Monday, December 22, 2014

Paula Deen’s backlash, career implosion just a stone’s throw away from all of us


Hey, y’all. It’s time to answer for our sins.

Southern-fried celebrity chef Paula Deen has been in the pressure cooker for the past couple of weeks after it was revealed that the Food Network TV host admitted to past use of the N-word and to telling what could be perceived as racist jokes. Reaction to the not-so-shocking news that a 60-something Georgia native would have, at some point in her life, used a racial epithet was swift.

Outrage, vitriol and condemnation fell into Deen’s crockpot.

She lost her TV show. Business partners Kmart, Sears, Target and Walmart rushed to “phase out” her wares in their stores. Caesars quickly announced it would close Deen’s restaurants. QVC put its association with her on “pause.” Smithfield Foods dropped her line of hams.

For Deen, there apparently is no empathy; no second chances; no redemption.

In her televised apology this week on the “Today” show — which few seemed to have accepted — a tearful, but defensive Deen pleaded for understanding.

“ ... I tell you what, if there’s anyone out there that has never said somethin’ that they wish they could take back, if you’re out there, please pick up that stone and throw it so hard at my head that it kills me,” she said. “ ... I is what I is and I’m not changin’.”

The butter-lovin’ food maven found support in one unexpected place — from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a man typically leading the finger wagging charge against people like Deen. After speaking with her, Jackson defended Deen — though not her comments, which admittedly are unacceptable in today’s society — and told the Associated Press “she should be reclaimed rather than destroyed.”

For his limited support, Jackson earned the ire of the hateful masses who called him “an old a-- house n-----” and a sell out, even going so far as to say Jackson should have been shot in the head instead of Martin Luther King Jr. (Jackson was present for King’s 1968 assassination.)

Why the profound hate and outrage?

Earlier this week, a Democratic lawmaker, Minnesota Rep. Ryan Winkler, fired off a racist comment that got little notice or anguish from the media, angry mobs and social media trolls. Winkler, who is white, criticized U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who is black, calling him “Uncle Thomas” following his role in the 5-4 majority vote Tuesday that invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act, legislation engineered in 1965 to help stop racial discrimination at polling places.

Winkler tweeted: “#SCOTUS VRA majority is four accomplices to race discrimination and one Uncle Thomas. ... ”

The Minneapolis-area legislator feigned ignorance of the historical and racial significance of the “Uncle Thomas” label, and said he didn’t mean to offend anyone with its use.

“‘Uncle Tom’ is a derogatory term used to describe ‘a black who is overeager to win the approval of whites (as by obsequious behavior or uncritical acceptance of white values and goals),’ which is exactly how it’s being used here by Winkler,” New York Magazine reported.

And yet reaction to Winkler’s comment was muted and virtually non-existent. What’s the difference between he and Deen?

Simply put, the oft-mocked celebrity chef is a big, easy target. Winkler is a virtual nobody (plus he was attacking a Republican). Media elites and pop culture opinion makers already despised Deen for the unhealthful foods that made her famous, as well as her association with (now former) business partner Smithfield Foods, a factory farm operation that frequently is criticized for its environmental and animal welfare conditions.

Regardless of the reason for singling out Deen, retroactively punishing her for something she said years ago sets a dangerous precedent.

As the embattled former TV host paraphrased, the Bible, in John 8:7, reminds its readers, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

How many of us honestly can say we’ve never said anything racist or that could be perceived as racist? Or, for that matter, anything that could be seen by someone, somewhere as offensive? (Before you answer, remember that the government now is reading and recording, as well as cataloging for future reference, your emails, online and social media activity, and probably soon will be reading your text messages, listening to your phone calls and keeping tabs on you in other ways ... like encouraging people to tattle on their friends, neighbors and family members.)

How many of us would have our lives destroyed if the same standards applied to Deen were applied to us? If we weren’t allowed to make mistakes? If we never could escape the past or even a stupid comment made in the present?

While the next victim of this kind of reactionary condemnation could be any one of us, it’s not difficult to imagine the most likely candidates. Given our society’s tendency to build up and then tear down people in the public eye and pop culture, the conservative family members depicted on A&E’s “Duck Dynasty” probably should watch their backs. (Media darlings like liberal actor and activist Alec Baldwin, who on Thursday released a homophobic rant on Twitter about a “toxic little queen” reporter from the Daily Mail, and who was accused in February of calling a cameraman racial slurs, a “crackhead” and a “drug dealer”, however, typically get a pass and needn’t be worried.)

The Robertsons, of “Duck Dynasty” fame, now are riding high with solid ratings and widespread popularity, but if one of them utters the “wrong” message about their Christian faith or makes a controversial comment about homosexuals or maybe even race, the gatekeepers of public outrage will turn their eyes toward the Louisiana headquarters of Duck Commander.

Like Deen, they’ll lose their show. Their partnerships with companies like Walmart, Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s will come to a screeching halt. They’ll lose the business that brought them notoriety.

And the rest of us will carry on with our lives, pretending we’re perfect and without sin.

One wonders if there will be enough stones for all of us.

— Tommy Felts,

managing editor

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