Once again, the US government has extended the vaccination-only policy for foreign travelers, this time to April and probably later. It’s a devastating announcement for millions of people without US passports who want to come to the US to visit friends and family or otherwise engage in professional and educational activities the way they used to. Potentially some 3 billion people are affected.
The US government says, once again, only the jabbed may visit.
Unless you are on “diplomatic or official foreign government travel.” So of course government exempts itself. Only the elites – among whom those who do not fly commercial – get a pass, just like in totalitarian dystopia. The enforcement takes place when the tickets and boarding passes are issued, so if you can bypass that, you are good to go.
And I’ll say what you are already thinking: of course this policy does not apply to the Southern border. But it does apply to everywhere else in the world and travelers who buy plane or train tickets. They must get the shot or will be denied entry.
This is very personal to me and the rest of us at Brownstone because it means that our 2023 Fellow, Professor Julie Ponesse, cannot even cross the US-Canada border to engage in an academic colloquium we have scheduled.
It also affects a friend of mine in the UK, who is a highly specialized expert in Renaissance choral music who wants to come to conduct choirs in the US. There are probably thousands of institutions and companies that could tell similar stories of exclusion. Meanwhile, it’s not even clear that most US citizens know about this rule at all. The US is one of the few countries in the world that maintains them.
It should go without saying that the restrictions are pointless. It’s not a news flash that Covid is already here and fast making its way toward endemicity. Even if people arrived sick as dogs, there is enough immunity in the population for Covid to be treated like the flu or a cold. It is also incredibly clear, and has been for 18 months at least, that the shots protect against neither infection nor spread, nor do they meet the safety stands of traditional vaccines.
That some people in the world declined them is a credit to their decision-making fortitude, and exactly the kind of visitors we need.
This is a grave embarrassment to the US of course. But there is even more at stake. This one rule represents a repudiation of a policy of permission that built the modern world as we know it. It symbolizes a return to isolation, parochialism, detachment, and feudalistic fear, and ignorance and narrow mindedness along with it. Before modernity dawned, this was the default: knowing only what is around us: language, religion, and custom. What made the world great – and what vastly improved our immune systems – was fearless exposure to the broader world.
This is the 150th anniversary of Jules Verne’s mighty classic Around the World in 80 Days, written at the height of the Belle Epoch in 1872. Several amazing innovations dawned at once: the Suez Canal, the US transcontinental railroad, and the linking of the Indian railway through the subcontinent. This made it possible to circumnavigate the world in two and a half months. Maybe. A high-born English aristocrat (Phileas Fogg) and a wiley French assistant (Jean Passepartout) set out on the great journey based on a wager made with a friend.
In each telling of the story in movies, the rendering takes on a different cast. In the earliest, the English gentleman encounters every manner of deeply regrettable traditions and practices and variously rescues situations by way of his high English morals, manners, and principles. You get the impression of England going out to civilize the world, as was the attitude of the time. More modern filmmakers flip the script and have gentle and fascinating foreign people school the Englishman in other ways of the world. The book has come to be this type of template.
Whichever view you hold, the point remains: exposure to foreign cultures and peoples is good for everyone. This gets us out of our isolation and lets us see the world in a different way. It broadens our minds, makes us curious about languages and history, and generally increases familiarity and thus humane treatment of others. In other words, travel promotes human understanding and human rights. This is the idea, beautifully embodied in this literary classic.
It’s heartbreaking to read this book today and understand the broadness of the great dream of a world connected. There were no restraints other than technology and weather in their travels. The world had no passports. Those came during and after the Great War. There certainly were not vaccination mandates for travelers. Even for new US immigrants in those days, there were some tests for disease before the granting of citizenship but travelers could come and go. And so it has been for a very long time. Without question.
Jules Verne was right: the world was getting better, more connected, and with no end in sight.
And then March 12, 2020 arrived, when Trump was talked into slamming shut the right to travel for people from Europe, UK, and Australia. This was following his January closure of travel from China. Nothing like this had ever happened, especially not on the edict from one man without any vote from Congress. When it became obvious that this was a pointless exercise, people in the Trump administration tried to get it reversed but there was no one really in charge of making the decision. Everyone just passed the buck to everyone else, and thus did the Biden administration inherit and extend them, now for two more years.
For almost three years now, many wonderful artists, intellectuals, students, business professionals, and musicians have been locked out of US borders, even just to tour around and see this great land and meet up with friends. It’s simply barbaric and yet there it is.
Why does this persist? Maybe the US government wants to leave in place the remnants of at least some kind of precedent on which to build a health-passport system on the way to constructing a China-style social credit system. Certainly, we are being surveilled and tracked as never before, and the shot is part of that. Or maybe it is to perpetuate the legalities of emergency rule under which the shots can continue to be authorized under emergency use. Or some combination.
Also, there is a broader ideological orientation that should concern us, best embodied by the policy papers of the World Economic Forum and the writings of Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and others. It’s a new ideology I’ve called lockdownism but it might also be called techno-primitivism. It’s a combination of digital technology plus a rollback into previous ages of existence to a time without fossil fuels and meat plus geographical isolation and limited choices for average people. In other words, it’s a step back to feudalism: the lords of the manor are digital titans and the rest of us are peasants toiling in the fields and eating bugs when the food runs out.
You could say that such speculation is delirium but, these days, I don’t think so. Three years ago, no one could have imagined that an academic from Canada or a conductor from Britain would not be allowed to enter the US because they refused an experimental shot to ward off a disease that is no threat to them and which doesn’t accomplish the goal anyway. No one would have imagined closed churches, schools, and businesses. We have seen and experienced horrible things and are told to be grateful for the freedoms we have.
We are turning back the clock: away from high civilization to a much lower form without a solid guarantee of even the freedom to travel, while giving up the dream of universal human rights. The confidence that Phileas Fogg had in a better world with more human connection is being replaced by isolation, fear, and compliance as guiding principles. The price will be very high. In the end, what we are losing is human connection and hence the core of civility itself. The price paid will not be apparent this year or next but over the long term as the idealism that birthed the old modern ideal recedes into the past.
Verne says this at the end of his book:
Phileas Fogg had won his wager, and had made his journey around the world in eighty days. To do this he had employed every means of conveyance—steamers, railways, carriages, yachts, trading-vessels, sledges, elephants. The eccentric gentleman had throughout displayed all his marvelous qualities of coolness and exactitude. But what then? What had he really gained by all this trouble? What had he brought back from this long and weary journey?
Nothing, say you? Perhaps so; nothing but a charming woman, who, strange as it may appear, made him the happiest of men!
Truly, would you not for less than that make the tour around the world?
[Coda: Several people have written me that at no time coming and going from the US has the TSA or Customs or Passports asked for the vaccine status. Indeed. Most agents are unaware that this is even an issue. The reason is that last year, the responsibility for enforcement was passed on to the airlines themselves who will not issue a boarding pass on a US-board flight without proof of vaccinated status. This develops a digital footprint and works as an enforcement tool, seemingly without involving border agents at all. So fair warning if you have heard that you can get in without it: there will be checks, and enforcement, and you will be barred entry, just not in the usual way.