Friday, June 28, 2013

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Paula Deen, Paula Deen

One of my liberal friends passed along a meme on Facebook which exulted over the sponsors Paula Deen has lost, and declared that the meme-maker wanted Deen to lose everything.  Here I must draw the line.  What kind of thing is that to wish on anybody?  In the same way, as I've said before, the US of America has a lot of blood on its hands, but I don't want it to be invaded and devastated for its crimes -- I want all countries to stop committing these crimes. Whatever power comes along that is capable of reducing the US to rubble is not likely to stop with us, or to have begun with us.  And you don't have to tell me that it isn't going to happen, I know that very well, but this is what I advocate anyway.  So I want Paula Deen to stop being racist, even to recognize why she's being criticized.  I know that won't happen either.  If I'm going to fantasize, I prefer to fantasize about good outcomes.

Yesterday I noted that Deen had gotten some rather backhanded support from the Reverend Jesse Jackson.  He said that she can be "redeemed."
Jackson says if Deen is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes, "she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed."
Now that I look at that post more closely, this doens't look like such a positive remark.  Jackson said "if Deen is willing to acknowledge mistakes and make changes"; that's a big "if."  Besides, I presume, given her background, that Deen is already redeemed, saved, bought and sealed, washed in the Blood of the Lamb.  That only shows how little "redemption" in that sense is worth.  Anyone can begin learning, and can change, at any point in their life.  People who are in a position to talk to Paula Deen should try to get her to listen to and learn from the voices and examples of people -- many of them her age or older -- who risked (and some cases gave) their lives to change the society that produced her.

It also produced them, remember.  When Ta-Nehisi Coates was dissecting Brad Paisley's "Accidental Racist" debacle a few months ago, he made a helpful and positive suggestion.
Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King's birthday, to celebrate a Southerner's contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner's Light In August, and celebrate the South's immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.

Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.
This led to an interesting exchange in the comments, which spilled into the discussion of a succeeding post.  After a number of commenters had responded to the piece with devastating wit like "Ah, so Paisley has to pass some type of racial bar exam before he's allow to argue before the court of public opinion?", one asked:
... if I'm upper middle class white and suburban how much reading and studying must I do so that TNC will talk to me without getting ticked off at my ignorance? What's the motivation for taking on the work of being allowed to engage?
Coates replied:
I don't think you understand. The reason to try learn all of this is not to keep me from being "ticked off" at you. And your motivation should not be that I will smile, pat you on the head, and give you a cookie. My alleged anger at you is wholly irrelevant to your pressing desire to understand the history of racism in this country. The last part of that sentence is the only thing in the world matters. Your curiosity is its own blessing. And your ignorance is your own burden ...

Either you want to know--for your own sake--or you do not. Much of what I know about the history of racism I learned from white guys, who'd studied and read and written books. I've talked about their work, with some regularity, right here. Your ignorance has nothing to do with who you are, and everything to do with what you are willing to actually do. If I am not willing to do anything, I generally try to avoid talking like I am.
It's highly significant, I think, that the commenter thought, or wrote as if he thought, that it was all about him getting Coates's approval, or not getting it.  This notion turns up frequently in public discussion of race (but also of sex/gender and sexual orientation): with greater or lesser degrees of explicitness, the white / male / heterosexual sneers: Oh, don't I meet your high standards of Political Correctness?  The real trouble is that the black / female / gay adversary (everything is sports, remember) doesn't meet the former's standards of Political Correctness, or simply that she is insubordinate.  (This can be seen especially when men say that they'll help with the housework, they just don't want to be given a list of things to do: they want to decide how much or how little they'll help.)

It appears, however, that Deen is taking a different, depressingly familiar approach.  She "has called in crisis manager Judy Smith to help her get her empire back in order."
Smith, the muse behind ABC's 'Scandal,' has worked behind the scenes helping calm the international hysteria over the SARS pandemic; advising Kobe Bryant and Michael Vick during their run-ins with the law; and shaping the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's reputation following the 9/11 attacks.

In an interview with Washingtonian magazine last year, Smith described her biggest takeaway about human nature from her encounters with people at some of their lowest points in life: "I like to believe in the good in people. But we're all going to screw up from time to time," she said.
If only Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden had hired Judy Smith!  They too might have been "redeemed."  I'm not saying that Deen is as bad as they were, but notice that Smith has also worked to improve the image of the repressive, brutal Islamist kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  So Saudi Arabia imprisons women for driving a car, and executes sodomites? (Not since 2002, apparently, to be fair.  Just flogging and imprisonment nowadays.)  Well, we all screw up from time to time.  Deen's a media celebrity, so it's not surprising that she's concerned with appearances.  They're so much easier to manipulate and change than actual behavior.

Moral philosophers have been trying for millennia to decide whether the criterion for goodness is being a good person, whether rightness inheres in actions, or whether rightness lies in the consequences of our actions.  I think all of these are involved, though not equally all the time, and no one of them determines what is good or right.  That Paula Deen can apparently see only the suffering of her great-grandfather when his slaves were emancipated, and can't see at all the suffering of the slaves themselves, indicates that she's not a good person.  She should try to empathize with those slaves and their descendants who have suffered from white racism because it's the right thing to do.  It will also have good consequences, by helping to diminish the amount of suffering from racism in the world.  It might not be totally irrelevant that many people will give her approval for doing so, though many other people will disapprove; other factors are decisive.