Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

Tyranny’s fellow travel writers (Part 3)

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.

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