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Come Back To The Diner, Paula Deen, Paula Deen

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I knew almost as soon as I hit the “publish” button yesterday that I was going to be misunderstood, but I’m still on antibiotics, and I was tired.

Okay, that’s no excuse.

But let me untangle some things.

First, when I used the word “aristocratic,” I was NOT talking about professional snobs like Edmund Wilson who seemed to make a career insulting everybody else’s taste and sneering at just about anything.

Wilson was even distinctly left-wing. 

And I suppose it wouldn’t be surprising if somebody like that,  starting out vaguely “right” wing, switched sides and became a Marxist, because his commitment is to the sneering, not to the work.

I can’t recall Allen Tate ever sneering at anyone.  I can’t recall T.S. Eliot doing it, either.

Second, when I used the word “aristocratic,” I was NOT talking about people with lots of money and servants who go hunting and that kind of thing.

I do find that particular misinterpretation to be very interesting, though, because what I was thinking of was specifically examples of ways of thought and being where the standard of value was NOT money.

I am old enough to remember a time when some very prestigious and socially important things relied on something other than wealth–when the richest man in Philadelphia couldn’t get his daughter an invitation to come out at the Philadelphia Assemblies if his money was new, while the daughter of a greengrocer in Wayne was welcomed with open arms because she was a one-l Cadwalader with seven generations of Assembly debutantes in her family tree.

My guess is that this sort of thing died out some time ago, but it was amazingly persistant for longer than you’d think, and it was especially persistant in the South.

Most of the aristocratic intellectuals I know anything about were not rich, and some of them–like Allen Tate–were downright poor for most of their lives, and proud of it. 

Their poverty was proof positive that whatever it was they were committed to, it was not about the money. 

And entrance into the group was not about the money, either.  There were lots of rich frat boys at Vanderbilt who didn’t find their way into the Southern Agrarians–but Tate, whose father had gone bankrupt a couple of times and left the family destitute in the end, did.

I was not presenting this way of living, or the attitudes represented by people like Tate and Eliot, to be admirable, or something I want my students to admire.

I was just point out that “hating commerce” does not lead automatically to an embrace of Marxism. 

It’s not something we’ve “come to,” either.  It’s one of the oldest prejudices in human existence.  The Greeks and Romans looked down on people who engaged in “trade,” and so did the ancient Chinese. 

Again, I’m not advocating this, I’m just pointing out it used to exist, and it now seems to have disappeared.

As to the real–my students don’t want stories with realisitic settings rather than fantasy or science fiction ones.  THEY DON’T WANT STORIES AT ALL.

To my students, stories are just “made up,” and have no relevance to how anybody does or should live.  You can imagine all kinds of things, but that doesn’t mean that they relate in any way to the way they  live their own lives in the world.

What my students need is BIOGRAPHY–examples of actual people who have lived actual lives that are actually different from theirs.

My guess is that they don’t believe that any such places have ever existed in the world, and that no people have ever existed.

Sure, they exist in stories, but that’s just made up.

No real people would ever turn down lots of money if they were offered it, no matter what for, except maybe sometimes if the thing was illegal and they thought they might get caught.

The fact that this is how they think may make them provincial or unimaginative or intellectually limited–and in fact probably makes them all three.

But no amount of bemoaning their limitations will make them other than what they are.

And that brings me to the other thing, and to the title of this post.

Because it’s related, I think.

I only think because the whole Paula Deen Mess went right by me in its first few days. 

I’m still not entirely sure what happened, or in what order, and googling it has only made me more and more confused.

At first, I th ought she had actually used the N word, apparently on Twitter.  Then it seemed as if she had only admitted to having used the N word, some time in the past.  I couldn’t find out how long in the past.

There was, however, an enormous fuss, and Deen’s empire came crashing down as Target, the Food Channel and others dropped their deals with her.

Then somebody posted this to FB, and I found myself–well, bemused.


Now, reading through this, I’d like to head you off at the pass on one item.

Some of the misreadings here are so blatant that it’s hard not to wonder if the writer is misreading on purpose. 

I’m no fan of Pat Buchanon’s, but the writer manages to get the sense of his comments exactly backwards.  Buchanon isn’t holding up the Third Reich as a moral example.  He’s saying that even the Third Reich, the most evil government in the history of the world, didn’t practice the particular evil (women in combat) that he’s deploring.

And that misreading is not a small thing, because it’s part of what’s being used here to brand an awful lot of people–in fact, most of the country–as racist, sexist homophobes who really want to go back to the age when “those” people “knew their place.”

The assumption seems to be this:  if you indulge in nostalgia for some era, the Fifties, the Antebellum South, Greece in the age of Pericles or whatever, then you’re automatically nostalgic for all the policies of those eras. 

If you sigh over the elaborate, stylized weddings of plantation-era Virginia, you must also want to bring back slavery, whether you admit it to yourself or  not.  If you like to immerse yourself in icons and imaginative works of the Fifties, you must also want to return to the days when abortion was illegal and women were systematically required to stay in the home and put up with sexual harrassment.

Is this true?

I’ve actually written about this, on this blog, on and off, because I often find myself in the exact dilemma–I do get nostalgic for the Fifties, at the same t ime I intellectually know that  (on most counts)  I didn’t like living there at the time and wouldn’t go back there if I were offered the chance.

The answer to the dilemma is, I think, in that “most.” 

When we are nostalgic for a period in the past, we are not nostalgic for its totality, but for some small part of it, and that small part is almost always emotional rather than intellectual.

It is certainly not the case that I can wish to live for a few hours in a world where people were less cynical and less attached to judging all things by money only if I also wish to live in an era of back alley abortions. 

The implication, of course, is that such worlds existed as they did only because the evils in them were present.  As soon as the evils are abolished, all of  the rest of it comes crashing down.

That’s a matter for investigation–it’s hard to tell what is or isn’t necessary in such cases, because we know what we got, but not if we would have gotten it differently under different circumstances, or sequences of events, or different cultural conditions.

But the other assumption the writer makes is much more serious. It’s also got wider implications for life as we know it.

To wish for a quiet life, the writer says, to just not want to be tense and on guard any more, is in itself “a certain kind of racism.” 

It means that you want to go back to a time when minorities “knew their place” and kept their mouths shut.

But, again–does it?

Because the underlying assumption here is that racial and sexual equality ARE NOT POSSIBLE without making people (or maybe white people) tense and on guard all the time, making them live in a state of constant wariness.  This will be true whether the white people are “racist” by the writer’s definition or not.  Racist white people will be tense and on garde because they’re racist.  Anti-racist white people will be tense and on garde because they’re racist too, they just realize they  have to do their penance for it by being made to feel bad by nonwhite people, gay people and women.

I’ll  leave aside the other issue here–which is  that the implied definition of “not racist” in this essay represents a mental and emotional state not possible to any human being anywhere, ever–and just point out what should be obvious.

IF it is true that racial and sexual equality REQUIRES the majority of people to live in a constant and unrelieved state of tension, then racial and sexual equality are doomed.

This is not because people are racist and evil, but because nobody really likes feeling bad, and nobody will put up with it for long unless they have a strong motive to endure it.

There are certainly some people (apparently, this writer) who do have such strong motives, but those motives are essentially religious.  They put on “dialogue” and “listening to the silenced” much the way–and with  much the same emotional charge–as Medieval monks put on hair shirts.

But just as most people in the middle ages did  not put on hair shirts, most people now will not willing adopt a life of perpetual penance, whether the priests of our church think they should or not.

Most  people put up with it now only sporadically, and only on the unstated assumption that we’ll work through it in the end, that a day will come where we’ll reach some kind of equilibrium and we can all relax.

Of course, that day would come a lot faster if we stopped trying to read people’s minds and emotional states and based our judgments not on what they may or may not think but on what they do–but nobody listens to me, so whatever.

In the end, though, I think we can choose to live for a while in other eras without automatically (if unconsciously) willing their worst parts.

Some of us like to live in other eras most of the time.

Written by janeh

July 1st, 2013 at 9:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Come Back To The Diner, Paula Deen, Paula Deen'

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  1. Paula Deen:

    I followed a link to the actual complaint, and read all the allegations. As my husband points out these are claims, not yet proved in court. I think the course of events was something like:

    1. Ex-employee files discrimination and harassment suit.
    2. Paula Deen is deposed for the defense against same.
    3. In deposition, under oath, she admits having used the N-word years ago. I don’t recall if she says HOW it was used, if to a person of color or in conversation about them. I tend to think it was about them.

    FWIW, this word has been used in discussion in our home this week, so I guess I’d have to admit the same.

    4. Somebody leaks the deposition. Shit hits fan.

    The employee suing is a white woman who was hired as a manager of one of the restaurants owned by Dean’s family corporation, and the allegations are an interesting read. Sexual harassment (by Dean’s brother Bubba), salary discrimination based on her gender, on and on.

    Interestingly, a large part of the complaint is based on HER having to WATCH and EXPERIENCE the blatant racism against the black employees she supervised. I’m not sure one can sue for second-hand bigotry, but I suppose it goes to the emotional distress, and I”m absolutely sure it was included to inflame public sentiment against the Deens.

    The use of the N-word by family members not Paula is apparently widespread, most notably about Pres. Obama, and the calling of kitchen staff “monkeys.” THe salary discrimination was openly acknowledged by Deen and the complainant told she’d never be paid as much as the men. Once she did finally quit, she’d been effectively black-balled among the food service community in Savannah, many of whom had previously offered her jobs. This, I suspect is what prompted the suit in the first place. She held her tongue for a lot of years, she certainly doesn’t need to risk being seen as the “bad guy” for revealing all this crap.

    After all, there are plenty of Good Ol’ Southern Boys & Girls who see nothing bad about what the Deen family has said & done. Oh, and Deen didn’t just long for a “Plantation style” wedding, she explicitly wanted black servers in slave-style livery waiting on the white folks. To me, that takes it over the top from casual nostalgic disregard of black sensibilities to blatant, active racism.

    Often, I think nostalgia is a longing to be young again, for whatever era one was young in, or fantasize about. I doubt anyone really fantasizes about being OLD or sick or disabled in Roman times, or even the 1940s. Don’t you always picture yourself young, active & vital in whatever fantasy realm you imagine? I certainly do. Also, money is never a problem, either. ;)

    It’s like the past-life thing. Few if any imagine themselves as a kitchen drudge in the castle bowels. They’re always the princess or the king up in the tower.

    As for your students never experiencing the wonder of fiction, I feel very very sad for them.


    1 Jul 13 at 11:24 am

  2. What seem like stray points, but they’re headed somewhere, I promise.

    Let me, just this once, speak for some “silenced.” I think “the Greeks” looking down on those engaged in trade would have come as a severe shock to the merchants who financed the Athenian plays and ships, and “the Romans” looking down on those in trade would be news to most of the equestrian class. I don’t think a dozen philosophers and Sparta get to speak for all the Hellenes, and I don’t think the senatorial class and the emperors have the exclusive right to speak for Rome, however congenial their views might be to later academics and the landed aristocracy.

    It’s also a little trickier sorting out money from status than that story about the Philadelphia Assembly than that single story indicates. That greengrocer’s daughter was surely not the only girl in town with seven generations in the city–but seven generations ago, the one-l Cadwaladers HAD money. Being polite, educated and well-behaved won’t get those other girls into the Assembly, and it’s still a matter of wealth–just not current wealth.

    In a way, I prefer a real plutocracy, or the outright rule of the powerful, because in a way, the game isn’t rigged. In a real plutocracy, if you make money, you’re in. In rule by the authentically powerful, if you have troops and tanks, you’re in. No one can say “well, you don’t have the right ancestors, you didn’t go to the right school, and anyway you’re tie’s too wide, so none of your achievements count.” The rules are open and objective.

    Which brings me to the heart of aristocracy. All right, rule by “the best.” But who gets to decide who is best? The answer, without exception, is that an aristocracy is a matter of mutual recognition: “we all agree that WE belong, and Joe over there doesn’t.”

    Didn’t care for it in school. Don’t much care for it now. And don’t delude yourself into thinking the idea is dead nationally. Observe our growing class who think it’s proper to become rich through “public service” in the form of sweetheart deals and speaking fees given to the politically influential but vulgar to go the Steve Jobs and Sam Walton route and actually sell people things in an open market. It’s very much the world of THE THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS: looting is the mark of the aristocrat; free trade is vulgar.

    OK, I’ve beaten aristocracy to death. As for understanding that other people don’t think as they do, if your students don’t like story–and they clearly have no use for history–I don’t think biography will work either. After all, they already refuse to believe other people have different motives.

    Paula Dean. Not really that interested in our current witch-hunting, but I think it’s only fair that anyone who gets bent out of shape over Paula Dean using an insulting vulgarity once should also agree that the HUAC was quite right to ask who had at one time been a Communist. Or is endorsing secret police and forced labor camps a less important “mistake?”


    1 Jul 13 at 1:27 pm

  3. I couldn’t read all that article. Ranting and raving, it exemplified one of the tools of a modern witch hunt, but unlike the old kind, even repentance of the, er, witch, isn’t enough to save her, because, well, she’s a bigot and that’s incurable! Nasty, nasty stuff. The problem with this kind of approach to human society isn’t even the fact that it’s commonplace to, as you say, fantasize about the good bits without necessarily accepting or even excusing the bad parts. I think it’s the idea that only one version of reality is acceptable. It is totally unacceptable to say that some aspect of some society that has been decided to be unacceptable did have some advantages. It’s a way to create groupthink by refusing to accept any reality outside the official story.

    I don’t understand the Paula Deen fuss except as a kind of convulsive witch hunt that Americans seem to be susceptible to – although you can find similar attempts to force social cohesion by “naming and shaming” a token outcast elsewhere. She used an offensive term at some point in the past? Who hasn’t? And she wanted the catering staff in uniform! How shocking! How racist! Except I can’t avoid having noticed that at all formal social events the catering staff are in some kind of uniform – and they’re usually not from the same class and background as the attendees. I can’t even pretend to be shocked that a fantasy about a formal traditional wedding might have uniformed catering staff – even ones from a particular group – involved. The accusation would be funny if it hadn’t cost Deen so much.

    And I’ve never even seen her show, and wouldn’t have been able guess before the uproar what aspect of show biz she’s in. All I know about her is that she’s been vilified and damaged (financially, anyway) by allegations of bad language and harmless fantasies. But maybe, if she plays the game, she can come back. Or maybe not. That article didn’t seem to allow for the possibility of rehabilitating such a vicious and dangerous person.

    As for the others – maybe biography would help expand students’ ideas, but you need a proper biography, not one of those junky ones about celebrities. Something that tries to understand the person and his or her culture.


    1 Jul 13 at 2:52 pm

  4. I couldn’t resist this. It was a sig in a post in another group I’m following:

    Democracy means government by the uneducated,
    while aristocracy means government by the badly educated.
    — G. K. Chesterton


    1 Jul 13 at 6:22 pm

  5. I agree with you about that article, Cheryl. It’s about the single most obnoxious example of the sort of sanctimonious, self-righteous that abounds in the modern commentariat that I can recall. Nobody can possibly meet those standards, and simply to try is to confess unforgivable guilt.

    This sort of thing is rife here in Australia.


    1 Jul 13 at 7:02 pm

  6. Jane, did you hear that Kenneth Minogue died the other day?


    1 Jul 13 at 10:13 pm

  7. Jane – a friend posted a link to this article this morning and, of course, it made me think about your comments about the Regulatory State. Enjoy! http://nation.foxnews.com/2013/06/30/feds-say-magician-must-have-disaster-plan-his-rabbit


    2 Jul 13 at 8:41 am

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