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.

Ayn Rand: Russian fanatic

In some respects, Rand is almost Soviet. Her habit of remaking the past in accordance with her wishes or needs of the present is most striking… Allied to this tendency to remodel the past was Rand’s megalomaniac notion that moral philosophy had been nothing but a tissue of sentimental error until she came along….In her expository writings, Rand’s style resembles that of Stalin. It is more catechism than argument, and bores into you in the manner of a drill. She has a habit of quoting herself as independent verification of what she says; reading her is like being cornered at a party by a man, intelligent but dull, who is determined to prove to you that right is on his side in the property dispute upon which he is now engaged and will omit no detail.

From: Anthony Daniels – Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. A critical account of the “Chernyshevsky of individualism.”

Man the unknown

In a recent review of two new Ayn Rand biographies Daniel J. Flynn makes the following observation:

Ayn Rand’s midcentury novels continue to strike a chord because they read as though culled from today’s headlines. Here, Rand’s “looters” raid government coffers to bail out their poorly performing industries; there, Rand’s “moochers” demand that the “producers” pay for their health care.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression the French Nobel laureate Alexis Carrel writes in his book Man the Unknown (1935) :

Moral sense is almost completely ignored by modern society. We have, in fact, suppressed its manifestations. All are imbued with irresponsibility. Those who discern good and evil, who are industrious and provident, remain poor and are looked upon as morons. The woman who has several children, who devotes herself to their education, instead of to her own career, is considered weak-minded. If a man saves a little money for his wife and the education of his children, this money is stolen from him by enterprising financiers. Or taken by the government and distributed to those who have been reduced to want by their own improvidence and the shortsightedness of manufacturers, bankers, and economists…

Man the Unknown is an extensive meditation on the implications of the fact that modern man finds himself in an environment and culture much different from that which shaped his biology for thousands of years.  Although this book contains little that would have surprised contemporary readers, Carrel’s work is often reduced to discussion of  specific passages concerning his views on eugenics and the treatment of dangerous criminals.

Alexis Carrel’s groundbreaking work on cellular senescence, extracorporeal perfusion and his strong interest in life extension and re-making mankind makes him one of the rare individuals that can be characterized as a “conservative transhumanist.”

You’re all alone

In ‘The Rise of Scientific Philosophy’ the logical positivist philosopher Hans Reichenbach writes:

In Leibniz’s philosophy the rational side of modern science has found its most radical representation. The successful use of mathematical methods for the description of nature made Leibniz believe that all science can be ultimately transformed into mathematics. The idea of determinism, of a universe that passes through its stages like a wound clock, appealed to him because it meant that physical laws are mathematical laws.  He applied this idea in one of the strangest creations of rationalism, in his doctrine of preestablished harmony. According to him, the minds of different persons do not interact with each other; the semblance of such interaction is produced because the different minds, in their predetermined courses, go continuously through stages strictly corresponding to each other, like different clocks that keep the same time without being causally connected.

In 1950 the writer Fritz Leiber writes an urban horror novel titled ‘You’re all alone(later expanded in an adulterated edition called ‘The Sinful Ones’) which deals with the slightly different premise that the world is a mindless machine and the main character is the only person alive. At one point we read:

What if Marcia weren’t really alive at all, not consciously alive, but just a part of a dance of mindless atoms, a clockworks show that included the whole world, except himself? Merely by coming a few minutes ahead of time, merely by omitting to shave, he had broken the clockworks rhythm. That was why the clerk hadn’t spoken to him, why the operator had been asleep, why Marcia didn’t greet him. It wasn’t time yet for those little acts in the clockworks show.

Fritz Leiber’s novel weaves together solipsism (the idea that one’s own mind is all that exists) and Leibniz’ view of pre-established harmony in which “windowless nomads” follow their own internal logic but produce the semblance of communication.

Not much information about Leiber’s novel can be found on the internet at this time. Which should be remedied because Fritz Leiber was one of the pioneers of the genre of urban/philosophical horror which would later find a powerful expression in the works of authors like Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels.