Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Nightmare Fuel of Naomi Wolf's Hilariously Ruined Book

You may have heard the Naomi Wolf news. She's written a book based on research that took her through a slew of archival material, concentrating on one single phrase that seemed quite clear in its meaning, but which turned out to mean the opposite thing. The entire enterprise turned out to have been for naught, and she only learned this while on the air during a radio show shortly before the book release.

She handled it as gracefully as one could, but every writer hearing about this died a tiny bit. I lost a toenail and eleven eyebrow hairs, plus I need to check in with my islets of Langerhans.

Here's the news story
Here's a short Twitter thread about this by historian John Schindler.

Wolf seems like a Keystone Cop; an incompetent asshole who met her righteous come-uppance. Hilarious!

But not to me. There, but for the grace of plod, goes me.

I spent two years working on my smart phone app Eat Everywhere. It contains virtually everything I know about practically every cuisine on Earth (plus the knowledge of a phalanx of smart colleagues). Not just dish names and categories, but cultural background and savvy know-how accumulated over the course of decades of promiscuous eating.

I fact-checked nearly every damned statement in ever-increasing panic, hoping that ethnic Brazilians and Ethiopians and Russians - who'd surely look up their family's home cuisine first - would say "Man, these guys really get it!", and trust us deeply on less familiar stuff (while some fantasize about sex or power, this is my fantasy: being corroborated and trusted). I knew that if we’d messed up some Italian pasta shape or Thai curry, hordes of food weenies stood ready to pounce - to pronounce the work lightweight bullshit (I have some experience with snark).

My panic was "ever-increasing" because something horrible was happening: it was revealed to me, drip-by-drip, that 5% of my food knowledge was comically, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong.

Most awfully, a half dozen dishes I knew like the back of my hand turned out not to actually exist. And they were some of my favorites! I'd found each in some immigrant restaurant that had, it seems, capriciously dreamed it up, and I'd enjoyed it - often for years - presuming it authentic, and adding it to the underlying basis of my food knowledge.

I spent tens of hours trying to track down these nonexistent dishes, assuming I'd gotten the spelling wrong, or that they were from obscure parts of the region, or that they'd lost popularity (a few bona fide dishes I ate in my 20s have indeed begun to disappear, Pakistani aloo bujia being one example, and Haitian fufu another; only old people remember them). I grilled natives, raked through menus....had a hard time letting go. Some of these non-dishes may be rolling around in my brain still. I'm pretty sure I filtered them out of the app, but it was often too late. Several had popped up in my professional work. Some food expert I am.

I'm not a food historian. I'm actually dubious of the phrase, because there's no central motherlode of scholarship in which to school oneself. Given the immense variation and cross-pollination, and the moment-by-moment evolution, there's no solid "there" there, so one has no choice but to learn empirically. And, while empirical knowledge may be useful, it is inevitably 5% comically, stupidly, embarrassingly wrong - higher if you’re not very careful. 

Those two years were a horror of discovering how hacked-together and patchy and dubious my knowledge is. Maybe I'd done it all wrong! I wrote last week that...
There are two schools of food writers covering world cuisines. The first are like gringo anthropologists, poking and prodding. They are fixed points while the restaurants revolve around them. The second school is the one I subscribe to: the mergers. We eat Moroccan like Moroccans, Peruvian like Peruvians. The culture du jour is the fixed point, and we do the revolving, feeling at home everywhere thanks to malleable cultural stem cells, paisonified even when we look nothing like the rest of the crowd.
Perhaps I'd have done better to choose the other way, pumping waiters for fritter ingredients, taking Aspergian notes on the soups, and treating this less like delirious cultural surfing and more like the dry dissection of moths or tadpoles. Less immersion, more taxonomy.

But the gringo anthropologists make plenty of errors, too, and they're worse ones - viral bits of inaccuracy endlessly passed on. The well's been poisoned by shoddy conventional wisdom, and only peripatetic Lone Ranger types have an independent enough perspective to recognize the contaminants. But, alas, we generate new wrongness of our own.

To most people, Wolf's a laughingstock. But if you're not cautiously trafficking in accepted convention (and even that won't ensure accuracy, but merely cover your ass when you do inevitably err), your fresh, original observations and conclusions place you in grave danger. You're out there without a safety net. This is why people rarely stick their neck out. There's a deep fear, and it's not unreasonable.

This Slog, for example, is a lumpy bag of mostly fresh observations and conclusions. I sometimes wake up in night sweats, questioning the entire enterprise. What if I'm some kookie ditz willfully spraying banality and nonsense into a void, having convinced himself I’m clear-eyed and insightful? I live in terror of hitting the "publish" button, because I know I'm capable of putting something obviously, flagrantly stooooopid out there. I'm always waiting for someone to kindly tap my shoulder and say "Um, Jim, I'm really sorry but that's just absolutely flat wrong". It hasn't happened more than a few times here, but the potential's always present. One can quintuple check oneself, but assumptions inevitably become firmament, and it's impossible to accomplish anything worthwhile if you're constantly and endlessly rechecking firmament.

Oooof. Just horrible. It's total nightmare fuel.

No comments:

Blog Archive