Paula and Chuck - Bigot or Fool

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

Apropos to the Independence Day season, recently, we were treated to an opportunity to define more clearly what our society considers as mere foolishness as opposed to bigotry and all on the same day.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a speech given at the University of Nebraska while waiting for a microphone to be brought to a questioner quipped to that individual, “You’re not a member of the Taliban are you?” The fellow, a young, good looking, well-dressed individual, turned out to be, Robyn Gandy, an assistant professor at the University whose lineage is from India.

The Pentagon, in responding to the Secretary’s remark, issued the following statement. “Absolutely no slight toward any individual in the audience was intended. That’s the last thing the Secretary would do under any circumstance, in this or any other setting. He didn’t know who would be called next to pose a question.”

On the very same day, Paula Deen, famed star of the cooking channel, in discussing charges of sexual harassment brought by a white woman against one of her restaurants managed by her brother which included, it would appear, as an after thought, charges of racism as well, responding to a question put to her as to whether she personally had ever used the “N” word in the past answered in the affirmative. In the course of the interview she said, “It’s just what they are – they’re jokes... most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, Black folks... Gays or straights, Black redneck, you know, I just don’t know – I just don’t know what to say, I can’t, myself, determine what offends another person.”

Subsequently realizing that she had tread into muddy waters, she filmed an apology asking everyone to understand that she is merely a human being who has many faults and she is deeply sorry for what she said and wanted the world to know her family never uses such words.

The results of these two remarks are frankly amazing. Secretary Hagel continues on in his government post with relatively little problem. Ms. Deen, however, has lost her cooking program and it is reported at this writing that QVC, which hosts Paula Deen’s Kitchen, the program which sells her cookware and cookbooks, is not planning to present her program in the near future, as they are reviewing their relationship with the famous cooking star.

On the one hand we have a silent Secretary of Defense, through his spin doctors at the Pentagon, making a “joke” at the expense of a dark skinned gentleman, claiming it wasn’t prepared, “he didn’t know who would be called next to pose a question”, as if this mitigates his remarks and represents an apology. On the other we have a private citizen, a 66-year-old white Southern woman, admitting that in the past she used the “N” word. Who is the fool and who is the bigot?

What would motivate a public figure, a high-ranking member of our government, who is well aware that his words are constantly placed under the microscope and that the media is ever at the ready to ply their craft interpreting both his verbiage and demeanor, to ask a complete stranger as a supposed “joke” if he is a member of the Taliban and having his handlers defend the question by stating it was prompted by the moment? The obvious answer is that the gentleman in question was dark skinned. And this from a man whose own boss, the President of the United States is dark skinned! Would he have asked this same question of an Asian individual, a White individual? Of course not.

As for Paula Deen admitting that years ago she used the “N” word – I believe she was in a Catch-22 situation. Is there any intelligent individual who would have believed her if she had stated that she had never used that word? As one Black commentator mused, Would anybody believe that a 66-year-old white woman, raised in the deep South never used the “N” word? Are you kidding? To her credit, she was honest.

And when we consider her remarks relative to jokes, that jokes are based upon mocking religious, racial, and ethnic groups, to me. we are presented with a woman who really doesn’t get out of the kitchen much. No doubt preoccupied with her various enterprises, she has given little consideration to the many challenges of a multicultural, racial, ethnic and religious society and how it reflects upon her own understandings of the world. For had she given this topic some thought understanding the complexity of humor, of comedy in general, would have surely precluded her from making such a ridiculous observation.

And yet the reaction by our society was in the words of Gilbert and Sullivan a topsy-turvy one. The public official, motivated by his own inner sense of bigotry gets the pass without a single word of apology to the professor he offend The honest, simple, yet foolish television star is humiliated and punished in the cruelest of manners by attacking her in the one area of her life where she has excelled; her rise to fame and fortune as a nationally recognized chef extraordinaire.

Hagel, a man who is expected to be sophisticated in dealing with others on the most sensitive of issues and Deen, an otherwise sweet Southern Bell, who comes into our home with unusual and tantalizing recipes and cooking tips with a smile and a “y’all” ever peppering her ongoing dialogue, present to us the bizarre way our society approaches. mutual respect and the dignity of each citizen.

Here in Illinois, a state that dips into the American South. I have been confronted on several occasions with that classic phrase, structured upon the well-known anti-Semitic accusation that Jews are cheap – being “Jewed”, as in “that salesman tried to Jew me.” At times, when I stopped the individual and explained to him how hurtful that phrase is to me, by his profuse apology, I realized that it is just part of the nuances of the English spoken in the community and in no way represents his personal antisemitism. In fact, on occasion, this loathsome phrase has emanated from the mouth of an individual I consider a friend. Have you not had a similar experience?

This is a far cry from an individual our society expects to be sensitive to the feelings of others, stating, as the Pentagon insists, on the spur of the moment, a statement, an insulting and bigoted statement, motivated by the color of the skin of another.

Ever mindful that none of us are perfect, frankly, as a Jew, I would much rather welcome a Paula Deen into my home than a Chuck Hagel, who, at the spur of the moment, fully aware that I am an Orthodox Rabbi, after giving me a once over and desiring to add some levity to the moment might ask if I am a member of the Grateful Dead, insensitive to the reality that my full beard is in compliance with the tenets of my religious Faith.

Independence Day requires of us to consider anew the fundamental importance of the worth and dignity of the human being must play in bolstering a free and open democracy.