Cliven Bundy, Paula Deen and what's 'beyond the pale' in American conversation

    Cliven Bundy, the rancher who swiftly became a conservative hero after a confrontation with the Bureau of Land Management, seems destined to lose his halo with rather remarkable speed after the New York Times today reported some comments of his.

    "I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro," Bundy told supporters, describing a drive-by glimpse of residents of public housing, a brief observation that was apparently sufficient to form the basis of a sociological treatise. "And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I've often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn't get no more freedom. They got less freedom."

    My Washington Post colleague Alexandra Petri wants to know why we are paying attention. "Why do we care about his thoughts on race? Why, for that matter, were we listening to him in the first place?" she wrote. "Why are we surprised that someone who has been taking his lines directly from the War Of Northern Aggression Talking Points manual has retrograde views about slavery?"

    The answer, I think, is this. Bundy's remarks, and a series of others like them, express sentiments that most of us think have been safely escorted off the premises of reasonable discourse. But every once in a while, a Nevada rancher - or a soon-to-be-unlovable reality television personality, or a celebrity chef - turns out not just to be harboring nostalgia for white supremacy in private but also to be perfectly willing to speak about it in public. It is tempting to dismiss Bundy as an isolated, predictably racist crank. But he is not alone, and that has real significance for public life.

    Take Bundy's remarks on his ranch. In a video of Bundy speaking that includes remarks not reported by the Times, he says of the people he observed: "You could see in their faces, they weren't happy sitting on those concrete sidewalks."

    That same comfort in imputing feelings to black people shows up in "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson's reminiscences to GQ about hoeing cotton for white farmers alongside black coworkers. "They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' - not a word!" Robertson told the magazine. "Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."

    And celebrity chef Paula Deen found herself in court in an employment discrimination suit. Among the allegations was her longing for a time when black waiters in white coats would live up to a past standard of servile cheerfulness like "in the Shirley Temple days, they used to tap dance around."

    Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus declared that "Bundy's comments are completely beyond the pale. Both highly offensive and 100% wrong on race." A&E handed Phil Robertson a suspension from "Duck Dynasty" that was meant to be "indefinite." In reality, it was brief, and "Duck Dynasty" quacked onward, albeit to declining ratings. Deen's Food Network show was canceled, though her cruises were not.

    Denouncing Bundy, Robertson and Deen's distortions of history is both necessary for people like Priebus and big companies like A&E, and relatively necessary. But it is rather more difficult to root out the more respectable ideas that flow from their fantasies about the black experience.

    If slavery and Jim Crow had no adverse effects on African Americans, then people like Deen can convince themselves that their preference for black servers at a "southern plantation-style wedding" are aesthetic, rather than racial. If the social safety net has stripped away black entrepreneurial spirit and energy for work, then the mandate to eliminate that safety net seems clear. If African Americans are at a loss for what to do with themselves, then white legislators can feel confident pronouncing on the needs of black communities.

    Bundy's beliefs about race may be, as Priebus said, "completely beyond the pale," but just days ago, his broader philosophies about the role of government in American life were not, and I doubt many of the conservatives who disavow him today will jettison the latter with the former. Instead, Bundy's former supporters will try to convince us that, when it comes to our discussions of race, it is what falls inside the bounds of acceptable public dialogue that counts, rather than whatever crops up outside. Even if they are right, the politer ideas that fall in bounds are still a scandal.

(c) 2014, The Washington Post

14-4-24