Saturday, August 25, 2012

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Every man is the hero of his own life. [1] And they all are deeper than they look to others -- particularly when those others aren't paying much attention.

I know Rick Steves as an energetic, slightly squeaky-voiced host of a bunch of programs on PBS about traveling in Europe -- your experience may be similar -- and so I'd basically filed him as a modern-day Thomas Cook, most likely of use as a source for tactical tips (what hotels, what sights, and so forth) if I ever had a change to get across the Atlantic.

But I found a copy of Travel as a Political Act -- just less than a year ago, actually, on one of my last book-acquiring trips to the then-dying Borders chain -- which shows Steves in a different light: as a thoughtful, committed, politically and religiously centered man with an interest in making the world better in the ways he cares most about.

He's an interesting mix of devout Lutheran, reasonably hard-headed entrepreneur (he runs the company that produces his books and TV shows), and internationalist liberal, and Political Act is his (polite) manifesto about how international travel, done right, can connect people and cultures and make us all act better towards each other. Each chapter looks at one country or topic: the aftermath of the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia, Europe's social-welfare state apparatus, El Savador and its civil war, highly-taxed and highly-serviced Denmark, two faces of secular Islam in Morocco and Turkey, Europe's managed approach to drug laws, and the account of a trip to Iran.

Political Act is slightly potted -- these are clearly topics Steves has thought about, probably written about, and definitely given talks about many times before -- but it's filled with good photographs, and Steves is honest and good-hearted, which goes a long way. I do suspect he soft-pedals his views in several of these cases (particularly when he talks about Islamic countries, there's a little dance to avoid anything that could possibly offend the most hair-trigger of Israelis), but the man does make his living talking to the public, and he clearly has an interest in keeping that public willing to listen to him.

I agreed with Steves on pretty much all of his major points and a lot of minor ones, so I consider him exceptionally intelligent and insightful on world affairs -- though Political Act, since it was published in 2009, has more than a whiff of a pre-crash mindset -- and he is mild enough that even those who don't agree will find Political Act to be pleasant rather than hectoring. (Though I'm sure hardcore Greens are grinding their teeth at the very idea of this book.) If you actually still want to do good in the world, Political Act will give you some ideas of how you might accomplish that -- either for or against, depending on your tendencies.

[1] Women, on the other hand, are smarter than that, and less likely to be self-blinded.

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