Friday, June 28, 2013

The Perils of Paula Deen

I had hardly any idea who Paula Deen was until this recent storm broke.  The first I heard of her was when she revealed she has Type 2 Diabetes, which won her some criticism because of the fatty, sugary, unhealthy recipes she promotes; but it barely registered.

That's one of the pluses of not watching TV or following TV culture; the negative to it is that when someone puts me in front of a TV, I can't believe what I'm seeing -- it's like news from another planet or a really alien society here on earth, though less interesting.  When I was visiting a friend last week, he had The People's Court on, followed by an hour -- though it seemed longer -- of Spongebob Squarepants, which I'd never seen before either and which seems to me unfit for children.  Or for adults.  The main thing I noticed was that almost all the commercials in that time block were for physical-injury liability lawyers and paycheck-advance companies.  It told me a lot about the state of the American economy.  But back to Paula Deen, tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely Whiplash, and the PC Train is bearing down on her.

So I had a twinge of recognition when I heard Paula Deen's name being blazoned on the Intertoobz, along with the "N-word."  Not the word itself, you understand, the euphemism.  I still didn't care, but then Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a very good blog post about the controversy.  Coates is one of the best writers about race in America, and he's become one of my prime daily reads.  His commenters add a lot, and it helps that the comments are heavily moderated, by Coates himself and a couple of volunteers.  He wrote about Deen:
I confess myself refreshed to hear Paula Deen respond "Yes, of course," when asked if she used the word "nigger." We have conditioned ourselves with a kind of magic to believe that racism is a matter of kindness and prohibitive vocabulary -- as though a hatred of women can be reduced the use of the word "bitch." But what does a country which tolerates the terrorism of Southwest, Georgia expect? What does a country whose left wing's greatest policy achievement was made possible by an embrace of white supremacy really believe will happen to children raised in such times? What do we expect in a country where many find it entirely appropriate to wear the battle-flag of the republic of slavery?
He also quoted from a New York Daily News story which made it clear that Deen hadn't just used the "N-word."
Deen, talking at an event months before losing her job for using the "N-word," recounted how her great-grandfather was driven to suicide after his 30 slaves were set free.

"Between the death of his son and losing all the workers, he went out into his barn and shot himself because he couldn't deal with those kind of changes," Deen said at a New York Times event. Deen, owner of a restaurant empire, asserted the owner-slave relationship was more kinship than cruelty. 

"Back then, black folk were such an integral part of our lives," said Deen. "They were like our family, and for that reason we didn't see ourselves as prejudiced." 

She also called up an employee to join her onstage, noting that Hollis Johnson was "as black as this board" -- pointing to the dark backdrop behind her. "We can't see you standing in front of that dark board!" Deen quipped, drawing laughter from the audience. 

At the same event, Deen at one point described race relations in the South as "pretty good." "We're all prejudiced against one thing or another," she added. "I think black people feel the same prejudice that white people feel."
As Coates commented, "Here is everything from Civil War hokum to black friend apologia to blatant racism. And people at a New York Times event are laughing along with it."  And in comments to his blog post, some readers took it upon themselves to defend Deen: she's an old Southern lady, she grew up in different times, she doesn't mean any harm, she's not a racist, and anyway, she was raised to be racist, so it's not fair to pick on her.

I'm four years younger than Paula Deen, I grew up in the all-white Indiana countryside, and I don't see that her age is any excuse.  (Curious, now I think of it: the people who use that excuse for celebrities or themselves are generally the first to jeer if someone blames crime on poverty and deprivation: whatever happened to taking responsibility?  But they themselves are imprisoned by their upbringing and Society, it's not their fault, nothing is their fault.)  My parents weren't notably political, and while they would not have tolerated my brothers or me using racial epithets, they weren't very enlightened about race.  I was talking about this with another lifelong Hoosier last night, who's just about Paula Deen's age herself, and we were both wondering why we had reacted so differently to the Civil Rights movement, compared to our peers.  I speculated that one reason my parents never spoke disparagingly about blacks was that there weren't any in our vicinity.

In any case, I am an old white man who grew up in even more racist times in a state that has a long nasty heritage of white racism, including years during my parents' lifetime when the state was run by the Ku Klux Klan.  The area where I now live was a Klan stronghold, and still is to this day.  Yet I sided with the Civil Rights movement from the beginning.  Deen, a few years older, could have done the same, then or since, especially if she grew up knowing black people.  If she cared about them as much as she claims, if she saw them as family, she could have wondered why they were organizing for their rights; she could have sided with them.  She chose instead to stick with her white Southern racist heritage.  And yes, that is a lifestyle choice.

As I expected, a lot of my Facebook friends from high school are furious that Paula was fired by the Food Network.  One of them posted a close paraphrase of Deen's remark, quoted above, that "they" say the same thing about "us" that "we" say about "them."  Whether he was unconsciously quoting her or they were both plugged into the same collective unconscious, I don't know, but I don't say such things about "them," so don't include me in that "we."  One circulating meme complains that she was fired for something she did once, twenty years ago; which shows that they are not paying attention.  As the stuff I quoted above shows, it's about a lot more than that.  Another calls for boycotting the Food Network until they bring Paula back.  Today there were old white people quoting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to the effect that there are more serious things to worry about than Paula Deen's racism.

Should the Food Network have dropped her?  Or all the other sponsors who're bolting like rats deserting a sinking ship?  I don't know.  A lot of people forget that no one has a First Amendment right to have a television show on any given network.  The First Amendment right in that instance belongs to the network, not to its employees.  I've already spent more time on Paula Deen than she deserves, and I doubt very much she'll ever miss a meal.  To some extent it's true that Deen is a scapegoat; as Coates says, she's part of a larger pattern that includes her sponsors and much of the country.  I don't know if I would have fired her, but what gets me is the people who don't just defend her right to have her views, they defend the views themselves.  I could be persuaded that there are graver problems facing African-Americans today than the malign stupidity of Paula Deen, but I know the people who are defending her, and they don't care about those graver problems either.  The problem with Deen is that she is typical of many older white Americans, who wish the past sixty years had never happened.  Individually it's easy to see them as dinosaurs, dying off rapidly; but collectively they are a large part of the racial problem in this country.