Saturday, July 26, 2014

On Owning Up

I’ve told my travel writing students to check facts.  It’s not simply a matter of honesty, though.  Very often questions of courtesy arise out of the impulses of responsibility, and the issue is not only one of truth but of an even wider integrity.
Which is why, today, I am owning up about my Ljubljana entry late last month.  That it was an honest error I hope you’ll believe.  But I stand here corrected nonetheless, and in a way I hope will enlighten some of you as it did me.

A while after I posted the article about our Slovenian trip, I received an email from my friend Vlado, who corrected—with his typical graciousness and good humor—a mistake I made in the chronicling.  Let him speak for himself, in the words of his amiable letter:

by the way - got a phone call from Slovenian president (it is a small country!) and some "anonymous threatening letters" (probably nationalists) about that "jeans matter”

Typical of his humor—sly and playful—but he goes on to make a point about a situation that at some time I had known, but had conveniently shed the knowledge as I wrote my entry on Ljubljana:

former Yugoslavia had quite open borders and also all same/similar consumer goods as in Italy/Austria and rest of the Europe (of course there were some import restrictions as well, but only for very special goods or quantity limits for personal import)... so - no typical "border bribes" in form of jeans.   I'd been talking about Czechoslovakia and Russia (Soviet bloc - no jeans or jeans factories there) - former Yugoslavia was not in the same bloc.

Yes, I’d known about Yugoslavia’s non-alignment under Tito and after, known that the more open borders and the dramatically varied terrain had served as locations for U.S. and Western films as varied as Kelly’s Heroes to portions of Fiddler on the Roof.  But one border story—Vlado’s about crossing into Czechoslovakia in the old days—had dispelled my previous knowledge and pushed me back onto the stereotype of my American raising: how everything behind (or even remotely around) the “Iron Curtain” was barbed wire and statues of Stalin, tinted in relentless grayscale and sunless because we chose to see it that way.

And Vlado, gently but with a focused wisdom, pointed to the heart of the error:

seems in the rule, "the big one" or isolated countries don't have much or correct information about the rest of the world (or perhaps even about real situation in their own country - who knows)... on other side small nations/countries collect all possible information and learn as much as they can about big countries - what do you think?

Well, Vlado, I think you may be right.  Bargaining and traveling from a tradition of economic and global privilege that has lasted my life, my countrymen are too ready to assume that the world is the way we see it, forgetting that we bring the vision, the outline, the colors of the country with us on our journey.  We characterize others according to the images we have nurtured and often distorted for generations (and I believe other countries more economically powerful do this as well—particularly Russia and China at the moment) and are surprised when others don’t match our assumptions.  And yes, smaller countries do this as well—it’s all part of what Richard Pryor used to characterize as “a lot of people getting together to not understand each other,” and therefore part of a human condition.  But maybe people in power tend to misunderstand more because the margin of error is greater. 

What to do about this?  Listen, read, and be willing to stand corrected—all difficult activities for most Americans I know, and I trust the resistance can be found in  other countries as well. But you can still be who you are, stand in integrity, and do those things.  Some of our biggest mistakes come when we think we can’t.  ©2014 Michael Williams