Lockdown hits different for Moms…

The lockdown has been strange and difficult for everybody, but one demographic that has been particularly impacted is mothers.

I happen to be on maternity leave, luckily. I weren’t, I don’t know how I could possibly teach online, mark assessments, answer e-mails, etc. on top of caring for my baby, teaching my primary schooler, cooking, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. I’m exhausted just from doing the 50’s housewife thing, plus teaching one kid. Doing any research on top of all of that is unimaginable.

It looks like I’m not the only academic mom who’s completely absorbed with childcare/domestic concerns during the lockdown. This article in the Guardian shows how common it is—while journal article submissions from men have actually increased during the lockdown, women’s research outputs have dropped significantly.

Our work is the first thing to fall by the wayside in a crisis. One thing that struck me in the article, though, was that even an immunologist, somebody whose work has actual relevance for the crisis– who’s actually giving lectures on COVID-19–is facing the same challenges of balancing work and home responsibilities.

She is quick to point out that her husband has taken on a lot at home too, but because she earns less, and can be more flexible about when she works, the bulk of the childcare falls to her.

Anna Fazackerley, The Guardian

When I read that paragraph, it felt like my parenthood/career journey summed up, capturing the conflict between what makes sense and what feels right. I don’t want to complain–like this woman “is quick to point out,” my husband helps, too. I should be grateful–but then I think of the satirical “Man Who Has It All” posts like this:

Man Who Has It All

It makes sense to put my career on hold, to embrace maternity leave and quarantine homeschooling, to do the bulk of the housework, shopping and meal planning, etc. I’m happy to do it, most of the time.

But… I feel like an idiot and a failure for not having an established career—I’ve got a PhD, a few publications, but not a permanent contract or even a full-time post yet. And shouldn’t I be working on that? Shouldn’t the half-finished books and articles and proposals get some attention?

The Mom guilt voice says no, your kids are not going to be babies forever—embrace this time together! Your work can wait! (How unfair that men don’t seem to have an equivalent voice in their heads…)

The lockdown offers a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace motherhood (or parenthood) and domesticity–whether you actually want to or not.

Staying locally, Looking globally

At one point in the not-too-distant past, COVID-19 was a relatively minor news item–the virus didn’t even have a name, it just sounded like another SARS, and cases were linked to specific areas. Now, it’s a pandemic and there have been over 1.2 million cases and 60,000 deaths worldwide. Much of the world is now living under social distancing measures, ranging from full lock-down to more voluntary guidelines.

Everything’s changed so quickly–it’s hard to believe that it’s just been a few weeks. In mid-January, our local GP clinic had a little sign up on the door saying not to come in if you had recently travelled to one of the countries on their list and presented the listed symptoms. That clinic is now completely locked-down, with dozens of signs and taped off entrances, and the walk-in clinic and all non-essential appointments have been cancelled. I had to take my son in for his 8-week vaccinations, which thankfully was deemed essential. We had to be triaged on the phone, then they had to unlock the door to let us into the empty waiting room. The nurse who gave him his jabs was in full protective gear, too–I’m grateful for her sake that she had it, when there are so many stories of frontline healthcare staff working without adequate kit.

It’s been a surreal experience, living through this pandemic and its countless impacts. Social media has been a lifeline, enabling interaction with friends and family around the world as we all go through it together, separately. It’s been interesting (and often upsetting) to see how different countries deal with the virus. As an Italophile with friends in and from the country, it’s been particularly heartbreaking to see what’s happening in Italy. This viral video was an excellent example of people-to-people international communication:

When the video was posted on 15 March, we were still living as normal. We were commuting to work, doing the school run, shopping for non-essentials, attending public events, etc. My nephews in Minnesota, as well as family and friends in Washington state, had their schools closed that week, and ours were closed the week after. My friends and family and I are all living under slightly different restrictions and timelines, but we’re all going through this together.

The pandemic is a global experience that truly highlights our common humanity and underscores what really matters–physical and mental health, and interpersonal relationships. This is an opportunity to humanize international relations, not through exchange and face-to-face contact, but through shared experiences on a global scale.

The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.

What I’m Reading: Disarmed

Kristin A. Goss, Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

When I was in high school, my friend Rachael took me along to see Bowling for Columbine (2002) at a little independent movie theater in Mount Vernon, Washington. I wasn’t particularly aware of the gun control vs. gun rights debate before watching that movie, but that movie made me realize that America’s gun culture wasn’t normal. Like Michael Moore’s 2007 film Sicko about the healthcare debate, this movie used a comparative approach to show that ‘the way things are’ in America isn’t the way they are in other countries.

The recent El Paso and Dayton mass shootings drove that point home again, powerfully–this doesn’t happen in other countries. It’s not normal. “American exceptionalism” is evidenced in the government’s impotent attitude toward gun violence.

Growing up in the States, I knew people who owned guns–deer hunters, people (white men, to be specific) who wanted them for “self-protection” (which I’ve never understood–protection from what? Why do I feel safe without a gun, even in sketchy areas, but a tall, athletic guy I knew needed a gun to feel as safe as I do?). When I lived in the States, I didn’t think to question the Second Amendment and I took gun rights for granted.

Now, after a decade living in the UK, a country that banned handguns after the Dunblane, Scotland school shooting in 1986, my views on gun control no longer have a place in American politics. Even the most progressive Democrats believe in upholding the Second Amendment. Their current proposals are “the boldest language used in 20-25 years”, but they’re still not banning assault weapons, much less handguns.

Much of the academic literature on America’s gun debate centres on explaining why the NRA/gun lobby is so powerful and well-organised. Goss turns that question around to ask why the gun control advocates are so weak and ineffective. Where is the “missing movement for gun control”, as she calls it? Part of the answer lies in the American policy-making system, which makes national change difficult without large-scale mobilisation–and the necessary degree of mobilisation just hasn’t been seen on the gun control side, to overpower (or even compete against) the gun rights side.

Her book is part of my literature review for the study I’m doing on gun debate discourse post-Parkland, so I’m interested in this idea of mobilisation. The March for Our Lives on 24 March 2018 was, arguably, the kind of grassroots mobilisation that gun control advocates needed in order to get gun policy reform passed. But did it? What has changed since Parkland, in terms of actual policy?

As part of my study, I’ve been coding Congressional Twitter over the month after the Parkland shooting, so I’m familiar with all of the policy proposals that were circulating in those early days and weeks. They were, unsurprisingly, polarized. On the right, it was mostly arming teachers and increasing school security, while on the left it was a range of proposals–Fix NICS (improving the background check system), universal background checks, banning assault weapons, gun violence restraining orders, etc. The STOP School Violence Act passed with bipartisan support, but its proposals were a first step rather than comprehensive reform, and it had nothing to do with gun control. For several Republican members of Congress, their only mentions of Parkland or the gun debate were a “thoughts & prayers” tweet on 14 February, then a tweet about their support of the STOP act when it passed on 14 March. After seeing that pattern, over and over (and some “NRA A-grade” congresspeople didn’t mention it at all), I’m a bit cynical about policy change, and about the state of the gun debate in general.

Goss, however, is impressed by the March for our Lives movement and the current state of mobilization on the gun control side.

“The movement is much broader and better resourced and more pragmatic and strategic than it has been in the 20 years I’ve been studying it,” Goss said.

” One year later, experts say Parkland was ‘turning point’ in gun debate”, 14 February 2019

The same article pointed out a range of new laws and regulations at the state level, in 26 states and D.C.:

  • Seven states enacted extensions or improvements of background checks
  • Nine states and D.C. enacted laws banning the use of bump stocks and trigger activators
  • Five states tightened concealed carry laws
  • Eleven states passed laws to help keep firearms away from domestic abusers
  • Eight states and D.C. passed extreme risk protection order statutes
  • Four states passed new restrictions on firearm purchases by those under 21
  • Nine states passed laws to fund urban gun violence reduction programs

The list gave me some hope. 26 states is a majority, even though it’s a very slim one. I suspect those lefty, urbanised states include quite a lot more than 50% of the US population (I think a lot of people forget how massive California’s population is–one in eight Americans lives in California!). I think Goss’s observation about sustained mobilisation still rings true today, though–gun control advocates need to be as organised, high-profile and noisy as the gun rights side are with the NRA. They have a lot more money and influence of course, but as Goss points out, large-scale grassroots movements have changed things before–the Civil Rights movement, women’s rights, etc. The challenge is going to be translating popular support into mass mobilization. In a poll from last week, 90% of Americans support universal background checks for all gun purchases and nearly 70% support an assault-style weapons ban. It’s amazing to hear about that kind of consensus in our divided “red vs. blue” politics. The American people actually agree on some of the major proposals. Now they just need to care about advocating for them as much as the NRA cares about expanding gun rights…

Happy 73rd Anniversary to the Fulbright Program!

On this day in 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law. As I did in last year’s post, the program’s anniversary is always an occasion to reflect on the program and what it’s achieved over the years.

Thinking back over its 73 year history, one of the things that stands out most to me is the program’s consistency and stability. The Fulbright Program has shown an amazing ability to survive. It’s outlasted political chaos and economic fluctuations, wars and diplomatic crises, and supportive and critical occupants of the White House.

Recently, I was looking through my old archive photos from University of Arkansas trip, and I came across this gem. The clipping was enclosed in a letter to J.W. Fulbright from Arkansas Gazette editor James O. Powell (Fulbright’s reply letter was dated 9 January 1978). At the time, the Fulbright Program was being shifted from the US State Department to the new, reorganised version of the US Information Agency (USIA), the US International Communication Agency (USICA). This Carter-era bureaucratic shift wasn’t an attempt to turn exchanges into propaganda, as the cartoon suggests. The Carter administration was supportive of exchanges, and it was really more of an effort to shift USIA towards two-way, mutual understanding promotion, instead of its original overseas ‘information’ (propaganda) remit. Despite the fact I disagree with this characterisation of the Carter administration’s USICA, I still like the cartoon, because it perfectly captures the tension between the two conceptualisations of exchange diplomacy–is it about education and culture, or is it about persuasion and national images? Are they mutually exclusive concepts, or is there room for both aspects in exchanges?

University of Arkansas Library Special Collections, Fulbright Post-Senatorial Papers, Series 4, Box 22, Folder 2.

Note the “America First” slogan on the eagle, too–Trump didn’t invent the phrase. This attitude is nothing new, and it’s part of a bigger concept of what the US is/does/stands for. I love that it’s opposed to education and culture. That’s appropriate for the current wave of populist politics–cutting public education funding, cutting the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, rejecting climate science and vaccine research, generally anti-expertise attitudes.

Yet, despite all of that, the Fulbright Program carries on, as it has for the past 73 years, quietly bringing students and scholars, professors and researchers into contact with their international colleagues, facilitating the exchange of ideas and promoting mutual understanding. When America’s President is viewed unfavourably around the world, the American people are still regarded in a positive light–and I think it’s thanks, in part, to interpersonal contact.

Pew Research Center, 2018

When you can relate the abstract idea of America to an actual person you know, not just Hollywood, or Coca-Cola, or blue jeans, or Disney, you can get past its leader. This gives some hope for other countries, too–if you know a British person, you’ll know they’re not all like Boris Johnson. My Chinese students are not Xi Jinping, my Brazilian friends are not Bolsonaro, etc. (That said, when you have a leader that’s viewed favourably, it helps!)

May the Fulbright Program continue bringing people together, showing Americans and international participants the realities of life in other countries and cultures, and promoting genuine mutual understanding of international affairs that goes beyond the headlines.

Out now! The Legacy of J. William Fulbright: Policy, Power and Ideology

The edited volume with my book chapter is now officially published! It’s listed on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, Google Books, Jstor, and sometimes I’m even listed as a contributing author! I’m so excited to see it in print! I love the cover, too–it has a definite 1960s, retro feel to it, and the ’60’s were the Senator’s prime years.

This book came out of a fantastic conference I took part in at the University of Arkansas, 1-2 September 2015.

I’m hiding away behind Nancy Snow–it was such a great experience to finally meet her, talk about our mutual interests in exchange diplomacy, and share memories of Phil Taylor!

My chapter is much improved after being rewritten a couple of times since then, and it’s not the only thing that’s changed:

9 week old George in our conference hotel room…
Our walking, talking 4 year old George today!

I’m so proud of the editors and contributors for all of their hard work, and so grateful that I had the opportunity to take part in this project. It covers a great mix of biography, history, sociology and public diplomacy. All academic books try to emphasise their originality, but it really does add some new perspectives and insights on the Senator and on his namesake exchange program. My chapter and Alice Garner & Diane Kirkby’s chapter bring a discussion of gender to the collection that, until now, has been ignored in studies of the Fulbright Program. Well done everybody!

Diplomacy and Twitter Rants

A Chinese diplomat in Pakistan, Lijian Zhao, recently took to Twitter to criticise US race relations, in response to US criticism of China’s mass detentions of the Muslim Uighur population. After receiving a degree of backlash, including being called racist by former US national security adviser Susan Rice, Zhao then added further critiques of American culture, including gun violence, migrant family separation, and sexual assault.

Zhao deleted his original tweet but doubled down on his previous point, going on to describe the “living conditions of African Americans” as “worrisome”, and highlighting the country’s “endless” school shootings, and women “living in fear” of sexual assault. “Truth hurts. I am simply telling the truth,” he wrote.

Lily Kuo, China’s Envoys try out Trump-Style Twitter diplomacy, The Guardian, 17 July 2019

So, this is where we are now…global politics playing out in Twitter rants. As a political communication researcher who’s been looking at politicians’ Twitter accounts for the past several months, I feel like I should have something substantial to say here, but when I saw the phrase “Trump-style Twitter diplomacy,” I was a bit lost for words. It’s bad enough he does it–now others are copying him? Sigh.

The argument “Well, you do it, too!” is a weak one. It only underscores the notion that the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighur population is indefensible. It’s not the first time they’ve tried to use this argument, either–since 1998, the Chinese government has been publishing an annual report, The Human Rights Record of the United States, as a rebuttal against U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record.

It’s also not the first time America’s history of racial discrimination and segregation has been used by critics on the international stage. During the Cold War, race relations in the U.S. were a common theme of Soviet propaganda. According to this piece from NYU’s Brennan Center, Soviet officials identified African Americans as having “revolutionary potential” as early as 1928. During the years of anti-Jim Crow activism, the Soviet strategy primarily consisted of simply reprinting factual news that was damaging to the U.S. image abroad.

Efforts to counter the USSR’s narrative about American racism were undercut by the fact that Soviet propaganda typically involved the reprinting and distribution of unaltered U.S. news sources about racial issues. For instance, the Soviets showcased American news outlets’ photographs of black protesters being hit with fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963.

Patel and Koreh, 2018, New Method, Same Strategy: Russia Has Long Exploited US Racial Divisions. Brennan Center for Justice,

Although they misappropriated the civil rights movements’ images for their own purposes, they were right to criticise US race relations. It was true–America did (and does) have problems and picking up on hypocrisy is something that adversaries do best, while allies might turn a blind eye. Zhao is right to say that the US still has problems with race relations, with school shootings, with sexual assault–but America failing in these areas doesn’t justify China’s treatment of the Uighur minority, or any of its other human rights abuses.

And this is the problem with Twitter rant diplomacy. The platform is simplistic, with character limits and re-tweet features that don’t lend themselves well to reasoned deliberation and fact-checking. That’s why Trump and his supporters like it, and that’s why it has such enormous potential for populist leaders who don’t perform as well in more controlled, nuanced media environments. If you don’t like someone, you can block them–and Trump does, frequently, as one of my favorite bloggers found out before he was President.

The whole thing is doubly interesting when you consider the audience for Zhao’s tweets. They’re clearly not for Chinese audiences. Since 2009, Twitter has been blocked in China, because Twitter wouldn’t adhere to the Chinese government’s requirements for censorship and surveillance (their own microblogging platform, Sina Weibo, does have censorship–and self-censorship). Zhao’s tweets were also written in English, which suggests that anglophone global audiences were the target, if not exclusively American audiences. It’s not directed at Pakistan, despite the fact he is based in Islamabad. It’s for the Tweeter-in-Chief and the US administration and its observers to hear.

Back Where I Come From

It’s been a very ugly week in U.S. politics, with Trump doubling down on his racist tweets about the four progressive American Congresswomen known as The Squad. It was unbelievable, and yet completely typical of him. This Anderson Cooper clip summed it up nicely, pointing out that Trump’s racism is just who he is:

The argument of “If you’re not happy here, you can leave” goes against fundamental American values. In 1776, unhappy colonists didn’t “go back” to Europe–they fought for independence. In 1861, when the Confederate states tried to leave a country they didn’t like, the Union didn’t let them. Suffragettes, labor reformers and civil rights leaders didn’t “just leave”–throughout American history, progressives have stayed right where they are and made the country better.

For my own part, as a white American with British ancestry living in Britain, I kind of did “go back” where I “came from”…And it’s not as easy as it sounds! It’s been a lengthy and expensive process that will never really be over, even if I live here for the rest of my life. Even after 10+ years, I still get asked where I’m from on a regular basis. People mean it in a nice way, (they’re usually just showing a genuine interest in America because they’ve been there or have family there) but it gets old–and I can’t imagine how painful and annoying it must be for long-term residents who are asked that question in a racist/discriminatory way.

China and global higher education

In terms of the global flow of international students, there’s no bigger actor than China–they send hundreds of thousands of students overseas each year (662,100 in 2018) and institutions in the US, UK, Australia and Canada compete for them and the economic benefits and cultural diversity they bring to campus with them. There has been an expansion of higher education opportunities for Chinese students, with more students from ordinary backgrounds pursuing degrees overseas–it’s no longer exclusively for wealthy elites. Chinese students are also increasingly likely to return home after their studies–fears of international higher education contributing to the ‘brain drain’ phenomenon are not reflected in practice.

The Diplomat recently featured an interview with former Ambassador and current VP of International Programs at Washington State University, Dr. Asif Chaudhry. When Dr. Chaudhry was asked about U.S. policymakers’ concerns about Confucius Institutes (CI), his response captured the key elements of the debate very clearly & concisely:

“This can be a very controversial topic because of the potential for conflicts among issues of protecting U.S. interests, principles of academic freedom, and concern over curricular control and Chinese state censorship. In this complex environment, it is important to not lose sight of the value of promoting shared cultural understanding. It seems more productive to ask a somewhat different set of questions: a) is the current CI model the best way to achieve the goals of providing Chinese language learning and Chinese cultural understanding and/or, b) how else can this be done without hosting a CI in an era in which it is crucial to intellectually engage with China and protect the integrity of the goals and values of higher education?”

Dr. Asif Chaudhry, US-Asia Education Exchange: The Impact of Public Diplomacy

I particularly liked his second question, the idea of alternative ways of engaging with China that go beyond the Confucius Institute. Exchanges are an obvious answer, as are overseas campuses that bring Western institutions to mainland China. Last year, the government ended many of its partnerships with foreign universities, but they remain a significant link between Chinese students and Western faculty.

I also liked Dr. Chaudhry’s emphasis on cultural understanding. He connected discussions of U.S. policy towards Asian students to larger questions of cultural exchange and understanding.

“Without exposing U.S. students and scholars to other cultures of the world and vice versa, we cannot ensure a mindful understanding and appreciation of each other in a global economy. Policy decisions that inhibit the free flow of ideas or the ability to interact with each other are ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests at large.”

ibid.

Connecting U.S. interests to international education is a classic way of generating political support–Senator Fulbright did it in the 50’s when he argued for exchange funding as part of a larger Cold War strategy. Today, it might be the global economy instead–very important, especially in light of Trump’s trade war with China. American policymakers worry about the impact of Confucius Institutes, but the trade war has much more immediate, tangible effects that are worth worrying about.

Overtourism: our “Bucket List”-checking, Instagramming Problem

An article recently appeared in The Atlantic about the problem of “overtourism”, with the headline “Too Many People Want to Travel“. The problems raised by an increased volume of tourism are serious, and the article mentions several examples, from the recent deaths on Mount Everest, due to overcrowding, to environmental damage. In the news, too, we see a range of problems facing popular tourist destinations. Last week a cruise ship crashed into a Venice dock, just the most recent offense in a longer trend of the city’s “low quality tourism” problem.

Overtourism is caused, in part, by the cultural factors of checking off ‘bucket lists’ (and the best-selling book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die) and social media being used to share travel photos. When you visit the Louvre, you must take a picture of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, even though it looks just like you thought it would, and everybody else is holding their phone up, straining to get a picture of the dark, small portrait.

This is what it looks like in real life–La Gioconda, surrounded by people taking selfies with her

The article points out that Instagram, Yelp and TripAdvisor are amongst the social media platforms contributing to overtourism.

“Social media are at work, too, with apps such as Instagram leading tourists to pitch over cliffs and clog vital roadways in search of the perfect pic, and sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor making restaurants, museums, and beaches discoverable and thus ruinable. Overtourism itself is a media phenomenon as much as it is anything else.”

Annie Lowrey (2019), Too Many People Want to Travel, The Atlantic, 4 June

The idea that travelling is being ruined by photography predates Instagram–Susan Sontag’s essays On Photography talked about the shaping of tourism since the early days of the medium.

“It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along. Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that fun was had…Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.”

Susan Sontag, 1977, In Plato’s Cave, On Photography, p. 6.

My initial reaction to the headline was to think that it was very classist. It’s unfair to the blame these problems on the people who can now afford to travel, whereas in the past they simply couldn’t afford to do so. It’s not as though these masses didn’t want to travel before, and now Instagram has inspired them to hop on a flight. A range of macroeconomic developments has made it possible for them to travel more. And now that they can, they’re ‘ruining it’–it’s become too ‘common’, the critics are saying.

It reminded me of the snobbery towards tourists in A Room With a View, E.M. Forster’s Edwardian classic about English tourists in Florence. When the local Anglican chaplain Mr. Eager asks the heroine if she’s in Florence as a student of art, she replies that she is a tourist.

“Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little–handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker, their one anxiety to get ‘done’ or ‘through’ and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl.”

Mr. Eager, A Room With a View, Chapter 6
I love a good Merchant-Ivory adaptation…

The overtourism panic sounds like the snobbish views of Mr. Eager, who looks down on tourists from a privileged position as an expat and mocks their guidebook-recommended itineraries as being superficial and inauthentic. This kind of attitude dismisses the idea that tourism has value, both for the travellers and the travel industry. It pours money into an area–it does so in an imbalanced and seasonal way, perhaps, but try telling those whose jobs depend on tourism that fewer people should be travelling.

It contributes to culture learning and exposes visitors to new ideas, new food, new ways of life. The expansion in the number of people travelling, broadening it beyond just the few elites who could afford it, means more people get to experience these things. Some might be nostalgic for the early days of commercial air travel, when every seat was first class and people dressed up, but that’s a classist attitude that suggests things were better when average, working class people were priced out. The cheap airlines and holiday package deals might be causing problems, but they’re also making travel accessible to more people–and in a late-capitalist culture where we’ve been told we should value travel and ‘experiences not stuff’, how can that be wrong?

Lowrey acknowledges this side in the conclusion, admitting that the increase in tourism has some positive impacts as well.

These phenomena inevitably mean more complaints from locals, and more damage and lines and selfies and bad behavior. But they also mean more cross-cultural exposure, more investment, more global connection, more democratization of travel, and perhaps more awe and wonder. Even overtourism has its upsides.

Lowrey (2019)

While I readily acknowledge the negative aspects (especially the carbon footprint), I still think that ultimately, more people seeing more of the world is a good thing.