Friday, March 20, 2009

Rick Steves: Mr. Rogers in Iran?

The other side of Rick Steves

He may seem like Mister Rogers. But in a revealing interview, the travel guru shares his daring views on Iran and terrorism, spoiled Americans and the best places to smoke pot in Europe.
By Kevin Berger
March 20, 2009

[Rick Steves is] so good-natured and devoted in his PBS travel specials to showing places that Fodor's would never send tourists to in their floral shirts that he's created a monstrous new travel industry. He's the apotheosis of the anti-Carnival Cruise crowd...

In short, Steves wants Americans to get over themselves. He wants us to please shed our geographic ego. "Everybody should travel before they vote," he has written. We should be represented by politicians who want America to act as a good global neighbor.

Steves' agenda is epitomized in his recent TV special on Iran. At the request of a friend in the United Nations to help "build understanding between Iran and the U.S.," Steves has produced a loving portrait of the demonized country. Characteristic Steves-on-the-street interviews open closed minds to the sophistication of Iranian citizens and their lack of antipathy toward Americans. In one scene, a man in a car pokes his head out the window and says to Steves, "Your heart is very kind." Steves is incredibly proud of his Iran film and is offering the DVD for $5 to any community group that wants to discuss it.

I recently caught up with Steves while he was killing time in the Tulsa, Okla., airport, where he had just given a talk about Iran, and was heading home to Washington state. In conversation, he was as ebullient as ever, fearlessly spelling out his views on globalization and terrorism, the scourges of tourism and the importance of decriminalizing marijuana.

Conservatives continue to harp that the U.S. shouldn't negotiate with Iran, and call Obama weak for even appearing agreeable toward the country. What can your Iran show say to American hard-liners?

When I made the show, I was not interested in endorsing or challenging the complaints we have about Iran's government. Maybe they do fund terrorism, maybe they do want to destroy Israel, maybe they do stone adulterers. I don't know. I just wanted to humanize the country and understand what makes its people tick.

When I came home after the most learning 12 days of travel I've ever had in my life, I realized this is a proud nation of 70 million people. They are loving parents, motivated by fear for their kids' future and the culture they want to raise their kids in. I had people walk across the street to tell me they don't want their kids to be raised like Britney Spears. They are afraid Western culture will take over their society and their kids will be sex toys, drug addicts and crass materialists. That scares the heck out of less educated, fundamentalist, small-town Iranians, which is the political core of the Islamic Revolution and guys like Ahmadinejad.

After all, this is a country that lost a quarter of a million people fighting Saddam Hussein, when Iraq, funded by the United States, invaded Iran. And they remember the invasion like it was yesterday to them. It's amazing: They have a quarter of our population and they lost a quarter of a million people, fighting Hussein. That's a huge scar in their society...

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