Fried cheesecake and the NSA

June 27, 2013

Wednesday I spent a great deal of time thinking about the Voting Rights Act. The act is complicated, because it was trying to solve a complicated problem that I have never experienced or witnessed. It looks like the problem is solved. In many of the places where the Voting Rights Act was requiring federal approval of changes in voting, African-American voting is near parity, which seems to indicate that the problem has outgrown the need for strict federal regulation. I was having a hard time understanding how one could argue the historical problem could still be a contemporary problem.

Then, thanks to Twitter, I found Jelani Cobb, who laid it out for me. His argument is that the Voting Rights Act, as it was until a few days ago, was the mechanism by which African-American voting was near parity. The federal government has stopped hundreds of proposed changes in voting, Cobb points out, any of which may very well have have brought those numbers down. Cobb lays out the argument that the problem is not just historical. It’s just that back in the day, in history, there was no Voting Rights Act to keep it from happening.

What happened back in the day, in the South, between white people and black people, is very much on my mind, so much that at 10am Eastern Wednesday I was watching an internet video of Paula Deen totally miss the point about history and culture and the South and her view of it. She was crying about how she was being unfairly targeted for using one word one time decades ago. If she thinks that’s the worst thing she did, she has no understanding of history and race and culture. Michael Twitty has been burning up on this topic for the past couple of days.

Paula Deen has made her fame and fortune with Southern food, which is food largely developed by black slaves and domestic servants. She does not acknowledge that debt now. In the deposition that has caused her so much trouble, she elaborates on a fantasy wedding reception plantation-style, with African-American servers, as if that is something that would be romantic. That fantasy is completely based on the white nostalgia for a time when whites held power at the expense of African-Americans’ pain, lives, families, dignity, liberty and voting rights. Countless lives were lost or ruined or damaged or thrown away in the making of that plantation she wants to recreate in that wedding reception. Willfully mis-remembering those centuries of history is Paula Deen’s real wrong.

I don’t care if she used one word a hundred times in the past. She is a communicator of culture. That is how she has positioned herself, as a teacher and transmitter of her beloved Southern food culture and the way of life it represents. It has made her a rich woman. The culture she has communicated is based on a terrible fantasy, and when she is called on her mistakes of misrepresenting history and culture, she does not even try to understand where she went wrong. She cries on national television about the wrong thing.

I was so involved in wanting her to pay her dues to the black Southern cooks whose centuries of work she builds on, that I was listening to Paula Deen and Matt Lauer miss the point about what she did wrong and I wasn’t paying attention to the time Wednesday morning. I had forgotten about the Supreme Court ruling at 10am until a colleague IMd me, “Also, DOMA” as if I knew what the Supreme Court had ruled.

This DOMA ruling is not just a nice validation for me and Ellen. It means thousands of dollars for us in the future. But DOMA’s great impact on the course of our lives is in the past. It happened back in 2000, when Ellen, as a federal employee, could not put me on her health insurance. So she stayed home with baby Jacob and I kept working at my job that offered partner health benefits. Every single facet of our lives – where we live, how our children are raised, my greater economic power and her outsized influence on the kids and their activities, the friends she made in the society of moms, every single story I have worked on since May of 2000 – all of those things are irrevocably different because of DOMA. Ellen was the one who saw Jacob run and got him to try cross country. If I had been the at-home mom I might not have noticed that; he would not be a runner. The smallest detail and the biggest sweep of our lives, all four of our lives, was made entirely different because of the federal law that was struck down Wednesday. That can never be undone.

We are not the only ones. I think about the mentors of my young 20s who are at retirement age now, their retirements more secure because their partners can get their benefits and Social Security. I think about the couples with immigration issues, who have endured long separations or forced moves out of the U.S. That specific aspect of DOMA, the inability to sponsor partners for immigration,  is why Glenn Greenwald reported from overseas the story of the NSA and how the federal government is collecting data about its citizens.

Just as it is impossible to say if Jacob would have been a runner if I had stayed home, it is impossible to say if Glenn Greenwald would have reported this story if he had been based in the U.S. for the last many years. The chances are great that this story, which has far-reaching implications for the nation and the president, would not have played out this way if DOMA were not a factor.

DOMA is not just about being gay. It reaches out and alters the details of our lives and the history of our country. Paula Deen’s trouble is not just about one terrible word, but about how distorted memory of history illuminates the racial misunderstandings of the present. Different ways of understanding of how the past reaches into the present is why section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was ruled unconstitutional, after Paula Deen revealed her gross misuse of the Southern culture she claims to love – and before Ellen and I gained one more way that we can control our own lives.

2 Responses to “Fried cheesecake and the NSA”

  1. Stephen Hood Says:

    I think the Voting Rights Act decision by the US Supreme Court was a symbolic travesty although I believe Shelby County, Alabama, had a point in its lawsuit. Justice GInsburg made the umbrella metaphor that a lot of people loved, and I agree we need an umbrella. The point Shelby County made and with which I agree is that the umbrella needs to be bigger or not exist at all. To target southern states and counties alone without regard to voting rights abuses in other parts of the country is a failure of the Congress in its renewal of the VRA in 2006 (especially when the county in question had not had a violation since 1964 when the Act was established). My sense is the Republican dominated Congress knew what they were doing in 2006 and set up the resulting decision revealed on Tuesday. I recognize that a revision of the VRA is unlikely, but an outraged public coupled with a motivated Congress could revise the VRA to make it more reflective of the country as we find it in 2013. I’m all for the southern states being watched by the justice department, but there are other places in these United States that deserve scrutiny as well. I think Shelby County is asking the same requirement of fairness that the Voting Rights Act required of Shelby County to be required of the rest of the USA.

  2. Doug Says:

    Sara,
    Thanks for taking the time to provide a very cogent reading of this past week’s events. I like how you brought them together and did so seamlessly. I hadn’t spent time thinking of the totality of the last week’s decisions. It would be easy for me to say that I am personally unaffected and that would be quite selfish and I spend each day working to not to be that way. From colleagues to family, I’ve spent the week reading each decision in how those decisions affected them and smile with the joy expressed of one decision, frown with the response to another and raise an eyebrow or two from others who do not work to understand and post such in social media.
    I appreciate your making us think….


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