Erik Critiques Travel Blogger Diatribe on Woes of U.S. Culture

So Many Places to Go

Above: one of my sketches of suburban Minneapolis, where I grew up. A unique, underappreciated subculture in the United States.

In an entry on her travel blog, So Many Places, Kim Dinan lambasts the culture of the United States, "pointing out its many flaws."

In the United States, according to Dinan, "we worship the holy paved road, the shotgun, and the almighty dollar...our shopping malls and our local Costco...Why do we just accept having a massive mortgage and the newest smartphone and so many bills to pay that we have to go in to work over the weekend to earn overtime as the way?"

Dinan's entry reminded me of a line from the award-winning fictional travelogue, The Golden Age, by Michal Ayvaz, who writes, "Some (travel) writers adopt the habit of describing a strange land by admitting or concealing their intention to demonstrate and criticize faults in their own society. I can assure the reader that he or she will not encounter any such bad literary practices in my report."

Dinan makes the same mistake that many travel bloggers make. The idea that, having seen other parts of the world, a travel blogger becomes uniquely qualified to make broad sweeping judgments about their own country. And her judgments are extremely sweeping in nature: "What about happiness? What about living an extraordinary life. What about love? What about adventure? What about joy? What about peace? What about laughter? What about soul?"

I moved to Portland, Oregon because the people in this city deliberately and innovatively build a culture that attempts to rise above many of the things that Dinan sees as being wrong with American culture. I don't like box stores and shopping malls either, but it's a stretch to paint such a broad stroke across a big country of not one, but many, cultures. Portland isn't the only place that defies a stereotype. What I see from my perch in Portland is that other places in the country are just as passionate things like building bike culture, about local food and art, about sustainable architecture or preserving their rivers and marshes. Isn't it great to ponder the influence of travel-food writers, such as Michael Pollan, in influencing the better side of our American cultureby writing through observation and experience? I wonder if Dinan can see that - the power of travel writing, on real places and real people.

Dinan saw this ugly side of America from her hotel room in New Jersey. Her readers awarded her with generally positive comments, enough so that she might see no reason to reconsider.

But perhaps one commenter hit the nail on the head when he pointed out the fact that Dinan did not visit the beautiful, rural New Jersey countryside and that she made a judgment about the entire country from a tiny sliver of it which is popularly, and easily, derided in American culture already.

Another commenter wrote, "yet for some reason people think they can come to one of the biggest countries and most diverse country in the world and make these sweeping generalizations and play them off as truth. I have lived and worked in multiple countries – and I find the people in these places just like people in other places kind, friendly, interesting and curious and also materialistic, fearful, ignorant and racist. Now they are fearful, ignorant, materialistic in different ways – but I would never say "better" ways and I think the story – especially from people who are so well traveled – should be, how can we learn from each other instead of who is right and who is wrong?"

Dinan, as a travel writer, you have the power to describe subjectively the place you are traveling through and to show your readers what is ugly and beautiful about the culture of that specific place. But I suggest you rework this piece by removing your generalizations and convincing us through the unique assets of the travel writer - observation.

Dinan referred to a particularly vile youtube video as an example of crass American culture:

But that video was widely panned for its awful tone here in the United States, making it an outlier rather representative of our culture. A travel writer must do better than sharing youtube videos. A travel writer must describe their specific experience, to get down dirty in the street, and convince us to see that place through their own eyes.

Perhaps Dinan, in looking for an example of what is wrong with her country, and seeking that lowest common denominator in travel readers, who often hunger for the message that indeed foreign travelers such as themselves are wiser than their ignorant countrymen, unwittingly made the same mistake as the advertising team responsible for that Cadillac commercial.

The United States is a vast place, filled with mystery, beauty, a thousand cultures. To me, I prefer to think of regions within North America, rather than countries, as embodying particular traits. Regardless, the United States is no less authentic than any other place. It is an enduring fault to believe that foreign travel gives us wisdom, and this misplaced travel blog piece confirms it.