Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Rick Steves in Iran: An Empty Trip?
Rick Steves's documentary program on traveling in Iran is fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Unlike other travel shows, there seems to be a lack of perspective, of purpose in Steves's reporting. Normally, Steves travels Europe on camera and writes travel guides in order to encourage independent travel and tourism. However, his angle on Iran is quite different. He does not address the viewer directly in terms of travel tips such as lodging, dining, and cost. The likelihood of an American taking a vacation in Iran, he implicitly accepts, is remote and therefore complicates his role as host. What, then, is Steves's intention in creating this episode?
I would argue that, as a well-respected and popular travel writer and television host, Steves has an obligation to educate the general public on unfamiliar places. In the case of Iran, this means taking some sort of stand on the nation in relation to America. He attempts this task, but falls victim to the Orientalist habit of comparing Iran to America, using the latter as the unmarked term. I believe that his intentions are noble, that he wishes to be fair, to disprove misconceptions that Americans harbor regarding this area of the world, but his general attitude is strictly informative and lacks any depth of focus or critical analysis. The show reminds me of those small sections in history textbooks that appear every once in a while in the middle of a chapter. Soundbites, if you will. They might say something like "Shi'ite v. Sunni: What's the difference?" and then, in a few paragraphs, summarize in the most detached, clinical, expository style possible. Steves's program is a collection of these summations, and he offers no thread, no analytical message to bind the scenes together.
The perpetual elephant in the room throughout the episode is that fact that Americans fear this place. Some people probably hate it without knowing exactly why, just that there are Muslims there, and Muslims attacked New York, and they have nuclear weapons, and they're in the axis of evil. These are generalizations put forth by the media and consumed by an embarrassingly underinformed general public. Why didn't Steves take direct issue with this strained relationship? Did he fear that politicizing himself in this way could jeopardize his popularity? I did a little background reading and found that Steves is interested in politics, particularly marijuana legislation. He openly supports legalization of the the drug and uses his experience abroad to support this position. Why not take a stand on something a bit more global, Rick? I think you missed your chance.