The “accusations of racism” were “way off base,” Dixon said. (Or yelled.) Yes, Paula Deen used the “n-word.” But, as another of Deen’s supporters told Dixon on camera: “Who hasn’t?... That doesn’t make her a racist.”
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This was just the beginning, of course. Even after Deen apologized —belatedly — a new hashtag sprouted on Twitter: #StandWithPaula. And the “We Support Paula Deen” Facebook page now has more than half a million likes; her fans have, according to The New York Times, “started a campaign to flood the Food Network offices with empty butter wrappers.” (Don’t people—all people—have better things to do?)
Here’s a relevant fact. We know that Deen said “n-----r,” owned permissive restaurants, about the lady’s crude humor. But we know something else, too. Deen wanted to emulate a party where African Americans — and only African Americans — were made, in a manner reminiscent of the antebellum South, to serve white guests. What’s relevant, what’s Arendtian, is: none of the Stand-With-Paula people dispute any of these facts.
Which is where Eichmann comes in. In Arendt’s most famous book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that sometimes what we call evil — and what can bring about the most horrible outcomes — can often more accurately and simply be thoughtlessness of a sort. That is to say, people, and communities, are often no good at the kind of abstract thought that helps us understand the experience of others. (Which is a shame, because abstract thought is what separates us from iPhones and hamsters.)
Eichmann, she learned, was not a monster but a “clown”—a fact that was hard to swallow “in view of the sufferings he and his like had caused to millions of people.” But he was just an idiot. And his idiocy, his “clowneries,” meant no real communication was possible with him, “not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”
Now think about Deen’s defenders. Arendt wouldn’t accuse them of bad faith, of denying her offenses; Arendt would argue, however, that these defenders cannot see the offenses for what they are.
I think, to explain this, we have to step back a bit.
As Jamie Malanowski, a contributor to Times’s Disunion series, wrote in a recent Op-Ed: “The complex and not entirely complete process of reconciliation after the Civil War… served to whitewash [the history of the South].” E.g., we still have U.S. Army bases named after the Confederate generals — men who in their treason against the U.S. government killed American soldiers. And it is still common in the South to frame the Civil war as a matter of States’ rights —though the Confederacy’s own Vice-President admitted “without doubt” that slavery was the reason for secession and “cornerstone” of the Confederacy — and to dismiss it as “the War of Northern Aggression.”