Something there is that doesn’t love a hiker.
Specifically, there seems to be something about the Americans imprisoned for espionage after straying into Iran during a 2009 hike through Iraqi Kurdistan that really sets people’s teeth on edge. Karen Leigh reports in the Atlantic, “hatred has gone viral on the internet” since the news leaked out that two of them — Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer — have received eight-year sentences. (A third, Sarah Shourd, released on a $500,000 bond, has declined to return for trial.) Considering the general, well-founded antipathy towrd Iran’s repressive Islamic government, it’s worth asking not only why, but why the hell?
As Leigh observes, part of the hate may amount to no more than plain old crankiness. She notes that some of the most hostile responses come from readers whose “broken and often incomprehensible English” leads “to doubts about their motives and affiliation.” But there’s no shortage of home-grown cynics, either. “You can’t just go hiking near a country where we don’t have diplomatic ties in a country we occupy,” one of Leigh’s pals told her. “What did they think was going to happen?”
What I find most striking is the frequency with which the words “do-gooder” appear in connection with the three. The term appears to have no immediate factual basis — even in the hikers’ own self-justifying accounts, they were only out for a lark. Besides, isn’t do-gooding good? Why should it be a felony?
First things first. Although the trio seems to have had no grand plans to reform humanity on that particular day, an ominous strain of altruism does run through the brief biography of each of its members. Bauer, a journalist, wrote for Mother Jones and The Nation, and had taught himself to speak Arabic. Fattal had worked for Aprovecho, an Oregon-based research center dedicated to the development of “sustainable-living” practices. Shourd had been a relief worker in Syria. At last, they’re coming into focus: not only were the three do-gooders, they were the worst kind of all — liberal do-gooders.
If ever there was a case against that type, Trey Parker and Matt Stone can claim to have made it. On South Park, anyone who wants to improve the world by tilting it to the left turns out sooner or later to be a deluded imbecile (“Manbearpig”), a bloodthirsty fanatic (“Terrance and Phillip: Behind the Blow”), or both of these, plus a dash of sexual perversion (“Douche and Turd”). But it’s in Team America: World Police where the two really get down to brass tacks. In so many words — some of which my readers would blush to read — Gary, the actor recruited by Team America, tells the peaceniks of the Film Actors’ Guild that toothless liberal activism inevitably plays into the hands of malevolent forces. Want to change the world? Join the army.
A certain amount of popular conservatism boils down to “Whatever is, is right” — a social Darwinist reading of Natural Law. Anyone who messes with the great chain of Being deserves to get his head stomped on general principle. After St. James Davis was hideously mauled by chimpanzees at Animal Haven Ranch — having arrived bearing gifts for Moe, a former pet he was forced by law to consign there –I remember reading a number of blog posts that drew analogies between Davis’ fondness for Moe and a certain political party’s fondness for “soft power.” Chimps, like terrorists, are for locking in cages, not for offering tribute to. Got that, you sentimental twits?
A special kind of class resentment may also be at work. Here I’m not referring specifically to income — after all, none of the hiker haters seems to have included tax forms in his critique. No, I mean the resentment that inevitably makes itself felt against a certain class of travelers who pride themselves on being richer in gumption and imagination than your average American schlump. As Megan Daum put it in the Los Angeles Times, “They’re the types who learn the native language and never take organized tours, the types who smile politely at photos from your Princess cruise and then whip out a snapshot they took of child soldiers in Sierra Leone.”
I know this particular species of envy well because I’ve experienced it. While living a settled expat life in China and Russia, I used to gawk at the backpackers who’d just ridden in on the Trans-Siberian, the sands of Goa and Phuket still in their hair. They had great stories about The Time I Came Within a Day of Being Hijacked by a Khmer Rouge Remnant or Why You Should Never Buy Hash in Islamabad. They dressed for the part, with Uighur skullcaps and embroidered belts and vests that could have come from any country without flush toilets. They looked bedraggled, it’s true, but managed to give the impression that was because they’d spent the past two weeks having tantric sex while reading Midnight’s Children.
In “The Parachute Artist,” New Yorker writer Tad Friend reveals that the Lonely Planet Travel Guide — the bible for these stylish vagabonds — has become a brand name among people who care about brand names. “The books’ iconoclastic tone has been muted to cater to richer, fussier travelers who…fly business class,” Friend writes. In the 1980s, Ralph Lauren got rich on the understanding that wearing a tiny, embroidered polo pony can make a bank teller feel like a scion of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Today, the Lonely Planet people are copping on that picking an itinerary from one of their guidebooks can make the pudgy, married manager of a Chevy dealership feel like a svelte, heedless grad student. Imitation is the highest form of envy.
Of course, it’s not known whether Fattal, Bauer and Shourd ever fit into the Lonely Planet traveler mold. For all I know, they were too lofty-minded to lounge around in expat cafes, throwing their coolness in all directions like tiny darts. But anyone who wants to project that image onto them can do so without pushing the boundaries of plausibility. Perhaps the most infuriating quality about liberal do-gooders is the way they justify their fun with their activism. We’ve done our bit for humanity, they seem to say, like the kids at Billy Jack’s Freedom School, now it’s time to party. For Pete’s sake, make up your mind.
For me, at least, it’s that balance that makes earthy-crunchy punks so endearing. Plenty of Americans go abroad to strictly to party — the Jersey Shore cast would have looked a lot less out of place in, say, Ibiza, than it did in Florence. Hedonism becomes more respectable when it’s combined in a package tour with service to one’s fellow man and a determination to push the boundaries of human experience, not less so. As long as the hikers were charting their course in good faith — so sorry, Iranian government, but you people are going to smarten up on that whole Holocaust thing before I take anything you say seriously –then I can think of no reason not to get behind them.
In an ideal world, Billy Jack would show up to rescue Bauer and Fattal himself. First he’d take this foot and whop the jailer on that side of his face, just for the hell of it, like he did to Mr. Posner. Then, for good measure, he’d deliver a knife-hand to Ahmadinejad’s larynx, just like he did to Bernard Posner. But this is no ideal world, of course. Without Billy Jack, we have to settle for the State Department. Go on, Hillary — put on the hat, fire up the Harley. Do what it takes to reduce this experience, for Bauer and Fattal, into the one thing every hip traveler craves: a really awesome story.