Rick Steves needs to tour his own country "through the back door"

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For many Americans, Rick Steves is the guru of European travel, specifically of an approach to travel he calls "through the back door" -- skipping the high-priced hotels, chain restaurants, and tourist traps which insulate you in an American bubble, and instead encountering authentic local culture, staying at B&Bs, hostels, and pensions, eating where the locals do, and seeing historical attractions that are off-the-beaten path. The front door is formal, where strangers ring the bell; the back door is where you welcome friends and neighbors for a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.

My wife and I first encountered his work in the late 1980s, and used it to plan visits to central Europe and the British Isles. Even when we didn't follow his specific recommendations, his approach to travel guided ours and led us to some memorable people and places.

Steves is an admirer of European social democracy, a self-described progressive Lutheran, and a resident of Seattle. In his latest Facebook post, he discusses the difficulty he has in discussing the election results with his European friends.

Europeans are struggling to understand the anger and energy coming from the slice of America that voted for Trump. And I am, too. From my point of view, working class Americans voted against a candidate who supported things that would seem to benefit them -- like higher minimum wages, affordable health care, and free community college. But clearly, those voters see things differently.

This election has nudged me to get out of my West Coast bubble and try to better understand parts of my own country that I rarely visit. In an honest attempt to empathize with red state voters, I read "Strangers in Their Own Land" by Arlie Russell Hochschild -- and found it quite enlightening.

Steves links to a blog post that he calls "my little 'book report' -- a collection of my notes, summaries, and favorite passages from 'Strangers in Their Own Land'."

The post is full of condescending generalizations about middle America and southerners in particular. A few examples -- and keep in mind that words below seem mainly to be quotes from or Steves's paraphrases of Hochschild's words, and not necessarily Steves's own thoughts.:

The Tea Party is more than a political group -- it's a culture. Traveling through red America, you notice this culture: No New York Times in newsstands, no organic produce in grocery stores, no foreign films. Fewer small cars, fewer petite sizes in clothing stores, fewer pedestrian zones, more pit bulls and bulldogs, fewer bicycle lanes, fewer color-coded recycling bins, fewer solar panels. Caf├ęs with virtually everything on the menu fried. Lottery machines in bus stations. No gluten-free entrees. Lots of signs advertising personal injury lawyers....

The key issues: small government, guns, low taxes, prohibition of abortion. It's natural for a blue state person to marvel at how red state voters seem to vote against their economic interest. But it's not about money. It's a political high, emotional self-interest. A disdain for federal money helping them out. (Hillary's offer of higher minimum wages, free community college, affordable health care was ignored or even ridiculed.)

Emotional self-interest -- freedom from being a stranger in one's own land -- was what got traction in 2016. Trump supporters happily overlooked all the contradictions (and even blatant lies) to protect their elation. Liberals can't stop thinking, "But it's a lie!" The fact is, Tea Party Americans willingly and knowingly accept lies because they care about other things -- emotional needs -- much more.

Pretty sure I've seen the New York Times for sale here, although newsstands are hard to find anymore. Plenty of conservatives in these parts are also gluten-free and choose organic produce when they can or -- gasp! -- even grow their own vegetables and raise their own chickens. We have bike lanes, and conservatives are some of the most avid cyclists I know.

As for "emotional self-interest" and believing in lies, we believe that the left is selling lies. We know that "free" community college -- like any transaction involving a third-party payer -- is a license for college administrators to build their empires without having to worry that higher costs will drive away customers. We know that the Affordable Care Act has made medical care less affordable and less accessible than it was before for the vast majority of Americans. We know that involving the government in the economy inevitably leads to shortages and rationing. We know that higher minimum wages increases costs to consumers and gives employers incentives to automate and eliminate jobs.

We know what Rick Steves does not seem to know -- there is no such thing as a free lunch. We see that his beloved Europe is drowning in debt, imploding demographically, unable to sustain its welfare state without an influx of immigrants who don't share modern European values. We see the Left's disdain for the old values of European Christendom which built the monuments and villages and customs and traditions that he admires. We see Europe -- and Blue America -- as a cut-flower society, detached from the sources from which it drew nourishment, its apparent vitality beginning to fade and wilt.

Steves has a huge blind spot. For 30 years or more, he has been encouraging Americans to travel to Europe, to meet Europeans first-hand. He would never want you or me to feel that we know Europe because we read a book about it by an American author who looks down on Europeans and their ways, who confirms the basest prejudices against Europeans. Can you imagine Steves saying, "You don't need to visit Gimmelwald. Sean Hannity's latest book will tell you all you need to know about the Swiss." And yet he is willing to let a condescending American author shape his understanding of the Middle American voters who didn't want Hillary Clinton to be president.

Rick Steves needs to apply his own philosophy to his own country. He needs to visit the small towns and big cities of the American heartland. He should pick up a copy of Jane and Michael Stern's Roadfood and hit the best diners in every state, talking to the customers and waitresses and cooks. Visit Pennsylvania -- the middle part between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia -- West Virginia, Oklahoma, west Texas, rural Wisconsin. Visit a variety of churches -- big suburban megachurches, small country Baptist churches, PCA congregations, Catholic parishes -- and hang out between Sunday School and worship to chat over coffee. Better yet, see what these churches are doing during the week to provide for the physical needs of their communities. Talk to the homeschooling moms who come to Bibliomania Bookstore in Tulsa to buy curriculum and materials for their kids. Visit the lay Catholics who have decided to build a community around Clear Creek Monastery. Sit in the stands for a high school basketball game or stand on the sidelines for a pee-wee soccer match.

Rick Steves needs to extend to his own countrymen and their attitudes and customs the same respect and understanding that he readily extends to Europeans. Steves celebrates the diversity to be found in Europe's various nations and regions, the peculiarities that reflect each locale's unique history. He deplores the homogenizing forces of mass culture and multinational conglomerates. Conservatism, as Russell Kirk expounds it, prefers the culture and institutions that spring from the local community to alien values, enforced from afar, yet Steves's fellow liberals want to impose their own values and ways on all of America. The left-wing commenters on his blog and on Facebook go well beyond condescension and incomprehension to full-blown contempt and hatred for their fellow Americans.

Rick, it's time to go "through the back door" to get to know the strangers with whom you share a country. You'll find a warm welcome, and you'll learn some things you don't know.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 23, 2016 10:20 PM.

GOP electors ought to pick someone besides Trump, but they won't was the previous entry in this blog.

Benjamin Netanyahu wishes you a Merry Christmas is the next entry in this blog.

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