The Null Device

Leftist Planet?

The Cold War isn't over everywhere: An article in Foreign Policy accuses the authors of travel guides of fashionable leftist sympathies, falling over themselves to praise anti-US dictators like Castro, Chavez and Ahmadinejad and enthusing about how gloriously free (of Coca-Cola and McDonalds, that is) Pyongyang is whilst trotting out the same old obesity/religion/guns/geographical ignorance stereotypes whenever America is mentioned.
There's a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence, various contorted attempts to contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. foreign policy that precipitated these defensive and desperate actions. Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable rejection of globalization and American hegemony. The hotel recommendations might be useful, but the guidebooks are clotted with historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing.
THERE IS AN almost Orientalist presumption that the citizens of places like Cuba or Afghanistan have made a choice in rejecting globalization and consumerism. From the perspective of the disaffected Westerner, poverty is seen as enviable, a pure existence unsullied by capitalism. Sainsbury refers to Cuban food as "organic" and praises the Castro brothers' "intellectual foresight [that] has prompted such eco-friendly practices as nutrient recycling, soil and water management and land-use planning." Meager food rations and the 1950s cars that plod through Havana's streets, however, don't represent authenticity or some tropical version of the Western mania for "artisanal" products, but, rather, failed economic policy. It's as much of a lifestyle choice as female circumcision is in Sudan.
It may well be that the authors of the guidebooks are a cabal of Cultural Marxists, and that the Communists who (according to Margaret Thatcher) run the BBC, and thus Lonely Planet, are pushing the doctrinaire anti-US line. (I don't doubt that, among travel writers, there are some who subscribe to a romanticised, orientalist leftism, to the point of making apologies for the other side; I once read a somewhat myopic travelogue set in the two halves of Berlin in the 1980s, by an English author who delighted in contrasting the refreshing joy of the East (and dismissing as embittered hacks the dissidents who lost their jobs for criticising it) with the abject, junky-squat nihilism of the West.) On the other hand, a more economical explanation is in the nature of guidebooks and their function.

Guidebooks, by definition, are intended to be taken to the countries they describe as guides. If those countries lean towards totalitarianism, books which criticise their regimes, or reflect too strongly the point of view of the hostile state in which they were published, might not make it in through the border, or may cause trouble for the hapless tourist who buys them. As such, it makes sense that guidebooks to authoritarian states have, by definition, to be somewhat fawning, at the very least refraining from any criticism more than strictly necessary to be credible to a Western tourist and to leaven that with some praise of the President-for-life, explanations for why his secret police are not at all menacing and aspersions on the sorts who would criticise his beneficent rule. (I would venture that this wouldn't apply merely to fashionably anti-American states with iconically stylish martyred leaders: I'm guessing a tourist guidebook to Pinochet's Chile (which was, after all, a US-backed libertarian/authoritarian dictatorship) wouldn't have gone on about the death squads, human rights abuses and the optimism of the Allende years. Similarly, were the US to somehow roll back the First Amendment and criminalise hostile speech, I suspect that even the hippies in the Lonely Planet boardroom and the Communists in the BBC who control the purse strings would, from within their haze of funny-smelling cigarette smoke, decide to drop all superfluous references to guns, televangelists and junk food and stick to praising the beauty of the Grand Canyon and the prodigious variety of taco trucks.

There are 4 comments on "Leftist Planet?":

Posted by: Stan Wed Aug 15 22:37:44 2012

It also occurs to me that this is also a marketing ploy. Who wants to use a guidebook that focuses on the negative aspects of the place in question.

Posted by: acb Thu Aug 16 00:16:37 2012

And if you're writing a guidebook to Cuba, a significant proportion of your demographic will be people who think that Communism is cool on some level, either politically or aesthetically. Well, maybe not these days, but it'll be enough to affect the bottom line. I suspect that sound radical-left credentials and/or the ability to fake them would be a selling point to the board who give out publishing advances.

Posted by: Greg Sat Aug 18 13:59:58 2012

I think Stan got it - basically guide books are enthusiastic about whatever place they are guides to, communist or otherwise, which is their job. If the authors of the original article were to browse through the Lonely Planets for the USA, UK and other Western countries they would find the same outrageously optimistic tone.

Having said that, "toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing" is a great phrase that captures a lot of truth about middle class youth.

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org/acb/ Sat Aug 18 14:39:43 2012

And as far as hedging the obvious complaints goes, is there much difference between something like “they're fat and love guns, but the hospitality is great and check out Niagara Falls” and “the secret police are everywhere and prisons are full of dissidents, but healthcare is free and look at all the cool old cars”? In either case you have to address the complaint without letting it overshadow enthusiasm for a country that the visitor has chosen, for their own reasons, to visit.

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