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.



Terrorism is Terrorism

We whitewash history when we ignore the fact that states sometimes engage in terror, too.

In his rebuttal to Glenn Greenwald's critique of the "terrorism expert industry," Daniel Trombly profoundly mischaracterizes both my research and the specific points on which Greenwald's post quoted me verbatim. Trombly writes:

"[Greenwald] rejects 'terrorism' as a useful term altogether, arguing, along with scholar Remi Brulin, that the term terrorism is primarily 'propaganda' for 'justifying one's own state violence'-- especially of the American and Israeli variety -- rather than a possible subject of expertise."

My research, presented in my recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, in a book chapter, and in an extensive 2010 conversation with Greenwald at Salon, addresses the definition and deployment of the concept of terrorism in American political discourse since 1945 and, more specifically, between 1972 and 1992, when this discourse was born. Much more narrowly, in Greenwald's post I attempt to show how "terrorism experts," in this case scholars writing for the two main "terrorism studies" journals, Studies on Conflict and Terrorism and Terrorism and Political Violence, have wrestled with the definitional issue in the specific context of American policies in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Replying to a comment that noted his focus on "non-state groups," Trombly notes: "Author here: I apologize for the lack of clarity. I was explaining the origin of the term as applied to non-states, which was almost a century after it was first used to describe the French revolutionary regime. My point was that even in its origin of its later application to non-state groups (which is now the common use of the term), it was not a term of propagandistic condemnation, but self-identified tactical and ideological description. Obviously state terrorism exists." (Emphasis mine.)

As I write in Greenwald's post, a comprehensive analysis of the two main "terrorism studies" journals shows that the (very few) scholars mentioning the issue of "death squads" or discussing U.S. policies in that country in the 1980s all (with one exception, Ariel Merari) accept that "state terrorism" exists, and that their definition of "terrorism" includes "death squads." In this they agree with Greenwald, with me, and indeed with Trombly.

But this is far from being the end of the story. Indeed, despite this, not a single article in these journals has ever applied this definition to U.S. support for El Salvador in the 1980s. In essence, the two main "terrorism studies" journals have been silent about this topic not by defining "terrorism" in a way that would exclude such actors and policies, but rather simply by never writing about it at all (while at the same time publishing countless articles where the United States is described as being "opposed to terrorism" or "fighting terrorism").

Bruce Hoffman's book was specifically mentioned by Andrew Exum during a previous online debate as the work of someone who clearly deserves to be called a "terrorism expert without the scare quotes." Furthermore, Hoffman's stance is of much interest since he explicitly excludes "death squads" from his definition of "terrorism," stating, on p. 27 of Inside Terrorism:

The use of so-called ‘death squads' (often off-duty or plain-clothes security or police officers) in conjunction with blatant intimidation of political opponents, human rights and aid workers, student groups, labor organizers, journalists and others has been a prominent feature of the right-wing military dictatorships that took power in Argentina, Chile and Greece during the 1970s and even of elected governments in El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru since the mid-1980s. But these state-sanctioned or explicitly ordered acts of internal political violence directed mostly against domestic populations - that is, rule by violence and intimidation by those already in power against their own citizenry - are generally termed ‘terror' in order to distinguish that phenomenon from ‘terrorism', which is understood to be violence committed by non-state entities.

Besides its tautological quality, this argument is extremely problematic since it makes no sense once placed in its historical context.

First, it is silent about what should be a central fact when discussing the El Salvador conflict, namely that Ronald Reagan repeatedly presented U.S. aid to that country as being part of the "fight against terrorism."

Second, it is silent about the arguments used by the American president when (this admittedly happened quite rarely) he had to answer tough questions about the violence of Salvadoran right-wing groups, namely that he always replied that the United States was "opposed to terrorism of the right or left," as he said on March 6, 1981. Similarly, Vice President George H. W. Bush, during his visit to El Salvador on Dec. 11, 1983, famously stated: "The brave Salvadoran patriots who are now fighting to build their new democracy are under attack not only from communist guerrillas supported from abroad but also from extremist rightwing terrorists, the death squads. [...] These cowardly death squad terrorists are just as repugnant to me, to President Reagan, to the U.S. Congress, and to the American people as the terrorists of the left."

Third, at the heart of Reagan's position, and of the arguments of the representatives of the executive branch before Congress, was the claim that the Salvadoran government was a moderate regime stuck between two "extremes": the "left wing terrorists" represented by the FMLN (sponsored by "terrorist states" like Nicaragua, Cuba or the Soviet Union) and the "right wing/death squad terrorists." Aid was necessary to enable the Salvadoran regime to fight all the "terrorists." Reports from human rights organizations and religious groups, which claimed that the "death squads" were in fact intimately tied with the Salvadoran security forces, were dismissed as lies, ideologically motivated, or as something that the U.S. government had no clear intelligence about.

Fourth, opposition to U.S. aid among Democrats was motivated precisely by the involvement of the security forces in "death squad" exactions, and the congressional record is peppered with accusations that U.S. military aid was going to "terrorists" and could not be reconciled with Reagan's claim to be "fighting terrorism" there.

Thus in October 1985, defending the Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985, under-Secretary of State Michael Armacost explained that "We are confronting a rising terrorist threat in Central America," that "this threat is also directed openly against us," and that "an active counterterrorism program of assistance to civilian police and the military will constitute a positive forward response, a significant contribution to a forward strategy [but is] a response really to an incident which occurred last June [at Zona Rosa.]" At the time, many Democrats opposed this bill because it focused solely on "left-wing terrorism" while being silent about "right wing terrorism." Several of them explicitly stated that one of the "major sources of terrorism" (Dodd) were precisely the security forces that would be the recipients of U.S. aid, and Sen. John Kerry asked that a recent CIA report on the situation in El Salvador be declassified before any vote was taken.

Kerry's request was rejected, but this report has now been declassified. It reveals (or rather confirms, since it is similar in this respect to literally dozens of CIA documents from the 1970s and 1980s) that the CIA knew that there were indeed clear ties between the "death squads" and the Salvadoran security forces, and that the CIA itself systematically used the term "terrorism" to refer to the "death squads" and right-wing violence in general. Entitled "El Salvador: Controlling Rightwing Terrorism, An Intelligence Assessment," the report states, "We agree that a large but unknowable percentage of the political violence in recent years has been carried out by rightwing civilian and military extremists. While we are certain of the broad sponsorship for rightwing terrorism by ARENA, rural vigilantes, and elements of the military, the precise scope and operations of terrorist groups is more difficult to assess." (ARENA was a right-wing political party led by Roberto D'Aubuisson, who from 1982 to 1984 was president of El Salvador's Constituent Assembly. In 1993, a U.N. commission confirmed that he had given the order to assassinate Archbishop Romero in 1980.)

Hoffman's claim that what "death squads" do is generally termed "terror" and not "terrorism" is thus profoundly a historical, in the sense that such a position was, at the time and in Washington, nowhere to be found. Naturally, any scholar is entitled to take a stance on whether his definition will include or not specific actors. One would think, however, that historical accuracy would require such a scholar to note that the Reagan administration claimed to be "fighting terrorism" in El Salvador and that it denied what dozens of CIA documents show it knew at the time (namely that the "death squads" were indeed "state sanctioned," something proven incontrovertibly in 1993 by the Truth Commission on El Salvador). Historical accuracy should also require any scholar to state that in deciding to use the term "terror" when referring to "death squads," thus excluding this topic fully from the rest of his book, he is taking a stance that no political actors in Washington at the time ever took. At the time, Republicans, Democrats, the CIA (in fact even the Salvadoran regime, when attempting to distance itself from especially gruesome acts) all agreed that the "death squads" were "terrorists."

My research shows that "terrorism experts" have been consistently silent about how U.S. officials have talked about "terrorism" when expressing themselves in adversarial contexts of enunciation such as the U.S. Congress or the United Nations, that is to say in contexts where these officials are forced to wrestle with the difficulties posed by the definition of that term. Conversely, the two main "terrorism studies" journals have provided these experts with safe contexts of enunciation, where the position that "state terrorism exists" and that "death squads are a form of terrorism" can be expressed without any consequences, without any mechanism that would force this stance to be confronted to its meaning for real-world policies of, for example, the United States in the 1980s. This is what was meant by my conclusion about the role of "terrorism experts" in Greenwald's post.

Needless to say, nothing here is meant as a critique of the seriousness and importance of much of what Hoffman and many "terrorism experts" do write about. It is a critique of what is so often left out as not being "about terrorism" by most experts (one will note of course the creation, in 2007, of the Critical Studies on Terrorism Journal, which aims at correcting this bias) and of the arguments (or lack therefore) too often put forward to justify this stance.

Had Trombly contacted me or looked up my work, we might have had a productive discussion on these topics -- and I certainly would welcome this discussion with him and any others. The question of the definition of "terrorism" is very much still with us, and what the experts in the field do and do not write about (or are invited by the media to talk or not talk about) does very much matter. One only has to remember that in 2005 (during the second "war on terrorism") Newsweek reported on the possibility that the United States was considering adopting what it called the "Salvador Option" in Iraq. How fundamentally different might the terms of the political discourse have been at the time had "terrorism experts" routinely included, since the 1980s, an analysis of U.S. policies in El Salvador during the first "war on terrorism"?