Illustration © Johanna Thomé de Souza

“Of course locals should take priority over those traveling through,” says a friend, vis-a-vis city politics. Really?

Her assumption is widely shared, even among the most loving, lefty, freedom-and-equality-for-all humanists.

So it seems like a good time to question it a bit.

Here’s How We Mistreat Nomads

I get bored with new claims of victimization; oh how groups crave that V label. But governments and cultures do discriminate against the group that is the subject of this article, and since this mistreatment tends to be ignored, it’s worth at least pointing out what’s been happening.

Here’s a mini-catalog of injustices. Some are huge, evil actions; some are mild annoyances. Some are directed at “digital nomads” like myself, some at traditional nomads, some at the involuntarily nomadic (homeless, refugees, etc.). The actions here are hardly equivalent to each other in maliciousness or scope, but all show evidence of ingrained societal attitudes against the transient.

  • Most governments require you to have an official address in order to attend school, vote, and pay taxes. These things can be difficult to impossible if you change locations every few months (whether within a city, in a country or across borders). For Irish travelers, to give just one example, it can be difficult to get their children into certain schools.
  • Rent-control policies are anti-nomad because they reward the most extremely long-term sedentary people with exclusive access to lower rents in desirable locations. People who change locations have to choose from the remaining, much more limited (and therefore expensive) housing options. Rent control effectively raises prices for nomads (as well as the young, and immigrating sedentary). The idea comes out of an understandable impulse to help the poor, but, as more knowledgable people than me have argued, it is just terrible public policy that causes more problems than it alleviates.
  • Closed borders, currently in use around the world, are not only anti-nomad but rather blatantly anti-humanist. Unless you’re a member of some ultra-religious group that believes that its god gave a certain “people” a certain chunk of land, and wanted those chosen few to keep other humans off of it, there’s really no ethical argument to be made for closed borders. And economically, it’s a pure capitalist’s (and anarchist’s!) dream to let everyone compete and live where they want. Also, there’s a variety of good economic arguments to be made that international migrants don’t “steal” jobs from the less mobile. One economist’s estimate cited at that link: open borders for peaceful and healthy people would increase global GDP by 50 to 150 percent. Closed borders are like blindfolds; they help to keep people in rich countries from seeing the poorest people in their daily lives, but do nothing but aggravate total poverty.
  • Digital nomads (those who travel while working via laptop) are generally in legal grey areas, working for clients in one country, paying taxes (“residing”) in a “home” country, and actually living in a variety of constantly changing locales. Because the visa and tax systems are not set up for this sort of activity, they get harassed.
  • In modern city politics, the sedentary are referred to as “locals” and they are given unquestioning priority over temporary nomads (“tourists”) in political decisions that pit one against the other. Tourists’ priorities tend to only win out when the revenue they generate is seen as helping the locals (or else helping business owners who are friendly with city halls). Such is the ongoing story in my beloved Barcelona.
  • Local laws against the activities of the homeless are manifestly anti-nomad, although they’re pretty unsuccessful, and they’re generally directed at people who are not nomadic by choice anyway. Those damn homeless just continue to be homeless, even if you pass laws against them.
  • Sedentarization policies in North Africa and the Middle East have been destroying nomads’ cultures, languages, lands, and ways of life. Incidentally, these nomads tend to be better at protecting environments and species diversity than sedentary people.1Nomadic Societies in the Middle East And North Africa: Entering the 21st Century, edited by Dawn Chatty
  • As I write this, Europe — which is in places severely underpopulated and needing young workers — is having a crisis of conscience about letting in refugees of war. If you can’t even open your borders for families running from war, if you’re still discussing how many victims of rape and violence it would be best for the locals, the sedentary, to let in, well, what the fuck hope is there for rational ethical discussion of anything?

Again, to head off silliness in the comment section: I have no desire to equate or even compare the different forms of nomadism in this article, nor the different forms of mistreatment that they suffer. The point is only that the sedentary exhibit a wide range of behaviors betraying their awful attitudes toward the transient.

Photo by Stephen Bugno

Photo by Stephen Bugno

Wandering is not Weird

Humans were always nomads — except for the last hundred to ten thousand years (depending on the region), which is a trifle in terms of our existence on this planet. (And there are still a few million nomads who continue to wander.)

This recent period is when the agriculture-based, sedentary peoples of the world — the “civilized”, the “stagnaters” — waged genocides on the remaining nomads, claimed “ownership” and carved out their nation-states across the earth. They were successful at eliminating, enslaving, and converting nomads.2They were helped in these efforts through their disgusting tendencies to cultivate germs by living with goats and rats, and by packing themselves on top of each other in cities. The resulting diseases, which they gradually developed immunities to, helped them enormously when they went to kill off nomads.

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I wouldn’t say wandering is a better state, just that it’s not such a freaky way to live. If we did it for millions of years, it makes sense that it might still suit some people fine.

Problems Caused by Nomads

Yes, of course, many of the things that nomads do hurt the sedentary. Some shit in the street, others rape and pillage. I agree that these are bad! Bad bad bad! Please let’s not do that stuff, fellow nomads, and as much as possible try to follow the norms of sedentary cultures that we run across, within reason.

Some nomads (generally the temporary kind, a.k.a. tourists) commit the crime of bad taste, and locals compliantly turn their cities and beaches into Disneyfied theme parks and resorts to accommodate them. Sure, this is disappointing, but hardly a reason to curb tourism in a free society. We don’t try to curb music production because of shitty summer pop singles. And no matter how much Paris’ Place du Tertre has become an awful tourist sinkhole, there are still lovely, unique areas to discover throughout Paris, including in Montmartre, for those who wish to walk a few blocks beyond.

Nomads should contribute work, services, and resources to the societies that they pass through that are at least commensurate with the use they make of the same. Often, that footprint is quite small, so it’s not a tall order to meet.

Photo by Spyros Petrogiannis

Photo by Spyros Petrogiannis

Who to Prioritize Then?

How about trying to prioritize all humans as equally as possible?

It’s lovely, sure, that reverence we have for old communities, for people sharing a life together over decades and generations. But this everyone-knowing-everyone story is usually only really true now in tiny villages; the argument gets a bit silly when we talk about lower Manhattan, central Paris, and other sites where there is a lot of competition for space.

Nomadism, and sharing the world’s wonderful modern and ancient spaces among the many, should be revered as well.

I’ll leave you with this:

“The aim of public policy should not be to get rid of nomads, nor indeed to ‘tolerate’ them. Rather, we should accept that it is a ‘good thing’ — economically, politically, and spiritually — to live in societies [… that] include nomads and sedentaries.”

— Robbie McVeigh, in the essay “Theorising Sedentarism: The Roots of Anti-Nomadism” in Gypsy Politics and Traveller Identity

Notes   [ + ]

1. Nomadic Societies in the Middle East And North Africa: Entering the 21st Century, edited by Dawn Chatty
2. They were helped in these efforts through their disgusting tendencies to cultivate germs by living with goats and rats, and by packing themselves on top of each other in cities. The resulting diseases, which they gradually developed immunities to, helped them enormously when they went to kill off nomads.