Anthony Bourdain, in a recent interview with Reason, unleashed on his fellow liberals. He assailed “the utter contempt with which privileged Eastern liberals such as myself discuss red-state, gun-country, working-class America.” He blistered Bill Maher as “the worst of the smug, self-congratulatory left.” And he defended those aforementioned red staters:
I’ve spent a lot of time in gun-country, God-fearing America. There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good.
Bourdain is a former drug abuser with a work ethic that seems determined to compensate for lost time. He’s an author, writer, traveler, chef, and host of CNN’s “Parts Unknown.” It’s the latter, along with his former Travel Channel show “No Reservations,” that have made him famous, and for good reason: both are unlike anything else on television.
At a time when so much foreign news coverage consists of bland wire-service repetition and Ken Burns-style panning across Reuters photos, Bourdain actually bothers to visit the countries he’s profiling, and really visit, not just the clichés and tourist traps, but the sizzling outdoor marketplaces and the seedy red-light districts.
His most remarkable episode was when he went to Tokyo and walked into a dervish of fetish shops, bondage parlors, death metal bands, and tentacle porn, Japan’s underground, where its workaholic culture finds secret relief. In Scotland, Bourdain skipped much of the Edinburgh mystique in favor of hardscrabble Glasgow—”I was barely off the train and within minutes was called a ‘c**t,'” he gushes. In addition to verbal volleys, Bourdain isn’t afraid to risk physical hazards, having been to the Congo, Beirut, Libya, and even Iran, which he loved.
Bourdain’s attitude toward each of these locales is an inquisitive multiculturalism, proceeding from an acknowledgement that any country, no matter how poor or hostile to America’s government, has something worth sampling, whether culinary or architectural or anecdotal. He refuses to be a foreign policy ideologue, partitioning the globe into simplistic categories of allies and adversaries; instead he brings his camera to the street level and invites the audience to understand. He’s the molecular opposite of your average Twitter loudmouth, forever making canyon-sized generalizations about people he’s never met from the comfort of his basement.
Bourdain’s approach to red America—despite his admitted East Coast liberalism and contempt for Trump—is akin to his approach to Iranian or Japanese culture. He ventures to the American heartland and tries to appreciate, rather than slapping on the usual clumsy stereotypes. It’s a refreshing antidote to the appalling election coverage of Trump voters, with its insipid commentators blathering from New York and Washington studios, mulishly disinterested in confronting the most fascinating political phenomenon of my lifetime. (Go to West Virginia? Ew.) In Santa Fe, Bourdain went target-shooting with a club of gun vets. In Massachusetts, he decamped to my father’s oft-forgotten bucolic hometown of Greenfield to catalogue the heroin onslaught there. Both episodes were recorded before Trump crashed into the presidential race via gilded elevator, yet both contain more insights about the grievances and confusions that propelled The Donald’s campaign than two months’ worth of Rachel Maddow smirking at the right-wing klutzes in her head.
This is how liberals used to be: curious, solicitous of divergent viewpoints, staunchly pluralistic, authentically multicultural, worthy of Robert Frost’s observation that “a liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” Conservatism, before it became besotted by talk radio, had a strand of this, too: one of Russell Kirk’s 10 conservative principles was an emphasis on variety. Today, the left and right have become more closed systems, as the former grows addicted to an identity politics that assigns its lowest value to the white working class and the latter embraces myopic nationalism.
Bourdain is a refreshing break from this, a liberal who understands that liberalism means questioning the shibboleths on all sides. The right might have cheered his recent remarks but the left would be wise to learn from them.