By the end of this week, when the racist glimmer dust has settled and the fat has coagulated, Paula Deen will be a ruined woman. She’ll be the Hester Prynne of fried food, the Tess d’Urbervilles of cholesterol. She’s already been forsaken by Target, Novo Nordisk, Walmart, Caesar’s Palace and millions of non-racist fans. She wept on Today and couldn’t even get her subject and verbs to agree. “I is what I is,” she said tearfully, channeling both George Gershwin and Popeye.
Because her undoing was the product of intransigent and repellent racism, and because the friends who are forsaking her—for if corporations are people, they can be a person’s friends too, can they not?—are not friends anyone really wants, it’s hard to feel too much pity for Ms. Deen. And yet, I do. No one can watch an old lady weep on television, a woman clearly having an extremely difficult time, and not feel compassion for her. One can’t watch smarmy swarms of well-coiffed television hosts—the same bunch of guys who have flirted with, groped and been ribbed by Ms. Deen—take potshot after potshot at her and not wince.
Part of me wanted to—and did—leap up with joy at the complete decimation of a character I’ve hated for a long time and who I genuinely think is a bad person. But another part of me not only viewed that celebration as unseemly but also as wrong, even cruel. This is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The lady is singing the blues. One can’t seriously laugh at her or feel joy at her demise and feel good about that.
There’s a cognitive dissonance between knowing the sinner has sinned and in seeing a sinner, stripped bare and vulnerable, being punished. The desire for justice, itself a form of good, can so easily be replaced by a desire for vengeance, which is not so great. Because I love me a good war analogy, it’s why it is not a murder to kill a soldier on the field but it is to kill him once he is a prisoner of war. Somewhere, between the revelation that she is an incorrigible racist and the Bruni pile-on and my own insignificant comments and the corporate betrayals, Ms. Deen became helpless. And in that moment, the righteous cry for her blood became good old bullying.
And this compassion, remorse and warmth that I—and thousand of others, I’m sure—feel is both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for us to feel compassion, to see basic human goodness. But in another way, it’s the last farcical act of Paula Deen’s tragedy. Instead of acting with moderation, somberly stripping Ms. Deen of her power, wealth and influence, laying bare the banality of her evil with little pomp, we—me, you and everyone we know—have howled ourselves into a meanie frenzy. We’ve turned Ms. Deen from a creepy crazy racist fat-monger into a victim. Surely Ms. Deen has done wrong but now we’ve done wrong too. I want to feel nothing but contempt and disdain for Paula Deen, on the occasion of her comeuppance. But all I feel is a little bit sad, a little bit tender and ashamed.