A Rough Guide to Tyranny

18 August 2012

There is an over genteel style in English argument which acts like a sedative. Just when you think that a proper debate is getting going, one of the participants will say, ‘I am not sure that we’re really disagreeing.’ I am afraid I must use this tired line, if only for a moment.

Matthew Teller criticises me for writing about the indulgence of dictatorships by his fellow writers in the guidebook game, by saying : ‘Guidebooks exist to help people find a room, have a meal and get a drink, with the added bonus of directions to a quiet beach or a pretty village. A paragraph or two of political background can be diverting, but you’d hardly base a world-view on what you read in your guidebook, would you? Nick Cohen, angry journalist, is savaging a paper tiger.’

That point looks familiar, I thought, and went back to my piece, where I wrote  ‘The millions of readers of Lonely Planet wish for 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. There’s much else besides in Lonely Planet guides. Ninety nine per cent of the content neglects politics and tells tourists how to enjoy themselves, but that is the point. The apparent contradiction between a debased leftism and profit turns out to be no conflict at all’.

We are saying the same thing, but you will notice that Teller has a giggle in his voice as if his ‘diverting’ writing should not be taken too seriously. Indeed it should not, as he goes on to prove by defending Lonely Planet’s whitewashing of the Syrian 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.

Where to begin? As Freedom House says, but writers for Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide do not, the first six months of Bashar Assad’s presidency did indeed feature ‘the release of political prisoners, the return of exiled dissidents, and open discussion of the country’s problems’. In ‘February 2001, however, the regime abruptly halted this so-called Damascus Spring. Leading reformists were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, while others faced constant surveillance and intimidation by the secret police. Economic reform fell by the wayside, and Syria under Bashar al-Assad proved resistant to political change’.

But then I don’t need to go into all of that. Nor do I need to discuss the police state, Assad’s decision to funnel jihadis into Iraq to murder thousands, and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. We can also dispense with ‘the seductive tool’ of hindsight. I can settle my dispute with Teller simply by going to Lonely Planet’s website and looking at what it says about Bashar Assad’s rule now, in August 2012, after all the massacres, murders and rapes. Here it is in full.

Following the death of Assad senior, his son Bashar acceded to power. A new government was formed in December 2001 with a mandate to push forward political, economic and administrative reforms. This has proved a challenge, particularly when it comes to reforming the country’s unwieldy bureaucracy, many members of which have been recruited due to their political contacts rather than their level of competence. As a result, change isn’t occurring as swiftly as many observers had hoped. Still, you’ve got to hand it to Assad junior – he’s trying.

Improving the country’s relations with the international community is proving even trickier. Publicly branded a ‘rogue state’ by the US president, George W Bush, Syria has recently been forced to withdraw its army and intelligence personnel from Lebanon. It has also been criticised by the US for its support of Hezbollah and for allegedly turning a blind eye to the movements of Iraqi insurgents. Though making a gallant effort to stand firm in the face of the superpower’s displeasure, Syria is looking increasingly isolated on the world’s political stage.

You most certainly do have ‘to hand it to Assad Junior’. Whatever he does, he can still find unprincipled travel writers willing to praise his ‘gallant’ efforts.

It is not hard to check Lonely Planet’s website, before writing about Lonely Planet, but it appears too much to ask of Mr Teller. Unburdened by the need to research he babbles. Strangely his babbling  suits his employers’ interests very well.

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  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

  • John.

    There is a far better, more informative and more level-headed alternative to both the “Lonely Planet” and the “Rough Guide” and that is the “Footprint” Handbook, especially for all the Latin American countries. These guides were started as “The South American Handbook in, I think, 1927, so are also those with the longest pedigree. For some bizarre reason most bookshops don’t stock them. The only reason I can think of is that people either simply don’t know about them or they prefer to buy what everyone else buys.

  • Andy Gill

    Its amazing the contorted shapes the left are prepared to bend themselves into to avoid seeing the crimes of their favourite anti-western dictators. Some of them are still cheering on Assad as the bodies pile up in the streets.

  • Andy Gill

    Its amazing the contorted shapes the left are prepared to bend themselves into to avoid seeing the crimes of their favourite anti-western dictators. Some of them are still cheering on Assad as the bodies pile up in the streets.

  • Austin Barry

    Lonely Planet during the late 1930’s: “Germany is a delightful destination, although many of its trains are overcrowded and full of disagreeble passengers…..”

    • Duke Anderson

      Um. Lonely Planet didn’t exist during the late 1930s, just FYI. Maybe you should check your facts?

      • Austin Barry

        Er, Duke, I know that.

        • Davis

          Never mind, Austin, everyone else got the joke. Wake up at the back, Anderson! I’ll be chucking the blackboard rubber at you next time…

          • Malfleur

            Glad to see someone’s still calling them rubbers and not, as do my children, kow-towing to embarrassed American usage – but I used to call them “dusters” – the rubbers, that is.

  • Kevin

    The Lonely Planet guide to England should report that if you stay at a bed and breakfast the owners are not likely to be Christian, because that is illegal.

    • Noa

      Er, it’s not.
      But you might find yourself sharing the sheets with a same sex couple looking to bring a discrimination law suit to pay for their weekend break…

  • Don Nadeau

    Perhaps I am naive, but I actually
    believe visiting countries different in outlook from our own has the chance to
    improve conditions in the world. Personal travel preferences and legitimate
    safety concerns should drive our destination choices, not so much the political
    structure of these places. Countries with too grievous of governments are
    likely to be excluded for safety concerns, as is Syria today.

    If politics drives our decisions, where
    do we draw the line?

    The United States has the highest per capita
    prison population in the world, with many of these people incarnated and their
    lives ruined for victimless crimes such as marijuana usage. Should I not travel
    in the United States?

    On the other hand, adult Muslims in the
    United States earn more than the general population, in contrast to their
    situation of gross unemployment and significantly lower income levels in the
    United Kingdom. Should I focus on the prejudice this implies and ignore all the
    positive contributions of the British people when making my travel decision?

    Muslims in France, especially young
    Muslims, face an even more outrageous employment situation. Should I not travel

    These should be personal decisions,
    which are not the duty of every guidebook to discuss in detail, unless the imperfections
    of a country have led to a dangerous travel safety situation.

    • Curnonsky

      You seriously think the US imprisons people for using marijuana?

      • abighat

        Nearly 750,000 people were incarcerated for possesion only in 2009 in the US.

        • Curnonsky

          Not exactly. The actual percentage of prisoners in state and federal custody incarcerated solely for marijuana possession is between .7 and .8%, or about 15,000. The figure you cite is for arrests, not incarceration. In many cases possession is just one of several charges, and the eventual rap is “pled down” to simple possession.

  • quietcommentator

    And anyone who gets their political opinions from a Lonely Planet guidebook probably shouldn’t be declared mentally competent enough to get on a plane anyway.

  • quietcommentator

    Not updating a website – which is what appears to have happened in Lonely Planet’s case – is not the same as having a “sour and callous” leftist agenda. I agree with Matthew Teller – tourism can be an important source of income for people living in poor countries, whatever their politics.

  • coventrian

    As Nick Cohen supported the illegal and genocidal invasion of Iraq, it is laughable to see him try to occupy the moral high ground. Why doesn’t he write a guidebook to ‘liberated’ Iraq or Guantanamo Bay?

    • david

      stopped reading after genocidal.

      • coventrian

        I think I can guess why…

    • AY

      yes dear we know – the car isn’t four-wheeled, but a transport.

    • Eli

      Why don’t you write a guidebook to the moral high ground? How did you manage the climb? Or did you take the elevator? How do you like living in an exclusive gated community above the fray? How much does it cost for a night’s stay with aroma-therapy? And are there really so many virgins?

      • coventrian

        Keep taking the tablets. Let’s they’ll start working soon.

      • Nicholas

        “First, put on the sky blue elephant suit . . . “

    • Austin Barry

      Let me guess, you have a perpetual scowl, a Peruvian cap and smell vaguely of unwashed clothes and dead insects.

      • coventrian

        I’d guess you have a panoply of such stereotypes at hand to reinforce your view of the world. How sad for you.

        • Nicholas

          But of course your own stereotypes are valid, as they always are for the infallible heroes of the revolution.

          • coventrian

            I don’t have stereotypes – except the one you fit into.

    • Nicholas

      He can’t possibly aspire to the moral high ground. It is already packed full of you and your comrades lecturing the rest of us from the dizzy heights of your own infallibility.

      • coventrian

        I’m glad you’re listening – you might learn something.

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