Mark Falcoff’s Guide to the Guidebooks

Occasional contributor Mark Falcoff is resident scholar emeritus at AEI. He is the the author, among other books, of Modern Chile, 1970-1989: A Critical History and Cuba the Morning After: Confronting Castro’s Legacy. Mr. Falcoff writes:

The Atlantic Web site has posted a rather provocative piece by Max Fisher on guidebooks to the USA. He reminds us (something I didn’t know) that the US is the world’s second largest tourist destination (60 million visitors a year), not far behind France (80 million). Naturally these people need some preparation; hence the guidebooks. He particularly cites the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide series. He quotes at length from both, and some of the comments are frankly off-putting. (I suspect Mr. Fisher finds them far more to his taste than I do.) But the main point is, both the books he cites from indulge in lugubrious comments about our national faults and warts, particularly on issues like race, politics, and crime (oh, and I forgot, also homophobia).

I have been a buyer of guidebooks for many years–it is an addiction from which I will never free myself–but of course my collection consists entirely of other countries. From time to time, however, and just out of curiosity, I do look at guides to the USA. For example, in the Guide Blu to the USA published by Hachette, the section on food is (this being France) very important. It starts out by saying, “There are no starred restaurants in America, as there are in France…” But then it tells the reader to cheer up, “The beef is very good, however.” This repeats almost word for word every cliche about American food I have ever heard at French dinner tables–true enough.

The German guide I looked at the other day began by remarking about the “skepticism” with which “Europeans” (read: Germans who prefer not to mention their nationality) view the USA. Well, no doubt.

The Indians, slavery, differences in income, right-wing evangelists, racists, homophobes…they are all there in any guidebook to the USA in any of the four European languages I am able to read, not just in the Lonely Planet series (produced out of Australia) or the Rough Guides (UK-based).

Now, let’s compare for a moment European guidebooks to Europe. Take, for example, my Baedecker guide to Dresden (latest edition, 2012). It has this comment to make under the heading of Etiquette and Customs: “With Dresden people of the older generation it is wise to be sensitive about the subject of the Socialist rule of the German Democratic republic: the question of spying and denunciation by the internal security service, Stasi, stlll causes controversy. Many Germans do not feel comfortable talking about events of the Second World War, which are regarded as a subject for serious discussion and private thought…Unless you intend to engage in learned discourse, it is best to follow the famous advice–and not mention the war.”

Likewise, my guides to Spain do not mention the exploitation and extermination of whole communities of Indians in Mexico or South America, or the ruthless wars fought by Spain in Cuba and Morocco (though of course it does mention the German bombing of Guernica, and also US “support” for the Franco dictatorship); the British guides do not mention the Great Mutiny in India in 1857 or its aftermath, or the treatment of the Boers or the Irish; no French guide talks about the Indochina and Algerian wars; no Italian guide discusses the use of firebombs and other unconventional weapons in Ethiopia, or the subjugation and exploitation of the Libyans, not to mention the cruel invasions of Greece and Albania.
Why are these guides so reticent to discuss these topics? The answer is simple.

For Europeans, the proper tonic is history, which absolves and forgives; for the USA, it is sociology, which judges and condemns. This double standard has been reinforced since the end of the Cold War, which has only increased the element of envy with which others, particularly Europeans, view the US. And I suspect that this fascination with our national failings also has to do with Hollywood, which takes a ghoulish pleasure in advertising our national deficiencies (real or imagined). It has been a very long time since anyone made a movie like “Home of the Brave.”

As I live in Germany, I often have occasion to discuss the US with German friends and acquaintances. Almost all of them have been to our country, some many times. They almost unfailingly remark to me that their first visit was a big surprise, mostly in the favorable sense. Well, no wonder, if they are reading the books Mr. Fisher cites. Perhaps the writers who work for Lonely Planet and Rough Guides might want to talk to them. They might learn something.

Mark Falcoff contributes to various Web sites from Munich. Among his contributions to Power Line is “Venezuela the morning after.”

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