Earlier this year I noted a piece by Michael Moynihan in Foreign Policy. He looked at how the authors of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guide books were producing apologias for tyranny. I argued that the kind words for Assad’s Syria, Gaddafi’s Libya and the Khomeinist Iran, were a result of the capitalist leftism – or politically correct capitalism – of the last decade. The whitewashing of dictatorial crimes could appear left-wing because the regimes opposed the West, or more specifically Bush’s America. But in their efforts to apply a thick covering of masking paint, the fellow travel writers had to brush aside any thought for a regime’s murdered or tortured victims of the regimes, and of the curtailed freedoms and stunted lives of the remainder of the population.
They had a strong commercial interest in looking the other way. Tourists did not want to read accounts of suffering when they relaxed.
‘They want guilt-free holidays. If the guidebook were honest with them, they would feel uncomfortable and wonder whether they should be helping dissidents rather than treating themselves. As much as the oil executive striking a deal with a dictator, rich travellers need reasons to help them sleep at night.’
A travel journalist called Mathew Teller replied in the Spectator that it was reasonable for Lonely Planet guide Syria and Lebanon to swoon over Bashar Assad in the early days of his dictatorship.
‘Perhaps Cohen doesn’t know much about the Middle East, but there really were, on all sides, high hopes for Syria in the few years after Bashar al-Assad’s rise to power: indeed, the Western media dubbed the period the “Damascus Spring”. I can personally vouch for the accuracy of Lonely Planet’s identification of “a feeling of optimism in the capital” around that time. It’s easy to imply, as Cohen does, that writing about gallery openings and new hotels is a pernicious insult when placed beside the murderous violence we are now witnessing, but then hindsight has always been a seductive tool. At the time, in 2006, Syria-watchers were well aware that the opening of the Four Seasons in Damascus signalled the possibility of improving economic liberalisation.’
Rarely in my years as a polemicist has an opponent been so easy to knock down. All I had to do was click on Lonely Planet’s website and see what it was saying when Teller published in August 2012. August 2012, that is, more than a decade after what faint and brief hopes the “Damascus Spring” had raised had gone, and after nine years of a sectarian thugoracy and 18 months of mass murder. Even then, Lonely Planet was still praising Bashar Assad – ‘you’ve got to hand it to Assad junior – he’s trying’. Even then, it still believed that anti-Americanism could excuse any crime – Syria was ‘making a gallant effort to stand firm in the face of the superpower’s displeasure.’
I looked again at the Lonely Planet’s website this afternoon, and glory be, its hacks had changed their line. Eleven years late, Lonely Planet was at last telling the truth. It had cut the praise for Assad’s s gallantry and admitted that the leader it had once admired was now turning the army’s guns on his own people.
Although I have spent many years mocking it, I like politically correct capitalism. Companies, which are socially responsible, are better than the alternative, after all. But propaganda is a different matter. Whenever young journalists ask my advice, I tell them never to give readers what they want, if the facts pull in a different direction. The first reason to challenge readers is so obvious it barely needs stating. Writers who produce copy made to measure, patronise readers by treating them as children who can only handle fairy stories that confirm their prejudices. More obscurely, writers who pander destroy their souls. You cannot write well unless you are honest – with yourself as much as anyone else. By confirming the received wisdom of supposedly “liberal” western tourists, the travel guide writers were confirming only that they should never have taken up writing in the first place. They could make a living, certainly; in PR or on many newspapers. But they would never produce anything worthwhile.