The Paradoxical Lesson of Paula Deen’s Language (for Tony Jones)


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.

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  • Tom McCool

    I understand the art depicted above. It reminds me of another piece of art, hanging in the community college where I work. The artwork is titled Hymn to Achievement created by Aldo Giorgini, a pioneer of computer generated art. His piece celebrates the achievements of science, and also its darker role in war and destruction. It once hung in a building on the campus of a major research university. You might guess, the piece was controversial among the scientists and many hated it and wanted it removed. When the building was remodeled, the scientists saw their chance and had the art removed. It was literally heading for the dumpster when one of Giorgini’s sons who still lived in the area rescued it. He had an offer from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but decided that the piece belonged in the community where his father had worked, and where he himself was raised. The piece was cleaned and restored, and was dedicated in a wonderful celebration. Art is meant to evoke. It would not be art if it didn’t. There will always be those who will oppose art because it evokes ideas that others want to suppress. I find this Christ on a fighter jet less offensive than a crucifix in urine. Probably because I understand and empathize with the message. Many Christians don’t want to come to grips with the violence that has been committed in Jesus’ name. This piece reminds us that when we commit violence because “God is on our side” we are crucifying Christ all over again. Isn’t it safe to assume that the Pharisees also believed that their God was on their side when they handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion?

  • Anthony Paul Smith ☭

    Did you, you know, like think about this before you posted it? Or are you just that thick and/or deluded to think this was going to help your Very-Important-Cause of proving you are Not A Racist™? Aside from the fact that the post is nigh unreadable, the naked self-obsession on display is just kind of gross. The cluelessness is on display by your representative too with his “Some people get mad that I’m a Zionist, but just because I’m a Zionist doesn’t mean I’m a Zionist!” As if “not supporting” certain policies amounted to anything. Neat, you sign a petition? How brave! I’m sure the dead tens of thousands of ethnically cleansed Palestinians appreciate your brave stance that you’re using to pat yourself on the back with. Jesus, white people.

    • It’s not meant to help. It’s meant to be another voice in the conversation. This blog in general — and this post in particular — is not about damage control for me. Instead, it’s about the free exchange of ideas, even if they are controversial.

      • Anthony Paul Smith ☭

        There is nothing I tire more than white dudes facilitating “conversation” and “a free exchange” of “controversial ideas”. What is your desire, Tony Jones? What will to power lurks behind your attempt to take power in this small part of the world? Because, honestly, it looks like that’s all it is. Protecting your self, even from the voice in your own head that tells you “maybe I’m wrong”. Anyway, thanks for the reminder for why I don’t abide white Christianity anymore. Enjoy.

    • Joseph Edelheit

      Anthony…you do not know me yet your statements about my “naked self-obession” the the “dead tens of thousands of ethnically cleansed Palestinians” are wild and angry attacks on me. I asked Tony if I could post a statement about engagement….which requires mutual responsibility in our use of discourse. Your story, your identity requires that I listen so that I can understand the narrative behind your anger. I wrote in order to provoke reactions like the one you posted. You affirm the tragic failure of far too many people for whom ideology always trumps actual dialogue.
      Maybe “White–religion” is a failure, but then so is the anger that flattens any actual conversation from which new understanding begins.

      • Anthony Paul Smith ☭

        I don’t need or want your understanding. Dialogue in this form is always a ruse of power, either to wield over another or to cover your own guilt so you can perpetuate your power over others while maintaining the facade of a “nice guy”. That and dialogue would require an actually intelligible piece of writing, which you frankly did not give us. I’m sure Tony has only posted it because it flattered his own ego. But, by all means, keep your awesome story about being the compassionate supporter of a murderous apartaid state to yourself. I just ate.

  • VorJack

    Can we, just for a moment, acknowledge that Deen’s real crime is running a restaurant in which there was sexual and racial harassment of the staff? I’ll grant you that most of the blame seems to fall on her brother, but Deen herself must have been aware of what her brother was like and yet allowed him to run the restaurant.

    Can we stop talking like the only thing that Deen did was mutter a racial obscenity? I understand that much of the media is focusing on that, but that’s what the media does.

    • I have to admit that I’m pretty unfamiliar with the whole Paula Deen case. But I think part of the point of this post is in agreement with you. The poin in part seems to me to be how we allow our discourse of such things to become reductions of a more complex and possibly horrible actuality, that is hidden by our rush to judgement.

      • VorJack

        Like OldSchoolProgressive below, I’m having trouble getting a coherent point from the piece. Talking about Deen facing the “swift judgment of corporate America” and being “our collective sacrifice of shame” seems to aimed at generating pity.

  • $30545981

    I’m trying to pick through the pieces of this post. It hits so many points but never seems to reach a cogent argument. Is the paradox that if we respond and challenge to everything, we’ve responded and challenged nothing? It seems like the recurring thread here is: “Why are we picking on poor Tony? Why are people picking on poor writer? Why are people picking on poor Paula? Especially when there are so many more important things to be picking on!” Or something? I’m still unclear.

    • I don’t think the point is not to pick on me. I think the rabbi’s point is that sometimes provocative language and symbol (like the art above) serves a purpose that it’s hard to see at first, when we’re in a reactionary state.

      Every reader, of course, gets to choose whether my more provocative posts serve a bigger and better purpose, or whether they are merely provocative and thus unnecessarily hurtful.

      • $30545981

        The counterpoint to provocation is reaction. One provokes a reaction. It is an aggressive and emotionally charged act; which is not to say that is a bad or good thing. That’s what is. It is a disingenuous argument on the part of the provocateur to provoke a reaction and then hide behind disinterested reason and demand the reactionary do the same. If you push me and I push back, or cry, or play dead, isn’t it a strange thing for you to say, “Whoa, hey there, hold on! I was just being provocative! Don’t be so reactionary!”

        It is absolutely my choice and responsibility to interpret your provocation; it is also your choice and responsibility to provoke. That responsibility must be shared. As a provocateur, you can choose to follow the great tradition of the American agitator, the one who stirs the pot in pursuit of an idea or a cause; or you can be the Ann Coulter, you can be the person who pushes because it’s fun to push and watch people push back, cry, and play dead. Are your provocations in search of truth and meaning and building community?

      • Isn’t that what conservative evangelical’s always seem to miss when they read the bible; i.e. that god had no problem with using provocative language and symbols;

        –) Isaiah was told to be naked for three years

        –) Ezekiel was told by God to; lie on one side for 390 days and to eat only bread made from grains that were forbidden by the law and baked with literal human s**t! Then when He objects to god saying he doesn’t want to eat human s**t god says, ‘fine you can use cow manure!” lmao!!!

        but isn’t that what makes modern day evangelicals out-of-touch with their true biblical roots; that they have created an entire philosophical system that is completely disconnected from the symbols metaphors that God used?

        just some random thoughts.

  • $30545981

    On another note, I think our discourse on privilege and social justice would be well-served by not thinking of people as allies or racists/sexists/etc. but on words and behaviors that are either allied or racist/sexist/etc. I do think it makes the discussion less inflammatory and prevents us from making heroes and villains but rather attacking harmful behavior that continues to oppress certain groups.

    Is Paula Deen “a racist?” I don’t know that’s for me to comment on. Did Paula Deen say and do some racist things? Absolutely. Is Tony Jones a sexist or a racist? I don’t believe that he is. Has he partaken in racism and sexism on his blog? Absolutely. And people called out the racism and sexism (and for the most part, they did rather civilly and lovingly, from what I saw).

    Such a distinction (that’s racist vs. you’re racist) also solves Rabbi Edelheit’s problem of feeling seen for only one thing. I can feel free to praise your work with children in India while still criticizing your Zionist views.

    • S_i_m_o_n

      Really? I’m not a racist, I just sometimes say racist things doesn’t really makes sense. Makes about as much sense as saying I’m not an adulterer, I just sleep with other women occasionally.

      • VorJack

        See Jay Smooth. It’s more of a strategy than a principle.

  • The thing that seems to be missing here: Deen wasn’t ousted because of sincere outrage at what she said. She was (or is being or wherever the process is – I quit paying attention) ispolitical opportunism .

    The other side will get rid of a member of the other side whenever a situation like this presents itself because it can, not because it is genuinely outraged.

    • $30545981

      How are you sure she was ousted because of insincere outrage? How can this be political opportunism if Deen wasn’t on any side to begin with? She wasn’t, say, a conservative woman whom liberals were just waiting to nail with a scandal. Also, how can a person add to the discussion when they’ve quit paying attention to the story?

    • Maceo

      I, for one, am completely outraged at her actions. Discrimination and racism are never right. Racism takes a heavy toll on society. Just ask Trayvon Martin’s mom.

  • Charles Cosimano

    Of course Paula Deen is anything but gone. Her restaurant is packed more than it ever has been and she is wrapped in the cloak of martyrdom.

    • Maceo

      There are unfortunately a whole lot of unrepentant racists on this site. I’ve never seen so many people rushing to defend someone so patently racist as Deen. As a Christian it makes me realize just how broken Christianity really is, when we let politics & personal pique get in the way of Godliness.

  • ME

    I like the picture! What I’d like to know from the Rabbi is, why is it worth it to him as a Jew to have the Jewish state where it is? They are so unwanted, there is so much death and destruction as a result. Does his faith really require that state to be where it is? If it was a Christian state my position would be to eliminate it. No piece of land is worth the toll we’ve seen.

    To anyone who calls Tony a racist- you do not know what a racist is.

    • Joseph Edelheit

      Is there any other place on this earth that Jews can claim as a “place” in which they and they alone can determine their own destiny. Living after Auschwitz means that merely being “unwanted” by everyone and anyone does not define the Jewish future. Yes, we are unwanted there….are Jews wanted anywhere as Jews?

      • Maceo

        This statement seems nakedly self-serving. For how many other ethnic/religious groups is that equally true of? What country can Armenians call their own? What country can African-Americans call their own? What country can Native Americans call their own? Just because I sympathize with the horrors of the Holocaust it doesn’t mean that a Jewish apartheid-state–as Jimmy Carter said–is the solution. I don’t see how such a state is even compatible with liberal democracy–at least not when its coupled with restrictive laws on who can vote, work, and own property…. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not accusing you of being racist, nor am I maligning your motives–trust me, I get it. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.