The Banality of Butter: What Hannah Arendt Can Tell Us About Paula Deen

Hannah Arendt was perhaps the first to write coherently about the trouble communities have in seeing the world as being something other than what they have been conditioned to see — without any kind of cultural empathy. Such empathy is pretty absent among the supporters of Paula Deen.

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It's been my good fortune to read Hannah Arendt right as all the Paula Deen mishigas has gone down. Not that The Banality of Evil forecasts Ms. Deen’s allure — her standing has always bent toward the nostalgic, the airbrushed, the blandly retrograde. Nor in any real way can we fit Deen’s comparably mild offenses with those of a world-historic villain. Of course not. But the response of her many champions is germane. In fact, this response has gone out on a frequency Ms. Arendt’s readers have the perfect antennae to pick up on.

The Paula Deen scandal, of course, follows her testimony in a discrimination lawsuit, where she copped both to using racist language and abiding offensive humor in the workplace. (Among other transgressions.) Next, she skipped out on a planned Today apology, and instead threw together some YouTube videos in her own defense.

Even before Deen spoke out for herself, though, she had a very public defender in a newsman at Savannah’s WTOC. I happen to watch WTOC often (I'm twice a year in the low country to visit family), and I don't think I've ever seen any anchorperson -- on that channel; or anywhere else, come to think on it -- as incensed, about anything, as Sonny Dixon acted during the nearly five minutes he spent (in a 30-minute broadcast) defending her.

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.”

WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather

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.”

As Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo puts it: “The two sides [have become] increasingly seen on equal terms… Two armies with equal valor, honor and history.”

I understand that my having brought up the Confederacy may seem far afield. Paula Deen’s a woman with a few cooking shows, who said some regrettable things — and who then apologized. Fair enough. But Arendt would say it’s pertinent that our country, in order to speed the post-war reconciliation, never had to acknowledge what the Confederacy really was. And many continue not to acknowledge this flat fact: any society founded on the bondage of one's fellow man is rotten at its core.

(Ask yourself if a presidential candidate could say: “the Confederacy was fully wrong and deserved to lose” and then expect to win the South. This, despite that every hour the Confederacy endured was an hour that people were tortured and separated from their families and made to suffer countless other daily horrors—large and small—that happen when one sells other people as chattel. And ask yourself if there’s not something in there that explains why lots of people aren’t only defending Deen, but seem confused that they even have to. )

Again, Arendt was perhaps the first to write coherently about the trouble communities have in seeing the world as being something other than what they have been conditioned to see — without any kind of cultural empathy. Such empathy is pretty absent in the Savannah of Paula Deen and WTOC. How many who grew up in former Confederate states need only ask their friends, and remember their childhoods, to feel comforted that it's fine for somebody to have said "n-----r" in anger — or that somebody should want to host a slave-themed party? Paula Deen’s world, for many years, told her that such behavior was okay. (She admitted that one of the times she used the n-word was when a black person robbed her.)

Let’s go back to WTOC and it’s long Paula defense. To prove Deen’s non-bigotry, one of Dixon’s black interview subjects told the TV audience, “I’ve sat on [Paula Deen’s] furniture… she can’t be a racist.

Neither interviewer or subject entertains the idea that, in this world where blacks and whites have forever found themselves on intimate terms, such close proximity might not be enough still to prevent fraught relationships. And nobody — not the livid-fingered Twitter supporters writing about “race-baiters”; not Mr. Dixon, or anyone he interviewed — bothers to question whether the very idea of throwing a party in which all the servers are black, by fiat, is in itself an offense. Or whether it’s not time to transform a society in which nobody can answer “who hasn’t” used racial insults? But hey—Paula let a black person sit on her furniture, so.

Really, those important questions aren’t asked, and Ms. Deen’s champions seem shocked that her actions would even lead to their being asked. And Hannah Arendt would argue, persuasively, that this is because what Deen's supporters find shocking — what leads both to their encouragement of her behavior and their outrage that others might find that behavior upsetting — is that, for a large number of them, the guard against self-deception and insensitivity has been lifted, and they don't like to see the truth behind it. But the truth is there, regardless.

Darin Strauss is a professor at New York University and the winner of the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award for his memoir Half a Life.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.