Traveltorial & The Annual Parable

Oct. 12 - I was interested to see a little article on Christiania from ABC News, and enjoyed it right up until the last paragraph—a real stunner (emphasis mine):

Christiania is open all the time. A walk or bike ride through the neighborhood is a great way to see how the people live. Tourists are welcome because they've become a major part of the economy. Visitors react in very different ways to the place. Some see a haven of peace, freedom, and few taboos. Others see dirt, drugs, and dazed people. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates over a quarter of the world's prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles or build more prisons.

(The article is apparent part of Rick Steves' "Europe through the Back Door" series.)

I've already said my piece about Christiania. Nice place to visit and all that.

But what's this bit of nonsense at the end of the article? If I'm sitting at home in America flipping through the travel section of—well, whatever newspaper ABC News syndicates content to—and I'm enjoying a vicarious stroll through an exotic location, do I really need this steaming pile of political dogma splattered all over me?

And it's done in such an underhanded way: "Locals will remind judgmental Americans..." Well, they never reminded me of any choices society had to make. But maybe that's just because I'm not judgmental. I guess Rick Steves is—because if he's not, how does he know what the "locals" like to remind "judgmental" Americans about?

Here's what I myself wrote about the same issue:

Depending on whom you talk to, [Christiania is] either a magnificent testament to the possibilities of self-governing communities, or a cesspool of drug-trafficking (and worse)... Some feel that it's time for the Free State of Christiania to be subsumed into the Kingdom of Denmark, whether to staunch the flood of drugs into Scandinavia or to contribute their fair share of property taxes. Others feel the experiment deserves to continue.

I injected some opinion into other parts of the bloggish, but I made it very clear that the opinions expressed were my own, and I didn't try to hide behind some cheap "locals like to say" dodge. Besides, I'm not even a goddam journalist. People expect opinions to burble out of my endlessly jabbering virtual jaw.

But let's assume the locals really like to remind Americans of the fact that society has to allow for alternative lifestyles or build more prisons. That's an asinine statement and Mr. Steves, as a travel writer, ought to have realized that.

It's not an either-or question: societies could allow for alternative lifestyles and build more or less prisons, as the mood struck them. Or they could do all in their power to stamp out alternative prisons, and still build more or less prisons. The two things are not connected.

And what's an "alternative" lifestyle anyway? That's sloppy language, born of sloppy thinking. If you're talking about the use of solar power, or wood-burning ovens as a source of heat, then there's nothing to suggest any conflict with American values at all. The same goes for production and sales of handicrafts, the running of little offbeat cafes, and so on. But if you're talking about the distribution and use of drugs, you're not talking about "alternative" lifestyles. You're talking about "criminal" lifestyles. Drugs are just as illegal in Denmark as they are in the United States. And the criminal justice system is just as lenient with "soft" drugs here as it is in the United States. So I don't see where "judgmental" Americans enter into the equation at all.

"America's got a godwaful lot of prisons," Mr. Steves apparently wants to tell us, "and I think that unless it changes its drug laws, it's going to have to build more." Fair enough. You may or may not agree (I'm not sure I do), but at least it's unambiguously worded and it takes responsibility for itself.

But for God's sake, save it for the editorial page.

A couple of decades back, people seeking to influence public policy began commissioning the writing of editorial whitepapers supporting their positions, which they then had placed on or near newspaper editorial pages as paid advertisements. They were instantly dubbed "advertorials," a compound abbreviation of "advertisement" and "editorial."

Are we embarking on the era of the traveltorial?

* * *

Columbus Day was observed yesterday in the United States. ("Oh my God, look, what's that?" "Why, it's Columbus Day!") The holiday is traditionally honored on October 12. On that date each year, I like to publish the Parable of the Bloody Bistro. Here it is:

The Parable of the Bloody Bistro

You're hanging out with a friend, catching each other up on your busy lives, when he suddenly exclaims, "Oh! I found the greatest little French restaurant!" (Remember, this is a parable, so it doesn't have to be French or a restaurant—it could be a remote golf course, a cool bookstore, a cozy little bar, a crack house, anything.)

Whether or not you actually care, you feign interest because this person is your friend and, God knows, we all have to feign for our friends. And our friends, being our friends, usually know that we're feigning. It doesn't bother them any more than it bothers us. So they go on:

"Julie and I wound up in a new part of town the other night, and we were both starving, and we stumbled into this fantastic French bistro."

(All right, your friend is David and Julie's his girlfriend. You probably never really liked Julie, but that's beside the point. David's trying to communicate. Give the poor guy a chance.)

"The service was spectacular, the place was elegant but casual—very romantic. The food was out of this world, the wine was exquisite, the service exemplary, and it was still the cheapest dinner I've had in years."

(David's always using words like spectacular and exquisite and exemplary, but stifle your nausea just a little longer. He needs to get this off his chest.)

"We couldn't believe our luck. I mean, we found it by accident—made a wrong turn off Bridge Street, and there it was. What a discovery!"

He's waiting for you to prompt him. Nod. Good. Smile. Very good.

"Well, you know me. I'm not about to walk away from a discovery like that. You know what we did? I asked the waiter to introduce us to the owner. When she came to our table, I distracted her while Julie snuck up from behind with a steak knife and slit her throat. We herded the wait staff into the walk-in, locked them in, painted our names on the sign in front of the restaurant, and now it's all ours!"

Don't be too hard on David... he's only following the historical precedent set by Christopher Columbus, who "discovered" the Bahamas on October 12, 1492.

Don't get me wrong. I admire Columbus, but it seems to me that in calling his conquest of the Bahamas a "discovery" we do an injury to the indigineous peoples of that island nation, and an even graver injury to the English language. David and Julie didn't discover their French restaurant—they stumbled across it. They liked it. They took it.

A few centuries ago there was nothing shameful in that kind of behavior. Anyone who's ever studied Latin or done a couple of crossword puzzles knows that Caesar even bragged about it. "I came, I saw, I conquered," he said. He certainly didn't say, "I came, I saw, I spread the beneficent light of western civilization into hitherto benighted cesspools of squalor."

That's because for most of human history there were only three types of territory: places you could take, places that could take you, and places you weren't so sure about.

So instead of praising Columbus for his discovery, or damning him for his conquest, it might be more appropriate simply to recognize him as history's most aggressive tourist.

The wave of aggressive European tourists that followed Columbus is often criticized for having brought war and pestilence to the primeval bliss of the Americas. This is unfair. The New World wasn't some happy little Eden of loving gentlefolk sitting around the campfire and eating s'mores. It was a bloody killing field for competing empires, just like every other continent. War and pestilence already existed throughout the New World; her peoples just hadn't yet become sophisticated enough to commercialize them.

Human history is only the side-effect of our gradually improving ability to kill one another. Aggressive European tourists helped the budding civilizations of the New World acquire in decades what it had taken Western Civilization centuries to develop on its own.

Where's the gratitude?

* * *

On October 12, 1960, at a U.N. general assembly, Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev pounded his desk with his shoe. This resulted in the popular stereotype of the Soviet Dictator who pounds his desk with his shoe.

In fact, many Soviet Dictators did not pound their desks with their shoes.

Birthdays and Holidays

October 12 is the birthday of Kirk Cameron (1970), Susan Anton (1950), Luciano Pavarotti (1935), and Dick Gregory (1932).

October 12 is Dia de la Raza in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela. But it's Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Independence Day in Equatorial Guinea, and Columbus Day in the US (see above; observance varies).

Happy Tuesday!

2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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