Cultural Relativism and Tourism

Matt Welch responding to a comment about Cuba touches upon something that also gets on my wick:

How people can derive pleasure from evidence of the suffering of innocents is beyond me, and few sights are more unseemly to my eyes than seeing a Lonely Planet-waving travel snob whine about how some current or formerly misgoverned hellhole has been “ruined” by all that yucky reconstruction, material success, and (worst of all!) tourism.

Now in terms of Cuba, how many times have you heard someone say they want to visit the country before it is ‘ruined’ by whatever eventually comes to replace the Castro regime? (Usually referred to as ‘The Yanks turning up’)

Ok, I accept perhaps some people say this because of a genuine curiousity about what Cuba is like now and the desire to see it for themselves but the notion that the country will be ruined by democracy and foreign investment is widespread and foolish.

Travel Snob is a good way of putting it – selfish, cultural relativist might be another, admittedly less catchy, description.

This is a view which treats Cubans (or others emerging from dictatorships into democracies) as exactly what they have always been for so many western lefties – guinea pigs in some experiment.

The word ‘experiment’ was widely used to describe the ‘actually existing socialism’ of Central and Eastern Europe and I used it myself at a certain time. But when I moved to the region I found the phrase stuck in the throat – and there was a good reason for that of course. How could you possible suggest to someone whose father was sent to a camp, or whose mother fought in the 1956 uprising that they were part of an experiment, worse your experiment?

Yet a version of the Cuba attitude that Matt criticises was widespread in Central and Eastern Europe post-1989 (as I am sure Matt knows given that he was a key figure in the young journalists scene in Prague). It wasn’t usually Marxists telling people about their interesting role in an ‘experiment’ but it was reflected by the selfish discontent at the transformation of countries.

I remember a poet in Budapest writing a poem about the declining number of Langos stands in Hungary. Langos, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is a big slab of salty deep fried dough which in Hungary is covered in sour cream and grated cheese with the option of a paintbrush (quite literally) full of garlic to spread on the thing. Langos stands were indeed declining but the poem set the sadness of the author at their disappearance with his disdain for the arrival of Burger King and McDonalds.

I can’t remember the poem and I might be being very unfair to the poet but at the time a number of us expats reacted with mockery because it seemed to sum up a tendency of liberal-lefty expats to be more nostalgic than the Hungarians for their vanishing recent past.

The reality was that the arrival of the American fast food joints was a delight for loads of young (and not so young) East Europeans. I was convinced that it wasn’t at all about the french fries or burgers but about the fact that Western cities had these places and their arrival signified the emergence of a European normality. Kids in Frankfurt and Manchester could hang out at BK and now so could kids in Krakow or Bucharest. I remember when McDonalds came to Burnley in the early eighties and how we all simply had to go there and try out a shake and there certainly was something unexplicably exciting about it.

There is no doubt that a Langos is far more unhealthy (with or without sour cream and cheese) than any product on offer at the burger joints so there was no case against on dietary grounds. What I think the poet was getting at was the fact that the city he lived in was becoming less and less different from so many other places and he disliked that. I certainly remember many expats who resented the arrival of normality. They wanted to live in a city where people drove Trabants, drank cheap vodka and ate at Langos stands. I remember one friend in Hungary upon hearing the news that a major shopping centre was going to be built reacting with horror: “I came here to get away from all that”.

Why didn’t those Hungarians, Czechs and Poles realise that? Why weren’t they more sensitive to foreign visitors and ban western shopping centres and multi-plex cinemas? Did they really need to start driving West German cars?

Now of course there is a diversity problem with globalisation. It would be a poorer world if all the Italian bars closed down and were replaced by Starbucks. It would be very sad if all French cooks could manage was pizzas, steaks and burgers. But the problem with the Ostalgia was of course that so much of what was different about Eastern Europe was not part of a genuine national culture but was the result of isolation from the progress in the rest of the world. Why did people still watch black and white televisions in 1989? So much of what was absent was the result of the party’s desire to control – state owned department stores being a case in point.

Is there any link between this Tourism Snobbery and the much broader cultural relativism that is indifferent, sometimes even hostile, to economic and political progress in the developing world?

There could be a sort of internally logical case made by Communists for not wanting countries like Hungary and Cuba to join the ‘global economy’ at a time when there was an alternative system avaliable. An utterly wrong position to take based on a failed ideology of Stalinism but it made sense to those who clung to such a world view. But in an era when that alternative has thankfully disappeared there is no longer even that sort of political logic at all in a position which sees the entering of the globalised market and the international democratic community as a retrograde step.

Yet still there will be westerners who will be sad to see Cuban’s buying Ford cars and Nike trainers.

All of this could be dismissed as merely reflecting a healthy scepticism towards our own consumer societies were it not for the fact that we have discovered in the past couple of years that there are many leftish-liberal people who have adopted a similar attitude towards the issues of democracy and human rights. Ask people if they would prefer Iran to be a western-style democracy and see if they give you a straight answer.

The global indifference towards the eight million Iraqis who braved the bombers to vote and the snearing at the liberated Afghan women, all wrapped up in the rhetoric about not ‘imposing democracy’ and the psuedo-argument that “who are we to say ‘our’ way is best?” reflect this cultural relativism.

There are some who argue this reflects a crisis of confidence in western societies about democratic values and then there are those, like Melanie Phillips, that suggest this all reflects a sickness and self-hatred eating away at the heart of liberal democracies.

I’m not sure what it is all about. But I don’t like it.