Poor Richard’s Almanack was distributed in the American colonies annually between 1732 and 1758. Published by Benjamin Franklin under the pseudonym “Poor Richard,” the almanac proved enormously popular, with the number of copies sold reaching the tens of thousands. In the 1752 edition, Franklin—ever the cheeky wordsmith—took on the subject of hypocrisy (which was a pretty big deal at the time): “Mankind are very odd Creatures: One Half censure what they practice, the other half practice what they censure; the rest always say and do as they ought.”
Franklin’s musing, a remnant of a mind-numbing U.S. history lecture during my freshman year of college, came bubbling to the surface after witnessing the crucifixion of Paula Deen, and the comparatively tepid criticism received by Alec Baldwin after the 30 Rock actor tweeted a barrage of vile, homophobic remarks at a reporter for the Daily Mail. The disparate reactions speak volumes about society’s attitudes toward racism, homophobia, and celebrity.
First, let’s review the transgressions.
Lisa Jackson, a former employee of Deen’s who was fired, filed a lawsuit against Deen and her younger brother, Earl “Bubba” Hiers, alleging racial and sexual discrimination. Jackson—who is white—alleged that Deen had made racist remarks toward African-Americans when discussing the plans for Bubba’s wedding, and that she in turn was offended because she has half-black nieces. According to Deen’s deposition, Jackson alleged that Deen said, “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little n--gers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around.”
After being grilled on the stand about the accusation, Deen copped to using the N word before, after “a black man” robbed her at gunpoint back when she was working as a bank teller, saying she used it because she “didn’t feel real favorable towards him.” After some prying, she also said she’d probably used the word when quoting “a conversation between blacks.”
Later on in the deposition, Deen’s defense team reveals that this is the Second Amended Complaint by Jackson, and that she had added the “little n--gers” and “tap dance” details to her first complaint.
On page 21 of the deposition, it reads:
“Paula Deen specifically testified that she did not use the N-word when describing her experience and that she did not describe the wait staff as alleged by Jackson in her Second Amended Complaint. Jackson’s deposition testimony further indicates the falsity of her incendiary allegations of Deen’s use of the N-word during the conversation about Hier’s wedding:
Q. Up until May 27th, 2010, you had no complaints or problems with Mrs. Deen, did you?
Q. She had never indicated any discriminatory bias or prejudice, did she?
A. Yes. One remark she made at Bubba’s wedding planning.”
What was the remark, you might ask? Per Jackson’s initial testimony, it was that she wanted to have servers at Bubba’s wedding dressed, “Like they used to dress in the Shirley Temple days with the long white shirts and shorts.” When asked if that was “the sum total of the conversation about that,” Jackson replied, “Uh-huh, correct.”
Whether or not Jackson’s memory had improved in the time since her first testimony, remembering these damning, highly racist details, is anyone’s guess.
As for that other time Deen admitted to using the N word in a derogatory fashion, the year was 1987. Deen was working as a bank teller at the time, as it was years before she’d build her cooking empire from scratch (after divorcing her second husband, Jimmy Deen, she was left with only $200 and struggled to raise her two children, as well as her younger brother, Bubba). Deen, who was plagued by panic attacks and agoraphobia at the time, described being robbed at gunpoint in a police report obtained by Inside Edition:
“The man was wearing a home made mask (green) … very nervous but was also very abrupt and demanding, he never took the gun out of my face,” said Deen. “The robber held a small worn paper sack, he said fill it up, fill it up and quick, fill it with $100 bills … Never taking the gun off of me.”
So, if Jackson’s memory didn't improve since her initial testimony, the only “transgression” Deen—a 66-year-old lady from Georgia—committed was admitting to using the N word about a man who robbed her at gunpoint.
In return, Deen has been shredded to pieces in the press, denounced by the public, and had her contracts dropped by the Food Network and her publisher, Ballantine Books, was fired as spokeswoman for Smithfield Foods, and had her endorsement deals either suspended or terminated by Walmart, Target, QVC, Caesars Entertainment, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Novo Nordisk, and JCPenney.
She’s issued several apologies, including a tearful, seemingly sincere one on the Today show. Never mind that Deen, the alleged “racist,” campaigned for Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign. Never mind that Deen got along famously with Michelle Obama when she had her on the (soon-to-be-canceled) Food Network show Paula’s Party back in 2008, during Barack Obama’s White House run. And never mind that Deen has been defended by the likes of former President Jimmy Carter (“She has been punished, perhaps overly severely”), the Rev. Jesse Jackson (Deen is a “sacrificial lamb” who “should be reclaimed rather than destroyed”), and even the man who robbed her back in 1987 (“She's being persecuted because of that one little mistake in her judgment ... She was acting out of anger”).
Since it doesn’t make sense financially to defend Deen, no matter how dubious the allegations and/or transgressions were, corporate America has chosen to sacrifice this self-made, hard-working woman for the greater corporate good. Why? Because if you’re a public figure in today’s society and use the N word, and it becomes public knowledge that you’ve done so (see: Michael Richards) or once copped to doing so when you’re an agoraphobic old white lady who grew up in the South during the era depicted in The Help that was venting your frustrations about a man who robbed you at gunpoint 26 years ago, you deserve to have your entire career destroyed. As author and Columbia University literature professor John McWhorter—who is black—wrote, “The taboo on the N word, and associated attitudes, is appropriate … However, we’re less smart when we turn taboo enforcement into implacable witch hunting, which is not thought but sport."
The case of actor Alec Baldwin is less murky.
On June 27, one day after the Supreme Court struck down 1996’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and dismissed California’s Proposition 8 case, which sought to prohibit same-sex marriage by amending the state constitution (translation: a landmark moment for gay—and by extension, human—rights), Baldwin unleashed a twitter tirade against Daily Mail reporter George Stark for alleging that Baldwin’s pregnant wife, Hilaria, was tweeting about asinine things like anniversary gifts while in attendance at James Gandolfini’s funeral (the story has since been taken down, and proven to be complete bullshit). Here is a screengrab of the rant (Baldwin has since deleted his Twitter, again):
Alec Baldwin has a good reason to be upset. His pregnant wife was slandered. It was shoddy “journalism,” if you can even call it that. The author was incredibly irresponsible. The tabloid press has been giving him hell for the past six years, ever since he was (quite unfairly) demonized for that poorly worded voicemail he left for his teenage daughter during the sixth year of a custody battle over her.
He subsequently issued a letter of apology to GLAAD over the tweeting incident, writing, “My ill-advised attack on George Stark of the Daily Mail had absolutely nothing to do with issues of anyone's sexual orientation. My anger was directed at Mr. Stark for blatantly lying and disseminating libelous information about my wife and her conduct at our friend's funeral service. As someone who fights against homophobia, I apologize.” Baldwin also tried to clarify his tweets in an interview with Gothamist, saying, “the idea of me calling this guy a ‘queen’ and that being something that people thought is homophobic … a queen to me has a different meaning. It’s somebody who’s just above. It doesn’t have any necessarily sexual connotations. To me a queen ... I know women that act queeny, I know men that are straight that act queeny, and I know gay men that act queeny. It doesn’t have to be a definite sexual connotation, or a homophobic connotation. To me those are people who think the rules don’t apply to them.”
While Baldwin has a history of fighting for gay rights, lending his voice to the Fight Back NY campaign which sought to legalize gay marriage in his home state of New York, and also played a gay character in the Off-Broadway play Entertaining Mr. Sloane, his remarks—the threats of hate-violence, homophobia—were simply beyond the pale.
Unlike Deen, who is also a Democrat, Baldwin is an outspoken member of what Fox News–watching, Breitbart-reading conservatives have deemed the “liberal elite”—well-liked, left-wing celebrities that they perceive to be treated differently by the (what they consider) left-leaning media. Granted, it’s a ridiculous label, but Cooper has a point. If a conservative said what Alec Baldwin did, he’d probably be vilified. Heck, he might even receive the Paula Deen treatment. But Alec Baldwin is not a conservative; he supports gay rights. Also, Alec Baldwin did not say the N word. Rather, he made a pair of discriminatory comments toward a person—and by extension, a community—that is still fighting to be seen as equals, both within the legal courts and the court of public opinion. As of writing, select members of the media have lashed out at Baldwin, but the general mood is mixed. And he’s been dropped by exactly zero sponsors.
No one, be it celebrity or average Joe, deserves to have their career completely ruined over a racial epithet or homophobic slur delivered in the heat of the moment when defending oneself—or venting—against a personal attack. It's something we've all personally done or witnessed at some point in our lives. We've learned from these experiences. A temporary suspension, and atonement both privately and publicly for their actions, is an acceptable punishment.
If Deen or Baldwin were actually total hatemongers, well, that’s a horse of a different color. Witch hunts, as Professor McWhorter so eloquently put it, are “not thought but sport.” They feed the tabloid media and public’s train-wreck fascinations, while teaching us absolutely nothing about ourselves. The cases of Paula Deen and Alec Baldwin have more to do with our collective sense of perception than anything else. On a surface level, an old white woman from Georgia who looks like someone who could be racist admitted to saying something racist, and a hot-tempered, middle-aged man who looks like someone's homophobic father said some incredibly homophobic things about a man. Dig a little deeper, however, and things aren’t that cut-and-dry. Or, as Benjamin Franklin famously put it, “Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do.”