Elizabeth Linder: We’ll Always Have Paris…Or Will We?
On a recent Friday evening trip to Cairo – in what seems now a quaint and distant moment when hopping on a flight was either marvelously glamorous or alarmingly humdrum – I perused the film selections on offer and thought it was high time I revised Casablanca. A classic. A tribute to great storytelling and even better evocation of a moment in time.
Nestled between scenes of the unflappable Sam commanding the keys of the piano and the bustling Moroccan marketplaces, one theme in particular captured my attention. What a strange feeling it would be, I thought, to be literally confined to a geographical theatre – a specific country, a certain city – awaiting the decisions of government higher-ups to determine your fate.
Watching Casablanca, it was impossible not to reflect on freedom of movement.
In so many countries today, we have grown so trusting and so complacent of our right to move freely, effortlessly, nonchalantly. In my nine years as an American guest of the United Kingdom, I have travelled in and out of more than fifty countries, most of them multiple times. And, of course, I’m regularly back and forth between my home country and my host country, without hardly thinking about the process of passing through the borders.
Hopping between San Francisco and London; Brussels and Paris; Cairo and Copenhagen, we are so easily focused on the size of our liquids in our bags and our boarding group number, not to mention the paranoia of an aisle or a window seat selection, that we fail to appreciate the freedom of an art of passage. Sure, as an American, North Korea and Iran are problematic. But even most countries where visas are required, the process often takes twenty dollars or a click of a button. In so many countries, visa requirements are more an annoyance or a fiasco than a considered event, much less the plot of one of the world’s most famous pieces of cinematography.
Indeed, beyond the crossing of borders and travel both domestic and global, we all too often forget the powers our governments and our policymakers actually have over us. Sure, we understand the basics of participating on our societies as law-abiding citizens. But for generations who have never weathered a serious war – we often take for granted what our governments can and can’t tell us to do. When populations are not required to serve in our countries’ armed services; when our educations, our careers, and so much of our personal lives are choices we are empowered to make, we are so rarely reminded of the real power that lies within political decision-making. And the younger we are, the more this is true. If your parents file your family tax returns and you haven’t been through a marriage or a divorce; if you gather freely to petition for a cause you believe in and obey basic traffic laws but still have the freedom of the wheels and the wind in your hair on an open road, you haven’t yet seriously encountered the full breadth and scope of government intervention.
Until now. Not only are our governments telling us where we can and cannot travel freely, policymakers are also telling us where we can have dinner and in which age brackets we are allowed out of the house. This is a sobering moment for a global population reeling from a global health crisis. It is also, potentially, a necessary one. Especially in democracies.
The people we elect as our government leaders matter. Not only because they have ideas and policies with which we agree or disagree, but also because they ultimately have power to mandate movements that so many of us have long taken for granted. The freedom to move across borders and even outside our homes is not a guaranteed human right. It never was. As a result, voters in democratic countries had better double down on thinking more carefully about who we elect to make these decisions.
Whilst so many of us are asked or ordered to remain at home to maintain and preserve the broader health of our populations, revisiting favorite films and books will be a welcome and inspirational respite. But let us also take a quarantined pause to consider who decides what freedom of movement actually means during a time of unprecedented peacetime policies, and use this criteria to evaluate the boxes we tick when next we go to the polls.