Everybody’s a Critic

Actor-writer-director Jon Favreau has a warm and wonderful new movie called Chef, in which Favreau plays a renowned cook who leaves his prized position at a swanky Los Angeles eatery and dips his toe into the food truck industry.

The hinge event that causes this sort-of career shift is the result of a bad review.

After a popular local food blogger pans the restaurant’s latest roster of courses, Favreau bitterly lures him back to give him a piece of his mind, which swiftly takes the form of a full-blown meltdown.  How unfair, he protests, that he should passionately and lovingly devote his life to achieving culinary greatness, while this wretched, lazy little puke does nothing but stuff his face and scribble snarky putdowns on the web and call himself a foodie.  Who does he think he is?

While this tantrum is ostensibly at Favreau’s expense—both for those in the room and for us in the audience—the chef nonetheless earns our sympathy, as we acknowledge the basic truth in what he says.  Lording over the kitchen of a great restaurant is a backbreaking job, requiring tireless dedication, creativity and raw skill.  Blogging, meanwhile, requires little more than an Internet connection, a thesaurus and a little too much spare time.  (Cough cough.)

Very few of us could ever hope to be a halfway decent chef.  But anybody can be a critic.

The French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously asserted, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie.”  This is the attitude toward the art of criticism (if it can be called an art) that seems the most just and ideal.

While it is certainly possible to be a great art critic without being an artist yourself, those who have actually immersed themselves in the subject at hand possess a particular wisdom, and warrant a particular respect, that the armchair quarterbacks of the world do not.  In the spirit of the famous axiom that the only true way to learn how to do something is by doing it, there is no finer means of tearing something down than by building something up in its place.

In politics (as we move from the sacred to the profane), our elected representatives would be well-advised to take this truth to heart.

In Washington, D.C., under the Obama administration, the GOP has assumed the role of the “Party of No.”  Whenever President Obama or Democrats in Congress propose some major piece of legislation, Republicans oppose it almost as a reflex—as if the mere fact of Obama’s support axiomatically calls for Republican dissent.

While it is to be expected that America’s two major parties would disagree about the big issues of the day—indeed, that’s sort of the point—today’s GOP is distinctive for its tendency to meet ideas not with other ideas, but rather with nothing at all.  Be it on health care, immigration, gun control, Syria, Ukraine—and on and on and on—the Republican leadership’s view is “Obama is doing it wrong, and never mind how we would do it right.”

Obviously, this is not the case on every last issue, and there have been lonely efforts by individual senators and congresspersons to craft alternative approaches to things like the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform and all the rest.  But these proposals have all been dead-on-arrival upon reaching the House or Senate floor, vetoed by the likes of Speaker John Boehner or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who seem to have very little interest in actually solving problems.

The reason this should be a cause for our concern is that the GOP is scheduled to assume control of the Senate in November’s midterm elections, meaning the party will take on far more responsibility in actually proposing, debating and passing laws.  At that point, Republicans will cease being mere critics and start being active participants in the democratic process.  Are they prepared for this eventuality?  For the sake of the republic, let us hope so.

From the moment he assumed the presidency, Barack Obama (and his supporters) rather woundingly learned of certain key differences between campaigning for president and actually being president.  Namely, that the latter is considerably more difficult than the former.

It’s easy enough to stand at a podium and bitch about all that’s wrong with the world and how wonderful things would be if you were in charge.  But holding the keys to the Oval Office and assuming personal responsibility for all actions taken in the name of the United States?  Well, it gives you a far greater appreciation for the challenges of governance than does reading about them in a newspaper or from watching cable news.

Much in the same way that knowing how to prepare a molten chocolate cake yields more wisdom about food than merely eating it ever could.


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