Month: May 2015

steinem

Visualize Whirled Peas

by Chris Tharp

Oh North Korea, such a naughty little thing. How it blazes incandescent in the Western psyche. We just love to hate the place, don’t we? It’s a defiant, inscrutable nation, ruled by a blood succession of grumpy-faced, outlandishly-coiffed chubbies whose constant saber-rattling, fire-breathing, and generally bellicose bellowing raises eyebrows along with military alert levels. That’s right, North Korea talks some serious shit. On multiple occasions they have threatened to turn the South into a “sea of fire.” They have played the race card in the ugliest manner, referring to President Barack Obama as “a monkey,” and “a crossbreed with unclear blood.” More recently they’ve slandered South Korean president Park Geun-hye as “a crafty prostitute” and “America’s comfort woman.” Damn. And in one of their grander rhetorical moments of late, they labeled U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “a wolf” with a “hideous lantern jaw.” As cutting as that is, I’m not sure if I can really disagree; the former senator does indeed rock an insectoid mandible that looks like it could grind gravel into dust. But I’m told he speaks exquisite French.

Being a pariah state carries a certain amount of mystique, so it should come as no surprise that the North attracts its fair share of nutbars and self-aggrandizers. Every few months there is a story of some wide-eyed Christian preacher bum rushing the Stalinist state from the Chinese side of the border, wading across the Yalu River armed only with bags of Bibles and good news. He invariably gets arrested and paraded in front of cameras for a forced confession before the ever-beaming Jimmy Carter flies in to save the day (If he’s busy building houses somewhere, you can always call Bill Clinton). Add naive television journalists, a (probably) mentally-ill ESL teacher, and the “basketball diplomacy” of Dennis Fucking Rodman (who is rumored to have gotten so drunk during his mission to the North that he took a dump in the hallway of his hotel), and you have positive cavalcade of attention seekers who have all figured out that the road to international media coverage runs straight through Pyongyang.

Now we can add Gloria Steinem to this ever-growing list. Ms. Steinem, of course, is famous for her ceaseless agitation for the rights of women from the 1960’s on. For many years she was the face of the feminist movement and I’d like to think has generally been a force of good on this planet. She has fought for equal rights day in and day out and  for this I applaud her. She’s also ceaselessly agitated for peace, which is a good thing, right?

hippie

Peace. It’s such a seductive idea. After all, who is against peace? That’s like being anti-Christmas or hating babies. Everyone wants peace, even North Koreans, so when Ms. Steinem announced that she was co-chairing a “women’s march for peace” on the Korean peninsula, it seemed like a laudable idea, prima facie. After all, this is technically a very dangerous part of the world where hostilities could kick off again at any time, with disastrous results all around. Is there anything wrong with calling attention to that fact?

Women have often been peacemakers. After all, in the wars it is the men who do most of the fighting, leaving the women without husbands, brothers, and sons. In Aristophanes’s famous play Lysistrata, the title character attempts to end the Peloponnesian War by convincing all of the women in the town to withhold sex from their husbands. That’s right, all of the ladies go on a pussy strike and it works. Peace prevails and the people can get back to getting at it again. Thanks, women.

However, when I first read about this women’s march, which was called “Women Cross DMZ” (Someone forgot to take their creativity pills!), I for one didn’t go all tingly inside. In fact, my eyes did a 360 in their sockets. While no expert on intra-Korean relations, I have spent a decade here, read a lot on the subject, and try to keep track of the news. A peace march? Really? What were they possibly  hoping to achieve?

Gloria Steinem and the other organizers said that they wanted to bring an end to the Korean War, which technically never ended since no peace treaty was signed. Really? 65 years of conflict and loggerheads resolved by linked arms and a rousing rendition of “Cumbaya”? Please pass the barf bag.

North Korea was the first to leap at the opportunity to host this march, which should come as no surprise, since these kind of vague calls for peace and reunification are right in their wheelhouse. The North has been clamoring for a peace treaty for a long time now, which was echoed by Women Cross DMZ. The South refuses to sign for myriad reasons, laid out clearly in this excellent, in-depth article on the march over at Korea Expose. South Korea eventually agreed to let the women cross, though from the start the conservative Park government was cool to the idea. Why was that? Because such a superficial, ineffective gesture would only play right into the hands of the regime up North. And that’s just what happened.

In addition to Steinem, two Nobel Peace Prize laureates were on board for this event, Mairead Maguire (1976) from Ireland and Leymah Gbowee (2011) from Liberia, lending the affair some much-needed gravitas. But it was the inclusion of lightning rod Christine Ahn that really set some people off. She is a Korean-American activist who has been often accused of having strong North Korean sympathies. The women of course toured Kim Il-sung’s birthplace when they were up North, and the state’s official paper, the Rodong Shinmun, quotes Ahn as praising the founder, though I suspect it was manufactured. Ahn is no idiot, and it’s unlikely she would spout such nonsense knowing what sort of microscope she was already under, though some of her other quotes featured on this DC-based blog seem pretty damning. Like other Northern-apologists, she seems totally unwilling to criticize or blame the regime for any of its woes. She has also engaged in what is the South Korean left’s version of 9/11 Trutherism: the conspiracy theory that North Korea was in no way responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan, in which 44 Southern sailors died.

I don’t think that Gloria Steinem or most the women on this march were pro-North Korea, but I do think their naivete was weapons grade. Yes, they went to North Korea and met with other women (every single one of whom was vetted, coached, and selected by the regime I’m sure) to ‘hear their stories,’ were feted by the government, posed for photos, and then bussed to the DMZ, where they crossed at the Kaeseong Industrial Zone (on buses, not foot) before heading into Seoul for a meeting with fellow activists. They were met with some supporters and plenty of protesters in the South, and, according to reports, their march was met largely with derision in the local media. I wonder why?

From what I read, the people behind Women Cross DMZ believe that person-to-person contact with North Koreans will somehow magically help open up the country. This sounds so reasonable but is, of course, nonsense. Plenty of foreigners visit North Korea, and like Steinem and her sisters, they are ushered to the same spots, surrounded by minders, and only meet ‘approved’ citizens. As a result, there can never be any real, meaningful, person-to-person exchanges. It’s all staged and monitored. These women are also of the predictable Why can’t North and South Korea just sit down and talk? school. They are under the starry-eyed illusion that North Korea can be trusted or reasoned with, which it can’t. The regime has shown time and time again that it only uses negotiations as a way to squeeze concessions from the South while breaking every promise it makes. I have become a hardliner on this issue: don’t talk to North Korea. Isolation and containment must be the only policy. Anything else just rewards the people in charge, who are terrible, terrible human beings. Look no further than abject failure that was the “Sunshine Policy.”

pollyanna

North Korea is probably the most awful regime on earth. We love to hate it because it IS that bad. It’s a paranoid, racist place where one “wrong” thought can have you and and generations of your family killed or sent off to a slave labor camp. Their laundry list of sins and abuses is lengthy, clear, and well-documented. The only way they can bargain anything on the international stage is through threats and fear, though hosting events such as Women Across DMZ help to ameliorate this prickly image. Posing in front of the cameras and treating both Koreas as if they are somehow equal–economically, politically, or morally–IS legitimizing that regime. It is nothing more than a propaganda coup for the pack of gansters that runs the joint. These women gladly played the role of ‘useful idiots’ while wasting everybody else’s time.

Gloria Steinem should know this; after all, this wasn’t her first rodeo. One can’t help but think her involvement in this whole silly affair was one old woman’s desperate cry for relevancy before she fades away for good. It was a condescending move, reeking of entitlement.  Here comes the wise benevolent white woman to save these wretched souls. Lasting peace has only eluded the peninsula for almost 65 years because Gloria Steinem, peace sisters in tow, never deigned to stroll across the DMZ.

And look: They made a quilt.

quilt

Can someone please smother me with it?

72 Hours in Goa

 by Mordecai Feldman

  Editor’s note:  My cousin, Mordecai “Morty” Feldman, occasionally writes articles for the Travel section of the New York Times. Last winter, Sweet Pickles & Corn’s Eli Toast and I joined him and his wife for a trip to Goa, India. He sent me the following story, which will soon be published in the Sunday magazine supplement, pending a few revisions and editorial streamlining. In exchange for me and Eli keeping quiet about a few indiscreet moments of the trip, he agreed to let the readership of SP&C have the first look at his dispatch. You’ll note that Eli and I do not appear in his article. This is not because we asked to be left out, it’s because Morty told us that he didn’t like us very much.

–Steve K. Feldman

nytimestravel

goa1

Good old Goa!  Good-as-gold Goa: the golden jewel of the Indian Ocean coast, former Portugese trading colony, cradle of Full Moon Party hedonism, famed stop on the Hippy Trail from Istanbul to Bangkok in the swinging 60s, and my home for a month the summer after my sophomore year at Dartmouth, where I truly found myself.

Laugh if you want.  Yes, I was strolling along Goa’s fine white-sand beaches, watching the sun, the color of a ripe pomegranate, sink into the placid sea, watching a team of locals drag a fishing scow up onto the sand. When they finally had the boat stowed next to a grove of coconut palms, they collapsed from near-exhaustion, but smiling and laughing in easy camaraderie, sharing cigarettes, their thin, lithe brown bodies oily with sweat—perfectly at ease and peace, content with their hardscrabble existence.  They had everything they needed in their little world right here—and how lucky I was to share just a sliver of it.  It was at that moment I decided to switch majors from Hebrew literature to finance and management. So I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Goa, and let me tell you, as an Options trader at JPMorgan-Chase, I don’t often get accused of having a soft spot for anything, except for making great gobs of money.

Of course the whole Full Moon rave has long since moved on to Koh Phagnan in Thailand, and Goa has a whole seems to have suffered from the “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” Yogi-Berra-ism, with most of my friends these days, when heading out for Asian vacations, opting for eco-tourism in Myanmar, Sumatra, and Borneo instead of the sandy stalwarts of Goa, Phuket, or Bali.  So, with my trading desk closed for a few weeks as SEC agents combed through our hard drives looking for the  evidence of insider trading I’d erased months earlier, I found myself with time on my hands. I thought Goa was fresh for a re-visit to see if the tandooris, the masalas, the chais, and of course the fiery vindaloos were as good as I remembered, or at least were better than Sammy Najapur’s on W. 53rd St., which always catered our casual-Friday lunches until our real estate subsidiary bought their building and tripled the rent, forcing them to move to Hackensack but hey what are ya gonna do?

My first pleasant surprise came when we found out that Goa had its own international airport. ( “We” being my latest wife of 10 months Tayghan, who insisted on being mentioned in this article. Okay Tayghan, you got your wish. You got mentioned in the New York Times Travel section!  Congrats! Happy now? Do your friends and family down in Richmond even read the Times? ) With its own airport, that meant we could fly straight in from Charles de Gaul without mucking about in Mumbai, which still seemed to be reeling from the latest Pakistani-funded terrorist attacks. It would have been nice to stay at the Taj Hotel again, and taste the excellent brioche from their patisserie, but apparently the last of the jihadists had holed up there, and the Indian security forces’ elite Black Squad had to pry them out with tear gas and flamethrowers, and since then, word is the espresso there just doesn’t taste right anymore—residue from the tear gas perhaps?

From the airport, I decided to rough it for the ride to the beach. I was already in the spirit of my old backpacker days, so we hired a private car for $80 instead of a private limo for a still-reasonable $250. Tayghan protested, but I insisted we start out by getting an up-front, up-close-and-personal, boots-on-the-ground taste of Goa, and what better way to start than by sitting only 3 feet away from our private driver, instead of 9 feet away and separated from him by a plexi-glass divider?  India is all about the smells, and I wanted to smell our driver—that strange cumin / coriander / fenugreek / turmeric smell that Indians tend to faintly exude even when freshly bathed.

Goa’s accommodations truly run the gamut—there is something there for every taste and every budget—from the flashy 5-star resorts like the Amari Golden Mandala upwards of $1200 a night for an ocean-view suite, all the way down to charming little boutique resorts like the one we opted for, called the Anjuna Beachcomber Inn, at a wallet-friendly $280 a night!

goa2
Upon check-in we were greeted by the owner  himself, a charming rotund little Bengali gentleman named Naresh who had somehow escaped the “shithole of Kolkatta” (his words! His words!).  He was now living his dream running a little beach hotel, serving spicy curries and cold Mai-Tais and making friends from all over the world (You just made two more, Naresh!  Good job! You have the cutest little head-wobble!)

After stowing our bags, Tayghan immediately wanted to go shopping. I thought she might have been all shopped-out from the Duty Free in Paris during our layover—but guess again!  So I forked over my credit card and we strolled along the little strip of shops in the lane behind the beach. We bought some silk saris ($70 each), a teak incense holder in the shape of a hooded cobra ($135), and some bronze wind-chime mini-gongs at ($325). Make sure you bring your hard-bargaining skills to Goa—you can easily get 30-40% of the first quoted price, if you’re not worried about being seen as a cheap Jew. Tayghan was soon oohing and ahhing over some driftwood sculptures of Shiva and Vishnu that she thought would look great at our cottage in Easthampton, and picked out three or four. Tayghan stayed to work out the shipping details with the owner, and I continued on down the street.

Music was coming from several different shops and beach bars, creating a hypnotically  mellow mash-up  entwining Bob Marley, sitar-and-bamboo flute melodies, Hindu chanting, and Coldplay.  I passed by a incense and wall-hanging shop with its owner standing in the doorway surveying the passers-by with an easy grin and a twinkle in his eyes.

“What do you need, Boss?” he said.  “Weed? Coke? X? Acid? Anything you want, no hassle, boss!”

Well! Soon I found myself sitting on a coach in the shop’s back room, waiting for the runner to return with my order, the owner and I chatting about the changes to Goa in the last 20 years. “So many Russians now, my friend!” he said. “They are completely exasperating, I must admit to you!” And then the head wobble, followed by, “But they do have lots of money you see!  And so we must be welcoming to them!”

“The men are pigs, but their women are hot!” I remarked.

He gave me another wobble, and said “On that we can agree, my friend!” and then the runner came back with my order. Three hits of Israeli ecstasy (Flash! lightning-bolt imprint–$25 dollars each).  A gram of coke (Columbia, shade-grown coca leaves, fair-trade certified–$80). Two tabs of acid (Amsterdam, Snoopy Sopwith Camel imprint—$15  each). And a half-ounce of cheap Cambodian weed ($30). I added 10 Goa keychains and bottle-openers (50 cents each) for our secretaries and cleaning staff back at the office. Can’t forget the little folk!

With both Tayghan and I worn out but satisfied from our shopping haul, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging by the pool. For dinner, we opted for the restaurant at the Imperial Lisbon Coconut Hideaway, where the pistachio-crusted sea bass and curried king-prawns with the truffle glaze were simply to die for! The wine list was surprisingly impressive—as I sipped from an impressive bottle of Argentinian Torrontes Ugni blanc ($280), I thought, wow, am I really in Goa? And as I did a line of coke in the men’s room while Tayghan was chatting with the young Russian couple at the adjoining table, I thought, “oh yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Whooooooo, FUCK!”

I came back to the table, and found that Taygan’s new friends Dmitri and Sasha had invited us to a rave party on the beach by their resort! Well, I was a little too old for raves, but what the heck! Goa was truly a place for making new friends, and the X and the acid would make the music palatable, I thought.

“So are you guys married?” I asked our new friends while Tayghan was off in the ladies’ room.

“No, not married,” grunted Dmitri. Sasha, a thin, stunning blond rolled her eyes and looked away, an expression on her face of perfect boredom.

“Ah, how long have you been dating?”

“We are not dating. She is Ukrainian whore.”

“Oh, how interesting,” I said. “Um, how much was she?”

He gave me the rundown:  $300 an hour, $2000 for all night, $4000 for 24 hrs, long-term engagements negotiable with her pimp back in Kiev. “Yes, I bring three with me,” he said. “You want one?  I give to you, no problem.  You have threesome with wife.”

“Oh, haha.  Thanks, but I don’t think Tayghan would go for that!” I said.

“You are man, you make the money. You tell her—this is your vacation, you fuck who you want to fuck. You must be hard, and she will understand. You American men, so afraid to hit a woman!”

goa5Tayghan came back and soon we were off to the beach rave, where Teghan and I danced with one of Dmitri’s whores while the other two fellated him as he stood knee-deep in the ocean, hands clasped behind his head, gently swaying as the beat of techno matched perfectly the rhythm of the twin blond pony-tailed heads bobbing at his crotch. It was the perfect ending to our first day in Goa!

Up next for tomorrow: paragliding, an Indian cooking class (yum yum!), and visiting a Hindu temple while tripping BALLS!

1370395801-haeundae

Occidental Hero, or, How I Screwed Up and Inspired the Development of a Global City

By John Bocskay

When Typhoon Sanba slammed into Busan in 2012 I had my face pressed to the window of my 10th floor apartment in typhoon waveHaeundae Marine City, watching as great roiling waves crashed over the sea wall and raced up the street past my building. When the swells came at a certain angle, water surged through the manhole at the intersection and finally blew the cover off, so that subsequent swells pumped thick columns of water into the air. Gusts of wind rattled our windows hard enough to make me wonder if I should be standing near it. The question was settled a minute later when a pane fell from the 50-somethingth floor of the building across the street and smashed on the sidewalk below.

The storm blew all morning, and when it ended in the early afternoon, I went out for a look. The sun was out and the water had drained from the intersection back to the sea, but the sustained battering had shredded the esplanade that had recently been built along the sea wall. Heavy paving stones lay scattered all over the road and had rendered it impassable to the street-hugging sedans and sports cars common in that part of town.

A group of about thirty men and women had formed a line and were passing large stones off the street hand to hand and stacking them on what remained of the walkway. I wandered around and photographed the carnage, but soon began to feel guilty that my neighbors were doing all the work while I was farting around, so I started picking up stones and adding them to the stacks that were rising by the curb.

I struck up a conversation with a Malaysian fellow named Alex who was doing the same thing. It turns out he lives in the building across from mine and had been watching the storm like me from his window.  We chatted and joked about finally getting some exercise as we lugged dozens of the heavy stones off the road.

About fifteen minutes later a middle-aged Korean man from the cleanup crew approached us with an incredulous look on his face. “Wow! Thank you so much for your help!”

Why is he making a big deal about me? I thought. Everybody else was working too, most of them harder than I was. Just as I was beginning to feel a little embarrassed at being singled out for praise when there were thirty other people doing the same thing, he informed me that my assembled ‘neighbors’ were in fact Haeundae district workers who had been dispatched to clear the road. Dressed in plain clothes, they were probably office workers who had been hastily conscripted into an emergency road crew, and they had arrived there so quickly after the storm that both Alex and I assumed they were locals who had spontaneously pitched in to get the traffic moving again.

This revelation made me feel a bit silly for a moment, but I was kind of enjoying it, talking and getting to know my neighbor. We kept working, now joining the line and passing the big stones hand to hand. A man came around and gave us a pair of white work gloves. After the largest stones had been moved they handed out shovels to pick up the smaller ones. After fifteen minutes of that, the job was done, and a woman handed out bottles of water and Choco pies. A man from the work crew asked me for my mailing address. I gave it to him, had a second Choco Pie, and went home feeling good about having gotten out of the house that day.


With our neighborhood back in order, the storm was already receding from my mind when a piece of mail arrived for me the next day: a thank-you card from the Haeundae District Office.

That was nice, I thought.

The day after that, I got a call from Alex. He said a reporter from the Haeundae district newspaper had called him and asked if she could interview us.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

We met her the next day in Alex’s apartment. As we sat around the table sipping coffee, she asked us why we decided to help clear stones off the road.

I told her the truth: I wrongly assumed that the people clearing the street were my neighbors, and I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing anything to help. What I didn’t tell her was that if I had known they were working for the city, I would have just taken some photos and left. I thought the implication was certainly there, but if she asked me directly I was prepared to spell it out for her: I wouldn’t have helped.

She didn’t ask. Her next question was, “In your hometown, do you help when there are disasters?” and it was instantly clear to me that she had not come all the way over here to interview some schmuck who volunteers because he doesn’t know any better; she was here to write about an exemplary citizen, a paragon of civic virtue. I smiled.

“Not really,” I said. I wanted to give her something but I was drawing a blank. There haven’t been any real disasters in suburban New York since the eradication of the natives in the 17th century.

“The worst thing that happens is sometimes we get a lot of snow, like a blizzard. Sometimes I’ve helped people dig their cars out of the snow or clear their sidewalk or their driveway so they can get out. Things like that.”

She was nodding and scribbling down the exotic details of shoveling a Westchester driveway, while noting well the implications it carries for – dare I say freedom? – in a part of the world that has effectively no public transportation. Much of this detail would find its way into her finished piece, a moving tale of two foreigners who spring to action in times of crisis to keep their hometowns safe, the traffic flowing, and their neighborhoods beautiful.

choco pieAs she was leaving, she thanked us again on behalf of Haeundae District. I told her the Choco Pies had been payment enough, and she laughed.

I wasn’t joking.


A few days later Alex called again. “The mayor would like to meet us,” he said.

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know.”

There was no saying no, so a few days later I found myself standing in the office of the Haeundae district mayor, a portly fellow in a dark suit shadowed by an entourage of six other men in dark suits. The reporter who had interviewed us snapped photos as the mayor thanked us, shook our hands, and awarded each of us a plaque that read:

Thank you very much for voluntarily participating in the Typhoon Sanba recovery efforts in Haeundae Marine City. Your invaluable service has greatly inspired and motivated us to develop Haeundae into a global city. We sincerely appreciate and admire your selfless dedication.

After posing for an official photo in front of a backdrop panorama of Haeundae Beach, we sat with the mayor and his entourage around a large table and sipped excellent tea while we recounted our story. As we spoke, a large TV monitor behind us was displaying a slideshow. I wasn’t aware of having been photographed that day, but someone had shot at least two dozen photos, which now played in a loop for the mayor, showing Alex and me in various action poses: picking up stones, passing them off, carrying them away, and laying them in stacks. The staff guys watched the slideshow, nodding and murmuring. When one photo showed me carrying three stones at a time, they murmured a little louder.

There wasn’t much of a story to tell, so the reporter helped  flesh it out with the other nuggets she had gathered, informing the mayor of my former career of digging my countrymen out of deep snow.  I took the opportunity to thank the mayor and his staff for responding so quickly to the storm. It really was fast, and it occurred to me that if it had taken longer, I wouldn’t be having tea and chatting with him right now. The reporter didn’t mention the part about us not knowing that the cleanup crew were city workers, nor did I. There just didn’t seem to be any point in bringing it up and spoiling the party.

Besides, it wasn’t as if they were using me to support a war I didn’t believe in or a product I knew to be harmful. Perhaps there were ulterior political motives – who knows? – but on the surface they seemed merely to be looking to tell an inspiring if slightly fabricated story that might guilt-trip a few nouveau riche types into being slightly more civic-minded. If that was the worst of it, I could live with that.

When the time came to leave, the mayor again took my hand and said, “Remember me!” Was that the point of all this – to make allies among the foreign community so that we’d go home and tell our wives and friends what a swell fellow he was, or maybe even to encourage us to vote for him myself if I ever got around to applying for the permanent residency visa? Or maybe this is just how you say goodbye to people when you’re the district boss – a way of reminding the faithful that someday they may be called upon to return the favor.

Whatever the case, I assured the mayor that I would indeed remember him. We said goodbye, and with my plaque tucked under my arm, I found my way outside.


In front of the building, Alex and I joked about being local heroes. “The next time they call will be to give us a parade and keys to the city,” I said, but that call of course never came. It also turned out to be the last time I saw Alex. He went back to his high-flying IT job, and I walked home along the beach quietly re-assuming my humble alter-ego: teacher, husband, and proud resident of Haeundae, Busan, Korea, Earth.

haeundae

french-countryside-2

Mission Improbable – The Trouble with Traveling to Improve your Country

From February to June 1787, with all of his necessities packed in a single trunk, Thomas Jefferson traveled “incognito” by coach, barge, and sometimes mule across most of France and Northern Italy. Reading the extensive diary he kept of the trip, one encounters many passages like the following.

In the boudoir at Chanteloup is an ingenious contrivance to hide the projecting steps of a staircase. Three steps were of necessity to project into the boudoir. They therefore made triangular steps, and, instead of resting on the floor as usual, they are made fast at their broad end to the stair door, swinging out and in with that. When shut, it runs them under the other steps. When open, it brings them out to their proper place.

jefferson1787I don’t quote this because it was Jefferson’s most electrifying prose; it’s not, and to be fair, he never intended to publish it. What is striking about the diary is what it says about Jefferson’s sense of the grand purpose of travel, evidenced by the wealth of detail describing everything from soil types, methods of grape cultivation, the relationship of social conditions to regional crops, and sketches of practical contraptions like the one above. Every page reveals a man bent on devouring as much practical information as he could with an eye toward using it to improve both himself and his country on his eventual return to Virginia. In addition to scouting markets and securing contacts for American agricultural producers (his primary duties as a minister), he brought back with him new varieties of plants, architectural designs and ideas he would later implement, plans for technological devices, and an unparalleled expertise in European wines and viticulture. Not too shabby for an 18th century backpacker.

Despite competing with the leisure travel industry for our hearts and minds, the idea of traveling to improve one’s country is still discussed today, though it more often falls under the purview of travel scribes than presidential hopefuls. One of the most vocal and visible contemporary champions of what you might call national-improvement travel is the writer and entrepreneur Rick Steves. In his recent book, Travel as a Political Act, Steves explains the book’s eponymous theme thus:

When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned – our newly acquired broader perspective – to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.

steves wine

Rick Steves, travel writer and man of a sober age.

Steves’s notion that travel can improve one’s country echoes Jefferson, who wrote to his nephew in 1787 that “men of a sober age” could travel to “gather knowledge, which they may apply usefully for their country.” There is however an important difference between them: The country Jefferson came home to was agrarian, weak, and relatively undeveloped, so many of his observations found an appreciative audience among a people who felt they had something to learn from Europe. In contrast, Rick Steves has to chip away against the popular conceit that America is exceptional and has little to learn from Europe – least of all the French, whose label as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” has been un-ironically accepted as the last word on France by the millions of FOX viewers who never quite grasped that learning international studies from Homer Simpson is a bit like learning feminism from Archie Bunker.

Attractive Expressive Young Mixed Race Female Student Sitting and Talking with Girlfriend Outside on Bench.

So like, oh my god, I have to tell you about this thing they use in Europe called the metric system…

But like Jefferson, Rick Steves is also a man fired with missionary zeal. In the book, he writes cogently about successful heroin maintenance programs in Switzerland, Sweden’s commonsense approach to underage drinking, the liberal stance toward prostitution in the Netherlands, and several other battle-tested European social policy triumphs. This is well and good until one recalls that Europe is no longer some distant land from which letters take weeks to arrive and none but seamen, diplomats, or the very rich will ever see in person, which points up another difference between Jefferson’s time and our own: the traveler coming back from Europe today isn’t really telling people much that they haven’t already heard.

So if we know about these things, why don’t we implement all these great ideas? Part of the answer lies in yet another important difference between the worlds of Jefferson and Steves: today’s traveler is sharing his European insights with countrymen who are too often hypersensitive to criticism (Love it or leave it!) and who seldom give a hot damn what Europeans do, think, or say. While some of Jefferson’s contemporaries may have replicated the “ingenious contrivance” he observed in the boudoir, today the phrase “solution X has worked in country Y” is rarely the premier feature of a persuasive discourse or a winning debate.

sarah-palin-flag-pin

Reality star Sarah Palin gazes vigilantly at Russia.

You don’t even have to look as far as Europe to overlook an idea. Case in point, socialized medicine in Canada. You can be for it or against it – and I frankly don’t care which – but one thing that should be very clear by now is that its implementation doesn’t lead down the dreaded “slippery slope” to inevitable and abject totalitarianism, as many Americans strangely imagine despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For some Americans this is as easy to debunk as literally looking out the window (there goes Sarah Palin’s excuse), yet to point out that Canada has socialized medicine but no dictatorship is to be cheeky or obtuse, not a Jeffersonian visionary.

No doubt mindful of these obnoxious tendencies, Steves is obliged to draw doomed analogies between constructive personal criticism and criticism of one’s equally beloved country:

I enjoy bettering myself by observing others. And I appreciate constructive criticism from caring friends. In the same spirit, I enjoy learning about my society by observing other societies and challenging myself to be broad-minded when it comes to international issues.

I’d be out of my depth to deal with the question of whether the average person strives to better themselves, but even among people who do, embracing criticism is a leap that many still don’t make. Whatever the reason for that, it leads me back to some of the grand claims that are occasionally made in praise of travel, namely, the idea that the inevitable consequence of travel is growth, openness, or some other species of personal improvement. While it appears to make intuitive sense, the continuing struggles of people like Rick Steves to invite their fellow Americans to engage in transformative introspection or to brook well-intentioned and thoughtful criticism suggests to me that there are in fact prerequisites to this happy side-effect – call it ugly-american-thumbhumility or openness if you like – and that travel does not necessarily teach us those things. Traveling certainly affords the opportunity to learn, but in order to learn something it seems we must first acknowledge that we have something to learn in the first place. Without that mindset, the opportunity is wasted, as evidenced by every self-assured ding-dong, dipshit, and dunderhead who strapped on a backpack and came back with his ignorance intact.

I’m not saying that travel has not cracked open a stubborn nut here and there and managed to ram home an uninvited truth; that happens, though it strikes me as less common. It’s also not hard to find examples of travel gurus (Steves is one) advising us to open our minds prior to traveling in order to get something out of the experience, a tacit acknowledgment that we become travelers by becoming open, but that we can’t count on it happening the other way around.

If our goal is to better our country, is there still a point to purposeful travel, or is bettering ourselves the best we can do? And if openness is the main requirement to do that, does travel have any role in that at all?

The big question seems to be: how do you learn openness?  I don’t really know, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re headed into a boudoir in Chanteloup, you want to be ready for anything.

6a00e5518490a0883401a73d6a9491970d-800wi

Hello there, sailor.

Editor’s note: this piece recently appeared on Outside Looking In.