You’ve heard from my friend and rabbi, Joseph Edelheit, before. He’s in Brazil at the moment, and he’s been thinking about Paula Deen, Edward Snowden, and the contentious posts on this blog. He sent this piece and the above photo, unsolicited, and I post them here, unedited, for your consideration. This post may strike some as inflammatory, so I hope that you will keep your comments civil.
When we find out that someone in popular culture uses language, no matter whether in private or public, that is “outrageous” the response is immediate! Paula Deen’s popularity cannot save her from the swift judgment of corporate America. Her tears and explanations, even her plea taken from Christian scripture: let anyone who has not used words that are hurtful and unacceptable throw a stone at me! The “N-word” has become a recognized act of self-destruction even as the Supreme Court hands down legal discourse that seems to soften decades of legislation that set the standards of racial redress.
Paula Deen is gone, but the Supreme Court might have opened the door for Voter IDs? It might be worth taking a few weeks to consider whether our immediate repugnance of this oh-so Southern gal whose food and cooking masks her denial of diabetes and the much more dangerous institutional racism that was just nullified by the Supreme Court. Paula Deen used the “N-word” — shame on her; meanwhile, the majority of the Supreme Court gave permission to known racist state legislators to create new mechanisms to deny anyone the right to vote. The problem is we cannot cancel the Supreme Court’s television programs or their corporate sponsorships, so maybe Paula Deen is our collective sacrifice of shame?
Speaking of sacrifices of shame, I have been trying to find an appropriate time to offer my view of how my friend, colleague and teacher, Tony Jones has been “sacrificed” with some of the same charges that were hurled at Paula. When someone on the “right” is caught and exposed in public for using the discourse that the “left” has always assumed they really use and believe, there is an immediate outcry for justice. There are no requests to discuss context or review this instance of behavior within a whole of public discourse, any language that impugns and scars the identity of another is sufficient for a critical analysis. As a rabbi, interfaith-dialogue leader and university professor, I have witnessed the power of communal judgment when someone is labeled a “racist,” and tragically that experience has been agonizingly personal.
I am a life-long Zionist and have provided financial and human resources for the peace and human rights movements in Israel. My doctoral work is in Christian theology, a personal statement about how much I want to understand the discourse of my dialogue partners. Yet, I have been publicly labeled and ridiculed on my campus as the “angry Zionist” by those who link Zionism and the racist policies of Israel against Palestinians.
Those who hold this ideological position will not engage in any public dialogue. Those who dismiss me and the work I have done for AIDS orphans in India use their idiomatic challenge to deny the value of any exchange of dialogue: Edelheit is a racist/Zionist and that obviates any need to understand the issues. I do not support Israel’s military policies but I do support her unique existence as a Jewish state. That support is why both some faculty and students at my university consider me a racist!
When leftist ideologies try to affix labels that publicly marginalize others with whom they strongly disagree, then I wonder how different our use of extreme political discourse has become. Actual racist vulgarity requires immediate censure—no less than discourse that marginalizes women, LGBT, differently abled, the old, and the poor. Does the use of that charge—a label that scars—require some critical balance? If Paula Deen is a racist, then how does that translate into my 66 years of supporting Israel as a Jew, a rabbi and person who claims 27 family members who perished in the Shoah? If both of us are racists of equal repugnance then our discourse has now been conflated and is useless.
Is Snowden a hero? A coward? A traitor? All or none? Our inability (actually refusal) to use language to carry critical meaning has become far too common on blogs. We rush to capture some illusion of real-time conversation, as if screaming idioms of defamation are always permissible acts of rhetorical emphasis. Tony Jones is neither a racist nor a sexist, but he is a person who asks his readers from within overlapping communities to engage him and each other in a public conversation. I am not sure blogs can actualize such communal discourse, but I know and trust that Tony is committed to building such a venue for the welfare of religion and the dignity of all peoples. Disagreement with the standards of the ideological boundaries of identity should not be conflated into the judgment of actual and pernicious hatreds of every kind.
I am currently in Rio de Janiero and I saw the attached piece of “art” in the Museum of Modern Art. It was created in 1965 during the dictatorship and the Viet Nam war and the worst violence of American Civil Rights. Even as demonstrations fill the streets of cities all over Brazil and the country prepares for the visit of Pope Francis in less than a month, there has been no attempt to remove or cover this art—this outrageous statement of conscience. For many among the faithful Christian, especially Catholics in Brazil, the use of a US fighter jet as a restaging of the death of the Christ is dangerous, even obscene, but the artist in 1965 uses this to engage the community—forces anyone who sees it to ask themselves if God’s act of Eternal Love and Forgiveness includes war, napalm and wanton destruction. When Tony Jones provokes us and asks us to engage, and then asks as a man where are the women, I think we all need to back away from the computer screens and think about Paula Deen’s discourse. If we challenge anyone and everyone, then the time has surely come that no one can be challenged.
By the way, as a rabbi, I am fascinated by how the many different Christians who read and engage Tony will react to this piece of Brazilian art—does it take a non-believing “Christ killer” to show it to everyone?
Chua. Joseph A Edelheit, D Mn, DD, Director and Professor of Religious and Jewish Studies, St Cloud State University. email@example.com