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Andrew Solomon-Travel is Imperative in Perilous Times
Monday, July 3, 2017



As Independence Day dawns, it’s important to remember that this is not the time to circle the wagons, author Andrew Solomon told those attending the Sun Valley Writers Conference on Sunday.

Travel is not a luxury but a moral imperative since everything that happens in a global society now affects us here, he told 1,500 listeners at the Sun Valley Pavilion.

Travel is both a window and a mirror, he added. When you’re thrown into a place that’s very different it strips back your essential self and you understand your own country and a culture with a clarity that’s not otherwise possible.

Andrew Solomon’s stories for The New York Times and The New Yorker have taken him to 87 countries around the world, and he’s included some of those stories in his book “Far and Away.” His book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression” was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and his “Far From the Tree” explores how families accommodate children with physical, mental and social disabilities and differences.

Solomon said his passion for travel took root as a 6-year-old when his father—CEO of a billion-dollar pharmaceutical company—told him of the Holocaust.

“Why didn’t those Jews leave when things got so bad?” he asked his father.

“Because they had nowhere to go,” his father replied.

“I decided I would always have somewhere to go,” he said, describing how his travels have enabled him to make friends on every continent.

Solomon noted that hate crimes have risen since Britain passed Brexit and President Trump took office.

“Patriotism is not nationalism. We can love our country and other countries,” he said. “There is a difference between being concerned about Jihad terrorism and being concerned about Islam. We must question whether aggression against an entire population makes us safer.”

Solomon said he’s been critical of President Trump for his apparent disregard for free speech. But a South African friend who had lived through apartheid told him, “What is most shocking is not how shocked you are right now. What is most shocking is how unshocked you will be in six months time.”

“I made a resolution to stay shocked,” he said.

More than a quarter century after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Solomon noted, fences are back in the headlines.

“Walls are our burqas, making our lives more dangerous,” he said.

He quoted Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall.”

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was likely to give offence,” wrote Frost. “Somewhere is that doesn’t love a wall that wants it down.”

“History shows that good fences make enemies,” Solomon said. “Walls are concrete symbols of exclusion. And it hurts those who are doing the excluding as much as those who are excluded.”

Those most opposed to immigration are those who have never met immigrants, he added. The cities that have the most immigrants are most open to immigrants.

Solomon said former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara presents a perfect example of how not understanding other cultures can lead to problems.

Solomon met the architect of the Vietnam War when McNamara was in his 80s.McNamara told him he had visited Vietnam in his later years and asked the Vietnamese why they had done such and such. They replied they had done what they did because he had made a move to escalate the war. Oh no, McNamara, replied: We did that to deescalate the war.

“We argued in the language of war,” McNamara told Solomon, “Which I mistakenly believed to be an international language.”

In a free society, there are choices. There are no real choices in societies that are not free, said Solomon.

Solomon said he was surprised when in Afghanistan to meet three educated liberal women who were wearing burqas, even though the Taliban was no longer in power and they were no longer required.

The first women said she was afraid if she went out without it and was raped they would tell her it was her fault. The second said she wore it because if the Taliban returned to power they would know she had gone without and she would be stoned to death.

The third said she had gotten used to being invisible.

“It defines you. And the prospect of being visible again seems extremely stressful.”

Solomon told of another women who had borne a baby conceived during rape.

“Can you tell me how to love my daughter more?” the woman asked him. “When I look at her, I remember what happened to me.”

“That woman was yearning to find answers she didn’t find in her own society. She wanted to know what I could bring from my society to help her in hers,” Solomon said. “There is a yearning to understand and to be understood.”

Conversely, those in other countries can teach us. Solomon told of a woman in a refugee camp whose  daughter had been raped and murdered. Noting that others had lost the will to live, she began a three-point program.

She tried to get the women to forget what had happened to them—or at least be distracted. She got them working on projects. And, finally, she began giving them manicures and pedicures.

Not only did the women feel beautiful but the act of undergoing a manicure taught them to trust as they held out their hands to someone with sharp instruments.

Solomon’s speech brought the crowd of 1,500 to its feet, cheering, several times.

Among those listening was Jenny Emery Davidson, executive director of The Community Library.

“I love his notion of how we should not try to change others but enjoy our shared humanity. And, he said, travel doesn’t have to be about going to another country. It can be about going to another neighborhood.”

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