A political act

Rick Steves is the host of “Rick Steves’ Europe,” the granddaddy of TV travel shows, which airs on public television. On TV, he’s mild-mannered and soft-spoken, with a calm, pleasant demeanor befitting the system that gave us Fred Rogers and Bob Ross. He’s a Lutheran, and an active one.

But that doesn’t mean he’s not passionate, as I saw tonight during a speech he gave tonight at Middle Tennessee State University. I am so glad I heard about this and decided to attend — it was well worth my time.

His presentation was tied to the third edition of his book “Travel As A Political Act.” I bought a copy prior to his talk and got it autographed afterward. The autograph session was a hoot — he warned us at the beginning of the evening that he does not like to sit at a table and have people line up for autographs. What happens, and this is exactly what he asked for, is that people just swarm around him, and he signs books one after the other, whoever happens to push their book in front of him.

He had just finished telling us about meeting a real-life “whirling dervish,” which is the actual nickname for a sect of Islamic monks who twirl as they pray, and Steves himself was doing a lot of whirling as we crowded around him to get our books signed. There was no time for small talk with this method — which may be the idea — but no one had to wait in line, either.

Anyway, I can’t wait to read the book, to see how it expands and touches upon some of the points he made in his presentation.

It was a passionate and funny presentation, and if the only way you knew Steves was from the TV show there were aspects of it that might have surprised you.

I was not taking notes — I did not want this to be a newspaper thing; it was just for me. But I can hit some of the highlights from memory.

Steves is passionate about the benefits of travel, and his three best-known books are kind of a sequence. “Europe Through The Back Door” was all about seeing Europe on a budget. “Europe 101” was about appreciating the art of Europe. but “Travel As A Political Act” is about culture, and the ways we can learn more about our own culture and others by traveling and being open to new ideas, attitudes and priorities.

By the way, the long-time host of “Rick Steves’ Europe” says his favorite country to visit is … India. He has focused much of his professional career on European tourism because that’s the easiest and least-threatening way to get people to travel, but he believes that bolder travelers will eventually move on to other corners of the world.

Steves is angry at news reports or other forms of pop culture that portray foreign travel as inherently dangerous, and seemed almost to be accusing the powers that be of conspiring to keep us from expanding our horizons.

Steves is a patriotic American, but he’s also honest enough to recognize why some countries have seen us as a villain in the past, and how that echoes through succeeding generations. He also notes that he’s been warmly welcomed in countries that we might think of as hostile to America.

He discussed some of the differences between the economies of Europe and the U.S., with different priorities. Europeans pay more taxes but get more time off work to be with their families, and fewer worries about paying for things like health care. However, the same demographic changes that threaten U.S. entitlements — more people living longer , with fewer children to support them — are having an impact on European programs, forcing restructuring and cutbacks which don’t sit any better with European taxpayers than they do with American taxpayers.

Steves was careful to say that he wasn’t calling one system better than the other, and as the owner of a successful business he said he’s grateful to the American system. But he said we can sometimes learn from each other, and in any case can try to understand how other cultures differ from our own.

He discussed the growing divide between rich and poor, and the possible tragic consequences it may have for society going forward. He showed photos of countries where (and I’ve seen this on my mission trips) banks or nice stores have to be guarded by men with rifles, and predicted that the U.S. might experience the same within 10 years if economic disparity continues to increase.

One of Steves’ recent TV projects, separate from his normal travelogues, has been a historical look at the rise of fascism in Europe, and he touched on the need to stay vigilant against fascist ideologies or leaders.

Near the end of the evening, Steves did make brief mention of another topic for which he’s become an outspoken advocate. The soft-spoken, family-friendly Lutheran TV host is also one of the foremost proponents of marijuana legalization. Steves said he’s not “pro-drugs” but that he believes marijuana legalization makes sense from a public policy standpoint.

But that was an appendix, a detour from the main thrust of the evening, which was the need to interact with other cultures, not only in order to understand them, but to understand our own culture. It was a presentation that made you want to travel. I’ve been fortunate enough to take part in nine foreign mission trips — to Nicaragua, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Sierra Leone and five times to Kenya — and I know it’s changed me as a person, and changed the way I view certain issues.

I’m hoping to get the chance in the next few weeks to talk to my host on those Kenya trips, Bishop Paul Mbithi, about whether it would make sense for me to come visit him again some time in the next year or two. Tonight’s presentation only fueled my desire to do that, and I can’t wait to start on Rick Steves’ book this weekend. I am so happy I decided to go to tonight’s presentation.