Up in the Hollow: I speak of the South and its people

Every day I read that Paula Deen, the television chef, has lost another contract: Walmart, Target, JCPenney, the Food Network, Random House, QVC – and the list goes on.

But she has committed no crime, and has not been charged with anything. What gives?

Paula Deen
Paula Deen

Ms. Deen has been destroyed by a media blitz of stories which point out that in a recent sworn deposition she said that she had used the word “nigger” several decades ago. She also said that she no longer uses that loaded word, and has come to understand its toxicity and its harmfulness to African-Americans.

If this had happened just 10 years ago, Ms. Deen, a 66-year-old white woman from the Deep South, would have been praised for her honesty, and praised for having grown past the use of that old common and hurtful epithet. She employs, associates with and is a friend of many black people, and seems to have their overwhelming support. So what is going on here?

It is, I think, a combination of old-fashioned sanctimony, new-fashioned regional politics and an ever-growing corporate cowardice, mixed all together by an unprincipled media that is apparently being driven by the adolescent egos of the internet. The sentence you just read is a mouthful, I know, so please bear with me as I explore this dicey subject.

Let us start with the sanctimony. Had Paula Deen said in her deposition that she had never, ever uttered the “n-word,” I would have doubted it. Most Southerners I know over the age of 50 would likely, if given Sodium Pentothal, confess to having used that word, in some context or another. The word traces back 400 years and is common not just to the southern United States, but in all American regions and in many European countries. It is truly an obscene word, with a hard history. We shouldn’t fear words or sounds, but we should be sensitive enough to select them wisely. In a perfect world, we would.

If the mere use of the word reflects racial bigotry, then Steve Martin, Mel Brooks and countless black rappers and comedians would stand accused, as would great writers like Joseph Conrad and Mark Twain. But if we have learned anything as Americans, it is that we can change and we must change. And Paula Deen has expressed that principle in her earnest but inarticulate way. We can easily live without the “n-word,” but those who insist that anyone who ever used it are bigots and must be met with financial destruction are claiming a standard that few have ever met.

And the media, by doing so, present themselves as “without sin.” Are they truly so superior that they can throw that first stone? Having spent a lot of time in my life around these political and media moralists, I can assure you that they are not. Almost all of this attack has come from the media Left, places like Salon, The Daily Beast, AOL and the Huffington Post. And it hardly differs from the same sort of slander and demagoguery which has been practiced by the Right.

I don’t know Paula Deen and have never cared to watch her show. I knew little about her until this tempest in a chicken pot burst around her. It turns out that she had a tough go of life until she started a bag-lunch business in the 1980s. From there, through hard work and perseverance, she built a “brand” that could be called an empire. But her empire is being destroyed, not by her fans and customers or the authorities, but by a media that keeps moving the goalposts on her.

It is important to understand that these internet “news” outlets have never been shackled by conscience or the traditional ethics of print journalism. They come to their “hard news” writing with a conscious agenda, and no allegiance to balance or objectivity. It is almost a parody of the age-old complaint about the “mainstream media” having a liberal bias.

They have taken this tidbit (Deen once said the “n-word” in the 1980s) and turned it into a “swiftboating” crusade of personal destruction. They have succeeded, but their victory is a defeat for objective journalism, for free speech and for the kind of liberalism that cherishes the First Amendment. Their star-chamber proceedings have imposed a very real punishment on someone for the crime of — well, the crime of being honest in a sworn deposition.

Ms. Deen has issued several apologies, but the press has responded with disdain, their “image experts” calling the mea culpas insincere and phony. This has been a “trial by bloggers and columnists,” who, having set themselves up as judge, jury and executioner, are now gloating in their schadenfreude. They have become an active part of the exponential growth of South-bashing that the left reeks of these days.

In the last two years, books, columns, blogs and many “talking heads” have been castigating the South in ways we haven’t heard since the 1860s. Any display of affection for Southern culture is met with condescending sneers. Screeds like “Better Off Without ’Em,” a snarling puppy of a South-bashing book by Chuck Thompson, is typical: Southerners are stupid, reactionary, uncultured and hopelessly racist.

That book, like so many of the others in the genre, fails to explain why northern blacks are returning to the South in record numbers, or why the South has the fasting growing economy of any American region. Their authors, all non-Southerners, remain perplexed about Dixie. And they haven’t figured out yet that Southerners don’t want to be “reconstructed” by idiots like them.

Perhaps this cultural assault is the way certain Northern “intellectuals” are celebrating the sesquicentennial of The War Between the States: By repeating Yankee myths that are as cloying as the Southern myth of the Cavalier South and the Lost Cause. But this tactic doesn’t help to disguise the ongoing racism and segregation in the North, nor the historical fact of slavery throughout the Northern colonies and states, nor the complicity of the North in the slave trade. That wouldn’t fit the myth of Northern moral superiority.

History is, of course, written by the winners.

Corporate America, which has become a subsidiary of Corporate Planet, has their own corporate-think, by which they can immediately pull the plug on any relationship which might be “controversial.” Never mind that there wasn’t really any controversy from Ms. Deen; the very fact that the issue involved an accusation of “racism” was enough for these corporations to throw her under the bus.

They have profited greatly from Deen’s work, but they don’t want to risk any public relations damage, real, or, as in this case, imagined. They dropped her, which merely reinforces the false smear of racism from the internet news services. The fact that a lot of African-Americans may lose their jobs because of this is of no concern to those anonymous nervous nellies in those faceless board rooms.

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2 Comments

  1. What a graciously worded. well thought out analysis of the harassment that Paula Deen is going through. The writer hit the nail on the head with her/his comments on the special sanctimonious “journalists” who hop onto a story and build it out of proportion. Leave her alone. The n word is a southern word, and I am sure everyone down in the south has heard it said. If we try to be politically correct in this day and age, let us also be correct about the past. The word was used. The abuses were God-awful on the poor Blacks. but — The past is done with. Embrace your friends. We’re all Americans.

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