Review: Travel as a Political Act

Rick Steves is perhaps the most famous American giving advice on traveling abroad. I have never used his guidebooks (thinking that they were perhaps too generic for my “advanced” backpacking skills), but I just bought one for Italy.

This book (subtitle: “How to leave your baggage behind”) is not a guide for tourists but a guide for understanding other countries and cultures. What I especially enjoyed was how Steves clearly explains foreign ideas in terms familiar to Americans. I would have loved to have this book as a response to the many people who have asked why I travel and what I’ve learned.

This book very easy to read, so it’s also a good one to take on vacation. (These data are a few years old but they show that 40 percent of Americans took zero vacation years in the prior year while only 12 percent vacationed outside the US.)

But let’s get to some interesting parts of the book:

  1. “Travel as a political act” refers to the ways in which we might import new ideas and perspectives from abroad back to the US:

     We can learn more about our own country by observing other countries—and by challenging ourselves (and our neighbors) to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues. Holding our country to a high standard and searching for ways to better live up to its lofty ideals is not “America-bashing.” It’s good citizenship (loc 74).

  2. Travel is also good for YOU. Travel has changed what I eat, how I commute, what I read, and so on. My revelation is not unique. In the 14th century, Ibn Battuta wrote that “traveling leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” For Steves, “travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped. It has humbled me, enriched my life, and tuned me in to a rapidly changing world” (loc 64).
  3. Steves and I agree that travel helps us understand our own countries better, and we both lament the FUD that our house-bound neighbors espouse. For him, the lesson was to protest war and push for cannabis legalization. My lesson was to accept that Dutch culture was better for me in some ways. Sadly, most people are too afraid to travel or question the status quo:

    As the news becomes more sensationalized [Congress repeals the FCC’s Fairness Doctorine in 1987], the viewer becomes more fearful. And eventually, all that fear metastasizes into the political realm. In the long run, the transformation of news from information to entertainment—making us feel that we’re less safe—threatens the fabric of our democracy…and, ironically, actually makes our country less safe (loc 385).

  4. I agree with Steves that we could bring far more security to ourselves (and the world) by spending money on aid instead of bombs, but corporate war mongers mean that the United States American taxpayers spend $600 billion on the military and 15-times less ($40 billion) on all international affairs. I am sure that the “war on terror” would disappear if we shifted  7 percent of the military budget to doubling the international budget.
  5. Steves captures the tradeoffs for living in “socialist” Europe (loc 1093): 

    European housing, cars, gadgets, and other “stuff” are modest compared to what an American with a similar job might own. It’s a matter of priorities. Just as Europeans willingly pay higher taxes for a higher standard of service, they choose less pay (and less stuff) in exchange for more time off. Imagine this in your own life: Would you make do with a smaller car if you knew you didn’t have to pay health insurance premiums? Would you be willing to give up the luxury of a cutting-edge TV and live in a smaller house if you could cut back to 35 hours per workweek and get a few extra weeks of paid vacation? Would you settle for a 10 percent pay cut if you knew you’d never get an email or phone call from the office outside of work hours? For most Americans, I imagine that the European idea of spending more time on vacation and with their family, instead of putting in hours of overtime, is appealing.

  6. Steves captures the essence of economic migration, immigrant culture and the refugee crisis in three excellent passages:  
    1. If you’re wealthy enough to hire an immigrant to clean your house, you do it—you get a clean house, and the immigrant earns a wage. If you don’t want to trade away your personal freedom to care for an aging parent, you hire someone else to care for them…and it’s generally an immigrant. That’s just the honest reality of capitalism. (loc 1406).
    2. 99 percent of Americans descend from immigrants, whereas much of Europe has been largely homogenous for millennia. In some European countries, large-scale immigration is a fairly recent phenomenon. This makes many Europeans particularly vigilant about ensuring that Europe’s homegrown culture continues to thrive. I share their concern, and yet, it’s easy to fall into contradictions: If diversity is a tenet of EU beliefs, what’s wrong with immigrants wanting to preserve their home cultures? Is it hypocritical to celebrate the preservation of the Catalan language, but expect Algerians to learn Dutch? (loc 1425)
    3. I think the real refugee crisis is the human cost of a failed state. The refugees coming to Europe today are a direct result of poorly drawn borders by European colonial powers a century ago. If Europeans (or Americans) complain about the hardship of housing those refugees, they should ponder the hardship brought about by their ancestors’ greedy colonial policies a century ago (loc 1440).
  7. Steves is also perceptive on (un)sustainable choices and lifestyles:

    In America, we have freezers in our garages so we can buy in bulk to save money and avoid needless trips to the supermarket. In contrast, Europeans have small refrigerators. It’s not necessarily because they don’t have room or money for a big refrigerator. They’d actually rather go to the market in the morning. The market visit is a chance to be out, get the freshest food, connect with people, and stay in touch (loc 1511). 

    The bottom 40 percent of humanity lives on roughly 5 percent of the planet’s resources. The top 20 percent lives on over 75 percent. The greatest concentration of wealth among economic elites in the history of the human race is happening at the same time our world is becoming a global village. Meanwhile, even in the countries that benefit (such as the United States), the spoils go mostly to the already wealthy—padding profits for shareholders even as working-class American jobs are exported south of our borders, leaving many citizens of the rich world underemployed and disillusioned (loc 1859).

    Any society needs to subscribe to a social contract—basically, what you agree to give up in order to live together peacefully. Densely populated Europe generally embraces Rousseau’s social contract: In order to get along well, everyone will contribute a little more than their share and give up a little more than their share. Then, together, we’ll all be fine. The Danes—who take this mindset to the extreme—are particularly conscientious about not exploiting loopholes. They are keenly aware of the so-called “free rider problem”: If I had to identify one major character flaw of Americans, it might be our inability to appreciate the free rider problem. Many Americans practically consider it their birthright to make money they didn’t really earn, enjoy the fruits of our society while cheating on their taxes, drive a gas-guzzler just because they can afford it, take up two parking spots so no one will bump their precious car, and generally jigger the system if they can get away with it. We often seem to consider actions like these acceptable…without considering the fact that if everyone did it, our society as a whole would suffer (loc 2258).

    A perfect example of Danish “social trust” is the image of babies sleeping in carriages outside a restaurant while the parents eat inside. You might say, “But no one is watching!” A Dane will say, “Everyone is watching” (loc 2310).

  8. What about drugs, prisons, terror and the Holy Lands??

    When it comes to soft drugs, policies in much of Europe are also more creative and pragmatic than America’s… Much of the US seems afraid to grapple with this problem openly and innovatively. Rather than acting as a deterrent, the US criminalization of marijuana drains precious resources, clogs our legal system, and distracts law enforcement attention from more pressing safety concerns (loc 2909).

    While America is still building more prisons, the Dutch are closing theirs. My Dutch friends needle me with the fact that the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate—nearly 10 times the Dutch rate—at an annual cost of $60 billion (loc 3037).

    Yes, there are evil people in Iran. Yes, the rhetoric and policies of Iran’s leaders can be objectionable. But there is so much more to Iran than the negative image drummed into us by our media and our government. I left Iran impressed more by what we have in common than by our differences. Most Iranians, like most Americans, simply want a good life and a safe homeland for their loved ones. Just like my country, Iran has one dominant ethnic group and religion that’s struggling with issues of diversity and change—liberal versus conservative, modern versus traditional, secular versus religious (loc 3707).

    Religions around the world seem to always be stoking turmoil—even though the teachings of those religions say “love your neighbor,” and all of them have the “do unto others…” Golden Rule. I’ve decided that fundamentalism is the crux of the problem…For a person of faith to travel without letting the experience stir what’s inside them is a lost opportunity. Of course, many people actually go on religious trips—pilgrims on pilgrimages. While I’ve never done exactly that, every time I’m at a pilgrimage site, I endeavor to keep a positive attitude about the devotion that surrounds me. It’s easy to be cynical about the reverence given to relics I don’t understand, the determination many have to believe in what seem like silly miracles, or the needless pain someone suffers in the name of their faith—whether by climbing a mountain in bare feet or a long staircase on their knees (loc 3898 and 4097).

    The conditions in Balata [a Palestinian refugee camp] are dismaying, particularly when you think that people have been living this way here for decades. But Israelis point out that Israel has taken in many Jewish refugees and assimilated them into their prosperous society. Meanwhile, they claim that Palestine—and the Arab world—has intentionally kept the West Bank refugee camps in squalor in order to stir public opinion against Israel (4379).

  9. And… finally… coming home:

    On returning from a major trip, you sense that your friends and co-workers have stayed the same, but you’re…different. It’s enlightening and unsettling at the same time (loc 4513).

    Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a rallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance—whether it’s pastors contending with homophobia in their congregations, employers striving to make a workplace color-blind, or teachers standing up for intellectual and creative freedoms—travelers can stand with them in solidarity (loc 4548).

    My one-handed conclusion is that all Americans should read this book. Travelers will recognize echoes of prior thoughts while the sedentary will (I hope) understand the common humanity that binds us all. 

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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