I Don’t Like Paula Deen but I’ll Defend Her

The need for cultural-historical perspective

We seem largely unable to judge people by the times and the societies in which they lived. Yet we can be quite oblivious to our own sins. We see very clearly what are admittedly beams, not mere motes, in the eyes of those of other times and places, but we don’t even get a glimpse of the beams in our own. This is an element of hypocrisy. You smell everyone but yourself.  It is not a new thing, but it is a most unfortunate one.

Paula Deen is the sort of Southern woman I just don’t like.  She is just too…too loud, too pushy, too expecting of others to be entertained by what entertains her – which is herself.

I don’t like her cooking either. It, too, is just too…too rich, too sweet, too much. She has been criticized as a hypocrite since it was discovered that while doing her cooking show on the Food Network, she was also a Type 2 diabetic and representing a drug company that makes a diabetes drug. But I don’t see the inconsistency. She cooked what she had always cooked, and no one, including herself, was forced to eat her cooking. Moreover, it is undeniable that the three things that make food taste good are what she was criticized for – fat, salt, and sugar. Try some butter beans boiled in water and and some butter beans boiled in water with salt and bacon and tell me which tastes better. Which orange would you prefer – the nearly tasteless pulp or the sweet one? What would a biscuit be without shortening and buttermilk?  Grits without butter and salt? Do you really think baked chicken is better tasting than fried? What I don’t like about Paula’s cooking is not the inclusion of these things that make food taste good, but the over-the-top nature of her cooking, a reflection of her personality.

Now, however, Paula is in the really deep weeds. She may not have a club in her bag that can get her out and back on the fairway. In a court deposition, she admitted that she has used the N-word, though she does not believe she should have and she now sees the error of her ways. She has been cut loose by the Food Network, Walmart, Target, Caesar’s entertainment, and now even by Nova Dordisk, the drug company. Her “brand” has taken a hit from which it may not recover. She will be fine financially, of course, but her empire is going, going, almost gone.

She has made the necessary apologies. In fact these have also been too… too emotional (tears and quivering lips), too syrupy (“I really do love everybody, y’all”), and too politically correct (in her heart she  embraces not only all races but all sexual orientations).  Yet, despite the multiple appearances and apologies, there are a great many who are unwilling to forgive her or, or, if they forgive her, to let her move on. The least she may get by with is a trip to a re-education camp, otherwise known as senstivity training.

She is guilty of one of the today’s unforgiveable sins. You can’t have used the N-word, no matter how long ago, no matter how wrong you now see it was, no matter how sorry you are, no matter how resolved you are not to use it in the future. Now, you can say out loud the whole F-word, but even if you report the use of the N-word  by someone else, you better stop at the N and whisper even the N.  You can talk about almost subject using any vocabulary you wish, but you better not let the N-word slip.

This is not quite a universal rule. You may rap using the b-word and h-word, and about raping women and killing cops. You can even use the N-word. These will be excused because they are your cultural expressions. But not if you are Paula Deen.

Paula Deen was born in 1947, the same year as I. Now, I would ask just how many white Southerners have not ever used the N-word? How many Southerners of that era of any race have not used the word?

We suffer from a lack of historical and cultural perspective.  We seem largely unable  to judge people by the times and the societies in which they lived. Yet we can be quite oblivious to our own sins. We see very clearly what are admittedly beams, not mere motes, in the eyes of those of other times and places, but we don’t even get a glimpse of the beams in our own. This is an element of hypocrisy. You smell everyone but yourself.  It is not a new thing, but it is a most unfortunate one. It seems impossible to admit that things in the past were wrong, that we are glad things done in the past are no longer happening, unless we are also willing to renounce the whole of a historical and cultural heritage.

Think about the Old Testament saints and their wives. It’s true that polygamy is contrary to marriage as God ordained it at creation. It is also true that, while retaining a redemptive-historical approach to the texts, we may find illustrations from the lives of the saints of problems associated with polygamy. But  the fact is that these men were creatures of their times and cultures; despite their failings they are still saints; and they remain in that cloud of witnesses watching how we will run the race in our time and place.

Lately, a reader, who did not like my saying that Roy Costner, IV, should not have used his valedictory address to say the Lord’s Prayer, has thought he was scoring points by bringing up the case of Calvin and Servetus and wondering how I could oppose Costner’s act, while not condemning Calvin (a case of apples and oranges if ever I saw one). The reader lacks historical-cultural perspective. It was generally understood in the 16th century Europe that the state had a responsibility to uphold the Christian religion and to suppress heresy. Servetus was a heretic of the most serious sort. He denied the truth of the Trinity. Calvin did consent to his execution.  

Most of us today can see that Council and Calvin were wrong. I am very glad that, despite the problems of pluralism, we live in pluralistic society where people are not put to death for beliefs. But, it is wrong to judge Calvin and Geneva by what now seems to so obvious to all of western Christians except maybe theonomists.  In Calvin’s time the question was, “Who’s the heretic?”, not, “Should heretics be executed?” Of course, Calvin thought a heretic like Servetus should be executed. It is impossible to imagine Calvin standing up to the Council and saying, “Yes, Servetus is wrong, but he has a right to be wrong. We must uphold religious liberty! And, by the way, no taxation without representation. And give me liberty or put me to death with Servetus.”

We come, then, to the case of Paula Deen. She sees what most Southerners have come to see. The use of the N-word cannot be tolerated (not even when used by rappers, I think). It is an ugly word. When used in a derogatory manner, and one is hard pressed to think of an exception when it is not derogatory, it is a modern equivalent of “raca” or “you worthless person.” I said that to white congregations 40 years ago. (I have noted this before, but I wonder how many younger ministers, who today so glibly speak of racial reconciliation and who are so ready to apologize for the sins of past generations, would have been willing to stick their necks out as did an earlier generation. I wonder how many of them would have stood up and walked out of an office of a person who described a woman as a white N-word.)

I cringe when I remember a day when my father came upon a car that was broken down and gave the driver a push around a median strip to go in the opposite direction to a service station. This maneuver required an approaching vehicle to come to a stop. When the driver was able to proceed and came opposite us, he stuck his head out his window and angrily said to my father, “Mr., don’t ever do that, especially for a N.”  But the story is not so simple as good and bad. My father would have done that for anyone. That is the kind of man he was. But he also used that word. He was a man of his times. As am I.  As are you, dear reader, no matter your age or cultural background.

It is a lack of historical-cultural perspective as well as, on the parts of many, a heavy dose of hypocrisy that makes it so hard to cut Paula Deen any slack. She is, in fact, a 65 year old white Southern woman. To expect that she would have never used the word is to expect the almost impossible given her time and place.

Which brings me to related point of irritation. It seems that, even if one had never used the N-word, it would be impossible to be Southerner who honors his heritage and not be considered ipso facto a racist. You can grant that much associated with slavery as practiced in the South was evil. You can rejoice not only that those evils are ended but that the institution of slavery no longer exists in the west in any form. You can believe in equal rights under the law for all. You can denounce racism. You can defend the right to interracial marriage. Still you might be a racist…

…if you believe the Southern states that voluntarily entered the Union had a right to leave upon reasons deemed sufficient by them.

…if you take some of your ideals of what it means to be a Christian gentleman from Robert E. Lee.

…if you find in Stonewall Jackson an example of manly courage.

…if you have been moved nearly to tears in Lee Chapel and at the cemetery in Lexington, VA.

…if  you think Elvis should have made up his mind to sing Dixie or the Battle Hymn but not both mixed with Hush Little Baby.

…if  you are proud of your great-great grandfather, Francisco Moreno, who lost four sons in service to the Conferderacy and whose son-in-law was the CSA’s Secretary of the Navy, and who after the War had buried in the family plot at St. Michael’s a Yankee Captain whom on one would claim.

I have discovered my kids can be a little less than tolerarant about un-enlightened aspects of myself. But I take a degree of comfort, if not satisfaction, in knowing that the day will come when their kids will think similar things about them. How do I know that? Because I know how I sometimes thought about my father. It took me almost this long to get perspective on my Dad as man of a certain time and place. And I have become him. Much as I cringed sometimes at his sense of humor I find him making the same jokes now through my mouth.

I still don’t care for Paula Deen. But, Rick and Bubba, if you will, pass the gravy please.

Bill Smith is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church of America. He is a writer and contributor to a number of Reformed journals and resides in Jackson, MS. This article first appeared at his blog, The Christian Curmudgeon, and is used with his permission.

7ads6x98y