Anthony Bourdain’s suicide in June 2018 will cement his reputation as a progressive celebrity with a unique acumen for explaining the world to his fans.
CNN’s obituary says that the most common sentiment in response to his death is “I feel like I’ve lost a friend.” You’d have to go back to the death of Steve Jobs to find a celebrity who provoked this kind of personal investment on the part of his fans.
Bourdain’s reputation was built for this, because the chef could be relied on to impart a very specific view of the world, and more importantly, to not look like he was doing it. This was the most consequential part of his work—why he was hired by CNN—and it’s the part that will get discussed the least as the adulation pours in. The following was written a few months ago but it is offered today with minor changes.
As of March 2018 Patrick Radden Keefe, a journalist who typically covers El Chapo and ISIS, can add to his list of accolades a nomination for a James Beard award, given for excellence in culinary writing. What’s a writer who used to work for the Department of Defense doing covering the cooking beat? Well, his New Yorker piece, “Anthony Bourdain’s moveable feast,” covers the eponymous celebrity. Bourdain, whose awards include Emmys and a Peabody, has come to straddle multiple worlds, not only cooking, travel and lifestyle, but what might be called foreign policy “storytelling” and explaining current events. “Moveable feast” opens by describing a 2016 episode of Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown in which the chef dined with President Barack Obama in Hanoi. The meeting attested to the fact that Bourdain has long departed the realm of mere travel host and taken on a much more significant role as something like a pop-statesman.
One of the many glowing write-ups on Bourdain explained that “He’s gone from a chain-smoking line cook to a best-selling author, and then from a celebrity chef to a globe-trotting television host.” Another encomium calls him “a jack of many trades and a master of all of them,” offering one of many comparisons to the Dos Equis beer mascot “the most interesting man in the world.” “For Bourdain,” wrote FastCompany in a piece dubbing him the future of cable news, “it has been a long evolution: from heroin-addicted chef to punk-rock-foodie author to global citizen on a mission to simply understand a bit about our world.”
To his fans, the chef-turned-host’s myriad projects and travels made him into something more than the sum of his parts. In a 2016 Reddit “Ask Me Anything,” for instance, one person called Bourdain “one of the very few media figures I genuinely respect, outside of some musicians and a couple political activists and certain intellectuals.” Another said Bourdain covered the 2006 Lebanon War “better on a fucking cooking show than any other 24 hour news network.”
Bourdain hesitated to own any of these grandiose labels. However, people who are paid to tell us what to think and feel always cue us about what they are not as much as what they are: “I’m just a comedian, not a journalist,” or “I’m just a filmmaker, not a documentarian.” Of the celebrity thought-leaders, Bourdain might have been the least committal about what cultural role he actually occupied. He said he wasn’t “a man on a mission, an activist, journalist, or expert on anything,” just someone “who gets to travel around the world and talk about it.” In interviews throughout his career, Bourdain said something like “I kinda don’t really take myself that seriously, I’m very lucky in that I get paid to really be myself; I don’t have a script, [and] I decide where we go and what we do on the show.” He was just making “a funny, snarky-slash-heartfelt food-and-travel show,” and he claimed to do so as a blank slate with no agenda: “I merely show up and ask simple questions [and] people always surprise me.”
Sometimes Bourdain’s disavowals bordered on self-abnegation. One of his favorite lines in the last couple years was some variation on how he was usually “the stupidest person in a room.” People who learn about geo-politics from his culinary shows were told that “I’m not a cook, nor am I a journalist.” His twitter bio just read “Enthusiast,” and he said “The biggest revenue stream out there for me is going out and telling dick jokes.” According to Bourdain himself, he was just someone who enjoyed, in a Platonic sense, and did so with off-color humor.
But despite whatever Bourdain might have told his fans and sycophantic profilers, his most recent corporate patron, CNN, was resoundingly unconvinced about that humble position. “He’s not a conventional journalist,” said Mark Whitaker, CNN Worldwide executive VP and managing editor, “But what he does is highly journalistic.” Amy Entelis is a senior VP in charge of programming and content development at CNN, and she’s the executive most responsible for bringing Bourdain to CNN from the Travel Chanel. According to Entelis, talents like Bourdain are “compelling and authentic in a way that makes the content cut through. They can tell you things a lot of our anchors are a little more constrained from telling you. You really feel like the filter is dropped and you experience the world and you’re with them.”
Entelis also explained that “The host is very, very important in that I think our most successful hosts come across to the audience as authentic, passionate, curious and have a point of view. They tend to step a little more outside the lines than a CNN news anchor can. The host is very important in that they have to have that slightly larger than life personality, but the content they are bringing to the audience still has to connect to that overall CNN mission.” Entelis beamed that as CNN was extensively covering Cuba, Bourdain visited Havana for a season premier episode, which was “the perfect synchronization with CNN… It all adds up to something that is part of the whole.”
In other words, Bourdain’s purpose was to 1) turn a profit, 2) lend authenticity and credibility to the CNN brand, and 3) augment the network’s wider programming slate and overall goals. It’s precisely because he was not a traditional journalist that he was able to accomplish the second and third tasks.
As far as goal two: among people who pay attention to this stuff, CNN was once best known for getting dunked on by Jon Stewart for 15 years straight. Less than a year before the premier of Parts Unknown, a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review (titled “Dumb and Dumber”) said:
Last year, I suggested to an editor at CJR that it do a story titled, “Why Is CNN So Bad?” It never happened, but, prompted by the network’s recent shellacking, I decided to tune in after a long hiatus. It’s even worse than I remembered.
Between 4pm [and] 11pm, CNN basically features a succession of babbling anchors interviewing a series of talking heads, with clips from reporters in the field occasionally spliced in. The subjects slavishly follow the national political agenda.
Taking issue with nearly every aspect of CNN’s programming, the author concluded that the network “certainly couldn’t do much worse than it already is.” It’s likely that many viewers now think of CNN primarily as the home of Anthony Bourdain, instead of recalling the network’s embarrassing grabs for digital-age relevance and literal round-the-clock inanities.
Goal three, “adding up to something that is part of CNN’s whole” in “perfect synchronization,” is where Bourdain really shined. Bourdain’s innumerable fawning profiles highlighted his alleged authenticity and curiosity, and so did the leadership at CNN, which remunerated him very handsomely for what he did. Even in his life outside of the Time Warner empire, Bourdain seemed to have many of the same goals. For instance, Bourdain became an investor and editor for a new travel site called Roads & Kingdoms, in which capacity he funded a project to bring Cuban musicians to South By Southwest. Here’s how he described the aims of this initiative:
geopolitically: a window has opened, a door, hopefully—and the artistic and cultural exchanges that are happening now are important. They hold out the possibility of raising up people who deserve better. Cubans have been shut off from the world for so long.
For someone who was advertised so aggressively as an unaffected straight-shooter, Bourdain proved himself to be fluent in Beltway NGO-speak. Translated from diplomatese, though, “cultural exchanges” serving the geopolitical purpose of “raising up [Cubans] who deserve better” and have been “shut off from the world” means soft-power initiatives and subversion to end socialism in Cuba. This sounds an awful lot like what CNN has to say about the US government’s goals for Cuba:
what is clear is that a quarter of a century after the collapse of [Cuba’s] principal sponsor neither of the [Castro] brothers could stand in the way of their people’s wishes any longer.
President Obama travelled to Cuba. Already relations between the two countries had been improving with the US allowing closer cooperation in telecommunications as the door to trade begun to creak open.
However, it currently feels less that [Raúl Castro] is opening the country up than the country and its people are beginning to burst free.
An open door… a burst of freedom…the will of the people. This was identical language to that which Obama used in 2014, when he announced a shift in the US’s Cuba policy so as to better “advance our interests.” As they might say in a corporate press release, Bourdain’s values were clearly in alignment with those of his parent company, and the government which also serves his parent company. This is synergy.
CNN is, of course, the first 24-hour cable news network and one of the giants of the Western propaganda apparatus. Determining which US media outlet is most servile is like parsing which branch of the military is most imperialist, but CNN mounts a good case in its favor. This is the network that invited US Army psychological operations personnel to work as interns during the 1999 NATO war on Yugoslavia—though, to be fair, it was probably as dishonest in its reporting on Yugoslavia as all the other news outlets. There’s an incredible moment in a BBC documentary about Iran where CNN’s longtime celebrity Christiane Amanpour—“the Queen of fake news”—describes how she approaches her work:
Christiane Amanpour: We got final word, CNN, that this [interview with President Khatami] was going to happen. I was on my first holiday with my very serious boyfriend, who happened to be a State Department official.
US State Department Spokesman James Rubin: Her due diligence was to find out what the US government was waiting to hear from the Iranians, and she had the US government right beside her. So she did what any journalist would do.
Christiane Amanpour: I went into “what shall I ask him” mode.
James Rubin: And I did what I was supposed to do, which was identify for her the things the US government cared about
When CNN isn’t figuratively in bed with the Pentagon, it’s literally in bed with the State Department. While this is true of all major media organs (and most of the small ones), CNN may have an edge in that it looks like it aided an assassination attempt on a foreign government figure (a war crime). As reported by Robert Fisk in 1999, Serbia’s information minister Aleksandar Vučić received an invitation to discuss Serbia’s perspective on the Larry King show, which was allegedly to air at 2:30am Belgrade time. Vučić was late, which meant that he missed the NATO bombing of Radio Television Serbia, which happened a few minutes after he was scheduled to arrive and killed 16 people. Whatever criticisms one has of the “alt-right,” Breitbart has never been implicated in facilitating a criminal NATO assassination during wartime.
Actually, despite his marketing as an empty vessel for unmediated experiences, Bourdain looked less like a blank-slate and more a one-man network news war-room. At the time of this writing (March 15 2018), the first page of Bourdain’s twitter feed contained 15 tweets. 2 were promotional. 13 were political. The political tweets broke down like so:
—4 tweets about Trump and his family, and 1 retweet about Trump’s cabinet.
—3 retweets from major US media about the danger posed by Russia.
—3 quote-tweets about the danger posed by Russia.
—1 tweet about Russian corruption and perfidy, followed-up with 1 retweet of someone quoting The Wire (as it relates to Russian corruption and perfidy).
—A tweet about “Neville Chamberlain 2020” (Chamberlain in this analogy is Donald Trump, and Nazi Germany is, of course, Russia).
This is not only is this more warmongering material than can be found on the feeds of David Simon and Deray McKesson, it’s more than is on the official twitter accounts of the US State Department and the CIA. From this non-scientific survey, Bourdain’s twitter feed most closely resembles that of not another star, but State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert, although Bourdain boasts more than 30 times as many followers. This is certainly a lot more anti-Russia material than dick jokes.
A bit farther down, he responded to a black man accusing him of exploiting PoCs with “How’s minsk…tovarich?” He also complained that the White House is failing to impose a “forceful response” on Moscow. Whatever you want to call this, this is not the behavior of someone with no agenda, or someone who humbly considers themselves the dumbest person in the room.
Despite his constant protestations, a look at what he actually says and does shows that Bourdain was not an agenda-free raconteur and gourmand. While his marketing was astonishingly effective, it amounted to another case of people being endlessly told that someone is the opposite of what they are: the marginal Noam Chomsky, the maverick John McCain, the contrarian Christopher Hitchens, etc.
Bourdain was relentless and shameless in selling the State Department/Pentagon line, to a degree that makes his reputation totally absurd to anyone looking at his output objectively. In his coverage of Washington’s targets—which is extensive—Bourdain was unlike any other celebrity chef or travel show host and more like a Henry Kissinger for people who drink craft beer. It didn’t happen overnight, though. Bourdain’s place as a unique celebrity spokesperson for Washington was many years in the making, and this is a look at how it happened.
A Cook’s Journey
Every millionaire leader and tastemaker has a hardscrabble origin story, and underneath these bootstrap creation myths, there is usually a history of money, privilege, and nepotism.
Anthony Bourdain professed humble upbringings. Though Kitchen Confidential describes some boyhood trips to France, he said in one interview that “I grew up decidedly middle-class. At the time of my birth, my dad worked days in a printing company, and at nights at a Sam Goody record store. My mom was a magazine and newspaper editor.” In a testament to the power of this creation myth, following his suicide, one blue-checked radlib commenter opined that “Anthony had survivor’s guilt, he couldn’t understand why he became successful in 40s and was given love in his 50s. He didn’t feel worthy.”
According to a New York Times obituary, Anthony’s father Pierre “worked in sales promotion for London Records and was classical merchandising manager for CBS Records in the 1960’s and 70’s.” A scan of some Billboard magazine archives from the 1970s and ‘80s shows that Pierre held titles like quadraphonic product chief for Columbia Records (1973), Director of Product Management for a branch of CBS records (1974), and Director of Marketing for Peters International, Inc. (1978). Working “nights at a Sam Goody record store” brings to mind long evenings stocking and alphabetizing endless shelves of vinyl, but Pierre did not spend the majority of his career as a store clerk—he was a corporate executive. As far as his mother, Gladys Bourdain, the newspaper which employed her as an editor was called The New York Times.
The young Bourdain developed a taste for hard drugs as well as culinary adventure, a proclivity which would ultimately be the basis for his outlaw-raconteur reputation. Somehow the aimless, “decidedly middle-class” addict managed to attend Vassar for a couple years, and then find funding for a degree from the Culinary Institute of America. After years of working as a cook, Bourdain became the executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York City. This career formed the basis for a New Yorker article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This,” which was expanded into a best-selling book titled Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly in 2000.
“This book is about street-level cooking and its practitioners,” announced Bourdain in the book’s introduction, along with “horror stories. Heavy drinking, drugs, screwing in the dry-goods area, [and] unappetizing revelations.” This establishes a theme of Bourdain’s personal brand, which holds that the chef is something like an objective transmitter for unmediated experiences with an authentic “street.” This is the cornerstone of the Bourdain empire.
Like many mainstream writers, Bourdain highlights George Orwell as a personal hero, and he specifically names Down and Out in Paris and London as the inspiration for Kitchen Confidential. Down and Out is heralded by his fans as a chronicle of Orwell’s experiences communing selflessly with the underclasses, while most other critics call it Orwell slumming. Here is how Isaac Asimov described the book:
“[Orwell] lived under slum conditions in London and Paris, consorted with and identified with slum dwellers and vagrants, managed to ease his conscience and, at the same time, to gather material for his earliest books.”
Back in 2000, at least one reviewer looked askance on the great chef’s gritty image:
Here is an upper-middle-class boy with a year of Vassar under his belt and a diploma from the Culinary Institute of America on his wall who immediately adopted, wholesale, the values and tastes of a British soccer hoodlum.
In describing his big break, Bourdain framed submitting to The New Yorker as the result of a drunken whim, but this is more marketing fluff: he had already published a mystery novel several years earlier. Regardless, “Kitchen Confidential kinda killed it. The book spent 44 weeks on the best-seller list, was translated into 22 languages, and made Bourdain into a media star.” Against all odds, the son of a music industry executive and a New York Times editor managed to get his foot in the door of the media world.
The Food Network came calling with a TV series offer, which became A Cook’s Tour (2002-3). A couple years after Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain had several books, a TV series, and a sitcom to his name, and in 2005 he got a new show in the Travel Channel: No Reservations (later followed by another Travel Channel show, The Layover). It would be a 2006 episode of No Reservations, filmed in Beirut, Lebanon, which would put Bourdain on the path to his current cultural position.
There’s a story about a certain type of celebrity, and to illustrate how it works, it’s worth going to the 2014 comedy/anti-DPRK PsyOp titled The Interview. The film itself deals with a protagonist named Dave Skylark (James Franco), the host of an entertainment news show. Living up to his surname, Skylark is vapid and vacuous—in the film’s funniest joke, he confuses Stalin with Stallone. Despite the best efforts of his producer and the CIA, Skylark is easily taken in by Kim Jong-un, whom he initially sees as a cool and fun guy.
It is Screenwriting 101 that a hero will undergo some sort of journey that makes them a better person, and The Interview’s character arc revolves around Skylark’s journey from celebrity-obsessed dimwit to serious, substantive consumer of geo-political news. In the third act, Skylark decides that Pyongyang is in fact a giant Potemkin village designed to fool credulous foreigners, and that the mass-media headlines he’s been fed are accurate. Following a montage in which he memorizes a series of damning “facts” invented by the screenwriter (which most viewers will take as real), Skylark reduces Kim to a blubbering fool before blowing him up. The film concludes with the end of socialism in Korea, so that Seth Rogan’s character can skype with his horny North Korean girlfriend.
The meta-narrative embodied by the Skylark character goes like this: a celebrity is “only” an A- or B-lister, until they are inspired to put aside childish things, as Obama said during his inauguration, quoting scripture. This celebrity then throws themselves into the world of humanitarian-branded, progressive-looking activism, generally three-letter State Department-connected NGOs which have been described more accurately as “the human rights-imperialism racket.” This celebrity then transcends mere stardom and becomes someone to whom we should look for not only entertainment, but moral and political guidance.
The real-life avatars for this are George Clooney and Angelina Jolie. The Washington Post’s chief culture writer Alyssa Rosenberg, for instance, highlights Clooney as the lone unproblematic celebrity, since he’s “the kind of guy who marries a British human rights lawyer and seems to find the right thing to say even in the midst of The Interview catastrophe.” Now, Clooney writes pieces for Foreign Affairs on “ending war in Africa.” Jolie, her part, went from starring roles in blockbusters to an honorary ambassadorship with UNHCR, a path which has led her to pen pro-NATO op-eds with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
Bourdain wrote his very own iteration of this story upon returning from Lebanon in 2006, and it undergirds his reputation. Bourdain and his crew were filming an episode of No Reservations in Beirut, when the Israeli military began a war that would last for roughly a month. Within a day of arriving in Lebanon, the war began, and the team watched the bombings from a hotel before their evacuation by US Marines.
Following the Beirut episode, Bourdain staked out a claim in the wider media ecosystem as an explainer of geo-political events, writing a long post explaining his version of the conflict for Salon readers.
In addition to a slew of interviews describing his version of the conflict to a bourgeois audience, Bourdain framed the trip a turning-point in his career. While becoming an overnight explainer of current events, Bourdain made the Beirut episode a formative moment in his personal narrative:
That experience changed everything for me. One day I was making television about eating and drinking. The next, I was watching the airport I’d just landed in a few days earlier being blown up across the water from my hotel window. I came away from the experience deeply embittered, confused—and determined to make television differently than I’d done before.
According to this story, following Beirut, the days of pat, uplifting conclusions and “happy horseshit” were over. Following his Lebanon trip, his career would be driven as much by serious issues-oriented material as by simple culinary pleasure: “For me, there was making television or there was life, there was travel before Beirut, and there’s making television and life after. If anything, those feelings have been reinforced by what I’ve seen in Libya and Gaza.” Every subsequent encounter with conflict only made him deeper.
The official story is that Bourdain and his crew were “struggling with a way to tell that story without it being about me or about us,” which Bourdain had to say because he does very much make the story about himself. Bourdain, pardon the image, inserted himself into the story by describing how he inseminated his wife immediately after returning from Lebanon. He claims that he considered naming his daughter “Beirut,” because of how formative was the experience. Bourdain even adopted Hezbollah as a personal antagonist: in addition to blaming them for cutting his Lebanon trip short by starting the war, he insinuated that Hezbollah’s attacks on invading US Marines and spies during the 1980s were tantamount to an attack on him personally. He calls vegans, whom he hated more than even Vladimir Putin, “Hezbollah-like.”
The Beirut experience also reinforced a love that might have been even greater than food: the United States military. “I’m an old-school lefty,” adduced the self-described “patriot,” “But I really like the Marines.” Actually, saying he really liked Marines is an understatement; it’d probably be an understatement to say he adored Marines: he called his feelings “a deep love and appreciation for the U.S. Navy and Marines.” It’s worth quoting Bourdain in full, to see just how many superlatives the chef chose in order to lard up his descriptions of the Marines who evacuated him from Lebanon:
[The Marines] perform brilliantly. The moment we pass through the last checkpoint into their control, all are treated with a kindness and humanity we can scarcely believe. Squared away, efficient, organized and caringly sensitive, the Marines break the crowd into sensibly spaced groups, give them shade and water, lead them single file to an open-ended landing craft at the water’s edge. They carry babies, children, heat-stroke victims, luggage. They are soft-spoken, casually friendly. They give out treats and fruit and water. They reassure us with their ease and professionalism.
[The Peabody Awards: Bourdain is “never obsequious”]
The Beirut story earned him an Emmy, putting him “up against Peter Jennings and people like that. Self-congratulatory old fucking duffers talking about how they single-handedly changed the world.” Lebanon 2006 elevated him to the company of world-changing types, and ten years later he was eating with Obama in Vietnam.
But how different is Bourdain’s maybe-reporting from traditional fare? Bourdain returned to Lebanon in 2010, and less than a minute into the episode he was discussing Arab conspiracism, which gives an impression of how much in line with traditional commentary this is. Among the unspoken rules of English-language journalism and professional commentary, there are a few rules that apply specifically to Lebanon. Any travelogue needs to include the fact that Beirut sees bikinis beside hijabs; prayers and du’as by day, partying and drinking at night; and mosques, churches, and billboards all coexisting next to one another. One Lebanese blogger had this to say about a 2015 Parts Unknown episode:
If I didn’t know Bourdain, I would have thought he’s some clueless foreign reporter who’s visiting Beirut for the first time and still thinks we are at war. All he talked about for nearly 45 minutes was Syrian & Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, ISIS, Hezbollah, bombings, ISIS, 2006 war, recent suicide bombings, ISIS, the 1975-1990 civil war and more ISIS… I went through it minute by minute and took notes along the way. The episode kicked off with the cliché mosque and church contrasts, and then of course showing veiled women walking next to lingerie shops or billboards. We are proud of this co-existence of course but it gets boring when someone mentions it 10 times in the episode and randomly shows pictures of the Virgin Mary or Jesus or a mosque.
Even Bourdain’s 2006 explanations of the Lebanon war sound suspiciously like entirely typical commentary. When discussing wars waged by America and its allies, the edgy, no-bullshit straight-shooter became vague and reliant on the passive voice. Here is how Bourdain explained the war’s outbreak in a contemporary Q&A with the Washington Post:
As it happened, I was standing with a Sunni, Shiite and a Christian when Hezbollah supporters started to fire automatic weapons in the air celebrating the kidnapping of the Israeli soldiers as a few supporters drove by the three people I was with all instantaneously took on a look of shame and embarrassment as if a dangerous and unstable little brother had once again brought the whole family into peril. At no time during my 10 days in Beirut did I ever hear an anti-Semitic or even explicitly anti-Israeli statement. To the contrary, there was a universal sense of grim resignation and inevitability to what Israel’s reaction would be.
So the dangerous, unstable, shameful, and embarrassing Hezbollah kidnapped some Israeli soldiers, and Israel understandably reacted. At least, there was a “universal” resignation to the necessity of what followed. And what followed? “Hezbollah rocketing Israel, the Israeli army mobilizing along—and even crossing—the border, firing artillery, reserves being called up.” So Hezbollah, again, was doing the attacking, and Israel mobilized men and armor, and then what? Bourdain saw “the jets started to unload on the airport.” Whose jets, and what did they unload? (for the record, Israeli jets dropped cluster bombs) Anyone who got their accounting of the 2006 Lebanon War from Bourdain would probably think Lebanon was bombed by Hezbollah, and then maybe Syria, with Israel a distant and justifiable third.
Speaking of Israel, Bourdain has gotten a lot of posthumous credit for pointing out that Palestinians are human. This is great and all, but it’s also well within radlib norms ever since BDS made the Palestinian cause respectable for a significant swath of Democrats. Even his most-praised comment—that “The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity. People are not statistics”—is extremely weak tea. Notice how as in his discussion of the Lebanon war Bourdain goes out of his way to avoid indicting Israel, instead blaming a nebulous entity called “the world.” The idea that dehumanization is the worst fate meted out to the Palestinians is a whitewash: dehumanization is terrible but it’s a milder offense than genocide and apartheid, Israel’s actual crimes. Compare an anodyne truism like “People are not statistics” to Javier Bardem’s 2014 op-ed condemning Operation Protective Edge as “a war of extermination [against] people with no means.”
At the end of the Beirut episode, Bourdain concluded “in the real world, good people and bad alike are often crushed under the same terrible wheel.” This banal pseudo-profundity might win points for sounding deep and meaningful, but journalists Mark Perry and Alastair Cooke offer a bit more decisive coda to the conflict than did Bourdain: “Hezbollah’s military defeat of Israel was decisive, but its political defeat of the United States was catastrophic and has had a lasting impact on US prestige in the region.” But the State Department would never herald Hezbollah’s victory as a decisive rout of America and Israel, so neither does Bourdain.
Calling the Lebanon experience “formative,” one interviewer heralded how “Bourdain’s take on the Middle East…is learned and dynamic, nuanced and empathetic.” Bourdain was so learnèd, in fact, that recognized the Middle East as fertile ground for fascinating lands of contradiction: “Beirut is as different from Tehran as anyplace could be. Talk about contradictions? You can be rousted by Hezbollah one minute and be drinking Mojitos by a pool surrounded by girls in bikinis ten minutes later.” Iran would be one of Bourdain’s next major successes as a foreign policy interpreter, and the Islamic Republic fascinated the host because of its beguiling nature as that most-cliché of foreign reportage clichés:
What makes Iran special is the sheer difficulty of experiencing it as an American–and of understanding the complexities, the history, the context, the contradictions–and the ever changing political realities.
Iran’s contradictions and its perils are extraordinary.
Note how Bourdain’s descriptions of Iran’s inaccessibility and inscrutability present him as a much-needed interpreter. Bourdain expounded on Iran’s fascinating contradictions prior to going in 2014 with Parts Unknown:
Now Iran is on the top of my list. We know so little about it. I’ve heard that the people are very different than one would believe. The government is repulsive, yet it’s a county with a fantastic culinary heritage. And I’ve heard it’s a young country, with aspirations that are very different than those of their government.
It’s worth asking where Bourdain heard that Iranians have “very different” aspirations as far as their government is concerned. Iran’s voter turnout is usually around 70%, which is much higher than America’s, which generally hovers around 50% for presidential elections. If one wants to discuss indicators for a “regime’s” legitimacy, in December 2017, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston pointed out that “There is no other developed country…where ordinary voters ultimately have so little impact on political outcomes” as the United States. “A common explanation,” continues Alston, “is that people see no improvement in their well-being regardless of who they elect, so that voting is pointless.” If one sees proof of democracy in how much faith the voters place in their government and participate in their democratic procedures, then Iran is more democratic than the US. The massive pro-government demonstrations that are held following much smaller anti-government ones surely say something, too.
Regardless, Bourdain claimed that there is a profound contradiction between the people of Iran and their government, which has been a preeminent US target since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. For instance, in the episode’s opening narration, Bourdain said that “there is no doubt” that Iran’s “proxies in Iraq have done American soldiers real harm,” (tinfoil hat alert! I thought this guy was a blank slate?) but this and other anti-American agitation is “hard to reconcile with how we’re treated on the streets.”
This is supposed to be the fresh perspective he brings in his Iran episode: in stark contrast to the government, he discussed Iran’s legendary hospitality and depicted the lives of some Iranians in a more multifaceted way. It’s great to see Iranians portrayed as actual human beings, but through Bourdain’s lens it’s more subtle regime-change agitation. The right-wing case against the Islamic Republic is more-or-less that the Iranian “regime” is evil and their government must be overthrown. Take, for instance, the central message of this op-ed by John Bolton: “In all likelihood, the ayatollahs are already at work violating the accords…If the real objective is stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, preemptive military action is now inescapable.” In other words, Iran is controlled by evil terrorists, thus it must be destroyed.
The liberal iteration of this relies less on blunt force-trauma and more on appeals to democratic aspirations, particularly among the young. Following the most recent regime-change attempt, twice-failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton declared that “The Iranian people, especially the young, are protesting for the freedom and future they deserve.” This is the message undergirding Bourdain’s reporting on Iran, which he attempted to make more credible to many by actually visiting the country first. Rather than presenting “Iran” as a unitary source of evil that must be destroyed, the liberal case is that Iranians are warm, decent people with hopes and dreams of dining at Michelin-starred restaurants just like us… and thus their government must be overthrown. This is the barely veiled subtext behind his commentary about how Westernized the people of Tehran are, how different the people are from the government, and how much decent Iranians suffer under the jackboot of their freedom-hating “regime.”
This was the narrative in Bourdain’s 2013 episode on Libya, which he called his proudest moment and “the best piece of work I’ve ever been part of.” According to the host, he had wanted to do a show on Libya for two years, and it wasn’t possible until his move to CNN. Here is a bit of what Bourdain has to say about the “revolution” which destroyed the Libyan “state of the masses”:
Libya meant a bad place where a comical megalomaniacal dictator was the absolute power. Nobody in Libya was laughing.
There aren’t a lot of conflicts in the world where there is a clear bad guy. Clearly there is a bad guy.
It’s nice to see freedom. It’s nice to see the bad guy gone.
In his opening narration, Bourdain established the classic demonological dichotomy of the “megalomanical dictator” “bad guy” whom “nobody” supports, in opposition to “Libyans” and “freedom.” Like in Iran, Bourdain invoked liberal humanitarianism as the rationale for regime change, unlike troglodyte imperialists who simply see the country as a target to be destroyed:
It’s Libya. It was supposed to be the bad guys, a bad country filled with bad people, right? I don’t think so.
And of course, Bourdain presented this as the will of the youth:
What will stick with me [about Libya] is the faces of the people we met—most of them very young. Young people in their twenties who, only a few weeks before the rebellion, were playing PS2, studying medicine, working abroad, learning to skateboard—who then rushed to fight. Again and again, these young people looked at our cameras and, in answer to a simple question, told us extraordinary things. The mix of hopefulness and pain in their faces is something I will always remember.
“Who won this war,” Bourdain asked one young militant, “young people or everyone?” What an oddly leading question for the apolitical, agenda-free host.
When fans see a progressive-looking hero “sink” to puerile propaganda work, many of them ask some variation on “how did this happen?” Sure, once he moved to CNN he did traditional pundit work: opining about Iran for The Washington Post and about Russia on Anderson Cooper and in bite-size talking-head segments. But was this inevitable or “selling out?” A 2012 Hollywood Reporter article on Bourdain’s move to CNN echoed fan concerns about Time Warner sanding down his edges: “When Anthony Bourdain decided to close up shop on No Reservations, the globe-trotting Travel Channel docu-series that showcased his acerbic, no-nonsense personality, and launch a new show on CNN, skeptics raised eyebrows: would the ratings-plagued, mainstream cable news network tone down Tony, or allow him to be himself with… no reservations?” Bourdain had this to say about his new corporate parents:
They love us for the right reasons, and they were clear that they would not expect me or my team to morph into something that we’re not,” the chef, author and media personality tells The Hollywood Reporter of CNN, which debuts a yet-to-be-titled, Bourdain-fronted program early next year. “They wanted us to just keep doing what we’ve been doing, keep doing what they’ve appreciated us for and…help us move up and on to bigger and better.
“These are shows that would have been very, very difficult to do with Travel, in spite of best intentions. CNN has infrastructure and a whole world of contacts and experience in all these places. So, right away, that makes CNN a very attractive organization to work with because they can help us shoot in these places in ways that few other organizations could, certainly no travel or food network could.” For instance, these CNN connections probably helped Bourdain meet the British spy whom he credits with helping him in Libya and even giving him the idea to go. According to Bourdain, one of the security personnel available to him was
a British guy who’s sort of in and out of public service, shall we say. Sometimes he’s helping film crews, other times he’s suddenly vacationing in Libya during the run up to the revolution. He was sending me emails saying, “Oh it’s awesome here. The kids are great. There’s like a Libyan anti-Gaddafi rap scene. It’s a really hopeful awesome place. You should totally come here.” So from that point on we were looking.
Someone doesn’t necessarily need to be a treasured asset of the Time Warner media empire in order to work with MI6 officers fomenting regime change, but it can’t hurt.
CNN gave Bourdain unprecedented resources to expand, not change, his scope and ambitions—to do what he does “bigger and better.” The host claimed that Time Warner enabled him to just be more himself, and there is every reason to believe him. Bourdain’s 3 episodes on Russia, from each of his networks, provide ample evidence that he just did what he was destined to do on a grander scale.
Bourdain first visited Russia in a 2002 episode of his first series A Cook’s Tour, titled “the cook who came in from the cold.” As one could expect from the eponymous reference to the spy classic, the episode is leaden with Cold War references only a mere 2 decades late. The episode opens with a voice-over that established the tone:
Russia—this is the birthplace of communism. You think of the Soviet Union, you think of spies, and James Bond. Guys getting sent out to the GULAG. This was denied territory for most of my life, it was unthinkable that I would ever be here.
This was said over shots of Soviet-era Lenin statues, soldiers marching in winter regalia, hammer-and-sickle insignia, and other imagery referencing the late socialist state. As for accessibility, Bourdain might be mistaking the USSR for socialist Albania, which did indeed ban American tourists altogether. In contrast, the Soviet state tourism agency Intourist claimed that 100,000 Americans visited the USSR in 1985. “It certainly wasn’t very extraordinary for students on vacation to visit Russia in those days,” according to one American foreign service officer who worked at the Moscow embassy. “There were no restrictions at all on our side, though there were some bureaucratic problems getting visas on the Soviet side.” So while Leningrad may not have been at the top of most Americans’ bucket lists, tourism between the two nations was not “denied” and certainly not “unthinkable,” unless one came from a class background which made it unthinkable.
A defender might say that Bourdain needed to get these decades-old Cold War clichés out of the way since the average viewer was already thinking it—setting ‘em up to knock ‘em down. However, this would be a lot easier to believe if his next episode on Russia wasn’t so much more of the same. Anyone looking for evidence of Bourdain’s fresh and nuanced perspective won’t find it there, either. Filmed in 2007, this time for the Travel Channel’s Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, Bourdain returns once again to the same motifs: the episode opens with mournful balalaika music as the host introduces a cheesy gimmick about spying.
Compare this to fellow Travel Channel host Andrew Zimmern’s 2008 Bizarre Foods episode on St. Petersburg: aside from an early bit extolling of the virtues of capitalism, it contains zero mentions of Putin or the KGB (in contrast, these are the dominant motifs for Bourdain’s latter two Russia episodes). Ideologically, Zimmern’s 2011 episode on Syria has a much lighter touch than anything Bourdain has ever done on a targeted country. In the first 30 seconds, Zimmern mentions Syria’s status as “a place Americans simply did not visit,” as well as the republic’s alliances with “enemies” and “support for terrorist organizations.” That is the extent of Zimmern’s political commentary, and at the end of the episode, he says “I’m not qualified to talk about international politics” and concludes that the people are very kind and the food is good.
So even at the Travel Channel, Bourdain signaled that he was uniquely willing to blend a culinary travelogue with propaganda scaremongering. Bourdain’s 2007 Russia episode took a worse turn as the host claimed that there is such a thing as an “essential Russian soul,” and that he’s going to determine what comprises it. His opening words to the episode, narrated over spy imagery, were “I do not, I fear, have a Russian soul,” connecting “the Russian soul” to espionage and anti-Semitism. Later, he concluded that the “Russian soul” lives in small towns, anticipating Sarah Palin’s extremely similar idea that small towns are the “real America.”
This isn’t something the host does every episode, either, even when visiting “controversial” or “impenetrable” destinations. For example, at the end of his No Reservations episode in Saudi Arabia, the chef concludes: “who are the Saudis? I won’t insult them by trying to sum them up in a few sentences.” No such nuance was brought to Russia. Bourdain also managed to do his entire episode on Saudi Arabia without mentioning decapitations or Osama bin Laden, while every Russia episode constantly reiterated the same Red Scare tropes. “I grew up in a USA both menaced by and obsessed with spies, commies, the arms race, and the bomb,” he said in the opening few minutes of Russia episode number 2, keeping the pilot light of anti-Russian sentiment lit between Cold Wars.
However, by 2007, the American project to exert full-spectrum dominance over the entirety of Eurasia had turned Russia into a potential enemy. “I think Putin is not a democrat anymore,” lamented George W. Bush in 2006, “He’s a tsar. I think we’ve lost him.” Washington began to speak of Russia’s “dedemocratization” and in 2007, Freedom House classified the Russian Federation as “not free.” Thus, by roughly 2007, the “essential Russian soul” became an acceptable framework to discuss a nation of 160 million people. Today, people like Bourdain say that the essence of that soul is “authoritarian,” although he put a glib Daily Show-esque spin on it: “Democracy? Not so much.”
And Bourdain was good at following the wind on these things. For instance, during the Obama years, when the State Department’s approach to Pyongyang was characterized as “strategic patience,” Bourdain told Wolf Blitzer that he’d “love to go” to the DPRK, even calling such a visit “inevitable.” More recently, though, in Trump’s “fire and fury” era, the host told TMZ that such a trip will never happen: “Very unpleasant government. I mean, most of the population is starving, don’t you think that’d be kind of bad taste? Bad idea.”
Bourdain’s 2014 Russia episode of Parts Unknown was not only astonishingly propagandistic for a travel show, it was bad by the baneful standards of CNN or even Fox News. Filmed in the lead-up to the Sochi winter Olympics and released after the Maidan coup and the annexation of Crimea, the episode is a case study in how to do liberal imperialist agit-prop. In his first 2002 episode on Russia, Bourdain said that “fear of this country…basically molded my whole life.” True to how CNN enabled him to be “bigger and better,” by the mid-2010s Bourdain was all-in on spreading fear of Russia.
This episode, again, opens with mournful balalaika music, as Bourdain and his usual Russian host Zamir Gotta ride a sleigh through a pine forest. This peaceful intro smash-cuts to a montage that looks like a fever-dream hallucinated up by one of the Gessens. “All hail the maximum leader,” intoned Bourdain over footage of Vladimir Putin firing a handgun. The montage cuts to various images including Putin shirtless on horseback, citizens getting hauled away by OMON officers, protestors waving rainbow flags, and—of course—Pussy Riot. This was literally the first minute of the episode, and it established the tone perfectly.
After returning from the theme song portion, Bourdain’s introductory narration talked about the Russian president’s creepy face and “dead, affectless eyes,” shifting from insults about his visage to demonizing him at length as an “autocrat” and other bad things. Bourdain deserves at least a little credit as a propaganda innovator, though; during his first meal of the episode he compared Putin to Donald Trump. The remaining episode is a pure example of the demonology school of foreign policy: Bourdain spent the entire time inflating the singular figure of Putin into the avatar of the “regime,” then interviewing opposition spokespeople whom he proffered as Russia’s authentic demos. The first segment took Anthony Bourdain to an opposition rally; over the course of the episode, Bourdain wined-and-dined liberal politician Boris Nemtsov, on-the-outs oligarch Alexander Lebedev, a “dissident” rock band, an LGBT activist, and someone describing themselves as a democracy activist. In other words, this was like any other foreign policy program offering a series of talking-heads expounding on the evils of Washington’s designated enemy. This episode only maintained the flimsiest pretense of being a cooking/travel show: during the Nemtsov segment, for instance, viewers got a quick look at borscht and pelmeni and then spent minutes hearing about how the Sochi Olympics were an absurd scam meant to funnel money to Putin’s friends.
One poster on a TV-watchers forum wrote:
Interesting how the show has focused on corruption with Mexico and Russia. I am actually less likely to go to Russia though even though I have always loved Russian literature.
Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Despite his reputation as a totally unaffected and genuine figure, Bourdain was so effective at propaganda-delivery because his reputation was assiduously cultivated. Every time an op-ed says he is something other than what he is, or he was given an award for discovering “authentic” stories, or he claimed to be an improbable candidate for elevation to thought-leader, these are the smoke-and-mirror techniques that lent Bourdain his credibility. As with Obama, all the noise seems pretty vacuous if you don’t already believe the hype. It’s worth breaking down some of the primary gambits for deception, because they are common to his peers.
To see how Bourdain was built up into what he is, why not begin by looking at his relationship to his most-hated targets, his true bêtes noir: vegetarians.
As far as not eating meat, Bourdain said that he didn’t “have any understanding of it,” but this is a lie, in the traditional sense of the word. We can be sure that he understood not eating meat because of a No Reservations episode on Saudi Arabia. In this episode, Bourdain was shown a local hunting technique which involves manhandling a lizard who is obviously unhappy with his role in the procedure. He narrated that they are “jamming this half-stunned, tormented creature into a hole,” then turned to his hostess and opined that “I think we’re on very dubious ethical ground here.”
Whoa, it sounds like Bourdain was almost ready for one of PETA’s naked photo-shoots! The host not only agreed with vegetarians that sentient creatures are capable of feeling pain and that, like we humans, they choose to avoid pain—he even believed the idea that needlessly subjecting a creature to suffering against its will puts one on “very dubious ethical ground.” Since Bourdain clearly not only understood but even accepts the premises that undergird foregoing meat, where does the vehement antipathy come from?
Calling vegans “terrorist scum,” Bourdain once fulminated that
“These fucking people are not really all about us not eating duck liver,” snarls Bourdain. “No, no, no. They don’t want us eating any animal product whatsoever.
“When they win this tiny battle, they’ll move to the next one, like freeing the lobsters.
“These people,” says Bourdain, “are the worst kind of terrorists. And they must be stopped.”
Obviously such a histrionic level of bile over something that didn’t actually affect Bourdain at all indicates that the vegan-bashing was motivated by something other than the objective importance of the carnivore cause. The fact that Bourdain was so upset over being divested of foie gras and lobster is surely a clue. Elsewhere, Bourdain complained that “being a vegan is a first-world phenomenon, completely self-indulgent.” If one wants to highlight self-indulgent first-world lifestyles, “travel show host” might seem downright sybaritic compared to “person who chooses to forego animal products,” which is actually a sacrifice and not an indulgence. To most people, Bourdain’s career sounds like a series of Caligulan excesses—look at how quickly the no-fuck-giver threw a frothing tantrum over the idea that someone, somewhere disapproves of his eating habits. In his famous quote on the “Hezbollah-like” vegans, Bourdain called vegans “an affront to all I stand for, the pure enjoyment of food.” If “all he stood for” was “pure enjoyment,” then who exactly is self-indulgent?
Inflating his reputation by strategic projection and disavowals is something Bourdain did a lot. Like so many people held up by the propaganda machinery as progressive luminaries, Bourdain got to masquerade as something he’s not by constant repetition of his outsider mythology. We are told he wasn’t someone with an agenda, we are told he was edgy and iconoclastic, we are told he was unique, et cetera. People are told this despite the fact that his material, when it counts, was totally conformist and utterly conventional. Ultimately, he was a guy who was paid a ton of money to indulge his every whim, and tell us the same things we are supposed to hear everywhere else along the way. And that’s why Bourdain carried on his campaign against people who give up meat: they are the dark other onto which Bourdain could project what he really was: utterly spoiled, wildly privileged, and truly parochial.
Bourdain—conventional?! But what about his gruff, take-no-prisoners reputation and “steely, iconoclastic worldview”? “It’s also undeniable that this culinary bad boy’s tendency towards brutal honesty has always been the main draw for many readers and listeners,” according to one affectionate chronicler who dubbed him “the best critic we got.”
Having developed a snarky “no-fucks-given” personality somewhat comparable to Jonathan Swift or Hunter S. Thompson during his college and culinary educational years, furthered by the mystically harrowing debauchery of social practices within the kitchen, it goes without saying that his apathy towards PC-ness was fated to spill over into writing. This created a contract with his readers such that he would not stoop to deception or white lies when dishing out his opinions.
It’s true enough that Bourdain had “rockstar” cred based on saying what amounts to totally conventional “badass” material, like describing his diet as “cigarettes, alcohol, red meat and runny cheese.” His un-“PC” reputation is a result of “telling it like it is” about the following subjects: Guy Fieri, gluten-free eaters, Nickelback, the Kardashians, Paula Deen, vegetarians, airplane food, pumpkin spice-flavoring, the Real Housewives, the cast of Friends, piggish gluttons who don’t share a refined upper-middle class palette, the demon Putin, America’s enemies, Donald Trump, and Donald Trump’s tan.
With his bourgeois audience, all of these targets that Bourdain skewered are the absolute lowest of low-hanging fruit. This isn’t edgy, or iconoclastic, it’s ridiculously safe—Insane Clown Posse looks like the only easy target he didn’t go after, though there may be an utterly original and trenchant take on Juggalos in his latest cookbook. Attacking any of these targets is only a hair more controversial than going after cancer, bedbugs, and Amber Alerts.
Bourdain might have been a man of banal tastes and opinions but more significantly, he was a relatively reactionary Cold War-style liberal. This was also tweaked through some projection and superficial signaling.
Bourdain sometimes referenced his friendship with right-wing has-been rocker and statutory rape enthusiast Ted Nugent, with whom “I disagree…as much and as violently as anyone could disagree on just about everything.” This is superficially a lesson in Bourdain’s iconoclasm, but it is also a perfect example of liberal brand-building. There was likely relatively little about which Bourdain and Nugent vehemently disagree, beyond a handful of things like Barack Obama, immigration, and guns. Like Bourdain, Nugent probably considers himself a patriot, and like Bourdain, Nugent probably absolutely adores the United States Marine Corps. They could probably talk extensively about their shared antipathy towards the governments of Iran and North Korea, along with how “cool” it was to kill Gaddafi. That really is a decent amount of agreement.
As far as foreign policy, Bourdain usually agreed quite a lot with the neoconservative, far-right cretins whom he decried. In his Parts Unknown episode on Russia, Bourdain’s fixer mentioned that health care is no longer free since the end of socialism, and that “a lot of things used to be free.” Bourdain responded with “you asked for Capitalism, you got it,” which isn’t remotely how it went down but at least he said capitalism, right? Bourdain then blurted out “Reaganomics,” and began a tedious bit on the inanity of trickle-down theory. So, Reagan-style trickle-down theory is stupid? Not really, because in his earlier No Reservations episode on Russia, Bourdain ratified the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats theory: “everything is possible in the new Russia,” he narrated as he stepped into a nightclub with throbbing techno music. This could be read as ironic, but it comports with everything else he says about the economics of “the new Russia.” Bourdain even put a positive spin on the Russians who turn out to sell their belongings and trinkets on the street:
The flea market has returned big-time to the new Russia, the people free to buy or sell. For a new crop of wealthy Russians, that means the latest in Italian fashions and Italian and German cars. For everyday Russians it means the freedom to buy and sell all the remnants and relics of the past, the posters and memorabilia of earlier, harder times.
In contrast to the “earlier, harder” times, Bourdain admired how Russians now have the freedom to eke out a living by selling their meager belongings. A few Russians can afford luxury imported automobiles, and the rest can peddle trinkets and enjoy the crumbs: the system works.
Surveying a small gathering of Communists in Red Square, Bourdain dubbed them “a sad anachronism…still marching to the light that failed,” noting that “they seem oblivious to the billboards of the nation’s new ideals,” a notion which seems like his own. While superficially disavowing the Randian nonsense of Ronald Reagan, Bourdain validated the same fundamental “free-market” ideology.
This dynamic is even more obvious in how he discussed Western military power in the Middle East. In an interview about Lebanon, for example, he described how Lebanon is “a place with tremendous heart. It’s a place I’ve described as the Rumsfeldian dream of what, best-case scenario, the neocon masterminds who thought up Iraq, imagined for the post-Saddam Middle East: a place Americans could wander safely, order KFC, shop at the Gap. Where dollars are accepted everywhere and nearly everybody speaks English.” Bourdain gave himself some wiggle-room by posing this fantasy of American transformative military power as a product of the demented imaginations of the Bush regime. However, this is another instance of strategic projection, because this was Bourdain’s vision, too.
Bourdain mentioned KFC a lot—he called it his greatest “unholy love,” and it is a motif he invoked frequently when explaining foreign events to Americans. In one interview he discussed the situation in Gaza: as he explained the blockade, he paused and considered his words very carefully, then explained that the Palestinians are being “rationed or restrained.” It might seem like a pedantic distinction, but people aren’t rationed; food or supplies are rationed. People, specifically Gazans, are subjected to mass-starvation as a form of collective punishment—and by whom, Bourdain didn’t say. Still, Bourdain tells Opie & Anthony listeners that despite these conditions, “you could order Kentucky Fried Chicken in Gaza City” and Hamas guys would run through their smuggling tunnels to Egypt and deliver it. So despite what he euphemized as the “rationing” of Gaza, Palestinians could still enjoy all the Colonel’s secret herbs and spices—so how bad could the “rationing” be?
Better yet, Bourdain invited his viewers to consider the case of Libya after the 2011 NATO War. With Gaddafi dead and the “State of the Masses” destroyed, Bourdain beamed about the fresh produce for sale available to local restaurants (unfortunately, the Jamahiriya’s bread subsidies are gone). “But Revolution has brought changed tastes. Libyans, especially young Libyans, hunger for more than just freedom,” he said via voiceover. And what fruit has ripened sweetest on liberty’s vines? Kentucky Fried Chicken—or at least, a knockoff version, to hold Libyans over until Uncle Sam’s greatest brands can storm the shores of Tripoli like the Marines of yesteryear. Bourdain met some young Libyans who had participated in the insurgency at a new counterfeit KFC franchise, and they all snack on fried chicken. While the “uncertainty of the situation” means that legitimate franchised outlets are a ways off, Bourdain gushed that the “Kentaki” fried chicken experience is “awesome” as a corny background track unironically chants the words “American dreams” over and over.
On paper, what Bourdain offered here is a paean to the power of the American military and multinational corporations, set to a cheesy tune whose only lyrics are “American dreams” on repeat. Remember Brian Williams rhapsodizing about “the beauty of our weapons” when Trump bombed Syria? What Bourdain did here is only a degree removed from that. His viewers are the sort of people who would normally scoff at this, but such is the unique power of a salesperson like Bourdain. He was so impressed by the ersatz KFC that he expounded on it at length in various places:
A young militia member took me to this place called Uncle Kentaki and Kentaki Fried Chicken. It was a Libyan knockoff of the Colonel because, of course, the Colonel ain’t showing up anytime soon. He was like, “Look, look what we have now! We’re like you now! This is the taste of freedom!” He was practically in tears of joy that people could start privately owned restaurants within Tripoli and that they could be Western-style, youth-oriented, the things that he knows that we have and that Europeans have.
It’s clear that Bourdain, like Rumsfeld, could think of nothing better than a world in which everyone orders KFC, shops at the Gap, pays in greenbacks, and speaks English, as he puts it (At the beginning of the Libya episode, he boasts about the country’s post-war progress: “At the Radisson, club sandwiches arrive on time in the lobby”). As he said in a 2013 interview: US wars in MENA show that “change is possible.” Thus, the Libya war was “a cool thing,” and while “I’m not saying any of this will work out” and Libyans may have to endure “blood and chaos for a while,” at least they finally have a shot at having gastropubs in Benghazi. Like Reagan, he defined “freedom” as the ability to start businesses and enjoy “Western-style, youth-oriented things that we have and that Europeans have,” and like Rumsfeld, he knew that US bombs were the solution.
That Bourdain is utterly parochial and small-minded might sound wild to his fans, but look at his dreams for the world. It is a testament to the insularity of their class position that people like Bourdain can think of no greater calling than living exactly the way rich Western celebrities do. The West’s urban bourgeoisie can think of themselves as the smartest and most cosmopolitan people in the world. They are actually the most small-minded and provincial, and Bourdain is a case-in-point: he traveled to dozens of countries and spoke to hundreds of people around the world, but he couldn’t imagine life or “freedom” as anything more meaningful than enjoying the petty creature comforts common to the imperial core.
Of course, Bourdain’s boundless self-abasement held that he wasn’t telling us any of this or even anything at all (certainly no political agenda), he was merely channeling the stories of others. “This is not a platform for my political point of view,” he said of his CNN show. “If a story presents itself, I feel freer to wander away from the food, if there’s history or culture or stuff going on. But that’s definitely not an agenda.” “Now the world has become a much bigger place in that I can go to Myanmar, I can go to Congo, to Libya, shoot in places that would have been impossible with another network. We can tighten our focus to tell stories from one person’s point of view or expand that to take a look at a bigger picture.”
For her part, Entelis praised Bourdain’s stubborn refusal to describe his own cultural position, pointing out in different terms that this makes him a more effective force-multiplier for CNN: “He made you want to go on a journey with him around the world, which is really what CNN wants to do every day as well,” Entelis said. “He studiously avoids saying he’s a journalist, and we were really looking for a different kind of storytelling on CNN.” “He’s irreverent, honest, curious, never condescending, never obsequious,” said his Peabody Awards write-up, and thus “People open up to him and, in doing so, often reveal more about their hometowns or homelands than a traditional reporter could hope to document.”
One write-up told us that it was Bourdain’s “endearing humility that’s made him the fantasy BFF of basically every food obsessive in America (and beyond).” While one can argue over whether Bourdain evinces “endearing humility” or “tedious false modesty for marketing purposes,” it’s indisputable that plenty of people put a lot of trust in what their “fantasy BFF” has to say about geopolitics.
What these sources were praising was the “storyness” of Bourdain’s work. At the same time that the consequences of Western regime change-ops seem more obvious than ever before, myriad forms of “fact-free pseudo-journalism” like Creative Non-Fiction seem to have no trouble finding funding. “Stories” have been a hot journalism fad for a while: one commentator wrote, “The method of ‘exploring’ ideas through stories is now the preferred mode of, or replacement for, serious thought and argument.” That’s been done because:
Stories limit the weighing of truth claims in favor of the experiential, emphasize atomized pathos over historical exegesis, and privilege writers with connections and resources over thinkers with the most lucid analysis. A story’s goal is to foster identification with the character, not to provide the most accurate insight.
Bourdain’s Libya episode was released more than a year after Gaddafi’s murder, and 8 months after the infamous September 2012 consulate attack in Benghazi which killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and 3 others. The episode came out about 6 months before Libya’s Prime Minister was kidnapped by gunmen and international aid organizations began describing Libya as a “hell.” In August 2012, a month before the consulate attack, a Library of Congress report warned that:
Postrevolutionary Libya is a militarized society where young self-proclaimed jihadists are on the loose, ready to follow anyone offering a meaningful purpose for their newly acquired combat skills… the current status quo will most likely continue, and as it does, it will weaken the government and empower dissent. In this context, the al-Qaeda clandestine network is unlikely to be confronted by the government, and it will likely expand, especially in the south and east.
So by the time Bourdain’s Libya episode came out, it was obvious that NATO bombs hadn’t had the liberatory effect that had been advertised—though at the end of the episode, the host said “Everybody seems to be saying look at us in 5 years” (It’s been 5 years, by the way). Bourdain was forced to make concessions to reality, saying “If you follow the news, you’ll be reminded about how the lack of centralized power in the wake of the 2011 has seen an increase in Islamic militancy in Libya. What you see is not encouraging…and of course, extremist attacks in Benghazi that killed the US ambassador.
However, Bourdain finished this thought with “All those things are very real concerns. But if you only look at what’s on the news, you can miss, maybe, what’s the bigger picture.”
In shilling for NATO’s war on Libya, Bourdain implored viewers to ignore the inconvenient facts (“what’s on the news”) and instead give themselves over to the comforting storyness of the story (“the bigger picture”). Here, Bourdain demonstrated the propaganda utility of “stories,” and why they have been made popular and why we will keep hearing about the precious value of “stories.”
There will always be traditional propaganda lies, which are passed off with the veneer of objective fact—Guardian stories about Gaddafi’s rape squads, Human Rights Watch dubbing someone “a new Hitler,” etc. However, to augment these, there are “stories”—Bana Alabed, the last-whatever-in-Aleppo, and so on. When facts make the traditional lie untenable, then it’s time for a story, which doesn’t make the same pretenses towards objective truth and which demands emotional responses over rational ones. When anti-Russian conspiracy theorist Luke Harding was challenged on a string of already debunked-claims about Kremlin perfidy (“There’s zero evidence so far,” the interviewer pointed out, “There’s a lot of supposition and innuendo.”), Harding retreated to “I’m a journalist. I’m a storyteller.”
Speaking about Iran-Contra, Ronald Reagan once said “A few months ago, I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” A propaganda “storyteller” says “I told the American people some State Department lies. The story still tells me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.”
Moreover, look at whose stories audiences were told when they tuned in.
His handler in Russia. Zamir Gotta, obviously knew what Bourdain was looking for and indulged him to the hilt. In the Parts Unknown episode, Gotta introduces St. Petersburg as “Vladimir Putin’s home town.” Gotta always told Bourdain (and the audience) lies about how Communism was unpopular and how much better the free-market has been. When the two visited Moscow’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Bourdain asked how many Soviets died in World War II and his companion answered “up to 10 million,” underestimating even the most conservative estimates by half. Actually, maybe Bourdain should get more credit for rooting out the obscure and unheard in his target countries: he managed to find the only adult between Kaliningrad and Kamchatka who doesn’t know how many Russians died in WWII. In his CNN Parts Unknown episode, every single person he interviewed had some sort of stake in ending the United Russia party’s governance.
Libya provided perhaps the starkest example of who are Bourdain’s authentic local voices:
- Omar, a Libyan who said that he joined an anti-government fighting group because there was “no future in Libya before,” and also that he was a medical student before the revolt.
- Akram, who claimed to have been in the UK and entered Libya a week and a half after the fighting began. “Akram is in the security business,” according to Bourdain. The host noted, with a hint of actual curiosity and insight, that the Libyan “uprising” sprang up across the country surprisingly quickly in an oddly coordinated way. “Twitter,” said Akram, who then described how he and his compatriots used Twitter and Google to call in NATO airstrikes, to Bourdain’s chuckles.
- Hamid, a militia leader whom Bourdain described like this: “his job these days is hunting down former Gaddafi supporters” (sounds a bit like a death squad commander).
The resident politics expert is Michel Cousins, a British journalist who returned to Libya post-insurgency after the government expelled his family in 1982:
It’s Christmas, it’s the Fourth of July rolled into one. Also there are people who are trying to stop it. So puritans, extremists, if you want to say militants. And what has happened is people have come out in defiance of that. They’re showing, we want to have fun. And remember for a long time in Libya, you couldn’t have fun. The biggest misconception is that the place is turning into another Afghanistan and Iraq where you’ve got bombs going off, attacks. But it’s not, as you’ve seen.
In Iran, his “authentic” local voice was Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, et cetera. Bourdain was quite the “storyteller,” though in his case like so many others, “storyteller” meant peddler of State Department bullshit. His status as a travel host and celebrity chef made him a propagandist without peer, and his surprising suicide will cement his mainstream reputation as an iconoclastic progressive figure.
Those mourning Bourdain’s death can take comfort in the fact that there are likely thousands more aspiring Bourdains out there right now—sons and daughters of privilege who can put a woke spin on American exceptionalism through touching personal narratives and outsider branding.
Bourdain was an innovator, though, and he was uniquely good at delivering his propaganda payloads. But when it came to the imperialist lies which were his bread and butter, Bourdain was really just like any amateur chef making spaghetti: he threw a strand at the wall and if it didn’t stick, he tried again a few minutes later until it did.