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Monday, July 1, 2013

Paula Deen, Mark Fuhrman, and the Public Stocks

Paula Deen cries on the Today Show 
LAPD Detective Mark Fuhrman, a star of the OJ Simpson Murder Trial 
Pillory, or Stocks, a method to immobilize and publicly humiliate transgressors 
I'm troubled by the public pillorying of Paula Deen. I don't own a TV, and I don't eat crap, so I'm not really a follower of Paula Deen. One of her recipes involves a Krispy Kreme donut, a hamburger, bacon, and egg. I'll pass.

I check Google news every morning and Paula Deen kept turning up in the feed. She had admitted in a court document that she had used the word n----- decades ago after being held up at gunpoint. Further, a former employee, Lisa T Jackson, accused Deen's brother of workplace discrimination.

If Deen done bad, that's between her and her employees and the court. I was annoyed that Deen's name and use of the word n––- kept coming up in my news feed, next to weightier topics like Egypt's mass demonstration against Morsi and Snowden's NSA allegations.

The public pillorying of Deen reminded me of the public pillorying of Mark Fuhrman. That also disturbed me.

I wrote the essay, below, in the 1990s.

***

We knew everything we needed to know about Mark Fuhrman. Even those of us too pure, too intellectual, to follow the O. J. Simpson Murder Trial knew that Mark Fuhrman was not a man. Like a fairy tale ogre, he was our bête noir personified, without individuality or motivation. He was racist, if not racism itself. Late night comic David Letterman joked about racism using the name as shorthand; a reporter equated Fuhrman with Hitler. Forces usually in opposition, like the iconoclast Bill Maher and conservative pundits, were united in their vilification of Mark Fuhrman.

All you had to say was: "Mark Fuhrman," and you were using the trendiest, most economical vocabulary available to convey the evil of racism. Detectives Tom Lange and Philip Vannatter made the LAPD look squeaky clean, Clinton displayed sensitivity to the needs of African Americans, columnists took on the authority of clergy, all by isolating and ritualistically denouncing Mark Fuhrman.

Did we interrogate the private lives, the public actions, the secret thoughts of these politicians, columnists, comics? Did we dig up their unfinished novels, dream diaries, office e-mails, and expose them publicly in a search for sin? Did we ask if they have ever gone the extra mile for a member of another race? Did we ask that of ourselves?

No. America drew a border around racism; it was embodied in Mark Fuhrman. No matter how bad we were, we were at least not him. As long as we were not him, we could enjoy a temporary respite from our racial agony. Isolating, trying, and condemning Mark Fuhrman provided catharsis. That's the whole point of having a scapegoat.

After two years of silence, Mark Fuhrman, the man, has recently been making the talk show circuit. We had reason to expect a shallow racist who would continue to entertain us and provide us with the opportunity to feel relatively righteous. After all, as the press has been reminding us, where has he been hiding out but Idaho, that white supremacist enclave? Why else would anyone leave the coasts? Either for the siren song of supremacy, or potatoes.

Our favorite fairy tale ogre has not materialized. This Mark Fuhrman was able to complete whole sentences and use words appropriately. As he spoke, traces of humor, pain, hope, quivered over his face. Fuhrman wasn't only simply human, although that was enough to be rattling. He apologized for his actions while disavowing racist action or sentiment. He talked of his complex relationships with African Americans throughout his professional and personal life. He revealed: he is not the Beast we so wanted him to be. Now we ask ourselves, what made this man so easy to demonize?

Fuhrman is obviously male in a traditional sense. He has short hair, he wore suit and tie, he sat erect. He appeared physically fit. He spoke courteously but with decision, he spoke Standard English, he apologized but did not plead for mercy. He revealed accomplishment and intelligence, perhaps the source of what looked like arrogance but what might be simple self confidence. His former occupation – police detective – is a traditionally male one involving weapons, crime, power. And he's white.

However Fuhrman may classify himself, as a good cop, a once poor kid without a father who took on adult duties at a very young age, an artist, a felon, we classify him as a white male. In a woman or a person of color, the kind of dignity and sang-froid that Fuhrman displayed would be admirable. In him, it is read not as self-mastery but as tool for the oppression of others. No less than Willie Horton, Fuhrman's public assessment suffers for the class our fears and current politics place him in.

Fuhrman may be the only major figure in the Simpson Drama who has not had a crying scene. Were Fuhrman to produce one, to reveal a temporary lack of mastery, we could embrace him. Public weeping would violate the taboos of his exotic tribe of martial white males, and demonstrate surrender to our more civilized mores.

Race is not the only divide in America. Class is another. Fuhrman did the kind of work it takes a body to get done. And we know those guys need the thinkers to keep them in line. Problem is, action risks; actions can be seen, actions can be judged. As Fuhrman himself has pointed out, he spent his career working with and, he says, protecting African Americans. The assassination of his character was the gambit of wordsmiths, whose actions may or may not mirror their avowed and popular politics. Not risking action and material consequence makes it easier to appear superior.

Like Robert Bork, Lanie Guinier, and Clarence Thomas, we gave Fuhrman his fifteen minutes to provide ourselves with target practice. Unlike those figures, he was not judged on alleged actions. An extensive review of his professional record, The L.A. Times has reported, revealed no indication that he ever planted evidence or engaged in racist activities. The contents of his notorious tapes were the basis of a fiction project; not even his thoughts, rather, his imaginings. Mark Fuhrman was pilloried in the court of public political correctness, not for anything he did, but for what he imagined. Even the low-tech Puritans, our archetypal witch-hunters, never pulled off such a coup.

Having gone through Hell, Fuhrman has not gone crazy the way we want martial white males to. He is not Bruce Dern in "Coming Home," not Michael Douglas in "Falling Down." He seemed to receive Larry and Oprah's outrage and sermonettes in a centered place, and not lose balance. He revealed awareness of his demon status, yet he doesn't look damaged to the core. He expressed awareness of the pain and wrong that resulted from his action, yet, at certain moments, his face revealed what looked like an almost Buddhist resignation to the complexities of life.

The main character of a story is sometimes defined as the one who changes. Change may be beyond O.J. Simpson. Mark Fuhrman has revealed the capacity to change, not just in public perception, but in himself. He has learned and grown from his trauma, rather than let it destroy him. The question now is whether or not we change. Yes, Jay Leno apologized for his Richard Jewell jokes, but only after Jewell sued and cried. America shouldn't wait for Fuhrman to cry before we change the virtual courtroom that chewed him up. Any one of us could be next. Do we really want to be judged simply on how media savvy we are, how well we can pose?

4 comments:

  1. Crying doesn't seem to have been enough to satisfy the lynch mob (if I may use that expression in this context) where Paula Deen is concerned.

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    1. Karen, fwiw, I just saw a video posted on facebook. A very beautiful Af Am chef stood up for Paula Deen. Sez she knows her personally and loves her dearly and she is no racist.

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  2. "Why else would anyone leave the coasts? Either for the siren song of supremacy, or potatoes."

    :)

    Deen, Tiger Woods, et al--there seems to be no end to the public's need for groveling, tearful apologies. It's just a matter of time before those paragons of tolerance--Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson--invite her over for a weekend of sensitivity training. And it's just a matter of time (no, it's probably happening right now) before open racists like Bill Maher abuse her on national television.

    I don't know much about this woman (I'm not a big fan of hushpuppies or whatever it is she rhapsodizes about on her show), but she should be given some credit for not lying. Instead, she's being asked to apologize for using a word that 9 out of 10 southerners who came of age in the 60s no doubt once used.

    Madness.





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  3. "It's just a matter of time before those paragons of tolerance--Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson--invite her over for a weekend of sensitivity training."

    A gifted parody writer could go so very far with that premise. :-)

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