Review: Travel as a Political Act

Review: Travel as a Political Act

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Since Rick Steves has taken over my life lately—don’t ask—I decided to see how all his travelling has affected his politics. I was sort of afraid, given his background, that this book would be little more than a collection banalities and platitudes (“make friends with people from other cultures,” “don’t think your way is the only way,” and that sort of thing); but this book surprised me by being genuinely, well, political. Steves has definite opinions and a real message—with a few platitudes thrown in, too, of course.

It should be noted that, like almost everything Steves writes, this book is primarily for Americans. Many of his “lessons” will be obvious to people who live elsewhere. For example, he begins with a good chapter on the wars in former Yugoslavia. He paints a vivid picture of the how the Balkan countries are still scarred by the conflict—including a woman who still has a piece of shrapnel in her back. His point is simple: most Americans don’t know what it is like to be in a war, and seeing its effects up close might make us reconsider our proclivity to bomb and invade other countries.

Some of the content is to be expected by any thoughtful American who has travelled in Europe. It is hard not to think at least some aspects of life overseas are superior: public transport, social healthcare, bike-friendly cities, long vacations, family leave… the list goes on. I would add the lack of guns. After you spend some time in a country where you can be sure the vast majority of people—criminals included—do not have guns, the entire “debate” in the United States is immediately seen to be silly. When Americans argue that guns increase personal safety and ensure political freedom, the rest of the world simply laughs.

Steves is strongest on drug policy. He notes the many European countries which have substituted a public safety for a law enforcement model with drugs, and makes a strong case that it is both more humane and more effective than just locking people up. The travel writer is not just all talk, either, since he helped to promote and sponsor the bill to legalize marijuana in his home state of Washington. This is another excellent example of how travel can affect one’s politics, since the first time you travel to a country where marijuana is legal to consume, and notice that the sky isn’t falling, you wonder if it’s really worth imprisoning people for doing so.

The chapters on Iran and on the Holy Land were classic Rick Steves. They were both attempts to understand a conflict (between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Palestine) from a less partisan perspective. It is perhaps extremely naïve to think that by simply getting to know ordinary people “on the other side,” so to speak, we can reduce antagonism. As Steves himself makes clear, there are historical and structural forces at work, which push peoples into conflict. Nevertheless, I find it heartwarming that he so earnestly tries to focus on the ordinary humanity of these peoples, rather than on the political narratives. It is something we see all too little in conventional news.

The chapter on El Salvador was perhaps the most impressive. The United States’ interventions—often violent and undemocratic—in Latin American politics is something that most Americans are hardly aware of. It is an uncomfortable history to say the least, and only figures such as Noam Chomsky routinely talk about it. But Steves travelled to El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War, and several times after that, to see our foreign policy with his own eyes. He even had his travel diary printed and sent to members of Congress, in a bid (albeit an idealistic one) to stop American interference.

By the end, for someone who could easily have spent his life eating gelato for the camera, Steves is shown to be a man of strong convictions. Of course, the book is not perfect. Steves is prone to falling into stereotypes when he compares Europeans and Americans; and, not being an expert on anything he writes about, his analysis can be fairly superficial. And of course there is the trademark cheesy Rick Steves style—that is inevitable. But I think this book is valuable for voicing some opinions that are likely to be quite unpopular among many Americans, and for doing so in a way that is accessible and friendly. Maybe travel really is enlightening? Now, if we could only figure out how to fly without creating greenhouse gases…

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