Archive for the 'travel' Category

On political education and international travel

Friday, January 14th, 2011

I suggest that any of you readers who have never actually traveled internationally, do so.  I’ve been surprised at the naivete of commenters on issues such as how Wikileaks volunteer Jake Appelbaum was treated at US Customs.

Not only will you learn how airports are physically arranged to control the movements of international travelers and their luggage.  You’ll learn how cellphone frequencies are jammed by the government in the customs area so your phone won’t work (but not out on the tarmac after the plane lands — so call or text your friends or relatives before getting off the plane, so they’ll know you landed). You’ll discover that the constitutional rights you expect inside the US do not work at the US border; you can’t just leave, or phone your lawyer, or not be searched.  There is more variety to life than the part you’ve experienced so far.

You’ll also get some experience transiting the borders of various countries, US and others.  If you’re a US citizen living in the US, you’ll encounter US customs more often than any other - every time you come home.

In my experience, and the experience of many others I have known, the US is the worst border in the world that I’ve crossed.  And I’m a citizen!  Try flying in to San Francisco from Amsterdam (because you like the service on th airline KLM, or because Schiphol airport is one of the best-organized in Europe).  You’ll discover that the incredibly intelligent people in Customs always presume you’re secretly smuggling hashish — as if there wasn’t 60x as much hashish in California as in the Netherlands, and at better prices, too.

The vast majority of border crossings in the world involve little or no paperwork, very few searches.  You are typically waved right through without even a question.  They stamp your passport and maybe collect a little squeeze (”departure tax”) and you’re on your way.  One big difference between the US and most countries is that in the US, you have more rights in theory; in the other countries, the governments have more power to harass you.  But in practice, US officials often harass you right up to the border of their power and beyond (pushing the limit), while most countries harass you far, far less than they theoretically could.  There’s something in the attitude and training of US cops/guards/etc that makes them much pushier, more robotic, more nasty, and less human than the cops in most countries.

I’ve visited at least 20 countries, on both business and vacation, and nobody took my luggage apart down to the individual items in the first-aid kit.  Nobody tried to strip-search me.  Nobody took away my innocuous water-bottle (until the US started demanding it of them).  Nobody recorded in their database about me what books I was carrying and what answers I’d made to their “idle” questions.  Nobody searched me fifty miles from the border, inside the country.  Except the Americans.

No government is 100% honest, just like no person or business is 100% honest.  Power corrupts.  You can often tell how honest a country’s government is by looking at how accountable government employees and politicians are.  Do they lose their jobs and get prosecuted, perhaps going to jail, when they screw up in a big way?  When they torture innocents (or even when they torture the guilty)?  Are they voted out of office when they start wars of aggression and bankrupt the country?  Do they go on to prestigious law school jobs after leaving their government job of advising the leaders that they can commit any crime and break any provision of the constitution because they’re the president?  Are there any viable political parties who actually disagree with each other on anything substantive (like the above issues)?  When the closer you get to the seat of executive power, the more corrupt and unaccountable everyone is, you start to get a clue about what degree of honesty is present in your government.

Every country has a different system for dealing with this sort of issues, and in case you hadn’t figured it out, the system in the United States is not automatically “the best”.  You actually have to look at, discuss, or live under the different systems, and compare them in your own mind to determine which is best.  (PS:  Don’t fret at your naivete; everybody is born ignorant and every country tells its citizens that it’s the best country.  Just get out of your country to somewhere else and see what you actually believe after you have some evidence.)