Even those of us who don’t watch Duck Dynasty, have no interest in the show, or find it insulting to our national image and would prefer to imagine it doesn’t exist are by now more familiar with this controversy than we ever hoped to be. And chances are, as indifferent as you may be toward the Robertson family and their show, you have an opinion about the matter, even if it’s “This is all so stupid.”
However, just in case there is anyone who hasn’t kept up with the various developments or managed to scrub the entire affair from their memory (lucky you!), here are the major events:
• Robertson told an interviewer for GQ that he considered homosexuality a sin and placed it among bestiality, idolatry, adultery, prostitution, drunkenness and promiscuity together in damnation. “They won’t inherit the kingdom of God,” he said. “Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.” He also talked about never witnessing the mistreatment of African-Americans during the pre-civil rights era. “They were happy; no one was singing the blues.”
• In response to these comments, and the uproar from GLAAD and other civil rights organizations, television network A&E, where Duck Dynasty is the highest rated program, announced that Robertson was on indefinite suspension from the show. Additionally, businesses such as Cracker Barrel decided they would pull Duck Dynasty merchandise from their shelves.
• The Robertson family, right wing and Christian organizations, and conservative businesses such as Chick-Fil-A immediately defended Robertson’s comments on television and social media, arguing that he was expressing himself as a Christian.
• Under pressure from support groups, businesses such as Cracker Barrel returned their Dynasty merchandise to sales shelves.
• A&E reinstated Robertson to the show without airing a single new episode filmed during the suspension. The network said it would use the event in the show and broadcast public service announcements.
It should be noted, this all happened within a ten-day period.
The net result is that after all the hullabaloo and hollering, nothing changed.
What’s most interesting, however, is the way in which Robertson’s statement was able to so quickly sever American culture in twain, run the course of 24-hour news networks and opinion blogs, and then disappear with no repercussions. As silly and brief as it all was, the firestorm of Robertson’s comments provides a surprising insight into how popular culture impacts modern American society. Beyond the pontification, protests and pandering, here’s what the controversy really means.
To those in opposition: Renewal
The consensus is that 2013 has been a major breakthrough year for modern civil rights issues. With the Supreme Court overruling the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law which banned same-sex marriage, and California’s Proposition 8, which banned it within the state, the LGBT community took a major step toward equality.
Polls have also shown a greater acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles than ever before. A number of celebrities came out this year mostly to a reaction of “good for him/her,” “about time,” “I always thought so,” or just an indifferent shrug, all of which demonstrates that being gay isn’t such a big deal anymore. Even Pope Francis has said that if a gay person is of good will, “I am no one to judge,” a far cry from Robertson’s claim that homosexuality, like bestiality, automatically excludes one from Heaven.
However, 2013 has also been strikingly bi-polar in regards to civil rights. One day before SCOTUS struck down DOMA it stripped the landmark Voting Rights Act of a provision which required federal approval of changes to voting laws in states with histories of racial discrimination. This has caused dozens of states, including those which previously required Justice Department approval, to introduce or pass legislation making it more difficult for young, poor, minority, or elderly citizens to vote.
While the DOMA decision has led to several states passing bills allowing same-sex marriage, there are still more states which choose to ban it. Essentially, rather than uniting the states in common rights, these two decisions have divided them along ideological lines, making an individual citizen’s rights contingent upon the state in which they live.
Robertson’s statement proves that there is still a lot of work to be done before gay, and even racial, civil rights are universally accepted in this country. His words, and the often ugly approval which followed them, expose a dark and intolerant portion of the populace which had been increasingly hidden by the bright elation of progress. As shown by the teeter-totter of the DOMA and Voting Right Act decisions, every step forward had a step back. Robertson’s statement, the vitriol which followed, and the renewed push to limit both marriage and voting rights illustrate that the famed culture war between conservatives and progressives is perhaps more embittered than ever. Any ground given on one side renews the passion on the other.
Further, the lesser publicized parts of Robertson’s interview, particularly those addressing pre-civil rights Louisiana, highlight continued racial misunderstanding. Robertson’s claim that he never witnessed any mistreatment speaks to the same blindness reinforced earlier this year in the trial of George Zimmerman.
The idea is that because there is an African-American president and no laws exist which specifically mistreat racial minorities, or that white people simply don’t see it, then equality is achieved and all civil rights legislation is unnecessary, in the same way that the Voting Rights Act provisions were deemed antiquated. As much as some of us may wish to distance ourselves from the concept and in the same year that Fruitvale Station, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave dramatized the historic and ongoing inequalities faced by black people in the US, Robertson’s tone deaf response is white privilege at its most obvious.
For those in opposition, the Duck Dynasty controversy means that long strides remain toward the mountaintop.
To those in support: Opportunity
Over the last few years the signs have been as unavoidable as Duck Dynasty stories have been over the last few days: Take Our Country Back, I Want My Country Back, We Came Unarmed (This Time) and of course dozens of variations of the Gadsden flag. While some in the country, particularly liberals, celebrate progress in civil rights and health care, others, particularly conservatives, lament what they perceive as a loss of freedom. The DOMA decision especially is seen as a stripping of the values that they have clung to for generations.
This side of the political spectrum believes that their every right is under persecution from an aggressive, anti-freedom agenda. They view any law which makes it more difficult to purchase and keep firearms and ammunition as one step closer toward the government coming to their homes and forcibly taking their guns. Any requirement that health insurance coverage include birth control and women’s care is a tacit approval of promiscuity and abortion. Any law which grants rights to illegal immigrants is a statement that it’s okay to break the law and that the only thing which separates citizens from non-citizens is the requirement to pay taxes. Any law which allows homosexuals to marry takes society farther from its traditional ideals, and is just one more step along the path to societal depravity and inevitable revolt. Basically, they feel that their country is changing, and there is nothing they can do to stop it. This side believes that every new day could be 1984.
It’s no surprise that Robertson cites his Christian faith as the rationale for his stance toward homosexuals, nor is it any surprise that this same faith is often cited as proof that the United States as this population knows it is radically changing. While these thoughts hardly speak for the entirety of American Christians, many of whom advocate in favor of gun safety, women’s reproductive rights, immigration reform and same-sex marriage, this side of the country feels the Christian ideals which the country was founded on are being wiped away in favor of a secular form of mortality in which religion itself will eventually be banned. And in Robertson, they have found their martyr.
Robertson’s supporters have argued less about intolerance than about the freedom of speech. They have said that Robertson was being discriminated against for expressing his Christian views. It’s serendipitous that these quotes were revealed in the same week as Christmas, a time when many people on the political right like to highlight a “War on Christmas,” where a lack of Nativity scenes or any use the phrase “happy holidays” is an attack on religious freedom. A&E’s suspension of Robertson was therefore a suspension of both free speech and Christianity itself. It was kowtowing to political correctness, where nothing can be said if it may even remotely offend anyone other than whites or Christians. Similar to Don Imus, Phil Robertson became a rallying cry against the thought police. His supporters, conservatives, traditionalists, etc., view themselves as an oppressed majority facing a powerful minority, like Apartheid-era blacks in South Africa.
Through Duck Dynasty, Robertson and his entire family have become icons of this perception of America: a southern boy who grew up hunting and playing college football and used religion to overcome addictions to drugs and alcohol on his way to starting his own company and becoming wealthy. In a time when popular entertainment is becoming less traditionally “American,” here is a pro-gun, pro-life, pro-Christ, pro-family backcountry redneck and proud of it. It’s these very traits that made Duck Dynasty the ratings phenomenon it is. He then used his platform to expound on those values.
Thus, for those in support, suspending Robertson meant suspending every single thing they hold dear.
To those in power: Balance
By “power” I mean those who control Duck Dynasty, its merchandizing and other such products. Robertson left A&E in an extremely tough position. When the star of the network’s most viewed show speaks, he speaks for the network. Of course this isn’t true, he’s speaking for himself, but that won’t stop viewers and those who are offended from taking their disapproval out upon the network, which is, after all, the one who not only airs the show but also pays Robertson’s salary. So while the words may be his, the consequences are not.
Television networks, generally, aren’t in the business of offending people. Sure, they have target audiences and demographic groups they prefer to appeal to, but they don’t want to actively antagonize any others. Growing acceptance of homosexuality in America has also led to growing influence from that community and its supporters. For proof, just look at the array of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender characters on television. Yes, there aren’t a whole lot of them, but they aren’t the caricatures of the 1970s and 80s anymore either. They have a major presence in primetime network shows: Glee, House, Two and a Half Men, Community, The Simpsons. They’re on reality shows. They’re on daytime talk shows, traditionally the most inoffensive, vanilla form of television entertainment. They’re even at the center of a phenomenally popular podcast on iTunes. That is some major power, and A&E is clearly afraid of it. But they’re also afraid of losing their main breadwinner.
Let’s face it, while Duck Dynasty is setting record ratings, even beating American Idol, its main appeal is to older, whiter, more conservative viewers. Not exactly the type of people who are going to be offended by Robertson’s comments. Perhaps even the types who will watch precisely because of those comments. In suspending Robertson, A&E showed itself to not value those viewers and to embrace everything that the show is not.
It was a lose-lose situation and, in the end, A&E did whatever it could without jeopardizing its bottom line. In ending Robertson’s suspension the network promised advocacy groups to air public service announcements. It won’t mean a thing as viewers who weren’t scared away by the comments already have solidified opinions on the matter. Still, A&E had to try.
In a way, A&E’s Duck dilemma mirrors that of most large companies or groups in the age of social media. Look at the recent case of Justine Succo, who tweeted a rather deplorable “joke” and ended up fired because of it. An argument could be made that had she stopped her tweet earlier (“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS.”) it could be the same tasteless humor that dominates Judd Apatow movies, but adding the racial component (“Just kidding. I’m white!”) is what made it offensive; that and the irony of a public relations executive making such a buffoonish remark. The question is: did she deserve to lose her job? Was this any less an act of self-expression than another employee who posts a topless picture, or makes a joke about white people or attends a gay rights rally? Does her joke, or do Robertson’s statements, preclude them from accomplishing the job they are paid for?
Granted, Succo and Robertson are in two highly visible positions in society, but when extended further, does this mean I could be fired for something I performed on stage five years ago or vented on social media in a foolish moment? That’s where balance comes in: not only how much control A&E and other companies can exert over their employees, but how much we as consumers or employees ourselves are willing to give them.
Ultimately it may not be any government power that either those in support or those in opposition will have to fear, it’s corporate power. With the Supreme Court now considering a case which may grant freedom of religious expression to corporations, this is the civil rights issue that will dominate 2014.
To the Robertson family: Profit
Let’s face it, controversy creates cash. Their patriarch becoming an icon and martyr for the political right will only drive up ratings for the next season of Duck Dynasty in the same way that anti-gay statements prove up sales for Chick-Fil-A and anti-liberal ones drive up donations for conservative politicians. Those of similar mindset will gravitate in ever greater numbers, watching the show and eagerly gobbling up anything with Robertson’s name on it in ardent support of someone courageous enough to take on the liberal Hollywood mainstream. Those of dissimilar mindset weren’t watching anyway. The Robertson brand was redneck bumpkin to begin with; this incident only made their brand stronger.
Even if their show were canceled three episodes into the new season, Robertson’s interview, and the outrage which followed, guarantees him a lifetime seat as a personality on Fox News. Like it or not, this controversy is nothing but good for the Robertsons. It assures they’ll be on TV in some form for as long as they wish.
To the rest of us: Choice
“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it.”
It’s not an exact quote, but that statement from Voltaire has been my mantra since before I knew what a mantra was.
I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that I personally find Phil Robertson’s statements idiotic. Not as disgusting or odious as others do, but misguided and generally sad in the sense of pertaining to every ugly stereotype of his generation and locale. However, he has as much right to call homosexuals sinful as I have to call him a small-minded redneck son of a b**ch whose education (an M.A. in education, ironically) has done nothing to curtail his ignorance. He’s as much a victim of being criticized for speaking his opinion as those criticizing are victims of his opinion. The only difference is that he has a much louder forum from which to speak and eventually profit.
Ultimately we in the audience, we consumers of popular entertainment, have the choice of whether or not we lend credence to the Phil Robertsons of the world. The fact that we, viewers but especially non-viewers alike, are reading or talking about this interview demonstrates that Robertson, his family, his show and his ideology have power over us. He is exerting influence by forcing us to deviate from our own concerns to address his. He is shaping our reality.
What this controversy means to America is that we are so contemptuous of each other that we let the foolish words of some flash-in-pan, manufactured reality “star” rend our popular culture apart during a time of year when we’re supposed to be forgetting such divisions. It shows that both sides of the political spectrum are so militant, so eager for a fight, that we’ll seize upon any slight offense and battle over it until our energy is gone before retreating to our corners, salivating for our next exchange. It shows that we use anything, no matter how minor or silly, to fuel our outrage. While this “culture war” may have been fabricated to sell books and raise ratings, it is real now.
You could say that this is the power of the media, but it’s a power we give them. Phil Robertson has absolutely no bearing on my life and I’d reckon he has no bearing on yours. His thoughts have as much influence over us as his purchase of an unripe cantaloupe. That’s not to say we should discount all popular media. Far from it. Television shows, like other media, should entertain, even educate and inspire, not infuriate, unless it’s in the fun, Game of Thrones kind of way. Don’t like it? Don’t watch it.
Instead this is where we have come to as a society, to the point where even a TV series which is too silly and over-edited to be called a documentary can dominate our national dialog for so long and dictate our views toward one another long after.
For me, I have never watched his show, I never will, and once this article is over, I hope to never write the name Robertson again. Doesn’t mean I want him silenced. Let him speak. He has as much right to talk as I have to not listen.