversary on her home territory; the almost hysterical fury of Zhang Ziyi, lashing out with over-the-top moves in a race across a barren desert. Ang Lee direction has never been more fluid; the battle sequences captured the story and carried it forward with an ease that made clear his comfort with a storytelling tradition that he knows by heart. Yes, many were put off by the mystical, obscure ending; but the point is, there was no sense that the characters wouldn't have gotten to that point on their own. Whereas in Zhang Yimou's wuxia movies, I can't help but feel the director moving them forward like chess pieces. The narrative structure of Hero compelling, but also random (why this battle sequence and then that one?); the storyline of House doesn't feel quite as forced, but perhaps that's because Zhang does his best to bury and forget the dynastic struggle which initiates the action in the first place as soon as possible.
Again, Hero and House both make for some great entertainment. But the Zhang Yimou of Ju Dou, Red Lantern, The Story of Qiu Ju or To Live never let anything drop out of place; he directed masterful dramas, whether historical or contemporary, bringing a rich pageant of characters into painful, perplexing contact with one another, without ever giving the sense that he needed to sacrifice one plot point for the sake getting his characters from point A to point B. An abusive husband is made a cuckold; the multiple wives of a distant aristocrat struggle for supremacy; an uneducated peasant woman makes a farcical journey through the communist bureaucracy; a family plagued by tragedy survives the Chinese civil war and the purges which follow it--all this and more was Zhang's meat and drink, and the fact that he could bring such visual style and beauty to such dark and rough material made him, in my view, simply one of the most talented living film directors in the world.
Many Westerners, and not a few Chinese, thought they saw a deep critique of communism and/or China's patriarchal culture lurking in his films, but Zhang has never been a very political director; all the ire which has been directed at Hero for "celebrating authoritarianism" assumes that Zhang ever cared much for the politics of his films in the first place, which simply isn't the case. Zhang's great dramas from the 1980s and 90s often pushed the envelope, and got him censored by the state more than a few times, but it should be clear that his aim was never to agitate against anything, but rather to create extreme situations that he could visually explore and vivify. And he had a vessel for doing so: Gong Li. A stunningly and unconventionally beautiful Chinese actress that Zhang discovered, trained, and promptly fell in love with, she starred in all of his films from Red Sorghum to Shanghai Triad. Alan Stone has written some insightful essays on Zhang Yimou over the years (here, here, and here), and it's his thesis that Zhang's early oeuvre can essentially be reduced to a prolonged meditation on Gong Li "as desire, as beauty, and as subversive inspiration"; when their affair ended and they parted ways professionally, Zhang's muse left him, and he has ever since cast about in vain for a similar actress to focus his artistic vision. (Zhang Ziyi, whom Zhang Yimou has taken under his wing and who appeared in The Road Home as well as Hero and House, may or may not be able to fill that role.) I'm not sure I'd go entirely along with that; not all of his films since he and Gong Li split have been failures, and Zhang does seem to want to experiment with both more fantastic and more documentary styles that perhaps wouldn't have served Gong Li well anyway. But I won't deny that Gong Li is like a Dietrich or a Hepburn, an actress so physically captivating that her visage and performance can used as an emotional palimpsest, upon which a skilled director could write almost any story. There is one moment in To Live, soon after a friend of the family at the center of the film suffers a great tragedy, and speaks as though his life has no meaning. He is plainly is toying with suicide. Years before, a mistake of his had cost this family dear, and Gong Li, the matriarch, had insisted he owned them "a life." As this utterly defeated and hopeless man staggers off into the night Gong Li suddenly bursts from the doorway, denying him the right to kill himself: "You owe us a life! You can't take yours; we claim it; we won't let you have it!" It is a beautiful moment, practically saintly--and yet, as Zhang Yimou filmed it, it flowed naturally, without any of the artificiality and formalism which deadened the self-sacrifice in Hero.
Anyway, if you've liked Zhang's latest films, and you're not opposed to learning more about Chinese cinema outside the wuxia genre, you could do far, far worse than to find a good video store and become familiar with Zhang Yimou's and Gong Li's collaborations. You won't be disappointed.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 1:14 AM
Monday, February 07, 2005
So where were we? Hawai'i, that's where--specifically, the Big Island (Hawai'i); more specifically, the southwest side of the island, referred to as the Kona Coast. About eight years ago my parents purchased a time-share condominium just south of Kailua-Kona, the main town on that part of the island, and they've been traveling there for a few weeks every January ever since. Each year, they invite one or more of their nine children and their families and grandkids to come along for a week or so; as I mentioned, because my schedule doesn't leave us free time once the school year starts it was a real scramble to make it possible to join my parents when our turn rolled around. But this was far too wonderful an opportunity to pass up, and somehow we made it work. We flew into Honolulu on Oahu on January 21st, caught a flight to the Big Island the next morning, and spent the next 9 days enjoying paradise (allowing for numerous hours wasted dealing with a baby who adapted both slowly and loudly to the time change). If you're interested, you can find more photos than you can shake a stick at here. It was a glorious, glorious vacation.
Everyone always likes recommendations, so here are ours. 1) Pick up a copy of The Big Island Revealed; as a friend who'd been to Hawai'i recently and recommended this to us wrote in a e-mail, it's worth its weight in gold. (The rest of the recommendations assume you're staying on the west side of the island; if you're not, or if you're visiting a different island, I can't help you.) 2) Hit a beach or two in Kohala, the northwest coast; we recommend Hapuna or Mauna Kea. 3) Learn to snorkel or scuba dive, and hit Kealakekua Bay, Kahalu'u Beach, or Pu'uhonua o Honaunau; we swam at the first two, and saw numerous sea turtles, tropical fish, and some rare eels. 4) Do a luau; we really liked the one at the Royal Kona Resort. 5) Hike around Volcanoes National Park--it's a great place to explore (though keep your expectations low; for all you know, some really spectacular stuff will happen on the day you leave Hawai'i). 6) Swing by South Point and the black sand beach at Punalu'u; fascinating scenery worth the look. 7) Don't overcrowd your days--take some time to sit back, look at the sky, watch the surf, enjoy locally grown fruit (better pineapples then I've ever tasted here on the mainland) and smell the coffee (literally: the hillsides above Kona are crowded with tiny little coffee plantations, and the smell of the coffee beans is particularly aromatic on early morning drives). It's paradise, after all. (For some more specific, food-centric recommendations, check out my friend's blog entry here.)
Of course, I can't help but turn practically every event in my life into some occasion for philosophical speculation, and Hawai'i was no exception. Years ago, when Megan was only one, Melissa and I had the opportunity to leave our little girl behind and go on a cruise through the Caribbean. We visited St. Maarten, Barbados, Antigua, Martinique, and more. Beautiful weather, wonderful beaches, great food. We didn't like it. We didn't like being hustled from place to place by the boat's schedule; we didn't like visiting ports whose local economies had been so overwhelmed by the impact of tourism that exploring the island was for all practical purposes restricted to a couple of well-worn paths (St. Maarten was probably the best exception to this); and most of all we didn't like not having Megan along with us. We decided, long before we'd even reached the halfway point, that the sort of vacations we enjoyed were the ones which gave you the opportunity to get somewhere and stay there, go grocery shopping and check out the lay of the land, learn some history and some people's names, and so forth. Someplace that can be, for however short a time, a home away from home, with the sort of openness that allows you to carve out a space for your kids and everyday life. I suppose almost any locale can function as such, though some places are so crowded, or so worn down economically, that it's just not feasible to visit them outside the programmed, limited, existing tourist infrastructure (unless, of course, one chooses to move there to stay, in which case the question dramatically changes). In Hawai'i though, at least on the Big Island, it's very feasible indeed.
Of course, that's not why my parents chose to purchase a condo there; they liked it because of the weather (almost never more than 85 degrees Fahrenheit, almost never less than 65), the scenery, and the golf (that's my dad's criteria). But I'm so grateful they did, and not simply because they have enough money left over to enable their children and grandchildren to join them every once in a while. I'm grateful because, in visiting them there, Melissa and the girls and I get to see a lot of open and undeveloped and beautiful land, and a lot of people who have found their own little corner of paradise and go about their daily lives keeping it that way; in short, a gorgeous and still relatively simple place. People drive slow (the roads are two-lane, and often not good), the shopping options are limited, and you either conform to the environment or head back to Honolulu (or the mainland). Sure, I'm painting with a broad brush here: there are plenty of pricey resorts all over the island, and they deliver food and entertainment and services with all the speed and efficiency that one might expect from a complex tourist economy. Land prices have skyrocketed along the coast, and homes are springing up all over the place (my parents have been going back there long enough that they can rattle off all the changes without a second thought). And yet the socio-economic stakes, so to speak, are still pretty small. Head up from the coastline, into the forests that cover the hillsides, and you've got farmers and ranchers and fishermen living day to day, ex-hippies and local Hawaiians rubbing shoulders with long-time Japanese immigrants and various European refugees, any one of which you're likely to bump into on the beach or at the one big Costco up the road where most everyone shops at least once a month or so. It's a remarkable place, possibly the most multicultural non-urban environment I've ever encountered, and one in every way inviting to people who are looking for a vacation that will allow them to step off the road and find their own pace for a while, rather than rush even faster to get it all in.
As I said, there are probably near endless opportunities for these kind of breaks, if you look for them. For an uncle of mine, it's my grandfather's old cabin, a rustic place in the woods north of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. For a fellow I knew at Catholic University, it was a little town on the Chesapeake Bay, where he could watch the sailboats on Sundays and grab some local grub. Folks around here talk about going up into the Ozarks and going fishing at Norfolk Lake. While there are any number of ways one vacation spot might be placed against another in a kind of simplicity sweepstakes, the best places all share something in common: they're aren't constructed, primarily, as destinations, but rather remain livable places that one can, with a little effort, slip into and find one's own way for a time.
That "slipping in," I suppose, might be a point that could be turned against me here: what are the costs of getting into and staying in the place, in terms of up-front cash as well as the impact on the aforementioned socio-economic environment? Am I just repeating the otherwise elitist line "go somewhere before everyone else does?" Perhaps--but hopefully only partly. Yes, the money involved in "slipping in" to Kona-Kailua runs quickly into the thousands of dollars, especially when you're flying with kids. And it's not like the condo owners are doing their own landscaping. Every location I suggested above is significantly altered by the investment which vacationers represent, and surely there are hierarchies perpetuated by that: those that can travel, and those who can't; those who serve the travelers, and those that are served. But I wonder if it wouldn't be the case that more could travel, and more could find their own place where they could in turn be served, if those who do travel and seek service would scale back--not necessarily in distance and expense (hell, go to Ireland if you can afford it; I'd love to visit there someday), but in the spatiality of one's plans. Avoid the resorts and the packaged tours; instead, break out the maps and guide books and focus on the walkways and marketplaces and parks. Sure, we're all going to splurge here and there, but no one needs kalua pig every night. Put the kids in the car and drive (though not at Christmas!); pick up what you need along the way; and if you end up a long way from home, try to make yourself at home nonetheless: you may find the folks around you making your living part of theirs. (I'd take the girls swimming late at night at the pool at the condominium, and found that frequently locals--kids and grandkids and friends and hanger-ons of employees--showed up to swim at the same time; somehow I doubt that was the case at the Four Seasons up the road.)
The planned and deeply entrenched destinations of the modern tourist economy, it might be argued, are more populist because they're available to more people--a trip which can be streamlined is a trip that can be cheapened (hence cruise ships packed to gills, with cabins shrunk to the size of a bed, shower, and TV set). I'll grant that some places might well just be destinations simpliciter, and it's condescending to expect anyone to treat them otherwise. Who am I to dump on the bus tours to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and Tunica, after all? Sometimes a working person just wants to not do the dishes for a while, right? Sure. But I suspect that, more often than not, your average traveler is going to go further, see more, and even get more rest, when they choose not to do it all, or have it all delivered to them in some complicated way. As generations of backpackers have discovered, trains and hostels have their own rewards. So does traveling with kids, or going back to the same place year after year, or relying on the fruit stand guy for dinner recommendations rather staying someplace with an all-night concierge. I don't know when, if ever, we'll visit Hawai'i again. But I do know that not a small part of the beauty of the place was found in the fact that, having arrived (no simple matter, I admit), the island wasn't waiting on our hand and foot. It was doing its own thing, going about its own business on its own clock--which frankly, gave us the encouragement we needed to turn off our own.
Posted by Russell Arben Fox at 2:11 PM