The politics of travel guides
In a politicized society one should not be surprised to find politics in the most undesirable places. One would not expect political bias in travel guides. After all, most travel guides are published to sell as many copies as possible and therefore need to be factual and “inclusive.” Strangely enough, most travel guide writers seem to interpret this mandate as a stamp of approval to show disdain for any developments in a country that are not deemed cosmopolitan enough. The social and political history chapters in travel guides are so predictable that it makes you wonder if all travel book writers work from the same template and just tweak the details for each individual country or city. In the worst travel guides, social history is political history and the only exception to this rule is the obligatory discussion of the protest generation, which is generally discussed in a favorable light as a form of enlightened protest against cultural oppression instead of the start of a power quest of a spoiled and entitlement-seeking generation.
In most travel books there is one specific phenomenon where all attempts to be neutral are consciously ignored. Most European countries have witnessed the rise of social movements and political parties that challenge the ethnic and cultural egalitarianism of the political class (the political class now being the “protest generation” discussed earlier). The associated parties are almost invariably designated as “far right,” “ultra right,” and “xenophobic.” Upon reflection, there is something strangely incoherent about the way in which such cultural and political movements are treated. Travel guide writers usually pay lip service to the importance of countries preserving and cultivating their traditions and strongly encourage tourists to respect those traditions as well. But at the same time, any cultural or political movement within those countries that seeks to preserve those same traditions through means such as restricting immigration or discouraging the practice of non-traditional religions are treated as a bunch of unenlightened neanderthals. Some writers must sense the incoherent nature of their perspective and resolve this by postulating that the essence of the country or city that they write about is its “tolerance “or “diversity.” What started out as a review of a region’s unique culture culminates in the idea that the essence of that culture is to welcome and celebrate its own demise.
At this point, one wonders if those writers really fail to understand that the simplistic self-congratulating cosmopolitanism that is implicit in their writings contributes to the very homogenization of culture that makes so many big cities in different parts of the world so culturally indistinguishable from one another. The most amusing example of this phenomenon can be found in the discussion of “diverse” neighborhoods. These high-crime, high-unemployment neighborhoods are invariably being praised for being “colorful,” “exciting,” and “innovating.” This sounds appealing until you discover that the descriptions of such neighborhoods are nearly identical, regardless of the city or country being reviewed.
It appears that most writers of travel books think that the identity of a country or region is simply the joint acceptance of a set of abstract cultural norms and folklore. Of course, in modern Western societies there is anything but the joint acceptance of cultural norms and practices. One does not have to be a rabid right winger to observe that you cannot just replace one group of people with another group of people and expect no effects on the culture and traditions of a city. Surely, one can claim that such a development is dynamic and that cities have always been vehicles of change. In this case, however, that change is not a spontaneously evolved response to new technological and cultural events of a people, but an authoritarian top-down engineered experiment of a self-righteous political class with cosmopolitan aspirations.
It may be too much to expect that travel guide writers and editors restrain their political biases, but surely, there must be something better than travel guides, where substantial segments of the native population of a country are pictured as ignorant buffoons and cosmopolitanism is celebrated as the country’s defining identity.