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Lonely Planet Responds to ‘Leftist Planet’

The quotes in Michael Moynihan's article are taken out of context and mischaracterize Lonely Planet's mission.


Lonely Planet is a non-political travel publisher providing readers with objective travel information. The historical, cultural, and political context of a destination is important background information to help travelers get the most from a trip, understand the destination they have chosen to visit, and appreciate what they will experience when they get there.

We strongly refute any suggestion that we have any political affiliation or bias, and in particular that we are sympathetic to repressive regimes. The quotes from our guides that Michael Moynihan uses throughout his "Leftist Planet" article are selective, taken out of context, and do not represent Lonely Planet’s comprehensive, balanced view.

For example, "Leftist Planet" says that Lonely Planet saw in Kim Jong Il a "pragmatism and relative openness to change." The term "relative openness" is, in fact, clearly and specifically used in the guide to compare North Korean policies at the time of publication with those of the earlier famine years of the 1990s. Moreover, "Leftist Planet" omits that Lonely Planet also states, in the same book, that "North Korea is a police state with a human-rights record among the worst on earth. Concentration camps, executions, state-orchestrated terror and mass-control by a vast propaganda machine are a daily reality for millions here." The book adds that "it’s difficult to overstate the ramifications of half a century of Stalinism — and it’s no overstatement to say that North Korea is the most closed and secretive nation on earth."

"Leftist Planet" goes on to say about Lonely Planet’s coverage of Iran: "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.’" Taken in full, the passage in fact says nothing of the kind: "Iran says it is developing a nuclear energy program as an alternative to fossil fuels. It says nuclear weapons are not part of the plan. But Iran’s refusal to declare the program for years, or to allow full or timely inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has raised persistent doubts. For most Iranians, completing the nuclear fuel cycle is a matter of national pride, but few want the bomb. Iran sticks vehemently to its ‘peaceful purposes’ line. Why build a nuclear reactor and need another country to supply the fuel, it asks, when we can produce it ourselves? It’s hard to argue with that but if, after all the denials, Iran does produce a nuclear bomb, whatever little credibility the Iranian government retains in the international community will be gone."

In a third example, "Leftist Planet" states "Lonely Planet enthuses that Cuba is ‘a country devoid of gaudy advertising,’ possessing a ‘uniqueness [that] is a vanishing commodity in an increasingly globalized world.’" The full context is: "While the directional signage in Cuba is famously thin on the ground, there’s no lack of pointers toward socialism, the ‘battle of ideas’ and Fidel Castro’s face. In a country devoid of gaudy advertising, billboards have become the preserve of political propagandists." 

Other quotes are taken out of context and many are from old editions no longer in print or published prior to major sociopolitical changes in the destination. For instance, the editions on Libya and Syria predate last year’s Arab Spring.

Foreign Policy chose not to contact Lonely Planet for comment or fact-checking prior to publication. Instead it has published an article which quotes Lonely Planet guides out of context, and so mischaracterizes our content and clearly misleads its readers.

Editor’s note: FP has issued a correction to the original article in question, which you can find here.

Click here to read Michael Moynihan’s response.


Michael Moynihan replies:

I’m grateful for the opportunity provided by Lonely Planet’s letter to revisit the politically unsophisticated and morally ignorant books mentioned in "Leftist Planet." Rather than addressing the points I raised or defending the political positions staked out in its guides, Lonely Planet makes a narrow argument that quotes have been taken "out of context" and its books, which attempt to present a "balanced view" of countries like Cuba, are "mischaracterized."

But let’s get to specifics. Revisiting the company’s book on Cuba, for instance, convinced me that my brief recapitulation of the guide in "Leftist Planet" was perhaps a touch too generous. Lonely Planet objects that when I quoted its writer sniffing at the "gaudy" advertising one won’t find in communist Cuba, I failed to include the sentence’s final clause, which makes the quotidian and hardly critical point that "billboards [in Cuba] have become the preserve of political propagandists" (not the preserve of the Castro dictatorship, but of generic "political propagandists"). But how is this relevant to my point, that Lonely Planet is fetishizing "places uncorrupted by the hideousness of Western corporate advertising and global brands?"

I note that Lonely Planet’s letter makes no mention of the following paragraph from Lonely Planet: Cuba, which offers a more pointed critique of consumer culture and celebrates its absence from the country:

Almost completely cut off from the maw of McDonald’s, Madonna and other global corporate-cultural influences, Cuba retains a refreshing preserved quality. It’s a space and place that serves as a beacon for the future — universal education, health care and housing are rights people the world over want, need and deserve– while grappling with problems from the past including machismo, paranoia, inefficiency and confounding bureaucracy."

Lonely Planet, which has a rather curious definition of "preserved," states flatly that a country that has never had a free election under the Castro regime is a "beacon for the future." It should also be noted that the "universal education" system doesn’t allow access to heretical books like George Orwell’s 1984, and that the health system, which is plagued by shortages, wasn’t good enough for Fidel, who in 2007 flew to Spain for treatment of a mystery illness. And observe that the "criticism" of the system offered by Lonely Planet is merely that the country has inherited "from the past" problems of "paranoia, inefficiency and confounding bureaucracy," which one might generously call something of an understatement.

Or how might Lonely Planet explain the context of this passage, which takes a rather forgiving view of the failures of Castro-style economics?

While ostensibly little has changed here since Fidel first rolled into the city atop an American jeep in 1959, international tourism has left its bloody mark on a tired and worn-down populace. With the carrot of capitalism dangled in front of the Cubans in the form of all-inclusive tourism, limited private enterprise and the legalization of the US dollar (1993-2004), the psychology of Cuban socialism has been irrevocably damaged and people have gradually started to look elsewhere for inspiration.

It’s tourism and the extremely limited introduction of "private enterprise" that has left a "bloody mark" on Cuban communism? Those who reject totalitarianism, according to this passage, do so not because of repression, lack of democratic freedoms, travel restrictions, one-party media, and failed economic policy, but because of the "carrot of capitalism" — possibly that sinister maw of Madonna and McDonald’s. The Lonely Planet: Havana guide makes a similar and equally idiotic point, noting that "with the lucrative carrot of capitalism being dangled in front of their noses, many people, including women, have turned to hustling to get by."

In my 2006 copy of Lonely Planet: Cuba I find almost ten references to "dictator" or "dictatorship," all of which (correctly) describe the oppressive rule of Gerardo Machado or the U.S.-backed leader Fulgencio Batista, who was overthrown in 1959 during the Cuban revolution. The terms are not used once to describe Fidel or Raul Castro (though former President George W. Bush’s rhetoric toward Cuba is described as "venomous" and "belligerent," and those opponents of the regime arrested in 2004 are dismissively referred to as "so-called dissidents").

A 2009 version of the Cuba guide mentions "dictator" and Castro in the same breath only once — and Lonely Planet still can’t manage to apply the label correctly. "Has the world misunderstood Fidel Castro?" the book asks. "Is this rugged survivor of the Cold War and the catastrophic economic meltdown that followed just a Machiavellian dictator responsible for driving an immovable wedge into US-Cuban relations? Or is he the de facto leader of an unofficial Third World alliance pioneering the fight for equal rights and social justice on the world stage?" To ask such a question of a leader that doesn’t allow competing political parties is both stupid and profane.

Is Lonely Planet seriously suggesting that its Cuba guide — the most recent editions of which are authored by writer Brendan Sainsbury, someone whose sympathies for the Castro dictatorship I documented in "Leftist Planet" — isn’t soft on the authoritarians in Havana?

On the issue of Iran, I accused Lonely Planet of uncritically repeating the regime’s line on its nuclear program — or as Lonely Planet: Iran puts it, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s "pronouncements on nuclear power and Israel." Readers are told that "few [Iranians] want the bomb" and that "fortunately, about 99% of Iranians — and perhaps even Ahmadinejad himself — don’t want" a nuclear confrontation with Israel. Where this data comes from is anyone’s guess. The book skeptically relates that Ahmadinejad was "reported as saying Israel should be ‘wiped off the map,’" though the "translation of what he actually [emphasis added] said in Farsi has been widely debated." That "actually" gives away the game, doesn’t it?

And I challenge readers to read this odd section of the Iran guide — an imagined conversation between the author and a fictional Iranian who is "broadly representative of opinion" and makes the case for Iran’s nuclear program — and conclude that Lonely Planet leans in no particular direction on the Iran question:

But what about this nuclear program? I see the Bushehr reactor is opening soon and everyone in America and Europe is worried about it…even the Chinese are unhappy. What do you think? Does Iran really need nuclear energy? I mean, you have the second-largest reserves of oil and gas of any country on earth, isn’t that enough to keep all those Paykans running? And as for nuclear weapons, do you think they are really trying to build a bomb?

‘They have the oil, not us … remember. But anyway, Iran absolutely has the right to nuclear power. Absolutely! Lots of other countries have nuclear power so why shouldn’t Iran have it? We might have a lot of oil but the refineries are so old that a lot of it actually gets drilled here, then exported, and then we have to buy it back as petrol. Ridiculous, isn’t it? And you know how dirty those Paykans are, look at the pollution. If nuclear energy is cleaner isn’t that good? You know, what annoys me most is that despite all the president’s rhetoric, Iran has not actually broken the rules of this Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty we keep hearing about; but still the Americans and Europeans impose sanctions that make the economy even worse. I don’t want a nuclear bomb and I don’t think we should have one — it’s too dangerous. Now that the CIA says we’re officially not making one, do you think they’ll lift the sanctions?’

If the company is indeed committed to "balance," why not offer a fantasy conversation that includes the opposite case? Where is the conversation with a dissident who is convinced of — and horrified by — the theocratic leadership’s quest for nuclear weapons? (A one-sentence sidebar recommends that readers search online for a dissident view.)  And I’m not the first person to make such complaints about the absence of dissident opinion. As writer Graeme Wood, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, complained back in 2005, the Lonely Planet guide to Iran shows an "unwillingness to educate its readers minimally about Iran’s dissidents and its most execrable political crimes."

Consume all of these lines, read every mention of the nuclear program in the guide, and one won’t even approach a "balanced" understanding of the issue.

In "Leftist Planet," I wrote, "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." Lonely Planet complains that the full quote changes the context: "Iran sticks vehemently to its ‘peaceful purposes’ line. Why build a nuclear reactor and need another country to supply the fuel, it asks, when we can produce it ourselves? It’s hard to argue with that but if, after all the denials, Iran does produce a nuclear bomb, whatever little credibility the Iranian government retains in the international community will be gone."

In other words, it’s hard to argue with Iran’s rejection of international offers to process fuel abroad (it is, in fact, quite easy to argue with), but if they are lying some countries would be mighty angry. Iran argues that processing fuel abroad is unnecessary because their program is a peaceful one. To say that their rejection of international offers to assist with enrichment for the purposes of producing energy is "hard to argue with," I think, implicitly accepts that claim. But Lonely Planet is correct that this wasn’t clear in the original piece and that the final clause should have been included. I regret that it wasn’t.

On the subject of North Korea, my piece focused largely on the Bradt guidebook, though I noted that Lonely Planet "saw in the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il (who routinely announced his intention to engulf Seoul in a ‘sea of fire’) a ‘pragmatism and relative openness to change.’" This is unfair, Lonely Planet claims, because "the term ‘relative openness’ is, in fact, clearly and specifically used in the guide to compare North Korean policies at the time of publication with those of the earlier famine years of the 1990s" (no word on Kim’s "pragmatism"). How this changes my criticism is unclear, because the fact remains that Pyongyang was never "relatively" open to change, pragmatic, or, as the guide also claims, seriously engaged in "a series of initiatives to promote reconciliation with both the South and the United States." The point I make is a simple one: the book’s retelling of recent North Korean diplomatic history is a nonsense attempt to add "balance" where none is required.

Many of my other criticisms are ignored (see, for instance, the company’s treatment of the burqa in Afghanistan and the Lockerbie bombing). And Lonely Planet’s complaint that "the editions on Libya and Syria predate last year’s Arab Spring" is embarrassing. Did they discover that Muammar al-Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad were dictators who supported terrorism only after their subjects took up arms against them?

And to clarify, because Lonely Planet seems unclear on the journalistic point: Reviewers don’t call publishers or authors for comment when writing critical reviews of their books. And when reviewing books, the reviewer often ignores statements that are uncontroversial — observing that there is no free press in Cuba, for example, is not worthy of praise or comment — and instead focuses on egregious errors and silly analyses. As I wrote, most of the books offer "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." In other words, the pro forma stuff doesn’t provide immunity from being criticized for the stupid stuff.

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