The Incredible Mr. Steves

Feb. 13 - [Your annual Valentine's Special, The Moron's History of Valentine's Day, can be found right here.]

On October 12 of last year, I expressed some frustration with travel writer Rick Steves, who had laced a travel article about Denmark with partisan blather about alternative lifestyles and prison occupancy rates.

I'd like to revisit that post before expressing further frustrations. Here's the offending paragraph:

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.

After exploring the questions of veracity, clarity, and appropriateness raised by the last sentence, I concluded with my usual awkward pith, "...for God's sake, save it for the editorial page."

Ironically enough, Mr. Steves does write for editorial pages, and his politics are no different as a pundit than they are as a traveller. Here he is calling for a more sensitive approach to fighting terrorism. It's a little fatuous for me—kind of reminds me of Richard Gere asking a few hundred New York firemen to send a wave of love to Afghanistan a few weeks after 9/11—but at least it's on the editorial page, for God's sake, where it belongs.

Alas, he just can't seem to straighten out which articles are being printed on which pages. For now we have the new Rick Steves disinformation on Denmark:

Denmark: Copenhagen's free-spirited commune of Christiania has been the target of a government crackdown. After a series of police raids, residents voluntarily took down the hash vendors' stalls on Pusher Street. But the merchants remain and you can still buy and smoke marijuana within Christiania.

Denmark's new far right government would like to "civilize" the commune by putting up posh apartments; the residents just want to be left alone.

Let's take this bit by bit.

Copenhagen's free-spirited commune of Christiania has been the target of a government crackdown. First of all, Christiania is neither Copenhagen's nor a commune. It is the property of the Danish Ministry of Defense, which is turn the property of the Kingdom of Denmark, which is in turn the property of the people of Denmark. And those that live there do not describe it as a commune (which would be confusing in Denmark anyway, since kommune is Danish for "borough"), but a "free-state." It's inappropriate to refer to it as a commune anyway, since private property is respected. Not only that, but they've banned camping.

Second of all, Christiania has not been the target of a government crackdown. The drug trade of Christiania has been the target of a police crackdown. (I'm willing to concede that a government crackdown amounts to a police crackdown anyway, but Mr. Steves is so profligate in his inaccuracies I feel compelled to address all of them.)

After a series of police raids, residents voluntarily took down the hash vendors' stalls on Pusher Street. We're two sentences into bad-mouthing the government goons cracking down on the free-spirited folk of Christiania, and Mr. Steves still hasn't felt it necessary to mention that hash is illegal in Denmark. Even in Christiania. Yes, yes, it was overlooked for many years, but it was never legal.

Furthermore, the police raids were the result of the fruitlessness of police requests. If the police ask you repeatedly to stop breaking some law or other, and you ignore them, that's what happens. How can you say the pushers took down their stalls "voluntarily" when they ignored police requests that they do so for decades, and only relented when the police showed up en masse? Is that really "voluntary" behavior?

But the merchants remain and you can still buy and smoke marijuana within Christiania. You can still buy and smoke marijuana in just about any city in the world (though you're much more likely to find hash than marijuana in Christiania). The point that has now escaped Mr. Steves for a third consecutive sentence is that you can still go to jail for buying and smoking marijuana (or hash) in Christiania. It's illegal. Why not give us the run down on where to score a dime bag in Hoboken?

Denmark's new far right government would like to "civilize" the commune by putting up posh apartments; the residents just want to be left alone. This is where it gets ugly. As regular readers hopefully already realize, the current government is neither new (the old one was re-elected) nor "far right." It's a grotesquely misinformed characterization, unless your exclusive source for information on Danish politics is an angry radical leftist.

Okay, okay, maybe it's fair to call a re-elected government "new." I don't have a political journalism stylebook on hand. But to characterize the government as "far right," especially when writing for an American audience, is simply nonsense. It's the kind of thing that makes me want to succumb to the kind of inventive name-calling you see on all the popular blogs. It warrants an alliterative ass-whupping full of barnyard imagery and urological lexicography.

I would put Anders Fogh Rasmussen somewhere to the left of Joe Lieberman and the right of Ralph Nader. Granted, the extreme right wing of Danish politics, the Danish People's Party, is part of his ruling coalition, but they're a very small part and Fogh has made it clear that they will not be a part of his government.

In terms of what the government wants to do with Christiania, my own admittedly limited grasp of the news is that Fogh is pushing, with substantial support from all sides, to reclaim Christiania as a part of Denmark. That is, to subject it to the laws of Denmark.

I'm not informed enough on property law to get worked up over whether Christiania's residents are legally squatters, property owners, or what. But whatever their status, it hardly seems unreasonable to me that a government would say, "we'd like to see our national laws enforced equitably throughout the nation." That is, after all, what governments are supposed to do.

By Mr. Steves's reckoning, that amounts to "civilizing" a "commune" whose residents "just want to be left alone." (Never mind the "posh apartments" contention—it would require an entire Almanac to deconstruct that pregnant phrase.)

I'll give Mr. Steves his due. Christianians do indeed want to be left alone—but only by the authorities: tourism accounts for too much of their income for them to want real isolation. You could say the same, however, about lawbreakers anywhere. Masochists aside, most people who break the law would prefer to do so without being arrested, imprisoned, or sued. It's just common sense. How often do you speed on the highway, for example, hoping to be pulled over?

Christiania is an interesting social experiment, and provides rich fodder for those interested in political philosophy. It is, among other things, a rhetorical steel-cage death match for Locke and Rousseau partisans. Is ownership of property inherently an act of violence (Rousseau), or are property rights within the sphere of rights and responsibilities arising from the social contract (Locke)?

There's plenty of room for discussion and debate. But popping off as Mr. Steves does by parroting the "Preserve Christiania" party line without appropriate context doesn't create informed Americans—it creates misinformed Americans, some of whom will no doubt sooner or later come to Christiania and embarrass themselves (or worse). Similar embarrassments (and worse) will presumably arise from Mr. Steves's other bits of European misinformation. This will then reinforce the European stereotype of Americans as ignorant rubes, further straining trans-Atlantic relations, leading pundits like Mr. Steves to don their ashes and sackcloth and wonder, yet again, why Europeans don't like us better.

* * *

One of the advantages of being a moron is that you can be up-front about your fallibility. Strange as it may sound, I think people tend to invest more trust in people who are willing to acknowledge their own stupidity. ("Hey, that guy admits he's a marginally-informed, easily-confused rube... I can really trust a guy like that!") Sadly, however, some people will only trust an expert.

Rick Steves is an expert—no less than a "travel guru," if you're willing to trust the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's hype. I'm a half-assed, half-employed, perpetually bewildered moron. So for all my arguments, it's still quite possible that I've got everything backwards and he's right as rain.

Choose your poison.

* * *

Drew Bledsoe turns 32 today. Others born on the day poor Valentine lost his head include Porsche Lynn (1962), Meg Tilly (1960), Gregory Hines (1946), Carl Bernstein (1944), Florence Henderson (1934), Vic Morrow (1932), Hugh Downs (1921), Jimmy Hoffa (1913), and Jack Benny (1894).

Happy Monday!

2005, The Moron's Almanac™

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