WASHINGTON – Rick Steves is a popular host of a series devoted to Europe on US Public Television, (PBS), the commercial free network that on average provides high quality, educational programs for Americans. PBS has a very small audience. Yet, those who watch it are the better educated, high income US elites. They watch TV to learn, and not just for mindless entertainment. And indeed PBS has its array of hard hitting, informative documentaries, a high quality news program, (The News Hour), and a couple of very good talk shows, (Charlie Rose is the best one), featuring captivating interviews with leading personalities in politics, science, theatre, economics, business, and a lot more.
This is Europe?
But then PBS also has “Rick Steves’ Europe”. And this is not a good thing. The programs consist in a series of portraits of various European countries that create a cartoonish view of Europe. The Old Continent is all and only about the arts, high culture, beautiful architecture, great food and –most of all– ultra nice, refined and civilized people.
With real mastery, Rick Steves focuses on what is good about Europe and only on that, leaving all the bad stuff out, this way conjuring up the idea of a splendid Continent-wide oasis in which humanism blends with natural and man made beauty, good food and easy going, well educated people who get along splendidly with one another and do wonderful stuff.
This is a silly and totally unhelpful caricature of a Continent well on its way to terminal decline.
Italy: Michelangelo and pizza
Most recently I watched a concert on PBS in which each predictable piece by European well known classic composers was introduced by Steves. He –as the resident Europe expert– created a bogus historic “context” about the period in which the music was created.
A context of epic struggles (that sound more like pillow fights) led by proud and noble people who just wanted to assert their freedoms, etc. And the music was accompanied by videos that provided visual support. And so, as the orchestra played Verdi’s Aida, the audience watched beautiful Italian churches, palaces, and lovely landscapes. Still, in order to add some “realism”, there were many portrayals of today’s Italians. Everybody looking good and cheerful. And, of course, as the music plays on, you watch civilized wine tasting and pizza handed over to hungry customers, and then pasta and –why not– lots of cappuccino. What a lovely country!
If you want more of this cartoonish stuff, here is an intro to one of Steves’ videos on You Tube about Italy: “You’ll almost be able to smell the linguini and taste the vino rosso as Rick explores enchanting Italy“. OK, you get the picture.
Look, there is nothing wrong in showing Europe’s incredibly rich cultural legacy to America. But by selectively focusing only on the good features, Steves created a contrived, and therefore meaningless and non educational picture.
Here you have it: Europe as the Shangri-la of the West. “Rick Steves’ Europe” is the Continent of quiet civility, shared prosperity and good people who grow up well because of their beautiful surroundings and refined culture.
The sad thing is that PBS provides almost nothing else about contemporary Europe that might help in creating a more realistic context.
The truth of the matter is that Europe, with notable exceptions, especially in its Northern Regions, is a Continent in sad decline. Most of the art that Steves discusses in his travelogues was produced centuries ago.
Europe today is known for its endless debt crisis, sky high (12%) unemployment, social conflict, destructive politics, and lack of innovation and enterprise. Go tell the Spaniards, (27% unemployment, with youth unemployment above 50%), that you really envy their vibrant culture, great food and sangria. Go tell the near bankrupt Greeks that you understand why they are so proud of their history.
Bad news does not sell
Rick Steves has carved a niche for himself by creating and selling to unaware Americans this silly idea of Europe as a gigantic, happy Disneyland-like Continent. The whole truth is, of course, totally different.
It would be good for Americans to get the full picture. But I guess bad news about Europe does not sell as well as footage of happy Europeans laughing and having great dinners in the shadows of beautiful cathedrals.