Robert B. Simpson: Clean hands?

June 30, 2013 

Last week I wrote a piece attacking Paula Deen. Today I write in her defense. I attacked her not because of her alleged racist words or actions, although I don't condone racism, but because I consider her public persona to be the sort of negative caricature from which the South has suffered for generations. And which so many of its own people are guilty of perpetuating.

I write in her defense not because I like the caricature any better this week than I did last week, nor because I'm impressed with her soon-to-be-defunct cooking show. I write in opposition to hypocrisy and in support of loyalty.

Paula Deen was accused of, has admitted to, and is being castigated for using racist terms. She says she has used such terms in the past but has learned better. How far in the past? How well has she learned the lesson? I can't say. But I can say with some assurance that, if you were born in the South somewhere around the middle of the last century or earlier, and if you grew up without ever having used such terms, you are part of a distinct minority yourself. If you did use racist language and haven't learned better by now, you have a real problem. But if you didn't use such language then, you must not have been listening to the world around you.

I was at least six years old before I realized there was a word other than the "n" word to be used as a designation for African-Americans. And much older than that before I began to feel the least bit of social restraint as to its use. If I am to be forever punished for the stain of racism in my past, I hope I at least can be forgiven for the portion of my sins that were committed in the innocence of childhood. And maybe given a smidgen of credit for having learned better and made a continuing effort to eradicate the poison plants growing from seeds sown long before my time. If not, I can only hope my punishers are people never guilty of such transgressions themselves. I think Paula Deen also deserves the same high caliber of executioners.

When Harry Truman ran for county political office in Missouri in the 1920s, and then for the U.S. Senate in the 1930s, he was backed by the political machine of "Boss" Tom Pendergast, head of the powerhouse political faction based in Kansas City. Truman, derisively referred to by some at the time as "the Senator from Pendergast," was considered by many to be severely damaged by this connection, especially after the "Boss" was convicted of income tax evasion and sent to federal prison. But when Tom Pendergast died, newly-elected Vice President Harry Truman flew to Missouri for his funeral. Many criticized him for doing so, but Truman was a believer in loyalty. "He was always my friend and I have always been his," Truman said, and that, so far as he was concerned, was the end of it. There is no indication that his attendance at the funeral of a convicted felon who was also a friend turned voters against him.

In my opinion, the Food Network and other related commercial entities are taking the coward's way out when they run the other way now that Paula Deen has been publicly accused of racism and has admitted to having been less than perfect in that regard. Had these commercial enterprises expressed regret for her past failings, reiterated their dedication to fair treatment for all, and assured the public that future racist words or actions would result in a severing of all ties with Ms. Deen, I would respect them. Now, not so much. I think the Truman example would have served them well.

I also consider it cowardly for individuals to jump on the bandwagon and claim to be shocked! shocked! by Paula Deen, unless they have clean hands themselves. In my earlier piece, I specifically avoided jumping on that bandwagon for exactly that reason.

In addition to the avoidance of hypocrisy and the practice of loyalty when it comes to public vilification of others for their sins, there's also the matter of forgiveness. I've been taught that "to err is human," and my experience backs this up. I've also been told that "forgiveness is divine." My experience teaches me that it's also extremely rare.

Especially when it's so much more fun to point fingers and express outrage, while we try to forget that we are guilty too.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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