I said everything I need to say about Anthony Bourdain’s career as an American chauvinist and NATO propagandist already, but his canonization as a secular saint for credulous lefties is its own beast and deserves commentary.
Like the title says, this spectacle is the mutant bastard of Obamania and #Jesuicharlie. Like Obamania, we have a full-court-press campaign to remake a deeply conservative imperialist into a transformative progressive hero, and plenty of people who should know better signing up. As with the Illinois Senator who promised to ramp up drone strikes and voted for more illegal surveillance, what the great celebrity actually says and does is less important than the warm-fuzzies we’re supposed to feel upon seeing his face and hearing his voice.
Here’s a very brief illustration of how the scam works; it’s a quick overview because it’s really not that complicated:
Senator Barack Obama: George W. Bush didn’t commit any crimes. The Iraq war was only wrong because it wasn’t well executed. Anti-racist radicals are the same as white supremacists and racism is not systemic. Fuck Palestinians. I love Ronald Reagan.
People paid to tell us what to think: He’s a transformative progressive figure unlike anyone who came before who will magically end racism and war.
Fans: Wow, he’s a transformative progressive figure unlike anyone who came before who will magically end racism and war!
The Pentagon Chef: Russia is Nazi Germany and needs a “forceful response.” Black people who don’t believe my hype are Kremlin agents. I was amazed to dine with friendly Arabs, even though they would “have no problem killing me” and “bathe in my blood.” True freedom—which is the freedom to shop at American businesses—is a flower that grows from US bombs. I’m a patriot who loves the troops, the troops are THE BEST!
People paid to tell us what to think: He’s got no agenda at all; he’s a progressive and humane vessel for presenting authentic experiences.
Fans: Wow, he’s got no agenda at all; he’s a progressive and humane vessel for presenting authentic experiences!
However, Obamania was the beginning of the President’s career, while this onslaught comes after Bourdain’s death. So there are parallels with the #Jesuischarlie monstrosity. Just like in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack, we have the canonization of some very vital liberal chauvinist, and a relentless campaign make everyone think the same thing. At least with Charlie Hebdo there was some back-and-forth over whether racist cartoons were really racist or 11-dimensional anti-racist chess. Bourdain (hereafter, the Pentagon chef), on the other hand, unapologetically and over the course of years championed a war that literally returned fucking slavery to Libya.
Despite my self-imposed exile from the outrageverse, mourning for the Pentagon chef has gotten so loud that I was exposed to the following sentiment, from a self-described “Marxist”:
Bourdain being a liberal doesn’t mean we can’t mourn him and recognize some of his insights which were useful. Demanding purity politics of those with depression who saw their own struggle in his work is useless and counterproductive.
That someone with depression would come to identify personally with the Pentagon chef is between them and their therapist. If someone needs to have faith in a magic individual in order to pull themselves out of a dark mental place, there are plenty of religions for that. Millions of desperate and lonely people take great comfort in the tale of God’s endless love for humanity, a love made incarnate by the suffering and miraculous resurrection of his son Jesus. But the fantastical nature of that story means that it belongs in Sunday school, not a serious political conversation. Tales of the saintly chef’s endless curiosity and humane virtue also belong in church or a psychologist’s office and not a serious conversation.
Political commitments in the core already resemble nothing more than religion, as any “socialists” who went gaga for Obama can relate. The most vivid example I can think of happened a few times during 2007-8: Obama fans told me that he would end wars, and when I explained that the candidate had promised to expand the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, they’d lean in and tell me he had a secret plan to do what they wanted him to do, it was just a secret. Given how it inverts reality, this most magical of magical thinking is religious more than it is anything else. You see similar reality-bending projections like this all the time. “I’m a socialist and I love John Oliver, therefore he’s a socialist!” is another example.
But maybe I’m not being fair. After all, my years-long sobriety has been good for my mental health. As a sober person struggling with depression, I have taken great heart in seeing a teetotaler in the White House. Donald Trump being a racist doesn’t mean we can’t honor him and recognize some of his insights which are useful. Demanding purity politics of me and the other sober comrades who see our own struggle in Trump’s decades of successful sobriety is counterproductive and useless.
Plus, we have to meet people where they’re at. Just because Trump isn’t PERFECT according to some ultraleftist standard of purity or whatever is no reason to risk dividing the Left, y’know?
Yeah, but Donald Trump is on Team Bad, and Bourdain was on Team Good! We get periodic reminders that criticism is reserved for Team Bad, and that considerations like “what is actually progressive” go out the window when there’s a chance to score a point for Team Good. We got a lesson in this last week, when the liberal luminaries circled the wagons in defense of Samantha Bee’s right to call a Republican woman a cunt. “After a careful study, I have determining that she, like, really is a cunt,” concluded Barbara Ehrenreich.
For those whose political worldview is dictated less by partisan identification and more by judging actual things (we’ll call this a “materialist analysis”), the Pentagon chef’s posthumous canonization as M.V.P. of Team Good might look completely ridiculous.
Sure, there’s that vague comment about Palestine, and how the worst thing “the world” has done is dehumanize Palestinians. But while the Pentagon chef said this in the abstract, when speaking concretely about the most persistent Israeli genocide technique—the mass-starvation of Gaza—the chef was extraordinarily circumspect, speaking in anodyne euphemisms and whitewashing Israel’s war crimes by pointing out that smuggling exists. Immediately afterwards he even said that “the Arab world” is full of people “who would have no problem killing me.” This is how propagandists from the Empire’s liberal wing always do it: they present an obvious evil as objectionable in broad strokes, but then explain away, whitewash, or even praise the specifics. Example: John Oliver says that the obviously bad refugee crisis is bad, but worships the US military which creates refugees by destroying their societies. It boils down to “the symptoms are bad but the disease is great.” See also Cory Booker doing a stunt where he spent a week on food stamps the same year he called attacks on Mitt Romney’s vulture capital fund “nauseating.” Or Senator Obama’s presidential campaign.
When you consider what he actually did in real life versus what he did in the imaginations of credulous fans, the self-described “patriot” who never missed a chance to tell us that “I really like Marines” pushed an astonishing amount of imperialist propaganda over the course of his career. If you don’t have time to read 11,000+ words on that, I think the most evocative fact is this: the Pentagon chef propagandized for a war in MENA which literally returned fucking slavery to Libya, and to my knowledge never discussed or apologized for it. I’m not one of those people who gets a dopamine spurt from hearing a high-status monster cry crocodile tears—the thought of Obama apologizing for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima (which a lot of people apparently wanted to hear) seemed more twisted than the alternative. But the Pentagon chef went so far as to call his Libya propaganda his proudest achievement and “the best piece of work I’ve ever been part of.”
Helping return slavery to Libya certainly didn’t temper his hunger for World War III, given that the Pentagon chef’s voluminous anti-Russian output looks like something from Liberty Lobby or the John Birch Society. It didn’t even chasten him on Libya specifically: in 2013, the year that reports began surfacing about the return of slave-markets selling thousands of black Africans, the Pentagon chef chimed in to let us know that “Any steaming butthole who suggests ‘Things were better under Gaddafi’ should have his nuts slammed in a drawer.”
Those “steaming buttholes” who should be castrated include these thousands of Libyans showing up to support the Jamahiriya during the NATO/al Qaeda war that the Pentagon chef loved so much:
As well as these hundreds of Libyans protesting for the release of Muammar’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi:
Those black Africans who enslaved after the NATO/al Qaeda war would probably deserve a nut-squashing too, according to the Pentagon chef.
Oh, but it’s unfair to criticize someone when they’re dead, or something. However, regardless of the fact that this isn’t an actual ironclad injunction, just flak afforded to high-status monsters, I defer to the rules of decorum on this issue established by the Pentagon chef himself:
LOL, we came, we saw, he died, amirite?! And then we saw that the Pentagon chef’s beloved war literally returned fucking slavery to Libya.
See how good he was at using a combo of his globetrotting biography and basic smear tactics to defend the Libya war even after the country was, in the words of international aid agencies, a failed-state “hell”:
I get angry seeing really stupid coverage of places like, uh, Libya. You know, nooo clue, you know, there’re actually idiots out there saying ‘we were better off with Gaddafi.’ Oh really? You know, really? People say this with authority having never been to Libya, having never met these kids, the majority of people who overthrew—they get their news sources from you know, cretinous, you know, fringe, underinformed, conspiracy theory websites. They’re, Gaddafi, you know this is from the Left and Right…The people who threw him out were people you would like hanging out with.
Here’s a little slice of the Pentagon chef’s real propaganda output: liberal imperialism, appeals to the vaunted youth, smeary anti-conspiracism, adducing his trip to Libya as proof of his expertise, and the insipid Jon Stewartism of pointing to an idea and going really? CHUH, REALLY? instead of offering facts.
Bourdain supposedly differed from the imperialists of Team Bad because he didn’t present the residents of Washington’s designated enemies “as synonymous with their caricatured rulers.” These would be those Libyan kids he mentioned, the ones that you’d like hanging out with. But this is another difference between Team Bad and Team Good that’s mostly a marketing fiction. George W. Bush sent his wife Laura out to associate Operation Enduring Freedom with the plight of Afghan women, and the war on Iraq was about freedom for Iraqis when it was no longer about WMDs. George W. Bush even had friends like Ahmed Chalabi, with authentic lived experiences and the authority of being from Iraq. Donald Trump said that he bombed Syria to protect the “innocent men, women and children” of that targeted country. Trump also claimed to not see Iran’s people as synonymous with their caricatured rulers: during the last round of anti-government protests he issued a statement praising the long-suffering people of Iran. “They long for a springtime of hope,” said the agenda-free humanitarian Donald Trump, “and the United States stands with the Iranian people in their aspirations to connect to the wider world and have a responsible and accountable government that truly serves their nation’s interests.” Trump’s statement is substantively identical to what the Pentagon chef had to say about the Islamic Republic (and Russia, Cuba, North Korea, Libya, and Lebanon), yet another instance of how the celebrities of Team Good have so much more in common with Trump than they do with any substantively progressive person.
Whatever CNN paid the Pentagon chef wasn’t enough, because he possesses an even more robust ability to shut down critical thinking in death than he did in life. It’s obvious that paid opinion-havers would write these encomia to the Pentagon chef, and it’s as predictable as the sunrise that outlets like Vulture would self-parody by dubbing the Pentagon chef “the Best White Man.”
If we’re doing the radical-liberal whiteness-discourse thing, counterpoint: that the Pentagon chef is defended as a progressive luminary for going on nice vacations and hating Henry Kissinger is the apotheosis of rewarding white mediocrity. There’s no more evocative example of “white innocence”—“the insistence on the innocence or absence of responsibility of the contemporary white person”—than the fact he can be called “the best white man” after selling a war that literally returned fucking slavery to Libya.
In 2013 the Pentagon chef got some award for making a super woke show, and he remarked that he did nothing more conscientious than showing “regular people doing everyday things.” He commented:
It is a measure, I guess, of how twisted and shallow our depiction of a people is that these images come as a shock to so many.
In this I’m in rare agreement with the Pentagon chef: it’s a measure of how twisted and shallow our political culture is that he could be credibly passed off as a saintly progressive by so many people who should know better. If propagandizing for a war that literally returned fucking slavery to Libya isn’t enough to disqualify someone from this level of uncritical posthumous adulation, then something truly is twisted and shallow over on Team Good.