The Common Good

Columbus in Reverse: 'Travel as a Political Act'

091012-travel-as-a-political-actRick Steves was a teenager when he first traveled overseas. Visiting a park in Norway with his parents, he had an epiphany:

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Right there, my 14-year-old egocentric worldview took a huge hit. I thought, "Wow, those parents love their kids as much as my parents love me. This planet is home to billions of equally lovable children of God." I've carried that understanding with me in my travels ever since.

Now famous for his travelogues on public television, his guided tours of Europe, and his guidebook collections including the constantly updated Europe Through the Back Door, Steves is somewhat less well known for his devout Lutheran faith and his devotion to liberalizing America's drug laws. All of these interests coalesce in his new book, Travel as a Political Act.

Steves's message is simple: Go to other countries. Listen to the people who live there. Learn other ways of seeing and doing that you might not have considered before. Some of these ways are better than the ones we're used to. Some could help us make our country a better place.

America is a great and innovative nation that the world understandably looks to for leadership [he writes]. But other nations have some pretty good ideas, too. By learning from our travels and bringing these ideas home, we can make our nation even stronger. As a nation of immigrants whose very origin is based on the power of diversity ("out of many, one"), this should come naturally to us ... and be celebrated.

The book consists of eight essays drawing on his travels not only in Western Europe but also in the Balkans, Turkey, North Africa, Central America, and Iran (click here to watch his hour-long presentation on "the most fascinating and surprising land I've ever visited"). One thread unites the chapters: Steves's plea to us Americans to open our minds, ears, and hearts to people of other cultures and to learn to see things from their perspective. "Growing up in the U.S.," he writes, "I was told over and over how smart, generous, and free we were. Travel has taught me that the vast majority of humanity is raised with a different view of America."

I'm not a world traveler like Rick Steves, but beginning right after my sixteenth birthday, I've gone to school in France and worked in the U.K. and visited most of the Western European countries as well as Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Taiwan, and Thailand. I've never, ever been treated rudely because I'm an American, but I've been startled to catch glimpses of what some non-Americans think of the American way of life.

I've watched anti-American banners parading down the street at a Swiss May Day parade, seen British TV political adverts warning that the opposition party might instigate a health-care policy as dreadful as America's, listened to an entire sermon in an English country church lambasting American evangelical religion, and heard German conservative evangelical politicians express disbelief and fury at the actions of George W. Bush. To me, Rick Steves's observations about how people of other nations view us ring true.

Rather than dominating other nations, Steves believes, we should listen to them and learn from them. A self-avowed capitalist (he runs a business, after all), he nevertheless sees value in some of Europe's social programs and is horrified by what U.S. businesses have done to Central America. An unapologetic Christian, he is comfortable with secular Islamic -- not Islamist -- governments. Appalled by Iranian totalitarianism, he still finds common ground with people he meets and even explains why the omnipresent "Death to America" posters may not be quite as menacing as they seem. And he thinks Europe's ways of curbing drug use are much, much smarter than America's.

As the title indicates, Travel as a Political Act has a strong political slant, but it is also full of human interest stories and quirky factoids about other cultures (did you know that on October 24, less than three weeks from today, the average American will have worked as many hours as the average Western European works in an entire year?). Color photos on nearly every page add to the book's appeal. Steves hopes to appeal to people of all political persuasions, though I suspect he is preaching largely to the left-leaning, well-traveled choir.

One reviewer at amazon.com wrote Steves off as just another liberal from the Northwest who is clueless about how the rest of America thinks (she doesn't say if she has traveled outside the U.S.). It seems to me that Steves knows a lot about how Americans think -- and he is terrified, because too many of our views are not based on reality or understanding. Only to the extent that we know how others think -- those "billions of equally lovable children of God" -- will we Americans be able to add to the world's peace, prosperity, and freedom.

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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