Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Stranded and the Mobile (by Phila)

An article in the Toronto Star argues that rising airline costs could signal the start of "a new, global class divide between the stranded and the mobile."
In Europe's late medieval period, the labouring masses rarely travelled further than a few dozen miles from where they were born. For them, travel was dangerous, onerous and slow.

But wealthy aristocrats travelled far and wide in the name of diplomacy, meeting leaders from other countries and extending their power and influence.
Of course, such a divide already exists, since air travel has always been beyond the means of countless people around the globe. The article's analogy between the late Medieval laboring class and the "U.S. leisure travel market" is problematic at best, as is its conflation of homeowners in Newfoundland with "the masses." But it's apparently preferable to discussing currently existing forms of strandedness, many of which are on display in countries that the leisure travel market advertises as escapes from the pressures of modern life.

To the limited extent that this reference to the late Medieval period is anything more than shorthand for some vague, ahistorical idea of privation, it's applicable to a sort of life that's not only being lived all around us, but is often held up as exemplary of progress away from poverty. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, shoppers take helicopters to department stores in order to avoid slum dwellers (whose opportunities are greater than ever, thanks to globalization). In China, the poor are being hidden behind makeshift walls, in deference to the aesthetic delicacy of leisure travelers. And here in the USA, we're contemplating building a border wall to restrict the mobility of migrants who are desperate enough to cross the Sonoran desert on foot (despite their excellent chances for advancement in post-NAFTA maquiladoras).

If anything, the attempt to draw some sort of equivalence between reduced access to air travel among the North American middle class and actual abject poverty is suggestive of the detachment from real suffering that was supposedly typical of Medieval aristocrats. Being forced to take a train or a ship instead of an airplane may involve hardships of one sort or another, but it's not the same thing as being "stranded," nor is it necessarily dangerous or onerous. And yet, we're encouraged to view people who have these options and others as "casualties" (but not, unlike the average ghetto dweller, of some inherent self-destructiveness in their culture):
If we are on the brink of a shift toward the local economies and lifestyles long advocated by antiglobalization activists, the transition will not be without casualties.
We'll just have to throw 'em on the pile, I guess.