A GUIDE FOR THE POST-NATIONALIST AMERICAN:
Steady yourself and concentrate right here if you can, now follow my finger…
Can you count backwards from 10 for me?…
Now repeat after me. “America is not the only country in the world.”
That’s alright, try again….
We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves so I recommend starting you out gently on the CNN program “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown”. You’ll be forgiven for not realizing there was a cultural exploration program on CNN and supposing it only harbored talking heads whose volume increases by the second and who posses the useless power of making the color of their faces change from pink to red to purple. But hidden beyond all the slanted nonsense at the very bottom of the pile lies a gem. For CNN it represents a gamble and a departure from form, but for the American citizen I consider it a gift and a public service.
CNN has been gambling on alternative programming styles for a while now, exploring a market only occupied by Nat Geo (which nobody watches) and Discovery, which has become a stale warehouse for a consortium of gimmick related reality TV shows thanks to the massive success of “Mythbusters” and “Deadliest Catch.” This open market has led to a variety of interesting show choices from CNN like “The Hunt with John Walsh”, “Planet in Peril” which was a 2 part 4 hour documentary, and “Chicagoland” an extensive effort to shape Rahm Emmanuel into the second coming of Christ. But none has caught on quite as well as Bourdain’s show.
If you aren’t familiar with Bourdain from his other work on the Travel Channel show “No Reservations” you wouldn’t know that he is the hard drinking, self-loathing, former drug user, balls out, Richard Attenborough of our time. A previous executive chef in one of New York’s premier restaurants (Brasserie Les Halles) Bourdain pulled a Marky Mark and dropped a career change in the form of his book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly”. His brash and madcap persona coupled with his culinary milieu made him a perfect fit for “No Reservations.” Frankly that show and “Parts Unknown” are bedfellows in concept but the discerning factor between them is that CNN can throw way more money at each episode and afford Bourdain greater access to places previously too prestigious or bound up in red tape to reach.
So what of the show? Unlike some of its predecessors from the 70’s and 80’s where a well coifed Brit clinically breaks down his experience dealing with the local fauna, flora and other assorted bi-modal mammals in the region, “Parts Unknown” grabs you by the back of your head and slams your face into the vast, seething, shuddering, copulatory universe just beyond your nose. Bourdain is able to effortlessly scythe through the thin mosquito mesh that keeps out the casual purveyor of hourly fluff. He does this mostly by diving straight into what fuels every society: food. To understand what people eat is to understand those people, and it’s made all the easier by asking a knowledgeable native to sit down and break bread with him.
It’s there that the show is at it’s strongest, when Bourdain gathers those who know their home the best and ask them to tell us about it. No more getting the stories second-hand or having the vibrancy of a culture snuffed out by watering it down for a western audience. People are passionate about their homes and their troubles and their successes; Bourdain just gives them an opportunity to air it out, and truthfully, it’s to our benefit.
Our problems are like cartoon flypaper. The kind that gets stuck to Wile E. Coyote’s face and never goes away. And sure, our problems in America are significant and deserve attention, but that introspection can be the death of empathy. We are not alone in this world and the problems we have certainly aren’t the only ones. Our planet and its people seem closer together and their lives much more understandable on Bourdain’s show. He doesn’t present the rest of the world as a magical wonderland filled with surprise pinatas and cheap booze. It’s scabby and loathsome and irresistible all at once. He dives into Mexico’s drug war and Tokyo’s sexual ambivalence without pause; he jostles for understanding in Jerusalem and Gaza and unearths his own genealogical mysteries in Paraguay. But always there is the sense that it is all familiar. The intangible suddenly becomes tangible and we recognize the worst and best of ourselves in the people he meets. It’s comforting and thrilling.
Maybe it’s his cynicism that helps. To view everything with suspicion and curiosity is very American, after all. Maybe it’s just the fact that he listens more than he speaks and he enjoys eating and drinking a LOT with those around him, but this show has made me consider myself not solely as an American, but as a human who is generally interested in the well being of…like…other humans. Apart from being secretly educational you get to see a lot of stunning locales in ways that you haven’t seen or experienced them before. Interested in a particular place? There’s probably an episode covering it by now. Preparing for it’s 5th season “Parts Unknown” has been from Russia to Paraguay, South Africa, Bejing, Mynamar, Libya, Quebec, Morroco and even Iran, just to name a few.
We are no longer isolationists. The web, social media and media have connected us more thoroughly to the rest of the world than at any other time in our planet’s history. We can’t ignore the rest of civilization any longer; and why would we want to? Sure there are problem areas and confusing scenarios but you can get those at the 24-hr Dairy Queen bathroom at the beach front where I live. (Don’t respond to anyone who talks to you in a stall at 2 a.m.) Keeping our noses down won’t help us avoid trouble and increasingly we (Muricuh’) are the only ones trying to block out others.
Take a small step. Check out Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN, Sunday’s at 9 p.m. I have a strong feeling you’ll dig it. The first 4 seasons are on Netflix so nobody, not even cable cutters, have an excuse!