Mexican Stand-Off

This is a post about an episode of a TV show and an open letter responding to that episode. Please watch the episode and read the letter before reading the post, as my editorialising of the episode and the letter will not be sufficient exposure to form an opinion on them and it would be unfair to base a response to the episode on what this post and the letter have to say about it.

On Sunday night, CNN aired a new episode of the travel documentary series Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown about Mexico City. The following day, travel blogger W. Scott Koenig published an open letter to Anthony Bourdain about the episode on his website agringoinmexico.com. Though the letter is reverent towards Bourdain’s writing and journalism in general, Koenig strongly contested the portrayal of Mexico in Sunday’s episode of the chef-writer-presenter’s signature travel show, now in its third season. Koenig accused Bourdain of a disproportionate emphasis on the drug-related violence and killing that takes place in the country and overlooking the richness of the culture, history, art and gastronomy in the regions he visited on the show. Koenig also hinted strongly at potential interference from the network and the programme’s advertisers to scaremonger about visiting Mexico and lumped in the episode with inaccurate press reporting on Mexican drug violence, with comparative statistics to boot.

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

A Body-Blow in Mexico!

Koenig has already swathed Bourdain in the kind of praise that I would have given him, so I don’t feel the need to defend for the latter’s impeccable record in TV, journalism and prose in both non-fiction and fiction. I do, however, feel the need to intercede somewhere between apologist and critic on his behalf. Koenig is right to be disturbed, unsettled and disappointed with the Mexico City episode, but perhaps not for the reasons the blogger outlines. Firstly, I do have to point out a disparity in quality between the two works, lest you think I’m creating a false equivalency between an intricately constructed TV documentary and a hastily-written blog post. If you are going to offer a riposte to such an artfully made and powerfully written piece of television, blogger’s ellipsis and internet grammatology isn’t going to cut it. Right or wrong, this was proof-correction of artistic meditation.

My initial reaction to the Mexico City episode of Parts Unknown was that Bourdain was trying to dispel some of the comforting myths people tell themselves about countries in the grip of violence and under the yoke of organised crime. The perception that gangster rule – in this case the cartels – protects the innocent from harm because of their predominantly internal conflicts was fundamentally altered with the stories of Mexican journalists, protestors, artists and bystanders who had perished or lived in fear for their lives. Any sense that the cartels are a rogue criminal element in Mexico was immediately quashed by the episode connecting the dots between drug operations and Mexican business and government. These are important distinctions, and not to be taken or shown lightly. If I had this as a documentarian, I’d feel obliged to lead with it, even if it meant a few less restaurants onscreen.

While Koenig (or wife Ursula, whom he credits with the bald synopsis) is not wrong about a motif of ‘bodies’ in the episode, I think they may have misjudged where this darkness is coming from. Rather than a SPECTRE-like network-advertiser conspiracy to inadvertently profit from tourism, the emphasis on violence and killing was more likely motivated by Bourdain’s anger and outrage at what’s going on in his backyard. As we saw in last season’s episode of Parts Unknown in Detroit, Bourdain is at his most livid when faced with the ruin of places closest to his home and heart, in parts of the world where remedy is within reach. It is not contempt but fear for Mexico that seems to drive this episode, the unjust feeling that a place of such beauty and brilliance doesn’t have the system it deserves, but also that a good neighbour needs a good turn.

Bourdain in Baja.

Bourdain in Baja.

I don’t think the episode should have sacrificed this raw, seething depiction of social problems for local culture any more than The Wire should have gone to more Baltimore crab shacks (Koenig is loath to admit that there is a great deal of food and drink in the episode). I would take issue with Bourdain’s attitude to Mexico, however. In the Baja episode of No Reservations a couple of years ago, Bourdain wore his ignorance about Mexico on his sleeve and let the natives surprise him. Here, he seems very certain of how the country can solve its problems, and doesn’t mind telling the locals. Crucially, we don’t see what the Mexicans he meets think of his suggestions! I was taken aback by the episode, if only because Bourdain has made more upbeat programmes about worse-off places (Libya, for example). Unbalanced, maybe. Sensationalist, never. Violent? Yes, but not without motive.

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