Michael Moynihan has an excellent article on the oh-so-enlightened travel guys and their fascination with purity in penury,
Why do so many travel guides make excuses for dictators?
The West’s misreading of Cuba is an old staple for this crowd, and a new generation of lefty guidebooks doesn’t fail to disappoint on this score. The Rough Guide to Cuba, for example, even has a kind word for the draconian censorship implemented by the Castro regime, lecturing us that it’s “geared to producing (what the government deems to be) socially valuable content, refreshingly free of any significant concern for high ratings and commercial success.” Sure, the guidebook says, one can read dissident bloggers like Yoani Sánchez, but beware that opponents of the regime can be “paranoid and bitter” and are “at their best when commenting on the minutiae of Cuban life [and] at their worst when giving vent to unfocused diatribes against the government.”
We’ve also apparently got it all wrong when it comes to Cuba’s notorious Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a Stasi-like network of neighborhood-level informers that monitors and informs on troublesome dissidents like Sánchez. Lonely Planet: Cuba thankfully assures tourists that the group is, in fact, a benign civic organization: The CDR are “neighborhood-watch bodies originally formed in 1960 to consolidate grassroots support for the revolution [and] they now play a decisive role in health, education, social, recycling and voluntary labor campaigns.”
WHY ALL THE bending over backward to excuse the world’s most thuggish regimes? For the guidebook writer, as well as the starry-eyed travelers who buy them, there is no characteristic more desirable in foreign travel than “authenticity” — places uncorrupted by the hideousness of Western corporate advertising and global brands-and many of these pariah states are the only destinations that offer it. Lonely Planet enthuses that Cuba is “a country devoid of gaudy advertising,” possessing a “uniqueness [that] is a vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalized world.” Indeed, the dictatorship protects its citizens from the poison of consumerism in a manner other states might want to emulate:
Almost completely cut off from the maw of McDonald’s, Madonna and other global corporate-cultural influences, Cuba retains a refreshing preserved quality. It’s a space and place that serves as a beacon for the future — universal education, health care and housing are rights people the world over want, need and deserve.
Writing in the Ecologist, a venerable British environmentalist journal, Brendan Sainsbury, co-author ofLonely Planet: Cuba, contends that there is purity in Cuban penury:
Falling into step alongside pallid, overweight and uncoordinated Western wannabes out on two-week vacations from Prozac and junk food, the Cubans don’t just walk; they glide, sauntering rhythmically through the timeworn streets like dancers shaking their asses to the syncopated beat of the rumba. Maybe the secret is in the food rationing.
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.
But it takes a special lack of integrity to write a Lonely Planet guide: Thomas Kohnstamm, who authored the Lonely Planet guide to Colombia admitted that
“They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Colombia. I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating—an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”
Lonely Planet didn’t expect me to go to Colombia. They knew full well that I wasn’t going.
Hey, if you’re buying a book from people who are going to palm off their ideology under the guise of a travel guide, don’t expect anything resembling the truth.
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