June 2010

Barbara J. King

features

G is for Geopolitical: Rick Steves Revealed

How patterned and palatable it all is: Turn on the TV, cue up the DVD, or navigate to Hulu.com, and there’s travel organizer and author Rick Steves soaking up the sights of a European city. “We’re celebrating the good life in Vienna,” Steves intones as he launches into a discussion of the Hapsburg Empire and promises that together we’ll marvel at the Schonbrunn Palace and the romantic Danube River.  

Or here is Steves in Italy. ‘We’re travel partners once again,” he beams, as he introduces the Cinque Terre region. In the next half hour, he pledges, we’ll embark on an expedition to night-fish for anchovies and another to visit the quarries where Michelangelo quested for marble.  

In each case, the camera zooms in on some ecstatic European landscape, and the on-screen logo tells us everything we need to know: “TV-G.”  Let’s face it, Rick Steves is knowledgeable, winning, and utterly predictable as a travel-the-world booster.  

Or so I thought. As my teenage daughter would say, “My bad.”  

Last year, Steves published Travel as a Political Act. Now, infected with early-summer restlessness, I’m reading it, just slightly brain-sore from all the mental kicks self-administered as punishment for so many unwarranted assumptions.    

The book is an eye-opener. Steves describes himself as a traveler and “a historian, Christian, husband, parent, carnivore, musician, capitalist, minimalist, member of NORML, and a workaholic.” The marijuana habit (I have discovered) has been headlined for a while now; the reveal here is Steves’s brand of forthright liberalism.  

Promising not to “take the edge off” his opinions, Steves embraces geopolitical philosophizing “with the knowledge that good people will respectfully disagree with each other.” Speaking of assumptions, that’s a generous one. Given the mood of a large segment of the American public and Steves’s penchant for pointed passages, anyone care to wager how his fan mail is running? Consider this:  

History is rife with examples of leaders who manipulate fear to distract, mislead, and undermine the will of the very people who entrusted them with power. Our own recent history is no exception. If you want to sell weapons to Colombia, exaggerate the threat of drug lords. If you want to build a wall between the US and Mexico, trump up the fear of illegal immigrants.

Another bet could involve whether a gubernatorial invitation for travel around Arizona will reach Steves anytime soon.  

These edgy passages are the most fun to read, but even those drenched in the voice of an earnest anthropologist have merit. “Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given,” Steves writes. “Leaving home, we learn other people find different truths to be self-evident.” He targets as most-needful for international travel those “who needlessly fear people and places they don’t understand,” but avoids any hint of patronizing by admitting to bouts of nerves himself, before he visited Egypt, India, and Iran. “When I finally went to these countries,” Steves notes, “I realized my fears were unfounded.” 

To which countries are we whisked off, via Travel is a Political Act? Hefty sections on Turkey and Morocco, El Salvador, and Iran draw the reader’s gaze away from Europe, though that continent is well-represented too, with foci on Denmark, and Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro.  

The Iran chapter balances neatly between death-to-America murals and constrained women’s rights, on the one hand, and warm descriptions of interactions with people-on-the-street, on the other. The complexity of Steves’s responses to his own travel experience comes through clearly. As he flew into Tehran, a bit of paranoia seized him: “Would the hotel rooms be bugged? Would crowds gather around [our crew], and then suddenly turn angry?”   

Soon enough, Steves finds himself yoked to a so-called guide, a “government minder” who filmed the author as Steves’s crew filmed street scenes. Still, it was “far less restrictive” a situation than Steves had initially feared, and in the end, he swooned, “I have never traveled to a place where I had such an easy and enjoyable time connecting with people.”  

Don’t confuse people with their leaders: it’s an easy enough principle to avow, but Steves brings it to life with unusual verve. He sorrows at the theocracy-induced lack of vital, pluralistic discussion at the University of Teheran, yet enjoys one-on-one conversations with new acquaintances about U.S. politics. His Iran visit occurred in the summer of ’08, when Obama was one viable candidate among others. The impact of McCain’s “bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” riff on the Beach Boys classic ”Barbara Ann” song was still resonating, as was Hillary Clinton’s verb “obliterate,” as in, America will obliterate Iran if it attacks Israel.  

It’s a nice point Steves makes: tough talk of this ilk scares Iranians, which in turns only gives Iran’s president Ahmadinejad the capital to demonize America, and around and around we go. 

Once in a while, Steves’ contextualization of Iran’s outrageousness takes a step too far, as when he refers to a “Death to Israel” banner hung in a mosque (yes, in a mosque) as a “disturbing detail.” Other phrases might better be applied here.  

More apt is a thought experiment in which Steves considers the ease of rendering mosque-going Muslims, especially large groups of men, as a threat -- and how equally easy it would be to portray a Roman Catholic practice as ominous: “The leader of a billion Catholics is chosen by a secretive, ritual-filled gathering of old men in strange hats and robes with chanting, incense, and the ceremonial drinking of human blood.”  

Majesty or menace -- Steves is right, it’s all in the intent of the filmer, or the writer. And Steves’s intentions in this book emerge from a place of peace, and humanity. It’s in this vein that he concludes the book, inviting readers to “bring your new global perspective into your local citizenship.” Be an advocate, he suggests, “for those outside of the US who have no voice here, but are affected by our policies.” Would Steves welcome a friendly amendment? How about, “For those inside or outside of the US who have no voice here, but are affected by our policies”? 

Steves adds, “Don’t be afraid to ruin dinners by bringing up uncomfortable realities.” In other words, when making travel a political act, it’s okay to be unpredictable.    

Barbara J. King is the author of Being With Animals: Why We Are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathered Creatures Who Populate Our World. Check out her Friday Animal Blog at www.barbarajking.com.