Mind the gap year

The amateur anthropologists who may have seen orang-utans in Borneo, but have never visited Wigan.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics
  • Marco Polo writes

I can happily confess that of the recommended 50 Things To Do Before You Die, as voted for by 20,000 members of the public for the eponymous BBC programme, I have not done a single one. Never have I swam with dolphins, climbed Sydney Harbour Bridge, seen elephants in the wild, trekked through a rainforest or flown over a volcano. Mind you, not that I have any interest in doing any of them.

There are personal reasons for this. I’m not a good flyer, so I shan’t be visiting Australia or Brazil in the very near future unless someone does a BA from the A-Team and drugs my food. I’m also a physical coward, so I’m in no rush to go paragliding, travel in space or climb Everest. Swimming in the English Channel at midnight, as I did this weekend, is about the most exciting thing I’ve done recently (and, after a few beers, admittedly fairly dangerous).

There is another. These are exactly the kind of activities people do on their ‘gap year’, the concept of which I’ve always loathed. Gap-year students will always tell you that they are not tourists but ‘travellers’, exploring the globe and interacting with strange cultures. A University of Newcastle study published this week illustrates what everyone has known, that gap years are nothing of the sort. They are all about the individual ‘finding themselves’ (where did you lose yourself?), who does nothing for poorer natives – they often exploit them. People on gap years never spend weeks with exotic tribes learning about their culture. They go bungee jumping, trekking through rainforests or swimming with dolphins (and drunken swimming, no doubt).

Gap years have always been about self-enrichment and self-enjoyment. This is no bad thing, of course, but perhaps just a little more honesty would not be a bad thing, and less pretence that one is being some kind of humanitarian or amateur anthropologist.

But worst of all, in my opinion, they are for people who have no interest in their own country. I remember overhearing two lads on a London bus talking about their time in Indonesia, which is impressive. When the conductor tried to give them a Scottish five-pound note as part of their change, not only did they not accept it (as many southerners do), but expressed astonishment that Scotland actually printed its own money.

So, you’ve walked the Great Wall of China, explored Antarctica and seen orang-utans in Borneo. But have you been to Scunthorpe? Or Wigan? Or Bolton, Colchester, Inverness, Rhyl, Blackpool, Stockport, Luton, Peterborough, Portadown,Wrexham, Nottingham and Stoke? I’ve seen them all, and everywhere I go I endeavour to patronise the locals.

  • Weapons save lives

There is a lot to be said against the current Defence Systems Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair being held in London’s Docklands. The fact that the likes of Israel, Syria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Uganda have been invited along is pretty raw, considering their irresponsible use of weapons in the Middle East or in the Congo. It is also objectionable that cluster bombs, unreliable, purely anti-personnel weapons, are on sale there. And the timing could have been a bit more ‘sensitive’, as they say.

As usual, however, idiotic protesters have to go and ruin it all. Just as the anti-war marches were sullied by that impotent and egotistical call to arms ‘Not In My Name’, and anti-capitalist protests characterised by lots people against a lot of things but with no idea what they are for, so the campaign against irresponsible arms trading is marred by childish utopians with a predictable collection of vacuous placards and slogans.

While many rightly campaign for responsible weapons trafficking, the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which has organised the protests, believes in the ‘ultimate abolition of the international arms trade, together with progressive demilitarisation within arms-producing countries’. Protestors have echoed this sentiment. ‘Weapons are bad!’ they say. ‘End the arms trade!’

This is pie-in-the-sky stuff, fit only for one of John Lennon’s dirges. Armies are like police and taxes: they are a necessary evil. The thought that taking away guns from people will transform them into tree-hugging types who like running through meadows is as naive as thinking depriving a boy of a toy gun will turn him into a pacifist. Men are violent and self-seeking by nature. Humanity’s aggressive nature can be lessened, ameliorated, channelled and ritualised by culture, but never eradicated.

Pacifism is a creed for the well-meaning but unthinking. If we all dismembered our armies it would take only one dissenting country to enslave us all. The campaign against arms trading as a whole is thus immoral. Countries need weapons and armies to defend themselves against aggressive neighbours. Don’t the usual gang of ‘human rights protesters’ realise that if Tibet had tooled itself up in the 1950s, China might have thought twice about invading it, or that Indonesia might have not gone into an East Timor that possessed nuclear weaponry? If Poland had tanks rather than cavalry in 1939, Hitler may not have dared violate its borders and 50million lives needn’t have been lost.

Let’s stop arming aggressive regimes, but let’s not deprive smaller peaceful countries of the capacity to defend themselves against them.

  • Question time

Did Lord Lucan end up in a beach in Goa? Was Leni Riefenstahl Hitler’s mistress? Did the White House know 9/11 was going to happen? Is this the body of Jesus’ brother? Did aliens build the pyramids?

Newspaper headlines that end with question marks can always be answered with a simple word: ‘no’.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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