"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Social Media Gulags–Group Administrators And The Exile Of The Impure–A Morality Tale

Wendy Barstow  recently joined a social media food and wine group sponsored by alumni from her university.  It would be fun, she thought, to share ideas with a likeminded group of highly intelligent, worldly, and sophisticated alumni.  She was an amateur chef and was excited to share her first post, ‘Lambi Creole with Basil’, a modification of Haiti’s national dish, but one which added the sweetness that fresh basil offered, and the salty bite of fresh top-neck clams.  It was not always easy to get fresh conch, but there was a Caribbean shop on 7th Street which catered both to the new Jamaican immigrants and to the upscale homesteaders moving in to renovated brownstones.

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Wendy was a good amateur cook, and she never claimed more.  She had eaten the delicacies of Frank Ruta at Palena and Mirabelle, and understood the difference between a cook and a chef.  Ruta prepared dishes that she never could have imagined, beauties of taste, presentation, and color.  He was never joined the architectural generation of chefs who had substituted fanciful towers for ingredients and thoughtful combination.  No swirls of raspberry coulis, dots of dark vinegar randomly placed, a snail, periwinkle, or bit of sea grass arrayed. Ruta was only concerned with the food and as a great chef mastered the art of innovation with the right ingredients and a sense, simply, for what went together. Wendy was certainly not a chef.

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Yet after many years travelling abroad – months in Paris brasseries and Michelin-starred restaurants, street food in Thailand and Vietnam, and vegetarian meals at the Oberoi Hotel in Delhi, where chef Anand Kapoor had taken ordinary, homespun, traditional dishes of lentils, rice, and vegetables and made them into delicacies.  At every table she tasted, deconstructed, and learned.  After a while she was able to discern the subtle flavors and spices combined in Indian cooking, the bolder, more forward tastes of Italy, and the unique blended tastes in the sauces of France.  She could reproduce many of the dishes she had tasted in her own kitchen, careful not to overstep her bounds.  There was only so much folding in, combining, and reducing that she was willing to do; and the grinding of endless spices for a curry was too time-consuming.  Her meals, however, were always new, different, and surprisingly good.

Which is why she thought that joining her college food group would be exciting.  Alumni were scattered around the globe, of many different nationalities, and many different tastes; and since she was now adept at retrieving cooking cues from the simplest picture or briefest description, she was sure to discover many new, doable recipes.

She didn’t receive the reaction she thought she would get from her lambi recipe, perhaps not surprising sandwiched in as it was between a post on the newest Los Angeles, Star Wars-themed donuts, and an elegiac post about sous vide cooking.  The former had been posted by an alumnus who danced in a cabaret and had his own mini-spot on a local cable channel, a surprising vocation for the product of an Eastern Establishment education, but this was not the old alma mater he assured doubters, but the new, more relevant, more diverse one.  The latter post had been published by an engineer-lawyer who had found the right tools for the job.  Sous vide was the answer not only to grilling but all cooking, he said.  His beef came out perfectly cooked on the inside, and with a little finishing on a hot grill, got the blackened, striped crust that everyone wanted.  His sous vide machine not only did beef but vegetables, seafood, and exotic Asian foodstuffs. 

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There was no cuisine in either of these bookends to Wendy’s posts, no recipes, no real spirit of food or cuisine.

Nevertheless, she persisted, and found that the site would be a good outlet for her many recipes scribbled in notebooks or copied desultorily on her blog.  Her publications were wonderfully eclectic – shrewd was the word a close friend and food critic described them – and drew on her long experience abroad.  She posted recipes for classic Neapolitan dishes with thick, rich tomato sauce, meat, and spices; spicy Thai curries that used only a bit of green or yellow curry paste, but relied more on the whole spices available at an Asian market in Arlington; blended cream sauces from Alto Adige; grainy, substantive, but tasty vegetarian dishes from the 70s; and dishes with fish of all kinds.

Once again, she found herself sandwiched between cupcakes, donuts, and Westwood rainbow sherbet delights on the one side, and workmanlike productions on the other.  Be that as it may, she thought, she would comb through the other posts picking up what she could and, if appropriate, offering her own ideas.  Without being presumptuous or forward, she would suggest a different temperature setting, more or less of certain spices, or even a rethink of incompatible ingredients. 

Surprisingly, at least to her, the replies were far from thankful but snippety, suggesting she should mind her own business, keep her fingers out of their food and her ideas to herself.  What she thought would be a dialogue about cooking, cooking methods, and good taste seemed to be nothing of the kind.  There was no dialogue and no discussion, but only marginally interesting recipes, recommendations for restaurants more suited for Hollywood locations than food, and snide remarks.

It didn’t take long for the site administrator to issue Wendy a warning.  She was being intrusive, disrespectful, and dishonoring the multicultural traditions of her fellow-alumni.  She should let things be, stick to her own dubious recipes, and be done with it.

Needless to say, Wendy was surprised and angered at this intemperate reaction of the administrator, an alumnus like herself but who had somehow let administration go to her head.  How could she not see that Wendy’s remarks were in the spirit of sharing –and debating - experiences of food, wine, and dining.  It was no different than the essence of her privileged education.  Nothing was taken for granted, all ideas were challenged, the only requirement being intelligent commentary.  Feathers were never ruffled in her day, no umbrage taken, no offence given.  What had happened?

Yet, out of respect and some interest, Wendy persisted.  She posted pictures of some of her own favorite dishes and increasingly those that she had found on other sites – dishes that she had never made, but that looked particularly appealing.  As a good cook who cooked by sense, instinct, and experience, pictures of food were enough to set off her creative juices. 

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Again the administrator intervened.  Photographs without recipes were discouraged, especially those taken by someone else of someone else’s food.  The site encouraged personal innovation and enterprise, she said, and any diversion from that operating principle could only erode the integrity of the site.

Wendy of course was nonplussed.  She had thought that the site was a celebration of food, however prepared; and an colloquium for discussing culinary techniques to foster innovation, improvement, and indeed excellence.

For the same reason of intellectual camaraderie, Wendy was equally active on an arts site sponsored by alumni, and she eagerly posted any number of photographs of paintings from her favorite periods of art history – Flemish, late Medieval, and 18th century American – but once again she found her posts sandwiched between others which focused exclusively on political issues.  Museums which had hired black or Latino curators, new exhibitions of American Indian modern art, ‘The Art of the African Diaspora’, and ‘Women of Color – How The Artistic Palette Has Changed For The Better’.  Not only had her posts on Delft, the Pre-Raphaelites, and the prolific Matisse literally disappeared in the wash of diversity, but they were ignored. 

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Wendy, still stinging from her experience on the food site but still not having learned her lesson, commented on some of these sites.  Wouldn’t the juggernaut (she used a more kindly word) of political interests encourage the recognition of museum directors and artists with credentials more socially ‘appropriate’ than artistic? Wouldn’t the rush to exhibit only ‘diversity art’ eventually marginalize and exclude acclaimed artists past and present?  Did ‘Sketchings of Slave Women in Antebellum Georgia’ belong in the Phillips Gallery, a Washington Institution long known for its tribute to Impressionism and Expressionism? Shouldn’t it more rightly belong in the new Museum of African American History as an important socio-cultural artifact of the era of slavery?

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Once again, an administrator as determined and disciplinary as her colleague on the food site, and as committed to the cause of progressivism as any of her alumni, intervened.  Wendy’s comments, she said, referring to her observations on museum history and modern purpose were outdated and irrelevant.  More importantly her insensitive, European valuation of contemporary art, relying on discredited notions of ars gratia artis and not the more relevant standards of race, gender, and ethnicity, were not at all welcome.  If she chose to remain a member of the group, she was to keep her opinions to herself.  Her posts of Rosetti were ‘lovely’ and she should stick to them.

Wendy’s story is unfortunately a morality tale about free speech.  The Internet those not many years ago began as a delightful, overdue, delirious forum for the free and open exchange of ideas.  As the medium matured, there was a site – a hundred sites – for everyone.  Yet, over the years the Internet became more and more controlled.   ‘Offensive’ speech and ideas had to be regulated, for there could be no unpleasantness on social media.  Women, children, and minorities had to be protected.  In short order the Internet became as controlled, surveilled, and watched as a gulag yard from a prison tower.  The progressive agenda had taken deep root, and the roots extended well into cyberspace.  Not only Facebook itself would have to become more responsible for information on its platform, individual administrators would have to take heed.  While the unspoken rules dealt with offenses of race, gender, and ethnicity, administrators were free to expand the mandate.  If control of the Internet was now a given, then they had every right to dictate and enforce their own arbitrary rules.

And so Wendy was caught in the media thresher.

Will free, unfettered, unapologetic speech ever return to the Internet and to American society?  When will Americans stop being afraid of their shadow, easily melted snowflakes, unsure, fragile citizens?  Not any time soon; and so Wendy’s tale should be instructional.

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