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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Traveling With A Conservative? Have You Read The Ugly American?

When I was 13-- and all my friends were studying for their bar mitzvahs-- I was making my first big hitch-hiking excursion. My grandparents were in South Beach, which was very grandparent-friendly back then, for Easter and I decided to see what hitching would be like. Brooklyn to Florida with $20 and a toothbrush in my pocket. I got as far as the New Jersey Turnpike and got arrested. They made my father come pick me up. He gave me the dough for a Greyhound. But it wasn't about the destination. I wanted to try out hitchhiking. I had plans.

A couple years later-- having sent farming implements and seeds ahead, care of poste restante-- I set out for Tonga. This time I think I had nearly $90… and it was for life. I said goodbye to everyone and hitched to California and stowed away on a boat bound for New Zealand, where I planned to stow away on another boat bound for Tonga. There were two a year back then. I was discovered on the boat in San Pedro Harbor and beaten up by some drunk watchman. So I went back to Brooklyn. But I've been traveling ever since.

And not to Disneyland or Aruba. After college I flew to Germany, bought a VW van and drove to Morocco. But Morocco was just a practice trip, like South Beach had been. After Morocco, I drove my girlfriend up to England so we could be at the Isle of Wight Festival and see Dylan and Hendrix and so she could catch a plane back to the U.S. to complete her last year at college. I drove to India. Not just India-- Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, all the way down the west coast of India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then all the way up the east coast of India to Nepal. And then back to Europe. I was away almost 7 years. What a glorious adventure! Sometimes I write about it on here and sometimes there's call to bring up my travels at my political blog, Down With Tyranny. This is from a post from 2009 about looking for peace in Afghanistan.
There aren't many members of Congress who have traveled extensively out of the country. In his delightful book, Fire-Breathing Liberal, Rep. Robert Wexler marvels at how many of his Republican colleagues [on the House Foreign Relations Committee] seem to think not possessing a passport is a badge of honor! Last weekend I spent some time with Rep. Barbara Lee who is no longer surprised when she talks with Republicans who haven't been-- and don't want to be-- outside of the U.S. The opposite extreme would be one member who certainly qualifies for the Century Club, Rep. Alan Grayson. When I told him I was going to Mali, he was able to give me some travel tips for remote, seldom visited villages like Bandiagara and Sanga, and a few weeks ago he told me about some odd customs I can expect to experience in Albania.
NYC Mayor Bloomberg had much the same thing to say about Republican Know Nothings trying to grapple with foreign policy: “If you look at the U.S., you look at who we’re electing to Congress, to the Senate-- they can’t read,” he said. “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports. We’re about to start a trade war with China if we’re not careful here,” he warned, “only because nobody knows where China is. Nobody knows what China is.”

A couple years ago, Paul Krugman recommended a post by Richard Florida, America's Great Passport Divide. That's where that map just above comes from. I couldn't help but notice that the states with the smallest percentage of passport holders-- i.e., states with people who don't travel outside the country-- are also the states that elect Republicans the most regularly. Mississippi is the worst, closely followed by West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama and Arkansas.

"It’s a fun map," writes Florida. "With the exception of Sarah Palin’s home state, it reinforces the 'differences' we expect to find between the states where more worldly, well-travelled people live versus those where the folks Palin likes to call 'real Americans' preponderate. Mostly to entertain myself, I decided to look at how this passport metric correlates with a variety of other political, cultural, economic, and demographic measures. What surprised me is how closely it lines up with the other great cleavages in America today." And, as he says, the statistical correlations are striking across a range of indices.

People in richer states tend to hold passports and people in poorer states tend to not. Same for educated people versus ignorant people. The kinds of folks who elect John Boozman, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, Lindsay Graham, Jeff Sessions and David Vitter, don't hold college degrees-- or passports. They watch Glenn Beck instead and listen to Hate Talk Radio.
States with higher percentages of passport holders are also more diverse. There is a considerable correlation between passports and the share of immigrants or foreign-born population (.63) and also gays and lesbians (.54). The more passport holders a state has, the more diverse its population tends to be.  And yes, these correlations hold when we control for income.

What about politics? How does passport holding line up against America’s Red state-Blue state divide? Pretty darn well, actually. There is a considerable positive correlation between passports and Obama voters (.59) and a significant negative one (-.61) for McCain voters.  It appears that more liberally-oriented states are more globally oriented as well, or at least their citizens like to travel abroad. Again, the correlations hold when we control for income, though they are a bit weaker than the others.

...And finally, states with more passport holders are also happier. There is a significant correlation (.55) between happiness (measured via Gallup surveys) and a state’s percentage of passport holders. Yet again, that correlation holds when we control for income.

There are stark cultural differences between places where international travel is common and those where it’s not, and we can see them playing out in the cultural and political strife that has been riving the country over the past decades. Think of John Kerry, who was accused of looking and sounding “French” and George W. Bush, who’d hardly been overseas before he became president, or for that matter Barack Obama, with his multi-cultural global upbringing, and Sarah Palin, who had to obtain a passport when she traveled to Kuwait in 2007. The trends in passport use reflect America’s starkly bifurcated system of infrastructure. One set of places has great universities and easy access to international airports; another an infrastructure that is much further off the beaten track of the global circulation of capital, talent, and ideas.
I've been reading a very research-oriented academic book by John Hibbing, Kevin Smith and John Alford lately, Predisposed. One of the themes is that "liberals and conservatives report distinct personality and psychological tendencies and have different tastes in all sorts of things from art and sports to personality traits and vocational preferences… Conservatives' cognitive patterns reveal a comfort level with clarity and hard categorization while liberals are more likely to value complexity and multiple categories."

Roland and I are planning a trip to Thailand. We would never think of taking a conservative with us. We take chances-- all the time. Conservatives don't. Our trips are always off the beaten path. Even if a conservative does go abroad, most don't venture away from the most predictable and "safe" (and shallow) experiences. We're happy because a progressive friend who's never traveled abroad is rarin' to go. Predisposed reinforces that "people who seek out new information [liberals] are simply much more likely to arrive at different political conclusions than those who are comfortable avoiding the risk and uncertainty accompanying new information [conservatives]… Conservatives' relative discomfort with the new and unfamiliar shows up not only in self-reports about themselves but in behavioral patterns like a reluctance to acquire new but potentially risky information. Such reluctance has pros and cons; it protects conservatives from negative situations but also means that invalid negative attitudes cannot be disproven… [V]ariations in people's willingness to explore new objects and situations may be at the core of the differing world views of liberals and conservatives."
The differing orientations to new information are likely to manifest themselves in differing attitudes towards science and religion, with liberals eager for more data even if those data are alarming (think global warming) and conservatives more likely to be content with knowledge that they believe has already been revealed to them. Seen from this vantage point, it is not surprising that attacks on science are more likely to come from the political right. The one-study-shows-this-but-another-shows-that nature of the scientific process is probably more bothersome to the conservative than to the liberal mindset. From the conservative perspective, referring to a set of findings and claims as "just a theory" could hardly be more damning; it bespeaks an absence of certainty that is troubling, especially if someone is proposing big and expensive changes on what is taken to be little more than debatable conjecture. To liberals, theories, even if dissent is present and i's are left undotted and t's uncrossed, are much more valuable-- the weight of current scientific evidence is likely good enough for them and future modifications to knowledge are more likely to be taken in stride.
In the last couple of years, two our our most memorable experiences were fraught with the kind of uncertainty and danger that would cause a conservative to break down. We went wandering in the Himalayas and had no idea where we were or which way went where. And it was raining. A couple years before that we wound up in a trackless bush in Mali and ran into villagers who seem to have never seen anyone like us before. It was worth the whole trip. But we're not conservatives.

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