Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

18 November, 2012

Travel Writing and the Lazy Worship of Poverty

By Aaron
18 November, 2012

Video: Michael Moynihan discusses the lazy tendency of travel writers to equate poverty and despotism with "cultural authenticity"

In the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, Michael Moynihan took the travel guidebook industry and its writers (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc.) to the woodshed for what he labeled their  "historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing." Consider, writes Moynihan, the popular guidebooks for tinpot dictatorships such as 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.

Moynihan, as he admits in the video above, took a fair bit of heat for his Foreign Policy piece, with critics accusing him of racism, cultural insensitivity, and pure ignorance. Yet, while you can agree or disagree with Moynihan's claim that some cultures simply are superior to others, it's hard to argue with his characterization of modern-day travel writing as a genre bathed in "a lazy, knee-jerk leftism" that too often mistakes "grinding poverty for cultural authenticity [and confuses] dictatorship with a courageous rejection of globalization."

It might be easier to quibble with Moynihan on this point if travel writers weren't forever making it for him. As evidence, I submit to the jury this morning's edition of the Los Angeles Times, which showed up just in time for my late Sunday morning breakfast and which contains, atop a piece about travel to Cuba, the following headline: "Unspoiled, For Now."

The writer, Amanda Jones, goes on at length about the food, the music, the coastline, and the art. Ah, the art:

"Communism," writes Jones, "promotes the arts heavily, and Cuban culture has benefited from this, although there are struggles with lack of funding."

Yes, Communism (and other forms of despotism) does appreciate a nice work of art...unless it challenges party orthodoxy, at which point the artist has a troubling tendency to become persona non grata. And yes, funding - for the arts, for roads, for food, for pretty much everything - does tend to become a problem when you've run out of other people's money and refuse to allow your citizens to engage with the global economy.

As if charged with confirming Moynihan's stereotype of the Lazy Leftist Travel Writer, Jones concludes her piece by sticking right with the script:

One positive aspect of the embargo: Cuba has remained Cuban, without a McDonald's or a Hilton on every corner.

What I wish most for all Cubans is the chance to be seen on the world stage and be paid fairly for their efforts. And to be able to afford the same $2 espresso I had. Meanwhile, get here before Starbucks does.

Of course, as Moynihan points out, the lack of McDonald's, Hilton, and Starbucks in Cuba is not by any choice of the Cuban people. Indeed, the rafts of Cuban refugees mostly drift in one direction: toward the Big Macs and the venti lattes 90 miles to the north.

Says Moynihan: "You'll find this all the time with people who say, 'Isn't it adorable that, when you go to Havana, they have all these Packards from the 1950s?' Well, no it's not!  This is a pretty grim reflection of the economics of Cuba. They would like to have a Ford Fiesta!"

I should admit at this point that I haven't always been immune to the tendencies which Moynihan describes, and have written as much in these pages. Take, for instance, these lines from July 2007:

Before moving to Korea in the spring of 2002, I had Graham Greene on the brain - imagining myself passing the summer monsoons beneath lazy ceiling fans on the screened porch of some crumbling colonial villa; sipping gin-tonics while watching the rickshaws pass below on the flooded streets of Seoul; a small-scale civil war raging in the countryside.

Would that it were, and it never was.

I confess that, as a naive 23 year-old, drenched by my college years in the celebration of "cultural authenticity," I was a tad disappointed to arrive in South Korea and find not peasants in conical hats using oxen to tend their rice patties, but rather insurance salesmen and stock brokers grabbing a quick lunch at - oh, the horror - McDonald's. Fortunately, I eventually realized that my enjoyment of new places and experiences need not depend on the poverty or political repression of others. 

Now, if only the travel writing industry could figure this out.