At the beginning of The Forgotten Man, Amity Shlaes memorably sets the scene for the coming 1930’s soft-socialist revolution in American government by describing a 1927 ocean voyage of the President Roosevelt (a ship named for Teddy, not Franklin, needless to say, unless Joe Biden is reading) with a cast of would-be American “progressives” and future New Dealers onboard, including Rexford Tugwell and Stuart Chase — the latter man would go on to coin the phrase, “The New Deal.” They would be joined by other members of the left once the ship reached Europe. After visiting Britain, Germany and Belgium, the travelers reached their ultimate destination: the Soviet Union.
“The travelers carefully gave themselves a label,” Shlaes wrote. “They were the first non-Communist, unofficial American trade union delegation. They saw themselves as objective and wanted to make sure others saw them that way as well. The trip was not truly independent, however, for Stalin’s regime controlled the itinerary inside Soviet borders, selecting the factories and farms they visited.”
The Soviet Union was fresh, and therefore interesting. Three years earlier, the progressive Lincoln Steffens had penned his famous summary of the achievement of revolutionary Russia, a summary that rang in the ears of the 1920s travelers. That summary did not say, “I have seen socialism and it works,” although Lincoln Steffens was a man of the left. It said: “I have been over to the future and it works.” Steffens also said, “I would like to spend the evening of my life watching the morning of a new world.”
After his trip, Stuart Chase memorably asked, “Why should Russians have all the fun remaking a world?” He’d go on to aid FDR’s efforts in bringing his own form of collectivism to the US.
Of course, today’s “progressives” know that the future that they once envisioned didn’t quite work out with as much “fun” as men like Chase envisioned, leaving many of them with a case of both nostalgia and wanderlust, where they can jet in to visit carefully selected bits of totalitarian hellholes before heading back to the USA. Or as Reason magazine’s Michael Moynihan asks in Foreign Policy, “Why do so many travel guides make excuses for dictators?”
To establish the quality of the political education they’re serving up to a new generation of travelers, it’s useful to begin by skimming their guidebooks for undemocratic countries like Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria.
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.
For instance, readers of Lonely Planet: Libya — published before the recent unpleasantness — are told that Libya’s murderous dictator, Muammar al-Qaddafi, was likely framed for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. In fact, the book relates, “One of the most credible theories was that the bombing had been ordered by Iran in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iran Air airbus by a US warship in the Persian Gulf on 3 July 1988.” Qaddafi is cast as a misunderstood figure (“A recurring theme throughout Colonel Qaddafi’s rule has been his desire for unity with other states, all to no avail”), unfairly maligned by Western governments (“ordinary Libyans suffered [under sanctions] and the world rebuffed repeated Libyan offers to hand over the Lockerbie suspects for trial”), and the victim of media unfairness (“Western reporters, keen for any opportunity to trivialise the eccentricities of Libya under Qaddafi, referred to [his bodyguards] as the ‘Amazon Women'”).
It’s not just the wacky colonel who got the benefit of the doubt. Has the media convinced you that the burqa is an instrument of oppression? Lonely Planet: Afghanistan, in a rare bit of what appears to be Taliban nostalgia, explains: “The burqa can be seen as a tool to increase mobility and security, a nuance often missed in the outside world’s image of the garment. Assuming that a burqa-clad woman is not empowered and in need of liberation is a naïve construct.”
Western media outlets have misinformed us on Iran as well. Lonely Planet: Iran assures travelers to the Islamic Republic that “99% of Iranians — and perhaps even [President] Ahmadinejad himself” aren’t interested in a nuclear conflict with Israel. In fact, ignore all the hyperventilating about nuclear weapons, because it’s “hard to argue with” Iran’s claim that its uranium-enrichment program exists only for peaceful purposes.
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.”
Ron Radosh explores the root causes of such a mindset in his latest post here at PJM, in a post titled, “A Graduate of my ‘Commie’ High School Goes to Cuba and Sees Paradise, or How One’s Education Can Warp You for Life.” It’s a textbook case of what blogger Val Prieto once dubbed “Omnipotent Tourist Syndrome,” back in 2004:
The Omnipotent Tourist Syndrome is a disease common among Americans that is caused by arrogance, egotism and non-chalance. Carriers show a penchant for obliviously overlooking the obvious while delighting themselves at the cost of others. Delerious OTS sufferers refuse to acknowledge their malady and will argue that it is their God given right as an American to travel freely about the world with little or no conscience or consequence. OTS people fequently hide behind their Bill of Rights and Constitution. Unfortunately, there is no cure for OTS nor is there any way to ease it’s symptoms. It is a disease which, no matter how much hard data and facts are introduced into the OTS sufferer, will not ease unless said sufferer finds a compass of morality and humanity.
The travel and fashion magazines published by Conde Nast seem to have a particularly bad lust for what Moynihan calls “Leftist Planet,” as they long for Germany’s “Eco–Anschluss” and worship the second coming of Evita Peron in Syria’s Asma al-Assad.
Woe betide the reader who actually believes what these travel writers are peddling and jettisons Omnipotent Tourism Syndrome to permanently move to such a place, however.
(Headline via a memorable early edition of National Lampoon.)