Puzzling through Paula Deen, what witch hunts are, and what to think

I have to admit, I have always found Paula Deen puzzling, long before any of the various and sundry shitstorms happened. First, I am not sure why anybody would eat a doughnut burger. I’m far from prissy about food or health, and it just sounds disgusting. But I have to say, I’ve watched the various hatred directed at her over the years, and while I find defending her odd, I do have to wonder at the ire, for multiple reasons. The ire directed at her happened long before she admitted to using racial slurs, and it just makes me wonder how much of the ire is legitimate and how much of it is plain and simply the same sort of knee-jerk dislike of a woman representing a politically unpopular world in the public sphere, not unlike the various takedowns of Sarah Palin.

Ok, I realize that was hard to swallow. But wait for it.

1. I do not understand the outrage directed at her for not disclosing her diabetes, even if she had the disease for awhile. The logic appears to be that she because she cooks fattening food, she pushes a ‘lifestyle’ that promotes diabetes, so she should own up to the risks of it, and so she should have disclosed for the world theā€¦.what? Just punishment from God for her ‘sin’ of cooking fattening food on tv? We have no idea what she actually eats and what she doesn’t. Do you think RuPaul spends all his time* lolling around in stilettos and feather boas saying “Sashay Away?” Or that Michael C. Hall actually spends his free time as a serial killer who kills serial killers? She was a food network personality. Trust me, my husband loved the Food Network when we had cable, and there is no absences of sugar, salt, and fat shown in a huge variety of shows having nothing to do with Paula Deen–Diners, Drive-ins and Dives strikes me as particularly guilty.

Anthony Bourdain’s condemnation of her as ‘greedy’ after her big diabetes revelation strikes me as particularly noisome. I doubt this guy is turning down any raises, bonuses, and franchise deals that are coming HIS way, and–puhlease–if she is emblematic of the south, that guy is emblematic of a particular type of extremely privileged western male–the type who thinks world travel is virtue because of its educational qualities. Yet, the food he highlights is hardly diet-conscious food, and the approach (like much of this world travel biz) takes on a leering, othering quality. See this little write-up from Esquire about him eating a “crayfish the size of a small dog.” Yeah, that’s portion control and a good role model for you. What’s not to like about seeing people of color around the world serving a white guy who will be able to consume more of their food at one sitting than many of their countrymen will see in weeks? It’s super-awesome when they all sit together, showing how beloved this white man is among them.

What is the real difference between them? I’m befuddled. What I have is that she is both a) female and b) representative of a demographic that much of the mainstream US has come to loathe–white southerners–and he has a penis and European-sounding name and is the darling of world-traveler wannabes (a more affluent demographic and lifestyle), so he’s all good. She’s ‘greedy’ and bad for not disclosing a health problem in her private life because we’re entitled to knowing all there is know about her body. He used her ‘diabetes scandal’ to cut in on the media attention that was going to her in a cynical (but shrewd) celebrity business maneuver with his comments about her greed. And it’s not called out because he’s viewed as her social superior. They both benefit from it, and so do their various sponsors, but it irks me to watch them trade on cultural tropes while the rest of us play in.

2. I did not understand the “ha-ha, it’s funny/right that she has diabetes, serves her right” comments I saw from normally kind people. Again, we have no idea what she actually ate, or how much she exercised or not, and in reality, since when it is morally acceptable to exult when somebody else is going to suffer even if they played a role in their own suffering? I am highly dubious of the idea that Paula Deen gave diabetes to other people with her tv show. If she’s guilty, then so is the patron saint of butter and foodies, Julia Child.

Republicans are always citing desert as a social justice condition–they are, I’d argue, nearly obsessed with it, but most lefties reject the idea in a Rawlsian way (i.e. most outcomes, from talents to character to family, are largely matters of happenstance, not virtue), but BOY–NOT when it came to Paul Deen. When it came to this disease and the possibility of her suffering, these same people were like Calvinist ministers rebuking sin or a Tea Party mama pointing to a food stamps recipient on meth. If Rawls is right, then we don’t get to do stuff like that, even when it’s really tempting to cite behavior and ideas we deplore as something freely chosen and instrumental to downfall. Serves her right for not having a tv show that highlighted locavore vegans living properly!! Hmph!

3. I understand the outrage directed at her over her admission that she used racial slurs. And I understand (I think) enough about the contemporary celebrity media to understand the outcomes. Celebrity news is rather unfortunately with us to stay; it’s cheap to get and it sells. I’m somewhat worried about it, as I think it’s a distraction from real issues in the public sphere that displaces real political coverage and news. So if you think about her admission about a racial slurs she made years ago similarly to Tom Cruise’s comments about depression, you rather can see the cycle works: there is an initial disclosure, then a flurry of commentary, then there is another news hook (her apology) followed by more judging commentary–in this case, a lot of commentary about the South and what it is and how she represents this or that about it. Then her new book sells like crazy.

But this news cycle and her subsequent book sales never let us actually talk about it or come to any closure with it. For all the histrionics directed at her and the south, many of us heard those words in our houses growing up. Our parents were more than just racists or avatars of the South. They were real people, capable of loving and living and being parents and doing their jobs, who still used racist words and view the world with a lens of racism. This isn’t hipster racism (I’m still struggling with what this term means), but it’s no less timely because it’s not like it went anywhere. In the cycle of disclosure, outrage at her disclosure about the use of racial slurs years ago, and subsequent ire, we have a simulacrum of a disciplining and punishing bad behavior in which the subject is actually rewarded financially for the disclosure and public shaming. And those of us who don’t use the stigmatized words she did can rest assured we are the morally better, when we should not feel comforted in all likelihood. And the scandal will get put away, comfortably.

We should note that in my thinking about these things this morning, I am not actually worried about Paula Deen; she seems to be laughing all the way to the bank, like Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore and Al Franken. I am worried about what the various socio-cultural representations mean and whether they enable social progress or hamper it.

*I kind of hope he does.